Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups (BBC4 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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It has been Man Booker announcement week. After the last couple of years of reading the shortlist, beginning as soon as the long-listed titles were chosen so I got some chance of fitting them in time before the winner’s announcement, I decided this year not to read any of them.

There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, last year’s winner “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders proved what a lottery the whole thing is (Julian Barnes has referred to the award as “Posh Bingo”). Secondly, despite reading a good chunk of eligible literary fiction during the year I hadn’t even read one title on the longlist and when the shortlist was announced I wasn’t motivated enough by the choices to put this right. I did think that after the last couple of last summer/autumns getting through the titles that it was going to become a bit of an obsessive feature in my reading year, but I haven’t missed it in the slightest this year.

That is in many ways a shame because it this Literary Prize’s 50th Anniversary and I don’t know whether the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the award, Anna Burns for “Milkman” was the most deserving winner. (I’d read one previous novel by Richard Powers but not his latest, all the rest of the authors were new to me). I didn’t even watch the announcement on TV.

I did, however, tune in to this BBC4 documentary which was shown to mark the Booker’s 50th and which concentrated more upon the Prize night and the intrigue and controversy which has dogged or (more probably) enriched its history. Apparently, “the Booker has always been a magnet for scandal “ and this hour long documentary was prepared to spill the beans.

It was a mildly diverting hour which saw such anecdotes as John Banville recalling how one short-listed year he had got so drunk that had he won the award he wouldn’t have been able to collect it (he didn’t win), Anne Enright not being able to visit the loo, judges falling out over their choices and Selina Scott floundering on a live TV presentation by not recognising the judges. More shocking than all of this was the amount of cigarette smoke wafting in the air in clips from award ceremonies of just a few years back and also the number of times we saw the same bits of footage (Yann Martel jumping to his feet in triumph on quite a few occasions, for example).

Despite it being one of the literary world’s most prestigious prizes it can be a bit of a rod for the winners’ backs. 2103 winner Eleanor Catton, the youngest recipient, confided it has taken her years to get back on track and Dotti Irving, PR for the prize, said; “Quite often writers are in the middle of their next book. They want peace and quiet for that, well, they’re not going to get peace and quiet in the wake of the Man Booker.”

Nevertheless, this is the one that everyone, whether they admit it or not, wants to win. Kingsley Amis famously claimed he didn’t until he did, then it was a different story. Some of the older clips illustrated how media-savvy the modern writer has to be compared to the intellectual ramblings of literary titans of the 70’s and 80’s a time when everything seemed very beige.

I really want the Man Booker to feel more relevant. You can find the odd gem on the shortlist but they do need to ensure that they are getting the balance between quality and readability right and I do think that the Costas, for one, are currently doing this better. However, I certainly would not turn down the opportunity to be a Man Booker judge. This year there was a different feel to the longlist with both a graphic novel and more commercial crime fiction (Belinda Bauer’s “Snap”), which could have shaken things up had it appeared on the shortlist. With Val McDermid on the judging panel I had high hopes but it was not to be.

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Judging from the title BBC4 gave this there was an emphasis on the in-fighting in an attempt to make it all seem a little more sexy and watchable than it turned out to be. It did get me looking up how many Booker winners I have read from the last 50 years and I make it 15, which is probably more than the average reader. Will this year’s winner bring my total up to 16…..? You’ll have to watch this space…..

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Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups was shown at 9pm on BBC4 on Monday 15th October. It is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

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Roots- BBC4 (2017)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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In the 1970’s and 1980’s a British television staple was the American Mini-Series.  Over three or four nights we were entranced by much higher budget productions than we were used to seeing over here of works by the likes of Irwin Shaw, Colleen McCullogh, Barbara Taylor Bradford and (yes, unfortunately) Jeffery Archer. All these were big heavyweights in the publishing industry who were rewarded by this exposure with life-long buoyant careers.  But the best of these, the one that made the most impression certainly in the playgrounds I was hanging around in at the time was “Roots”.  Based upon a memoir of his family by Alex Haley this was first shown on BBC1 in 1977.

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The original “Roots”

Overnight it turned the name “Kunte Kinte” into one of legend in schools, colleges and workplaces.  It starred those standard mini-series Big Hollywood names – Burl Ives, George Hamilton, Lorne Greene, Ed Asner, Lloyd Bridges but it brought to the fore the largest number of African-American actors to be seen on British television.  (Remember, at this time a Saturday night regular on BBC1 was still “The Black And White Minstrel Show).  It introduced many Brits to Black American history and brought home the horrors of slavery like never before.  The plight of Kunte Kinte stayed entrenched in a generation’s consciousness.  In the US its ratings alone made it a significant landmark in television history.  I do remember watching it all over again when it was repeated and last watched it only a few years ago when I thought, all things considered, it had pretty much stood the test of time.

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Time Magazine cover Feb 1977

Those in television perhaps do not agree as tucked away on BBC4 this week, forty years on, was the first part of a four part remake with (probably) a bigger budget and scenes of perhaps greater intensity and violence.  The remake has lost the washed-out brownish tones of 70’s television, the nightmare of slavery was now depicted in crisp HD, but I wondered, being someone who remembers the original whether a remake is a worthwhile enterprise.

The answer is a conditional yes, if the intention is to once again bring this story to a public’s attention.  It is now an American classic and we don’t usually object too much to classics being remade for a new generation.  I think we will need to accept that it would not stop the world in its tracks like the original, as we are far more aware of this aspect of American history.

