Sunday, 22 February 2015

Review: The Casual Vacancy on BBC One

I’ve just caught up with BBC One’s latest 3-part drama, The Casual Vacancy. It’s actually the first time I’ve watched TV—or at least a permutation thereof—in a while, as we don’t have a TV in our flat here at Uni. So today, I opted to spend my Sunday morning watching the hour-long drama on BBC iPlayer, and it really reminded me why I love sinking my teeth into a story on the small screen and losing myself for a while. Something about being in bed with a cup of tea and pretending I didn’t have any work to do made the experience all the more delicious.

I read the novel by J.K. Rowling over the summer and, as you can tell by my review, was a huge fan of it. You’ll also notice I was both excited and a little sceptical to see how it would translate on screen. Overall, I think it was really suited to a 9pm Sunday night drama on BBC One (placed just after Call the Midwife), portraying the classic idyllic English town where not everything is a perfect as it seems.

It’s always dangerous watching something you’ve already read, especially when it’s written by such a masterfully descriptive author, because the reader can often have a very fixed idea of what the characters and settings are “supposed to” look like. Most characters had only a vague resemblance to what I’d imagined. Michael Gambon would—he will be pleased to know—have to put on several stone before he really resembled the character of Howard Mollison. However, while appearances of course differed from my fussy, fixed internal images, the characters were brought to life in a delightful manner. In fact, a huge exception to my initial qualms were Samantha and Miles Mollison, who were just as contrasting and unbalanced a couple as I’d imagined. Samantha’s general vibe of disillusionment and irritation came across incredibly well onscreen, while Miles was the perfect spineless husband who makes one want to shout at him to… well, shout occasionally himself. The massive photo of Samantha’s mother-in-law with the two grandchildren that loomed over the couple in one scene in their kitchen pretty much summarised the dynamics of what I found to be one of the more interesting relationships in the book.

That is, after all, what the entire story centres around as much as anything else: relationships, and in particular marriage and family life. I felt these were incredibly well portrayed: the reactions of wives to their husbands and vice versa, for example the arguably abusive relationship between Ruth and Simon Price, as well as the dysfunctional, unbalanced marriage of the Walls. Ruth Price, played by Marie Critchley, appears visibly shrunken in front of her violent, aggressive husband. Meanwhile, Tessa Wall is seen as an incredibly timid and weak character, frightened of husband Colin’s stressful nature, but she still seems in a higher position at times as it is also her role to comfort an protect him from the harsh realities of life, which appear in the TV series to be triggering trichotillomania. “They’re probably doing ‘wanker’ at me,” she assures him of his pupils and says he retains “natural authority”—lying through her teeth like the loving wife she must be.

A huge change in the story, one which I took in my stride and really appreciated, was the emphasis on Barry Fairbrother’s character. The novel begins with Fairbrother’s own death, and proceeds to illustrate his character through a series of flashbacks. However, screenwriter Sarah Phelps has opted in her adaptation to show a day in Barry’s life and make his death a part, not the beginning, of the story. This was a clever way of allowing us a glimpse into Barry’s life without the need to do so from multiple perspectives—instead, we are shown from Barry’s own perspective the ways in which he is the linking feature of all the residents of Pagford.

Contrast is a huge feature in The Casual Vacancy. One of the opening scenes, after establishing shots of a church spire emerging from almost artificially green trees and the like, portrays heroin addict Terri Weedon being driven by Barry through an idyllic town. Her scarred arms, dirty hair and clothes and gaunt appearance stand out starkly against the quaint, middle class English village. Another striking image is that of teenage “Fats” Wall, smoking cannabis out of his bedroom window as he looks out on dark streets of traditional cobbled perfection.

I could say a lot more about Krystal Weedon, who has been portrayed as the “main” character if one were to choose one. She isn’t at all like I would have imagined but her bravery and frustration are captured with alarming skill from such a young actress as Abigail Lawrie. It is her story we will all follow as the drama continues and concludes.

Overall, I find the story to have been translated onto screen with alarming skill and perfection. A cast of well-known and newer actors have captured the interesting dynamics the book portrayed and the screenwriter has remained true to the original plot while also changing certain aspects to suit television.

