A Night In Victorian And Edwardian London

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Early reality film was all about capturing movement: people, vehicles and animals doing something or going somewhere. If the object was static the camera moved – it would be loaded onto a boat, car, tram or train to film ships, buildings, views and panoramas (link). Nothing stayed still, least of all a city. London as a spectacle and a novelty was a big deal in Victorian visual media, which celebrated the capital in illustrations, literature, phonographs, engravings and magic lantern slides. By the time film came along in 1895, people everywhere wanted to see what the biggest city in the world really looked like.

Recently, the British Film Institute (BFI) staged A Night In Victorian And Edwardian London, a programme of short films (projected on actual film) about London, shot between 1895 and 1910; it was a captivating 100 minutes, enjoyed enormously by the full house in Screen 1. The BFI’s silent film curator Bryony Dixon introduced the programme and as she said, ‘chatted’ along, telling us where and when each film was made (if known). It felt like we had our own ‘barker’; Bryony’s knowledge and brilliantly dry wit was highly entertaining and informative. But we were a much better behaved audience than she could have expected in 1910… Neil Brand provided the piano accompaniment, an unexpected treat, and his light-touch improvised playing added sparkle to the moving images.

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Cambridge Film Festival 2014

If it's good enough for Buster Keaton...

If it’s good enough for Buster Keaton…

The 34th Cambridge Film Festival (CFF) is done for another year and it’s been a cracking festival, which is especially heartening given the uncertain future of its home, Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, seriously threatened by an earlier ludicrous ruling from the Competition Commission (so who’s still here huh Comp Comm? It’s US!) The situation is still not finally resolved but the story is best read here: http://movieevangelist.wordpress.com/competition-commission/.

Moving the festival dates by just a week to the end of August/beginning of September has definitely worked – box office receipts are up 30% on last year and I didn’t have to work every day – the two don’t necessarily go together I hasten to add. In a year of brilliant films (so many that my developing Top 10 list has exploded), CFF added quite a few more to that list. As expected the Gerhard Lamprecht films were utterly gorgeous (here’s my introduction to this prolific German director for Take One: http://www.takeonecff.com/2014/introducing-gerhard-lamprecht), and the digital restoration of Le Jour Se Leve (Marcel Carne) was spectacular. From the first two days, two films have stayed with me: Tamar van den Dop’s Supernova and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves more than exceeded expectations. To those I’d add Cherry Tobacco (directed by Katrin Maimik and Andres Maimik) and Pawel Pawlikowski‘s Ida, both films with leading girls in their first films. Disappointments were few: Wong Kar-Wai’s Grand Master, the surprise film, was devoid of any narrative or interest. It looked amazing but couldn’t hold my attention. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film A Most Wanted Man just didn’t get going, although PSH was on top form – either the story itself is too thin or the screenplay has been cut too much. Regrets? I have a few: The Japanese Dog, Stations of The Cross, Violet, and Beloved Sisters. They go on the to-watch list. So here we go:


Supernova (Belgium, 2014) is a fairy tale with a hint of the Wild West but set in rural Holland. Meis is 15/16 years old; she lives at the frontier of adolescence, death and deep water with her family in a battered solitary house on a sharp bend in the road. Over the years several cars have hit the house and this seems to be a metaphor for their life: nothing much happens for most of the time then an explosion of activity, excitement and danger. It’s a tale of bursting sexuality, of pushing the boundaries – and then being scared by what might happen. Meis is reading one of her mum’s erotic fiction books, the storyline becoming so entangled with the film’s narrative that it’s impossible to know whether she is experiencing certain events or is fantasising. The entire focus isn’t on Meis, however. Her dad has been disabled in a car crash and can’t (or won’t) work, Mum is overworked, resentful and furious about their life; Granny has dementia, is mute and constantly shakes her head; Grandad has recently drowned himself, which turns out to be the defining element of Meis’ life so far. Director Tamar van den Dop, who also plays Mum, has a steady hand, likes the close-up, and isn’t afraid to delve deep into how (some) families work. The cinematography is beautiful, precise, fluid; in conjunction with the impressive soundscape, the film creates a sympathetic picture of growing up. Supernova is a languid, slow-paced film that effectively explores family life, with all the usual excitement, loneliness, boredom, grief and yet still being able to look forward.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (France, 2014). A bizarre mockumentary (horrible word I know) about an apparently real event in the life of one of France’s most famous and revered writers. Michel plays himself. Inexplicably, he is kidnapped by a gang of burly thugs, who turn out to be complete softies at heart. Their entire family is involved in ‘looking after’ Michel throughout his incarceration – but he calls the shots. He loves a bottle of wine, a pack of ciggies and the company of a girl in his bed. It’s very funny, constantly surprising and baffling – we have no idea what the truth might be but it’s a very entertaining ride. The director, Guillame Nicloux, took part in a good-natured bi-lingual Q&A afterwards, in which he revealed that none of the participants are actors and that he was trying to offer a ‘pot-pouri of [Michel]s emotions, other than the usual media portrayal of him’.


