Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 3)

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The third episode of this fascinating series was as interesting as the first two, but also rather irritating in parts.  The BBC seemed determined to mock and criticise most things about 1950s grammar schools, rather than letting either pupils or viewers make up their own minds; and the kids got a bit snowflake-ish for the first time – I had to laugh when one of them asked if the free school milk provided by the post-war government was semi-skimmed, and another complained that there was no alternative offered.  And it really threw me to realise that we’re now as far from the 1980s/early 1990s as the 1980s/early 1990s were from the 1950s.  That’s frightening!  That is really, really frightening!  Still a great episode, though.

My mum and dad both went to grammar schools in the 1950s.  They both went on to further education, which none of my grandparents had done.  A lot of families across the UK can tell similar stories: grammar schools offered incredible opportunities to many people who would not have had those opportunities without them.  So I’ve always had a very positive image of the grammar school system.  However, I have to say that I hadn’t realised that grammar school provision was so uneven across the country – the programme said that 35% of children were able to attend grammar schools in some parts of the South East, but only 10% in Nottingham – nor, which certainly wasn’t the case round here, that in some areas there were far more places available for boys than for girls.

Fair point about the system not exactly being ideal, but I still felt that the BBC was being deliberately negative.  They put a lot of emphasis on lessons on deportment and elocution, which I’ve never heard anyone who went to grammar schools in the 1950s mention, and it was made to sound as if the schools were trying to drive a wedge between the children and their families.  I’ve never heard anyone say that that was their experience of grammar schools.

There was a lot of negativity about the actual lessons, as well.  The impression given was that grammar school pupils were just expected to sit in silence, copy things down from the blackboard (are you still allowed to use the word “blackboard”?) and learn them by rote.  Consequently, the kids and the teachers did nothing but complain about it.  Er, no, BBC – I don’t think so!  Does anyone seriously believe that that was how all grammar school lessons were taught?

Having said which, I quite like the idea of sitting in silence in class!  I wouldn’t speak in lessons in secondary school, because I was always convinced that everyone would laugh at me, so sitting in silence and learning things off by heart would have suited me quite nicely 🙂 , and saved me from getting all those comments at parents’ evenings and on school reports about how I wouldn’t speak up in class … although it certainly didn’t reflect anything I’ve ever been told by people who were educated at grammar schools in the 1950s.  I wouldn’t have liked the hats, though.  I think my school did away with hats in the 1970s, so, mercifully, we didn’t have to wear them in my day!  And why were the male teachers wearing hats indoors?  Isn’t it incredibly bad manners for a man to wear a hat indoors, unless it’s for religious reasons?!

OK, enough moaning!  They did at least manage to point out that grammar schools offered a lot of opportunities for girls.  Most of the lessons we saw were with the girls, whilst we saw the boys taking part in the school harvest scheme, helping to pick fruit.  I love fruit-picking and would rather have enjoyed that … but they didn’t get paid much, and the idea eventually died off.  We also, as already mentioned, heard about the provision of free school milk.  And, no, it wasn’t semi-skimmed, and there was no alternative for kids who didn’t drink milk!!

The series is doing a superb job of tracing the way in which schools have been the conduit for trying to improve children’s health; and we also heard about school dinners, and how they were nutritionally balanced, and, of course, off ration … if not necessarily very nice.  And how kids were made to stay in the dining room until they’d finished what was on their plate.  That brought back memories!  It didn’t happen at my secondary school, and we were allowed to take out own food after the first two years of secondary school anyway, but they used to try it at primary school!  One lad, who was incredibly fussy and hardly ate anything other than bananas, must have been kept behind every day.  It didn’t work: he still wouldn’t eat the school dinners.  No-one ever succeeded in getting me to eat rice pudding, either.  We didn’t get free school milk, though.  Maggie Thatcher had done away with it by then.

And they’re also making a big effort to include a variety of activities in these programmes, rather than just focusing on what actually went on in the classrooms.  No rifle training in this one, but we did get the cycling proficiency test.  Ugh!  Now that really did bring back bad memories!  By my day, in the 1980s, cycling proficiency tests were taken at primary school.  Only four kids in the entire class failed; and of course I – the person who later went on to fail four driving tests, before finally passing at the fifth attempt! – was one of them.  I can remember who two of the others were, but, annoyingly, I can’t remember who the fourth one was.  That’s bugging me now.

