Sunday, August 01, 2021

On Latin in state schools

So, the UK education secretary has announced official government backing for a new initiative to introduce Latin into some state schools, in order to make the subject seem 'less élitist'. 

I am deeply suspicious of this, because it's the government and Gavin Williamson, and I am automatically deeply suspicious of both. Obviously, as a Classicist, I'm in favour of increasing the availability of Latin, though I am very much opposed to making it compulsory, or having it as a 'reward' for clever kids, because that leads to students being forced to study subjects they don't want to. 

I have a number of concerns here. One is that, like Grant Shapps' plan for the reopening of railway branch lines, not enough money had been allocated for more than a token gesture. Another is that the government may try to claim the great successes of Classics for All and the Iris Project in already getting Latin into state schools as their own. Undoubtedly, the government are going to be listening to the likes of Harry Mount, who want a return to the old days of grammar-heavy Latin teaching, and can't see how much that was a factor in Latin's downfall, though I am fully confident that those on the coal face of Latin teaching will resist such an approach. A big issue, and that Williamson probably hasn't bothered thinking about, is where all the Latin teachers are coming from. Like Johnson's 'levelling up' agenda, there's a sense of this being all vague big ideas, and no actual practical substance. 

But what really concerns me is the ideological motivation behind all of this. Michael Rosen has a very interesting and very well-judged Twitter thread that doesn't dunk on Latin, but asks 'Why now? Why Latin?' There is a definite sense that Latin is being presented as superior to other subjects. I happen to think that, for the right student, Latin is an excellent subject with which to nurture developing minds. But so, for the right student, is Classical Studies. So, for the right student, is Spanish. So, for the right student, is Mandarin Chinese. So is Media Studies. So is Equine Psychology. Why, then, Latin?

A persistent myth, still wheeled out by the Harry Mounts of this world, is that Classicists used to recognised as very clever people, and this shows the superiority of the subject (when 'properly' taught) for developing young minds. What it actually shows is the power that Classics teachers had in schools, such that they were able to gather up the best students for their subject.

Behind Williamson's initiative is the idea, to which many Classicists have subscribed, that people who studied Latin at private schools are successful because they studied Latin. Whereas the reality is that people who studied Latin at private schools are successful because they went to private schools. Thus, through increasing the availability of Latin, the government can claim to have made the tools for success available to all, whilst not actually addressing the real structural inequalities in our education system, inequalities that they are all beneficiaries of.

Inevitably, as Classicists we are going to welcome the increased availability of our subject in schools. But we must not take out eyes of the real prize. In the practical world of limited school budgets, we risk being sucked into an either/or battle, in which Latin or other Classical subjects can only thrive at the expense of other subjects, and to do that, we are forced into making the argument that Latin is 'useful'. The utilitarian argument for Latin is dangerous. I am opposed to making students study subjects that they have no affinity for simply because the subjects are 'useful'. That, it seems to me, leads to a lot of students with poor results, who are going to find themselves at the back of the queue for any jobs that require the 'useful' qualifications. The real problem is the overall impoverishment of the school curriculum, and fighting for Latin's place within that is a distraction. 

 

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Things read and seen in 2021, #3

(Spoilers. * indicates something watched/read for the first time.)

Movies

16. La caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy) (Italy, dir. Giovanni Pastrone and Luigi Romano Borgnetto, scr. Giovanni Pastrone, starring Luigi Romano Borgnetto, Giovanni Casaleggio, and Madame Davesnes, Itala Film, 1911)

A short, sometimes, as this poster shows, known as L'assedio e la caduta di Troia (The Siege and Fall of Troy). Rewatched as research for my Historical Fictions Research Network paper, back in February. It's an interesting treatment. Some of the tropes of modern adaptations are fully in place here, e.g. it tells the whole story of the war, not just the events of Homer's Iliad (in fact, the Iliad doesn't get a look in), and eclecticism runs riot in the design, drawing upon Classical Greece for the Spartan place, but with a very Roman garden, and Egyptian slaves, whilst Troy itself is full of Greek, Persian, Assyrian and Roman elements. On the other hand, this is still treated as mythology, with an active role for Venus in the eloping of Paris and Helen, and no better reason is given for the war beyond the insult to Menelaus dealt by Paris when he ran off with the Spartan King's wife. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Of course.

17. The Dig (UK, dir. Simon Stone, scr. Moira Buffini, starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, Magnolia Mae Films/Clerkenwell Films, 2021) *

I have joined a virtual film night group of friends, and this is the first movie I watched with them. Not surprisingly, this, the tale of the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon ship butial at Sutton Hoo, as the clouds of war gathered, was a movie I wanted to see ever since I became aware of it (which admittedly wasn't that long ago). The Anglo-Saxons are after my period (nasty modern rubbish), but I've done a fair bit of archaeological fieldwork in my time, and I think that this movie gives you some idea of how hard the physical work of excavating an archaeological site can be when you haven't got mechanical diggers to do the difficult and boring bits. Of course, there's a great deal of artistic license in the production of the movie, falling into all-too-predictable patterns (the 'professional' archaeologists all look down on the 'amateur' Basil Brown). I'm okay with most of the license, but I wish it hadn't been necessary to denigrate Peggy Piggott; she is depicted as someone with little experience, who has married an older and more experienced man (it is implied, and I believe made explicit in the original novel by John Preston, that she is a student who has married her tutor). In reality, Peggy Piggott had been digging for six years by the time she turned up at Sutton Hoo, had begin her career working for Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler at Verulamium, and had met Stuart Piggott when they were both students at the University of London, and both in their late twenties. She had more paper qualifications in Archaelogy than her husband did, and had directed her own dig. In a movie that aims at raising up to public attention the work of an archaeologist who, the movie suggests, was overlooked because he was working class, it is a shame that a woman's contribution is downplayed like this. Still, The Dig looks very pretty, and the performances are good. Carey Mulligan does very well playing someone twenty years older than her; though one does wonder, given that there are precious few cinema roles for women over 40, was it necessary to give one of them to an under-40? Despite all my reservations, I nevertheless do recommend this. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: The Ipswich archaeologists are desperate to get Basil Brown to come dig on a Roman villa.

