I can hardly believe it’s the end of the year already! Time to look back at another twelve months of theatregoing and reflect on what was brilliant, what was unexpected (whether in a good or bad way!) and what I wish I hadn’t bought a ticket for. Thankfully there aren’t too many in the latter category!
Starting with the numbers, I’ve seen 63 productions, of which I’ve seen seven more than once, giving a total of 76 theatre trips in 2015. Not too shabby, although still an amateur compared to others I know! Overall, it’s been a very strong year and the thrill of seeing a new play, visiting a new venue or seeing an actor I was unaware of grab my attention, remains just as addictive as in previous years.
Productions of the Year – My Top 10
Without further ado, here are my top ten productions of the year. Feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree!
- Oresteia (Almeida / Trafalgar Studios)
Perhaps a rather predictable number one this year is the Almeida’s new interpretation of Aeschylus’s 2,500 year old Greek tragedy. I missed it at the Almeida, but thankfully made it to the West End transfer. Simply put, this will remain one of the finest productions I’ve ever seen for a long time to come. Writer and director Robert Icke (now at the top of my must-see list) made such an ancient play current, while also delivering an exhilarating, powerful, intense and spellbinding production. The 3.5 hours flew by, as the whole audience seemed to hold its breath. Superbly acted, directed and designed, with set, lights and haunting sound combining to achieve something remarkable. It’s productions like this that remind me how incredible theatre can truly be.
2. Hello/Goodbye (Hampstead Theatre)
This may not make anyone else’s top ten of 2015 but I adored this production of Peter Souter’s play, having missed it in 2014. Maybe it was my mood in February, but it tapped in to my emotions and was a story that truly moved me by the end (yes, I cried). Miranda Raison and Shaun Evans had a wonderful chemistry as they brought the story of the evolution of two people’s love for one another (even when they can no longer see it) over a decade to life in such a believable way. I’d see it again tomorrow if I could. Read my full review here.
3. Love’s Labour’s Won (aka Much Ado) (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre)
I still find it criminal that this beautiful RSC production didn’t transfer to London. Together with Love’s Labour’s Lost they made a wonderful bookend of stories around World War I, but this was my favourite of the two. The set was gorgeous, the costumes sublime and the cast excellent, led by a brilliant Beatrice (Michelle Terry) and Benedick (Edward Bennett). Ed has grown so much since stepping in to David Tennant’s Hamlet shoes in 2009 and is now a leading man in his own right. He was charming, funny and cocky and I loved every moment, making this my favourite Much Ado to date (sorry DT!). The DVD is available if you missed it and you can read my full review here.
4. City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse)
I have a friend to thank for my ticket to this musical revival and how very grateful I am for her queuing skills! The songs were all fantastic and delivered with strength, confidence and power (where on earth is the cast album?!) and the design concept visually wonderful. I especially loved the use of black and white, against colour for the two worlds depicted and the strength of the cast was superb. Everyone made the whole production better, whether Hadley Fraser’s author, Tam Matu’s private eye or Katherine Kelly’s sexy black widow to name but a few. A truly impressive show and my favourite musical of the year.
5. Hangmen (Royal Court / Wyndham’s Theatre)
Another production I managed to see on its transfer was Hangmen. I thought it was terrific. Martin McDonagh’s script is of the highest quality, filled with brilliant one-liners and exchanges and a twisting, turning story, during which you never quite know where it is leading. The cast are all superb, especially David Morrissey, but the standout is Johnny Flynn as the mysterious southern stranger, whose motives are unclear, but who makes you feel distinctly uneasy. Combined with a fantastic set (not to mention that first set change) and this should certainly be one your 2016 list if you haven’t seen it already. Read my full review here.
6. Tree (Old Vic Theatre)
My top ten of 2014 included my first experience of a production by Daniel Kitson and this year sees him back on my list with Tree. It was such a simple concept. Two men spend the duration of the play talking about their lives and what has brought them to be there (one waiting for a date, the other living high up in the branches!). Performed by Kitson and Tim Key it was funny, sad, inappropriate at times, but incredibly moving by the end and certainly made me think for a long time afterwards. Read my full review here.
7. The Ruling Class (Trafalgar Studios)
Seeing the return of James McAvoy to this venue, again directed by Jamie Lloyd, I had no idea what to expect from this play (last seen in London in 1968). My lasting memory of it will be how utterly bonkers it was, but oh what a joy to watch! A superb, satirical look at the upper classes of privileged families I was captivated for the entire performance. Then of course there was James McAvoy himself, whose performance was one of the best I’ve seen all year. He had so much to do – crazed, vulnerable, angry, affectionate, flirty and disturbing, as well as taking on so much physicality. A production and performance I will never forget. Read my full review here.
8. Farinelli & The King (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse / Duke of York’s Theatre)
I saw this new play by Claire van Kampen in both venues this year and I loved it each time. Part play, part music concert, it was one of the most enchanting and captivating productions I saw this year. Based on the true story that a famous singer who helped the depressed King of Spain in the 18th century, we were treated to the stunning voice of Iestyn Davies as Farinelli and the legend that is Mark Rylance. His King Philippe is one of a quiet disposition, but who is capable of moments of violent anger and intense sadness. He is also incredibly funny and I’d forgotten how funny this play was until I saw it again. Proving yet again that Mark Rylance on stage is something never to be missed, this was a gem of the theatre year. Read my full review here.
