Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The World Does Care, Really Care, About Kate Middleton. I'm Not Sure it Matters Why.

My awesome friend and fellow British drama affectionado Dahlia sent me this link today, about the discovery that Kate Middleton is distantly related to Jane Austen.

 The People magazine online article reads:

"The famed romance author (1775-1817) and the newly-minted royal, 29, have family ties, according to findings from The ladies are eleventh cousins, six times removed, according to the site, and they are linked through Henry Percy, the second Earl of Northumberland, who was born in 1392."'Finding this connection between the Duchess of Cambridge and Jane Austen is very exciting since, in many ways, Catherine is the modern Jane Austen heroine: a middle-class girl marrying the future King of England,'" says lead historian Anastasia Harman.
"'Jane Austen may have written about happily-ever-after, but it seems Catherine has found a nonfiction hero to spend her life with – far past the epilogue.'" 

To underscore the royal buzz, later, while sitting in the barber shop waiting for my son to get his haircut I perused a magazine feature about the royal wedding. It stated that about 2 billion people - 1/3 of the world's population - watched the wedding.  I don't know if that figure counts people like me who shortly after the wedding, checked out some press highlights of it... But still, two billion people?! Apparently I need to stop justifying why the heck I find the Brits so interesting. Clearly an insane number of people on this planet do.

The interesting thing about the article in the barbershop was that it was in a Christian magazine and it was explaining why the Royal wedding mattered so much with a Biblical analysis. The Biblical analysis quickly became far too esoteric for me, but the thing I took away from this is that the British people and their institutions command tremendous interest and respect worldwide.

Whether we justify if with Jane Austen and happy ever afters or with the Bible itself, people do care about what Kate is up to.

The World Does Care, Really Care, About Kate Middleton. I'm Not Sure it Matters Why. LostinBritishTV

Lets Get Real -- MI-5's Ros Myers is Amazing.

Ros Myers of MI-5 (Spooks) kicks ass. She has a great hair cut. She is a seriously ripped hard body. (I only know that part because in one episode, she is shown lying on her bed grieving for a team member who's died and she's wearing a strappy tank. Her shoulders and biceps are amazing!) She wears skinny jeans and has long legs.

Were she to be photographed with an eye toward presenting her beauty she would be stunning. She has gorgeous eyes and great bone structure. But in Spooks, she is shot with a camera just inches from her face. She wears minimal makeup. She is about 40 years old and you can tell because the camera is not seeking beauty lighting when it films her (or anyone else on the show). Her face is lined.  That the character of a beautiful actress' face is allowed to be brazenly depicted on screen for all to see is a tremendous thing. No one is putting Vaseline on the lens in Spooks; if anything, they seem to seek out harsh shots to depict agents that are far from perfect, lined with the stress and care that has come from years of doing a difficult job.

But the wonderful part of seeing our actors this way is that it allows the viewer to really relate to them. She is amazing and leads a spectacular life but I don't feel jealous of her. We are very far apart in almost every way, yet I get to love her because I see her as a complete human being who is both fit and beautiful but also really "lived in". Relateable. My face looks like that too. I have loose neck skin and deep lines. And I am beautiful. Just like Ros.

And its not just Ros, the secret agent, who is brave. How many 40ish actresses are as brave as Hermione Norris in allowing herself to be shown in every detail, just as she is - both the stunningly attractive details and the ones most of us seek to hide.

She is an inspiration on so many levels. I do love Ros. If you do too, check out my complete homage to her in: Why Ros Reigns Supreme.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The English Way

I am clearly not English and try not to pretend to be. However, as I think I am making fairly clear, I love the English approach to drama - and maybe the English approach to life. In typical fashion, I like to think about why.

Brace yourself, what is coming next is going to sound a little bit more like scholarship and less like TV, but its still kinda cool. (It was either this or "Rate the Emmas." But look for that topic coming soon.)

Recently reading the book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, I was struck by his chapter on "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes." In it, Gladwell draws upon the work of a Dutch psychologist, Geert Hofstede, to support the idea that culture may play a role in plane crashes. Specifically, Gladwell asserts that how certain cultures tolerate ambiguity or deal with hierarchy can explain how pilots from that culture behave in the cockpit, which can in turn explain the frequency of crashes. Its interesting stuff and can be found in his book on pages 202-08.

What does that have to do with British drama? Absolutely nothing. I mention it only because it's the inspiration for what I've been thinking about. Though sparked by Gladwell, my interest in the Hofstede dimensions is a bit broader than plane crashes and involves the idea that maybe combinations of Hofstede traits could almost spell out a kind of cultural personality trait -- a way of understanding both what culture I am from and what cultures I am drawn to. If you want to look at his work in depth, check out his website here:  Geert Hofstede Dimensions

Hofstede's extensive work on this topic, involves assessing various countries on four main dimensions that he calls "power distance," "individualism," "masculinity,"  and "uncertainty avoidance." He has added a couple other factors to his work, that I plan to ignore. For about 70 different countries, he assigns numeric values for these factors that basically represent whether a country/culture is high in that trait or not. I hope that makes sense because I really do not want to get in to exactly what these scale values mean. Suffice it to say a high number for a given factor means that that culture has a lot of the factor he is measuring. (Come on, this is a blog about tv, you're expecting hard scientific analysis?)

In brief, "power distance" (PDI) refers to the way in which members of a culture accept a hierarchical power structure. A high number on this factor means there is a large difference between those with power and those without and that those without power accept that division fairly well. A low number means that power is more spread out and that the society is more egalitarian. The U.S. has a fairly low power distance score of 40.

"Individualism" (IDV) refers to  the extent to which people from a given county view themselves as individuals and are expected to look out for themselves. It is not surprising that the U.S. has a very high score on individualism, 91; actually the highest of all the countries Hofstede studied.

