In Defence of 13 Reasons Why

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I have already written in a previous blog post about how uncomfortable I am about the adult critic responses to the second season of 13 Reasons Why (Netflix), and that post can be found here: https://silentmovieblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/a-bunch-of-self-obsessed-teens-adult-responses-to-13-reasons-why/.   This post, however, is essentially a review of the second season itself.

**contains spoilers**

I have never had any doubt that the series has its heart in the right place, and that it intends to be both entertaining and a frank discussion of the issues that affect teenagers in schools today, not just in America, but elsewhere as well.   I have yet to see a wholly positive review of the second season – the knives were already sharpened and out, so that the critics could jump on the bandwagon of bashing the series, say how shocked they are, and what harm the series will do our kids.  But it seems to me that the reasons that adults have a problem with the series is that it paints them in a worse light than anything that the teenagers do.

The opening episode of the second season is a disaster – and I don’t mean by that that it is irresponsible, but that dramatically it is a mess.  Most people watching last saw these characters a year ago – and it’s not like this is a small cast.  Season two presumes that we remember who all these people are, that we remember what stories were told about them on the tapes, and that we can put together for ourselves what happened to Jessica and Alex in the months between the two series.  The narrative jumps around, trying to be sophisticated enough to show rather than tell us what has happened and what is going on, but fails miserably.  Thankfully, from episode two onwards, this is no longer a problem, and the series finds its feet once again.

The majority of the series uses the trial against the school over Hannah’s death as a kind of hook for each character’s story, thus allowing the same structure as series one, with each episode featuring current day scenes and flashbacks.  Sometimes the viewer isn’t sure of which of the flashbacks are real, and which are distorted tellings of the story as told by the witnesses.  Only when Bryce takes to the stand do the writers go out of their way to tell us he was lying, by giving us the real flashbacks at the end.  The writing of episodes two to twelve is, by and large, very good.  Sure, it flags a bit in the middle, and most episodes could have been better off with five or ten minutes shaved off their running times, but beyond that, for the most part, this is dark, and yet realistic, gripping drama.

Contrary to what most reviews will tell you, there are not a huge number on inflammatory scenes.  Other than flashbacks lasting a couple of seconds, there is actually no reliving of Hannah’s suicide.  Yes, there are scenes of sexual assault but, for the most part, they are milder than you would see in a film that deals with the same topic – especially one that carries an 18 rating, as the series does in the UK.  But it’s not like Netflix doesn’t warn viewers in advance.  And it’s not like Netflix don’t remind us that this is for mature audiences.  That does not mean letting your fourteen year old watch this unaccompanied and then going on twitter and saying how awful Netflix are for making such a series.  Parents are responsible for what their kids do – and if your teenager isn’t ready to watch this, don’t let them, just as you wouldn’t let them watch your porn collection.  Two different things, but same principle.  The intended audience is key.

If anything, the second series has less shocking content than the first (with the exception of the final episode), and the writing is surprisingly nuanced.  The characters are well-drawn and, while I agree it’s unlikely that all of these issues would exist within a group of a dozen kids in one school, these are very real issues for our teenagers.  What is interesting here is that very few of the characters are all-good or all-bad.  With the exception of Bryce and some of the minor characters, they aren’t painted with broad brush strokes.  Good kids do bad things.  Bad kids do good things.  That’s life.   But we tend to find that hard to deal with.  When I wrote a novel about homophobic bullying a few years back, the biggest criticism was that one of the “good” kids kept doing bad things.  We all do bad things, no matter where our moral compass lies.  13 Reasons Why doesn’t shy away from that.

Like many, I have a problem with the final episode, which is, I think, as much of a mess and a misstep as the first episode – but not necessarily for the same reasons as many reviewers suggest.  Yes, the assault mid-way through is unexpected (unless you have read reviews) and brutal, but it is briefer than many would have us believe, and actually less graphic that I was led to believe it was going to be.  Sure, you see enough, but the violence is more shocking than the sexual element for the simple reason that it is on screen, whereas the sexual element is actually implied through various camera angles.   It’s hard to know what to make of it.  There is no real build-up to it, and it does come out of nowhere, and the sexual element of the assault seems almost random.  Yes, it probably is a misstep by the programme makers – whether dramatically or as a matter of taste.

Also problematic for reviewers is the whole school-shooting section.  Some have said that we should not portray school shooters as just a victim, and that makes me wonder if they have actually watched just the final episode or the whole series.  Tyler isn’t just a victim.  He’s exposed as a stalker in the first series, clearly has mental health issues, and spends much of the second series blackmailing people, exposing their bad deeds, and vandalising school property.  To characterise him as “just a victim” of bullying  who goes on the rampage is ridiculous.  Life is more complicated than that.   The whole point here, surely, is that adults should have done more to help Tyler earlier on.

However, much more troubling for me, given the target audience, is the fact that Bryce is seen effectively getting away with his rapes, and Justin ends up with a longer sentence than him despite his crime not being as great (although bad enough).  This is perhaps where the writers have been irresponsible, and not with the sexual assault.  Throughout the series, the kids have fought to expose a rapist, and when they do, he escapes with three month’s probation.  What message is that giving out?  Or perhaps it is just reflecting the screwed-up justice system.

This is one of many times throughout both series where adults fail the teenagers.  They fail them in court.  They fail them as parents (particularly Justin’s, but others too).  They fail them as teachers.  They fail them as a sports coach.  They fail them as counsellors.  And perhaps that is why critics hate the series so much – not because of content that is troubling to teenagers, but because of content that is troubling to adults.  It’s a long, hard look in the mirror.  Society does fail its children.  And if that isn’t enough, the controversial near-school shooting at the end of the series throws one more punch in society’s face, with Clay telling Tyler that shooting the kids in the school will make no impact – adults will talk about it for a week and then forget it.   And how true is that?

Beyond this, there are elements of the show that are clumsy.  The final episode has far too many such moments, most notably the shoehorning in of the “suicide isn’t the answer, kids,” message during the “13 reasons why not” sequence.  Well-intentioned, I’m sure, but horrendously done – as is Clay’s talk with the minister at the end of the memorial service.  Oh dear.  And the jury’s out on the device of using Hannah’s ghost – although her leaving the memorial service and walking out into a bright white light never to be seen again as she wafts up to heaven (presumably) is, unfortunately, laughable.  And these moments are unfortunate in a series that is mostly well-written and well-intentioned

Most of the cast shine – even more so than the first series.  Dylan Minnette seems to spend the first two episodes taking his shirt off, and the rest of the time crying, shouting, or being beaten up.  And yet, despite all of this, he makes the character utterly believable.  Alisha Boe probably had one of the most difficult roles of the season as Jessica – switching between vulnerable, fallible, and headstrong throughout, and, again, she pulls off the difficult role extremely well.  But perhaps the real acting honours go to Brandon Flynn, who is stunning as Justin, managing to make him almost an entirely different character from who we see in much of the first season, and yet being most convincing as the vulnerable, fragile, difficult teenager he has become.   But there really isn’t a weak link in the ensemble cast.

Will there be a third season?  My own guess is that Netflix will decide against it, if only to avoid more accusations of being inflammatory by adults who are uncomfortable with kids watching something that accurately describes what they see at school.  But I certainly wouldn’t object to finding out what happens next to these characters.  Only time will tell – and it’s almost certain that the cliffhanger ending suggests that a third season was planned even if it never materialises.

