Category Archives: TV

the very problematic, the very romantic Mr Frank Churchill

I’ve been visiting my family in Canberra, which is beautiful this time of year. And what a weak word beautiful seems to describe how the odd, purpose-built, overlooked capital of Australia embodies autumn. How still and quiet it is, except for those screaming cockatoos, and how blue the sky looks against the fire-and-plum-pudding leaves.

Well anyway, I’ve been visiting my family, and my sister and I decided to re-watch the 2009 adaptation of Emma (screenplay by the ever-marvellous Sandy Welch).

It’s a fabulous adaptation in so many ways. Emma’s father is hilarious and heartbreaking, and though her brother-in-law finds him impossible to deal with, it’s subtly suggested that he’s on his way to becoming the same neurotic, grumpy old man. And of course Emma and Knightly’s lifelong relationship is so real, and so much fun to watch. (And oh, that line, “Maybe if I loved you less, I could talk about it more.”)

But watching it this time round, it was Frank Churchill who caught my interest.

He’s awful. If I was Emma I would never have forgiven him so easily – and it grates on me, watching it, how he seems to get away with being an utter shit. But I also realised that he’s the Romance rake. He’s the difficult hero. Knightly, who’s good in every way (except that he likes to give patronising lectures) isn’t a very popular kind of hero in Romance.

And to be honest, I love the way Frank is mean about Jane to hide their relationship. It really tickles my id to have him explain away why he’s watching her by saying, “I was just thinking how poorly she has done her hair this evening.” At that point in the narrative she seems to be onside with it. She’ll be reserved and keep to herself; he’ll perpetuate the idea that he only visits her from obligation. It’s when he gets frustrated and genuinely mean that it stops being enjoyable.

But I think it’s a problem of perspective. We’re watching Frank as an antagonist within a romance that’s based on respect, moral judgement and kindness, so when he acts out it comes across as immature and thoughtless. If, on the other hand, we take his romance as the primary romance, he becomes what most heroes in Romance are: tortured by his feelings.

I think if I were reading that romance, I could enjoy how awful he is. I would revel in his lack of moral sense. He’s a man caught between what he owes to his manipulative family – and the fortune he’ll inherit from them – and love. I wouldn’t want to read about that as a simple moral choice.

It’s also a set-up that doesn’t discount the importance of money, which I like. We never get the sense he’s thinking about giving his fortune up to have Jane. In fact, he petulantly talks about running off to the Continent. He’s aware of the constraints love places on him – how it keeps him in this tiny, anonymous English town. He’s aware of the kind of life he could have – should have – were it not for love.

If Jane Austen were writing Frank and Jane as the primary romance, I can’t help but think that they would only be rewarded with happiness if they kept their feelings properly, achingly to themselves. I love that, as a secondary romance, she rewards them with happiness no matter how awful they’ve been. There’s no moral judgement on their feelings. As Knightly says, their happiness is just dumb luck: Frank’s aunt is in the way of their marriage – Frank’s aunt dies.

What redeems their romance in the adaptation (I can’t remember how it’s portrayed in the book) is the scene where we finally see them freely together. Frank waits in the village square, and Jane runs to him. When they meet they become – for the first time in four hours of TV – wholly, fully themselves (or wholly their best, brightest selves, anyway). All the fun and passion and impetuosity that has made Frank awful at times turns him into an irresistible man – a lover who will never let his love become bored, or feel unadored. All of Jane’s reserve and unhappiness fall away – though you feel what a frightening thing it must be to let them fall away – and she becomes the girl whose heart has been stolen, and is firm in the hands of her beloved.

 

I had no thought for your reputation

Sandy Welch can do no wrong. She wrote the screenplay for the playful 2009 adaptation of Emma and the gorgeous 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre. And, of course, the 2004 adaptation of North and South. Ah, North and South.

I recently sent special k out in 40-degree heat to buy it for me because I had to watch it again. Immediately. I’ve also read the book, and for me Welch screwed all the relationships that bit tighter, and made what is an extremely polemic book slightly less so. Or slightly more human, at least.

I want to talk about the proposal scene, because it is so, so wonderful. I can’t help but compare it to the Pride and Prejudice proposal scene: they both occur about half way through the book, and both turn into a hot mess and alienate the hero and heroine from one another. But they function completely differently.