The "masculinity" dimension is a very obscure one, referring not just to whether the culture is dominated by a more traditionally male approach to life, but also to how the women in that culture assume more traditionally male ways. This factor is a little too unwieldy for me to deal with in this blog. Just to throw it out there, the U.S.' masculinity score is 62.

The last major Hofstede dimension is "uncertainty avoidance" and is an interesting one. It deals with whether a culture likes to have a lot of structure and strict rules. Such a culture, with a high score on this factor, does not tolerate ambiguity well and tends to insist that its members follow strict rules and safety measures, and even tow a particular religious or philosophical line. A low score characterizes countries that accept a variety of viewpoints, are more relativistic and less emotional. The U.S. has a score of 46.

OK. To recap, the U.S. has scores of 40, 91, 62 and 46 on PDI, IDV, MAS, and UAI. Scanning the list for other countries that have a similar pattern of scores, I quickly found that the U.K., Canada, and Australia were all fairly similar to the U.S.. Makes total sense. But, beyond that, other cultures were all very different from the U.S.. Take a look at this chart I just made with just a few of the countries Hofstede studied.

U.S. 40 91 62 46
U.K. 35 89 66 35
Austrailia 36 90 61 51
Canada 39 80 52 48
France 68 71 43 86
Germany 35 67 66 65
Spain 57 51 42 86
Mexico 81 30 69 82
China 80 20 66 30
Arab World* 80 38 52 68
*this is Hofstede's amalgam of Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait,
Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates

So many things to notice! Like, Mexico is far more similar to the Arab World and even China than it is to Spain. France and Spain are fairly similar. Germany is similar to the U.K. on the first three factors, but dramatically different in uncertainty avoidance (i.e. Germany has more rules and structure). I didn't include more countries on my little chart because its all available on Hofstede's website for those who want more, and the main thing I wanted to do was look at my own culture and compare it to that of the U.K.

I have to admit I was a bit disappointed at first to see how similar we are. I was looking for some big discrepancy that would explain everything. (Aha! I would say. That is the reason). But the differences are subtle. And maybe the closeness between our two cultures is part of what makes the British feel so accesable to me. (Duh).  But, although they are very like us, the British are different in a few key ways on Hofstede's dimensions. The biggest difference is in our uncertainty avoidance factor. Great Britain's uncertainty avoidance score is a quite low 35 (compared to the U.S.' 46). This is by no means the lowest of all the countries he looked at (Denmark, China and Jamaica are a few of those that are lower), however it is quite a bit lower than the U.S.. Thus, the U.K. is a bit more relativistic or accepting culture than the U.S., according to that factor -- but not so much so that there are no rules and order. A low score here is a marker of a non-emotional culture. It surprises no one that the English are cool and un-emotional.

The other factor that shows an interesting difference between our two countries is the power distance marker. Recall that this refers to how strict and hierarchical the distribution of power is. In the U.K., this score is 35 (compared to 40 for the U.S). Again, that is a pretty low number. There are other countries (like Austria, Denmark, Israel and New Zealand) that score lower, but by a worldwide standard, the U.K. is a country that seeks and demands equality at all levels of society.

The U.K. is like the U.S., but a bit more egalitarian, a bit more accepting, a bit less emotional, a bit less structured and controlled, and maybe a tiny bit more concerned with the collective culture than the individual. It is no wonder I love that place.

Wouldn't it be fun to think about the traits that you really value and then look for countries that match it?

The English Way I. LostinBritishTV

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Lot of People in America Don't Know MI-5 (Spooks). They Should.

I wish more people in America knew about MI-5 (Spooks). It is simply phenomenal. Some of the best TV I have ever seen. And from me that is really saying something because I hate dark, gritty, thrilling programs. If this is good enough to make me fall in love with it, I can imagine few who wouldn't.
What makes Spooks so good is the acting, the tension, the style of filming, and the writing. Among other things :) And for me, the best character in Spooks is London itself; it is shot lovingly in that city giving meaningful glimpses into the British government and way of life that I think would be especially fun for Americans since we don't otherwise see that. Of course it scares the hell out of me. And sometimes is very disturbing. But the acting and writing make the characters come fully to life and it can be appreciated at different levels. These factors make everything worth it.

And its actually pretty easy to come by. You can get it on Netflix or Blockbuster through the rental of dvds or online streaming. I actually watch it on dvds that I check out from my library and my husband tells me it is also on TV late at night.  Just look for it.  The only caveat in the "looking for it" plan, is that you need to know that in Britain it is called "Spooks," in America it is packaged as "MI-5." Also, good to know that in Britain the term "series" means what we call a "season." I mention all this, because, armed with info there is simply no excuse not to start enjoying this show today.

I suppose it should go without saying to wait till the little ones are in bed though. It is seriously intense, sometimes graphic, and sometimes contains nudity and sexual situations. I did let my 12 year old watch one episode with me because it was just so good and one of the more appropriate ones (more of a PG-13 than an R). In fact it is the episode that I would recommend to anyone interested in the show.  If you watch only one episode of this show, let it be Episode 8 of Season 7.  In fact, to make it easy, I found a great clip of it on youtube. Indulge me and watch this short clip. All the way to the end. Come on, its only just over 5 minutes. The best part is near the end.


