Thursday, 16 July 2015

On the Box: TV Reviews

“Means?” said Stephen. “That is an odd word to use. Yet it is true – skin can mean a great deal. Mine means that any man can strike me in a public place and never fear the consequences. It means that my friends do not always like to be seen with me in the street. It means that no matter how many books I read, or languages I master, I will never be anything but a curiosity – like a talking pig or a mathematical horse.” (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell)

Sadly “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” has come to an end. A wonderful mix of period drama and magic, taking the viewer into the ordinary world of the early 1800s, and then into the stranger world of faerie. All the parts were played by actors who were relatively unknown which I think added to its strength; there’s always some difficulty in appreciating a well known actor in a quite different role. But the characterisations were wonderful, especially the leads - Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan. Special mention should also go to the brooding Enzo Cilenti and the charming but deadly “gentleman”, played by Marc Warren., and Ariyon Bakare as Stephen Black, an understated performance of distress as "the nameless slave".

With Stephen Black and his story, slavery is something which was below the surface of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, where the fictions roots in history anchor it to a time when so many lives were wasted.

The vast compensation paid to slave owners, and the way in which its tentacles crept like an insidious and pervasive weed into British society was the subject of a documentary tonight - "Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners" presented by historian David Olusoga. One individual who became a slave overseer kept a detailed journal, and it is a journal of horrors, as he easily becomes assimiliated to ordering beatings and even more inventive tortures of the slaves under him.

A recent talk in Jersey about a year ago revealed how many clergy had invested into the slave business, as the return on a modest injection of capital was considerably more than other choices of investment. In these days when we are now realising that there is an importance in "ethical investment", it is salutory to see how so many clergy and some Jersey people connived in the slave trade by unethical investments.

A detailed database of slave ownership - and the compensation paid to end slavery by the British government is available at:

Christopher Lee was the subject of a documentary on Saturday and it was interesting to see how he changed his mind about his favourite film – “The Wicker Man” – into that of “Jinnah” in which he played the founder of Pakistan, Jinnah in a biopic about the founding of that nation. I’ve never seen the film, but having heard Lee on it, and read a few reviews, I think I’d like to.

There was something of a “Lee fest” last weekend, with “The Mummy”, “The Devil Rides Out” (Lee as a hero for once), “Dracula” and “Frankenstein”. The first Dracula film was his strongest, while he had far less to work with as the creature made by Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein. In “The Mummy”, however, he was the High Priest in the historical flashbacks, but also managed to convey emotion through his body language and eyes extremely well as the titular monster. “The Devil Rides Out” sees him shine as the Duc de Richelieu in what is a pretty faithful movie rendering of the Dennis Wheatley novel.

I enjoyed the first part of Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Railway Journey, even though some of the television conventions make me long for the days of the late Keith Floyd. She gets one ticket for her journey, with great emphasis on this - “just one ticket” whereas it is obvious there is at least one other individual holding the camera and recording the sound.

Dear old Keith used to always tell the camera man to come closer and look at the food (and not the glass of wine in his hand!), and was one of the first to break the unwritten rule that the person in these programmes is always supposed to be alone. Michael Palin managed to bring his crew into part of his journey “Around the World in 80 Days”, but Joanna reverted to the rather old fashioned call for a suspension of belief by the viewer.

The stories of China were fascinating, and what struck me clearly was that despite a Communist Revolution, all these ancient palaces and statuary has been preserved as part of Chinese culture, including the massive Buddha figures – the nose of one was something like 6 feet long!

Such a contrast with Dan Cruickshank’s recent film detailing the destruction of ancient monuments by the Islamic State which really is wiping the slate clean. To preserve the ancient heritage of China shows that even in the most repressive days of Chairman Mao, there must have been some glimmer of light.

That reminds me of a recent blog post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt in which she says:

Every life contains brokenness, but the brokenness doesn't need to define the life. Our broken places can also be openings for something new. As the great sage Leonard Cohen teaches, "There is a crack in everything; it's how the light gets in."

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