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.

 

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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.

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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The theme of this film, set in Guernsey and London in 1946, wasn’t actually so much the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands as the fact that books bring people. So, if you happen to be reading this, and you’re doing so because you know me through book-related matters, we are living proof of that 🙂 . If you happen to be reading this for any other reason, hello – it’s always nice to know that someone actually reads my wafflings! I’m not sure how many people have found romance through books – please let me know if you have! – but a lot of us will have found friends that way.  In this age of the computer, the laptop, the tablet and the Smart Phone, book clubs and fora have become very popular.

And The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, in the film (and the book on which it’s based), was a book club … formed because its members needed to give the Nazi occupiers of Guernsey a valid-sounding excuse for why they were meeting. No, they weren’t meeting to organise clandestine resistance activities – it wasn’t that sort of book – but to eat a pork roast made from an illicitly kept pig, which was where the pie came in. I have read the book, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, but must admit that I don’t remember being particularly impressed by it; but I did really enjoy the film.  The book involved a lot of letters, but films can’t really work with letters, so don’t expect it to be too similar to the book.

It was set in 1946, as I said, so it wasn’t directly about the occupation of the Channel Islands, but several of the scenes were flashbacks to the years of the Occupation.  Is it just my perception, or was the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands something that never used to be spoken about in the UK itself?  Back in the day, the only reason I was aware of it was because it was mentioned in the Chalet School books.   It just wasn’t spoken about.  And that’s even though many of the children who were evacuated – 50% of the civilian population of the Channel Islands, including 80% of the children, were evacuated to the mainland – came to towns near here – Stockport in particular, and also Oldham, Rochdale and Bury.

Was it because there was a sense of shame that the UK was unable to stop the Nazis from occupying some of the soil of the British Isles, Crown dependencies, from using slave labour there, and from deporting some of the islanders to concentration camps?   Did people not want to admit that that had happened?  Or am I just being over-dramatic?  I just don’t remember it being mentioned.  Then that changed.  There was a drama series in 2004, called Island at War, with Joanne Froggatt as a Channel Islander who became involved with a German soldier.  And there’ve been other films and books since, notably Another Mother’s Son, and documentaries showing the fortifications built by the occupiers.  Maybe it’s just part of the general upsurge in interest in the Second World War since … I think maybe since 1945, when there was so much attention on the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day.

Anyway.  It didn’t actually start in Guernsey: it began in London, with young author Juliet Ashton.  It seemed very glamorous for 1946 – all posh clubs for dinner and dancing, smart frocks, nice hairdos, bright red lipstick, etc – but presumably the point was to draw a contrast between the life that Juliet, although she’d suffered the tragedy of losing both her parents in the war, was living, with her rich American boyfriend, and the lives of the people on Guernsey and indeed most of the other people in Blitz-ravaged London.   Then she received a letter from one Dawsey Adams, a man in Guernsey who’d bought an old book she’d sold, which had her name and address in it, and was writing to ask her if she could give him the address of a bookshop in London – there being no bookshops left in Guernsey – as he wanted to buy a particular book.  They began corresponding, and she decided to go to Guernsey to attend a meeting of the society.

OK, this was rather far-fetched 🙂 .  But, hey, it was a story.  Do people still write their names and addresses in books, by the way?  People in books are always coming across old books in libraries, with someone’s name in them.  We used to write our names and addresses – “Manchester, Lancashire, England, the United Kingdom, Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, The Universe” – in books when we were kids, but do adults still do that?  Anyway.  Juliet’s boyfriend proposed, and she said yes, but she felt that something was missing from her life and her work … you could see where this was heading.

In Guernsey, she met the members of The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society. Not all the characters from the book were in the film, but I suppose they had to cut something to get it into two hours. There were some gorgeous shots of beautiful scenery, but I have to say that it didn’t seem all that Guernesias otherwise.  In fact, I’m not sure that even the scenery was Guernesias: I think a lot of it was filmed in Devon.  The odd word of Guernsey patois was thrown in, but the characters spoke in a range of British mainland accents (with a hint of Dutch, in the case of the actor playing Dawsey).  Oh well.

