Posts Tagged Star Wars

Beyond the Bechdel Test: seeing ourselves on screen

Women in Hollywood.  Women wearing black to the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, wearing Time’s Up badges, white flowers at the Grammys, standing up at the Oscars, women saying #MeToo.

tdy_radford_180127.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopMuch has been said about the way in which the voices of women, silenced for a long time by fear of retaliation or of lawsuits, of humiliation and denigration, of career suicide, are now being raised, and amplified, and the way in which this has given courage to women in other professions and environments, to speak up not only for themselves but for women who have even more to lose.

I’m not going to be directly addressing these events.  But I am talking about the culture of Hollywood – a culture in which women are marginalised and isolated on screen as they are off-screen.  And it’s all connected.

I’m going to look at ways in which we can assess the movies we watch, and analyse their portrayal of women,  and think about what change might look like on the screen.  I will touch on other aspects of diversity but I can’t do justice to it all!

The Bechdel Test has been around since 1985.  But the essential idea actually goes back a lot further than that:

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. … And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …  (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929)

There are actually only three requirements for passing the test:

.Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

(Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For)

It’s been developed slightly since then, and the usual formulation now is that the film must:

  • feature at least two named women
  • who talk to each other
  • about something other than a man.

The first thing to say about these criteria is that they set the bar pretty damn low.   (Just think for a moment about how many films would fail if you reversed the genders here.  Er, no, me neither).  Indeed, Alison Bechdel never intended the test to do anything other than to draw attention ‘to the severity of the problem by showing how low you could set the bar and still watch Hollywood executives trip over it’.  Because an awful lot of films still fail, and a surprising number only scrape through with a bit of special pleading.

Does this matter?  Well, yes it really does.  When we – girls and women – go to the cinema, do we see ourselves on screen?  Do we see the kind of women we are, and that we work and live with, that we encounter in all aspects of our lives – women who make decisions and have opinions, women who act and change things in their lives and in the world around them?  If we don’t, that doesn’t stop us being that kind of woman, but it makes it harder, given that it’s already hard, to keep on keeping on in the face of everyday sexism.

Given the howls of horror from some men when a rare film does feature lots of women doing stuff, or when the Ghostbusters or Doctor Who are reimagined as women, it’s clear that the status quo is comforting to those men who would much rather we didn’t make decisions and have opinions, that we didn’t act and change things in our lives and the world around us.  And it is very relevant to note that when we get one – ONE – superhero movie with an overwhelmingly black cast, there are trolls on Twitter ready to call it racist.   Dear lord, one could so easily despair.  But one won’t.

If I ever doubted that it’s powerful to see ourselves on screen, I had two reminders last year.  Firstly, I went to see Wonder Woman.

themoscira

It passes the test.  It’s a while before we see a bloke at all, and when we do, he needs rescuing.  By a woman.  I’d underestimated how intensely exhilarating and moving it would be to see those scenes of the Amazonian women on Themyscira, and to see Diana Prince sorting out all the blokes who tried to tell her to ‘just wait there’.  I wanted to weep and punch the air.

And then, not long after, we heard that the Doctor would be a woman, and at Christmas I watched as he regenerated into she, and she said, oh, brilliant.  And it was.

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But back to the test.  It’s important to recognise that passing the test doesn’t make a film a good film, or a feminist film.  Elle passes the test, as does Fifty Shades of Grey, apparently, but both are intensely problematic in their sexual politics.  And Dunkirk unequivocally fails but is a brilliant film that would not have been enhanced in any way by shoehorning in some Bechdel-conforming female characters to supplement the unnamed WRENs and nurses.

It’s also important to remember that – once you’ve achieved the ‘two named women’ criterion – it’s not primarily about how many women there are on screen.  If there are only one or two significant female characters, then the female characters may have to carry the burden of representing their whole gender, something male characters are rarely required to do. But the most important thing is not the number of women but, as Neda Ulaby put it,  ‘the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns’,  women as characters rather than as cliches.  If there are loads of women on screen but they say very little (an analysis of Oscar winning films shows that men have the vast majority of words, even in films that pass the Bechdel test) then we cannot really see and hear them as rounded characters.  And if the women that are there on screen, however  well-written they are individually, are disconnected from one another, connected only to the men, we’re still not getting what we need.

