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Words on writing

Favourite quote today, from Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules on writing: No. 10 “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”


Review: As it happened – Brazil

It’s difficult to know how to assess this documentary for you.  This is certainly an important story.  Five hundred years ago, Portuguese travellers landed on the shores of a country that they named after its native Brazil-wood tree.  An important source of wealth for this country was sugar, but the settlers realised there weren’t enough locals around to work the sugar fields, so additional labour was brought in – slaves, imported from Africa in one of the largest forced migrations in history.  Up to four hundred slaves at a time were squashed into ships on a sea journey that took months.  Many died and were dumped: “manageable losses”.  Those who survived were branded with hot irons and faced a life of hard labour and beatings.

Even when the slave population outnumbered their masters two to one, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that unrest among the slaves led to any concerted uprising.  With no photographic evidence from the period, the programme relies on ‘talking heads’ – historical experts and social anthropologists – who unfortunately seem rather dry and uninspiring.  I would have liked some comparisons with social and industrial development in other countries and a review of the international pressure that built up on Brazil to abolish slavery.

Instead the film concludes, too simplistically, that the legacy of slavery is ‘homelessness, street children and unemployment’, while questions about population explosion and the role of the Catholic Church are not explored properly.  On balance, the programme gets a (wavering) thumbs up for its important subject matter, not for its presentation style or participants.  The best way I can sum up it up is to paraphrase the judge Lord Birkenhead who told the prosecuting barrister in one trial that, having read the long and detailed brief, he was no wiser about the case – but undoubtedly better informed.

Review: Something in the air

If new arrival Dr Annie really wanted to gain acceptance with the locals, perhaps she could have found a better way than starting an egg-timer conspicuously at each consultation.  This was hardly going to endear her to those inhabitants of Emu Springs who like a good old chinwag with their doc every week – “What, even if there’s nothing wrong with you?” asks Annie, incredulously.  She has a lot to learn.

A full-scale police search is underway for the missing Father Brian, but there’s still time for some biting social comment: “How can you tell a good copper? All the other ones get promoted.”  Um.

With tight scripts and sure-footed direction, this new season is shaping up well in this time slot.


Review: Ally McBeal

In an interview with the New York Times in 1998, David E Kelley explained “I never even in college thought writing was something I intended to do. I guess I probably had characters in my head as a kid but never thought I’d put them into prime time.”  What a loss to the world of entertainment had those characters stayed in his head.

In 1986, Kelley was a young lawyer and he started writing for the ground-breaking series LA Law. His stories exposed the sometimes sleazy world of lawyers and their often-sleazier clients but also gave an important and unprecedented insight into the workings of the law and the courts system.  From LA, Kelley moved eastwards to Boston and created Ally McBeal and The Practice.

With Ally we get seemingly off-the-wall lawsuits designed to show us just what could happen to a legal system where the boundaries of politically-correct compensation-based litigation are pushed further every year.  Frightening – and how much of those ‘unlikely’ cases would be considered run-of-the-mill now?  In tonight’s episode a woman wants compensation for losing her husband after she went to a seminar called “How to Satisfy Your Man” which encouraged women to be completely submissive to their spouse and the poor man apparently couldn’t take it.

As in LA Law, Kelley surrounds those cases with the lives, loves, luxurious offices and hairstyles of the lawyers and their friends.  This is the show that did more for Barry White songs than the old love-walrus could manage – and don’t we all want to see Ally land herself a nice man and perhaps a few extra kilos?  (LA Law offered doughnuts at staff meetings.)  This is a light but often thought-provoking programme – with no operating tables, violence or bad language.  Go Ally.

Review: Mission Impossible

Tom Cruise always looks too wholesome and well-groomed for action movies.  That clean-cut college boy style made for perfect casting in The Firm, contrasting well with the husky-voiced heavy-set mafiosi-overcoated fellow lawyers who were undoubtedly up to no good.  In Mission Impossible, however, it doesn’t quite fit.

Careful make-up, spray-tamed hairstyles and boy-next-door looks sit uncomfortably surrounded by death-defying stunts which are, in the best tradition of action movies, exceptionally well executed and totally unbelievable.  The wind machine in the Channel Tunnel set was so effective I was holding on to my own hair at one point.

When Jon Voight, Kristin Scott Thomas and Emanuelle Beart are all killed off in the first ten minutes, you know that there is a double bluff in there somewhere.  These are A-list film stars, after all, and Cruise is also joint executive producer so he’s a busy man in this flick: can’t carry all the action himself.  Needs at least one co-star.

