It may be arthouse, but violence is violence…

I wanted to write a post about my reactions to a film I saw on TV the other night. It’s not one I would have chosen to see in the cinema, or buy the DVD of – it was just ‘on’…

Drive (2011) starring Ryan Gosling, dir Nicholas Winding Refn

DriveThe other night on BBC3 there was a big ‘for one night only’ showing of the 2011 film Drive with a new soundtrack curated by Radio 1’s Zane Lowe – ‘Drive Rescored’. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d heard that it was a good film, although the info on the screen did say it was very violent and with lots of bad language – it didn’t even start until 10pm. I started watching…

A getaway driver outlines his terms – you have five minutes he tells the robbers. He collects his car – a silver Impala – the most common car out there in LA. The heist goes to plan and they get away safely. Cut to the driver being a stunt double on a movie set – he’s something special as a driver …

So at this stage I was hooked. Even the Radio 1 supplied soundtrack was more chilled than I’d expected.

The driver (Ryan Gosling) who is never named, meets his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio.  They strike up a friendship, which looks sure to lead to something else, if only her husband wasn’t due out of prison.  When Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) gets out, he is beaten up for money he owes. The driver agrees to be getaway driver for him to rob a pawnshop to get the cash – but it all goes wrong and Gabriel gets shot …

Up until this point, we’d had the initial heist and getaway, the character building scenes and one guy had beaten up and later shot.  It was all done in an arthouse style, moody, noirish – but after this getaway things really took a violent turn for the worse, as the driver and Gabriel’s accomplice Blanche are followed.

It was obvious that Blanche was going to get killed, and I’m never going to be able to watch the last series of Mad Men to come in the same way – Christina Hendricks (Joan in Mad Men, Blanche in Drive) (highlight to see) gets her head pulped with shotgun pellets l‘Oh ****’ I said to myself.  It went on to out-Soprano The Sopranos, being one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen.

Yet I kept on watching it, admittedly gasping and wincing with every shot and blow from then on. If it had been a straight-forward schlock-action thriller I think I’d have been able to switch the telly off – it was now way past my bedtime.  Because I’d been enjoying the arthouse 1980s style of the film, which references Steve McQueen in Bullitt, Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction etc. and the aforementioned Sopranos I kept watching.  In spite of all the violence I enjoyed the intelligent storytelling.

I guess the point of this is, that I’m shocked that I can say that it and others of the same ilk are such good movies or series – and in these darker months, there are lots more to come on the TV too. Those who enjoy crime novels in particular have to put up with some awful violence and depravity too – imaginative deaths and tortures become de rigeur. I can dissociate myself from these awful fictions, but they do make one long for something more gentle and amusing as an antidote – I shall be catching up with The Detectorists tonight.

Have you seen Drive?
How do you react to violence on the screen and/or page?

Nice little surprises

It’s lovely when you get a nice little surprise (or ‘pleasing’ as Lynne at DGR would call them). I’ve had a couple of good bookish ones this morning.

berkoffFirstly, I unpacked my acquisitions from the charity shop yesterday. I know I don’t need books, but my daughter was having her hair cut, and what was I to do? It was too distracting to sit and read in the hairdressers, so I went shopping.

Among the books I bought was this hardback: Steven Berkoff’s autobiography Free Association.

He is one of those fascinating actors equally at home on stage or screens big and small, and he’s one of the very best actors at playing baddies there is.  Although an East-end lad, he comes from Romanian stock, which explains a lot.

CCF01082013_00000 (2) (668x800)

He has been in Bond films, and a Matt Smith episode of Dr Who, but apart from his baddie role, I always primarily associate him with Kafka.  He adapted three of his novels for the stage, and I can vividly remember the 1987 TV film of Metamorphosis which had a young Tim Roth scuttling around the stage.

I will look forward to reading this book, and it was a lovely surprise when I opened the cover this morning to find that my £2.50 had got me a signed copy. OK, so my name’s not John, but Berkoff has touched this particular book, and I like that a lot.

* * * * *

billy and meMy second nice surprise was that my daughter and I were discussing a book that my niece had recommended on our visit to Croydon earlier this week. Billy and Me is a chicklit romance by debut author Giovanna Fletcher. I said we’d look it up and get a copy if Juliet wanted it. Juliet squinted at the bookcase in front of her and said, ‘You’ve already got a copy!’. ‘Gosh,’ I replied when I realised that I’d received a copy from the publisher (thank you), so my daughter has added it to her pile as it is not really a book for me.

