Friday, 31 January 2014

Jane Austen Spinoffs

What might Jane Austen have thought of all these novels which carry her characters beyond the confines of her books, or tell their stories from different angles? There are purists who think the originals ought not to be interfered with, and I confess, I am a little of that school of thought. Yet, here I am, promoting the book I wrote which does just that.

I comfort myself with the knowledge that I based my book on the facts Jane Austen supplied herself, in Darcy's letter to Elizabeth, so I am not writing anything she did not herself suggest. But that is not entirely true, as I did invent a few things along the way that she probably did not contemplate, though they do not contradict anything she wrote.

A happier excuse is the fact that Jane Austen herself liked to think of her characters as extending outside the four corners of their written story. The fact that she put so much thought into their relationships, their names, who they were named after, etc. even though these details are not essential to the story, is evidence of this. But better evidence is her letters.

In one letter in particular she talks about a pass-time of hers, which was to go to portrait galleries and try to find paintings of her characters among the faces. She writes in one letter to her sister, Cassandra,

"I was very well pleased, particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her.

I went in hopes of seeing one of her sister, but there was no Mrs. Darcy. Perhaps, however, I may find her in the great exhibition, which we shall go to if we have time. I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds's paintings, which is now showing in Pall Mall, and which we are also to visit.

Mrs. Bingley's is exactly herself -- size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow."

This actually makes me wonder why Jane is not always depicted in green in adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, and why we do not more often see Elizabeth in Yellow.

If I ever stage or film my own adaptation, I shall be sure to apply these preferences.

Follies Past is a prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Costume Drama Review - Austenland

Although, I suppose, it is not technically a costume drama per se, this film does take place almost entirely in costume, so to speak. And I do love costumes.

My thoughts on the film are brief. I thought it was cute. Sadly, I watched it by myself, but I still managed to enjoy it, and believed it would have been even funnier with friends with whom to laugh at the nonsense.

Essentially, I felt the film did what it set out to do, and that is the standard I hold for all films, so from that perspective it was a success. The humour was mostly of an awkward, cringing variety, but there were definitely moments when I laughed out loud. It was all a bit obvious, but for a silly romantic comedy, I take no objection to that.

Of course, it was silly. It was also impossible and not very profound or compelling, but it was also inoffensive (even to me and I am easily affronted by bad costume dramas pretending to be something they are not), occasionally clever and all-round entertaining, especially if you get all the references.

I will say (*Spoiler Alert*) that I totally saw the plot twist coming, although I must confess, they did make me double-guess myself. From the start, I thought the Martin character, the hired hand, was rather smarmy, that his lines seemed forced and unbelievable. I wondered whether he was in on the whole scheme. But I didn't trust myself because I suspected this to be simply the result of bad writing. I was very happy to discover that the writers actually intended it to be as contrived as it seemed.

Sadly, I cannot say that the actual love interest was as believable as the artificial one was unbelievable. The proposal that was meant to be real still had some of that fake quality that made me doubt the fake one. But who cares? He was handsome and he was wearing a cravate! No, I didn't swoon like I would have liked to. There wasn't enough depth in the characters, not enough invested in them for me to feel anything about the actual love story.  (*End Spoiler Alert*)

But that is all about the movie. It is kind of fun, and you might like it for a bit of a laugh, but don't expect too much. Now let us discuss the REAL issue, which is what deeply intrigued me about this film, namely the business plan!

Throughout the film, I was distracted by the actual premise of the plot, specifically, that there could be an Austenland, offering a complete period immersion experience, that people could spend a small fortune to go to, and that there would be a market for such vacation package.

Most of the LARPers I know are more into medieval stuff, and are nowhere near rich enough for this sort of extravagance. And I have never met a Jane Austen fan so hard core as to want to spend their life savings on such a holiday - and I have met a few hard-cores. There may be some very rich people, like the American woman in the film, who have excessive fortunes and just want to do something different, but where are these people? How does one find them, and sell them on a Regency experience?