9. Rules For Living (National Theatre, Doorman)
My first trip to the refurbished Cottesloe Theatre was to see this new play by Sam Holcroft and what a joy it was. I admit that it came at a time in the year when I really needed something to make me laugh and this ridiculous glimpse in to one family’s dysfunctional Christmas did the trick. I hadn’t laughed that much for quite a while. Seeing how our own internal rules govern our behaviour and responses to others, highlighted so cleverly through the gameshow style scoreboard was a wonderful concept and gave the audience the pleasure of knowing more than some of the characters. Plus the final food fight was brilliant! It’s just a shame this isn’t back at the National for Christmas! Read my full review here.
10. Husbands & Sons (National Theatre, Dorfman)
Picking a final choice was quite difficult, but this tremendous new adaptation of three D.H Lawrence’s plays really did impress me (runner-up mention has to go to the RSC’s Henry V which I also very much enjoyed). Ben Powers’s play weaves the themes of all three plays together so perfectly, as we see the ongoing cycle, as women go from being the frustrated new wife unable to live up to the mother, to the mother being too protective and then jealous of the girl whom her son falls for, a role she perhaps once had herself years before. I loved seeing all three stories unfolding on stage at the same time and each was so well acted, containing some wonderful performances including Louise Brealey and Anne-Marie Duff. The staging and set were effective, suggesting each story occurring behind closed doors in one village and the use of the lightning rig to evoke a sense of the mine was a great touch. Crucially it’s a production I’ve continued to think about long after seeing it and one I would love to see again. Read my full review here.
Disappointments of the Year
There are bound to be some shows that sit at the bottom of the pile each year, but thankfully there haven’t been too many I’ve really disliked in 2015 and even those had aspects that I can appreciate even if they didn’t appeal to me. Having said that, my theatre year would have been fine had I not seen any of the below productions!
- How to Hold Your Breath (Royal Court Theatre) – Nothing else could beat this Royal Court show to take the title of worst of 2015 for me. Ten minutes in, I knew this wasn’t for me and it didn’t improve. I can appreciate some of the ideas and Maxine Peake was (as usual) very good, but it remains 90 minutes I’ll never get back. Read my full review here.
- Matchbox Theatre (Hampstead Theatre) – The concept of combining lots of little vignettes in to one production could have been entertaining, but too many of these pieces were just boring or not that funny. I did like the one about stage management as nocturnal animals and the member of the orchestra with barely any part, but overall this felt incredibly pointless.
- Carmen Disruption (Almeida Theatre) – This is another production for which I enjoyed some elements, but as a whole it just didn’t work for me. There were some strong performances (particularly Jack Farthing’s Carmen and Noma Dumezweni’s moving portrayal of a mother estranged from her children), but I found myself wishing I was instead just seeing Carmen. Read my full review here.
Productions I Was Sorry To Miss
Despite my best efforts, I never see everything on my list each year and 2015 has been no exception. These are the ones I’m most sorry I didn’t see this year.
- Young Chekhov (Chichester Festival Theatre) – I heard such wonderful things about this triptych of plays, with its wonderful cast. I hope the rumours of a London transfer prove to be true!
- The Wars of the Roses (The Rose Theatre, Kingston) – Another triple bill I missed was Trevor Nunn’s restaged histories, which included one of my favourite actors Alex Waldmann.
- People, Places & Things (National Theatre) – I had a ticket and couldn’t go to this highly praised production. However all is not lost, as it transfers next year to the West End and thankfully leading actress Denise Gough does too!
Performances of the Year
2015 has been an impressive year for individual performances, across musicals and plays and it almost seems unfair to only highlight a few. Below are my top leading and supporting performances of the year.
- Imelda Staunton (Gypsy) – a truly incredible performance as Mama Rose Lee, Imelda brought everything to this role and the way she hit those huge notes was astonishing! Watch it on BBC4 on 27th December if you can.
- James McAvoy (The Ruling Class) – as I have already said, his performance was in another league to most others this year. Captivating throughout.
- Ralph Fiennes (Man & Superman) – I’ve never seen anyone speak as fast and fluid as Fiennes here. The time of this play flew by despite the long running time and his performance was magnetic and incredibly memorable.
- Lia Williams (Oresteia) – Lia’s performance as Clytemnestra was astonishing. Both a woman of strength and vulnerability, seeing her finally take the revenge she had stored for so many years against her husband was so intense and her scream of relief and anger was spellbinding.
- Tobias Menzies (The Fever) – This one man monologue play in the Mayfair Hotel was an intense story and one I still don’t fully understand, but Tobias Menzies was superb and it was a privilege to watch him.
- Susannah Fielding (The Merchant of Venice) – Rapidly becoming one of my favourite actresses, she was superb as Portio in this RSC/Rupert Goold production.
- Johnny Flynn (Hangmen) – The standout of this play, Johnny’s performance is unnerving and darkly entertaining throughout.
- Mark Gatiss (Three Days in the Country) – This performance was full of humour and fun and the scene in which he attempts to propose while also doing his back in was utterly brilliant.
- Judi Dench (The Winter’s Tale) – I love Judi and she is excellent in this Shakespearean tale, bringing a gravitas to the production and effortlessly speaking the Bard’s words.
Memorable Moments of the Year
Each year also brings individual moments, which remind me why I love going to the theatre. It’s these that make live theatre unique – no one else will experience that moment in quite the same way. Here are my top theatrical moments from 2015:
- The daring nature of The Vote at the Donmar – a very British comedy, which was wonderful to see live and then watch again as it transmitted in real-time on television on Election Night.
