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New ways to read Dickens

March 29, 2014 in Arts and culture

When I read my parents’ Penguin Classics edition of David Copperfield at the age of 17, I loved it so much that I went out and bought my own copy, in what I then considered a rather handsome Everyman edition, at least for my meagre income at the time. It isn’t especially handsome, in fact, but it contains all the original illustrations, is edited by a man from the University of Kent and has a nice picture of St. Paul’s Cathedral on the front. All excellent reasons to take it off the shelf and revisit it, which I got around to doing a few weeks ago.

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The novel remains every bit as wonderful as I remembered – a little more, in fact – though this reading brought with it a couple of discoveries that I hadn’t anticipated.

The first concerns my handsome, self-funded teenage purchase, which at the end of page 254 threw up the sentence ‘having my boots cleaned over and over compliment he had paid my relation’. Further investigation revealed the reason was that page 254 was unexpectedly followed by page 223, with the subsequent 30 pages repeated all over again but pages 255 to 286 missing altogether.

I fumed for a bit. So much for my handsome Everyman edition and Malcolm Andrews from the University of Kent. But I decided that 17 years after making the purchase I couldn’t reasonably expect a refund.

Not being prepared to read Dickens on a Kindle, I decided to invest in a really handsome edition of David Copperfield to make up for the disappointment: I wanted hardback, I wanted faux leather binding, I wanted gold trimmings. I spent many obsessive hours researching what was available and ended up with this:

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That’s 36 volumes of Dickens. Sometimes I overcompensate for disappointment.

My other discovery was more literary and I’m surprised it hasn’t been discussed more often, though not that I didn’t notice it at 17 years old. I’m talking about the psychological complexity of the central character when it comes to gender identity and sexuality – perhaps Dickens revealed more about himself than he meant to with this, his ‘favourite child’.

David Copperfield is feminised from the opening chapter, by an Aunt who expects him to be born a girl, and who later rechristens him with the non-gender specific name of Trotwood. What is it that Mr Murdstone finds objectionable about young David, except that he has been brought up to be a bit girly? Murdstone’s whole attitude reeks of forced masculinity, from the moment he takes David boozing with his loutish friends (the Murdstones are themselves a fascinating study in predatory fundamentalism; Murdstone’s need to subjugate women, aided by his sexless sister, speaks volumes about his own insecurities). At school, David becomes a wife figure to Steerforth, reading aloud to him in bed and acquiring the nickname ‘Daisy’ – Steerforth, like David’s Aunt, seeks to feminise him from the word go (for presumably rather different motives):

‘You haven’t got a sister, have you?’ said Steerforth, yawning … ‘If you had had one, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her.’

As for actual wives, David’s relationship with Dora (the most pathetic female character ever committed to typescript) is written about in the same terms as his childhood infatuation with Little Em’ly, all romantic imagery and idealised yearning, and the unhappy reality of the marriage is that he ends up treating her as a child – she even begs him to call her his ‘child-wife’. His second marriage grows out of ‘sisterly affection’, his love for Agnes developing ‘in the withering of his hopes’ and having a platonic domesticity from the off.

No, if you want real passion then you have to look again to Steerforth and David’s extraordinary outpourings of desire whenever he describes or remembers him. The most erotic thing we hear about David’s married life is seeing his wife’s hair in papers; Steerforth is the only person we see undressing David and putting him to bed. And look at the way Steerforth dies – he is dragged fighting into a sea that explicitly mirrors a tumult in the depths of David’s memory, in a chapter full of elemental, virile imagery, reducing him at the end to the sleeping form David recalls gazing at long into the night in his schooldays. (Dora’s death, by way of a comparison, is represented by the last gasp of a dog.)

No wonder Steerforth’s betrayal hits David so hard. It has a similar impact on Rosa Dartle, an extremely complex character who more than makes up for Dora’s two-dimensional femininity (Steerforth’s attitude towards both his mother and Dartle make it explicitly clear that he is sexually aware); Rosa is one of many female characters in the book for whom a heated awareness of passionate, sexual love leads to unbridled misery (Martha, Emily, maybe even Betsey Trotwood if you’re looking for reasons as to why she emasculates the only men she associates with). Dickens seems to be saying that innocence is bliss, and David’s apparent bliss at the novel’s end is only achieved through an almost wilful naivety. Do his schoolboy passions and night of drunken abandon hint at what he is striving to repress?