You may know that for years I have been talking about a Jane Austen land, where everyone has to be in costume, and where are offered period entertainments, etc. When I heard about this film, about someone else having this same idea, a part of me screamed internally. Actually, one friend thought that there actually was an Austenland, didn't realize it was a movie, and sent me the link with glee. Sadly, there is no actual Austenland. If there were, it would have to look very different from the film in order towork. Let us compare, therefore, the resort in the film, and what I propose.

In the film, there are 3 guests. They never tell us how much it costs to go there, but it is no surprise that it uses up her entire life savings. I am surprised she could ever have enough to pay for it. A house full of staff, costumes, food, entertainment, hired actors, and all for what appears to be an entire summer? Among those who would actually want to go there, are there any who could afford this? Are there enough people to keep this going year after year? Of course not!

The kind of full, period immersion event could only really take place a couple of times a year at most, and only for a few days at a time. And it would require at least 20 guests to make it feasible. For a 3 night stay, including meals, costumes, entertainment and, of course accommodation, all in period style, would cost approximately $2,000 - $2,500 per person, with 20 people.

Food would all be catered based on recipes from the Georgian era. Costumes would be supplied by costumiers specializing in period film costumes. Accommodation would be in a beautiful historic house in the English countryside, and entertainments could include period crafts like embroidery and basket-weaving, cards, archery, horseback riding, and a private concert of popular Regency music. There would be a couple of actors to play handsome gentlemen, and of course, a ball, which would be open to the public to come, in costume, also.

This, for example, is a picture of the dining room in a house on the north Devon coast where such a gathering could take place. You could actually stay there, and eat at this table, with Mr. Darcy.

Venues are less expensive to rent in more remote locations, and so the cost could come down, or more could be made available if it were held, say, in Ireland, or the middle of nowhere in Norfolk. If it is somewhere more accessible, like Somerset or Sussex, it will cost more, or there will not be as many extras.

(This is a terrific one in Ireland, with lots of amazing interior, see below.)

In a more remote location, for example, we could afford to hire someone to pick people up in style, just like in the film. However, I should specify that I will not be setting anyone up with any handsome stable-boys or history professors.

(This is a beautiful house in Northumberland that would do very well. Don't you just want to run across that lawn in a muslin gown?)

But I can seriously make this happen with 20 people. If this interest you, please comment, or email me, or facebook message me, or tweet me. And do state any preferences as to time of year, duration of stay, programming, meals, etc.
I hope I have piqued your interest.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Pride and Prejudice Dream Cast

All right, we now have James McAvoy as Bingley,

Dan Stevens as Wickham, 

and Benedict Cumberbatch as Darcy.

Now let us move on to the women. I know you think I should start with Elizabeth, but I have my reasons for starting with Caroline. I have already seen some wonderful portrayals of this character, so it will be tricky to choose one that can hold her own. She should be attractive and haughty and light in her form. I have her as tall, though I am not sure that has its roots in the book so much as in the mini-series.

If I weren't so DEEPLY averse to the idea, I would almost suggest Keira Knightley. She is certainly more Caroline than Elizabeth anyway. Fine-featured and easy to hate? Perfect.

But I am determined to cast people who have never been in an adaptation before. And I don't believe in casting Keira Knightley... period.Do you think Olivia Wilde could do an English accent?

NO, wait! It has to be Emily Blunt.

Or could it be Keeley Hawes?

You decide.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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Thursday, 9 January 2014

Costume Drama Review #2 - Lost in Austen

If anyone read my last review and wondered what it might take to satisfy me, here is my answer: Lost in Austen. My review of Death Comes to Pemberley was really more of a rant, and this is to be more of a rave.

In short, the creators of this show got it. They got what we wanted, we the fans, we the masses, we the people. They got it and then they delivered it. Lost in Austen delivers.

And what do we want? We want to find a door in our bathroom that we can walk through into Longbourn, ACTUAL Longbourn, full of the ACTUAL characters that Jane Austen created. We want romance balanced with scathing wit and ridiculous people. We want the sights and smells of history. We want escapism we can sink our snobby, desperate, anglophile teeth into.

For some time, I was considering writing a book, or possibly a series, about a girl who discovers a secret door into Jane Austen's world. I thought I was the first to come up with this idea, like the time my brother thought he had invented a high-speed rescue boat, but it turned out it had already been invented and was called a rocket ship. Well, now I can cross that off my to-do list, because not only has it been done, it has been done properly.