18. Jason and the Argonauts (USA/UK, dir. Don Chaffey, scr. Jan Read & Beverley Cross, starring Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack, Morningside Productions/Columbia Pictures, 1963)

A #ClassicsTwitterMovie that is also in my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course. My Twitter thread is here. I've been writing a lot about this movie over the last few days, for my course, and for an LGBT+ History Month event I did on 23 February. What can more one say here? I have seen this time and time again, and it never gets dull. Certainly Ray Harryhausen's best movie, one of the best movies based on ancient Greece from the great days of the Hollywood epic, and arguably one of the best movies of Greek mythology ever made. Talos is one of Harryhausen's most memorable characters, and I really like that Harryhausen has the courage to delay his first bit of Dynamation to 30 minutes into the movie. Apart from that, there's just loads to enjoy. And it's great to see so many British character actors involved; Nigel Green, Laurence Naismith, Patrick Troughton, Niall MacGinnis, Douglas Wilmer, and that's just for starters. This is the second movie Harryhausen made after moving to London (though he was still under contract to a Hollywood studio), and that really shows through in the casting. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: House! 

19. Early Man (UK, dir. Nick Park, scr. Mark Burton and James Higginson, starring the voices of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddlestone, Maisie Williams, and Timothy Spall, Aardman Animations/BFI, 2018)

Another virtual film group movie; my pick, in fact. This rather seems to have flown under a lot of people's radars. I remember seeing it in a largely empty cinema, and the movie barely made its money back. I guess the lack of sheep, chickens or cheese-obsessed Yorkshiremen meant it didn't appeal to the wide audience Aardman can usually expect. Which is a shame, because it's really rather excellent. Funny throughout, if you can forgive some extreme punning, and also quite sweet. Tom Hiddleston is almost unrecognisable, and clearly having an enormous amount of fun voicing villain Lord Nooth with an outrageous French accent (please read that in an outrageous French accent). And I love the joke about the dinosaurs called 'Ray' and 'Harry'. Well worth following up, if you haven't seen it. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: the Bronze Age looks remarkably like ancient Rome, with some references to Greece thrown in. 

20. The 300 Spartans (USA, dir. Rudolph Maté, scr. George St. George, starring Richard Egan, Ralph Richardson, Diane Baker, Barry Coe, and David Farrar, 20th Century Fox, 1962)

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie, in case you couldn't guess. The thread starts here. I'm not wholly sure whether I think 300 Spartans is a good movie. I think it's better than 300; it's certainly less racist and dehumanises the Persians far less, even if it doesn't quite have the style of 300's imagery. It's also probably the best movie from the 1950s and 1960s set in ancient Greece, but then there's not a lot of competition, since so few were made. It's definitely not a better movie than the likes of Ben-Hur or Spartacus. Its reconstruction of the Battle of Thermopylae is more accurate than that of 300, but again, that's not saying much. Ralph Richardson brings some much needed gravitas to the movie, but he doesn't wholly give the impression that he's taking it seriously. Richard Egan, on the other hand, is taking things Very Seriously, in the way that William Shatner would later make his own. My favourite moment remains where somebody who is Greek turns to someone else who is presumably Greek, and explains what a Greek phrase means. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: molon lave.

21. Le mépris (Contempt) (France, dir. & scr. Jean-Luc Godard, starring Brigitte Bardot, Rome Paris Films/Les Films Concordia/Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, 1963)

And once again, we are with #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. What a delight it is to watch again this wonderful movie, and to bring it to a new audience. It looks and sounds beautiful, thanks to vibrant colours from cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and the lush strings of Georges Delerue's score. It's my favourite adaptation of the Odyssey (yes, over O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and that is also a movie I love), and probably my favourite adaptation of Homer. I need to watch À bout de souffle and Alphaville again to decide if this is my favourite Godard. Godard is extremely playful throughout this, keeping a minimum of jump-cuts, so the narrative isn't hard to follow, and subverting Bardot's image as a sex kitten, whether through utterly gratuitous shots of her lying naked on thick rugs, or dressing her up to look like Anna Karina (Godard's then wife). Jack Palance is also excellent as the sleazy and violent American producer. If you've never seen this movie, do yourself a favour and correct that. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Jack Palance trying to seduce Bardot by showing her a book of Roman erotica.

22. Troy: The Odyssey (USA, dir. Tekin Girgin, scr. Eric Forsberg, starring Dylan Vox, Lara Heller, Hachem Hicham, David W. Grey, Kelly B. Jones, and Daniel Whyte, The Asylum, 2017) *

I watched this as preparation for my class on versions of the Odyssey. Oh my. I confess to not being terribly familiar with the product of The Asylum before now, having slogged through ten minutes of Hercules Reborn (2014) before finding something better to do with my time, and I have never seen Sharknado. This is essentially a version of the Odyssey that seeks to cash in on Wolfgang Petersen's Troy a mere thirteen years after the Hollywood movie's release. The story appears to be constructed by chopping up Homer and throwing all the bits up in the air, and then adding a few extra bits. There's a Sword of Troy, which Odysseus seems to have go hold of, and is a full-on magic sword. There's a Kraken, because if your knowledge of Greek mythology is entirely based on movies, you probably think that's a Greek beast. There's fighting female Chinese monks guarding Troy, because ... no I can't explain that. Agamemnon, who appears to be a particularly angry Aussie Rules football player, is married to Helen. After Troy is stormed by about a half-dozen Greek soldiers, who vaguely tap at Trojan opponents with spears, in the background while the main cast are doing fight scenes, Odysseus heads home on what would be generously described as an overgrown dinghy. Fortunately, there are only three other Ithacans going home with him, which means there is space to give a lift to the Trojan priestess Circe (I am not making this up!), who decides Odysseus is a good bloke and worth fighting for, for no very good reason. There's Sirens! Who are the same as Calypso! There's a Minotaur in the Paths of the Dead. There's a Cyclops at the other side of the Paths of the Dead. Eventually Odysseus gets home, kills the Suitor and reunites with Penelope, only to have to fight off the Kraken! (I bet you'd forgotten about the Kraken. Odysseus certainly had.) Amazingly, this is not as bad as you might expect it to be. Which is still pretty bad. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Norse! The Kraken is Norse!