Episode image for Episode 8These are the best spies I know. They are just sooooo cool. In case you don't know, the characters you see here are: Harry, their leader (the guy with the tie, you know what I mean if you watched the clip), Lucas (the very sexy dark haired guy who knew they were speaking Russian), and Ros and Connie the other two who are on the run and getting shot at. They are all good guys. Except that Connie (Gemma Jones, who most Americans would know most readily as Bridget Jones' mum) was just discovered to be a "mole" for the enemy. (That's spy talk for someone who has infiltrated your organization). Ros is my favorite character of all time, but you just get glimpses of her in this clip. Still you can see how awesome she is just by how she walks and holds her phone. You also briefly get to see Malcolm and Jo (the good guys assisting with cool high tech stuff at good guy headquarters -- we in the know call that "the grid").

This show continues on with a great chase and confrontation under the street of London in defunct subway lines. I won't say more.

British TV in general and Spooks in particular just has a talent for fully developing amazingly rich characters while simultaneously entertaining you with great plot lines. Add some incredibly talented actors and you just can't miss.

Great show.

A Lot of People in America Don't Know MI-5 (Spooks). They Should. LostinBritishTV

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Best Couple of All Time: Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, as portrayed by Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, are the clear winners of the "Best Couple of All Time" Award. It is not just the brilliant writing of Jane Austen that brings these characters to life so fully realized, but the stunning performances of Ehle and Firth, both separately and together, due to their wonderful chemistry, that make this the all around best relationship ever put on film.


It is a relationship characterized by struggle, sparring, and misunderstanding, but also charm, wit, attraction and teasing. It is an almost perfect tale of lovers at cross purposes but with the great sense and compassion to allow them to be together in the end. There are barriers to their love - but they are not absolute barriers; they are allowed to share complete unblemished happiness by the end.

I have never been as taken with a book as I was with Pride and Prejudice when I first read it. I had heard of the book of course, but for some reason didn't know it. I thought of it like Crime and Punishment or War and Peace, some deep difficult tome that I should attack some day. Lucky for me, one day while browsing in the used book store I took the time to pick up a copy and read the back cover. I found that I was utterly mistaken about the topic and bought it immediately.

Having never read a work from that era, I found the style of writing fascinating and alien. Although Austen wrote in prose that was markedly different from modern English, I found it easy on the eye and not too complicated to follow. Her language simply flowed off the page and felt effortless. While some words and phases like "chase in four" and "Michaelmas" made no sense to me at first, the book was so immediately humorous and lighthearted that I sunk in instantly. It was an intelligent read, but not laborious. I remember noticing how quickly it was going by and started to budget myself, allowing myself only 20 pages at a sitting in order to make it last. But alas it ended. At which point I probably read it again right away. 

Part of the charm of Pride and Prejudice is that which is found in all of Jane Austen's work. Her books are uniformly enjoyable for her use of language, her wit, and her keen observations on humanity. I find her prose amazing, as in this description of Mr. Collins: "The stupidity with which he was favoured by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance." Wow. If there has ever been a better sentence written in the whole of the English language, I would like to see it. Her books are all full of such gems. However, not to take anything away from her other books, I think the love story in Pride and Prejudice is probably her best. 

Lizzy is an incredible heroine, with her vivacity and intelligence, approaching the world as a puzzle but doing so in an easy, natural manner.  "It was not in her nature, however, to increase her vexations by dwelling on them. She was confident of having performed her duty, and to fret over unavoidable evils, or augment them by anxiety, was no part of her disposition." She is one of the best loved women in literature and deservedly so. She is lovely, sharp, compassionate and in almost complete control of herself. This passage, as Elizabeth prepares to meet the great Lady Catherine de Burgh at her estate Rosings Park is one of my favorites. "Elizabeth's courage did not fail her. She had heard nothing of Lady Catherine that spoke her awful from any extraordinary talent or miraculous virtue, and the mere stateliness of money and rank she thought she could witness without trepidation." I thought of these words one day as I steeled myself to visit the home of a very wealthy friend of my son for a play date. I tried hard to witness their wealth without trepidation as Lizzy would have done. But I know that, as much as I wish I were Lizzy Bennett, I am not. She is the better woman.

The exchanges between her and Mr. Darcy, which we would now call "banter," are just gorgeous and so fine. Mr. Darcy's chief quality is being smart enough to understand her and brave enough to pursue her. Truly. How unlikely is that? The fact that a man of his wealth and station in life is able to fall so fully in love with a middle class country girl by page 38! The reader learns his feelings after an exchange at a small party where Darcy has asked Elizabeth if she didn't want to dance a reel. To this she replies that he must have wanted her to say "yes" so that he would have that excuse to "despise her taste." Instead, she insists that she does not want to dance a reel and that he should "despise me if you dare!" "Indeed I do  not dare," he replies and "Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody, and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed that were it not for the inferiority of her connections he should be in some danger."

And even though the inferiority of her connections is extraordinary, and he is obviously concerned about it, he is willing to forget and propose 100 pages later. We, the readers/viewers, have known this was abrewin' for most of the book, but Elizabeth, taken by surprise, skewers him in a brilliantly acted scene from both actors. It is a testament to her character that she rejects him here. How many of us could have done that?! Seriously. Colin Firth's acting rends my heart. But she is a terrific heroine and she will not be gotten that easily.

The story goes on and most of the complications that have knit themselves between our lovers are slowly unraveled and they are ready to be together. This beautiful scene portrays forgiveness, longing and absolute adoration and it is all done through their eyes. These two actors both have such an astonishing ability to communicate through expression alone. I have still never been able to find out who is actually doing the singing of Mozart's Voi Che Sepate, in this scene: if it is indeed Jennifer Ehle singing? It's wonderful. The song is evocative of a mood, as is the piece Miss Darcy plays -- full of tension and then resolution. Elizabeth's deft handling of Miss Bingley makes Darcy an absolute goner. Look at that look on his face after Elizabeth rescues his sister.

