Month: June 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Final Episode

JS & Mr N came to a spell-binding climax last night.  Apparently viewing figures plummeted during its 7 week run, a bit like Jonathan Strange’s self-induced plummet into madness.  Well, those who accepted an invitation to this Regency dance (and there was an awful lot of enforced dancing) and then decided to leave the party early missed out on a final episode that threw everything but the kitchen sink at this mesmerised and enchanted viewer – and who knows, I may have missed that particular 19th century artifact flying across our screens.

The CGI kraken was finally unleashed as Strange cracked all the mirrors, allowing magic back into England, then relocated himself and his black tower (aka prison of eternal night, the perfect complement to his manic depression) back to dear old Blighty and plonked it down right on top of Norrell’s stately home of a house.  Not content with smothering Norrell in a cyclone of black smoke and unhappiness, he also brought along an ‘unkindness’ or ‘conspiracy’ of ravens (those obsolete collective nouns for a bunch of ravens are just brilliant aren’t they?)  You can’t beat a perfect swarm of ravens for injecting that necessary dose of pace, shock and fear into the proceedings.

As this series progressed it became clear, in spite of fine acting performances all round, that this was Bertie Carvel’s show. His performance as Strange went from irresponsible charmer, to eager sorcerer’s apprentice, to responsible married man, to war hero with a case of post traumatic stress syndrome, to a man driven mad by grief, to finally end as a great and powerful magician – and through it all Carvel managed to combine vulnerability with power, humour with pathos and quite a bit of sex and rock and roll.  Give that man a BAFTA Sir, he’s a star in the making.

Loose ends were rapidly brought together, as was Lady Pole and her finger, and we at last got to see John Uskglass, or the Raven King, looking like he’d escaped from a Goth convention and hadn’t cut his hair in 300 years.  Other than resurrecting Vinculus, his living book, and doing a quick spot of re-editing, the Raven King’s part was a small one, to be replaced by all of English magic being shoved into the body of Stephen, the butler and nameless slave.

Mr Lascelles, who had seemed such a minor figure to begin with, became a force to be reckoned with as he went on a kind of refined killing spree, firstly doing away with Drawlight, then slicing Childermass across his northern sullen cheek before appearing to murder the magical butler.  Enraged, the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair appeared just in time to shatter Lascelle’s snobbish hopes and aspirations by literally shattering him into a thousand china pieces.

Strange saved his Arabella with an enchantment breaking kiss (that’s how it usually works in fairy land.)  He and Norrell became best friends forever as the Gentleman’s curse left them trapped inside an alternate universe, with no apparent means of escape; although Strange did manage to communicate with Arabella via a basin of water, rather like a magical watery version of Skype (I’ll never look at mirrors or the washing up bowl in quite the same way again.)  The Gentleman got his comeuppance – and this time it was the butler who did it.  Lady Pole took up the cause of feminism and Childermass, Vinculus and Segundus became leading lights in the newly re-formed Society of York Magicians, nicely taking us back to where we began.

There’s only one thing left to say about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell:  The BBC, in a very Strange-like way, more than succeeded in restoring televisual magic back into England.

The Shock Rock Horror is 40 Years Old

IT’S ASTOUNDING…….BUT TIME IS FLEETING…… and this year marks the 40th anniversary of  The Rocky Horror Picture Show (movie version.)  We know this film is now a cult classic, after flopping miserably when it opened at the box office, and holds the record for the longest running release in film history (and an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest number of people to perform the Time Warp (in rainy Brighton), which by now has probably been eclipsed.)  But let’s pause a moment and ask ourselves three simple questions……….HowWhat? –  and more importantly – Why?

How on earth (or on the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania) did a peculiar hybrid of 1950s Sci-Fi,  cheap Horror B-Movies, early rock and roll, and some decidedly ‘out there’ sexual antics, manage to connect with the mainstream consciousness?

What did I just see?  –  you might ask yourself, if you happen to be a Rocky Horror Virgin (the label given by serious fans to those new to the show) and….

Why the outrageous transvestite theme?

Once in a while a work of art transcends its humble beginnings and overrides the tortured idiosyncrasies of its creator,  going on to achieve iconic status and widespread public acceptance – and nobody can really tell you why.  Lewis Carroll for example, that tortured and repressed Oxford Don, writing out his inappropriate love for a little girl named Alice in a mad, nonsensical tale, which somehow turned out to be one of the greatest books ever written.  Or the wonderfully dotty Richard O’Brien, whiling away the time between theatrical jobs, after having been ‘let go’ from Jesus Christ Superstar, by writing the Rocky Horror Show one winter during the early ’70s – a moment of flashy genius which would never be repeated.

Richard O’Brien had a difficult childhood.  He knew from a very early age that he was different – one day blithely informing his older brother that he wanted to be a fairy princess when he grew up and then, not surprisingly, learned to keep his mouth shut.  O’Brien is transgender, thinking of himself as roughly 70% male and 30% female and now, in his own words, has finally grown up to become a ‘full blown queen’ –  in his seventies no less – the result of taking the hormone oestrogen for just over a decade.  For nearly 50 years he was at war with himself, at times feeling desperate, as he fought to supress the feminine side of his nature, and it was this suppression that probably fuelled and informed his imagination when The Rocky Horror Picture Show seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

It’s not difficult to see that his bizarre and brazen creation – Dr Frank-N-Furter – may have been the subconscious expression of O’Brien’s inner transvestite, at the time locked firmly away.   The fact that Frank-N-Furter, along with his wacky crew, turns out to be an alien reinforces the idea that  O’Brien was dealing with his own sense of alienation.  By forcing almost every character in the show into fishnet tights and suspenders (at times this makes very uncomfortable viewing – I’m not part of the rabid cult following)  we, the audience, are also under pressure to re-think our attitudes towards the stereotypes of gender and sexuality.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show could have been an exercise in a whole other kind of horror, as the audience is subjected to cross dressing madness on all levels with a touch of murder thrown in.  What saves this frantic journey into weirdness is the musical score, along with O’Brien’s love of the B Horror movies and rock and roll.  Without the infectious energy and wicked humour of the songs, this project would have died as grisly a death as Frank-N-Furter.   The most popular songs in the piece have to be the reason that the film and stage show have just kept on going and going – who hasn’t danced to ‘The Time Warp’ at some point in their life, be that at a club or party – and the lyrics to Dammit Janet  are a tongue in cheek joy to the ears:

I really love the skillful way
You beat the other girls
to the Bride’s bouquet

The river was deep but I swam it – Janet
The future is ours so let’s plan it – Janet
So please don’t tell me to can it – Janet
I’ve one thing to say and that’s Dammit – Janet
I love you.

Who’d have thought that would have ever worked?- here or in any alternate, freakishly sexual universe?

Many actors have played Frank-N-Furter but nobody will ever come close to Tim Curry in his 1975 prime.  This performance alone must be responsible for most of the movie’s massive cult success.  The wonderfully camp Curry based his accent for this particular transvestite queen on a real life Queen (Elizabeth II) and an outrageously snobby woman he overheard on a bus.

And the show goes on with Oliver Thornton in the role from the UK 2013 production – the only performance I could find which compares favourably with Mr Curry’s, whilst also introducing an altogether scarier and more powerful vibe.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show will likely go on forever.  The movie’s 40 year anniversary celebrations are kicking off with a UK tour of the stage show towards the end of 2015.  A screening of the film will take place at the Royal Albert hall on October 27 th.  So, why not take a jump to the left, and then a step to the right, place your hands on your hips and bring your knees in tight.  Do a pelvic thrust, that really drives you insane, and maybe get down to a theatre near you and do the Time Warp Again.