23. Colossal (Canada/USA/Spain/South Korea, dir. and scr. Nacho Vigalondo, starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, Colossal Movie Productions, 2016) *

Another virtual film night movie. A weird one here. Colossal is billed on websites as a 'comedy' or a 'black comedy'. It is nothing of the sort. There are no real laughs anywhere in this movie, and it isn't really trying for them. It plays with romcom tropes early on, but halfway through reveals that actually it's a stalker movie. Or at least, that's one of the genres it is trying to bring together; the other is the classic Japanese monster movie (though for geographic reasons in this case, the monster is in Korea, not Japan). The central premise is intriguing, and there's a good central performance here by Anne Hathaway, who certainly gets more to do than usual. But for most of the time, the attempt to blend the two genres never quite works for me, until the very end, which is clever and satisfying, and almost makes up for the weakness of the rest of the movie. It doesn't help that all the men in her life are horrible, and can't respect boundaries, even the one who's meant to be the 'nice' one. So I'm not sure I could honestly recommend this to anyone. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Colossus of Rhodes, innit?

24. Medea (Italy/France/Germany, dir. & scr. Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring Maria Callas, San Marco/Les Films Number One/Janus Film und Fernsehen, 1969)

Another movie for my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course, and another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here (due to the US shift over to Daylight Savings Time, I was an hour late to the viewing). I've watched this movie many times, and I'm still not quite sure what I think about it. Which is, I think, Pasolini's intention; he really doesn't want you to have any easy answers here. I use this as my example of Athenian tragedy rendered on screen, though really, only the last half of the movie presents Euripides' play, and in a somewhat truncated form (no room, for instance, for the visit of the Athenian king Aegeus). I actually prefer Michael Cacoyannis' three films of Euripides, but they're difficult to set in a course, as they are not easily got hold of. Nevertheless, this makes a nice companion piece to the portrayal of Medea in Jason and the Argonauts. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: We are not Team Jason here.

25. Mortal Engines (USA/New Zealand/Japan, dir. Christian Rivers, scr. Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, starring Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, and Stephen Lang, Universal/MRC/Wingnut Films, 2018) *

Another virtual film night, and another movie I'd been long meaning to get round to, because of my interest in London and the fantastic. It's been a while since I read Phillip Reeve's novel (and, of course, it's the only one in the series I can't find at the moment), and I don't remember it that clearly. Insofar as I do, this movie seems to treat it with respect, and preserves the main beats of the novel, though I remember that Hester and Tom don't get together until later in the series, and Katherine Valentine dies. I also seem to remember that the buzz around this movie from people I knew was that it was okay, if you didn't go in expecting the book. With this I concur. This movie was mauled by the critics, and flopped at the box office, but it's really not that bad, and the Traction Cities are well-envisaged. Reeve himself likes it. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: The deadly super-weapon is called the MEDUSA.    

26. Chi-Raq (USA, dir. Spike Lee, scr. Kevin Wilmott and Spike Lee, starring Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, and Angela Bassett, Amazon Studios/40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2015)

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie, and the final movie in my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course. The Twitter thread is here. This is an extremely important movie, for reasons that Nadhira Hill discussed briefly in her talk at the Res Difficiles 2.0 conference, the day before we did our viewing. She says 'for the first [and only] time I was seeing people like me [i.e. Black Americans] engaging with Classics'. This is a very important thing to say. It is still all too easy to conceive of Classics as by whites, for whites, and about whites. Chi-Raq says that these texts are part of Black American culture as well, just as Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona's The Island connected Black Africans with Sophocles. It's also a pretty good movie, that deserves to be better known. It negotiates shifting tone from comedy to brutal tragedy effectively, and rather than exploiting Black trauma for the purposes of entertainment, as some accused it of, it uses entertainment to highlight Black trauma. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Essential.

27. Mank (USA, dir. David Fincher, scr. Jack Fincher, starring Gary Oldman, Netflix International Pictures, 2020) *

Another virtual film night movie. The significantly fictionalised story of the creation of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, this has been festooned with Oscar nominations, at least partly, I suspect, because Hollywood likes to celebrate itself, even if this movie does attack the financial duplicity of Louis B. Meyer, and the pro-Republican propaganda of Irving Thalberg. It's beautifully shot, and a nice bit of familial pietas, as David Fincher directs a script by his late father, and Charles Dance is superb as William Randolph Hearst. But Gary Oldman is giving That Gary Oldman Performance, that we've seen before in Leon and Immortal Beloved. It doesn't help that he's about twenty years too old for the role; as the screenplay reminds us regularly, Herman Mankiewicz was in his mid-forties when he wrote Citizen Kane, and his mid- to late thirties for the flashbacks when he was part of William Randolph Hearst's circle, whilst Oldman is in his early sixties. This is not to say that Mank is bad, but I don't think it's as good as everyone else is saying it is. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Mankiewicz's younger brother Joe, depicted in the movie, went on to direct 1953's Julius Caesar and 1963's Cleopatra.

28. Hail, Caesar! (USA/UK/Japan, dir. and scr. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum, Universal Pictures/Working Title Films/Mike Zoss Productions, 2016) 

Another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here, and I actually reviewed this movie when it came out. It has a lot of the same Old Hollywood vibes as Mank. But it's a much less cynical work, with more of a feeling that Hollywood is doing something worthwhile. Of all the Coen Brothers movies I've seen, it is the one with the least substance. But it's still a lot of fun. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Not just the movie-within-a-movie Hail, Caesar!, but also some of the elements in Scarlett Johansson's Esther Williams routine.

Books

1. Ursula K. Le Guin, Changing Planes (Boston, MA, & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003) *

I've actually read a book this year. I read this for an Ursula K. Le Guin reading group I'm part of. It's a collection of short stories about different planes that can be accessed while waiting for planes. Few of these are straightforward stories with beginnings, middles and ends; most of them feel like entries in a travel guide, if a little more literary. A number of the stories are satirical, particularly one, 'The Royals of Hegn', attacking the British obsession with the Royal Family. Quite a few stories are about the fact that we can never really understand the foreign cultures we visit; in one, 'Feeling at home with the Hennebet', the narrator is unable to understand the meaning of certain words the Hennebet use which are obvious to them, in 'The Nna Mmoy Language' an entire language is incomprehensible, and in 'The Building' locals are unable to explain in a manner that visitors can grasp why they have been working on a building for centuries. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: On one plane, the locals look very much like satyrs. 

