torsdag 20 oktober 2016

Why so glum, haute couture chum?

It's the first autumn without a new series of Downton, and yes, I do miss it, if not as passionately as I'd anticipated. As regards the future of Downton's characters, I've pretty much settled it in my imagination to my own satisfaction. What I miss most about the series is my level of engagement in it. I have a number of series piled up for test-watching purposes, and not a few turn out to be well-made. However, there's no way any characters' troublesome working or love life (or lack thereof) will turn any of my hairs white (which, I swear, actually happened with Downton series six).

If no absorbing fictional universe where you'd happily spend hours, first actually watching the series then speculating about what may happen next or has happened before, is forthcoming, then can one at least hope for a little dose of escapism? I know I'm not really entitled to too much of it at this time of year. In January, I needed escapism to get me through the beginning of the new year; in February, to get me through the post-Downton slump after having watched last year's series a second time; in June, to temper pre-holiday grumpiness; in August, to alleviate post-holiday sadness. If there was ever a time for more ambitious viewing and reading, this is it. Plus I have discovered one escapism series on the nerdy part of the scale (rather than the costume-drama one) which will do well to mix up realistic Danish crime series and grim adultery thrillers with. All the same, just one teeny frothy costume drama with romances and pretty dresses, even if sadly free from under-butlers, would not go amiss.

So I had some little hope for The Collection, which has started airing on Swedish television - especially as it was touted as "the most glamorous series ever" by one TV presenter. Alas, though, the pilot turned out to be unexpectedly gloomy. It started unpromisingly with a silent scene - no dialogue, no music, just sinister tinkling from a couple of rusty cans hung up to scare away birds from a long-forgotten vegetable garden - where a corpse is buried, and very inexpertly if I may say so. I have an aversion against silent scenes in TV and films, especially at the very beginning: they usually signal pretentiousness and lack of pace. We then jump back a few days in order to get an explanation for the corpse, but when it comes it is not nearly good enough. I like crime drama, but I just have to ask: does every series have to include a murder now, even when there's no good reason to murder anyone?

Yes, there are a few pretty dresses - the series is after all about a fashion house trying to make its mark in post-WWII Paris - but they don't make up for the general downbeat feel of the plot. The fashion house in question is led by Paul Sabine, and the chief designer is his brother Claude. In a nice stereotype-busting role reversal, scrubbed-up, besuited Paul is the straight one, advantageously married to a beautiful and well-connected American. Whereas scruffy, macho Claude, who lives and rarely works in a Bohemian flat with his cat is the gay one - he's dangerously into rough sailors. Neither of them is a barrel of laughs, though. Paul is glum because he has business problems - it's hard to feel too sorry for him, as he unnecessarily rubs his new business partner up the wrong way, which leads to an entirely avoidable "succeed with your next collection or else" ultimatum. Claude is glum because his family play merry havoc with his love life in the most misguided "get the lazy brother to work" drive I've ever seen. Other glum characters include a pretty seamstress who has had to give her illegitimate baby away (the series takes ages exploring her grief on the train back). A new career as a dress model beckons, but after a couple of happy pictures around Paris to gay accordion music it all goes pear-shaped, and the shrinking violet refuses ever to try again, in spite of getting three separate pep talks (I did enjoy Claude's Beauty and the Beast-inspired one). Frances de la Tour puts in a characteristically classy, scary turn as the matriarch of the Sabine family, but not even she is happy.

If the pilot had been less down in the mouth, I would more easily have forgiven some shoddy plotting: for instance, an unsuspecting Paul buys the very derelict cottage next to which his mother's loyal thug of a chauffeur has buried Claude's sailor boyfriend (victim of the scantily explained murder mentioned above). Seriously, what are the odds? The corpse has not been dicovered yet, but as I heard those cans tinkling forebodingly yet again I'm not sure I didn't groan aloud. As it appears now, The Collection isn't frothy enough for light entertainment, but neither is it deep enough for serious drama.

I'll give it another try, though. The pilot of a series rarely shows it at its best. As Paul waxes lyrical about fashion collections symbolising Paris rising from the ashes like a phoenix, one can hope the phoenix bit is still to come. We've certainly had the ashes bit.        

tisdag 4 oktober 2016

My top 10 list of (male) Dickens villains, part II

I'll continue my list without further ado: for my top five and explanations of the rules of selection applied, see below.

6 Fagin in Oliver Twist I like Fagin a lot, but I've never been attracted to him, which is why he isn't higher on my list. I can usually disregard questions about a villain's personal hygiene (though Carker is very scrupulous about being clean and neat - only saying), but something about imagining Fagin's beard makes this impossible in his case. It must be absolutely filthy.