I had a look at the films that I’ve seen over the last year or so, to see how they measure up.

FAIL – Baby Driver, Thor: Ragnarok, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk

Maybe just about scrape a pass if you’re very indulgent – Spiderman: Homecoming, Logan, Rogue One, It.  (NB my inclusion of Rogue One in this category is disputed…)

PASS – Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, Twentieth-Century Women, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Elle, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Black Panther, Lady Bird, Annihilation

Now, obviously my movie list is a personal one and reflects my particular preferences.  Nonetheless, the balance isn’t so far out of kilter with wider ranging surveys.  A recent analysis showed that one-third of 50 movies from 2016 failed.  Between a quarter and a half of my list fail.

However, of those that pass, several pass gloriously.

I’ve already spoken about Wonder Woman.  And The Last Jedi features

a scene … that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, … handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While Star Wars has always featured strong women … Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story.

jedi

Twentieth Century Women lives up to its title, with women front and centre in the movie and on the poster.  Hidden Figures similarly features three women at the forefront – and those women are black.

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Hidden Figures is a reminder that the Bechdel test addresses only one aspect of diversity.  Which is one of the reasons that a variety of alternative or supplementary tests have been proposed.

Some of these look behind the camera to the involvement of women (currently around 18%) and/or people of colour in the writing, direction, production of the film. Clearly this is crucial.  When the vast, overwhelming majority of films are written and directed by white men, this will skew the presentation of women.  Not necessarily through conscious sexism, but because a male writer will inevitably identify more with the characters on screen who are most like him (the I-guys, as Stephen King calls them), and will then think of the other characters in relation to the I guy.  They may well not even notice that the women are under-represented, under-developed, under-used.

There’s another reason too why these things are important.  The endemic sexual harassment of women in the movie industry is aided and abetted when a woman on a film set is very much in a minority, and when few of the women who are there have the clout to challenge undermining, belittling and humiliating behaviour – let alone predatory abuse.

There are tests that directly address ethnicity AND gender.  If white women find it difficult to see themselves on screen, it’s so much more the case for women of colour.  One test asks that a film features a black women who’s in a position of power and is in a healthy relationship. Another that there is a non-white, female-identifying person in the film who speaks in five or more scenes and speaks English.  Against the first of these, most films fail.  The second does better.  We could apply the same kind of methodology to the portrayal of gay characters, transgender characters, disabled characters.  But I suspect we know what the outcome would be (and we’d have to address the issue of straight actors playing gay, cis actors playing trans, actors without disabilities playing disabled).

A more qualitative approach is to focus on how women are portrayed on screen. Do films show

women as characters who have needs and desires and who take actions stemming from those desires over the course of the film. (You know, they act like real people.) A surprising number of films fail to do even that much basic character development work with women. Often, women are reduced to stereotypes or tropes as soon as they’re introduced and then don’t get developed any further. And female characters frequently serve little purpose beyond causing plot problems for male protagonists, or having a baby with a male protagonist, or dying to raise the stakes for a male protagonist.

Some of these tests are quite subjective.  Whether we can identify and empathise with a character on screen may vary according to our own experiences, our age, ethnicity, sexuality, etc etc.  But whilst these more complex tests may not be as easy to apply, they reflect what we’re actually responding to. That niggling dissatisfaction we feel may well be because the women we are watching don’t have needs and desires that they pursue through dramatic action, because we see them as stereotypes, because what they do matters only in relation to the male protagonists.

Another way of looking at it is the proportion of women in supporting roles or even in crowd scenes.  What if half of all one-scene roles go to women, if the first crowd scene features at least 50 per cent women (currently it averages 17%), and/or the supporting cast is 50 per cent women?

You’ll note that none of the tests involve counting the number of ‘strong women’ on screen.  Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time.  As Helen Lewis put it, ‘nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses’. You can’t solve the problems of the representation of women just by inserting a strong woman into the plot and thinking, there, job done.  We want women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems.   Some of these women may indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to. We want a variety of women characters – not all beautiful, not all clever, not all strong, but, well, like real people.  Just imagine!

