Saturday 31 August 2013

The Queen and I - Sue Townsend

Following on from The Restraint of Beasts, here is another gift book (from my lovely ex-colleagues at OUP), another comic book, another one which seems like it might have a message hiding in there somewhere... but entirely different.  Knowing how much I love, admire, and respect Queen Elizabeth II, my colleagues got me (amongst other Queen-related things) The Queen and I (1992) by Sue Townsend, and I wolfed it down in a day or two.

The premise of The Queen and I is something that makes me Royalist blood run cold - a politician called Jack Barker uses subliminal pictures on television to brainwash the nation into voting his party to power, and his first act is to abolish the monarchy.  (Shudder!)  The Queen and her family are sent off to live on a council estate in Hellebore Close - known locally as Hell Close.  There they must make do with benefits or the pension, with only the possessions they can fit in their tiny houses (most of which end up getting stolen pretty quickly anyway.)  The country rather falls apart with a hopeless leader in charge, but of more interest is seeing how the royals get along without any money and in surroundings which they are far from used to.

And, oh, it is funny!  But more than that, it is believable - not the premise (even if we ever lose our monarchy - Heaven forbid! - it's unlikely they'd get aggressively shipped off to council houses) but the way in which various members of the Royal family would respond.  Sue Townsend writes very affectionately of the royals; although it's tricky to work out whether or not she thinks the institution is a good one, she certainly has a lot of respect for certain members of it.  Chief among these is, of course, the Queen.  She behaves exactly as I would expect - that is, she just gets on with it.  Since she spends her life seeing every imaginable culture, habits, and traditions, it's unlikely that there is anything that could wrong foot her socially.  The one thing she cannot quite get used to (and this is where Townsend's social critique of Britain comes into play, one suspects) is how little money people are expected to live on, and how inefficient and difficult the system is.  Here she is, chatting with a social worker...
"And what is the current situation regarding your personal finances?" 
"We are penniless.  I have been forced to borrow from my mother; but now my mother is also penniless.  As is my entire family.  I have been forced to rely on the charity of neighbours.  But I cannot continue to do so.  My neighbours are..." The Queen paused. 
"Socially disadvantaged?" supplied Dorkin. 
"No, they are poor," said the Queen.  "They, like me, lack money.  I would like you, Mr. Dorkin, to give me some money - today, please.  I have no food, no heat and when the electrician goes, I will have no light." 
But not everybody is so resilient.  Other royals do cope well with the move - Prince Charles is thrilled about getting to some quiet gardening, Princess Anne loves getting out of the limelight, and the Queen Mother (bless her!) finds the whole thing hilarious, so long as she's got a drink or two next to her.  But Prince Philip takes to his bed and won't engage at all, Princess Margaret similarly refuses to acknowledge that her situation in life has changed - while Princess Diana is saddened chiefly by the lack of wardrobe space.  It's quite odd to read a book about the royals set before Diana died - because it is impossible to think of her without that context now.  In 1992, she could still be affectionately mocked as a clothes horse and a flibbertigibbet.  Indeed, remembering how old all the royals were in 1992 and reformulating my view of them is quite tricky, since I was only 7 then, and don't remember (for instance) Princess Anne's days as a relative beauty.

As far as social commentary goes, Townsend obviously wants to draw attention to the plight of the poor, in the battle against bureaucracy and out-of-touch officials, but perhaps it doesn't help her cause that every working-class character is essentially kind and decent.  A few rough diamonds, but they're all there to help each other at the drop of a hat, issuing generous platitudes when needed and handy at knocking together a makeshift hearse.  Of course, that's better than making them all selfish, violent thugs or benefits cheats, but it might have been a more effective portrait of a working-class community had the characters and their traits been more varied, as they would be in any other community.

Which is a small quibble with a very clever, very amusing page-turner.  The idea was brilliant, but in other hands it wouldn't have worked.  I can only agree with the Times review quoted on the back cover: "No other author could imagine this so graphically, demolish the institution so wittily and yet leave the family with its human dignity intact."

Thursday 29 August 2013

The Restraint of Beasts - Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills has been hovering around the edges of my reading consciousness for some time, including having read two of his novels - The Maintenance of Headway (good, but didn't quite work for me) and All Quiet on the Orient Express (much better) - but I've always felt that I could really love a Mills novel, given the right novel and the right timing.  Well, about three years ago my then-housemate Mel gave me The Restraint of Beasts (1998) - where better to re-start with Mills than with his first novel?  (N.B. Mel, now that I've finally read the book you got me for my birthday in 2010, will you buy me books again?)