One thing you should know about Giovanna Fletcher though, which I didn’t realise until I read the blurb of this book, is apart from having been in TOWIE, she is married to Tom from McFly – and she is the girl to whom he sang his wedding speech in one of Youtube’s most watched clips. I was sceptical, but had watched it some weeks ago when I saw it mentioned in a magazine and I was nearly in tears by the end. It was so lovely (and of course Harry Judd is in it too) – so I shall encourage you to have an indulgent break to watch it for yourselves…

Have you had any nice little bookish surprises lately? Do share…

* * * * *
To explore these books further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Free Association: Autobiography by Steven Berkoff, 1997, Faber paperback
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback.

The Demise of “The Word”

I’ve written several times before about my reading habits of magazines and comics, most notably here. I used to be a real mag junkie, subscribing to around twenty monthlies at the height of my addiction. These days, apart from a couple of literary quarterlies, the only one I still subscribe to is The Word.

I’ve read Word, as it was first called, from issue one (left), subscribed from issue 3, and looked forward each month to it plopping onto the doormat.

I was really shocked when the announcement came at the end of June, that the mag was folding, and that issue 114 (below) of The Word, as it became, would be the last.

Always more than just a music mag, Word also included all areas of popular culture – films, TV, and even gave pages of space to books each month.  Longer in depth articles combine with short ones, reviews, regular columns, and the always hilarious Worst … and Best pages each month.

The Word’s demographic was essentially anyone who grew up with Q magazine, graduated to Mojo, and then started looking for something else, away from the big corporate publications.  That something was The Word – an independent magazine developed by the team who started Q and Mojo – David Hepworth (who blogs here), and edited by Mark Ellen, whom many of you will know from The Old Grey Whistle Test.  The calibre of the writing has always been wonderful and Hepworth, Ellen and co with their long experience in the music industry have wonderful contacts.  Regular columns from Andrew Collins (who blogs here), Rob Fitzpatrick et al have always been a joy to read.  The free CD which was brought in several years ago has always delighted too – concentrating on less well-known artists.

The last issue arrived while I was on holiday, and I’ve devoured since. It is as wonderfully eclectic as usual – what other magazine would juxtapose an in-depth interview with Robert Smith of the Cure, with a shorter piece on book cover designing with David Pearson (who designed the Penguin Great Ideas series amongst others).

I shall miss The Word.  I loved its mix of subject matter; I don’t feel the need to read dedicated music and film mags any more these days – The Word fitted the bill perfectly for me.

If you’ve never read it – Get it while you still can! 

Character forming – Book then Movie or Movie then Book. Discuss:

There have been many posts about the merits of which order to do things in for novels that have been made into movies (or TV series). These tend to concentrate on the differences in plots made to give films the required conclusions, and the excising of large chunks of plot and/or characters in the novel to fit the film into two hours.

It was a comment by Sams Still Reading on my post about the film of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen that has sparked me off on a slightly different thread to the book then movie or movie then book debate.

Question: If you see the film first and then read the book, is it possible to put aside the casting you’ve seen in the movie/TV, and imagine the characters in the novel as the author wrote them?

I’d wager that the answer is nearly always NO.

Indeed, Sam said: “I want to read the book, based mainly of my love for all things Ewan. Based on your review, I think I’ll watch him first and then read it.”  

I think if Sam does read the book, she wants to be able to imagine Ewan in it. (Do let me know if I’m wrong Sam, but frankly, who wouldn’t after seeing the film first!)

Initially I wasn’t convinced about McGregor’s casting. I had imagined Fred – Dr Jones, as a bit older, tweedier, and with glasses.  Ewan won me over though with his boyish fringe and twinkly eyes.

I can think of an occasion when this inability to re-cast characters helps though…

I was the only blogger I can think of who loved Death comes to Pemberley by PD James.  With a little hindsight, I can honestly say I wasn’t comparing it with Austen’s Pride & Prejudice at all.

I have read P&P, but what sticks in my mind, as I have seen it so many times, is the wonderful BBC production with Colin Firth as Darcy, (and I still swoon every time I see that lake scene). Consequently, I read the book as P&P series two and it worked really well on that level.   I struggled with the casting in the 2005 film though, with Keira Knightley and Matthew McFayden despite how good McFayden was in TV spy series Spooks, he wasn’t aristocratic enough as Darcy, and Knightley is a marmite actress!

