Archive for April, 2010

A Small British Invasion

It seems like this week is blessed with an abundance of exciting British television, softening the blow of the EastEnders cancellation on KTEH. 

David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in Hamlet

First there was last night’s Great Performances with the RSC’s latest version of Hamlet.  It was an intriguing production starring Patrick Stewart and David Tennant.  Stewart seems ageless, and I wonder if he’s got a scary portrait in an attic somewhere.  He’s barely changed since Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Tennant is best known as the last Doctor Who, and his Hamlet had much of the same manic energy.  He had some quiet moments, though, and I particularly liked his “to be or not to be” soliloquy.  Tennant is one of those guys who doesn’t have a single ounce of spare flesh on him.  There’s a part of me that wants to feed him and fatten him up.  Oliver Ford Davies was excellent as Polonius.  I didn’t particularly like Ophelia.  Her mad scenes were effective, but I like an Ophelia who’s believable in her sane scenes as well.  I wasn’t convinced that she ever had a connection with Tennant’s Hamlet.  (Besides, she was wearing so little as mad Ophelia that it was impossible to believe “her clothes spread wide, And mermaidlike awhile they bore her up.”  Not that the costuming can be blamed on the actress.)  I was also left uncertain by the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude.   I think one must be left in no doubt that these two have a strong sexual charge between them, otherwise their hasty marriage makes little sense.  Then again, I had to leave the room a few times during the three and a half hour broadcast, so I plan to watch this Hamlet again to look for what I might have missed. 

Back in 2001 I saw the RSC’s Hamlet with Samuel West, and it had many things in common with Tennant’s.  It was also done in contemporary dress.  The royal court was moved to the corporate world, with lots of people in business suits playing yes-men.  Hamlet was a slacker in a hoodie with bare feet.  It was excellent.  Going further back, I witnessed Keanu Reeves play Hamlet in Winnipeg, Canada.  I get a lot of teasing for it, but it was a wonderful adventure.  Winnipeg in February was the coldest place I’ve ever been, and I had a great time partying in my hotel with people from all over the world.  Keanu Reeves is a very physical actor, and his best scenes involved movement, namely the mad scenes and the sword fighting.  For many of his soliloquies, he was placed on a small platform with too much costume to allow him to move.  Vocally he is at his weakest and so were these scenes.  Still, I never regretted seeing this production.

This week a new series of Doc Martin begins on my local PBS station.  Martin Clunes is brilliant in this role, a cranky misanthrope with a phobia of blood, forced to give up surgery in London to be a GP in a small coastal town.  Then there’s a new series of Foyle’s War on Masterpiece Mystery.  There’s nobody better than Michael Kitchen as Foyle, and I really like Honeysuckle Weeks as his driver and Anthony Howell as his trusty sidekick.  The war ended in the last series, so the future of this series was in jeopardy.  I’m so pleased they’re back!

Bookends (1)

I just finished reading The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.  It’s a collection of twelve articles written by New Yorker staff writer David Grann.  The stories cover a wide range of subjects that are all “stranger than fiction.”   What I liked best was the way the author really got involved with the subjects he was writing about.   In the story about the New York sandhogs who travel hundreds of feet underground to dig the new water tunnel, he goes down into the dark and dank with them.  He assists the New Zealand marine biologist hunt for giant squid in a creaky little boat during a storm.  He interviews murderers, convicted criminals, prosecutors, arson investigators, family members, and travels all over the world investigating and digging for the truth.  Sometimes I couldn’t believe the access he had to those involved.  I found it most odd that not one of the twelve stories centered on a woman.  Now, you can’t tell me that women don’t get as crazy or as obsessive as men.  I’d like to ask Grann about it.  In the meantime, I want to read his earlier book, The Lost City of Z.

