Countdown must rank as one of TV’s big successes, having been the first ever programme on Channel 4 back in 1982 and still broadcasting today. Over the years the format and the cast of characters have changed very little, and in 2012 8 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown was added to the schedules. Sitting in Dictionary Corner since 1992 (which is a jolly long time, if you think about it) has been lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent, and she brought her The Secret Life of Words show to the Royal and Derngate last week.
Anyone who knows me IRL (as the young people of today like to say) will know that I am fascinated by the derivation of words. Get me drunk and I will tell you about the fourteen ways of making a new word in the English Language without borrowing from foreign languages – I always was a wow at parties. Thus, I was keen to book for this show, as clearly were a large number of the good burghers of Northampton as there wasn’t a spare seat in the house.
Ms Dent takes us on a very entertaining linguistic lecture tour of her favourite aspects of the English language. It’s the most flexible and useful language in the world, which is why it is so prominent internationally. But it’s hard for foreign people to learn, with our unpredictable pronunciations (consider: though, through, cough, bough, enough) and our word order, which is instinctive to native speakers but has to be taught to students. That quick brown fox who jumps over the lazy dog is never a brown quick fox, even though in reality it’s the identical four-legged fiend. When Hylda Baker answered the phone in her sitcom Not on Your Nellie she would always say “This is the Old Brown Cow speaking” rather than the other way around.
So there’s loads of material for Susie Dent with which to amuse and educate us. One of her examples of folk etymology is forlorn hope (always one of my favourite derivations) – originally the Dutch Boer verloren hoop, the sacrificial troop of soldiers sent out in the front to get killed whilst the war was won by the backroom boys. New to me, and totally delightful, was the derivation of to “steal one’s thunder” – the annoyed retort of a theatre director in the early 18th century who had discovered that the next production in the same theatre had stolen his newly invented thunder-sound-making-machine used in his previous, less successful, play.
Ms Dent has a very relaxed and comfortable style; there’s little sense of academia in her presentation, it’s much more about the fun of language and things to spot for yourself. Perhaps surprisingly, she likes and encourages Americanisms; and above all recognises that language is a constantly evolving entity and the one thing you cannot do (like Samuel Johnson attempted in his dictionary) is to tie it down for all eternity. She doesn’t shy away from swear words; in fact we learn that the majority of swear words that we use today that concern sex were actually perfectly decent words century ago, because the big no-no in those days was profanity. There’s quite a lengthy exposé in the show about just how useful and flexible f*ck is as a go-to word for all sorts of situations, so don’t take the youngsters!
In an unofficial survey, we were all asked to confirm whether we said mischievous or mischievious; being well-educated types by far the majority plumped for the former, which surprised Ms Dent as her belief is that in twenty years’ time the latter will be the standard pronunciation, as we try to associate it with the word devious. On the pronunciation of scones and scones (you’ll know which is your personal default) we were pretty evenly split. And some audience members were still ridiculing each other on the way out at the end of the show for getting it wrong. (It’s scones, of course.)
The last fifteen minutes or so consist of a Q&A session where members of the audience can ask for Susie’s opinion on burning issues of grammar and etymology. We learned that she has no time for the old adage I before E except after C, and also that she likes one of my favourite forms of new-word-making, metanalysis, where a letter transfers from one word to another to create a new word, such as when a napperon became an apron, a norange became an orange and so on. Tawdry is my favourite example of this.* There was a terrifically phrased question about whether you should say less or fewer, which Susie rather glossed over as being largely unimportant. Surely it’s simply a question of singular and plural nouns? Less stuff but fewer things! No one mentioned split infinitives – I wish I’d asked about that one now, as I’m a stickler for tradition in that department. Save it for another day.
A fascinating evening of wordplay which informed and entertained. If she’s coming to a theatre near you, I’d definitely recommend it!
*Centuries ago, poor people used to buy their clothes from the equivalent of a church bring-and-buy sale in Ely. The church was dedicated to…? St Audrey, naturally!
Final show of the year, third panto of the year and second panto that we’ve seen at Richmond. We came back hot on the success of last year’s Peter Pan, with a deliciously villainous Robert Lindsay and the dancing sprite that is Harry Francis. And it’s a beautiful theatre with a lovely vibe, so why wouldn’t we return?
This year they treated us to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was enjoyable, but it wasn’t a classic by any means. Whilst some aspects were excellent, others didn’t work for me at all. For example, you know that local rivalry panto theme, where the script includes the occasional reference to local towns so that they can take the mickey out of them? They did it to death. And in Richmond that comes across as rather snobby; all the local references (and there genuinely must have been more than a dozen – tedious when you’re not local) implied that those other places rated somewhere between grotty and criminal underworld, whereas Richmond is sweetly genteel. Provoked my inner socialist and got on my nerves, if I’m honest.
When we saw that this year Jo Brand would be playing the Wicked Queen we instantly jumped at the chance; surely, that’s a casting made in heaven? Surprisingly, and disappointingly, it isn’t. Whilst I am a huge fan of Ms Brand in her TV appearances, I was quite shocked at how out of place she seemed to be on a stage. Don’t get me wrong; she looked perfect, deployed that contemptuous stare and voice to full effect, and got a load of laughs in the process. But, for a comedy legend, I felt that her timing was off; and she had a tendency to recite her lines rather than act them. Her performance didn’t flow; it was like a collection of individual modules where she had a line here and a bit of business there and they were all sequenced so that she could go from one to the other, but you could see the break in concentration and commitment between each section. Her eyes said: “I’ve done that line, so now I have to stand over here and wait for the next bit”. Maybe further back in the theatre that might not have been so noticeable; but Mrs Chrisparkle and I were centre of the second row and it looked very obvious to us. I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced.
Fortunately, we were also in the company of Jon Clegg as Muddles who kept the whole show going at a cracking pace. His interaction with the audience and, particularly, the kids, works incredibly well; he managed to make the “one smart feller he felt smart” song with the kids on stage at the end genuinely funny. And, of course, he is a terrific impressionist. However – and this was a fascinating general observation – all the Brexit/Boris Johnson jokes and impersonations fell flat as a pancake. I can only assume that we’ve all had far too much politics for one year, and there’s absolutely nothing funny to laugh about in the situation the country has got itself. This audience, at least, had come to the Richmond Theatre to escape the woes of Whitehall, not to be reminded of them.