Actually we don’t have to just imagine because if you watch TV these days things are very different.  It’s fairly unusual to see a crime drama without a woman in a lead role (e.g. Spiral, Scott & Bailey, The Bridge, No Offence, Unforgotten, Marcella, Line of Duty, Broadchurch, Witnesses, Fargo, Vera).  And in the realm of fantasy, just think of Orphan Black, Agents of Shield, Star Trek: Discovery, The Walking Dead and, of course, Doctor Who.  These shows smash the Bechdel test, and many of the alternative tests noted above, without apparent effort.

TV’s not perfect, obviously, but writers for that medium don’t seem to have been getting the message that aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood were not very long ago.

had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. …“The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.” … According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.

https://thehathorlegacy.com/why-film-schools-teach-screenwriters-not-to-pass-the-bechdel-test/

This may have been the belief, but even if it was true then,  it no longer is.  Some recent stats from IMDB show that:
  • Oscar-nominated films with a woman in the starring role are more profitable than their male-led counterparts.
  • Female-led films (defined as films where the female actor had the first starring name on Internet Movie Database) earn higher box office returns – despite usually lower production budgets, according to BBC analysis.
  • On average, every dollar invested in a female-led film earns back $2.12 (£1.53). For male-led films this figure is $1.59 (£1.15).
  • Just 28% of films nominated for an Oscar since 2013 have had an actress taking top billing.
In 2017, for the first time since the 1950s, the top three highest-grossing US films all had female leads: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, and Wonder Woman.   Meanwhile, Hidden Figures made back at the box office over 6.5 times what it cost to make.  We can also consider the success of Black Panther, the response of audiences worldwide to a film whose protagonists are almost all black, and many are black women – to quote a review in The Daily Telegraph, of all places:

The film walks into the multiplex like it’s insane that it hasn’t been allowed in there all along. And it is.  For one thing, an entire subset of younger cinema-goers are only just about to experience the dizzy uplift of watching a title character in a superhero movie who looks like them under the costume.

I should say, not all films have to be about women, or even to include women.  It would be entirely unreasonable to demand that every film carry the burden of representing the diversity of the human race.  For example,  there is no reason on earth why a film should not be set in an environment where, for given reasons of historical accuracy or realism there are no, or almost no women present (I refer you again to Dunkirk).  It’s just that when no such reasons apply, we should expect to see ourselves on screen, in the crowd scenes, in supporting roles, AND in key speaking roles that play a part in the action and that relate to each other as well as to men.

It is particularly disappointing when realism is ditched in favour of a science fiction/fantasy universe, but things don’t change as much as they could have done.  Why be constrained by gender and racial stereotypes when you could tear the whole thing up and start again?   I suspect that one reason is that this genre is traditionally assumed to be the white boys’ province.  You create whole new universes, and want to run them all?  Well, I don’t think much to that.

Things are changing.  We’ve got Wonder Woman and Black Widow and Scarlet Witch and Captain Marvel and Valkyrie and Gamora and Nebula and the Doctor.  And in Black Panther alone we’ve got Shuri and Okoye and Nakia and, as The Daily Telegraph (yes, really, again), says:

Black Panther seems to overcome the genre’s long-standing neuroses around creating rounded, exciting roles for women by just getting on with it.

And Frances McDormand (my hero!) had two words for us at the Oscars.  Inclusion rider

This refers to a proposal by Stacy Smith, director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative:

“What if A-list actors amended every contract with an equity rider? The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it’s sensible for the plot,” Smith wrote. “If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 percent women and girls. In other words, reality.”

I may be being naive, but it seems to me this could be huge.     Already,  Brie Larson, Michael B Jordan and John Boyega, among others,  have said they’ll use this as a way to bring about change, on and off screen.  Let’s hope.

We’re half the human race.  We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and we have nothing at all.  We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers.  We are beautiful and we are ordinary.  We are gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, and every variant or combination of the above.   We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists.  We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men.  We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.

That should provide the screenwriters of Hollywood plenty of scope.

And just to make the point, that I don’t, I really don’t, want to see nothing but white middle-aged middle-class short bespectacled women when I go to the movies, I had the same emotional response to Black Panther as I did to Wonder Woman.  I wanted to weep, and to punch the air.