For all that, he's a great character and surely the most popular Dickens villain of all time. That is enough in itself to earn him place number six. Additionally, he's clever, funny and well liked by his employees (except Bill Sikes, that is) and suffers so memorably at the end it's hard to imagine that Dickens himself didn't pity him a little. I've written about both the wonders and the problems with Fagin before, so let's move on.

7 Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop Two of my favourite scenes in the old TV series Dickens of London (creaky, but worthwhile for the really nerdish) featured Dickens exclaiming "I love you, Daniel Quilp!". The first time was when he was caught up in getting under the skin of the character, the second when he got the sales figures for the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop. These scenes acknowledged both that Dickens had a special bond with all his characters including the wicked ones, and that he recognised that villains were good copy.

I was entranced by Tom Courtenay's portrayal of Quilp in the 1995 TV adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop (the one that also featured Peter Ustinov as a rather vacant grandfather to Nell). On the page, though, Quilp can be a bit... much. There's an awful lot of monkeying about and face-pulling. He also relishes the discomfort of others in a way that not even I can find attractive. Nevertheless, he is an energetic and charismatic presence, and a scene with Quilp in it is never dull - a great plus in a novel as uneven as The Old Curiosity Shop. His marriage to a still devoted, pretty young wife - though her love for him, "one of those strange infatuations of which examples are by no means scarce", has taken its toll during years of ill-treatment - is one of the very few instances where a Dickensian villain (of the clever kind) has actually managed to land a girl. It may also to some degree explain why Dickens's other female characters tend to steer well clear of villain unions.

You wouldn't want to become Quilp's number second, but he's good fun, and another example of a Dickens villain viewed with some fondness by the general public, though many may only know him from the TV screen (apart from Courtenay, there's also Toby Jones's nicely understated Quilp in the more recent ITV adaptation). He's good copy, is Daniel, then as now.

8 Vholes in Bleak House Now I've worked through my favourite head villains in Dickens, it's time to squeeze in at least three of the secondary ones, and it's no easy matter. There are plenty of great minor villains in Dickens - while I leave out some top-billed baddies for a reason (like thick Bounderby, brutish Sikes and shadowy heart-breaker Compeyson), many of the secondary ones miss out merely through lack of space. Anyway, here goes.

I've always had an extra soft spot for Dickens's lawyers, and while Tulkinghorn is the prime example of the villainous kind, Vholes isn't half bad either. Dry, precise and level-headed, it's small wonder he takes the tempestuous Richard in. How many treacle-slow workdays have I not thought of his maxim that it is not what is done that's important, but what is doing. Dickens appears to have created him partly to illustrate why it's no good argument to say the law must work the way it does so the lawyers can earn a decent living. Vholes may prey upon Richard not only for his own sake but for the sake of his three daughters and his aged father in the Vale of Taunton, but that doesn't make him any less of a parasite. What a parasite, though - I'm not sure that keeping Vholes, the Misses Vholes and Vholes senior in the Vale of Taunton in the manner to which they have become accustomed isn't a perfectly good reason for going into law.

9 Littimer in David Copperfield Before darling Thomas in Downton, before Caxton in From Time to Time (and the original book), before Edgar in Aristocats and scores of other Bad Servants, there was Littimer. In his typically understated way, Steerforth's respectable-seeming valet embodies many of the anxieties of the middle class towards the superior form of servant. He knows how to exploit both the arrogance of his employers and the nervousness of manservant-unaccustomed house guests like David for his own ends. The manner in which he puts a dampener on a party in David's apartment - intimidating everyone while cooking the food and cleaning up to perfection - is a good example of how he manages to spread general unease while efficiently fulfilling his valet tasks. He even succeeds in fooling the worldly Miss Mowcher into thinking that David, not Steerforth, is set upon Little Emily and inspires her to one of her few quotable lines post-conversion to good character: "'Young Innocence' (so he called you and you may call him 'Old Guilt' all the days of your life)". The reader never sees Littimer's mask slipping - even the combined contempt of David and Rosa Dartle leaves him unperturbed - but there is another, more vindictive side to him. The fact that he helps Rosa find Emily, although she is so lacking in respect towards him, shows that he has not forgiven Emily for slighting him, and even in prison he still remembers the "young woman [...] that I endeavoured to save" and her "bad conduct" towards him. It is only to be hoped that the section of Australia to which he will be deported is a long way away from Port Middlebay.