She heard some of their tales about the Occupation, but there was a Big Mystery, involving Elizabeth McKenna, the young woman who’d founded the society and also the mother of a young child being looked after by Dawsey. So was Dawsey, who of course was young and handsome, Elizabeth’s partner and the father of the child? No. Phew!

At this point, it felt as if there should be some very dark secret, presumably that one of the characters had been involved in collaboration, and that that was why they were all so reluctant to talk about what had happened.  But it wasn’t really that.  The film, and the book, have been criticised in some reviews for being too cosy and fluffy … but they haven’t claimed to be hard-hitting war films, to be fair.  Elizabeth had had a relationship with a German soldier – but he was a really nice German soldier, and proof that not all Germans were Nazis, etc etc, so that was all OK.  Except that it wasn’t, because he’d been caught sneaking off to meet her, and had been shipped off elsewhere, whereupon his ship had been torpedoed and he’d been killed.  And – and this was the nearest we got to the horrors of the war – Elizabeth had tried to help an escaped slave labourer, a neighbour had informed on her, and she’d been sent to Ravensbruck.  There’d been no word of her since, and her friends were raising her child.  One of the characters, Amelia, who’d lost her husband in the First World War and her daughter and unborn grandchild in the German bombing, was terrified that the child’s paternal relatives would take her away.

Juliet got involved in it all, and decided to stay on – and her American fiancé was able to find out that Elizabeth had been killed at Ravensbruck.  So, yes, the horrors of the Occupation were there … but only in the background, though.  The awfulness of Elizabeth’s death and of the use of slave labour, the sufferings of the civilian population during the occupation, and the experience of the children who were separated from their families for over five years, all seemed very much secondary to whether or not Juliet was going to dump her fiance – and get together with Dawsey.

Which, inevitably, she did.  I always feel rather sorry for the discarded partners in “finding yourself” books/films!  The “finding yourself” element is easier to put across in a book than in a film, but there were, to be fair, quite a lot of references to feeling that things were fated, and that you knew people as soon as you met them, etc.  It’s just not that easy to get that to work in a film.  The point was also made that the book club formed a bond between several lonely people at a very difficult period in their lives, and about the incredibly importance of both books and companionship … but, because the story wasn’t actually set during that period, that didn’t come across as well as it might have done, either.

So, Juliet felt far more inspired in her writing, moved to Guernsey, married Dawsey, settled into life amongst the Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society crowd, and felt that she’d found herself. That was what the book was about, and I’m not criticising that any more than I’d criticise Gone With the Wind for not giving us detailed battlefield scenes; but it’d be interesting to see the events of the war, as they affected the characters, as they took place, rather than just hearing about them later, so to speak.  Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer died before the book was even completed, and I’m not aware that her niece Annie Barrows has any plans to write a book like that,

It’s a nice, cosy film, and, as I was feeling a bit stressed this morning, it was just what I needed.  If you’re looking to learn more about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, you may come away disappointed.  If you’re happy with a comfort film, and can get your head round the fact that a film involving one of the darkest periods of British history is intended as a comfort film, then go and see it – and you will really enjoy it.  Just don’t expect it to be something it isn’t.

 

 

Mary Magdalene

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The Bible is a unique book which has been hugely influential in world culture; but, unfortunately, some people’s nasty-minded interpretations of it have been responsible for some very damaging attitudes over the centuries. They’ve been used to attack Jewish people (especially at this time of year), LGBT people, black people, mixed race couples and, perhaps above all, women. The negative view of women, in terms of the Bible, is really due to the story of Eve. 50% of the world’s population being viewed as inferior because of a story about a snake and an apple – seriously! However, Eve doesn’t really have that bad an image. Come to that, nor does Cain, even though the story says that he murdered his brother!   People never talk much about Cain. Nope – the two Biblical figures who really, really cop for abuse are Judas and Mary Magdalene. Judas – OK, he’s the bloke who betrayed his mate. But why Mary Magdalene?