Does every point of this show stand up to scrutiny? No, definitely not, but I just don't care. And why don't I care? Am I not a discerning and critical purist? Of course I am. But the spirit of this production was one of fun, of frolicking and of fantasy, and most of all it was funny. And the liberties which the writers took worked internally. They added to the suspense and to the comedy, which was the point.

I do not understand how the humour is so often missed in Austen adaptations. The books are very funny. You are supposed to enjoy the process of reading them. You are supposed to laugh at the characters. And I laughed out loud, shrieking, thrilling, shocking laughter, throughout the whole of Lost in Austen.

"She is the best possible nurse. She has paracetamols!"

But the show wasn't silly. It wasn't slapstick or exaggeration. It was good drama. Even though it was about six hours long, I kept having to put on the next episode, just like Pride and Prejudice. I had to know what was going to happen.

The casting was excellent, even Mr. Darcy. I have seen this actor in other roles, and didn't particularly like him, but the Darcy role suited him so well, I didn't notice.

Some people have told me they didn't think Jane was pretty enough, but I did. I thought she was lovely.

I did notice that the actress who played Elizabeth was possibly prettier, which is not how it should be, but then, she did have those fine eyes.

 As I have said, not everything stood up to scrutiny. To prove that I am not blind or undiscerning, I shall briefly review the things that cannot really be reconciled with the novel. Note that this part may contain some spoilers.

Firstly, the character of Lady Catherine was too shrewd, more cunning than blustering and proud.

And the character of Mr. Collins was more disgusting than ridiculous, but only a little. He does, after all, have the good fortune to shoot a peacock.

The twist involving Mr. Wickham I found highly amusing, and therefore I forgive the fact that it is impossible. His debts, his lies, his running away with Lydia, his slander of Darcy, none of these accord with his being a secret good guy.

And the concern for Jane when she goes off to Netherfield on horseback is, of course, unfounded, since we know from the book that she survives her cold, so the cliffhanger didn't really leave me in any apprehension.

And Charlotte Lucas is not supposed to be so depressed, I don't think. She comes across in the book as much more pragmatic and steady. She claims, in the book, not to be romantic, but I do think you have to be a little of a romantic persuasion to run away to Africa in despair.

Caroline turning out to "steer the punt from the Cambridge end," however, I found perfectly plausible. At least, there is nothing in the text that would forbid it.

It was never explained why Amanda Price was chosen to be transported into the book. There was no assertion made that she was somehow the most deserving, which would have bothered me if it had been, because she obviously wasn't. But she wasn't supposed to be special, and that was what made the comedy work. If she had known more about Regency England, had she been more like me or some of the hard-core fans I know, it wouldn't have been as funny. There wouldn't have been as much contrast to create the drama. Yes, she was a bit annoying at times, but so people generally are. Even Jane Austen's heroines can be a bit annoying some times.

And none of these little inconsistencies mattered or detracted from the whole because the writing was so good. I think that is the primary reason I could enjoy it, even though the purist in me knew a few things were amiss. The dialogue was brilliant, which is what matters to most fans, or at least to me. There were no awful intrusions of modernity that did not come through Amanda Price. The language was accurate for the time, at least enough so to satisfy me, and I am always quick to criticise on that front.

No doubt there will be some very dry intellectual types who will say that it was all too silly, and try to pretend Jane Austen was somehow one of the Bronte sisters, or that her work is somehow sacred and we cannot have some fun with it, but I say fiddlesticks. A bit of fun is what it is all about.

Melanie Kerr is the author of  Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Monday, 6 January 2014

Daniel Radcliffe as Mr. Bingley?

I have been running a little diversion on Facebook to cast my dream production of Pride and Prejudice. So far, we have Benedict Cumberbatch as Darcy,

and Dan Stevens as Wickham.

I am now proposing the quite shocking suggestion that Daniel Radcliffe should play Mr. Bingley. What say you all? 

