Friday, 27 March 2015

Goodbye Hytner thanks for the plays!

So it came to my attention that today is the last day of Nick Hytner's time at the National Theatre. I've not seen nearly as much as I'd like there while he's been there, hampered by not being closer. However I thought I'd share some highlights. I've stuck to those plays I've seen live rather than via NT live or for research purposes in their archives. (while we're at it thank NT for that, you've saved my academic bacon with your religious recording of things....)

So the good....

War Horse
I didn't see it in the NT, but I think no summary of Hytner's tenancy can go without mentioning this one. I fought really hard to keep a discussion of this in my thesis in fact. War Horse is without doubt one of the most innovative works the NT has seen in years. No the story itself isn't ground breaking, but I'm also all for honest, but young person friendly historical tales. But the use of puppets in this way, was simply unheard of. Years later it's still astounding, still beautiful. Ah Joey.

London Road Verbatim Theatre, in musical form, about the Ipswich Prostitute murders? sign me up. I saw this twice. I thought it was better in the Cottesloe. But I love it. I think it's brilliant and innovative and pushes boundaries, and everything theatre should be. It also has songs about hanging baskets. I can't wait to see the film version this summer, especially  as it has added Olivia Coleman. Also the people I was with hated it. Not so fun at the time but for personal reasons in reterospect wonderful. It's also the production at which I was recognised across the Olivier circle for being "that girl who looks a bit like Connie Fisher" Anyway I digress....

This House  Political play? political play that felt like a bit of a thriller, a bit of a black comedy? Excellent. I've nothing much else to add other than it was a well written play and an excellent production. Brilliant stuff.

The Amen Corner  I'm a sucker for a gospel choir what can I say? but I do love that this play incorporates music in an unusual way, making it that rarer beast the 'play with music' rather than 'musical'. It's also a fascinating and harrowing play that was performed brilliantly. Something of a risk but a good one.

Othello  To my shame the only Shakespeare of Hytner's run I've seen, but directed by him also. A great production that did modernizing well. Kinnear and Lester's double act was impeccable. Othello is one of three Shakespeare's I know upside down and back to front and have strong feelings on so to get this I thought spot on for me made it a great production. Also seeing Kinnear do battle with an exploding pipe on stage, quip about being a plummer and do two scenes looking like he'd wet himself was a bonus.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime another innovative and imagination capturing production. And a brave one at that. I saw it in the Cottesloe and although I'm seeing the tour next month I don't think it could be as perfect as it was for that setting. Of all the spaces that one has my affection for what can be done there and this was a perfect example. I don't love the story as much as some but the staging and direction for me won me over. Even if an errant train did cause me to nearly jump out of my seat.

Finally, none of the others are ranked but this one is number 1. Caroline or Change.  The love I have for this production is immeasurable. It was the first Tony Kushner play (musical) I saw live. And look what that led to. Sometimes you fall in love with an actor on stage, sometimes a director, sometimes a writer. Sometimes all three at once. The performances in this were truly exceptional. I have nothing else to say except it was a remarkable production of a remarkable musical. For this alone I will love Hytner forever.

And the not so hot....

Actually in the NT I've had very few bad evenings. The Magistrate did little to set my world on fire, but I went for John Lithgow and seeing the "other side" of the NT Live Broadcasts and that's what I got. Along with a stunning set it must be said. Until I looked over my programme I'd forgotten 13 by Mike Bartlett, but I remember it being a decent enough play, just not one to sear into my memory.

Honourable mention for "what the everloving **** was that?" award must go to "The Veil" by Connor McPherson. In my defense I was very very tired when I saw it. But all I remember is a scary old lady, a scary child and a puff of smoke. If there was something drastic I'm missing someone please enlighten me....

Finally, the only truly bad thing I've seen to come out of Hytner's time, although again I didn't see the original: One Man Two Guvnors. Not only is it the worst of the NT I've seen it is the only, I repeat only time I've genuinely wanted to leave at the interval (in fairness to it the second half is the better half) I know I'm in the minority but it's like theatrical fingernails on a blackboard to me.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Sitting on the stupid table

I didn't get diagnosed with dyslexia until I was 21 and in my final year of Undergraduate study. It took a vigilant personal tutor who took my 'I'm losing marks on simple things' moan seriously. That conversation I'm 100% sure meant the difference in my grade for Undergrad. Although it would have made a massive difference to know in say my first year of Undergrad, hell even perhaps Sixth Form, I'm actually glad I didn't know when I was younger. When I was in Primary school learning to spell and add up (poorly) the dyslexic kids were the 'thick' kids. They were the kids nobody expected anything of. This was the late 80s, when such things were even less well understood than they are now. I still read voraciously, and I worked hard. So although my maths wasn't quite as good as my English, although my spelling was bad and my handwriting worse, I was still one of the "Top Table" kids in Primary school. So actually that label would have held me back.

Now, some 20 years later, that label is supposed to be a tool. A tool to support myself, and to gain support where needed. However in the last years doing my PhD I feel I've been firmly put at the 'thick kids' table.

