The King and I – Manchester Opera House

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Don’t you absolutely love the way Anna Leonowens is presented in this very Victorian story combining morality, romance, humour and (a not very accurate view of!) Thai history?  Abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, genteel but hard-working devoted single mother, confidante of one king and the inspiration behind the reforms made by another, friend to royal wives and beloved by royal children, promoter of East-West harmony, courageous, uber- principled, and beautiful and glamorous to boot?  She even sorts out arguments over the Bible!   I’d give a lot to have Mary Poppins’ ability to tidy up the house just by clicking my fingers, and I adore Maria von Trapp, but I’d love to be Anna Leonowens. If I was being a Victorian.  OK, there’s no way I’d ever get into the dress that Deborah Kerr wears in the “Shall We Dance” scene, and I’d probably do an Eliza Doolittle and forget to pretend to be posh at the most inappropriate moment, but even so. Shame that a lot of the story’s “romanticised” (not to mention didacticised) and has given people an inaccurate impression of not only Anna (which isn’t really a problem, I suppose) but of King Mongkut and mid-19th century Siam in general; but I love it as a story and as an incredible musical – and this is a great production of it.

There are so many wonderful, wonderful songs in it – not only Shall We Dance, but Something Wonderful, Hello Young Lovers and We Kiss In A Shadow which are all so emotional, Getting To Know You which is very sweet, and I Whistle A Happy Tune which I’ve always liked too. The broken English of Is A Puzzlement doesn’t work now as well as it did in the 1950s, but the actual lyrics, the confusion of a leader who desperately wants to do what’s best for their country but, in changing times, just isn’t sure what that is, works in any time.  The message of the song rings so true, and the king is such a fascinating character – even if the story doesn’t depict him very accurately.

Coincidentally, the Thai royal family’s in the news this week, with King Maha Vajiralongkorn, King Mongkut’s great-great-grandson, due to be crowned on Saturday and having just married his bodyguard (well, the deputy leader of his personal security detail), whom he apparently met whilst she was working as a flight attendant on a plane he was on, and made her queen. That’s a brilliant story, and it’s all true!  Anna’s is … well, the word I’ve used is a “romanticised”!

OK, she was employed as a schoolteacher (note the use of the word “schoolteacher”, never “governess” with its overtones of being an upper level servant rather than a “free and independent employee”) to the Siamese royal children. And King Mongkut was certainly interested in science, and in Western ideas and closer ties with the West. And, yes, he did have a lot of wives and concubines, and a lot of children (82). But he’s certainly not thought to have been cruel, and the Tuptim story’s caused a lot of upset in Thailand over the years. King Mongkut actually banned forced marriage, and freed a lot of the royal concubines.  Furthermore, he definitely wouldn’t have been dancing a polka with the schoolteacher – which is a shame, because I really love that scene. Nor was Anna at his deathbed: she wasn’t even in the country when he died, but on holiday in England!  Chulalongkorn, the crown prince in the film, abolished slavery (and prostration), but it’s a bit rich to claim that that was because of the influence of Anna Leonowens.

As for Anna herself, she lied about her maiden name and place of birth – quite possibly to cover up her mixed race heritage (see here if you wish to read my wafflings on that subject!) – and her late husband Tom Owens (who later merged his middle name and surname to create the posher-sounding “Leonowens”) was a clerk, not an army officer. It’s a very interesting tale of fake news, really. And her real story’s even more interesting – she travelled widely, tried to set up her own schools, was the great-aunt of Boris Karloff (seriously!), and genuinely was a feminist, and an opponent of slavery.