I could go on. We all know how they are on the verge of total happiness when Elizabeth's sister Lydia screws everything up by running away with Wickham. That must be resolved and our hero has to be taken down a notch or two. He has to really prove that her lowly screwed up connections mean nothing to him next to his undying unfathomable passion for her. 

And Elizabeth has to have her own exorcism of relative-issues in that great scene where she puts Lady Catherine in her place. It serves the purpose of allowing her to assert passionately and publicly that she would consider and probably accept a proposal from Mr. Darcy.

Of course she does just that and the two get to be together, happily forever. A beautiful story.

"The Best Couple of All Time: Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy." LostinBritishTV

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Joy of Hearing an American Accent Butchered by British Actors.

I have spent most of my life not giving any thought to what American voices sound like. Nor have I considered the challenges inherent in producing one if you are not a native speaker. That has all changed recently when I began watching the wonderful English TV program Spooks, known as MI-5 here. I notice so many bad American accents now. I think the American-accent-factor springs so dramatically to life in that show because Americans are portrayed as such assholes. It just draws attention to all their irritating ways to hear that flat, awful consonant-y approach to the English language.

My favorite bad American accent comes from CIA agent Sarah Caulfield (played by Irish actress Genevieve O'Reilly). Here's a nice little snippet of her. (Unfortunately, embedding is disabled, so it won't play here. You have to click on the link to You Tube)

And by way of apology to the British people, this voice makes me realize how incredibly distracting Gwyneth Paltrow's accent in Emma must have been.
But I digress. The weird thing is that she (Sarah Caulfield) gets a lot of American pronunciations right. Overall, most of her words sound passable with a distinctly American sound. The problem is she mixes dialects in a way that no American voice would ever naturally do. The result is a voice that is shockingly schizophrenic. Some of it is Brooklyn, some Midwest, some Southern.

I am not criticizing the actors like O'Reilly who play American roles. I enjoy the experience of hearing "my" accent butchered. Its fun for me to try and determine which actors are really Americans and which are Brits. I can usually tell.  Even the really good accents just don't quite sound right, an observation on the complexity of the elements that go into making up a pattern or tone of speech.  There is some intangible factor at work that gives away the truth when it is hard to put a finger on why.

This giveaway plays to the subtlety of culture, and reminds me of how, when we were in the Netherlands, people stared at us everywhere we went. Even without opening our mouths, we stuck out. I still have no idea why.  We were all fairly fair-complected; we were not dressed in any dead-giveaways like white tennis shoes; we weren't carrying cameras and video equipment around our necks. Some slight differences in stance, body language, clothing, hairstyles, etc all combined to create a vision that simply said "American" to any Dutch person in the vicinity. I found it fascinating.

Another factor is going on too, in addition to the subtle things that make the American accents sound not quite right when attempted by non-native speakers. And that is that American voices really do just sound ugly and wrong next to English ones. I realized this when watching Elizabeth McGovern in Downton Abbey. At first I thought I was listening to a fake American accent because her voice sounded so bad, before I realized this was an American actress. Duh! Unless Americans' subconsciously alter their speech patterns once they are surrounded by Brits (it could happen), the American voice just sounds out of place when everyone else is speaking British English.

I am going to try an experiment which should involve a bit of research and a lot more watching of period drama. I hope. I will see if all American accents sound equally bad next to English ones. In other words, does a southern accent sound OK? Does a Midwestern one seem more out of place than a Californian? We'll see.

If anyone from the UK would like to weigh in, tell me which performances by American actors and actresses in English accents were most offensive to the ear? And which were good?

The Joy of Hearing an American Accent Butchered by British Actors. LostinBritishTV

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What Does the Audience of Period Drama Really Want?

Watching I Capture the Castle has got me to thinking about what the audience of period drama really wants ... because it, quite simply, fell flat for me. And I'm trying to figure out why. Why, when it seems to have everything I would want in a period drama, I Capture the Castle did not quite have enough.

I enjoyed it and am glad I watched, but it didn't leave my heart skipping a beat with longing; it didn't catapult me to another place; it didn't make me itch to get away in the evening so I could continue my viewing indulgence. I finished it almost dutifully and left it behind easily.
Yet this movie should, by rights, be a huge favorite with me. For starters, I loved the book! And this adaptation (the one with Romola Garai, the only adaptation I am actually aware of), followed the book quite faithfully. The location was stunning and not only that, was exactly how I had pictured their life in the castle. They all dressed and looked the part. Romola was actually surprisingly appropriate for the lead, Cassandra, a quirky, funny, smart, and attractive though not flashy, girl and I wondered how on earth the stunningly beautiful actress was going to pull that off. But she did! She was really excellent, with her hair all mousy and her clothes cut plain, you could almost believe she could be overlooked in favor of her beautiful sister.

This movie has all the markers: Beautiful strong lead female. Check. Gorgeous setting, preferably in England. Check (set in England, shot in Wales counts as a check).  Beautiful cinematography. Check. Evocative and interesting costumes. Check-minus (really, most of these costumes were forgettable). Introspective/romantic plot. Check. Great sexy male lead...... OK, maybe we've come to the problem.  While I liked Simon and his brother (already forgotten the other guy's name. Not a good sign) and Steven, the salt of the earth hired boy, none of them were interesting enough as leading men. None of the couplings or potential couplings seemed interesting, let alone exciting. Instead of desiring them myself, I wondered why anyone else would want these men.

Truly I don't mean to trash these actors, though. If the men weren't desirable enough, I don't think it was lack of skill or personal appeal on the part of the actors, but rather of weakly developed character. The real blame for the dullness of I Capture the Castle lies with a screen adaptation which feels, well, just boring. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think the movie became a cardboard cutout of the book by following it too faithfully.

