The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, February 23, 2017

V & A Onscreen: The Victorians Dramatized

I've taken a bit of a breather from Edward and Mrs. Simpson to catch Edward the King (a/k/a Edward VII), the 1975 dramatization of Philip Magnus's biography of Victoria's son and heir. What's surprising about it is the extent to which Victoria and Albert (Annette Crosbie and Robert Hardy) dominate much of the series.

As the delightfully named blogger Woostersauce 2014 put it:
Crosbie and Hardy as Victoria and Albert (especially Crosbie as Victoria) were the first to portray the monarch and her consort as human with their strengths and flaws as individuals, as well as portraying their marriage being warm and loving despite being punctuated by rows and disagreements. It is possible that audiences in 1975, many of them who were born when Victoria was still on the throne and grew up with the image of her as a black clad widow perpetually not amused, would have been shocked at seeing the monarch being portrayed as a very human woman expressing the same joys, sadness, happiness and fustrations as they did. The same is also true with Bertie; Timothy West in particular portrayed him as a sympathetic and human prince determined to do his duty despite his parents having written him off as a lost cause
Albert, in particular, is given a complexity he might otherwise have lacked by the quicksilver performance of Robert Hardy (most noted for his Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small and more recently his performance as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies). As the Prince Consort, Albert starts in a position of weakness (not unlike Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown), but he obtains a modicum of power by using what would be in Victorian literature feminine strategies--he lets Victoria see that her tantrums have hurt him, he rejoices in the domestic, he even withholds intimacy (Victoria, the morning after a tantrum, plaintively reproaches him, "you didn't come to me last night.").

When their son Albert Edward (Bertie) is born, Albert plans a fanatically demanding, no respite, education for their son. It's portrayed as almost sadistic (Magnus's biography is more charitable) and the frustrated Bertie fails at it repeatedly. Albert keeps him to it, with terrible persistence. But Hardy keeps him from devolving into a Gradgrind. His affection for Victoria (and forgiveness of her outbursts), his enjoyment of their children, gives him a likability that makes clear that his mistreatment of Bertie is not out of cruelty, but misplaced zeal.

Later, when Bertie is an adult, and Bertie has been caught in an affair with an actress (the first of many), the notoriously strait-laced Albert confronts his son. Albert respects Bertie's refusal to tell him who set up the party where he met his mistress, and puts the matter behind them. Instead of the martinet, we finally see the worried father, who gently admits that he has been so intent on training his son, that he has not provided the affection that Bertie needs. He anxiously seeks to reassure Bertie that he has been motivated by love, but admits his failure to articulate it. The two reconcile, with the focus not on Bertie's sins, but on Albert's.

It's an extraordinary performance, well matched by Crosbie's more overtly histrionic masterpiece. Hardy deftly underplays when she goes hard, but scintillates when he is with the children (other than Bertie). They match each other well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Loftus and the Gateway Drug

The thing about Doctor in the House, in any of its various forms, is that the students/young doctors Waring, Stuart-Clark, Collier, and Upton (who disappeared, alas!) were out to subvert the old institution, St. Swithin's, but St. Swithin's was hardly undefended.

It had Loftus.

That's Professor Sir Geoffrey Loftus to you (and me, and just about everybody else).

What made the show work was that the Establishment was not represented by a futile, misery-making traditionalist (that role fell to Richard O'Sullivan's Lawrence Bingham, memorably dragged away from a rugby match for bad sportsmanship by a crowd chanting "Bingham for the pond! Bingham for the pond!" until they threw him--yes, in the pond.)

No, Loftus was funny, snide, in control, and very rarely caught on the back foot. (Except by his wife, the redoubtable Lady Loftus, played by Joan Benham as a superannuated Gainsborough Girl whose slightly faded good looks masked the ironist within; she and Ernest Clark, who played Loftus, crackled together.) A formidable foe. And sometimes an unexpected ally--though seldom an outright friend.

