Television Preview – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC) & Q&A with cast and crew

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Over the last few years, a number of friends have mentioned the book Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to me and been surprised that I haven’t read it. Written in 2004, Susanna Clarke’s international bestseller has after all been around quite a while now. It’s one of those books I’ve always meant to read and just never got round to picking up.

In the meantime, fans of the book have been desperate for a screen adaptation and after possible film projects have come and gone, the BBC have finally completed a seven part adaptation of the story for BBC One. It will air some time in May (no specifics yet) and last night I went along to the BFI’s preview screening of episodes one and two and what a truly outstanding piece of drama it is.

For the uninitiated, the story is set at the beginning of the 19th century, when magic has not been performed in England for over 300 years and therefore the country has lost its belief in such practices. However, in Yorkshire,  a reclusive man is in fact a practical magician and on being pressed to prove so, causes quite a stir when he brings the statues of York Cathedral to life and speak. With his newfound celebrity (which he is not too keen on), he travels to London on the encouragement of his man of business, hoping his talents can be useful to the government in the Napoleonic Wars with France. While there however his summoning of a fairy (and not the nice type you are thinking of) causes all types of problems to begin. At the same time, wealthy gentleman Jonathan Strange is not even aware he is capable of magic, until a street magician, Vinculus, tells him it is his destiny. Soon Norrell isn’t the only magician in London.

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Susanna Clarke’s book has become an international bestseller

It sounds fantastical, which of course any drama about magic will be. However, don’t be put off if that isn’t something you normally turn on your television for. If you enjoy top quality drama of any kind, you will enjoy this series. As a story, I was impressed by how credible and real the world on screen is. Susannah Clarke was very clever to set her story in period England, during a historical war we all know about, with the magical elements simply weaving in as if they’ve always been there. This gives it an authentic reality that you don’t find with all fantasy stories.

As a drama I absolutely loved the opening two episodes, which I imagine will only get better as the story unfolds. Episode one sets the scene, introduces the main characters and draws the audience in to the story very quickly, while episode two builds on the story and mood and contains some of the first brilliant visual effects moments. As someone yet to read the book, the world was new to me, but you certainly don’t need to worry about needing any background knowledge to watch the series and Peter Harness’s scripts are perfectly paced and certainly not confusing. Those around me in the audience who have been fans of the book for years only had praise for his adaptation.

Together with director Toby Haynes (whose previous work includes Doctor Who and Sherlock) and producer Nick Hirschkorn, the three have done a fantastic job in capturing the mood and atmosphere of the story and bringing it to life so fully on the screen. It is in equal measure creepy, funny, dark, exciting and intriguing and the visual effects (created by Milk Visual Effects), are incredible. The fact they are not used excessively makes them stand out at moments when you really need them to. Look out for a scene in episode two, which would not be out of place in a Tolkien film and which was so visually impressive, I wanted to applaud (for book readers, it involves a ship and some sand…). I imagine there will be lots more moments like that to come too.

The key cast of the series. Image by Lindsay Niles at http://whatlindsayreads.blogspot.co.uk

The key cast of the series. Image by Lindsay Niles at http://whatlindsayreads.blogspot.co.uk

As for the cast, they are simply brilliant. Eddie Marsan is wonderful as Mr Norrell, reluctant to come out from behind his books and interact with others and Eddie conveys his quietness and awkwardness wonderfully. Bertie Carvel (recently seen in Coalition as Nick Clegg, but who will always be the original stage Miss Trunchball in Matilda for me!) is a fantastic choice for Jonathan Strange, who despite his slightly arrogant gentleman persona, is incredibly likeable and Carvel brings out his warmth, wit and humour through his performance.

There are some excellent supporting performances too, particularly Paul Kaye (another Matilda veteran) as creepy street magician Vinculus, Enzo Cilenti as Norrell’s man of business Childermass (who seems at times to be the boss of Norrell), Charlotte Riley as Jonathan’s love Arabella, Sam West as Sir Walter Pole, who becomes caught up in Norrell’s magic, both knowingly and unknowingly and John Heffernan, bringing added comedic moments as Lascelles.

However, the stand out performance for me was that of Marc Warren (Hustle, The Musketeers) as the fairy summoned by Norrell, named The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair. This isn’t one of the cute fairies at the bottom of the garden we think of now. Instead The Gentleman is a creepy, gothic creation who, once summoned, glides in and out of our world for his own enjoyment, regardless of the consequences and Marc’s performance is superb. Everything from the voice and movement to his look, for which makeup, hair and costume should be applauded, is absolutely perfect. It’s a disturbing and chilling performance (think Bowie’s role in Labyrinth, but much, much darker and far more creepy). I almost wish no promotional images of him appear in advance, so that the first time you see him is on screen as he appears by magic.

The BBC clearly have another stunning series on their hands and one which should appeal to everyone, whether you enjoy fantasy stories or not, which yet again shows how important the BBC is to quality British television. It’s superbly acted and beautifully shot, with brilliant work by makeup, costume, effects and music and is a truly engaging, entertaining and exciting story, which is bound to draw you in. I now have the book (only £3 from FOPP if you are tempted), so I am determined to at the very least start it before the series reaches our screens some time next month (especially as I’m now left wanting to know what happens next). For now, enjoy the very short teaser that has been released:

Q&A session at the BFI

Following last night’s screening, there was a Q&A session with writer Peter Harness, director Toby Haynes, producer Nick Hirschkorn and actors Bertie Carvel and Marc Warren.

1. What was the journey of the adaptation from book to screen?

Producer Nick Hirschkorn talked about how, since its publication in 2004 and subsequent success, the book’s rights had been acquired by New Line Cinema, with talk of it being brought to the screen as a film by Peter Jackson. He said he never felt that the material was right for a film or indeed a trilogy and that a television six part format would be better. It was years later, once rights were available again that, alongside Cuba Pictures they decided to approach the BBC’s Controller of BBC Drama Commissioning Ben Stephenson. He immediately said yes and the now seven part series was created, with filming taking place in Yorkshire, Canada and Croatia from late 2013. Writer, Peter Harness, spoke about his approach to writing the episodes, which he said began with dividing the book in to chunks of around 250 pages per episode, although as the story picks up this does change, as episodes one and two take up approximately 400 pages, while the final episode covers around the last 50 pages of the novel. He said it had been a daunting task, but possible because it was such a wonderful world created by Susanna Clarke and he described it as “mining treasures.”

2. How did Marc and Bertie hear about the project and get their roles?

Marc Warren admitted that he hadn’t read the book, but had seen the cover in shops over the years. He told a brilliant anecdote that it was while in South Africa and chatting to Richard & Judy, that Judy said it was their favourite book and that if it was ever made then he needed to play The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair! When he heard about the project, they didn’t seem to be asking for people to come in for that role (he jokingly said he assumed they had some famous American in mind!) and so he told his agent that he wanted to read for it. In advance of his audition, he learnt a spell (a sigil apparently) and performed his trick when he met Toby Haynes, saying he was The Gentleman! Toby noted how remarkable his casting session was, as instead of lasting the usual 20 or so minutes, he spent 90 minutes doing various scenes with Marc.

Bertie had read the book after having it recommended to him and had loved it. He spoke about always casting himself in his head as Jonathan Strange as he felt a kinship with the protagonist and because it was such an incredible story. He loves that the story (and these scripts) keep surprising you, as he is a character coming of age and growing up, but then once you think he’s arrived, the tide recedes and just keeps going somewhere else. He was in New York, opening the RSC’s Matilda at the time of casting and he was shocked when his agent told him they wanted him to tape for the role. Not long afterwards Toby and Nick flew out and worked through some scenes with him before he was offered the part.

3. How did they decide when to use visual effects?

Director, Toby Harness, spoke about how this was not the same budget as for that of a film, so there were financial considerations needed when deciding on visual effects. Also due to the size and scale of the book, they needed to keep asking themselves does the effect warrant the screen time, which again is limited and this all forced them to be cleverer. He commented that such constraints were after all how the TARDIS came to be in Doctor Who, which is now so iconic! He explained that they used the effects budget as little as possible, so when it was used the effects on screen would be different to others on television (Marc loved the same scene as me, saying it’s one of the best things he’s ever seen on TV!).

