Archives for posts with tag: women

I avoid adaptations as a rule. If it is a book I have no interest in reading, why would I want to see a TV version? If I do want to read it, why would I spoil the pleasures of it? And if I have read it, why would I want someone else’s interpretation ruining mine? I can’t help but thinking if everybody followed this logic, then there would be a lot more space for some original programmes to me made.

Yet every so often one suckers me in. It helps if I’m nostalgic about the book, the reading of it conjuring up a time in my life. Plus there are surely some books that they can’t mess around with that much.

Such is the case with The Woman in White. I read this at university and loved it. Victorians knew how to do Gothic sensationalism. Menacing aristocrats, creepy buildings, women who would kill you as quick as kiss you, it’s all there. And there is nothing like sinking your teeth into a good mystery. It transfers to TV so easily that it seems silly to faff about with it.

Yet there has been faff. First, an artsy narrative structure has been imposed of characters giving statements to a solicitor dealing with a case, but not necessarily the case at the centre of the story. Then there’s the feminist speech my Marian Halcombe. I have no objection to feminist speeches, but a good adapter would have found a way of showing us that men are wicked towards women rather than telling us. It’s all there in the plot anyway, so why club us over the head at the start

Having said that, I don’t totally object to this adaptation. Jessie Buckley is very good as Marian, playing the less-than-typical Victorian lady as was intended, opening speech besides. In fact, the casting all round works so far. I have a shaky memory of the finer details of the book, which will help the adapters get away with some things, but Walter Hartright is largely an ineffectual hero until the end, and Ben Hardy, without being rude, has that look about him.

What will make this adaptation live or die is the performance of Count Fosco, who makes his first appearance in the second episode. He needs to be charming yet threatening, and if memory serves me correctly, attractive despite (or because of) him carrying a bit of extra weight. If that doesn’t work, the book’s most alluring character is dead in the water and the rest of the plot with it.

I still come back to that jarring note though I understand that if a story has been told before then it needs a new way. But credit the viewers with being modern enough to see the misogyny played before them. Don’t make characters utter statements that render the plot impotent. And don’t think you know better than the classics. They became so for a reason.

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After a bit of a delay, I have finally got round to catching up on Derry Girls. For the unaware, this is a sitcom set in early 90s Derry at the height of the Troubles. Essentially, a coming-of-age story with a darkly humourous backdrop. Derry is a city that behaves like a small town, in that everyone knows everyone else. Part of my keen interest in the show is that one of my closest friends is from that neck of the woods and she has assured me that, yes, it really is like that.

The focus is on Erin, a fairly typical teenage girl, desperate to improve her status despite already having a loyal gang of mates. There is her cousin Orla, who is dim witted and flaky. Claire operates as the group’s moral compass, but is perhaps too moral and is quick to turn grass. Michelle is the gobby trouble causer, who always has a get rich scheme. And finally, there’s James, the only boy in an all-girls school and who has committed the sin of being, gasp, English.

Interestingly, all the characters seem to be increasingly well fleshed out, bar Erin. For a focal point, she seems a remarkably blank canvas. Her main role seems to be to contort her face in disgust at everything around her, which is getting slightly annoying. Thankfully, the other characters have enough of a footprint to raise the show.

The adult members of the cast are also good. Erin’s grandad constantly undermining his son-in-law, who seems to be an ocean of sanity amongst the madness. Orla’s mum, Aunt Sarah, is every bit as daffy as her daughter.

The show is stolen though by headmistress and nun Sister Michael. There is a delicious stony expression that lives on her face permanently, whether it is dealing with a failed attempt by Michelle to bully a Year 7 or banning ‘Love is All Around’ from the school assembly list. Her deadpan comments are a sheer delight and worth the entry fee alone.

The timeliness of the show cannot go unnoticed either. Just as the Good Friday Agreement comes under serious threat through a mixture of Brexit and the power collapse at Stormont, this is a reminder of the bad old days, where bomb threats and paramilitary attacks were worryingly routine. Whilst this is a fertile ground for dark humour (the first episode sees lots of jokes about a suspicious package on the main road through Derry) it should also be a stark message about not wanting to go back in time.

