Blinded By The Light

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This started so well!  A Pet Shop Boys song, an A-ha song, and a shot of someone reading Smash Hits.  It doesn’t get much more promising than that!   Unfortunately, it wasn’t actually very good: it wasn’t a bad idea, but it was too full of tropes, stereotypes and negativity.  However, it was still worth seeing, for the glorious music – I thought it was all going to be Bruce Springsteen music, but, even better, it was like Greatest Hits of 1987 – and the ’80s nostalgia.  Pound notes, Walkmans, those traffic light thingies you hung from car mirrors, wearing too much eyeshadow … !  It wasn’t a great film, but it did get a lot of aspects of the ’80s across pretty accurately, and also highlighted the fundamental importance of music, especially during your so-called formative years.  Did anyone’s school actually have a radio station in the 1980s, though?  Mine certainly didn’t!

It was supposed to be a feelgood film.  I suppose it was, in some ways.  Plenty of music and dancing, and a happy ending.  British-Pakistani teenage boy growing up in Luton in the 1980s, and not feeling very happy about anything.  His dad had been made redundant, his mum was having to work all hours to pay the bills, he felt like a misfit at school, he couldn’t get a girlfriend, his parents had expectations of him that weren’t what he wanted, there were issues with racism in the area … and then a friend introduced him to Bruce Springsteen’s music, and the lyrics inspired him, and everything came right for him in the end.  It sounded great, but it just didn’t quite hit the right spots.

Too many tropes?  Most of them were tropes that could have been done so well, though. Loving but overly controlling British-Pakistani father, teenage kids who want to assimilate into British society but also stay close to their families – done brilliantly in East is East.  Geeky teenage boy who’s into politics, writes poems and somehow manages to get together with the cool girl – done brilliantly in the Adrian Mole books.  Supportive, inspirational teacher – done brilliantly in numerous films.  Teenager who wants to become a writer (/artist/singer/dancer/whatever), rather than get what his parents consider a “proper” job – again, done brilliantly in numerous films, and books.  There was nothing wrong with the tropes as such: the film just wasn’t all that convincing.  Maybe the characters didn’t work.  Everyone was so stereotypical.  And they were all, apart from the dad who was a bit of both, either goodies or baddies: there were no nuances at all.

It wasn’t exactly very realistic, either.  OK, fiction would be pretty boring if it was entirely realistic, but there are limits – at least make it believable!  The aforementioned supportive teacher entered one of our hero’s essays in a competition, and, whaddaya know, it won, and the prize was a trip to a writers’ conference in New Jersey, just near Bruce Springsteen’s home town.  Right, because stuff like that happens all the time.  He’d probably have got a £10 book token.  Also, no-one in Britain in the ’80s said “You did good” or referred to their homework as an “assignment”.

Then there was all this American Dream stuff.  In America, anyone can achieve anything!  No-one cares where you come from.  No-one feels negatively about anyone else.  Er, what??  Don’t get me wrong, I love America, but was that idea not all rather more 1890s than 1980s?  And it kept slagging off Luton.  What’s poor Luton ever done to anyone?  Maybe it was meant to be taken humorously, but I don’t like films or songs or books that sneer at places like that.  Why does Gurinder Chadha have to be so negative – not just about Luton, but about Britain in general?  See also Beecham House and Viceroy’s House !  I thought she overdid the controlling dad bit, as well.   But then Bend It Like Beckham was so good – that was everything this could have been and wasn’t, a really lovely feelgood film about a British-Asian teenager. Please, dear, get back to doing what you did so well in 2002!

Our hero did not, incidentally, end up in America.  He went to university in Manchester.  Nothing negative was said about Manchester, at least – that really would have been the final straw!   That was if they ever actually got to Manchester, given that they were rather worryingly following a signpost for “M1 London”.  And he suddenly realised that his dad was actually a really great guy who’d always done his best for his family, and his dad realised that he was really wonderful as well – yeah, yeah, yeah!  Subtle as a sledgehammer.

