Anyone in Britain will know that postcode as well as they know their own, for it is that of the Beeb, our beloved Auntie, allowing nation to speak peace unto nation and still producing some of the best TV around and all of it sans adverts. W1A dates from a few years back, though series 3 is more recent, and stars Hugh Bonneville as Ian Fletcher, former head of Olympic Deliverance (in ‘2012’) along with Jason Watkins, Nina Sosanya and Sarah Parrish.
It took me a while to get the full flavour of what is really going on here. Not being well-schooled in office politics it didn’t immediately strike me that Ian is being set up to fail by his colleague Simon (‘Head of Strategic Governance’) who has – or claims to have – the ear of the BBC chairman and who constantly passes off the crap jobs (‘I don’t know how these things work and you’ll know how you want to deal with this…’) whilst swooping in to claim responsibility for all the good ideas emanating from Ian’s environs. But Ian’s soon onto Simon and does some pre-empting of his own, getting hold of strategic plans and coming in early to beard Tony in his den and pass them off as his own which in this case they actually are. The frozen smile on Simon’s face when this comes out is exquisite.
W1A is full of such moments, too full to list them all but it rapidly becomes clear that Ian is no fool and always seems to pull something out of the hat at the last minute. Hurrah. The dynamic in his team is paralleled by the sub-plots of Izzie Gould and Lucy Freeman (the only other competent workers in the BBC) who in turn are plagued by slimy opportunist Jack Patterson, office idiot Will Humphries and the utterly unbearable and totally Machiavellian David Wilkes, while Siobhan Sharp (Jessica Hynes) makes everyone’s life a misery without even trying. The voice-over (David Tennant) is a joy in itself. So go watch the BBC having fun on itself with itself. Yes no, very good, very strong.
OH and I have been catching up with The Handmaid’s Tale (series 3), that dystopian Biblical Black Mirror where patriarchy reasserts itself viciously and mercilessly, forcing women to assume one of three roles: wife, servant (‘Martha’) or handmaid. The crisis which spawns this is a critical fall in fertility rates and the grotesque solution is to bring a ‘handmaid’ – a fertile woman – into each family to breed for them. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of one such woman, June (known as Offred and then Ofjoseph as they take the names of their owners) forced to reproduce for Commander Waterford and his family. This is brutal slavery with a Biblical varnish and unsurprisingly the thoughts of many, if not most, women turn to escape. Canada is just across the border.
No matter how plausible, The Handmaid’s Tale is of course fiction. Or so I thought… but it turns out Gilead is alive and thriving in a tiny corner of the US. I kind of wish I hadn’t come across The Transformed Wife’s blog but I did, and its vision of ‘Biblical Womanhood’ is basically Gilead minus the rape and violence. St Paul looms large in this scenario (whenever I go to a church which emphasises St Paul I run for cover) and is little more than unreconstructed dogma. This woman is not only against abortion – which is to be expected – but also against contraception. God is in charge of your womb apparently; no matter that the planet can’t afford more people, nor that there aren’t the resources to go around, you must keep having as many children as you can conceive. But don’t worry about the planet – I expect God has all that in hand too.*
The concept that God equals the patriarchal vision set out in the Bible is one feminists (and Quakers) have spent generations countering but here it is again. It reminds me of bindweed; no matter how many times you root it out, back it comes again. Ah well.
I will say one thing for the Transformed Wife though – unlike many people on the internet, she knows how to debate respectfully.
*as it happens I agree; I just think the plan might involve the extinction of our race (if we don’t reform). People’s notions of God are much to anthropocentric in my view.
…just don’t think of it as costume drama. That’s my take on Gentleman Jack, the latest Sunday night offering from the Beeb starring Suranne (Doctor Foster) Jones. I nearly turned off during episode one because we’re so used to seeing the Beeb get it right in terms of period whereas the dialogue here, written by Sally (Happy Valley) Wainwright, is patently modern, as are many of the attitudes. The central theme is of a woman born into the landed gentry determined to take on not only the running of the estate but to live according to her nature, that is, with another woman. It was perfectly possible in those days for two unmarried ladies to live together as companions; however their plans to pass under the radar are threatened not only by meddling relatives but by the public at large. Gossip is rife and only Anne Lister’s title and money save her from utter infamy.
