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Interesting Links for 04-05-2016

Another list (this time from here), another poll.

If you don't have a Livejurnal account, I believe that you can sign in with Twitter, Facebook or Google accounts to tick the boxes.

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It's a close run between this and the play I'm going to talk about tomorrow, but I think the end of Macbeth has it. It combines a strong dramatic closure to the violence of Macbeth's story with the punchline about Macduff. It's also the root of the Ngaio Marsh novel, Light Thickens, which I mentioned earlier.

Macbeth: Of all men else I have avoided thee:
But get thee back; my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.
Macduff: I have no words:
My voice is in my sword: thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out!
[They fight]
Macbeth: Thou losest labour:
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield,
To one of woman born.
Macduff: Despair thy charm;
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb
Untimely ripp'd.
Macbeth: Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,
For it hath cow'd my better part of man!
And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope. I'll not fight with thee.
Macduff: Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o' the time:
We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted on a pole, and underwrit,
'Here may you see the tyrant.'
Macbeth: I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'
[Exeunt, fighting. Alarums]

Here's Patrick Stewart, being brutally killed by Michael Feast in a Stalinist version of eleventh-century Scotland. It's pretty graphic.



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Second to fourth paragraphs of third chapter:
John [Nathan-Turner], never backward in coming forward, took advantage of tis to lobby [Bill] Slater about his aspirations to produce. "One day, during an annual interview," he recalled in his memoirs, "I restated my ambition yet again. 'Well, if you're serious, you'd better learn the PUM's job [Production Unit Manager] by doing it, then the script editor's job, then we'll talk again.'
'When do I start?'
'Tomorrow, as far as I'm concerned.'
There is no more controversial figure in the history of Doctor Who than John Nathan-Turner, the show's producer for the last 11 years years of its first run. And, apart from the man himself, there can surely be few better qualified to write about it than Richard Marson, who cut his teeth as a teenage correspondent for Doctor Who Magazine and then went into television production himself. On the strength of this I went out and bought Marson's biography of Verity Lambert.

It's a very good biography, portraying its central character warts and all, through his own interviews, interviews with others at the time, interviews with his co-workers and friends and lovers specially for the biography (Peter Davison comes across as a particularly thoughtful commentator on Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who and what was really going on), and the copious documentary evidence that is available from various sources. It's difficult to imagine anyone doing a better job (or indeed wanting to).

As in his own memoirs, JN-T comes across as a gifted but flawed character. He was addicted to spectacle and activity rather than plot, characterisation or reflection; without really trusting them sufficiently he relied too much on his script editors, the longest-serving of whom, Eric Saward, savagely and viciously turned on him. He was usually drunk by the afternoon and often bad-tempered (perhaps not unconnected). Some blame must attach to the BBC hierarchy, who could find nobody else to take on Doctor Who, and could find no other use for him, leaving both to slowly spiral into decline.

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Marson's forensic analysis of what actually happened during the Great Cancellation Crisis of 1986 is surely going to be the classic account; he recounts what happened in the last week of February 1985 almost hour by hour, JN-T stuck at a convention in America as the story raced out of control behind him. He also has a decently brief but clear account of the circumstances of Patrick Troughton's demise. And the story of JN-T's decline into ill health and early death (at 54, on 1 May 2002) is a very sad one of talent misdirected and eventually wasted.

Most of this book will only be really interesting to Who fans, because Doctor Who took up most of JN-T's career (he was hired by the BBC in 1968, and worked on Doctor Who almost continuously from 1977 until he was fired in 1990). But I think there are some wider lessons as well, about the shift of BBC internal culture leaving some people behind who were not ready for change, about the interactions between show-runners and fans, and about the ways in which creativity can be a curse to individual creators.