Our narrator is anonymous (which I confess I hadn't noticed until I read the Wikipedia page for the novel) and has just become the foreman of a Scottish fencing company, led by the domineering Donald and contentedly useless Robert.  He is a foreman of a small team - Gang no.3 - which consists of just three people, including himself.  The others are Tam and Rich - inseparable but taciturn, fairly lazy, and undemonstrative.  Having been introduced to his team (and discovering that he is replacing Tam in the foreman position), the narrator and his colleagues are sent off to fix the fence of a local farmer, which has been erected poorly.

If this is all sounding rather dull, then I should let you know - the activities of the heroes (or lack thereof) are determinedly boring.  They put up fences.  They travel to England to do so, and vary the monotony of hammering in posts only with trips to the local pubs, which provide almost no incident, and are generally almost empty.

One of the things studying English for so long has enabled me to do, I hope, is identify how a writer creates certain effects or atmosphere.  I hope Stuck-in-a-Book generally shows that sort of insight into a novel, or at least tries to.  But with Mills and The Restraint of Beasts (which is my favourite of the three I've read so far), I am almost entirely unable to say why it works.  Here is a sample paragraph for you...
Their pick-up truck was parked at the other side of the yard.  They'd been sitting in the cab earlier when I went past on my way to Donald's office.  Now, however, there was no sign of them.  I walked over and glanced at the jumble of tools and equipment lying in the back of the vehicle.  Everything looked as though it had been thrown in there in a great hurry.  Clearly it would all need sorting out before we could do anything, so I got in the truck and reversed round to the store room.  Then I sat and waited for them to appear.  Looking around the inside of the cab I noticed the words 'Tam' and 'Rich' scratched on the dashboard.  A plastic lunch box and a bottle of Irn-Bru lay on the shelf.
And, believe me, things get technical.  I've learnt more about putting up fences than I'd ever imagined I'd know.   (Fyi, they're usually being built to pen in animals - the restraint of beasts, y'see.  Excellent title.)  Mills worked as a fencer himself for some years, so you could be forgiven for thinking this was turning into an odd autobiography.

But, in amongst this, occasionally bizarre or momentous things DO happen, and they are treated with as casually and matter-of-factly as the tedium of standing in the rain with a fence hammer.  That is one of the reasons I loved this novel - I love surreal and black humour, but I hate anything disgusting, unduly frightening, macabre, or viciously unkind (so psychological thrillers almost always off the menu.)  Mills lets the moments of darkness become instantly surreal simply by giving us a narrator who does not see the difference between life-changing, terrible incidents and the everyday minutiae of the construction industry.  (Note that I'm deliberately avoiding telling you what these dark moments are, because I don't want to spoil the surprise!)

Somehow, throughout plain and 'deceptively simple' (sorry, had to be done) prose, Mills expertly implies growing menace and claustrophobia.  The humour is still there - never laugh-out-loud funny, but always a dry, bleak humour - but the darkness seems to be spreading.  And from the opening pages, the reader is pulled from page to page, without almost nothing happening... how?  I don't know what is in the writing that makes it work so well, as tautly engaging as a detective novel.  It's obvious that All Quiet on the Orient Express was written after The Restraint of Beasts, because it follows a similar premise and style, but with a firmer structure.  And yet I refer The Restraint of Beasts, perhaps because it is more daring in its lack of structure.

And what is it all about?  I haven't the foggiest.  The ending (which, again, I shan't spoil) isn't conclusive at all, but dumps a whole load of clues about the meaning of the novel.  I wondered whether it might be a metaphor for fascism, or perhaps communism, or... well, I don't know.  It doesn't much matter, and I'd have been rather cross if it turned out to be a heavy-handed metaphor for anything (only George Orwell can get away with that), so I'm happy to let it be simply an excellent, bewildering, disturbing placid novel.  If you've yet to try Mills, start here.

It's been a while since I did a 'Others who got Stuck into...' section, because I have a terrible memory, so...

Others who got Stuck into The Restraint of Beasts...

"He is able to turn the ordinary into something sinister in a way that defies description, so that you're never quite sure whether a terrible event is going to happen or whether the author is just playing with your sense of the dramatic." - Kim, Reading Matters

"There are a number of things said that seem to be evasions or euphemisms that are not explained. Everything is sinister and suspect." - Kate, Nose in a Book

"It has an undercurrent of mystery and black farce that I felt it could have done without, as it remains an unresolved and unlikely subplot." - Read More Fiction

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Great British Bake Off: Series 4: Episode 2

Last week: hundreds of bakers swarmed around the tent, and kept appearing until the last minute of the show.  They claim there were 13 (yes, 'baker's dozen' makes an appearance in the episode 2 what-happened-last-week) but I stopped counting at forty.  And you were all very welcoming of my recap and said lovely things, which was very encouraging!  Thank you so much.

