For a faithful adaptation of Dickens, The Muppet Christmas Carol still comes top

photo of christmas balls

               Tis the Season to be Jolly.                       Photo by Hert Niks on Pexels.co

And so draws to an end the first decade of the 21st Century. While all over social media, people are gratuitously summing up their achievements of the last 10 years, for me it’s the last 10 days that loom largest in my consciousness. Or perhaps, conscience. Because, dear reader, it appears that over this last Season To Be Jolly I’ve managed to upset quite a number of people on Twitter. One person even blocked me, hilariously, as he did it quickly before I could do something to deserve it. Rather like a small child in the playground running to teacher, just in case the child he’s just biffed thinks of  biffing him back.

The A Christmas Carol Question

So what did I do to inspire such fear and loathing? Er, well, I expressed an opinion. Like, you know, the other 330 million Twitter users. What about? Oh, just a TV programme. A mini-series. Well, a Classical Serialisation in fa – look, it’s not my fault that the A Christmas Carol Question raises its snowy head every year, is it?a christmas carol 2 Competition among theatre, film and TV companies, from the humblest to the loftiest in the land, as to who can make the biggest mess of Charles Dickens’s great 1843 novel has become a national sport. This time last year I cavilled at the liberties taken by the RSC in their production; I can now say these fade into the tiniest speck of candied fruit in Tiny Tim’s plum pudding compared to the monster served up by BBC 1 over three (three!) evenings in Christmas week.plum pudding

I was willing to give it a go. Honest. (Just as I gave Andrew Davies’s Sanditon a go, all the way to the end of Part 1, when an appalling piece of very unAusten writing and characterisation spared my enduring the next 7 episodes.) But the stretching of Dickens’s slim novella into 3 hours of television didn’t bode well.

Sweary, gloomy and with no narrative drive

Say what you like about Dickens, he knew how to write a cracking good story. The lessons that  mean old Scrooge has to learn never slow the pace of the action, while the reader is drawn into the worlds of Christmas joy and plenty, past regrets and sorrows and the very real poverty and want Scrooge has ignored all his life. In other words, narrative drive is what matters if you want your audience to stay with you, and this was exactly what Stephen Knight’s ‘adaptation’ (‘rewriting’, I’d call it) lacked. Tectonic plates move faster than Knight’s scene setting, and when the first 15 minutes established nothing more than a grumpy, sweary (oh yes, the F word. A lot. Why?) man chuntering around a bare office in Gloomy Victorian London, sniping at his clerk, I gave up. Where Dickens writes with crispness, a quick wit and a sense of mystery, this production steamrollered its way along, ponderous and boring beyond words.C Carol

Worse, Knight felt the need (like David Edgar) to add backstory and plot alterations to the original – only his additions were much sillier. It’s not enough, for instance, for Marley to haunt Scrooge as a warning: he has to be properly motivated. Enter the Roman Catholic doctrine of the afterlife: Marley’s motive for saving Scrooge is to spare his own soul years in Purgatory.

Dickens, a traditional Anglican living in highly Protestant Victorian England, would have been appalled at this solecism, and the fact that Knight could cheerfully shoehorn it into Dickens’s literary and religious world shows how little he cares about the original work.

Version 2

No room for Purgatory in the Anglican church

 

Muppetism

Back to Twitter. Well, The Sunday Times journalist India Knight (no relation I hope…. Gulp) happened to ask the Twitterati what they thought of the production and I – among many others – gave my view, adding that for a truly splendid adaptation, people should look no further than The Muppet Christmas Carol. While I’ve never received so many Likes for a tweet before, a few readers, as mentioned, took it badly. What baffled them – to the point where they could barely spit out their sarcasms – was that I should rate a film starring a bunch of puppets headed by a Green Frog, that faithfully told Dickens’s marvellous story, over a slow, turgid, foul-mouthed 21st century steampunk version, that didn’t.

frog

                                    Perfectly able to portray Bob Cratchit                                    Photo by Глеб from Pexels

Personally I’d call that muppetist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(From an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog.)

 

Can you spot the Long John Silvers of social media?

Voldemort mask

He Who Must Not Be Named (mask available on Amazon)

Here’s a challenge: who’s the most terrifying villain in literature?