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“A Bunch of Self-Obsessed Teens”: Adult responses to 13 Reasons Why

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The BBC, rather than taking the time to watch and review the second season of 13 Reasons Why itself, chose to put together a number of quotes from other mainstream reviews on their website.  What is interesting when the reviews are pulled together in this way is the use of language:

“A tawdry, unnecessary exercise…” (USA Today)

“Season two does enough to justify its existence…” (NME)

“Only justified in Netflix’s desire to bulk up inventory” (Deadline)

“Frustratingly unnecessary” (Hollywood Reporter)

Look at the terminology here.  “Unnecessary.”  “Justify its existence.”  “Justified.”  How many other programmes are judged on whether they are “necessary” or not?  Are people talking this way about season 2 of Riverdale?  Or season 4 of How To Get Away With Murder?  Or season 7 of Suits?  Or season 14 of Supernatural?  I very much doubt it.  But, oddly, I heard the same terminology used on Twitter by some users discussing Love, Simon, the recent high school movie featuring a gay lead character.  “This film really isn’t necessary in 2018,” was something I saw on more than one Twitter account.

One has to wonder why it is only series or films dealing with serious teen issues that need to be “necessary” or “justified.”  Of course, some will say that Netflix are making entertainment out of serious issues, but entertainment is what makes them digestible and gets those issues talked about – otherwise we might as well be watching dry lectures, Open University of the 70s style.  And it’s not like serious issues are not intertwined with entertainment in adult dramas:  racism, corruption, homophobia, rape, sexual assault, mental health issues – all of them are dealt with often in adult dramas with varying degrees of success.  So why not a series made for teens?

Some more of that terminology:

“It’s like being locked in a room with a bunch of self-obsessed teens…” (The Guardian – Sam Wollaston review)

“As exasperating and melodramatic as teenagers themselves…” (Entertainment Weekly)

This is a series dealing with, among other things, mental health issues.  The series premiered during Mental Health Awareness Week, and yet here are critics talking about teenage characters with mental health problems as “self-obsessed,” “exasperating,” and “melodramatic.”  Oh, the irony.  It’s hardly surprising why mental health issues amongst teenagers is on the rise if the adult population view them in this way when they start talking about their problems.

This shouldn’t be a them-and-us world.

The show has been criticised for possibly increasing suicidal thoughts in some teenagers (although I have yet to see any credible evidence that this is the case – if you know of any beyond a single incident in a news report, please do let me know in a comment).  One online news report talks of how 12 and 13 year olds watching the series had became distressed and talked of suicide.  (see http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/13-reasons-why-link-increase-suicide-threats-toronto-1.4164774).  But one has to ask what they were doing watching the show in the first place.  The rating on Netflix UK is “18” (which seems a little extreme to me, but that is beside the point).  So should the news report be blaming the creators of the show or the parents of the kids in question who aren’t checking up on what their children are watching?  Well, it’s not going to blame the parents, when they are the target audience for the website, so they blame the show.  Besides, it makes for better headlines.

We can’t wrap teenagers (or adults) in cotton wool and avoid the difficult subjects just because some people aren’t parenting their kids properly and are letting them watch inappropriate things on TV.  And just as harmful as the content of the programme is this talk of teenagers as self-obsessed, exasperating, and melodramatic.

As as adult with bipolar, and his fair share of “problems,” I certainly didn’t see the first season as over-the-top or in any way “glamourising” suicide (another accusation levelled at the series).  But I do seriously wonder if adults are more uncomfortable about these kinds of series than the teenagers are.    Perhaps it makes us too uncomfortable to think that our kids at school could be suffering from bullying, homophobic abuse, sexual assault, negligence, or racism.   If nothing else, 13 Reasons Why has opened up a discussion about all of those things, and tries to force us as adults to admit they exist and may be happening to our own sons and daughters or our loved ones.   But every person who sees the series as “unnecessary” is just burying their head in the sand.

I will admit that I have yet to see the second season.  I have seen two episodes of it.  I thought the first was a complete mess, but that the second was much better, but I will give a full review when I have finished the series in a week or so.  But this blog post is not about whether this season is as good as the last – although I would put forward the suggestion that many were just waiting to shoot the series down after getting so riled up about the first season. Instead, it is about the terminology being used here.

Out of all the reviews, perhaps IndieWire understand the viewpoint of the series more than most, stating “the show doesn’t offer solutions, but it does offer empathy.  And sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed.”  It’s a shame more of the adults moaning about the series are not more empathetic towards those pesky self-obsessed, exasperating and melodramatic teenagers in society that are going through serious problems and looking for some help.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Movies

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2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Raymond Burr, and Barbara Hale passed away a year ago this month.  This blog post pays tribute to them in an examination of the Perry Mason movies made between 1985 and 1993.

People tend to look at you kind of funny when you tell them that you prefer the Perry Mason TV movies of 1985 to 1993 to the original series that ran for nine seasons from 1957 to 1966.  Raymond Burr, forever associated with the role, stated in interviews to promote Perry Mason Returns (1985), the first of the TV movies, that he thought the first run of the series should have stopped after five seasons, and that he wanted to call it a day after seven.  He also said that he had been keen to make the occasional two-hour episode during that initial run in order to do Erle Stanley Gardner’s often complicated books more justice (excuse the pun) as well as to give more backstory to the main characters of Perry, Della Street (his secretary), and Paul Drake (his private investigator).  The TV movies that began in 1985 didn’t adapt any of Erle Standley Gardner’s original stories, but they did give the chance to give more development to the main characters that Burr had been so keen to do.

As a twelve-year-old back in 1986 when Perry Mason Returns was first shown on the BBC in the UK, I was entranced from the very beginning.  I caught most of the other TV movies featuring Burr over the next ten years or so, and have been revisiting them all again over the last few months after purchasing The Complete Movie Collection, which pulls together Burr’s 26 Mason TV movies as well as the four that were made directly after his death with other lawyer characters standing in for Mason who was always “out of town.”  It was a sad way for the films to limp to their inevitable conclusion, but Burr was apparently keen that the movies continue without him – although why investigator/lawyer Ken Malansky (played by William R. Moses) wasn’t “promoted” to the running of the cases after Burr’s passing is something of a mystery.  This, at least, would have given the series at least a chance of working.

There are some significant differences between the TV movies and the original series, most notably that they are considerably more predictable.  The cases that Perry takes on nearly always involve a celebrity of some sort, working for a radio or TV station, or a stage production, or in film, or a politician, or even a notorious mobster.  This means that they often go over the same ground, which is a shame, but as with so many popular programmes on TV, it is the formulaic nature of the series that people love so much, and glitz and glamour was very much a staple of American TV dramas during this period.  Ironically, though, it is those stories that break away from the formula that are most memorable.

Take, for example, the Case of the Lost Love (1987), featuring Jean Simmons as guest star as one of Perry’s old flames.  The episode is particularly well-written and, for the first time, the writers start to feed in elements of Perry’s life away from the courtroom, and even touches on a subject such as mental health – and deals with it in a responsible and subtle way (especially considering this was three decades ago).  Moving even further away from the formula is The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990) which, along with the Lost Love episode, rates as the best of the movies.  Here we don’t have the killing of a loud-mouth TV presenter, or the writer of a tell-all book, but, instead, that of a Nazi SS Officer.  Mostly set in France, this tale also features one of the best casts assembled for the later Mason mysteries, with Ian Bannen, Ian McShane, Yvette Mimieux, and a wonderful turn from Theresa Wright.