This week it's Bread Week, which of course means that the intro is filled with various people telling us that it's Paul Hollywood's speciality, and nary a Mary in sight.  Maybe she doesn't care about bread.  Maybe she's busy shrieking at someone in make-up for having the wrong eyelash curler.  It is not for us to know.

As for the bakers in the intro - my eye is on Teary Ruby (note to self: make this a better pun on Ruby Tuesday... Ruby Tearday?) Ruby Tearday seems to be just as angry and sullen as last week, if the 'coming up next' clips are to be trusted.

If this were America's Next Top Model (note to self: try not to alienate 90% of the audience immediately) she'd be the one who'd snap at week eight and have a showdown with Tyra, who would pretend to be motherly and tell her to "own her best self" or something.  Since this is the bake off, I presume she'll just quietly leave in week three, and maybe write a passive aggressive column for Marks & Spencer's Your Home magazine.

PUN KLAXON.  Remember how the Bake Off got all self-aware about puns last week?  Well, this week they don't even introduce the topic, they just start riffing on 'Bohemiam Bapsody' and the like.  I'm a bit worried that my klaxon will self-combust in a fit of ironic self-contradiction.  But I also enjoy that blazers appear to be contagious.  And that Mel seems to be coming up with a ploy to strangle a short person.

"If I close my eyes, I'm not an accessory to the crime."
"AccessoRYE to the THYME, more like."

Our first challenge is signature bake breadsticks.  Mel solemnly entones "Breadsticks are made all over the world" - which smacks of a BBC researcher hoping to find an interesting fact about breadsticks on Wikipedia, and giving up almost immediately.  Which is quite apt, because it's a monumentally uninteresting topic.  Bread week always is.  I love bread as much as the next man - indeed, unless the next man is Paul Hollywood, I love it rather more.  Man cannot live by bread alone, Scripture tells us, but let's not forget that the next words are 'but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'  Amen to that, say I, but we don't need to diversify the food bit much.  I'd happily eat nothing but bread and cheese all day, everyday.  But... that doesn't make it aesthetically interesting in the way that cakes are.  So, instead, let's turn to the judges...

Is it a coincidence that Paul and Sue both have their hands in their pockets (although only Paul looks like he's in the middle of a line dance) while Mary and Mel have their hands folded in front of them?

Mary has wrapped up warm for the day, which suggests that it's not quite as balmy as the incidental shots of lambs intend us to believe.  I tried to get a shot of Mary looking smiley and cheerful, but instead she's come out looking a little like Sean Connery...

We wander through all the recipes and suchlike, but you don't come here for those sorts of summaries, do you?  Breadsticks, I repeat, are not scintillating things (though very pleasant to eat) so it's difficult to get animated over the fact that some people are putting in cardamom and some people orange etc.  (Those are made up, by the way.  I don't remember what they put in.  Well, except for Frances.  Just wait for her...)

So, instead, let's look at the VTs this week.  Second week is, apparently, Hobbies Week, where the bakers scrabble around to find anything, anything at all, to offer.  A question once only required for dating videos and French GCSE coursework, listing your hobbies is apparently a reality show must nowadays.  Poor Glenn apparently has no home life, as we see him yet again in his school.  Awkward.

"I sleep in the store cupboard."

Stranger still is Rob, who claims to be a scientist, but apparently just looms over scientists all day.  If staring through a window counts as employment nowadays, then the people at Boswell's owe me rather a lot of money.

And then he claims to be a 'mushroom forager'.  This is so clearly not a thing that I can only presume he works for MI5.

My favourite, though, is Ali.  I forget what he does (besides panic, of course) but this is apparently a mock-up of something he's creating at work:

I've never claimed to be an expert at graphic design, but I have a feeling that typing EMPOWER YOUTH over the rest of your document - while emphatic - perhaps isn't the way to go.  He is similarly held back when it comes to bread, apparently, as he admits that it's not his forte.  I just had to capture the looks on Paul and Mary's faces when he said this...

There are a few other highlights during this section... Sue asks somebody whether they're worried that they'll 'retard the yeast', and Mary is very impressed with her.  I had my fingers crossed that she'd whip out a housepoint chart or something, but I can wait.  FOR NOW.

And I always like to illustrate what a lovely programme this is compared to other reality competitions - and this week's illustration is this this lovely moment between Mel and Beca.  Beca was almost entirely absent from last week's episode, but I have high hopes of her becoming this year's Cathryn - she's funny, she's a bit silly, and (bonus!) she's Welsh.   This shot comes after they have joked that Mary Berry is Beca's body double...

Can you imagine Alan Sugar doing this?

And I promised you an update on Frances's breadsticks - which are ginger and chocolate, but more than that, they are in the shape of matches.  And she's made a novelty-sized matchbox.  Of course she has.