As I put it recently on twitter: Darcy’s feelings drive him to propose, against all logic. Circumstances drive Thornton to act in concert with his feelings, though it terrifies him to do so.

Darcy is genuinely horrified by the idea of marrying into the Bennett family – and Elizabeth is genuinely offended by what he says. Each is secure in their own world, and cannot meet the other on common ground.

John Thornton and Margaret Hale are trying to understand each other, but their worlds are so different that it’s almost impossible. Their misunderstanding is more subtle and more heartbreaking, because it’s all in their characterisation.

Here’s the scene, so that you can get the full impact of Richard Armitage laying his heart on the chopping block:

And here’s my breakdown of why I love it so much:

J: I’d not noticed the colour of this fruit. [A brilliant opener. What he has to say is too terrifying to just say. So instead he talks about fruit.] Miss Hale, I’m afraid I was very ungrateful yesterday.

M: You’ve nothing to be grateful for.

J: I think that I do.

M: Well I did only the least that anyone would’ve. [This is where Margaret starts subtly lying. She believes every word she’s saying, but it’s clear to us, because we’ve seen their relationship developing, that this can’t be true.]

J: That can’t be true. [Well said, John.]

M: I was, after all, responsible for placing you in danger. I would’ve done the same for any man there.

J: Any man? So you approve of that violence – you think I got what I deserved.

M: No of course not. But they were desperate. I know if you were to talk—

J: I forgot. You imagine them to be your friends.

M: Oh but if you were to be reasonable. [Margaret is hopelessly naïve – but there is some truth in what she’s saying, so we can’t just dismiss her for it. Margaret and John see the world through completely different lenses, and it makes it almost impossible for them to understand each other, even though they want to.]

J: Me? Are you saying that I’m unreasonable? [John’s pride and quick temper start to take over, which will only skew the conversation further.]

M: If you would talk with them, and not set the soldiers on them, I know they would—

J: They will get what they deserve. [John does shift from this position eventually – but I can’t help loving how certain and uncompromising he is. He’s here, trying to tell the woman he loves that he loves her, and still he won’t be anything other than what he is.]

*Pause. How did the conversation get here?*

J: Miss Hale, I didn’t just come here to thank you. I came because. I think it very likely. I know I’ve never found myself in this position before. [With this line, John becomes the naïve one. We know Margaret has been proposed to before. John’s doing something completely terrifying and unrehearsed. This is utterly unique for him. It’s not for Margaret.] It’s difficult to find the words. Miss Hale, my feelings for you are very strong—

M: Please. Stop. Please don’t go any further. [This is more or less what she said to the other guy who tried to propose, and he backed right off, apologising for having misunderstood and staying silent about his hurt.]

J: Excuse me? [Best line ever. John is his own man, and is not just going to be fobbed off with some polite dance that everyone is supposed to understand. As I said, this is unrehearsed, for him.]

M: Please don’t continue in that way. It’s not the way of a gentleman. [Margaret’s retreating into the world of manners, rather than being emotionally true with John. I don’t think she loves him enough to actually accept him right now, but she’s not paying him the respect of being honest, when he’s been so heartbreakingly honest in turn.]

J: I’m well aware that in your eyes at least, I’m not a gentleman. But I think I deserve to know why I am offensive. [He calls her on it. Demands something true.]

M: It offends me that you would speak to me as if it were your – duty to rescue my reputation! [Another brilliant line. She is wilfully misunderstanding him. She’s decided what his proposal means, and is playing that scene out in her head.]

J: I spoke to you about my feelings because I love you – I had no thought for your reputation. [Right on!]

M: You think because you are rich, and my father is in reduced circumstances, that you can have me for your possession. Well I suppose I should expect no less from someone in trade! [Again, she’s ascribing intentions to him that he simply doesn’t have. The narrative has positioned him in this way – you can understand why she draws the conclusions she does. But she’s reacting to those conclusions, not to the man standing in front of her.]

J: I don’t want to possess you – I wish to marry you because I love you! [His vulnerability and honesty are so amazing. Especially because we know he isn’t confident he could deserve someone like her.]