10 Bitzer in Hard Times An underwritten character from Dickens's next-worst novel (yes, Martin Chuzzlewit is even worse) with only one, or let's say one and a half good scenes? What's he doing on this list? Well, it's my list, and I fancy him. Plus, that one scene - where he explains why he's determined to hand Gradgrind's son Tom over to the police, using the purely logical and self-interested arguments he was taught in Gradgrind's own school - is seriously good. Bitzer's tics and Dickensian characteristics - the forehead-knuckling, being so pale "that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white" - appeal to me. Then he's so young too (a class-mate of Sissy's, remember), and I can't help wondering how exactly Mrs Sparsit knew about him making a sound like a Dutch clock when sleeping; I'm not sure I buy the whole falling-asleep-at-his-table-on-long-winter-nights rigmarole. The very absence of explanations for some of Bitzer's behaviour invites further speculation. Why is he so dead set against the circus people, i.e. "the horse-riders" (the only strong emotion he exhibits in the whole book)? Is he an albino? Did he nearly end up as an exhibit in a circus freak show? Or could it be that this Gradgrind pupil is inspiring me to some seriously far-fetched flights of fancy?

Honourable mentions: considering my pseudonym, it could be considered a shame that I don't include Alfred Lammle from Our Mutual Friend on my list. I am vastly fond of him, but the reason I didn't include him, or Sampson Brass from The Old Curiosity Shop (another favourite of mine), is that they're both part of double-acts where the female  - Alfred's wife Sophronia Lammle and Sammy's mannish sister Sally Brass - is the stronger character of the two. Well, in the case of the Lammles it's arguable, but nevertheless, without their female support these two ingratiating rogues would be nowhere. For this list, I've prioritised bad guys who can stand on their own two feet. But who knows - I may do a "top 10 villain double-acts" list in the future (I don't think I can restrict that one to merely Dickens), and then they will both be guaranteed a place.

tisdag 27 september 2016

My top 10 list of (male) Dickens villains, part I

Inspired by far too much time spent looking at Youtube top 10 villain clips (Disney's the goldmine - interest in villains and interest in Disney films seem to go hand in hand pleasingly often), I thought I'd try a top 10 list of my own, on a less common theme. Where can you effortlessly find 10 villains and more worth mentioning if not in Dickens novels?

Like the inspirational youtubers, I'll have to set out some rules and restrictions: as I don't want to have to clog up my list with Miss Havishams and Rosa Dartles, only male villains will be included (which leaves me scope for a top 10 villainess list in the future - there are plenty of worthy candidates). The villains listed will mainly be my personal favourites, but in two cases they make the grade due to their greater service to the villain-loving community. These are not the most evil villains you find in Dickens, but the ones I like best and find most interesting. Also, as ten is rather a lot and I have a fair amount of gushing to do about each entry, I'll have to divide the list into two blog posts. From the top then, and in descending order:

1 James Carker in Dombey and Son "Carker has everything", a writer of a splendid article on Dickens's villains (which I've been unable to locate again, annoyingly) once stated, and I can only agree. Here we have the Dickensian embittered social climber in his most exquisite form. What gives Carker the edge is that he's not only tremendously intelligent and adept at villain rhetoric (both ingratiating-ironic speeches and the odd why-I-hate-the-world rant), but also attractive and socially successful. He can play any game well - he can win a chess game without even looking at the board ("it is a mere trick"). He converses knowledgeably about art and is even (according to Dombey) no mean painter himself. He is the only one who gets along both with Mr Dombey's guests from the business world and Mrs Dombey's guests from high society at their dismal "house-warming" party. He is even handsome in a sly, feline way. Yes, like Jane in Pride and Prejudice he smiles too much, but otherwise he is free of the kind of Dickensian character-tics that could lessen his formidableness as a villain. Carker has the character of Uriah Heep hidden by the outer trappings of a James Steerforth - and yes, I do mean that as a compliment.

2 Uriah Heep in David Copperfield  Rooting for elegant, fair-faced Carker sometimes hardly feels like a sport at all (though judging by the continuing Warleggan blindness, the general public are slow to catch on to the charms of feline villain handsomeness). Now, if you see the point of Uriah, on the other hand, you really have what it takes to be a villain-lover. David Copperfield, who is repulsed by him, paints no pretty picture of his demeanour. Even I, who genuinely like pale, cadaverous men and redheads, would not have minded if Uriah had writhed rather less or if his fingers had not left greasy trails "like a snail" when he's reading a book. For all that, though, he's fiercely clever - once again, as in Dombey and Son, the villain is easily the most intelligent character in the book. There is a dry, cynical edge to his conversation, when freed of the professions of humility that only serve as garnish, which the chafing David, wrapped as he is in his moral superiority, has a hard time responding to. Uriah is a good example of the old Dickensian theme of how bitterness can be bad for you: he's intelligent enough to be able to make his way in the world honestly, but blinded as he is by anger at the (by no means imagined) contempt in which his so-called betters hold him he resorts to theft and fraud instead, and so the law gets him in the end. I bet he did really well in Australia, though.