Sadly this is the best angle we see it at, so I can't read the text on top, but I think (and hope and pray) that it says Berry's Matches on top.  Frances reminds me a bit of Our Vicar's Wife... in terms of being a bundle of creativity that tips that merry balance into delightfully bonkers (did I ever tell you that Mum built a gypsy caravan out of wood in our back garden?  Twice?)  (Love you Mum!)   Frances is tightrope walking along that line between sweetly ambitious and Holly-obnoxious.  (Remember Holly?  She was the one who hid a miniature gingerbread house under her croquembouche.)  At the moment she is just the right side of awful, because she is so endearingly like a Sunday School teacher gone mad, and just self-aware enough to keep the audience on side.

Sadly, it turns out to be Baker's Matches. Apt, but not Mary enough.

And I'm inaugurating the Official Mary Barry Adorable Moment of the Week Award.  Sponsorship deal yet to be confirmed, but I've got high hopes that the Andrex puppy will get on board.  Well, this week it's Mary playing spillikins with Rob's breadsticks.

If you print those out, they'll make the world's shortest flipbook.

One and a half episodes is a bit early to say how I feel about the bakers, but now that I've started to at least recognise each of them, I'm going to go ahead and judge them as people and moral individuals, the way that reality television wants me to.  Ahem.  You know that I love Beca, Christine, and Una Stubbs, but let's talk about a couple of others.

Well, Rob may not be a euphoric individual, but I feel a great deal of empathy with him - as will many of you - when I saw this moment:

And what about Kimberley?  I have a feeling that she might be a bit too cool for this show.  She's very beautiful, calm, collected, and - yes - cool.  If she gets flour smeared across her face, or trips over an open oven door and flings a tray of buns on the floor, then I think I'll find her easier to like.  Not that she's dislikeable, it's just that every moment she is on the screen, I realise how inept and hopeless my life is.  That's all.

Judging.  Nothing of interest to report - how could there be? - except that apparently I no longer notice when parts of speech are misused.  'Good bake' sounds like perfect English to me now.  But there is some hope for me passing my English DPhil, since I'm still not quite on board with "Welcome to yeast!" and "I think the raisin does bring something to the party."

Ruby Tearday does very well and SMILES!

In other news, a pig has started manning flights to a blue moon.

And we're onto the technical challenge, which is English muffins. Yummmm.  I love them, but I would question whether or not they're worth going to all that effort for... but they're not as absurd as when they made those chocolate marshmallow cake things that cost £1.50 for eight.

And Brend 2.0, whose name I have sadly forgotten - last week I suggested he could be The Brend reimagined by Woody Allen; this week I think he might be The Brend as reimagined by Alan Bennett.  It's not just the Northern accent, it's that everything he says sounds like a half-comic, half-mournful segment from Talking Heads.  (Ten points, by the way, if you are the only other person in the world who likes both America's Next Top Model and Talking Heads.  Never let it be said that my cultural references are limited, or coherent.)  Witness, for instance, his way of testing the temperature of his griddle : "I've been putting my face over it, to test the heat coming up."  Alan wishes he'd written that line.

Incidentally, while I'm making spurious televisual references, Sue's 'BAKE!' is getting steadily more like Stephen Fry playing General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth.

Uncanny, no?

Muffins give Sue and Mel a chance to reel off the 'Do you know the muffin man?' rhyme, and this out-of-work actor to get his Equity card.

Available for panto.

Back to muffins.  Alan Bennett's Brend (I really ought to research their actual names - like, y'know, reading my own recap from last week) suffers from Sue's carelessness, and she leaves an elbow imprint in one of his muffins... Since everyone seems to have stopped hacking at themselves with knives, this is given a fair bit of fanfare.  (Could this outbreak of self-stabbing last week have been canny contestants trying to make sure they got some notice from the camera, among the dozens of competitors?)

Bezza and Paul step forward to do the judging, and I'm impressed by pretty much all of the muffins, which do look pretty uniform across the board.  Oddly Mary doesn't seem to eat any of them - at least we don't see her doing so on screen; I know, I was waiting for a Pirate Shot - and a woman I only vaguely recognise comes last.  Frances is second, and Kimberley comes top.  No tripping over in sight.  Hmm.

I've not addressed the difference between English muffins and American muffins, have I?  Well, always leave the audience wanting more.

Showstopper challenge!  In the lead-up chat-around-the-tea-table, Mel says "Every baker goes into the final needing to do well" - Paul looks suspicious, and my pun klaxon is being judiciously oiled, but... turns out the needing/kneading pun was inadvertent.  Klaxon back away.  FOR NOW.

There isn't really anything very 'showstopper' about bread, is there?  Some bakers are bravely going to decorate their loaves, which I can't imagine working, but while it exists only in the form of the garish faux-notebook of the BBC graphics department, Ruby Tearday's peacock bread is looking quite fancy.  "We've never had a peacock!" notes Mary, adroitly.

