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.

 

Suits (TV series)

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If Suits had been made ten or twenty years ago, it would be one of those must-watch American imports on British TV, shown at prime time on ITV.  Now, with multi-channel broadcasting, it is tucked away on the awfully-named Dave channel and most of the population of the UK have never heard of it.  The multi-channel era is very good at hiding wonderful shows away so that no-one ever starts to watch then unless they are channel-surfing and suddenly take an interest in the few seconds they get to see.

Suits, for those of you unfortunate enough not to have seen it, tells of the life, loves and cases within a high-flying law firm.  The first season begins with lawyer Harvey Specter (played by Gabriel Macht) hiring Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a new associate, despite the fact that Mike has never been to law school.  We then move through various cases (some of which I don’t actually understand, but that doesn’t seem to matter) and the constant threat of Mike’s secret being exposed,  as well as following the personal lives of those at the law film.  It’s the emphasis on the latter that makes Suits particularly special, with the other members of the firm growing in importance and screen time as the series progresses.

There are some wonderful performances here.  Rick Hoffman manages to make Louis Litt believable, despite the fact that the character could easily fall into caricature and series clown in lesser hands.  Sarah Rafferty as Donna, Harvey’s secretary, puts in a brilliant performance week after week, instilling her character with a mix of humour and heart.  Gina Torres is Jessica Pearson, one of the characters that has been developed with each successive season and has gone from simply a boss-like figure to a warm, determined human being.  Rachel, Mike’s girlfriend and fellow associate, is played by Meghan Markle and, again, the character has grown as the series has moved on.  But it is the chemistry and the occasional sparring between Macht and Adams as Harvey and Mike that is at the heart of the show – and it was only during a short period when Mike left the law firm and the two shared hardly any screen time that the show fell in quality.  The other real stars here are the writers, who manage to produce interesting, human, moving and funny material for its characters week after week in a way that many better-known shows could only dream of.

Many would call Suits the L. A. Law of the 2010s and, I guess, that is a fair comparison, but the issue here is that Suits is a far better written, acted, directed and consistent show than L. A. Law ever was.  The earlier show, essential viewing in its day, was very inconsistent, moving from brilliance one week to sheer stupidity the following episode.  Each successive season got more and more inconsistent until the whole thing just unravelled and ended with season eight in 1994.  Suits, on the other hand, moves from strength to strength, with season five probably being the best so far, especially now the “Mike is going to be exposed” storyline has finally been seen to have run its course and, seemingly, put to bed (although, as I write this, I see in the synopsis for future episodes that it might appear again).   What’s more, it has that consistency in quality that L. A. Law never had.

If you haven’t caught Suits you have missed a treat.  But don’t join it now, go and get yourself the DVDs of the earlier seasons and catch-up first.  With more than sixty episodes to watch, it will also give you many opportunities to hear the theme song and try to work out what the hell they are singing about!

Glee: What Might Have Been

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*Contains season six spoilers*

Quite how Glee managed to limp through its mostly-awful fourth and fifth seasons is anybody’s guess.  There were times when it seemed that the whole thing would just grind to a halt and no-one would be bothered to even turn up to write, direct and act in it, let alone watch it.  And yet, since the death knell has been sounded, and the sixth and final season has started, this most erratic and frustrating of series has finally found its feet once again.  At its very best, Glee does not just entertain but it can also move its audience and send out a message like virtually no other programme.

I actually came to Glee in the first place about four years ago because a couple of my students were writing an essay on it, and I needed to see a few episodes.  Even back then, in its first and second seasons, the writing was erratic – brilliant one week, bloody awful the following week.  And yet one thing shone through despite the bland writing, forgotten narrative threads, bizarre characterisations, and awful song choices:  Glee had heart.  There were times when it became a little preachy to say the least, but at least it was preaching acceptance.  But the erratic quality of the programme saw viewing figures fall (understandably), and the third season could easily have been the last.