All through my life dyslexia hasn't bothered me that much. It's actually the dyspraxia side which has been worse. In general the challenges of dyslexia-reading speed, grammar poor spelling and an inability to do mental arithmetic generally are easily compensation. They generally, unless going in for a Spelling Bee or Maths competition don't carry the same level of humiliation as falling flat on your arse, walking into a clearly there, clearly avoidable large object, or going left when everyone goes right.

Honestly though I never felt either of these things were having a great impact on my life, until I did my PhD. Obviously doing a level of study like that would amplify these aspects, but naively I thought I'd be supported, and most of all understood. Instead I feel like being dyslexic makes me unworthy of obtaining the degree. More than that though I've been called a liar, made to feel I was somehow faking it or doing it on purpose. Why would anyone do that?

I've blogged about some of this before. Some of you reading this know this came to a head this week when after looking at my corrections I was told that I wouldn't pass without further proof reading with the implication being I that I should be able to "prove" it was "professionally" proofread.

I'm putting a disclaimer in here, that the person I've dealt with, our director of research has been supportive and understanding of the various issues at play that I'm about to go into. It's here, it's bold, there is no accusation or issue there. 

At first I said ok fine. I mean faced with the statement "do this or you fail" what else am I going to do? but it's more complex than that.

I spent two years being hammered every time I submitted work that it 'clearly wasn't' proof read. Over and over I apologised, I said that of course I'd make it right to submit but that I couldn't keep to the writing deadlines and have it perfectly proof read but that I'd make it right for submission (bear in mind these were only draft copies) A year ago, in one such meeting I broke down. I couldn't take the constant bombardment anymore. I cried and said that I was sorry but to imagine if the only thing people ever picked up on and criticized was the one thing you couldn't "fix". Following that meeting one of my supervisors said I was "mentally unstable" and following a similar blog post (here) declared they wanted "nothing to do with me or my PhD" All over proof reading and something a disability is preventing me from doing.

It was agreed that I'd get a professional proof reader before submitting. I had no problem in theory with that, a lot of people dyslexic or not do so. I did have issue with the implication I wasn't going to be supported in submitting without it, but what could I do? I complied, thinking that it was sorted. I had my mock viva and nobody mentioned proof reading, so I thought at last I'd sorted it, paying for it had worked.

In my viva proper it was brought up. The chair asked if he could mention my dyslexia, not as an excuse but as explanation. I agreed. I then agreed to carefully check things before submitting my corrections.

Score check: proof reading by professionals done once, various fellow PhD friends have also looked over the work, as has my Mother, as have I.

Following the viva I asked some very generous friends to look over it. All of whom were teachers or PhD students (indeed both!) they proof read it, I proof read it, my Mum proof read it.

Score check: professional, various academic friends (x2) Me (x who knows) Mum (x about 4?)

Then the corrections themselves (which had been included in the above) were proof read, and checked for content by my supervisor, who it's fair to say is fairly particular about grammar and presentation.

And still I'm told it "hasn't been proof read" ....if anyone out there can explain this to me I'd really like you to because I'm banging my head against a wall. Above all else, if my supervisor's proof reading isn't good enough (fussiest woman on earth, honestly) Above all else it feels like being called a liar.

What it also feels like is discrimination. I've said it. But it's how I feel. I feel I'm being unfairly scrutinized because long ago some people got it into their heads I wasn't capable and are looking for it. Given my knowledge of other people's PhD's in the School I don't think anyone else has been subjected to this level of scrutiny. I also wonder if the students (of which there are many) who have English as second language, and who therefore have similar issues in fact to a dyslexic student in terms of writing, have the same level of scrutiny, or have been threatened with failure on the basis of such things.

What kicks me in the teeth is that I almost feel like I am being penalised or taxed financially for my disability. Being told the only way through is through proving a professional finanical transaction has taken place.

What I also feel is the lack of support for disabled students in this position. I feel this most keenly because it's how I currently earn my (frankly abysmal) wage. At Undergraduate, even Masters level there is such support for students with disabilities. I spend my days making sure students have physical access, as well as access academically to their course. Obviously I can't be specific here but as a department this means note taking for students in lectures, scribing and reading in examinations as well as the whole array of things other staff members do, and that we do that isn't on any list. We help students across a whole spectrum of disabilities from yes, dyslexia, to hearing and sight impairments, mental health issues, autistic spectrum disorders, a whole host of physical disabilities (including the odd rugby injury) I spend my days taking notes in lectures or reading in exams so that students can be on a level playing field. I don't just take notes for students who can't hear or see, but for those whose study would be impaired if they had to compensate themselves for their note taking or whatever other support I'm giving. I'm not giving my students a 'leg up' by helping them I'm evening the playing field.

 You wouldn't ask a disabled student to play basketball without a wheelchair would you? it's the same thing. You wouldn't ask a blind runner to compete without a guide? (can you tell I've been working in sports for a year?!) What it feels like to me is being that blind runner, being put in a field with all the able bodied runners and being blamed when I fall over and trip everyone up, and being told it's my own fault I've come last, I'm probably lying about being blind anyway.