Even better, though, is Rob's creation.  He's going to be making a loaf honouring (for honouring is the word) Paul the Psychic Octopus.  Remember him?  He may be eternally dour during the judging, but he's clearly got an adorable, geeky side.  (By 'he' I mean Rob, by the way, not Paul the Psychic Octopus.  He, sadly, is dead.  I bet he didn't see that coming.  Ba-doom-tish.  Sorry.)  The graphics department lose their head completely, and draw a nauseous hippo at a street carnival:

To do Mary justice, she is entirely unflappable, and simply enquires whether the tentacles will be attached before or after baking.  She's not quite so sanguine in the next chat.  The inspiration for Ali's yin/yang bread came to him in a dream, apparently.  Let's pause a moment to enjoy the face Mary makes in response to this information:

As far as "I have a dream" speeches go, I can't imagine it'll have quite the same legacy as some.

Let's fast forward to a few of the most memorable results - which aren't quite in the same league as the cakes, when it comes to appearance.  You can almost feel the cameraman's anxiety at finding an angle which makes them look like something other than bread rolls after a particularly glittery afternoon at a children's nursery.

If you see any peacocks that in any way resemble this,
contact the RSPB.  Do not approach.

Paul H comes over all Simon Cowell, telling Alan Bennett's Brend, about his orange/oregano bread, that "You're great with your flavours normally... and you've done it again!"  Next week he'll start saying "You're not not not... not not not in. Not."

And the octopus looks awful.  Coloured decorations on bread = unpleasant.  A nice idea, but children with colouring pencils couldn't have made this look less edible.

The edit has already prepared us for Lucy's loaf being heavily criticised for being uncreative, but I should mention that darling Christine (who pops into the programme for about five seconds this week, perhaps on the way to the post office) seemed to provide an equally non-showstopper sort of bread.  That's not to say that Lucy shouldn't be penalised for essentially sticking a bog-standard loaf on the table, but she's not alone.

Incidentally, it is only during this critique that I learn Lucy's name.  And I have a feeling that I won't need to know it in a few minutes' time...

So, let's see who came top and bottom of bread week, shall we?  Results after the jump....
Star Baker is... the delightfully shocked Ruby Tearday, who'll need a name change:

And going home, as every moment of the programme augured, is Lucy:

To add insult to injury, she didn't even get a hair ruffle from Mary.

Next week: dessert!  Back to baking that actually looks attractive as well as tasting great, and lots of potential for things to fall over.  Hope you've enjoyed this week's recap - see you next week!

Monday 26 August 2013

The Crafty Art of Playmaking - Alan Ayckbourn

I loved hearing about your favourite theatrical experiences on the previous post!  Lots of us seem to cherish special moments of seeing our acting heroes.  I restricted myself to one - otherwise I'd have had to include Judi Dench in Peter and Alice, Judi Dench again in All's Well That Ends Well, Tamsin Greig in Much Ado About Nothing, Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles in The Rivals... etc. etc.

Well, all is revealed - the book, which I've realised I actually mentioned the other day, is The Crafty Art of Playmaking (2002) by Alan Ayckbourn.  I actually bought it earlier in the year, and when I started I hadn't even remembered that the play I was about to see, Relatively Speaking, was by Ayckbourn.  It wasn't until I turned to p.3 and saw the play mention (and, er, spoiled a bit) that I realised I should put the book to one side until I'd seen the play.

When I went back to it, I found The Crafty Art of Playmaking an invaluable companion to seeing Relatively Speaking, but it is a fascinating book for anybody interested in the theatre whether or not that have recently watched one of Ayckbourn's plays.  I've written before about my interest in the theatre, but usually (when I read theatrical books) is acting memoir from the twentieth century, or similar.  Other than when actors take a step into the director's chair (that metaphor fell apart) have I read much from that side of the fence, and I don't think I've read anything particularly thorough about writing plays, although A.A. Milne's autobiography has a brilliant section where he traces a few of his plays back to their roots.

That is where discussion of Relatively Speaking starts, but I don't really want to say what he writes, in case it spoils it for you... well, look away now if you don't want to know, ok?
Initial inspiration - that essential starting point - comes in all shapes and sizes.  Years ago I had the tiniest idea for a situation wherein a young man would ask an older man whether he could marry his daughter.  The twist was that the older man didn't have a daughter.
And there you go!  From there, Ayckbourn takes us through the various considerations which led to the play being set in two locations, and certain key plot points, and the like.  He also talks about many of his other plays, of course, but (having just seen this one) it was the dissection of Relatively Speaking which I found fascinating.