I remember the show fondly, more fondly than it deserves, frankly, because of how good the cast was, and how much fun they were having. It was my first experience of farce, my first Brit Com. And so it began opening a whole new world to a Long Island school kid. Sarcasm and irony became my drug of choice, and Doctor in the House led me to better things--Butterflies, To the Manor Born, and, eventually, P.G. Wodehouse and his novels and stories.

All because I fell in love with the sarcastic jibe, well placed.

After all, if Loftus was all right with it, how bad could it be?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Written From the Right?

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, the eternal debate of "is there any good conservative popular culture" has re-ignited. Stretching to find examples of any, the commenters have posited Yes, Minister and House of Cards (UK original). To be frank, as fans of both, I think neither fits the bill.

In both Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, Nigel Hawthorne's Platonic ideal of the obstructive civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, is a quintessential cynic (see above), while the semi-competent (he fluctuates) is never identified as a member of a political party, although he is clearly leftward of Sir Humphrey. In both series, neither political party nor the Civil Service comes off well. This is not unlike The Thick of It (a spiritual descendant of Yes, Minister), in which both parties are satirized with equal vigor, and everybody is pretty deeply flawed. (Mind you, the store is considerably more gentle in Yes, Minister.) The system is the target, not one side or the other.

House of Cards is conservative, in its origins. But those origins stem from Tory-on-Tory political violence:
Before he began writing, Dobbs was a Conservative party backroom boy, scurrying up the chain of command from speechwriter to special adviser to chief of staff. He was serving as the latter when, on the eve of the 1987 election, he fell out spectacularly with his then boss, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He was soon kicked into the political long grass, which was when he found time to write fiction.

“It all started because Maggie Thatcher beat me up and was actually rather cruel to me,” he says, looking softly out onto the Thames from a sunny spot on the Lords Terrace. “I don’t complain about that – politics is rough and tough. But it caused me great unhappiness for a while . . . [Despite] the fact that she could be absolutely horrid to me, I still regard her as being probably the greatest peacetime prime minister in the 20th century.”

It was on the day known as Wobble Thursday, exactly a week before polling day in ‘87. Thatcher was convinced she was losing the election (spoiler: she wasn’t), and “she took out all her pain and anger and frustration on me, when in fact I was perhaps the most innocent person in the room at the time”, says Dobbs with a sweet smile.

Soon after, the bruised former chief of staff found himself on holiday with his wife, sitting on the beach and scrawling two letters onto a piece of paper: “F U” – his soon to be protagonist’s initials, and a none-too-cryptic two fingers up at the page.
Dobbs now denies that the book was a revenge novel--but the picture he paints of his fellow Tories is darker than even most liberals would imagine. Also, to be frank, Dobbs's book ain't a patch on Andrew Davies's adaptations (and in fact Davies has offhandedly junked key components of Dobbs's plotting, rather hilariously transforming not one but two fatal defeats for FU into triumphs, leaving Dobbs in rather an awkward place in writing the sequels), and Davies self-identifies as a liberal.

For what it's worth, though I am emphatically not a conservative, I think there is good conservative popular fiction. It's never the stuff one thinks of, though, no more than is good liberal popular fiction. That's because fiction written to a thesis is almost always tendentious. It suffers from "try too hard" syndrome, whatever the political slant. But R.F. Delderfield's views are gently conservative, and those views inform his work. But he has a broad enough view of the world that non-conservatives can read his writings without feeling attacked. So, for example, To Serve Them All My Days may have a firebrand socialist minder's son as its protagonist, but his integration into a traditional boarding school as its Headmaster is its story arc. "Pow-Wow" never recants his socialist views, but they become less important to him than the well being of the local community of which he is the steward.

Likewise Simon Raven spreads the satire fairly evenly--he has Labour white hats as well as Tories, though the narrator's asides are pretty consistently conservative--sometimes acidly so. Likewise Susan Howatch's theology trends traditionalist in nature, though, like her fictional mystic Jonathan Darrow, I suspect that she is beyond party affiliation. Another favorite of mine, George MacDonald Fraser, was a crusty old Tory long before he was old. So I think it's fair to acknowledge that there is first rate writing from conservatives. I just don't see either House of Cards or Yes, Minister as fitting that category.