The BBC strikes again, and reminds me what I love about television. I would definitely recommend tuning in tonight at 9pm!  

Sunday, 15 February 2015

"Girls compete with each other. Women empower one another."

I came across this quote a few weeks ago and it really stuck with me for a while. It put me in mind not only of the dynamics of female friendships—which, although this is probably quite sexist, I believe can be exceptionally unique—but also of the difference between the friendships one has as a child and those one experiences as an adult.

I’ve always been interested in groups of girl-friends, especially in their teenage years. Whether it was a group that I was part of and loved, whether it was a group I watched and thought lovely, ridiculous or both, whether it was a group that made me feel like an insignificant member or a group that I didn’t know but seemed to band together to follow myself or my friends around school, apparently for no other reason than to intimidate us.

It’s always struck me that a large gang of girls have the potential to be almost dangerous…

Female friendships can be pretty intense. I’ve noticed this in starting university and building up new relationships…while I absolutely love and feel a definite need to bond with other females, I’ve found it a lot easier, at least in the first instance, to bond with males. Boys often demand less. Boys are quite comfortable to have a light conversation with you, and as someone who can be quite private and is becoming not necessarily slow to trust, but slow to get to know people and make judgements or decisions, this is a huge relief. Many girls, on the other hand, feel the need to make a close bond right away. And  I can see that this has its place and it a wonderful thing, but for me personally it’s always a little intimidating being expected to share things about myself with people I’ve known a few weeks or months “because we’re really close and you should tell me everything.”

I don’t know how else to describe it other than that it can all get a bit much. In fact, the girls I would consider my closest friends now are the ones who have understood that it takes a while to get to know someone, and while we’ve taken an interest in each other’s lives from day one, there has been a mutual understanding that there is no need to become close, intense “best friends” until everybody feels ready for that. It’s really the same as entering into any kind of relationship, as I’ve discussed.

But I digress. Going back to the fascinating dynamics of the teenage girl gang, I have always sensed that almost unnoticeable aura of competition.  Even in conversations between a group of friends—I mean, friends who actually get on with and like each other, there has always to me seemed the smallest struggle between some people to be the one who everyone is listening to, to be the focus of the conversation and to gain the upper hand…

And of course, alas, some things never change. But I have noticed that making friends as an adult—I still use the term ever so loosely… let’s clarify it as “one who no longer has to put up one’s hand in order to go to the toilet”—has a slightly different dynamic than making friends had back when I was twelve, the last time I had to, shall we say, befriend en masse. And again, as I will always clarify, though I’m using the girls and women in the titular quote as an example, this applies to males too. (Though perhaps we mature at different rates? I’ll put a pin in that argument as otherwise we’d be here for a week.)

Perhaps as we get older and start realising how many options we have in life, we begin to focus a bit more on ourselves and what we’d like to do or be. Experiences like taking our final exams at school (or college) and gaining our place at university or our first job can often serve to remind us that, while I suppose we did compete for points and places, no good really came of comparing ourselves to others and trying to be better than our friends. Most of us got where we are today by leaving the competitive one-upmanship attitude behind and concentrating on being the best we can at what we want to do.

At the moment when I look at my group of friends, for example those I live with in halls or those on my course, the fact is that there’s no time or opportunity to be competitive. We’re all so different that nobody wants to be “the most x, y or z in the flat”, or if they are, nobody else minds it. My friends right now, most of the time anyway, definitely empower me. If I make a decision, it is supported by my friends. They want what’s best for me, not what will make them look good. My friends want me to succeed and I want them to succeed. They are not quick to judge. If I do well at something or become happy, my friends—my real friends—experience the joy along with me without a smack of resentment. And I have to say that I feel the same way about them. I want them all to get Firsts—it doesn’t affect whether I get one or not. I want them all to be well liked and supported—it doesn’t mean people will like or support me less.

At the moment I’m enjoying being supported in everything I do, and supporting others right back. Jealousy and competition have never seemed more of a waste of time.