Even the most run-of-the-mill of the movies are worth a watch, however, most notably because of the touching chemistry between Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, with more hints about their characters’ relationship over the years being revealed in some of the movies.  We learn, for example, in one episode (the title of which I shall not reveal in order to avoid giving spoilers) that Mason has a daughter (who doesn’t know he is her father).  In another, The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (1993), Burr’s penultimate appearance, Mason and Della finally share an intimate kiss just prior to the closing credits.  In a talk show appearance of his own in 1993, Burr offers the information that they had just filmed that scene in what now appears to be an obvious deflection of a question put to him about whether he and Barbara Hale had ever been romantically involved – Burr liked his private life to remain that way, and it was only after his death that it became public knowledge that he had been in a relationship for over three decades with actor Robert Benevedo, who he had met on the set of Perry Mason in the late 1950s.  He even went out of his way to make up stories of having previously been married, with children, for reporters – saying that both his wife and children had died.  But what seems clear from the Telltale Talk Show Host is that the Mason/Della romance might have been developed in the films that would have been made had Burr not passed away, and there is little doubt that such a move would have pleased fans.

Some twenty-five years after Burr made his last appearance (in The Case of the Killer Kiss, 1993), the Mason TV movies remain staples of various cable television channels, and hold up as surprisingly entertaining ways to pass ninety minutes.  There is something remarkably comforting, even heartwarming, in Burr’s portrayal of the ageing Perry Mason – something grandfatherly, even.   There is also a certain reassurance here, too, that Perry Mason, striding along majestically in his fetching big black coat and hat, will provide us with adult entertainment that is still suitable for all, with a surprising lack of gore or violence considering the subject of murder.  This, too, was something that Burr spoke proudly of in promotional interviews when Perry Mason Returns was about to air.

There is more humour here than in the original TV series, and certainly Mason comes across as more human.  The relationship with Della Street is also different, and perhaps reflects more than ever the genuine affection that Burr and Hale clearly had for each other, as well as hinting that there was something more going on between Mason and Della than we were being told about.

All of this doesn’t mean that these are better than the classic TV series of the 1950s and 1960s – I doubt anyone would argue that – but there is still something very special about them and, unlike so many TV programmes from the late 1980s and early 1990s, there is far more to enjoy here than giant shoulder-pads and dodgy hair-dos.

Perry Mason: The Complete Movie Collection (a 15-disc set) is available from Amazon for approximately £25.

Review: 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)

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Once in a while, a TV drama series comes along that is genuinely important – and Netflix’s offering 13 Reasons Why is one of them.  Teen dramas seem to be notoriously hard to get right – they are either light and airy with no substance, or they are so intent in getting “messages” or “issues” across that they lack dramatic substance.  13 Reasons Why isn’t perfect by any means, but it does manage to straddle the categories of “issue” TV and “effective drama” for the most part.

Hannah Baker, a teenager, has committed suicide.  Two weeks later, a box of cassette tapes winds up on the doorstep of her friend Clay.  Over the coming days, Clay listens to the tapes, each side of which gives another of the “13 reasons why” Hannah took the step of killing herself.   The series is based on a book I haven’t read but, by all means, is decidedly less bloated than the near 13 hour Netflix adaptation.  But the adaptation benefits from showing the stories of the present day stories of the people mentioned on the tapes, and the affect that the airing of their stories and actions has on them.

What is key here is that 13 Reasons Why is an intelligently written, superbly acted piece of television that deals with bullying, depression, sexuality, assault, and suicide.  A bundle of light-hearted fun it isn’t.  And yet the structure of the series (showing the post-suicide stories) allows for it to be more than just a worthy after-school special type programme.

One would argue that this wasn’t even made for teens at all – indeed, inexplicably the BBFC in the UK have given this an 18 rating.  This is, presumably, because of the two rape sequences which, while uncomfortable, are certainly not of the ilk we are likely to find in an 18 film.  It seems totally counter-productive to have a series dealing with teen issues in an intelligent way being branded as unsuitable for teens under 18!  Perhaps there was a fear that, somehow, the option of suicide would look attractive to the viewer – but anyone seeing the final episode where we see the act itself will know that isn’t the case either.  Thankfully, the series is on Netflix and younger people will no doubt have access to it anyway – but a 15 certificate would certainly have been more apt and appropriate.

But 13 Reasons Why is most important because it deals with mental health issues – with depression and suicide – without lecturing, and without talking down to the viewer, and without trivialising it.  In fact, the term “depression” is barely mentioned at all.   But this is the topic that dare not speak its name, of course.  We don’t talk about mental health.  But here it is “discussed” along with teen issues “responsibly.”  A number of episodes have warnings about the content before they start.  The first episode has helpline numbers before it.  And there is a documentary appendix episode dealing with the issues featured in the series.

All of this, and yet any adult who has gone through mental health issues has to ponder quite what the point of those phone numbers are.  We should seek help if we are going through the problems featured in the series, we are told.  And yet there are thousands of us with mental health issues who have come forward and asked for help with our condition and yet cannot receive any.  We are told on the NHS in the UK of a year-long waiting list for counselling, for example.  It is rather scary that a TV drama can be more responsible about the damage mental health issues can do than our own health system or our own government in recognising its failings.

But I have written about that at length elsewhere, and this is about the series.  The “13 reasons” are spread over 13 episodes and, as some others have noted, this is too many.  Quite easily, there are occasions where two reasons could have fitted into one episode, for example.  The central episodes, directed by Gregg Araki, are bloated and move very slowly before the series gathers pace again around episode 10.

As much as I admire and “liked” the series, though, there is a feeling that the final instalment is unsatisfactory.  The realms of possibility are stretched, as not one, not two, not three, but four students in the same group of friends get their hands on guns – and we’re not told of the consequences of this in most cases.  Instead of giving us a neater ending, the series makes the mistake of making sure it is left open for a second season.  It’s the one thing that lets the programme down.  All of this good work, this great writing and wonderful acting, is jeopardised because the programme makers/Netflix wanted to make sure they still had a story to tell if a second season was decided upon.

Sometimes a story just needs to be told and then finish – especially when adapting a novel, which obviously does have an ending.  In fact, the problem here is that, rather than giving the viewer the idea that there is a second season in the offing, it gives the impression that someone forgot to make a final episode – because episode 13 acts like a penultimate one, not a final one.   And this is such a shame.

But even this error of judgement can’t undo the good work here.  Dylan Minnette gives one of the best performances in a TV series I have seen for a very long time – and one of the most nuanced accounts of a “troubled teen” I’ve seen in film or TV.  Everything about the performance rings true.  The same is true for Katherine Langford as Hannah, although she, ironically, has less to work with – not least because of those bloated episodes in the centre of the series, and the fact that she is only on screen for around half of the running time.

As a final note, Netflix chose to release all of the episodes of the series in one go – and this was possibly a mistake.  This is not binge-watch television, and it really doesn’t work well when watched in that way as it slowly numbs the viewer to each new event that is revealed in the story of Hannah Baker, and nothing becomes shocking.  While there is a “thriller” – even a “whodunit” – element to the story, that isn’t what this is about, and a weekly episode format would have worked better.  But it is what it is – an intelligent, gripping, and responsible series that deals with teen life in an undeniably adult way, and in a way that most dramas simply don’t have the balls to do.

