This 2016 film from director Henry Coombes only made it into my hinterland because the part of Albert, played by co-writer David Sillars, is so engaging and entertaining. He plays an older gay man in semi- retirement who is called upon by an old friend to help her grandson with his depression. Albert, once a Jungian counsellor, now spends most of his time in his dirty apartment painting. He does not welcome distractions but agrees to help out his old friend.
Ben, the grandson who arrives for his sessions, is sweet enough but in a relationship with a boyfriend so unpleasant that you sort of get the feeling that ditching him might be all the advice he needs from Albert.
The film works only because of the central performance of Sillars who is great when conducting counselling sessions and when dancing in the gay club. He carries the film and this does weaken the whole enterprise as, when he isn’t on screen, the story is less powerful. Power to the elbow of Henry Coombes for trying, though. The film is never less than interesting!
I am not sure if I would have been able to cope with the Peter Brook stage version of the Mahabharata, which I believe ran to nine hours (across three plays) but the television version shown by Channel 4 in 1990 was an event in itself. As in the stage version, the television dramatisation of the Hindu holy work was split into three films. ‘The Game of Dice’ is the first, taking its title from the pivotal moment in the original texts.
The Mahabharata is fifteen times longer than the bible so obviously takes a visionary of the likes of Peter Brook to bring it to the stage and screen. Brook’s creativity is needed to provide a way for the viewer through the complexities of the story. The first episode opens with a boy and a poet. This device allows us a narrator, a poet, who tells the story to the boy with the help of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.
We are introduced to the main characters and their mythic origins. Central to the on-going story is the animosity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family. This leads to a game of dice; a challenge from a Kaurava brother to the leader of the Pandavas. The Pandava brothers know their leader is a gambler and will not know when to stop. The Kauravas know that they can send their best dice player to the game on their behalf. What follows is inevitable and we are left to wonder what will become of the Pandavas once they have lost their wealth, their prestige and their freedom. As part two has the title ‘Exile in the Forest’ it becomes clear!
Watching this dramatisation again after so many years, it struck me that it has not lost any of its power. ‘The Mahabharata: A Game of Dice’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Mahabharata (1989) TV mini series Directed by Peter Brook
Children’s television in my youth was an electic collection of styles and genres, maybe more than it is today. I suppose it was a complete television service in miniature. The BBC used to show drama series under the umbrella title of ‘Tales from Europe’ and the one that stood out, possibly because it was so unusual, was ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ from East Germany.
I saw the series in the 60s; it was repeated several times over the years. It was actually made in 1957 by the East German DEFA studio as a film. The rather surreal story of a difficult and spoilt princess who rejects the proposal of a prince and all the gifts he offers has to be seen to be believed. She challenges him to present her with the mythical singing ringing tree of the title.
The series involves a bear, an evil dwarf and a giant fish. The singing, ringing tree will only sing if the prince and princess are in love so the ending is always in sight with no great surprises but a lot of fun on the way.
‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
There should be a law in Britain against using cultural icons from my childhood in adverts on television. It is bad enough when people I admire sell their talents to companies I would rather not support but when cartoon characters turn up in modern form to push profits the anachronism is too much. The latest cultural vandalism is against Top Cat and his gang.
The good news, I suppose, is that it made me think back to the 60s when BBC television broadcast the series ‘Boss Cat’ featuring Top Cat and the lovable rogues who formed his gang. Brain was always my favourite although Benny the Ball came a close second.
It took me years to work out why it was called ‘Boss Cat’ on BBC when the character was Top Cat: there was a British cat food called ‘Top Cat’ and the rules on advertising on BBC television meant that broadcasters considered it safer to change the name. It was a stupid move really since we all talked about Top Cat and never Boss Cat.
The series was American, created by Hanna- Barbera who made so many of our favourite cartoon series. At the heart of each episode a story about the cats outwitting Officer Dibble. Their get- rich- quick schemes rarely worked but were lots of fun. Best of all, I just have to think of the characters to hear their voices across the years.
Michael Crummey’s novel of nineteenth century Newfoundland is another epic worth reading. John Peyton and his father live off the land and sea in a country where the native people, the Beothuk, have been driven away. The story centres on an unsettling incident where two Beothuk men are killed by a group that includes the Peytons. The fall out from this incident and how it affects both men is the central drama of the book.
The settlers see the land as theirs without any thought to who might have lived there before them. One of the settlers is called Reilly who has himself been displaced since he is an Irishman who lived in London before being exiled to Newfoundland. He is married to a Mi’kmaq woman so seems to have an affinity with First Nation people yet he is implicated in dark goings on with the Beothuk. Then there is Cassie, a woman employed by the older Peyton as housekeeper. John Peyton’s passion for her grows but he is inarticulate when faced with his belief that she is his father’s lover.
Themes of belonging, family, identity and inheritance run through the novel. The idea of settlers as pioneers making their way in a new world are challenged when the consequences of their actions on the existing inhabitants are considered.
‘River Thieves’ by Michael Crummey is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1998 novel by Wayne Johnston is an epic exploration of the life of Joe Smallwood, the Prime Minister of Newfoundland who steered his country into confederation with Canada in the 40s. The story is told from his point of view and shows how he rose from difficult beginnings to a position where he could ‘do something great’. He is an outsider for most of his life so strives to make his mark and gain recognition and validation.
He crosses paths with Sheilagh Fielding at the private school from which he is unjustly expelled. Her career as a journalist means she is both ally and combatant in his life. In the novel she provides us with the external view of a complicated man.
In many ways, Smallwood and Newfoundland are similar. Both feel inferior to others and long to be accepted. The campaign to join Canada is a difficult one for many people but Smallwood sees this as Newfoundland’s opportunity to make a mark in the world. Fielding is an acerbic character providing the reader with the antidote to Smallwood’s determination and optimism. Her waspish contributions to journalism punctuate the book.
It is a long book that maintains interest over its 500 pages by always exploring the humanity behind the historical decisions. ‘The Colony of Unrequited Dreams’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
As it is Thanksgiving in Canada today, it is a good time to remember the achievement of connecting Europe with North America through cable technology. The small Newfoundland town of Hearts’s Content was the location of the emergence of the cable from under the sea all the way across the Atlantic from Ireland.
The cable was laid in 1866 and in arriving in this small place on Bay de Verde, Newfoundland it turned the village into a unique community. Most places along the coast were fishing villages but the people who came to work and live here worked in communications. People came from across Canada and England to work in the hub on the route from Britain to the United States of America.
In 2017, artist Padraig Tarrant created twin sculptures, one for Valentia Island, Ireland where the cable entered the sea and the other for Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, Canada. I got to see the Canadian version weeks after it was unveiled but still need to make it to Valentia Island to see the companion piece.