Interesting Links for 03-05-2016

It's a skeevy play in some ways, but I do like the end of Much Ado About Nothing:

Benedick: Which is Beatrice?
Beatrice: [Unmasking] I answer to that name. What is your will?
Benedick: Do not you love me?
Beatrice: Why, no; no more than reason.
Benedick: Why, then your uncle and the prince and Claudio
Have been deceived; they swore you did.
Beatrice: Do not you love me?
Benedick: Troth, no; no more than reason.
Beatrice: Why, then my cousin Margaret and Ursula
Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.
Benedick: They swore that you were almost sick for me.
Beatrice: They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.
Benedick: 'Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?
Beatrice: No, truly, but in friendly recompense.
Leonato: Come, cousin, I am sure you love the gentleman.
Claudio: And I'll be sworn upon't that he loves her;
For here's a paper written in his hand,
A halting sonnet of his own pure brain,
Fashion'd to Beatrice.
Hero: And here's another
Writ in my cousin's hand, stolen from her pocket,
Containing her affection unto Benedick.
Benedick: A miracle! here's our own hands against our hearts.
Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take
thee for pity.
Beatrice: I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield
upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life,
for I was told you were in a consumption.
Benedick: Peace! I will stop your mouth.
[Kissing her]

Here's David Tennant and Catherine Tate. You're welcome.



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Second paragraph of third chapter:
By five twenty that morning at least thirty of us had converged on Baker Street, so we started out for Ladbroke Grove en masse. A couple of DCs hitched a lift with me while Stephanopoulos followed on in a five-year-old Fiat Punto. I knew one of the detectives in my car. Her name was Sahra Guleed and we’d once bonded over a body in Soho. She’d also been one of the officers involved in the raid on the Strip Club of Doctor Moreau, so she was a good choice for any weird stuff.
I am really enjoying this series of occult detective stories set in contemporary London. This is a straightforward murder investigation of an American student who fell into bad company, except that the company is seriously strange and the student turns out to have had political connections back home. I like the way Aaronovitch continues to peel back the onion layers of multicultural London's hidden communities; I didn't think he handled the American elements quite as well, but that's not the story he's telling. Great fun - perhaps funnier and less grim than previous books in the series - and I look forward to the next one.

This was the top sf book from my unread pile recommended by you guys at the end of last year. In the course of the year so far, I also read the next six books on that list, Ancillary Mercy, Flatland, Uprooted, Ms Marvel v 2, Sorcerer to the Crown and The House of Shattered Wings, so my next in that category will be Frankenstein Unbound, by Brian Aldiss.

Northern Ireland Assembly Election 2016

That's the unimaginative title I have given to an ebook full of summaries of the material on the Northern Ireland Elections website, including also my piece for last Thursday's News Letter. It is now available at an Amazon near you: .co.uk, .com, .ca, .au, .de, .fr, .es, .it, .nl, .jp, .br, .mx and .in. Buy it now, before Thursday's election, so that you can follow the count on Friday and Saturday!
Pericles, Act 4 Scene 5, in its entirety.

Mytilene: a street before the brothel.

Enter, from the brothel, two Gentlemen


First Gentleman: Did you ever hear the like?
Second Gentleman: No, nor never shall do in such a place as this, she being once gone.
First Gentleman: But to have divinity preached there! did you ever dream of such a thing?
Second Gentleman: No, no. Come, I am for no more bawdy-houses: shall's go hear the vestals sing?
First Gentleman: I'll do any thing now that is virtuous; but I
am out of the road of rutting for ever.

Exeunt

OK, it's not actually my totally favourite scene, but it does show Shakespeare at his humorous best: this is a play about shipwrecks and brothels and divine inspiration, and - in context - the conversion of the two Gentlemen by Marina's virtue is both very serious and very funny.

I'm sorry to say that when asked about favourite scenes as such I tend to think of those where someone gets their comeuppance, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night III.iv or Falstaff in MWW V.v - other specific scenes are covered later in the meme.

Of the very few I did when I was at school in Belfast, I think my favourite was the Banquet scene in Macbeth, Act 3 Scene 4, where I played the title character, and Angela (now a lecturer in business in the north-west of England) played my queen while Eileen (who went on to work for Carmen Calill in London, and is now writing in central Ireland) made a ghostly appearance as Macduff. So I guess I'll settle for that.

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Episode 14: Man's Best Friend
First shown: 12 December 1970 (US), 5 February 1971 (UK)
Director: Harry Booth
Writer: Melvyn Hayes
Appearing apart from the Double Deckers:
Melvyn Hayes as Albert

Note: sorry to have missed a couple of weeks. To be honest the last few episodes are more difficult to be enthusiastic about. But there are only three more after this one.