Usually when an adaptation of beloved book disappoints me it is due to not following the book. I'm not sure I've ever faulted a movie for following too closely. But, a book has so many advantages for spelling out its driving purpose. It succeeds or fails on a different standard than a movie. A movie isn't the same storytelling mechanism. A movie often has to strike out on its own in order make its purpose clear.  In the book I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith's prose is excellent, and the great charm of our narrator Cassandra just leaps off the page. Despite Romola's lovely presence and acting, she is not given the means in this production to convey how fun and cool and real a character Cassandra is. The movie follows all the main plot points of the book, but it doesn't manage to capture the book's tone and purpose. Because the point of the book is to enjoy the warm charm, observations and personal growth of our main character, it is absolutely essential to any adaptation that this warm charm and growth be done right -- even at the expense of following the plot, setting, characters, or other aspects of the book.

So what is the upshot of this for period drama in general?  Just this: there is some intangible factor that has to be "there" for a period drama to appeal to its audience. We can't simply enjoy the costumes, setting and romance in a vacuum. There has to be a solid underlying story to convey. And the fundamental purpose of that story has to work. If it does, then other things can fall apart and it will be OK, but if it doesn't, all the glorious costumes and settings in the world aren't going to save it. Thus, if, for instance, a story is about the struggles of a monarch, then that personal journey of power and isolation has to take wing. If a story is, at its core, a tale of two lovers at cross purposes unable to find what they want in life until they "find" each other... well, then the rest can fall apart, but that chemistry must be there. And if, as here, the story is about a quirky charming girl and her journey of self discovery, then that piece cannot fall flat. It has to be fully developed. So, despite the film having a few flaws, I could have easily forgiven such things as the poorly developed romantic leads had Cassandra's fascinating journey of life had been spot on.

So there it is. It is about knowing and telling your Story. To succeed in period drama, a production must have a driving sense of underlying purpose about the story being told. If that succeeds, the audience will fall in love. If it doesn't, even a really wonderful castle can help it only so much.

Though, that said, I surely do  want to go visit Manorbier Castle in Wales now! :)

What Does the Audience of  Period Drama Really Want? LostinBritishTV

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Love Affair with London

I first became enamored with London in the months preceding our family's trip to England last summer. I don't know exactly how it happened but I think it was literature. Reading Jane Austen, I wished to find in reality the places she spoke of in her books. I wanted to find Regency London, where so many of her characters went for "the season" and discover Cheapside which drew such amusement from the Bingley sisters when mentioned by Jane Bennett as the place her uncle lived. I also wanted to find the Globe Theater and to picture the bear-baiting and the dusty streets and the heads on spikes on the London Bridge during Shakespeare's time. I wanted to see old London buried somewhere in the midst of modern London.

What I found was that you can't. Modern London so thoroughly obscures historic London, it would take a great deal of imagination to picture yourself in the past. Even at the Tower of London -- which would have been there standing in Shakespeare's time, which withstood the great fire, and which is full of artifacts and stories of a very relevant past -- you can't help but feel completely immersed in the gritty present of one of the most exciting, vibrant, modern, world-cities anywhere.

But I was not disheartened. I found that modern London had so very much to love as well. Its iconic skyline with amusing architectural shapes was immediately endearing. London taught me that the British are a little more fearless than Americans. If a building is needed, they'll squeeze in some mirrored bubble. The Gherkin is as much a symbol of London as Big Ben in its intricate ornate Victorian complexity.

London Skyline - London, London

London's past is evoked through place names: Spittlefields, Cripplegate, Portcullis House, you can hear Roman and Medieval History right in the names. If you were to forget that the ancient city was surrounded by a Roman fort, the place names are going to remind you.

The semi-continuous history of this place is simply heady to me.  I am used to archeological sites underlying other infrastructure, being from the Southwest United States. But, in London, you find a city where people going back to prehistoric times have lived in steady succession for millennia and which continues to be important today.

Yet, as amazing as the historical underpinnings of that city are, they are irrelevant to the millions of busy people going about the business of running this massive seat of European governmental and economic power. London has been a major world city for many, many centuries. New York cannot boast that. No city in America can. Nor can New York boast Roman ruins underneath it. Could it do so, would that town be impressed enough to stop work for the week while they checked it all out? Probably. In London, nah. History is so rich, multi-layered, and present everywhere, that people cannot be bothered to pay attention to it all the time.

My family found ourselves by accident in the heart of the financial district at around 5 pm one evening. The exodus of people was one of the most powerful moments on our trip. People were pouring out of that part of the city. Just flooding out of doors and out of town - on foot, by bike, bus, taxi, car, scooter, and motorcycle as fast as they could. It was humanity dressed in suits at an almost unimaginable scale. It made us want to huddle together and just watch. Nothing could have impressed upon me more how rich that city's human resources were.

London struck me as an amazing place of past and present and a place I wanted more of. I don't know when or if I'll get back, but I carry my obsession with me as I continue to collect maps and descriptions of the city's history. There are few other places that captivate me as London does. The world city. The enduring city. A place I love.

This is an excellent site that I could get lost in for days:

My Love Affair with London. LostinBritishTV

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Top Five Hottest Scenes Ever Filmed, if by "Hot" you mean; sexy, sad, powerful, poignant and full of longing

In a recent post, I claimed that the "Book Scene" from Remains of the Day was the hottest scene ever put on film. I got to thinking about other really incredible love scenes. Scenes that are completely and fundamentally engaging. Scenes full of longing and desire. Scenes that are sexy but not in the easy way. Scenes involving complex relationships. Scenes of deeply moving humanity.

I'm sure I'll think of others that need to be on the list, but, for now, here is my list of the Five Hottest Scenes Ever Filmed.

