Gentleman Jack – BBC 1

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Anne Lister’s diaries have been described as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”.  They’re on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, and include commentary on the major national and international events of the day as well as details about her personal life.  Anne was also a successful businesswoman, a traveller, a climber (and a social climber!), responsible for a huge amount of work at her family home, Shibden Hall near Halifax, and married (“celebrated marital commitment with”) her final partner, Ann Walker by their taking communion together on Easter Sunday in 1834.   She went against everything that society expected of women of her time and her class, but she seems to have been completely comfortable in her own skin – and her own masculine-style black clothes.  What a fascinating character!  Ann Walker’s also interesting, although her story’s much sadder: she suffered from depression and, after Anne’s death, was tricked into leaving Shibden Hall, declared insane and taken to (as it would then have been called) an asylum. Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle and the rest of a strong, Northern-led 🙂 cast are doing an excellent job of portraying their story.

I did wonder if – this being the cosy Sunday 9pm period drama slot – the scriptwriters might be tempted to make Anne Lister into a much nicer person than she actually was.  Admirable, yes – likeable, not so much!  And if they might be tempted to turn her relationship with Ann Walker into a fairytale romance.  It wasn’t!  But no – it was pretty much warts and all.  Well done to Sally Wainwright and the rest of the scriptwriting team!

Black mark for anachronistic language, though.  People in the 1830s did not go around saying “Either way works for me” or “They’re a handful”.  But, especially after ITV 1’s Victoria had Robert Peel sounding like he came from the East Midlands rather than Bury, gold star for getting most of the characters in this Halifax-based series genuinely sounding like they came from Yorkshire!

The series opened in 1832, when Anne was 41, so there’s a huge amount about her life that we’re not going to get to see.  Maybe an opening for a prequel some time?  We won’t see her having affairs with other girls whilst at school.  We won’t hear her thoughts on the Peterloo Massacre.  We won’t see her travels to the French court.   But, hey, you can only fit so much into eight hours!

In 1832, she was returning to Shibden Hall, which she’d inherited from her uncle, after a long time away.  I went to Shibden Hall on Saturday, and so I particularly enjoyed seeing the house and gardens on TV on Sunday.  It was really nice to see a TV series that was actually filmed where it was set, rather than Budapest filling in for Virginia or whatever!   Immediately, we got the impression that Anne was a real force of nature – everyone was all of a doodah about her return!

And then we saw so many different facets of her fascinating personality that every scene seemed to bring something different.  She was a snob – talking about “shabby little Shibden” (having seen what the panelling was like before she did it up, she had a point, but still!) and clearly feeling that she belonged in far higher social circles than those she’d be mixing in there.  She was a proto-feminist – and made an interesting point about the 1832 Reform Act enshrining in law the fact that women were debarred from voting because of their gender, a point that was to be made repeatedly in the 1901-1914 era, when there was talk of bringing in universal male suffrage without giving the vote to any women.  She showed affection for her family, yet her main concern about the death of her groom seemed to be scientific interest in how death actually came about.  She also showed her affection for her horse, but was tough enough to put him down when it was necessary – shooting him herself when her new groom couldn’t bring himself to do so.

She was a businesswoman, seeing new opportunities such as developing coal mines, and so hard-headed that she had no compunction about evicting an elderly tenant whom she felt was unable to farm efficiently.  And she was fine about collecting the rents herself, and even sitting in the pub to do so.  Yet we saw how deeply she could feel, and how she was broken-hearted that her former lover had dumped her in order to marry a man.

We saw that through flashbacks.  I’m never sure that flashbacks really work in period dramas, but Pride and Prejudice used them, so I suppose they’re OK!  We also got moments when we just got Anne’s thoughts as a monologue, as if she were addressing the viewer – which was a bit weird, but I don’t know how else we could have “seen” her thoughts.  She wrote everything down.  In code.  Brilliant!  And what a good job, from a historian’s viewpoint, that the code was cracked, and that the relative who first read her journals decided not to get rid of them – as he was advised to do by a friend who thought that they might bring scandal on the family.