But still it carried on, trying to dig itself out of the hole it had dug for itself, trying every trick in the book to win back viewers or, at the very least, keep the ones it still had.  The idea to have what were essentially two parallel narratives running through the fourth and fifth seasons was interesting, but doomed to fail.  Glee got more and more silly and irrelevant.  It had been forgotten that the show was at its best when it was also at its simplest, but still there were moments when Glee’s best qualities shone through despite everything.

Now the show is at the midway point of its sixth and final series of just thirteen episodes and, somehow, it has returned to very near its best.  Surreal humour that makes sense to no-one is mixed up with genuinely moving storylines and songs that are actually there for a reason.  There are no fireworks as Glee comes to an end – no big attempt to win back viewers, but just an eagerness to let this once-loved show close out with some dignity.  But this simple aim has resulted in some wonderful moments – and as a forty-one year old man, I really shouldn’t be saying that given that the target audience is probably about fifteen.

Dot-Marie Jones has been nominated three times for a Prime-time Emmy for her performances in the show and, given her performance in recent episodes that have centred around Coach Beiste’s decision to live life as a man, it’s highly likely that a further nomination will be forthcoming.  Excusing the fact that his decision was made and surgery taken place all in a matter of four weeks, this storyline has resulted in one of Glee’s best episodes in years, entitled Transitioning. It’s a simple episode, in which a number of storylines get moved forward, but Jones’s performance as her character returns to work for the first time as a man is remarkable.  It’s been mentioned in various places over the last few weeks that the transgender community gets forgotten or ignored when it comes to LGBT representation and politics, thus making this current narrative arc particularly welcome.

OK, I admit it, just like a Hallmark afternoon movie starring Lindsey Wagner, the climax in which transgender former student Unique sings a message of acceptance to the rather lost Coach Beiste, backed with a 300-strong transgender choir, is obviously intended to pull at the heartstrings and get the audience either crying like a baby or puking as a result of saccharine overload.  And yet it’s done so well (and is so out of the blue) that even the most-hardened watchers would struggle not to be moved by the whole thing.  Yes, it’s manipulating the viewer without apology, and, yes, it’s unadulterated feel-good TV – but that’s not always a bad thing.  And yes, I cried like a baby.

Glee has tackled numerous issues over its six-season run – some were done remarkably well and in depth, while others were handled so appallingly that the writers should be ashamed (most notably when Ryder admitted that he was molested as a child).  And, yes, there are “issues” that have, for some reason, been avoided.  In a series aimed at teenagers, why did the producers seemingly go out of their way to avoid storylines relating to drugs or mental health?  But the one thing it has consistently done, and done well, is ask for acceptance of the LGBT community, and this sixth season is no exception to that – quite the opposite in fact.  And, as a gay man myself, I understand the importance of that message going out to a core audience of the age that is just starting to understand who they are and  their purpose in life.

This final season of Glee has felt more like a beginning than an ending, and no doubt the show’s constant viewers will be watching it thinking of what could have been had the programme had been of this standard over the previous three seasons.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and the series has run its course.  In 2009, when it started, it was fresh, vibrant, funny and different.  Now it’s viewed by most as tired and cliched.  But I for one, even as a grumpy middle-aged man, am pleased that Glee has been allowed these thirteen episodes to get its arse in gear and finish with its head held high and to demonstrate just what it achieved over the last six years rather than where it failed.

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds (2014)

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Thank heaven for BBC4.

Last week I was channel surfing and came across a handsome young guy in a nifty suit talking about be-bop in New York in 1951.   There are worse things to stumble upon.  The young guy was Dr James Fox (who I’d never seen or heard of) and the programme in question was the last episode in a three-part series called Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds which tells the stories of three cities in three pivotal years.  Through the wonders of catch up TV, I got to see the series in its entirety and, it has to be said, it’s a great reminder of the wonderful programmes that the BBC can make when it puts its mind to it.