A lot of musicals have very serious messages.  Very few of them are just purely about entertainment. The King and I is one which combines morality, romance, humour and history.  OK, it’s not very accurate history, but most people seeing the film or the stage show will never have had the opportunity to learn much about Thailand, its history and its culture – I’ve got a degree in history, as well as a GCSE and an A-level, and Thai history never came up once in my struggles – and owt’s better than nowt.  We’re learning something about Siam/Thailand.  And, yes, it’s from a Western viewpoint, but we are talking about something set in the 1860s.  The stage show, unlike the film, includes the “Western People Funny” song, in which the Siamese ladies sing about how ridiculous it is that they’re being made to wear Western clothes, and about the Western “sentimental Oriental” idea, which does redress the balance.  And I think the story is respectful of Siamese culture – it’s certainly very respectful of Buddhism, and we’re clearly meant to hope that the king is able to stop Siam from becoming a British or French protectorate.

It also includes “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” which has that great line about being a “free and independent employee”.  That’s not an East-West thing, and nor are all Anna’s comments about respect for women.  Jane Eyre makes a similar comment, in a very different context, about being a free and independent person.  It’s a very important theme in The King and I. 

Of course, the issues of freedom go way beyond that, to the question of slavery, and the Tuptim story.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most important books of the 19th century in terms of raising awareness about slavery.  Read it, and the sickly religious language will probably make you want to throw up – it really is unbearable! -, but it was incredibly important at the time, and it’s interesting how it gets linked into The King and I … if rather misleading, because there were a lot of differences between slavery in the American South and slavery in Thailand. But slavery is still slavery.  Thankfully, this production of the stage show did not include Anna’s comments about how “Mr Lincoln is fighting a great war to free the slaves”, which always annoy me, though!  Lincoln fought the Civil War to bring the Southern states back into the Union, OK!   And, no, King Mongkut didn’t really offer to send him any elephants to help him win the war – although he did offer to send elephants to the US for use as beasts of burden.

I’ve got off the point now.  It’s quite irritating that the question of slavery has to be viewed through an American prism, but I suppose the idea was that it was one the audience’d understand.  And it’s the Tuptim affair that breaks the king.  He actually died of malaria, but, in this – and it was the first musical ever to kill someone off actually on stage, incidentally – he dies of heart trouble, not only physically but mentally, having realised that his time is up because Anna Leonowens made him realise that he couldn’t beat Tuptim.

But he dies knowing that Chulalongkorn is going to bring about reform. This production gave Chulalongkorn a bigger role than he gets in the film – it had a lovely scene in which he and Louis Leonowens sang part of “Is A Puzzlement”, about how grown-ups argue about things that they don’t really understand themselves. And he’s not a baddie. He’s a good guy. He tried his best. It’s not one of those horrible absolute Victorian religious stories in which everyone’s either right or wrong – one of the king’s last lines is about how what matters in life is to have tried your best.

It is a Victorian moral story, though. The king dies because Anna stopped him from beating Tuptim. And there’s this theme of honour all the way through it. Honour, whilst it’s a big thing in Girls’ Own and Boys’ Own stories, doesn’t always work that well in stories for adults. In Gone With The Wind, honour is a big theme but it’s all rather ironic, because the honourable Ashley Wilkes is really a complete loser. In The King and I, the keeping of your word is crucial. Siam cannot hope to take her place on the world stage if her king cannot accept that he has to keep his word about the schoolteacher’s living accommodation: she was promised a house, rather than an apartments within the palace, and she keeps on about this house until the king gives in.

It sounds so mad, put like that, but it’s the principle – the idea of truth and trust. In 2019, no-one trusts a word that comes out of any political leader’s mouth. In 1862, was it any different? Did any adults genuinely believe the idea of the wonders of British justice and spreading it across the world? 1862 was probably too early for that idea even to have been round, actually. And Abraham Lincoln certainly wasn’t the saint he’s now made out to be. (I’m just using Britain and America as examples because the story’s about a British woman and goes on about Lincoln.) Yet, somehow, the idea works here.

A lot of that’s because of the music.  Music can make most things work.  We’ve got all these great songs, and the unspoken attraction between two great characters.  The costumes are wonderful, too!  The dancing’s wonderful.  And it’s very romantic … but just the chemistry between Anna and the king, but the romance between Tuptim and her lover, Anna’s love for her late husband, Sir Edward’s unrequited love for Anna, Lady Tiang’s love for the king.  And the love between Anna and her son, the king and his children, the royal wives and their children, Anna and the royal children.  Not many things manage to combine morality and emotion well.  This does.  It really gets you.  Wonderful story, wonderful music, wonderful production.  Cute kids!

