Sunday, 1 May 2016

Home Fires: Bring it Back!

Terrible news! Found out today that ITV won't be commissioning another series of Home Fires. Quite rightly, somebody has started a petition to bring it back. Please sign it, here.

Now I know it's only a TV show and there's shit going on in the world and all that but humans need stories. Stories show us how to deal with difficult situations and how to behave with dignity. Humans tell stories abut things that are important. And if you don't ever see people like yourselves in stories then you easily get to thinking that's because you're not important.

One of the reasons I loved Home Fires was that it showed just how ordinary people were important, and how they helped influence history. I loved the mix of ages and classes going in the storyline, and the regional accents that seem to be heard on TV less and less these days.

Home Fires had very good viewing figures, strong writing, a high level of historical veracity, and a thoroughly excellent cast of actors who largely weren't 'names'. I have no idea why ITV would wish to cancel it.

If you want to know more about why I think it deserves to come back, you can read my review, below.

If, like me, you grew to loathe Downton Abbey, you may be suspicious of Sunday-night vintage-costumed TV. Because of this I was initially cautious of Home Fires, ITV's world-war-two set series about a group of women in the Women's Institute in the fictional village of Great Paxford, in Cheshire. Oh how wrong I was! Home Fires is literally the best thing ITV have made in ages.

If there's one thing I don't like in a historical series like Downton, it's setting up a 'good old days' where everyone knew their place. Because the twentieth century wasn't like that, not even the Edwardian era. Home Fires sidesteps this magnificently, by presenting a world that is full of change, bringing opportunity and threat in equal measure.

Home Fires is based on Jambusters, a popular book by Julie Summers about the WI in WW2, so it has solid academic research to back it up, and its reliance on frequently-ignored details is one of the things that makes it so great. Too often, films and TV about great historical events concentrate on the men involved, and on bloody and decisive battles. Film directors parade their claims to 'realism' by making movies as bloody and explosive as possible. But many important things about history are neither bloody nor explosive, and not all the explosions are of the bloody kind either - some are social, economic, scientific and yes, sexual.

During World war Two, ordinary people understood that success or failure relied on many factors - organisation, morale, production of war material, scientific and social advantage. If you watch films made at the time, this is abundantly clear: but in the macho post-war film world all these things were swept away in favour of guns, and men, and guns and men and guns. Home Fires puts all this interesting social, economic and scientific history back in its rightful place. In doing so, I feel that it's rightfully and slightly subversive.

To start with, it unapologetically focuses on the women, without ever making the men irrelevant. The details of these women's lives are allowed to matter, as are the relationships between them, as much as with the men in their lives. Sometimes, series focusing on women's lives are twee, sometimes they are comedic, sometimes they are slushy and romantic. Sometimes they are just awful and implausible, like the terrible series about nurses in WW1. Home Fires doesn't do any of these things: it lets its characters breathe, and treats their joys and sorrows as worthy of respect.

One of the things I enjoy most is that with the exception of one or two characters, there is a good deal of moral ambiguity going on. Posh Mrs Cameron is both a good egg at heart and an insufferable snob; Mrs Scottlock, the accountant, is both trying to protect her friends and inform to the police, and Stan the farmer is both a bit of a hero and also a bit of a nutjob. The vicar's wife is honorably not having an affair while her husband is a POW, but you know she's absolutely dying to, while closet lesbian Teresa may invite sympathy but is also giving the run-around to an entirely honourable RAF officer who frankly deserves better.

Then there's the men, who are neither better or worse. Well, except in the case of horrible Bob. I'm hoping horrible Bob will get his face melted by an incendiary bomb, because I can't think of anything else bad enough. I hate horrible Bob with a vengence, not only because he abuses his wife, but also because he is a writer. We have never been treated to horrible Bob's horrible prose, but I just know that it is vile egotistical sub-Hemingway trash in which the main character is Bob, portrayed as a hero. Look, I might be getting over-involved here, ok.

Anyway, apart from Bob, there's lovely Czech army officer Captain Marek Novotny. Now, I do have a complaint about Novotny: why is he played by a Danish guy? Are there not any actors in the Czech republic? Are they all permenantly engaged in productions of Kafka? Cannot one small central European state muster one leading man appropriate for an unhappily-married middle-aged lady to lust after? Anyway, ever in the service of journalistic integrity, I emailed the Czech Embassy to ask for their response, and they pointed out that since Maigret was currently being played by Mr Bean, they weren't that upset. (I'm taking that to mean they are upset, a little, but are taking it on the chin, in a manly sort of fashion.)