At one point, our hero and his mate took over the school radio station, blasted out Bruce Springsteen music, and damaged the DJ’s Tiffany record.  There are some Tiffany lyrics which sum this film up pretty well.  “Could’ve been so beautiful, could’ve been so right.”  Er, yes,  Could’ve been …

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Rocketman

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I thought this was great, although it didn’t make for easy watching despite the fun fantasy musical sequences.  I love the fact that a “fat boy from Pinner” became an international superstar, and continues to be one after all the years; but I’m so sorry that he’s had to go through so much.  Life can be very hard: we screw ourselves up, and other people screw us up.  I felt as if everyone should have jumped up and joined in with the “I’m Still Standing” happy ending … although, being a bit of an old romantic, I wish it’d jumped forward and finished with his wedding to David Furnish, rather than everyone dancing around on a beach 🙂 . I also feel really old: I’ve got Elton John albums on tape, and I remember when Dexter Fletcher, who directed this film, was in Press Gang!

It’s quite an unusual film, because you’ve got the big musical sequences – and it can’t be easy fitting songs into someone’s life story, rather than making a film like Mamma Mia! or Sunshine on Leith where the story’s written to fit in with the songs – and the flamboyant costumes, but you’ve also got a real human being’s real pain.  I hadn’t realised he’d suffered from eating disorders, but his issues with alcoholism and cocaine addiction are well-known.  They’re all played out on the screen, all tied in with his difficult relationships with his parents, and with his one-time manager and boyfriend John Reid.  I believe there’s been some criticism of the way Reid’s portrayed in the film, but we can’t know what went on behind closed doors so can’t really comment on that.

The film did seem to emphasise the lows rather than the highs.   As I’ve said, I’d like to have seen it show him finding him happiness with David Furnish.  And, come to that, I’d like to have seen a bit more about Watford!  What about them getting to the 1984 Cup Final?!   It started off with a group therapy session, which rather set the tone.  He’s achieved so much: he’s sung so many iconic songs, sold so many records.  I’d like to have seen a bit more emphasis on the positives.   But, having said that, the film’s showing us how he struggled behind the flamboyant act and the brilliant music, and anyone who’s ever had issues with self-hatred and addiction and eating disorders will feel for him.  Well, everyone will feel for him, I hope.   And maybe anyone who’s opposing the teaching of LGBT equality in schools will see how Elton John struggled with being expected to hide his true self, and think twice about their attitudes … although they probably won’t, because they probably won’t go to see the film.

There is a happy ending.  We’re told that he’s been sober for 28 years, and we’re shown pictures of the real Elton John – Sir Elton John, I should say! – with his husband and children and doing his charity work.  Not all life stories of celebs who’ve struggled with themselves and addiction turn out happily.  All too many have ended in tragedy.  I’m so pleased that things have worked out for him.  I’m sure he still has his moments – I’ve seen him in concert twice, and the first time he had a tantrum and walked off early, although the second time he was wonderful – but hopefully there aren’t too many of them any more.

And what a singer, and what a pianist.  The music’s great.  The music’s always great!   And, if you haven’t seen it already – I’m a bit late to the party because I’ve been busy with tennis and days out!! – this is definitely a film worth seeing.

Our Classical Century – BBC 4

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The soundtrack to the glorious summer of 1990 wasn’t anything by the Stone Roses or the Happy Mondays, or even one of my beloved power ballads. It was Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. How mad (for it 😉 ) was that? Kids like us did not listen to classical/opera music. It was totally uncool. It was for old (i.e. over about 35) posh people in the Home Counties. Or Ken Barlow. And then, suddenly, it was for us as well. We even nicknamed one of our school bus drivers “Luciano” (there was a very vague resemblance, if you looked hard). The following year, Pavarotti sang in Manchester shortly after United won the Cup Winners’ Cup, in English clubs’ first season back in Europe after the ban. He wore a United scarf on stage. This was it – yep, classical music was cool after all!  Classic FM launched a year later. Nigel Kennedy’s Mockney accent was rather annoying, but, as the ’90s went on, along came Vanessa Mae, and she was brilliant. Suzy Klein, who’s the same age as me to within a few weeks, will probably have grown up with the same music as I did, but it still makes me feel really old to be reminded that Alexandra Burke, her co-presenter, is Melissa Bell’s daughter! But even people who aren’t old enough to remember the summer of 1990 know Nessun Dorma.  Vincero!  Vin-cer-o …!