Comics

4. Three, by Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles (Image, 2014).

February's entry for #ClassicsTwitterComics. Every year or so, I reread Three. Not because I love it, but to try to find out why I don't. I ought to. It's a reception of ancient Sparta. I'm interested in any form of comics reception of the ancient world, and have been interested in Sparta since my days as a postgraduate, supervised by the man who was the historical consultant for Three. The writing is obviously skillful, and the art superior. Other Kieron Gillen stuff I do love, like Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine. (I also know Kieron and like him; fortunately, he's well aware that Three doesn't quite work for me, and this isn't an issue between us.) When other people talk about why they think Three is so great, on an intellectual level I can absolutely see where they're coming from. Yet every time, I bounce off the story. For some reason, I just don't seem to care that much about the three helots, or King Kleomenes II. I expect, after so many rereadings, there's now very little chance either that I will have a sudden revelation and get it, or that I will finally understand what my problem is with the comic. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: On the plus side the notes and conversation between Gillen and Steve Hodkinson brought me up to date on a lot of Spartan stuff.

5. InSeXts, vol. 2: The Necropolis, by Marguerite Bennett and Ariela Kristantina *

#ClassicsTwitterComics for March. I'm not really familiar either with this series (I haven't read volume 1) or Marguerite Bennett's work, though I've certainly heard her name get mentioned. At the heart of the story are two queer women who can transform themselves into insectoid bodies; it's a bit Ali Smith meets Kafka's Metamorphosis. These two have to make their way in a world that rejects independent women, often in the person of some violent men, who are met with violence. It's an interesting comic, that reminds me a lot of Alan Moore's Promethea, in both good and bad ways; it's beautifully drawn, and the colours, by Jessica Kholinne, are particularly gorgeous. The story is very interested in the occult and magic, and the writing is often very clever, but it does have a tendency to go off on long didactic speeches, conveying messages that need saying, but which one suspects the audience already takes as given anyway. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: That's a Medusa figure on the cover, though she's never actually named as such.  

As a postscript, the reviews of She-Hulk I mentioned in the last one of these posts, have now appeared at The Slings and Arrows Graphic Novel Guide. I reviewed Essential The Savage She-HulkMarvel Masterworks: The Savage She-Hulk, volumes 1 and 2The Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne, and Sensational She-Hulk: The Return, and the collected Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne Omnibus. The Savage She-Hulk material is drivel; positively embarrassing. The John Byrne material is very much better. The Return isn't so great; Byrne quickly seems to lose interest, and starts repeating himself, and the gag wears thin pretty quickly. But the collection of his first run is really quite fun. Nothing earth-shatteringly significant at all; just gags about the medium (Deadpool before Deadpool, and less crude), and a series of Marvel's Silliest Villains. But it's not meant to be particularly significant. It's just a bit of fun on Byrne's part. Some people don't like Byrne's artwork; I generally do, though I think he tends to be better with a sympathetic inker than when inking himself, and sometimes (though not really in this material) he can make people look emaciated. Byrne has turned into a horrible man in his old age, but he rescued She-Hulk and gave her a personality, and She-Hulk fans have to acknowledge that. (In fairness, I think that mostly they do.) And yes, I know the colouring on that cover is horrible. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: There's lots of references to Prince Namor, ruler of Atlantis, whom Byrne was writing at the same time.

Additionally, two reviews I wrote of William Messner-Loebs and Sam Kieth's Epicurus the Sage have appeared on the same site, of volumes 1 and 2. As a Classicist, I find Epicurus, with its unashamedly anachronistic mixing of historical figures from different periods and mythological personages, very amusing, but I strongly suspect I am almost exactly the target audience; certainly, some have attacked Epicurus for its niche interests, though other non-Classicists like it, and there is plenty of slapstick to keep the reader entertained. I would also contend, much like Austin Powers, that the later iterations of Epicurus never quite match the sheer invention of the first, and indeed (and much, again, like Austin Powers) it ends up re-using the same jokes. This is not to say that volume 2 is bad; it just isn't quite as good as volume 1. I hope to be writing in more depth about the reception of the Persephone myth in volume 1; you can watch a preliminary version of what I have to say one hour into the video here, but I warn you that this is very preliminary, and there's a lot more work I need to do on this material. Anyway, I think there are far worse receptions of Ancient Greek pholosophy out there. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: There's this cave, with shadows, and stuff ...   

Virtual Theatre

5. Girl on an Altar, by Marina Carr, directed by Susie McKenna and Indhu Rubasingham, Kiln Theatre, 2021 *

This rehearsed reading presented a project that Kilburn's Kiln Theatre are working on, an adaptation of the myth of Iphigenia and Clytemnestra. It takes a lot of liberties with the most commonly known version, but that's allowed. The actual sacrifice of Iphigenia takes up a short amount of time at the beginning, and most of this play is devoted to what happens after Agamemnon returns home, which is considerably extended beyond the version familiar from Aeschylus, with a child of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus being introduced, as well as children of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and full-scale war between Agamemnon on one side and Aegisthus and Clytemnestra's father Tyndareus on the other. The presentation of this is a bit odd; actors are both delivering their lines, and also narrating portions of the story as if it were a book that they are reading out loud. I'm not sure that this entirely works, and it might well work less when everyone is in full costume, though it does allow a lot of information to be conveyed, and a lot of expository dialogue to be omitted. As a whole, this didn't blow me away, but it wasn't awful either. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Agamemnon kills Tyndareus in battle. No, really.

6. Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Erica Whyman, starring Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford, 2018 *

I'm also in a virtual theatre-going group, and this was seen with them, though it was shown on BBC Four as part of their Culture in Quarantine: Shakespeare series; I've put it here as it is a recorded play performance. The plot is pretty well-known to everyone, though I had forgotten the role of Paris in events. This was a good production, with particular standout performances from Gill as Romeo, and Andrew French as Friar Laurence, perpetrator of one of the worst cunning plans in literature. Karen Fishwick's Juliet was a bit over-the-top at first, but I warmed to her as the play went on, and everything got more serious. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: 'You are a lover; borrow Cupid's wings.'