Anyway I think Marek is maybe too good to be true, and may turn out to be a German spy. If he isn't, I'm giving him two weeks before he's arrested for being one.

Anyway, I'm off to watch the next episode. Come friendly bombs, and fall on Bob!

PS If ITV don't commission another series of this, I'm going round with a pitchfork. A vintage, era-appropriate one, obviously.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Review: A Long day's Journey Into Night

Bristol Old Vic is celebrating it's 250th Anniversary this year, which is pretty awesome. To do so, they're putting on four plays from the four centuries it's been open. So far so good. The specimen representing the 20th century is Eugene O'Neill's classic, A Long Day's Journey Into Night, starring Jeremy Irons and Lesly Manville.

Although this is a classic play, I'd very little idea of what I was in for. What I was in for, it turned out, was three hours of dysfunctional family, drug-taking, consumption, alcohol and criminally negligent behaviour.

I'd like to give credit where it's due, so first of all I'll say that Lesley Manville is an amazing actress and I'd turn up to see her again in anything. Also Jeremy Irons has a lovely sonorous voice and since I was stuck behind a pillar admiring the plaster roses on the ceiling for a good part of the play, it was rather like listening to a radio play with somebody rolling Shakespearianly in the background. I'm not cross about the pillar, it gave me something to cringe behind when Jeremy forgot his lines.

Now, *clears throat* I don't blame Jeremy for this debacle. Or indeed any of the actors on stage. I blame, in descending order, 1) Eugene O'Neill, who wrote this play in the first place, 2) the Director, who thought it was a good idea, 3) whoever greenlit this at Bristol Old Vic, and 4) The Patriarchy.

Oh and Eugene O'Neill's Dad, the 19th Century, and the Catholic Church, but I figured I covered that under the Patriarchy. Anyway, without giving away too many spoilers, this play is about the Tyrone family, a miserable bunch featuring a self-pitying bully, a morphine addict, a consumptive, and an alcoholic. Who shout at each other a lot. Apparently it's based on Eugene O'Neill's actual family, which is why I blame his Dad. It is very long, and entirely without hope. Well, I did experience a brief spark when I realised it was 1912, and that soon, World War One would be along to put the younger family members out of their misery. Then I remembered that they'd have to wait an extra three years, being American, and that a consumptive and alcoholic wouldn't get conscripted anyway, at which point I found no further cause for optimism.

Mrs Tyrone, the mother of the family, is apparently a morphine addict due to her husband's stinginess in providing medical care, and her repeated breakdowns down to the fact that he won't provide her with a stable home. Both the children are wrecks, ditto. This is billed as a family tragedy. I hate to be politically correct here, but that's not a tragedy, is it? It's one person with all the power, and that person being an arsehole, and failing in their responsibilities. Which doesn't meet the Greek standard of tragedy which is some sort of unavoidable woe which is handed out by fate. All these woes are apparently the result of drunkenness, self-regard, and greed, which aren't tragic vices, they're just nasty, petty mean ones. I didn't feel a speck of sorrow for patriarch Tyrone as he bewailed how he wasn't what he could have been. I was just rolling my eyes so hard it's a wonder they didn't fall off the balcony, onto the stalls, below.

This is a terrible, terrible, self-indulgent, boring, interminable, play, and I have no idea what possessed anyone to consider it a classic, unless it were a bunch of old white men thinking that old white men woes are woes of the world, and nothing is ever their fault.

I don't blame Jeremy for forgetting his lines, I'd forget 'em too, if I was expected to learn three hours worth of this repetitious drivel.

Anyway, I'm a bit puzzled as to why this play was picked, as there are so many good plays from the 20th Century that do have contemporary resonance. The BBC put on an amazingly contemporary version of An Inspector Calls last year; or Plenty, which mirrors the slow disillusionment of post-war Britain; or An Accidental Death of An Anarchist, which could happily be played in modern Turkey, or Greece. But instead somebody chose this, which left me contemplating only one, really salient question: was there ever a chandelier in the middle of the Old Vic ceiling, and if so, what happened to it? How did they light it? Most importantly, can we have it back?

Anyway, I think Kneehigh are coming round next month, with The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, and I'm sure it'll be fantastic, chandelier or no, so you might want to book tickets, for that.