Well, it’s the idea of women as either virgins or whores. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been cast as the Virgin Mother, even though the Bible probably never said that and it’s likely to be due at best to an error in translation and at worst to men wanting to make out that she couldn’t be without sin otherwise. And Mary Magdalene, the woman who’d “had so many men before, in very many ways”. All right, that’s not the Bible, that’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the fact that even he goes with the traditional image of Mary Magdalene says a lot. Incidentally, if a bloke had “had so many women before, in very many ways,” people’d be clapping him on the back. What about both David and Solomon? How many wives and girlfriends did they have?!   Yet they’re both big heroes! There’s a meme doing the rounds on Facebook saying that a woman who performed the miracles Jesus is supposed to have performed would probably have been condemned as a witch. It’s not wrong.

OK, back to Mary Magdalene. There’s an awful lot of confusion about her, partly due to the fact that up to a third of women in Judaea and Samaria in New Testament times were called Mary/Miriam/Mariam. There’s Mary Magdalene. There’s Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus who was raised from the dead). And there’s an anonymous “sinner” with an alabaster jar. Pope Gregory the Great, in the 6th century AD, decided that they were one and the same person. This idea’s come down the centuries in Catholicism – although it hasn’t in Orthodoxy, and it’s waned in Protestantism. So Mary Magdalene has been labelled a sinner – when the Bible doesn’t say that at all.

And another thing.   The Bible describes the alabaster jar woman, whoever she was, as a sinner. It does not describe her as a prostitute. There are a lot of different types of sins. If a man was described as being a sinner, it would probably be assumed that he was a cheat, or a liar. Maybe even a murderer. But, when it’s a woman, it’s assumed that she’s a prostitute. Well, that says it all, doesn’t it? And, even if she was a prostitute, why does that have to make her a sinner?   Emmerdale have just run a storyline about a woman who was forced into prostitution by financial necessity. And what about all these poor women – and men, for that matter – who are forced into prostitution by human traffickers? People can be very judgemental, and the worst of them are often the people who claim that their views are supported by the Bible. Or, rather, their strange interpretations of the Bible. And Mary Magdalene’s been on the receiving end of this for centuries.

So, who really was Mary Magdalene? Well, we don’t know. Let’s face it, we have no idea if many of the people in the Bible even existed at all. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare!   It contains some of the best-known stories of all time, featuring some of the best-known figures of all time, but we have no idea if most of it really happened or if most of them really existed. But I think most people accept that Jesus was a real person, and that the other people mentioned in the Gospels were real people as well. So,who was Mary Madgalene? Well, thanks to Dan Brown, we all know the version of events in which Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife. That story’s been around for centuries – incidentally, I first came across it in Elizabeth Chadwick’s Daughters of the Grail, when I was a teenager, well before The Da Vinci Code – and the Gnostic Gospels do refer to her as the “koinonos” of Jesus – a word that can mean companion, or partner/wife. It’s a fascinating idea. But could it really, however many conspiracy theories you believe in, have been hushed up? And it just relegates her to the status of the main male character’s wife. So it’s just another patriarchal view of things.

I rather like the version of her life presented by Margaret George in Mary, Called Magdalene, in which she’s a wealthy widow, from Magdala (in the Galilee area), who becomes a disciple and apostle of Jesus, like Peter, Andrew, James et al. No need for a woman to be someone’s wife/girlfriend in order to be important. Margaret George tried hard to explain and justify her view, pointing out that a widow would have had more freedom than a single woman, and that someone with money would have been more likely to have had influence.

This film, however, doesn’t really do anything to convince the viewer why or even that its version of events is a realistic suggestion. All right, films don’t really have forewords or afterwords, but … well, you can put notes up on screen!   It just didn’t try very hard with anything. Oh, what a shame!   It’s two weeks before Easter and Passover (even though the weather seems to think it’s Christmas), so it’s a time of year when people might be thinking about Bible stories. And it’s certainly a time when people are thinking about the role of women in society. So I was really up for being hit with what this film was supposed to be (oh dear, that was the most appalling grammar!!), the idea of Mary Magdalene as a leading disciple and apostle, proving that everyone who tries to use the Bible to argue that women are inferior to men is talking rubbish. And it just didn’t happen, because the film just wasn’t very good.