Jason Sutton gave it his all as Nurse Nancy, including some delightful corpsing during the scene where Muddles had to convey the increasingly difficult tongue-twisters between Nancy and the Prince. His (her) pestering of the poor chap in the front row as New Boyfriend Material worked very well – and he took it in good spirit too. James Darch cut a suave figure as Prince Harry of Hampton, and his singing and dancing with Mia Starbuck’s Snow White was probably the best thing about this panto – as indeed were the girls and boys of Babette Langford’s Young Set, who gave a stupendously good performance.
There are two ways you can play the dwarfs; either with seven short gentlemen as the title suggests, or with seven full sized actors hobbling around on their knees. This production went for the latter option. I can never decide which side of the divide I fall on with this argument. Ideally, the roles should go to the people most suited to the job, depending on acting/singing/etc ability. But I also can’t help but feel that when a production doesn’t use actors of restricted growth, that it deprives them of one of their best chances of a good job in the entire year. Our Magnificent Seven, as the programme likes to call them, were full of spark and character, in excellent voice and probably the campest portrayal of the seven that I’ve ever seen; and I’m still trying to decide if that works or not. I have to say the kids in the audience didn’t give them the huge reception that in my experience normally greets the dwarfs – maybe they were disappointed at the stage pretence. You can’t fool kids at the panto.
On the whole, this show didn’t quite hit the target – certainly nothing like the bullseye that was last year’s. In its favour, it got the level of adult humour versus appropriate for kids spot on, which neither of the other two we’d seen this December achieved (and let’s face it, Goldilocks didn’t even try). But it lacked a touch of magic, a sense of sincerity perhaps, that could have turned a good panto into a great one.
For the fourth year, the Palladium have resurrected their old tradition of a Christmas Panto season, and, financially speaking, it must be one of their wisest moves in decades. Oldies like me remember the halcyon days of Cilla Black and Jimmy Tarbuck, Ronnie Corbett and Terry Scott gracing the stage with their wickedly brilliant panto performances – and that kind of experience creates a love for theatre that (hopefully) never goes away. So impressed by our enthusiasm for the Palladium panto were they, that our friends the Squire of Sidcup and the Wise Woman of Wembley brought his dad (the Grand Old Duke of Kent) as a Christmas treat. And why not?
This year Qdos pulled out even more of all the stops for Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks – you might ask – as a panto? Good question. Despite all the adult humour, variety acts and in-jokes of the past few years, the Palladium pantomime has always been exactly that – a panto. However, this year…. the astute amongst you will have twigged that Goldilocks isn’t really a panto. A fairy tale, maybe; but the two beasts aren’t necessarily the same. This year’s yuletide Palladium offering is many things: circus, magic, burlesque, song-and-dance, an all-round very funny and extraordinarily vivid Vegas-style extravaganza that I thoroughly enjoyed. But panto – it isn’t. For the surprisingly large number of kids in the audience for the Saturday night after Christmas – their parents obviously didn’t get the memo – there would have been very little of the spoken word element of the show that they would have understood.
Of course, there’s always a comic frisson of the naughty bits that the adults get that the kids don’t. But in this case, the balance was so extreme that the only things the children would have got out of it would be the visuals. A very enjoyable magic act, great costumes, music and lighting, some (and I stress some) of Paul Zerdin’s ventriloquist act and – without question the best couple of minutes in the show – the amazing performance by Peter Pavlov and his troupe in the Dome of Speed – four motor bike riders criss-crossing each other in the dark that made your hair stand on end and elicited the best applause of the night. And maybe that’s enough to satisfy the kids – I’m not a parent. But I am glad not to have had to answer a string of very inquisitive questions on the way home from the theatre.
Putting all that aside, it’s a great show, with Palladium Perennial Julian Clary reigning supreme as the Ringmaster – you’ll already have supplied all your own jokes, but his are a good deal filthier. If you’re in need of a double entendre, you’ll always find Julian popping up with a warm hand upon his entrance. He’s a joyous presence, totally in command of the audience, a guarantee of a good night out before you even consider the contributions of the rest of the cast. In the role of arch-baddie (which is as near as you get to pantomime in this show) is Paul O’Grady as Baron von Savage, assuming malice with effortless ease; to the extent that maybe you’d like to see him put a little more effort in, although that really isn’t his style.
Other recidivist performers are Nigel Havers as Daddy Bear, who’s perfected a nice portly swagger, Paul Zerdin, whose vent skills are terrific (although I really didn’t go for the baby puppet at all) and Gary Wilmot as Dame Betty Barnum, in charge of the local circus. I always look forward to seeing Mr Wilmot, because he’s a master song-and-dance man, and by all accounts this year’s patter song is a-ma-zing, but his voice wasn’t holding out well enough during our performance for him to tackle it, which was abitofashame.
New blood arrived in the form of the irrepressibly nice Matt Baker, who played the irrepressibly nice Joey the Clown. If they ever want to revive Barnum, he should be front of the queue of contenders, because his high-wire skills are superb. Janine Duvitski’s Mummy Bear is Straight Outta Benidorm, with her implications of BDSM nights of ecstasy; shame she wasn’t given a chance to be a little more three-dimensional. Lauren Stroud’s Baby Bear wins the runner-up Best Scene Award for her fantastic 42nd Street routine (I did tell you it wasn’t really a panto), and Sophie Isaacs is a suitably charming Goldilocks.
What it doesn’t have: It’s Behind You! Oh No It Isn’t! A Ghost – Where? – and jokes for the kids. What it does have: daredevil motorbike riders, Julian Clary’s innuendos, an incredible orchestra, costumes and lighting, and Nigel Havers making a joke about Prince Andrew. We all laughed our heads off. And although I might have preferred something just a tad more traditional, it’s the Palladium panto, dammit, so what are you complaining about?
Some shows never go away. Sometimes that can be regrettable; sometimes remarkable; on a few occasions, totally wonderful. Noises Off, I’m delighted to say, falls into that third category. Michael Frayn’s marvellous farce, that never progresses our hapless cast of TV B-listers past the first act of Robin Housemonger’s clearly pathetic Nothing On, stars TV’s Dotty “I can ‘ardly ‘old me lolly up” Otley – and she’s sunk her life savings into this “investment”. Will she get a return on her risk? Will she buffalo.
The date – 15th April 1982; I had a front row seat at the Savoy for the newly opened Noises Off, starring Paul Eddington and Patricia Routledge; and I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen or was ever likely to see. Four years later, and still at the Savoy, I introduced young Miss Duncansby (now Mrs Chrisparkle) to the joys of Stephanie Cole and Hugh Paddick in the cast; from then till now, we still love to intone our own posh-voiced ladies and gentlemen, would you please take your seats, as the performance will begin in one minute instructions, at the drop of a hat, whenever the moment sees fit. In 2008 we saw it again at the Milton Keynes Theatre, with Maggie Steed on fine form, and it had lost none of its spark. And now it’s back again, and so are we, revelling both in the comedy of today and the nostalgia of yesteryear.
