Sunday, 14 May 2017

Review of King Charles III on BBC2

I watched ‘King Charles III’ on BBC2 this week, written by Mike Bartlett and immediately saw the problem : the quality of the original material, a West End stage play. Do most modern London stage plays merit transfer to the nation via the small screen, even if they are awarded West End critics’ prizes? This has to be carefully judged.

The play conceives a few months after the Queen has died. Charles III is asked to sign away the freedom of the press and refuses, under pressure from an extreme left wing Prime Minister and Cabinet. The rest of the Royal family turn on him and bring him down. The Duchess of Cambridge turns into a version of Lady Macbeth with her own selfish agenda, apart from her husband's. King William is crowned instead of his father.

I am not going to discuss the question of taste in ‘Charles III’ but its serious artistic flaws, which made this play a poor choice for TV, and the nation. Here are my key issues:

  • The basic concept was flawed. The dramatist clearly aspired to write a Shakespearean drama in iambic pentameter (blank verse) which requires a command of the English language far beyond that of any living poet-playwright 
  • The storyline of many of Shakespeare’s plays is ‘The killing of an anointed king’. To fit the bill and hold attention, the writer used (without their consent) the current Royal family, with their real names, and to do this, he had to warp their characters. 
  • Shakespeare’s ‘Killing of the King’ story requires the King to be seriously immoral or otherwise inadequate, to create the plot’s psychological tension and to justify the conspirators carrying out a deeply treacherous act. 
  • The concept of ‘kingship’ in Shakespeare is part of God’s provision for the country’s stability, laws, continuity, peace and people. Hence, the key tension in Shakespearean drama is based on the sense that the killing of an anointed King is an act of sinful rebellion against God and the universal, moral order (which has consequences in man, and nature). The bringing down of an innocent king is the activity of occult powers (e.g. Macbeth murdering Duncan). These were central concepts in the 16th century and they are not entirely without all meaning, today. 
  • Shakespeare sets up the plot’s tension and conflict through first fracturing the character of the anointed King e.g. the King is already senile (Lear), a Scottish noble is already under of the sway a mentally ill wife (Macbeth), a group of disgruntled and envious friends already suspect the  leader is about to become a crowned tyrant (Julius Caesar), a man already in ‘the winter of his discontent’ with what life has delivered for him (Richard III) or a negligent ruler has already turned England into untended garden, rank with weeds, while he spends his time with his lover (Richard II). The key point is that the fractured character is already there, at the start. 
  • The weakness of the imagined plot of ‘King Charles III’ is that the central character has not been sufficiently ‘fractured’. He displays none of these traits: he has not been tested as constitutional a monarch, having just ascended the throne, a situation which the British people would be aware of. Therefore, the necessary Shakespearean narrative tension and conflict are entirely missing. This gap necessitates the use of an extreme left wing Prime Minister and (unified) Cabinet to force on the King an issue which is clearly immoral and wrong : the suppression of the freedom of the Press. 
  • At this point, the plot of ‘King Charles III’ completely falls apart because the central character is well-intending but soon surrounded by wolf-like conspirators pursuing a clearly wrong agenda, for which the audience has no sympathy, even if a debased, unenlightened ‘democracy’ is at stake. 
  • Morality is drained from the plot by being hopelessly muddled. In 'story', good must win over evil or end in the defeat of both sides (tragedy). Without morality, the plot collapses. 
In addition, drama must mimic life if it wants to seem credible and relevant. If the fictitious ‘King Charles’ had stood his ground against the destruction of the freedom of the Press, the people of this country would rise, as they have in effect since this play was first performed in 2014, against the artistic and political elite. Together, the press and the people would have brought down the Prime Minister, avoiding the laughable spectacle of the King appearing like Charles 1st, in the Chamber of the House of Commons in person, to dissolve Parliament. In others words, to make this faulty plot ‘work’, the writer had to completely erase the people of this country.

 Who can believe it? Surely not the national TV audience, who are the people of this country as opposed to well-heeled, who originally paid to watch the play in 2014 in the West End? The people think: “Surely this story is set in some tyrannous country, not in our celebrated island, known for its liberty and free speech?”. But no: the play’s setting is in Britain, now. This is laughable and the imagined truth lies in tatters.

The real irony is that, in spite of the suppression of the press leading to the abdication of this ‘King’ which is the heart of the plot’s weak rationale, the BBC and its chosen writer itself took every advantage of this freedom of the press to present living people, attributing to them malign or unwise motivations without providing background evidence, knowing they cannot respond. The people of this country are largely supportive of monarchy and they despise such things, even if they clearly recognise that they are coming from BBC's now ‘Planet Weird’.