Plot

Albert is collecting tinfoil to raise money for a guide dog for the blind (a "seeing eye dog", as Sticks helpfully explains to American viewers). The gang put on a comedy and dance show for local kids, charging in foil rather than cash, and raise enough for a dog.



Glorious Moments

Some of the jokes are almost funny.



And the kids can actually dance.



Less glorious moments

This is a pretty poor episode, which smells of running out of time and ideas (though not money; see below). Low points include Sticks' impressions of a Chinese mandarin, the "black and white" joke, and the endless slapstick. It's also a little odd that the title song is adapted to be about being on a TV show, when that is not part of this episode, except meta-textually in the sense that they are on a TV show. I hope that the audience of small children (all white) were adequately rewarded for laughing in the right places.



A particularly incongruous element is the repeated resort to Americanisms for the US viewers. Sticks explains that a guide dog is a "seeing eye dog", as noted above; jokes depend on the American usage of "fall" to mean "autumn", and the American pronunciation of "missile" (for pun on mistletoe); and at the start, for no apparent reason the boys are wearing American football gear; I'm sure that was useful in London in 1970.



Melvyn Hayes is the butt of a lot of the slapstick, but as he wrote the episode we shouldn't feel too sorry for him.



What's all this then?

The Americanisms are presumably a sign that Fox, having bankrolled the series, was demanding its pound of flesh in terms of getting some US-friendly content. I shouldn't be too cynical; in her reminiscences, Gillian Bush-Bailey reminisces about how moved she was to get letters from isolated kids at the back end of nowhere who related to the Double Deckers as their TV friends.

The BBC children's programme Blue Peter has had a regular feature every couple of years about training guide dogs for over half a century. The first such feature, in 1964, was funded by an appeal for silver foil and milk bottle tops, as were several later ones. It was quite a phenomenon in popular culture, and viewers in their early teens in 1970 would have remembered the 1964 appeal well.

This is not the first time the kids put on a show. It is, however, the last.

Who's That?

This is the only episode of the 17 with no guest stars, if one counts Melvyn Hayes as a part-time regular but doesn't count Ivor Salter's policeman, seen briefly in Tiger Takes Off.

Bruce Clark (Sticks) has completely disappeared from public view since the making of Here Come The Double Deckers. He appeared in one more TV play in 1972 and then went back to the USA. There is a recent but rather indistinct interview with him available on YouTube.



David Gerber is credited as Executive Producer of all 17 episodes. Of course, this can mean anything from benign neglect to non-stop intervention. At the time, he was also executive producer on another British-themed show that was popular in the USA, Nanny and the Professor, as well as The Ghost and Mrs Muir. During his career he was president of the television division of 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, and MGM. He is best known for the 1970s NBC series Police Story and Police Woman. Along with Harry Booth and Roy Simpson, his name appears on screen as the opening credits roll in every episode.



Where's that?

Entirely filmed in studio.

See you next week...

...for United We Stand.

April books

Saturday reading

Current
Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
The Quarry, by Iain Banks
Banewreaker, by Jacqueline Carey

Last books finished
Het Spaanse Spook, by Willy Vandersteen

Next books
How Loud Can You Burp?, by Glenn Murphy
Walking on Glass, by Iain Banks
Short Trips: Monsters by Ian Farrington

Books acquired in last week
Representing Europeans: A Pragmatic Approach, by Richard Rose
Elizabeth I and Ireland, eds. Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle
Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Cyprus Avenue, by David Ireland
As ever, I've run this week's announcements through Goodreads and LibraryThing to count the number of owners and record the average ratings.

2016 Hugo finalists
Goodreads LibraryThing
owners av rating owners av rating
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik 111,631 4.17 933 4.24
Seveneves, by Neil Stephenson 86,903 3.97 1,021 3.88
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s
Windlass
, by Jim Butcher
44,102 4.20 356 4.02
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin 37,162 4.32 388 4.28
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie 18,393 4.23 536 4.24

Two of these have clearly done much better than the other three in terms of market impact. Notable, however, that the multitudes who have read Seveneves are not all that enthusiastic about it.