And it’s great to see that the cast of TV’s On the Zebras has-beens is still as useless as ever. At first we see them struggling through the Dress (“we’re all thinking of it as the Tech, Lloyd love”) Rehearsal before the opening at the Grand Theatre, Weston-super-Mare; then we see them at daggers with each other during a vengeful midweek matinee at the Theatre Royal, Goole; and finally in exhausted devastation during the final performance at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton on Tees.
Nothing On is clearly a dreadful little play, the last vestiges of the mildly titillating sex comedy genre that soared in the 60s and 70s with masterpieces (and I mean that) like Boeing Boeing, No Sex Please We’re British and There’s a Girl in my Soup. Today these have dated very badly – and in fact the recently planned tour of Boeing Boeing has had to be cancelled due to poor advance sales. Shame really, as it’s an exceptionally funny and beautifully structured play. I daresay Feydeau would have struggled to get bums on seats if he was writing nowadays. When Noises Off first hit the stage in 1982, that style was already on the way out, but still familiar, and thus ripe for Frayn to satirise mercilessly. I would not be remotely surprised if any twenty-something theatregoers seeing Noises Off today hadn’t got a clue as to what Nothing On was all about.
Apart from taking the mick out of those old sex comedies, Noises Off assembles a relatively ghastly cast of creative types with recognisable foibles, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and so on. The faux-polite leading lady, the tense and irritable ingénu, the arrogant director, the well-meaning buffoon, the old sot; they’re all there, thrust together in a survival battle. And this creates Noises Off’s great strength; it’s utterly hilarious. Every possible theatrical disaster that could befall that woeful cast happens with dire consequences; to anyone who’s ever been on a stage it’s your worst nightmare come true. Physical pratfalls, mental and physical violence, drunk colleagues, nosebleeds, missing/not working/broken props/scenery, inappropriate affairs and jealous lovers all vie for prominence. And, whilst on the face of it, you might suspect it would be too forced, too unreal, too slapstick, too unsubtle to be taken seriously – in fact it’s such a superb piece of writing, requiring a high level of choreographically excellent performance, that only the most sour-faced misery-guts wouldn’t bellow with laughter ecstatically through it. That second Act, in particular, is simply a perfect nugget of comic genius. I was slightly sorry that this current production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, has done away with the visual “duck” joke in Act Two. If you remember it from previous productions, I’m sure you’d too be disappointed that it’s missing. If you’ve never seen it before then I’ll not explain it – suffice to say that it can be made even funnier.
Although it’s a play that’s always attracted star performers, there are few plays that require greater ensemble skills and attitude, and the cast do indeed throw everything at it to make it succeed. Meera Syal plays Dotty as a rather sweet old thing, until her anger is riled, that is; Lloyd Owen’s Director Lloyd is a sorely-tried, hard-nosed kind of guy – very tired, very unhappy and more acerbic than I remember from previous productions. Lisa McGrillis emphasises all of Brooke’s vacant automaton acting to terrific effect, and there’s very nice support from Adrian Richards as the long-suffering Tim, the Stage Manager. But, for me, the best characterisations come from Sarah Hadland as the kindly and impossibly positive Belinda Blair, and Daniel Rigby as the tongue-tied, gently seething Garry Lejeune.
It’s the perfect show for a holiday season; strenuously funny, and with plenty of excellent performances to admire; and you can pick and choose just how much you want to extrapolate from it about the nature of human existence to the extent that you can be bothered. Consider it deep, or consider it shallow, there’s loads to enjoy here, and I’m glad we caught it again before it closes on 4th January.
In which Victoria Jones bumps into Edward in a park in London over lunchtime sandwiches and falls in love with him in an instant. He’s going to Baghdad to help open a bookshop for his boss, and, troubled that she won’t ever see him again, she decides to chuck everything in and follow him to Baghdad. But many other important political and influential people are also travelling to Baghdad, and Victoria gets caught up in a spot of espionage because she’s that kind of girl. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal its most exciting secrets!
The book is dedicated “to all my friends in Baghdad”. Since the political and Islamist developments of the late 20th century it’s difficult for most westerners to imagine Baghdad being the kind of place where people could just up and visit on a whim. But Christie would have accompanied her husband Max Mallowan on many an archaeological dig out there, and her autobiography has several references to her times there and the people she worked with. They Came to Baghdad was first published in the UK in eight abridged instalments in John Bull magazine from January to March 1951, and in Canada, in an abridged version in Star Weekly Complete Novel, a magazine supplement published in Toronto, in September 1951. Unusually, there was no magazine pre-publication of this book in the US, until the full book was published by Dodd, Mead & Co in late 1951. It had previously been published in full in the UK by Collins Crime Club, on 5th March 1951.
The first time I tried to read this book (aged about 10 probably), I couldn’t get on with it at all. I was voraciously reading all the Christies I could lay my hands on, and when I realised this wasn’t a murder mystery (as such) I completely lost interest and went to find another “proper” whodunit instead. Then when I went back to it as an older teenager I gave it another chance and got completely wrapped up in the escapism of it all; the fascination of the setting, the excitement of the adventure, and who could resist the charms of Victoria Jones?
If you met her in real life, she’d be a keeper, for sure. Full of daring, absolutely fearless, but prone to making a few bad judgment calls; an imperfect kind of heroine that actually would make her a very realistic creation. Victoria’s the sort of girl who would go off on a whim; she believes in taking a chance on life in the hope that it would pay off. When she’s chloroformed and held captive in some miserable hovel, on regaining consciousness her instant reaction is to celebrate the fact that she’s still alive – she’s ineffably optimistic. She doesn’t let a mere thing like incarceration hold her back; and whilst she’s not particularly learned she is enormously practical.
Christie keeps a steady conversational style going through much of this book; written in the third person but almost always with Victoria as the central character. Occasionally Dakin or Edward take control of whatever scene is playing out, but nine times out of ten we’re seeing life through Victoria’s eyes. This is particularly effective in the few archaeological dig scenes, where Victoria has installed herself as an anthropologist despite knowing nothing about the subject. Christie’s writing flows vividly as she shows Victoria experiencing life on a dig, just as Christie herself had done a few years earlier. There’s a sense of wonder and excitement about the work; a respect for and interest in the dead of centuries ago whose minutiae of life is becoming apparent. The chief archaeologists themselves as portrayed as rather eccentric boffins, like Dr Pauncefoot Jones, or suspicious nit-pickers like Richard Baker. I’m sure Christie saw both on her travels.
As usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The book starts in London; with Victoria and Edward meeting at Fitzjames Gardens, Victoria working for a firm in Graysholme Street, WC2, and another character living at Elmsleigh Gardens, “a quiet, rather dingy Kensington square”. None of them is real, sadly. Edward invites Victoria to dine on a sausage at the “SPO in Tottenham Court Road” – whilst Tottenham Court Road is of course real, I’ve no idea what the SPO was. Victoria walks past the Ritz Hotel in Green Park (real) and down Albermarle Street (also real) in search of Balderton’s Hotel (fictional – although there is a Balderton Street just south of Oxford Street.)
Once Victoria has decided to follow Edward to Baghdad, the rest of the book takes place in the area of present-day Iraq. Dakin’s office near Bank Street and Rashid Street in Baghdad, seems extremely likely; a map of modern day Baghdad shows Rashid Street and the Bank of Iraq being close by. A body is found on the Rowanduz Road – Rowanduz is a town in the north of Iraq; it’s perhaps unlikely that it’s big enough to warrant a road named after it. Victoria spends some time wandering around the Copper Bazaar in Baghdad – today it’s better known as the Coppersmith Souk but it’s still there.
Elsewhere a boat paddles along the Shatt el Arab, a river made by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates river in modern day Iran; Carmichael is said to have been born in Kashgar, an ancient city on the banks of the Tigris, but now regards Kerbela, 100 km south west of Baghdad, as “his city”; and Basrah, also mentioned, is a modern city on the Shatt el Arab. Dr Pauncefoot Jones is excavating the ancient city of Murik, which is said to be 120 miles from Baghdad, although the only Murik I can find is in Syria, well away from Baghdad; curious. When Victoria accompanies Mrs Clipp, they arrive at Castel Benito Aerodrome, an airport in Tripoli created by the Italians in Libya. Originally, it was a small military airport, but it was enlarged in the late 1930s and was later used by the British RAF after 1943. Tripolitania is the region of Libya in which Tripoli is situated. Interesting that they had to change planes here in order to get to Baghdad. And when Victoria is captured, she is held in Mandali, which today is a small town on the Iraq/Iran border. Clearly, Christie put a lot of effort into setting her story in real places in and around Baghdad.
There are few Arabic words and quotations used in the book, for which it might be helpful to know the English meanings. People on the street in Baghdad call out “Balek!” at regular intervals; balek is Arabic for mind, so maybe they mean “mind out”? Victoria uses the phrase “el hamdu lillah” to her captors, which endears her to them; it’s a praise to Allah. She also works out that the word “bukra” means tomorrow; although not according to Google Translate it doesn’t. And Abdul Suleiman sang an Arab chant: “Asri bi lele ya yamali, Hadhi alek ya ibn Ali”. Google Translate gives this as: “My family, for me, O dictate, this is on you, Ibn Ali”. I think we just about get the picture.
And now for some other references. Mr Morganthal tells Miss Scheele, “they got the Shah of Persia last year, didn’t they? They got Bernadotte in Palestine.” Who was Bernadotte? He was a Swedish diplomat who negotiated the release of about 31,000 prisoners from German concentration camps, including 450 Danish Jews from the Theresienstadt camp, and became United Nations Security Council mediator in the Arab–Israeli conflict of 1947–1948, until he was assassinated in Jerusalem by the paramilitary Zionist group Lehi. During Edward’s first conversation with Victoria, he thinks Jones is an unsuitable surname for a Victoria, and that Victoria Sackville-West would be better. Of course, Victoria Sackville-West did exist and was well known as a poet and lover of Virginia Woolf. And, c.1979, I attended a party in Oxford where my friend Sarah Sackville-West, who was reading English in the year below me, introduced me to her sister Victoria. So I’ve met the real Victoria Sackville-West, so there.
When Edward says goodbye to Victoria at this first meeting, he ends with “partir, say mourir un peu”. In the correct, original French, partir c’est mourir un peu is a direct quote from the 1890 poem Rondel de l’adieu by Edmond Haraucourt. And there’s another poem quoted, that starts, “Jumbo said to Alice I love you…” Jumbo was the elephant imported into America by P T Barnum, that died whilst on tour. It was then replaced by Alice, Jumbo’s “widow”. Their transatlantic love affair was a source of some fascination in the Victorian era. Carmichael remembers travelling with his friends who were members of the Aneizeh tribe. Today better known as the Anazzah or Anizah tribe, these are a widespread people, currently mainly found in Saudi Arabia, but originally from the area in the north of modern day Syria, and they pre-date the rise of Islam.
Baghdad is said to be “in the sterling area and money therefore presented no difficulties”. I can do no better than to quote you what Wikipedia has to say on the matter: “At the outbreak of the Second World War, the sterling area was formed as an emergency measure to protect the external value of the pound sterling, mainly against the US dollar.” Iraq left the sterling area in 1959. Sir Rupert at one stage mentions “Scheele’s Green” as a coded message about Anna Scheele. It’s a cupric hydrogen arsenite, a yellowish-green pigment which in the past was used in some paints and wallpapers, but has since fallen out of use because of its toxicity. As a form of arsenic, it’s a carcinogen, and its presence in the green paint on Napoleon’s walls is said to have contributed to his death.
Victoria reflects that she was very much like “the Saracen maid who arrived in England knowing only the name of her lover “Gilbert” and “England”. This is the tale of the capture and release of Thomas à Becket’s father while on Crusade in Palestine. A version of the tale appeared in Charles Dickens’ A Child’s History of England, where it is said that “a worthy merchant of London, named Gilbert à Becket, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was taken prisoner by a Saracen lord;” he is released only by the agency of the lord’s daughter, who “wanted to become a Christian, and was willing to marry him if they could fly to a Christian country”. The faithless Gilbert, however, only returned her love until he found an opportunity to escape and flee to England. Gilbert had taught the lady only two words: “London” and “Gilbert.” Armed only with this knowledge, the lady sets out to find him.
“And we are for the dark” thinks Victoria, just before she awakes from a nightmare vision. This is a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act Five, Scene Two. She loves her quotations, does Victoria; later on, she says “When you were a King in Babylon and I was a Christian slave”, which comes from William Ernest Henley’s “Or Ever the Knightly Years”. Finally, with the literary references, Victoria wants to answer the question, “who is Lefarge?” with the reply, “he’s brother to Mrs Harris”, in an allusion to Sairey Gamp’s imaginary friend in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.