However, most of my examples are from a time of greater consensus. And this brings me back to my earlier point: Tendentious novels usually are less well done than those where character (or plot) drive the storyline. Ideological purity is bad for art. I would suggest that much American conservative writing in the last few years has been just that--ideological, and thus mostly bad art. The current conservative movement's sense of being contra mundum is just not good for the muse, unless held in check, any more than is a liberal sense of grievance. In Phineas at Bay, Sir William McScuttle, was a sincere effort to try to depict a 19th Century Social Darwinist, but, because I didn't spend as much time with him, lacked enough roundness to be entirely successful. (I think I did considerably better with Tories Savrola Vavasour and Frank Greystock).

Conservative art tends to not work because it's conservative before it's art.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Polari? Uh-oh!

So, a little over a week ago, a group of ordinands at Westcott House Anglican theological College kicked up a bit of a scandal by holding a Polari Evensong. Or, as the Guardian explains:
A leading theological college that trains priests for the Church of England has apologised after it hosted a service to mark LGBT history month that referred to God as “the Duchess”.

Student priests at Westcott House in Cambridge organised the evensong service on Tuesday in the college chapel. Advertised as a “Polari evening prayer in anticipation of LGBT+ history month”, it was described as a “liturgical experiment”. Polari is slang used by some gay people.

A prayer referred to the “Fantabulosa fairy” and ended: “Praise ye the Duchess. The Duchess’s name be praised.” Psalm 19 was reworded to refer to “O Duchess, my butchness”.
Oh, as usual, dear.

Not that I like to visit, but Virtueonline (of course_ has the service leaflet. A sample:
Rend your thumping chests and not your frocks, and turn unto the Duchess your Gloria; for she is bona and merciful, slow to wild, and of dowry kindness, and repenteth her of the nana.

O Duchess, open thou our lips.

And our screech shall show forth thy praise.

O Gloria, make speed to save us.

O Duchess, make haste to help us.

Fabeness be to the Auntie, the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy,

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, wold nantl end. Lariou.

Praise ye the Duchess.

The Duchess's name be praised.
You get the idea.

Look, five points for the translation of Psalm 19:2 as "Journo unto journo uttereth cackle." And I'm not likely to join Andrew Symes and Rod Dreher in reflexive outrage, but I have to say, the exercise does seem to me ill thought out and ill advised. First, according to the Telegraph (quoted by VO, above link):
The Principal of Westcott House, Revd Canon Chris Chivers, told The Telegraph that the service had not been vetted beforehand; was not an authorised act of worship; and was "hugely regrettable".

He added: "The service that was produced was completely at variance with the doctrine and teaching of the Church of England."

Canon Chivers said that worshippers -- who included staff and ordinands -- had not been warned of the unorthodox content in advance and only discovered it when they picked up their orders of service.

"People found themselves in a situation they hadn't expected," he said.
In Now that to me raises an issue of the exercise of good judgment. It's one thing to work out a rite of worship for private use, or on a retreat. It's quite another to switch out the authorized liturgy for a new creation that uses alternative language that may be either comical or deeply offensive to those expecting a traditional or at least authorized Evensong, and will certainly be unfamiliar (as Polari largely died out about 50 years ago). It raises the question of what were the ordinands hoping to achieve? Anything more than ├ępater la bourgeoisie? If so, they could have advertised the liturgy well in advance, letting worshippers know what they were in for. Back in 2005, the "Clown Eucharist" held by my good friends at Trinity Wall Street (seriously, I was a parishioner at TWS for many years, and have great affection for the place and people) was flagged in advance to the parishioners, allowing them to make an informed decision whether to attend or, er, go elsewhere that morning.