I have to say that a lot of the stuff mentioned in this episode, about how classical music shed its stuffy image in the ’80s and ’90s, seems to have passed me right by at the time! I remember Bolero, obviously. Everyone remembers Bolero! I could have done without Alexandra Burke pointing out that she wasn’t born in 1984, but still.  And I remember classical music being used for TV adverts. We had to listen to Air on a G String in school music lessons, and, instead of looking blank like we usually did when the teacher asked if anyone knew what the piece was – I was OK with the 1812 Overture, because of its links with Russian history, and I must have recognised some things from the “Amadeus” film, but that was usually about it – everyone brightly pointed out that it was the music from the Hamlet cigar advert.

But I don’t remember the nation being “brought together” by a piece of classical music played at the funeral of Diana. Princess of Wales, although I remember Elton John singing Candle in the Wind, as clearly as if it were yesterday. And I have no recollection of a Venezuelan orchestra bouncing around whilst playing music from West Side Story, which the programme insisted was some great turning point in cultural history! Oh, and I never knew that Elgar supported Wolves – you learn something new every day! He wrote a football song called “He Banged The Leather For Goal”.  Seriously.

But Nessun Dorma in 1990 – oh yes. It was an interesting time, the summer of 1990. People Like Us, who were into football, were suddenly listening to The Three Tenors. People who were into high culture stuff were suddenly watching football.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the changes in football. Don’t get me wrong, no-one wants to go back to the days of hooliganism, but it’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for the pre-1990 days as I try desperately to work out when to book some shows I want to see in the run-up to Christmas, knowing that Sky and BT Sports and now Amazon Prime as well can change the dates of times and fixtures whenever and to whenever they feel like it, and it’s hard not to feel resentful knowing that, should my team get to a Cup final, I’ll struggle to get tickets because priority will be given to the prawn sandwich brigade. But feeling that, yes, classical music is actually for everyone after all – that’s a definite change for the better. I don’t actually listen to Classic FM, because I’m usually listening to stations that play ’90s power ballads instead , and I don’t usually listen to the Proms except on the Last Night, but I will listen to classical music sometimes, and I don’t feel that it isn’t for People Like Us.

And, when I think of 1990 – which I do quite a lot, because it was a really big year for me, for various reasons – I think, along with all the “Madchester” music, and along with Roxette, and Elton John, and The Beautiful South, and Sinead O’Connor, of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma, and making classical/opera music cool!

Queen Victoria: My Musical Britain – BBC 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 🙂 .

 

SIX The Musical

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This sounded like an utterly ridiculous idea – presenting the six wives of Henry VIII as “sassy” 21st century pop/rock princesses, seriously?! – but it worked brilliantly (although rather better with the last three wives than with the first three wives)!   My music collection has never got out of the 1980s so I can’t really comment on modern pop/rock  😉 , but it was very lively and entertaining.  And, hey, there weren’t even any glaring historical inaccuracies – apart from annoyingly referring to “Britain” and “the UK” rather than “England”.  It was really good.  It bothered me slightly that the composers were born in 1994 – surely anyone who was born in 1994 has no business being out of nappies, never mind writing award-winning musicals?! – but I genuinely enjoyed it.

The idea was that the six wives were going to choose who should be the leader of their girl band by way of each one singing about what a hard time she had, and the winner being the one who’d had it worst. I know – it sounded like one of those awful ideas that teachers come up with because they think it’ll attract kids’ interest.  Luckily, none of my history teachers ever made anyone sing.  I was the kid who won the school history prize but was told that I had to mouth the words in music lessons because my singing was so bad that it was putting the other kids off, so that combination really would not have worked for me.  Although one of the duo who wrote this studied history at university and then studied dance and musical theatre.   It must be amazing to be multi-talented like that 🙂 .

But we never sang in history lessons. Nor did we try to relate history to the present day.  That was a no-no.  “Anachronistic” – a very bad thing to be.  It does seem to be a trend now, though, and it can be quite annoying.  There was a programme on the BBC last year, which was supposed to be about the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.  David Starkey, who really ought to know better, spent the entire time going on about Brexit.  What on earth has Martin Luther got to do with Brexit?  Very irritating.  However, there’ve always been schools of historical interpretation which are closely connected with events at the time – the Whigs, the Marxists, etc – so the idea of a #MeToo interpretation of events, which I think was partly what this was meant to be, is fair enough.