Bertie Carvel commented that the magic was often off stage in the story, which makes it seem much more credible as a result. He also liked the “low fi” tricks used for some of the magic, such as summoning Marc’s character (done by lighting a candle), where there is no camera trickery at all, or the scenes when only certain characters can see Marc. This he said was more like theatre, using a collective imagination, which is a kind of magic in itself. The writer spoke of how creating and writing the magic was like creating the atomic bomb – terrible and unpredictable power, which once out of the box can’t be put back in.

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L-R: Marc Warren; Bertie Carvel; Peter Harness; Nick Hirschkorn & Toby Haynes at the BFI last night.

4. How did they go about making it feel like a bigger canvas than it is (in terms of backstory of the world in the book)?

Peter Harness spoke of his awareness that people will be turned off if something is too dependent on mythology and how alienating that can be. Therefore the mythological world of the Raven King and the golden age of magic, referred to in the book are there as texture and to give a sense of a bigger world, but that you don’t need an understanding of it to follow the story in the series. They didn’t want that to overpower the story of the characters.

5. Was there an obsession with period detail?

The panel spoke about the brilliant work of designer David Roger, which made this easy. They wanted to start from the real world, making is raw and grubby (which apparently is actually quite hard to convey on a set!). The producer said that he felt the key with fantasy is that you have to believe the world and therefore need everything to be consistent in terms of look. He particularly loved The Gentleman’s kingdom of Lost Hope, which he thought looked seamless, as everything worked together to create the consistent look they wanted. Bertie Carvel also commented on the importance of good leadership in a project, but also that he loved that they’d been allowed room to bring everything they could as actors, which he said was rare.

Audience Questions

6. How closely did Peter Harness work with author Susanna Clarke on his scripts?

Peter explained that they didn’t work closely initially, as she trusted them to get on with it. Toby Haynes recalled that she did send them a letter beforehand which said “Beware of working with magicians. They are extremely ungrateful.” Once the scripts had been developed and ready to be shared she read them and loved them and was very happy and supportive. She apparently became a regular and proud presence on set.

7. Do the panel believe in practical magic and its future in England?

Marc Warren said the only magic he can do is make a coin disappear, but that it had been magical making the series! Tony Haynes jokingly said that they were the charlatans so were the wrong people to ask but they all agreed that there had been something special about the project and that everything seemed to slot in to place.

8. Is there an air date?

All they could say was that they had been told some time in May.

9. Would they consider adapting Susanna Clarke’s short stories?

The producer agreed that the short stories from The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories were brilliant, but didn’t lend themselves to a long adaptation like this one. He said to wait and see, but that there were no plans to do so at the moment.

10. How useful is it to depict magic in a setting which already has rules you need to follow, i.e. the period drama setting?

Bertie Carvel spoke about how Susanna had made a believable world out of the fantastic, by laying it over something very real and that making it believable was the key. The writer agreed that the rules of a period drama were quite clear, so you did have something to start with, although the director did jokingly say that those rules could be a pain too (e.g. how to correctly pick up a spoon in 19th century England)!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will air some time in May on BBC One in the UK. For more information keep on eye on the BBC website.

Preview Thoughts – Carmen Disruption at the Almeida Theatre

Carmen_1 On the announcement of the Spring season at the Almeida Theatre, I was thrilled to see the addition of the latest offering by playwright Simon Stephens (whose recent plays Birdland and Seawall I greatly enjoyed) and Saturday night saw me back at the Islington venue for the second preview of Carmen Disruption. As this was only preview number two (press night in on Friday 17th April), it would be unfair for me to call this post a review, so it is instead simply my thoughts on the preview I saw, which was already 10 minutes leaner than the night before and still being tweaked by the writer and cast this week. Carmen Disruption is billed as a reimagining of Bizet’s famous opera Carmen. However, I’m not sure that this is an entirely accurate description and could in fact be slightly misleading. The play features five principal characters, each of whom are named after a character in the opera and who intersect with each other as their individual vignettes unfold. Weaving among them all is the internationally acclaimed mezzo soprano Viktoria Vizin, listed in the cast as Chorus, who is the embodiment of Carmen, in full period costume.

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Sharon Small & Jack Farthing. Photo by: Marc Brenner

Having had time to read the programme notes before the play, I could start to pick out the themes which Stephens was aiming to convey – that of our isolation from one another, in a world so well connected coming through most of all. Each character is experiencing their own journey, through this unnamed European city and yet, other than perhaps crossing paths, they never engage with each other. Each is an island among whom the presence of Vizin’s Carmen is the only glimpse at a connection. It makes for a rather bleak, grey look at today’s society and highlights the very sad reality that a great deal of us feel lonely in our lives, despite the technological advances that make us more connected than ever before. I’m rather conflicted as to my overall opinion of the play. Visually, it is very striking, with the combination of lighting and movement, creating moments on stage that I can already picture as production photos. Some of the individual vignettes are rather interesting and engaging (despite all being rather miserable in tone) and there are some great performances, which will no doubt grow in strength over the run.

Standing out for me were Jack Farthing’s role of rent boy Carmen, whose character you warm to, through his flirty, cocky charm, as he slinks around the stage and Noma Dumezweni’s Don Jose, the taxi driver struggling to reconnect with her children, from whom she has been estranged and who have now grown up without her. Her raw emotions were very believable and she connected with the audience wonderfully, drawing us in to her life. Sharon Small plays the quirky character of The Singer well too, a person whose life is so caught up with travelling the world playing Carmen, that she has lost her sense of self and finds herself seeing the traits and characters of the opera all around her (which of course they are here, in the form of the other actors).

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Vicktoria Vizin & Jack Farthing. Photo by: Marc Brenner

I felt the stories of Escamillo (John Light) and Micaela (Katie West) had less depth and were the less interesting aspects of the piece for me (and one scene in which John Light’s Escamillo seemingly mimics a bull in sound and movement an example of where the piece was just too weird for me). Then of course there is Vizin as Carmen, moving gracefully and sensuously around the stage, before breaking in to the iconic arias of the opera (albeit with modern English words). She was superb and I found my focus gravitating back to her throughout, despite the almost hypnotic presence of the life-size bull in the centre of the stage (which is indeed breathing if you think your eyes are deceiving you).

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The cast of Carmen Disruption. Photo by Marc Brenner

However, for me personally, that highlights the biggest problem I had with the play and the production as a whole. I found myself looking forward to the next vocal performance from Vizin, accompanied by the two talented cellists, over and above the other actors on the stage and therefore left the theatre with a feeling of disappointment. I can see what Simon Stephens is trying to do with this work, taking two different ideas and mediums and putting them together, to try and make a wider comment on the world, but, for me, the elements just didn’t fit and instead I found myself wishing I’d instead seen Carmen with Vizin in the title role. I at least will now put that on my list of cultural events to look out for in the future. I will certainly be curious to see what others think of this play over the course of its run.

Carmen Disruption continues in previews at the Almeida Theatre, London until press night on Friday 17th April. It then runs until 23rd May 2015. Further information and ticket availability can be found on the Almeida’s website.

Olivier Awards 2015 – Winners Announced!

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The Olivier Awards is a strange awards ceremony. As a celebration of theatre, rather than film or television, it’s the one for which I am able to form a better view of who I think should win and who I think should have been nominated. Then again, although it’s the most prestigious theatre awards in the UK, it doesn’t cover national theatre, or even all London theatre. To be eligible for the Olivier Awards, a show has to be on for at least 30 performances in London, but at either a SOLT (Society of London Theatre) theatre or an “affiliate theatre”. As it’s always hard to know which theatres are included in the list for consideration, it’s therefore always hard to know what has been snubbed, or what was simply ineligible! I personally still think there needs to be a ceremony for theatre like the BAFTAs for film and television – one that covers all British theatre, but that’s a fantasy I know will almost certainly never happen.