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Because ultimately, it’s not Me me I want to see there.  It’s all of us. The human race in all its wild and ridiculous and glorious diversity.  And if some straight white guys have to hutch up a bit to make room, well, Time’s Up, dudes.

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2017 in Film and TV – the best bits

It was a good year for superheroes.  Most specially because of  Wonder Woman, not because it was the best of its genre this year necessarily but because for the first time with a superhero movie I didn’t have scroll through hundreds of images to find one where a woman was centre screen, in charge.  I wrote about the film, how it made me feel, the exhilaration of seeing all the tropes I love about superhero movies but with a woman, a glorious, magnificent woman, where usually there is a man, or mainly men (quite possibly glorious and magnificent in their own right, but still).

I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2, warming to it despite a phase when I wearied of some of the schoolboy humour, until I realised what that was telling us about these lost children, and how they were forming a strange, new family.  There was plenty of daft humour too in Thor: Ragnarok,  as one would expect given that Taika Waititi was directing (responsible for last year’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople and for What we do in the Shadows).  And it was perhaps a sign of changing times (and not a moment too soon) that Valkyrie is played as a cynical, world-weary, boozy mess who comes through when she is needed, such a male archetype.  As well as obviously kicking ass in a most splendid way.   Spiderman: Homecoming  was charming, funny and really used the notion that Spidey is an adolescent boy, cleverly and with heart.  Logan, though, of all the films that belong broadly in that genre, was the one to break your heart.  With gripping valedictory performances from Jackman and Stewart, and a mesmerising and terrifying one from Dafne Keen.

Star Wars is not so much my thing.  I did enjoy the first trilogy, albeit critically, but I never felt them to be mine, and I have never even seen the prequels (nor do I intend to).  But I loved The Force Awakens, and I loved Rogue One, and I look forward to seeing The Last Jedi before long.

rogue one

War for the Planet of the Apes was brilliant – referencing Biblical epics, Westerns, Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List and probably other genres and specific films as well, whilst maintaining the power and emotional heft of its predecessors.

war planet apes

My efforts to find an image for each film in which a woman is prominent were doomed in the case of Dunkirk.  That’s fair enough, given the premise, I didn’t expect women to feature other than in traditional roles – as nurses, or serving tea and jam sandwiches.  There has been a more serious issue raised, that of the absence of non-white faces.  I don’t honestly believe this was a deliberate whitewashing, nor do I accept that just because Farage liked the film it was a pro-Brexit parable.  But it would have taken very little to ensure that there were visible representatives of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, or the lascar crewmen on British merchant vessels that took part in the evacuation.  They were there, and this could have been conveyed without changing the basic structure of the film and its deliberately narrow focus on a few of the rescued and rescuers.  But having said that, whilst watching the film such considerations never crossed my mind.  I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.

dunkirk

The opposite for the next two movies – three women foregrounded in each of them.  I wrote about Twentieth-century Women for International Women’s Day,

20th c women

and Hidden Figures we missed at the cinema but caught on DVD – uplifting and inspiring even if, oddly enough, the sexism and racism they encountered was actually ramped up for the benefit of the story.  Who would have thought that could ever be necessary?

hidden figures

Baby Driver was beautifully described by Empire as:

not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.

Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.

La La Land inspired me to write about musicals.   It was gorgeous and delightful and poignant and much more that I wanted to say was expressed so well in a piece on the marvellous That’s How the Light Gets In blog.

la la land

 

And one more cinema outing, a rather lengthy but entirely captivating one, for Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema.   It is what it says, a journey and a personal one at that, through French film from Tavernier’s first childhood moment of enchantment, on through the decades as he goes from a kid in the audience to a film maker himself.  I believe there’s a follow-up in the making, bringing his journey more up to date, to which I will happily commit as many hours as it takes, as soon as it’s out.

a-journey-through-french-cinema

Mind you, speaking of French cinema, I should really note that we did go to see Elle.  However, my feelings about that film are so predominantly negative, that despite my overwhelming admiration for Huppert, and despite moments of brilliantly black comedy, I shall pass over it without substantial comment.

On to the smaller screen.

As always a good deal of crime fiction.  The dramas noted below are not an inclusive list of what we watched.  There were others that were workaday, or that strained credulity with plot craters and characters who behaved with a stupidity that was at the same time predictable and utterly inconsistent with what we already knew of them.  I’m not going to name the guilty parties, just those that we were gripped by and that managed to avoid the worst clichés and pitfalls of the genre.