As was pointed out, the six wives are largely remembered each as one of six, and only in relation to Henry, rather than as six individuals. On the other hand, everyone knows their names because there were six of them.  People who aren’t particularly into history and wouldn’t be able to name the wives of any other English kings can recite the names of the six wives of Henry VIII with no trouble at all.  And the rhyme.  “Divorced, beheaded, died.  Divorced, beheaded, survived.”  It’s not actually accurate, because the marriage to Catherine of Aragon was declared not to have been a marriage at all, and the marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled, but anyway.  It’s the best-known period in English history.  Let the Whig historians talk about the importance of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution: it’s the soap opera-esque appeal of a man with six wives (much more so than, you know, the Reformation!) that gets the attention.

I hate getting things out of chronological order, but I’m going to make an exception here, because the way that this presented the fourth, fifth and sixth wives was great, whereas I was less impressed with the presentation of the first three wives. Yes, all right, all right, it was done like that so that they could get a range of different styles of music in, and I was probably the only person in the audience who was trying to make it into a serious historical thing; but I’m just like that.

Anne of Cleves, then. I loved this!   At school, I was taught that Anne of Cleves was “the Flanders mare”, the one whom Henry sent packing because she was ugly.  It was only later that I found out that – to be fair, I suppose they can’t really tell you this at school – what probably happened was that Henry wasn’t up to the job and tried to blame it on Anne’s physical appearance.  And there was no need to try to modernise this story, because it really is a story for the 2010s.  Henry decided to marry Anne (well, apart from her dowry, and the fact that no other foreign princess would have him) after seeing the overly flattering portrait of her painted by Holbein, and then claimed that he’d been tricked and that she looked nothing like it.  Yep.  Just like all those profile pics on Facebook or Tinder or Grindr or whatever, which have either been photoshopped or else show the person when they were younger and possibly slimmer.  Then he totally humiliated her by broadcasting this to the whole of Europe.  Poor Anne.

What you aren’t usually told is that, once the marriage had been annulled, Anne of Cleves was treated as if she were the king’s sister. She got to lead the luxurious life of a senior member of the royal family without having to put up with Henry, the pressure to produce an heir, or the fear of losing her head as soon as Henry’s eye began to wander.  She probably got the best deal of the lot.  And that is exactly how it came across in SIX.  Hooray!

Next up, Catherine Howard – the one who’s usually presented as a silly little tart. If the story of Anne of Cleves is a story for the social media age, the story of Catherine Howard is very much a #MeToo story.  She was a pretty young girl, taken advantage of by older men, and pushed into the arms of the king by her ambitious male relatives.  OK, it was incredibly stupid of her to have an affair after she was actually married to Henry, but she was looking for affection – and, by then, she’d been made to feel that this was all she was, someone whom men wanted, and only wanted for one thing.  I’m not sure that an Ariana Grande hairdo really fitted with her sad story, but it’s a story that is very ripe for re-telling through 21st century eyes.

And then Catherine Parr. There are opinion polls about all sorts around these days, but I’ve never seen one asking which of Henry VIII’s wives is people’s favourite!  Catherine Parr is mine.  My one big quibble with her is her appalling taste in men.  Thomas Seymour.  No, no, no!   Her song seemed as if it was all going to be a tale of woe about how she’d had arranged marriages to older men and then, just as she and Thomas had got together, Henry decided he wanted to marry her.  Marks for historical accuracy, OK, but all so negative!  But then, hooray, there was a second part to the song, all about how she was very well-educated and she wrote books and promoted female authors and artists.  Yay!! That’s why she’s my favourite of the six!

And I think we owe Catherine a huge debt for the role she played in Elizabeth’s education. I’m just going to do a bit of a David Starkey here, sorry, and say how much we could do with Elizabeth at the moment!   She had to cope with two rival factions, both of whom wanted everything (Reformation-wise, in her case) all their own way and seemed to show very little respect for other people’s opinions.  She had people trying to overthrow her – and, in her case, we’re talking imprisonment and probably execution, not just being replaced as party leader.  Hostility from Europe?  Philip II of Spain sent an Armada to try to invade her country, and the Pope pretty much said that people had a divine duty to assassinate her.