Throughout the book, Ayckbourn highlights 'Obvious Rules', which number from 1 to 100.  Some are not obvious, but it's a nice conceit to structure the book, and tends to summarise what he has discussed, with examples, in the previous section.  So, we have things like 'Use the minimum number of characters that you need' or 'Don't let them go off without reason' - and thins which aren't really quite rules, like 'You can never know too much about your characters before you start'.  It works well to keep the playwriting process grounded and achievable, while also showing that you can't (or shouldn't) sit down one afternoon thinking that, with a pithy epigram or two, a play will more or less form itself.

The second half of The Crafty Art of Playmaking (and the reason why it's Playmaking rather than Playwriting) concerns directing.  This was slightly less conceptual, because, instead of make-up characters and potentially infinite plots and dialogue, Ayckbourn is writing about lighting designers and wardrobe mistresses and the like.  He does seem to lump entire professions into single characteristics (wardrobe mistresses - or was it costume designers? - are apparently prone to hysterics; assistant stage managers are universally level-headed; sound engineers are over-ambitious, etc. etc.) but is perhaps being a bit tongue-in-cheek.  Hard to say.

Obviously there is a significant difference between a playwright and a director.  Well, there are many.  But a chief difference is that anybody can try being a playwright from the comfort of their own desk.  They might be appalling, but all they need are pen and paper (or electronic equivalent).  The director must have actually persuaded someone to let them have a job - and, while Ayckbourn does describe the various ways that might happen, it is with a tone of incredulity that it possibly could.  And once it has, I suppose one is no longer an amateur.

Ayckbourn's model of the director is very power-hungry and micromanaging, but perhaps that is a necessity.  Almost every section seems to end with 'but don't let them make any decision without consulting you', or something similar.  A director in this mould, who trusts nobody to do their jobs properly, would be a nightmare.  But for the first-time director, I suppose it is wise not to be ridden over roughshod.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this two-angle way of looking at playmaking is the contrast.  Ayckbourn often wrote and directed (writes and directs?) his own plays, but it is intriguing to see how he treats the potential director in the first half of the book, and the hypothetical writer in the second half.  All I can say is, he must be sometimes rather conflicted when he is doing one or the other! Incidentally, his plays are almost exclusively called the sort of unmemorable things one expects plays to be called.  Six of One, As You Were, After A Fashion, A Matter of Fact... those are all made up by me (as far as I know!) but you understand the sort of thing.  Bits of expressions, or everyday sayings, and entirely forgettable titles - curious for someone so inventive!

I found the director half of the book a bit harder to get my head around, as it is further from anything I have ever done or would ever want to do, and he is very coy about actual experiences in this area (very few names and dates, and lots of 'an actress once said...') but anybody thinking about going into directing would, I think, find it invaluable.

I don't intend to be either a playwright or a director, but I found Ayckbourn's book a fascinating glimpse behind these processes - and I think anybody interested in the theatre generally, let alone Ayckbourn specifically, would find a lot to like here.

Friday 23 August 2013

The Play's The Thing

The review I intended to write today hasn't happened, as editing a chapter of my thesis has taken over my life, but in preparation I shall ask you... what is the best performance you have ever seen on stage?

It has to be a combination of great play and great cast, of course.  And to a large extent it's a subjective assessment.  But I'm going to pick All My Sons, which I saw with David Suchet, Jemima Rooper, Zoe Wanamaker, and Stephen Campbell Moore.  Suchet, especially, was astonishing.  My thoughts are all here...

I'm recycling my theatre cartoon...

So, I'll be talking about plays tomorrow (or, ahem, soon)... and if you follow me on Twitter - @stuck_inabook, thanks for asking - you might be able to guess which book it'll be!  But... over to you!  Tell me about your experiences at the theatre!

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Great British Bake Off: Series 4: Episode 1

It's baaaaaaack!  And I'm back recapping - this time from the beginning of the series, which is rather daunting.  I can't promise it'll be every week, but we'll see how it goes.

Gosh, it doesn't feel a year since we last saw Mary eating like a pirate and Paul glowering at everyone, does it?  Have Mel and Sue been stuck in a room thinking up new anatomical euphemisms for a year?  (Judging on the wordplay this week... no.)  And why have no former Bake Off contestants yet appeared on Strictly Come Dancing?  I'd watch if Scottish James, Cathryn, and Sarah-Jane were there.  I can imagine Cathryn does a mean rumba.  And surely The Brend, a.k.a. The Bridge Between the 70s And Today, loves a sequin or two?

Alternatively, I suggest a show where he teaches underprivileged boys to play football.  It'll be called Brend It Like Beckham.  Thankyouverymuchgoodnight.

In preparation for the show tonight, Twitter had a hashtag #BakeOffSongs going around.  I contributed I Just Don't Know What To Do With My Self-Raising Flour - let me know if you think of anything.