I’m not convinced that whoever wrote the script had even read the relevant bits of the Bible. Honestly, I think they’d got the Resurrection mixed up with Dallas. Mary Magdalene fell asleep thinking that Jesus was dead, and then woke up to find him there, alive and well. OK, he wasn’t in the shower, but there was a definite sense of Bobby Ewing about it, I’m telling you. This was after everyone had walked into Jerusalem. No!! There’s supposed to be a donkey! Lazarus was raised from the dead in Cana. Excuse me? That bit’s supposed to happen in Bethany. The Cana miracle’s the one where the water gets turned into wine. They missed that bit out completely. Boo!! That and the feeding the five thousand (which got missed out as well) are the best miracles in the whole Bible! OK, miss some bits out, but don’t set the bits you do include in the wrong places.

The whole thing was just wrong. People were starving to death because of the Romans. What?? The Romans do get off ridiculously lightly when it comes to interpretations of the New Testament, largely because the people who decided which bits to include were scared of narking the Roman authorities – understandably so – but where do people starving to death (in caves!) come into it?

As for Jesus, he just seemed to be everyone else’s pawn. Joaquin Phoenix is the same age as me, but I still think of him as being about 15 … OK, that’s beside the point, but, in this, he looked far older than he really is, so he looked too old to be Jesus. That didn’t help. But it wouldn’t have mattered if Jesus had come across as being a charismatic leader, drawing people to him. Instead, he was portrayed as a vague hippy-trippy New Age type, whilst Peter, Luke and the others were the ones who were really running the show. The idea seemed to be that they wanted to overthrow the Romans, and were hoping that Jesus, by pulling off a few spectacular miracles, would persuade everyone else to join up with them so that they could overthrow the Romans. What?? It was like … I don’t know, some episode in medieval history with people using a potential puppet king or a pretender to try to gain power.

And it didn’t follow. OK, you can only fit so much in to a couple of hours, but they’d just thrown in odd bits, and not fitted them together. Jesus and co arrived in Jerusalem. On foot, no donkeys. At this point, there had been no suggestion that the authorities were even aware of their existence. Jesus had a go at the moneylenders, but, apart from a few Roman centurions lurking in the background, no-one did anything except start shouting as if they were at a football match. Then it was the Last Supper. Well, a group of people sat on the floor having their tea. Then you saw Judas kiss Jesus on the cheek in what was presumably meant to be the Garden of Gethsemane. Then Judas told Mary Magdalene that he’d turned Jesus in. But it didn’t make sense, because the film hadn’t shown any reason for the authorities to be interested in him, apart from a lot of football chants over the moneylenders. And Judas said he’d done it because Jesus was annoying him by not trying hard enough to win support, and he was hoping it’d give him a kick up the backside. What?? Oh, and the thirty pieces of silver were never even mentioned. Then, in the next scene, Jesus was staggering up the hill with the crucifix and the crown of thorns. No-one washing their hands. No trial. No nothing. And why would there even have been a trial, when all that had happened was a lot of chanting because Jesus had shouted at the moneylenders?

So what did it say about Mary Magdalene, seeing as the film was meant to be about her? Well, it said that she was from Magdala, which was fair enough. And it showed her as a young woman whose father was trying to marry her off to a widower with several kids. She wasn’t keen on the idea. It wasn’t very clear whether this was because of some deep and meaningful desire to do something else with her life or just because she didn’t fancy the widower. So her family claimed that she was possessed by demons and needed to be exorcised. Oh dear. Shouldn’t she have been the one who wanted the demons casting out? And Jesus said that she didn’t have any demons. She then went off with him and the others, and her family weren’t very pleased.

They then went to Cana – without the water being turned into wine. Mary had told Jesus that the women of Magdala were afraid to follow him. There were no other women in the group. Jesus then decided he was going to do a ladies-only sermon, so he went to where the women of Cana were doing the laundry, and delivered a sermon to them all. They were so impressed that they all went off to be baptised. It wasn’t clear what happened to the laundry. Mary and Peter then went off together, and found the aforementioned people starving in the caves. Peter wanted to leave them, and go off and find some people who might help overthrow the Romans, but Mary persuaded him that they needed to stay and help. Then (see, I said it didn’t follow), Mary, the mother of Jesus, turned up, and she and Mary Magdalene had a nice girly chat about how Jesus had been a really sweet little boy who’d got upset when other kids picked on him, and how Mary Magdalene loved him but accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. And then it was on to going into Jerusalem with no donkey and shouting at the moneylenders. It just didn’t flow at all!   If you didn’t know the story, you wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on.

