Monthly Archives: January 2014

Theatre: Othello – The Moor of Venice

“Does Shakespeare really need to be dragged into the 21st century?” you may wonder after seeing this production, by new company Orangutan, which pairs the original text with a film noir-style backdrop. In actual fact, the story of jealousy, murder, betrayal and archetypical female roles fits surprisingly well. Less seamless is the fusion of 17th-century lyrical dialogue with a genre of moviemaking famed for its low-key understatement. In trying to marry the two together, director Rebekah Fortune transports us to a strange place somewhere in-between.

Set and costume designers Libby Todd and Eleanor Bull fill the stage with the iconic images of 1940s and 50s films – sharp-brimmed hats, dynamic shadows and slinky dresses. However, the performers often seem trapped between embracing the soaring melodrama and toning down their emotions to fit a far less verbose 21st century mood. As Stefan Adegbola’s well-spoken Othello converses with Peter Lloyd’s Northern Iago, while sitting in a café, the drama falls out of what should be an increasingly tense relationship faster than the waitress can top-up their coffee.

It’s only through the second act that the cast finally get to show what they can do, as the story’s inherently thrilling conclusion overpowers the backdrop and enables everyone to forget all about it. Gemma Stroyan’s Emilia and Gillian Saker’s Desdemona share a compelling exchange before the inevitable bloodbath; their words a reminder that this is a timeless and subversive play about prejudice and human fallibility – one that doesn’t really require a makeover.

Riverside Studios, London. Until 18 February. 

Written for The Stage. 
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“Oh no, my boyfriend likes Anchorman 2. What should I do?!!!”

You have made a shocking discovery. Your boyfriend, partner, friend or loved one has revealed that they were not only able to tolerate watching a film full of racism, sexism and juvenile humour – Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues – but that they actually enjoyed it. Should you run from the cinema the minute this becomes apparent? Quietly move to another chair so that no one knows you’re together? Loudly deliver a monologue about equality, women and narrative structure every time they laugh?

The answer is: no. Rather than exercise the same throwaway prejudice that Anchorman 2 directs at many of its characters (particularly those who are black and/ or female), I suggest you rise above this and show some compassion. Think of your loved one as a sick person – perhaps someone who has just been run over by a car. Try and understand what it is that they enjoyed about the film. Then, afterwards, with the urgency of a surgeon reconstructing a crushed torso, you can attempt to change their mind and save your relationship. To be honest, it’s your (and their) only hope.

To help you with your task, here are some reasons why someone might enjoy Anchorman 2:

  • Some of the sequences are very funny. Not the one where Will Ferrell’s bumbling news anchor Ron Burgundy repeatedly shouts the word “black” at his new (black) female boss. Nor the one where she subsequently falls in love with him (because who can resist a racist?). But there is a really good shark. And a scorpion. And a bit where someone’s legs disappear while doing the weather.
  • If you’re laughing at some points (see above), it’s easier to forgive others (also, see above).
  • Your loved one has confused non-specific 1970s/80s clothes, set and hairstyles with irony. “Anchorman 2 is a parody of a bygone era, duh!”  they may say. “The point being?” you might reply. “It’s just funny,” they’ll say, unable to really answer because there is no answer.
  • Ron Burgundy is just a clown – albeit a dislikeable one with no redeeming qualities and a cardboard cutout personality. However, some people don’t need their clowns to be identifiable or have any real depth. They just need them to be stupid. And Ron Burgundy is very stupid.
  • Writers Ferrell and Adam Mckay are being avant-garde. You can’t just go up to someone these days and shout the colour of their skin at them. Suggest that there may be good reason for this and your loved one may reply that the film is breaking down barriers in a hilarious but refreshing way in an otherwise PC world where mindless insults can only be delivered anonymously over the internet.
  • Yes, the women characters are bad, but it’s not about them. They might all fight over Ron Burgundy at the end in a way that is the familiar stuff of male fantasies in a male-dominated blar blar blar…but the film is a spoof of other films where this happens. If things are to change, what better way of achieving this than showing the status quo, with no obvious critique, again and again and again and again…

If you’re lucky, you might find that simply listing the reasons above will cause your loved one to dramatically rethink his or her opinion of Anchorman 2. “Am I a sexist racist?” they may nervously type into Google after speaking to you. Later, when other people ask what they think of the film, they will respond, “Some bits were good and some bits weren’t” or “I enjoyed it while I was in there, but I can now see it has problems.” And then you will know that your work is done.

Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park, London

“What do you think of Winter Wonderland?” I ask The Other One.

“I hate it,” he replies.

As usual, he is wrong. Secretly he loves it. How do I know this? Because imagining someone who hates Winter Wonderland is as difficult for me as imagining someone who hates Christmas. Or holidays. Or cake.

Winter Wonderland, in Hyde Park, is the only fun fair where people look as ecstatic on the posters as they do in real life. The rides are bigger and better, and they’re not even the only thing there. Yes, they can be expensive, but you really only need to go on one or two. Any more and you might overdose on adrenaline and pass out in a vat of mulled wine or plunge face first into the wood-fired pizza oven. Basically, unless you hate joy, you will have a brilliant time.