3 Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House Sometimes, mostly depending on which novel I've read most recently, Mr Tulkinghorn changes places with Uriah and comes second on my list. He's certainly always in the top three. Dickens's villains are often a fiery lot, but Mr Tulkinghorn is pure ice, and that (as in a lesser degree with my number ten which I'll be addressing next time) leaves the door open to fascinating speculations on his real motives. Love of power would be my guess, coupled with wintry discontent at being patronised by the likes of dim-witted Sir Leicester and sneered at by the likes of haughty Lady Dedlock. Again, we have an extremely able man having to kowtow to his intellectual inferiors, and though he doesn't hate it with the passion shown by Carker or Uriah, he doesn't seem to like it. Tulkinghorn isn't led astray by his animal instincts, which makes him a particularly dangerous enemy. It's questionable whether anything short of a bullet would have stopped him.

4 Sir John Chester in Barnaby Rudge  Here, at least, I can be brief, as I have already covered Sir John at some length in a previous post. He is the only one of Dickens's dandyish villains I have any time for, and consequently the only one who makes it to this list. The snooty put-downs of men like James Steerforth, James Harthouse (the first name James in Dickens's universe appears to signal "lock up your wives and daughters") and worst of all the ghastly Eugene Wrayburn only make me want to punch them, perhaps because I sense that the kind of person these layabouts would despise the most would be exactly the industrious social climbers (and villains) I have most time for in the Dickensian universe. It's a bit unfair, as only Wrayburn actually insults the designated clever social-climbing villain of his novel (if you can call poor Bradley Headstone a villain, or indeed clever). Anyway, Sir John is entirely without fault in this regard, as he actually conspires with an embittered social climber - Gashford - in order to get at the dour, honest-to-a-fault Haredale who is an entirely legitimate object of baddie scorn. His laziness is mostly a pose, too - in fact he's an active and wonderfully manipulative villain.

5 Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby This is not one of Dickens's more successful novels, in my view, and this affects the villain too. Ralph too often acts in a certain way only because the plot requires it, not because it makes any sense from his point of view. Why does he take so violently against his nephew? (Not that I don't agree with him, mind, but at first sight?) Why wouldn't he protect his niece Kate from his predatory aristocratic acquaintances if he's fond of her? Surely, Lord Verisopht's custom can't be that important? The plot devices creak noticeably, and poor Ralph is stuck in them. The reason he still makes it to my list is partly his terrible fate - so tragic surely only the most hard-hearted hero-fancier could fail to feel pity for him - and partly his gift for suitably biting villain conversation, especially the why-I-hate-the-world rant mentioned above. No-one rants like Ralph.         

torsdag 8 september 2016

The Night Manager or Stereotype City

"He's sleeping with the nanny. The cliché."

Yes it is, sweetheart, and that's not the end of it. Look around you and you will see plenty more. How about the ruthless capitalist villain; his eye candy the vulnerable blonde who sends money, Fantine-like, to her hidden-away child; the camp henchman; the libertine toff (that would be your hubby sleeping with the nanny); his embittered wife (that would be you); and, for that matter, the strong, silent, troubled hero you're talking to. What's more, back in London, we have a fearlessly crusading, underfinanced female agent (she's also pregnant), struggling with male superiors such as the well-meaning but intimidated one and the obviously crooked as a pin one. By the end of episode four, I realised why I cared so little about the characters in the TV series The Night Manager: each and every one of them was a stereotype.

It was still entertaining enough, mind you, because it's well-paced, well-directed, well-produced and very well acted indeed. But I didn't expect a drama based on a work by a famous name such as John le Carré to be as frankly shallow as this. Maybe I did suspect that Richard Roper, the seemingly philantropic businessman who is really a vile illegal arms dealer (well of course: a businessman helping refugees? We can't have that!) would not turn out to be a wonder of complexity. Still, I thought there would be some interest shown in the psychological forces at work in an undercover operation where, however worthy the cause, there's always an element of betrayal. But no: the audience's main interest is supposed to be simply whether Jonathan Pine, the eponymous night manager, will manage to nail the dastardly Roper. Not what drives them, what they really think of each other or if they're actually that dissimilar. Basically, The Night Manager is Bond as TV, with a side-helping (mercifully not too owerpowering) of moral indignation. All Roper needs to fit the Bond villain template is a white cat.