M: You shouldn’t, because I do not like you. And never have. [Lying to protect herself from scary, adult feelings. There’s a subtle immaturity about Margaret in this scene that I love.]

J *shot through the chest*: One minute we talk of the colour of fruit. The next of love. How does that happen? [Again, the fruit adds something to this scene that it wouldn't have if it were all just straight emotion.]

M: My friend. Bessy Higgins. She died. [This line is so wonderful – it has nothing to do with what they’ve been talking about, but it suddenly recasts what Margaret must have been feeling, coming into this scene.]

J: And that of course is my fault too. [Also wonderful that John doesn’t let her get away with emotional diversion. (And because this dialogue is so layered, also John reacting in pride, and not listening to what she’s trying to tell him.)]

M: I’m sorry—

J: For what? That you find my feelings for you offensive? Or that you assume because I’m in trade I’m only capable of thinking in terms of buying and selling? Or that I take pleasure in sending my employees to an early grave?

M: No! No, no, of course not! I – I’m sorry to be so blunt. I’ve not learnt how to – how to refuse. How to respond when a man talks to me as you just have.

J: Oh, there are others? [John begins to see that while he’s been completely open and put his heart on the line, she’s been trying to keep to some mannerly script, just as she would with any other man.] This happens to you every day? Of course. You must have to disappoint so many men that offer you their heart.

M: Please understand, Mr Thornton—

J: I do understand. I understand you completely. [Haha, he doesn’t really. Well, in some ways he understands her better than she understands herself – she believes the things she was saying, even though they’re untrue. But he’s never fully put aside his pride and his point of view to understand where she’s coming from.]

It’s difficult to write two people at odds, who want to love each other. Most often it produces the kind of annoying bickering or unfounded antagonism found in so many romance novels. This scene is a study in the layering of character that creates believable, heart-breaking misunderstanding. Their world views are each valid, and each flawed. His pride, and her immaturity don’t allow them to have a completely honest conversation.

I will now go and think about how to become Sandy Welch.

I really should have asked this question a long time ago

An old friend messaged me out of the blue on facebook the other day:

I have a question for you, it has been bothering me for a long time, but recently revived by watching new TV series.

Why does the classic structure of a romance novel and indeed of many many powerful stories & TV series (irresistible feelings for eachother, but misunderstanding, each thinks the other doesn’t want them, ultimately resolved in a great sense of relief and euphoria) appeal so much more to one gender than to the other?
OK maybe it only *seems* to appeal more to women than to men. And lots of men like Jane Austen and As You Like It. BUT. The relationship between Mal and Inara in firefly is in my head ALL DAY and keeps me all suspenseful and heart in my mouth each episode… doesn’t seem to have the same kind of itch or hold over Ben.
Would love your thoughts on this!!

My first reaction was: Wow. I really should have thought more about this before now. And my second reaction was to make up a bunch of science:

Not something I’ve thought a lot about, oddly enough, but my gut reaction is something like:

Women are powerfully interested in human relationships, and specifically in romantic relationships (and obviously this is massively simplifying/reductive). I assume this is part conditioning – we’re socialised to care about relationships, and until very recent history to judge our worth by our relationships – and part biology. There must be some biological urge to create safe, lasting environments for raising children, which means finding a partner with certain qualities. I.e. alone is bad, with man is good.

Men are stereotypically more drawn to action/adventure, which also has a classic story structure (similar to romance, but with a different end goal, more external rather than internal obstacles, etc.). So it’s really just what holds the interest of each gender.

Obviously personal relationships and love are super important to lots of men in real life.

My personal theory is that love/kissing/romance is private and personal it’s something you DO in real life, not something you externalise and obsess over. Action/adventure is completely fantastical and therefore an escapist form of entertainment you can get lost in. Whereas female fantasy is much more wrapped up in romance for the very non-scientific reasons I said above.

Hope that gives you some new thoughts to shed light on the matter!

So, seriously, why DOES romance grab women so much harder than it does men?

Puberty Blues

I feel a little bit smug. I’ve been watching a couple of bloody brilliant Aussie TV shows, and for once the rest of the world has to wait! (And here’s hoping other countries have the sense to buy these shows up.)

One of them finished last night, and the ending was so perfect I had that same glow-y feeling in my chest I get from a really great book.

