In My Queue: Call the Midwife

Part of my preparation for the role of Eliza Doolittle involved trying to find good examples of the Cockney dialect. This proved a bit difficult, particularly because the Cockney dialect of the early 20th century doesn’t really exist anymore in modern life. But one suggest from our esteemed dialect coach was to try watching Call the Midwife. Well, it’s a show set in mid-century in England with a strong female cast and a willingness to observe all classes of life, which is right up my alley, so I gave it a gander. And it has quickly become one of my favorite shows to watch when I have some downtime alone.

And apart from the obvious immersion in East End London dialect, it is a fascinating story. Briefly, the first few seasons are directly based on the memoirs of a Jennifer Worth (nee Lee), who worked as a midwife in the East End of London. My favorite part is that the show follows the stories of a class of people who have not traditionally been represented in film and television, or else represented in a romanticized way. As the show progresses, the characters take on enough of their own life to let the show stray from the original source material, especially when the main character of Jenny Lee leaves the convent at which she works. Currently, I’m in the second season, so I’m curious to see how the show handles losing the main character, but so many of the other characters are engaging enough, I imagine it will work well.

I will admit that I originally avoided this show because for some reason I thought it was a modern reality show. It is, however, a rather gritty look at the reality for women in the East End in the mid century. The show does not shy away from the harsh conditions these women have to face, and it also gave new context to the lines spoken by Eliza and her father in Pygmalion. When Mr. Doolittle says “What else is there but the workhouse in my old age” if he throws away a bequest that has been needling him into respectability, this is not a flippant remark about Doolittle’s aversion to hard work; it is an honest fear that he will end up in a place that leaves people traumatized or worse. When Eliza remarks that her old flat “wasn’t fit for a pig to live in,” she is not engaging in hyperbole. Some of the places the midwives visit seem like the sort of place you would call animal control if you saw a dog forced to live there.

By contrasting the lives of the East End patients and the lives of the midwives, the show is an interesting study of privilege. When she first comes to the convent, Nurse Lee shows her privileged ignorance when dealing with her patients. Well, no, the woman who is abused by her husband can’t necessarily leave him. And there are many other examples. The character of Chummy is a particularly fascinating look at class and privilege, as she comes from a wealthy, upper-class family and often finds herself clashing with one of the convent’s sisters over class differences, simply because she doesn’t know that others didn’t have the access to things she had growing up. But she shows no stubborn pride and is able to become both an able midwife and a relatable friend to the other characters.

I will say that I am excited that the show continues on after the departure of Nurse Lee because it really sets it up as a true ensemble cast, as opposed to a main character with an ensemble behind her, the trap that Penny Dreadful fell into, to my dismay. I look forward to continuing to enjoy this lovely series, long after Pygmalion closes and I no longer need to drop my haitches and muddy my vowels.

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In My Queue: The Crown

NB: There is one small spoiler at the end of this review, though it should come as no surprise, given the subject of this series.

There is nothing more we Americans like than a dramatized peek into the lives of royals. Never having had a royal family of our own or even a real aristocracy, there is something romantic about the idea of a hereditary class that persisted even into the 20th (and 21st) century, particularly when there are British accents involved. To this end, the new Netflix original series The Crown does not disappoint. The first season is a look into the ascension and early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, with a good mix of political plotting and salacious personal detail.

First of all, the series is written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote the screen play for the film The Queen, in which Helen Mirren played Elizabeth dealing with the public fallout from the death of Princess Diana. And this makes sense, as the series has a very similar feeling. In particular, the sense of pathos he is able to evoke is unparalleled, particularly surrounding older characters. In The Queen, his portrayal of the Queen Mother prompted me to call my grandmother; in The Crown, his portrayal of Winston Churchill prompted me to reevaluate my own feelings towards my (now-deceased) father and (dementia-stricken) grandfather. Morgan is particularly gifted at writing scenes that show the little indignities of age.

