Tuesday, 5 November 2013

TV Irritations

Annoying delusions and ill advised/thought out situations on TV this week.

 I'm a great fan of Ripper Street, now in its second series. Normally. I was actually quite offended and irritated by  last night's episode. To suggest that Joseph 'John' Merrick was murdered left quite a bad taste in my mouth. It was disgustingly cavalier to depict a fictionalised fate of a man who really lived, and lived a life that was tragic, hard and brutal enough.

Sorry to be so impassioned and negative but The Elephant Man is a film that always has me in tears and Merrick's story was heartbreaking. Even this episode, with the street crowds baying at him and removing his mask, nearly had me welling up.

It's a real shame that the show decided to take this turn for dramatic effect, as the performance and depiction of Merrick, plus of course the make up was superb. I worry that not enough people know their history nowadays as it is, without the BBC using dramatic licence. For those not in the know, Merrick's death was ruled as accidental, and the cause was recorded as asphyxia and a dislocated neck caused  by the weight of his own head as he lay down. As characters in Ripper Street said, Merrick was unable to lie down to sleep and his physician and protector Frederick Treves went on record at the inquest as claiming that he must have wanted to experiment. He was only 27 at the time of his death but he had been worsening in the four years he had stayed at London hospital. General consensus is that he'd just given up. It's a tragic story which requires sensitivity and respect and I don't think Ripper Street gave him that alas.

Next up is the claims made by odious right on playwright and former crap Casualty star Kwame Kwei-Armah (real name Ian Roberts) in the second part of the Arena documentary celebrating 50 years of The National Theatre. His play Elmina's Kitchen was staged at The National in 2003. Here's what he has to say on the programme regarding the theatre that gave him and his play its break; 

"It was a lily white institution and it was an upper middle class institution and probably being upper middle class was more daunting than it being lily white. I think my impression of The National was its the equivalent of walking into Buckingham Palace, its just this huge thing, this bastion of culture that you almost have to have a degree in before you can step over the threshold. It's almost an alien land" 

What conceited absolute rubbish! To hear him speak you'd think that The National before he arrived had been a stuffy po faced part of the establishment that didn't concern itself with what he wanted to depict, ie the socially aware and only deigned to concern itself with the middle classes and sacred safe text like Shakespeare. His ego is so vast he clearly believes he brought the theatre kicking and screaming into modern life and relevancy. He seems utterly ignorant of, or chooses to ignore, the fact that The National has a long history, since its inception in fact, of devoting itself to new plays (often from new writers) plays that are uncompromising state of the nation socially aware pieces. Plays like Peter Nicholls' blackly comic satire The National Health (1969) Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975) with knights of the realm Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud as you'd never seen before; foul mouthed  and waspish. Howard Brenton's socialist polemic Weapons of Happiness (1975) and Romans in Britain (1980) which sought to draw parallels to the Roman occupation of Britain with the then present British occupation of Northern Ireland and, with its vivid depiction of male rape, saw a private prosecution being made against the theatre by Mary Whitehouse. Then there's the bold and experimental revisionist The Mysteries from Tony Harrison (1985) Brenton's co written piece with David Hare, Pravda (1985) which was a deliciously satirical broadside against Rupert Murdoch, still achingly relevant sadly. Hare's trio of bitingly savage political plays from 1993, Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War and predating Kwame by one month , the far more controversial Jerry Springer; The Opera which if anything brought The National up to date, if it were ever really needed, by tapping into the popular trash TV culture, and saw Christian groups picketing performances and up in arms most nights. There was even that season's adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V, far bolder than anything Kwame could come up with in terms of race relations in that it cast, for the first time ever, a black actor (Adrian Lester) in the lead role.

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