But I think it was meant to be a feminist version of things. I don’t know what happened to the women in Cana – presumably, once they’d been baptised, they went back to finish off their washing – but, when Mary Magdalene went off to report the Bobby Ewing moment to the men, they all got huffy and said that they didn’t understand why Jesus had chosen to make her the number one apostle.

So what happened next?  Well, they all started whingeing. They said that they didn’t get how this could be Kingdom Come, because nothing had happened. The world had not suddenly been put to rights. There was no justice for the poor. Everything was still basically as crap as it had been before. And this, right at the end, was actually the best bit of the film, depressing at it was, because it was just so true. It’s always supposed to get better, isn’t it? Stage a revolution and sweep away the dictators … and what do you get? More dictators, usually. Lose the autocratic tsars, and get Lenin and Stalin instead. Lose the Soviet system, and get Vladimir Putin instead. Lose the French ancien regime, and get the Terror instead. Fight a war to end all wars, and get another one barely twenty years later … and mass poverty in between. Call for an Arab Spring, and end up with wars and refugees all over the Middle East instead: the word “exodus” is being used an awful lot at the moment – and I don’t mean because it’s two weeks before Passover and people are talking about the story of Moses.

How bloody miserable!  But the idea was that things aren’t going to change by some sort of miracle, and we’re going to have to change them ourselves.  That is a pretty radical interpretation of the Easter story.  And not one of the reviews I’ve seen in the press have picked up on this, because they’ve all been entirely focused on whether or not Mary Magdalene was a prostitute!  Well, that says a lot, doesn’t it?

I’m not entirely sure what this film was trying to say.   It was so badly put together that it was very hard to tell. But the way I took the bit at the end was that people need to try to change things.   And that’s relevant anywhere and everywhere.  It’s a very, very good point.

It isn’t a very good film, though.   If you want a good account of the possible life of Mary Magdalene, try the Margaret George book instead.

And, seeing as it is only two weeks until Easter and Passover, if we could perhaps lose the snow, and do spring instead?  You know – lambs, daffodils, all that sort of thing.  Rebirth and renewal.  Ma Nature being lyrical with her yearly miracle.  That would actually be better than water being turned into wine!!   Happy spring festivities!

 

Darkest Hour

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There’s a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI in which various young noblemen are arguing in the Temple Garden and they all dramatically pluck either red roses or white roses to declare their allegiance to either Lancaster or York.  It’s a great image and it really, really should have happened … but it didn’t.  Shakespeare made it up.  That’s a great shame, because it’s a great scene.  There’s one like that towards the end of Darkest Hour.  Winston Churchill (brilliantly played by Gary Oldman), as the British Empire Stands Alone, is seriously considering entering peace talks with the Nazis.  He decides to take a trip on the Tube, where he asks various salt-of-the-earth ordinary people what they think.  Every single one of them says that we must fight on and never surrender.  That makes up Churchill’s mind.  No negotiations.  “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”  It’s still an incredibly moving and inspirational speech, even after nearly 78 years.

Of course, Churchill did not make that trip on the Tube.   Nor, as far as I know, did the King roll up chez Churchill late at night, just before then, to assure him that he also thought that we should fight on and never surrender.  Big black mark for lack of historical accuracy.  But big gold star for drama.  It stirs the blood.  We know that the Nazis will eventually be defeated.  Churchill, George VI, and all the salt-of-the-earth ordinary British people at the end of May 1940 sure as hell didn’t.   It’s so frightening, no matter how many times you’ve thought about it, to think how close the Nazis were to victory in mid-1940.

Ed Murrow, the American journalist, came up with a wonderful line about how Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.  That line’s used in the film.  It’s one of two lines which, apart from the Tube scene, really sum the film up.  The other one is Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) telling her husband that “You are strong because you are imperfect”.  Churchill’s very much shown in this as an eccentric.  He goes from angry to soppy in a matter of seconds, drinks too much, forgets what he’s doing, wanders around in a strange-looking dressing gown, talks to his butler (Grantly from Waterloo Road) through the toilet door, doesn’t realise that V signs are very rude when made with the palm facing inwards, and doesn’t get on with the rest of the War Cabinet, most of whom are in favour of entering negotiations with the Nazis.  The other Tories don’t like him because he’s got a catalogue of disasters behind him and has crossed the floor of the Commons twice, and the King isn’t keen on him because he sided with Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis.  That much is true enough, even if it does get exaggerated for historic effect.

