Wednesday, 21 June 2006

Beau Brummell: This Charming Man (BBC4)

I really enjoyed the BBC's 80 minute drama based on Ian Kelly's excellent biography of Beau Brummell. The title role was played by James Purefoy, seen recently playing Mark Anthony in the HBO/BBC miniseries Rome, and as the Black Prince in A Knight's Tale. He has previous Regency form too, having played Tom Bertram in the BBC Mansfield Park from 1999. Here he came across as cool and devilishly handsome, but deeply insecure.

It would have been impossible to have fitted everything contained in Ian Kelly's book into such a short space of time, so the writer went for something of an impressionistic approach. We learn nothing of Brummell's origins, except that he came from nowhere.

How he came to gain the intimate friendship of the Prince of Wales (superbly played by Hugh Bonneville, another Mansfield Park alumnus) is not addressed (Brummell served in Prinny's regiment, the 10th Light Dragoons). We are instead taken straight to the Prince's plans for his wedding (there is a Realplayer video clip of this on the BBC4 website), and Brummell's advice that "less is more", as far as fashion is concerned.

The screenwriter, Simon Bent, has simplified aspects of Brummell's life are simplified for the benefit of the dramatic flow.

For example his valet, Robinson, (played by Phil Daniels) stays with the Beau through the story until his final ruin. The real Robinson served Brummell for ten years before moving on, to be replaced by a succession of others. This was a drama and not a documentary. It was true to the underlying course of events, if not to every detail.

We had many of the most well known Brummell anecdotes depicted: the audience who came to watch him dress; the incident with the Prince and the snuffbox; and the infamous "who's your fat friend?" quip that went so horribly wrong. We also had Lord Byron (Matthew Rhys).
Kelly speculates about a possible homosexual relationship between Brummell and Byron, but seems to come down against it having happened. Bent uses an ill-defined three-way relationship between Brummell, Byron, and Brummell's childhood sweetheart and, later, leading courtesan, Julia Storer/Johnstone (played by Zoe Telford) as the reason for Brummell's falling out with the Prince. Byron gets to deliver his famous remark that the three great men of the age are himself, Napoleon, and Brummell when they first meet. In fact Byron made the remark much later, when all three were exiled from their homelands.

The story ends with Brummell's flight to France on Thursday 16 May 1816, We are not shown his subsequent decay into squalor and syphilitic insanity, although Kelly details this in his book.

So what might Ian Kelly have made of this adaptation. It is pretty clear that he approved, for he took part in it, playing Lord Robert Manners, a member of the Dandaical Body. In the programme he appears as the voice of caution, seeking (but failing) to prevent his brother entering a joint loan agreement with Brummell and the Marquess of Worcester as the end loomed. In fact Manners entered into at least one such arrangement himself, but both he and his brother Charles (Nicholas Rowe) were comfortably bankrolled by their brother, the Duke of Rutland. When the crash came, they survived, but Brummell, who had come from nowhere, returned there at the last.

I expect that the programme will be repeated on BBC2 in due course. Well worth watching out for.

Saturday, 17 June 2006

With Mostly Books moving ever closer to their 1 July launch, I have been thinking about my own book-buying habits. I live in a town that is blessed with branches of two of the big bookshop chains, Ottakar's and Waterstones (one will no doubt disappear once the Wottakars merger goes through). We also have a large W H Smiths, and several smaller independents. So why do I actually buy most of my books from a certain online behemoth?

I lived in the US for several years a few years ago. We lived then within a short distance of both a huge Borders and a huge Barnes & Noble (there were no indepents particularly close to us). I found myself buying most of my books from those two, rather than from the American online behemoth. Why the difference?

It's not a matter of price. I am fortunate to have a well-paying job, and I can afford to pay full price for books if there are good reasons for doing so. I see 2-for-3 offers as an excuse to pick up a book I might not otherwise read, if there are two that I actually want. Buying online in the US would have been a cheaper, but I didn't do it.

I think that it is in part to do with where and when I learn about books that I might want to read. My main sources, apart from personal recommendations, are the Review section of theguardian on Saturdays, the Arts and Books section of the Independent on Fridays, the London Review of Books (alternate Fridays), and Open Book on Sundays on Radio 4 (when it's not being to up itself about popular fiction). What these have in common is that they appear at the weekend. What with all the other things that have to be fitted in to the weekend, I find myself deciding what books I would really like to get hold of on Sunday afternoons.

Now I tend to be a bit of an impulsive shopper. If I decide that I want something, then I want it now, or as close as possible to now. If I put an order in to Amazon on Sunday evening I will usually get a package through the door just before I go to work on Tuesday, and can look forward to reading the contents that evening.

If I decide to go the bricks and mortar route it takes much longer. Because I work normal office hours, and I am a little too far from the middle of town than makes a lunchtime trip convenient (I cycle to work, so would have to cycle into town and back), I can only get to the local Ottakars in the evenings or at the weekends. Except that they close at 6:00pm, and I can't always get there by then, and even if I can, having entered the shop I don't want to be rushed. Which means that I can only get in there at the weekends.

Back in the US the bookstores stayed open until 10:00 or 11:00pm, so I could go almost whenever the urge took me. Add to that the coffee and buns, and I could go, buy, and read a few chapters in quiet comfort.

