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Monday 30 November 2020

Downton Abbey - The complete scripts - Season Two

Published 2013.

This book follows the same format as the first season scripts, offering asides and insights from the author Julian Fellowes, plus text that had to be cut for various reasons, usually overrunning time.

These pages are very useful for budding writers of fiction, students of film, and  the many fans of the TV series itself. This series, then, as Fellowes states in his Foreword, ‘sees our characters face the ultimate test of war. Some are strengthened by the ordeal, a couple are defeated, but all of them are changed.’

In one of the footnotes Fellowes reveals that he borrows ‘my friends’ names relentlessly.’  The intended of Matthew is Lavinia Swire, for example. He used a Northamptonshire friend’s name Lavinia in her memory. The surname Swire is filched from his friend Hugo, MP, whose wife recently gained notoriety from her memoires!

So many of the footnotes hark to Fellowes’s memories of family and friends, for example his great-aunt Isie commented at the end of the war ‘Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.’ A poignant vignette (p21).

On reading the scripts it is evident that all of the actors involved add richness and depth to Fellowes’s script. And he is unstinting in praise in several footnotes. And it’s not only the main actors, either. ‘The hall boys and those maids who have no lines take their contribution very seriously and we are lucky that they do. In fact they do a superb job. These parts may not have much in the way of lines, but they are very important to the show.’ (p452) In one case he was sorry that a hall boy’s line had to be cut.

As mentioned in my review of Season One’s scripts, the footnotes also cover historical and sociological issues, all of them of interest. An aside regarding the use of the Marcel waver, regarding long hair being ‘a sign of bondage’ – a statement of femininity but also impracticality: ‘in the Forties so many women were imitating Veronica Lake’s hairstyle and their hair was getting caught up in machines. So ‘she cut off her long seductive locks and with them, I’m afraid, her career.’  (p144)

There’s an amusing aside about working with dogs and children. Not because they will steal the scene. The actor has to be perfect in each take, in the hope that in one of them the dog or child will perform correctly, and only that take will be used. (p163) Another instance is that it is ‘bred into an actor’s bones that when some potential employer asks you if you can do something, you must always say yes and then go off and try to learn to do it…’ (p239)

What is also fascinating is how Fellowes views his characters, ascribing motivation: ‘I don’t blame Mary for failing to see that straight away.’ (p207)

There are a great number of sad scenes, and again some are inspired by the tales from Fellowes’s relatives. One poignant story is about a female relative being coerced into a marriage with a shell-shocked survivor, doing the honourable thing,, and in effect tragically wasting her life. (p285)

When writing about the Titanic incident (which actually started the first season), Fellowes is critical of the trendy modern perspective of viewing the past through the distorted prism of today’s sensitivities: saying of the people on the ‘unsinkable ship’, ‘they were so unbelievably brave. The modern historian is usually a miserabilist and is only happy when reporting how badly everyone behaved, but if he tries this with the Titanic he will be disappointed. I’m not saying nobody behaved badly, but very few did. And in all three classes there were so many examples of staggering courage.’ (p329)

Inevitably, Fellowes regrets some cuts that had to be made. Yet, to be fair, which he always is, he can also appreciate that in many cases they were valid: ‘I think I was wrong and they were right.’ (p359)

The Spanish ‘flu epidemic of 1918-19 tragically figures in the storyline. Bearing in mind this was written in 2012/2013, Fellowes says: that epidemic is ‘almost forgotten today.’ (p435) How times change; since Covid-19 was unleashed from China in 2019 there have been dozens of articles and TV programmes about its more serious precursor!

What shines through these scripts is the author’s empathy for all the characters. Sometimes people are petty, but then they surprise with an act of kindness; others are generous with their time; while some rail against change but have to face its inevitability. And virtually all of these character drawings are conveyed through dialogue (enlivened by flesh and blood actors).  These scripts are a masterclass in drama – and history, in fact.

Again, there are stills from this season (in black and white) and cast and production lists.

Highly recommended.

Monday 9 November 2020

The Thursday Murder Club - Book review


Richard Osman’s debut novel (published 2020) is a delight. Most of the action takes place in a peaceful retirement village Coopers Chase in the heart of the Kentish Weald of present-day England. As we know, many developers don’t go in for apostrophes, so this one is no exception. The land, which once belonged to a convent, was purchased from the Catholic Church; the convent is now Willows, a nursing home for the village. Nearby is the graveyard, crammed with interred nuns.