And I still want that dress …

 

 

 

 

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Fisherman’s Friends

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All right, all right, this isn’t historical, but I’m using the excuse that most of the songs in it are traditional songs.   And everyone knows these songs.  At one point in the film, the eponymous Fisherman’s Friends start singing “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” in a crowded London bar, and all the other people in the bar join in.  What’s more, the scene would have worked just the same had it been set in Dublin or New York or Sydney.  So where do we learn these songs?   I remember being taught some folk songs and music hall songs at primary school.  Presumably not that particular one, as it’s a bit rude – although we always seemed to manage to learn slightly rude versions of some songs (Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay springs to mind) as well as the proper words.  Both my grandfathers were very big on folk songs and music hall songs, as well.   And I do often listen to songs from “the second folk revival”.  I just need to point out that Ewan MacColl was from Lower Broughton 🙂 .  And that “Where have all the flowers gone”, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s and by my class at primary school in the 1980s, was based on a Cossack folk song.  I have now got completely and utterly off the point, because this film is about a group singing sea shanties in Cornwall, circa 2009!

Well, it’s sort of historical!   There’s a lot of talk about being the rock and roll of the 1750s.  And a lot of sea shanties, and indeed other folk songs and music hall songs, are about wars, or political events.  Even a lot of nursery rhymes are supposed to be coded references to political events.

It’s essentially a feelgood film, more than anything else, and it really is that.  There are some gorgeous shots in and around Port Isaac.  And there’s a nice story.  Well, two nice stories, intertwined, and both with happy endings.  Three music executives from London go to Port Isaac for a stag weekend.  There are a lot of clichéd but funny jokes about outsiders who do stupid things like parking their cars where they’re likely to get caught by the tide.  They come across the Fisherman’s Friends, a local men’s group who sing Cornish sea shanties in between going fishing and saving the lives of people in trouble at sea.

Two of the executives play a prank on the third by pretending that they want to sign the group. He falls for it, and promises the band a record deal.  By the time he finds out that he’s been had, he’s fallen for the band, the rural lifestyle, and a pretty woman who’s the daughter of one of the singers.  After various problems, and the sad death of one of the band members, the band get their deal, their first release makes the top ten, and our pal gets together with the pretty Cornishwoman, buys the local pub –saving it from closure – and moves to Port Isaac.

It’s really lovely 🙂 .

And the themes are historical, as well as the music. Seriously, they are!   The links between folk music and Cornish patriotism – I could write all day about examples of folk music as an expression of roots, of heritage, of patriotism, of nationalism, of keeping an oppressed culture alive, of resistance against an oppressor, of raising spirits in difficult times … and this is something you find pretty much everywhere in the world.   Then there’s the idea of life in a rural/smalltown idyll being better for you than life in a big city, and that’s very much a 19th century Romantic idea.

I actually get really annoyed when I read things written by patronising well-to-do Southerners (I’m talking 19th century here) who claimed that industrialisation and urbanisation destroyed some sort of Garden of Eden, as if life for everyone in pre-industrial Merrie England (or Merrie anywhere else) was perfect.  It certainly was not!   But, when it’s taking you an hour to crawl two miles through horrendous traffic, or you’re crammed up against the door of a tram with your face in someone’s armpit, or you’re frantically trying to do a dozen things in your dinner hour, looking at your watch every ten seconds as you wait in queues behind other people who are also frantically trying to do a dozen things in their dinner hour, or you’re practically in tears because the repair person says that they’ll be coming “between 12 and 6” and you’re stuck in an office/factory/shop and it’ll take you at least half an hour to get home … yep, the idea of the Romantic Rural Idyll doesn’t half appeal, because we’ve still got it in our heads that it’s the answer!