Don’t Be Cruel: Presley and the Press, 1956

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By the beginning of 1956, everything was in place for Elvis Presley to burst onto the national and international music scene.  Since July 1954, his recordings for the Memphis-based Sun label and his exciting live performances had brought him regional fame, and Presley was rewarded for his hard work at the end of 1955 when he was signed to the major label RCA.  Within weeks, he would record Heartbreak Hotel, his first single for RCA and his first to reach number 1 in the U.S. charts, and then, at the end of January 1956, he would appear on national television for the first time.  His performances on twelve television episodes over the next year have become both infamous and legendary and, following his final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS, 1948-1971) on January 6, 1957, Elvis would only ever appear on television three more times before his death some twenty years later.

Despite all of the success that 1956 would bring Elvis, with three singles and two albums reaching the top spot in the U.S. charts (and that’s without mentioning the release of his first film role), the year would also prove to be a difficult one when it came to his treatment in the national and international press.  This article examines the circumstances of how one television performance in June 1956 resulted in a change of attitudes towards Elvis within print media from little more than curiosity about the new phenomenon to downright hostility and revulsion.

Elvis Presley’s first national TV appearance was on the January 28 edition of Stage Show (CBS, 1954-1956), hosted by big band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, singing a medley of Shake, Rattle and Roll  and Flip, Flop and Fly, as well as I Got a Woman.  Both numbers had been staples of his live performances during the Sun years.This was the first of six appearances on the show within the space of just a couple of months.

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Rather strangely, Elvis didn’t perform Heartbreak Hotel, his first RCA single, until his third appearance on the series.  By this point, he appeared to be causing little controversy beyond a few raised eyebrows.  The trade journal Motion Picture Daily referred to him in advance of his fourth appearance as ‘an abandoned performer who plays and sings in a manner that Marlon Brando should, and doesn’t’ (Anon, 1956a: 8) – no doubt a dig at Brando’s vocalising in the previous year’s film Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955).   But the focus was on the failing viewing figures for the television series itself.  ‘Properly exploited,’ we are told, ‘he might even return the Saturday night blue ribbon to CBS,’ but even Elvis (and high profile guests such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Haymes, Joey Bishop, and Della Reese) couldn’t save Stage Show from being cancelled in the summer of 1956.

A number of publications saw Elvis as the obvious successor to Johnnie Ray (below), a singer who had entered the charts for the first time in 1951 with his double-sided single Cry and The Little White Cloud That Cried, with the songs reaching #1 and #2 respectively in the U.S. charts.  Ray was seen as a crossover artist of sorts, mixing elements of pop singing with rhythm ‘n’ blues, and his stage performances were notable for his emotional delivery as well as on-stage antics including provocative moves that would later be associated with Elvis himself.  Ray’s popularity faded quite rapidly in the USA (although re-emerged briefly in 1956/7), but lasted until the end of the decade in the UK and Europe, where he would retain a devoted following until his death in 1990.

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Presley’s parallels with Ray came early on.  For example, in their review of Elvis’s first album, Variety stated that ‘Elvis Presley belts away in uninhibited style and his current click continues where the Johnnie Ray vogue of a couple of years ago left off’ (Schoenfeld,1956: 50).  Later, Ed Sullivan was even quoted as saying ‘I’d been told this guy was disrupting the morals of the kids, that his whole appeal was sensual.  But all I saw was a pale carbon copy of Johnnie Ray’ (Doncaster, 1956a: 12).  Looking back at articles from early 1956, there is little suggestion of Elvis being controversial, instead he is simply referred to as ‘frenetic’ and ‘uninhibited’ (Schoenfeld, 1956: 50).

When the New York Times reviewed Elvis’s first album, they also compared Presley to the earlier singer, stating that Elvis was, ‘nominally a country singer, who has the most torrentially belting style since Johnny (sic) Ray’s early days’ (Wilson, 1956: 131).  It’s also interesting that the newspaper, which would go on to criticise Elvis more than any other in the early years of his career, gives the album a surprisingly positive review.  ‘On ballad numbers,’ John Wilson writes, ‘he takes off with a drive that is startling, hair-raising and thoroughly provocative.’

The New York Times also published a positive piece in late May 1956 about a New York library that was trying to lure in young readers through a series of ‘disc jockey concerts,’ with the one in question concentrating on Elvis.  The librarian in charge of the events told the newspaper: ‘It is an important part of the librarian’s work to help young people identify their interests and to guide them in reading that will develop these.  What some youngsters consider music, many adults consider noise.  But libraries aren’t run for individuals with just special kinds of tastes’ (Barclay, 1956: 24).  While many adults were not approving of Elvis’s music, there was at least a tolerance for the latest teen idol.

Not all writers were quite as positive, however.  Gord Atkinson in the Ottawa Citizen, for example, was using the ‘C’-word about Elvis (‘C’ for ‘Controversial’ that is) as early as March 1956, but not in an entirely negative way.  While bemoaning the fact that ‘it’s the gimmick today that seems to make recording stars,’ they do call Elvis ‘the most controversial and electrifying show business personality since Johnny (sic) Ray’ and note that he ‘almost explodes before an audience’ (Atkinson, 1956: 26).

Over in the UK, relatively little was written about Elvis at all in the newspapers of the first half of 1956.  Perhaps most notable was Lionel Crane’s article in the Daily Mirror, entitled Rock Age Idol.  Remembering that UK audiences had yet to see footage of Elvis (outside of, possibly, a newsreel), the article is again one with a tone of curiosity rather than viewing the new star as controversial.  What is perhaps most notable here is that it introduces one of two themes that would recur in articles during the second half of 1956 and beyond: class.  Elvis’s poor background and, in particular, his new-found riches, would be mentioned time and time again as the year went on.  Here the writer quotes Elvis as saying ‘“Look at all these things I got … I got three Cadillacs.  I got forty suits and twenty-seven pairs of shoes.” I asked him how knew it was exactly twenty-seven pairs and he said: “When you ain’t had nothing, like me, you keep count when you get things”’ (Crane, 1956: 9).

Following the series of appearances on Stage Show, Elvis was seen twice on The Milton Berle Show (NBC, 1948-1956).[1]  The first of his appearances was a special edition on April 3, 1956, from the U.S.S. Hancock stationed in San Diego, and saw Elvis on a bill that also included movie star Esther Williams and jazz greats Buddy Rich and Harry James.

By the time of the second Milton Berle appearance on June 5, we start to get early signs that Elvis was being viewed as a commodity as much as a serious artist.  Vernon Scott’s article in the Schenectady Gazette on June 7 (but clearly written before the Berle appearance) is one of the first to find Elvis’s manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, blatantly and unashamedly selling merchandise – to journalists, no less.  He gives Scott a postcard and says ‘this is for you…absolutely free of charge. Any fan who writes in gets one for nothing.  Then, of course, if they want one of our souvenir packages can send in the attached order’ (Scott, 1956: 26).   Elsewhere in the same article, Elvis is asked why he sings ‘such off-beat songs.  Elvis grinned, “I like rock and roll because it’s selling.  But if I had my way I’d be singing ballads and love songs.  Man, I’m no bopster or hipster.  I’m from right back in the country.”’  Once again, we have another reference to Elvis’s background/class (this time through a supposed quote from Elvis himself), and the article also appears to demonstrate a sense of naivety and innocence on his part – a young man caught up in a business he doesn’t quite understand or have control over, but enjoying the ride while it lasts.