I’m quite sure that they’ve all long since forgotten about it, but, being someone who’s had a lifetime of anxiety issues, I took it to mean that I was useless.  On top of that, I shortly afterwards got a lecture from a doctor about how fat I was, and how I needed to take more exercise, like cycling … so the cycling proficiency test trauma got tangled up in my mind with being a fat failure.  I was a seriously mixed-up ten-year-old!   However, I’m probably the only person in the entire world who’s ever been traumatised by the cycling proficiency test: I’m just strange!  Most of the kids in this seemed to enjoy it, even though teenagers riding bikes is fairly rare these days.  It was pointed out that a lot of teenagers used to cycle to school in the 1950s.  That’s unusual now.

Next up came the use of projectors.  My secondary school was still using projectors in the 1980s!  Mainly for French lessons, for some reason.  Languages weren’t  mentioned in this episode: instead, the girls had to watch a cringeworthy sex education programme about a girl called Susan whose mum was having another baby.  Well, at least something was being explained to them: you hear stories about girls who knew nothing on that subject even when they got married.  Strangely, this was for girls only.  No such lessons for boys.  That was … interesting.  Was it assumed that boys would find out elsewhere, or that boys just didn’t need to know about babies?

Most of this episode involved separate activities for girls and boys, and we saw the boys being made to do cross country running.  When we were little kids, my sister and I used to refer to some tunnels which could be seen in the distance from a nearby park as “Daddy’s running tunnels”, because we knew that Dad had had past those tunnels as part of school cross country running.  They were miles from where what used to be the local boys’ grammar school was!  Poor Dad 🙂 .  None of the boys in this seemed overly keen on cross country running, and the teacher said that he hadn’t got very fond memories of it either!

After that, the BBC had to get CND in there.  I’m not sure how big a part CND actually played at grammar schools: I suspect not nearly as much as the BBC made it seem that they did.  Then we got 1950s milk bars, and some lovely 1950s music, which was good fun.  The verdict of the children was that out of school time was starting to feel much more modern, but that what actually happened in school seemed a long way in the past.  It didn’t to me, which made me feel old!

It was good to hear their views, but I felt that the BBC generally tried to give a very one-sided, negative, view of the grammar school system.  However, they did invite Joan Bakewell, who went to Stockport Grammar School for Girls, to speak about her experiences, and she gave both sides to the story, explaining that going to grammar school had opened up a   world of opportunity for her, but that her sister hadn’t passed the eleven plus and had missed out on them.  I don’t know what the answer to the grammar school debate is, but I wish the BBC hadn’t tried so hard to tell us, instead of letting us decide.  All the same, it was another interesting episode.  A lot of people seem to be talking about this series, and that’s always a sign that it’s worth watching!

 

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A Fortunate Term by Angela Brazil (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Angela Brazil very briefly attended my old school, when her family first moved to Manchester.  Her horrified mother withdrew her on discovering that the girls there behaved with “perkiness”, bought sweets from corner shops and even, horror of horrors, ran along the pavements.  There was not one person considered suitable to be asked chez Brazil for tea.  Good job that Mrs Brazil never knew the place in my day, some of the language we used and all the complaints that the bus company made about us!  Dear Angela was consequently sent to a very select establishment, known as a “ladies’ college” rather than anything as plebeian as a “school”.  So I think I can be forgiven for not having the most positive of images of her – but I read this as part of a reading challenge, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and there was actually very little snobbishness in it.

Having said which, I was spitting feathers after reading the first page, which involved a girl who addressed her mum as “Muvvie” (seriously – Muvvie?!) and a lot of negative remarks about the evils of northern industrial landscapes.  Dark satanic mill type stuff.  Ooh!  If there’s one thing I can’t be doing with, it’s people making negative comments about northern industrial landscapes!   OK, there are lots of things I can’t be doing with, but that’s certainly one of them.  It was particularly galling given that Angela Brazil’s dad (or maybe that should be Farvie?) worked in the Lancashire cotton industry, a fact which Angela tended conveniently to ignore.  However, our friend and her sister – Mavis and Merle – didn’t have to stay amongst the dark satanic mills too long, because they were off to stay with their uncle in “Devonshire”, land of witches and pixies.  After that, they pretty much shut up making negative comments about the North.  Hey, they even acknowledged that we have our own mythical creatures – boggarts.