Grumblings aside, anything celebrating theatre on television is guaranteed to get me excited and I was thrilled to be able to see the highlights of this year’s ceremony on ITV, albeit on so late that I already knew all the winners! From the highlights show this evening, it looked to be a wonderful celebration of London’s status as the greatest city for theatre in the world and the musical numbers were lovely to see. As someone who missed out on seeing her as Grizabella in Cats this year, I thought Nicole Scherzinger was fantastic singing Memory and medleys from Beautiful and Sunny Afternoon were fun too. I was very disappointed that the performance by the City of Angels cast was cut from the televised show, but we did at least get to see Kevin Spacey bring the house down with his rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water with Beverly Knight. I certainly hope the stages of London won’t be without him for long after he leaves the Old Vic.

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Kevin Spacey & Beverley Knight close the ceremony with a bang!

As for the awards themselves were there any surprises? Perhaps a couple and of course such awards will always be subjective, with a clear winner for some not the same for others. With that in mind, my thoughts are based on the shows and performances from the last year that I loved and felt deserved to win.

Best New Play = King Charles III – I’m thrilled that Mike Bartlett’s superb new play about the Royal Family post Queen Elizabeth II was awarded Best New Play. Without a doubt it was my favourite production last year, one which had me leaving the theatre, after just its second preview, knowing I’d seen something truly exciting and different (you can read my full thoughts on the play here).

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Best New Play (and my favourite of 2014!) – King Charles III by Mike Bartlett

Best New Comedy = The Play That Went Wrong – Perhaps a surprise winner is that of best new comedy, with The Play That Went Wrong beating two shows that perhaps were given a higher profile, Handbagged and Shakespeare In Love. It’s a play I’ve been meaning to see and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has now been reminded that they must book a ticket while it’s still running!

Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre = Bull – Of the four nominees in this category (one which I’m not hugely clear about whom is eligible!), I’d only seen Bull so I’m pleased Mike Bartlett picked up his second award of the night for this production. I saw its premiere in Sheffield and also its London transfer to the Young Vic (which is on a roll for productions these days). It may only have been 50 minutes long, but it’s a play filled with powerful and uncomfortable performances, highlighting the very worst in office politics and certainly deserved this recognition (you can read my full review here).

Best Actor = Mark Strong (A View From The Bridge) – For me this was the toughest set of nominees, while still missing out the brilliant Ben Miles for Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies, whose performance of Thomas Cromwell should have been nominated. All four performances were outstanding and among some of the finest I’ve seen to date on stage. I was torn between James McAvoy’s incredible turn in The Ruling Class (you can read my full review here) and Mark Strong (with Richard Armitage close behind for The Crucible!) and so I’m happy that one of them was successful. A View From The Bridge was a production of the highest quality and his performance was breathtaking. If there is another chance to see an NT:Live Encore cinema screening of it – go!

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A worthy winner in a tough shortlist – Mark Strong

Best Actress = Penelope Wilton (Taken At Midnight) – I have to admit that this was one of the surprises of the night for me, on top of the surprising fact that Helen McCrory was not nominated for Medea. I did not see Penelope Wilton in this role, but I am genuinely amazed that the award did not recognise Gillian Anderson for A Streetcar Named Desire or Kristin Scott Thomas for Electra, both of which demonstrated just how important strong, powerful roles are for women on stage. Had I been voting, I’d have picked Gillian. Yes, I’m an X-File / long-term Gillian fan, but that’s not the main reason. Personally, hers was the performance which left me at the end feeling emotionally exhausted and buzzing the way only a truly fantastic night at the theatre can make me. She gave everything in to the role of Blanche. Perhaps she’ll have better luck at the Tony Awards after the show appears on Broadway next year.

Actor in a Supporting Role = Nathaniel Parker (Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies) – Nathaniel’s interpretation of King Henry VIII in Wolf Hall / Bring Up The Bodies was very good and a worthy winner. However, I think my vote would have gone to Richard Goulding, whose performance as Prince Harry grew in depth and quality over the course of the run of King Charles III, resulting in a believable and multi-layered character, with whom you felt true sympathy by the end of the play.

Actress in a Supporting Role = Angela Lansbury (Blithe Spirit) – It seemed a foregone conclusion to me that Angela Lansbury would win in her category. She is 89 years old, performing 8 shows a week in a London run and has never won an Olivier before. They couldn’t not give it to her! She was wonderful in Blithe Spirit, entertaining and full of fun and with a clear love of her job, but she wasn’t the best of the nominees in my opinion. All four nominees were excellent, whether the chillingly disturbing girls in The Nether or Phoebe Fox in A View From The Bridge. However, I would have loved to have seen Lydia Wilson win for her role as Kate in King Charles III, a performance which was full of confidence and charisma and stood out in a production filled with cracking performances. Her Kate Lady Macbeth-style power behind the man performance was wonderful to watch and I’ll certainly expect to see her nominated more at these awards in the future.

Best Director = Ivo Van Hove (A View From The Bridge) – The director shortlist was another incredibly tough choice, with all four helping bring to the stage some of the best theatre of the year. I was lucky enough to see all four productions and I’m not sure I’d have been able to choose a clear winner, or would have changed my mind as soon as I’d voted! I’m not surprised that Ivo Van Hove took the award though, as his claustrophobic, stark vision of Arthur Miller’s classic received glowing reviews from audiences and critics alike and through it he was able to generate some truly breathtakingly powerful performances.

Best Lighting Design = City of Angels – A thoroughly deserved win for Josie Rourke’s Donmar revival. All four productions were worthy nominees, as the lightning of each certainly added to the drama and quality of each one, creating such unique atmospheres, whether the candlelit Almeida, the Tudor halls of Wolf Hall or the stark atmospheric mood of A View From The Bridge. However, City of Angels would not have been the show it was without Howard Harrison’s lighting, creating the glitz and colour of one world, compared to the black and white of the other.

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Fantastic use of lighting in the Donmar’s City of Angels, also winner of Best Musical Revival

Best Costume Design = Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies – As a regular visitor to the Royal Shakespeare Company, I’m so pleased that its brilliant and dedicated costume team won for their contribution to the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning books. The costumes certainly helped bring Tudor history to life in sumptuous, beautiful detail and I can’t think of a better choice from this shortlist.

Best Set Design = The Nether – Until a few weeks ago my choice for this category would have likely been City of Angels. However, that was before I saw the Royal Court’s production of The Nether, currently playing in the West End. It is without a doubt one of the most unique and impressive sets I have ever seen and one which had an incredibly difficult task, bringing the virtual world and the real world together so convincingly. Each time we, as an audience, enter The Nether you genuinely believed you were entering another realm. The combination of set and video graphics were perfect and it would have been a crime had it not won.

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The incredible set from The Nether

I didn’t see most of the nominated musicals so it would be unfair for me to comment on the winners and losers in most of these categories, with the exception of the revival and audience award. I must try and see the Hampstead Theatre’s Sunny Afternoon (currently in the West End), which took best new musical, best actor and supporting actor in a musical. The night has also fuelled my intention to finally buy a ticket for Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (winner of best actress and supporting actress in a musical) and I’m thrilled for Katie Brayben, who was fantastic in both American Psycho and her smaller roles in King Charles III.

Best Musical Revival = City of Angels – First of all, I still think it’s criminal that none of the actors in this Donmar production were nominated in either main or supporting musical categories! This is already one of the highlights of this year’s theatregoing calendar for me – wonderful songs, incredible sets and lighting, an engaging story and some truly excellent acting and vocal performances, from some of the finest talents in musical theatre. Due to these omissions, I’m thrilled the show won Best Musical Revival. Now, if only it could have a West End transfer too!

This Morning Audience Award = Wicked – Akin to the Radio Times Audience Award at the TV BAFTAs, this award is an opportunity for the public to vote for its favourite musical (why it can’t also include plays I do not know). Musicals of course attract loyal fans, who go to see them again and again and these awards are a chance for them to show their support for such long-running shows. Of the shortlisted four, my vote went to Matilda, a musical I hoped would go on to greater success after I first saw it one snowy Saturday afternoon in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2010, but I’m not surprised Wicked won, as it probably has the strongest fan base of the four nominees.

With already some strong performances and productions hitting the stage in 2015, I’m sure the Olivier Awards will continue to generate discussion and debate when next year’s nominations are announced. One thing that isn’t in debate however is that we should all be very proud of the level of quality found in the theatres of London, but also around the rest of the country. Maybe one day my wish for an all-encompassing set of national theatre awards will become a reality.

BAFTA Television Awards 2015 Nominations Announced!