Does the BBC no longer recognises what dramatic art is, nor how it can deliver it? As the Bard would say: what a falling off is here. The music used throughout, a kind of black choral mass work, was in Latin. This was entirely out of touch, even if the choir was meant to be a Greek chorus. This is not the style of music of Royalty, or Westminster Abbey, or even of this country. The BBC director may have been trying to create a 'medieval' atmosphere denoting darkening tyranny, but a British audience cannot understand a Greek chorus in Latin - and more’s the pity, since a good classical education is exactly what people need to write proper drama. It was meaningless.

Happily, an understanding of dramatic ‘art’ is not dead : it still flourishes (sometimes) on ITV. One only has to compare ‘King Charles III’ with ITV’s ‘The Durrells’ (under Christopher Hall, son of director Peter Hall) which, though equally fantastical in its plot, makes us suspend belief for an hour to enjoy its well-constructed, uplifting, tight story, its characters and even exotic wildlife, on Corfu.

The British people expect reasonably credible fictitious entertainment. Millions of isolated elderly deserve to feel ‘connected’ to recognisable ideas. Instead, many feel alienated that they are subsidising artistic failure, and even worse. If public funding for BBC drama stopped, artistic standards would rise again via the sharp tooth of competition. Shakespeare’s enduring masterpieces of dramatic art were not subsidised by the public purse and their effect was marvellous.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Which are right: post truth films or 1930s films about true romance?

We often perceive films produced pre-1960s as fantasies, slushy, sentimental or unreal and post-1960s films as gritty and realistic. The truth is that there was often far more realism in stories of the past because they were moral. For example:

An Affair to Remember (1957) is a remake of Love Affair (1939) (this film is accessible on the link). Both have exactly the same ‘stage’ dialogue. Famously, An Affair to Remember is the ‘most romantic film ever made’, starring Deborah Kerr and suave but gentle playboy, Cary Grant. It is hard not to be moved to tears at the end, particularly if, like me, you have had a life-limiting chronic illness, since the story examines how disability and vulnerability test true love.

The physically attractive protagonists, both with artistic and creative skills but living on modest incomes (because art rarely makes much money) are separately engaged to pleasant, wealthy non-creative people consciously seen as their ‘meal tickets’. They fall passionately in love on a trans-Atlantic liner going to New York and agree to wait six months to meet again, on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. This period will enable them to break with their rich partners without damaging them and test their feelings for each other. They also need to see whether they can make a viable living as self-supporting people. Talented, he becomes an artist. They follow their hearts, but she falls under a car rushing to the Empire State and ends up in a wheelchair, failing to fulfil the appointment. Helped by a padre, she uses her talents teaching deprived children music from her wheelchair.

At this point, one is asked to consider the question of whether one can condemn a marital partner to being a carer. Can she can exploit his pity for her, if he finds out? Does she want to burden someone hard pressed to make a living on his own, while caring for her, even if he loves her? A devout Catholic, she decides not to tell him, but he finds out and true love triumphs, ending with the words If you can paint, I can learn to walk again highlighting the impetus of having the will to recover through the quality of life supplied by a helper. One senses that through true love, the handsome playboy has recovered himself and his moral code learned as an altar boy. Sadly, through rampant materialism today, many have never learned values, in the first place.

Films used to have a moral, often religious message which makes for great storytelling. The message here is “True love is priceless: it is stronger than serious disability, hard work and modest incomes because love, art and creativity (and being a viable economic entity even in disability, if possible) is what life is really all about”.

My fear is that today people are not moved by moral truth. Post-truth, this pair could not be allowed to live on the income of a paralysed music teacher and a struggling artist. They would both have to be successful high earners and find true love. In this sense, the films of the romantic past with moral content, are more truthful than 'realistic' but materialistic films, today.

Unless you are prepared to pay a price (even a lifetime of hard graft), the chance of finding a depth of love, which is the only one that overcomes serious disability, is small. The corrupt modern fantasy often fuelled by a partial examination of the lives of lucky celebrities is that you, like them, can expect to ‘have it all’ : lots of money, success, wealth, happiness, enduring good looks, fame, health, large houses, touring the world (including through exploiting someone else). Woe betide a partner if they break their side of the (economic) bargain and lapse into disability and illness. In fact, about 50% of partners divorce their disabled and chronically ill partners, today. It is not a widely known fact that significant numbers (more men than women) leave their spouses and partners when they become terminally ill.

