Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Vague Vibration in the Earth and Air: The Dickens Season on BBC Radio

I don't really know what this is either.

Earlier in the week on The Drive-in Bingo, I reviewed the first bit of flagship output from the BBC’s Dickens Season, the underwhelming The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, as sprawling a mess as the alleyways of Oliver Twist’s London (but with none of the character).

But the Dickens Season actually spluttered into life just at the end of November, as Radio 4 presented a recent Dickens biography – Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens, A Life – as their Book of the Week and has continued since across BBC Radios 3, 4 and their diminutive, clammy handed cousin 4extra.*

Much of it has involved the BBC spicing up and roasting that old radio chestnut, monologue. Monologue (simply, one person speaking) is an excellent form for radio, which the BBC does very well on strands like Four Thought. There’s something primal and personal about monologue that harks back to the days of public oration, preachers and proclamations. Indeed Dickens himself, famed for his huge, popular public readings, put this sense into the very fabric of his writing.

Tomalin’s biography, however, is read by Penelope Wilton. You may remember Wilton as Harriet Jones in the David Tennant days of Dr Who, the Prime Minister whose entire premiership the Doctor topples by simply whispering “doesn’t she look tired” into a nearby ear. She sounds it too. Wilton sounds less like a broadcaster, more like the reader on a language-learning tape: refined, clear, unnatural, slow. To be fair to Wilton, who is an engaging screen actor, broadcasting alone without a live audience is, as I’ve learnt myself on the odd occasion I’ve had to do it, quite a challenge.

Similar problems are initially true of the Radio 3 output, which presents 15 minutes on Dickens each night this week in its regular segment The Essay. But things really got going on Wednesday with A L Kennedy’s impassioned, and subtly politicised, speech on misery and suffering in Nicholas Nickleby. The writers amongst you will also be interested in Thursday’s edition in which Alexander McCall Smith discusses the craft of writing serialised fiction. Listen out for the repeated use of the phrase “serial author”, used as if McCall Smith is unwittingly admitting to some terrible crime.

Elsewhere, 4extra repeated a reading of Dickens’s surreal short, ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’, a whimsical tale of a graveyard invaded by monsters. It’s hammed up in fine style by Clive Francis, an entertaining tale for family audiences, true to the campness of the original.

But radio doesn’t really come alive until there’s an element of discussion – whether the other side of that discussion is an interviewer, a co-presenter, an opponent or a live audience: radio needs voices.

It should be no surprise, then, that by far and away the best Dickens programme of the season so far was the Christmas edition of Andrew Marr’s Start the Week. Canon Giles Fraser, Claire Tomalin (a far fiercer speaker than she is a writer) and Susan Hill discuss the interlocking themes of the meaning of Christmas, Dickens’s society, and ghost stories. The opposition of the speakers brings out the most startling intellectual and emotional insight into their topics, cutting through spirituality, art, politics and morality much as Dickens himself might have if he had, like those writers just a generation and a half below him, lived into the age of the wireless.

A Victorian on the BBC: H G Wells

*I say that purely to cast 4extra as a comic Dickensian character – 4extra is, of course, a wonderful accompaniment to the BBC’s output.



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Stuff and Nonsense: The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff

Few TV writers can feel as lucky, professionally speaking, as the author of The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, Mark Evans. Evans, who quilled Radio 4’s Bleak Expectations, was an obvious choice for a BBC2 commission to kick off the television output of the BBC’s Dickens Season. Not only did that guarantee him an audience, but also gave his writing the benefit of what looks to have been quite a sizeable budget as well as some of the country’s best loved comic actors: Robert Webb, David Mitchell, Katherine Parkinson and Stephen Fry.

What’s more Charles Dickens provides, for Evans’s source material, one of the richest legacies of work a single writer has left us since Shakespeare. There are, accordingly, plenty of silly names, gratuitous facial hair and wind-up top hats that get bigger with the dramatic tension. On paper this light Dickensian parody could have been one of the funniest shows of the year.

So what the Dickens went wrong?

First, three things that went resoundingly right. Terrence “The Demon Headmaster” Hardiman running around with a goose on his head stole every scene he was in, whilst everyone who even laid a stitch on the absurd sumptuousness that was the show’s costumes should give themselves a good old-fashioned bravo. Especially the hats. I also couldn’t help but smile every time the lead character’s full name, Jedrington Secret-Past, was mentioned.

The trouble with The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff in fact is more fundamental: it doesn’t understand parody.

Parody can work in a number of ways. It can take an established trope or sequence and put it into an entirely new place – exposing both that familiar place and that familiar trope as odd, fraudulent even. Or it can out-do its source, exposing its own fraudulence in the process. Think of the product placement parody in Wayne’s World. Or take this scene from US sitcom Community, the culmination of a plotline that out-paranoids the best conspiracy theory movies in dazzling style:

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, however, views parody as just: the thing it’s parodying, but a bit shit. Instead of out-doing the classic Dickensian plotlines by escalating their ridiculousness, shifting them to another setting, or by bringing another setting’s tropes into the Dickensian realm, Evans instead treads in Dickens’s shadow, saying what Dickens says, but in a funny voice – a tone inherited by the one-note “plot exposition with a veneer of irony” style of the show’s actors.

Part of the problem is that Dickens is himself a parodist – even Jedrington Secret-Past’s name is not as grotesquely obvious as the title character of one of my favourite Dickens short stories, ‘Captain Murderer’. You can guess what he does by the end of the story. Dickens’s language, modern screen audiences are liable to forget, is itself often deliberately old-fashioned, playing a game with the heightened language of the author’s predecessors, a game in which Dickens sets the rules, moves the goal posts and somehow has the warped logic to end with a home run every time.