1941 Retro Hugo finalists
Goodreads LibraryThing
owners av rating owners av rating
The Ill‐Made Knight, by T.H. White
(numbers for The Once And Future King)
139,375 4.07 10,838 4.10
Slan, by A.E. van Vogt 4,200 3.73 1,136 3.50
Kallocain, by Karin Boye 4,071 3.80 422 3.79
Gray Lensman, by E.E. "Doc" Smith 3,426 3.96 950 3.59
The Reign of Wizardry, by Jack Williamson 63 2.96 77 3.50

A clear leader here on all counts, and it will be a bit surprising if it doesn't win. The other three were well ahead of the field in my earlier survey. After them, I had thought that Kuttner or Wellman might get the last spot, but the Williamson book is not bad (though bottom of the table in both ownership rankings and reader ratings).


Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist
Goodreads LibraryThing
owners av rating owners av rating
The Long Way to a Small Angry
Planet
, by Becky Chambers
16,536 4.20 205 4.08
Arcadia, by Iain Pears 4,512 3.95 145 3.84
The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor 3,358 3.92 77 4.00
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky 3,014 4.28 41 4.00
Way Down Dark, by James Smythe 1,882 3.79 17 3.75
Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson 662 4.17 46 4.19

The leader in terms of ownership is also second highest rated on both GR and LT. But I'm also cheered by the enthusiasm of the smaller band of Hutchinson fans.

This has been a rather imperfect predictor of success in the past, but it does give some robust statistics of relative popularity in terms of books sold and logged in readers' online catalogues.
No difficulty in choosing here: The Taming of the Shrew. The basic storyline is simply too unpleasant: Katherina, obviously a very unhappy person, is intimidated into submission by a bloke called Petruchio who appears out of nowhere and for no apparent reason decides to marry her. There is lots of beating of servants; how hilarious.

It's not totally awful. The suitors trying to court Katherina's sister Bianca are moderately funny, and the Katherina / Petruchio relationship, though generally very dodgy, is almost sweet in the penultimate scene. But it's not really enough to mask the general nastiness of the plot. I did wonder a bit to what extent the complex father-child relationships, and the difficulties of managing households in two different cities, were drawn from Shakespeare's own experience.

There's also a particularly poor framing narrative about mocking a groundling, which isn't even resolved properly.

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Just for reference, the histories are generally considered to include:

King John
Edward III
(if counted as Shakespeare)
Richard II
Henry IV, Part 1
Henry IV, Part 2
Henry V
Henry VI, Part 1
Henry VI, Part 2
Henry VI, Part 3
Richard III
Henry VIII


As previously reported, my favourite of these is Richard III. Apart from the excellent character of Richard himself, I think Margaret of Anjou is an interesting character, and it's the first history play in which we hear much from women at all. There are several remarkable scenes. The killings in the Tower, of Clarence and the Princes, stand out as points of no return in Richard's rise and fall respectively. (I note for future use that this play was probably first performed in 1592, the year my ancestor Sir Nicholas Whyte also snuffed it in the tower, though as far as we know he died of relatively natural causes.) The Bosworth field hauntings and subsequent battle are a great climax to the play.

The most intriguing scene for me, however, was Act 4 Scene 4, which starts with Queen Margaret getting a decent soliloquy ("So, now prosperity begins to mellow, / And drop into the rotten mouth of death"); she then confronts Queen Elizabeth (Edward IV's widow) and the Duchess of York (Edward IV and Richard III's mother); she buggers off to France, but the other two women get a chance to confront Richard; his mother leaves, and he astonishingly persuades Queen Elizabeth to let him marry her daughter (his own niece, after having murdered her father and his own first wife); and then a series of nobles and messengers come with confusing news of Richmond's arrival and rebellions around the land. I'd find this scene particularly difficult to stage and would be tempted to split it up a bit if I were directing. It does, however, show Richard still capable of his old persuasive powers yet vulnerable to meltdown. It's really compelling.

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I'm late to the party; I was concentrating on other things Tuesday when the Hugo ballot was announced, and on the road yesterday (and have now woken early in nice hotel room). So for instant reactions, you can check out The Guardian reports; Gizmodo; John Scalzi in the LA Times; Scalzi on his own blog, and again; Jim Hines; Abigail Nussbaum; Aaron Pound; George R.R. Martin; Spacefaringkitten; Ampersand on Alas, a blog; and many more especially on File 770.