7. Medea, by Euripides, translated by Mary-Kay Gamel, directed by Rob Melrose, starring Elizabeth Bunch, Alley Theatre, 2021 *

An interesting comparison with Pasolini's movie, seen with my virtual theatre group (or at least a small subset of them). The production was made by filming all the cast in close-up; none of them interacts physically with anyone else. Mary-Kay Gamel's translation is excellent; vibrant English that still respects the Greek. And there are excellent performances, particularly from Elizabeth Bunch in the title role, and Chris Hutchinson as a loathsome Jason, who clearly believes in the rightness of his actions. This is still available to see until 11 April, and I heartily recommend it. Classical Recptions Bingo Card: Still not Team Jason. 

Audio

1. 'Rosemary Sutcliff and Re-imagining Roman Britain', Coffee and Circuseshttps://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/coffee-and-circuses/1-documentary-rosemary-RQ8mvdpOnTH/ (2020) *

Last year I got invited to contribute to a documentary on Rosemary Sutcliff, which I was delighted to do. But I hadn't listened to it yet. I sound terrible, but lots of other people also contribute much more interesting bits. I found it very useful for filling in some of Sutcliff's background. There are some very poignant reminiscences from her godson, and an interesting light on how she felt about the relationships between men she depicted. (Had I listened to this earlier, I would probably have talked about a Sutcliff novel for my LGBT+HM show-and-tell.) I should be getting round to rereading her books in the next few months, so that will get reported here. Classical Receptions Bingo Card: Eagles.

(I have also been listening to a lot of episodes of Hammer House of Podcast, which is fun. I've been working my way from the beginning, and have got up to Bonus Episode 23, and have also listened to the latest five episodes, and, for research purposes, the one on She.)


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Modern Adaptation of the Trojan War Tropes


I gave a paper on Thursday at the Historical Fictions Research Network's annual conference; my paper was on 'Trojan Catastrophe: The Fall of Ilium on Screen'. As part of that, I listed my Modern Adaptation of the Trojan War Tropes, something that I developed when doing Troy (2004) as a #ClassicsTwitterMovie, and refined in connection with another project that has, for the time being, been set aside. Some interest was expressed in these tropes, so I thought I would make more widely available the full list. I should emphasise that not every modern retelling of the Trojan War, or aspects of it, ticks off every trope, though there are some (e.g. Troy) that get the full set.

1. The Trojan War is treated as a historical event. 
    This has two sub-tropes:
a. The gods do not play an active part in events, and almost all elements of the fantastic are removed. 
b. There is a serious political/military/economic reason for the Trojan War, and Helen is just an excuse.

2. The whole story of the Trojan War shall be told. 

3. Helen of Troy is blond. 

4. Helen must have a good reason for leaving Menelaus. 

5. The design of the Late Bronze Age is historically eclectic. 

6. Achilles and Patroclus are Not Gay. 

7. We don't talk about Iphigenia. 

8. The Greeks are the bad guys.

At some point I shall write this up as a proper article, but for now, have this on me.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Things read and seen in 2021, #2

Oops! I have let this get away from me again (* indicates something watched/read for the first time).

Movies

3. Ben-Hur (USA, dir. William Wyler, scr. Karl Tunberg, starring Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959)

A rewatch, in connection with it being both a set text for my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course, and a #ClassicsTwitterMovie. To quote myself, from my course materials, 'Ben-Hur is not only the best version of the original source novel (though the 1925 silent version runs it a close second), it is generally considered the best of the Roman epics of the 1950s and 1960s. This position is deserved. It is genuinely a good movie, made by talent that was very much at the top of their game.' Part one of the #ClassicsTwitterMovie thread is here, and part two is here.

† According to the Writers' Guild of America; others, such as William Wyler and Charlton Heston, thought that Christopher Fry deserved a credit, and the script as finally seen is the product of input from over a dozen writers, producers, and others.

4. Live and Let Die (UK/USA, dir. Guy Hamilton, scr. Tom Mankiewicz, starring Roger Moore, Eon Productions, 1973)

The first Bond movie I ever saw in the cinema. I've always had an affection for it—Moore is still finding his way into the role, and so hasn't fallen into the bad habits that mar his later performances, the speedboat chase is great, and George Martin's score is the only Bond music to match John Barry until David Arnold came along. But what struck me this time is how horrifically racist this movie is. Inevitable, I suppose, with it being the 'blaxpolitation' Bond, but it really marred the experience this viewing.

5. Ben Hur (USA, dir. William R. Kowalchuk, Jr., scr. Abi Estrin Cunningham, GoodTimes Entertainment, 2003)*

An animated version of the classic tale, watched because I'd never seen it and thought it was about time I did. Charlton Heston introduces the movie from a comfortable study, narrates it and voices Judah Ben-Hur, and signs off as himself at the end. His final words are 'I'm Charlton Heston. Thanks for watching.' As this was the last movie he ever made, those words become an epitaph for his entire career, and a pretty appropriate one, I think. The movie itself is quite a compressed version of the original novel. There is a much stronger Christian message here than in either the 1925 silent version of the 1959 classic, and the screenplay draws upon the Four Gospels directly as well as upon Lew Wallace's novel, including things like the Massacre of the Innocents that Wallace omitted. Messala is also redeemed by the end, something that the 2016 remake also does. Overall, it's okay, but not better than the 1959 version. 

6. The Brother from Another Planet (USA, dir. & scr. John Sayles, starring Joe Morton, Cinecom Pictures, 1984)*

Watched, for the first time, with the London Science Fiction Research Community. This is an interesting low-budget sf movie, from a time when a lot of similar movies were being made. The only Sayles movie I'd previously seen was The Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), which actually feels as if it's been made on a larger budget, though it very definitely wasn't. Brother is about an alien who has been smuggled out from interstellar slavery (it's strongly hinted by an equivalent of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad), who then has to adjust to life in Harlem. New York of the 1980s is quite an alien place, especially to whites; there's a striking moment on the New York Subway where all the white people get off the train, to be replaced by blacks. This was definitely worth watching. It's slightly weird, has a social conscience without ever really preaching, and is in places quite funny. Sayles says it was about the immigrant experience, which is why it begins on Ellis Island.