The film of Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy, which I adored, was everything I had hoped for surpassing, for me, the older TV adaptation and really getting the feel of the times. All of the casting was brilliant, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s no 2, Peter Gwillam was fab, but Gary Oldman was just perfect. If I ever re-read the book I will be very happy envisioning Oldman as Smiley. His nemesis, Karla, though who was only talked about in the film will remain Patrick Stewart from the TV series. But what about the brilliant BBC R4 dramatisations with Simon Russell Beale as Smiley I hear you ask? Radio/audio in a way gives the best of both worlds – allowing you to imagine the picture, but with voices you sometimes know – but that’s another post!

It’s also fascinating when writers respond to how their characters are portrayed on the TV. Colin Dexter has said that the younger TV Lewis in the series Morse is an improvement on his original (who is older in his 60s, and Welsh).

I hope to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie soon. It will be interesting to see if I can divorce my visions of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens from the text – or were they the perfectly cast pair?   On the other hand, I’m looking forward to seeing the film of Never Let Me Go, a book I loved, but can I cope with Keira in this film?

Apart from having confirmed to myself the assertion I made at the start of this ramble that seeing the film inevitably colours your reading of a book in terms of the characters, it hasn’t changed my stance on book or movie first.  I’m remain a bit non-committal.  In general, I would always prefer to read the book first but, when push comes to shove, I don’t really mind either way!

Over to you now. Let me know what you think …

* * * * *
To explore any of the titles mentioned on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James
Pride And Prejudice – Special Edition [DVD] – the BBC TV series.
Pride & Prejudice – 2005 [DVD] – film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew McFayden
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – by John Le Carré
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [DVD] – the 2011 film starring Gary Oldman
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People Double Pack [DVD] [1979] – the original TV series with Alec Guiness.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC Audio) – Radio dramatisation with Simon Russell Beale.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [DVD] [1969] starring Maggie Smith
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go (2010) [DVD] starring Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan

It’s. Bill Shatner’s. Autobiography. Yes. Captain Kirk…

Up Till Now: The Autobiography by William Shatner with David Fisher

I can’t remember if I’ve confessed up to it since I’ve been blogging, but I used to be a full-blown Trekker – a Star Trek fan.  I managed to stop just short of buying a uniform, but had all the videos of all the episodes of all the series, plus the 60+ novels, episode and making of guides etc, a model enterprise, and loads of other ‘collectables’.  One day I decided it was too much, and snapped out of my collecting obsession and started to sell all the stuff off.

My enthusiasm for the shows themselves has not waned though. I remain a huge fan, even watch the occasional episode in the re-runs, and adored the last film which went back to Starfleet Academy.  If pushed, although I truly adore Patrick Stewart, my loyalties ultimately reside with the original.  Captain Kirk was fearless, handsome, decisive, and had a sense of humour; Kirk has a swagger about him that made it all such fun, contrasting brilliantly with Spock’s coolness and Bones’s old-fashioned Southern gent.  I’m old enough to remember seeing some of the episodes in their original showing on British TV too.

All of this brings me to William Shatner’s autobiography, Up Till Now, written with David Fisher, which is refreshingly honest and up front about nearly everything. It’s also very funny, but has plenty of touching moments too. William Shatner is a man of grand passions and big emotions.

Shatner’s acting career has been long, and so much more than Star Trek.  He started off in the Canadian theatre, playing small and supporting parts in much of the classical repertoire, before moving to New York and a new life in TV dramas – many of which were aired live.  He was in demand, and turned up on time, lines learned, got great reviews playing a wide variety of parts including leading men.

Part of the reason I was becoming better known was what people perceived to be an unusual. Speech. Pattern. Apparently I was becoming know for. Pausing, between words, in. Unusual Places… I have no idea where that. Came from… but the reality is that I don’t even hear it. I can mock the idea. I understand people hear me speaking. That way. They’ve even put a name to it, calling it Shatnerian. As in, ah yes, the character spoke with true Shatnerian eloquence.
But it’s certainly nothing I’m doing intentionally, nor do I do it in real life. I have seen several William Shatner impersonators speak in that. Clipped. Punctuated manner. Okay, if people recognize the impersonation as me, then it must be me.