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Yesterday on this blog I tried to predict the nominations for this year’s BAFTA Television Awards and this morning’s announcement, streamed live of the Periscope app, revealed I’d not done too badly at the drama categories.

As I did last year, I thought I’d now try and predict the winners and discuss those surprise inclusions and omissions (let’s face it, there’s always some at awards like this!). I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are in the run up to the ceremony on Sunday 10th May 2015.

Actor

Starting with Best Actor, I did pretty well here, correctly choosing three of the four nominees. I’m pleased to see Benedict Cumberbatch nominated again for Sherlock, as he did some superb work in series three. However he will have tough competition from James Nesbitt (The Missing), Toby Jones (Marvellous) and Jason Watkins (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries). As much I I’d love Benedict to finally win an acting BAFTA (this is nomination number six), I think he’ll miss out again this year, with Toby Jones’s performance in Marvellous a likely winner. As for omissions, it’s a shame Jamie Dornan missed out for The Fall.

– Predicted Winner: Toby Jones (Marvellous)

Actress

As with the actor category, I picked three of the four actresses making this year’s shortlist and I still think this will be the toughest choice of the night. Choosing between Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley), Keeley Hawes (Line of Duty), Sheridan Smith (Cilla) and Georgina Campbell (Murdered By My Boyfriend) will be very difficult, but for me I think it has to be Sarah Lancashire. Catherine Cawood was a superb character in Happy Valley and stood out for me all year. As with last year’s awards, the most disappointing omission for me is that of Gillian Anderson for The Fall, who I still think should certainly have had a nomination this year and last year (although the best performance in the form of Olivia Colman for Broadchurch did win in the end in 2014). Georgina Campbell’s nomination is a surprise for me, but that’s purely because I didn’t watch this series.

– Predicted Winner: Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley)

Drama Series

Only two out of four correctly predicted in the drama series category, with Happy Valley and Line of Duty both rightly being acknowledged this year. The other two nominees are Peaky Blinders (a series I have on DVD ready to catch up on!) and The Missing. I’m sad to see no mention of Sherlock this year, but I’m not completely surprised, due to its inclusion in the Audience Award category and as I’m aware that some people felt this last series was weaker than the others, because they didn’t enjoy the focus of character and relationships over cases (something that didn’t bother me at all). I’m a little surprised about there being no nomination for The Fall (which receives no nominations this year) and Hinterland too, as despite not seeing it myself everyone I know who did watch it raved about it.

– Predicted Winner: Line of Duty

Supporting Actor

The supporting actor and actress nominations were strangely left out of the the live streaming announcement, but it appears that I only selected one correct nominee here. I’m absolutely thrilled to see James Norton nominated for his frightening turn as Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley. Also nominated is Adeel Akhtar (Utopia), Stephen Rea (The Honourable Woman) and Ken Stott (The Missing). As I only saw one of the performances it seems a bit unfair for me to pick a winner, but I hope James Norton wins. I do however think Ken Stott will win, as his performance was one I heard an awful lot about when The Missing aired on the BBC. I’m disappointed that there is no mention of Martin Freeman for Sherlock, as he gave a superb performance in all three episodes of series three, but at least he has already won for his role of John Watson in 2011. It’s also a great shame that the wonderful work of Aneurin Barnard in Cilla hasn’t been recognised either.

– Predicted Winner: Ken Stott (The Missing) (but I’m rooting for James Norton!)

Supporting Actress

The supporting actress category was one I had great difficulty picking a shortlist for and so didn’t try. From the list of Gemma Jones (Marvellous), Vicky McClure (Line of Duty), Amanda Redman (Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This) and Charlotte Spencer (Glue), I only watched Line of Duty (after failing to finish Glue), so I’ll simply say I hope she wins. No mention of Joanne Froggatt for Downton Abbey or Amanda Abbington for Sherlock (both of whom could have been worthy nominees this year).

– Predicted Winner: Less certain, but I’m rooting for Vicky McClure (Line of Duty)

International

Another decent round of predictions for the International category, with three out of four correctly predicted! It’s quite a tough line up, with The Good Wife, House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black and True Detective left to battle it out. Some will no doubt be surprised there is no inclusion of Game of Thrones, but I assume this is driven by its inclusion in the Audience Award category. I’m sorry Fargo wasn’t included too. From the choices and despite being a huge House of Cards fan, I’d love The Good Wife to win, as series five was a brilliant run of episodes, containing some shocking story lines and superb acting from all. I wouldn’t be surprised though if True Detective gets the win, as although I’m still struggling to finish it, it seems to have received universal praise.

– Predicted Winner: True Detective (but I’m rooting for The Good Wife!)

Mini Series

I’m never sure what will count as a drama series or mini series, so I didn’t try to predict this shortlist. From the nominees of Cilla, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries, Our World War and Prey, I would love to see Cilla win, as it was a wonderful programme, with impressive performances from Sheridan Smith, Aneurin Barnard and Ed Stoppard. However, I think The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries may come out on top.

– Predicted Winner: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries

Single Drama

This was another category for which I didn’t feel I’d seen enough possible choices. From the shortlist of: Marvellous, Common, A Poet In New York and Murdered By My Boyfriend, I’ll take a guess it’ll be Marvellous (although I heard great things about the other three too).

– Predicted Winner: Marvellous 

Radio Times Audience Award

This is the only BAFTA Television Award voted for by the public and has led to some surprising winners in the past (yes I do mean TOWIE!). There are seven nominees here, making the battle that much tougher. From the nominees of: Cilla, Eastenders, Game of Thrones, The Great British Bake Off, The Missing, Sherlock and Strictly Come Dancing, I’ll be voting for Sherlock, especially now it has not been nominated in the main Drama Series category. This one is always hard to predict, with Game of Thrones and The Great British Bake Off both very popular in particular. To vote follow this link: Vote for Audience Award.

– Predicted Winner: Sherlock (the fan base and it’s lack of main drama nomination should swing it)

As I don’t really watch a lot of comedy, soaps or entertainment shows, I have less of an opinion on the remaining categories, but I would say that I hope The Great British Bake Off wins the Features category, Strictly Come Dancing the Entertainment Programme and The Graham Norton Show for the Comedy / Comedy Entertainment Programme award. The full list of nominations can be read here.

So, after a respectable round of predictions yesterday, those are my choices for winners at the ceremony in May. Do let me know your thoughts, especially those performances and programmes you feel should have been nominated!

BAFTA Television Awards 2015 Predictions

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The film awards season has come to an end for another year, but here in the UK there is one significant awards ceremony yet to come and that’s the BAFTA Television Awards (now sponsored by House of Fraser). Nominations will be announced on Wednesday 8th April at 7:35 a.m. and afterwards I’ll update my blog with my thoughts on the inclusions and omissions this year. In advance, I thought I’d look back on 2014 and make my predictions as to which programmes and performances could be in the running.

First things first – the eligibility rules:

  • Programmes must have had their first transmission in the UK between 1 January and 31 December 2014 on terrestrial, cable, satellite or digital channels, including web based broadcasters who commission content (e.g. Netflix).
  • International programmes are only eligible in the International category, unless they are co- productions (both financially and creatively, and provided the first transmission was in the UK).

I tend to watch dramas more than comedies so my predictions will be for the drama categories only. I’ve also followed last year nominations format, assuming only four nominees will be included for each category. 2014 was an incredibly strong year for British television drama and it seems very likely that there will be some tough competition at this year’s ceremony.

Actor

This category is going to be a tough one this year, with a quite a number of performances worthy of acknowledgement. Here are my choices:

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1. Benedict Cumberbatch – Sherlock (BBC One)

I certainly hope Benedict Cumberbatch receives his third nomination for playing Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s international hit series, as it’s a performance which certainly deserves recognition by BAFTA. Heck, even the Emmys in America recognised his work for the role this year! On top of that, Benedict has yet to win a BAFTA, despite superb roles in 2004’s Hawking and 2012’s Parade’s End among others. I think it’s certainly time he picked up a statuette, but he has some very strong competition this year.

2. James Nesbitt – The Missing (BBC One)

Labelled as the new Broadchurch when it began, this emotional drama saw James Nesbitt playing a father desperate to find out what happened to his son. The performance has drawn a great deal of praise and it seems a safe bet that he’ll be in this year’s shortlist, as this was one of the most powerful performances last year and a brilliant effort by him.