And we do tend to think, because it’s what Churchill made us think, that the mood of the time was all about fighting on the beaches and never surrendering.  This film’s a sobering reminder that coming to some sort of terms with the Nazis was a real possibility at the time, because victory looked so unlikely.  And we think very disparagingly of the “appeasers”, but the film reminds us that it looked likely that the Armed Forces could be wiped out and civilians suffer horrendously as well, and that this was little more than twenty years after the end of the bloodbath that was the First World War.  You can see where Halifax, Chamberlain & co were coming from.  But thank heavens for Churchill.  If ever someone was the right person in the right place at the right time.  The film falls down on historical accuracy, but it gives a genuinely meaningful depiction of Britain’s darkest hour, the world’s darkest hour, and the man who got us through it.

The Greatest Showman

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This was entertaining, but, as far as telling the life story of Phineas Taylor Barnum goes, it fell a very long way wide of the mark. What a shame.  It really is a fascinating story, and I wish people wouldn’t make films (or write books) about real people if they’re not going to stick to the facts.

Oh, OK, the basic idea was there – the circus, the (to use the expression of the times) “freaks”, and the opposition from sections of the public and the media. But the hoaxes were badly watered down.  There was no mention of the old lady whom he claimed was George Washington’s nurse, or of the Feejee mermaid.  Claiming that someone was heavier than they were, or that they were of a different nationality, is hardly in the same league.  Maybe they were worried that the snowflake brigade might find things like the Joice Heth story, a true story, offensive?  I don’t know, but it felt as the point was being missed.

Some of it was just plain silly. There was a farcical scene in London, with a portrayal of Queen Victoria which seemed to belong in something like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Beefeaters wandering around inside Buckingham Palace!    He was given a fictional business partner.  And there was a bizarre storyline which claimed that, rather than abandoning the tour because of concerns about over-commercialisation, Jenny Lind packed it in because she fancied Barnum and had the needle because he wasn’t interested!

And, before they even got as far as him entering showbusiness, they’d invented a tale whereby he first met Charity, his future wife, when he was a tailor’s delivery boy and she was the daughter of a New York society family, and they were childhood sweethearts who ran off together, and he was always desperate to prove to her snooty parents and their friends that he was good enough for her. Oh, it was quite a romantic idea, but unfortunately it was largely the product of someone’s imagination!   And there was nothing about his involvement in politics and philanthropy, which was a shame.  Yes, all right, I appreciate that not everyone would have wanted a lecture on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the middle of a film about a circus 🙂 (although I so would!), but that whole aspect of his life and character was missing.

It was entertaining, though.  The music was great – although I kept expecting to hear the music from the Barnum musical instead.  It is really weird watching something about Barnum without anyone singing “Join the circus like you wanted to when you were a kid”.  And the stories of the circus performers, some of whom did really exist, were genuinely touching.  Even now, you get these programmes like Embarrassing Bodies, which come uncomfortably close to treating anyone with some sort of physical difference as a “freak”.  In the mid 19th century, life didn’t offer very much to people with, say, dwarfism or hirsutism, and Barnum’s circus did offer those people an opportunity, which was certainly much better than the sort of horrific freak shows that “the Elephant Man” was made part of.  And there was a storyline about a romance between the fictional white business partner and a fictional mixed-race trapeze artist, which was very nice, but, if they’d wanted to make the point about racial attitudes at the time, they could have stuck to the actual facts and show Barnum speaking out against slavery.  It came later than the period covered by the film, but he did make a well-known and rather touching speech about how all human souls are human souls, regardless of which body they inhabit.

It’s entertainment – which Barnum would approved of. And, hey, he might well have approved of the fact that it’s all a bit of a swizz (to use an old-fashioned term!), in the name of entertainment.  But it feels as if someone’s written the story that they want and then used the name of a well-known historical figure to guarantee popular interest and therefore box office success.  It’s not uncommon for films, books and TV dramas to do that, but it isn’t half annoying 🙂 .