I confess that I had not seen Dr Fox’s previous series, although no doubt I will watch should they get repeated – and, in the days of mult-channel TV, that’s highly likely, I’m sure.  Ironically, the whole premise of this series is a little dubious.  Vienna was discussed with regards to 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.  It’s likely that those same cities could be focussed on in different years and a similarly worthwhile programme could have been made, but that’s hardly the point.  If you’re happy to put that small problem to one side and go along for the ride, there is much to enjoy and learn here.

I saw the series out of order, but that doesn’t seem to make too much difference, although perhaps the first programme was the best of the three.  With great skill, the viewer is taken on a joyride through Viennese culture in the early 1900s, from art to music to science to politics and back again – and cleverly underpinned with the reminder that Adolf Hitler was also persuing an artistic career in the city at that time.  Each segment based on a key figure cleverly manages to encapsulate the key elements of their work, but manages to do so without sounding like a list of “key points.”

Fox’s presenting style is energetic and enthusiastic without being gushing.  Perhaps most importantly, in all 180 minutes of the series, he educates without becoming either condescending or too intellectual, and certainly never becomes dull.  He seems slightly less confident during the section on the music of Arnold Schoenberg – a novice to the notion of atonal music is probably none the wiser by the end of it – but if that’s the biggest complaint about the series, then it’s fair to say it’s pretty damned good. And it is pretty damned good.   It’s clear Dr Fox has learned from the best.  There are moments when he’s discussing a painting by Klimt or Jackson Pollock in the same hushed tones and barely concealed enthusiasm as David Attenborough explaining the mating habits of a lizard found in the Amazonian rainforest. In a good way.

The Paris episode is probably the weakest of the three, but the one on New York more than makes up for it as it stunningly pulls together a number of disparate elements from advertising to baseball to Thelonious Monk and somehow makes them into a coherent whole which results in a rather mesmerising sixty minutes of TV.

In a sense, it’s a shame that the series was shown on BBC4 rather than BBC2, where it probably would have garnered a bigger audience.  What it does show is just how good the BBC still is at this kind of stuff.  The range of material we get from the BBC is still remarkable, and the quality is still better than any other channel.  Channel 4 used to give the Beeb a run for its money when it came to making documentaries but, while they’re now delighting viewers with semi-offensive crap like Benefits Street and documentaries about One Direction fans, the BBC are providing fine documentaries on the arts and remarkable seasons of programmes such as the BBC3 It’s a Mad World season from last year, probably the first season of programmes in the world aimed at young people about mental health conditions.

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds is still available on the BBC iPlayer at the time of writing – and here’s hoping that a second series appears in the future.

Spider-Man 2 (2004): A Treatise on Grief in the Most Unlikely Place

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On Sunday August 24th (today, if you’re reading this on the day I post it), I shall be heading to the stage in a village hall for what has become a yearly concert.  They were twice-yearly once, but that’s not possible these days.  It’s been a weird year since the last one.  There have been the highs of passing my PhD and the lows of a really shit time with bipolar.  When I hit the stage (“hit” makes it sound a little more dynamic than it actually is) this time I shall be singing some old favourites for the first time since my Dad passed away two and a half years ago.  It’s odd singing songs I know he loved, and strange knowing that he won’t hear or see them – not even on videotape.

The day before the show is always a case of “killing time” and not being able to settle to anything constuctive.  So, I sat down in front of the TV and watched the blu-ray of Spiderman 2 from 2004.  The excitement of my Saturday nights hold no bounds.  It’s not exactly a great film, it has to be said, lacking the pace of the first one in the series, just plodding on from one set-piece to another.  However, I did find it interesting given the fact I had been thinking about my Dad, for the film, rather surprisingly, seems to be more honest than most about grief.

The film is set two years after the first, but Peter Parker and his aunt are seen still mourning the loss of his uncle.  It’s an oddly moving element of an otherwise rather vacuous film, not least because of the genuine and touching way in which these scenes are portrayed.  All too often, grief and mourning is dismissed in a film or a book or a play as something very temporary.  Someone dies, people cry, the funeral takes place, everything returns to normal. In a space of two weeks life is back on track.  That, of course, is bullshit.   It’s not the way it works.  Things never really go back to how they were.  We get back into a routine, for sure.  But it’s not the same routine, because there’s always someone missing from it.