But the focal point of the show is the new queen herself, and her relationships, both political and personal. Of note is the relationship between her and her husband, Prince Phillip. This series really helped cement how much I dislike the characters I’ve seen Matt Smith play, which doesn’t sound like a recommendation, except that Phillip is just so deliciously sullen. Despite his wish to be the dominant head of a marriage to the actual Queen of England, he comes of as a spoiled brat, rather than an angry man. And I think this distinction makes it easier to accept him as a troubled consort, rather than a threat. In contrast, Claire Foy has a perfect mix of quiet poise and demure strength when going up against a government system that should be no stranger to a ruling queen, and yet seems to continually fall victim to the sexist zeitgeist while dealing with her. She is able to, for the most part, gently overcome her opposition, showing her fire only when necessary, and otherwise remaining the perfect lady of the times.

Two last notes: I was absolutely floored by John Lithgow’s performance as Churchill. Apart from the impressive physical transformation, I thought he brought gravitas and honesty to Morgan’s aforementioned deftly written scenes of a man coming to terms with the end of his own reign of sorts. And Jared Harris played King George VI with such sympathy that it was almost a shame the show did not start a season earlier. I found his George more believable than Colin Firth’s in The King’s Speech, because there is always something too self-possessed about Firth’s portrayal of awkward characters. Harris played the perfect tragic king, and seemed like he brought a vulnerability to the character of the unlikely monarch that I would have liked to see from his beginnings. It truly is a shame that he tends to die so early in his small-screen roles.

All in all, The Crown serves as another wonderful dramatization of British royalty, and is a welcome respite from the Tudor era, truth be told.

In My Queue: Penny Dreadful

It’s Halloween, so I thought this would be a good time to write a bit about a show that I recently finished on Netflix. In honor of all things spooky and scary, these are my thoughts on the acclaimed show Penny Dreadful.

Image Source: http://gothiccharmschool.tumblr.com/post/93755419985/yes-im-finally-watching-penny-dreadful-and

Penny Dreadful opens with a mysterious woman meeting with a Western show performer to hire him for some “night work.” They go on to meet with her equally mysterious, though more aristocratic, employer and take their new compatriot down into a den of horrors. They slay a monster and take him to a mysterious doctor.

The woman is Vanessa Ives, played by Eva Green, clairvoyant and frequent victim of various possessions. The Western performer is the American Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, and he definitely has a secret. But then, who doesn’t in this show? The aristocratic leader is Sir Malcolm Murray, played by Timothy Dalton, a former explorer who just wants to find his daughter, who has been abducted by monsters.

Now, if the name Murray rings a bell, congratulations, you’ve kept up to date on your vampire lore. Yes, Sir Malcolm’s daughter is Mina Murray of Dracula infamy. The show brings in various “penny dreadful” tales, from Dr. Frankenstein to werewolves to some that stretch the meaning of “penny dreadful.” I certainly wouldn’t consider Oscar Wilde such a thing. But that is rather besides the point.

The show is dark and fun at first, though it suffers a bit from trying to smush all the plots together at once, rather than treating the premise as a sort of monster-of-the-week. Instead, there is one major monster in each of the three seasons, and then side plots that allow various peripheral characters to shine. As the show progresses, however, it becomes clear that the main plot will always revolve around Miss Ives and her dark secrets.

Despite Eva Green’s brilliant performance as the troubled and tortured Miss Ives, I think this is the major weakness of the show. Without giving anything away terribly, the show ends at the end of the third season when the story of Miss Ives comes to a satisfactory conclusion. I liked that they concluded the story the way that they did, as it fit such a dark show. But I disagree with the showrunners that the story is entirely about Vanessa.

We come to care about almost every character that is in the show for more than one episode. Most notable to me is the character of “The Creature,” or Frankensteins (first) monster, played by Rory Kinnear. The Creature gains revenge on Dr. Frankenstein in a way, but learns that revenge is rather hollow and that he must now make a life of this half-life he has been granted by the good doctor. He adopts the name of John Clare, an homage to his love of great literature and the feeling he has that books are the only things that will not shun him. Except Vanessa Ives, though that is merely a wistful subplot that was never destined for fruition.