Jon Voight looks the same dead, alive or badly injured.  Kristin Scott Thomas is never seen again so she must really have been killed off.  Emanuelle Beart’s ‘death’ was particularly unconvincing so you expect her to be back before long, and she is.

As a glossy travelogue for Prague, the film works beautifully, taking full advantage of the world-renowned architecture and bridges to create stunning backdrops.  The crew must have spent all their days waiting for sunset – but it’s worth it.

Oh yes, the plot.  Does it need one?  The mission, which of course we choose to accept, is a convoluted story of betrayal and counter-betrayal within the intelligence service, where Tom Cruise is innocent because he looks it and the baddies are just as obvious.  The delicious setting of Prague is interwoven with stunning footage of a helicopter trapped in the Channel Tunnel entangled with a speeding train and Voight (alive, almost) and Cruise (hair ruffled, almost).

The odd Biblical theme is thrown in too, but updated.  Cruise is seen emailing quotes from the Book of Job.  The Bible meets the World Wide Web.  The past confronts the future.  The dead become the undead.  Anyone for popcorn?

Vanessa Redgrave puts in a languid cameo performance as the arch-villain or arch-insider – or just arch – Max, with strikingly disconcerting dark hair.

If you’ve never been to Prague, keep focused on the backgrounds and you’ll be booking your ticket.  After the Channel Tunnel stunt, you’ll be pleased you don’t need to cross that sea to get there and you’ll certainly never go by helicopter again.  Apart from that, this film passes the time amiably but if you go out to put the kettle on, you’ll still be able to keep up.  Undemanding, easy on the eye, well-presented, enjoy the scenery – did someone say Tom Cruise?



Cirque du Soleil – My day at the circus

My Day at the Circus 

‘Don’t forget,’ said my husband, ‘Sunday. Cirque du Soleil. Albert Hall.’

‘Oh yes,’ I said, ‘Can we park?’

There followed the usual discussion about travelling anywhere in London these days.

‘It’s Sunday – surely we can park anywhere?’

‘They’ll all think that.’

‘We could go early.’

‘They’ll all do that.’


‘Too far to walk.’



‘Cheaper than being towed away.’

‘They’ll all think that.’

‘Shall we eat first?’


‘Anywhere we can park.’

We took a taxi.

Doors open at 7pm, the tickets said.  By 7.20 the queue winding around the Albert Hall perimeter was shaking with cold.  A few people hovered nearby and we all stiffened in that way we do when we think someone is trying to jump in.  Before open hostility could erupt, the interlopers disappeared, and the queue resumed the all-important task of shivering.

At 7.30 the doors opened and a tannoyed voice apologising for the delay was drowned out by the surge of heavy coats whooshing through to the warm.  We were in.

A solitary kiosk offered one option of sweets: a bag of Minstrels.  Nice touch: the show’s name – Alegria – means ‘minstrel’.  Even cleverer to sell a small bag of Minstrels for that price…. We took our seats.

I wasn’t looking forward to the show.  Apparently it was a ‘new take’ on circus.  So what?  I never liked the old take.  But I changed my mind.

Cirque du Soleil is an amazing confection, difficult to describe without a welter of clichés, and devised so cleverly that it holds your attention at all levels of sound and vision.  Yes, it’s circus – there are acrobats, clowns, a very strong strongman, trapeze artists, ‘animals’ – but Alegria takes this traditional theme to a new dimension.

While the individual displays of strength, acrobatics and dance are breathtaking, undoubtedly the triumph of Alegria is attention to detail. Every move of the artistes, every scene shift, the way different characters come to sit or kneel at the edge of the stage or in the audience during the acts, every entrance and exit is beautifully choreographed.

The clowns have you applauding at the lift of their arm and suddenly you’re competing with the other side of the auditorium to see who can make the most noise.  Simple stage ‘business’ – but so effective.

Alegria enthrals from the start, as the minstrel band weaves through the audience piping and drumming its way to the stage.  From the hump-backed, pot-bellied, stick-legged ‘ringmaster’ who capers and cavorts around the stage, while somehow managing never to be in the way, the strong man who strides on at the end of the contortionists’ act to carry them effortlessly off the stage; to the clowns who ‘help’ with scene changes and test out the acrobats’ equipment and the beautiful distinctive voices of the principal singers, it is an astonishing spectacle. Frankly, it blew me away. We’re going again. By taxi, of course.

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“That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones.”  (Raymond Carver)