- Ophelia’s final exit in the Barbican Hamlet – this was the most emotional moment of the Cumberbatch Hamlet for me. Sian Brooke’s Ophelia felt very real; truly broken by grief and seeing her break down at the piano and then turn and walk off up the slope in to the light, as if towards heaven, as Jon Hopkins’s score played, was incredibly powerful and visually and emotionally beautiful.
- The split-level ship set rising up during Treasure Island – I was a little disappointed by this National Theatre show, but the ship set rising up from the drum revolve was a wonderful sight.
- The final moments of The Red Lion – I thought this Patrick Marber play was very good, but it was the power of the final few minutes that I will remember. So poignant and powerful.
- Experiencing The Fever in a Mayfair hotel suite with Andrew Scott sitting at my feet – okay, so this is more a memorable audience moment for me, but seeing such an intense play, with the added experience of having Andrew Scott sitting at my feet is something I won’t forget in a hurry!
- A stage full of inflatable sex dolls – Shakespeare and sex dolls were a combination I never imagined I’d see, but it actually worked in this Young Vic production of Measure For Measure! Unexpected and surreal.
So, that’s my round-up of my theatre year and hopefully 2016 will bring even more special productions, performances and memories. My recommendations for 2016 will follow in the next few days! Thanks for reading!
So, I failed in the ballot for tickets for James Graham’s new play, but thanks to a generous friend who queued this morning, I managed to get a standing ticket for tonight’s performance and I’m so pleased I was able to enjoy the experience of seeing this production live in advance of tomorrow night’s broadcast on More 4.
Created by James Graham and the Donmar’s Josie Rourke and written by Graham, whose previous work has highlighted an interest in politics (the brilliant This House at the National in 2012 and the recent Coalition for television) and also his flair for bringing something a little different and quirky to the stage (such as last year’s Privacy, also at the Donmar), The Vote is a wonderfully funny farce, set in the last hectic 90 minutes of polling on election day. Staged in real time (as will be the case tomorrow night), he brings the audience through the doors of a typical polling station in a South London marginal seat, managing to bring an incredibly funny and entertaining show to the stage while also highlighting the importance of each of us playing our part in deciding how our country is run, by casting our vote tomorrow. In fact, I can even say I’ll have voted twice this year, as before taking our places in the circle tonight, I lined up with the rest of the audience to hand in my polling card, be issued my ballot paper and vote within the Donmar’s very own polling station! This was a wonderful way to start the evening and draw the audience in to the atmosphere of the show.
Much has been said about the huge cast of actors in The Vote. Most of these are small roles, of those simply coming in to vote, but who bring with them a quirky story or glimpse in to their lives outside the world of this school hall. The play however centres around the polling station staff, presiding officer Steven Crosswell (Mark Gatiss) and poll-clerks Kirsty (Catherine Tate) and Laura (Nina Sosanya) and how the last 90 minutes of voting become far more stressful and farcical than they could ever have imagined. Everything is going smoothly, the day is almost over and the station is determined to beat one of its rivals in completing its count in this marginal seat. That is until an old man (played by the wonderful Timothy West) arrives and votes….for the second time…..! You can imagine the hilarity of events that follow and I won’t spoil them before tomorrow night’s live broadcast. Suffice to say, the eccentricities of the British public and the voting system are used to full comedic effect.
Mark Gatiss is perfect for the part of Steven, the man in charge of running a tight ship and a stickler for the rules and order, who slowly starts to crumble as he loses control of events around him. We watch with sympathy, as his morals are tested to the limit by circumstances and the actions of others, particularly Catherine Tate’s Kirsty. She clearly loves the status of being a polling agent, but soon her desperate attempts to rectify one mistake snowball in to some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen on stage for a while and it’s lovely to have Catherine and Mark on stage together again after 2010’s Seasons Greetings. Catherine is always superb at comedy and that is still the case here. Kirsty feels incredibly believable, as she stumbles chaotically through events, desperate to make things right again, but managing to only make everything worse and her relationship with Nina Sosanya’s Laura works very well indeed.
Josie Rourke has done a brilliant job in directing such a big cast and ensuring that almost every bit part adds another dimension to the world of the play, adding to its depth of realism. Personal favourites of mine were the young cycling couple – he is so oblivious to her lack of joy at cycling, Hadley Fraser’s drunken voter, the first time teenage schoolgirls, whose grasp of what they are actually doing made me feel quite ancient (I loved the line about using a pencil feeling like they were in the 90s!) and Paul Chahidi’s Independent candidate, whose passionate outrage about punctuation is very funny indeed. Then of course there is the duo of Dame Judi Dench and her daughter Finty Williams, playing mother and daughter here as well. Judi is always on top form and although this isn’t a huge role, along with Gatiss, she certainly receives some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
James Graham clearly understands the intricacies of British politics incredibly well and is therefore able to present something that is not dry or dull, but that instead highlights the common flaws of the system (such as people who don’t understand how to vote or who they are actually voting for), as well as the quirks of our democratic process, that when you think about it are hilariously old fashioned and eccentric in this modern age – as we all head to school and church halls, to place a cross in a box using a pencil, in a room where phones and conversation are against the rules. After seeing it, I’m surprised no one has thought to set a farce in a polling station before. However, I loved that despite the calamities that befall Gatiss and his team, you cannot deny that everything they do is to try and preserve the integrity of the system, no matter how strange it may seem (as highlighted by the bemused attitude of a Swedish reporter).