So where do I stand now? well in theory I have to pay for another proof read (negotiated luckily to just the corrections) but given what I've said above I worry that I'm going to do that, pay out again only to be told it's still not enough. I've been told the content is there that what I've written is PhD standard but I won't pass without a proof read. Strongly advised it should be a professional proofreader. Putting aside that I've done that already, several times now. I wonder am I being told 'You'd be a PhD now if you weren't dyslexic' am I being told that my disability isn't real? that I'm lying about it? I don't even know anymore.

I've had some low points in my PhD. I've had supervisors walk out, I've had supervisors scream at me. I've been told nothing I'm doing is right. I've done all this while working all the hours and being flat broke. But I always felt it was worth it. I don't anymore. I feel now that I am on the 'stupid table' that I was put in a box the moment I outed myself as dyslexic and nothing I ever did was going to change that.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Five Steaks and an Eggplant conundrum

 This is an awkward one. It's the thing that nobody wants to talk about: money.

As I moved through my 20s into my 30s I began re-watching a lot of 'Friends' again. And it struck me how relevant to that stage of life a lot of that show was. I could write a whole series of posts on that. The one that sticks in my mind at present is 'The one with five steaks and an eggplant' where not only Monica is fired for a innocent mistake on her part (I've been there) but for this exchange:

Ross: I guess I never think of money as an issue
Rachel: That's because you have it.

That exchange there sums up my entire academic experience. From my trying to explain why I had to hurry up and finish, to why further archival research or conferences weren't on the cards. And now to explaining why barring some kind of divine intervention that an academic career is over for me. Money. It makes the world go around, and if you have it you don't notice. It is also the biggest gatekeeper to academic success.

The final straw came when I was called in to talk about my PhD corrections. Having spent the last hour in work physically shaking from head to foot convinced I was going to be told I'd failed, I was told that the examiners required the corrections to be proofread. I'm not going to get into the debates about dyslexia and being penalized (I've written about it here...) or that International students with English as a second language seem to get a free ride on this front but those of us with a disability that effect us in the same way don't. What I am going to talk about is the monetary issue.

Let me first say that the director of research is on my side in this. He was doing the best to find a solution that was not going to cost me a lot of money. I also got the impression that he was less than impressed at the situation and that this was the best compromise without at fight. I'm angry at the situation but inclined to agree with him and take the 'anything for a quiet life' approach at this stage.

What I am angry about is that once again my ability to be an academic rests on my ability to pay for it. I've already paid for proof reading once, and now my ability to actually pass rests on paying for (hopefully slightly less) proof reading again. Because the implication in this situation wasn't so much on doing of the proof reading but the proving I'd gotten someone "Professional" and by implication made payment for it to be done.

I've talked before about financing a PhD as a self funded student. Added to that is the implication in academic circles that it makes me "lesser" somehow. In the same way that I see Independent scholars regarded as "lesser" when in fact those of us somehow supporting ourselves financially whether as students or later as scholars should actually be respected for juggling both finance and a life/job that is outside the academic and still producing our thesis/work. However that isn't the case, we're viewed as the 'not quite good enough' be it for a scholarship or a job. In the financial climate and job market we exist in can anyone be that narrow minded to think it's only those who aren't 'good enough' in that position? it's simply those who aren't lucky enough.

And that luck is something I don't have the luxury of banking on. I've been told, and seen others told time and time again that the key to academic success is just 'waiting it out' that you have to 'just keep going' attending conferences and publishing until magically...maybe...if you're lucky...you get a part time fixed term job. Maybe. And you know what I think to that? I think what planet are these people living on?

In what reality can people just sit around and wait for a job? doing all the unpaid work associated with that job, paying out for expensive conferences and library access and academic books that are frankly ridiculously prohibitively expensive even to those in full time jobs.

The only way to sustain this lifestyle, and it is a lifestyle choice, is to have a partner or parents who can support you. Or to do it alongside an unrelated full time job. I have the utmost respect for those who do the latter. And I also respect those who fall into the former category but are mindful of the privileged position they are in. I resent nobody their success if they work hard and happen to have a helping hand. What I do resent is those who have no concept of the helping hand they've been given in life and fail to see that others don't have that luxury.

So I'm going to spell it out: not everyone has that. And it's hear that academia also becomes a class issue. I'm not saying there aren't working class people in academia. In Britain we're lucky to have a student loans system and a means assessed system that does allow people from all backgrounds to access HE. And if people are lucky and get funding, or like me, support themselves by working in between studying then it is possible to do. Then there are those who are lucky and get  a job on finishing (something that was easier even just a few short years ago) but it's still a minority. And it makes it hard to explain to academic colleagues just what it is like to come from a background without the financial safety net.

In addition to the financial constraints there's also the other implications of being working class in academia. I've never felt "common" or "stupid" because of my background until I did my PhD. I mean we're all occasionally made to feel stupid in academia, that's part of the deal I think. But I genuinely really feel 'common' and often like some Dickensian urchin. Of course people like me don't read Dickens. It's hard to quantify exactly but a gradual niggling feeling over the years that somehow I had missed out on some fundamental education, because my background wasn't sophisticated enough. Because my parents didn't have higher education (hell my parents barely had secondary education, they're old you see when you could leave very early) then there were a lot of things they weren't aware of. We didn't go to the theatre, or watch high brow programmes on TV or read high brow books. I never felt lesser because of it. My Mum reads voraciously, and instilled that in me. However it's become clear neither of us read the 'right' books. I didn't have the 'right' kind of foundations for academia, my tastes aren't the right ones and I feel I'll always be playing catch up in that respect. However, if anyone wants a PhD in trams trains or planes, I spent a childhood attending museums related to those, so perhaps that was a missed opportunity.