Being broken-hearted didn’t stop her from spending the night with another former lover.  She had rather a lot of them!   But she wanted a wife.  A couple of days ago, there was a protest march calling for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.  One of the women marching summed it up very well when she told a Sky News reporter that no-one was asking for special treatment, just that everyone should have the same rights as everyone else.  Anne Lister wanted to find a life partner, and she wanted that partnership to be a formal commitment, and she saw that the fact that that would be with a woman rather than a man shouldn’t be an issue –  at a time when the word “lesbian” didn’t exist and so many gay (to use the modern term) people ended up in heterosexual marriages.  She wanted a wife.

Just going back to the issue of the relationship between her and Ann Walker not being a fairytale romance, I’d like to  think they did genuinely love each other, but Ann Walker’s money was certainly a big attraction – as this first episode made crystal clear.  And it’s known that they argued over finances, that Ann felt neglected because so much of Anne’s time was taken up with business and politics and that Anne wasn’t as understanding as she might have been about Ann’s bouts of depression.

I feel rather sorry for Ann, and I was glad to see that the programme did deal sympathetically with her.  We didn’t really get much idea of her from herself, it was all about what other people thought about her, but that was probably quite accurate.  She was very vulnerable – a wealthy single woman, prey to fortune hunters and without the strength and confidence that she probably needed, and struggling with depression.  Sophie Rundle played her very well – and the supporting cast were excellent too.  We met various Lister and Walker relatives, and two of Anne’s former lovers.  And we also got to see the lives of the tenants and the servants – which is a staple of period dramas theswe days, but wasn’t always.  But it was always Anne Lister around whom everything revolved.  Emotional one minute, hard-headed the next.  What a complex and intriguing personality.

However, one big facet of her personality wasn’t shown, and that was her religious side.  She’s known to have had a strong Anglican faith, and evidently found no problem with being a practising Christian and being in a same sex relationship.  Nearly two centuries later, the subject of religion (not just Christianity, but religion generally) and sexuality is still contentious, despite all the progress made in gay rights in other areas of life.  It’s something which causes a lot of distress to a lot of people, and is an area in which little progress seems to be being made.  In that respect, Anne Lister was ahead of our times, never mind her own.  I really hope the BBC aren’t going to pussyfoot around this.  Maybe it’ll come up next week.

Sadly, Anne died aged only 49 and only six years after her marriage to Ann, of a fever caused by an infected insect bite whilst travelling in Georgia (the one in the Caucasus, not the one in America!).  By the terms of Anne’s will, Ann should have had a life interest in Shibden Hall – which she deserved because it was her money that paid for it to be done up, as well as because of her relationship with Anne! – before it passed to some Lister cousins.  However, Ann, who struggled with mental health problems, found it difficult to cope with the pressure of running both Shibden Hall and her own property, and probably also with the gossip about her relationship with Anne.  She was forcibly removed from Shibden Hall by her own family and the local constable and taken to an asylum in York, before eventually returning to her childhood home.

So there isn’t going to be a happy ending to this story – but (as well as the Shibden Hall estate, which is rather a nice place for a half-day out) there’s Anne Lister’s legacy to history, which is an important one.  That’s recognised by the fact that there are blue plaques commemorating her life both at Shibden Hall and at the church in York where she and Ann Walker had their ceremony.   And this series is about to make her very well-known.  Just spare a thought for Ann as well, eh?  But Anne’s the character who grabs your attention, and Suranne Jones really did a very good job of portraying that.  This looks set to be an excellent series.

 

 

 

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Victoria’s Palace – ITV 1

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Queen Victoria could eat a nine-course meal in half an hour. That’s pretty impressive. Prince Albert insisted that all leftovers from the Buckingham Palace kitchens had to be given to the poor. That’s even more impressive. Hopefully, none of this was until after the Palace kitchens had been tarted up to stop them getting flooded with sewage from the River Tyburn.  Parts of this programme felt like a genuine historical documentary, about the transformation of Buckingham Palace into both a centre of state occasions and formal entertainment and a working family home, and about Queen Victoria’s life in general.  Other parts of it made me wonder if I’d accidentally switched over to either a cookery programme or the ITV drama “Victoria” (how many clips from that did they show?!).  But it was all very watchable.  Hey, talking about food is always interesting!  And the presenters were very understanding about Queen Victoria’s struggles following the death of Prince Albert.

It started off covering what it said on the tin – the history of the Palace during the reign of Queen Victoria. We heard about how unhappy Queen Victoria was during her childhood at Kensington Palace, and how Buckingham Palace seemed like a glorious escape from all that. Then about how she and Prince Albert thought that Buckingham Palace was too small for their family (at a time when similar-sized families were all living in one or two rooms!!) and wanted a new wing built, but, to avoid putting too much of a strain on public finances, Brighton Pavilion was sold to fund the building work.