#5. Harry Potter and Hermione Dancing.
Don't give me that look. This scene is amazing. The main thing that makes it amazing is the song: Nick Cave's O Children. Wow. I'd never heard of Nick Cave. and I think there's a whole group of people who had never heard of him either. I understand that some of his die-hard fans hate the Harry-Potter-given surge of fame, feeling that we don't somehow deserve to know him. We didn't fight for it and we weren't there at the beginning. I get that. But I think I'm cool enough to deserve this song. The amazing thing is that for one moment Harry Potter got to be cool enough to deserve this song. 

This is a love scene because Hermione is full of brokenhearted longing, but not for Harry. The mood of this song is perfect for that odd other-worldly wizardy place and quest. It is dark and soulful and perfect at expressing one of the best scenes of friendship I've ever seen.

Since Warner Brothers seems to be removing all these clips from youtube and claiming copyright infringement, I may not be able to post it. But you know which one I mean. I found this clip, which seems to be raw footage and not directly from the film, so it doesn't have the same style and mood, but at least you can hear the song and get the general idea.

#4 Margaret Hale and John Thornton Balcony Scene in North and South
I wanted to include something from Margaret Hale and Mr. Thornton but had a hard time deciding which vignette. Of course the scene at the train station is more satisfying ultimately, because it is the resolution of their great attraction. But this one is more powerful and heady. There is an angry mob. Thornton and Margaret still do not know one another or where they stand. Her act of rushing out to his side on the balcony reads, to the initiated, as a powerful declaration of love, yet she herself doesn't see it that way. She sees it as an act of humanity. When they are grabbing each other, jostling on the balcony, that level of touch is so strong a statement for the period. His hand, almost in her hair after the rock hits her, to the savvy viewer is so intimate.  The scene represents the height of confusion for these characters trying to figure out who the other is and see if they even like each other, or maybe love each other. Or whether their bodies know more than their own minds do about what they should be.

#3 Jane and Mr. Rochester beneath a tree in Jane Eyre
When I first read Jane Eyre as a girl in high school, I remember being blown away by this scene. I was stunned that a dried up old Victorian book could contain anything like this. The revelation that there was this kind of modern feeling, intensity and passion in classic literature was so unexpected, shocking and exciting that it unleashed an enduring interest in classics. These performances move me to tears in one of my favorite scenes of all time.

#2 Ruth and Harry say goodbye in Spooks Season 5

I have not even seen the full episode of Spooks from which this comes. I've seen, seasons 7, 8 and 1-3 in that order so I know I haven't "gotten to" the good stuff between Harry and Ruth yet.  (Doing any reading about the series leads immediately to "Harry and Ruth" tags, so its impossible to be completely unaware of their continually thwarted love if you are a Spooks fan).

My first exposure to them together was in season 8 when, under tragic and deeply distressing circumstances, Ruth rejoined the team. The marvelous acting of Nicola Walker and Peter Firth told me immediately that these characters had History. Now, with these earlier seasons for my evenings viewing, I am finding myself really drawn to Ruth - her brilliance and quirkiness; she's cute as hell, funny and always brings the team to reality and sanity. I just couldn't wait for their relationship to unfold so helped myself now by plunging in headlong to the Youtube wealth of video on these two. This scene is stunning! Even if you don't know the full back story -- which I don't --,  even if you know nothing about them, it would be hard to stay unmoved by these performances. I don't think I've seen anything more touching and heartbreaking than this goodbye, not to mention, just plain old sexy. Look how close the camera is... how you can hear Harry breathing when they kiss. A truly awesome scene.

#1 The Book Scene

The Top Five Hottest Scenes Ever Filmed, if by "Hot" you mean; sexy, sad, powerful, poignant and full of longing. LostinBritishTV

Why Ros Reigns Supreme -- Ros Myers of MI-5 (Spooks).

I first tuned in to MI-5 (Spooks) in order to watch Richard Armitage. There it is, the truth. I loved him in North and South and wanted to see, ahem, more of him. Unfortunately, the things he had acted in were fairly obscure and hard to come by in America. So I watched North and South a few more times, then exhausted the British Robin Hood series, of course, and finally, against my better judgement (because I am complete wimp and was sure I wouldn't be able to handle it) checked out season 7 of MI-5 from my library.

Spy shows are not my thing. Romantic comedies. Yes. Period dramas. Yes. Spooks? Spies and intrigue and terror? No way. Still, I tentatively slid the dvd into the player and gave it a go. The first few minutes included a new father being violently seized by some thugs, then after the opening credits, a disturbing psychological flash-back montage that freaked me out. I turned it off thinking this was a big mistake. The soundtrack alone was giving me heart stress. But I persevered and a few nights later tried again.  And then it happened. I fell in LOVE. Only it wasn't Lucas North. It was Ros Myers.

The ultra cool sexy woman encountering a dead body completely unfazed; making a quiet phone call, refusing to abort her mission, saying "if its something worth killing for, its something worth knowing." In this  scene, calmly, while on the phone, Ros notices a reflection in the bottle on the table that alerts her to a bad guy skulking up behind her. She grabs that bottle and smashes it into his head. Then, with a table knife, finishes the job (off camera, thank God). Removing evidence from the (first) dead body and breezing through Moscow, Ros stole my heart. We just don't get to see this kinda thing very often.

In my limited experience with scary things, beautiful woman do not behave this way. Some of the things Ros didn't (and doesn't ever) do: (1) scream or look scared, (2) pout out her lips and breathe heavy so that her breasts heave up and down, (3) seek out a man or some other authority figure to rationalize, talk, justify, worry or cry, (4) make you worry about her and her safety when she is on screen. Watching her is calming because she is calm. She radiates a supreme sense of competence. You know she is perfectly willing to die, because that's her line of work. Its simple as that. She's smart, funny, beautiful, hot, cool, skilled and oh so good at beating people up. She rocks.