The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley is the second mystery featuring Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old chemistry whiz fascinated by poisons.   The series is set in a small English village in 1950, where the de Luce family rattles around in a crumbling estate, each member preoccupied by an obsession (stamps, novels, chemistry, music).  Flavia, the youngest of three motherless sisters, has almost complete freedom to conduct her chemistry experiments, roam the village on her bike named Gladys, and investigate murders.  I liked the second book far more than the first, so this is encouraging for the future of this series.  This one was about the murder of a famous puppeteer and the tragic death of a young boy.  Flavia makes a good detective because nobody suspects she’s snooping around, or even that’s she’s whip-smart and even a little twisted.  Most of the humor comes from adults underestimating her abilities while she’s busy manipulating them, when she’s not busy hatching elaborate revenge plots against her bullying sisters.

If you read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then you may be left wanting more.  I know at least two people here in the US who ordered the third book from the UK because they couldn’t wait until May 25th to get their hands on it.  Fortunately, one of those folks is loaning me her copy!  Larsson died after turning over these manuscripts to his publisher, so we won’t be seeing more of them.  Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing has some strong similarities to the Larsson books.  It is also by Swedish author, this one best known for the Kurt Wallander series.  If you decide to read The Man from Beijing, don’t make the mistake of reading the inside cover or even the descriptions on Amazon.   They all contain spoilers, which I will avoid here.  The book begins with a horrific discovery in a small northern village in Sweden, takes you across several continents, back to the past and into the present again.  The author is not entirely successful weaving together all the threads, and the diversion into Chinese and African politics is unexpected and distracting.  The focus on strong female characters is what I most enjoyed.  I think I will read more of Mankell.

Who’s the Idiot?

American Idiot, the Green Day punk musical that premiered here in the Bay Area, opened this week on Broadway.  I have been reading the reviews with interest, since I attended the closing night performance at the Berkeley Rep.  I’m afraid it was wasted on me.

Some background here is necessary.  Way back in 2001, I chanced upon the filmed-for-DVD Jesus Christ Superstar with Jerome Pradon and Glenn Carter.  I really liked the looks and voice of Tony Vincent, the young performer playing Simon Zealot.  I bought some of his self-produced CDs after checking out his website.  A few years later I was in London and had the opportunity to see Tony Vincent play the lead in the Queen musical We Will Rock You.  The show had plenty of energy and a talented cast, but when a musical is built around a random collection of songs, the plot is usually the weak link.  This show was no exception.  Vincent sounded great singing Bohemian Rhapsody and other classic Queen tunes, while his acting relied rather too heavily on the frequent wiping of his nose to broadcast his character’s awkwardness.  I missed his bleached blonde hair from Superstar, since his look for this musical was now goth black.  At the stage door, Vincent was warm and friendly with his fans, signing autographs and posing for photos. 

I have followed Vincent’s career since then, linked as a facebook friend along with thousands of others of fans.  I was really excited when I found out he’d be performing nearby in American Idiot, as drug dealing St. Jimmy.  I bought a ticket and sent Vincent a facebook message. telling him the matinee I was attending.  I said I hoped to see him at the stage door.  Okay, I was obnoxious and insisted upon it.  His answer was brief and to the point: “i don’t come out between matinees.”  I changed my ticket to the very last evening performance, thinking that the energy on closing night would be extra special.   

Closing weekend, Vincent posted on facebook that he had a terrible case of the flu.  I took myself across the bay with a sinking feeling.  At the Berkeley Rep, I asked the box office manager if Vincent was performing.  The news was bad.  His understudy had stepped in for the entire weekend.  The show was sold out and eager young fans were lined up for return tickets.  I told the box office manager that I only wanted to see the show for Vincent, and I was considering selling my ticket.  She did her job, telling me that all the performers in the show were wonderful and that I wouldn’t regret seeing it.  I was in a foul mood at that point, but I used my ticket anyway.