Even though this is a terrible shock to the system for anyone used to faultless renderings of Jane Austen, I’ve come to really enjoy it; and the key to enjoyment is to think of it as a romp. Don’t worry about the anachronistic attitudes, just enjoy the ride. The acting’s great and there are some interesting sub-plots relating to the sinking of coal-pits and the fortunes of Anne’s tenants, all overseen by Anne herself as her parents are dead and her aunt and uncle have no head for business. Add to this the attraction of being based on a true story and a terrific theme tune and basically you have a winner. I’m hooked. Here‘s the true story the drama is based on.
I’m linking here to OH’s blog about Years and Years because I think it gives an excellent summary. I usually run out of patience when I’m reviewing something because I can’t be arsed to give all the details. I’m a Gemini (not that I believe in astrology*) and Gemini is an air-sign, meaning you tend to skip over detail and just generally waft the overall picture in the direction of your readers. To be honest I don’t see anything wrong with this in the context of a blog; if I were ever to set up shop as a paid reviewer I’d have to pull up my socks, pants and garters – in fact my underwear would generally have to be overhauled – but since I write this blog primarily to interest myself and in the hope that it will similarly interest others, I can allow myself that freedom.
Basically I thought Years and Years was terrific drama, one of the best I’ve seen in a long while and I think its power stems, as OH says, from the connection to the present; that this is not happening in some indefinite future but the seeds are being sown right here and now. This is a future we are all creating at this moment with our actions. The denouement seems to be a positive one but as Edith points out there are other comedians waiting in the wings to take over. As soon as you slay one monster another arises.
*I see no reason whatever why astrology should work. Why should there be a connection between the time you were born and your character, let alone your destiny? Even though it’s explained brilliantly in this episode of Mum, I reject it utterly. This is typical of a Gemini, apparently…
Before I forget to mention it, it’s our 26th wedding anniversary today. Yes, 26 years since we were first manacled together; 26 years on which to look back and say ‘ah, how we used to laugh! Yes, but not at the same time,’ and other such slogans from the good box. Speaking of which, the daughter gave us a great gift last year of a small box filled with post-it notes, two for each year of our marriage making fifty in all. Each day for the next 25 days we were to write something positive about our relationship and put them in the box to keep. This morning I got it out again and we read through what we’d written. It was very touching, especially this from OH: ‘Sometimes we laugh at the same time.’
Ah, laughing at the same time! I remember that… tonight we’re going somewhere for a meal, either locally or in Leicester depending on the weather. But last night! Oh my god, how much good TV drama is there at the moment? You no sooner finish one series than another pops up. Killing Eve series 2 has begun and Years and Years just keeps on going, in fact the narrative pace is so fast sometimes I wish it’d slow down a bit. But I guess that’s the point; events take over and you can’t keep up with them. The Guardian describes the series as a hybrid of Bread and Black Mirror, which I think is spot-on. In this episode a bad political situation gets exponentially worse; as climate change, bad government and economic collapse combine to produce a nightmarish scenario. No-go zones are created in cities, climate refugees are billeted on those with an extra bedroom (echoes of the Bedroom Tax there) and the daughter fulfils her dream to become a cyber-being creating disturbing and dangerous possibilities akin to having Google installed in your brain. Vivian Rook is now Prime Minister (god, how brilliant is Emma Thompson!) bringing chaos to the heart of government; meanwhile Stephen, whose life has imploded, takes a job with an old ‘friend’ and gets into something deeply dodgy. On the plus side, Muriel’s macular degeneration is cured – but at a price. She can wait three years or spend the grandchildren’s inheritance. No contest, sadly.
Meanwhile back in 2019 reports of summer have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, we’ve had cold and wet Junes before in the UK but this one takes the biscuit. All jumpers put away, all slippers consigned to the cupboard, all heaters put in sheds, all boilers turned off – all this had to be reversed as daytime temperatures plummeted to 9 degrees. Nine! It seems that as well as bringing us June temperatures in February, climate change brings us February temperatures in June.