I’m not actually convinced that that’s right: I thought the money from the sale of the Pavilion was spent on the purchase of Osborne House. It was interesting to hear about how much stuff was brought from Brighton to Buckingham Palace, though, notably for the new Chinese drawing room, and even more interesting to hear about how this very lavish room was used on a day-to-day basis by the royals. You see these very ornate rooms in stately homes and wonder what it was like actually to live in them, especially with young kids, but I suppose it’s just what people are used to.

We also heard about the construction of the famous balcony, and saw a picture of Victoria, Albert and a load of others standing on it to welcome troops back from the Crimean War. I’m not sure whose idea the balcony was, but it was a stroke of genius! It’s been such a focal point on so many occasions, from royal weddings to VE Day. And it’s something that only the Royal Family can do. Would hordes of people turn up to see politicians stood on a balcony? I don’t think so.

However, after that, we were told that “food became the centre of Victoria’s life”, and the programme then wandered off into Mary Berry territory.  It was fascinating to hear about the conditions in the kitchens, and about just how much food was consumed.  It was nice actually getting to see the present-day Palace kitchens – although they were rather dull-looking, all stainless steel surfaces! – and it was even interesting to hear about how the old Palace kitchens, before Victoria and Albert’s renovations, regularly got flooded with sewage!  But I’m not sure that we really needed to see people making roast quails, or sitting at tables laden with food.  I wonder what ITV did with all the food afterwards!  I’m not sure that I really needed to know that eating so much rich food gave people flatulence, either, but never mind.

But then it was back to the more serious stuff, and we heard about Prince Albert tackling the inefficiency and corruption within the Royal Household, and his and Queen Victoria’s joint involvement in putting pictures from the Royal Collection on display and creating the Palace ballroom.  In a relatively short space of time, they really did do a very impressive job of turning a palace that hadn’t even been completed when Victoria first moved in, and that’d undergone a lot more work since then, into … well, one of the most important buildings in the world, a centre of politics and culture, the focal point of the nation.

As with the recent BBC 1 programme about the role of music in the lives of Victoria and Albert, the programme did a good job of showing just how completely everything changed when Prince Albert died.  I can’t believe they trotted out the idea that Prince Albert died because of the trauma of finding out about the Prince of Wales and Nellie Clifden, though.  OK, it didn’t help, but they didn’t half overplay its significance.  But they dealt very sensitively with the sadness of Victoria losing both her mother and her husband in the same year, and then withdrawing from public life … and, not unreasonably, they credited Disraeli with coaxing her back into it. Victoria does come in for a lot of criticism over what was seen as dereliction of duty, and it was touching to hear the programme explain that, in addition to her grief, she’d lost her self-confidence. It’s very hard to mix with anyone when you feel like that, never mind be the head of an empire.

Happier times lay ahead, with the opening up of the Palace for royal garden parties, and then the Golden Jubilee and Diamond Jubilee festivities, with Buckingham Palace and the Mall as the focal point for them.  The programme did have rather a feeling of one of those A-level history essays where you get off the point and then hastily shove in a reference to the actual essay question, with references to the Palace being shoehorned into talk about Queen Victoria’s life – I’m not sure that which room she met Disraeli in was really that relevant to anything! – but it did undoubtedly get across the point that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert transformed a palace which had only been owned by the Royal Family since 1761, and hadn’t really been used much until 1837, into one of the most important and best-known buildings in the world.

I recently went to see an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and, even though it was early in the morning, and the Queen wasn’t even in residence, there were just hordes of people, from all over the world, standing outside, looking at the Palace, and taking photos.  The Gallery only opened in 1962, incidentally, and the main Palace only assumed its current appearance after building work in 1913.  It’s not all about Victoria and Albert!  But they were the ones who made it into a symbol of the nation and the monarchy, and, whilst this wasn’t the greatest historical documentary I’ve ever seen, it did explain that.

That’s two programmes I’ve seen about Queen Victoria within a few days.  Given how many programmes are being shown this month to mark the bicentennial of her birth, there will be lots more to come!