In the absence of The Other One, my sister and I go on the Star Flyer; a giant version of a roundabout with hanging seats which lifts you up around 60-metres in the air. “Grown men should not be having this much fun,” she says as a group of queuing Hungarians jump up and down, shouting about how much they love Scotland, and we take off to a cacophony of Christmas hits, Take That and 1980s pop.

Every year I am tempted to buy an overpriced novelty fur hat only slightly different to the one I bought the previous year. AA Gill gave the food there one star in the Sunday Times a few years ago (and The Other One says the whole experience is “as much fun as food poisoning”), but there are some nice things to eat if you look around and like homemade pies, doughnuts and chocolate etc. The German market stalls also have some brilliantly bizarre items. Jurgen Huss, a company that makes tiny little handmade ovens, is one of my favourites. There is also someone selling fake snow. Who buys fake snow?!

Watching people getting off the massive, glittering rides is a real treat and also completely free. Seeing kids’ faces as they stumble from a slalom-themed carousel – which, before it grinds to a halt, goes faster than you could imagine and then faster again – is, I’m sure, more enjoyable than actually going on it. Stand underneath one of the biggest rides – ‘The Blizzard’ – look up, and watch the people on board come hurtling towards your head. Feel fear and dizziness without paying a penny.

Just when you think you know exactly what Winter Wonderland is about, it surprises you with something new and unexpected (“like a bucket of sick,” suggests The Other One). This year there are even more frozen sculptures in ‘The Magical Ice Kingdom.’  And a speigeltent resembling a dazzling 1920s dance hall. There’s even a daily live band – The Disco Flames – doing their own versions of Abba hits (among others) as if it’s Glastonbury, 1978.

Every year, I have high expectations for Winter Wonderland and, without fail, it always surpasses them. It’s impossible to leave without smiling, dancing and/ or singing. I would quite happily go every day. Just as well The Other One is so difficult to get there, otherwise between November and January 5th (when it, sadly, closes) I’d never do anything else.

What is the point of feedback – and how should writers deal with it?

The most recent BBC Script Room deadline has passed and at some point over the coming months around 5% of you who sent in scripts will be getting feedback from us script readers. And, unless you’re one of winners, unfortunately that will be all. So, what are you going to do with this feedback if it ends up, like an unexpected and oddly outspoken guest, in your in-box? Put on the kettle or call the anti-social helpline? And what if you’re one of the 95% of writers who won’t be getting any feedback at all (at least this time around)?

“Make sure someone reads your work,” is something you’ve probably heard more than once. While you might agree or disagree with this, at least you can choose who this person is (though I’d avoid doting parents, competitive siblings and anyone who laughs in your face every time you pick up a pen). However, when you send a script to an organisation or it gets commissioned, you often don’t have a say in who is reading it and giving you feedback. What if you don’t trust them or they simply don’t get your work? What if two people (or more!) say conflicting things? What if you wanted to get this person and you ended up with Sally Stott?

The Writersroom and BAFTA Rocliffe recently ran a masterclass aiming to answer some of these questions. The panel included comedy writing team the Dawson Brothers – Steve Dawson, Andrew Dawson and Tim Inman, who have written on shows including That Mitchell and Webb Look and Skins and are co-writers (with David Walliams) of Big School.

“Getting notes is criticism. It’s hard not to take it personally,” Steve, Andrew and Tim say. However, they also point out that “TV is a collaborative medium. Unless you’re writing and producing yourself, nothing is done alone.” They explain that the first episode of Big School went through 23 drafts. When would this ever be necessary, you might be thinking? “Every line needs to pull its weight,” they explain. “Every actor needs to feel that those lines are interesting.”

As you might imagine, the trio sometimes gets conflicting feedback from multiple people. Rather than spend their days hitting their heads against the wall, they have developed techniques to cope with this. One is to get all the people involved in the same room and try and come to an agreement, ideally a peaceful one. Even so “you will have to make concessions,” they say. “Don’t forget, everyone giving you notes just wants to make the show a success.”

Before becoming a script editor on Casualty, writer Ray Grewal wasn’t a fan of getting feedback: “Usually there would be so many pages of notes that they seemed almost as long as the script,” he says. “Many of them would seem very minor. i.e. ‘can you make x character say ‘hello’ and not ‘hi’?’”

However, since then his opinion has changed: “Now, after spending time working as a script editor, I can quite honestly say my eyes have been opened. As part of the editorial team you’re thinking about the two scripts that have just been commissioned, the two scripts that are at 3rd or 4th draft stage and the two scripts that are currently being shot. You’re also juggling the constant changes and amendments that are being made to the serial storyline… and dealing with unforeseen [circumstances] like an actor wanting to leave the show. You really don’t have time to waste on a writer who makes a song and dance about changing the word ‘hello’ to ‘hi’ – you just want them to do it and do it quickly!”

Whether you want some feedback or not, it seems that at some point you’re likely to end up with some* – that is unless you keep you work locked in an iron box and never send it anywhere. Not all feedback will be brilliant, but not all of it will be rubbish either. Knowing when to listen to it and when to use it to wallpaper your bathroom is a talent worth developing almost as much as writing itself. And, who knows, it might even help you create something better. “We rarely get positive feedback,” Steve, Andrew and Tim conclude. “But criticism is more useful. It helps you to improve.”

* This blog has received one set of notes and gone through two drafts.

Written for BBC Writersroom