The Vote is certainly an interesting and fun theatrical experiment, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It has a sense of humour and a sparkle to it, while also managing to bring a sense of importance to our democratic system (something most of the politicians seem unable to achieve). As the play was devised to work both on stage and screen, it will be interesting to watch it from my sofa tomorrow night and see it again from this different perspective. I encourage everyone to sit down at 8:25 p.m. and turn on More 4 to see it. I guarantee it’ll most likely be the most fun part of this entire election campaign!
The Vote will be broadcast tomorrow night (7th May) on More 4, starting at 8:25 p.m and will be available on All 4 from 8th May. View the trailer here. A digital copy of the theatre programme can also be downloaded via the Green Room app available on iTunes here.
Last week saw my first trip out of the house on my own since August. Freedom at last! What better way to get back in to the London culture scene than with a preview of the upcoming BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies at the BFI (thanks to @Ruther2 for my ticket). The BBC’s six-part drama begins later this month and after watching the first two episodes, I was certainly impressed. The cast is first-class, led by the truly brilliant Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rises to become one of the most powerful men in the country. Rylance never fails to impress, most recently through his stage work (Jerusalem, La Bete, Richard III and Twelfth Night were all superb) and that he is so able to play such an eclectic range of characters is a testament to how great an actor he is. His Cromwell may not have come across as as witty as Ben Miles’ performance on stage at the RSC, but he has an intensity about him that is bound to grow through the episodes – Cromwell is always observing, thinking, planning and this is always clear from Rylance’s portrayal. He also has a touching relationship with Jonathan Pryce’s Cardinal Wolsey, the master he stands by until his fall in 1529.
Other notable performances from the first two episodes were Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn, Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner, Charity Wakefield as a playful and strong Mary Boleyn and Thomas Brodie Sangster as Rafe, Cromwell’s loyal ward. We didn’t get to see too much of Damian Lewis’s interpretation of King Henry VIII in these early episodes, but he seemed very promising, not only a younger, more athletic figure, but also one who still carries a gravitas and power that makes you know he should not be crossed. I have owned the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies for years and always intended to read them, especially so after seeing the stage productions last year in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. However it was only after going to this preview that I finally picked up Wolf Hall, which I have just finished. The BBC drama is very faithful to the novel, with lines of dialogue and scenes instantly recognisable to me as being identical. It’s impressive to see how such a detailed novel has been adapted so perfectly for the screen by Peter Straughan. They are books that contain so much detail and description that as a reader you need to commit to them in order to be swept up in the sumptuous, yet murky world of Henry’s court and it’s fantastic that Straughan’s scripts have not strayed from the example set by Mantel in her work. There are some scenes and moments that are moved around slightly, so that they occur earlier or later than in the book, but you can understand why each of these choices was made, in order to keep the pace of the screen version and I don’t think any such choices are at the detriment of the original books.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Mike Poulton’s stage adaptations for the RSC (soon to transfer to Broadway), which I found to be fast paced, modern and funnier than I’d expected. Comparing this to the television version, I’d say that the stage one seems to be faster paced, which makes sense when you have create the world for a live performance in three hours, through which Cromwell can speak directly to the audience. This direct rapport also opened the door more for humour to come across, particularly from Cromwell. As with the novels, the series cannot do this directly and so more is dependent of Rylance’s skill at conveying his thoughts through a look and his eyes, something he is more than capable of achieving. As for the production itself, it is of a level of quality we expect from a BBC period drama – beautiful locations and costumes, wonderful music by Debbie Wiseman, which feels authentic, yet contemporary and superbly shot – the scenes you think seem to be lit just by candlelight really are exactly that, which lends the production an added layer of realism. There is one scene in which Cromwell talks with his sister-in-law as she puts out the candles around the room – as each is distinguished the room grows darker until only one remains. Touches like this truly impressed me and you can understand that a great deal of preparation and skill has been invested by the crew and director Peter Kosminsky in order to film the series this way. I also loved the hand held camera style for certain scenes, which allows the audience to be always seeing the events from Cromwell’s perspective. This again makes the characters feel very much alive.
I am incredibly excited to see the remaining four episodes of this wonderful series and cannot recommend it highly enough. The opening episode may feel a little slow to some people, but I would urge you to stick with it, as you are soon drawn in to the drama and intrigue of a world that really did exist 500 years ago and in to events that had a lasting impact on our country. This is due to a superb combination of top quality acting performances from some of the country’s best talents, a faithful and perfectly paced screenplay, sumptuous costumes, locations and music and the brilliant choice of filming style so that, as an audience you really are following in Cromwell’s footsteps as he navigates this dangerous world of Tudor England. Panel and Q&A following the screening After the screening we were treated to a Q&A with director Peter Kosminsky, composer Debbie Wiseman, actress Claire Foy (Anne Bolyen) and Hilary Mantel herself.
What did Hilary Mantel think of the adaptation? Mantel was full of praise for the series, calling it sumptuous and saying that she had fallen into her own story while watching it. She does not refer to it as an adaptation however, as she feels such a word sounds like a compromise. This is not an adaptation, but the material in a different medium and she was very proud. What was the director’s approach to the series? Peter Kosminsky talked about how the characters think they are us. They don’t know that they are in fact in history, so it was important to create a world that felt real and contemporary, so that the characters are living in the moment. He also spoke of how closely Peter Straughan worked with Mantel on the screenplay and how important it was to cast the right people in order make the production feel real. The importance of the director of photography’s role and that of the camera operator was also mentioned, in order to give the series its documentary style, which makes the audience experience the events with Cromwell as they happen. What was it like playing Anne Boleyn? Claire Foy spoke of how much she’d enjoyed the books when she’d read them, but that she’d felt dread when it was suggested she should audition, as she was sure she was nothing like the Anne she had read about in the books. She was amazed that Peter wanted her to play the role and also agreed that there is more of a responsibility playing someone who lived. Peter Kosminsky explained that he’d thought Claire would be perfect for Anne, as he knew from working with her before that she could portray the nastier side of Anne, but still break your heart at the end. He knew she wouldn’t need to “soft sell” Anne.