Makes those idiots in Brussels look like pussy cats by comparison. And she was probably the greatest ruler this country’s ever had.  I’m just saying!

Back to the beginning. Catherine of Aragon.  Everyone knows this bit, and it rings true in every period of history.  Man dumps his loyal wife of many years, to go off with someone younger and sexier.  Catherine is eternally cast as the wronged wife, Anne as the other woman.  It’s really interesting that, even though the Tudors were masters of propaganda, and it certainly didn’t suit Henry VIII for Catherine to be cast as a saint and martyr, nor Elizabeth for Anne to be seen as the baddie, this is the image that’s come down through the centuries.   Catherine’s song was the full sob story – shipped off to marry Arthur, widowed very young, treated very badly during her widowhood, then the loyal, loving, pious wife, dumped by Henry, separated from her only surviving child, all the children she lost.  Yes, that’s all true.

But, if we were doing “sassy”, couldn’t we have got the other side of Catherine in there as well? She was very much Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter.  She masterminded Flodden Field, whilst Henry was messing about in Flanders.  She sent him James IV of Scotland’s bloodied surcoat, and I always get the impression that she’d quite like to have sent him James’s dead body as well.  She was a tough cookie.  She must have been, or else she’d have trotted off to a nunnery and let Henry and Anne get on with it.  Does even the #MeToo generation have to present her as nothing more than the wronged wife dumped for a younger model?

Then Anne Boleyn. What was going on here?!  She had a Bjork hairdo.  And spoke and sang like a chav.  I think she was actually meant to come across like a bored millennial,who was never off her mobile phone, but she did actually just come across as a chav.  Bjork, chav, Anne Boleyn … er, no, me neither!   The song also made her come across as being a bit thick and a victim of events.  No!  That was Catherine Howard!  I suppose at least they didn’t show her as a conniving tart who betrayed the sisterhood by stealing another woman’s husband, because it’s very unfair how history’s tended to do that – Anne, far from setting out to attract the king, wanted to marry Henry Percy, and was in an impossible position once Henry became interested in her – but she was anything but thick.

I know, I know! It was probably just about what fitted with different songs.  And the same with Jane Seymour.  She got a love song – and I suppose that was because they had to have a love song in there somewhere, because we all like a bit of soppy music.  But the song was about how Jane really loved Henry, and she was sad because she knew that the idea that she was the one he really loved only came about because she was the one who produced the son, and how sad it was that she and her son never knew each other because she died of childbirth fever.  The bits about Henry and Edward were true enough, but does anyone really think that Jane genuinely loved Henry?  I’m not keen on the Stepford Wife image of her, either.  I do think that she was a genuinely nice person, and I like the fact that she tried to reconcile him with both his daughters, but I also think that she was clever enough to know that, after what had happened to Anne Boleyn, her best bet was to keep her head down and her mouth shut, not that she was someone who didn’t have the guts to do anything else.

I seem to have done a lot of moaning there. Well, I do about the way they showed the first three wives, anyway!  I take things too seriously.  Sorry!!  But it was really entertaining – the music was great, even for those of us who are so out of touch that we can’t name a single song in the current top 40 (even though we can recognise most top ten songs from the second half of the 1980s just from listening to the first few beats) .  And the point about the need to think of these six women as six individuals is a quite serious and genuine historical point.  Also, this has the potential to reach an audience which historical novels or documentaries on BBC 4, however interesting, probably won’t.  There were a lot of kids there.  I really hope that they all went home and rushed to read up on the Tudors.  OK, they probably didn’t, but I can hope!   And, on a very wet and windy December evening, this was great entertainment, and it also made you think.  I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, but I did 🙂 .