 

 

Queen Victoria: My Musical Britain – BBC 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Durrells (final episode) – ITV 1

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The final episode was about the craziest combination of genres that I’ve ever seen; but somehow it worked, and I’m really going to miss seeing sun, sea and sand on the telly on a Sunday night. We had farce, spoof, poignancy, romance, friendship, tragedy, war and politics … and, of course, sunshine. We aren’t going to see Corfu invaded by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and bombed by the Allies. We aren’t going to see the Nazis massacre Italian POWs and deport Jewish Corfuvians to concentration camps. We aren’t going to see Larry fleeing in a small boat in the middle of the German bombardment, or Margo nearly dying whilst giving birth in a POW camp in Italian-occupied Ethiopia. We left the Durrells and their friends sitting round a picnic table in the sun-kissed sea.  And yet it wasn’t any old picnic – it was marking the end of the idyll, farewell to paradise. And Louisa and Spiros were doomed never to be together – *sob*!

A lot of this episode was old-fashioned slapstick comedy.  Much of it revolved around Larry deciding to put on a stage version of the Odyssey, starring family and friends. But there was a poignancy even to that, with so many of the locals, from a group of monks to Leslie’s ex-girlfriend and the baby she’d had with another man, turning up to say goodbye to the Durrells.  More silliness came when a comedy policeman was pressed into taking part … and yet his role in the episode was serious too, because he’d originally come to the house to confiscate their radio and typewriter, saying that they could be used for propaganda purposes. There was a sense of ‘Allo ‘Allo there. It used to be quite a thing to make fun of the Second World War: I grew up with ‘Allo ‘Allo, and, before that, there was It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. We don’t do it any more, maybe because we talk so much more about the Nazi atrocities than we used to. The policeman’s visit was comedic – and yet it wasn’t, because, as Larry said when he decided to stay on, as a spy, their freedom of expression was being taken away.

Gerry was sad about parting from his animals. And Margo told everyone, including the woman who sold eggs at the market, what she was planning to get up to with her new boyfriend. In the end, she changed her mind. Then her previous boyfriend turned up, in a spoof scene which saw him suddenly sail into view and dive overboard to swim to shore. In another spoof scene, Louisa ran along the beach into Spiros’s arms. But, straight after the silliness of that, we got a genuinely emotional scene in which they talked about how they could never be together. It’s an unusual storyline these days. The expectation now is that people will give up everything to be together – but this was a reminder that this was another time, when ideas of duty and honour and expectations came first. Spiros couldn’t leave his family, nor his country as it faced war.  They kissed on the beach.  And parted.  Saying that it was better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.

It’s rather nice how the big talking point of this series has been a romance between two people in their forties, not two glamorous young things.  There’ve been various romances involving the Durrell children and different partners, but it was Louisa and Spiros we really cared about.  Keeley Hawes as Louisa has been brilliant.

I could have lived without the “We Britons have always been reluctant Europeans” line that some scriptwriter decided to throw into Louisa’s farewell speech to the Durrells’ neighbours. Need the Brexit debate get everywhere?! But the rest of the speech was quite emotional. The end of an idyll. That’s rare, for something set in the 1930s. There’s long been this idea that the years leading up to the First World War were a golden age, but the 1930s, the Depression, are generally seen as anything but …. but we don’t normally get the aforementioned sun, sea and sand to accompany the stories of financial hardship. The Durrells had had their heads in the sand, ignoring the Italian invasion of nearby Albania and the storm clouds gathering over the rest of Europe. Then Louisa had received a telegram saying that Basil, the cousin who’d had an unconvincing affair with Spiros’s wife in a bizarre attempt to push Spiros further into Louisa’s arms, had been killed in Albania because he was British. And she’d realised that it was time to go.

It’d all wandered a long way from Gerald Durrell’s memoirs. And a lot of it was a bit too slapstick. But it was good. It was cheerful. It brightened up our screens. It wasn’t preceded by a warning that it contained scenes which some viewers might find distressing, or followed by a list of helplines for viewers to call if they’d been affected by issues raised. But it had to end, because, as has happened so often throughout history, the lives of people peacefully minding their own business, with their families and friends, were torn apart by war.  Unlike The Chalet School in Exile or The Sound of Music, the threat of war didn’t get too close – apart from poor old Basil, whom everyone actually seemed to forget about after five minutes.  We didn’t even see any Fascists or any Nazis.  But we knew what was coming.  And left it before it got there.