Tom Mays has already withdrawn his story, "The Commuter" from consideration. "I cannot take advantage of a flaw in the current nomination process... This is a rejection of a gamed system, as well as a stand for returning the Hugos to what they’re supposed to be rather than what some have tried to make them."

It is about as bad as last year. In 2015, the racist misogynist behind this got 61 of his nominees onto the ballot; this year it is 63, counting Tom Mays' story. It seemed worse (and it was worse) last year because his allied slate also got a few of their choices on.  I am aware also that several of the slate's nominees are very unhappy that they are associated with it. I have not been looking systematically, but I will note here Lois McMaster Bujold ('"Penric's Demon" was conscripted onto the "Rabid Puppies" slate without my notification or permission, and my request that it be removed was refused'), Alastair Reynolds ('I do not want their endorsement; I do not want even the suggestion of their endorsement'), and down the ballot somewhat, the Tales to Terrify podcast.

Ths happens, of course, because most fans nominate honestly, and the slate voters have nominated dishonestly. Many of us put a lot of thought into discussing and debating various potential nominees, and the result was that there was a very broad spectrum of nominations. I feel particularly sorry for Greg Hullender at Rocket Stack Rank, Renay with her Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom, and Ladybusiness and the Hugonoms Wikia, all of whom elevated the level of the debate to a realy good conversation about literature that we love. Unfortunately all of this effort was overwhelmed by a single campaign voting in lockstep for works they had not read and people they had not heard of.

On the other hand, the one important difference this year is that the slate actually nominated some good stuff which would probably have got there anyway. In fact, some of their recommendations coinided with my own nominations.

2016 Hugo Finalists that I nominated:
Best Novel: Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie
Best Novella: Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold (also on slate)
Best Graphic Story: The Sandman: Overture, by Neil Gaiman (also on slate)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: The Force Awakens (also on slate), The Martian
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Doctor Who: Heaven Sent
Best Editor, Short Form: Neil Clarke, Sheila Williams (both on slate)
Best Semiprozine: Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons (both on slate)
Best Fanzine: Black Gate, File 770 (both on slate)
John W. Campbell Award: Andy Weir (on slate)

All of this means that the strong anti-slate approach that I took last year is not appropriate this time round; many of the slate nominees are not themselves part of the project, but are being used by it to make its organiser look more powerful than he is. My approach this year will be a general lack of curiosity about finalists which were on the slate unless I pick up buzz about them from elsewhere, in which case I will read them and make my own judgement. That qualification, as of now, applies to anything I nominated myself or had already read, Seveneves, "Slow Bullets" and some of the Dramatic Presentation finalists. On the other hand, I will probably vote "No Award" for Best Related Work because four of the finalists are explicitly part of the slate-monger's agenda and the fifth is published by him; the entire category has pushed off at least five better works which should have been honoured. Similary the finalists for Best Professional Artist, all on the slate and none of whom I had ever heard of, will need to be very good indeed to convince me not to No Award them as well.

One final point: I've seen some calls for a future Hugo administrator to simply disqualify slate votes or unsuitable candidate. I am next year's Hugo administrator, and I will not do that. The rules are the rules.

It's not all doom and gloom. I was really happy with the 1941 Retro Hugo ballot. It is a nice mixture of the traditional with the mildly unexpected. My nominees that made it to the ballot were:

Best Novel: Kallocain, Karin Boye; The Ill–Made Knight, T.H. White
Best Novella: ‘‘If This Goes On…’’, Robert A. Heinlein
Best Novelette: ‘‘Farewell to the Master’’, Harry Bates l; ‘‘It!’’, Theodore Sturgeon
Best Short Story: ‘‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’’, Jorge Luis Borges; ‘‘The Stellar Legion’’, Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories Winter 1940)
Best Dramatic Presentation – Short: Pinocchio
Best Dramatic Presentation – Long: Fantasia; The Thief of Bagdad
Best Professional Editor Short Form: Raymond A. Palmer; Frederik Pohl; Mort Weisinger
Best Professional Artist: Margaret Brundage; Virgil Finlay; Hubert Rogers

And I am looking forward to re-reading the fiction, and watching the dramatic finalists. It is a bit puzzling, though, that H.P. Lovecraft, who died in 1937, has been noominated for Best Fan Writer of 1940.