7. Wonder Woman 1984 (USA, dir. Patty Jenkins, scr. Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham, starring Gal Gadot, DC Films/Atlas Entertainment/The Stone Quarry, 2020)*

I had been really looking forward to this, obviously. The first Wonder Woman remains the best of the DCEU movies (not that there is a lot of competition there). This was a bit, well, so-so. I thought killing off Steve Trevor was a bold move in Wonder Woman, and if they were going to bring him back, it would have to be in a way that didn't invalidate his sacrifice, i.e. Diana would have to give him up again. Apart from one horrible aspect, which Will Morgan has well detailed, I thought this was got right. Apart from that, there are two delightful moments, right at the beginning and right at the end, which warmed my fanboy heart, and the rest was standard superhero fare. It does all get a bit excessive at times (Geoff Johns' influence, I feel). And the 1984 setting doesn't entirely work; the movie is going for the strong sense of place that Captain Marvel managed so effortlessly, but it doesn't quite achieve it. Definitely not the breath of fresh air that the first movie was.

8. Julius Caesar (USA, dir. & scr. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Edmond O’Brien, Greer Garson, and Deborah Kerr, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1953)

A rewatch for #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. An excellent version of Shakespeare's play, with superb performances by Marlon Brando and John Gielgud, and pretty good ones by James Mason and Deborah Kerr. All productions of Julius Caesar are either Brutus plays or Antony plays, depending on directorial choice and actors' performances. Here, thanks to Brando, who is extraordinary, it's an Antony play. The movie is very studio-bound, and in consequence feels rather like a television production at times, except that no television production could have assembled a cast of this quality. Ten years later, director Mankiewicz tackled the same event in Cleopatra. More needs to be done, I think, in comparing his two Roman movies. Unfortunately, movies of Shakespeare's Roman plays are something of a neglected area of classical reception studies, which I'd like to see more people working on. 

9. Noises Off (USA, dir. Peter Bogdanovich, scr. Marty Kaplan, starring Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Denholm Elliott, Julie Hagerty, Marilu Henner, Mark Linn-Baker, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, and Nicolette Sheridan, Touchwood Pacific Partners 1, 1992)*

Apparently the critics were lukewarm to hostile about this adaptation of Michael Frayn's stage farce. I can't think why. Frayn himself liked it. And actually, it's pretty funny. Act Two, where backstage descends into slapstick chaos while on stage the play proceeds apparently smoothly, is done particularly well; it requires expert timing, and here that is delivered by a set of comic actors right at the very top of their game. John Ritter deserves special mention. He never got the recognition he deserved, probably due to snobbery about the fact that he spent much of his career in television sitcoms. But here he's excellent, right up there with screen comedy greats such as Peter Sellers. And the relocation of the setting from England to the US allows jokes to be made about the excruciating English accents everyone puts on. Even Denholm Elliott, basically dying of AIDS by this point (this was his last movie), is great in the role of somebody who's meant to be not as good as they once were.

10. Away From It All (UK, 1979)

As part of my prep for watching Life of Brian again, I decided to revisit the two supporting features that accompanied the movie on its initial release. Away From It All is a parody of the dreadful travelogues that accompanied movies in British cinemas in the 1970s. Indeed, so successful is this in capturing the style that, when I first saw it, I was entirely taken in until five minutes had passed, when there is a line about leaving Venice 'slowly sinking in the west', and was only certain it was a piss-take when I got to the section on Bulgaria: 'take one photograph of the wrong building here, and they're taping electrodes to your reproductive organs'. Also, as this opens with Rome, there's lots of material for the Classical Reception scholar.

11. The Christmas Card (UK, dir. Terry Gilliam, London Weekend Television, 1968)

This animated short was created by Gilliam for the 1968 Christmas special of Do Not Adjust Your Set, a children's comedy series for which Gilliam did animated material, and which was written by and starred Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle (also starring David Jason and Denise Coffey). As you might expect, it is a sequence of traditional Christmas card images, brought to life in a typical Gilliamesque format. It accompanied Life of Brian, and set up a joke in the opening credits of that movie.

12.
Monty Python's Life of Brian (UK, dir. Terry Jones, scr. & starring Graham Chapman & John Cleese & Terry Gilliam & Eric Idle & Terry Jones & Michael Palin, Python (Monty) Pictures/Handmade Films, 1979)

Another movie on my ancient world movies course, and a #ClassicsTwitterMovie; my Twitter thread is here. I think, apart from a few moments (the Stan/Loretta gags being most obvious), this still stands up after over forty years. Everyone is at the top of their game (a phrase I grossly overuse), and there's hardly a moment wasted, which is more than can be said for a lot of Python product. Standout scenes remain the haggling, the stoning, Spike Milligan upstaging everyone else, 'What have the Romans ever done for us?', and pretty much all of it, really. Very controversial at the time, but these days it all seems rather tame. This has possibly robbed the movie of some of its power to make its audience think again about their attitudes to religion, and in particular group think. 'You don't have to follow anybody' is a message we could still do with paying attention to. 

13. Fellini Satyricon (Italy, dir. Federico Fellini, scr. Federico Fellini & Bernardino Zapponi, starring Martin Potter, Hiram Heller, Max Born, Salvo Randone, and Magali Noël, Produzioni Europee Associati/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1969)

Another movie from my ancient world movies course, and another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. The thread is here. Fellini Satyricon is a movie that I always found 18-21-year-old undergraduates had a problem with. I can understand that; it's a difficult movie. Even I'm not sure whether I actually like it. And I suspect Fellini didn't mean me to know. What I will say is that this was the first time I had actually watched it through in a while, and I certainly find it a rewarding experience, and there are new subtleties that emerge with each viewing. And I will also reiterate my feeling that Fellini intends a lot of what he puts on screen to be funny, sometimes, I think, laugh-out-loud funny. I really must watch more of his work, as it would no doubt provide a better context. And it's a movie that I think deserves to be in any course on antiquity and cinema, because it has influenced so much that follows (Gladiator, in particular, has Fellini's fingerprints all over it).