Plenty of candidates to choose from. Voldemort in Harry Potter, Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Cruella de Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Flashman in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories; Cruellaor going back further in the canon, Iago, Edmund, Richard III (as depicted by Shakespeare, I hasten to add, before any Ricardians take me apart), Mephistopheles… These are all splendidly evil figures. But not, to my mind, the most terrifying, for one big reason: we know what they are. The reader is in no doubt, from the word go, that each one of these is a Bad Lot, and how the ‘good side’ will or won’t overcome them becomes the central drama of the story.richard

 

The shock of betrayal

No. Far more frightening, for me, is the character who begins as a warm, kindly protector, a bit of a rough diamond perhaps, but whose charm, engaging wit and genuine interest in the hero has both hero and reader completely under his/her spell. When this character’s true motives emerge – often quite late on in the story – the shock of betrayal is all the greater because of the heartless calculation behind it. Willoughby, in Sense and Sensibility, comes into this category, as does Steerforth in David Copperfield (note the positive, reliable sounding names).

Long John SilverBut the leader in this field by a mile is… Long John Silver.

A likeable, fatherly figure

Which came to me as a complete surprise. Because – and here comes a confession – having never read Treasure Island as a child, but seeing plenty of illustrations and film stills of a ferocious-looking, one-legged pirate, I assumed that Silver’s wickedness was a given from the start. Like Captain Hook in Peter Pan, or Bill Sykes (OK, not a pirate but a violent criminal) in Oliver Twist. Whereas – as I discovered when I finally got round to reading the book a few years ago – the opposite is true. Long John Silver begins as a decent, likeable, fatherly figure with a delightful wit, who takes Jim Hawkins under his wing, protecting the boy from enemies and helping put together a crew to sail in search of the pirates’ treasure. Only when the ship is well on its way does his true, coldblooded nature emerge, and that only because Jim by chance overhears him plotting murder with the other crew members. An obviously evil villain is dangerous enough… but one who has led both hero and reader to like and trust him? That is truly chilling. And horribly realistic. Because, of course, in real life the most skilful villains don’t advertise their villainy openly. It works far better to get people’s trust first.

green-troll-1468146-1599x1787

Feeding and spreading suspicion

Trolls aren’t always what you think

Nowhere is this truer than on social media. Up till now, I thought I knew what a troll was. Nasty, bitter, powerless people who use the freedom and easy access of social media sites to hurl vile abuse at total strangers, knowing they can get away with it. Yes, there are legions of these and they do a lot of damage. But far more insidious and dangerous are the accounts, according to this article on www.rollingstone.com, designed deliberately to destabilise whole countries and set people against each other.

How? Well, they’ll start with a few bright, feelgood posts/tweets that will gain them lots of followers and retweets, before gradually introducing divisive ‘truths’ (ie imaginary but convincing) that feed and spread people’s suspicions of each other.

An aggressive, foul-mouthed, bigoted troll is easily spotted and seen for what it is; but these nice, decent, humane Long John Silvers of the internet? Not so much.

And that is terrifying.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric)

 

Keeping up with the Joneses – and the Vines

A couple of months ago I set out to do a grammar grouse blog, but Jacob Rees-Mogg got in the way (let’s face it, he does that, a lot). So now, in the dark days of November, it seems a good moment to try again… and this time it’s Jeremy Vine who’s got me going. Not because I disagree with him. On the contrary, he put out a tweet recently that was music to my ears (or eyes? Eek, that doesn’t work either), all about our dear old friend, the apostrophe:

Grammar question. I have friends whose surname is Hobbs. I went to a function celebrating their anniversary. I have just emailed a friend I ran into there, and said it was “great to see you again at the Hobbses’ party.” Am I exactly correct in the way I wrote their surname?

YES, I replied, yes yes yes. Scrolling down, I realised I was pretty much the only one out of hundreds of replies. Everyone else was absolutely certain it should be the Hobbs’ or the Hobb’s party. So a party given either by a couple called Mr and Mrs Hobb, or a thing called a Hobb (short for a hobbit? Yes that, was suggested too).