Now, a quite spirited theological defense of the service may be found here, and an equally spirited (but irenic) reply here. I'm afraid I find the defense of the liturgy less persuasive than the critique. Some of the turns of phrase in the Polari Evensong can be quite amusing, but Evensong isn't meant to be funny. Moreover, the words just don't work; ultimately they don't convey the content adequately, and, frankly, in some places empty the theological content out--the "Son" as part of the Trinity conveys rather a different meaning than the "Homie Chavvie."

Prudence is a virtue, dear ordinands.

Raven's Study of the Crown

Since last December, I've been on a bit of a Simon Raven tear, re-reading Alms for Oblivion and now the first of two novels linking that sequence with his last major work, the seven novels collectively called The First Born in Egypt. Raven's cynicism, joie de vivre, despair, and stubborn clinging to a shredded sense of honor in what he viewed as a deeply dishonorable age has moved me in a way it didn't first time around. He was a man who loved pleasure too much, but hoped for more than pleasure, only to find himself profoundly at odds with his own times. As I mentioned last post, the barely suppressed rage at what he saw as the decadence of his times, even as he sought to enjoy them, sometimes surfaces in his works, and when not overly didactic, adds a power to the books. He's like the guest at the funeral meal who drinks too much, and shares his grief and fury too freely.

Meanwhile, I had been watching Netflix's The Crown, which I found very interesting, in part because so many of the casting choices were risky, but they all work--John Lithgow is superb as Winston Churchill, Matt Smith is showing a whole new level of depth as Prince Philip, and Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby are magnificent. (By praising these actors, I don't mean to slight the rest of the cast; the quality of the performances is admirable throughout.)

But I was particularly grabbed by Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor and Lia Williams as the Duchess. Williams in particular manages to make Wallis a powerful presence even before she is given any spoken lines. Their complex portrayal of the almost-royal couple piqued my interest in the real people, and with my copies of Ziegler's and Donaldson's biographies unavailable to me just now, I went online, and came across the 1980 drama, Edward and Mrs. Simpson, written by--of course--Simon Raven.

It too is brilliantly acted--Edward Fox has never been better, and Cynthia Harris--now here's the odd bit: At first, I didn't see what she was doing with the part. She seemed too sweet, too deferential for Wallis Simpson, as I have read about her (admittedly some 20 years ago). But as the story unfolds, I began to grasp it.

The Wallis Simpson of popular imagination s not the woman we first we meet. Indeed, the Wallis we see in newsreels is not who we first meet; the experience leading to the Abdication changes her public persona, and she becomes what we think we know in stages. Beyond that, there is an interesting meditation going on in Raven's script about sexuality and power. Everyone defers to Fox's David, except for his parents, and Wallis. And David likes her lack of deference, her assumption of prerogative. Their relationship has a reality for him that neither of his other amours can provide.

Waris Hussein paces the unfolding story just right--slow enough to create the world of 1930s upper-class Britain, and yet brisk enough to not flag. The beauty of many of the sequences is sumptuous, creating the reality of the world depicted.

I'm struck by the parallels between David and Wallis as conceived by Raven and his Alms characters Gregory and Isobel Stern. Like David and Wallis, Gregory and Wallis are seemingly ill-assorted (he, a Jewish publisher of serious literary fiction, she, the daughter of a very establishment, and thus Anglican, Tory power-broker--not nobility, but very upper class), but they form the one enduring and mutually satisfactory relationship in the series. As with Wallis and David, power within the relationship is very much at issue with Isobel and Gregory; they shift roles depending on circumstances, and with mutual trust (and occasional teasing). The failed relationships in Raven's depiction in Alms are those which try to hew too closely to the conventional molds of the 1950s and 1960s.

Not unlike the world of Alms for Oblivion, that of Edward and Mrs. Simpson is profoundly compromised and tainted; the Archbishop of Canterbury winks at David having a mistress, husbands are complicit with their wives' affairs and vice-versa. Edward, in inviting Thelma Furness to come on safari with him, is reassured by her telling him that her husband Duke will find his own distractions in her absence; he answers almost wistfully, "I like everyone to be happy."