14. Star Trek: Beyond (USA, dir. Justin Linn, scr. Simon Pegg & Doug Jung, starring John Cho, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, and Idris Elba, Bad Robot/Sneaky Shark Productions/Perfect Storm Entertainment, 2016)*

I'd rather let this slip by on first release. I'd not been that impressed by the first two reboots, especially Into Darkness, and so I had low expectations for this. But it was free on Prime, so I thought, 'why not?' And I found that it's a lot better than the two Abrams-directed examples. For the first time, I found I could actually believe in Chris Pine as Jim Kirk. And I admire the movie's chutzpah; there are some things (e.g. the use of The Beastie Boys' 'Sabotage') that it just shouldn't be allowed to get away with, and yet it does. 

15. Alexander (USA/UK/Germany/Netherlands/France/Italy/Morocco/Thailand, dir. Oliver Stone, scr. Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, and Anthony Hopkins, Warner Bros./Intermedia Films/Pacifica Film, 2004)

And yet another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. There's no arguing that this movie isn't a mess. Stone took ages to find a structure he was happy with, long after the movie's official release. I think a lot of the problem is that the shape of Alexander's life defeats dramatic structure. But there's also no denying that the movie is a thoughtful one, and I think a lot of critics had difficulty with it because they weren't prepared for this level of thoughtfulness, or simply couldn't cope with the way Alexander's sexuality refuses to fit into the neat boxes they would prefer. This killed off a rival movie version that would have been directed by Baz Luhrmann and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. Some claim that this version would have been more restrained and tasteful than Stone's version, which I find very odd. 

Television

1. Ben Hur (USA, TV miniseries, dir. Steve Shill, scr. Alan Sharp, starring Joseph Morgan, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Emily VanCamp, Akkord Film Produktion GmbH/Drimtim Entertainment/FishCorb Films, 2 episodes, 2010)*

Again, watched in connection with my class on the 1959 movie, and because I had never seen it and thought I ought to. If you've never seen it either, don't bother. This is the toxic masculinity version of Ben-Hur, with both Judah and Messala behaving like arses throughout. It is notable for several cameos from actors who are better than the material, such as Alex Kingston as Judah's mother (here named Ruth), Ray Winstone as Quintus Arrius, and Art Malik, an actual Muslim playing Sheik Ilderim! Also features the most rubbish version of the chariot race; they couldn't afford a proper circus, and so the race is done cross-country, like an ancient Roman rally-cross. This is the only version of the story, apart from the 1959 movie, in which Messala dies of wounds received in the race, though here he an Judah are reconciled before he dies. Emily VanCamp makes the best of what little she is given.

2. Hilda (UK/Canada/USA, TV, created by Luke Pearson, season 1, 13 episodes, 2018)*

I saw most of this last year, but finished off the last couple of episodes last month. And oh, it's a delight. Based on Luke Pearson's Hildafolk graphic novels, which I haven't read but get good write-ups, Hilda is about the adventures of a young girl in a Nordic land where fantastic elements such as trolls, giants, elfs, and other magical creatures are all treated as part of everyday life. I particularly like the woffs, big balls of fur with tails that fly through the air in large groups, and are just treated as something that needs no particular explanation. There's good characterisation for Hilda, her mother Johanna, her friends David and Frida, and various other recurring figures, such as the Wood Man, a man made of wood who casually walks into anyone's home like he owns the place. It's intended  as a children's series, of course, but I recommend it to anyone who likes the mythology of Scandinavia, presented in a nice, homely fashion. The second season has now dropped, and I'm looking forward to that.

3. Star Trek: Lower Deck (USA, TV, created by Mike McMahan, season 1, 10 episodes, 2020)*

Well, here's something that has really divided my friends. Half of them really like it, and the other half really don't. I am in the former group. I like the characters. I like the way the show pokes fun at Trek tropes whilst nevertheless remaining Star Trek. I like the way that all the races that appeared in one episode and were then never seen again are back—look there's an Edoan! I think it's worth persisting with, as it gets better as it goes along; the last episode in particular goes places I really was not expecting it to go.

4. Hamlet at Elsinore (UK/Denmark, dir. Philip Saville, starring Christopher Plummer, BBC, 1964)*

Made to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, an ambitious version of Hamlet, shot at Elsinore castle itself. That might seem like a gimmick, but what a cast they assembled! Christopher Plummer as the Prince, delivering a performance reminiscent of his later Wellington, but very effective. Michael Caine as Horatio! Robert Shaw as Claudius! Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras (okay, so Sutherland's accent is ridiculous). When this was shot in September 1963, Shaw had made From Russia With Love, but it wouldn't be released until October, Caine had made Zulu, but it wouldn't be released until January 1964, and Plummer had made The Fall of the Roman Empire, but this wouldn't be released until March. When this was broadcast, all three had big Hollywood movies to their names (albeit Fall of the Roman Empire was a flop, and Plummer would have to wait until The Sound of Music to have a hit). The cast is captured at the one point when it would be possible to have all these three in a BBC Shakespeare. Well worth tracking down.

Comics 

2. Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr. (Marvel, 2007)

I reread this prior to reading the first issue of Kieron Gillen's new Eternals series, which I recently reviewed for FA. Some years back, I reviewed Gaiman's version for The Slings and Arrows Graphic Novel Guide. I now think that review was rather ungenerous; I was probably in a grumpy mood, and overcompensating for those who sometimes say 'It's Gaiman, so it must be brilliant' (I agree Gaiman has done some brilliant things—Stardust, most of Sandman, the Fairyland issue of Books of Magic—but I judge each piece of writing on its merits). I appreciated the writing rather more on a second read through, and the characterisation is pretty strong. And John Romita Jr's art is nice. Gaiman's Eternals works quite well as a not-bad piece of superhero storytelling. However, I'm still not convinced it's Gaiman's best writing in the genre, and I'm still not sure that Gaiman manages to make the Eternals work in the Marvel Universe. But then I'm not sure anyone ever managed that, including Jack Kirby.

3. The Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne Omnibus, Marvel, 2020*

Who doesn't like She-Hulk? Bruce Banner's fun-loving, angst-free, superheroically-confident cousin. I read this to do a review of the Omnibus (and its constituent volumes, The Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne and The Sensational She-Hulk: The Return) for Slings and Arrows, so I'm afraid you'll have to wait till those reviews come out to find out what I actually thought. Actually, part of this was a reread, as another constituent part is a 1985 Marvel Graphic Novel, and that I already reviewed, so you can get a bit of an idea of my views. I will say that I think these stories are significantly better than the pervious run of She-Hulk, reviews of which are also on their way from Slings and Arrows.