I know, I should get out more. So perhaps should Jeremy Vine. That way perhaps we’d both be better at Keeping up with the Joneses. Oh sorry, should that be, Keeping Up with the Jones? What is a Jone, then? If we don’t allow names ending in ‘s’ to have their own plural form, the meaning isn’t clear. The same goes for the possessive apostrophe, whether singular or plural; its function is to show that something either belongs to somebody, or is named after them. People in Britain have had no trouble understanding this for the last few centuries; now, apparently, we can’t cope anymore and councils all over the country have done away with the apostrophe altogether. Five years ago, the ire of local residents armed with marker pens forced Cambridge City Council to cave in over its decision to abolish apostrophes from road signs. (It was thought that apostrophes can confuse emergency services – a calumny hotly denied by the emergency services themselves. Just because you’re a police/fire officer or paramedic doesn’t mean you didn’t go to school.)

St James' Park NE1Grammar and the use of English change over the years, I know. But speech patterns don’t. Have you tried saying, ‘this is Jane Morris book’? Or, ‘the Harris are coming to tea’? You can’t. The person you’re talking to will hear ‘this is Jane Morey’s book’ and ‘the Harrys (Prince and Potter?) are coming to tea.’ So why have one rule for the spoken word – which at least makes the meaning clear – and a different one for when the word is written down?

near-st-james-s-park

Enter a caption

Alas, judging by these signs, the battle is pretty much lost, except for the odd London underground station still holding strong.

 

And I bet everyone going for treatment at one of London’s most famous hospitals will refer to it as St Thomas’s, whatever it may call itself. st-thomas-430x321

 

Right, that was arguably my most nerdish post ever. And if you think I’m overreacting to a tinsy-winsy point of grammar, here’s a glorious recent tweet from that Giant of the Twittery and Literary world, Philip Ardagh, replying to a tweet that read:

‘Anyone else keep seeing a dog stood by the bush outside the tent? #GBBO’:

A dog STOOD’? ‘STOOD’?! It should be: ‘Anyone else keep seeing a dog STANDING by the bush…’ you bunch of halfwits. You should be HORSE-WHIPPED, I say. HORSEWHIPPED. Sob.’

adult beagle walking on grass field

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Wildly out of proportion but Philip, I know what you mean.

 

(From an item first published on Authors Electric Blog)

How to put young people off English A level: make them miserable.

It’s hard to remember amidst the NoDealBrexitShambles and the car crash that is the Conservative Party that there have been other news items in recent weeks.

But I’m jolly well going to try. Because one story that caught my eye is the reported 13% decline in the number of students choosing to study English Language and Literature at A level. Wh-a-a-a-t? English, the most popular (and therefore hardest to gain a place for) arts subject to study at university? What’s going on?

Well, according to several prominent writers and teachers, it’s all down to Michael Gove. His reformed English GCSEs have taken all the joy out of the subject, thereby deterring young people from continuing it in the Sixth Form.

downloadThe Power and Beauty in Words

That is quite a claim. It ignores other factors at play, most importantly the government’s push for more students to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects; any promotion of one subject has to be at the expense of another. That’s the price we pay in the UK for not following the Baccalaureate model. Still, the message is that English GCSEs aren’t as fun as they used to be. As an assistant headteacher put it, in the Guardian article referred to above: ‘GCSE English language is sucking the joy out of the study of how we communicate: the power and beauty in words.’

Now, my memory of English Language O level (antediluvian that I am) is that power and beauty played no part in it at all, except in the creative writing question (which also exists in today’s GCSE, so no change there). The rest of the exam was made up of a multiple-choice Comprehension and a tedious, difficult passage to Precis. Not a lot of fun. But presumably the point of an English Language qualification is not to test a student’s literary appreciation, but their ability to understand and use language in different ways;  Death of a Salesmanlooking at the 2 papers (Explorations in Creative Reading and Writing and Writers’ Viewpoints and Perspectives) that make up the current GCSE, I’d say they do just that, demonstrating the power and sometimes the beauty of words far better than in my day.