3. Toby Jones – Marvellous (BBC Two)

Another wonderful performance of 2014 was Toby Jone’s work as Neil Baldwin, who despite learning difficulties, seemed able to turn his hand to anything. I’ve already seen chatter that he should win the BAFTA for the role and such an uplifting, true story, so strongly acted, seems bound to be included in this year’s list of nominees.

4. Richard Harrington – Hinterland (BBC Four)

I’ve yet to watch Hinterland, but everyone I know who has seen it raved about the series and Richard Harrington’s performance as DCI Tom Mathias, as did most of the critics in their round ups of 2014’s television highlights. BAFTA often includes nominees who may not have had as wide an audience as more recognisable ones, so I think he has a good chance.

I’ve also heard strong praise from friends about Philip Glenister in From There To Here, Micahel Palin in Remember Me and Reece Shearsmith in The Widower, so perhaps one of those will topple some of my choices.

Actress

My prediction is that this will be the hottest contested category of this year’s BAFTAs and looking back at those eligible only highlights just how many fantastic female performances there were on television, something I strongly hope continues. Here are my choices:

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1. Sarah Lancashire – Happy Valley (BBC One)

If Sarah Lancashire isn’t nominated I’ll eat my hat! Seriously, this was one of the finest performances in any drama series. As Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley, she was strong, kind, witty, compassionate, emotionally scarred and so much more, as she doggedly fought to bring her daughter’s rapist to justice and stop him harming anyone else. It’s definitely the finest performance of her career, which must surely be acknowledged by BAFTA.

2. Keeley Hawes – Line of Duty (BBC Two)

Keeley Hawes’s career goes from strength to strength and her performance in the second series of Line of Duty took it to a new level. DI Lindsay Denton was one of the most interesting and confusing characters on television last year and trying to decide on her guilt or innocence throughout was one of the most puzzling television mysteries. One minute you felt sorry for her, then you were certain she was behind everything and that’s all due to Keeley’s excellent performance.

3. Sheridan Smith – Cilla (ITV)

Another actress whose career is gaining pace and praise is that of Sheridan Smith, who seems able to turn her hand from comedy to drama, both on stage and screen, so easily. This three part drama about the early career of Cilla Black was wonderful viewing. Sheridan slipped in to the role of such an iconic British personality so effortlessly, able to carry off the drama and comedic moments, not to mention her superb voice, giving the drama an added layer of authenticity. After winning the National TV Award, she’s certainly in with a good chance of a nomination.

4. Gillian Anderson – The Fall (BBC Two)

One of my biggest gripes about 2014’s BAFTA nominations was the omission of Gillian Anderson for her performance in the BBC’s dark and disturbing crime drama The Fall. Like DI Denton in Line of Duty, Superintendent Stella Gibson is certainly an intriguing female character and Gillian’s performance continues to be fantastic. I hope she receives a nomination this time around.

Drama Series

It’s not going to come as a surprise that my choices for drama series reflect some of the impressive acting performances this year.

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1. Sherlock (BBC One)

Sherlock won the BAFTA for drama series after its first, superb series. I doubt it will win again for series three, which was a series that seemed to divide viewers. However, for me, it was still one of the strongest dramas on television during 2014 and therefore I hope to see it in the shortlist. It has also already won an Emmy for writing this year and so this could see it on the BAFTA list again too.

2. Happy Valley (BBC One)

It wasn’t just Sarah Lancashire’s stunning performance in Happy Valley that made it the success it was. Sally Wainwright’s drama had a gripping, excellently paced script, interesting characters and a strong ensemble cast, all of which contributed to its overall quality. There were many moments that had me practically holding my breath as I watched it and I’ll be stunned if it’s not nominated on Wednesday.

3. Line of Duty (BBC Two)

Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty made a significant impact during series one and I did wonder whether series two would ever be as strong. I needn’t have worried about that! Series two kicked off as it meant to go on, with the end of the series opener becoming one of the most shocking and memorable moments of the year (for my others see my previous blog post). Through six episodes we followed every twist and turn of the depths of corruption and slight of hand (who can forget both their interview with Denton and then the interrogation scene of episode five?). It was a series that required you to truly pay attention and I am very much looking forward to series three.

4. Hinterland (BBC Four)

Hinterland is on my list of shows to catch up on after all the positive comments I’ve heard and read about it. Many have said its the Welsh answer to The Killing, which is incredibly high praise and in fact it’s now even been bought by Danish television! BAFTA likes to recognise a variety of programmes and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hinterland makes an appearance in the nominees list.

Supporting Actor

My choices for supporting actor are certainly varied, with loyal friends, soul mates and psychopaths making up my top four! In fact for me they brilliantly highlight how wonderfully varied drama can be.

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1. Martin Freeman – Sherlock (BBC One)

Martin Freeman is such a talented actor, recently recognised by the Emmys for his wonderful performance in Sherlock as series three reminded us all yet again that the series is about so much more than Benedict Cumberbatch. The series is so brilliant because of them both and these latest episodes allowed Martin to take the role of Watson to new emotional depths. He may not win (as he has already won for the role in 2011) but the scene above, in which he realises his friend is alive, which was so perfectly gauged, deserves a nomination in itself!

2. Aneurin Barnard – Cilla (ITV)

Sheridan Smith wasn’t the only strong performance in Cilla, and Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard did a fantastic job supporting her as Bobby Willis, the man who stood by her side throughout her career and whom she married in 1969. Their chemistry together was a treat to watch and I look forward to seeing what he will do next.

3. James Norton – Happy Valley (BBC One)

James Norton has quickly become one of my favourite actors and one on my must watch list, on stage and screen, ever since 2013’s Death Comes To Pemberley. He is certainly on the rise and 2014 saw him on screen in two very different roles, which demonstrate his range. I loved Grantchester on ITV, but think it’s unlikely his performance will achieve a best actor nomination. On the other hand, his performance as psychopath Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley was memorable for very different reasons. He was incredibly frightening and absolutely believable, as he roamed the Yorkshire countryside (the terrifying hit and run just one example) and Norton should without a doubt be on this year’s supporting actor shortlist.

4. Lars Mikkelsen – Sherlock (BBC One)

I have found it difficult to choose my fourth nominee for supporting actor, but seeing as there is precedent in the past for actors from the same series being pitted against each other (and even from Sherlock), I have included Lars Mikkelsen’s creepy turn as Charles Augustus Magnussen in the third series finale. He was a superb villain and only made more chillingly disturbing by Lars’s performance. You had no idea what he would do next, which made it riveting to watch. Everything from peeing in the fireplace, to flicking Watson’s face, simply because he could, made this a thoroughly memorable role.

Supporting Actress

Unlike the strong performances crying out for nomination in the leading actress category, I’ve found it much harder to decide on my predictions for supporting actress and at the moment I can only think of Joanne Froggatt. I dip in and out of Downton Abbey and tend to prefer the characters and acting of those below stairs, none more so than Jonanne Froggatt as Anna Bates. Every year she proves why she deserves some of the series’ most important story lines and her acting is always excellent. She deservedly won the Golden Globe this year for her performance and I think she has a good chance of a nomination here too.

As I’m struggling to think of anyone else to choose with any confidence in this category I’ll leave it at that and instead stick to trying to choose the winner once the nominations are announced on Wednesday.

International 

The international category is a hard one to predict. Won last year by Breaking Bad, I’m assuming it’ll be focussed on American and Nordic drama.

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1. House of Cards (Netflix)

House of Cards may have been beaten last year, but I’d say it has a strong chance of another nomination, with series two remaining my favourite of all three seasons made to date. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright lead the drama with such class and its stylish and superbly plotted episodes have made it (and Netflix) hugely successful. They should nominate it for no other reason than not to make Frank Underwood angry!

2. True Detective (HBO)

I’m currently catching up with True Detective after missing it the first time around and I’ll admit I’m struggling with it. Three episodes in and I’m finding it incredibly slow and a bit dull. I’ve never been a fan of Matthew McConaughey either, but even I have to admit that both his and Woody Harrelson’s acting in the HBO series is very good indeed and for that reason alone I’m determined to continue with it. As it’s one of the American dramas that made almost every “best of 2014″ list I read in December, I’m predicting it may receive a nomination from BAFTA too.