And finally, the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist was published yesterday:

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson
The Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor
Arcadia, Iain Pears
Way Down Dark, J.P. Smythe
Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

I have read and really liked the first two of these, and I look forward to working through the rest even though I am not involved with the process this year.
Just for reference, the tragedies are generally considered to include:

Titus Andronicus
Romeo and Juliet
Julius Caesar
Hamlet
Troilus and Cressida
Othello
King Lear
Macbeth
Timon of Athens
Antony and Cleopatra
Coriolanus
The Tempest


I've already written of my love for Hamlet and Macbeth as plays; but I retain a deep affection for Romeo and Juliet, considered as a tragedy, because it was the first Shakespeare I studied at school, at the age of 11, and it's stuck with me. It's a mercifully straightforward plot, not particularly deep or complex, but with a compelling story. I played Mercutio in the fight scene and died horribly. It was great.

Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version was the highest-grossing Shakespeare film of all time.


It was eventually overtaken by Baz Luhrman's adaptation in 1996.


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A birthday treat for me, writing on a happy subject. Just for reference, the comedies are generally considered to include:

All's Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Love's Labour's Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Twelfth Night
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Two Noble Kinsmen
The Winter's Tale
Cymbeline


Among these, there is one that really stands out for me. I dimly remember the Rowan Atkinson sketch where he is a schoolmaster trying to beat respect for English literature into the heads of a host of invisible and improbably named schoolboys. One of the great lines is when he insists that there is only one joke in Shakespeare, and it is in The Comedy of Errors, when "Two people look like each other. Twice." Pause. "It's not that funny!"

Well, actually, it is that funny. Here Shakespeare has boiled together bits of Plautus (who was also pretty funny in his day) to produce a mock-classical, proto-pantomime slapstick piece which is also mercifully short. The play itself relies on the stable foundation of farce, where we the audience know what is going on but the characters don't; two visitors to Ephesus get mistaken for their long-lost twin brothers who are local residents, and hilarity ensues. The key to the mystery is held by their father, who appears only in the first scene and the last, to set the scene for us and then to help resolve matters. Shakespeare himself was the father of twins, born in 1585, though they were not identical, being a boy and a girl. Still, I imagine it gave him a certain inspiration as he wrote this play in the early to mid 1590s.

The key drama in the play is the story of the visiting Antipholus of Syracuse, who finds that though a complete stranger, Adriana, incomprehensibly claims him as her husband, he is much more attracted to her sister Luciana. (His twin, the local Antipholus of Ephesus, seems to be much more of a bastard; and their servants, the two Dromios, are basically clowns.) There are other bits of tension, mainly to do with arbitrary justice and summary execution, but that is the main plot. With the right people, it can work very well.

I remember seeing a Cambridge student version where the two twins were played by frantically doubling actors, wearing different coloured cravats to indicate who was who. In the last scene they twisted the cravats to show both colours, and confronted themselves in mirrors. In Arkangel's audio version, David Tennant turns in a great performance as Antipholus of Syracuse, doing his English accent, but The Ephesians are all Irish - Adriana and Luciana played by two of the Cusack sisters (Niamh and Sorcha), and a generally well-chosen run of accents populating the town - Pauline McLynn, for instance, is the Courtesan. Most gloriously, the sorcerous Dr Pinch is played with an Ulster accent, clearly intended to be reminiscent of Ian Paisley. It's almost worth listening to for his brief scenes alone.

Still looking for a good video clip here, I'm afraid. You'll just have to imagine it!

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54 countries in 49 years

I have been fortunate enough to travel to many places. In fact, the number of countries I have been to has generally kept pace with my calendar age. Today seems like a day to reflect on the places I have been, in seven-year cycles.

I was born in Belfast, and celebrated my 7th birthday in Washington DC. In the meantime I had also been to the Republic of Ireland, Italy, France and Canada, for a total of 6 countries before my 7th birthday.

By 1981, we had had family summer holidays in Bulgaria, Romania, Malta, Spain (with a side trip to Andorra), and we lived for a year in the Netherlands with side trips to Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Yugoslavia as it then was (Ljubljana and Zagreb), Switzerland and Liechtenstein. That got me to 19 countries by the time I turned 14.