Clare goes from shadow to shadow, trying to find his place in the world, even finding that he can access old memories from before his death and resurrection. He struck me as a beautifully tragic character, neither too good nor too bad, and always tugging at my conscience and emotion. I would have loved to have continued to see what he made of the existence he’s been thrown. While the other characters are similarly nuanced and compelling, that is the biggest reason I found it disappointing that the show ended when Vanessa’s story ended.

But I wholeheartedly recommend Penny Dreadful for anyone with a love of old monster stories. It’s not terribly scary, though there is a fair amount of blood, and as much horror as you’d expect in a story about all social classes in Victorian England. It’s not a large time commitment, and it can be both quite fun at times and emotionally wrenching (and later cathartic) at others.

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Channeling Agent Carter’s Strength

It’s been a busy week for me. I’ve been moving into a new role at work, and it comes with a lot of new skills to learn, a lot of things to take care of, and a lot of people with whom I must interact. I’ve talked about the confidence boost that red lipstick gives me in the past, but I thought I’d mention a new lipstick I bought, along with a new television show I’m watching.

I finally started watching Marvel’s Agent Carter last week, and I love it. From the opening sequence of each show, they make it clear that this show is about a strong woman who’s been relegated to the background by a chauvinist society, much the same way I talked about the women of The Bletchley Circle found after the war. I mean, this was a woman who fought with Captain America, and now she’s mostly getting coffee in the SSR office.

I could talk about the plot, but it’s such a comic-book-perfect blend of intrigue and action that I leave it to the reader to check out this show. Also, I was unfortunate enough to wait until only the final five episodes of the 8-episode first season were available for free. So I came into the plot in the middle, but still found it gripping.

No, instead, I think I’ll talk about Peggy Carter’s faces. She makes the most amazing disapproving faces whenever she’s ignored or talked over. The show is faithful enough to the ethos of the era that she can’t just shout out and say “Hey guys, I know what I’m talking about and you’re being a bunch of jerks!” She has to keep her mouth shut and find a way to subtly maneuver situations to her advantage. It’s eye-opening, but also familiar in a way. When she finally saves the day and that is taken from her by a pompous colleague, she is able to maintain poise, even while another colleague becomes indignant on her behalf. And she does it all with her signature dark-red lip.

Hayley Atwell, the actress who plays Carter, announced last December that Agent Carter’s lip color is none other than Besame Cosmetics’ Red Velvet. While on my search for the perfect red, I happened to email a rep at Besame asking about their lipstick, and Red Velvet was one of the shades they recommended, along with Red Hot Red, a bright, warm red inspired by Marilyn Monroe. Well, when I saw Besame lipsticks were now available at Sephora, I jumped. I’ve been dissatisfied with the feathering of my go-to Poppy red, and Red Velvet is different enough from anything I currently have.

I have to say, I love the formula, the packaging, and the experience. I also love the color. It’s a very serious red, and makes me feel like a serious person, which has been fantastic this week, when I have to hold my own in meetings. Sometimes I have to keep my mouth shut when a superior is talking, even if I disagree with what he or she is saying. But just because I’m quiet, doesn’t mean I’m submissive, just like Peggy.

And I’ve gone ahead and ordered Red Hot Red, too!

In My Queue: The Bletchley Circle

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a Netflix find that I thought my readers would appreciate. I’ve been terribly busy with rehearsals and such, but I have found the occasional moment to toy with Netflix and find new shows. One that I’d had in my queue for a long time was The Bletchley Circle. As a woman with a technical background, I was intrigued by a show I thought was about women working at Bletchley Park during World War II.

Well, I was wrong, it’s actually about a group of women who used to work at Bletchley Park, but the show’s main action follows them several years later as they’ve tried to return to “normal life” after the war. None of them can say what they did during the war, and instead are officially named as secretaries and bookkeepers. For the first series, they solve a series of murders when the first-series main character, Susan, notices a pattern while listening about the killings on the radio. She gathers together Millie, Lucy, and Jean, her old colleagues from Bletchley, to help her. Each has a specific skill that helps put together the clues they find.

It blends a period drama with a crime procedural, something I’ve pointed out before as a particular favorite genre. But it then goes a step further and instead of introducing strong (but peripheral) female characters, it bases the entire show on four women’s experiences. And it captures the frustration of intelligent women being underestimated by the men in their lives.