It may seem ridiculous, but his sort of prep-school manners, and clipped style of speech seem to me so perfectly suited, and I like to think it might be just the sort of role he would actually like to play, to try and validate himself as an actor. I mean, look at him. It's a stroke of casting genius - unexpected but brilliant.

You may be appalled at the suggestion, and if so, please make an alternate recommendation, but for now, this is my proposal. Thoughts?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Costume Drama Review #1 - Death Comes to Pemberley

This review is of the BBC mini-series, which just aired last week. And when I refer to the "creators" I intend everyone who decided how the show would turn out, not just P.D. James, and perhaps not even her at all, for who knows who called the shots. I have not read the book on which this 3-part mini-series is based, nor have I read any reviews of either. I have heard from 2 people whose opinions I trust, that though they both love Jane Austen, and enjoy P.D. James, they found the combination wanting.

Nevertheless, I was determined to like it. I have no doubt that the whole Empire and beyond teems with damning reviews, written by uppity naysayers who don't know how to simply relax and enjoy some nice costumes. Therefore, I have decided to buck the trend, and offer some praise of this piece of period drama. Here it is:

Death Comes to Pemberley has Anna Maxwell Martin in it.

There, that's about allI could come up with. To be fair, I should also mention that Matthew Goode is quite good looking. And Lydia Bennett was well played.

In fact, I cannot really criticize the acting in general, with the exception perhaps of Colonel Fitzwilliam, but that may be more the fault of the writing and directing than the acting. And besides, it's not Tom Ward's fault he looks like an Easter Island head.

I was prepared for the production, on the whole, to be bad. I knew it would be anachronistic and would not get the characters right, and would do all kinds of things Jane Austen would never do, but I do like a good whodunnit, and my standards are really very low, so long as there are nice costumes and pretty English houses to look at. I almost don't really care about the rest. And this one had Anna Maxwell Martin in it. I figured I could just block out everything else and watch her be tense and understated in that way that I find so adorable, and that the problems with the show itself would just wash over me in a wave of candle-light and cravats.

Clearly, I under-estimated the BBC.

On the whole, it seems the creators just borrowed the characters' names and relationships from Pride and Prejudice and dropped them into a kind of passable suspense story in the hopes that it would increase sales by capitalizing on Jane Austen's current popularity. I suppose it has, somewhat, except for how they will be receiving universal flack from the very audience they intended it for, because of how they are IDIOTS.

Their approach is akin to someone who makes pretty good macaroni cheese, and who has eaten at an Indian buffet a couple of times, deciding to put curry powder into their recipe so they can sell it to Indian people, without first learning ANYTHING about the subtle and complex nature of Indian cuisine. Not only does it fail to please those who enjoy a good curry, but it also sucks as a pasta.

But I am not satisfied with general criticism alone. Allow me to list the particulars of my dissatisfaction, beginning with the characters.

Firstly, Georgiana is not supposed to be pretty. I like the idea that she is alluring without being aware of it herself, but the actress was far too good-looking. If you want to see what Georgiana SHOULD look like, watch my trailer.

Colonel Fitzwilliam is supposed to be amiable and charming, not a blundering, angry fool who says things like "I am just a soldier..." He is still a gentleman, the son of an earl no less. He at least knows how to talk properly.

Anne de Bourgh is an abomination, though she appears on screen for no more that 30 seconds in total and has no lines. She is supposed to be ill in health as in temper, yet she looks robust and buxom, not sickly and wan.

**Spoiler Alert** 
The motivations of the characters just don't make any sense. Why does Mrs. Younge throw herself in front of that carriage? Wouldn't she want to raise the baby, and make sure he knows about his father? And why is Mr. Darcy so angry at Colonel Fitzwilliam for trying to protect Georgiana's family's reputation? Wouldn't he have done the same? And why does he say at the end, "It's time Pemberley started taking care of its own," or something like that, as if he hasn't always taken care of everyone? And Mr. Wickham in general just doesn't make any sense. He's all over the map, and not in a way that lends him depth and complexity - just in a way that shows nobody has put any thought into his character.
**End Spoiler Alert**

Then there is the writing itself. At one point, Georgiana actually says the words, "It is bigger than you or I..." Seriously? I know it is impossible to emulate the brilliance of Jane Austen's genius, but they could at LEAST get the pronoun right. This is the BBC for crying out loud.