It's a pity, because Hugh Laurie does such excellent work as Roper, dispelling all memories of Bertie Wooster (mind you, I think even Bertie would have sussed who the mole in his operation was before Roper does). He's suitably world-weary, authoritative and charismatic, but he gets precious little to work with. In spite of the odd villain monologue, we never really discover what makes Roper tick: just like Pine himself, he remains oddly remote. Does he love his vulnerable blonde girlfriend, for unknown reasons called Jed, for example? Does she ever love him, before she finds out what he does for a living and falls for Pine instead, or is she only in it for the money? Does Pine love her? I know it's hard to interact with stereotypes, but the leading men in this drama could at least have been given a chance. Instead, Roper talks a great deal without saying anything revealing, and Pine doesn't even talk much. He just stares intently.

Another problem with Roper, as I've already hinted, is that he's a such a complete blockhead it's a wonder the crusading agent Angela Burr hasn't caught him ages ago. First, he elbows aside his oldest friend on the say-so of a shady lawyer who's been got at by Angela (and not in a very angelic way either, incidentally: she manipulates him when he's distraught over his daughter's suicide), in order to make room for Pine whom he has known for five minutes and who, oooh, just happened to be there to foil a kidnap attempt on Roper's son (staged, what did you think?). In no time at all, Pine is privy to Roper's darkest secrets and his new straw man. The shady lawyer is discovered to be a mole: Roper smells no rat. Pine starts an affair with Jed: his boss notices nothing amiss. Another leak is suspected: Roper suspects his best friend, his next-best friend and his girlfriend (at least he's not far wrong there), but not the new guy, who joined the team at around the time when the leaks started. I mean, seriously: it's hard to have any kind of respect for a head villain, however stylish, who's so incredibly gullible.

What's a villain-lover to do? I, for my part, took to rooting for Roper's displaced-by-Pine sidekick, Major Corkoran aka Corky the camp henchman. Yes, he wouldn't look too out of place as one of the hitmen in Diamonds Are Forever, but he has a bit more going for him than his dim mate-cum-boss: he's suspicious of Pine from the word go; he quickly guesses Pine's interest for Jed; Tom Hollander, who plays him, milks every line and every pause, and as Corkoran starts to come apart at the seams he manages to transcend the stereotype at least a little bit. Go Corky, say I, and if that makes me predictable at least I'm in good company.

A lot can be said about how Olivia Colman admirably manages to make Angela not too unsufferably virtuous, but you don't expect me to waste too much time on a mere goody-two-shoes, do you? Instead, let me ponder, as a last reflection, the conundrum that is Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine.

Is Hiddleston really that attractive? Seeing as 1) he played Loki in the films about Thor (reimagined as a superhero) 2) played him quite superbly if clips from the films are to be trusted then 3) if you are into villains and the least bit acquainted with old Viking mythology, it follows that yes, Hiddleston must be attractive. His eyes are too close together for him to be conventionally handsome, but they are very intensely blue, and he does look clever. He can pass for the thinking woman's crumpet - but as Pine, he's supposed to be everyone's crumpet. Even after tanning and workouts Hiddleston looks a bit out of place as a taciturn action man, and it's a mystery to me why he's gone to all this trouble to land a part like this. With his pixie-like face, he could have got all kinds of new meaty villain roles: instead, as Pine, he has to scowl purposefully while all the opportunities for dripping sarcasm and menace go to Hollander and occasionally Laurie. Enjoying the career change yet, Tom? I do hope that Bond bid proves worth it.             

torsdag 1 september 2016

Moriarty variations

Professor Moriarty is dead, to begin with. Or is he? In the beginning of Anthony Horowitz's novel Moriarty, two men meet in a crypt near the Reichenbach Falls where the body of a tall, thin reptilian-looking man is laid out. Everything points to this being the Professor himself, among other things a coded letter found on his person from an American crime lord, suggesting they meet, supposedly with a view to join forces. The novel starts out, then, as a hunt for another master criminal. The two men - Pinkerton detective Frederick Chase and Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones, who has studied Sherlock Holmes's methods - team up in order to hunt down Moriarty's American counterpart Clarence Devereaux, who is planning to establish himself in England.

But wait a bit. Isn't the novel called Moriarty? It can't be all about this Devereaux chap then, can it? That would be cheating. Well, I don't think I will be revealing too much if I say that the title isn't a cheat. All is clearly not as it seems in a novel that starts with the line "Does anyone really believe what happened at the Reichenbach Falls?". Chase and Jones are soon made aware that someone is killing off Devereaux's London agents one by one. Is this someone Moriarty, or does his soul go marching on in the shape of his criminal organisation? And if a criminal merger was under way, why would Devereaux's men be a target for Moriarty's crowd?

