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December 8th, 2006 (04:25 pm)
current music: The King's Consort et al: 'Eternal Source of Light Divine'

I've been into London a couple of times this week to see event screenings at the National Film Theatre, all television rather than cinema, and all arranged by the good offices of gervase_fen. The estimable Mr Fen has written his review of Wednesday night's screening of the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke here; I generally concur with his review but found it much more difficult to believe in the drama straight away; found Billie Piper's Sally a little flat, probably because I've been used to her more expressive Rose Tyler; and was irritated by no-one remarking that so many of the characters are played by black actors. A black clergyman would have been remarkable in the Oxford of 1874. The adaptation was remarkably faithful to the novel, considering how short a time ninety minutes is, despite the loss of a few ancillary characters and the simplification of some of Sally's backstory. The new date of 1874 (the novel was set in 1872) reflected that Sally is at least a couple of years older in the adaptation than she is in the book; Billie Piper is youthful but too worldly-looking to pass for the novel's sixteen. Jim, too, is now about nineteen - Philip Pullman said in the talk afterwards that he thought of him as about twelve - though the Garlands seem about the age they are in the book.

On Saturday we attended Missing Believed Wiped 2006, one of the highlights of the year. The NFT presented perhaps the strongest line-up so far, beginning with two plays from the 1960s, Level Seven, by J.B. Priestley from the novel by Mordecai Roshwald, and The Crush by Nigel Kneale. Level Seven was broadcast in 1966 as part of the BBC's science-fiction play strand 'Out of the Unknown', and concerns the deepest level of an underground bunker containing representatives of each class of one of two military and political power blocs, charged with co-ordinating any missile strike on the enemy based on a strict sequence of escalated responses, and also with continuing humanity after mutually assured destruction. The interpretation moves from psychologically-conscious realism, as X.117 (played by David Collings) resists the discipline of the bunker and is eventually taken away and lobotomized, to metaphor as radiation sickness penetrates to Level Seven itself, leaving its inhabitants first blind, then immobile, frozen like Pompeiians in the wake of Vesuvius. The Crush, shown on ITV (ATV) in 1964, could still be relevant now; it is the story of the siege of the London embassy of a former British colony, who are planning to detonate a thermonuclear device in London if they are not paid compensation for the minerals extracted from the territory during British rule. Nigel Kneale's usual preoccupations - the credulity of the wider population, and the responsibility of the educated technocracy - are apparent, but I enjoyed his anti-Quatermass figure, the former ex-pat called in as the civilian expert, but who is more interested in searching evacuated houses for gin.

The second half of Missing Believed Wiped this year was entitled 'Comedy Plus', and was led by Out of the Trees, the pilot for a comedy sketch series written by Graham Chapman, Bernard McKenna and Douglas Adams, which was transmitted once in January 1976 and soon after wiped, to the consternation of fans of Chapman and Adams; Chapman recorded it off-air and it's this tape which was played through sympathetic equipment and copied to provide the basis of the version shown at the NFT, with only a little distortion. Part of the problem with the concept is that after Monty Python's Flying Circus anything involving Chapman and other performers (none of whom were involved in the writing, though Adams makes an appearance in the background as a thug in one scene) would seem like he was working with a B-team. While it was refreshing to see women playing parts which in Python would have been undertaken by one or two of the team in drag, some of the cast - notably a young Mark Wing-Davey - did not seem to be up to the material, which spoke with the voice of the beleaguered 1970s middle class male, besieged by women competing over frivolities, pedantic socially-retarded scoutmasters, and various kinds of jobsworth. Simon Jones delivered his solid permanently bemused persona on several occasions, Chapman's Genghis Khan is somehow automatically funny, and watching Roger Brierly one realises how much Angus Deayton owes him.

The revelation of the night for me was that Hattie Jacques once starred in a detective series, the perhaps unfortunately titled Miss Adventure from ITV (ABC) in 1964, about an enthusiastic employee at a 'private enquiry agency' whose Raymond Chandler-influenced attitude to the work is at odds with the cautious attitude of her boss, but which (I suspect) proves more in keeping with the times; and a sketch from an Eleanor Bron series, After That, This, from BBC 2 in 1975, where she and Derek Fowlds perform an operatic duet as masseuse and client who are determined that their lust should overcome the mounting evidence that they are, in fact, long-separated mother and son. Some recently rediscovered (but actually never lost) footage from a BBC television news bulletin of 22 November 1963 covering the assassination of President Kennedy, and the arrest of 'Oswald Lee Oswald' as the killer, is bound to turn up as an archive feature on the BBC website shortly.

Vanity compels me to say that both the books which I bought yesterday list my name in the acknowledgements. I feel happier about this than I probably should.


Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: December 8th, 2006 06:21 pm (UTC)
Grey Havens

I suspect reviewers might feel uncomfortable remarking on how many black actors there are because it could be taken by the malicious as racist to comment on it, even if it is a matter of historical accuracy. I certainly find the presence of black actors in Robin Hood jarring, even if it is clearly just laudably colourblind casting on the same level of modernised styling as the hoodies and Robin's culture vulture collection of Saracen items. It tends to knock me out of the suspension of disbelief (much more than the costumes), because part of my brain is going "Wait, surely there wouldn't be a black court official in thirteenth-century England and even if there was, surely someone would, like, notice??!" until I manage to beat it back with the Big Stick of Postmodern Ironic Awareness. However, I have never dared to mention this to anyone because I am too busy inspecting the nooks and crannies of my psyche for covert particles of racism.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 8th, 2006 07:06 pm (UTC)

I never thought about making the point in the Q&A session. I can accept black characters in the eighteenth century but I have the impression that there were more Ignatius Sanchos and Olaudah Equianos in eighteenth-century London than there were Samuel Coleridge Taylors in the nineteenth.

Posted by: Elaine of Astolat (ladyofastolat)
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 10:13 am (UTC)

I was confused and bothered by it in Robin Hood, too, though I also didn't like to say anything at the time, in case it led to accusations of racism. When that black abbess turned up, I spent the whole episode wondering if we were supposed to ignore the colour and just see the acting, or if the character herself, internally in the story, was black, and that was an actual plot point.

I would love to know if there is now an actual policy in writing, saying that all roles, even in historical dramas, must be equally open to all races. (Though would they cast a white actor as a Zulu, or in a drama about Ancient China? I doubt it.) Will they extend this to sex, so we will soon be seeing dramas set in nunneries, in which some of the nuns are played by men?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 10:48 am (UTC)

I've lost touch with Robin Hood for about five weeks now, so only learned of the arrival of the female version of Nasir when reading the Wikipedia entry on the series last night.

There's a little colour-blind casting in Doctor Who, given that there was a black actress playing a friend of Madame du Pompadour in 'The Girl in the Fireplace' this year; though as there was a black grandchild of Louis XIV running about (after one of his daughters by Madame de Maintenon was 'surprised' by her footman) I could just about accept this.

The BBC is under pressure to make its productions, even the period ones, reflect the ethnic make-up of twenty-first century Britain, I think, and so this gets reflected back into period drama; but only those marked as escapist, I note. I don't remember any ethnic minority actors in Bleak House.

Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 03:31 pm (UTC)

the female version of Nasir

Oh you're kidding. I actually deleted from my earlier comment a flippant remark about Robin having left a Saracen girlfriend in the Holy Land...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 04:40 pm (UTC)

I'm not - but will probably watch tonight to see how the character works.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 06:26 pm (UTC)

I haven't been watching Robin Hood, but the whole issue of colour blind casting fascinates me, especially in period dramas.

About a year ago radio 4 did a Front Row special on the presentation of Jews in English literature, and someone pointed out that while it's more or less unthinkable for a white actor to play Othello now (blacked up or not), no one bats an eyelid at non-Jewish actors playing Shylock, even if they don long false beards and sidelocks to do so.

I've never really come to firm conclusion about the subject. After all, some suspension of disbelief is necessary for all drama; historical drama in particular is subject to tidying up to make it look more like everyone 'knows' it looked. On the other hand, men playing women and vice versa is only really accepted in pantomime, unless it's making a specific point, so there clearly are limits to what the public can accept.

Madame du Pompadour's friend surprised me a bit, although I didn't want to mention it in case my desire for historical was mistaken for racism. I rationalised that while a black aristocrat by birth at the court of Louis XV wasn't that likely, a black courtesan was more likely. Well, perhaps.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 08:23 pm (UTC)

Interesting. I hadn't thought that the positions of a black actor playing a character who perhaps shouldn't be black if historical accuracy is being sought, and a non-Jewish actor playing a Jewish character, were wholly comparable, though there are obvious parallels in the Othello case.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 08:44 pm (UTC)

I hadn't thought that the positions of a black actor playing a character who perhaps shouldn't be black if historical accuracy is being sought, and a non-Jewish actor playing a Jewish character, were wholly comparable,

I wasn't trying to imply they are comparable; I was just saying that the colour blind casting issue as a whole is fraught with complexity,, that being, I think, the most complex example I've ever heard. I probably should have put that paragraph at the end, rather than the beginning.

Posted by: gervase_fen (gervase_fen)
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 08:19 pm (UTC)

I think it's possible that Don Gilet's casting in "Ruby in the Smoke" is also an opportunity to misdirect the audience - the lead actor of "55 Degrees North" might be thought to play a larger part in the proceedings than he eventually does.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 9th, 2006 05:36 pm (UTC)

I was actually quite happy with the black abbess as colour-blind casting - it sort of went into the "fantasy elements" category in my brain, along with the costumes.
Maybe that has to do with growing up with theatre and opera, where the physical appearance of the actor/singer has always been secondary, and black faces in European historical stories are as normal as fat ladies playing the beautiful princess.

The fact that Djaq is explicitly Saracen I found a lot more far-fetched (although I have to admit to not having seen Robin of Sherwood - had to look up Nasir on Wikipedia).