Goodbye, The Durrells!  You will be missed.  Victoria and Pose have also both finished this week.  I’ll miss them too.  They’ve both been much better than The Durrells, really.  But I’m really going to miss that hour of sweetness and silliness in the sun between 8 and 9 on a Sunday evening!

 

 

Jamestown season 3 – Sky 1

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Inviting someone round for tea and then chopping their head off at the table’s a bit anti-social, really, although displaying severed heads on spikes was a tradition for centuries: London and York were particularly into it. This is one of those so-bad-it’s-good series – it’s certainly never going to win any awards for historical accuracy, but it’s entertaining; and I love the fact that most of the settlers have northern accents 🙂 . It’s also the perfect antidote to the “culture wars”. No demi-religious myths about founding fathers, no cringeworthy romanticised stuff about Pocahontas, no snowflakey suggestions that all male white settlers are bad.  Instead, we get diversity, with strong white, black and Native American characters, strong male and female characters, and, in this series, a disabled character (with a Lancashire accent) but without anyone (other than the troubled gay Puritan bloke who sadly lost his head whilst he was having his tea) being preachy. There should be Polish builders, though! The real Jamestown colonists brought in Polish artisans … who then launched the first ever labour strike in the New World. And without anyone getting their head chopped off.

The programme’s moved away from the original storyline of the three young women making new lives for themselves – and Alice has now departed … so that Sophie Rundle can marry Suranne Jones in this new historical drama series set in Halifax. I wish the BBC’d get a move on with showing that: it’s started in the US, but not here, which is rather strange. She (Alice, not Sophie) decided to leave because her husband Silas has run off to join the Pamunkey. Verity hasn’t had much to do yet in this series, but Jocelyn, the other member of the original trio, continues to play all the blokes off against each other and get her own way – go Jocelyn!  Although she’s being very nasty to poor little Mercy the maid, who, as if being bossed about by Jocelyn wasn’t bad enough, got clouted with a scythe-thing by the nasty Puritan Virginia Company secretary (before he lost his head) for snogging Silas’s brother. That’s the little brother, who used to be Sean in Emmerdale. Not the big brother, who’s Max Beesley.

OK, the whole thing’s a bit daft, but it does cover the serious issues of the positions of slaves, and of female settlers, in Jamestown society, and this series is going to tell us more about the clashes between the settlers and the Pamunkey. And, as I’ve said, it’s good to have a series which covers the arrival of settlers in what was to become the United States without making it look like either some sort of religious destiny thing, some sort of romanticised thing, or some sort of white supremacist thing. We’ve just got a variety of characters – some white, some black, some Native American, some nicer than others but that’s because of their individual personalities and not because of their ethnicity – trying to make lives for themselves.

It’s hardly the most historically accurate series ever, but it deserves credit for that. And it is very watchable! Oh, and the scenery’s lovely – it’s actually filmed in Budapest, not Virginia, and, having just been to Budapest and been on a nice boat trip up and down the Danube, I’m having great fun spotting bits of Margaret Island and the shores!  This is the last series, so enjoy it whilst it lasts.  I’ll kind of miss it once it’s gone, but not many programmes seem to last beyond a few series any more …

 

Pilgrimage: the Road to Rome – BBC 2

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the time and opportunity to get away from it all for a few weeks and travel along a historic route, dating back well over a thousand years, through the glorious Swiss Alps and beautiful Northern and Central Italy, in blessed peace and quiet?  OK, OK, I’d end up whingeing about the heat, the insects and the lack of proper sanitation, not to mention any walking uphill, but I still love the idea of it.  Like last year’s series about the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, this is following a group of minor celebs, with different backgrounds and beliefs, along a traditional pilgrimage route, this time the Via Francigena (“French/Frankish Way” – it doesn’t sound nearly as good in English!) from Martigny (near Verbier) to the Vatican City.  Featuring St Bernard dogs, thermal baths and wine.

The Via Francigena actually starts from Canterbury, but I suppose that would have taken too long!   They’re using various modes of transport, but the last 100 km (just over 60 miles), from Viterbo to Rome is being done on foot.  And the “pilgrims” involved are Stephen K Amos, Mehreen Baig, Katy Brand, Brendan Cole, Les Dennis, Lesley Joseph, Greg Rutherford and Dana Scallon.