The Bible teaches that we live in a moral universe, in which we are put to work using our abilities, gifts and talents (if we are fit enough) and in which we are called to love, in the holiest sense of the word. Stories that reflect this still ring true. In addition, millions of people today are ending up in loneliness and in financial ruin either because they lack core values and/or because they need a soulmate with core values - and cannot find one.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Priscilla Morris on Sickness

With the advent of several new chronic illnesses which defy medical understanding and which can last for years or even a whole lifetime, interest in traditional Christian teaching on illness has been growing.

A key expositor of classic theology as set out in the Bible and Book of Common Prayer, was Priscilla Maurice (1811-1855) who was the sister of Cambridge professor and theologian F D Maurice, founder of Working Men's Clubs, who had a key influence on the 20 th century and on higher education for women.
Priscilla Maurice's book “Sickness: Its Trials and Blessings”, a Victorian bestseller is regarded by some as a Christian classic. Originally published anonymously, it has now been revised into modern English by Alison Bailey Castellina (Oxon) with full scriptural texts, with the Order for the Visitation of the Sick and, for the first time, the story of her deeply inspiring life.

This book is ideal gift for someone with a chronic illness who is seeking to know more the purposes of chronic illness and for those professionals and laymen seeking to minister to them.

This book is also a commentary on how we should regard trial and suffering in life, in general.

See the website I did a few years ago at: http://priscillamorris.altervista.org/

Friday, 7 April 2017

Luther, Brexit and the shy British

Martin Luther was a young man of thirty three, the age of Christ at the first Easter, when he nailed his 95 theses in Latin to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on 31 October, 1517. Luther was a German professor of theology, composer, priest and monk. He partly intended to reform Catholic practices, particularly 'indulgences'. Instead he triggered the Protestant Reformation which still echoes like a giant shockwave, or tear in the fabric of Western Europe. Its impact echoes down the centuries and exists in Britain, today.

The 95 theses are inscribed on All Saints' church door, Wittenberg.  By A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) - Own work, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54520833

No doubt, it is a sense of a distinct culture in Britain today, as opposed to the largely culturally Catholic Continent, that has led to Brexit. The British, after The Reformation evolved into keenly literate and largely freedom-loving people. The Reformation replaced material sacramentalism (relics, statues, saints, the Eucharist, praying for the dead, magical healings) with the authority of the Bible. It was during The English Reformation that the role of the laity was raised into 'the priesthood of all believers', undermining the power of Bishops (mostly aristocrats). This change of emphasis led to an explosion of educational reform, in England and Scotland. The Reformation was a people-centred revolution and, in this sense, Brexit is not dissimilar.

Literate Britain
Within decades the clergy were university-educated. The people could read the Bible for themselves - in English. Writing and reading has been a mark of Britain ever since. It has more bookshops and more books being published per capita than any other nation. The emphasis on the laity as equal to the priesthood, actively singing Psalms in place of Catholic choirs, led, by steps, to The Civil War, which balanced the power of the people and that of the monarch. Out of this came democracy, the concept of government by the people for the people.  It is opposed to oligarchy.

We can trace all this back to The Reformation which took an iron hold in the strangely fertile soil of Britain and before that to Luther’s challenge to Catholicism. The Reformation was not just about Catholic clerical corruption, which was prevalent. Indulgences were being sold for money e.g. to build St Peter’s in Rome and enable the Pope and church to enjoy a lavish lifestyle. It was also about basic doctrine.

A different version of Christianity
Luther struck at the underlying presuppositions, or some would say misinterpretations of the whole Christian message, by the Church of Rome. He said that the New Testament, and therefore Christ, taught that we are saved not by indulgences, pilgrimages, masses but as 'a free gift' through the death of Jesus on the Cross, in a one-off act of atonement (literally 'at-one-ment'), setting aside God’s Judgement on our sin. It was an entirely new reading of the Bible, or at least a rediscovery of the original faith that the Apostles had taught. This released to the people assurance (acceptance and forgiveness) which changed and energised lives, creating a distinct version of Christianity. Protestants saw it as a return to the 'primitive' (meaning the 'original') teaching of Christ.

People of words
The British are still characterised by a huge appetite for reading, as a nation, and for writing. The English language is the largest in the world. The British are people of words, if no longer people of The Word. Their greatest writer (Shakespeare) had so huge a vocabulary that no one has ever equalled it. Their leaders are their most fluent people. To succeed is still to master more words in the English language than other people. The British still read more than any other nation.