But then, last night, while watching an episode from series 3 and getting our first real introduction to Fiona, I wondered why Fiona isn't in the same league with Ros? She's tough. She doesn't cry. She's ruthless, dedicated and gorgeous. Why is it not at all the same??

The answer came to me at Trader Joe's this morning. I watched a mom come into the store with her two children who were quite young. The mom was speaking in a loud clear 'mom' voice to her children, directing them to look at certain things, share their thoughts, and encouraging proper behavior and assistance in selecting good vegetables. In every way this should have been appealing, yet she irritated the crap out of me. Every thing she did, seemed to encourage bystanders to look at her and her kids and notice what a lovely family they were. They were lovely. She had nicely cut and highlighted hair, she wore great long fitted shorts; her kids were crisp and clean. They all looked the part. But that was it. They were playing their part: the happy mom and kids on their shopping outing. She seemed to expect that people should notice and compliment her - in fact one older lady did - but coiffed mom wasn't fooling me. It was her gig.

You see, I've been complimented for being a good mom, too, while out shopping. But it took me entirely by surprise. I was just out with my kids and going about my business. I had to think about what I might have done or not done that could have caught the lady's attention and caused her to think I was a good mom. I know that on another day, she might have figured I was a horrible mom because I caved into the demands of a tired kid for candy. But I don't do my shopping to please bystanders. I just do what I do.

And that's the difference between Ros and Fiona. Ros doesn't see herself as 'hip spy out doing a mission'. She just is one. She doesn't have time for angst or introspection. She doesn't need reassurance. We don't know or care whether she puts on makeup or wears sexy underwear. She wears what she wears, looks how she looks, and does what she does just because it radiates naturally out of her. There is no self-consciousness about it. I think it is a combo of brilliant acting and writing that have led to her being the all time most awesome character on Spooks. And that is saying something as the show is saturated with phenomenally good characters and acting.

Check out Spooks ("MI-5" in America, "Spooks" in Britain) on the BBC

Why Ros Reigns Supreme -- Ros Myers of MI-5 (Spooks). LostinBritishTV

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Hottest Scene Ever Filmed: The Book Scene from Remains of the Day

Yeah, OK, anyone under the age of 30 should just ignore that heading. But if you are, say, a grown up and are interested in what is really hot, not in terms of bodies but in terms of minds, take a fresh look at this scene from Remains of the Day. The Book Scene.

The desire and longing in this exceptionally well acted scene is palpable. The music, the lighting perfectly complement it. Anthony Hopkins' gaze and his right hand so near Emma Thompson, but not touching, just not quite willing to go there.... A life changing moment. I have never in my life wanted more for two people to kiss.

Oh, and if you want to see some more "Hottest Scenes Ever Filmed" click on this list.

The Hottest Scene Ever Filmed: The Book Scene from Remains of the Day. LostinBritishTV

It May Sound Crazy but Jane Eyre and the Sound of Music are a Lot Alike

Watching both movies within a short time of each other, and being deeply moved by both, I realized that the Sound of Music and Jane Eyre are a lot alike. Stick with me for a moment and give me a shot at this . . .  I think I'll convince you.

Both Jane Eyre and the Sound of Music feature a young, forthright, devout, honest and simple young woman. Early in their respective stories, each of our heroines lives in a group situation (a convent, Lowood School) that does not suit her depth of feeling or character nor fully appreciate what she has to offer the world.

In each, our heroine goes to the home of a wealthy and socially prominent older man to serve as governess. The hero in each is gruff and distant toward the child(ren) in his care and not fully able to be a loving parent figure. Both heroes are preoccupied with their own troubles (Captain Von Trap, with his grief over his dead first wife and the Nazi presence in his county; Mr. Rochester with the insanity of his first wife and the betrayal by his family into his hopeless situation). Our heroines enter these grand homes undaunted, despite their simple backgrounds, and are perfectly willing to directly speak their minds and express displeasure with the master of the house for how he is raising the child(ren) in his charge.

Both our heroes are immediately interested and attracted to their young governesses and see a glimpse of how life could be with a strong, earnest, caring, simple woman but they do not know how to express it or pursue it. Instead, each pursues a socially appropriate relationship with a woman who is elegant, beautiful and of a similar rank in society.  Socially sanctioned marriage to these women is openly talked of for our heroes and desired by their families/friends. However, the connections are not to be, as our heroes’ feelings forbid them. These attractive rivals are shallow and lack real understanding.

Meanwhile, both our heroines, despite believing *him* to be engaged to another woman, are finding a real home in the house of their hero. Each wishes to stay in this place that has become home and with these people who understand and appreciate her, even if she can’t be with the man she now desperately loves.

The unspoken romance between the master and governess in each story deepens and culminates with an exciting moment where the heroes explain that they are not going to marry the elegant woman, their feelings for the governess are declared, the governess becomes the happiest of women, and marriage is proposed. Both declarations happen in the evening, outside on the grounds of the house they share. 

Though this would be enough to complete a standard love story, in these two stories the romantic climax does not form the climax of the story. Each story continues with a more intense drama.

Here the plot similarities become less parallel, as the Sound of Music features a happy couple together confronting evil in the world and fleeing through the hills to be together and away from the Nazi’s pressures on the Captain. In Jane Eyre, the existence and madness of Mr. Rochester’s first wife is disclosed and Jane flees; her hero languishes. Not until the end are they reunited.

Both stories feature our heroine leaving at some point in the story in order to distance herself from strong and disagreeable feelings; both stories feature a spiritual and emotional growth of the young heroine that allows each to be with the man she wants.  In the Sound of Music, this happens after she begins to feel attracted to him but knows him to be engaged to another and before the Captain’s declaration of love. In Jane Eyre, her leaving occurs after the declaration, on the very brink of marriage, after she learns of his wife still living.