While the vast majority of articles in the first five months of 1956 show curiosity, bemusement, and general head-scratching by the authors at the Presley phenomenon, that all changed after the performance of Hound Dog on the second Milton Berle Show appearance.  The articles that appeared shortly afterwards condemning the performance set the tone for how Elvis was seemingly viewed by many adults and conservative America in particular for the rest of the year and beyond.  Previous commentators such as Guralnick (1994) and Jorgensen (1998) have put forward a straightforward account that Elvis’s performance was viewed with disdain by television audiences at the time, and this was the catalyst for the condemnations of Elvis as both a person and an artist that were to follow.  However, the issue is somewhat more complex than this, and has as much to do with how television (and Milton Berle himself) was viewed at the time.

It is easy now, some sixty years later, to wonder what all the fuss was about.  However, television was still in its relative infancy, and many adults were still getting used to the idea of sharing their family evenings together with strangers being beamed into their homes.  Television time in the evening was also family time for parents and kids to gather around the small box in the corner of the room and experience the programme they were watching together.  But people were not yet as comfortable with television as they would be in the decades to come.  However, while parents struggled to grapple with the new medium and the implications it would have on their family life, an article from the period reminded readers that ‘Children and teen-agers in television homes form a unique group in that they will be the first group to grow up with television.  Particularly to children, television is not something intruding upon already established patterns, but is an accepted fact in their lives, present from virtually the beginning.  Television at this point promised to be a part of their total experience far more significant than it can ever be for the great majority of adults’  (Riley, Cantwell and Ruttiger, 1949: 230).

Despite what appeared to be a concern that children and teenagers might view television in a different way to their parents, there was also the understanding that the new technology could help to bring the family together.  The article goes on to say that there was deemed to be a high percentage of ‘TV owners who express an awareness of an enhanced family solidarity.  Television itself is a new focus of interest, the fact that the family is together more, and the creation of a bridge between adults and children, all reflect the possibility of an enlarging role of television in creating new ties between family members’ (Riley, Cantwell and Ruttiger, 1949: 232).   A New York Times article from the same year put it altogether more simply: ‘Today the homely scene has changed.  Mother, Dad and the children aren’t reading books – they’re grouped around the television set in the living room’ (Anon, 1949: 21).

At the same time, there was also a fear of the new technologies that had started entering homes in the years following the end of World War Two.  Lynn Spiegel writes that ‘the home magazines of the postwar era adopted [an] ambivalence toward machines, scrutinizing each step forward in household technology for its possible side effects (Spiegel, 1992: 47).  She goes on to say that ‘the idea of “technology out of control” was constantly repeated as the language of horror and science fiction invaded discussions of everyday life.  The television was often likened to a monster that threatened to wreak havoc on the family’ (ibid).

Television in America was therefore being viewed in contrasting and contradicting ways during the early-to-mid 1950s.  On the one hand, it was seen as an instrument to bring the family together as one but, on the other, there was almost a sense of fear that it could also ‘wreak havoc’ on the same family, not least because what children and teenagers liked to watch and what parents wanted them to watch were often vastly different to each other.  Spiegel notes that ‘as numerous surveys indicated, youngsters often preferred the programs that parents found unwholesome, especially science-fiction serials and westerns’ (Spiegel, 1992: 57).   These concerns were nothing new, nor were they exclusive to the medium of television, having been debated around film almost since the movies began and, in part, leading to the introduction of the Production Code.  Even this, however, did not stop all concerns.  For example, in 1947 the New York Times reported that ‘crime movies and radio programs offer too many pointers on criminal methods to youngsters, members of the Women’s City Club of New York declared yesterday at an open meeting’ (Anon, 1947: 25).

Despite (or because of) these various arguments, many saw the people they were watching on television as, essentially, being invited into their homes, and therefore they expected them to be on their best behaviour and act as they would expect their own family to act – and not everyone on television was obeying those unspoken rules.  At the very centre of this issue was Milton Berle whose variety show was entitled at the time Texaco Star Theater.  Lynn Spiegel writes that ‘Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater (which was famous for its inclusion of “off-color” cabaret humor) became so popular with children that Berle adopted the personal of Uncle Miltie, pandering to parents by telling his juvenile audience to obey their elders and go straight to bed when the program ended’ (Spiegel, 1992: 57).

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Criticism of Berle’s television shows began in the early 1950s.  Jack Gould (who would go on to be one of the most vocal critics of Elvis Presley in 1956) launched an attack on Berle’s show in the New York Times in September 1951.   ‘Uncle Milty, the self-appointed guardian of the nation’s youth on Tuesday nights,’ Gould writes, ‘is a rather trying relative this season’ (Gould, 1951: 32).  He goes on to accuse Berle of reducing his performance to the ‘one-dimensional plane of the burlesque comedian.’  Speaking of Berle’s various guises during his television appearances, he says ‘the characterization is neither pleasant nor amusing any more and, as executed by Mr. Berle, has a harshness and coarseness which are most unpalatable.’  Perhaps most notable within the article are references to the striptease and the burlesque – terms that Gould would go on to use in relation to Elvis.  He ends his article by writing  ‘Steadily creeping in Berle’s act are routines more generally associated with the runway of the burlesque house than the screen of home TV. … Mr Berle could not resist the temptation last Tuesday [of] prancing around to the accompaniment of the standard theme for a striptease. … Much of the contemporary Berle humor has for its payoff  some reliance directly or indirectly on effeminacy, and already this season the comedian has come through with the inevitable reference to the trapdoor on the long underwear. … Television viewers are not prudes…but Mr. Berle has rather special obligations to TV…with a large children’s audience, [and] he must keep in mind that there are minimum standards he is expected to observe’ (Gould, 1951: 32).

By the time Elvis appeared on what was by then called simply The Milton Berle Show in 1956, Berle’s fortunes had fallen considerable from the early 1950s when he was generally known as ‘Mr. Television.’  Texaco had withdrawn their sponsorship several years earlier following falling ratings, and the show had thereafter gone through format changes, for a time becoming what is best described as a backstage sitcom with Berle playing an exaggerated version of himself, with ‘self-deprecating jokes about Berle the control freak, Berle the egomaniac, Berle the frantic comic’ (Inman, 2006: 18).  When Elvis performed on a special edition of the show from the U.S.S. Hancock on April 3, 1956, as with the Stage Show appearances, reviews were indifferent.  There was certainly none of the outpouring of shock, revulsion and hatred that would follow the June 5, 1956 show – the very last episode of The Milton Berle Show to air.

The Berle show had already been cancelled (and was only airing every three weeks during its final run), and so eyes appear to have been on the programme to see how Berle’s eight-year residency on a Tuesday evening would come to an end.  Elvis performed both I Want You, I Need You, I Love You and Hound Dog.  The latter was a song that he heard performed by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys during Elvis’s largely unsuccessful stint in Las Vegas during late April and early May, and quickly incorporated it into his act.  The performance of the song on The Milton Berle Show was similar to that which he had been giving in concerts for the previous few weeks.  Dispensing with his guitar, television audiences got to the see the gyrations that Elvis’s live shows were becoming famous for.  This would, perhaps, have been bad enough but, for the last minute or so of the song, he cut the tempo in half, upped the ante when it came to his suggestive movements, and treated viewers to what is perhaps best (and most often) described as a ‘bump ‘n’ grind’ routine.  Guralnick states that he ‘goes into his patented half-time ending, gripping the mike, circling it sensuously, jackknifing his legs out as the audience half-screams, half-laughs, and he laughs, too – it is clearly all in good fun’ (Guralnick, 1994: 284).

