A Very English Scandal, Television Series, BBC

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A Very English Scandal is a 3 part series, a fictionalised retelling of a political scandal that took place in the UK in the 1970s. Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberals for part of that time and he was a very well known politician throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s. He is alleged to have had an affair with a man named Norman Scott, this affair ended badly and Norman Scott threatened to tell all; to the police, the papers and Jeremy’s mother. When he began carrying out these threats, beginning with a detailed and graphic letter to the mother, Jeremy Thorpe is supposed to have hired a hitman to kill Scott. The hitman was incompetent, shot Scott’s dog instead and it all ended up in a well documented court case.

Lets just say that if you were to try and make up a salacious story to sell newspapers to the British public in the 1970s, you could hardly invent a story better than this. It had everything, its biggest difficulty would be convincing the readers that it was actually true. The court found them all not guilty, however from speaking to people who lived through the newspaper coverage, the accusations were believed by the general public and the feeling was that they were acquitted because of some biased summing up by the judge and the protection of “an old boys network” which was prevalent in political circles at the time.

Nevertheless, they were acquitted and this series is fiction because it assumes that they were all guilty as charged. It has Thorpe and Bissell plotting to kill Scott, something that Thorpe denied until his death, although Bissell gave evidence to the contrary.  Stephen Frears directed this, with great attention to detail, even without the story this is a beautiful period drama, the 1960s and 1970 are lovingly recreated in the clothes, the decoration, the speech, the attitudes. Russell T. Davies wrote the piece and he adds humour and wit to the dialogue, he peoples the back story with the eccentrics of the time, but basically sticks to the story as it was covered when it broke.  The narrative itself really didn’t need any embellishment, it was more a question of keeping it from being too outrageous.

Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, he is absolutely believable in the role of a suave, charismatic politician, with a defective moral compass, prepared to do anything to cling on to power.  Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott, is a tougher sell, part naïve ingenue, part worldly manipulator. He is alternately the hurt boy led astray and the vindictive gold digger who knows how much his silence is worth, this is a thin line to walk – but in the end, he carries it off well. There are some great performances throughout the series, Patricia Hodge is wonderful as Ursula Thorpe, Jeremy’s indomitable mother.

There are some lovely, funny cameo roles as British eccentrics, David Bamber has a role as the 8th Earl of Bamber, with badgers running around his country house. He does appear to be as eccentric as his role suggests – he introduced both the homosexual reform bill in the House of Lords and a bill for the protection of Badgers. When asked why he thought that the first passed and the second failed, he is reported to have said, “Well, there aren’t any Badgers in the House of Lords”

Overall this is a admirable treatment of an incredible story, I was aware of the people involved in the story before watching, without any great knowledge of the detail. It gives insight into the political and social attitudes of the time, for example, it was more damaging to a political career to be accused of homosexuality than to be accused of murder. It is well written, entertaining and funny, with some great acting. It is on BBC I-player now and likely to distributed around the world in the near future. If you have any interest in politics, the 1960s and ’70s, attitudes to LGBT rights, Britain and British eccentrics, I think that you will enjoy this. Actually, even if you have no interest in any of those things, I think that this series is funny enough to entertain you.

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Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, Apollo Theatre, London

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All the publicity that goes with “Everybody’s talking about Jamie” mentions what an  uplifting feel good story line it has, and that it taps into the current zeitgeist, and to be fair they are right but, really it has so much more than just that.

The songs are brilliant, “It means beautiful” will surely win an award for best new song in a musical. “He’s my boy”, “Work of Art” and “If I met myself again” are also wonderful, I think Dan Gillespie Sells is going to be a huge success as a songwriter for musicals. The lyrics are lovely too and are written by Tom Macrae, so perhaps this is a new partnership to look out for.

The whole cast is great. Obviously John McCrea is excellent as Jamie, a strong voice and a big stage presence. There are also outstanding performances from Josie Walker as his Mum, who has two big songs and a spectacular voice with which to deliver them, and from Lucie Shorthouse, who has an endearing part as his BFF, Pritti. I enjoyed Phil Nichol’s portrayal of Hugo Battersby too.