The show also captures the atmosphere of post-war England well. While the US was celebrating victory in a war that virtually never touched their own land, England was picking up the pieces from having its major cities bombed and all their supply chains disrupted. Luxuries, like perfume and lipstick, were hard, if not illegal, to come by. So the women of The Bletchley Circle are not the carefree, red-lipped women of the 50s that we might picture, but instead are, for the most part, honest, unglamorous, and relatively free of makeup. The only character that regularly wears lipstick is Millie, the “bad girl” of the group.

The Bletchley Circle has sadly only made seven episodes that are on Netflix right now, so it’s a quickly-consumed series, but the characters and the plots are worth waiting for more.

In my Queue: The Paradise

One thing that is nice about watching mostly Netflix is that their algorithm for recommending things is generally better than my friends’ recommendations. Specifically, since I like things that are British and/or full of lovely costumes, I get a lot of recommendations for British costume dramas. The most recent suggestion I took was The Paradise, a Victorian-set drama about an early department store in a northern English town. It’s based on a novel by Emile Zola, although his story was set in France.

It focuses primarily on the character of Denise, a young woman from a small Scottish village who comes to live and work with her uncle, a draper, only to find that his store is barely staying afloat, so she has to take a position at the new department store, the Paradise. It’s a lot like Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs only in a store, not a manor house. It’s actually really interesting because the class dynamics include more about the merchant class, which seems to straddle a bit of a line, no doubt due to the original French material. But my favorite thing about The Paradise is that the story focuses so much on the women’s stories, rather than making everything about the men who, admittedly, would have dominated most of business life in that day and age.

But, seriously, this is a costume drama, so let’s talk about costumes. From the opening sequence, it becomes clear that The Paradise is about eye candy. The costumes are not only beautiful, they add to the feel of the show. From the elegant but understated attire of the shop girls to Moray’s somewhat flamboyant suits and waistcoats to Lady Katherine Glendenning’s dresses, the attire fits the characters. In season two, Lady Katherine finds herself in mourning (half mourning?) for most of the season and her attire becomes darker and more severe. And despite the fantastic costumes, I love that she wears dresses more than once. A real Victorian lady, no matter how wealthy, would not have had a new dress every single day without repeat. It just adds that special something.

My only complaints are twofold: the quick cancellation and the treatment of Lady Katherine in the second season. The show had only two seasons and, while it comes to a satisfying end, it still left me wishing I could see what happened next. It was not enough time spent with the characters they’d developed. Finally, I was displeased with how the plot treated Lady Katherine in the second season. She had been set as one of the antagonists to sweet, blonde Denise in the first season, and her plotline in the second season almost seemed like punishment, when really her only “crime” was to reach for what she wanted, contrary to society’s strictures. But some of her strength eventually came through and she remains a wonderfully flawed character.

I highly recommend The Paradise for a few weeks of eye-candy and Victorian period enjoyment. Perhaps someday something like it will come back.

In My Queue: Agatha Christie’s Poirot

I discovered the works of Agatha Christie while living with a couple who owned many of her books. It was fascinating to borrow them and devour them. I love a good mystery, as evidenced by my love of television shows about mystery and crime. And when I was cast in a local play based on one of Christie’s books, I had to look up a dramatization of the book on which it was based.

Lately, Netflix has added a lot of new episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot to their offerings, the play I’m in among them. So I was able to watch that particular dramatization. David Suchet is such a wonderful Hercule Poirot. He has fantastic facial expression and his sense of timing it so excellent. And whoever styles his mustache deserves some sort of award.

Because Poirot is based on the various novels and short stories of Agatha Christie, it doesn’t necessarily follow a thread of plot, but rather enacts one novel per episode. Christie was a prolific writer, and already there are seventy episodes of Poirot to enjoy. So far, I’ve mostly focused on the few stories I’ve read, along with one or two others whose synopses sounded interesting.

My favorite to date is the dramatization of Murder on the Nile, which features Emily Blunt as a wealthy American who appears to have been murdered by a romantic rival. But when the rival has an airtight alibi, things get murkier. It also has the actor who plays the lead in one of my favorite shows, Monarch of the Glen, Alastair Mackenzie. Personally, I think he’s adorable, so I enjoyed that surprise.