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The Crimson Field Episode 6, the finale

The Crimson Field has reached its end.

Did all those storylines get tidied up? No, even more themes are introduced: the brother of one of the orderlies is admitted with a self-inflicted burn. It’s not enough for a ‘Blighty one’ so the orderly breaks the lad’s leg with his bare hands. Nasty.

Who falls for whom? Joan and Anton meet again, he’s arrested, then proposes to her; it can’t work out well. Tom hears the truth about Kitty’s past, he’s not phased. They snog.

Rosalie has become a real nurse.

Who dies? Nice Roland’s soldier son, that’s who.

How many boxes of tissues were needed? None here but forests-full elsewhere no doubt.

Will there be a series two? (Think bears and forest here). Sister Quayle (with her shiny new Red Cross medal)  is going to continue being the bane of Matron’s life in the next series with her scheming and cake stealing; Roland may or may not stay in charge of the hospital; young Flora is starting to grow up. With three years of the war left (it’s October 1915), there is the possibility of several more series.

Pantomime baddie Sister Quayle will continue to cause problems for Matron Carter.

Pantomime baddie Sister Quayle will continue to cause problems for Matron Carter.

The major theme for the final episode is Joan’s crime of ‘consorting with the enemy’. The tagline for this show is ‘The hospital is thrown into disarray’ when an enquiry panel is hastily convened to decide whether she should be court martialled. Actually the ‘disarray’ is quite tame. But there’s a useful sentence or two about the hardships endured by Germans in Britain especially after the Lusitania was sunk in May 1915. I believe it was immensely difficult to speak up for the accused against military law as it stood in these cases. I’ve just read William Broderick’s gripping novel A Whispered Name, which deals with courts martial and seems to me to be a well-considered examination of the ordeal. So I don’t know how realistic this scene is (someone will hopefully enlighten me), but given the previous gaffs in the series, I’d like someone to verify.

I must just re-iterate how quiet it is on the Front! Will I be back for more? Maybe….

Sweet natured Colonel Brett rushes to defend Sister Joan Livesey as she is accused of aiding the enemy.

Sweet natured Colonel Brett rushes to defend Sister Joan Livesey as she is accused of aiding the enemy.


I thought I’d end this blog series with a selection of press reviews of The Crimson Field and a big thank you to everyone who has read each post:

‘It’s hard to conjure a real sense of fear for any of the characters, encased as they are in a world of starched linen and complicated love lives, separated entirely from the squalor and degradation of trench warfare’. Rose Buchanan in The Independent 4th May 2014. Read more at http://goo.gl/98N5Iz.

‘Six million people watched the first episode. It’s possible that if it continues to win high ratings the BBC will be able to claim it as a success, but as one of the marquee productions of the Corporation’s year-long commemoration of the start of the First World War, it feels lacking in realism and gravitas. I expected better’. Chris Harvey in The Telegraph 13th April 2014. Read more at http://goo.gl/3KNYqX.

‘Every now and then a programme reminds why telly is so great and The Crimson Field, as part of the BBC’s World War One centenary programming, has done just that and surprised me in just how good it’s been’. Kate Bellamy Metro Blog, 5th May 2014. Read more http://goo.gl/pI5tEC.