It's going to be tricky, recapping the first episode before we know who everybody is, and while there are so many of them about - so I'm going to be selective rather than thorough, and try to keep an eye out for those who might become the much-loved heroes and villains of Series 4.  And this year there are a mammoth 13 bakers in the tent (which, incidentally, looks like a pretty good diagram of when you know that egg whites are stiff enough for meringue.)

They fail to mention that thirteen is a baker's dozen, which would have been rather apt.  I am, of course, lying.  They mention it so often that I'm starting think the numbers run 11, 12, baker's dozen, 14...  Indeed, this is the punniest episode I've ever seen - it even starts with a wait/weight gag, and I'll fill you in when we get to more.  Maybe even a pun klaxon.

We see a quick overview of tears, joy, cakes, and timers - and the judges get an 'aren't they scary?' edit, with people saying how frightened they are of Paul and Mary in turn.  I'm thinking the war on terror needs to turn its attention to these two, since apparently they're terrorising this baker's dozen of bakers.  (Geddit? Oh, sorry, we did that one.)

Are you ready for the laughter, the agony, and the ever-revolving cakes?  (Seriously, why do they revolve so much in these preview clips?  We never see them revolve again.)  Well, sorry - first we have to indulge Mel and Sue in a bit of light banter about surgical hoists and lacing.  They've strayed so far beyond the line of 'taking things seriously' that it now feels as though the Bake Off is a wonderful, state-sponsored crèche for them.

I've really grown to love that bridge.

The first challenge is a sandwich cake.  Things are pretty simple to start with, you'd have thought, but Mary Berry starkly informs us that "It is easy to make a basic sandwich cake.  We want them to go much further than that."  At this point we cross over to Una Stubbs sighing over her mixture, as though hearing Mary's words through the wall.  It's all very moving. 

Ok, it's not Una Stubbs. But I don't know her real name.

And, of course, we head over to a baker named Glenn saying that he's going to make a simple Victoria sandwich, because he thinks Mary will like the traditional.  Oh, Glenn.  Never underestimate Bezza.  She has the spirit of adventure in every pore.

Because this is the first episode, we get all those curious videos of the contestants at home, not interacting with the camera at all, and rather giving the impression that they're being stalked against their knowledge.  They also pick the most curious things.  This family portrait is rather understandable, even if it does show a violent side to the youth of today...

Maybe a pacifist protest?

...but along the way we also sit in on a dentist operation, a psychologist's session (professional!), and one poor student who can't afford a desk... but I couldn't find the screenshot of that.  Instead, here's Una Stubbs laughing.  And turns out she's called Deborah.

I suppose we're intended to get to know the bakers better, but I feel like I've learnt more about the voyeuristic (borderline illegal) tendencies of the cameramen, more than anything.  

I've already mentioned The Brend from last year - I assume you remember him?  He sounded like the talking clock, considered himself a ten-out-of-ten all round, and made Abigail's Party look like a model of elegant taste and restraint.  Well, I had high hopes of this gentlemen being the new Brend when he said that he was making his cake out of rice flour rather than flour.  To make his cake, he asserted, more cakey.  Or perhaps less cakey.  I forget.  We'll come back to Brend 2.0 to see whether he deserves the title...

The Brend as reimagined by Woody Allen?

While looking out for my favourites, I settled (but of course) on the older lady Christine who - hurrah! - lives in Oxfordshire, and looks like a cross between Felicity Kendal and Anne Reid.  Her home story seems to be having grandchildren (who don't turn up for the videoshoot) and an apron (which does).

But, while Christine is explaining her cake, Mary seems to sense that her title for Most Adorable Older Lady is up for grabs, and pulls a most uncharacteristically aggressive face...

"I've got a CBE. Have you?"

You'll have spotted that I've barely mentioned the cake they're making.  There's just too many of them, and you can probably guess what's happened. A couple of people are playing it too safe, somebody is adding inedible ingredients to give it an "exotic flavour", and an early show-off is doing something unduly over-the-top.  The Holly of the group.  This time it's actually rather sweet - a sandwich cake in the shape of a sandwich, paper bag (icing) and all.

There have been a fair number of crises so far.  Three casualties, in fact - I bet the producers were sharpening the knives backstage (backtent?) to make sure that accidents happened.  In mid-series, any one of these would have got four "coming up later" previews and a good ten minutes of screentime, but this time the tent is knee-deep in bakers so we only have time for a quick bandage and resilient "I'm all right" from Christine, and we're onto the next thing.  Which is Ruby crying... but we do see how lovely this show is compared to others when Sue goes over to give her a calming hug.  (I even read that Mel and Sue sometimes go and swear by people if they're really upset, so that the BBC can't use the footage.)