Off to Devon.  It’s interesting how Girls’ Own authors seem to have this idea of the Celtic Fringe (I just mistyped that as “Celtic Fridge”) – yes, I know that Devon isn’t Cornwall and isn’t generally classed as being Celtic, but I’m not sure that Angela Brazil did, and Elinor M Brent-Dyer seemed to think that the two rival counties were actually interchangeable! – as being all fey and mystical.  I suppose it was a combination of the Celtic Revival and the interest in the Scottish Highlands brought about by Queen Victoria and Sir Walter Scott.  Clotted cream got mentioned several times as well – although it was referred to as “scalded cream”.  I am a big fan of clotted cream, but have my scones the Cornish way, jam first!  And there was a local festival to mark a local saint’s day.

Anyway, off they went to Devon, to stay with the uncle, who, like the dad, was a doctor.  Girls’ Own authors are very keen on doctors.  Darrell’s dad in Malory Towers is a doctor, the eponymous heroine’s husband in the Dimsie books is a doctor, and all good Chalet School girls and mistresses get to marry doctors.  I got a bit annoyed at a snooty comment about “trippers” dropping litter, but it was only the one comment.

Like a lot of Angela Brazil books but unlike a lot of other Girls’ Own books, this one involved a day school, and there were two main storylines – one about the school, and the nasty girl who had the headmistress and the other teacher (the unfortunately named “Miss Fanny”) fooled into thinking that she was all sweetness and light, and one outside school hours, involving a mysterious boy called Bevis, who’d been brought up by foster parents after his mum had dropped dead at a local hotel without leaving any clue as to who she was.  As you do.

Contrary to the image of Angela Brazil books being snobby, it was stressed that Bevis, despite his humble upbringing, was a really nice lad, and that it was fine for the girls to be friends with him.  We were clearly meant to approve of him, but not of the rich boy whose family were renting the local squire’s house (the squire, an elderly man with no heirs, being abroad).  Well, OK, there was some snobbishness there, in that the nouveau riche family were clearly to be detested, and you just knew that the poor-but-noble-minded Bevis was going to turn out to be the scion of some upper-class family, but there certainly wasn’t the sort of snobbishness that you get from, say, Julian in the Famous Five books.

Nor was there any of the gushing that people associate with Angela Brazil books.  None of the girls went around kissing each other, hugging each other, developing grand passions for the prefects, writing soppy notes, bursting into tears every five minutes or anything else along those lines.  Even the language wasn’t that bad.  There was some strange slang, such as “Judkins”, but nothing too daft.  Anyway, all schoolkids use weird slang; and, for some reason, the word for “silly person” (which is what “Judkins” appears to mean) tends to change every term or so.  We went through wally, plonker (thank you, Only Fools and Horses), berk, prat, dork (thank you, Neighbours), derbrain, dweeb, dormant, nob, neb and assorted other terms, none of which were really any worse than “Judkins” 🙂 .  And some of the descriptions of the countryside were extremely well-written and a genuine joy to read.  Someone did get extremely ill from being out in the rain, but even Jane Austen uses that trope.

Needless to say, the nasty girl, one Opal Earnshaw – a very northern-sounding name for a Devonian! – eventually showed her true colours, and the teachers saw her for what she was.  Equally needless to say, it turned out that Bevis was the long-lost heir to the local squire, the house being rented by the nouveau riche types (the son of whom turned over a new leaf and became quite a nice bad) and most of the other land and property in the area.

So it was all a bit cheesy and predictable, but, OK, I wasn’t expecting it to be deep and meaningful.  The main characters were genuinely likeable, and it certainly didn’t fulfil the stereotype of the early school story that gets mercilessly parodied in something like Daisy Pulls It Off.  It’d been a good few years since I last read an Angela Brazil book: I must read a few more of them.