Regular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. In this book, Anna Scheele is said to have bought a sapphire and diamond ring from Cartier’s for £120 – its value today would be £2635, so that’s a nice little piece of gear. The cost of getting from London to Baghdad was estimated as being between £60-£100, which would be £1300-£2200 at today’s rates, which seems quite pricey. Victoria’s total assets amount to £9, 2/-, which today equals £200 – that’s not a lot. Mrs Clipp espies someone wearing a mink coat that she estimates cost $3000; that’s a $30,000 dollar coat today. And the coat that Carmichael examines in the souk was priced at seven dinars, which he says is too much; for many years the Iraqi dinar was fixed as equal to US $3.22, so that coat would have been worth $22.54, which at today’s rate would be about $225. Very expensive for a souk.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for They Came to Baghdad:
Publication Details: 1951. Hardback publication for the Thriller Book Club, 121 Charing Cross Road, London WC2. No dust jacket survives!
How many pages until the first death: 108, although another character in the book has died before then but we don’t realise it. Quite a long wait – but then, it’s not a whodunit as such, so it matters less.
Funny lines out of context: a couple, with a stretch of the imagination.
“It’s for you, Jonesey,” a colleague remarked unnecessarily, her eyes alight with the pleasure occasioned by the misfortune of others. The other typists collaborated in this sentiment by ejaculating” (the sentence goes on to add “you’re for it Jones”.)
“Lot of cock”, thought Shrivenham disrespectfully.
Victoria wipes the floor with all the other characters, for the reasons given earlier. Apart from that, you have the rather camp, over the top expressions of the hotel proprietor Marcus Tio, who brightens up the scenes he’s in; and I rather like the understated villainy of the duplicitous Catherine.
Christie the Poison expert:
You wouldn’t know it from this book. She’s been replaced by Christie the Archaeology Expert. Her fascination with the bringing the past to life is summed up in this reflection from Victoria: “as they went along the Processional Way to the Ishtar Gate, with the faint reliefs of unbelievable animals high on the walls, a sudden sense of the grandeur of the past came to her and a wish to know something about this vast proud city that now lay dead and abandoned.”
Class/social issues of the time:
Victoria’s a working-class girl trying to fit in to very middle-class settings – that of the archaeologists and the intelligence units; no wonder she has to fumble her way through to the success she achieves at the end. When Dakin first encounters Victoria, he’s extremely patronising towards her. Otherwise there aren’t many “class” observations in this book.
Other observations that set this novel firmly in the mid-20th century are the excitement of air travel – Victoria wonders how a great big aeroplane could actually get into the sky, and is alarmed at all the noises and movement – and concern about world Communism, with “Uncle Joe” (Stalin) maybe appearing at the world conference to be held in Baghdad, fear of war against (or for) Communism in many places around the world.
But the political imperative in this book isn’t simply socialism versus conservatism. There’s a New Order on offer, and attainable with sacrifices. “The bad things must destroy each other. The fat old men grasping at their profits, impeding progress. The bigoted stupid Communists, trying to establish their Marxian heaven. There must be total war – total destruction. And then – the new Heaven and the new Earth. The small chosen band of higher beings, the scientists, the agricultural experts, the administrators […] the young Siegfrieds of the New World. All young, all believing in their destiny as Supermen. When destruction had run its course, they would step in and take over […] “But think […] of all the people who will be killed first.” “You don’t understand […] that doesn’t matter.””
Classic denouement: As this isn’t a classic whodunit, the denouement isn’t as straightforward as many of Christie’s other books. The realisation of exactly what’s gone on, and the nature of the final twists, is slowly, but excitingly drawn out, using short, mini-chapters that build towards are very rewarding finish.
Happy ending? Yes! Primarily, Victoria survives her escapades – that’s a reward in itself. But it also looks like a happy, if unexpected, relationship is about to blossom.
Did the story ring true? There’s so much fanciful adventure going on in this book that it’s very hard to believe some parts of it. The most extraordinary thing is that when Victoria is on the run, she’s picked up by Richard Baker; of all the people in all Mesopotamia, it has to be him that encounters her. And then it’s revealed that Baker has all sorts of innocent connections with Carmichael. #Yeahright.
Overall satisfaction rating:Thoroughly enjoyable escapist nonsense. Worthy of a 9/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of They Came to Baghdad and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and for some reason I can never recall the plot of this book – so I have no idea what to expect! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!
Regular readers (bless you!) of my blog will know that I am an Agatha Christie fan and am currently re-working my way through her oeuvre on my Agatha Christie Challenge. So it was a no-brainer that I would want to see Rian Johnson’s homage to her style, Knives Out. And, in the best tradition of not telling you whodunit, I promise I won’t! Mr Johnson made us promise at the beginning of the film anyway, and I’m not going to be the one who told you that the policeman did it. (Damn!!!)
It may be an homage to Christie but the first few scenes are pure Sleuth, mixed with a spot of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. The walls of the Thrombey family mansion are crammed with posters celebrating the works of the great writer and patriarch Harlan Thrombey, and there’s even one of those laughing sailor dolls lurking around, which made me think this was going to become a psychological two-hander. But, no – the doll is mere window dressing, and there’s precious little that’s psychological about the plot – the motive is much more basic than that. Poirot would actually be really disappointed.
So, who killed Harlan Thrombey? That’s not a spoiler – he’s revealed with his throat slit within the first minute of action. At least it’s one of those thrillers that starts with the crime and works backwards, which is much more likely to arrest your attention than when you get all the clues and motives first and then the crime happens about an hour later. And there’s indeed a host of suspects, brought to life by a star-strangled cast, each one outperforming the others in terms of their suspiciousness and lack of likeability.
And that’s a major problem with the film as I see it. The suspects are all (bar one) varying degrees of unpleasant, and heavily caricatured – Rian Johnson has said that the hokey cult 1970s musical Something’s Afoot, which was a Christie spoof populated by stereotypes, was an influence on this film, and I think it works to its detriment. There’s only one sympathetic suspect – and it very much turns into her story – but the rest of them are so vile that they deserve everything coming to them. It was this lack of interest in the characters’ outcomes that decided Mrs Chrisparkle to give in and go to sleep after hanging on for the first 90 minutes.