Music process and cliches and music? This is Debbie Wiseman’s sixth collaboration with Peter Kosminsky and she talked about how early she was involved in the process. The music in fact had a life before the filming began, with themes such as Cromwell’s theme and Anne’s them existing in an initial form from the beginning, which meant that demos could be taken on set and used, which does not normally happen. Later in the evening she was also asked about whether there were any period cliches that had arisen when creating the score. Debbie talked about the influence of Tudor instruments, some of which were used, including the lute and viol, but also that there had been a desire for the music to have a contemporary feel, so the music aims to look forwards as well as backwards. Did Mark Rylance’s performance provide new insight in to the world for Mantel? Through working on this drama series and the stage production, Hilary Mantel said there are themes that linger and that each process feeds in to the other and also in to the third and final book, which is still a live process for her. To be called “The Mirror and the Light” Mantel explained that the final novel will cast light on what has gone before and see events from a different angle, while also filling in some of the gaps. She was incredibly enthusiastic about how wonderful it is to have people to co-imagine with you and that through the stage and screen processes she has had more such co-imaginers to help her create the world. Filming process? The director referred to the use of filming by candlelight and Claire Foy stressed how dark it was when filming certain scenes, during which they were amazed the cameras were actually able to see more than the cast and crew could due to the darkness! They were also terrified of someone catching fire (a risk that Mantel said was a very real one for those living at that time). Five cameras and five lenses in different configurations were tested before filming began in order to ensure the very best equipment was chosen. The candlelight was an important element for the production, especially as they were filming in real period locations, which were built and designed to be lit that way. Mantel also agreed with its importance, saying that it does something to your imagination when just in candlelight. Claire and Peter also reminisced about the comedic scene of having to film at Penshurst Place in Kent, due to the requirement on the crew to pause filming every 20 minutes in order for tourists to walk through on tours! The language of Wolf Hall? On being asked about writing the novels and the language used, Mantel referred to George Cavendish’s biography of Cardinal Wolsey, as it was from this source material that she found the idiom for her novels. At the time, when the people communicated it would have been clear to them and so it was important for her to have a living, speakable idiom. Therefore the novels are written in modern English, but slightly sideways, for example, with syntax different from everyday English used today. She also agreed that Peter Straughan’s adaptation is very faithful to the novels. The third book and the challenging nature of the material for its audience? On being asked if they would film the third book, both Peter and Hilary said that would be wonderful but Mantel needs to finish writing it first! Mantel was also asked how much of a hit she thought the series would be on television, due to the fact that, like the novels, the audience has to work for it. Mantel agreed that the dialogue takes no prisoners and that there would have been no point dumbing it down for the series as you could never pitch it right for everyone. She felt it was important to do it with honesty and integrity and then hope to carry the audience with you, as she wants them to be co-imaginers too, as writing is not a two dimensional process. Is this the golden age of television? On being asked by the audience whether this was a new era of a higher art for television, Peter Kosminsky said that there are new challenges and opportunities now, for example a greater number of channels, but less viewers watching a programme than when there were only four channels. He also spoke of how big development budgets were no longer there, so he didn’t see it as a golden age, as you have to fight for budget and to keep something relevant and real. Wolf Hall begins on Wednesday 21st January on BBC Two at 9 p.m. and you can watch the trailer here. Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies can be purchased at all the usual book stockists.
If we used the Doctor’s TARDIS and travelled back in time four years to 25 July 2010, we would find ourselves in a world in which the recognisable image of Sherlock Holmes was one of an older gentleman in Victorian London, driving through London in a Hackney cab through foggy streets. We would also be in a world in which only theatre enthusiasts and watchers of the odd BBC drama would have heard of a young actor with an unusual name.
What a difference a night makes! After 90 minutes of BBC1 drama on a summer’s evening (never an ideal time for a new series to start), the UK had a new obsession and the BBC had an instant hit on its hands. It has been referenced in numerous interviews how that night changed the lives and careers of those involved – none more so than its lead actors Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch and Benedict in particular.
In the four years since it began Sherlock has gone on to success few could have imagined. After 7.5 million watched A Study in Pink in 2010, its UK audience has grown impressively, with the series 3 opener drawing 12.7 million viewers and the third series overall becoming the UK’s most watched drama series since 2001 and the most requested drama on BBC iPlayer to date. This would all be incredible on its own, but Sherlock has also achieved international success (being sold to 224 countries in the last year) and critical respect, with a raft of award nominations and wins from BAFTAs to Emmys. It has one of the strongest and most loyal group of fans of any show, who have taken the series, its cast and crew to their hearts (mine included). It’s almost unbelievable to think all it has achieved in so short a time, raising the profiles of not just Martin and Benedict, but others from Andrew Scott and Louise Brealey to the team at Hartswood Films.