I also really liked the choreography, it is vibrant and up to date, break dancing with a hint of Justin Beiber video. The set design is good as well, a great mixture of simple, clever and efficient. She show finishes very well, the audience loved it and left the theatre wanting more.

I thoroughly enjoyed this show and I hope it is a huge success!

God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee) 2017

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God’s own Country is a simple love story. A gritty, realistic, unsentimental love story. It is set in surroundings that are bleak and that sometimes seem hopeless. It is peopled with characters whose lives reflect that environment.

It is not an easy watch, Francis Lee, the director, has chosen not to airbrush the harsh realities of farm life on the Yorkshire moors, so there are scenes of birth, death, blood and gore. The characters, too, are depicted in a brutally honest way. They do not talk a great deal and when they do they are often spikey and abrasive. However, the occasional tenderness displayed seems highlighted because of this.

The four main actors are all great, both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe appear to bare their soul for the camera and Gemma Jones is great as Nan. Ian Hart is outstanding, with a beautifully nuanced performance as Johnny’s Dad, Martin. He can be harsh and  blunt, but beneath it all what he wants is his son’s happiness.

This is a film that is defined by the place in which it is set. Not only is this a very British film, it is a northern film, in much the same way that the band, The Smiths, were, when they were at their best. Sometimes the diamond shines all the brighter for being in a rougher environment, and that is certainly the case here. It is a very simple love story made sweeter by being found in such a hopeless place.

Blue Stockings, The Yard Theatre, London E9

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It is a shocking fact that women were not allowed to graduate from Cambridge University until 1948. This play is set 50 years earlier and concerns four ladies who attended Girton College, Cambridge at the end of the 19th Century. It is a well written and cogent drama about the beginnings of the women rights movement. it gives voice to all points of view at that time, ranging from those who believed that education would distract women from being good wives to those who thought that noisy demonstration calling for immediate emancipation was the only way forward.

The Yard is an interesting theatre space, the seats are close to the action, but the wide stage and high ceilings make it very open. I really like the apparent simplicity of the direction, schoolroom projectors set the scenes, blackboard writings mark us as being in a classroom, a pictures of an orchard or Van Gogh’s night sky move us outdoors. This is inventive and effective.

The quality of the acting is very high and there are nice performances even in the smaller parts. Mischa Jones is fabulous as Tess, she brings a nice balance of intelligence and innocence to her role. Laura Trosser has a great part as Miss Blake, resolutely playing the long game in the fight for equality and she plays it perfectly. I really liked Quinton Arigi as Will, whose position changes as the story develops.

Blue Stockings is part of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s East End season at The Yard Theatre. It is a sterling production of a very good play, in an engaging venue. I will be looking out for more Jessica Swale written plays. It has also made me look forward to seeing the next play in the season, “The Host” and their revival of “Zigger Zagger” at the Wilton Music Hall, next month.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening. Recommended.

Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961

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Victim is a classic movie in so many different ways. It is a great representative of the black and white, crime thriller, genre of the early 1960s. The storyline is good, it is well told and the suspense will keep you interested right until the finale.  It is a fantastic British movie, made in the Pinewood studios with high production values. It has all the hallmarks of British film making at the time. The dialogue is clipped and the characters are bristling with repressed emotion.

It has a wonderful setting with splendid views of London just before the start of the swinging ’60s. St Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court are still recognisable, with Oliver! playing at what is now the Noel Coward Theatre. There are also nice shots of Millbank, Soho and the Thames. The pub scenes were filmed in a real pub, The Salisbury, on the corner of St Martins Lane, which was a gay pub until the 1980s. The pub is still there today and still has the Victorian fixtures and fittings seen in the film.