Yes, there are some wonderfully quirky moments. I enjoyed Detective Blanc’s rendition of Losing My Mind from Sondheim’s Follies whilst waiting in the car; these cops obviously enjoy their musical theatre as there’s also a fleeting reference to Hamilton. There’s a comic moment in the heat of the final denouement which is very nicely done (although completely predictable). A suspect deliberately stomping through the mud to obliterate footprints is very funny. But, on the whole, the film comes across as overwhelmingly dark – not dark as in film noir, but dark as in why doesn’t someone open the curtains – and what’s meant to suggest suspense and eeriness just ends up being gloomy. It lacks light and shade, as though its dial is firmly set to murky.
As Detective Blanc, Daniel Craig has adopted a vocal drawl unlike any other known to man – kudos to him for keeping it up for over two hours. It’s an engaging performance nonetheless, although at times he feels a little more like Clouseau than Poirot. More entertaining vocal tics come from the constricted cords of Toni Collette, as Joni the Insta Influencer, and it was a pleasure to see Frank Oz in the cameo role of the Thrombey family lawyer. But it’s Ana de Armas as Marta who makes the film watchable as the only character with whom we can really connect, and her marvellous performance smashes the movie into the realms of 3 stars from me.
As for the solution to this heinous crime – well, as a Facebook relationship status might confess, it’s complicated, and I challenge anyone to answer successfully the question that Mrs C put to me on the way home – so, whodunit? – in full. I had to re-read the synopsis online twice in order to be certain that I fully understood exactly who was guilty of what. And, believe me, I was paying attention. It must have been the accents.
Backbeat, the word on the street says this could be the first in a series of films featuring Detective Blanc. They may have to consider subtitles.
There’s a fine tradition at the Royal and Derngate of producing top quality children’s Christmas plays in the old Royal theatre, whilst the more glitzy pantomimes are running in the Derngate auditorium. Over the years they’ve produced some absolute crackers – I think Alice in Wonderland was my favourite – although last year’s effort, The Worst Witch, left Mrs Chrisparkle and me totally cold and we didn’t go back for the second Act – ironically, it went on to have a successful tour and even a West End run. What do I know?
I had, of course, heard about the character of Pippi Longstocking, but I’ve never read the books (because I’ve never been a nine-year-old girl), nor seen the TV or film adaptations. She’s the creation of Astrid Lindgren, whose tall stories about the mighty Pippi entertained her daughter during the Second World War and were an instant hit when published in 1945. And it’s not hard to see why. After the turmoil and grief of the war, the cheeky but selfless girl who finds her own way in life but is essentially kind and friendly would make a welcome change from the daily misery everyone had experienced for the previous six years. Pippi is strong and fearless, blindly optimistic, doesn’t care to follow unnecessary rules or restrictive practices, but will do anything to help anyone in trouble, and just wants to spread joy. She’d be perfect as the new leader of the Labour Party.
Mike Akers has taken Lindgren’s characters and setting, and mixed up a few of the stories to create this charming musical play that starts with Pippi being shipwrecked, her father being blown overboard, and then her moving into the Villa Villakula where her next door neighbours are the straight-laced Mayor and Mrs Settegren and their dutiful but repressed children Tommy and Annika. The three children become friends, which is where the trouble starts. Pippi causes mayhem at school, at a coffee morning, and, worst of all at Mayor Settegren’s annual fete (worse than death) that he’s been planning meticulously for months. The authorities insist that Pippi be taken away to a recognised children’s home where she will be properly brought up. But do you think Pippi will take that lying down? Me neither.
I love small productions that are modestly staged with more emphasis on the audience’s imagination than on lavish but obvious props and scenery. Katie Sykes’ design includes a circular platform raised to create a space for the musicians to sit inside the “O”, a big wooden triangle that represents Little Town’s one three-storey skyscraper, and a big set of ladders (which can represent anything from hills, hidden lookouts, a ship’s topmast, a tree, or even a big set of ladders). When Act Two opens to the sight of Pippi and her friends relaxing on a South Sea island, with lobsters, gulls and a hilarious seahorse for company, it’s our imagination that fills in all those gaps. In reality, we discover that they’ve encamped at the bottom of the garden, and in fact our imagination has played a trick on us. Very nicely done.
One of the strengths of this production is its very enjoyable music, played with versatility and pizazz by the members of the company as they blend from character to character. Stu Barker’s songs all capture the spirit of adventure and optimism, and you can see that the cast have enormous fun performing them. The music integrates beautifully into the text and, as in any good musical, each song drives the story along so that you get a better understanding of the characters and plot development, and we don’t come out of a song in the same place that we went in.
Leading the cast as Pippi is Emily-Mae who creates a giant impression on the audience with her effervescent sense of fun, innocent determination and tremendous song-and-dance skills. Those high kicks are pretty amazing! Alex Parry’s Settegren is a hilarious portrayal of a pompous killjoy whose response to things going wrong is to go into a great big sulk. Matthew Churcher and Philippa Hogg give great support as the posh kids Tommy and Annika, who are bored with being good children and are desperate to have adventures (providing they’re not too extreme). Scott Brooks is excellent in all his roles, but I particularly enjoyed his partnership with Hanora Kamen as the two inept police officers. Ms Kamen is also an excellent bossy teacher who’s not afraid to tell off any kids in the audience – so you’d better behave! But the entire cast work as a great ensemble and give everything they’ve got to make it a fun night.
At our performance, we were surrounded by many, many incredibly excited children who were absolutely bowled over by the show; their energy fed back to the cast who, in turn, rose to the challenge and fed excitement back to the kids. A real two-way experience! When Pippi leaves Northampton on New Year’s Eve, I see this isn’t the end of her adventures as she’s coming to the Theatre Royal York for a summer show in 2020. Charming, funny, beautifully performed, a truly feelgood show that it would be impossible not to like. Hip hip, Pippi!
One of the highlights of all my Christmases is always to go to the panto. I’m a massive fan, and I don’t care who knows it. A year with no panto is a year wasted. This season we’ve got four pantos lined up and the first was our nearest – the QDos production of Cinderella, at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. We missed last year’s R&D panto, and I’m told it was a cracker, so I was really looking forward to seeing this year’s effort.
As I get older, though, I realise I have become something of a pantomime purist. And I slightly bridle against the way some pantos have been restructured to take account of the star performers involved. When I were a lad – cue Hovis music – if you went to the panto you’d have a principal boy (who was a girl) and a Dame (who was a fella). Cinderella in the 60s would have, in the star role, probably Buttons or maybe Prince Charming, then Cinderella herself, and then the Ugly Sisters. The Fairy Godmother would get a look-in on the poster, and Dandini and Baron Hardup would virtually be extras. Not anymore. Today, for example, top of the bill at the Royal and Derngate is Anita Dobson as Baroness Angelique, a role that doesn’t usually exist at all. Supporting are Bernie Clifton as Baron Hardup and Sid Sloane as Dandini. So what used to be two of the least important characters (plus one that never existed) are now the most important characters by virtue of the casting. For me, that has the effect of upending the balance of the production somewhat.