A plain culture
They still regard emotionalism with deep distrust, notable in disapproving reactions to mass weepings and informal roadside wreath-layings. The sense of a purified or puritan British culture remains strong. It deeply irritates some people (even me at times)  that British culture is not more warm, emotional or flowery, but it is not. It is still in essence 'Protestant'. British culture is fundamentally different to that of The Continent with far less emphasis on sensuality, beauty, art, the art of food, material show and visible symbols. The English nobles had to be introduced to the senses in a disciplined way, via The Grand Tour. Britishness emphasises the unseen, the imagination, wit, the mind and rationality. This does not make the British a more spiritual people, but it does, still, set them apart, still. They generally agree on how they like things done i.e. in an orderly, plain, honest, restrained fashion, fairly, without undue showiness, rationally, with tolerance, with a quiet, ideally witty, civilised sense of humour. Anything that smacks of disorder, injustice, self-indulgence, dramatic pomp, dressing up, manipulation, blackmail, emotionalism and above all lying still turns them off.

The retiring British character 
The Reformation’s strong cultural hold on Britain is not the only cause of Brexit. It is the British character, known to be largely introspective and socially retiring, even vaguely socially inept that plays a key role. Though they make an effort, most British do not enjoy mixing with large numbers of other people: other people make them nervous. Most of them actually like being alone in their gardens, in their eccentric sheds, watching birds, listening to music, with dogs, with their thoughts - on an island.

Introverted, they do not naturally know how to enjoy the good things of life, unlike the more sociable and exuberant Italians. Instead, they are natural readers, animal lovers and garden-lovers. It is not inaccurate to say that an English person’s home is his or her 'castle'. The British need a retreat from other people like the sick need a hospital...

Their only social outlet is joining hobby clubs and associations (including West End London clubs) which flourish. Clubs attract millions in Britain : there is nothing like these clubs, say, in France. These are governed by 'school' rules, the purpose of which is partly (presumably) to keep the more emotionally annoying members in check.  The peoples' other option is 'pubs' where the challenge of social interaction is eased by alcohol.

The real pity is that the regular reading of the Bible is no longer central to their increasingly uniform lives. These private lives, as a result of a cocktail of modern pressures, are being drained of essence, identity and possibly even a sense of meaning.
Suggested Reading:

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Don’t let politics dominate life - like Communism did

Britain is, or was, an island of associations and clubs. The French have no equivalent voluntary sector so they cannot easily pursue activities like community projects. My grandparents' generation were people who had engrossing hobbies possibly because they were not brought up with TV.  They had lived through two World Wars but they knew how to relax.
  • My grandfather was a fine carpenter, spending hours in his shed, whittling away, building fantasy toy castles. 
  • My grandmother relaxed by playing Chopin, doing daily scales in her eighties. 
What is less well known is that, at the same time, in Eastern Europe under Communism, vast numbers of people had no hobbies because politics dominated their lives. You were seen as a valid person only if you were completely focused on politics, to the exclusion of all else. The irony was that Communism promised that the State would soon ‘wither away’. Instead, it completely dominated and controlled those who lived under it, impoverishing the human spirit.

Today, liberalism seems just as dominant as Communism.  It is also focused on what is modern, on creating constant change and on ‘evolution’. People seem wired up to its latest progressive step and on reflecting it, in their speech, and opinions.

Life is not a linear development, or an evolution. It is more like a cycle - a series of swings of the pendulum. "There is nothing new under the sun" says Ecclesiastes. All life is also integrally connected to the past which cannot be wiped out, as modernity seeks to do. Nor does human nature change. One must rise above it all - or get suffocated by 'now'.

That’s why I am switching off the stressful 24 hours news and watching it once a day.  I'm focusing more on hobbies: reading books, making music, poetry, drawing, watercolours, learning about buildings and paintings, crafts, sewing, electric cycling, making curtains and cushions, cooking, gardening, decorating, bird watching, observing nature. The products of some of these activities last beyond our single life. We need to put a higher value on the things of the spirit.

Such is the pressure from lack of ‘me-time’ (for working women), saving money, heavy caring responsibilities and work, that 24 hour social media and TV is all we have time for. So one must make a conscious space (a table? a shed?) and time to pursue real hobbies and voluntary work (and read the Bible and pray).

These are the things that individuals can do to bring value and harmony to homes and communities and deliver the skills and achievements that bring us joy, not the constant conflict and social fragmentation that politics does - even for observers.

We must march to our own inner tune - not that of the media, or state. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

'Is politics stranger than fiction?' - the views of Michael Portillo

I was surprised, today, to find myself, while sitting quietly eating my packed lunch at a sustainable construction exhibition known as 'Ecobuild' suddenly surrounded by an audience attentively listening to Michael Portillo. A historian,  political commentator and train expert, this former 'future Prime Minister', addressed the subject: 'Is politics stranger than fiction?'. No longer an MP, he was standing in for a Lord who was 'whipped' to vote in the Article 50 debate (on starting the process to leave the EU).