3. Fargo (FX)

The darkly comic Fargo is another strong contender for this year’s shortlist. The episodes are well-paced, with a perfect mix of tension and black humour and the acting by the cast, but by Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman in particular is fantastic. I’ll certainly be tuning in to series two. It did very well at this year’s Golden Globes and may do just as well at BAFTA.

4. The Good Wife (CBS)

I think it’s unlikely that BAFTA will select four nominees from America. However, as I have yet to see any of the latest Nordic offerings (usually the most likely to be recognised here), I can’t confidently choose any one of them. Therefore I’ve picked a series that I’d like to see nominated. The Good Wife is one of the few television series that gets better as it goes one. The last series of the show was utterly brilliant, taking many of the characters in directions the audience would never have imagined. It continues to be strongly acted by both its main and guest cast and has some of the best writing on television at the moment. It probably won’t be on the list, but it would be if I was choosing!

So those are my predictions. I’d love to hear what you think should be on the shortlist, for these or any other category. I’ll have a go at predicting the winners after the nominations are revealed on Wednesday!

UPDATE: Nominations are out and I’ve selected my winners here.

Review – Letters Live at the Freemason’s Hall – Friday 3rd April 2015

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In December 2013, I was incredibly frustrated to learn I had missed an event featuring two of my favourite actors (Benedict Cumberbatch & Gillian Anderson). That event was the first Letters Live at the Tabernacle in London. However, due to their high profiles, it meant that the event was then on my radar for any future shows, the first of which arrived on World Book Day 2014 at the Southbank Centre and what a thrilling experience it was, as I wrote about on my blog at the time.

For those not familiar with Letters Live, the event is a celebration of the enduring power of the written word and letter writing, through the reading aloud of correspondence across the decades from both well known figures and ordinary individuals leading their lives, captured by authors Simon Garfield and Shaun Usher through their respective books To The Letter and Letters of Note, both published by Canongate Books . It’s an incredible insight in to our history and certain historical events, but also a wonderful way to simply explore the intricate fabric of human emotions, whether love, friendship, anger or humour, all of which seem so much more poignant and powerful in the form of a letter, especially in an age in which so much of our communication with one another is via short text messages, tweets or emails, often lacking in a depth of emotion.

After the success of previous Letters Live events, this week has seen a huge undertaking by its organisers, in conjunction with publisher Canongate Books, as rather than a one off night, there will have been four unique evenings, during which a variety of incredible letters will have been read from some of the finest actors and writers we have (sadly Wednesday’s event was cancelled otherwise it would have been five nights). Adding to the thrill of each evening, the letters to be read and their readers (with the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey) have been a surprise for the audience.

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Inside the Freemason’s Hall before Letters Live

Last night’s penultimate evening was the only one I could attend (I’d have been at them all if I could!) and so I made my way to the Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden, perhaps best known to the British public as being the external location of the MI5 office in Spooks! Not normally open to the public, other than for special events, it was certainly a beautiful building to admire while waiting for the show to start. The venue was packed and the atmosphere was certainly one of excitement and anticipation.

As for the event itself, it was a wonderful evening and rather emotional. Tonight’s line up comprised of: singer Tom Odell, Geoffrey Palmer, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gemma Chan, Colin Salmon, Samantha Bond, Louise Brealey, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Joanne Froggatt, Tom Sturridge, Olivia Colman, author Andrew O’Hagan and cellist Natalie Clein. I have listed the full programme of letters at the end for anyone interested, but wanted to draw out some of my highlights of the thirty heard. The only minor gripe I had (and it is a minor one) was that the block of seats we were in, were behind the lectern, meaning we didn’t get to see any of the facial expressions of the readers, with the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch, who each time he read, at some point angled himself briefly for the benefit of those behind him. As these weren’t the cheapest seats, it seemed to be a point that should have perhaps been made clear on the seating plan when booking.

Each half began with the supremely talented Tom Odell, whose voice carries so much passion and emotion as he plays the piano. It was a lovely touch to add music to the event and each song played by Tom had a link to the writing of letters, setting the tone perfectly. He also ended the event with the song “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter” by Fats Weller, which brought the evening to a wonderfully poignant and moving end.

Letters of Note Vol. 1 by Simon Usher

Personally, certain readings had a greater impact on me than others, whether due to the subject or the circumstances in which they had been written. Some were funny, others affectionate, some sarcastic and others angry, highlighting the breadth of our emotions. One of the most powerful was a letter read by Benedict Cumberbatch, written in 1935 by Lion Feuchtwanger, a German Jewish novelist who had escaped Nazi Germany to live abroad and whose home had been given away by the Third Reich, while still requiring him to make payments on it. His letter, “To the Occupant” was written to whoever now occupied his beloved home and through his writing we feel his pain, anger and contempt for the Third Reich and those supporters who reaped the benefits of the dreadful treatment of others. I can’t help but wonder how such a letter has survived and was not destroyed at the time, making me wonder about the person who must have received it.

To The Letter by Simon Garfield

Another touching letter was that of John Steinbeck to his 14 year-old son Tom, who in 1958 wrote home about his love of a girl called Susan, to which his father had responded with his thoughts on love and all it brings. Contained in volume 1 of Letters of Note, it was wonderfully brought to life by Colin Salmon and contained a wonderful quote I will try and remember – “Nothing good gets away.”

Tom Sturridge was also incredible to watch, as he filled his readings with as much emotion as possible and seemed to truly become the people on the page and his reading of Henry James’s letter to his close friend Grace Norton in 1883, trying to bring her hope and support, as she suffered from what was likely depression following a bereavement, was very special.

Following his moving portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch also read a brief letter from Turing to the mother of his school friend Christopher Morcon after his death and his poignant request for a picture so that he could remember his face was all the more powerful after seeing the film.

There were of course lighter moments in the evening, including the hilarious letter written by Elvis fans to President Eisenhower, begging them not to cut his hair or side burns in the Army! Olivia Colman delivered it brilliantly (including apologising for using a Deep South accent, as she did not know what people from Montana would sound like)! Samantha Bond also read three short online responses from Tina Fey to internet commentators. Her wit and sarcasm in response to some of the nasty comments made about her were brilliant. The oldest letter, written in 856 AD, also read by Olivia Colman, was a standard form response letter from the ‘Dunhuang Bureau of Etiquette’ in China, which insisted that local officials use the letter template when sending apologies to offended dinner hosts if they had embarrassed themselves at an event! It was also wonderful to hear Geoffrey Palmer read his two funny anecdotes, including a blunt response from Private Eye to representatives of someone who felt the magazine owed him an apology and damages.

There was also a rather magical moment, as Louise Brealey read a letter by Beatrix Potter to a five year-old boy from 1893, which marked the creation of Peter Rabbit, his siblings and Mr McGregor’s garden. Looking back on this short and sweet letter, sent to entertain a young child, knowing how much magic that little rabbit and the world of Beatrix Potter would create for so many children for years to come, was gorgeous.

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The lovely book My Dear Bessie

Lastly, I couldn’t reflect on the evening without touching on what I assume will always be a highlight of Letters Live events for me and that is the love story of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, who began writing to each other during the Second World War and who fell in love through their letters and went on to marry and remain happily together for the rest of their lives. Their letters, read as if a conversation between two people, were a highlight of my last Letters Live. Capturing the hearts of many who have heard them, this year also marked the publication of a book of just these letters – My Dear Bessie, for which I attended a launch event attended by their sons. Louise Brealey read Bessie at both of these events and it was lovely to see her do so again last night, together with Benedict Cumberbatch reading Chris. The two have such a perfect chemistry and were able to bring to life the romance, beauty, love, concern and silliness captured in their letters over the war. Their words, written in such a different time, but so filled with emotion that we perhaps express to each other less easily now, never fail to bring a tear to my eye and tonight was no different (and I saw many others in the audience wiping away a tear too). I reviewed My Dear Bessie on this blog here and I cannot recommend it highly enough, whether you’ve been to a Letters Live or not.