I can defend my knowledge background, attitude and tastes. I'm not ashamed of where I come from. Nor am I ashamed of having different cultural experiences. My background gives me a killer work ethic, and a no nonsense attitude that doesn't suffer fools. All that I could bring to academia and quite frankly academia could do with. What I can't bring is the power to wait it out because I don't have the money.

An academic salary (starting at £32, 000 for those who don't know) is a fortune to me. It's money I never dreamed of. It's money a lot of my friends (nurses who earn a frankly paltry wage that is disgusting in comparison, people in the arts, school teachers) would also dream of. Ironically you have to have the money to earn the money. Hell we live in a Capitalist society, it is what it is.

What is different here to in business or other public sectors, is the guilt, dear Lord the guilt. This idea that I should be waiting it out, that it's the right thing to do, that I HAVE to pay out to conference, to publish to keep networking. And I ask on what? I also say there are more important things.

I work hard for the money I earn (ok to quote Friends again, I work for it) and to me, there are more important things. For the cost of a conference I could save up and take my Mum away with me somewhere for the weekend. That academic book? that could keep my poor old doggy in the tablets she needs for a month. We aren't on the breadline, but there are priorities. And 'staying in the game' or actually 'playing the game' isn't one of them right now.

I'm not writing this for pity or sympathy. I'm writing it to draw attention to the 'that's because you have it' attitude. I'm writing it because of the guilt, the idea that we 'should do' or that we 'must do' in academia. And I'm also writing it for the assumption that everyone is able to do. And I'm writing it to be that common-as-muck working class voice that nobody ever hears.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Jobs, jobs jobs.

Firstly a piece of advice. If you know a recently finished PhD student/academic in search of work or in fact ANYONE in search of work here is how to helpfully approach the topic of the job search:

"Hey how's it going? Any luck with jobs yet? Hey I saw this job and thought of you (but no worries if it's not your thing or you've already seen it) hope it helps!"

Or a variation thereof. Adding sympathetically that it's a bastard of a job market right now and we aren't alone in this also helps. Misery loves company after all.

How NOT to approach it:

"So you've finished your, what was it course thing? Have you got a job now? time to stop being a lazy student?"

Or a variation thereof. For added measure why not make comment on the fact that we're a) over 30 b) single c) childless d) generally useless.

I actually had both versions within 12 hours of each other yesterday. First thing I felt bolstered and positive that someone (who I don't speak to that often) made the effort to reach out and send me a job link and more importantly ask how things were going in a non-judgmental way. The second, though possibly said with the most innocent of intentions (it's hard to judge as it immediately puts defenses up) makes me immediately, simultaneously despairing and angry.

So where is the job situation?

Well firstly I'm not unemployed. Have actually only been legitimately unemployed for about a month of my working life (which by the way began and has been since I was 16, 14 if you count my time shoveling shit at a riding stables to earn lessons) I worked throughout my PhD teaching, at theatres and supporting disabled students. Currently I'm still doing that, and in term time earning enough to get by. Sadly it's term time only so I need a more secure solution, which is a shame because if it paid enough to live off (or a version of it did) I'd do it forever. I truly love it. Sadly it doesn't seem possible to actually do it for a "real" job.

Secondly there's the expectation I should get an academic job. Firstly why are we assuming that's what I want? I don't honestly know myself for certain. Second, do you know how many jobs I'm able (ie qualified and likely to stand a remote chance at) to apply for have come up since I did my viva? 10. In the whole of the UK, competing with not only all the reccent graduates but all the more experienced people seeking a change. It doesn't take a maths PhD to figure the odds aren't exactly in my favour. I've applied for a fair few but the process is slow, and as I say I'm not sure it's what I want.

On that note also I've tried to give myself a breather. To try and figure out what I actually really want to do. Academia I feel has slammed it's door in my face. Telling me what I already knew via my own failures and the comments direct and indirect, of others. I am not good enough. And part of me says ok actually, that's fine. Left to my own devices I'd probably say fine, walk away who cares anyway. But the constant stream of academics on my social media, in my life, tell me constantly that I am a failure for walking away, that there is no other option. Or if I take another option, no matter how right for me, how good the opportunity then it means failure.

I also don't have the luxury to wait it out for a job in academia or theatre. Something a lot of academics seem to forget too, when tellign you that it's just how it is-working for next to nothing as an hourly paid lecturer, doing very short fixed term contracts. I don't have a partner to support me, I don't have wealthy parents. And I think in all honesty we've reached a point where, bar the very lucky few who happen to get a funded PhD and a job straight away, people with a partner or parents able to support them are the only ones who can actually afford the waiting game.

