Monthly Archives: December 2013

Some Leaf Collecting highlights from 2013

 

Leaf Collecting is now one year old. Many thanks to to all its readers.

The end of a year is a popular time to look back, so here are some thoughts about some of my cultural experiences of the past twelve months.

A couple of worthwhile new films in the cinema: The Great Gatsby  and  Sunshine on Leith  .

A couple of worthwhile earlier films which were discovered for the first time: Lone Star  and The Tempest.

On TV, an engrossing film about the 1926 miners’ strike with a great amateur Scottish cast, The Happy Lands, fittingly compared to Days of Hope  and a worthwhile drama repeat (prompted by the death of its author Iain Banks) with an unsurpassable professional Scottish cast, The Crow Road. In addition, The Trip, an engaging mix of restaurant review and comic middle-aged male soul-searching.

On radio, the already praised Late Junction continued to please, and the Radio 4 adaptation of The Diary of Samuel Pepys entertained me in a way which the text itself has never quite reached.

In music, the Britten centenary provided the opportunity to listen to many unfamiliar works, usually on Radio 3, such as the Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings.

A couple of pieces of pop music grabbed my attention during the first moments I heard them. “New” was surely Paul McCartney’s best single in a couple of decades;  not just a strong melody and arrangement but a vocal which genuinely sounded as if it came from the throat of a man 30 years younger. Similarly,  Lorde’s “Royals” sounded like it came from someone who had lived longer and had heard and recorded rather more music than she had actually done.

First time travel destinations which provided cultural riches of different sorts were Cordoba, Spain and  Manchester, England.

Some excellent theatre was provided by Chapterhouse’s itinerant  production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Anthony Coleridge Theatre’s  stylish Gothic spoof  The Curse of Elizabeth Faulkner, and the A Play a Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre venture which extended from the Òran Mór in Glasgow to other parts of Scotland.

A great piece of century-old writing discovered for the first time:  Christina Rossetti ‘s spooky, sensual “Goblin Market”. 

Leaf Collecting began with a post about the Holy Land, so it has been good to end the year with reports of greater stability between Israel and Palestine  here and here.

Finally, one other positive political event which got less attention in the mainstream media than it ought to have, was the International Arms Trade Treaty

 

 

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The theatre of the Christian Christmas

 

Along with Easter, Christmas is one of the two times of the year when, first, our secular media follows a little more closely the practice of its more spiritual predecessors, and, second, our Christian churches are busier than usual.  Not by accident, the liturgy in churches at both these times take forms which are different from other periods of the year.

It is arguable that it is during Holy Week that the Christian church liturgy is the more dramatic: multi-voiced readings from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion, public washing of the disciples’ feet,  alfresco processions carrying the cross around local churches or landmarks.

However, Christmas Eve is the time for Mass or other services at midnight, and the four weeks of Advent  provide substantial opportunity for carol services or music concerts large and small.  Many people’s first experience of theatre, according to cliché, is appearing in a Christmas Nativity play.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is one of the most famous pieces of religious Christmas theatre, a reflective programme of readings and songs based around the narrative of Jesus Christ’s birth in the New Testament. The idea apparently originated in Cornwall in the late 19th century, although the most famous example at the chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University began just after World War One.  Each Bible reading in the sequence is allocated to a particular “actor” from the chapel, the university and the city.

Because of the distinctive structure of my own childhood Christmas Eves, I read about the Cambridge event long before I was ever able to hear any of it. Just as with other parts of Christmas radio and TV in those days, extra drama was created by the fact that the usually rigid broadcasting schedules were going to be altered. In recent years, the wonder of iPlayer allows flexibility for leisurely listening at other parts of Christmastide. The attraction of any broadcast carol concerts at this time, for me, is the opportunity to hear those carols which I did not grow up with, but which are part of other Christian Christmas traditions, such as “Adam Lay Ybounden”, “Tomorrow will be my Dancing Day”, “Cherry Tree Carol” , “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and “Sans Day Carol”.

December isn’t the best time for open-air performance, although a few years ago the BBC presented The Liverpool Nativity, an outdoor version using pop and rock songs from Liverpool musicians, which copied the format of the earlier, and rather more successful, Manchester Passion.

Occasional repeats of Channel 4’s version of the famous National Theatre production of The Mysteries would be an attractive seasonal change to terrestrial TV, although at least, happily, we can see a subtitled TV broadcast on You Tube.

Returning to my introduction, it’s a moot point whether it is Christmas or Easter which has the stronger dramatic narrative for the agnostic. The Christmas story, centred around a new-born baby, is more open to sentimentalisation; that of Easter more open to depiction of suffering and violence. Both stories can be updated with contemporary political background;  both give prominence to lesser characters who are meeting Jesus Christ; in both a story of hardship and struggle and the indifference of others ends in triumph and celebration.  

 

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The colour of Christmas

 

“What’s the colour of Christmas?” asked a show of Yuletide-related spooky texts called Christmas Phantastic which I once saw in Toronto, Canada.

 

What about green?

 

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The colour of the holly bush and the Christmas tree.

 

Or white?

 

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The colour of snow,  and of the swaddling clothes in which the baby Jesus was wrapped.

 

Or red?

 

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The colour of celebration.

 

The actual answer was black…  

 

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 the colour of the darkness and the shadows beyond the fire…

 

 

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The best “Christmas Carol”

 

 

We’ve now arrived in December and Advent,  so it’s not too early to muse about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

I’m not quite sure when I first read it and concluded it was a great Christmas ghost story, but I do remember my acquaintance with various dramatisations on TV.

My very first was Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol starring the now-forgotten myopic cartoon character, and another early one was Richard Williams’ Oscar-winning animation, supposedly influenced by illustrations from the period.

Michael Hordern’s voice features in the Williams version and I remember enjoying a BBC dramatisation in the later 1970s starring Hordern as Scrooge and featuring, as his nephew Fred, Paul Copley, an actor I had become a fan of through Days of Hope. This was the first time I appreciated some of the wit and comedy in Dickens’ writing, such as Scrooge’s scornful idea that Marley’s ghost is merely an indigestion-induced nightmare: “there’s more of gravy than of grave about you”.

Dickens’ classic text can survive and thrive in any version, but, in recent years, I’ve concluded that of all the very fine dramatisations for TV and cinema, the best may be Peter Bowker’s rework,  directed by Catherine Morshead, which I discovered on ITV several years after its first screening in 2000.

In this modern update, Ebenezer Scrooge becomes loan shark Eddie Scrooge (played by Ross Kemp, then newly out of East Enders). The Ghost of Christmas Past is his late father (played by Warren Mitchell) who neglected him and his sister when their mother died. The Ghost of Christmas Present is Jacob Marley, his Afro-Caribbean gangland ally (played by Ray Fearon).

Bob Cratchit, a decent husband and father working for a gangster only because of his unpaid debts, is given a performance of some intensity by Michael Maloney. Other victims of Scrooge include an elderly couple, a young single mother and a pair of young street children.

Another updated detail which works well is how his dislike of his nephew derives largely from the fact that the boy chose the police force as a career after school.

The drama borrows from earlier Hollywood in a couple of places. For example, we see the effects of each successive haunting on Scrooge through re-runs of Christmas Eve just as in Groundhog Day, where, each time, he treats people slightly better. In addition, a scene of the Cratchit family gathered around Tiny Tim in hospital borrows from It’s a Wonderful Life.

The film is not spoiled by the fact that it is clearly filmed in the summer with a couple of fake snowfalls –  although I am always a little distracted by the scene of Scrooge’s conversion where the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is so clearly standing on a moving trolley!

Otherwise, brilliant.

 

 

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