All of those participating in Letters Live bring their talent to the material, but ultimately what makes these events so special is that it isn’t about those reading, it’s about the power and emotion of the words, some of which were written hundreds of years ago and yet which, when brought to life from the page, still have the ability to capture the imaginations and hearts of those hearing them.

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Friday’s Letters Live readers take a bow

I am so pleased Letters Live has become the success that it has, guaranteeing that these events will continue, drawing a new audience and reminding us of the power of words. Jamie Bing of Canongate Books began last night by saying that “Letters throw light wherever they are cast.” That certainly proved to be the case in the Freemason’s Hall this week and I’ve no doubt tonight’s final show and future events will continue to do the same. Those behind Letters Live hope it will continue to promote the importance of literacy as well as being “one of the most powerful ways in which the joy and pain and humour and tragedy of being human can be shared.” I certainly think they’ve succeeded and created something truly special and if it also helps to inspire its audiences to delete their short text or 140 character tweet and put pen to paper in order to make a connection to those in their lives, then that too is something that should certainly be celebrated.

Full List of readings from Friday 3rd April

  • “The Letter” by Wayne Carson Thompson, sang by The Box Tops, performed by Tom Odell
  • Evelyn Waugh’s 1942 letter to his wife Laura, o how not to blow up a tree stump, read by Geoffrey Palmer
  • Robert Crumb’s letter to Mats Gustafsson “Torturing the saxophone”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
  • Rachel Carson’s letter to Dorothy Freeman “Dear One”, read by Gemma Chan
  • Bill Safire’s pre-prepared speech sent to H.R. Haldemann in July 1969 “In the event of Moon Disaster”, to be read by President Nixon if Apoolo 11 did not land safely on the Moon, read by Colin Salmon
  • Tina Fey’s response to internet commentators “Dear Internet”, read by Samantha Bond
  • Michael Powell’s letter to Martin Scorsese, after he read the script for Goodfellas, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
  • Beatrix Potter’s letter to Noel Moore “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”, read by Louise Brealey
  • V.S. Naipaul’s letter to copy editor Sonny Mehta “Every writer has his own voice”, read by Sanjeev Bhaskar
  • Zelda Fitzgerald’s letter to her husband F.Scott Fitzgerald “Come quick to me”, read by Joanne Froggatt
  • Mark Twain’s letter to J.H. Todd “An idiot of the 33rd degree”, read by Tom Sturridge
  • “Chinese Form Letter” from 856 AD “I was ready to sink into the earth with shame”, read by Olivia Colman
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to Charles McCarthy “I am very real”, read by Andrew O’Hagan
  • “Dialogue” by Gyorgy Ligeti, performed by cellist Natalie Clein
  • Chris Barker & Bessie Moore’s “My Dear Bessie”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey
  • INTERVAL
  • “Love Letter” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, performed by Tom Odell
  • More of Chris Barker & Bessie Moore’s “My Dear Bessie”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey
  • Hugh Dowding’s letter to Winston Churchill, 1940, “Final, complete & irremediable defeat”, read by Geoffrey Palmer
  • Carl Jung’s letter to James Joyce “A string of veritable psychological peaches”, read by Andrew O’Hagan
  • Three Elvis fans’s letter to U.S. President Eisenhower “Don’t touch his hair”, read by Olivia Colman
  • Alan Turing’s letter to Mrs Morcon “You could not have had a greater loss”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
  • John Steinbeck’s letter to his son Tom “Nothing good gets away”, read by Colin Salmon
  • Clementine Churchill’s letter to husband Winston Churchill “You are not so kind as you used to be”, read by Samantha Bond
  • Henry James’s letter to Grace Norton “Sorrow passes and we remain”, read by Tom Sturridge
  • Private Eye’s letter to Goodman, Dorrick & Co “Arkell v. Pressdram”, read by Geoffrey Palmer
  • W.C. Lathrop’s letter to Thomas Edison “Thanks Mr. Edison”, read by Joanne Froggatt
  • Spike Milligan’s letter to Stephen Gard “Oh Christ, the cook is dead?”, read by Sanjeev Bhaskar
  • Charlotte Bronte’s letter to her sister Emily’s publisher W.S. Williams “Like a tree in full bearing”, read by Louise Brealey
  • Lion Feuchtwanger’s letter to the occupant of his home in 1935 “To The Occupant”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
  • “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter” by Fats Weller, performed by Tom Odell

For information about ticket availability for tonight’s Letters Live and future events visit the Letters Live website. Simon Garfield’s To The Letter and Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note Vol. 1 are published by Canongate Books and available through all the usual stockists. Volume 2 will be published later this year and details can be found on the Letters of Note blog, which also contains some of the above letters.

10 Years of New Who – My top 10 episodes of modern Doctor Who!

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There seem to be a lot of television anniversaries recently and today marks another milestone – it is 10 years since Doctor Who returned to our screens with Rose in 2005. As someone who grew up in the wilderness years of Doctor Who my only real contact with the series had been watching the occasional rerun of Sylvester McCoy’s era on UK Gold, which didn’t grab me at all and then the 1996 TV movie with Doctor number 8. I’d enjoyed Paul McGann’s only outing as the Doctor and so on hearing the series was being revived I was curious to see what it would be like in the 21st century. I was also a huge admirer of Christopher Eccleston’s work (particularly the stunning and hard-hitting Hillsborough).

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The new TARDIS team in 2005 – Christopher Eccleston & Billie Piper

So, on Saturday 26th March 2005, I joined 9.9 million other viewers to see the TARDIS land back on Earth (and hear that crazy cross over with Graham Norton!), which rose to a final total of 10.81 million. The verdict at the time – enjoyable, although I thought the episode was incredibly cheesy. I did however love Chris and Billie and that was enough to draw me back the following week. It’s been a mixed 10 years. I loved Chris’s series (with barely a dud episode), adored David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, which cemented my appreciation and loyalty to keep watching the show and thought Matt was great but had far too many dreadful stories. Now, ten years later, we are awaiting the second series of stories for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor (I thoroughly enjoyed his first series, which I discussed last year) and it’s great to still have the Doctor going strong on the BBC. To celebrate this 10th anniversary, below are my favourite ten episodes of “New Who.” I’d be interested to hear what episodes make your list.

1. Human Nature / Family of Blood (David Tennant, series 3, 2007) b007m0r9_640_360

This two-parter remains my favourite story of modern Doctor Who, which is ironic seeing as it was originally a novel for the Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor! Paul Cornell’s story is so brilliant on so many different levels – it is beautifully written, has a chilling villain (particularly Harry Lloyd as Baines), highlights the country before the war, while commemorating those who fought in its ending and is also superbly acted. Freema Agyeman really has space to develop the character of Martha, who has to do the Doctor’s work for him when he can’t, Jessica Hynes is wonderful as Joan, the woman who captures John’s heart and there’s some lovely acting from young Thomas Brodie-Sangster (now popping up in Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall). Above all of that though is David Tennant’s incredible performance as two very different people. His portrayal of John Smith as he struggles to cope with his real identity is heartbreaking and his darker Doctor at the end is also chilling. It’ll take a lot to beat this one for me.

2. Vincent and the Doctor (Matt Smith, series 5, 2010) Vincent-and-the-Doctor

Coming second is Richard Curtis’s story from Matt’s first year in the role. Many people were horrified at the thought of him writing an episode, but his story was in fact the most emotionally strong and moving episode of Matt’s whole time on the show. By travelling back to meet Amy’s favourite painter, it enabled the story to tackle the delicate subject of mental health and depression, as most of those watching know the reason for Van Gogh’s death. The scene in which he is crying in his room is incredibly powerful and superbly acted, while the episode also still maintains some beautiful visual moments too – Amy among the sunflowers and the three of them looking up at the Starry Night. Above all though, for me, it’s the ending which truly makes this episode one of the best of New Who – watching Tony Curran as Van Gogh see his work and how much it is loved always brings a tear to my eye, as does the sad truth that Amy didn’t get her wish of there being more paintings when they return. It’s delicate, emotional, powerful and beautiful.