The story about the music executive and the romance and him buying the pub and moving to Cornwall is fictional, but the Fisherman’s Friends are a real band, and they were “discovered” by BBC DJ Johnnie Walker whilst he was on holiday in Cornwall, in 2009, and he got them a recording contract, and they’ve had a lot of success. They’ve also, sadly, suffered great tragedy, with the death of their manager and one of their singers when they were hit by a heavy steel door which fell whilst they were preparing for a show in 2003, and this film is in part a tribute to those two men.   And they’ve won an award for keeping folk music alive and bringing it to new audiences.  This film is hopefully going to bring their music to an even wider audience, and, with music lessons in schools increasingly being cut and, especially with kids today possibly not having the same chances that we did to learn traditional songs at school, that’s very important.

The Fisherman’s Friends throat lozenges don’t actually come into it, apart from a few puns, incidentally. They remind me of primary school as well.  The headmistress’s husband, who worked in the office, always used to have them.  He was a lovely man, who sadly died young.  Fisherman’s Friend lozenges always remind me of him 🙂 .  They taste bloody awful, though!!

Back to the film – to finish off, this is such a nice film!  I don’t suppose it’s going to win any BAFTAs or Oscars, because films like this usually don’t, but go and see it if you get chance.  And, if you do, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did 🙂 .

 

Mary Queen of Scots

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What on earth?!  Elizabeth, Mary, and Bess of Hardwick wandering around in a laundry.  The Four Marys praying on the bedroom floor that Darnley had managed to hit the jackpot.  When he wasn’t carrying on with Rizzio – as if Rizzio, even if he actually had been interested in blokes, would have looked twice at an idiot like Darnley.  John Knox’s hair and beard were rather mesmerising: I wonder if he ever washed them.  Why did French-raised Mary have a Scottish accent?  Why was the Earl of Lennox (played by Mr Bates from Downton Abbey) getting so stuck into everything?  What happened to the Battle of Carberry Hill?  Shouldn’t the Casket Letters and the umpteen plots have got a mention?  Worst of all, how dared they present Elizabeth as such a wimp? I was spitting feathers about that!   She was shown as splitting her time between getting upset, having soppy conversations with Robert Dudley (who looked about 14), and taking advice from Mike from Neighbours.  Whereas Mary must have spent most of her time having her very elaborate hairdo sorted out.  Much as I love an excuse to talk about the 16th century, the best bits of this were the shots of Hardwick Hall and the Scottish countryside!

Why mess about with a story that would grab anyone’s attention exactly as it was?  The life of Mary Queen of Scots is something that you just couldn’t make up.  It makes even the most OTT of soap operas look mild by comparison.  And why make everything that happened in her life  – well, everything that happened during the seven years of her forty-four year life that it covered – about her relationship with Elizabeth?

Having started off being negative, I’m always very pleased to see a film, especially one that’s going to grab attention because of its big name cast, about history.  We’ve got two big films this year about Stewart/Stuart queens, this and The Favourite.  Always good to see history in the headlines, even though this film’s been well and truly overshadowed by The Favourite.  And it’s big names, and this time I’m talking historical figures rather than actresses and actors, that get people talking.

There’s sometimes been a lot of debate between historians over whether history is about important individuals and landmark events or whether it’s about long-running trends and movements.  It’s probably less relevant now that the age of empire and the age of communism are both over, because that idea that history’s moving onwards and upwards towards something has rather been shown not to work.  Obviously there are long-running movements, but even they tend to involve individuals and events. The study of them does, anyway.  You wouldn’t talk about the fight for women’s suffrage without mentioning Emmeline Pankhurst, or the Reformation without mentioning Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Henry VIII, or the Renaissance without mentioning Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Donatello (sorry!).   We like to talk about people.