Film, at least popular, commercial film, very rarely acknowledges this.  And neither does popular TV or fiction.  When was the last time you watched Midsomer Murders and saw someone really grieving?  It’s hard to tell why such basic human emotions are missing.  After all, most of us like to be able to “identify” ourselves with the character on the screen.  Of course there are arthouse films that are all about grief and mourning and loss.  But there are certain subjects that are avoided in more commercial ventures, it seems, simply because the makers don’t really know how to deal with them.

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been much discussion about mental health issues on TV and the social media.  These are issues that, again, we rarely see portrayed in TV or film dramas.  Like mental health issues, it appears that death and grief is still a taboo – something that people feel remarkably uncomfortable discussing.  And with both of these issues, it’ s  a highly individual experience.  No two people grieve in the same way.  But, if we were to go by Hollywood filmmaking, people just don’t grieve at all.  They wake up one morning, about a fortnight after the event, and everything’s fine again.  It’s not. I miss my Dad now more than I did in the weeks after he died over two years ago.  Is that normal?  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  It’s my normal.

Is it wrong that these emotions are absent on our cinema and TV screens?  I’m not sure about that, but it certainly seems to be an easy option – and something we don’t necessarily notice until we’re suddenly, and unexpectedly, confronted with these scenes in the most unlikely film.  And Spiderman 2 is, certainly, the most unlikely film to deal honestly with the fact that we miss those no longer with us for the rest of our lives and not just until the funeral is over.

Mental Health: Don’t Forget It

depressionA man died this week and suddenly a discussion of mental health issues has started.  There is an outpouring from twitter users, as they retweet messages about depression.  Statuses of support for sufferers of depression are being shared over and over on facebook.  There’s even a multitude of new videos on YouTube on the subject.  The problem is that, last week, most of these people didn’t give a fuck about depession.  And, after the funeral of a well-loved celebrity, the furore over how sufferers are let down by the system and by society will die down to a quiet murmur once again. 

Depression, bipolar and other mental health conditions DO need to be talked about, not least because the lack of understanding about these issues is so severely lacking amongst many members of the public – and it is that stigma that prevents many from seeking treatment or admitting they have a problem.  There is something of a backlash about comments made on TalkSport radio by Alan Brazil (I have no idea who he is) in which he said he had “no sympathy” for Robin Williams.  Shep Smith, a newscaster on Fox News in America, referred to Williams as a coward.  Both men, bizarrely, still have their jobs.  The truth of the matter, though, is that many members of the public have the same lack of understanding of depression as these two men – and twitter and facebook have shown that too in the last few days. 

Suicide is thought to be the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  Mental health issues affect 1 in 4 of us at some point in our lives.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, around 30% of sufferers will attempt suicide, and it is thought that around 10-15% of sufferers die as a consequence of the condition. 

A 10-15% fatality rate.

So, what are we doing about it?  Well, we’ll talk about if for a few weeks and then forget it.  Public figures and politicians will tell us that support has to be given to sufferers.  However, mental health budgets in the UK are being slashed.  For example, six weeks ago the BBC reported that the budget for child and adolescent mental health services at Birmingham City Council were cut “from just above £2.3m in 2010-11 to £125,000 in 2014-15, a drop of 94%.”  Mental health trusts have had their budgets slashed by 20% this year.  NHS England has cut budgets for mental health by 2%. 

There has to be a link here between the lack of education on the subject (and thus its perceived seriousness) and the cutting of budgets.  It’s still thought people can “snap out of it” or that it isn’t a “real” illness.  If the condition had the word “cancer” or “disease” at the end of it, we would all be looking at in a very different way.  It is as real as diabetes or heart disease.  The fact it doesn’t show up in a blood test robs it of that reality. 