Far be it from me to restyle David Copperfield as an archetypal model of closeted Victorian homosexuality, a virginal counterpart to Dorian Gray.

But he sort of is.

Voices that will not be drowned

November 22, 2013 in Arts and culture

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I can’t possibly let this day pass without at least a mention of Benjamin Britten. It’s impossible for any British composer of my generation to deny his influence completely, though while I was at university it was fashionable for jumped-up wannabes to do so; I wasn’t one of them, though I kept my love of Britten quiet when fellow wannabes were writing him off, because it seemed like the kind of thing that would make me look naive. So, let me put the record straight: as a child, then as a teenager, and now as an adult, a musician and an occasionally professional composer, I love Britten. I don’t claim to like all of his music, or even that it’s all great music (though plenty of it is), but his influence remains substantial, and one reason sticks out in particular:

Benjamin Britten was the last great composer to truly understand theatre.

A bold claim? Maybe. I’ll stand by it. Because for all the fine stuff I’ve read about Britten’s significance in his centenary year, nobody else has said it, and somebody ought to.

Of course it is often accurately stated that he single-handedly rehabilitated British opera, but that rehabilitation went far beyond writing first rate music, it was an exploration and expansion of the boundaries of opera as a form of theatre. Peter Grimes had popular appeal on the scale of a West End musical (‘Sadler’s Wells! Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman!’ as the possibly apocryphal route 38 bus conductor is oft quoted) because of the power of its storytelling as much as the accessibility of his musical style. He formed his own touring company to bring opera to wider audiences and in doing so introduced theatrical pragmatism into the scale of his work, which didn’t stop The Turn of the Screw from being a masterpiece. He did historical drama with rigorous attention to detail, achieving both factual and psychological accuracy. He produced interactive theatre for children and amateurs, without it sounding amateur or patronising. By his last opera he was pushing the limits of structure and theatrical fluidity. Bugger the rehabilitation of British opera, he was a great dramatist full stop – and that is in spite of the variable quality of his libretti, because the drama always came from the notes of the score. In fact, there’s precious little in his output that isn’t dramatic in some way – it’s what made him such an adept writer of songs.

It’s something I became acutely aware of two weekends ago at the excellent Bychkov-conducted War Requiem at the Albert Hall – another work that had immense popularity on its release and (probably not coincidentally) has had a backlash of snobbery from the artistic elite. I could point to the bits that are less successfully musically, but listening to it live I realised that it didn’t make any difference to the impact it had as a reflective, impassioned and utterly remorseless work. Thanks to Britten’s instinctive sense of drama, deft use of juxtaposition and the ability to produce massive effects with the tiniest gesture, in performance the work is greater than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts.

Why do I feel Britten was the last great composer to achieve this? Because his consummate understanding of theatre is something subsequent great composers have somehow failed to pick up for themselves. Modern operas are often vast, impressive, musically tightly wrought and artistically experimental. They are also all too often really serious and nearly always outstay their welcome. And theatrical? Not that I’ve seen or heard. (And yes, you can hear theatricality in a great opera score – indeed, my first experience of Peter Grimes was lying on my bed as a teenager following the libretto as a CD reduced me to tears.) Somehow, music that is in any aspect subservient to drama has become the (admittedly rare) property of film, theatre and musicals – none of which are currently the domain of the genuinely great composer (I say that with respectful knowledge of the very very talented people working in those areas).

This is a far more useful thing to take from the Britten celebrations than the column inches eulogising about his empathy with the human spirit or about the pain of the loss of innocence and pacifism and closest homosexuality and blah blah blah – look, there’s plenty of video footage of the man and he doesn’t seem that miserable. Yes, he communicated the pain of being a human being brilliantly because he was a brilliant communicator – but let’s not forget that he also had a great sense of humour. Albert Herring is a sublime comic opera and A Midsummer Night’s Dream does the funny bits far better than a certain recent West End production I’d prefer to forget about.