Evita: The Making of a Superstar – BBC 2

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I’ve got the worst singing voice in the entire known universe, but practically the first thing I did in Buenos Aires was sing (quietly) “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” outside the Casa Rosada. It had to be done!   It’s such an iconic song, from such an iconic musical – which, according to Suzy Klein on BBC 2, is Donald Trump’s favourite musical and was so admired by Maggie Thatcher that it led her to say she said she hoped someone’d write a musical about her.  Let’s not go there!   South American history isn’t widely taught in schools in English-speaking countries, but we’ve all heard of Eva Peron.  And we all know that song.

Our group went to a gloriously touristy Argentinian evening, involving large steaks and people (not us) dancing the tango. It also involved someone singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, which really surprised me.  OK, it was a tourist thing, but I wouldn’t have expected Argentinians to be into Evita.  Quite apart from the fact that it’s a British musical and Anglo-Argentinian relations aren’t exactly warm, it doesn’t portray Eva Peron very favourably.  The expression “scheming tart” was how one of the people interviewed on this programme summed it up.

And she really is still hero-worshipped by a lot of people in Argentina. Our local guide, clearly a very intelligent woman with intensive knowledge of Argentinian history, couldn’t praise her highly enough.  Many political leaders are greatly revered, but that’s usually because they led a country to greatness, or to independence, or saw it safely through a time of great peril.  Eva Peron didn’t do anything of those things.  She wasn’t even a political leader: she was just married to one.  She was, as we’re reminded at the very start of Evita, known as “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.  There aren’t too many other people seen in those terms.  Gandhi’s the only one who immediately springs to mind – and he certainly didn’t wear expensive clothes and go on glamorous Rainbow Tours.  To this day, many Argentinian households have pictures of Eva Peron on their walls.  Often next to depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The only other person who seems to be so adored in Argentina is Diego Maradona, and the least said about him, the better. And I see that the final of the Copa Libertadores, between Boca Juniors and River Plate, has had to be postponed because of hooliganism.  That’s actually quite relevant to Evita, because Boca Juniors have always been seen as the team of the poor/descamisados and River Plate as the team of the rich.

I’m not sure what story this programme was actually trying to tell. Was it the story of Eva Peron, the story of Evita the musical or the story of 1970s/1980s culture?  It seemed to be a bit of all three.  Maybe the same theme runs through all three – the cult of hype and image and celebrity.  But that’s one thing with a film or a musical or a pop group, and quite another with someone who has huge political and financial clout.

Tim Rice informed us that he first became interested in Eva Peron when he got some Argentinian stamps for his boyhood stamp collection, and wondered why they bore the picture of a woman who wasn’t a queen! And that, years later, he heard something about her on the radio, and decided to write a musical about her.  It’s certainly a great story – rags to riches, a tragically early death, hero worship, etc – but it’s still a strange choice.  The Perons wouldn’t have been well-known in Britain at the time.  And, even before the Falklands War, making a musical about Argentinian politics was hugely controversial.  Some people accused him of glorifying fascism.  And Eva Peron is a very controversial and divisive figure.  The musical couldn’t make that any clearer.

This was all very interesting, but the programme then veered off the subject of Eva Peron and on to the subject of how the musical was tied in with both the idea of powerful female leaders and the media obsession with celebrity. I’m not sure that either Eva Peron or Margaret Thatcher, whilst they had ambition and ruthlessness in common, would take very kindly to being compared to each other.  There are probably more comparisons to be drawn between Eva Peron and Diana, Princess of Wales, in terms of the “people’s princess” rubbish, but the programme didn’t so much draw comparisons between the two as say that the media were obsessed with the musical and its stars and that that obsession then moved on to Diana.  Er, it’s a great musical, but how on earth can you claim that Elaine Paige & co got the same level of media attention as Diana did?!

All the talk about the hype was actually quite sad. OK, obviously you’ve got to have publicity, to get bums on seats and make money, but it all seemed so cynical.  Much as it annoys me when anything isn’t historically accurate, I love the interplay between Eva Peron and Che Guevara in Evita. It’s so well done.  That bit where they dance together, and he goes on about how she’s conning everyone and she goes on about she can’t really do anything else within the Argentinian system, is just incredible.  It says so much about Argentina, and South American politics in general.  So I was rather upset to hear that the reason for including Che wasn’t to make some great political point but a) to appeal to the public by bringing in a household name and b) to provide a glamorous and romantic male lead role in which an attention-grabbing good-looking bloke could be cast.  OK, Antonio Banderas would be reason enough to watch the film version, even without the music and the history, but … well, it all sounds so cynical!  Boo!!