What I’m trying to say here is that, for a few days or weeks, mental health issues will matter to more people than ever before because someone they liked on the telly has died as a result of it.  But those deaths (and attempted deaths) are happening all the time.  It’s a reality that people and governments need to wake up to.  More than ever it is time to educate, talk, support and treat. 

In the four minutes it took you to read this article, six people will have attempted suicide in the USA alone.  Five of them will have had a known mental health issue at the time. 

Axe-murderers and psycho-killers: Mental Health Conditions and the Horror Film

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I sat at home the other night watching Roger Corman’s 1961 film version of the Poe story The Pit and the Pendulum. I confess that it is my favourite of the Corman Poe films and one that I return to more than the others. When I finished the film, came upstairs and started browsing the internet, I was reminded that this week was Mental Health Awareness Week, and it got me thinking.

Last year Thorpe Park was under attack for its “asylum” Halloween attraction, and yet we seem to have no problem with mental health issues being used for entertainment purposes in horror films. From the “mad doctor films” of the 1920s and 1930s through to the “psycho killers” of today’s horror films, mental health issues have been used in order to instil fear into audiences, and one has to wonder whether this has had an impact on society’s view of those suffering from mental health conditions.

While most of us are not going to view the “mad doctor” films of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and others as somehow a form of education on “madness,” can the same be said for other representations on film? I would argue that the “mad doctor” films (or any films referring to “madness”) are somehow less “real” because the specific health condition of the protagonist is not spelled out but simply given the general term “madness” – a term that is not really in use these days.

It is when the exact nature of the mental health condition is spelled out in more detail and given a name that things become more complicated. After all, if the word “schizophrenic” or “schizophrenia” is searched for within the Internet Movie Database, the list of films that is provided is quite telling: The Mad Ghoul, Bug, Cutting Class, The Boston Strangler and the “wonderfully” titled Schizopheniac: The Whore Mangler (I must hunt that one down). I don’t pretend to have watched all of the films on the list, but what is clear is that, even when the mentally ill character turns out not to be the murderer, the association between mental illness and violence and murder has been made and reinforced.

This isn’t just the case for schizophrenia, of course. The same is true for any number of mental health conditions. For example, a new indie (and low budget) horror film is due out in 2014 entitled Bipolar, which IMDB tells us has the following plot: “When Harry Poole tries out a new medication for Bipolar Disorder, he is reborn as “Edward Grey”, a seductive but dangerous alter ego who dramatically takes over his life, changing the young man and those around him forever.” Similarly the otherwise-splendid drama series Rookie Blue last year had a narrative arc that involved a bipolar policewoman acting irrationally, obsessively and dangerously – leading to other members of her force being shot and wounded (and possibly killed).

There have been relatively few studies on these issues, although Peter Byrne writes in The Psychiatric Bulletin that it has been discovered that these films are “sources of misinformation about mental illness, causing distress of relatives of the mentally ill. The images reinforce the spurious association between all mental illness and violence.”[1] In other words, many of the prejudices about mental illness and those that suffer from mental health conditions may well originate from how film and other forms of fiction have “educated” us over the years.

The big question, of course, is what to do about it. After all, even as a bipolar sufferer, I am not going to give up my regular dose of watching Karloff, Lugosi or Price descending into madness and bumping a few people off. However, it seems to me that, at some point, filmmakers have to become somewhat more responsible. Attitudes change. Nobody is suggesting the films that have been with us for decades should suddenly be banned, but is it responsible to make a film like Bipolar in 2014? Is it about time that killers in films had another reason to kill other than the fact that they are mentally ill? If the “asylum” Halloween attraction at a theme park is now viewed with disdain, then perhaps it is finally time for filmmakers to look again at their representations of mental illness and start taking into account the damage they might be doing in helping to reinforce the prejudices and misconceptions of the past.

[1] Peter Byrne, “Fall and rise of the movie ‘psycho-killer’,” The Psychiatric Bulletin, 1998, 22:176.