Puberty Blues is about two best friends, Debbie and Sue, growing up in Cronulla in the 70s. Cronulla is an outer suburb of Sydney in an area famous in the 70s for its surfer tribal culture and more recently for the racist riots in 2005.

I tried to express, recently, the idea that a historical context allows us to explore female empowerment in a more emphatic way – but also lends itself to the kind of female empowerment that has nothing to do with finding love.

Puberty Blues is a subtle, impressive example of what I was trying to come to grips with.

Debbie and Sue are desperate to get in with the cool kids, and they eventually manage it by being a bit naughty and a bit mean, and mostly by catching the eye of the boys. Being someone’s girlfriend has nothing to do with liking or even knowing – it’s all about status and belonging.

Girlfriend duties include: sitting on the beach for hours watching the boys surf; buying meat pies and chiko rolls for the boys to eat when they come in, when you will also hand them their towel; and lying back to let him root you. Oh, and bringing the Vaseline – very important not to forget the Vaseline.

The casual rape culture depicted is absolutely chilling. It’s there subtly in the girls’ expectation of sex: it is not something you enjoy, it’s something you lie back and take. And it’s there overtly in the girl lying in the back of a panel van, a catatonic lack of expression on her face, while the boys climb in and out by turn.

Seeing that unsettles Debbie and Sue, but it doesn’t particularly stand out to them as wrong, or as having anything to do with them. The way they react to it – by not really reacting at all – is what makes it so chilling. They have no context to understand why it unsettles them.

They enjoy being the cool kids and having boyfriends. They also begin to experience the way a girl’s worth comes entirely from her boyfriend. The way a girl becomes a laughing-stock in a second if she goes against her boyfriend’s wishes – all ties of loyalty and friendship cut.

Again, they don’t consciously rail against this stuff. They don’t understand it, even while they don’t like it.

Sue starts to feel more and more restrained and angry inside her relationship. Finally, when her boyfriend’s a complete asshole to her in front of everyone, she says, “You’re dropped.” She doesn’t mean to – didn’t even know it was going to come out. It’s that part of her she doesn’t understand – the part that’s unsettled and angry – acting for her. But she doesn’t go all girlpower I’m-better-off-without-that-dickhead. She doesn’t understand herself or her actions and still craves the social belonging that comes with a boyfriend.

Debbie is dropped by her first boyfriend for being frigid (turns out all the Vaseline in the world can’t make up for really not wanting to have sex), then falls in love with the beautiful Gary. In heart-stopping, world-stopping first love. Sue asks Debbie over and over again to tell her the story of how she and Gary sat in her room and just talked all afternoon. Just talked.

But even the beautiful Gary is only a fucked-up kid, dealing with life outside of school.

Debbie and Sue have seen the reality of what it takes to be a cool kid, and they start, tentatively, to see the world on the other side of school – a world that’s bigger than just the cool kids and the outcasts.

They start to realise that the superpower they have is each other. In a world where all ties can be cut in a second if you act out of turn, they have the kind of loyalty that can get them through anything.

They see the girl in the back of the van again, the boys climbing in and out to take turns. They still watch her from a distance, and vow to each other that the world would have to go through one of them first, to get at the other. Then they realise: That girl doesn’t have anyone to stand between her and the world.

And then they realise: Maybe she has us.

It’s such a superhero moment when they decide to walk over. “We’ll just get up and walk,” they tell each other. They challenge those boys who are the gods of this small world, and they get the girl out of there.

They’re so high on what they’ve done – so disbelieving and amazed – that they want to do it all over again. So they do the next best thing. They go down to the beach, with a surfboard, and run into the water, where girls are not allowed to go.

The cool kids sitting on the beach call them every name they can think of, but Debbie and Sue just laugh back at them and say, “Get us a chiko roll!”

The girls, watching fully clothed from their “girlfriend” stations, watch with contempt but also with a kind of dawning confusion. And awe.

Debbie and Sue are a product of their culture. They don’t have the means to stand outside it and understand it. This made their eventual liberation so much more powerful than if they’d been on a crusade from the start.

Their liberation came from acknowledging that their own feelings about the world are the only compass they need. That they get to say what’s wrong and right.