The story is an enjoyable adventure story on its own terms, irrespective of the Moriarty factor. Chase and Jones make a dynamic duo, and their fast-blossoming friendship is all the more affecting because you suspect that they never will be the new Holmes and Watson - something, or someone, is sure to put paid to any such plans. The picture of Moriarty that emerges is satisfying, on the whole. We get the abstract thinker with a certain detachment to his fellow men and to what may befall them through his criminal activity. Conan Doyle's Moriarty made sure those in his employ who were caught got the best legal defence money could buy, and Horowitz's Moriarty shows the same "honour among thieves" tendency. Unlike John Gardner's version, he has little in common with a modern gangster. At one point, Devereaux threatens Jones's family, and the two sleuths are appalled at his ungentlemanly behaviour - it is made clear that the English Napoleon of Crime would never stoop to this. Yet isn't it exactly the first step any serious criminal would take nowadays? Make no mistake, though, Horowitz's Moriarty can be chilling when he chooses, and the loyalty he feels towards his own men can sometimes strengthen his ruthlessness towards everyone else. Compared to him, Devereaux is decidedly second rate.

If there is one thing that separates Conan Doyle's Moriarty from Horowitz's, it's the degree of showiness. We are led to believe that many of the peculiarities the Professor displays in his conversation with Holmes in The Final Problem are more or less play-acting. This is a bit disappointing, but vital to the structure of Horowitz's story. The novel is reminiscent of Christie's The Secret Adversary, but an adversary can't remain very secret if he stalks about with a large domed forehead moving his head from side to side like a snake.

A Moriarty who appealed even more to me is the protagonist in the first Professor Moriarty novel by Michael Kurland, The Infernal Device. There are more books in this series, and I look forward to reading them as well. Here's a Professor who lives up to his billing. He's scientifically minded - in fact, science is his passion while crime is simply his job. He's a cold rationalist and in many ways the mirror image of his enemy Sherlock Holmes. His organisation is impressive, and his employees are full of respect, even fondess, for him. Plus he's as tall, stooping and dome-headed as one could possibly ask for. As Moriarty is in the front and centre of the plot, he can afford to be as showy as he pleases. Other pluses with The Infernal Device are Moriarty's newly recruited sidekick Benjamin Barnett - an American journalist heavily in the Professor's debt who gamely accepts becoming part of his doubtful outfit without any time-consuming scruples - and the fact that we actually get to meet Holmes and Watson (they don't feature in Moriarty, but then Holmes is believed to be dead in that one).

Kurland's Moriarty has his own "moral code" which can be perplexing. He's affronted that Holmes would think him capable of abducting a seventeen-year-old girl, but the crimes he does commit - a high-profile bank robbery, for instance - could very well lead to human misery on an impressive scale, and you'd think a genius would be able to work out the possible implications of his deeds. I find it convincing, though, that both Kurland's and Horowitz's Moriartys have a kind of moral blindness which clouds their judgement enough for them to become criminal masterminds in the first place.

It's funny how fascinated many, including me, have become with a fictional character who only makes an appearance in one of the Holmes stories, and then in such a way as to apparently make it impossible to reintroduce him (then Conan Doyle did think that The Final Problem would be final). We are told that when Holmes first mentions Moriarty in this story, Watson has never heard of him. Then Holmes tells Watson of his very first meeting with the Professor - so even if Holmes has been fighting Moriarty for a while, the possibility for prequels seems to be ruled out, as the two antagonists have never actually met before. And then, of course, the Professor dies, thus apparently ruling out any chances of a Moriarty sequel.

What Horowitz, Kurland and many others have done is simply to doubt the truthfulness of The Final Problem. There is some basis in Conan Doyle's own work for this - Holmes makes a reference to Moriarty somewhere (in The Valley of Fear, I think), and Watson appears fully aware of his master criminal status there. Moreover, if Watson is mistaken (Horowitz) or lying, probably for some honourable reason such as loyalty to Holmes (Kurland), it opens up the possibility of more Moriarty adventures, set before or after his supposed demise at the Reichenbach Falls. It seems a price worth paying. Moriarty purists like myself would do well to remember, though, that reintroducing Moriarty at all goes against Conan Doyle's own narrative. Consequently, one can't very well complain if further liberties are taken. Not that that's ever stopped me.  

torsdag 18 augusti 2016

Questions raised by the beginning of The Musketeers (series three)

Finally, some new costume drama. My clever TV box, remembering an old setting, has recorded most of The Musketeers series three from one of the more obscure Swedish channels. This will give me a chance to catch up, though I suspect I'll invest in a box set sooner or later. Though often supremely silly, The Musketeers remains an entertaining caper. If you are going to play fast and loose with history, then better to do it this way than with leaden dialogue spiced up (or not) with random sex and violence (yes, I'm looking at you, Versailles).