Bill’s the big break didn’t come until well after he moved to LA.  Even after three series,  Star Trek wasn’t a hit until it later sold into syndication around the world, and so the hard-working Shatner continued plugging away.  It was the long-running series TJ Hooker in which he played a veteran cop that finally made him a TV star, later leading to the acclaimed Boston Legal, along with the Star Trek movies.

TV series like those tend to have a different director for each episode, and Shatner talks interestingly about this experience: “It’s the job of the actors who work there every week to proetct the integrity of the program. Because I cared about the quality of the show I tested every new director. And if they didn’t know what they were doing I would complain about it. That was my job.”

Another funny bit is when he and the voice cast of the animated film Over the Hedge got sent to plug the film in Cannes.  “As we were walking up the red carpet, surrounded by photographers, we were introduced to the French actors who had played our characters in the French version.  Wait a second, I wondered, we’re the stars of this film, right? I knew we were stars, our names were in big letters on the lobby cards and in the credits. Bus as this is an animated film our faces weren’t on the screen, and now our voices were being replaced by French actors. So we were the stars of a film in which we didn’t even appear.”  He forgets that the animators usually embed some of the personality of their voice actors into the characters…

Along the way he’s had four marriages, the third of which ended with tragedy, when his wife Nerine, an alcoholic, accidentally died in their swimming pool.  He threw himself into his horse business, and through that met Elizabeth his fourth wife.  His first marriage was to an actress, Gloria.  They had three daughters, but she never made it into the limelight, and it faltered once they moved to LA. Shatner talks openly about the mistakes he made, and the actor’s ego, that made him a poor husband at first.

What shines all the way through this memoir is Shatner’s sense of humour. Once he found it, (he was a very serious actor to start off with), he let loose, and takes every opportunity to laugh at himself.  He can even laugh at the way his spoken song performances in his 1968 album The Transformed Man have been taken, although they were recorded in all seriousness and remain cult tracks today.

I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir, which is so not just for Star Trek fans, although the spectre of Captain Kirk looms large over much of it. I got a much better appreciation of Shatner, the actor and have-a-go hero, a would-be family man who learns by his mistakes, and unashamed self-publicist with a great line in self-deprecation.  I shall leave you with an urging though, to pop over to Youtube and watch his spoken interpretation of Elton John’s song, Rocket Man, introduced by lyricist Bernie Taupin. If you search for William Shatner Rocket Man, you’ll find it (sorry, can’t embed it). (8.5/10)

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Up Till Now by William Shatner with David Fisher (pub Sidgwick & Jackson, 2008), now in paperback.
The Transformed Man – William Shatner (CD)
Star Trek – The Original Series – Series 1 – Complete – Remastered [DVD]

The Blues Brothers meets Deadwood

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

If I had to make a movie pitch for this book, it would be The Blues Brothers meets Deadwood, HBO’s fantastic wild west series, and that encapsulates it in a nutshell for me, save to say that the combination is an absolute winner.

The Blues Brothers just happens to be my favourite film ever – I saw it on a big screen in London on the day it opened to the public back in 1980. By the time the opening tracking shot of the Chicago panorama had narrowed down to Jake’s release from Joliet prison and the chugging strains of He caught the Katy began in the background I was irrevocably hooked.

It’s the mid 1800s and notorious killers for hire, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are are on their way from Oregon to California to kill Herman Kermit Warm.  If you transplanted Jake and Elwood Blues into a western, you’d have Charlie and Eli – and they’re on a mission for the Commodore, (rather than God).

The story is narrated by Eli, who like Elwood, is the thinker of the pair. It becomes clear as the story goes on, that Eli is not happy with their gun-for-hire way of life – he’s ready to find a wife and settle down.  Charlie is a different kettle of fish; he’s a cold-blooded killer and when he’s not on a job, he drinks and whores. They’re so different in character, yet Charlie knows how to rouse Eli’s temper and protective instincts towards his brother to make the pair feared throughout the wild west.