If any television series deserved to reach such heady heights its this one. The writing is superb, with each script zipping along with pace, intelligence, humour, heartfelt emotion, fun and action. The direction is inventive and exciting to watch. There are fews shows where the choices made by a director seem to jump off the screen. It’s beautifully lit by the director of photography, not to mention the costume departments success in creating one of the most iconic outfits on television (why on earth Balstaff discontinued that coat is beyond me!). Then of course there is the acting. It’s not just the leads that make Sherlock what it is, it’s everyone. The core supporting cast are wonderful, from Rupert Graves’s Lestrade, the lovely Louise Brealey as Molly and Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, to Amanda Abbington’s Mary Morstan, Andrew Scott and Mark Gatiss, not to mention all the guest stars that have added to the quality of each episode.
All these components work together seamlessly to make Sherlock a programme of the upmost quality in every respect. If only all dramas could be this good. Then again, if they were, it would lessen the joy and excitement at finding a new gem.
I now just need to decide on my order of these nine super episodes. That will be tough and deserves a separate post of its own! So as I watch A Study In Pink tonight, four years on from the first time, this post is a thank you to all those who have worked so hard to bring Sherlock to our screens. Long may it continue to shine!
I started to write about my fantastic experiences watching filming of series 3 of Sherlock earlier in the year, more so I didn’t forget it and now I have a blog and now the episodes have aired I thought why not post it, so forgive me if this rambles on a bit! SPOILER WARNING – If you have yet to see the episodes this does contain spoilers.
I find the production of film and TV incredibly interesting and tend to watch filming if I come across it, which living in London does happen occasionally, especially since I learnt from the wisdom of others what those neon arrows I often see on lampposts mean! Therefore I was hopeful of catching filming of the new series of Sherlock when it ventured to London, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to get to Cardiff due to work.
I had already caught the bug after being lucky enough to be one of a small crowd who watched filming for the series 2 finale The Reichenbach Fall outside St Barts on 17 July 2011. There really weren’t many people there and at one point myself and my two friends found ourselves being moved to stand behind the monitor tent (so that we were not in shot), only to have Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman stand practically next to us! They were watching their stunt doubles film the aftermath of Sherlock’s fall (Sherlock on the floor and John being knocked to the floor by the bike). It was quite surreal to have them so near, with Benedict covered in blood, with a towel round his shoulders – Sherlock and John watching Sherlock and John! Bonkers. Although we didn’t approach them as they were clearly working and that felt wholly inappropriate, it certainly made me hope I’d see more filming of this brilliant series!
10th April 2013 – Day 1 at 221b!
I didn’t realise it would take quite so long however but at long last series 3 filming began in Wales and then the first trip to London. What a difference a two year hiatus makes – I still can’t quite believe the crowd at Baker Street for filming of episode one The Empty Hearse on 10th April 2013. As it was a working day I only managed to get there after work, but hadn’t actually missed too much. The weather started out fine and we watched the filming of what would turn out to be Sherlock & Watson’s last shot in the episode, standing outside Baker Street speaking to the reporters, complete with deerstalker. It was lovely to see them actually filming outside that iconic location and even my flatmate came along to watch!
That evening turned out to be a great one to go to, with quite a few scenes shot, including John being attacked outside 221b. Mark Gatiss entertained the crowd during rehearsal of this scene, as on seeing what happens the crowd gasped, prompting him to turn around to us all, put his hand to his mouth and make a shock gasp style gesture!
As the evening went on however the weather took a turn for the worse. In short it poured it down for hours, but the crowd at Sherlock filming have a great spirit and once we had an umbrella (purchased from the wonderful corner shop on North Gower Street) it was fine. As the rain started to fall heavily, filming was to continue with Benedict Cumberbatch and Amanda Abbington, who were to film their speedy exit from 221b on to the road and Sherlock commandeering a motorbike. It was during the set up for these scenes that Benedict, Martin and Amanda all came across to the huge crowd to say hello. Only Benedict made it along the line opposite 221b to reach the opposite corner where we were standing but it was nice of him to do so. He thanked everyone for being there and supporting the show and said to “Stay sane and dry” which in that weather was really a lost hope! I said I hoped he’d be able to fit in some more theatre sometime soon, to which he said he hoped so too as he’d love to if he could find the time. With the exciting Hamlet rumours now circulating I certainly hope this happens soon!
The scene with the bike was still being filmed when I left just after 10 p.m. (by which point myself and my flatmate were sufficiently drenched).
13th April 2013 – St Barts Day 1!
It wasn’t long before the all-important filming outside St Bart’s arrived. As I don’t work far from there, I suspected the rumours were true when the parking restriction signs for a full weekend due to filming went up all along the side of Smithfield Market and so I joined a few friends there the next day. The weather was pretty miserable yet again and I felt genuinely sorry for the cast and crew having to work on it the rain. Poor Benedict also seemed to have a cold, which couldn’t have been much fun in that weather.
When I arrived the crowd was fairly small and the large blue crash mat was in position by St Bart’s (little did we know that it would actually be in the episode!). Most of the day was spent filming Sherlock’s fall, requiring Benedict to first jump/fall from the cradle raised above the crash mat.
This was followed up by him leaping on to the mat from the side, which meant he had to climb a ladder and then launch himself on to the mat, which looked like a lot of fun!
In true fashion, the rain started once the wirework began. Benedict’s stunt double was used to measure out the different heights they wanted to capture and once that was done it was time for Benedict to film. After a few takes and as the rain started to pour, someone had clearly had a great idea, and as Benedict was raised up on the wire in preparation for another take, he took the umbrella up with him, continuing to hold it over himself whilst suspended in mid-air, which was quite funny to see. Only when they were ready to film, did he drop the umbrella to the crew below and do a take. The crew also started laying towels on the crash mat, as a few takes resulted in Benedict being lowered fully on to the mat face down, which by this point must have been soaking wet.