A variety of clubs have been formed by the residents. Among them is the Thursday Murder Club set up by Elizabeth and Penny: here they discuss cold cases. Penny had been an inspector in the Kent Police and acquired the old files before retiring. ‘After a certain age, you can pretty much do whatever takes your fancy. No one tells you off, except for your doctors and your children’ (p18). [This was written before Covid-19 lunacy, of course. Now it seems police are quite content to handcuff septuagenarians for the slightest of reasons.] Other Murder Club members are Ibrahim, a psychiatrist who hails from Egypt; Ron, a trades union official who ‘never believes a single word anyone ever tells him’ (p19); and Joyce, the newcomer, an ex-nurse who has taken Penny’s place since the latter was now in Willows.

However, a brutal murder occurs – a bludgeoning – that warrants this quartet’s involvement. Much to the initial chagrin of DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas, they begin to uncover salient clues… Before long there is a second murder, and a baffling cold case becomes a bone of contention also.

The character of each club member is distinct, and all have something useful to add to the case. Elizabeth is the natural leader; she was something important in secret intelligence during the Cold War and has many useful contacts, reminding me a little of  Mrs Pargeter.

There are plenty of red herrings and some clever misdirection, none of it seeming contrived.  The over-riding feeling on reading this is one of quiet pleasure. There are moments of poignancy, as you’d perhaps expect in this kind of environment, but also humour and even farce.  One of the quotations the publishers used is ‘Robert Galbraith meets Tom Sharpe,’ which is absurd. The humour is gentle, witty and kindly meant. If I had to reference comparable writers, I’d opt for Henry Cecil, Richard Gordon and Simon Brett (the Mrs Pargeter novels), though Mr Osman’s style and wit are definitely his own.

Among the many potential quotations that give a flavour of a sense of heartfelt kindness that flows throughout, I’ll simply offer two:

‘Many years ago, everybody here would wake early because there was a lot to do and only so many hours in the day. Now they wake early because there is a lot to do and only so many days left.’ (p42)

As Joyce says, ‘In life you have to learn to count the good days. You have to tuck them in your pocket and carry them around with you.’ (p88)

The book is written in the third person present tense from an omniscient point of view, interspersed with first person diary entries by Joyce. And it works exceedingly well.

A sequel is already planned for publication for next autumn.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Book of the film - LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER


Written by Elmore Leonard in 1959, my copy is published 2005. Leonard is famous for both his crime novels (Get Shorty, Mr Majestyk, Glitz, and Out of Sight) and also westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, Valdez is Coming, Joes Kidd, and The Bounty Hunters) and many of his books have been filmed.

Last Stand at Saber River took almost forty years to be filmed, as a TV movie starring Tom Selleck, Suzy Amis, Haley Joel Osment, Keith Carradine, David Carradine and David Dukes.

The film and the book differ mainly in the beginning and end sequences.

The film starts earlier than the book, filling in background that is flashbacked in the book. The Civil War still rages. Reported killed in action, Paul Cable is a Confederate veteran returning home to surprise his wife Martha and two children (they lost a third to disease while he was away fighting; though in the book the child is alive [economising on young actors]). His family has been staying with her parents but now he is going to take them to their homestead in Arizona, which they left during his absence. However, in the book it begins with them arriving at the trading post which is near to their homestead. But the owner has passed away and it is now part owned by Janroe who lost a hand in the war.

Cable soon learns that a Union-sympathising family has assumed control of Cable’s homestead and land. This is the Kidston family: Vern, his brother Duane and his daughter Lorraine. Some of the Kidston cowhands are staying at the homestead. Cable chases them off. Thus begins an ongoing feud between the two families. In the book Cable suffers two brutal beatings at the hands of the Kidston crew and Duane (the film doesn’t impose this on Selleck, he is tougher and not averse to killing in self defence).

Janroe harbours a powerful hate for the Union and all who supported the North. He is intent on engineering further conflict between the two families, even while both Vern and Lorraine are about to talk rather than fight with Cable and Martha.

It is all brought to a head in the final pages and is taut and tense, as one is accustomed when reading any Elmore Leonard book.

However, the film moves beyond the book, stretching out the suspense, determined on inserting more action and conflict.

Both endings work for their different media.

If you like the actor Tom Selleck, then you should enjoy this film. If you like a novel with conflict, strong characterisation and a moral core, then you’ll enjoy the book.