Les Miserables – BBC 1

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This looks like it’s going to be a brilliant adaptation of a complex and fascinating story, as you would expect from Andrew Davies.  Great performances all round.  No historical bloopers with the scenery.   I kept waiting for the characters to burst into song, though!  Sorry, I know we’re not supposed to say that, and I know very well that Les Miserables was originally a book (and I know the publication date, because I know that it was published during the American Civil War, which is totally irrelevant!), but I know the musical so well that it was impossible not to compare the two.  The musical is incredible.  This was pretty good too!

Consequently, what I picked up on were the bits that aren’t in the musical!  Obviously that’s not a criticism of the musical: you can only fit so much of a very long book into a stage show.

For a kick off, we started with the Battle of Waterloo.  Hooray!  My one and only real gripe with the musical is that it doesn’t make it clear at the beginning exactly where in history we are, and I think that’s caused a lot of confusion, with people who are perhaps not overly familiar with 19th century French history getting the impression that the rising is in 1789, not in 1832.  So hooray for the historical scene being clearly set!  And the character fighting at Waterloo was Marius’s dad.  I’m afraid I’ve never read the book, despite having owned a copy for about fifteen years.  Oops.  I am not proud of this fact, but it’s such a huge book and I’ve got so many other books waiting to be read!   So I didn’t know anything about Marius’s background, other than that he was from a well-to-do family, and was fascinated to learn about the pro-Napoleon dad and the pro-ancien-regime grandad.  Now we were really getting into Bourbon Restoration era France!

The Thenardiers haven’t really come into it yet, but we’re going to see that Marius’s dad believed that Monsieur Thenardier saved his life.  It’s confusing in the musical, because we don’t really understand how Marius and Thenardier know each other.

Then there’s Fantine.  In the musical, we only get to know her as a struggling single mother.  Everyone knows I Dreamed A Dream, but we don’t actually see the doomed romance, or get to know the girl that Fantine was before she got into trouble.  The scene with Fantine and her mates in a bar, on the pull, could have been set today, and yet it didn’t seem anachronistic because it worked just as well two centuries ago.  It seemed very Andrew Davies: I don’t know how it’s put in the book, but it was really good.

I haven’t mentioned Jean Valjean or Javert yet, which is weird because they’re surely the two central characters.  They didn’t seem as central here as they do in the musical, though.  The musical is very much about Javert’s ongoing pursuit of Valjean and the various clashes between the two.  I hadn’t realised that the other characters feature so much more in the original story.  Both characters were played very well and very convincingly, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.

Er, so what I’ve done is compare the TV series to the musical.  This would really annoy Andrew Davies, who’s claimed that he’s rescuing the book “from the clutches of that awful musical with its doggerel lyrics”. But I hope all the newspaper reviewers compare the two, because Andrew Davies deserves to be annoyed in return for making that remark.  It’s a brilliant musical which a lot of people love.  There’s no need for him to make nasty remarks like that!  The book doesn’t need “rescuing”.  But it did need adapting into a mini-series, because the musical, due to time limits, can’t show everything, and I’m really enjoying seeing the bits I didn’t know were there!  It was an excellent first episode: there wasn’t one poor performance, and there wasn’t really anything to criticise.  Good stuff!

The Chalet School Annexe by Adrianne Fitzpatrick

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This is a fill-in that’d been waiting to be written!   It’s very frustrating that EBD, having set up the Annexe and located some of the main characters there, never showed us anything of Juliet’s time as a mistress, Juliet and Grizel working together, Madge’s temporary return to teaching, or Robin’s maturing from a rather irritating “Engelkind” to the girl who braved a crowd of baying Nazis to try to help Herr Goldmann.   Robin’s the central character in this book, which I think is probably what most readers would have expected.

(Although this is set in the 1930s, and therefore classes as being historical even though there’s no history as such in it, nothing I’m saying will make much sense to anyone who doesn’t read Chalet School books.  I’m just indulging myself by writing it.  It’s “Twixmas”, after all!)