At the start of the story, Eli is talking about horses.  His mount got killed in the last job they did, and he’s had to ride an inferior animal supplied by the Commodore ever since.  Eli is in a bad way, suffering from a poisonous spider-bite and an abscess simultaneously, so when they come upon a cabin, Eli is happy to get rest despite having share the cabin with a mad-woman who curses the doorway. Charlie is superstitious and won’t cross the threshold or let Eli through. Eli can’t fit through the tiny high window, so Charlie leaves Eli to recuperate while he goes to get an axe to widen the window.  Meanwhile a grizzly appears and goes for Eli’s horse, so he goes through the door, shoots it, and goes back inside before Charlie gets back …

‘That’s some nice shooting, brother.’
‘Lucky is all.’ Hoping to change the subject, I asked about the ax.
‘Prospectors heading south.’ he said. There was divot of skin gone from one of his knuckles and I asked how he came to be injured. ‘The men were hesitant to loan me their equipment. Well, they’ll not need the ax, now.’ He returned to the cabin, entering through his hole. I did not know what he was doing at first, but soon saw the smoke issuing from inside. Next, my bag and pan jumped out the window, with Charlie following closely behind and wearing a wide smile. As we rode away the structure was a whirling tornado of whistling heat and flames and the bear, which Charlie had coated in lamp oil, was likewise burning – an impressive sight, but sad, and I was grateful to take leave of the place. It occurred to me that I had crossed the threshold for a horse I did not want but Charlie had not done the same for his own flesh and blood. A life of ups and downs I thought.

That early paragraph encapsulates the brothers’ personalities perfectly to me, and by page 42, I already begun to really like Eli a lot; can’t say the same for his brother though!

The brothers continue on their way, leaving a trail of murder, mayhem and looting behind them and then they reach California. They trade a prized bear pelt to the boss of Mayfield town, who entertains the brothers in the saloon, where they all get drunk.

I grew tired of their strained banter, and became quietly drunk. The women continued to visit and tease me, sitting on my lap until my organ became engorged, then laughing at me or it and moving on to my brother or Mayfield. I remember standing to correct and retuck the bloated appendage and noticing that both my brother and Mayfield were likewise engorged. Just your everyday grouping of civilized gentlemen, sitting in a round robin to discuss the events of the day with quivering erections.

Eli does have a certain turn of phrase! More murder and mayhem will ensure before they finally reach San Francisco where they are to meet the Commodore’s man on the spot with information about their target. San Francisco is a wild and desperate place, the gold rush has caused massive inflation, and in this town you’re either a winner or a loser. Eli chats with a man who’d stopped flogging his horse, as it was dead (!)…

‘It is a wild time here, is it not?’ I said to the man.
‘It is wild. I fear it has ruined my character. It has certainly ruined the character of others.’ He nodded, as though answering himself. ‘Yes, it has ruined me.’
‘How are you ruined?’ I asked.
‘How am I not?’ he wondered.
‘Couldn’t you return to your home town to start over?’
He shook his head. ‘Yesterday I saw a man leap from the roof of the Orient Hotel, laughing all the way to the ground, upon which he fairly exploded. He was drunk they say, but I had seen him sober shortly before this. There is a feeling here, which if it gets you, will envenom your very center. It is a madness of possibilities. That leaping man’s final act was the embodiment of the collective mind of San Francisco. I understood it completely. I had a strong desire to applaud, if you want to know the truth.’

It’s fair to say that Eli didn’t like San Francisco, and the brothers were keen to take up the chase to find their quarry. I won’t elucidate any more, save to say that there is more adventure still to come, and more very black comedy indeed, laced with sadness too in the brothers’ story.

I hope you can tell that I absolutely loved this book. It ticked all the boxes for me – it was slick, hilariously funny, inevitably sad, and very quirky, as well as being extremely strong visually. It would make a spectacular movie in trademark Coen brothers style. The Sisters brothers are larger than life characters with immense appeal for a pair of murdering psychopaths and, like Tony Soprano, you can’t help but like them, all the time you’re not loathing them. (10/10)

* * * * *

I bought my copy. To get your own from Amazon UK, click below:
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Blues Brothers [DVD] [1980]
Deadwood : Complete HBO Seasons 1-3 (12 Disc Box Set) [DVD]

Movie Roundup

I’ve seen a few movies lately on DVD and cinema, so here are a few thoughts on them …

First up, Up In The Air starring my favourite, George Clooney. This is a comedy drama based in the corporate world, in which Ryan Bingham is the Personnel man-for-hire that will let people go for you – why should bosses have to do their own dirty work! Bingham essentially lives out of a suitcase, flying from city to city, hotel to hotel, company to company, with his brochures and speeches letting people down gently – it’s an opportunity to do what you really want to do after all; he’s an motivational expert. During his travelling he crosses paths with Alex, a businesswoman, and they get together whenever they can. 

