Television

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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:

Hamlet
Macbeth
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
Tempest
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Winter’s Tale
Cymbeline
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
Pericles
Richard II
Richard III
Antony and Cleopatra
Coriolanus
Hamlet
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Macbeth
Othello
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.

Zooey Deschanel: Introducing the New Girl

What exactly can you do with Zooey Deschanel? I know a number of indie boys and girls with crushes who’d have a few answers to that, but none worthy of printing. For those unfamiliar with her, she’s a 31-year old American actress, musician and model, famous for her geek-chic image and being described as ‘quirky.’ Her acting career so far has been underwhelming, having featured in a string of Rom-Coms that read like Jennifer Aniston’s cast-offs, punctuated with the occasional more interesting indie-movie. US channel Fox believes it has the answer to the question of what to do with her with its latest sitcom New Girl, the pilot of which premiered on Channel 4 in the UK this week.

Considering she has spent most of her career playing what is essentially herself – an offbeat, quirky, deadpan heartbreaker – its the perfect vehicle for her. Unfortunately, a whole series revolving around this adorable, attractive oddball, as an idea, has very short legs. Although only quickly sketched in, and immediately likeable, her character isn’t fleshy enough to carry the whole series. The wafer thin supporting characters – namely her room mates – give the impression that they’ve been selected, in the dark, from the stock cupboard of sitcom cliches: The Jock, The Sex-Pest and The Nice One with Ex-issues. They’re tossed the occasional funny line – like a keeper tossing a disregarded pet a morsel – but the humour is so underdeveloped and the characters so interchangeable any of them could have spoken any line. If you want my prediction, she helps them all respect women more, improves their lives, and, if you’re feeling sentimental, ends up involved with the nice one.

It’s little more than a vehicle for Zooey Deschanel to play the kind of role with which she has become synonymous, and to bring her to the mainstream audience which has so far been only vaguely aware of her. But, unless serious development occurs, I can’t see it having the longevity of the likes of Friends and Scrubs.

She is at risk, unless she chooses her next few projects with care, of becoming typecast – like Jennifer Aniston and a few others – for the rest of her career. She’s appeared in supporting roles in a few more, for her, unusual choices of film – The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Happening spring to mind – but essentially she always seems to end up as the same kind of unobtainable, slightly weird love interest, which reaches its pinnacle in the very enjoyable (500) Days of Summer. In the April 2011 issue of Lucky Magazine* she was quoted that she finds the label ‘quirky’ annoying, but if she is getting confused with the characters she consistently plays she should select her roles a little more carefully. I don’t know if it’s the roles she gets offered, or just the ones she chooses, but if she wants to shake off the tag she should accept more challenging parts.

Beyond the world of television and cinema, she has a low-key career as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in musical duo She & Him, with guitarist M. Ward. I’m confessedly a fan of all three of their albums, which sound like a playlist for an oldies station but with a modern, indie twist, and Deschanel is easy on the ear. In this endeavour, like her acting career so far, she hasn’t made great waves, but has instead gained an underground following.

It’s not a sustainable career plan, because her looks will fade and the quirky act will become annoying, so, unless she plans to step up to the serious acting plate soon, the New Girl will quickly become old.

*Disclaimer: I stumbled across the interview. I’d like to make clear I’m not a regular reader.

New Girl is on Channel 4 on Fri 6th January at 8.30pm

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.

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