Also – call me a prude – I felt that the usual level of innuendo in panto that entertains the parents and frustrates the kids (because they know it’s funny but they don’t know why) lacked subtlety in this production. Frankly, the Baroness is a randy old thing who chases after anyone in trousers, and at one point is escorted off the stage by a couple of guys dressed as BDSM Joy Boys. The Ugly Sisters come on stage looking for a man out of the audience; in a One Man Two Guvnors moment, they pick on a stooge who is brought up on stage looking all embarrassed and innocent – and they call for him to be stripped! Fortunately they stop when he gets to his vest. Both these incidents would never pass the what would it be like if the genders were reversed test. Yes, I like a dirty snigger at a panto as much as anyone, but to me these two examples of sexualisation just felt wrong.
There are some parts of this production which are very entertaining – more of which later. There are some others that simply didn’t do it for me. Technically, it’s superb, with colourful sets, great costumes, a fab little band, and kudos to Chris Barrett’s lighting design which really stands out. However, although ostensibly it has all the elements you’d look for, it was deficient in the humour department – the script is, sadly, pretty weak – and they made up for it with a general vulgarity. Whilst Martyn James may indeed be an experienced comic/magician/panto performer, I’m afraid his Buttons was so downbeat, so dour, so drab, that I found it very hard to warm to him. It felt underwritten, underplayed and underwhelming. For example, when he asks us to greet him every time he comes on stage, it sounds more like a chore than wanting us to be in his gang. To be fair, in the second act he does three magic tricks that are absolutely superb – more of that, please!
As for the rest of the cast, it was one of those strange experiences where the sum of the parts didn’t quite add up to its whole. Anita Dobson absolutely works her socks off to bring her character to life but the trouble is you could never quite tell whether she was meant to be evil or not; after all, Baroness Angelique doesn’t have a known history, so we had to work it out for ourselves. I concluded that, on the whole, the Baroness was nasty but Ms Dobson is so enthusiastic and positive on stage that you couldn’t always tell. And she does front the best five minutes in the show with a cracking Don’t Stop Me Now together with the Ugly Sisters – energetic, fun-loving and superbly sung – Ms Dobson’s voice is still as terrific as it was when she sang the Eastenders theme. As far as musical moments go, Bernie Clifton carries off a very affectionate and rather moving performance of Love Changes Everything with sincere gusto, but the ostrich It’s Behind You scene didn’t work terribly well as the audience didn’t realise what was happening until the scene was almost over.
Further down the cast list things get brighter. Firstly, the kids from the Mayhew School of Dance are absolutely brilliant! Commanding, confident, cute and charismatic, they did a great job. Dan Partridge, as Prince Charming, has a great stage presence and a fantastic voice, and carries off the snobbish vanity of the part very well. Charlotte Haines’ Cinderella is, quite simply, adorable, with a great voice, a terrific connection to the kids in the audience, and a nice sense of fun. David Dale and Tommy Wallace as Claudia and Tess, the Ugly Sisters, work together extremely well and hit just the right level of almost-believable grotesque. They actually made some very thin material go a very long way! Jacinta Whyte is a charming and kindly Fairy Godmother, and the boys and girls of the ensemble do a neat job of all the singing and dancing. And keeping the whole thing going is the boundless energy and lovable warmth of Sid Sloane as Dandini, on top form throughout. He’s one of those performers where you can’t stop breaking out into a little smile every time he’s onstage.
So, a magical pantomime? Not quite. But things do buck up enormously after the interval. Two stars for the first act and four for the second balances out to a 3 star show overall. It’s on until 29th December – I suspect the kids will enjoy it enough for all the family.
P. S. I forgot the Shetland Ponies! I couldn’t keep in an Ahhhhhhh when they came on!
A few months ago I saw that this show was coming to Wyndham’s and I thought it might make a decent matinee treat for the Squire of Sidcup and me, as he’s a big fan of Stephen Mangan and I just like seeing plays. Then came the news that the show was closing early due to poor sales – and I realised that our timing was lucky, and that we just managed to squish ourselves in to see it, before it closes on Saturday.
The Man in the White Suit is based on the film of the same name, a 1951 Ealing Comedy starring Alec Guinness. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, the British Film Institute named it the 58th greatest British film of all time. Naturally, I haven’t seen it. But I can absolutely imagine how this comic scifi tale, about an inventor who creates a fabric that neither stains nor wears out, could really have brought a sense of ludicrous hilarity to the post-war gloom. Of course, the final twist is that the fabric does deteriorate after all, and pretty rapidly too. This whole construct was not new; I remember seeing Leonard Rossiter in Feydeau’s The Purging, as part of The Frontiers of Farce at the Old Vic in 1976, where he played the manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots. They broke – to hilarious consequences.
The Man in the White Suit film appealed to the working-class/trade union themes of 1950s comedy, the I’m All Right Jack generation that poked fun at both the Trotskyite union leaders and the toff company owners alike. Today, we have a different range of political strife to contend with; but there’s still a great divide between the haves and the have nots. There’ll always be a difference between the Brendas of this world, all hard-working labour and protecting workers’ rights, and the Birnleys, who pompously proclaim their exploitative achievements by dint of inheritance. And in the middle, there’s the little man whose talent pulls him out of the great working masses but never brings him to the height of management; exposing him in limbo with nowhere to go. Whilst I can see the relevance of TMITWS’s story to today, its attempts to accentuate the modern relevance feel rather clunky. Some of those knowing but oblique modern references might have been better left out, and let this tale stand simply as the period piece it is.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and the cast take on their task with brightness and enthusiasm, concentrating on the horseplay and plentiful slapstick moments. Director Sean Foley, who has a knack of creating amazingly successful work and amazingly disastrous work with equal measure, once more brings his eye for physical comedy, humorous effects and general lovability to his own adaptation of the original script. Michael Taylor’s set is incredibly versatile, not only cunningly creating a pub or restaurant scene together with the research laboratories, factory and the Birnleys’ stately residence, it also reveals pop out extra spaces, folding out of walls; for example, the superb 1950s sports car scene, and Daphne’s bedroom are surprising and delightful as they unfold.