When his boss hires a sparky young business graduate who wows him with the idea of doing the firings remotely – George’s job is under threat, and he takes Natalie out on the road to prove to her that the personal touch makes a difference. Meanwhile, Mr No longterm-relationships is also beginning to fall for Alex, and when family life intrudes, he takes her to his little sister’s wedding as his date…

The first half of the film is light and fun, with plenty of good laughs. Anyone who has ever travelled on business will envy Ryan his frequent-flyer perks, but be thankful that they (hopefully) have more to come home to than the souless studio apartment that’s Ryan’s base. When Ryan is forced to realise that there is more to life than the job, the film takes a much darker tone, and we end up rather pitying him.  I won’t give away any more of the plot!

This is a thoughtful film, which doubtless some in the business world will wince through.  The acting from Clooney, Vera Famiga and Anna Kendricks as Alex and Natalie was excellent and I thoroughly recommend it.

Now on to Let The Right One In [2008]. I reviewed the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist here  last year during my season of vampire reading finding it a serious contemporary addition to the vampire oevre, (does that sound pompous? – apologies if it does!). I finally got around to watching the Swedish film, adapted by the author, and was equally impressed – it will become an arthouse classic.  The two young leads were utterly convincing as the bullied schoolboy and forever twelve-year old vampire, and it was almost exactly as I’d imagined it – totally atmospheric. Being visually-driven, the sub-titles were nearly superfluous, and it was very true to the book, although pared-down. For a 15 film, it can still shock, but you mostly see the after effects rather than having to read through the violence! Totally gripping.

* * * * *

Lastly, I went to see the ‘final’ Shrek movie – Shrek Forever After today.  In the scheme of things, I would order the films 2, 1, 4, 3 in decreasing quality, so this one wasn’t the worst, but the series has slightly run out of steam, and Donkey is still the most annoying sidekick since Jar Jar Binks.

However, we still enjoyed it hugely, and were overjoyed that Puss got all the best lines.  This chapter was still full of references and in-jokes to other movies. My favourite on first viewing was a wonderful moment where Fiona in ogre mode, as an outlaw warrior princess stands in her tartan kilt, with hair blowing, posed just like Chris Lambert in the Highlander posters (remember that – where is he now? I wonder). 

Toy Story 3 next week … can’t wait!

An evening with Alan Titchmarsh

The people of Abingdon had a treat tonight. Another national treasure came to visit in the body of Alan Titchmarsh, gardener supreme, broadcaster, chat-show host and great favourite of ladies of a certain age. I don’t count myself as one of them yet, but he is responsible for encouraging me into gardening during his stint at the helm of the BBC’s Gardener’s World, so I was more than happy to go along and help Mostly Books on the book stall.

He took to the stage in a lilac jumper, and proceeded to charm the audience with stories from his TV career. These included encounters with Charlie Dimmock and her ‘unfettered protruberences‘ on Ground Force – the garden makeover show that made him a real TV star, (Charlie is a Rubenesque and braless specialist in water features), and Willy the mad Irishman who did a lot of the behind the scenes prep for the hard landscaping. He also told us about several encounters with the Queen: firstly at the Sandringham Women’s Institute where she is the Patron; then when he went to the palace to collect his MBE, and the Queen told him ‘You’ve made a lot of ladies very happy.’ Alan declared he’d like that quote on his gravestone. He read a couple of passages from his new volume of memoirs, Knave of Spades before answering questions from the audience.

Mark from Mostly Books asked how a Yorkshire lad that left school at the age of 15 and went to work in the Ilkley Parks department developed a love of reading, books, and became a writer? Alan put it down to his English teacher’s comments on a précis he had to write of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he used the word ‘reciprocated’ talking about Helena and Demetrius – and how that taught him the power of words.

He was delightful company, charming and very funny. He was also chatty at the signing table with his adoring fans, and there were lots of them there. I would have cropped the photo, but I wanted to show you some of the presents they brought him – knitted clown dolls and a special Christmas cracker. I do wish he’d give up the chat shows and go back to gardening on the telly though …

Now Titchmarsh is coming to Abingdon!