As we have already learned, there was already concerns about what children and teenagers were seeing on television during this period, and The Milton Berle Show (in its various guises) had already come in for criticism for this.  Now, as Berle was saying goodbye to his television show, with much of America watching, Elvis had turned television into the unwanted ‘monster’ and ‘bad influence’ that much of middle America had been fearing.  Watching Elvis’s performance now allows us to appreciate that the young performer was, as Guralnick suggests, just having a bit of fun – the end of Hound Dog is clearly tongue-in-cheek rather than intending to be viewed as something overtly sexual.  What’s more, Berle’s history of ‘off-colour’ humour during his period as a TV show host only compounded the issue.  There is also the unanswered question of whether Elvis’s half-speed finale to Hound Dog was planned or off-the-cuff.  A surviving live recording from a concert in Little Rock a couple of weeks earlier informs us that this was part of Elvis’s normal act and so, presumably, he would have performed it that way during rehearsals for the television show.  This, in turn, begs the question of why someone didn’t inform him that such a routine wasn’t suitable for television audiences.  Or, perhaps, with it being the last show in the series, no-one cared anymore.

The criticisms came thick and fast.  One of the first and most scathing was Jack Gould in the New York Times who, as we have already seen, had been one of the most vocal critics of Milton Berle’s variety show.  He started by criticising Elvis’s vocals.  ‘For the ear he is an unutterable bore,’ he said, ‘not nearly so talented as Frankie Sinatra back in the latter’s rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theatre.  Nor does he convey the emotional fury of a Johnnie Ray’ (Gould, 1956a: 67).  He went on: ‘His one speciality is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde-bombshells of the burlesque runway.’  Elvis was essentially being compared to a female stripper but, as we have seen, these are not dissimilar accusations to those that Gould had already made against the Berle show when it was still Texaco Star Theater back in 1951, comparing Berle’s comedy routines to burlesque.  While Elvis’s Hound Dog routine was clearly pushing the boundaries of acceptable taste on television at the time, one also has to wonder, given the past criticisms of Berle and his shows, whether he would have attracted less condemnation had he performed in a similar way on a show hosted by someone else.  Either way, the floodgates had opened, and attacks on Elvis and his performances continued unabated.

Gould didn’t end his tirade on Elvis with the Berle show. With Berle no longer on air, Gould appears to have found in Elvis a new corrupting influence to campaign against.  Picking up again three months later, following Elvis’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Gould wrote that Elvis ‘injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful’ (Gould, 1956b: X13).  He then launched into a strange and almost hysterical monologue about how teenagers were being failed by society.  He complains that teenagers have too much money in their pocket and that easy access to cars has ‘been accompanied by a lessening of parental control.  Small wonder, therefore, that the teen-ager is susceptible to overstimulation from the outside’ (ibid)  He goes on to blame record companies who have ‘disgraced themselves’ by ‘some of the rock ‘n’ roll songs it has issued.’  He ends his rant with the hope that Elvis ‘will do everyone a favour by pointing up the need for earlier sex education so that neither his successors nor TV can capitalize on the idea that his type of routine is somehow highly tempting yet forbidden fruit…If the profiteering hypocrite is above reproach and Presley isn’t, today’s youngsters might well ask what God do adults worship.’

While Gould might have been the most vocal opponent of Presley in the mainstream American media of the time, he certainly wasn’t the only writer at the time to compare Elvis to a female stripper – and attacks on Elvis’s masculinity were something which continued within newspapers and magazines right through until his death in 1977 and beyond.  Pat Doncaster reminded UK readers in December 1956 that Elvis had been called ‘a male burlesque dancer’ and a ‘male Marilyn Monroe’ (Doncaster, 1956b: 7).

Jane Newcomb, in the same month, repeats the stripper complaint telling us that ‘his wiggles have been variously described as: shagging, jazzing it up and acting like his pants were on fire.  … They are all slang terms for the physical act of love.  And this, most people agree, is what is selling Presley.  Just plain, crude sex’ (Newcomb, 1956: 9).  Newcomb’s article continually refers to sex.  ‘Every girl watching him sees herself as Elvis’ partner in his fantastic writhing orgy,’ she writes.

Newcomb also makes reference to Elvis’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show (NBC, 1956-1960), telling readers that he had been ‘de-sexed’ on the show.  Elvis’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show, on July 1, 1956, is almost as infamous as his one on The Milton Berle Show. Unlike Berle’s show, which was reaching the end of its run, Allen’s was just starting out in a new format that concentrated more on comedy than on variety.  Allen’s humour was also very different to Berle’s.  While Berle was often low-brow, Allen tended to veer more towards satire, and often poking fun at the establishment with it realising.  He presented on his show the ‘new’ Elvis Presley, with Elvis wearing a full dress suit and singing Hound Dog to a real basset hound.  Allen wrote nearly forty years later that ‘When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program. I asked him to sing Hound Dog (which he had recorded just the day before) dressed in a classy Fred Astaire wardrobe – white tie and tails – and surrounded him with graceful Greek columns and hanging draperies that would have been suitable for Sir Laurence Olivier reciting Shakespeare. For added laughs, I had him sing the number to a sad-faced basset hound that sat on a low column and also wore a little top hat’ (Allen, 1992: 172).

Many fans believed that Allen, who had stated on record that he didn’t care for rock ‘n’ roll, was simply making fun of Elvis.  However, Allen was correct when he said that the routine fitted into the ‘comedy fabric’ of the program, and certainly Elvis wasn’t the only performer on the show to be presented in such a way.  When Jerry Lee Lewis kicked his piano stool off-stage during his appearance, it can be seen thrown back on to the stage again (presumably by Allen).

Allen was, in fact, one of the first to jump to the defence of Elvis following the Milton Berle appearance.  Allen had been criticised in the Sarasota Journal for booking Elvis on his TV show, to which he replied:  ‘He has made many TV appearances before the Berle show, all without arousing any hue or cry, so there can be no firm basis for keeping him off TV altogether.  The heart of the matter is that he thoughtlessly indulged in certain dance movements in his LAST TV appearance which a number of people thought objectionable. … When I was a teenager all the adults I knew told me that Frank Sinatra had no talent.  Later I’ve heard it said that Vaughn Monroe had no talent, that Liberace had no talent.  I’m sure the point is obvious’ (Allen, 1956: 2).

Allen’s point, quite clearly, was whether someone had talent or not was not something that could be measured in a definitive way, and that previous teen idols who had been criticised when they came on to the scene were now respected members of the music world and that the same might happen to Elvis (and, of course, Allen turned out to be correct).

Another subject that often arose in articles about Presley at the time was that of his poor background, his upbringing, and his newfound wealth – with the rise from poverty to riches seemingly irking the journalists as much as Elvis’s gyrations.   Many writers of the period seemed to think that somebody from Elvis’s poor background should stay there, and in not doing so, he was punching above his weight or trying to be something he was not.  ‘He’s been criticised for his wild extravagance in buying four cadillacs,’ Jules Archer wrote.  ‘But this seems an understandable spree for a youngster who is now being showered with sudden wealth, but who as a child only saw meat on the table once a month’ (Archer, 1956: 19).