The aesthetic of the settings is also fun to watch, as the series moves from the early part of the 20th century, through the 20s and into the 30s. There are subtle markers in the costumes, as well as in the historical references, but the time period settings never become heavy handed. The focus is always on the mystery. And because they’ve chosen such excellent source material, the plots are always just intricate enough to stay interesting.

I highly suggest giving it a watch. Don’t set yourself on watching them all in order. Take a look at the titles and plots and choose one that sounds interesting to you. Or check out Death on the Nile first.

In My Queue: Ripper Street

One of my guilty pleasures of TV are police procedurals. Ripper Street combines this with my love of British TV and historical drama. It’s like CSI: Victorian London. It’s quickly become one of my favorite weekend shows, not least because of the clever references to the modern world, along with the atmosphere created by the costumes and characters.

The show follows Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, the head of the Whitechapel police division during the time of Jack the Ripper. Whitechapel is not the nicest of places, and it turns out they have far more than the Ripper about which to worry. The show skews decidedly political, following revolutionaries and outsiders, and reminds me of a steampunk world, only it tries to be historically accurate rather than speculative.

One of my favorite things about the show is the characters. The show focuses on an Edmund Reid who is noble, kind, determined, and very, very honest. The show juxtaposes him both with the status quo of London police — who are as often as not corrupt and often in the loop with the wealthy and politically connected — as well as with the American character. While there is some vagueness about his specific politics, the American doctor Homer Jackson is the outsider for which much of the plot must be exposed. He also represents the march of progress, both politically with his socialist leanings, and physically, as he brings forensic science into the 20th century. His “dead room” is an autopsy room where he turns Ripper Street into CSI: Victorian London. Rounding out the main male cast is Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake, a traditional, former-military copper who uses his fists to talk and tends to stick to tradition, though he is ultimately an honest cop. His boundaries are challenged when he falls in love with a prostitute.

The female cast is led by Long Susan, who is a madame with a secret past. She is married to Jackson, and she runs her house of ill-repute with a firm but caring hand. The show focuses upon some of her girls more than others, but makes sure they are more than pretty stereotypes. In contrast to Long Susan, Reid’s wife is a progressive woman in a traditional role. Their marriage is strained due to a past tragedy that is revealed as the first series goes on.

My other favorite thing about the show are the costumes. I love the bold use of color, adding splashes of saturated jewel tones to Jackson’s costume and Long Susan’s girls, while keeping the gritty, slightly dingy look of 19th-century London. The costuming, coupled with the often-veiled political references actually remind me of Firefly. The repartee between the characters doesn’t hurt on that score, either. Here’s hoping it stays running for a long time yet.

In My Queue: Rosemary and Thyme

I’ve mentioned before that I’m an Anglophile, and one of my favorite things about the UK is their entertainment. I don’t watch normal TV, but I keep lots of British TV shows in my Netflix queue. Lately, I’ve started watching the series Rosemary and Thyme, a cozy mystery series about a duo who solves crimes focused around gardens.

The basic premise is that Rosemary, a plant pathologist who has lost her position at a university, and Laura Thyme, a jilted policeman’s wife, meet over the death of Laura’s brother. While Laura helps Rosemary diagnose some horticultural problems at the house, the two of them figure out whodunit and decide to team up. They travel the countryside, taking jobs from those with gardens who need tending. And if someone mysteriously ends up dead? Well, that’s within their area of expertise.

One of my favorite things about the show is the scenery, all set in the English countryside, with a few overseas episodes. And in the first series, at least, I was amused that various characters the two women meet assume their involved as more than just friends and garden partners. Laura Thyme has one of the most beautiful reactions to a particulary ham-handed bout of homophobia from one detective.

It really is hilarious how thin the pretense can be. It’s like death just manifests around these two. I think the show flirts with self-awareness toward the end of the first season, when Laura expresses concern that their current job has to do with “the tree of death.” One would think she might be getting tired of all the coincidental deaths mucking up their gardening.