Jo barely features.  Hooray!  I don’t dislike teenage Jo, but I do dislike the way that, as the series progresses, she’s placed at the centre of everything, even in situations which shouldn’t involve her at all. I’m very fond of Madge and am always sorry that she’s shoved into the background, quite probably so as to leave centre stage free for Jo; so it’s great to see her involvement here … although it can’t have lasted for long, as Sybil was born at the end of the following term.  There’s such a nice scene in which Madge gently ribs Juliet about being so keen to make the Annexe seem like the Chalet School that she insists on referring to a tiny little room as “Hall”, and it really does get across that lovely lightness and humour that we get in the early books, before the School starts taking itself and its institutions too seriously.

Juliet, despite her youth and inexperience, manages things very well, although we do see her being nervous early on.  Strangely, there’s not a single mention of Donal, or the general fact that Juliet will only be teaching until she and he can afford to get married.  I can’t stand the man and wish Juliet had sent him packing, but it does seem a bit odd that there’s no reference to him.  Oh well.  The interaction between Juliet and Robin comes across very nicely, and Gertrud’s absence – we were originally told that “Grizel and Gertrud” would be helping Juliet, but then Gertrud never appeared!  – is satisfactorily explained as being due to a ski-ing accident.  I have such great admiration for the way in which fill-in authors work their way round EBD-isms 🙂 .

I’m sorry that Grizel, although it’s nice to see her getting a chance to teach Games as well as music, is portrayed unfavourably, though.  I’m sure it’s exactly what EBD would have done, because she always seemed keen to insist that Grizel disliked Robin and was jealous of her, but I think Grizel gets a raw deal in the later Tyrol books.  Surely anyone would be upset if they invited an old friend for a catch-up and just got “Can’t.  Where’s my Robin?” in response, without so much as a “Sorry” or “Maybe another time”, or if they had to hear of an old friend’s engagement second-hand?  Grizel put herself in considerable danger to rescue Robin in Head Girl, and that gets forgotten about.  As I said, I’m sure the way Grizel’s written here is the way EBD would have written her, had she written a book about the Annexe, so it’s no criticism of Adrianne Fitzpatrick, but I do think it’s a shame.

Most of it’s about the girls, though, as you would expect, not the staff.   EBD never named most of the twenty-two pupils of the Annexe, so a fill-in author was free to guess at them.  It’s great to see Lilias Carr included: we hear very little about the school-age pupils at the San.  I’d like to have seen more of Stacie, but I suppose there’s only so much you can fit into a book of this length.

The main plot is one which EBD liked and used several times – in New, Bride, Oberland and Feud -, that of a group of Chalet School girls and a group of girls from another school/other schools having to find a way to come together.  Seeing as EBD used it no fewer than four times, it’s hardly original, but it’s good to see Robin and Amy, two of the central characters of the early days, at the heart of it, along with Signa.

There are also a whole load of minor plots.  We see, very realistically, that some girls aren’t at all happy with being moved to the Annexe.  EBD, who didn’t like to criticise either the school or the doctors, never really hinted at that, but surely it was inevitable.  Amy misses Margia.  Inga misses her friends.  Renee is worried about her music lessons.  Irma feels that she’s missing out on all the excitements at the main school.  They must have felt like second-class citizens, and that must have been hard for everyone – and it must also have been strange knowing that most of the girls hoped to be moved to the main school ASAP.  And, yay, one girl rebels and has a hot bath!  I always find it very unrealistic that no-one in the entire canon series ever does that!

There isn’t that much about “delicacy” and health issues.  We’re told that they only have short lessons, and are encouraged to go out for fresh air in between lesson periods, which is interesting, and there are some references to medicine, but there’s not actually that much sense of it being a special school in any way.  Doctors are barely mentioned!   However, it would have been pretty miserable if it’d been some kind of set-up in which no-one was allowed to do anything in case they hurt or tired themselves – and that wouldn’t have fitted with the emphasis on fresh air and exercise anyway.  And, as the author pointed out, Jem would definitely not have wanted them sleeping outdoors in all weathers, which was the way it worked at some “health” places at the time J.

There are no major accidents or disasters, but there’s a lot of the usual Chalet School stuff that we know and love!  Cookery lessons, making stuff for the Sale, expeditions, etc.  It’s very well-written, and it reads a proper Chalet School without ever slavishly following EBD’s use of language or syntax.  There’s no point at which you think that that wouldn’t have happened, or that that character wouldn’t have behaved in that way, but, at the same time, it’s different, because a lot of the characters are unfamiliar and the whole Annexe set-up is unfamiliar.