So, American Idiot didn’t thrill me, but I wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind.  I expect that colored my perception.  Mostly it made me feel old.  The audience was all aflutter before the curtain went up because “Billy Joe” or “Billy Joel” was in the audience.  I couldn’t quite hear what everyone was whispering.  Okay, I know Billy Joe is the Green Day singer guy, but Billy Joel was also in town that weekend.  It was confusing.  I was in the cheaper seats, so I couldn’t see.  The thing that made me feel decrepit was that I didn’t actually care which one it was. 

As I predicted, closing night was charged with special energy.  Everybody sang and danced their hearts out.  I was surprised how much I liked the songs, having never once listened to a Green Day album.  The performers were talented and attractive.  The staging was frantic.  The story was practically non-existent, and this is where it lost me.  It was little more than a concert, and I need an engaging story to give me a reason to care about the characters. 

American Idiot moved to Broadway where it’s getting plenty of attention.  Tony Vincent recovered from the flu (with at least three rounds of antibiotics) to join the New York cast.  The reviews this week have been extremely mixed, but ticket sales seem encouraging and audiences enthusiastic.  I wish them all well.  I won’t be buying another ticket, though.

Book Clubbing

Last September I joined a book club, something I’ve always wanted to try.  I love to read, but up until now it was a solitary pursuit.  I read, on average, 2 to 3 books a week.  This sounds like a lot, but many of them are children’s books, so those are quick reads.   I’m very fond of children’s literature.    I tell everyone I joined a book club so I would be forced to read adult books again!

This month we’re meeting to discuss The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  The first time I read that title, my eye skipped over the word ‘pie,’ so I went around for ages thinking it was an even stranger title than it is.  I quite like the book, mostly because it’s a very good story about an interesting subject.  The English Channel Islands were occupied by the Nazis for most of World War II.  The people there were isolated completely, unable to communicate with the outside world.  Many children were evacuated from the island before the Nazi occupation.  Parents and children had no news of each other for the whole of the war.   Once the war ended, the islands’ inhabitants were thirsty for news, as well as food and goods, to make up for the long years of deprivation.  This is where the book begins, with the islanders telling their stories to a London writer who comes to Guernsey.   She’s intrigued by a letter from a member of this oddly titled book club, and she ends up finding more than she expected on the island.

A book about a book club is a natural choice for a book club.  That doesn’t mean we’ll all agree to like it.  In my short time in the club, I’ve learned that we’ll express every kind of opinion.   If one person loves a book, somebody else will hate it.  Usually the disagreements are amicable, and the snacks are awesome!  I try avoid to drinking the wine, though, since alcohol makes me sleepy and unfocused. 

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Mark Kurlansky appeared at my local bookstore tonight to talk about his latest, The Eastern Stars.  It’s about baseball and a small town in the Dominican Republic which has produced 79 major league players.  I’m not any kind of baseball fan, although I love baseball movies.  It’s just that Mark Kurlansky is one of my favorite gonna-read authors.  That means I haven’t actually gotten around to reading his books, but I know I’ll love them when I do.  I plan to read Salt, Cod and The Basque History of the World…any day now.

Kurlansky looks just like the stereotype of a writer, with wild hair, rough beard, glasses, and a rumpled suit.  He discussed his current book and told us about his two upcoming ones.  I can’t help admiring an author who’s so prolific writing about wildly diverse subjects.  I look forward to his future work…which I plan to read.  Really.

A Tale of Two Londons

Jeremy London is in the news this week, coming forward about his struggle with prescription drugs.  It makes me sad, because I have fond memories of meeting him back in 1997.

Jeremy played Griffin on Party of Five from 1995 until 2000.  Because the show was set in San Francisco, and I knew the location scout, I got to be an extra when they were filming exteriors (the interiors were shot in Los Angeles).  First I went with a friend and simply watched when they filmed in front of The Legion of Honor.  During a break in filming we approached Jeremy for a photo.   He was very friendly.  I told him I was born in Oklahoma but grew up in San Diego, and he said he was born in San Diego and grew up in Oklahoma.  It was a small thing but it made us both smile.