Bloody nightmare. No wonder I didn’t sleep well.
Did I say forbidden? That must have been a Freudian slip. I said some harsh things about Black Mirror the other day and now I have to take them back a bit because, having watched Smithereen, the second episode in series 5, I have completely changed my mind. OH reckons I wasn’t the right demographic for episode one and maybe not, but I still think it was slow and unoriginal. But episode two! Oh my god. Utterly enthralling. I watched it over dinner and when I’d finished I didn’t know where I was. What is this house? What is that garden? Why is there a plate in front of me? Who brought me here when I was just in a car in a field and a mountain-top in Utah? I’m not going to tell you any more about it because you need to watch it for yourself, but Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock) is utterly terrific as he always is, and you simply could not guess the storyline. The third episode, Rachel Jack and Ashley Too, seems to be aimed at teenage girls which suggests that OH’s theory – each episode being aimed at a particular demographic – could be correct. It stars Miley Cyrus as a manipulated and disaffected teen star whose aunt goes beyond the bounds of controlling relationships to preserve her own personal gold-mine. So all in all I think it’s a good series but not a great one.
At the weekend I went to a meeting on One-Nation Conservatism, a beast which I’d previously thought extinct but which seems to be surviving, albeit mostly in caves under the ground, and OH and I went to see Late Night with Emma Thompson. I’ll say more about this another time but we enjoyed it a lot. Then what with Picnic in the Park being relocated to Fearon Hall and seeing a play at the Swan with friends, it’s been an eventful weekend. I’m still catching up with myself.
So there we have it. I’m sorry Charlie, your first episode did really suck. But boy, you made up for it since.
A bit of a TV mop-up, this post because good golly and gosh there’s so much excellent drama on, I can hardly keep up. Let’s begin with the preposterous Gentleman Jack. I nearly turned this off half-way through the first episode because of its very preposterousness – social attitudes being much too modern for the Regency setting – but something kept me watching and I’m glad I did. Half Fleabag, half Tipping the Velvet, our protagonist knows exactly what she wants and goes all out to get it: ‘I fully intend to live with someone I love,’ she declares and sets her life on a headlong and dangerous path which may end in death and which has already caused great heartache. As The Well of Loneliness shows, betrayal is double when you cannot come out as gay and your lover not only abandons you but abandons their true nature to marry one of the opposite sex. The period is Jane Austen but this could hardly be less Austinian; it’s Moll Flanders with a title, some land with coal under it and an appetite for women. It’s a highly enjoyable romp which may yet end in tragedy.
By contrast the manners of Summer of Rockets were completely true to the period, showing the excessive politeness and reserve of the English upper-classes through the eyes of a Russian emigre aspiring to join them. It’s the ‘fifties with the Cold War as a backdrop and to test his loyalty Petrukin is recruited to spy on his new friends. It turns out that they are conspiring to stage what is essentially a fascist coup to preserve the Empire and presumably all who sail in her; Timothy Spall is excellent as the corrupt aristocrat at the heart of this conspiracy but the real star is Keeley Hawes, an MP’s wife confined to staging parties but finally waking up to what her husband is really up to and becoming, you might say, politically engaged. It’s also the last year that debutantes are presented to the Queen and we see Petrukin’s daughter resisting this absurdity and walking out of a ceremony where all the befrocked and begloved debs have to curtsey to a cake (a cake!) big enough to feed all Marie Antionette’s unfortunate contemporaries.
I haven’t begun to do that justice so go and watch while it’s still on iplayer. But sadly over on Netflix the first episode of Black Mirror proved a real let-down. I had high hopes of this as I’ve enjoyed nearly all the rest (I wasn’t a fan of Bandersnatch but only because I don’t like multiple-choice viewing). But Striking Vipers seemed not only unoriginal but horribly slow. Yes, it had an all-black cast so kudos for that (if we still need to give these things kudos) but otherwise it took ages to get anywhere and seemed basically a rehash of San Junipero. Not good. Still I will watch the rest and give it the benefit of the doubt, as Nicholas Parsons so often does with his contestants. Here‘s a review by someone who’s watched the whole series.
And that’s us up to date.