Whether anybody in this glib, glittering world is happy is the unanswered question of Edward and Mrs. Simpson; there is significant reason to doubt that all the high-living elite characters chasing distraction and fearing boredom above all other evils are. It's based closely on Frances Donaldson's biography, Edward VIII (Donaldson was an adviser for the series), but it is very much steeped in Raven's tragic-comic weltanschauung. As in Alms, one feels the old order cracking up, while those who ostensibly rule it close their eyes to the slowly building and approaching avalanche that will bury their world forever.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The End of Learning

Just taking a moment to reflect on a passage from Simon Raven's The Roses of Picardie (1980). I haven't mentioned this in writing about Raven, because this politics are the least interesting thing about him, but he's the most conservative novelist whose works I like (Robertson Davies is a parlor pink in comparison). He can, on occasion, be virulent in his conservatism, but more often he's amusing and trenchant. In Roses, he brings back from Places Where They Sing (1970), Ivor Winstanley, a conservative member of his fictional Cambridge institution, Lancaster College, and has the older, established fellow discussing education with "Len," a junior who wishes to be a fellow:
"That's just what you would think, Ive. Here's that grotty Len, you think, just a typical lower-class student, choosing one of those absurd new subjects which we have to let them do because they're too stupid do anything else and we've got to go with the political fashion and find some excuse for letting them stay here. So this Len, we let him write a thesis about some rubbish called creative therapies, which keeps him happy, and stops him making trouble. That's what you think, isn't it Ive?"

"Roughly....I must admit...yes."

"You don't understand a thing, man. You don't understand that what I really want....what a lot of us really to be just the same as you. Only we can't be, see? We weren't brought up to it; we weren't taught the right things. We weren't taught the ancient languages, or even the modern ones, so's you'd notice. We weren't told about French Painting or Classical Music, or how many balls on a baron's coronet or how to talk. We weren't even taught proper history, only the the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the crappy-arse labour movement; no kings or battles for us, no Boargias, and no Caesars. . . . Now, Ive, we were just crammed full of balls full about self-expression, and equality, and a new society, ad told to go forth and build the bloody thing. And since it was the only way out, since it was that or the shop floor, we obeyed; we went along with their terms, Ive, which for most of us meant strictly social studies. Science or medicine we were allowed if we had a bent for them, but your sort of Latin and Greek palaver--never."
Now, this explosion (rather like Raven's splenetic animosity to student movements in Places Where They Sing--is readily assailable on specifics, but it seems to me that there are two notes that ring true.

The first, that education is becoming coterminous with career training was highlighted in 2015 when Wisconsin Scott Walker proposed changing "the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system — known as the Wisconsin Idea and embedded in the state code — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with 'meet the state’s workforce needs.'” {Yes, Walker denied having intended the deletion; as the linked article shows, the denial conflicts with the evidence.]

My point is not to hold out Walker s a uniquely bad actor, but rather to suggest that his viewpoint has become too widely held. Back in 2013, I quoted David Brooks's distinction between "technical" and "practical" knowledge, and asked:
Guess what doesn't even make the cut in Brooks's schema? You guessed it, what Schulman describes as "the disciplines that comprised a college education in its entirety for thousands of years," or, as Werner Jaeger, encapsulating the education of the ancient Greeks would put it, padeia, "the shaping of Greek character through a union of civilization, tradition, literature, and philosophy." (See Clara Claiborne Park's more recent (1982) appraisal and critique of Jaeger's magnum opus.) The point of education is education, not merely equipping the student for her or his role in the market economy; that kind of technical equipping vision of education smacks a little bit of the feared "Huxlean Nightmare" predicted by Collins and Skover in the 1990s. Up through my own law school years, most of the academics I met believed, however wryly, in the dream of an expanded base of education until it became effectively universal; education as finding and unlocking the potentialities of each student, as well as equipping them professionally. With enrollment at an all-time high, universities with unprecedented resources and means of disseminating and sharing information, they nonetheless seem to be by degrees, dwindling into an extended orientation course.
There's another aspect to Raven's critique: Class. The role of educational attainments in establishing one's role in the social hierarchy. Knowing one's way around the Greek and Latin tags that demonstrate membership in the club. That seems to me to be very much on the wane. And that's, as Raven intimates, a very good thing.