We’re getting all the big names in Abingdon now. Next to visit is the gardening everyman megastar Alan Titchmarsh.

The event promoted by Mostly Books is on Friday September 25th. The venue is being finalised, but tickets are on sale at £6 from the bookshop (01235 525880).

Alan has a book to promote (naturally!). I was pleased to see it’s the next volume of his memoirs (rather than his fiction). Knave of Spades recounts how he got into TV, as news magazine programme Nationwide’s gardening presenter – the rest as they say is history.

I got into gardening while he did his stint as the main presenter on BBC’s Gardener’s World and learned a lot from his unfussy style, which was made smooth by having cut his TV teeth on other programmes including the lunchtime magazine come chat-show Pebble Mill at One.

He may be relentlessly cheerful, and he admits he has a complete lack of a dark side, but I’m sure we will be in for a lovely evening in his company. I volunteered to help again (anything for a free ticket!), so I might see some of you there – do let me know if you’re coming…

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – were they really desperate?

In the same way that I adored watching Rome and am enjoying The Tudors, I also loved Desperate Romantics which recently finished screening on the BBC. All of them are generally utter tosh historically, but great entertainment to watch – and of course everyone looks marvellous; (Rome also wins prizes for being the most creatively potty-mouthed programme on TV!).

So how accurately were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) portrayed on screen?

Luckily I have a few books on hand on the subject. I’ve long been a fan of many of the later pictures of Rossetti, Byrne-Jones et al, but apart from Millais’ Ophelia I didn’t know much about the earlier PRB works, so with my Tate catalogue of PRB works by my side, I read Lizzie Siddal: The tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley and the relevant chapters of John Ruskin from the OUP’s Very Interesting People series.

Art historian Hawksley, (who is a direct descendant of Charles Dickens), tells of the central romance between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal. It was an American artist, Walter Deverell, that discovered the ‘stunner’ when he accompanied his mother to the hatshop where Lizzie worked. With his mother’s help, he secured her services as a model for his own pictures before Holman Hunt and Millais were to immortalise her in theirs.

 On meeting her later, Dante was immediately obsessed by Lizzie and she with him; it was a claustrophobic relationship – he was commitment-phobic and both were insanely jealous and attention-seeking. Lizzie was depressive, anorexic and was frequently ill – particularly when Rossetti wasn’t paying attention to her – she always got better when he ran to her bedside, but did become a laudanum addict early on.

They did finally marry, but laudanum was to be her final downfall after post-natal depression after the stillbirth of their child. She comes across as manipulative and demanding, but remember she was desperate to be married to the love of her life – as ruin for her and her family would be the result if their unmarried relationship became fully public. Rossetti, while undoubtedly talented, was totally self-interested and never worked at his best when Lizzie was around.

When she died, he did bury the only copy of a book of poems he’d written for her with the casket, and amazingly it was later dug up! – I thought this was just for the telly, but it happened, although he did get an official exhumation order for it – selfish as ever.

The other really ineresting character in the TV series was the art critic John Ruskin – a rich and hugely influential person in the Victorian art world. It is doubtful whether Rossetti would have got anywhere without his patronage, and the PRB without him having supported John Everett Millais first. Ruskin recognised that the PRB were trying to do something different in their back to nature ideals. However it was the scandal over Ruskin’s unconsummated marriage and subsequent annulment that Desperate Romantics concentrated on – and that was all true!

Hawksley’s biography concentrates on the events of Lizzie’s life and made for an entertaining read with a good selection of illustrations. First published in 2004, highlights include some of Dante and Lizzie’s poetry which is touching and sad. In contrast, the VIP book on Ruskin, although short, is very dry and factual, and completely without illustration. The TV series itself is based on a recently published book by Franny Moyle called Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites which I think I may have to read too!

I can’t comment on the veracity or otherwise of the TV portrayals of Millais, Holman-Hunt and other characters, but I did wonder a bit why they combined the other PRB members Frederic Stephens – the former artist turned journalist and writer, the aforementioned Deverell and Rossetti’s brother William into Fred Walters in the series – cost savings and streamlining of the main story one presumes. Actor Aidan Turner was a great young Rossetti look-alike. His self-portrait (above) shows him aged 19 in 1847, but shortly after Lizzie’s death in 1862, he’d become balding, bearded and slightly stout!