One reason it's hard to ever get really upset with The Musketeers is the importance it attaches to its villains. This is not to say that they are in any way complex or subtle. Goodness knows you'd be hard pressed to find more black-and-white characterisation in any other half-way ambitious drama. However, for every series there are one or two villains right at the heart of the plot, being given plenty of airtime and displaying considerable panache. It's as if the creaters of the series started each new installment of episodes by asking themselves: "Right, who will be the villain this time, and what charismatic actor are we going to entice into playing him?" (The memorable baddies are not all male, I have to confess: the gutsy Milady, who doesn't feature this time around, leaves quite a gap.) First time round, we had Richelieu, played by none other than Peter Capaldi. When Capaldi had to leave to play The Doctor - and even I will have to concede that that was a better gig - Richelieu was, very foolishly in my view, killed off years before his time. Why didn't they just hire another actor to play the Cardinal? Capaldi's brilliant but not irreplaceable when there are so many top-notch actors around, and we would have understood. However, at least the need for a head villain was immediately met by bringing in Marc Warren's attractive if lamentably bonkers Rochefort. He was dispatched at the end of series two, but villain-lovers need not fret: this time around, we have two head villains, played by Rupert Everett no less (though this casting poses its own problems, as addressed below) and Matthew McNulty (the ghastly Moray's far more appealing business partner in The Paradise).

I must say, though, that the absurdity level of the two first episodes of series three is alarmingly high, and that they raise a great number of questions - few of which, I suspect, will be answered during this final run of the series:

Why cast a good-looking actor like Rupert Everett only to cover him in prosthetics? I know handsome actors sometimes longingly talk about playing someone ugly. Well, that's tough, but just as there are plenty of parts that can only be played credibly by lookers, so there are others where it makes every sense to cast an actor less favoured by nature than, say, Rupert Everett. Everett's character in The Musketeers, Feron, is ravaged and even slightly disfigured by illness (either that or old war wounds: it has yet to be made clear). As a consequence, Everett's pleasing features are covered with a not very convincing mask of prosthetics which severely hampers his acting, as does the sometimes lamentably low quality of the villain-banter lines he's given. If they'd cast someone who looked a bit more worn and weatherbeaten to start with, the make-up department wouldn't have had to over-strain itself and there would have been more room for acting. I'm not going to complain about seeing Everett in anything, though, and the other villain, McNulty's Lucien Grimaud, is an absolute dish - enough to convince any villain-fancier that there may be merit to a dark and handsome brooder after all (as long as there's no scything).

Where's the Dauphin's brother? The most preposterous plot development in The Musketeers - with the exception of killing off Richelieu before his time - is the one involving Aramis, Queen Anne and the future Louis XIV. Yes, it's true: in this series, the Sun King's dad is none other than Aramis the love-lorn musketeer. Mind, Aramis and the Queen really love each other, and they only did it the once, so that's all right then, even if it means that the royal bloodline is messed up completely. As it's hinted that Louis XIII is infertile - I mean, he and Anne are married for ages without a baby, Aramis beds Anne once, and wham! - I was dying to find out how The Musketeers would explain the birth of royal baby number two, the infamous Philippe. Would Louis be allowed to be the father this time around? But that would mean - yikes - that the Orléans branch were the legitimate heirs to the Crown all along! Or is the father Aramis again, on a singularly bad day? Or someone else entirely? In which case, how would Aramis react to his one true love fooling around with yet another man?

It seems these questions proved too hard for the series makers to resolve: little Louis is now four or five years old, and still he appears to be an only child. So have they really written out an actual member of the royal family so as to bolster the claim that a fictional musketeer fathered Louis XIV? Or perhaps they've just played around with the chronology, and we will find out how the Queen's second kid came about later - maybe like this...

Will Feron father the next royal prince?  He's the King's resentful (illegitimate) brother. He's called Philippe. He has a sinister, handsome male sidekick. It sort of fits - the poisonous apple wouldn't fall far from the tree. But how would Feron get the Queen pregnant? They don't seem very pally, and a rape resulting in a pregnancy would surely be too dark for a family-friendly series such as this one. Besides which, the Queen could defend herself against the fit Rochefort, so a wreck like Feron wouldn't pose any problem for her. Maybe Philippe is Feron's child, but not the Queen's? And the royal family take him on for some reason? Admittedly, totally disregarding historical facts opens up fascinating possibilities.