3. The Waters of Mars (David Tennant, Specials, 2009) s0_07_wal_20

As David Tennant’s time as the Doctor neared its end, there had been talk that we’d see a darker Doctor and that certainly happened in The Waters of Mars. Faced with the crew of Bowie Base 1 and knowing their ultimate fates yet again placed the Doctor in a difficult moral situation. The difference this time being that we got to see what he’d be like if he decided to try and change the future and intervene when he shouldn’t. Tennant’s scenes with Lindsay Duncan were wonderful, from the one telling her the future of her family, right through to their final conversation on a snowy London street. Seeing this angry, arrogant, Master-like version of the Tenth Doctor was very exciting and it’s almost a shame he didn’t have a bit longer to delve in to it.

4. The Day of the Doctor (50th Anniversary, 2013)

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The highly anticipated 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who must have been a huge pressure for Steven Moffat. There was so much to try and include in order to honour the past, while moving the story forward for the next 50 years and I admit I was worried it would turn out like one of the worst Christmas specials. I’m so pleased I was wrong and that instead we had a fun, entertaining, exciting episode. I’ll always be sad that Christopher Eccleston didn’t agree to return, not even for a few moments, but we at least had the wonderful partnership of Matt and David, which was only strengthened by the dynamic they had together with John Hurt. His War Doctor was a brilliant addition and one that allowed us to revisit the Time War in a new way. Not to mention the unexpected inclusion of both Peter Capaldi and Tom Baker, whose scene with Matt is so moving, whether you’ve watched the Fourth Doctor’s episodes or not.

5. The Girl In The Fireplace (David Tennant, series 2, 2006) reinette

Steven Moffat’s first story for the Tenth Doctor became an instant fan favourite and I think will always be a classic. Ten years on, we are used to Moffat’s trick of jumping between time periods, or having the resolution be one that you only see how clever it is at the end of the episode, requiring you to rewatch it immediately. This was the first time we saw how multi-layered and clever his writing could be and in my view, some of his more recent stories have lost this, thinking they are cleverer than they actually are. The story of Madame Du Pompadour and her love for the Doctor across her life is a lovely one and Sophia Myles was able to convey her fear and also strength, something the Doctor clearly admired in her. His realisation that she has died and the letter she has left for him is such a tragic ending, but one which is necessary to make the episode as wonderful as it is. More like this please Mr Moffat!

6. Doomsday (David Tennant, series 2, 2006)

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I will always remember watching Doomsday for the first time, aware that Billie was leaving but unsure how it would happen and being totally unprepared for the emotionally charged final few scenes. Doomsday was such a great finale, as it had a perfect mix of adventure and action, as the Daleks and Cybermen do battle, while balancing this with a very real emotional heart, through both the resolution of Jackie and Pete back together and the Doctor and Rose torn apart. Russell T Davies’s era on the show may be seen as too driven by emotions for some, but I loved this aspect of the series and question whether I would have become such a loyal, regular viewer without it. I cared about the characters and the heartbreaking events always felt real (something I’ve felt to be lacking, certainly in Matt’s era) and none more so that seeing the Doctor and Rose say goodbye. It has gorgeous music from Murray Gold and is beautifully acted by David and Billie, whose chemistry was very special and I’d challenge anyone not to shed a tear.

7. Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways (Christopher Eccleston, series 1, 2005) parting-ways-1

As a huge admirer of Christopher Eccleston as an actor I was very sad to discover he was leaving the series so soon. I still strongly believe that the series may not have taken off had it not had such a respected actor of his calibre in it from the start, forcing people to take the sci-fi show seriously. He was a wonderful Doctor, funny, kind and yet serious and detached when necessary. This finale is still one of the best of New Who. It was the first time we got to see the huge army of Daleks and the threat they posed, it had light hearted humour courtesy of John Barrowman’s brilliant Captain Jack (bring him back Steven!) and then there were the lovely scenes between the Doctor and Rose. His hologram telling her to have a fantastic life is still one of my favourite scenes and Billie really showed what a strong actress she was, as she fought to get back to his side. Although sad, Chris’s final scene did justice to his time on the show, before welcoming David Tennant aboard.

8. The Runaway Bride (David Tennant, Christmas 2006) THERUNAWAYBRIDE_(19)

The Runaway Bride has always been my favourite Christmas special and is one I return to often. It has  the perfect balance of light hearted silliness and comedy, sadness and excitement and wasn’t confusing for those who weren’t regular viewers of the series. I’d never been a fan of Catherine Tate’s comedy shows and so was relieved to see what a brilliant actress she was. Donna was so different from Rose, which was exactly right for the first episode without the partnership of David and Billie and yet there were enough references to Rose to acknowledge how important she’d been to the Doctor. I remember being sad at the end of the story that we’d never see Donna again and it’s wonderful she came back for series four, to have such a superb partnership with David’s Doctor. Plus David’s final line in this story is still one the best scenes of his on the entire show – “Her name was Rose.”

9. Blink (David Tennant, series 3, 2007)

Dr Who. Blink

Blink is almost certain to make any Doctor Who fan’s list of favourite episodes and not just of modern Who either. Series two’s “Doctor-lite” story had been fairly weak and yet Steven Moffat managed to make this one a series highlight! It also introduced us to one of the most chilling monsters on television as we watched the Weeping Angels creep up on people. I remain frustrated that such a frightening monster was then ruined by later stories (breaking necks just wasn’t as frightening as sucking the future years out of someone!) but at least Blink stands as a reminder as to how scary they can be in the right story. It was also a brilliant role for Carey Mulligan (now so famous I sadly think we’ll never see the return of Sally Sparrow) and has forever made statues just that little bit more disturbing! Remember – don’t blink!

10. Mummy on the Orient Express (Peter Capaldi, series 8, 2014) / The Stolen Earth & Journey’s End (David Tennant, series 4, 2008)

Doctor Who Episode 8

Okay, so I’m cheating a little here as I’ve agonised over which of these two stories to include and couldn’t decide! It felt wrong not to include a story from the Twelfth Doctor and Mummy on the Orient Express was by far my favourite of his first series. It had everything right – scary story and monster, which felt fresh and original, fun location, excellent supporting performances (particularly Frank Skinner) and a lovely Doctor/Clara dynamic, as she struggles to leave, while feeling it’s the only choice. Above all though Peter Capaldi is fantastic – he really is the Doctor here, with witty dialogue, break neck speed cleverness, authority and a convincing relationship with Clara. I’ve no doubt this will remain a highlight of his years on the show.

the_stolen_earth_journeys_end_reunion

I couldn’t have a top ten list without The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End, as there is so much I love about it. Bringing all of the Tenth Doctor’s companions together in one story was a brave and ambitious move and yet it really did work and it made the ending all the more tragic, when the Doctor is once again alone. It was lovely to have John Barrowman and Billie Piper back, although I still don’t like the final beach scene. It still grates with me that the Doctor was fine with the idea of The Master travelling with him, but not 10.5 and Rose seemed to put up far too little a fight about not staying with the person she’d waited years to be with again. That aside though, their reunion at the end of Stolen Earth is another favourite scene of New Who for me – it’s the look on his face as he sees her and runs towards her, before that pesky Dalek ruins it! Then there is Catherine Tate, who is utterly spectacular here as we say goodbye to Donna. Her final TARDIS scene is heartbreaking to watch. If that scene wasn’t beautiful enough, it’s then capped off by Bernard Cribbins’s emotional doorstep vow to look up at the sky each night and think of the Doctor. Incredible acting all round.

……….

So those are my choices, some of which I’ll watch to celebrate this anniversary. Narrowly missing out were The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (“Are You my mummy?” will stay with me forever!), The Eleventh Hour (such a brilliant entrance for Matt), Flatline (it was just so original, scary and also funny), the entire end of series four, with its superb run of The Silence In The Library/Forest of the Dead/ Midnight and Turn Left, The Angels Take Manhattan (Amy and Rory’s exit was very well handled) and Boom Town (bonkers, but Chris proving just how comedic he could be in that restaurant scene).

I may not like all the stories, but Doctor Who remains a highlight of British television today and something the BBC can truly be proud of. It’s one of those rare shows that can be enjoyed by all the family together and that is something that should be cherished. I certainly hope we’re all here in another ten years time to celebrate another decade of stories!

In the meantime, here’s a brilliant fan made video, celebrating a decade of New Who! Watching me has made me want to get my box sets out and start all over again!

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