Sherlock: The Final Problem certainly didn’t give us genre cliché.  What it all meant, and indeed, whether it meant anything at all or was just a clever game, is uncertain.   The Guardian‘s reviewer was a bit cross about it, but identified two main strands in the narrative:

One was a subtle, beautifully crafted backstory about Sherlock’s childhood. The other was a fun if unfulfilling gameshow of wild hypotheticals, where everything was at stake yet it often felt as though very little was.

sherlock

It was frustrating and baffling but it didn’t make me cross, I was perfectly willing to believe both that it did mean something and that it was just a fascinating puzzle that I would probably have no chance of unravelling.

Line of Duty series 4 was just superb.  Thandie Newton’s Roz Huntley was absolutely compelling, and the plot twisted and turned as we were made to question everyone’s motives and integrity, at least briefly.  It had the classic LoD set pieces in the interview room, plus shoot outs and chases, and a plot that at least started to weave together strands from series 1-3, whilst leaving plenty to look forward to in series 5, which cannot come around too soon for me.

line of duty

The Missing had only one character in common with series 1, the grizzled detective (Tchéky Karyo) who I was very glad to spend another few hours with.  Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were both excellent, as always.  The narrative begins, in a sense, at the point that one might expect it to end, with the return of their missing daughter.  Of course, it’s not that simple, it’s complex and agonising, and unexpected.

missing

Broadchurch 3 was much better than 2 (which I quite enjoyed at the time but actually struggle to recall what it was all about, really, apart from Joe’s not guilty plea).  The handling of the rape case was generally excellent even if the resolution left a few dangling plot threads that didn’t quite make sense.   Julie Hesmondhalgh was wonderful, as were, obviously, Tennant, Colman and Whittaker.

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Strike was an excellent adaptation of the first two of Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike novels.  Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger were perfect in the lead roles, and I look forward immensely to the adaptation of the third and any future novels in the series.

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I Know Who you Are was a fairly bonkers Spanish series in which most characters were pretty despicable, and one of the two genuinely sympathetic people didn’t make it out alive.  The only morality that prevailed was Family and within that there was a hierarchy of loyalty – to attempt to murder one’s sister in order to protect one’s son was seen by most characters (including the intended victim) as pretty reasonable.  It was all thoroughly enjoyable.

i know who you are

Unforgotten 2 was profoundly different, as Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar unpicked another cold case.  They are both deeply sympathetic characters and the whole thing is imbued with a kind of compassion and empathy that draws in the damaged people whose lives have been twisted in various ways by the past crime.

unforgotten

Rellik very cleverly subverted the way in which the detective story must follow a retrograde narrative path, starting with the crime and working backwards, by starting with the crime’s (apparent) resolution and working backwards and backwards, until in its final episode it leapt back to the beginning/end and a shocking dénoument.  The structure took a bit of getting used to and never quite stopped being unsettling, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride.  It was produced by Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing) and featured, amongst other excellent performances, the wonderful Rosalind Eleazar as an early suspect.

rellik

Witnesses was the second series of the French crime drama starring Marie Dompnier.  This one also stars Audrey Fleurot, who we know from Spiral, and whose return in that series we look forward to impatiently.  Witnesses was compelling and baffling and ended most enigmatically (none the worse for that – I’d rather have honest to goodness open endings than ostensibly tidy endings that actually leave loose threads all over the place).

witnesses

Fargo 3 brought us not one but two wonderful female cops.  Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval).  And not one but two Ewan McGregors, as he plays twin brothers.  One David Thewlis was more than enough, however – his villain was quite the most revolting, viscerally unpleasant character I’ve seen on screen for some time.  That’s a compliment (I think) to the writing and the acting. Lord knows where this one is going next but we’ll be more than happy to go along.   Fargo also introduced the wonderful phrase, ‘unfathomable pinhead-ery’ into our vocab, for which we are truly thankful.

fargo

 

Telly sci-fi had an altogether brilliant year.