It’s not particularly exciting, in that there aren’t any dramatic incidents/accidents, but, quite frankly, it all gets a bit too much in some of the Swiss books, where there are meteorites landing on cricket pitches, sudden blizzards and avalanches every five minutes and people lying “still, grey and to all appearance dead” all over the show!  There’s more than enough in the plots and the characters here to hold the reader’s attention.  The only things I’d moan about are criticisms of the Chalet School (I love it to bits, but nothing’s perfect!) rather than of this book, i.e. the portrayal of Grizel and the repetition of the two-become-one plot.  It’s a really enjoyable read – and the Tyrol-era Chalet School books are so good that anyone who can write a book that genuinely feels like one of them deserves a lot of credit!

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.

The Long Song – BBC 1

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The brutality with which the Jamaican plantocracy reacted to the Christmas Rebellion/Baptist War/Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-2 was so horrific that it may well have been what got Abolitionism over the line in 1833; but it’s rarely spoken about. Maybe it’s just too easy to think of Abolitionism as being about people in black bombazine singing “Amazing Grace” in assembly rooms.  And stories about slavery and uprisings are usually told from the viewpoint of the slaveowners: this is a rare example of a story in which the protagonist is a slave.  She’s called July.

My one real quibble with it is that Caroline, the main white character, comes dangerously close to caricature, or at least did early on. That’s no criticism of Hayley Atwell: she’s only playing her as she was written, and doing a very good job of it. Tamara Lawrance as July is also excellent, and Lenny Henry as Godfrey, the head of the house slaves, is incredible.  We all know what a great comedian and comic actor he is, but I’ve never really thought of him as a serious actor before.  And the character of Caroline does improve as the first episode goes on, to be fair.

So what’s going on? Christmas 1831.  The slave trade’s been abolished across the British Empire in 1807, but hopes that that would lead to the abolition of slavery itself across the British Empire have as yet failed to materialise, although the Abolitionist movement – notably the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823- is growing in size and influence.  There’ve been attempts to improve living and working conditions for slaves, but the Jamaican Assembly hasn’t wanted to know about them. Led by Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe, one of a number of slaves who’d become religious ministers/preachers, a general strike’s planned, to demand a wage and more free time.

It turns into an uprising. The uprising only lasts eleven days, being quickly put down by British and free black Maroon troops, but there are violent reprisals by the slaveowners afterwards, with hundreds of slaves being executed for very minor offences such as stealing a cow.   The brutality horrifies public opinion in Britain, and it almost certainly hastens the abolition of slavery.  The Jamaican sugar-based economy has already begun to collapse and there’ll be severe economic decline for the rest of the 19th century; and the white upper-classes will continue to dominate financially and politically until well into the 20th century.  But at least the days of slavery are over.

July is born about 18 years or so before this (it’s not clear exactly how old she is in 1831) as the result of the rape of a female slave, Kitty, by the plantation overseer. We see the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, take a fancy to her because she thinks she’s sweet and cute, and take her away from Kitty to be trained up as her maid, without a thought for the feelings of either mother or child at being separated.  It should be a heartrending and shocking moment, but, unfortunately, at that point the character of Caroline’s so pantomimish and OTT that it doesn’t quite work as it should do.

At that point, I wasn’t very impressed – but it did get better. Caroline is an interesting character.  She’s actually a very vulnerable character.  She’s the only white woman on the plantation, and, for some reason, there don’t seem to be any other relatives or friends around.  I suppose she has to seem foolish because it’s important to the story, later on, that she can’t manage the slaves herself and is dependent on July, who becomes the housekeeper – but it does all go overboard early on, with a lot of yelling and shrieking and hysterics.  The idea of the cunning slave/servant and the stupid mistress/master’s a stock storyline in sitcoms, but this isn’t a sitcom.  Anyway, as I said, it got better – the character of Caroline was working much better by the end of the first episode.