Once Benedict and Martin were no longer needed, Benedict’s stunt double was filmed on the wire, dropping from the top of St Bart’s to almost the pavement, before being hoisted back up at some speed! It was very impressive to watch.
Everyone hoped that the weather would improve for the next day!
14th April 2013 – St Bart’s Day 2!
As if by magic the weather for the second day at St Bart’s couldn’t have been more different! The sun was out and it was already quite warm by 11 a.m. when I arrived. A couple of friends I knew were already there and barriers were up, behind which the crowd were watching. The first scene I saw was Martin filming John on the phone to Sherlock and calling out to him. In between takes the cast and crew seemed far more relaxed (maybe it was the glorious weather) and Benedict and Martin, both sporting sunglasses chatted with Mark Gatiss, Sue Vertue and the crew.
It was then time to film scenes in front of the hospital and joined by my flatmate, we managed to get a fantastic spot on top of a stone seat near the archway of the hospital. Being relatively short it was great to have something to stand! The next few hours were incredibly good fun. We watched the scene where Benedict ran up and swapped places with his stunt double who was dragged off through the side archway (cue lots of oohs from the crowd) and Steven Moffat appeared just before lunch to much excitement.
After lunch it really did get ridiculous. First Mark Gatiss returned to set, but in full Mycroft outfit, which started the speculation as to how Mycroft fitted in to the puzzle! Then, all of a sudden Andrew Scott, in full costume, casually sauntered up the road towards the hospital. The reaction as he was spotted by more people was crazy and he drew claps and cheers from the crowd. He chatted happily on set, every so often waving to those watching. Then they “filmed” that scene and I’m so pleased I was there to watch, as along with everyone else I puzzled over why Mycroft and Moriarty were together and shaking hands – was this flashback? And why on earth was Moriarty wearing Sherlock’s coat?! Or was this a hoax to wind us all up?! It was also nice to watch as Benedict wandered up to watch them film, sitting down on the floor against the ambulance station, next to Steven Moffat. Good for them for trying to plot red herrings and keep us guessing!
Then just when it couldn’t get any stranger, Martin began filming and my friend went “That guy looks a bit like Derren Brown” before we realised that that was indeed Derren Brown! We could clearly hear him saying “and sleep” which made us want to laugh. John hypnotised by Derren Brown? Really?!
All in all it was a fantastic weekend and I felt privileged to watch the hard working crew as well as the actors at work. The set up and effort that goes in to making TV of this quality is very impressive indeed. We also did well by not putting any spoilers on the internet.
21st May 2013 – Day 2 at 221b!
My next trip to “221b” was for more filming of The Empty Hearse and the taxi scene from The Sign of Three, in which Sherlock hails a cab and he and John head off to investigate The Bloody Guardsman. The crowd was again quite large and it was a much shorter day in terms of scenes filmed. Benedict and Martin filmed the hailing of the taxi for about 45 minutes and then Benedict left and Martin filmed John’s arrival, this time with moustache (much to everyone’s amusement!) at 221b and the children asking him to give a Penny For The Guy. For trivia fans – the face on the Guy was drawn by Mark Gatiss! Filming was finished in a few hours, as the crew had already been filming in the morning at St James’ Park for the scenes on the bench and with the guards, which sadly I didn’t go to. The crew did however let people queue up to have photos at 221b before they removed the numbers and also with the Baker Street sign after it had been removed from the wall!
21st August 2013 – Day 3 at 221b!
My final day of filming was for the finale and again, mainly involved Benedict hailing a taxi, although instead of taking John with him, Sherlock leaves him standing alone of the street after what looked to be a few serious words. It was fun last night to see what they were actually saying and my friend who was there with me that day was thrilled to see it live on TV.
For the first time I was able to witness the welcome Martin and Benedict get when they arrive on set and it is quite something. There were hundreds of people there that day and the cheers they received when they arrived were like something from a rock concert! My friend had come with me out of curiosity and he couldn’t believe it. There came a point early on when the main crowd opposite 221b (we chose to stand in our usual spot on the corner a bit further along) screamed and cheered whenever they appeared from out of the door of 221b to rehearse the scene and after a couple of times, Benedict wandered across good naturedly and gestured for them to not do it when they were rehearsing/filming.
From then on, there was relative silence until Cut was shouted, at which point a large cheer and applause would be given. I felt as if I was at the theatre in some ways. It must be very strange for them filming TV in those surroundings.
Amanda Abbington also arrived on set and happily signed autographs for the crowd. This was also the day Benedict held up his political questions on civil liberties and I was hilariously referenced in a Guardian article, as possibly one of the first people to put on twitter what he’d said. That’s certainly one way to get your thoughts out to the world!
The other scenes filmed were the arrival of the henchmen of Charles Augustus Magnusson in a black car with the number plate “I CAM” and their entry in to Baker Street and also Sherlock’s arrival with John at Baker Street, dressed in very un-Sherlock tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt. We were all amused by his annoyance with the door knocker and again it was lovely to see the context of that on last night’s episode.
Once filming ended I was amazed when both Benedict and Martin signed for the huge crowd, with Benedict going along the whole line, as if it was a film premiere. Typically I hadn’t brought anything with me that day, seeing as they hadn’t signed previously so I happily stood back and watched the spectacle. People who just happened to be walking past wondered what was going on and on hearing who was signing, they joined the crowd! Now we just had to wait for the episodes to air!