What's the deal with the Red Guard? Even in the original films (no, I haven't read the books), the Musketeers' rivalry with the Red Guard annoyed me. Why waste time on silly one-upmanship when you're serving the same country and the same government? In the series, the Musketeer-Red Guard feud is still going strong, much like the Guard itself whose continued existence puzzles me. I've always assumed that they were the Cardinal's men - hence the colour. But even without the Cardinal his soldiers are still around, serving as minions for whichever villain the Musketeers are facing at the moment. What's the Red Guard's official role, exactly? And how was Constance playing a prank on them in the first episode meant to make anything better?    

All for one, one for all, all for...what? The original Musketeers were proud of being the King's men. In this series, though, they don't display any great affection towards the King - severely caricatured throughout - or even kingship itself. They are too busy pleasing modern audiences with their soulful concern for the plight of the poor, even when the said poor make no bones about wanting the King out of the way. D'Artagnan listens sympathetically to the leader of a group of war refugees (yeah, I know - I told you they weren't subtle) uttering twaddle like "Is it rebellion to fight against injustice?". YES. That's exactly what it is, at least in the eyes of any rebel - who ever heard of fighting against justice? Former Musketeer boss Treville destroys the refugees' seditious pamphlets because if they were found "they would all be hanged". Very probably, Treville, and as a minister of the Crown, you should really be OK with this - why are you protecting people ready to overthrow the government of which you are a member? The Musketeers are patriots, which is all very well, but what do they stand for apart from that? You can either be a budding revolutionary or a good Musketeer - you can't be both.      

torsdag 11 augusti 2016

In vain pursuit of a little light reading

There's no such thing as a foolproof enjoyable read, is there? Not even rereads are quite safe, as there's always the risk that you won't like a novel so much as the previous time/s you read it. My system of "safe bet" authors - if I've enjoyed more than one novel from an author, then I assume I'm going to enjoy all of them - has let me down twice recently, and just as I was going back to work and needed a pick-me-up, too.

True, Dawn French doesn't quite have the official safe-bet status, as I'd only read one of her novels - A Tiny Bit Marvellous - when I started on her latest, According to Yes. But I really liked ATBM, plus I've found much of the French and Saunders material hilarious, so I thought I could reasonably expect great entertainment from According to Yes. And yet the chapters went by without raising so much as a giggle. As I realised, about two thirds through, that the book wasn't going to get any funnier, and as I still hadn't warmed to the heroine Rosie - which it is sort of the point of the story - I gave up on it, after checking that one of the more criticised characters would be all right. He was. They all were. You can't accuse According to Yes for skimping on the feelgood factor, but the feeling good is very much on the heroine's terms. She, a chaotic English nanny, is going to "save" an Upper East Side clan from their humdrum lives and teach them to have fun. Her wit and wisdom are never challenged as one family member after the other are bowled over by her carefree ways. I never thought I could have much in common with an elegant Upper East Side matriarch, but my sympathies were more and more with Glenn, the family's grandmother and the most Rosie-resistent of the characters, especially in passages which were supposedly told from her perspective but which were really criticisms of her (the novel is told in the third person). What do you call those kind of passages - "fake-getting-inside-someone's-head narration"? Does narratology have a good term for it? Anyway, Glenn is going to give in to the reign of Rosie eventually - of course she is - but this isn't my idea of fun.

The second disappointment was Pompeii by Robert Harris. As I've mentioned, I've read quite a lot of Harris's novels by now, and I was a sure as I could be that as long as he kept off the gloomy subject of Nazi crimes against humanity, I would find his writing enjoyable. And then, ancient Rome, which he handled so well in his Cicero books! Alas, Pompeii has so far been quite a different matter from the Cicero trilogy, but then this is an earlier work. For one thing, the author's learning isn't worn so lightly, and the hero is the priggiest I've yet come across in a Harris novel, which is saying something considering he's up against types such as Picquart in An Officer and A Spy and Xavier March (why March? That's not a German name) in Fatherland. What really surprised me, though, was the schematic depiction of the rest of the cast. A dastardly millionaire who feeds one of his slaves to his eels? His fair and innocent daughter? A consistently hostile foreman (the hero is a young engineer struggling with a failing acqueduct)? Really? Honestly, even Harris's Nazis were nuanced compared to this lot.

We even get more examples of "fake-getting-inside-someone's-head-narration" (I really must find a better term), this time with the Bad Millionaire as its subject. I was particularly annoyed about coming across this stereotype yet again (he's an ex-slave too, so not only do we have an illustration of modern society's prejudices but of Ancient Rome's prejudices as well). During my holidays, I twice came across the "let's stick it to the multi-millionaire" plot - and this in chick lit books, which aren't exactly Das Kapital. Is there no escape anywhere from the mindset which makes a virtue of resenting those who are richer than us? I'm seriously considering chucking Pompeii in, too - and I don't think I will be trying Harris's The Fear Index in a hurry.