One reason I though I might be able to tolerate everything I knew would otherwise irk me about the film, was that I expected a bit of a romp. After all, murder mysteries are supposed to be a bit of fun; that's why we like Miss Marple so much. This was not fun. This was kind of a horror film. They repeatedly thrust upon us scenes of a child's execution, literally, a CHILD actually being HANGED at the gallows. Nobody wants to see that - and certainly nobody who chooses to tune into a 3-part BBC mini-series based on a Jane Austen classic, not even knowing it's a murder mystery.

The tone is so dreary that even the rare attempts at humour seem forced and predictable, falling flat and failing in their purpose. So incapable are they at writing anything funny that they have to steal jokes from other works of literature.

Lady Catherine says when she arrives that she was visiting an invalid friend, and that she told him he ought to make up his mind whether to live or die and then get on with it. She all but called him Bunbury. Did the writers intend us to get this reference? Or did they really think they could get away with this plagiarism? Because, as we all know, fans of Jane Austen  never overlap with fans of Oscar Wilde. After all, we certainly do not enjoy witty lines and ridiculous characters ironically identifying the follies of the 19th Century.

The script also includes flashback scenes in which we are taken back to the days of Pride and Prejudice. Well, here at least, you might think, we do not have to worry about bad writing. Jane Austen has already supplied all the dialogue, so we might get a moment's respite from the horrors of the screenplay, but no. Not only were the creators unable to approximate the style or the spirit of the original, they were not even astute enough to recognize its superiority, Rather, they thought they could do better, and re-wrote the conversations themselves, with their own incongruous blasphemy.

I hesitate to criticise the details of the legal drama contained within the plot. I am usually very forgiving of liberties taken with civil procedure and law in general, because I get that law is boring, and you need to make most of it up in order to have some drama, but since I am on a roll, why not rail at those inaccuracies as well. I mean, it is one thing to have the investigating magistrate preside at the coroner's inquest, or to have the execution take place 2 days after the sentencing, without so much as a 30-day appeal period, because that's just convenient for creating suspense. But defense counsel having no questions for the person who conducted the entire investigation? And this, after he objected to everything he said as being conjecture? No cross-examination? Are you fracking kidding me? And the prosecution calls a surprise witness! The PROSECUTION! And defense counsel doesn't even object. I know this was 200 years ago, but it was not the dark ages. We may not yet have seen Lord Denning, but we did have SOME notion of procedural fairness. And this is not even to mention the timelines generally, which make it appear that the trial occurs about a week after the inquest and takes all of a single afternoon.

On a less important note, all the characters seem only to have one outfit each. Although the plot is supposed to take place over, at the very LEAST, several weeks, Elizabeth, one of the wealthiest women in England, wears the same dress throughout the entire 3 episodes. And if I recall correctly, so does Georgiana. And Mrs. Younge wears the same outfit in every scene, though they are again, supposed to be spaced weeks apart. Apparently, we the audience are unable to identify characters except by their clothing. How could we possibly know it was the same woman if she were not wearing a bonnet with green and purple ribbons?

All of this makes the show, in my opinion, ridiculous, but it would not bother me so much were in not on the BBC. If it were on iTV, or Fox, or something, that would be fair enough, but it seems too cheap for such an otherwise trustworthy channel. It legitimizes the program in a way that offends me. After all, there are a myriad very well-researched spin-off novels, written by people who have spent their lives studying and appreciating the works of Jane Austen, as well as the language and the customs and the realities of life in Regency England, yet this tripe gets the coveted privilege of adaptation into a 3-part mini-series because it is written by someone who has achieved some success IN ANOTHER GENRE!

I am sorry for all this pejorative tirade. I really did want to say something more encouraging, and I promise not all my reviews will be this scathing.

All I can hope is that the BBC will endeavour to erase the memory of this atrocity with other adaptations of better researched, better written costume dramas, created with love and reverence for the spirit and the charm of the original... books like mine. Actually, not like mine - actually mine.

I might even cast Anna Maxwell Martin.

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