Is it funny? Yes, perhaps not side-splittingly, but will certainly raise a giggle. It is also well crafted and smart. And if all else fails, it has a corking soundtrack of early 90’s classics. Yes, the main character needs work. But that doesn’t stop it being a joy.

Firstly, an apology for missing a week. Real life got in the way. And by real life, I mean a Christmas Afternoon High Tea with prosecco. But I am back now, so let’s crack on.

Last year the BBC launched a number of sitcom pilots to see if any could generate enough interest to succeed as a series. Most failed to even raise an eyebrow, but one – Motherland – generated both critical and public acclaim. This perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider the calibre of people working on it. Two of the four writers are Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan, both of whom have a pedigree in making excellent comedies.

Motherland is, as the title obviously suggests, about parenting. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Julia, who is trying to ‘have it all’ and ending up often with having nothing but stress thanks to a feckless husband. Diane Morgan is the more slatternly (and presumably unemployed) single mum Liz, Lucy Punch as queen of the ‘Tiger Mums’ Amanda and Paul Ready is stay-at-home dad Kevin.

It has to be said the strongest character is Liz, full of brutal honesty and realism with also a touch vulnerability. A particular highlight came in episode one when Julia’s entertainer for her child’s birthday party was exposed as a racist and Liz had also used and refused to pay him. When Julia queried if it was the racism, Liz responded with: “No, because he was shit! If I didn’t pay people because they were racist I would have never got my satellite dish fitted. Or my wedding catered for”.

This more down-to-earth humour balances the more manic energies brought by Julia and Kevin. The latter in particular is annoying, a mixture of weird obsessiveness with a desperation to please normally only seen in puppies. It is the fact this portrayal veers in the cartoony that is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody else you feel is somewhat believable, regardless of their faults.

Putting Kevin aside, this is an excellent comedy. It actually makes you laugh as the strands of the episode build to a climax. There isn’t any of the absurdism of Linehan’s other sitcoms, but then, that wouldn’t work here. This is about wry observations of modern parenting and the social rules that come with it.

I hope this show achieves continued success. Female-dominated comedies often get plenty of well-meaning comments but nothing to show for it. This deserves more. At the very least, a BAFTA for Morgan, who seems to be constantly just bubbling under the surface as a breakout talent. Maybe this could be her chance to join those at comedy’s top table. She has earnt it.

 

I’m sure regular readers are all too aware of my love for Orange Is The New Black. I genuinely consider it to be on the most original shows out there. You can laugh your head off at one scene and be heartbroken by the next. And I have waxed lyrical about the diversity of the cast, but I will say it again for those at the back – this is THE show that waves the flag for diversity.

My love did dim a little last season. There was too much darkness, too much oppression, too many people at warm. OITNB is skilled at doing those little uplifting moments, but there were too few last time.

Yet this repressive atmosphere is what has led to the catatonic energy of season 5, which centres on a riot. The emotional explosions only work because so much was contained previously. It also is where the viewer gets a big payoff. We have followed these characters for quite some time now and know them. Seeing the breadth of reactions is powerful. We have the Hawaiian woman who chooses to hide, the meth heads who decide to become guards, and those who seek to exploit it purely for their own gain.

The humour is right back in full flow. Big Boo, so dislikeable at times early on, has become a one-liner machine and her growing friendship with Pennsatucky is one of the most rewarding sub-plots in the show. Meanwhile, Red on amphetamines has to be one of the most perfectly pitched pieces of slapstick I have seen.

The heartbreak is here too though. So-So’s reaction to Poussey’s death has been well played, subtle little moments of private grief interspersed with explosions of anger. It is a grief that burns away and eats you from the inside.