Both stories also feature our hero needing to grow before he can be with the woman he loves. In the Sound of Music this was accomplished much earlier in the story and much more easily, as he became loving toward his children and re-invited music into their lives. In Jane Eyre, the hero’s growth does not take place until the end of the book after having suffered greatly.

Both stories end with the couple removed from their homes. The complexities of life cannot allow them to simply live happily ever after in the comfortable mansion in which they fell in love. But they can be together.

It May Sound Crazy but Jane Eyre and the Sound of Music are a Lot Alike. LostinBritishTV

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Downton Abbey's Anna & Bates and the Theory of Reality Fantasy

I have a new theory of fantasy. There are so many extraordinarily attractive people to be found in movies and on TV. These extraordinary people usually get to have exciting adventures, wear great clothes and hang out with other sexy people. For viewers, us regular folk, being attracted to purely fantasy people makes sense. They are perfect and gorgeous and fun to watch. They have lives we don't know or have and will never know or have and, honestly, don't even want to know or have. This is fantasy fantasy and it's nice, too.

But give me a choice between Brad Pitt and Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates in the amazing television drama Downton Abbey), there is simply no contest. The winner is Mr. Bates. I know a lot of other people agree with me. Why is Mr. Bates and his touching relationship with Anna so deeply attractive?

Because of reality fantasy. Bates is someone we know -- or could know. He is flawed, interesting and compelling. He is both ordinary and extraordinary. His beauty is found partly on his face and partly in his character.  His face might not leap off the screen at you. It would be forgivable to not notice it at all and take him for just a regular person - a character actor. But blink, look again, and you'll see that he's fantasy normal. He is sort of every man, but he is so much better. Once you see it, it takes fire.

It radiates from the intelligent sparkle in his gaze. The depth of history and experience that lurks just below the surface. Oh, and maybe this only applies for Americans, but it resides in his to-die-for accent. It is found in his mischievousness mouth. The slight smile and beautiful curl to the lip line. He can talk. You can see that he can and will talk and say exactly what we want to hear - sometime. It resides in his broad, magnetic style. Once we stop to really see him, we know, instinctively, we want to get to know him better.  He works for a living. He walks with a limp. He is middle aged. He has a past. I don't know if I like him in spite of or because of these things.

Anna. Here is a woman who is beautiful on the surface and underneath. She is blond and young and pretty. But she is in a station in life where she might as well be anything else for all the good her charms will do her. She is past the first flower of youth. She works hard and is happy enough with her place but emptiness and longing are there as well. There is no real excitement in her life as she lives to work and serve. Yes, she is good -- through-and-through -- but she is not a simpery do-gooder. She is someone we like and would want to be friends with. She is someone we are, or have been.

But better.

Anna has spirit and consults her internal compass in deciding what is right or wrong. That internal compass allows her to: (1) drag a dead body from one part of the house to another in order to protect her mistress, (2) work to re-plant false evidence of theft in the room of Mr. Bates' foe after he tried to frame Bates, (3) open the corridor door between the male and female servants' halls when she was forbidden to do so, (4) seek out and conference with Bates' mother behind his back to try and clear his name, (5) cover up for her roommate when said roommate sneaks off for the day. Anna is forthright and unapologetic.

So, here is this lovely, grownup, lonely woman serving others in the house where she will likely live for a long time. The only men in her world are the completely out of reach aristocratic visitors and the servants like Thomas (the gay rogue), William (the shy, green, boy) and Carson (the much older butler). Almost from the moment she smiles a friendly welcome to Bates, we can see that this man, even though damaged goods in many ways, is the best opportunity for her in a long time. Opportunity, that is, for real friendship, shared exasperation with the goings on, and intelligent and thoughtful conversation.

By the time we learn that he is smart, kind, thoughtful, proud and sweet, Anna is already head over heels for Bates. When he walks into the kitchens where she sits alone and says tongue in cheek: "alone at last", we see the effect on her face.

For his part, when Bates comes to Downton Abbey, he is a slightly beaten man. He is deeply thankful for his chance to work. This situation must work out and he has his eye on nothing else. He is not thinking of love or even friendship - just living. Getting through. Making this work. Anna is kind to him and he's glad enough of it, but he isn't thinking about her. He has stopped seeing himself as a man. His disability, his age, and his past which includes war and taking the rap for a crime he didn't do, have put him where many of us are - in a course to the finish with blinders on. Plodding through as best as we can with the challenges life puts in front of us.

However, it doesn't take long for her presence to work on him at a deeper level. Seeing Anna and talking to her, he cannot help but notice how pretty she is. Deep inside he remembers women -- what it meant to be with a woman and it feels good to remember. But his crippled leg puts him in his place. He knows he is an old broken man. Almost against his will Bates begins to want to be young and whole again. I think this is why he looks for the limp-corrector and goes through the ordeal of trying to fix himself. He wants to be complete and even attractive. (He doesn't know, like we do, how very attractive he already is). Although the limp-corrector episode concludes with the idea that Bates must be content with who he is, we're not sure that lesson fully hits home. Instead it is his main cross and carrying it is the thing keeping him from Anna. He believes he doesn't deserve her.

How many of us regular people have lived this story from one side or the other? How many have been trapped in something small longing for something big? Or, have been changed by something big so much to think we don't deserve something small?

Anna and Bates are sexy, compelling and beautiful together because they are the story of life.

Check out Downton Abbey on Masterpiece

Downton Abbey's Anna & Bates and the Theory of Reality Fantasy. LostinBritishTV