Michael Portillo delivered nearly an hour of very personal views on Brexit, the EU and Trump. He was far more outspoken than politicians normally are, which added a certain 'frisson'. It felt like being a fly on the wall, hearing MPs swapping views, in the bar of the House of Commons.

He said that politics is 'stranger than fiction' because the Conservatives, who during the 1980s were polling upwards of 42% of the national vote had declined sharply. More recently they had been consistently polling around 36%. However,  they are now back with no coalition nor strong opposition: we are almost as a 'one party nation'.   Even in the light of this, Michael Portillo said that he had been 'surprised' that David Cameron had promised a referendum on the EU in the Conservative Party manifesto.  He felt that the UK had not been under real pressure to become part of an 'EU superstate' since it was protected by a) not being in the euro and b) being outside the borderless Schengen area. So he thought that David Cameron never intended to hold it, expecting a different national election result i.e. another coalition with the Liberals who would have refused to hold a referendum on EU membership. But Cameron won the general election, so he was forced to hold it. He lost by 4% and stepped down.

In fact, the pressure came from UKIP, who gained 4m votes. Their development and influence is in line with wider developments in the EU where a proliferation of political parties has fractured the old two-party systems. For example, there are now four political parties vying with each other in Spain. However, UKIP did not have any MPs and, therefore, any political power. Cameron was clearly (over) reacting to acute internal neurosis within his own party. (One must bear in mind that Portillo stood against Cameron as Conservative party leader and lost).

Portillo said that the referendum was lost by the Remain Camp because the UK and the EU countries have 'a different experience and frame of mind'.  He said that the difficulty is that the EU project is driven by a 'dangerous ideology', not by pragmatism.
  • It is ideology that insists on free movement of people (not just for workers, as one might expect). This is because free movement is what a single country has. 
  • It is ideology that created the euro because 'a single country has single currency' - not because it was a good idea that would benefit everybody.  
He sees the euro as a disaster for Spain, Italy and Greece, the economy of which has shrunk by 20%. In addition to the euro and mass migration, another big threat is Donald Trump because Trump is openly saying that the euro is good for Germany i.e. a weak euro is helping to keep German exports buoyant, resulting in full employment in Germany, in contrast to soaring levels of unemployment in the Med countries.  Being half Spanish, he admitted that it is 'a mystery' why the southern Med countries 'put up with it'....

Brexit, he said is likely to be 'hard' -  but much depends on the two things that are the main concerns of the EU and threaten to destroy it sooner rather than later a) what happens on the euro and b) levels of mass migration in the next two years. There are two views on Brexit within the EU: one is that it is best to get on well with Britain, post-Brexit.  The other, less rational, is a feeling that the EU needs to be as defensive as possible, to thwart other countries seeking escape (though Portillo doubts that other EU member states will follow the example of Brexit).  The other threat for the EU is 'a democratic deficit' partly due to all EU countries being unable to vote on the same day - due to totally different political systems, languages etc.

Portillo sees Brexit as an unavoidable 'divorce' between a country (Britain) with a totally different attitude to that of all the other countries and the EU ideology. This is due to the history of the 20th century, he thinks. Unlike almost all continental European countries during the 20th century,  British institutions and democracy did not 'fail'.  As a result, the UK does not feel it needs a higher transnational body helping it to hang together which EU countries feel they do need. The UK does not feel the same 'urge' to sacrifice its sovereignty to a transnational superstate.

Portillo seems to be saying that the EU has a real need to seek 'ever closer union' but the ideology guiding the EU project (in place of political pragmatism) is 'dangerously' destroying it. He is adamant that the euro will collapse under its own weakness and the heavy damage it has wrought in the Med countries.

Regarding Trump, Portillo does not feel that he is weak on defence - or 'partial' to Putin. He has jacked up the US defence budget by more than the entire Russian defence budget and he is urging Germany to step up its NATO contribution to 2%, which Germany is very unwilling to do.

The real drama, he says, is the forthcoming French election.  He is not predicting that Marine Le Pen will win, but 'the right wing is doing its best to facilitate her victory'.  If she wins, he says, it will make Brexit look like 'a storm in a teacup' because she wants to a) withdraw France from the euro and b) give the French people an in/out referendum of the EU.

In other words, he was telling the British construction sector not to hold its breath for a soft Brexit - though intervening events may radically affect the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.




Saturday, 4 February 2017

Chalices, fine art, bones, Richard III and Jane Austen

Our winter historical excursion (January 5-8, 2017) took us to the ancestral villages of the founders of America, an area called ‘The Dukeries’ in Nottinghamshire, the tomb of Richard III, Coventry and Jane Austen’s own country and church.

See article here