15th December 2013 – The Empty Hearse Preview at the BFI!
To top off the fun I’d had at filming, by some miracle I managed to buy two tickets for the preview screening at the BFI of episode one. I have been a BFI member for a few years now and I usually fail at getting tickets for the “popular sell out in seconds events”, so this was a huge surprise! As my earlier spoiler free post about that day says, the atmosphere was wonderful both in the building beforehand and during the screening. It was also lovely to see so many people involved with the show there. Andrew Scott seemed to go relatively unnoticed as people took their seats and Louise Brealey was sitting next to him with Una Stubbs also there. As you would expect the arrival of Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, Amanda Abbington, Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch caused lots of excitement and they seemed genuinely thrilled to be there.
It was certainly an incredible atmosphere in which to watch that episode and now it’s aired you can imagine the reactions to some of the moments right from the first few minutes. There were everything from gasps, to groans, to laughter and clapping. The majority of people in the room also recognised who was playing Sherlock’s parents and this drew claps. Benedict in the Q&A later said how emotional he’d felt watching that scene and it getting that response and how wonderful it had been to have his parents involved. I’d recommend reading the transcript of the Q&A as there were some great questions (putting aside the awkward fan fiction moment).
And now it’s all over. I really hope it’s not another two year hiatus, but quality takes time and they are all so busy now that I won’t be surprised if it is. All my fingers are crossed that I’ll be able to see some filming of series 4, although the thought that that could not be until 2015 is quite a scary thought!
I’ll attempt in the next few days to put all my photos on Flickr (as I think I have an account for that). All my filming videos are on You Tube under vickster5001.
I’ll start by saying this contains no spoilers. I am not planning to ruin the thrill and surprise for any fans of Sherlock but had to record my thoughts of such a fantastic day at the BFI Southbank. I’ve been to a few events at the BFI but this atmosphere was something else entirely. From the moment you arrived you could sense the excitement. The box office area was packed with people waiting for returns/standby seats and people hoping for a glimpse of the stars. In NFT1 itself, as everyone took their seats, the anticipation and excitement was contagious. I couldn’t quite believe I’d managed to get a ticket all those weeks ago and here we were. I have been lucky enough to see a lot of filming in London for series 3 and was also excited to see those bits on film too.
My spolier-free review of the actual episode The Empty Hearse is quite straightforward – the episode is fantastic and one of the best pieces of TV ever made. It’s rocketed straight to the top of my favourite Sherlock episodes too (taking the crown from A Scandal in Belgravia). The episode feels very expensive in terms of production values as the quality is superb. Jeremy Lovering’s direction is excellent and he takes the stylish baton from Paul McGuigan and adds to it. Seeing this on a big screen was a privilege. The story itself is fantastic. There is just about everything in this 90 minutes – light-hearted fun, bonkers humour (some bits had me cracking up along with everyone else), action, tense thrilling scenes and wonderful emotional depths. This is all possible due to the strength of the ensemble of Sherlock. Everyone adds to the episode to strengthen it, particularly Louise Brealey, Una Stubbs and Rupert Graves. Amanda Abbington has a great start as Mary and will no doubt be a super addition to the team at 221b. They are of course all led by the supremely talented Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman, whose talents know no bounds as Sherlock and John. The have so much to do in this episode and do it brilliantly. Martin handles John’s range of emotions at seeing his friend again wonderfully and gives a very real, human performance. Benedict is, as usual, excellent in a role that no one could do better and together they are a joy to watch. It almost doesn’t feel as if it’s been 2 years (well…almost)! It will be interesting to watch again without the crowd there, as this group viewing experience certainly heightened the responses – so much cheering, clapping and laughing throughout.
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have created an incredibly special series with Sherlock but I have to give so much praise to Mark Gatiss for this episode. His writing is wonderful in The Empty Hearse – totally barmy one minute and deeply touching the next. The nods to not only Conan Doyle but to the show’s own incredible success is very well done and never feels too much. Plus he has written Mycroft some of his best bits here too, which is lovely.
The Q&A was a disappointment and rather uncomfortable. Caitlin Moran’s choice of questions and approach were odd, especially from someone who is a fan and has done some great interviews in the past (her Benedict one is very good indeed). She brought people’s attention to fans in the back of a shot (which I didn’t notice but my friend did) which made me feel very sorry for the director and although it was made light of by the panel, it felt quite uncomfortable to watch. I will also never understand why she thought getting Martin & Benedict to read some slasher fanfiction was a good idea! Very awkward indeed. Not all awful though – Benedict & Martin were able to acknowledge how respectful fans are at filming. Mark Gatiss remembered screams from the crowd at one point and on being asked what had happened, responding Martin had just opened a packet of crisps! Some better audience questions (favourite scenes to film, how some of the story was thought of, how Mark finds writing and acting his own scripts (jokingly he said he finds it easier to remember the lines when it’s his scripts)).
It was also lovely to see so many of the cast past and present in attendance, highlighting how much of a family the programme is for those who create it – as well as the panel (Benedict, Martin, Mark, Steven, Sue and Jeremy) in the audience was Louise Brealey, Una Stubbs and Andrew Scott as well as the composer and some of the production team.
I hope no one spoils the twists and turns for others. I knew certain things from watching filming but still would never have imagined some of the magical moments and it really will be better as a surprise. I look forward to chatting on twitter once it airs on New Year’s Day! Rest assured though Sherlock is back a bigger and better than ever!
Welcome back Sherlock – it really has been far too long but that episode was so good it was worth the wait!