Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Raven, Upstairs Downstairs, and Empire: Reviews

The Raven

Last Saturday, we watched "The Raven" on DVD tonight. Not the gruesome Karloff / Lugosi one, but the lighter, rather more fun one (1963) produced by Roger Corman where Vincent Price and Boris Karloff have a magical duel. It is extremely loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe - Price does recite the poem at the start - and is quite a short film, a bit slow at the start, but working up to a fine comic gothic horror film.

Hazel Court provides some eye candy, and an extremely young Jack Nickolson is present, and is bewitched at one point, showing that even then he could turn in a manic performance. Peter Lorre also provides some excellent humour as second rate magician Dr Bedloe who is turned into a talking raven. Nothing is what is seems in this light comedy horror film, with an extremely clever magic duel using "gesture magic", and some very good effects that work even today. Here is where Dr Bedloe wants to be returned to human form....

Dr. Bedloe: Restore me to my rightful form
Dr. Craven: But I just don't know how
Dr. Bedloe: Oh no, well do you got some dried blood of a bat in the house?
Dr. Craven: I beg your pardon
Dr. Bedloe: Bat's blood! dried or evaporated bat's blood
Dr. Craven: No
Dr. Bedloe: How about some chain links from a gallow's burg?, jellied spiders, rabbit's blood, dead man's hair?
Dr. Craven: No we don't keep those things in this house - we're vegetarians

Upstairs Downstairs

Sunday night, we watched the new series of Upstairs Downstairs: War looms, and there is considerable focus on the "rioting" against Jewish shops, synagogues and homes, which Sir Hallam rightly sees as deliberately instigated by the Nazi Party.

Lady Persie decides to come back from Berlin, as the riots erupt around her, while the Kindertransport is launched to save Jewish children from the dangers to come. There's a lovely piece where the children arrive on the train, and instead of incidental music is a choir singing "I vow to thee, my country", which works extremely well.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Joseph Kennedy comes to a dinner party at Eaton Place, with his son Jack, and offers Sir Hallam a post as European policy advisor to him in America. Curiously, no mention is made of Joseph Kennedy's strong anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi leanings - perhaps this will come in a later episode?

Meanwhile a subplot concerned friction below stairs, and the temporary loss of the cook to take up residence with her nephew's family (and get on their nerves). This was a much weaker story and didn't work terribly well, especially with the contrast to the larger events unfolding.


Monday had Jeremy Paxman on Empire - the first of a five part documentary. Part of it is history, but Paxman doesn't quite seem to know where he is going; whether it is a historical documentary, or a verdict on the legacy of Empire. It's not as assured and coherent a narrative as, for example, Andrew Marr did recently.

So in between the history, for example, of the Empire in India, Paxman speaks to Indians to get their judgment on the Empire. It's sound-bite politics, and the Indian army officer quite rightly said that there was both good and bad in British rule in India, with Paxman pressing strongly for an answer that the Indians are well rid of the Empire; the officer sees the historical continuity as well as discontinuity with the standards and banners of his regiment. The way in which the questions seem to lead the person being interviewed comes over as painfully obvious - Paxman has an agenda, and he's looking for support for it.

Yet the questions, which seem very leading about how bad the Empire was, suddenly turn about when he questions the elderly Jewish lady who helped plant a bomb at the King David Hotel in Palestine in 1946, an attack on British officers and rule. Didn't the British help Jews with the Balfour Declaration and do some good, he presses home?

Grudgingly she concedes they might, but has no regrets about causing the loss of life in what she saw and sees as a necessary strike against the British. The lack of doubt and cold certainty is quite chilling.

As Paxman sees it, the Empire was a massive confidence trick, pulled off by the odd show of force, but more by grand architecture and pomp and ceremony, by the sheer assumption of superiority, and by forcing deals which were later reneged upon once they had the reigns of power. I think that's very superficial, and overlooks the fact that - in India, for example - the forging of a single nation state was also done by railways linking the disparate regions together. India benefited from the industrial revolution and without the violent disruption of peasant populations in Russia when Stalin industrialised there. It's worth remembering that.

It was a kind of globalisation in microcosm, as suddenly transport between parts of the country, and movements of goods, became swift and easy. The effect of that on promoting a more uniform culture and a sense of Indian identity under Empire could not be underestimated, nor could the widening out of trade to wider markets than the next village or town. This, too, is a legacy of Empire, and one that Paxman conveniently overlooks, as also the construction of a civil service capable of administering such a vast region, which could be taken over after Indian independence.

Without mentioning America once (and America surely has a similar outlook), he talks about how the British Empire saw itself as a champion of right, with a God-given mandate to interfere in other countries where necessary; he also shows how the lesson of history is that the best of intentions are so often flawed as other people's perception of that intervention is not the same; they see a bully and are resentful. Britain had to pack up and leave Israel, failing in its self-appointed mandate. Surprisingly, he didn't mention Northern Ireland, where the same mandate for bringing peace by armed force collapsed into decades of violence against Britain.

And yet even after the Empire was disbanded (globally over a mere 20 years), the legacy remained, and Britain has been involved in other conflicts across the globe to try to bring peace.

This was the first of a five part series, and sometimes these can be patchy because they are setting up an overview of the series, but the meandering narrative didn't grip. Paxman interviews in a similar manner to Newsnight, as well, which is entirely inappropriate for a documentary, and this documentary suffers badly with comparison with Marr's Diamond Queen. It also seems to suffer from a bias against Empire that is almost a reaction against the more triumphalist Whig histories; history is more nuanced than Paxman makes out.

But this bias may help to sell it to American TV, especially if it is shown around Independence Day, and the lack of obvious comparisons between the mistakes made by the British Empire and American interventionism will surely help there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nothing touches Karloff/Lugosi's Black Cat