I’ve been to various pilgrimage sites – as a holidaymaking historian, not as a pilgrim (although I think I get some sort of medieval pilgrimage gold star for having been to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela)! – relating to various different religions/denominations, but, due to being a wage slave, it’s only ever been for the day.  I love the idea of being able to take a couple of weeks, or more, and walk the historic routes – having time out to think and to take in the experience and to see the different places along the way.

I’m not sure that I’d go for the Vatican City, though.  It’s an incredible place to visit, but there’s too much else going on there.  It’s so grand and so full of incredible artwork, and also so much an administrative centre, and it’s surrounded by Rome, the Eternal City, in all its ancient and modern glory … and it’s all just too much to feel really spiritual.  OK, all pilgrimage sites are busy and touristy, and you’d probably feel a lot more spiritual if you weren’t stood in a horrendous queue to see whatever you’d come to see, looking at your watch to see how long you’ve got before you need to be back at the coach, hoping fervently that you’ll have time to get something to eat and drink and that there won’t be a long queue for the toilets.  But I think that places that exist purely or mainly as religious sites – and it can be any religion or denomination; you don’t have to “belong” to that religion or denomination yourself to appreciate the place – maybe work better as “spiritual” places.  Having said which, the Vatican is great, and our eight celebs got to meet the Pope at the end of their journey (which will be shown in the final episode, on Good Friday)!

It’s actually the journey that’s the most interesting bit, though, more than the destination.  We don’t hear that much about pilgrimage routes – although I think that the National Trust are going to try to start promoting some of the old routes within the UK – but they are very much a “thing”. I was quite surprised to see how many pilgrims were heading into Santiago de Compostela when I went there.   It’s not necessarily a religious thing – it’s that taking time out.  It could be, say, the Inca Trail.  Or, nearer to home and with rather fewer altitude sickness issues, the Pennine Way.  Along the Via Francigena, our pilgrims – although they were using apps and Google maps! – found pilgrimage signposts, and “donativo” refreshment places and hostels primarily serving people travelling the route, and had their pilgrimage passports stamped at each stop.

And it seemed so quiet, for all that it’s a “thing”!  OK, maybe other people were just politely asked to move whilst the BBC were filming, but you often see TV programmes filmed amidst hordes of people, so I doubt it.  Peace and quiet are so, so hard to find!  Even when you’re in your own home, even if you’re not answering the phone, there are often dogs barking, kids yelling, cars and motorbikes revving their engines, or someone mowing the lawn or playing music loudly.  And there’s usually a nagging feeling that you really ought to be doing one of the seventy billion things on your To Do List (capital T, capital D, capital L!).

That seemed to be how the “pilgrims” were looking at it too – I don’t think St Peter was mentioned once, and even Rome itself was only mentioned in terms of going the right way, but there was a lot of talk about peace and “mental space” and time out.  There was some general talk about faith and religion, though.  In Viterbo, it’s traditional to go into a Catholic church and receive a pilgrims’ blessing.  Some of the group – with Lesley, who’s Jewish, and Mehreen, who’s Muslim, amongst the most enthusiastic – chose to do this, but others said they didn’t feel comfortable about it.

There was more talk on the subject at other points of the journey, as well.  Dana, a practising Catholic and the most religious member of the group, said that religion is very important to her, but alluded to the “difficult time” in the Catholic church at the moment – i.e. with the child sex abuse scandals.  Stephen said that, as a gay man, he doesn’t feel that any religion welcomes him.  Les spoke about how his mother had once been very religious, but had lost her faith after being shunned by her church when she had a child outside marriage.  Brendan Cole summed it all up very well by saying that the problems are not with particular formal/organised religious, but with some of the people in them.

It was great to see people discussing sensitive issues – faith and religion are awkward topics to discuss, because people can be very sensitive about them –  without arguing and shouting each other down.  I’m so, so sick of seeing social media posts in which people use the word “stupid” (or worse) to describe anyone whose views on a political issue differ from theirs.  Some people will be abusive towards anyone who disagrees with them over a sports event, a film, a TV series, a book … anything!  This was just nice.  It was nice TV.  And it’d be a nice thing to do.  Just given the time …

 

Pose – BBC 2

Standard

Could we have more TV series set in the 1980s, please? My music collection has never got out of the 1980s (except sometimes into the early 1990s), and it’s never going to! This is set in 1987-88, and is centred on the ball(room) culture of African-American and Latino LGBTQ people in New York. It’s been hugely popular in the US, and premiered here in the UK last night. The music’s brilliant and there’s quite a soap opera feel to it as well, as well as shades of ’80s music/dance films like Fame and Flashdance; but it’s also got a serious message, with some scenes of violence, and many of the actors having spoken out about their experiences of facing prejudice even, or indeed especially, from their own families. The producer’s giving all his profits from the series to LGBTQ charities. On a different note, it also features Trump Tower and the people who work there.