FrankensteinMisery Literature

Perhaps it’s GCSE English Literature that’s the problem? If so, I have news for the Gove critics: the rot set in long before his day, in fact, a good 20 years ago, when cramming the syllabus with misery literature became all the rage. The message could not have been clearer: reading books will make you miserable. Forced to study Death of a Salesman aged 12 and again later at GCSE, together with Heart of DarknessFrankenstein and Things Fall Apart, my youngest son had no desire to continue with English at A level. (He was at least spared The Mayor of Casterbridge and Of Mice and Men  which his sisters endured.)Heart of Darkness

Yes of course these are all great works. But how can an unrelenting diet of bleakness, failure, humiliation, cruelty, loss, loneliness and despair encourage anyone to feel that reading is fun? Throwing in the odd classic that has happy, lighter moments as well as sad ones – Jane EyreA Christmas CarolPride and Prejudice – would that have hurt so much? I can’t trace the pre 2017 list of texts now but am delighted to see all these given as options in the new GCSE, as well as the other books above.Pride and Prejudice

So if my son’s experience is anything to go by, the new English Literature GCSE looks more, not less, inviting.

Tick-box Marking

But there’s more to it than that. According to writer and poet Professor Michael Rosen the new exam is more “mechanical” and less creative: ‘The student’s own response is not seen as relevant.’ Again, I’ve looked at the papers and seen no evidence of this but that doesn’t mean to say it isn’t there, because this is a question of ‘tick-box’ marking, where examiners expect certain points to be made and not others.

And that problem, too, goes back at least a couple of decades, perhaps to the birth of GCSEs themselves in the 1980s. Given a poem to comment on for homework, my sons as teenagers both reacted in the same way: ‘What’s the point? Everything they want you to write is boring and obvious and if you think of something different to say, you lose marks.’

Which is why Professor Rosen and others seem to me to be going for the wrong target. If we really want English literature to fire young people’s imaginations – at GCSE and A Level – it’s not the new exams that need to be tackled, but the inflexible marking scheme.

Then the power and beauty of words might at last have a chance to speak.

(Adapted from an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)

 

 

Jacob Rees-Mogg: he’s GOT a little list, whether he likes it or not.

Casting around for what to write about as we begin the Silly Season, my mind turns to the irritating grammatical errors indulged in by People What Ought To Know Better….and lo, that great Jim Lloyd* of politics, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has beaten me to it.

Rees mogg list

Jacob Rees-Mogg: like Ko-Ko in Gilbert and Sullivan’s
Mikado, he’s got a little list, he’s got a little list…

I’m not going to spell out the whole of the Mogg’s Little List, as in The Times on Saturday 27 July, but it did strike me as an odd collection of:

  1. Genuine grammatical mistakes
  2. An obsession with how to address an MP (4 rules apply to this alone)
  3. A personal dislike of well-established English words that go back – not just to Gilbert and Sullivan (see caption above) – but to Chaucer and beyond (got)
  4. A refusal to modernise beyond 1971 (Use imperial measurements).
baking-eggs-flour-46170

…and it’s the wooden spoon for anyone refusing to use imperial measurements.

To be fair, it’s not all bonkers. Some of the banned words and phrases make an ugly bunch of clichés: ongoingmeet withyourself (or presumably any kind of self used instead of the personal pronoun) and no longer fit for purpose. To that list I’d add I’ll take no lessons from the honourable gentleman/lady on x, which makes me want to hurl the radio across the room every time I hear it.

But some of the others… Er, what’s wrong with equal? Everything, probably. Not, perhaps, a word that has much currency in the world of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esq., MP.

Finally, a grouse in which the Mogg is justified, if you take the view that language should never be allowed to evolve at all. (A thorny issue; many clunking grammatical errors take refuge under the overall ‘language is a living organism’ blanket. To my friend and I, for instance, is now so universal that anyone replacing the I with me is looked down on.) So to that much sneered-upon use of hopefully in the sense of it is to be hoped that (as opposed to doing something in a hopeful way) – banned, naturally, by Rees-Mogg.

440px-Portrait_of_Geoffrey_Chaucer_(4671380)_(cropped)_02

Tsk, back to school, Geoffrey Chaucer;  
your use of language fails the Rees-Mogg test.