Newspapers, particularly the New York Times, appeared to see this change in financial fortune as pretension.  We can see this coming through most notably if we return to Jack Gould’s attacking piece from just after the Berle show aired.  Gould writes that Presley was ‘attired in the familiar oversize jacket and open shirt which are almost the uniform of the contemporary youth who fancies himself as terribly sharp’ (Gould, 1956a: 67).   Already we can see that the stance is being taken that the singer is a nobody attempting to be a somebody (‘fancies himself as terribly sharp’).  In fact, Gould believes that Presley is only good at the ‘hootchy-kootchy,’ but then adds that is ‘hardly any reason why he should be billed as a vocalist’.

It was almost inevitable that Elvis’s acting in his first movie would be criticised, particularly in the hostile New York Times.  It was, after all, seen as Elvis trying to go legit – here he was trying to prove he was an actor when the newspaper wouldn’t even believe he could be called a singer.  Again, it was being misinterpreted as something akin to pretension or, more simply, another case of Elvis trying to be something he wasn’t. Bosley Crowther’s put-down in his review of  Love Me Tender (Robert D. Webb, 1956) is almost legendary:  ‘The picture itself is a slight case of horse opera with the heaves, and Mr. Presley’s dramatic contribution is not a great deal more impressive than that of one of the slavering nags’ (Crowther, 1956: 22).

It was only with the arrival of G. I. Blues (Norman Taurog, 1960) in 1960 that Crowther would start to give Elvis some slack, and thereafter many Elvis films were given good reviews in the New York Times, particularly the light-hearted musical comedies.  They weren’t, after all, attempts by Presley to be taken seriously as an actor as he was in the 1950s, but seen as an admittance that what he was good for was ninety minutes of fluffy nonsense with nice scenery, a few palatable songs, and pretty girls.  The New York Times were far happier with that; any attempt at being a dramatic actor had gone.  The status quo had been returned.    Elvis now knew his place.

Love Me Tender also got poor reviews elsewhere.  In the UK, The Times thought that Elvis sang with ‘jerks that suggest a species of St. Vitus’s dance and breathlessness natural to the end of a cross-country race’ (Anon, 1956b: 5).  Rather oddly, the anonymous writer also thought there were ‘some pleasant scenes of train hold-ups and robberies!’

While Elvis’s class, aspirations, singing, acting, and even masculinity were under attack, there were still some people that were willing to stand up in defence of the young star.  Jock Carroll, a Canadian writer, came to Elvis’s defence in Weekend magazine with a lengthy article simply entitled I Like Elvis Presley.  ‘The solemn accusation that these old codgers throw at our boy is that he is “selling sex,”’ he writes. ‘Come now, fellows.  Ever hear of Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Jane Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eartha Kitt? Or, perhaps in your day, Mae West or Theda Bara?  What do you think the girls have been selling?  Violin lessons?’ (Carroll, J. 1956: 7).  It’s interesting to note that, once again, Elvis was being compared to women and not men.  Carroll could just as easily have listed Valentino, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn.  The meaning would have been the same.

But it was John S. Wilson who was the critic that perhaps made others think again about the musical worth of Presley.  In his lengthy review of Elvis’s second album, he refers to Elvis’s ‘impressive, if sometimes distorted, talent’ (Wilson, 1957: X16).  Elsewhere he praises Elvis’s mastery of the blues in So Glad You’re Mine, Anyplace is Paradise and Long Tall Sally, before stating that between his first and second album there has been ‘an improvement in his diction, in the use he makes of his strong natural voice, and in the thoughtfulness of his presentations.’

Despite the album being released in October 1956, the review was not published until mid-January 1957.  By this point, Elvis had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on three occasions, with his final performance ending with Sullivan patting Elvis on the back and telling him he was ‘thoroughly alright.’  It was the start of the change of public (and critical) opinion towards Elvis.  Sullivan, like Berle had once been in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was treated by audiences as part of the family, invited into their homes each week, but Sullivan had attracted none of the controversy of Berle.  Indeed, Sullivan’s show was possibly the most family-friendly variety programme on television.  If Sullivan thought Elvis was alright, then perhaps he was.

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While the print media didn’t change its mind about Elvis overnight following the endorsement from Sullivan, attitudes towards him and his music softened in general.  That said, it was not all smooth sailing from this point on.  For example, a review of Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957) in the UK referred to it as a ‘dreadful film.  An unsavoury, nauseating, queasy-making film, to turn even the best insulated stomachs’ (Zec, 1958: 11).  Also, not all of the American public were convinced either.  In response to a defence of Elvis by Fred Sparks, letters poured in both for and against Elvis.  ‘Your pal Presley acts like a baby with a handful of blue blades who’s been told to go play in traffic,’ writes one (Sparks, 1957: 12).  While another doesn’t hold back, saying that ‘the joker can’t sing on key.  When he tries his eppiglotis stands out like a jumping frog on account of because frogs croak and it’s an awful strain (sic).  He has a nasty curled lip, a mean eye and those ridiculous sideburns remind me of a hoss-rangler who was hanged a long time ago in Helena, Montana.’

Elvis’ Christmas Album, released in late 1957, was also greeted with contempt and, in some cases, horror, by a number of critics, and a few radio stations banned the playing of any tracks from the record.  However, the often-told story that Irving Berlin was so incensed by Elvis’s version of White Christmas that he and his staff called radio stations imploring them not to play the track, appears, following an in-depth search of trade journals/magazines and newspapers of the time, to be unfounded.  There appears to be no indication in any print media from the time that this ever happened.

Elvis’s transformation in the media from a bad influence on teenagers to ‘thoroughly all right’ was completed when he spent two years in the army, from 1958 to 1960, and then was welcomed home in a TV special hosted by then-establishment figure Frank Sinatra, even allowing the former and current teen idols to tentatively duet together for the one and only time.  This was swiftly followed by the release of the romantic comedy G. I. Blues, the gospel album His Hand in Mine, and singles such as Are You Lonesome Tonight and It’s Now or Never, that reached out far beyond the core Elvis fan base.  The transformation (still a controversial one among some of the fan base) from rock ‘n’ roll performer to family entertainer was complete.

1956 was, without doubt, the most important year in Elvis Presley’s career.  His recordings and television performances within those twelve months have gone down as some of the most important moments in 20th Century cultural history.  While he started out the year by simply causing many to raise their eyebrows, just a two-minute performance of Hound Dog on The Milton Berle Show turned opinions from confusion to outrage.  What is clear, however, when putting this performance into a wider context of television history (and therefore cultural and social history) is that Elvis very much became a scapegoat for those that disapproved of the changes going on around them, from the new technology of television through to the social acceptance (and even the embracing) of less prudish elements of entertainment that came with the new technology and, most importantly, the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, which would change popular music forever.

 

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Anon. (1949). ‘Television Feared as Foe to Culture.’ New York Times, 3 January, p.21.

Anon. (1956a).  ‘Passing in Review.’ Motion Picture Daily, 14 February, p.8.

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Wilson, J. (1957).  ‘Elvis Presley: Rocking Blues Shouter.’ New York Times, 13 January, p.X16.