This is how I want to use the historical context for my heroines. Not to have them understand right from the start: I am oppressed, and my fellow-women are oppressed! But to have their experience and their knowledge not match up. For that to be an unsettling thing, and for their anger and frustration to become more than they can keep inside. And when it comes out it’s not necessarily going to be comfortable, and they’ll probably want to take it all back.

In the kind of society Debbie and Sue are growing up in, the love of a teenage boy cannot empower or liberate them. But their friendship with each other can.

4 more things to adore about Miss Marple

Special k and I watch a lot of who-dunnits. Sherlock (Holmes), Poirot, Whitechapel, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. But my very favourite is Miss Marple.

The show, for one thing, is ridiculously well made. Sharp scripts, beautiful sets, well-shot and chock-full of Britain’s best actors. There’s something about Miss Marple, too, that sets her apart from other detectives. She’s unassuming (she doesn’t, like Poirot, introduce herself as The Best Detective Alive) but never submissive. I love watching the people around her underestimate her and then gradually change their minds – though her behaviour remains constant. I love the melancholy wrapped up in this woman people assume is doddering or numb, because she’s old.

The latest episode to air on the ABC was ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’. Here are four things I adored about it:

1) Miss Marple’s assistant for the episode is one of the hotel’s maids, a woman called Jane. The first time she talks alone to the war-stricken detective she says to him, “Just because I’m in a pinny, don’t make me stupid.” “Well,” he says. “That’s me told.” Her sister worked in munitions during the war, and told her that women’s equality had arrived. Then the war ended and Jane found herself in service. Like nothing had changed at all.

Working with Miss Marple to solve the murder she proves herself to be quick and clever – catching on about ten times faster than the detective to everything that’s going on. At the end of the episode she quits her job at the hotel, because she figures the police force will be recruiting women soon. “What do you think?” she asks Miss Marple. “I think,” Miss Marple replies, “it sounds exactly the sort of thing I’d never have done at your age. And always wish I had.”

Oh, and this conversation begins with Jane telling Miss Marple that Detective Bird has asked her to go away with him – not to get married though, no, just to live together for a while and see they get on. Her idea.

2) Which brings me to the romance. Detective Bird is a disillusioned soldier who seems to have been exhausted by the war. His declaration of love is the very best kind.

“Miss Cooper. Jane. Um. I wondered if I could. If you would be so good as to, er. If you would maybe like to consider.” *long, nervous pause* “You’re the most wonderful, intelligent, beautiful woman I’ve ever met. When I first saw you, you took my breath away. And it hasn’t come back yet. When I’m near you I feel drunk. Or dizzy. Or drunk and dizzy. And like I’m walking on air.”

“Inspector Bird–”

“And if whatever you may think of me is a fraction of what I feel for you–”

“Inspector Bird!”

“If there’s any hope you could in your heart–”

“Inspector Bird!”

“Yes?”

“What’s your first name?”

My favourite thing about this gorgeous declaration is that when he says “And like I’m walking on air” he’s uneasy, unsettled, like walking on air is terrifying.

3) ***SPOILERS FOR THE MYSTERY***

This is just one example of Agatha Christie’s mastery of her genre.

A set of identical twins are staying at the hotel, and early on Miss Marple notes that she can tell them apart because one of them is left-handed, one right-handed. The twin she’s talking to thinks she observed his left-handedness because he held his paper under his left arm. It feels like a fairly obvious set-up for a case of mistaken identity.

Indeed, during a critical scene one of the twins appears looking for the other, with a book tucked very definitely under one arm. The other twin arrives soon after, with a hat in his other hand. It felt a little deflating, because it was so obviously the same twin.

During the “all-is-revealed” scene Miss Marple calls them out on it – but absolves them of the murder. They were off stealing jewellery.

The actual murder is much more complex, and involves two girls passing themselves off as one girl, so as to be in two places at once. And what gave them away? One shoots with her left hand, the other with her right.

***END SPOILERS***

4) Miss Marple’s first name is also Jane. Jane-the-maid is quite clearly a girl after her own heart – one who will take after her in a new era. Sharing a name signifies all the other qualities they share. It also allows for a subtle, heart-breaking moment at the end.

