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Archive for May, 2017

My favourite Dickens book is Our Mutual Friend. I love the 1998 BBC TV version, but recently had a chance to watch the 1958 BBC TV version. It was on sale at the BBC Store selling digital versions of programmes. That has in the last few days announced its closure. Luckily I bought this programme before they stopped more sales, and I’ve been able to watch it before my account is finally closed and I lose access to my programmes (yeah, great business model that one!). Like other customers of the BBC Store I have been offered a full refund of my purchases. And this 1958 version is also coming out soon on DVD, from Simply Media.

The 1958 version is 12 half hour episodes. Black and white obviously, limited in location work, though they do some interesting things with water that had me wondering quite how they filmed it back then! Our Mutual Friend is set largely on and around the River Thames, and concerns boatmen and their families.

In many ways this version is very authentic to the original novel. The biggest change they made is to reveal the big mystery right at the start, whereas the original novel, and also the 1998 TV version, take half the book to do this. I prefer the latter approach, but the former does work too, albeit to a lesser extent. Another change is that the 1958 version – unlike the 1998 version – seems to lose a lot of Dickens’ more nuanced dialogue in certain scenes. Since both TV versions are the same total length (1998 = 4 x 90 minute episodes) I don’t think this was necessary, and it is a shame, especially in key scenes.

The acting is variable in the 1958 version, unlike 1998 where it is uniformly of a very high quality. The four leads in 1958 are strong though: Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, David McCallum and Rachel Roberts. Indeed I would pick out the performances of the first and last of these as particular highlights. Also notable in acting terms are Helena Hughes as Jenny Wren, Fay Compton as Betty Higden, and a young Melvyn Hayes as Charley Hexam. However against those strong characters acting-wise are a number of very weak performances, for me anyway, particularly the actors playing Rogue Riderhood and Mrs Wilfer. I’m also far from convinced by Alex Scott in the key role of Bradley Headstone, a huge difference from the impression that David Morrissey makes in the 1998 version.

Despite these quibbles I found it a compelling programme to watch, although no doubt due in part to my love of the original Dickens source material. I rattled through all 12 episodes and 6 hours of viewing in just a few days. It definitely lent itself to binge viewing for me.

I would recommend this version to fans of Dickens and TV versions of classic novels. But I do think that the 1998 version is stronger. It has a much better sense of place with wonderful location filming, sets and design, is more true to the original novel in structure and dialogue, and has a higher quality of acting throughout. But the 1958 version, if you get a chance, is worth watching too.

Of course now I need to see the 1976 BBC version for further comparisons. DVD ordered …

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I’ve not seen many plays in my life, and it’s many decades since I did any English literature study at school. But my husband and I recently went to see the National Theatre Live cinema broadcast – broadcast live as the play was performed – of the latest West End production of Tom Stoppard’s play inspired by Hamlet. The play was staged at the Old Vic Theatre in London, and starred Joshua McGuire, Daniel Radcliffe, and David Haig. The play is a retelling of sorts of Hamlet, turning things around to give the perspective of two minor characters in that play.

Now I reckon how people respond to this play will vary, largely depending on their knowledge of the Shakespeare original. Some will know Hamlet well. I know it very barely. Thirty years ago I went to see a touring Royal Shakespeare Company production, in Carlisle. My class at school, who were going with other classes, hadn’t read this play, or studied it. So it was a bit “Whoah! What’s going on here?” Though still enjoyable, and surprisingly comprehensible. But that was a long time ago, and I’ve never read the play, before or since. I couldn’t even remember much about the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, beyond their names, not even their final fate. But at least I could vaguely remember what was going on with the Danish court, and so was not completely confused.

My husband, by contrast, doesn’t know Hamlet at all. And, as he put it, he was baffled by all the comings and goings in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and didn’t know who anyone was. But he still enjoyed it! Which is rather a good measure of how well the play can still work even for audience members unfamiliar with the Shakespeare original. And of course not knowing what on Earth is going on is exactly the same state the central characters are in, so it’s not a bad mood to capture. We both liked the fast and witty wordplay, and the humour running throughout. I particularly liked the Player character, who had most of the best lines IMHO. I loved the idea of players within plays, which was repeated over and over again, in so many ways. We also admired the staging of this play. Even as newcomers to it, we could appreciate the detailed thought that had gone into elements such as the overall design, costumes, and the music.

Watching a National Theatre Live performance of a play in a cinema is fun, but certainly different. You do almost feel as though you’re there, with background noise from the theatre audience beforehand, and a sense of occasion. And we probably had better views of the actors than many people sitting in the theatre in London. We cinema viewers could benefit from multiple camera angles, and close ups. And you still feel as though you’re watching a live performance. We’d seen one other NT Live performance before in the cinema – Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – but that was a recorded encore repeat, so didn’t have quite the same sense of liveness about it.

I don’t usually read a play script after watching a play, but I enjoyed this one so much that I ordered the book. In particular I wanted to note all my favourite lines somewhere properly. I read through the play with glee, and stuck in many dozens of post-it notes, then typed up my favourite bits at the end. So many. And then, to try to better understand the play, I went on to read a critical guide to it. That’s helping, but I’m still puzzling over certain things. But puzzling in a happy way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another NT Live play in the next year. It’s a fantastic way to see superb productions, but still locally. And we are going to go see an amateur dramatics version of a Terry Pratchett book soon. That’ll be different again, but hopefully entertaining in its own way.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead play books

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When I did my history PhD at Dundee University (“Reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820”) I was plugging a big gap in the research. All PhD research should make a contribution, but it’s rare for a subject to be quite so little studied before as this one. Scottish reading habits and book history more generally had been little researched since Paul Kaufman in the 1960s. Some PhDs had been completed, but usually by librarians, without their own graduate students to inspire. And so, although Scotland has a mass of useful sources (library borrowing records, evidence of book ownership etc.), its reading and book history was largely little researched when I started my PhD in 2003.

Of course the downside of having a big gap is that there’s always a chance someone else will come along and fill it. During my PhD there was a panic moment, when I learned of another PhD student, Mark Towsey at neighbouring St Andrews, looking at many of the same sources, with a very similar PhD topic. We met up, and established our respective approaches. We still had overlaps, but not enough to jeopardise getting our PhDs. And we both completed successfully.

That was some years ago, but more recently reading history has become more popular among Scottish researchers, almost fashionable to an extent. And in the last few years I’ve watched with interest new PhD students starting to work on Scottish reading habits, for example Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell looking at childhood reading in 18th century Scotland, and Jill Dye studying Innerpeffray Library and its borrowers. It’s a slightly strange feeling seeing the field come alive like this, but in a rather wonderful way. And it’s always exciting to see new researchers approach things differently, in terms of their theoretical framework and methodologies, and in terms of the core research questions that they explore.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results of these and other upcoming Scottish PhD projects in the next few years. It’s exciting to see these developments, if still rather strange at the same time!

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