By 1988, I had added only three small countries to the list - Monaco and San Marino in our 1981 family summer holiday, and the Vatican City while inter-railing with my then girlfriend in 1986 - for a total of 22 countries by the time I turned 21.

By 1995, Yugoslavia had split up, giving me an extra notch for the earlier visit to Zagreb and Ljubljana which were now in separate countries; I'd had a Nordic trip to Finland in 1990 with my sister, going overland via Denmark and Sweden with a side trip across the water to Estonia (then still part of the USSR); I went to Portugal with another girlfriend, and then to Cyprus on honeymoon when I married her, which all got me to 29 countries by the time I turned 28.

By 2002, I'd added what were then the other successor states of the former Yugoslavia - Bosnia/Herzegovina (where I lived in 1997-8), Serbia/Montenegro (Serbia in 1998, Kosovo in 2000 and Montenegro in January 2002), and Macedonia (first visited in 1997, love going back - my favourite of the Balkan countries). I'd also visited Hungary, Greece, the Czech Republic, Moldova, and Israel. So that takes me to 37 countries, as they then were, by my 35th birthday.

By April 2009, I had added the three South Caucasus countries - Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - also Russia and Ukraine, and the last South-East European gaps, Albania and Turkey, and Slovakia for extras. In addition, the independence of Montenegro (2006) and Kosovo (2008) gave me another two. So that takes me to 47 by the time I turned 42.

The following year added another four, as my trips to South Sudan (then part of Sudan) took me through Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. (I never went to the northern part of what was then Sudan, so I get no extra points for South Sudan's independence in 2010 2011.) I went to Poland for the first time in 2013, and last year brought business trips to Iraq and Nigeria. So as of now, my 49th birthday, I'm on 54 independent countries.

I still have not been to five European countries - Iceland, Norway, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. I've never been to Latin America or the Caribbean, or to Africa outside Nigeria and the eastern cluster, or to Asia apart from three countries in the Middle East, let alone the Pacific. But I hope I will have a few more years to put some of that right.

As I landed in Azerbaijan for the first time in May 2004 in the company of my then boss, I mentioned to him that it was my 41st country. He growled that he was roughly 100 ahead of me. I suspect that he still is.

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It's a matter of convention, of course, but I tend to find the scenes with Shakespearean fools rather jarring to the course of the play. It can be done well, of course, but it was an intervention that perhaps worked much better in Elizabethan theatrical idiom than it does now. Romeo and Juliet, for instance, has two comic relief minor characters: the illiterate clown who accidentally invites Romeo to the Capulets' ball, and Peter, Juliet's nurse's servant. Neither really works for me. (The nurse herself, of course, may be a clown, but I think she's a different sort of entity.)

There's one glorious clown figure, however, who in the hands of a good actor can completely steal the show in a play ostensibly about other people. He bosses his friends around, and when he wakes up to find that a woman of unearthly beauty has become fascinated by him, he takes it as no more than his due. He also has the same first name as I do. I speak, of course, of Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that odd play which starts off abut two young aristocratic couples and ends up with fairies, amateur theatricals, and a manifestation of the divine. The humorous and farcical aspects of the plot are pretty timeless (none of the incomprehensible wordplay scenes of, say, Love's Labour's Lost). And Bottom stands out as the most vivid character of the lot - the guy in the club who thinks the whole thing revolves around him, and because he thinks so it has largely become true. Of all Shakespeare's fools, he is the one who I feel is best integrated into the plot and perhaps says the most interesting things, without meaning to, about us human beings.

Here's a very glamorous Judi Dench as Titania, in love with Ian Richardson as Bottom in 1968:



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There is a sort of unwritten challenge in this meme to try and pick different plays for each day. I don't think I'll manage it, but this question in particular prompted me to delve rather deep. One villainess who operates very much to her own agenda, using men and spitting them out again (and they return the favour to her and her family) is Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in Titus Andronicus. It's a really violent play. One tally has the average rate of atrocities at one every 97 lines. Tamora's bitter feud with the title character drives the narrative; the story ends with Titus killing her sons for raping Titus's daughter and then serving them to their mother cooked in a pie. Yes, really.