My friend and I joined the filming again the following evening at Alamo Square, which is a famous San Francisco landmark.  First we were in a long shot behind Matthew Fox (now on Lost).  Then we were in the background of a scene with Jeremy and Neve Campbell.  After filming, Jeremy was happy to autograph the photo I’d taken the day before. 

I enjoyed the experience of being an extra for one night, but it was a lot of standing around waiting, and I don’t have the patience to do it regularly.  Those night shoots go on and on, and it gets pretty chilly in San Francisco.  Besides, if you show too much interest in the actors, you don’t get much respect from the film crew.  Let’s face it, I was there for all the wrong reasons!

Anyway, things seem to be going better for Jeremy London after a visit to rehab last year, and he’s working steadily.  His twin brother Jason is also an actor, best known for playing Pink in Dazed and Confused (love that movie!).  Oddly enough, he’s the twin I’ve been worried about.  In Jason’s recent TV appearances (NCIS, A Golden Christmas) he has looked heavily made-up and not very healthy.  You can guess which twin I thought had the drug problem.  I hope they’re both going to be okay.

Jason and Jeremy London, then and now.

Silly Toys and Elephants

I really like Taylor Lautner.  He was the only thing that saved Twilight from being a total waste of my time.  If he hadn’t been cast as the beefier Jacob in New Moon I would have skipped it altogether.  It’s nice to see that his star is on the rise, but I have one important question.  Is there really anyone on the planet who wants to see a movie about Stretch Armstrong?   It seems like the biggest waste of money, time and talent since….oh, I don’t know, Speed Racer?  No, at least Speed Racer sounded kind of interesting before it was released.  

In other casting news, I’m rather disgusted by Robert Pattinson getting the lead in Water for Elephants.  I don’t have any respect for his acting skills, and I simply find him creepy.  The young man in Water for Elephants is a depression-era veterinary student who’s the son of Polish immigrants.  Pattinson mumbles his way through the Twilight movies, so I cringe to think what he’ll do with this accent.  The only thing that will save this casting nightmare will be if Peter Dinklage plays the dwarf.  He’s too old for the part as written in the book, but that’s not important.  I would watch Peter Dinklage read the phone book.  I became a fan watching The Station Agent, which is such a lovely film.

Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent

The End of EastEnders


EastEnders is being discontinued on KTEH, the San Jose PBS station.  This is very bad news for many Bay Area viewers.  I’ve only been able to watch KTEH since I got my digital converter box.  I’ve come to rely on my biweekly visits to Albert Square, although I’m not as devastated as this fellow commenting at the KTEH website: “This is one of the biggest disappointments that I’ve ever experienced in my television viewing life.”

KTEH says they’re cancelling EastEnders because it’s one of their most expensive programs and it has the least number of viewers.  I’m not sure how they’re counting viewers, but they claim that the show has lost half its audience in the last year.  Sounds to me like they simply can’t track DVR style viewing.  Plenty of folks are protesting the cancellation, but I can’t complain because I’m guilty of not being a member of KTEH.  (Can’t afford it right now.)

There are places online that  Bay Area viewers can watch current episodes of EastEnders, but here’s the problem:  KTEH viewers are SEVEN YEARS behind the UK’s broadcast.   How are we going to catch up?  We won’t recognize the new characters, and we will wonder what happened to our beloved characters who are gone.  Yes, the BBC has an archive on their EastEnders webpage where you can read a description of every episode for the last seven years, but that’s like reading the music of your favorite song.  It’s not the same.

So, this week and next will be my last visits to the Albert Square that I recognize, with Alfie serving up pints at the Vic.  Alfie is my favorite, and I know he won’t be there when I find EastEnders online….

Alfie Moon (actor Shane Richie) in EastEnders. A sad good-bye.

AN UPDATE TO THIS POST:  Oh, goodness!  I just discovered that Alfie Moon is coming back to EastEnders!  It’s like a consolation prize.  I also discovered that the BBC has removed the episode archive on their website.

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