The two Janes are talking, and then a man calls out, “Jane!” in a passionate, joyful way. The camera is on Miss Marple as she looks up, a kind of wonder in her face. Then pain. The man is Detective Bird, and he’s calling the younger Jane who goes blithely to him, to embrace him, to walk into the future with him. Jane the elder, whose love was killed in the First World War, remembers that she is an old woman, and her time for young love has passed.

For any Aussies who want to watch it, it’s up on iView at the moment.

the genesis of an idea

Just in case any of you don’t know of him, Heston Blumenthal is a mad-scientist chef. Or a gastrochemist. Or something. He’s amazing and inventive and there’s nothing he won’t try. (My favourite Heston moment was when he slow-cooked a whole pig in a hot-tub, because it was the only body of water large enough that could hold a consistent heat. He sort of looks up and realises what he’s doing and says, “I like to think of myself as a relatively normal bloke, by the way.”)

He filmed a series called Heston’s Feasts in which he cooks feasts that encapsulate a whole historical period. As part of his Victorian feast he wanted to serve Turtle Soup, which was a delicacy of the era.

The first step he takes is to go to America, to a turtle farm. He catches and kills a turtle then sticks it whole into a tub of water and boils it. That’s how the Victorians made Turtle Soup. He tries some of the meat, decides it’s a weird stringy texture, and cans the whole idea.

Next, he looks into Mock Turtle Soup, which was made from cow head and thus much cheaper and available to the aspirational classes. He follows a genuine Victorian recipe that gives him a rich broth. Much better.

He doesn’t stop there, though.

Because he’s trying to distill the whole Victorian age, he looks to Lewis Carroll for more inspiration. Mock Turtle Soup was so ubiquitous there was even a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland called Mock Turtle (a turtle with a cow’s head). He distils the soup down, freezes it, clarifies it, freezes it even colder or something, and creates a fob watch from the stock. He covers it in gold leaf and attaches it to a string and a “Mad Hatter’s Tea” paper tab.

His guests brew this in a cup with hot water until it dissolves into a gorgeous golden broth, emulating the Mad Hatter dunking his fob watch in his tea.

He creates a fantasy wonderland in the bowl based around the idea of the mock turtle egg, which he makes from turnip mousse and swede jelly – two staple Victorian vegetables.

You know when you read those books that just feel thin? Watching Heston create something magical, it occurred to me: Those books are turtle boiled in water. “Thin” is what you get when an author has an idea – even a brilliant idea – and writes the first iteration of that idea.

I know there have always been certain books that are produced at a high rate, and certain authors who work fast – that in itself isn’t unique to the present publishing climate. But I do think current conditions encourage fast production. On the one hand there’s self-publishing, which for some authors means a far shorter production process, and on the other there’s the expectation for traditionally published authors to keep up with the demands of a media-consuming generation.

The thing is – ideas take time. Most authors, when pushed to it, can produce words fast. Ideas generate by building on each other and stewing in the subconscious and making new connections with other ideas.

Heston didn’t even use his first idea, even though he went all the way to America to investigate it. But the end product wouldn’t exist without it – it’s even referenced in the the layers of pressed fat in the tureen. That end product is so rich because every thought he passed through influenced his process, and can be seen in layers and obscure references. It is a rich, nuanced, thoughtful, delightful soup.

For me, it isn’t viable to spend three years on every book. That’s not the kind of career I want to have. But I also want to write excellent books, and it’s worth reminding myself that quality is worth standing up for.

The next romance series in my head is becoming an absolute epic. The working title for the series is Kings of Industry. I want it to be full of interesting side plots and characters that influence and tie in to the main story. I want the relationships in the main story to be complex and shocking and unexpected. I want the industry to reach through every aspect of English life and all the way out to newly opened Japan. I want the series arc to be gut-wrenching and intricate.

I can see just a glimmer of what I want it to be, and I know I’m not even close to ready to start the first chapter. If I tried to write it now, it would be a turtle boiled in water.

So what I’m playing with is the idea of finishing my young adult sci-fi series next – which I have put a year of ideas work into. A book every three years might not be viable, but there may be something in staggering books so that one is written while another gestates, until it’s ready to be written and I start working on the next new idea.

Thanks to Yahny in London for permission to use her gorgeous pics. You can read an account of her culinary experience at Heston’s restaurant here. And you can watch Heston put the final touches on the soup here.