If I look to theatre, my other love. I see nothing but despair. I see jobs that barely pay minimum wage and that I know are precariously dependent on funding that may disappear quickly (particularly in an election year) Again I feel guilty that years of training and dedication are being 'thrown away' by not pursuing these careers.

That said, what I really want is the thing I loved back. I want theatre to be the thing I love, not the thing I'm fighting with everyone involved with to be a part of. I want to have discussions and debates about theatre with people who really love it. Who care about the second understudy or the tiny piece of staging.

I also want to have the money to engage with my hobby. And time. Put simply I want a life. I feel like I missed my 20s through teacher training and a PhD. I want to make up for some lost time. I don't want to go and get drunk in Ibiza or anything like that. I simply want to know what a weekend is. Or what it is to just do normal socialising without saying 'Oh sorry I've got to get back, ton of work to do'

What I also want, as of now, is to stay in the place where I've made my life for the past ten years. It takes me a long time to build up friendships and I don't want to throw those away. One of my best friends has just had a baby, another is due this week. I have a small but solid group of friends, I have a choir and other hobbies I'm dying to get back to. I live in a place that is metropolitan enough to service my city-dwelling needs but not horribly crowded. It's affordable. It's just nice. All of those things after years of suffering through the PhD are actually more important to me to hold on to. Added to that being an only child of a single older parent and you have a whole list of priorities that outweigh doing what you're supposed to. None of this means I won't move away for work. It just means there's more to consider than just upping and going because it's what you do.

I am not my PhD. My career is important but success comes in many forms.

It doesn't mean I'm not incredibly frustrated. It doesn't mean I don't feel a crushing panic almost daily about what I do next, am I throwing away all this hard work? Am I settling because I'm afraid to fail? I worry the answer to all of these is yes.

I also worry that there is no work here. Certainly I'm not filled with optimism yet. But there's always the possibility I'll end up with something I never even thought of doing.

All I want really is a chance to use my skills. I don't know how or in what context. I want the chance to earn a decent (not extravagant) wage, support myself comfortably and have a job that is engaging and gives me chance to develop. No job is perfect, I just want to feel I'm being useful. I'm a professional with a PhD not just a 'PhD'

So any suggestions on the job front throw them this way. I'm open to just about anything...


Friday, 23 January 2015

Cucumber Banana ...Russell T Davies is back

Russell T Davies is back writing for TV. When I first heard this last year, followed by the news that he was writing a series of new gay dramas, I was excited. And luckily good old Uncle Rusty didn't disappoint.

I affectionately call him 'Uncle Rusty' we are, I should say for legal reasons, unrelated. I should be so lucky. (Lucky Lucky Lucky...see Russell I can do a good Kylie joke too) But Russell T Davies feels like my favourite TV uncle. The one who has always been around, and the one who somehow gets what my brain needs.

It's no surprise to anyone who knows me that what my brian needs is gay drama and Doctor Who. But does in fact my brain need this because that's what Russell T Davies has provided at key points in my life? That's all a bit philosophical, but I will say that Queer as Folk and Doctor Who have formed a significant chunk of my TV watching (and fangirl) life. This 'review' of sorts then comes with the disclaimer that I unashamedly love Russell T Davies and his writing.

Before looking at Cucumber it's important to pause and think of its predecessor, Queer as Folk. So much has been written about it out there, probably far more eloquantly than I'll manage. But it was so important, for both gay drama and representation and for British TV drama-it pushed boundries. In the days where channels were still limited, to have something like Queer as Folk on one of the 'main' tv channels was innovative and groundbreaking. That it showed and talked about any kind of sex at all, never mind gay sex was pushing TV into new territory. Added to that it was a programme about gay men. A vareity of gay men (and a couple of lesbians now and then) it was about young men, and teenagers and their lives were front and centre. And this when Cucumber and Banana aired last night is still rare.

For me Queer as Folk, as with a lot of Rusell T Davies' writing is so real as well. The people are so normal. They aren't glossy London people with shiny media jobs, or fancy lawyers who don't seem to do any work. In Queer as Folk Vince managed a supermarket, his workmates went to the pub after a shift and talked about Corrie. Yes Stuart had some kind of flashy advertising job, but that was part of his character. Everyone else had 'normal' jobs, lived in 'normal' houses. People talk a lot about representation (rightly) of gay characters, but for me equally important was having a variety of characters, which included, people like Vince who worked in a supermarket. Not all gay people are Stuart, or the cliches of fashion designers and actors seen in other gay characters. Gay people manage supermarkets, work in shops, work, as in cucumber in insurance or deliver the post. And that angle is what I loved.

And they don't live in London! Rejoice! You'd think looking at TV in general that people in the UK only live in London, or in small towns where murders inevitably take place. Instead Russell T Davies gives his work (Queer as Folk, Bob and Rose and now Cucumber/Banana) a Manchester home. How many teenagers, gay or otherwise wanted to run away to Manchester because of him I wonder?

