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.

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The Favourite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Poppins Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peterloo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Battle of the Sexes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Mary Magdalene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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