But I think he’s missing a trick. Words can change in meaning, or gain new ones, if the need is there. Instead of saying, ‘I’ll pass my exams, at least I hope I do, and get a job,’ you can shorten that to ‘I’ll pass my exams, hopefully, and get a job.’ Why not? In this sense, hopefully corresponds exactly to the German hoffentlich, and I have – sorry, I’ve got – no problem with that. Moreover, it’s etymologically interesting, as the meaning probably arises from American English’s German roots, just like dumb (dumm) and enough already (genug schon).

So enough already of Rees-Mogg’s bêtes noires of the English language, now for mine – oh look, he’s taken up this entire post and there’s no space left.

Typical politician.

 

The archers*A reference to BBC Radio 4’s long-running soap opera, The Archers. Jim Lloyd is an annoying character who excels in quoting Latin, badly, at every opportunity.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)

How to be a 21st Century Nahum Tate

Photo by M N on Unsplash

 National Theatre 
Photo by M N on Unsplash

Half-way through last month, Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre, made an announcement that sent my heart into freefall (The Times, 14th June). No longer would the NT put on “fairly straight adaptations” of European classics, as it seemed these only appealed to ‘theatre aficionados’ (people who go to the theatre?). Instead, well-known plays would be remodelled to appeal to a ‘broad audience’ (ie the general public) who apparently have demanded that  Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, for instance, should morph into David Hare’s Peter Gynt, while Sheridan’s The Rivals be rewritten by Oliver Chris and Richard Bean as Jack Absolute Flies Again.Jack Absolute (This last ‘fresh’ interpretation is particularly confusing as Jack Absolute is a series of books written by Chris Humphries 2003 – 2006.)

Really? The general public has demanded this? How does Norris know?

An Improvisation of Sandwiches

 

One Man 2 GuvnorsIt all started with the huge success of One Man Two Guv’nors (2011), a new version of Goldoni’s Servant to Two Masters, created by Richard Bean. The 1746 farce had to be rewritten as no one found its quickfire humour funny anymore (actually, they do), and slowing the pace to a standstill to allow James Corden’s character to ‘improvise’ ad nauseam about sandwiches was apparently much funnier (it wasn’t).Goldoni

But the production proved a hit, encouraging the NT to ‘update’ other classics: turning Jim Hawkins, the hero of Treasure Island, into a girl, and creating a Christmas show called The Light Princess which grudgingly credited the Victorian fairy tale writer George MacDonald for the original idea while producing a different story altogether.

The LIght Princess

The Light Princess  – a fairy tale by George MacDonald

Gradually, over the last few years, new season’s brochures began to describe more and more plays as ‘a reimagining of’ (a warning light if ever there was one). Meanwhile wonderful, traditional productions of ‘unimproved’ plays like Hedda Gabler, She Stoops to Conquer, Man and Superman and several by Terence Rattigan gave reassurance that, while a few might be earmarked for ‘updating’, the classics in general were safe with the National Theatre.

 

Classics no longer safe at NT

Not anymore. From now on, we can’t be sure that, for any famous theatre piece put on at the NT, the words spoken are actually what the playwright wrote. Norris has effectively given the NT leave to update all plays, taking into account the sensibilities of our current age.

To be fair, he’s not alone in this: for its 2018 Christmas Show, The Royal Shakespeare Company put on A Christmas Carol, ‘adapted’ by David Edgar; and in his current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre, Nick Hytner has swapped Titania’s and Oberon’s lines, thereby making Oberon lovesick for Bottom the Weaver. Ye gods.

Nahum Tate’s excruciating King Lear

Ntate By anonymous engraving c 1685 -

Nahum Tate (anon engraving 1685)

 

The funny thing is, we’ve been here before. Nahum Tate, anyone? The 17th century poet and dramatist is now chiefly remembered for his excruciating ‘improvement’ of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

King Lear

The Real Thing

Deeming the tragedy too harsh, he rewrote it to provide a happy ending, with Lear restored to life and health and Cordelia marrying Edgar, who exults that ‘truth and virtue shall at last succeed.’ We laugh about it now; but because Tate’s The History of King Lear (1681) suited the sentimental mood that blighted drama for much of the following century, it chased Shakespeare’s play off the stage for – wait for it – over 150 years. Not until 1845 was King Lear performed again in its original Shakespeare text.