All of this was marvelous, in the late 90s Queer as Folk was breaking boundaries. But it was also bloody good drama, and bloody, bloody funny too. And Cucumber/Banana doesn't disappoint. It was laugh out loud funny, and already has laid the groundwork for being incredibly touching. What it also does so well is walk a line between being a 'gay drama' and yes focusing on issues that affect the gay men, show their perspective of live as gay men, but also doesn't leave out the world around us. Already we're seeing the wider families involved and their issues and stories that aren't 'gay issues' they're just connected by these gay men. What I was also seeing in Cucumbers new 'maturity' is actually in showing how so called 'gay life' is just in fact ....life, it's jobs and houses and promotions and debates over getting married, and relationship issues...and possibly a midlife crisis. Yes it's a drama about being gay, and yes there are issues there I can see Davies teasing out that are important-in Banana the young guy coming out to his parents (and lying about their reaction) in Cucumber actually the issue of being able to get married and how that now sits with older gay men who always assumed it was off the table. There's a lot going on under some riotous humour, and yes a fair bit of sex. And we need the sex still, we need the men snogging each others faces off and having sex because it's still so taboo and maligned and gay characters are still de-sexualised on tv.

It's a great start, 1 epsidoe of each in. And the crossover with the younger characters to the shorter 'Banana' on E4 is so far brilliantly executed. And frankly who doesn't like seeing Freddie Fox on tv? And the trailer promise some lesbian storylines (something that was missing from Queer as Folk, and still missing from TV in general) so bring on the lesbians Russell, and bring on the Cucumbers and Bananas. I can't wait.

I have to add, as a postscript, that while watching this last night a friend tweeted me joking that his diet had gone well until he ate that cucumber yesterday. So in fact, biggest laugh of the show actually went to him, for unintentional brilliant comic timing....


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Films about Scientists...The Imitation Game & A Theory of Everything

As my last blog post notes, I'm notoriously crap at seeing films. I enjoy films a great deal, I am just appalling at getting to the cinema to see them. That said this week we have (drumroll) a post about films.

There has been much chatter about the Oscars this week, and not least of the chances of two British films and their stars 'The Imitation  Game' and 'A Theory of Everything' having actually managed to both these films, and having far too many thoughts to contain in even a long line of tweets, I decided to blog about them.

In many respects these are very similar films, in terms of subject matter, production and the people involved. British (ish) films, based on non-fiction books, relatively low budget, starring (again arguably) some of the best acting talent that Britain has between them. The films themselves are about British scientists who have both changed the way we think about their fields, both defying personal obstacles to do so.

There's naturally been a lot of buzz about which of the two leading men will end up with the Oscar (of course, it could be neither I wouldn't bet against that). Both performances are of course excellent, In some ways Redmayne has an edge in illustrating his acting prowess having the bigger physical challenge of portraying Hawking-and not straying into a  caricature, which he does impeccably. Of course with Hawking also most of us have an idea of what Professor Hawking looks and sounds like. When Benedict Cumberbatch took on the role in the BBC film version ten years ago, this version stopped before the major physical changes-being wheelchair bound, facial paralysis, loss of speech, took hold. Redmayne's version goes from the able-bodied Hawking to the version we're familiar with today.  And that familiarity is an added challenge that Cumberbatch in depicting Turing doesn't have. Tragically so in fact, most people wouldn't even know what Turing looked like, never mind how he carried himself, how he spoke. Hawking on the other hand we could all describe.  To some degree Redmayne has to create two versions of Hawking also, the man before and after the illness takes hold. Because although, as the film shows wonderfully in fact, Hawking remains the same man inside (such is the tragedy of in some ways MND in fact) but Hawking and so Redmayne needs to find different ways of communicating this with the audience. It's a challenge, and the performance he gives certainly meets that challenge.

The physicality of Redmayne's performance also illustrates some of the difference between the two films. In 'A Theory of Everything' the emphasis is on showing us what we don't usually see of Stephen Hawking, the personal struggles with his illness that happened behind closed doors before his PhD was published, before his Brief History of Time and away from the public figure. In contrast everything about Turing's life was secret, from his work at Bletchley Park during the war, to his own personal battles behind the scenes, in his case with his sexuality, and eventual chemical castration. If A Theory of Everything is about showing us what we usually don't, making Hawking's physical struggles as a result of his illness clear to the audience, showing his physical suffering that we normally don't see, then 'The Imitation Game' plays an opposite hand by still keeping much hidden. We don't see Turing's relationships or sexual encounters, we also don't see the battles, the bombs or the lives saves as a result of his actions. What was hidden in history is still slightly out of sight in the film but it becomes forefront in everyone's minds.

'The Imitation Game' doesn't hit anyone over the head with the issues it deals with-war or sexuality, but it doesn't shy away from them either. We are never left under any allusion about the importance of the work at Bletchley park, we're told early on how many lives a minute are being lost, and this urgency never feels far from the surface of the film. Likewise, Turing's sexuality is noted, known and clearly a prominent part of the story. Neither the war, or Turing's sexuality exist in explicit detail on screen but they are no less powerful for it. More so in fact. Likewise Cumberbatch's performance matches the tone of the film. While Redmayne is required to 'show' everything, Cumberbatch like the film is more reserved in his performance.