I had been promised an ‘explosive’ episode of The Crimson Field from a couple of correspondents on social media, after I felt that this drama series had been a slow burner so far. This week there was a plethora of story strands to deal with, from the turmoil and uprising in Ireland to self-inflicted wounds of presumed cowards. WG_Sherborne in the Western Gazette, 21 April 2014.
Read more at http://goo.gl/gFe5iB.

‘There was a little bit of gore, but not enough to deter a mainstream audience. When a patient died, for instance, the camera cut to the nurse’s face as we heard him breathe his last. You need a stronger stomach to watch Call The Midwife, frankly. Realism was missing in another way, too, one that wasn’t obvious at first: it’s too quiet. There were men screaming, and orderlies shouting, and lorries rumbling, but there were no guns. So close to the front, the noise of artillery ought to have been constant. The big howitzers could be heard across the Channel in London when the wind was blowing in our direction’. Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail, 7 April 2014.
Read more: http://goo.gl/QoJIai.

And finally…

‘If you are interested in a more warts-and-all view of field hospitals you could do well to look to The Backwash of War by Ellen La Motte. As Ellen herself wrote, ‘there are many people to tell you of the noble side, the heroic side, the exalted side of war. I want to tell you of what I have seen, the other side, the backwash. They are both true.’ Ellen was an American nurse who volunteered and served in a French field hospital ten miles behind the Belgian lines.  Her series of sketches were published initially in the Atlantic Monthly and later as a collection. They were banned at the time because of the effect they were considered to have on public morale, and they make harrowing reading’. The National Archives’ blog post by Sally Hughes. 28 April 2014. Read the blog at http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/warts-and-all.



The Crimson Field Episode 5

‘New woman’ Sister Joan is desperate to know the fate of her fiance. Image: BBC/Nick Wall.

Sister Joan’s (Suranne Jones) dangerous secret was revealed last week by Flora and then ruthlessly exploited by pantomime baddie Sister Quayle. It was announced to an assembly that Joan was engaged (ring spotted on chain round neck) , which forced her to make up a tale about her fiancé being in the British Army, when actually he’s a German. In my programme notes I had written ‘Interesting strand?’ Too hopeful! It sadly descended into an unbelievable plot involving what looked like resistance fighters as Joan desperately tries to make contact with her man. It’s basically a spy theme that might end up in Joan being shot as a traitor. What are the chances in the last episode?

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Joan is arrested and charged with a capital offence.

At last the focus turns to Matron Carter (Hermione Norris); she has been simmering away in the background doing good here and there and putting up with Sister Quayle’s jealousy over the promotion. This week’s incoming wounded introduces Colonel Ballard, an imperious, brusquely spoken officer from the Punjabi Rifles. They have a brief verbal spat, in Punjabi: ‘Well well well, she speaks Punjabi’ he sneers. Another strand, this time it’s the colonials! OK writers and producers give us a treat: please explore the empire line, as it were. It appears that Matron grew up in the Punjab and comes from a well-heeled family. That’s it really.


Matron Carter meets Colonel Ballard from the Punjabi Rifles.

This week we have our first splash of mud! It rains during this episode, quite a lot it seems as muddy puddles finally get their day in the spotlight. Posh, aloof Rosie Barratt is outed as a Rt. Hon. when a package addressed to her is spied on the post trolley. However, for whatever reason, (reader, there must be one, it is a constructed narrative after all) she trips in a muddy puddle and her glowing white apron becomes sullied. Nothing is made of this.

It’s all so QUIET as Bjork might say; there are few sounds of battle, which is odd when you consider that the rumblings of explosions could be heard frequently across the Channel in Kent and mentioned in various diaries, for example the Reverend Andrew Clarke, writing from Essex on July 1 1916: ‘All this morning the Flanders (as it is supposed) guns have been booming forth, making [the] house quiver at times and shaking window sashes. At 10am they made almost an uninterrupted roll of sound, like a long roll of distant thunder’. Now that is terrifying and feels real.

Flora (the prissy one with a gay brother) decides to raise morale by organising a concert party. I wonder if  in reality the YMCA might have done this as they were set up in pretty every location in the various theatres of war. Who can tell me more? But it gave the cast a good excuse to have a singalong, maybe to raise their morale as much as ours. Anyway, the last episode is next week and then I can go back to being a Sunday-night-drama avoider.