Central to all this ludicrous mayhem is Stephen Mangan, who cuts a lovably foolish figure as Sidney Stratton, the inventor who nearly always mucks things up. Whether it’s his explosive laboratory experiments, or spilling drinks down his (or anyone else’s) lap, he always stands up for decency in the face of exploitation, and also wants the quality of everyone’s lives to be improved by scientific development and progress. He’s hard-working on stage, bumbling from one physical disaster to another, striving to talk his way out of a series of mess-ups; and it’s a very funny performance.
Kara Tointon plays Daphne Birnley with the plummiest of accents, most vividly reminding me of the cut glass tones of the young Mrs Thatcher, deliberately pinpointing both the posh and the patronising. Daphne’s a young woman who knows her own mind, and whilst Ms Tointon is feeding us a stereotype, she’s quite believable all the same. There’s also a fabulously funny performance from Richard Cordery as Birnley, all northern pomp and circumstance, blundering his way through the proceedings; the archetypal fat cat with an interest only in himself (and protecting the virtue of his daughter).
I’d been looking forward to seeing Sue Johnston on stage, as I’m a great admirer of her ability to perform understated comedy (The Royle Family) and intelligent drama (Waking the Dead), but her role as Stratton’s drudge landlady Mrs Watson is very uninspiring and she had precious little decent material to get her teeth into. Similarly, Richard Durden’s Sir John is a pantomime villain who steps in to ensure the mill-owners scoop off the highest amount of cash from any deal. I did enjoy the musical spots from Matthew Durkan as Jimmy Rigton, together with his band as played by Oliver Kaderbhai, Elliott Rennie and Katherine Toy, creating a suitable musical accompaniment to the plot. This doesn’t quite make it a musical as such, but just lends some period character, much as the skiffle group do in One Man Two Guvnors.
It’s a fun show; but it is enormously silly. At the interval, I couldn’t decide whether it was awfully brilliant, or brilliantly awful – somewhere between the two, I guess, lies the truth. I doubt whether this production will see the light of day again, but don’t go away with the feeling that it’s an out and out failure – far from it. Above all, the feeling that you take away is that you’re watching a live action cartoon, featuring broad brush characters with stereotypical characteristics working hard for your laughter. There’s no slipping on a banana skin sequence but if there had been, it would have been wholly in keeping with everything else. I’m glad I saw it.
P. S. A theatrical first for me, in that after curtain down the audience was required to participate in a planned evacuation practice. Relatively easy for us, as we were near the end of a row right by some doors leading out into the safety of the open air. Interesting to hear all the emergency alarms though, and to see the ushers and bar staff all manning the doors and directing people to safety. Good that they do it – I’m just surprised that this is the first time in over fifty years of theatregoing that I’ve experienced such a thing!
Sometimes it’s easy to talk about a film or a play without giving away too many spoilers. However, in the case of The Good Liar, it’s virtually impossible. Roy and Betty meet over dinner, having been chatting on a dating website; he seems in frail health so, a few nights later, Betty allows him to stay over in her house rather than walking all the way up the stairs to his own apartment. But, actually,he’s in perfect health and appears to be part of a gang – or at least a partnership – of swindlers, defrauding greedy but stupid investors of their hard earned cash. OK – that’s not too much of an opening spoiler.
There is, however, a basic twist to the story – and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be much of a thriller if there wasn’t, so that in itself isn’t a spoiler. However, if you have any inkling of this twist in advance, it will completely ruin it for you. So, if you want a quick spoiler-free review, all I’ll say is that it’s enjoyable, well-performed, although with some unnecessary gore and unexpectedly bad language from Sir Ian, and, frankly, in some respects rather an unpleasant film. If you like the sound of a dramatic pairing between Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren, then you’ll love it. And who wouldn’t fancy that? Now, if you want no more spoilers, bookmark this page, go and see the film and then come back. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with dissecting it….
… I think they’ve gone. Phew! Now I can tell you what I really think. SPOILER ALERT!!! (Just in case) The strength and weakness of this film is in the casting. Sir Ian and Dame Helen are a powerful combo, and there are many exciting, tense, witty and dramatic scenes between the two. But do you really think an actor like Dame Helen would have taken a role as an elderly woman defrauded of her assets, made to look stupid and weak? Naaaa. Now, if it had been Dame Judi, she might have built up an emotional image of noble fragility and crumbled beautifully in front of us all as a downtrodden old dear. But this is Dame Helen. From the Janis Joplin-like Maggie in David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles to D.I. Jane Tennison and many roles before or after, she’s always the spunky, spiky, unpredictable, gritty strong woman. And if anyone’s going to outsmart Sir Ian’s Roy, it’s her Betty. I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought right from the start of the film that her character has her own agenda.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, they say, and that’s proved without a doubt in this finely-detailed plot to put right a wrong over half a century old. No wonder it’s set in 2009; if it had been set in 2019, the past would probably be too distant for them to do anything about it. When you discover the elaborateness of the pre-planning, before the substance of the film gets underway, you feel both wow, that’s clever and wow, that’s far-fetched in about 50-50 measure. Nevertheless, the film does weave an enjoyably intricate web of deceit that is entertaining to observe, and, despite the occasional horror and gore, there is something delightfully British afternoon-tea about the whole thing. At times it feels like an episode of Midsomer Murders as directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Sir Ian and Dame Helen dominate the film throughout, and with acting of their quality, that’s no surprise. A very small cast adds to a sense of claustrophobia. Personally, I find it hard to watch Jim Carter and not see Mr Carson from Downton Abbey; here he plays Roy’s partner-in-crime Vincent, like a spiv Mr Carson, hair bouffoned up and with a constant eye for a cash deal. Russell Tovey plays Russell Tovey playing Stephen, Betty’s grandson, a suspicious lad with an unexpected grasp of Nazi history, who spends most of the film acting as Roy’s chauffeur with bad grace. There’s a nice performance from Mark Lewis Jones as Bryn, the hapless investor who bumbles his way through a deal and is sacrificed for his pains. But there’s no doubt the film belongs to its two big stars.
Mrs Chrisparkle was finding it a very unhappy film until the twist started to reveal itself; clearly she was empathising with Betty just a wee bit too much, and it’s just a bit too unimaginative to base a plot on a ruthless old git manipulating an innocent old girl. But Dame Helen isn’t an innocent old girl, never has been, never will be. Very watchable and enjoyable, a couple of moments when my dislike of violence made my stomach retch slightly, and an ending where one plot to deceive fails catastrophically and another plot succeeds miraculously. Recommended, but primarily for the acting.