Virtual theatre

2. Swingin' the Dream, starring Alfred Clay, Kemi-Bo Jacobs, Georgia Landers, Zara McFarlane, Andrew French, Cornell S. John, Mogali Masuku, Baker Mukasa, and Anne Odeke, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2021* 

Swingin' the Dream was a jazz adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, staged in 1939, directed by Erik Charell, and featuring Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, among other luminaries. It ought to have been a massive hit. Instead, it was a huge flop. The RSC are attempting to recreate the play, which is not an easy task. Only a few torn pages of the script have survived, and the rest needs to be reconstructed from photos, the playbill, the known cast and songs that were included, and what was written about the production at the time. This is an early go at that, mostly consisting of the songs, and commentary to cover the gaps between them. Perfectly pleasant jazz numbers, but one feels a great loss at what might have been restaged, if only we knew more.

3. Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov, directed by Ian Rickson, starring Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2020*

I put this here, because it was a stage production filmed on the stage of the Harold Pinter in London, and initially shown in cinemas, though I saw it on BBC4 (well, on the iPlayer actually, where you can still watch it). My this is a cheery piece and no mistake! We are all doomed to unhappiness in this life, but that's fine, we can be happy in the afterlife (if we believe in that). One of the tragedies of Uncle Vanya is that it's clear that everyone has been having these conversations over and over again, and can't escape them. Still, superb performances by an exceptional cast.

4. The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare, directed by Declan Donellan, Cheek by Jowl, 2016*

Aside from the stage direction 'Exit, pursued by a bear', The Winter's Tale is not a Shakespeare play I'm familiar with. I really should be, as it is set in the world of ancient Greece, or at least Shakespeare's version of that, complete with sending a message to the Oracle at Delphi. I have to say, this production did not win me over. I think it is not the Bard at his best, and one of those 'comedies' that remind us that The Merchant of Venice is also among the comedies. In the first half, an increasingly paranoid Leontes destroys his life, losing his son and wife, culminating in a scene that is played as if it is the origin for a Batman villain. In the second half, we get a Bohemia that is characterised as Ireland, and an Ireland that largely resembles the Ireland of Father Ted. I found the changes of tone threw me out of the production somewhat. I'd like to see another production of this some time, to see if my problems are with this production in particular, or with the play in general.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Five Christopher Plummer performances worthy of your attention.

The actor Christopher Plummer has died at the age of 91. He was a talented and versatile actor, often to be seen in the 1960s and 1970s in second-lead roles, yet never quite becoming the enormous star that he deserved to be. Here are five of my favourite performances.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Immediately before he was lovable Austrian Georg von Trapp, Plummer played this very different figure in Anthony Mann's epic movie, his first big-screen appearance in six years (though he had built up a formidable reputation as a stage and television actor). Whilst thoughtful, the movie is too long. But Plummer's performance. atypical for him, is commandinga mercurial, complex psychopath. I am undecided as to whether I prefer Plummer's Commodus to that of Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. The movie was a massive box-office flop, and so did nothing for his career. Fortunately the singing von Trapps came to his rescue.

Battle of Britain (1969) 

I confess that I always have and always will love Battle of Britain. Plummer plays no-nonsense Squadron Leader Colin Harvey, one of four roles, along with Robert Shaw's unnamed Squadron Leader, Laurence Olivier's Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and Trevor Howard's Air Vice-Marshall Keith Park, that give the movie its spine. Plummer also has to carry the main romantic subplot, as the pressures of the battle tear apart his marriage to Susannah York's Maggie. I don't know for certain, but I presume Plummer's is the role originally earmarked for Michael Caine, before scheduling conflicts forced him to take a smaller part. A testament to Plummer's success is that it's very hard to imagine Caine in the role. Instead, we end up wishing there was more Plummer.

Waterloo (1970)

Another sprawling epic, Sergei Bondarchuk brings Russian sensibilities to the multi-star war movie, and the result is all the better for it, in my view. Plummer is second lead again, as the Duke of Wellington, and he doesn't appear on screen until nearly forty minutes have passed. But once he strolls through into the Duchess of Richmond's ball, he absolutely steals the movie from Rod Steiger's Napoleon. No-one has encapsulated the essence of the Iron Duke the way Plummer does here. (Stephen Fry's Wellington is a great tour de force, but an entirely different approach.) Plummer's finest performance.

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

It's a brave man who steps into the shoes of David Niven, but this is precisely what Plummer does here, as retired gentleman thief Sir Charles Litton. Blake Edwards' '70s Panther movies are messy, and in some ways the best one can say about Return is that it's the least messy, but it does boast two great performances, from Catherine Schell as Lady Litton, and from Plummer. Plummer eschews any impersonation of Niven, and instead plays Litton as if he is a version of the Saintand not Roger Moore's Simon Templar, but Leslie Charteris'. Why did no-one ever let him play that role for real?

Murder by Decree (1979)

Plummer's second go at Holmes has him investigating the Jack the Ripper murders, with a plot drawn from Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. In my view, it's a lesser entry in the Holmes canon. James Mason's Watson seems too old for Plummer's Holmes, though Frank Finlay's Lestrade is perfect. In the pantheon of Holmes portrayals, i wouldn't place Plummer with the greats, Rathbone, Cushing, or Brett. But he's up there with other interesting interpretations such as Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens, and far above the 'could you nots' of the likes of Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett. (I omit Douglas Wilmer from the greats only because I have not seen enough of his work in the role, and leave out Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller because, for all the merits of their performances, neither is really playing Conan Doyle's detective.)

Honourable mentions go to Plummer's role as Rudyard Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), in which he's easily overlooked, as he's not in it very much, and the movie is so dominated by Connery and Caine; and from his 70s and 80s, when he developed a fine line in character parts, his Doctor Parnassus in Terry Gilliam's flawed but interesting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Indeed, I can't remember seeing a performance by Plummer that was actively bad, which is more than I can say of a lot of actors. Even in Star Trek VI, where he is unapologetically chewing the scenery, he gives us a better class of chewing the scenery.

RIP.