And we like rivalries.  Rafa and Roger.  United and Liverpool.  Barcelona and Real Madrid.  Oasis and Blur.  Gladstone and Disraeli.  And there seems to be a particular fascination with the idea of a rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots.  The 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots film focused on it as well.  Maybe it’s because there haven’t been that many queens regnant in history, and having two in one island was unique, with the added spice that they were first cousins once removed and Mary, by both the laws of primogeniture and the terms of Henry VIII’s will, had the best claim to be Elizabeth’s heir.  And, in the eyes of those who didn’t recognise the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, had a claim to be in Elizabeth’s place.  All set against the background of religious strife across Europe, Mary’s ties with France, and the threat to Elizabeth from England’s real rival – Philip II of Spain.

Were their lives so entangled?  There was no actual conflict between England and Scotland at this point; nor was there likely to be.  This wasn’t the age of Flodden Field or Bannockburn.  Scotland was too weak and divided to attack England, and England wasn’t interested in trying to conquer Scotland. Different factions in Scotland were seeking English help, England couldn’t afford for France or Spain to get too involved in Scotland and possibly use it as a back door to attack England, and there was the ongoing worry that someone might try to put Mary on Elizabeth’s throne.  And Mary did want to be named as Elizabeth’s heir.  So, all right, I suppose it is quite difficult to talk about one without talking about the other – especially if the focus is on Mary, who ended up spending much of her life under house arrest in England.

But do you have to decide that you’re going to talk one up and talk one down?   You can’t support two rival football clubs, but, with historical figures … I don’t see why you can’t appreciate both.  With Elizabeth, I find it very easy, because there is just so much to admire.  With Mary, I’m never entirely sure what I think.  That’s partly because we don’t know what happened at the crucial point of Mary’s reign – her marriage to Bothwell.  There are such completely different versions of events, and we just don’t have the evidence to tell us which one is true.  At one extreme, there’s the idea that the two of them were lovers, and conspired to murder Darnley so that they could marry each other.  (Bothwell’s previous wife was also shoved out of the way, but at least she was divorced rather than bumped off!  The film never even mentioned her.)   At the other extreme, there’s the idea that he kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly until she became pregnant (she later miscarried), and forced her to marry him.  The film went somewhere down the middle – she wasn’t involved in the murder, but went off with Bothwell voluntarily, believing that he could protect her, but then he gave her little choice but to marry him.  I’ve read so much on this subject, and I’m still not sure what to believe.

This film was definitely trying to talk Mary up, though.  It went out of its way to show a positive portrayal of her – despite all the stupid mistakes she made.  I could have lived with that, though.  It was much better than the idea of her as a romantic tragic-heroine/Catholic martyr who was nothing but the pitiful victim of events and other people’s decisions.  But the fact that it was so negative about Elizabeth put me right off.  It just didn’t work at all.  In fact, in that bizarre fictitious scene in the laundry, the script pretty much admitted that it’d got it wrong!   Elizabeth said that she’d always been jealous of Mary.  Was she?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  But then she said that she’d realised that she didn’t want to be like Mary after all.  Now, that was more like it.  But did Elizabeth really spend so much time thinking about Mary?  Was Mary really so obsessed with Elizabeth that she kept sending her letters saying that she wanted them to be sisters, as this film suggested.  Didn’t each of them – and obviously I’m talking about the period before Mary fled to England and was imprisoned – have enough going on in their own lives to spend quite so much time obsessing about each other on a personal basis as well as a political basis?

So what did the film actually show?  It opened with eighteen-year-old Mary’s return from France, following the death of her first husband.  Despite having lived in France since the age of five, she spoke with a Scottish accent – as did the Four Marys.  And despite a long and apparently difficult voyage, her complicated hairdo was immaculate. It stayed like that all the time, whether she’d been galloping about on horseback, on the road for hours, or anything else.  And she seemed a fair bit older than eighteen.  All right, you can’t show someone looking the right age all the time, and there are worse inaccuracies than accents and hair that never gets messed up, but it was just annoying.

