Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Britannia, Season 1, Episode 2

Series created by Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and James Richardson; directed by Sue Tully; screenplay by Tom Butterworth (Sky/Vertigo Films/Neal Street Productions).

Episode 2 of Britannia fills out more about the motivations of the characters. We discover why King Pellenor hates his daughter (her great-grandfather on her mother's side was a Roman). We see more of Zoë Wanamaker's Queen Antedia, who gets a nice joint scenery-chewing moment with David Morrissey's Aulus Plautius. We see more of her tribe, the Regni, and find that they make liberal use of woad and have lots of women warriors, so that's those two obligatory elements ticked off. We also find that she hates the Cantii because Pellenor's daughter castrated her son on their wedding night (which she demonstrates by having her son drop trou in front of Aulus. 

Morrissey as Aulus continues to chew the scenery wherever it is to be found. In this episode he orders crucifixions of prisoners, to show what a nasty man he is (but he doesn't have them nailed into position, so he can't be all that bad), and then traumatises a small child. Ian McDiarmid as Pellenor is starting to chew the scenery a bit himself, though internal political and family machinations at Crugdunon remain not terribly interesting.

Meanwhile, NotArya and NotTheHound have an Expository Walk. He then manages to get rid of her, and she ends up being chased by wolves. (Well, actually, she is chased by huskies,which is exactly the same except when they catch you they lick you to death.)

But some strange things are happening. In this episode Vespasian gets killed. I had assumed that this was the Vespasian, who was, after all, there in historical reality, but survived and nearly forty years later became emperor. So either this isn't the historical figure, but just someone of the same name (which seems odd, as it's a strange name to pick - Antonius, Brutus, I can see, but Vespasian?), or the Butterworths are going full Quentin Tarantino Inglorious Basterds alternate history on us, in which case, all bets are very definitely off. 

And right at the end of the episode, Aulus visits the DruidCave (it's not actually a cave, but it might as well be), and takes a trip (in many senses) to the Underworld. This show may be rather more intriguing and less predictable than I thought.

Link to all reviews of Britannia.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Britannia, Season 1, Episode 1

Series created by Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and James Richardson; directed by Metin Hüseyin; screenplay by Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth (Sky/Amazon Prime Video/Vertigo Films/Neal Street Productions).

Okay, I should have caught up with this ages ago. But with the new season due next week, and my planning on really getting stuck into the 'Screening Britannia' project in November, it's time I did actually watch all this.

The first thing a viewer sees when watching Britannia is a caption that says:

IN 55 BC JULIUS CAESAR INVADED BRITANNIA

Then:

HE CAME FACE TO FACE WITH ANOTHER LEGEND ...

And the next caption says:

THE DRUIDS

Those of us of a certain age and disposition are probably expecting that the next caption will be 'NO-ONE KNOWS WHO THEY WERE OR WHAT THEY WERE DOING', and the dulcid tones of Spinal Tap's 'Stonehenge' will then be heard. But, of course Britannia isn't that sort of show at all - it's a serious drama. And then the titles play out to Donovan's 'Hurdy Gurdy Man', and you realise that maybe it is that sort of show after all.

When it was broadcast in early 2018, Brtiannia was accompanied by a lot of high expectations. After all, this was award-winning playwright Jez Buttorworth, author of Jerusalem, wasn't it? Well, yes - but it's also Jez and Tom Butterworth, screenwriters for odd cod-Arthuriana The Last Legion, a movie deeply uncertain about its own identity.

Britannia does one very interesting thing. As Juliette Harrisson and I shall discuss in the book we're writing together, most cinematic and television versions of the Roman invasion of Britain are interested in Julius Caesar's invasion, not that of the emperor Claudius nearly ninety years later. And they are almost without exception, comedies (e.g. Carry on Cleo or Asterix in Britain). Britannia is very definitely about the Claudian invasion - the only other screen example of this I've been able to find is 'Pritain', the first episode of the 1974-1975 BBC series Churchill's People. And Britannia is certainly not sold as a comedy.

There's also something a bit odd going on in terms of diversity. The Romans are clearly the bad guys here - this is not to say that the Britons are necessarily the good guys, as they are too caught up in internecine murder, kidnapping and warfare for that, but the Romans are the imperialist invaders who massacre an entire village that was doing nothing more offensive than getting stoned at a massive Solstice party, so they are definitely bad. Yet it is among the Romans that one finds ethnic diversity, with black and Asian soldiers, and it is from these soldiers that the only significant working class voices emerge. Now, that is quite possibly true to the actual ethnic and class make-up of a Roman army, but one wonders what purpose it serves dramatically. Is the intention to elicit some sympathy for the Roman point of view?

The Britons, on the other hand, whilst beating the Romans in terms of gender diversity - there is a complete absence of female voices on the Roman side - are remarkably white and middle-class, occasional Irish person aside, such that one imagines that when not trying to bump each other off they sit round the hillforts doing Guardian crosswords and forbidding their children to watch ITV. This is epitomised by a somewhat careworn Julian Rhind-Tutt, who is just a bit ... well, a bit too Julian Rhind-Tutt to convince as an Iron Age Man of Kent.