As I said, it wasn’t quite clear exactly what story or whose story the programme was trying to tell, and it this point it went back to Argentina and discussed the “Evita Movement”, set up in 2004 as a sort of social protest movement, and also commented that Eva Peron now has admirers from all social classes. I like that.  Whatever you think of Eva Peron, you’ve got to love the line “But our privileged class is dead.  Look who they are calling for now”.  I think that’s only in the film, not the stage version, isn’t it?  Great line.  And the line about “No we wouldn’t mind seeing her in Harrods, but behind the jewellery counter not in front” is a reminder that, long before the invasion of the Falklands, the privileged class was very Anglophile and there was huge British influence in Argentina.  There still is.  Harrods might have closed down, but there are still red postboxes in Argentina, and the uber-iconic Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires serves extremely nice scones.  Take that, Peron!

Lovely, lovely city, by the way. Beautiful buildings.  Great food.  Everyone talks about football all the time.

They then flipped from Eva Peron to Madonna. It does say a lot that Madonna was so absolutely desperate to play the lead role in the 1996 film version of Evita.  Like Bridget Jones J , I pretty much know all the words to The Immaculate Collection.  A lot of people who grew up in the ’80s will do!   You want celebrity, hype, image, and someone who really made the most of what they had?  Madonna.  I can’t imagine ever being friends with her, if I knew her personally, but what a woman!   Really, it was quite a risk for her to become involved in something that was very controversial at the time, because filming took place in Argentina at a time when, in addition to anger over the way Eva Peron was portrayed by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, both Britain and America were very unpopular there.  The programme showed us some of the “Fuero Madonna” and “Fuero Ingles” graffiti that appeared in Buenos Aires at the time.  It wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but the Argentinian government actually produced its own film about Eva Peron, as a direct response to all the controversy.

I can’t believe that the film’s 22 years old! I’ve seen it more often than I’ve seen the stage version (which is now 40 years old!), because cheap and easy to watch a DVD in your own front room, so I know it better than I know the stage version.  I’d never thought that much about the reasons for the differences between the two, but, as this programme pointed out, the portrayal of Eva Peron in the film is much softer and much more appealing than in the stage version.  “You Must Love Me” was a new song for the film, and the portrayal of terminally-ill Eva practically being propped up on the balcony of the Casa Rosada really tugs at the heartstrings.  Was it a sop to Argentinian sensitivies?  Well, the programme didn’t really go into that.  It just said that it was inaccurate, because the real Eva Peron was making feisty, rousing speeches right until just before the end.

It didn’t really answer any questions. It didn’t go into the real history of Eva Peron’s life and Juan Peron’s rule of Argentina, which is now all so confused, between the myths of Eva and the myths of the Evita musical, that it’s very hard to know what to think.  Even putting the myths aside and trying to rely on actual sources, historians can’t agree on exactly what was going on.  What was going on with the money from the Eva Peron Foundation?  Was Peron a fascist?  No-one seems to be sure.  But not too many people in the West talk like this, or even in Argentina, talks this much about General Galtieri, or about any of the umpteen other very questionable people who ruled Argentina or other South American countries during the 20th century.

Musicals and history are an incredible combination, when you think about it. Look at some of the subjects covered by the most popular musicals of all time.  The June Rebellion of 1832.  The Anschluss.  Pogroms.  The rise of the Nazis in 1930s Berlin.  Criminal gangs in Victorian London.  Gangland conflict in New York.  The Vietnam War.  The Second World War in the South Pacific, also covering racism.  The miners’ strike.  Pretty weighty subjects.  I assume that the word “superstar” in the title of this programme was meant to refer to Eva Peron, not Evita the musical, but the image of Eva Peron outside Argentina, certainly in the Angophone world, has largely been determined by Evita.  That says a lot about the power of musicals.  It’s quite frightening, actually!   Imagine if someone did make a musical about Margaret Thatcher, or Donald Trump, or any of the other controversial figures of our times.  Maybe not …