Whilst most of the characters are fictional, some of them are real people – notably Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, who was very involved in developing “vogueing” and worked closely with Madonna on Vogue and the Blonde Ambition tour. The surname Xtravaganza came from the House of Xtravaganza, one of the “houses” associated with the ball culture scene, which provided alternative families for people who’d had issues with their own families. This series revolves around the (fictional) House of Evangelista – named in honour of Linda Evangelista – and House of Abundance.

It got off to a pretty hard-hitting start. Blanca, a transgender woman, was diagnosed with HIV. She decided to leave the House of Abundance and set up the House of Evangelista: she was the house mother, looking after young people who were alone. Then Damon, a 17-year-old dancer from Pennsylvania, was kicked out by his parents after telling them that he was gay. Those were very emotive scenes, with his dad hitting him and his mum coming out with a lot of Bible-basher comments. We next saw him sleeping on a park bench in New York. He tried to raise some money by dancing, and Blanca saw him and took him in, and he walked for the House of Evangelista at the balls.

I have to admit that I hadn’t realised that “walk” meant walk as catwalk poses, rather than actual dancing: the competitions at the balls involved people dressing for certain themes, and then doing catwalk poses and being judged on those. Hence “Strike a pose” in the Madonna song. “I know a place where you can get away. It’s called a dance floor, and here’s what it’s for.” The lyrics to that song are incredible: I’d never really thought about it much before! And a lot of the costumes were very 1980s – really glamorous and OTT.

However, it wasn’t just about having fun. Blanca told Damon about how her family had disowned her for being trans, and there was a lot of talk about how some of the ball contest themes involved seeing who could best pass as, say, a businessperson. There were some superb lines, about “the world of acceptability”, and how they felt that they didn’t “have access to the American Dream”, because of being both gay/trans and black/Latino.

There’s been a bit of a row this year over the decision that the rainbow flags for Manchester Pride should feature black and brown stripes. It’s been done at some events in the US, but not previously in the UK. Some people feel that it’s inappropriate because it suggests that the rainbow flag does not represent non-white people, whilst others feel that it highlights the fact that many non-white LGBTQ people face a double whammy of prejudice. This series is certainly highlighting that fact. And it’s got the biggest transgender cast of any TV series in history.

Then a different aspect of New York life was brought in – Stan, the aspiringYuppie who’d just got a job at Trump Tower. There’s a scene in Back to the Future in which someone in 1955 asks Marty McFly who’s president of the United States in 1985, and is both bemused and amused to be told that it’s Ronald Reagan, whom he thinks of as a film star. Imagine if someone had told you in 1987 that the president of the United States in 2017 would be Donald Trump. Who’s going to be president of the United States in 2049? It might be best not to think about that! A comment was also made about the fact that Donald Trump was so rich that he probably had a solid gold toilet, but Donald Trump’s toilet isn’t something that I really want to think about either!

Stan had a wife and kids (even though he looked about 12 – I’m clearly getting old), and he was living right in the middle of the “world of acceptability” – but he picked up Angel, a prostitute whom he didn’t realise was pre-op transgender until she actually stripped off. They then got involved, and there was a sense that everyone was pretending and everything was a bit fake.

And then it turned pure ’80s Fame/Flashdance. Damon had missed the cut-off date for sending his application form in to the dance academy where he was hoping to get a place. Blanca pleaded with the powers that were to give him a special audition. They agreed, and, of course, they loved him, and offered him a place on the spot. So that was quite a change-up from where the episode had started. We’d gone from this very tragic tale of a young lad being rejected by his own family to a Fairytale of New York. And this programme is both – it’s joy and tragedy and so many other things. I think I was watching mainly for the ’80s music, but I really got drawn in by the storylines and the characters, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series. Highly recommended.