The star of this season though is Taystee. Having spent most of the first four seasons as a comedic foil or second-in-command, she is now the leader. She is the one who is driving through change. This isn’t just revenge on the guards, or even salvaging something from Poussey’s death. This is about changing the entire culture of the prison and restoring humanity. The failure of those outside to grasp this – both the media and the corporations – is a damning indictment of how fair minded those of us we consider ‘civilised’ actually are.

If I could make one change, it is that I feel that there are some stories still not being told. Take the Nazis, who suddenly appeared last season. Why are they who they are? Everyone else is given a reason for their behaviour, why not them? In making the case for diversity, is this show failing to explore the mind set of those who oppose it?

This show has always been a social commentary. It has, at times, lost this too soapiness and titillation. But this time, it seems to be pitched just right. This should be compulsory viewing for all those that think the private sector is the answer to our problems or that we can dehumanise sub-sections of our society without a cost. Yet they are the very people that will not watch it.

The biggest problem with any series that is set in the recent past is the tendency for the lifestyle of whichever era is being recreated to be viewed through rose-tinted spectacles and, in some extreme cases, to be fetishized. Downton Abbey falls into this trap, with viewers believing the early 1920’s was all picnic’s and jazz bands. Of course, in this case such romanticism is deliberate, as the creator Julian Fellowes seems to treat the past not just as ‘another country’ but a better one. There may be political turmoil around the world which is only just clambering out of a devastating war, but at least everyone dressed properly for dinner.

The Bletchley Circle almost falls into the same trap. Again, we find Britain picking itself up from the hammer-blows of international conflict, although this time in the 1950’s as opposed to the 1920’s. Yet it also neatly avoids many of them, and certainly denies many viewers the opportunity to wish themselves there. This largely down to the premise and genre. Four former Bletchley Park code breakers reunite to rescue a friend from being wrongfully convicted of murder. This is a sequel to the original series where one of the group (Anna Maxwell Martin, who seems to be currently living in period costumes) spotted the pattern of a serial killer far faster than the police did. With crime and the behaviour of bad people at the forefront there is naturally less of a desire to wish yourself in a time machine to join them.

Likewise, the social environment appears far more cruel than we find in Downton. It is telling that of the three women who are all still in work, all are single, and mainly in menial roles. The fourth, Martin herself, is married with children and is therefore obligated to be a housewife. There is a telling scene when she is visiting boarding schools for her daughter where she is brusquely informed by the headmistress that girls in general are not to be encouraged to study maths, as the arts and languages are much more appropriate, with Martin using every fibre of her soul to not tell the teacher exactly where to stick her education. And with it being the 1950’s her husband doesn’t understand this frustration, after all his daughter’s future husband is the one who needs skills to succeed in the workplace. Ditto his breezy comment about being promoted to a post abroad, with the subtext that his wife can say no, but they will go anyway so she can go with a smile on her face or sulking, either way the boat leaves soon.

In fact, underneath the grisly crimes and the jolly hockey-sticks banter, what appears to be most at the centre of Bletchley is what does a society do with woman when their skills beyond producing babies and running a home are surplus to requirements? As terrifying as World War Two was, it gave women social and economic freedoms. A whole generation of bright, young girls found doors opening and a ‘purpose’ only for 6 years later to be gently eased or shoved back out of them again when the men came home.

Yet as Martin’s character demonstrates, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. A generation of ‘pushy’ mothers who found there talents going to waste ensured their daughters got a better education and could compete with men. They literally gave birth to the second-wave of women’s lib activists. It was a slow path, and still is, but we should all be thankful it is one that was started.

One of the biggest disadvantages of being a Brit who enjoys American TV is the gap between programmes initial transmission date and when we over the pond actually get to see it. Yes, I know there are internet sites to cater for that, but I find these a frustrating experience, full of pop-up ads reminding me the secret to happiness is a flat stomach and lots of money. Having said that, my most joyous moments seem to be stuffing my face on something overpriced, so maybe these ads haven’t quite hit the nail on the head on that front after all.