These points of interest aside, Britannia is mostly cliché. There's a neat trick where the character set up to be one of the audience's points-of-view fails to make it out of the first episode, but even that's not all that original. Aside from that, the Romans are all gruff legionaries, the British villagers simple farmers with a close resemblance to the peasants of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the local Druids are like Native American Shamen, and purveyors of New Age Woo, whilst at a higher level they're rather more sinister, led by Mackenzie Crook's Veran, made up to look like a Batman villain.

Britannia's biggest weakness, of course, is what got it made in the first place - its potential to be the next Game of Thrones, and therefore its tendency to lean in the direction of HBO's series. So there is much swearing, though in a remarkable act of restraint, no female nudity until fifty-five minutes in (compare Troy: Fall of a City, which had boobies after only five minutes). The Cantii's 'citadel' (rather than hillfort) of Crugdunon clearly went through several drafts where the designers were asked to make it more Game of Thrones-y, until the result doesn't look exactly like Winterfell, but would feel oddly familiar to any Starks visiting. And Nikolaj Lie Kaas' Outcast Druid and Eleanor Worthington-Cox's Cait, the pubescent girl he rescues from a massacre and is then contemptuous of, are so painfully NotArya and NotTheHound that it's slightly surprising legal action wasn't taken.

The problem that Britannia has which Game of Thrones didn't, of course, is that the audience knows the outcome. Whatever the various Britons may do, the Romans are here to stay, at least for the next four hundred years. The bad guys are going to win. (This may shed light on why the invasion is often treated as a comedy.)

The salvation of Britannia is that every ten or twenty minutes or so, David Morrissey as Roman commander Aulus Plautius turns up and chews every bit of scenery in sight, in a way that you have never seen him do before. This is not the nuanced Morrissey of Sense and Sensibility or The City and the City - this is full-on Alan-Rickman-as-the-Sheriff-of-Nottingham scenery chewing, as he flings his dead-mink decorated coat around his shoulders, advises legionaries to take a dump on the landscape, or say things like 'let's get on that fucking boat'. I have high hopes that he will be matched by Zoë Wanamaker's Queen Antedia, arriving as she does is a smoke cloud apparently of her own generation and sporting a wig that deserves its own star billing, but we haven't really seen enough of her yet. And Ian McDiarmid, as the improbably-named king Pellenor, seems to be keeping his scenery chewing in reserve for The Rise of Skywalker.

Still, this is only episode 1 - let's see what the next eight deliver.

My collaborator on 'Screening Britannia', Juliette Harrisson, has also reviewed the first episode.

Link to all reviews of Britannia.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Abbey Road, 50 years on

Today (26 September) marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles' Abbey Road, the last album they recorded as a group. It doesn't seem that long, but I think that's a product of first becoming aware of the LP when it was less than a decade old.

In January 1969, the band had tried to make an album that they planned on calling Get Back, attempting to record it as they had done at the beginning of their career, with no overdubs, and no edits. It had been a horrible experience for everyone concerned, and the tapes got buried (for a while, anyway). The problem was that, trapped by the public's expectations of them, The Beatles were finding it very difficult to work together. Paul McCartney remained committed to the band, hoping it could last a lot longer. But he mishandled his leadership role, and came across as hectoring and nagging.

Meanwhile his former creative partner, John Lennon, had moved on, being besotted with his new lover Yoko Ono, and wanting to invest all his creative energies with her. Under her influence, he was moving towards writing more personal and confessional material, such that could not easily be accomodated on a Beatles album. George Harrison, after a patchy couple of years, was right back at the peak of his creative form, but was frustrated by only being allowed two tracks per album, and by being still, at 26, treated as the baby of the band. He also seems to have wanted to become more of a rock guitar hero, along the lines of his friend Eric Clapton. Both Harrison and Lennon were completely fed up being told by McCartney what to do. Ringo Starr wasn't happy either with the tensions around the band.

So how did they manage to produce what, in the words of one of the earliest pieces of Beatles journalism I read, is a remarkably together album for a band that was falling apart? A lot of it was surface gloss. The Abbey Road engineers had got their heads around the new eight-track tape machines, and were making records sound like they had never sounded before. Some of it was that, returning to an overdubs and edits approach, they could stay out of each other's way a lot of the time, though there were tensions, between Lennon and McCartney, Harrison and McCartney, Harrison and Ono, and Lennon and Linda Eastman, McCartney's new girlfriend.

