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Watching All Of Shakespeare: Ground Rules and Confessions

Confession first: I haven’t seen much Shakespeare.

Lots of people have probably seen less, but they’re probably not very bothered. I feel like I really should have.

I’ve studied English Literature at post-compulsory level off and on for over two decades (although admittedly without getting any meaningful qualification), got to the semi-finals of Mastermind twice, and been quite willing to argue with people about Shakespeare and quote him. I’ve got a sort of Roger Craig type knowledge – I can identify all the most famous quotations, probably even give you a precis of the plots of most of them, but as far as ACTUALLY HAVING SEEN them, on stage or screen, as far as I recall I’ve ticked off:

King Lear
Titus Andronicus
Twelfth Night
Midsummer Nights Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Taming Of The Shrew
Richard III
Henry V
Julius Caesar

And that’s it. Maybe they were all bluffing it as well, but I’m sure most of the people I’ve done Eng Lit courses with had seen more than that. Christ, I’ve never even seen Othello, or Merchant Of Venice, or Romeo and Juliet (I got about half an hour into the Baz Luhrman thing before metaphorically putting my foot through the screen and sending him the bill). Romeo and Juliet! There’s undiscovered tribes in Papua New Guinea who’ve seen three versions of Romeo and Juliet, for Christ’s sake. I’m pretty sure I’ve written essays on others not on that list, and got fairly good grades, but I’ve not actually watched them. Maybe excerpts, but not all the way through.

This has to change.

So – and this is basically me muscling in on one of the entries on my wife’s “Things to do before turning 30” list, which gives us a deadline of 4th January 2015 – we’re going to watch it all.

A few ground rules:

1. Only original text versions. Obviously there’s much dispute about what the original text even is, I’m not going to get excessively anal and insist on unabridged first folio versions or something, but no modernised language versions, or “based on an idea by” stuff. There’s some excellent stuff of that nature – I saw a really good Othello update set in the Metropolitan Police with Christopher Ecclestone a few years back, and Neil Gaiman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is pretty damned peerless, but you’ve got to have rules. Start letting Throne Of Blood in and next thing you’re counting Ten Things I Hate About You, and before you know it you’re ticking off Hamlet because the child watched The Fucking Lion King – AGAIN – while you were in the room.

2. The list I’m using is this:

All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer Night’s DreamA picture of William Shakespeare, who is the focus of this challenge
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Winter’s Tale
Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry V
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
Henry VIII
King John
Richard II
Richard III
Antony and Cleopatra
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida

I know there’s others attributed, but that’s what I’m going with. It seems generally accepted and lets face it the world’s not going to end if I’ve missed one. 3. “Watched” means that. It can be stage or screen, amateur or professional, but it has to be watched, radio versions don’t count. Why this will be of interest to anyone is beyond me, but there it is. We currently have David Tennant’s Hamlet, Al Pacino’s Merchant Of Venice and a Globe version of Othello on the TiVo, any recommendations welcomed but not necessarily followed. BRING ON THE BARD.

New Blues Anyone? Review of Stephen Dale Petit – The BBC Sessions

Stephen Dale Petit - The BBC SessionsThis week I received a treasure through the post – the Stephen Dale Petit (“SDP”) CD titled “The BBC Sessions.” As I do with any new album, I saved the first listen for the car. When I listen to music in my car it is at the forefront of my attention (just after driving safely – of course) while at home it tends to fall to the background. I loved the CD and I was soon singing and tapping along (and so were my kids!).

SDP is an American-born blues singer/songwriter/guitarist and this album is in the modern blues style. Despite his California roots, he is a pioneer and champion of the New Blues Revolution in the UK, where he has resided since the mid-80’s. SDP has performed with many of the blues greats, including B.B. King and Eric Clapton and he also famously busked in the London Underground.