The History of King Lear

Nahum Tate ‘improves’ King Lear

 

By chopping and changing plays written generations ago to suit the sensibilities of our age, these directors and writers are doing nothing new. Whether they’ll wish to go down in theatre history as so many 21st century’s Nahum Tates is another matter.

 

Did The Tiger Who Came to Tea tear Judith Kerr’s world apart?

MogLast month, in all the uproar surrounding the European elections and the government reeling from crisis to crisis, something happened that put other news in the shade: Judith Kerr died. One of the greatest and most loved children’s authors ever, she was responsible for The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mog the Forgetful Cat and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – classics which will never go out of print because, well, who can imagine a world without them?

When Hitler stoleTo be able to write and illustrate as brilliantly as Kerr did is a rare gift. I can think of only a handful of other authors who are in her league: Erics Carle and Hill with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where’s Spot respectively; John Burningham, Jill Murphy, Raymond Briggs and Babette Cole with numerous books apiece; and of course, the master of animal delineation, characterisation and humour, Beatrix Potter.

TigerBut for me Judith Kerr stands out because in The Tiger Who Came to Tea, she created the Picture Book of Picture Books.  Tapping into what matters most to young children – warmth, safety, excitement, surprise and mystery – she makes every word and every picture count. Taking a child’s every day experience – there’s someone at the door, who can it be? – she transforms it into a thrilling, magical world in which the visitor can turn out to be a great big furry tiger who sits down and makes himself at home, enjoying all the tea and cake Sophie and her mother can offer. What child can resist that? Mine are in their thirties and even now, if the doorbell goes unexpectedly, my daughter launches straight into, ‘It can’t be the milkman, because he’s been already. And it can’t be Daddy, because he’s got his keys…’

There’s another, special, reason for why the book means so much to me. Too old for it when first published in 1968, I first spotted The Tiger Who Came to Tea in a bookshop when browsing for my own children – and felt I’d come home. Something in those charming, happy illustrations took me straight back to my childhood in 1960s Germany, in a way no other English picture book had ever done. I’d thought the two countries differed markedly in their style of book illustration; now in my hands lay delightful proof that I was wrong, that artistic traditions in the two nationalities could overlap after all. (Sadly I have no picture books to show you what I mean; but look at the eyes in the fine line drawing of Gulliver by the wonderful German illustrator, Horst Lemke, below, and tell me you can’t see a bit of Kerr’s tiger there.)

Gulliver

From Erich Kastner’s retelling of Gulliver’s Travels,
illustrated by Horst Lemke

Only years later did I discover that the solidly British-sounding Judith Kerr was German by birth, and spent the first 9 years of her life growing up in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power forced her family into exile. Terrible as her country under the Nazis was, there’s something both touching and life-affirming in the way that happy influences of Judith’s early German childhood – books, pictures, stories, games – helped to mould her artistic style as an adult, even while her nationality itself changed.

In recent years Judith Kerr pronounced herself much amused by the clever theory from Michael Rosen and others that the Tiger is a metaphor for the Gestapo; the Daily Mail recalled that ‘in a 2013 BBC documentary, he pointed out that “she was no stranger, to the knock on the door, the monster tearing her world apart.”’

Er, Michael Rosen, have you actually read the book? The tiger is no monster; he’s soft, furry and cuddly. These are not adjectives usually applied to the Gestapo. For this crackpot idea to stick, there’d have to be a sense of menace about the creature but instead he allows Sophie to stroke and hug him while munching his way through the biscuit cupboard. As the Daily Mail article confirms, ‘Judith’s patient answer …was always the same. The tiger was just a tiger. It was hungry, and it wanted its tea.’

Ride with me

Ride with Me Through ABC by Horst Lemke

Of course it was. Kerr is much too good an author to weigh down her enchanting book with such a crass message. Far more interesting is the secret contained in the pictures themselves, of how Kerr’s artistic style can’t help but reveal her roots in the happy German childhood she enjoyed before the Nazis’ brutal regime destroyed everything.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric blog)