Agents of Shield had an outstanding season with a multi-layered narrative that messed with our heads and our hearts.  Beautifully played and written, and quite breathtaking.

shield

Orphan Black reached its fifth and final season, having maintained its form throughout the four years that it has been running.  The weight of the series is carried – seemingly effortlessly – by the awesome Tatiana Maslany, who plays not only various clone ‘sestras’ but at various times plays one of them masquerading as one of the others.  It’s dazzlingly done.  It also stars the rather wonderful Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs S.

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We’re not far through Star Trek: Discovery yet, but from episode 3 on were hooked.  Yes, OK, that coincides with the arrival of Jason Isaacs, but it’s not just because Jason Isaacs.  Sonequa Martin-Green is excellent, as is Anthony Rapp, and Mary Wiseman as cadet Tilly.  It’s visually brilliant, and the plot is loaded with moral ambiguity from which it does not flinch.  It promises much and we look forward to it developing further.

discovery

I remain loyal to The Walking Dead even though no one could claim that it’s unproblematic.  The tone and pace are extremely uneven and it depends far too often on (a) plot armour, (b) magically inexhaustible ammo and (c) people who we know are capable of good judgement behaving with unfathomable pinheadery.  Nonetheless, I cannot envisage giving up on it.  I have to see how this plays out – and  there are episodes which grip and compel and convince.

Possibly the only one of my top TV shows which features in the critics’ lists is The Handmaid’s Tale.  I also read the book for the first time, as part of my 60 books in 60 days challenge.  So much has been said about the series that I don’t feel I can add anything especially insightful – it was horrifying and terrifying and brilliantly done.

handmaid

And of course there’s Doctor Who. I wrote about the (to me, brilliant) news that the next Doctor will be a woman.  Nonetheless, much as I look forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role I will need to grieve first for Peter Capaldi’s doctor, who I have loved – and for Pearl Mackie who has been a wonderful companion.   PC’s final series was excellent, and the finale was heart-stopping and moving.

I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” — The Doctor

 

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Three docs worth mentioning.  Suzie Klein’s Tunes for Tyrants explored 20th century music in the context of Nazi and Stalinist oppression.  She’s an excellent presenter and the material – and the music – was fascinating and powerful.

suzy klein

Bowie’s departure from this dimension was – for me amongst others – the greatest loss of  2016, a year of losses.  Bowie – the Last Five Years brought us the final phase of that extraordinary story, as he worked on his last two albums,  and the stage musical Lazarus.  We were reminded, as if we could forget, not only of his talent, but of his humour and intelligence, his warmth and wit.   And that last body of work is not only a worthy finale to his career but imbued with a sense of mortality and the fragility of life.

bowie

Neil Brand is one of my favourite music-explainers.  Charles Hazlewood and Tom Service have got that nailed in terms of classical music but for the music of stage and screen, for the popular song, Neil is your man, and The Sound of Musicals was a delight.

musicals

 

We loved Poldark, and not just for the scenery.

poldark

The Replacement was a bit bonkers but both Vicky McClure (see also Line of Duty) and Morven Christie (also in The A Word, series 2 of which isn’t covered here only because it’s yet to be watched) were excellent.

replacement

And another favourite of mine, Suranne Jones, was magnificent in series 2 of Doctor Foster.

dr foster

We got to see Jodie Whittaker pretending to be a doctor in Trust Me.  Plot holes a-plenty (unless they’re just an indication of a second series coming up?) but well done, and well played by JW – looking forward to her being a real Doctor shortly.

trust me

Homeland was on excellent form, with the dynamics between Carrie and the new female PotUS adding a new dimension to the plot.

homeland

And Spin took us back into the shadowy world of French political manouevering.

spin

It wasn’t all screen based culture.  I made several visits to Leeds Grand Theatre for Opera North productions, some of which I reviewed for The Culture Vulture  (see the  Reviews page of this site, which also features my review of the Sheffield Crucible’s production of Julius Caesar).  I also saw at Leeds Grand a magical production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, at the Crucible, an intense Desire Under the Elms, and in the Crucible Studio various splendid Music in the Round chamber music concerts.

So, thanks to all who’ve shared these delights with me.  Liz, Viv, Arthur, Ruth, Aid, Dad, and of course him that I’ve been watching telly and going to the pictures and going to gigs and plays with for >40 years…

 

 

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