The album “The BBC Sessions” comprises 11 musical tracks arranged in a sampling of 3 different BBC sessions from 2007 and 2009. There is a 12th track on the album consisting of a lengthy (nearly 16 minute) interview with SDP by Bob Harris. This interview outlines the musical life story of SDP and the history of the New Blues Revolution and was surprisingly interesting and informative.

My favorite session showcased on the album is the first and the oldest – the 2007 session. It starts with a breezy performance of “Steppin’ Out”, which is an amazing instrumental blues guitar showcase. My absolute favorite track of the 2007 session is Petit’s own “7 Cent Cotton” – an angry song with a rock feel….because who doesn’t love an angry song with a rock feel?

The middle session is from 2009 with special guest Mick Taylor, a former Rolling Stone. This session opens with the traditional “Goin’ Away Baby”. While I love the tune, I find some of the lyrics a bit unbelievable from SDP. The session continues with the slow, lengthy, rendition of “Love in Vain” that flaunts the guitar skills of SDP and Mick Taylor. This session ends with an extremely long (more than 9 minutes long!) version of “A Better Answer”. I found this track to be self-indulgent – the type of track where the musicians get lost exploring artistic possibilities and the listeners get bored. I much prefer the acoustic version of this song at the end of the album.

The last session showcases 3 original SDP songs. The tuneful “My Friend Bob” is a poetic story-telling song with a Bob Dylan feel and a blues-y harmonica solo. I did not, however, love the track “It’s All Good” with it’s initial growly vocals and hasty buildup to a chorus that is vaguely reminiscent of the Rolling Stones “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. The music portion of the album ends with an acoustic version of “A Better Answer”, which is a big hit in our household with it’s fun tempo changes and raw vocals.

All in all this was an enjoyable CD and I will definitely add it to my regular rotation. My only complaint about the album addresses more structure than content. There are short interviews with SDP interspersed between some of the songs. I find that this breaks the flow of the music; I would prefer that the interview material be saved for the beginning or the end of the album. There is a long interview at the end of the album; the other interview “snippets” are not necessary.

Quantum Mechanics for dummies, and why I am stupider than I thought.

Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.’

Richard Dawkins

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,‘ said American physicist Richard Feynman in 1965. Mancunian TV-friendly, mop-haired, keyboard fingering, science teacher Professor Brian Cox tries to explain it anyway to an audience full of familiar entertainment faces, in a one-off BBC presentationA Night With The Stars from the lecture hall of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Rather than the eponymous cat, the example object in the box is a rough diamond – a million pounds’ worth of uncut precious rock – or rather its tightly packed carbon atoms. Through this example, Professor Cox seeks to enlighten the assembled celebrities and viewers of the perplexing world of Quantum Mechanics. I can’t speak for the celebrities, but I came away feeling like I knew less than when I started watching.

You see, that’s the problem with quantum mechanics: It’s harder to wrap your head around than it would be to wrap an iron bar around a strand of hair. I’ve always found it intimidating, as it involves a degree of mathematics, lateral thinking and imagination in harmony that goes beyond my learning. Don’t mistake me; I’m no idiot – although after trying to crack quantum mechanics I have a hard time believing it – but the sciences were never my strong point, being of a more creative type. As an adult, I’ve tried to fill in the holes in my learning the best I can, and Professor Cox is an accessible enough presenter, but the subject is harder to approach than the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen on a dance floor surrounded by dozens of guys better looking and more charming than you.

I’ve read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking three times. I say that not as a boast, as the the second and third times were trying to get it to sink in. Biology and the science of evolution by natural selection fascinate me. Tell me a fact about dinosaurs and I’ll lap it up. But Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene still sits on my shelf mocking me, and even after this show quantum mechanics continues to elude me.

Basically, for those who are unfamiliar with the workings of quantum mechanics – which is most people – it describes the behaviour of the very, very small, and how it can be used to predict the behaviour of the very, very large – stars and other such stellar objects. It says that sub-atomic particles travel in waves; that everything is related to everything else; and that it acts completely counter-intuitively to anything prior science predicted. Einstein himself said of it: ‘Marvellous, what ideas the young people have these days. But I don’t believe a word of it.’