Let’s just remind ourselves of the real women involved in nursing behind the lines.

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Nurses at New Zealand Stationary Hospital, Wisques, France,, 1918. Image: New Zealand Archives, Reference: IA76 H905.


The Crimson Field episode 3; 20 April 2014.

Rebel with a cause?

Rebel with a cause?

What are the main targets this time? It’s a lot to pack in to one hour.

1. Self inflicted wounds, therefore potential death sentence for cowardice; “Our feelings will do him no good at all – not now”;

2. The ‘Irish problem’. Sergeant complains about “hot heads rebelling against the British crown”; young man seen stoking rebellion at the field hospital – “He’s not the king of my fucking country” – thwack! on the nose;

3. Belgian refugees; this one provides the means for Joan Livesey to write to her German lover; which leads us to…

4. Having a pre-war relationship with the enemy;

5. a) Lust and b) class, not necessarily together but recurring themes in every episode so far;

6. Experimental surgery – the rebellious young doctor of the wrong class trying new techniques;

7. Men being brutalised by war, yukky necklace of chopped off ears worn by one soldier;

8. Homosexuality – men disappearing off into the woods AND *revelation of the week* – the prissy nurse has a gay brother;

9. Shellshock.

Cliche count: off the scale, good thing there isn’t a drinking penalty attached to this.

Irish stand off: one loyal to the crown, the other decidedly not.

Irish stand off: one loyal to the crown, the other decidedly not.


The Crimson Field episode 2. 13 April 2014


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An injured officer is visited by his shocked wife.

Episode two of The Crimson Field takes the characters into darker territory. There’s an assault planned and ‘200 incoming’ expected (couldn’t help thinking of MASH here). Everyone, patients, nurses and family, is tested and their weaknesses exposed. As is usual with Sunday evening dramas, there is a high level of sentimentality, slushy music and cliched dialogue, but I find I am warming more to the story now and I am thinking more about how today’s audience are being considered in the storytelling. One of my friends told me that her two daughters, aged 16 and 17, were completely gripped by the story and had asked lots of questions afterwards. That seems to me to be a good outcome for any TV programme but especially for one that focuses on WWI. This is a good opportunity to think deeply about the memorialisation of the conflict and perhaps to reconsider our preconceptions. However I don’t think this is the motive behind the series, which could (so far anyway) be about one of many catastrophic events in history and is unlikely to be shining any new lights on our thinking about 1914-18.

This week, we learned a little more of why Kitty might have run away from home (whatever she did, she has a child in England and has managed to alienate her mother to the point be being disowned by her). Rosalie can’t get over her disgust of bodies: at home she has helped at a home for fallen women that sounds rather like a Magdalene laundry; Rosalie’s Victorian streak is ripe for exploitation by sly Sister Quayle; this appears to be the baddie element. Flora is a bit ditzy but is clearly going to step up to become a fine upstanding example of British nursing.

The framing of social history is undeniably clunky: a seriously injured officer (Rupert Graves) is visited by his beautifully-presented wife (Jodhi May). As well as struggling to come to terms with his injuries, she can’t understand the deep bond he has built with his only remaining corporal. At the same time she coolly responds to a West Indian father who is visiting his fatally injured son. Both are reasonable reactions  for the time given the extent of her husband’s injuries and her class. However her apparent moving towards an understanding of the grieving father’s situation is unrealistic and is no doubt meant to stand in for the social change that WWI brought about; unfortunately it’s too simplistic to provide genuine insight. It would be a shame if all the interesting changes wrought by the Great War are dealt with with in this vignette style.

Anyway episode three beckons so maybe things will improve. Apologies for the lateness of the post on episode two, I’ve been away at a terrific conference on WWI film.

The Crimson Field BBC 1 episode one 6 April 2014

It was an interesting start to this BBC 1 series: it’s 1914, a young English nurse stands on board a boat going to France, she drops her wedding ring over the side and it sinks into the sea. Presumably this device signifies the character casting off her past in terms that today’s TV audience (especially younger women) will understand. But is it appropriate or historically accurate? And does it matter (hell yes, in my eyes). I heard a discussion about this very scene on Radio 4’s Front Row last week – would any nurse have gone into this conflict as an act of rebellion? Was it not more likely that women volunteered for overseas duties in the spirit of making a serious contribution to the war effort?