She then proceeded to Edinburgh, where she met up with her half-brother, the Earl of Moray.  It was rather difficult to tell who was who, because names weren’t often given, and all the men had beards … although no-one else’s beard was as spectacularly long and messy as that of John Knox.  This is an intriguing part of history, because Mary’s always seen as a Catholic heroine, yet she didn’t try to replace the Protestant lords who’d taken control before her return.  Was that because, whilst she’s often seen as being anything but politically astute, she knew not to pick a fight she couldn’t win?  Or was it because she didn’t want to put herself offside with Elizabethan England?  Probably a bit of both.  The film did actually cover this fairly well: it could have skipped over the politics and just concentrated on the more audience-friendly topic of her love life, but, to be fair, it didn’t.

We did get quite a lot about Mary’s relationship with Darnley, though.  And this was all messed up.  A lot of it was more about Elizabeth than about Mary!  What was going on with Elizabeth’s involvement in Mary’s search for a new husband?  This is something else I’m never quite sure about.  She surely can’t seriously have thought that Mary would marry Robert Dudley, son of an executed traitor, grandson of a tax collector and known by everyone to be her ((Elizabeth’s) own “favourite”.  The film suggested that she did, though.  I really don’t know.  It seems a strange thing to suggest just to try to stir it, but I can’t believe that Elizabeth seriously thought Mary would consider the idea.

If they’d shown Elizabeth thinking it was a good idea because it’d give her influence in Mary’s camp, and even being amused by the idea of trying to humiliate her by suggesting such an unsuitable husband, it might have worked, but, instead, they just showed her being emotionally dependent on Dudley, going on about how much she needed him, and also being very dependent on Cecil (Guy Pearce), which I found incredibly annoying.  Elizabeth I, with the heart and stomach of a king, who’d survived so much already and was going to survive so much more.  It’s annoying enough when people present Mary as being a weak little woman.  It’s unbearable to see a film doing that with Elizabeth.

A lot was made of Elizabeth’s near-fatal case of smallpox.  It must have been absolutely horrendous, to put it mildly, and she must have suffered severe emotional scars as well as the physical pox marks.  And it panicked everyone, because she hadn’t named an heir.  But the film makers seemed determined to seize on it just to show her as being weak and vulnerable, worrying what everyone’d think of her afterwards, rather than in terms of its political consequences.  And they never mentioned Mary’s health problems at all.  It’s thought that she may have had porphyria, and have passed it on down the line to George III: we can’t be sure of that, but she certainly had bouts of illness during the period covered by this film, and they weren’t shown at all.  She was depicted as being very fit and healthy, galloping around on horseback, doing a lot of dancing … not a suggestion of any sort of flaw, for lack of a better way of putting it.

Next up, Darnley and a lot of scenes involving galloping round the Highlands.  Elizabeth was shown to be very upset and concerned about the marriage.  I suppose she must have had concerns, especially as Darnley was also a descendant of Henry VIII, but I go with the view that she knew Darnley was a complete idiot and was happy for Mary to marry him rather than someone with political acumen.  The film, however, determined to show Mary in a positive light, showed Darnley as the perfect suitor … right up until his wedding night, when he got drunk and went off with Rizzio, Mary’s musician and secretary.  Ridiculous.

For a kick off, no-one has that much of a personality transplant overnight – you don’t go from being the perfect potential husband to being a violent drunk, just like that.  And, whilst Darnley might well have been bisexual, there’s never been any suggestion that Rizzio was interested in men.  He was widely rumoured, although falsely, to be Mary’s lover.  I think that bit just got put in so that they could include a scene with Mary assuring Rizzio that she had no problem with him being gay, to show that she was tolerant and open-minded – as with another scene in which she assured a Protestant soldier that she wasn’t bothered what religion people were.  But Rizzio wasn’t gay, and he certainly wasn’t involved with Darnley.  As for that scene in which Mary coaxed Darnley into doing the deed with her, apparently just once, and then got the Four Marys to pray by her bedside whilst she crossed her legs and rolled backwards … who on earth dreamt that up?!