The annual Royal Institute Christmas lectures are a popular form of scientific entertainment, in a similar vein to A Night With The Stars. They’re intended for children and young people, although enjoyed by adults too. Thus far, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been a lecture on quantum mechanics. I’m not sure that the subject can be boiled down to a degree where it is suitable for consumption by children. Or maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way and it’s complex enough for children to take in their stride. All I know is if you stop paying attention for a second it’s like you’ve turned two pages of a book over at once.

When I was a child, television’s go-to mad scientist was Johnny Ball, presenter of such programmes as Johnny Ball Reveals All. I’m not as familiar with current children’s television, but I’m guessing there’s no equivalent of this or How2, and that they are biased largely towards entertainment rather than education. If there were, perhaps I could build up to A Night With The Stars eventually, but for now I’m left still scratching my head.

Missing, Believed Hiding Behind the Sofa

‘Missing Believed Wiped’ is an annual event held by the BFI (British Film Institute), showcasing film and television curiosities and rarities, long since thought to be deleted. This year, on 11th December, they screened two newly unearthed episodes of sci-fi series Doctor Who, which had previously been presumed lost forever. Amongst the cult-tv and geek community the announcement of the rare find was widely greeted with excitement, and, for a while, the story topped the most read sections of a number of news websites, including the BBC’s own. It would be easy to dismiss its popularity as it falling on a slow news day, but to some it’s a story of significance.

Both episodes were originally transmitted in the 1960s, when it was standard BBC practice to only keep tapes for a limited time before wiping them for economical reasons and as a space-saving exercise. Doctor Who was not the only victim of this policy, with episodes of Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son, Z-Cars and others now only recorded in distant memories. The classic black and white era of the sci-fi series suffered severely, with many episodes that do now survive having been recovered from abroad, where they had been sold for syndication. Of the 253 episodes made between 1963-1969, 106 are missing.

Many episodes containing iconic moments from the series no longer exist or are else incomplete in the BBC’s records, such as the first time the Doctor regenerated; the first appearance of his second most popular foe, the Cybermen, and several early Dalek stories. The two episodes recovered are far from classics – one starring original Doctor William Hartnell, the other his successor Patrick Troughton – and embody many of the characteristics the series was criticised for, namely wobbly sets and dodgy monsters. Plus, with over a hundred still missing, they plug only a very small hole in the gaps.

Previous finds have been made, the greatest of which was undoubtedly the 1992 discovery of all four episodes of ‘Tomb of the Cybermen,’ complete and undamaged, from a television company in Hong Kong. Attics. car boot sales and private collections have also proved a rich source for lost footage, including these two finds.

It’s no great secret that I am a hopeless geek. You could even go so far as to describe me as a nerd, although I’ve never been quite sure of the distinction. I am also of a generation that is just about old enough to have caught the tail end of the original series before its cancellation in 1989, although my main experience came about through repeats in the early 1990s on satellite channel UK Gold. Every Sunday morning I would rise early to watch it. They were shown on chronological order, beginning with Jon Pertwee in 1970 – the first colour series – and ending with Sylvester McCoy. But, due to their poor preservation, the earlier stories were rarely seen.

Since its reboot in 2005, Doctor Who has enjoyed unparalleled levels of success. It remains the most viewed drama on British television, the most watched on BBC iPlayer, has gained popularity in the US – where it previously had only had a cult following from the Tom Baker era – and has been nominated for and won more awards than at any point in its previous incarnation. It has gained a whole new generation of fans, while still retaining many, like me, who remember its origins. My experience of showing stories from the classic series to its new audience has been that they enjoy them, and are not as judgemental about the overall cheapness of production as you might expect. It is a shame, however, that it is currently not possible for them, or even I, to view a number of classics from the birth of the series. But finds like these two episodes, along with the much that has been recovered already, give me hope that one day they will be found somewhere. With luck, they are not wiped, but merely missing and, like generations of children, merely hiding behind the sofa.