Three novice VADs as depicted in The Crimson Field. Marianne Oldham, Oona Chaplin and Alice St Clair.

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Review: Half of a yellow sun

A ‘film of the book’ doesn’t have to faithfully reproduce what’s between the pages, so does HALF OF A YELLOW SUN give a fresh perspective on the nightmare of the Nigerian civil war?


Director Biyi Bandele’s first feature HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is an ambitious attempt to dramatise the 2007 Orange Prize-winning novel by Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, which explores the complexities of several key relationships played out before and during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War in the late 1960s. The obvious difficulty with adapting a book as complex (and as well-loved) as Half Of A Yellow Sun is what to leave in and what to ditch. Biyi Bandele’s screenplay unfortunately cuts away too much detail and reframes the story into a chronological narrative concerning the loves of two women rather than adopting Adiche’s much richer technique of weaving Nigerian history and politics into the developing relationships between three people – a professional Nigerian woman, an English academic and a 13-year-old village boy. As a result, it’s difficult to identify with the people on screen, to understand their motivations, or how they fit into the national picture, even why we should care about them.


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2013 film round up: fashionably late


2013 was a satisfyingly good film year!
Image: http://www.sodahead.com.

It’s been a hectic end of 2013/start of 2014 so my screen roundup has taken a back seat for a few weeks. Now though (before it really is too late) I’m knuckling down to thinking about what a very good film year it was. For the first time I managed to watch 100 films in a year: a drop in the celluloid ocean compared to some of my film friends but it’s pretty big for me. Cambridge Film Festival in September was hugely enjoyable, meeting lots of lovely new people, seeing many unexpectedly good (and a few bad) films and writing some reviews for Take One. I started a blog, penpaperaction.wordpress.com, where I post about film, theatre, books and anything else that catches my eye. The most-viewed posts are A Bit Of A Yarn: Knitting For The Cinephile and It’s A Stitch Up! (do have a look, click on titles), which are explorations of the connections between film and knitting and sewing. It’s a surprisingly fruitful thread, if you’ll pardon the pun.

2013’s films started for me with The Angels’ Share at the community cinema I help run; it went down very well and surprised many of the audience, some of whom hadn’t expected to be so brilliantly entertained. 2013 was a big year for community cinema generally, as it seems to have made a small mark on the BFI Film Forever plan, with promises of potential funding and support to develop the network. Organising a community cinema is huge fun, very rewarding and a lot of work. We’ve managed to achieve near or complete sellouts throughout the year, with just a tiny autumn dip in attendances, and we’ve been delighted to hear positive responses to A Separation, Les Diaboliques and The Spirit of ’45, amongst others. Our new line is offering (sold out) film classes thanks to a BFI/Cambridgeshire Film Consortium pilot scheme; so far we’ve enjoyed Hitchcock’s Women, Introduction to film, Millions Like Us: Home Front cinema and Close Readings of 10 films.

In September, the Competition Commission announced its bizarre and ill-informed decision that Cineworld, the Picturehouse chain owners, must divest themselves of three cinemas, most likely Picturehouses, in Aberdeen, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. This soaked up many hours of thinking, emailing and discussing and the outcome remains uncertain, despite a high profile media campaign that was even debated in the House of Lords. So we enter 2014 not knowing if the Arts Picturehouse, so important to Cambridge culture, will survive the year; meanwhile 2014’s programme forges optimistically ahead. The Movie Evangelist’s blog is the best place to find out the ins and outs of this shambles.

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Cambridge Film Festival 2013: Reviewing Dead Cat (UK, directed by Stefan Georgiou)


Dead Cat is a funny, engaging and thoughtful film about being 30-something and realising what is important: it’s a kind of a coming of age film for adults. Relationships of all sorts are at the heart of this very British film – friendships, love and romance, families. It was one of my top three films at this year’s Cambridge Film Festival and I strongly recommend it to anyone. As well as watching Dead Cat on the small and big screen I spoke to director Stefan Georgiou about his debut feature.

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