Then all the big drama!  Starting with the conspiracy of the Protestant lords against Mary, Darnley dithering over whose side he was on, and the murder of poor old Rizzio in front of his heavily pregnant queen.  OK, obviously this did all happen – but why was the Earl of Lennox shown as being behind it all?!  And bullying Darnley into striking the final blow, to prove that he was a real man?  I suppose they’d got themselves in a mess by making out that Rizzio had been having it off with Darnley, when in fact people were saying that he’d been having an affair with Mary, but it was just all wrong!   It’s one of the most dramatic events in Scottish history, and they managed to make a mess of it!

Mary duly gave birth to James – and, according to the film, wrote a load of soppy letters saying that she wanted Elizabeth to be his second mother.  I don’t think so!   Then what one of my school history teachers, who was rather given to dramatics – which were actually a pretty good way of keeping the class’s attention – described as “The Mysterious Death at Kirk o’Field”.   Darnley’s house was blown up by gunpowder, and the bodies of Darnley and his servant, killed by strangulation rather than by the explosion, were found nearby.  Bothwell was tried by the Privy Council but cleared of murder – although four of his servants were later convicted.  To this day, no-one knows who was actually responsible.  Was it Bothwell?  Was it the Earl of Moray?  Could it have been the Earl of Arran, who was probably the next heir to Scotland after Mary and James?  Was Mary involved?   We just don’t know.  The reign of Mary Queen of Scots is so, so frustrating, because we just do not know what really went on!   No film can be criticised for the way it deals with that, because no-one knows the truth.

I’ve already mentioned how it portrayed Mary’s marriage to Bothwell – and, again, no-one can be criticised for how they interpret something over which there’s so much confusion.  But it went way off piste after that.  The Battle of Carberry Hill, in which Mary was captured by lords opposed to Bothwell, just got passed over, and Mary’s imprisonment at Loch Leven, miscarriage and escape weren’t even mentioned.  Instead, the next thing we knew, Mary was over the border and into England – OK, obviously this bit was true – and meeting Elizabeth in a laundry!!

What on earth?  The 1971 film also showed Mary and Elizabeth meeting.  They didn’t!   I get that film makers like the idea of a dramatic showdown, but it never happened, and it’s so annoying when films, or TV dramas, just … well, lie!  “Poetic licence”?  You shouldn’t be using “poetic licence” with two of the best known figures in British history!  And I can’t even decide if the scene was effective or just plain silly, with Elizabeth hiding behind the drying sheets and Mary chasing her round until they eventually came face to face.

I suppose it was dramatic in its way.  And some of what was said wasn’t that unlikely.  Elizabeth probably did envy Mary’s beauty and glamour.  She must, surely, have envied the fact that Mary had a son and heir.  But I doubt she envied Mary’s “bravery”.  I’d imagine she probably thought that Mary had very poor judgement and had got herself into one mess after another.  But this is all speculation: I haven’t really got a clue what the great Elizabeth I thought about Mary, Queen of Scots, and nor have the scriptwriters.  But we do all know jolly well that Elizabeth and Mary never met, and it’s very irritating when historical films portray false events, and don’t even explain in a foreword or afterword that they’ve made them up.

After the laundry scene, it just jumped to the end, with Mary’s execution – although the very end wasn’t even about Mary, but about Elizabeth and her regrets.  All the years of Mary’s imprisonment, the Casket Letters and their part in the ongoing debate about what really went on between Mary and Bothwell, all the plots … none of that got a mention.  OK, the film was long enough as it was, and it would have taken another film to have got all that in, but it meant that only half a tale was being told.  I hope they don’t make a sequel, though, because I dread to imagine what they’d do with that!

This was a fascinating period of history.  There was no need to mess with the facts: they were exciting enough as it was.  And, whilst it was gratifying to see Mary not being presented as a passive victim of events, I’m just beyond annoyed at the portrayal of Elizabeth.  Not overly impressed with this film!   I wouldn’t have missed it, because I don’t like to miss a historical film and this period of history is so familiar to me, but … well, I won’t ever be watching it again!

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.

 

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.