Inside Dick’s Head

“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”

Philip K. Dick, VALIS

Chances are, even if you are not familiar with the work of science fiction author Philip K. Dick, you will at least be aware of some of the film adaptations – some good, some bad – of his work. If you have seen Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, Next, The Adjustment Bureau or, if you were unlucky enough, Screamers, you may have garnered some small impression of what goes on inside Dick’s head. Behind the familiar sci-fi trappings of androids, spaceships and aliens, lays the workings of a complex and disturbed mind.

Actor Michael Sheen, with the help of Professor Roger Luckhurst, makes the case succinctly in this week’s episode of Great Lives on BBC Radio 4 that it was also the mind of a genius. There are more complete biographies of his life and work, including the superb I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by French author Emmanuel Carrere – a book written as a piece of fiction, in Dick’s style and with its subject also as its main protagonist – but this thirty minute program provides a good incisive introductory glimpse.

Science fiction, as a genre, often draws sneers from literature snobs. It’s not proper literature, as far as they’re concerned, it’s just for children and the socially dysfunctional. The isolation of science fiction novels in book shops is for the same reason tinned sweetcorn is separate from fresh in supermarket aisles– it’s for ease of finding not because they’re fundamentally different. At its best sci-fi is high art, and comparable to any work of classic or modern fiction writing. Any genre has its share of both Dickenses and Dan Browns. In mainstream fiction, Charles Bukowski has to share his shelf with Candace Bushnell, and W. Somerset Maugham probably begrudges living near to Stephenie Meyer, like a noisy neighbour who has her friends round and lets her dog bark all night. Phil Dick belongs to the high end of the science fiction spectrum.

Let me illustrate. My first experience of his work would have been in my mid-teens. There was a monthly magazine published during the nineties that released a series of sci-fi classics in a collectable, handsome hardback form. The first two in the series were War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, and Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. The third was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick – the short novel that was filmed under the title Blade Runner. That is the company he keeps.

The robots and ray guns are just window dressing – the vehicle for a series of studies of the human condition, philosophy, psychosis, paranoia, politics and, later in his career, theology. In fact, Dick also wrote a number of unregarded non-science fiction novels, only one of which – Confessions of a Crap Artist (I just love his titles) – was ever published during his lifetime. He only wrote science fiction as he needed the money and knew he could get his work published. His intentions were much higher.

Understandably, the program focuses largely on Dick’s personal tragedies and problems, which were numerous, but succeeds in putting them in the context of his work. Drugs were one of the main factors present in his life, certainly during what many consider the pinnacle of his career: the 1960s. He is described as taking amphetamines by the handful, like sweets from a jar. The visions and psychosis he suffered influenced much of his work, but in particular The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich – which reads like a bad acid trip – and A Scanner Darkly – a book written about his experience of the drug culture in the years after he had cleaned up his act.

They also cover his later period, which was characterised by a sudden religious conversion, and – although always a prolific writer – a new creative zeal. The visions he received, either directly or indirectly caused by his drug addiction, he decided to interpret in religious terms, and wrote feverishly about them, but without filters, so he produced more that should have been discarded than was worthy of publishing.

One element the program mentions that always strikes me about his work is his paranoia. Many of his characters are being pursued or persecuted, and, in real life, he believed himself the subject of prolonged FBI surveillance. This went to the extent of blaming them when his house was burgled, although at another stage he believed he may have burglarised himself then wiped it from his memory.

The program paints Philip K. Dick as both visionary and victim, and as a man who skirted the line between genius and madness. Undoubtedly he had mental issues, the program concludes, but they were focused into his work in such a way that he created a unique take on reality – what is real and what is imagined – and his work stands out, not only as great sci-fi, but as some of the finest works of imaginative fiction ever written.

Postscript: In his presentation, Michael Sheen names Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said as his favourite novel, but here is my own, personal, recommended reading list:

Man In The High Castle


A Scanner Darkly


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