Yet for all the horror, Shakespeare gives Tamora agency and motivation, and plenty of sex. Here Jessica Lange plays her courting her Moorish lover, though with unwanted onlookers:



Oddly enough this one hasn't been filmed very often.

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It's Shakespeare's birthday! Or at least, the 400th anniversary of his death. What better day to celebrate his greatest villain, Richard III?

Part of the attraction of Hamlet is that we don't really understand him, and he doesn't understand himself. Part of the attraction of Richard III is that he understands himself perfectly well, and explains himself to us. He deceives and seduces the other characters one by one, and although he doesn't deceive us the audience, he certainly seduces us. His mistake of leadership is quite different from his rival Henry VI and his brother Edward IV, both of whom prove in different ways too lightweight for the burdens of office. He is less subtle than his father, who held back in Ireland and let his rivals for power and his proxies eliminate each other. His mistake is that once he has achieved his originally quite limited agenda - to get rid of Henry, Edward, Clarence and the princes - and reached the throne, he just can't stop killing people. His public and hypocritical piety contrasts nicely with Richmond's more modest and circumspect approach. His gradual disintegration into a haunted wreck of a man is chilling. In the hands of a good actor, it's just mesmerising.

If you want to boggle a little at screen treatments, have this trailer for the 1955 Olivier version:



But for me, nothing beats Ian McKellen, taking the story to the mid-twentieth century, the most recent period that two brothers contested (genteelly, in our timeline) the throne of England:



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Saturday reading

Current
Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
Het Spaanse Spook, by Willy Vandersteen

Last books finished
JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner, by Richard Marson
1491, by Charles C. Mann
Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe
Gorgon Child, by Steven Barnes

Next books
Banewreaker, by Jacqueline Carey
The Quarry, by Iain Banks
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Books acquired in last week
A Ship Is Dying, by Brian Callison

Interesting Links for 23-04-2016

This is a close run for me between Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. The latter is less well known - basically the modestly born but intelligent Helena - a qualified doctor, no less - fulfills the conditions set by her reluctant husband, by tricking him into having sex with her while under the impression that she is someone else. However it's a gifted director who can leave the audience feeling that Helena has actually made the right life choice here.

So I think you have to give the prize to Portia in The Merchant of Venice, who gets much better lines than Helena. (Also she's a lawyer rather than a doctor. I dated a lawyer once, but that's another story.) She's one of the most active of Shakespeare's heroines, certainly the one who comes off best out of her intervention in the male-dominated sphere. One wonders which Elizabethan women lawyers Shakespeare knew?

Here's Lynn Collins, saving Jeremy Irons from Al Pacino in 2004:



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This is actually quite tricky, because Shakespeare's most interesting characters are more likely to be villains than heroes, and if heroes they tend not to be all that admirable. I've written already about Hamlet and Macbeth, nether of whom really fits the bill - Hamlet is fascinating, but one struggles to like him, and Macbeth is certainly on the villain side of the line. I guess in the end the most interesting hero, as such, on the most interesting plot journey in Shakespeare is Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II and then in his own play, Henry V. But I'm not sure that this is really the right question in the first place.

Now, having said that, Tom Hiddleston's performance in the role in the BBC's Hollow Crown series a few years back has inspired some pretty good fanvids. Here for instance is "London Calling" by the Clash, illuminating Henry IV Part I:



And here's the story of the three plays, to "Feeling Good" by Muse:



As a side note, I'm really enjoying finding videos to post as part of this series. I hope you're enjoying watching them.

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I'm a political animal, and I am fascinated by the way that Shakespeare looks at leadership and kingship, what we might today call governance. Many of his plays are about politicians who get it tragically wrong - Brutus, Richard III, Coriolanus, Macbeth. I think Macbeth is much the most interesting. His character arc takes him from trusted chieftain to demented despot to death in disgrace; he is offered temptation by the witches, goes for it and then finds that ὕβρις brings νέμεσις.



As a teenager, I really enjoyed two novels inspired by Macbeth which both came out around that time. One was Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter, which rehabilitates him as a successful Scottish king and part-time Viking chieftain; the other is Ngaio Marsh's Light Thickens, a murder mystery set around a stage production of the play. Both made me think a lot about how stories are written and told, especially this particular story.

Of course some silly stories are also told about this story:



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