Anyway, back to my main point. A good example of the pain this delay in transmission causes is Don’t Trust the B—-, a delightfully snappy comedy that is shown in the UK alongside the Mean Girls/Real Housewives inspired sitcom Suburgatory, which I have waxed lyrical about previously. Don’t Trust the B—- is silly and sharp in equal measure, with every barb at pop culture balanced by a crass or surreal line or piece of physical comedy. Sadly, the show didn’t find an audience over in the States, so the second season will be the last.

This saddens me. It saddens me because it is yet another show where the lead characters are funny, intelligent women, yet for some reason the ratings are saying to execs ‘no thanks, we would rather screen some all-male buddy comedy with a casual layer of misogyny, where guys get all the banter and their women look all disapprovingly for 30 minutes, you know, like the film Grown-Ups‘. Whitney has likewise been axed, and even though The Mindy Project has been renewed, I fear that it will suffer a similar fate soon. 2 Broke Girls is looking like the last hope of some oestrogen to be on the box, and it seems a shame to have just one comedy flying the flag for 50% of the world’s population.

Having said that, we do no better in Britain. We produce far fewer sitcoms, but a look at the panel shows tells a similar story. There are a lot of funny women out there, yet even Mock the Week and QI, the most left-wing of shows on mainstream TV, seem to have difficulty most weeks getting past the token woman problem. And don’t get me started on 8 Out of 10 Cats, which although is filthily funny at times, deliberately hires female panelists like Jamelia and women off TOWIE so there can be at least one moment where they can say something daft and Jimmy Carr can get a few cheap laughs. Yes, there are dumb men as well, but they are treated more like sweet (or creepy) imbeciles putting on an act, the court jester even, rather than as genuinely thick.

It would be a shame that at a time when so many intelligent women are fighting to be heard, both in fictional shows and in real life, that they be shooed off because some overly loud men who don’t like it. I mourn the loss of funny, sharp women from the media,  as they bring light and shade to a testosterone driven world. And let’s face it, recent events have shown we don’t exactly have an excess of men to take their place.

 

Now seems a good time to be a woman in comedy. 30 Rock, Parks & Rec and to a lesser degree Whitney have all done their bit to reclaim the trope of female protagonist from that of brand-obsessed, multiple shoe-owning, body-clocked governed woman who Sex and the City and Bridget Jones unleashed. Take Liz Lemon. 30 Rock was seven seasons of a woman who, despite the ridiculousness of everyone who surrounded her, loved her job and wanted a personal life to match. The lesson when the show ended was not about compromising your aims but being pragmatic about the means. The last episode was a master class in how to tie-up a series for good.

The early signs for The Mindy Project are that Mindy Lahiri could follow a similar path. All the markers are there: job that she loves but also interferes with her personal life, a habit of picking unsuitable men but never allowing this to blow her off course, and a kooky bunch of friends who also have life lessons to learn (but only when they are not helping our eponymous heroine).

Mindy has that balance of razor-sharp intellect with questionable judgement which works. It’s a tricky one to master: my biggest frustration with New Girl is that Jess’s judgement is so poor that I doubt the character’s ability to be profound. Mindy is far more believable as a character: for starters we finally have a lead female character who makes jokes about having a poor lifestyle who actually has a body that reflects that (lack of vanity is always a big plus in a female character in my book). And my favourite moment of the series so far came from when she barged into the (male) midwives office, won back all of her lost patients by exposing her rivals lack of knowledge about medicine and openly stole from their office.

Yes there are a few jokes about clothes and she does still define her happiness by her need for a man, but the character will hopefully grow. Like Liz she will find the man who works for her. It won’t be a glamorous life but it will be one that works for her. TV needs women like Mindy Kalling and Tina Fey to show young women that you can get what you want. It might not come in the packaging you expect, but the content be exactly what you wish for. The Carrie Bradshaw’s are never happy. The Liz Lemon’s are. Now that is a lesson that both men and women can learn from.