David Mitchell’s character, Jolliforth, is one of the few things in the show worthy of a Dickensian label. Jolliforth gets bigger when he’s happier, inflating to an amazing size. But when he’s sad, such as when nasty mister Skulkingworm whispers bleak thoughts in his ear, he gets thinner and thinner. A good parody is like Jolliforth when he’s happy – it just keeps growing and growing into absurdism. But when you handle parody cynically, without any artistic purpose, it’s bound to deflate. Like Jolliforth, its life depends on the richness of the ideas whispered into its ear.

If what you’re looking for this Christmas is a TV show that presents funny scenes on bookish topics with Stephen Fry in it, then watch Horrible Histories. If you want a fun romp set in a CGI Victorian London with Stephen Fry in it, then go out and see the new Sherlock Holmes film. The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff hasn’t got enough stuff or enough nonsense for your swettlepence.

The endeavour was worth it, however, for us to discover one very important thing: David Mitchell looks really good with a handle bar moustache.


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Albums of the Year, 2011

Commodore Record Shop, New York, 1947

December is the season of three things: Christmas, bloggers making lists of stuff they like and bloggers complaining about other bloggers making lists of stuff they like. Me, I like a list.

Casual Reader beware, with the exception of The Mountain Goats, I haven’t seen ANY of the albums below on other end-of-year lists, and none of them are massive artists in the UK, so you may not have heard of them. It crossed my mind that this may look like I’m being contrary to the prevailing wisdom by not listing more widely acclaimed records. I’m not. I’ve chosen the music that excites me, not the music that others agree is cool.

They’re obscure, but accessible, entertaining and emotionally engaging so if anything piques your interest have a listen: a playlist link is below.

Please leave your comments/disagreements/own list below the line, I always like to read them when people do.


5) Chilly Gonzales – The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales

Undoubtedly the best classical-hip-hop hybrid album produced by a Canadian emigrant in France all year (GO ON INTERNET PROVE ME WRONG), The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales gave hip-hop a blaze of orchestral glory. The album delivers at every level – an inventive and eccentric orchestra record; a witty, vocally dexterous rap record. But the two sounds also compliment each other. After all, why wouldn’t they? Hip-hop is all about pulling all sorts of things out of the music box and spinning them round til they break – why not cello and piano? Like most art that reaches ahead of the trends, this album speaks to itself (and to other art) way too much. But thank god it lets us listen.


4) Ane Brun – It All Starts with One

Swedish pop music is some of the best in the world and their most striking export this year (to my ears at least) is by Norwegian emigrant Ane Brun. The lyrics are ridiculously slight – like a hesitant, unreciprocated conversation, answered only by wind-swept instrumentals and, later on, pounding storm-like drums. I don’t think it undersells the work of either to say that Brun will come over to most British listeners like a slower, gentler Florence + The Machine, albeit with more depth both musically and emotionally. Some reviews felt this album was too managed, not free enough – there is a certain rigidness but for me this only helps measure the distance between the singer and her estranged subject.


3) The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

Most other write-ups are claiming this to be the eighteenth studio album from the John Darnielle-fronted American acoustic rock band The Mountain Goats. It’s a hard number to measure amongst their early lo-fi tapes and other almost-albums, but who am I to disagree? Darnielle revisits many old themes on this record, particularly mythology – used how it’s meant to be used, as an allegory, psychological prism and emotional crutch. Mythology here meets a bit of mysticism, a bit of a’cappella barbershop (yes, they went there) and even a big old panoramic piano ballad – ‘Never Quite Free’, both one of the best and most populist songs the band have recorded to date.


2) Eliza Carthy – Neptune

An artist I’ve already written much about this year, Eliza Carthy not only had a storming year of live shows, but also made one of its most exciting albums. Bringing in influences from all over the place – folk, motown, jazz – and, more importantly, using them all in just the right places, no album I heard in 2011 was as varied and, one a purely instrumental level, as exciting as Neptune. There was a time a few years ago when all sorts of multi-instrumental arrangements were becoming really fashionable all over the place – in pop, punk, everywhere. I liked that trend. I like albums that just throw every musical trick they’ve got at something, keep whatever sticks and adds some backing vocals. This is one of the best.


1) Akira the Don – The Life Equation

It’s hard, most people think, to make art that’s happy, that’s optimistic, to make entertainment, excitement, fun and to still make it serious and weighty. Luckily, not everyone thinks this way – some people with serious stuff to say also like Manga comics and pop records and computer games. Akira the Don makes music as exciting and colourful as his various (and multifarious) influences and this year he completed the second record that he seems happy for people to call a proper studio album (he does an inexhaustible amount of collaborations, singles and mixtapes the rest of the time).

Akira is known as a rapper, but The Life Equation feels more like a pop album to me, with a very old fashioned foot-tapping sensibility propping up its rhythms – due in part to the influence of co-producer Stephen Hague (a man whose varied CV includes albums by Robbie Williams, Mel C and New Order). It nicks stuff from all over the place, mixes it up and lets it rip, like a massive Transformer robot made from a load of worn-out cars: “No idea’s original, there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s not what you do but how it’s done” sings Akira – even the very phrases he uses to talk about re-hashing are themselves conspicuously re-hashed.

Yes, the album has its moments of extreme corniness. But it’s Baz Luhrmann-esque – the showmanship that sells cliché back to you as vintage chic. And what is cliché, as Craig Arnold once asked, but a poem that won?


The Drive-in Bingo’s Songs of 2011 Spotify playlist featuring Nicki Minaj, Arctic Monkeys, Los Campesinos! and The Decemberists is now online.


Come back soon for AT LEAST TWO more end-of-year posts.

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