But a big part of it was probably the knowledge that they were coming to the end of the band's history. Producer George Martin very much had this feeling, being surprised that they were going back into the studio at all after Get Back. Though Starr doesn't recall this being the notion, both Harrison and McCartney seem to have acknowledged it in song - Harrison in 'Here Comes The Sun', which looks forward to better days ahead, and McCartney with 'The End', a track that explicitly gives the four members an opportunity to shine as musicians. This would explain why Lennon and Harrison seem to have upped their game (though Lennon drew for some of his contributions on songs over a year old, and absented himself from recordings on various occasions). They were evidently more willing to let McCartney have his way, even allowing him to put on the album 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer', his silly and lyrically nasty attempt to imitate the style of his brother Michael's band, The Scaffold. (Though they vetoed his attempt to put it out as a single, knowing that novelty singles was the last thing The Beatles should be doing.)

As a result, this is very much McCartney's album, and it often seems like a blueprint for his subsequent solo career. It was McCartney who, along with Martin, assembled the 'Long Medley' that takes up much of Side Two and is one of the album's more memorable moments. Such is the shadow cast by McCartney on this record that early critics thought three of Lennon's songs, 'Because', 'Sun King', and 'Mean Mr Mustard', were composed by his songwriting partner.

And yet, unquestionably the best songs on the album are those of George Harrison, 'Here Comes The Sun' and 'Something' - his best compositions to that point, and pretty much the best Beatles tracks of 1969. Indeed, when Allen Klein was choosing numbers from Abbey Road for the compilation album 1967-1970, none of McCartney's contributions made the cut - Klein selected Harrison's two tracks, Lennon's 'Come Together' (which had been issued with 'Something' as a single), and Starr's 'Octopus's Garden'.

Abbey Road is a strange album - it almost seems to capture the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s, and anticipates that The Beatles, either as a group or as individuals, will no longer be as central to pop music as they had been. Harrison looks to the future with his new Moog synthesizer, which he uses on 'Here Comes the Sun' and lent to Lennon for 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)'. Both he and Lennon had obviously been listening to Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, as shown by Lennon's 'Sun King' and Harrison's guitar solo on 'I Want You'. The result, in some aspects, doesn't sound that much like The Beatles.

For me, Abbey Road is more evocative of summer than any other record The Beatles ever made. It might not always be my absolute favourite Beatles album all the time - I also have a lot of time for Rubber Soul, Revolver and Pepper. But it may well be the one I have listened to more than any other.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

You be my Hercules, I'll be your Athena.

So, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he wants to help Johnson with the Herculean task of getting a Brexit deal, to be Athena to Johnson's Hercules. A number of commentators have taken this as a subtle jibe against Johnson, intended as a reference to Athena's intervention after Hercules went mad and killed his wife and children (or, according to the BBC, when she prevented him killing his family).

I love this image - Athena is so casual. 'Here I am, nothing to see here, just holding up the sky ...'
I actually don't think Varadkar's reference to being Athena to Johnson's Hercules is quite the dig some people are making it out to be, or at least not in the way they're taking it. 'Herculean tasks' refers to the Twelve Labours of Hercules, and there's a strong tradition in which Hercules was aided in his Labours by Athena (it's all over metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, for instance - see the image above). That's surely what Varadkar means, rather than any reference to the less pleasant sides of Hercules' personality (e.g. his tendency to drunkenness, gluttony, public urination, and yes, going mad and killing his children).

But there is a dig is in the power dynamic implied. Ireland Athena to Britain's Hercules? Vardakar Athena to Johnson's Hercules? Ireland's goddess to the UK's demi-god? To judge from how Brexiters and government ministers have recently spoken about Ireland, they would conceive of it as being the other way round; they see Ireland as the weak neighbour, to be helped, patronised and pushed around by the UK. And that is Varadkar's subtle jibe at the UK, a reminder that, with the rest of the EU27 behind them, Ireland is in the best position its been in a thousand years to tell the other island to go fuck itself, and yes, they're going to have some fun with that.

Also, as Liz Gloyn says, if anyone ever offers to be your Athena, seriously consider running.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Terrance Dicks, 1935-2019

I grew up with Terrance Dicks' version of Doctor Who. Though I have a couple of fleeting memories of the Troughton era, it was in Jon Pertwee's tenure that I grew to love the show, and that remains my favourite era, for all its flaws. And Terrance is amongst the first writers of science fiction that I read, in the many novelizations of Doctor Who stories that I read. Though he became a bit formulaic when there was basically only him doing them and he was expected to churn them out month in, month out, the early ones, and to be fair, the later ones where he was concentrating on the era he'd script-edited, are excellent, and sometimes rather better than the original episodes. Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks in particular is transformative.

I find it hard to mourn overmuch for a life lived long and well. But I did know Terrance Dicks a bit - we corresponded over an invitation to be a guest at a British Science Fiction Association London meeting, where he was charming, informative and very funny. I got him to sign my battered, well-read copy of Day of The Daleks. When his friend and collaborator Barrie Letts died, I sent Terrance a note of condolence, which he was gracious enough to reply to. Now he's died, and I don't know who to write to. So I'm writing to you all.