She insists on calling July “Marguerite”. Dehumanisation’s a key theme here – a child is seen as being cute, as if she’s a puppy or a kitten, and is taken away from her mother without a second thought, and then her name’s changed.  OK, it isn’t quite comparable to the famous Kunta Kinte/Toby scene, but there’s a telling scene during the rebellion in which Godfrey makes Caroline call July by her real name.

In the build-up to the rebellion, or uprising, or revolt, or war, or whichever term’s preferred, we see little acts of defiance by the slaves. July and Godfrey use a soiled bedsheet as a tablecloth at a posh dinner being given by Caroline.  Godfrey tells Caroline outright that the plantation can’t afford all the candles she wants for decoration – and she hits him for it.  The slaves throw their own Christmas party.  And then the actual rebellion.

July isn’t involved in it. Instead, she and her lover, a free black man called Nimrod, are enjoying themselves in the bedroom of the master, Caroline’s brother John.  John comes in, and shoots himself.  Caroline, not wanting to admit that her brother’s killed himself, claims that she saw Nimrod shoot him.  Nimrod is executed.  July’s sent to work in the fields – but is eventually brought back to the house as housekeeper, because Caroline can’t manage without her.

At the end of the first episode, a new plantation manager, Robert Goodwin, brings news that emancipation is coming. He seems sympathetic to the slaves, but, with two more episodes to come, it’s obviously going to get very complicated.

This is the story of a woman’s life. It’s not a story of a rebellion and emancipation … but that’s like saying that Gone With The Wind isn’t about the American Civil War/War Between The States and Reconstruction, or that War and Peace isn’t about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  It could be argued that it’s not the responsibility of Andrea Levy, the author of the book on which this is based, or of the BBC, to teach us about it.  Or is it?  If you write a book, or adapt for TV a book, about such an important and sensitive issue, then surely you are accepting some responsibility for that.  Novels, TV programmes and films reach a far wider audience than academic books do.  And this does a good job of it.  It’s not angry or aggressive.  It’s not sick-makingly preachy like Uncle Tom’s Cabin is.  Sorry, but I cannot stand that book!  It just tells the story.   Good choice by the BBC.

 

The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler

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This is an uncomfortable book to read, but so are most of Richard Zimler’s books. It shows how a circle of friends in 1930s Berlin are targeted by the Nazis because one is severely autistic, one has giantism, two have dwarfism and some are Jewish.  We also see former communists rushing to cover up their political pasts and present themselves and their families as Nazis.  Quite a lot of the plot is centred on the Nazi policy of forced sterilisation, and it does focus the reader’s mind on the persecution of groups of people whose treatment has not always been given as much attention as it should have been.

It’s supposed to be the fourth (and final) book in the Zarco series, but, although one of the main characters is a descendant of the other Zarcos and there are various references to the Kabbalistic mysticism of the other books, there isn’t really much of a link. The Zarco books are essentially connected with Portugal, and Portugal doesn’t feature in this one at all.  It also involves a relationship between a teenage girl and an elderly man, and there’s a murder mystery mixed up in it all as well.

Richard Zimler’s books are quite weird generally, and this one’s actually considerably less weird than the second and third Zarco books!   Part of it reads a bit like a Judy Blume book about a girl’s issues with school and boyfriends and hairstyles, and then there’s all this absolutely horrific stuff about what the Nazis did to her friends.  It does a good job of portraying the huge contrast between the culture of Berlin in the early 1930s – think Cabaret – and what came next, as seen through the eyes of Sophie, who links all the other characters together, and of the horrors of the Nazi era and how it tore apart the lives of people who were just minding their own business.

I have to say that I preferred the three earlier books in the series, but that’s probably just because Nazi Germany isn’t particularly “my” subject. This one’s worth reading because there are very few novels, or books in general, about the groups of people represented by some of the characters in this book – Hansi, the boy taken to hospital for TB treatment and gassed to death because he was classed as mentally disabled, Heidi, the female dwarf who was forcibly sterilised without her knowledge whilst being treated for a miscarriage, and Vera, the giantess who was forced to attend a medical appointment where an abortion was performed on her and she was then forcibly sterilised. There were also many other groups of people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and their stories need to be told.  It’s happening, but, even now, it’s only happening gradually.