Although both films are about scientists, it's fair to say that in A Theory of Everything the science takes a backseat to the narrative about Hawking personally. What I liked about The Imitation Game was that the work Turing did was placed front and centre. The war and the work Turing was doing drives the narrative, because this is the story that needs to be told. The issue of his sexuality, and the torment and eventual tragedy is secondary in the narrative not to diminish it, but in fact to give it power. Had the filmakers decided to make a film about Turning's sexuality, allowing the work to take a back seat, then they do no better than those who arrested and castrated him-disregarding the genius, the accomplishments of the man in favour of his sexuality. Instead by showing an audience just what Turing accomplished first and foremost, by illustrating just how much Britain owes him for his achievements in ending the war, and what the world at large owes him for his contribution to computer science, then does the tragedy of not only his loss but his discrimination become apparent.

I think both films are important. We don't talk about disability enough, and certainly MND (even despite the Ice Bucket challenge craze of the summer) is a little known disease. Hawking is sadly a rare case, surviving as long as he has, but still any narrative that shows disability while an obstacle may not halt a life or achievements is a good one. If I were a betting person I'd also be inclined to say this film has the edge in the Oscar race-playing a disability, and playing a loved real life character (and non-controversial one) are always a plus with the, lets face it, conservative Oscar voters. And it's a brilliant, film, and important in its own way.

But I think The Imitation Game is a more important film. I'll admit I was aseptically. There had been so much hype, and when I came out of it I felt something was off, that I'd not seen the film everyone else had. You see everyone else told me they were sobbing, it was so very tragic, upsetting. I wasn't sobbing at the end, I was angry. In part I put this down to years of watching, reading, thinking about stories of tragic gay men for work (those who may read this who don't know, I wrote my PhD on the cultural depictions of the AIDS crisis) And that's when I realised, this film isn't for me in many ways. This film is for all the people who don't know who Turing is, what he did, and the tragedy of this death. For so many it seems (through my wholly unscientific scouring of the internet for blogs, articles and social media posts) for many that sign at the end, describing how Turing took his life, is a shock. And so these are the people who are sobbing, because the character they've seen triumph over the last two hours, being an unsung war hero, is now cut down. And I say good, well done, to the filmakers, make these people upset, but then like me make them angry. Angry that it's taken this long for Turing to get a Royal pardon, and angry that he's still not rewarded, revered among our other war heroes. And even more so that his life and work were cut short so we never got to see what else he was capable of.

Both films are brilliant pieces of cinema. Both men involved are worthy of immortalizing on film. Both actors involved do sterling jobs. For me though Turing's story is the story that needs to be told, to be heard again and again. And if the awards manage that, and if through this recognition of the film we move towards the recognition that Turning himself deserves then the film has done its job.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My top 5's for 2014

Yup it's that time of year. I've decided to do a top Theatre, TV and film. Mainly as my reading was restricted to work stuff or stuff I'd read before because my brain can't take any more. So I missed much of the new books of the year.

I'm going in reverse order of my knowledge/investment. So firstly film, there's no top 5 because...well I'm struggling to name 5 films I saw this year...

Gone Girl 
Controversial. People loved it or hated it. Admittedly 2 and a half hours was bum-numbing (and not enough of Affleck's bum to compensate. That said as with the book I fall into the camp of it being an interesting observation on the way women are viewed in society (while also falling into the category of ridiculous thriller)

12 Years a slave 
Had it not been for the two films that follow this would be my top film of 2014 (admittedly there were few to choose from) I loved this harrowing, historical work that managed to tread the line of disturbing without feeling voyeuristic or indulgent. Astounding performances all round (with the excpetion of Brad Pitt's 'Canadian' accent...)

 The Imitation Game 
I have a lot of thoughts about this that I may put into another post. I have thoughts as a historian, I have thoughts as someone who has spent a lot of time working on depictions of gay men in film/theatre/tv. With regard to the latter, I think my time spent up to my eyeballs (and crying my eyeballs out) at tragic stories of gay men across the ages, left me slightly less moved than the majority of people. That doesn't detract from the importance of this film, or the fascinating insight into the cracking the Enigma code. As historical films go, and I'm a fussy one with regard to those, I couldn't have asked for anything more. And again I couldn't point out a weak link in the cast, particular mention in fact toMark Strong's head of MI6.


.Pride 

I could write for days about this film. The story of LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) and their support of a small Welsh mining village during the miners strikes. It's one of those films that hits the perfect balance of humour and heart. It's laugh out loud funny but incredibly touching. For me it was an incredibly personal feeling story being set in the era I've spent years researching, and being set just up the road. (If anyone who doesn't know me personally is reading this, the accent the Welsh folk have is what my 'real' accent sounds like...but I don't sound like that anymore) All of the actors are incredible, but particular mention to Dominic West (sporting the best perm/dye job and best dance moves possible) Andrew Scott (whose simple 'Nadolig Llawen probably reduced every Welsh person to tears) and Rusell Tovey who is in it for less than 5 minutes and is heartbreaking. See it.

TV. 