Or would be, if the classics were becoming more widely known and appreciated. Instead, we're drowning in content, and all of it is equally disposable--or so it seems. And Raven's not wrong to key these changes to the min-to-late 20th Century; I'm shocked when I consider my own ignorance under the 19th Century's standards--I wince when I look at the Harvard Classics reading list, and realize how many I have never read. And yet I pass as an educated man!

None of this has much to do with the point of Raven's novel--it's one of the two books that pivot between Alms for Oblivion and The First Born of Egypt, and it's the first where his flirtation with the supernatural begins to drift center stage...

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Party of Hope and the Party of Experience

Nick Loprete, a coruscatingly brilliant and funny teacher of mine when I was a student at Fordham, once grew surprisingly serious. It's many years ago, now, so his words are lost to me. But here is what I took from him that day:

American literature is divided into two basic perspectives--the Party of Hope and the Party of Experience.[1]. The first faces Westward, ever west. Its adherents rush out into the wide-open spaces, country that has not yet been broken and claimed and made into something owned and domesticated. The Party of Hope is always looking outward, seeking the new place and the new self, and seeking to find the place where they may fuse into the fresh start, the new self, in harmony with the world around it.

The Party of Experience faces Eastward, ever east. Its adherents reside in the settled places, the old established communities, where the architecture has had time to grow old enough to recall a past nobody alive can describe from memory. Whether the Party of Experience's member lives in the glittering cosmopolitan cities, the staid, handsome gently aging villages, or the decaying towns, whose beauty comes from their evocation of past glories gone beyond recall, the denizen of the Party of Experience lives in a place settled long enough to have ghosts and ghost stories.

The Party of Hope looks to tomorrow; the Millennium approaches.

The Party of Experience knows that however fast you run, however far you go, you cannot escape your existential self.

[1] Yes, I know; Emerson called it the Party of Memory. But I'm not channeling Emerson now, am I?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"Be happy. . . I'll Look After the Rest."

After only three seasons, Peter Capaldi is leaving Doctor Who.

Yes, I know Matt Smith and David Tennant had three seasons each too. And Christopher Eccleston only had the one.

And I have loved them all. But Capaldi has been, as I have written, my Doctor since season 8 started--and I say this as a fan who watched the late Tom Baker era spool out in real time, and caught up on Tom's entire run thanks to PBS Saturday morning rebroadcasts. It was Jon Pertwee's era--and his bantering relationship with Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier, not to mention Roger Delgado as the Master--that converted me to the show, watched in slightly fuzzy videotapes in the basement of a good friend's home.

But Capaldi grabbed me in a way that no other actor to play the part has. In part, it's his superb performance. Capaldi is one of the most versatile actors the BBC has. While we have seen flashes of his infamous Malcolm Tucker in his performance, as expected, we've seen a greater depth to his Doctor, calling out the actor who limned the long-suppressed emotion of Randall Brown in "The Hour":

And could recite Dylan Thomas with what sounds like his last breath:

Capaldi brought this weight to Doctor Who. You can see it in his speech in "Flatline," when the Doctor has to work himself up into the sort of epic-speech-of-epicness Tennant and Smith could give easily. Capaldi's Doctor, less charming, more brusque, is in fact less ruthless than they were, and the banishment his foes does not come naturally.

That was only the beginning of Capaldian complexity enriching the show. Capaldi showed his softer side again in the Doctor's matter-of-factly forgiving Clara (Jenna Coleman) for betraying him in "Deep Water":

I won't add, though you might rewatch them, his speech about war, the lovely two-hander he does with Alex Kingston, or the master acting class that is Heaven Sent. I'll just state that, without any disrespect to his predecessors, no other run has presented quite the fusion between the actor and the show runner we have enjoyed under Capaldi and Moffat.

As always, renewal will come, and the show will move on. But I'm grateful we have one more run with my Doctor.