"I'm not being insensitive, but I've lost a contact lens."

The judging is pretty much the norm too.  Paul's "The creme patissiere is awful" is the equivalent of Mary's "It's not quite thick enough"; the person who used rose has used too much; cakes are underbaked, underdecorated, or (alternatively) very good.  But there are just too many of them to work out what's going on for long.  Except for the fact that Brend 2.0 turns out to be rather a sweetie, so I'm going to have to learn his real name one day.

Oh, lovely, we're off for the Historical Information bit.  Obviously anything of any interest was covered years ago, and today we're left with a description of 'promenading', which seems not only to have nothing to do with baking, but also to be a fanciful tale of sexual assault.  "They would grab the girls' hair," says Melanie Tebbutt, Historian cheerfully.

That's that for another week.  Shall we get back to the tent?  We're onto our first technical challenge - an Angel Food Cake.  Things have moved on rather from series one, when their technical challenge was a simple Victoria Sponge, haven't they?

Let's have a few highlights, shall we?  

Excellent anxious face. 
"The easiest task becomes a minefield of difficulties in the technical challenge" says Teary Ruby, obviously vying for a chance to do Anxious Voiceovers, should Mel's career ever head off in another direction.

To grease or not to grease becomes the big question of the tent.  I love that that's on primetime television.

"Rise, my baby, rise!" It's not often enough that the Wizard of Oz is misquoted in baking.  No, strike that, it is often enough.  Maybe too often.

Oh, and PUN KLAXON.  Somebody says "Cracking - physically cracking, not cracking as in it's good!"  An ambiguity for Wallace and Gromit and nobody else.

PUN KLAXON AGAIN - Una Stubbs makes a flip-the-tin/I've-flipped pun.  Not excellent wordsmithery, but points for effort.

And a gentleman is oddly surprised that his boiling lemon curd is hot, after sticking his finger in it.

I've got to say, the array is pretty impressive.  Series Four looks like it's following the upward trend of all previous series.  They just keep impressing me.  Well, except for one man, who used salt instead of sugar...

He seems oddly delighted by this.
Spoilers: he comes last in the technical challenge.

Still, all round Mary and Paul seem pretty impressed.  My favourite moment comes when Paul says that a cake looks like it's straight from the 1970s (The Brend? When did you come back?) and Mary says "I can't remember."  Lor' bless her.  Unless the 1970s was when she started to forget things...

And who doesn't love it when Paul has to spit out a cake?  Turns out salty cake isn't his cup of tea.  But, like a gentleman, he stops Mary trying any.  It's like Raleigh throwing his coat down for Queen Elizabeth I (only entirely different.)

Sue genuinely references "Salt rum baba, John, 2012"

We whip (BAKING PUN) through the pecking order of the Angel Cakes, and my girl Christine comes third.  A blonde woman I don't recognise at all comes second, and Rob comes first.  He's thrilled to the very core of his being.

And finally, we have the Showstopper Challenge. It's chocolate cake (have I mentioned that it's cake week?  I reckon you've worked it out), with decorations and tiers and the like.  This is certainly the most interesting of the challenges but, again, time is not on our side, and it's probably best to head straight for the end results...

But I will pause for my favourite moment of Fatuous Baking Warning from any series so far: "the darker colour of chocolate cake makes it harder to see when it's baked."  Oh, Mel.  Never change.  I wish you were in my kitchen, saying things like "Sugar makes things sweeter!" or "Lemons are yellow!"

Oh, and let's give the music director a special star for effects initiative, as somewhere along the way he or she had a bit of a breakdown and decided that what the Great British Bake Off really needed was a heavy drum beat.  You know when drums signal that something significant and dangerous is happening?  They do that - for Mary standing by a desk, a spatula, and somebody putting something in the fridge.


And GBBO gets heavily self-referential about That Squirrel.

Here are some of my favourites from the end:

In which I learn that Brend 2.0 is called Howard!
Will this be Howard's End? Ahahahaha... no.

As with the rest of this episode, there are some we barely see at all, and not for the first time I think thirteen is too many cooks.  And not enough Mary.

Right, ready for the winner and loser?  Look away if not...
Congratulations to... Rob!

He nods a bit. Calm DOWN, Rob.

And commisserations to... well, of course it is the man who put salt in the cake.  I've already forgotten his name.  What I do remember is that Mary ruffles his hair.  STOP BEING SO ADORABLE MARY, MY WEE HEART CAN'T TAKE IT.

I hope you've enjoyed the first recap of the series, I've enjoyed writing it - and I'm looking forward to getting to know these bakers better.  It's far too soon to pick any winners, but I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say Frances, because she has lots of exciting ideas (which, looking at past series, will actually mean she comes second.)  

Be bold - pick a name!  Who do you think will be crowned victorious?