So, Nicki and Mark, if I lived in Abingdon, the best way to get me to buy all my books from you would be to open in the evenings. Given all the demands on you as you start up, I rather suspect that you didn't want to hear that...

I must just add that my first thought on seeing the photograph of the future Mostly Books (at the top of this post), my first thought was that it looked just like a bookshop. A particular bookshop in fact. Black Books. I look forward to seeing how far the resemblance extends on the inside.

Friday, 2 June 2006

I have been trying to come up with a good reason to blog about Smoke, apart from the fact that it is a wonderful quarterly magazine that deserves to be read widely - particularly by anybody who loves or hates London, or does not know it well enough to form an opinion. Subtitled "a London Peculiar" and describing itself as "words, photos and graphic art inspired by the City", Smoke is a labour of love by South Londoner Matt Haynes, and North Londoner (by adoption at least - I believe that underneath she is actually of the Welsh persuasion) Jude Rogers. It appears roughly quarterly, and issue number 8 was waiting for me on my return from Llangollen (of which more later).

Each edition (I have all except, tragically, the very first one) contains a wonderfully unpredictable mixture of essays, black and white photographs, and a number of ongoing series of microfeatures on aspects of London. Some of these are long running: we are up to number 7 in the series on London's campest statues (outside Pemberton House in EC4), while others start off well but disappear without trace shortly afterwards: I don't think we got past the first of Areas of London that rhyme with bits of a full English breakfast (Osidge, in Barnet).

So why do I think it appropriate to plug this excellent organ now? It's not that I have a piece in the next edition (although I am certinly thinking of writing something for Matt and Jude* to consider. It's just that they have just started a new series of microfeatures on a subject close to the heart of this blog. London Elephants started in issue 7 with that thing in the middle of Wandsworth Bridge roundabout. This issue we have the Stratford rhubarb (as pictured). These are elephants in the sense of elephants in the room - "things that are so hugely and mind-bogglingly inexplicable that, somehow, they don't register".

So now you know. Do go and subscribe. If you have an opinion on the greatest city the world has ever known, then Smoke will support or challenge it. If you don't, then Smoke will give you a great chance to form one.

* It looks as if Jude is moving on. Good luck to her, and even more to Matt, left to produce issue 9 on his own.
Heyeroines in need of a slap

24. Kate Malvern (Cousin Kate)

Miss Malvern, if we are to believe her own account of her upbringing, is a resourceful woman. Years spent in the Peninsula, following her father, has inured her to physical hardship and social deprivation. No English home can be so cold, or draughty, no bed so hard or ill-made that she has not experienced far worse in Spain or Portugal. No English company can be so rude, so strange, so unnatural, that she has not already met its equal among the men of Wellington's army, or the local peasantry. To Miss Malvern nothing can crop up that cannot be dealt with by the correct application of wit and aplomb.

So, having lost her position as a governess as a result of some or other misunderstanding (and, out of the common courtesy for which these essays are so renowned, we will not go there) it is only to be expected that Miss Malvern will not merely settle down comfortably, but find plenty to occupy and amuse her mind, whether she were to find herself in a converted coach-house now being used to house her old nurse's new family, or in an elaborately landscaped estate situated in the very vague vicinity of, say, Market Harborough.

But, when she finds herself at Staplewood, the very epitome of a landscaped estate in the very vague vicinity of Market Harborough, what does she do? Nothing.

When she discovers that her apparently loving aunt is in fact a swivel-eyed harridan who is intercepting her letters, does she come up with a brilliant stratagem for thwarting her evil plans, or does she just mope around doing nothing?

When she discovers that her impossibly beautiful cousin is a couple of tassels short of a pair of Hessians, and prefers biting the heads off dead rabbits than playing billiards does she come up with a scheme to have him removed to a place of safety, or does she just sit and fret and do nothing?

When she discovers that the household servants are embroiled in a dispute among themselves more complex than the War of the Austrian Succession, and that the housekeeper is given to prophecy while the cook is a totally unclichéd histrionic Frenchman and her cousin's manservant is apparently a badger, does she come up with a way of escaping to Market Harborough and taking the stage coach to London, or does she potter around the garden cutting flowers and achieving nothing?

When her other cousin, the not-quite-so-beautiful but somewhat-more-sane one, makes a rather implausible offer of marriage does she decide that enough is more than enough, or does she put off responding and instead choose to do nothing?

When the frankly scary aunt insists that Miss Malvern must marry her mad-as-a-fruitbat cousin to maintain a family tradition that nobody else is even aware of, or else face a lifetime of drudgery despite her somewhat underplayed skill as a modiste, does she stand up to her with vigour, or does she duck the whole subject and instead do nothing?

When the quite-a-long-way-to-the-east-of-Barking cousin finally goes over the top and strangles the dangerously-obsessed aunt with his bare hands before drowning himself rather beautifully in the lake, does Miss Malvern consider that there is nothing in the world that would make her marry anyone remotely connected to that side of the family, or does she decide to go ahead and accept an offer from a close relative of the deranged and departed whom she has known, when you count it up, barely more than a week?

Would a slap actually do any good, or should somebody wheel out the cluestick?

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