A fairly easy 'top 5'

 Sherlock 
Was it really a year ago already? yes the thrid season was 'difficult' and perhaps felt a bit 'transitional' but it's still head and shoulders above a lot of offerings on TV. It's still stylishly produced and some of the best writing and directing on British TV.

Doctor Who
As above it was a tricky year for Who, but for me again, it's still up there. Capaldi, Capaldi, Capaldi. What can I say? The man was born to be the Doctor, and he's had many years of being a fanboy to get ready. He's brilliant. He knows what he's doing even when the writers perhaps don't. I found the series overall a bit lacking, but I'm holding it up to the standards of Who, past, if I put it next to television across the board it's still a seriously high in the ranking. May Capaldi's reign be a long one.

Hannibal 
I have loved the Hannibal Lecter stories since I was young (probably a bit too young) from the books to the early films. But Hannibal continues to be hands down my favourite version of the suave cannibal. Mads Mikkelson makes cannibalism strangely sexy, and convincing. The intertexuality of the show is masterfully done, and the whole thing is so beautifully shot it makes disembowelment look like art. And it's funny. Who knew cannibals were so funny? Also did I mention the combination of Mads Mikkelson and Hugh Dancey?

Endeavour 

 The 'baby Morse' series was a highlight of 2014 tv for me. Improving on the first series and dare I say it improving on the originals a bit too. While Morse and Lewis are charming (the latter still being a favourite in its new series) they can both be a little, well slow. The 60s set Endeavour is pacier in its plots, and its leads in Shaun Evans and Roger Allam are wonderfully engaging. (let's just hope Allam makes it to series 3...)

The Fall
I was late to this party, catching up on series 1 just before series 2 aired (slap my Gillian Anderson fan hand) but this is without doubt the best thing on TV this year for me. Gripping, grown up drama with gripping grown up characters. Anderson's DI Stella Gibson is a fascinating character brought to life impeccably (well I would say that) not afraid to take down the men, call them on their sexism and unafriad of her ow sexuality, while also being humanly flawed. Oh and rocking a silk blouse or ten. Jamie Dorman, soon to be busy in 50 shades of Grey is creepier than the creepiest of serial killers.


Theatre

It was a slower year for theatre for me, with less time to travel to theatre and less funds meaning I was less willing to take a chance on things. No longer working in theatre as well meant distinctly less came my way.

Honourable mention to David Tennant's Richard II and Coriolanus at the Donmanr, which I did see in 2014 but technically saw first in 2013 so I've discounted them.

Miss Saigon
I love this musical. Maybe a little more than I should. So the chance to see it fully staged instead of the tour I'd previously seen, and revamped a little from its 80s glory was too much to pass up. Sometimes loving something in it's recorded form for so long can prove a let down 'in person' Miss Saigon was not. It was big and flashy yes, but sometimes that's what I need in a musical. I loved it.

My Night With Reg 
I nearly didn't go to this. I was in London for a conference, and just about done with AIDS plays. I'm glad I did because it's actually one of my favourite AIDS plays. And after years of American AIDS plays to have something so very very British as a response was just the antidote I needed. Also honourable mention to seeing a LOT of Julian Overden.(Downton Abbey that Sunday caused me to yell 'Lady Mary you don't know what you're missing')
Review of it here: http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/review-streetcar-named-desire.html


The Crucible 
I toyed with whether this was in my top 5 or not. But it is. I wondered if I would like it too, having suffered 'death by GCSE drama' (by the way if I ever see my GCSE drama teacher again I'm telling her I went to RADA and got a PhD in drama, even though she said I was no good) But this hauntingly good production  (if a bit over long) was engaging and fascinating and more than enough to blow the cobwebs of productions past away. Richard Armitage and his booming tones and commanding presence is something that stuck with me for a long time. It felt stripped back to its essence and was haunting, and fascinating to watch.
Review here: http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/review-crucible.html

A Streetcar Named Desire
I was always going to be biased of course, with Gillian Anderson as Blanche. But, the production and her performance were steller (Stella. Sorry) It also re-ignited for me the love of all things Tennessee Williams. The overall emotional punch packed by this one overrode niggles with the production I had and the last five minutes entirely were swept along by Anderson's performance.
http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/review-streetcar-named-desire.html

The Drowned Man
I almost feel it's unfair to put this in the same category as everything else. The Drowned man was something else. Running around an old sorting office chasing characters from a Hollywood dream. Walking into dark spaces terrified and enthralled. The dancing, oh the dancing. Oh hell I've written two blogs about it already, I won't wax lyrical anymore. The Drowned Man shifted my theatre perspective in 2014 and my personal perspective a bit too.
Two review links here: http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/punchdrunk-drowned-man.html
http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-drowned-man-round-2.html

Honourable mention in theatre this year also goes to 'Sunny Afternoon' for doing a jukebox musical right (and giving me a love of 'The Kinks' that I never knew I had) to 'Seminar' for pure unadulterated Roger Allam gloriousness and finally Andew Keates' wonderful production of Dessa Rose. Martin Freeman's Richard III may have mad it in had I not been sorely disappointed not to emerge covered in blood.

So that was 2014, what I saw I loved, I saw less than I would have liked but what I saw was defiantly worth it.