Friday, 8 November 2019

Witches and the ducking stool

Take a look in detail at this extraordinary plasterwork, from a house called Llys Owain in Dolgellau.  I don't know much about it, but the cartoonish characters probably date from the sixteenth century.  When you look carefully you can see one person (a witch?) strung up by the neck from the branches of a tree.  Down below, somebody else (probably another witch) is being given the full treatment in a ducking stool.  Are the other characters on the right cheering things on, or are they involved in operating the ducking stool?  Difficult to tell.  But one appears to be holding a cross, and the one in the middle appears to be playing a wind instrument. 

Thankfully, people were not often hanged by the neck in Regency Wales -- but it did happen when people were condemned to death by a court of law, and very rarely as a result of mob rule. It is uncertain when the ducking stool was last used in Wales as a form of punishment.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Dark Materials -- and not much light

A couple of nights ago we watched the first episode of "His Dark Materials" --  flagged up as the BBC's biggest drama yet, with considerable funding from the Welsh Government because the studios used are in Wales.  There was massive hype from the BBC.  It's reputed that the cost for the 8-episode first series is £40 million.  That's £5 million per episode -- an eye-watering sum, since £1 million per episode is deemed to be the normal cost of a high-end costume drama.  Is it worth the investment?  Will it make a profit?  BBC and HBO clearly think so, since a second series has apparently already been commissioned...........

The initial response to the first episode is generally very positive in the UK, but in the USA, where critics have seen 4 episodes issued by HBO, the response is much more muted.  I have a strong suspicion that almost all of the UK TV critics are familiar with the books and have seen all the BBC hype, whereas in the USA many critics may have watched the programme "cold".   Anyway, it should not really be very surprising to discover just how subjective film and TV reviews are, even among the professionals. 

Worth five stars?  Most of the comments from viewers, on assorted web sites, suggest not.  Many thought it was a complete mishmash of genres, with nothing like the coherence of the Harry Potter films or Lord of the Rings, for instance.  I think I would agree with that.  Philip Pulman's fantastical world worked well in written fiction, but by common consent it was always going to be massively difficult to translate it onto the small screen. Is it fantasy, adventure, a supernatural ghostly chiller, a witches and wizards story, an old-fashioned if somewhat wacky costume drama, a thriller, a dystopian epic, a morality tale, a science fiction adventure, or what? A bit of everything, it turns out, with the dreaming spires of Oxford and fusty academia thrown in for extra effect. (Did I recognize my old college hall in there somewhere?)  In the reviews, there are many comparisons with the 2007 film called "The Golden Compass", and it is generally concluded that it was not as bad as that, but that it was not all that much better.  The fate of all remakes is to be compared with what has gone before........ 
Philip Pulman was one of the producers and must have acted as script and storyline consultant -- and maybe that was not a good thing?  Episode 1 actually felt rather dated, although it is set in the future in a sort of parallel universe. All that stuff about "the dust" sounded like something from "Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future", back in the 1950's......... I expected the Mekon to zoom in at any moment on his trusty flying bicycle.  That having been said, the CGI work and the animation of the daemons was very impressive -- although not to everybody's liking.   The most sophisticated high tech  can never be a substitute for good storytelling.
Many of the reviewers just could not work out where the film's heart was. The acting was felt to be either wooden or over the top, and some commented that the script was really not very good. Many of the characters were miscast, and I for one did not really empathise with any of them, least of all with the young heroine, who seemed cold and somewhat detached. The storyline was incredibly confusing, if one had not read the books. The editing was less slick than I expected, and the sound was fuzzy.  According to the majority of comments published thus far, this was not a very auspicious start, and reviewers seem to doubt that this will be looked at in the future as a BBC classic.

Apparently 7.2 million viewers watched the first episode.  That was the biggest drama launch on British TV for 5 years.  How many viewers will watch future episodes?  Not as many as watched the first one, it seems.....