Where are the 21st century comic operas? (Or to clarify, where are the 21st century operas that are actually funny?) Perhaps composers are so desperate to be taken seriously that they consider an actual comic opera a bit trivial.

Well, Britten didn’t.

I leave you with glorious evidence that Britten knew that opera singers could be funny as well as scary. And that opera could be for kids as well.

Ooh. This looks like a thing you ought to go and see.

September 23, 2013 in Arts and culture

When you choose your enemies, you should expect to be treated like one

September 18, 2013 in Current affairs, What people are saying on twitter

Yesterday’s twitterstorm in a twittercup was the news that the EDL’s Tommy Robinson kicked up a fuss in Selfridges because a man he assumed was a Muslim refused to serve his friend. The shop assistant in question has been suspended and there was plenty of righteous anger flying about, partly because righteous anger is generally what Tommy Robinson provokes, but this time it was also aimed at the rather heavy handed response of Selfridges.

However, as Mic Wright has blogged, even the leader of the English Defence League ought to expect decent service in a shop that prides itself on making everyone welcome. I had no patience for the B&B owners who, on the grounds of faith, refused to give a double room to a gay couple. They offer a service, they should jolly well give it to everyone, whatever their personal feelings. And we can’t have one rule for homosexuals and a different one for the EDL (even though, ironically, both homosexuals and the EDL would probably like that). No question, the shop assistant in Selfridges should have just got on and done his job.

But it’s easy for me to write that. Given quite how revolting the EDL and Robinson himself are I don’t know how well I’d cope with them in the flesh, and I’m a middle class white male; how I’d react if I actually felt targeted by them is impossible for me to imagine. Yes, the staff member in this case acted unprofessionally – but his response was an understandable and human one. Give him a ticking off, sure. Send him for training on customer care in the face of racists, absolutely. But a compassionate employer needs to recognise that workers are not machines, they are subject to human emotions and impulses, which in this case could hardly be called irrational. Suspension, investigation and even talk of what the Daily Mirror subtly headlines the SACK are unnecessarily victimising a man who clearly already feels victimised.

Nor should Selfridges have so wholeheartedly taken the side of a customer being trying to intimidate said staff member by waving a phone in his face (clearly with every intention of getting the video on the internet at the earliest possible opportunity). An apology would have sufficed, but instead Robinson and his chum were rewarded with two £25 steaks and VIP treatment. If only from a selfish PR point of view, Selfridges might have shown a bit more restraint. Robinson would have had less opportunity to crow over that ‘Muslim’ he was served by and I don’t think Selfridges need have worried too much about pissing off the EDL demographic. (I witnessed their recent march across Tower Bridge: they are pitifully tiny group and their general demeanour didn’t suggest that many of them shop at Selfridges.)

I suppose what I’m saying is that, unlike a gay couple wanting to stay in a B&B for a weekend, Robinson has made a choice to stand as a public figurehead for outspoken and often violent Islamophobia. He has, in so many words, branded certain racial groups as an enemy: when you choose your enemies, you should expect to be treated like one (as should those who hang out with you). We are talking about a man whose family is under 24-hour police protection, after all.

In spite of all of which, he absolutely ought to be given fair and equal treatment whether in court or in Selfridges. But which of us could possibly blame a shop assistant for falling short of that ideal?

Final shoot

September 1, 2013 in Production diary

…and the next, and another day…

August 25, 2013 in Production diary

Another block of filming begins…

August 24, 2013 in Production diary

…this was perhaps the oddest shoot so far.

Day three!

August 19, 2013 in Production diary

This one says less about what we shot and more about the people involved in shooting it:

Day two!

August 17, 2013 in Production diary

So here’s what happened today. Explanations to follow. Possibly.

It begins!

August 16, 2013 in Production diary

Shooting has started on Script Doctor and we have had an interesting and exciting time already. Production diaries will follow, but we’re rather busy making the actual film at the moment, so here’s the briefest précis of what you can expect…