 

Victim has a courageous and dashing performance by Dirk Bogarde who risked his matinee idol status by taking on such a controversial role. He was a male romantic lead, so playing a man with homosexual tendencies, constrained though they may have been, would have put this career in jeopardy. He is excellent in the role and apparently he added the line “I wanted him!” which almost had the film banned. Sylvia Syms puts in a good performance as his unfulfilled wife, wavering between hurt and compassion. The whole cast is excellent and there are recognisable faces throughout the film.

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This was a shocking film when it came out in 1961 and it almost did not get past either the British or American censors at the time. It was the first film to use the word homosexual and it was the first mainstream movie to allude to it in a non negative manner.  It was this, that made it a danger to public morals and gave it the X rating that it received when it was released. Homosexuality is not the direct subject matter, but a blackmail ring that was targeting the frequenters of a gay pub. This was a common occurrence at the time as homosexual relations were an offence that could land one in jail and would certainly ruin a career.

While this film, itself, did not advocate gay rights, its sympathetic portrayal of some gay characters allowed the conversation to begin and this will have helped to bring about the change in the law six years later. Victim often appears in lists of all time greatest films, and it was certainly a brave and groundbreaking piece of film making.  Whether you are interested in the history of cinema, or the history of gay rights then you should see this movie. It is being shown currently at the BFI on the south bank as part of the gross indecency season, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, but it very often included in retrospective seasons of gay film, British film, or classic crime thrillers.

Of course, most importantly of all, it is a very enjoyable film to watch!

Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh) 2011

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Weekend is a beautifully written and wonderfully acted film. It was made and set in 2011. Two guys hook up in a bar on a Friday night and the film is the story of their gradually developing relationship between then and Sunday evening. Although In many ways it is a universal love story, it is firmly rooted in the British urban bar scene of the time, both in the casual drug taking and in the way that they have sex first and then begin to get to know each other afterwards. Andrew Haigh, the director has gone for ultra realism in his film style and this almost feels like a documentary in places.

The two leads, Tom Cullen and Chris New, both put in great performances, as they need to for this realism to work. They are fully committed to their characters and you believe in them wholeheartedly, coming to care for them as they risk sharing their vulnerabilities with each other. It is a warm film, and we get to know them, as they get to know each other. They both appear well rounded and honest, even though our knowledge of them is limited, and we want their burgeoning trust in each other to be repaid.  However it is a cold world and they have known each other for a weekend…………

This is not just a gay movie, but Weekend is one of the best British Gay Films and deserves to be commemorated as such. It is currently showing at Picturehouse Central as part of the 50 years since decriminalisation series. It is also showing on the BFI player as part of their LGBT+ series, also commemorating 50 years since partial decriminalisation. Whatever platform you choose to see it on, it is certainly worth watching.

Angels In America, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Angels in America is operatic in its scale. It has huge universal themes, it takes on religion, politics and the future of the planet. At its core though, are three individual small stories that investigate the meaning of love and abandonment. It can be at times; grandiose, bombastic, histrionic and at others; tender, bitchy or warm. The show is set in 1985 New York at the start of the AIDS crisis, with Ronald Reagan just having been elected for his second term.

It is an awe inspiringly big production. The set is amazing. There are not many theatres in the world with stages large enough to contain the more expansive pieces, but there are also intimate scenes set in small a room or around a single hospital bed. I will be surprised if Ian MacNeil does not win an award for his set design. The direction is very clever, the angel is astonishingly large, when it arrives, yet the scene involving a small puppetry diorama is equally compelling.

The cast is astounding and their performances are excellent. Every single person in the production is at the top of their game, so it almost seems unfair to pick out favourites but…. Andrew Garfield is a revelation, I’d only seen him as Spider-Man before, and this is quite different! Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is fab-u-lous (three full syllables) as Belize, he is given some of the best lines in the show, and he delivers them well.  Nathan Lane plays Roy Cohn and manages to make him cruel, contemptible and charismatic.

This show is a marathon at over seven and a half hours for both parts, but it passes surprisingly quickly. I did not feel the time going at all. I commend its ambition, I admire its uncompromising stance and I revere its wonderful production values. Angels in America one-off theatrical experience.