Zec, D. (1957). ‘Elvis, You’re a Bore!’ Daily Mirror, 16 January, p.11.

[1] Dates given here are for The Milton Berle Show in all its incarnations and covering the various title changes over the years.

Homevideo (2011)

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A few years ago, I wrote and published a young adult novel, Breaking Point, about homophobic bullying in schools.  The first section of the book deals with an incident in which the bully videos his victim as he is stripped and thrown into the showers in the changing rooms, and how that video makes its way around the school.  In Breaking Point, the incident is just one of many problems facing the victim, but in the film Homevideo (Germany, 2011), this kind of event is fully explored and is extended to make a ninety minute film.

The set-up in Homevideo is slightly different.  Here, Jakob (played by Deutschland 83‘s Jonas Nay) records himself masturbating, but then his mother inadvertently lends out the video camera (complete with the memory card) and the footage ends up in the wrong hands.  Before long, the footage is circulated online, and Jakob is both ridiculed and ostracised.   Interestingly, in the same year, another film, The Suicide Room, a Polish film, also dealt with cyber bullying, this time with video footage of a dare in which two male teens kiss at a party being circulated.  While both films deal well with their subject matter, Homevideo tells its story in a much more traditional manner and, while I like The Suicide Room, it is probably the better film because of it.

Unlike my own book and The Suicide RoomHomevideo is not about gay teenagers or homophobic bullying, although there is a short, undeveloped scene in which it is intimated that one of the two boys behind the video going online might be turned on by it.  However, Jakob is a shy, somewhat socially awkward teenager as is the case in the other two stories as well.  One wonders how the story might have been different if this was not the case – what if the boy at the centre of the story was one of the most popular kids in school?  Would the effects be the same?  And, if not, what would they be?   Jakob’s story is also complicated by the break-up of his parents’ marriage at the same time, with his mother moving out to live with her female lover.

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Jonas Nay, looking even more young and innocent than in the recent hit series Deutschland 83, puts in a fine performance as Jakob, and ultimately holds the film together, appearing in most scenes.  He has the difficult job of making a withdrawn, sometimes exasperating, and certainly complex, character likeable.  However, the script here also deserves a special mention, dealing with its subject without lecturing its audience about the evils of the internet and making its characters fully-rounded and believable.  What perhaps is most important here is that the film (along with The Suicide Room) highlights the kind of bullying that can’t be easily stopped or even easily identified.  It is also bullying by humiliation, and therefore rarely talked about by victims until things reach breaking point.

The sad thing about the film is its lack of availability to a non-German speaking audience.  The only DVD available is in German (as you would expect), but without foreign language subtitles – although the tech-savvy can buy the DVD and pair it up with the non-professional English subtitles that are lurking around in the corners of the internet and, in this case, are more than competent.  But its lack of availability is a shame, for this is a fine film and, as with The Suicide Room, deserves to be widely seen.  Maybe with Jonas Nay now becoming known outside Germany, an English  release of Homevideo may follow.

Peter and Wendy (TV Review)

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A number of years ago, myself and a friend directed a version of Peter Pan for a local AmDram group and, despite everyone’s best efforts, it was not our greatest moment.  What became apparent was that it was extremely difficult to take something as well known as Peter Pan and do “something with it” to make it fresh and current.  We had a great cast (particularly those playing Peter, Wendy and the Darling children), some ideas we thought would work well, but somehow it just didn’t gel in the way it should.

This appears to be the problem with any production or adaptation of Peter Pan, going back nearly a hundred years.  I’m a great lover of silent movies, but someone would have to pay me to sit again through the interminable bore that is the 1924 movie version starring Betty Bronson as the title character.  Part of this is because I can never get my head around an adult woman playing Peter Pan who, by his very nature, is neither an adult or a woman.  The whole characterisation rests on the fact that he is a boy (both in age and gender), and to change that seems to lose much of the poignancy of the production.  That said, I am fully aware that even the first production of the play saw Peter played by a female.  Since then, there have been many film and TV adaptations, perhaps most famous of which are the 1953 Disney animation and the 2003 live-action film starring Jeremy Sumpter, and it has probably been the Sumpter version that has been most successful up until this point.

What we found in our own attempt at Peter Pan was that trying to do something new with it was irrelevant if there wasn’t a point to what you were trying to do.  Considering all the versions there have been on film and television over the years, it could certainly seem that all variations on Peter Pan had been done and that the story should perhaps take a well-earned break from our screens.  And then came along Peter and Wendy on Boxing Day on ITV1, which not only gave Peter Pan something of a makeover and novel twist, it also worked, and may well be the best screen adaptation to date.  The two hour television film merged the “real world” story of a teenaged girl, Lucy, awaiting a heart operation at Great Ormond Street hospital with the fantasy world of the story of Peter Pan – prompted by her reading the book to other children in the hospital.

True, there were moments when the framing device became a little too dominant, and the opening section before the story of Peter Pan itself actually started was perhaps too long, but these were minor issues.  The key thing is that the switching back and forth worked remarkably well, and even added a somewhat darker side to the narrative.  Also well done was the way in which the two worlds often merged as the stories reached their climax, with the hospital ward itself barely disguised during some of the sequences on Hook’s ship – and, of course, how people from one world appeared as another character in the other.  But the framing device also added a somewhat more sombre tone to the film, and thus removing some of the saccharine elements of the story that all too often are brought to the fore.  Some even took to the internet to complain that the ending was unsuitable for kids – but that depends if you want your kids wrapped in cotton wool and sheltered from the realities of life.  The framing device was clever, but the success of Peter and Wendy didn’t rest on this alone.

No, the greatest success of Peter and Wendy lay in the brilliant casting of Hazel Doupe as Lucy/Wendy and of Zac Sutcliffe (in what appears to be his first screen role) as Peter.  Casting slightly older actors in these two roles allowed for the more poignant aspects of Barrie’s original story to be at the fore, with them both on the cusp of adulthood.  Some Twitter users seemed to be frightened to death that Peter Pan should have a Yorkshire accent – it was like reading the comments of middle England had the BBC introduced regional accents into news bulletins in the 1950s.  Quite what the same viewers make of Sumpter’s American accent in the 2003 version, I’m not quite sure.  It no doubt caused fainting fits in cinemas as it was being shown.  While there was still some of the middle class elements of the original story retained, what made the performances of the two central characters work so well was that both Lucy/Wendy and Peter came across as normal kids from 2015, and not perfect children from a Walt Disney-style land of make-believe.   Here’s hoping we see much more of both performers in the years to come.

As Christmas television gets duller and more predictable by the year, it was great to see Peter and Wendy as an unexpected delight – and hopefully it will be one of the ITV dramas that will be repeated every year (if they can fit it in between re-runs of LewisInspector Morse, and Foyle’s War).  One has to wonder quite why it was scheduled to finish at 10pm, when many of the intended audience would have been in bed (especially when Jekyll and Hyde is on at teatime!), but I guess you can’t have everything.

Peter and Wendy certainly shows that there is still something magical about Peter Pan, and also something remarkably poignant.   Perhaps it’s the kids watching who literally don’t like the idea of growing up (and who can blame them).  Or it’s the adults who realise that life was much simpler when they were kids.  Or perhaps it’s those adults who now look back with the fact suddenly dawning on them that, for whatever reason, their own childhood was wasted or taken from them, and that they’d do anything to get it back.