I have only watched the first episode which did seem to feel faithful towards what I remembered of the original series.  Over the one and a half hours we got the sense of some of Kunte Kinte’s life in his homeland, his abduction and sale into slavery, his introduction to life in a tobacco plantation where attempts to beat the African-ness out of him look, to his owners, as if they are becoming successful.  Fiddler (Forest Whitaker and a very memorable Lou Gossett Jnr in the original) advises the horrifically beaten Kunte Kinte, now renamed by his new owners, Toby, to “Keep your true name inside.”

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The role of Kunte Kinte, which was so brilliantly played by LeVar Burton as a young man and John Amos as the older was here taken on by Malachi Kirby, a twenty-seven year old British actor who before this had appeared in an episode of “Dr Who” and a handful of “Eastenders”. A huge casting achievement for him and he takes on the mantle of this legendary tv character with great aplomb.  Fellow Brit, James Purefoy, is playing “Massa” John Waller.  We don’t seem to be departing too far from the time-honoured tradition of having Brits play the most repugnant characters with Scottish actor Tony Curran playing the hideous overseer, Connelly who tracks down the fleeing slave and beats him to within an inch of his life.  In fact, this scene, together with those of the sea journey down in the hold of the ship makes for extremely difficult viewing and both may have been ramped up a little from the original to permeate through our post-Millennium thicker skins.

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Brits in Roots- Malachi Kirby, James Purefoy, Tony Curran

This remake of “Roots” was commissioned by The History Channel.  I am working from memory here but the only real significant change was to make Kunte Kinte’s life in Juffure seem more precarious than in the original.  I seem to remember it more as an idyllic African existence that he was unknowingly plucked from.  Here there was an attempt to give this a bit more context with rival tribes, an especially eye-watering initiation to Mandinka manhood ceremony and Kunte Kinte’s conflict in wanting to move away to study at Timbuktu University in the moments before his abduction.  Perhaps we will get a feel of a more contemporary perspective as the series continues.  The other moments that made such an impression the first time round were all present here.

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I’m still not totally convinced of the need for a remake (there is a danger that remakes dilute the power of the originals).  I will stick with it, however, because it is important we watch, especially in these fractured times and I am looking forward to upcoming performances from Anike Noni Rose as Kizzy, Jonathan Rhys Meyer as Tom Lea and Anna Paquin, Mekhi Phifer, Laurence Fishburne and the original Kunte Kinte himself. LeVar Burton, in the cast.  I am interested to see where it goes.  The original had its wobbles, after the first couple of so impressive episodes it did occasionally veer towards soap opera and sentimentality so it will be interesting to see what happens here when the intensity of the pace is reduced.

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Roots is shown on Wednesdays at 9.00 pm on BBC4.  The first episode is available on the BBC I Player.

B Is For Book (BBC4 -2016)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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This one-off programme filmed, animated and directed by Sam Benstead featured a group of children in the Reception and Year 1 classes of Kingsmead Primary in Hackney learning to read over a period of a year.

I was drawn to it because I have always been fascinated as to how we become readers and these very early experiences can often shape our experiences for the rest of our life.  The teaching of reading in this country is also fascinating and the complexities of the English language has tended to mean that different approaches come and go in favour and there isn’t a method that fits everyone equally.  When I was teaching infant children the “ phonic method” was a little bit overshadowed by the “look and say” approach.  There were moves towards learning to read from “real books” using context cues as the main impetus for unknown words.  Since the introduction of the Literacy Hour in Primary classrooms phonics have once again come back in fashion and this was certainly where the emphasis was at Kingsmead Primary.

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I learnt to read myself at a slightly confusing time for phonics as in my school for a while a new system was temporarily introduced.  This was known as the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA for short) and our classrooms became full of books that were written in another phonetic alphabet which used unfamiliar symbols as diphthongs and joined consonants.  For some reason (probably to do with the lack of confidence of the teachers with this new method, which admittedly did soon fall out of favour) the methods were run side by side and when we went up to the read to the teacher we would read the ITA books in this strange elongated voice, reminiscent of the vowel sounds of Janet Street-Porter.  At time watching this programme I was reminded of this.

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Got it?  Now use this to read this?

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The children certainly had the phonic sounds hammered into them.  It actually looked quite fast and fun.  Phonics was described in the programme as “a language only children can understand.”  The school’s aim was to get the children reading independently by the time they left the Reception Class and obviously, children being children and developing at differing rates this had differing results.  We met a number of new readers including Sienna who had decided at age four that she didn’t like books and Taijah, a Year 1 girl with extraordinary reading skills who provided a fair amount of the narration for the programme.  It was compulsive viewing to be let back into a world which we, as adults, whose school days are far behind them have largely  forgotten what happened- how we ourselves learned to read.

Once you have children, however, the memory comes back.  The parents of the children were given an important role in the acquisition of skills and this programme showed that where this was thorough and consistent then very good results can be achieved.  The parents of twins, Nicholas and Stephan, found themselves with one child who wanted to read and one who wanted to spend “just some more time under the table to think.”  In a rather telling scene for the disadvantages of phonics and a lot of early readers in general   Stephan went through a book with his teacher predicting the text and claiming that the book was boring.  (He was right).  At a parents’ meeting his mum and dad expressed the concern that phonics did not really work for him, but they continued to persevere and towards the end of the summer term we saw  Stephan again, a changed boy and one who was well on the way to achieving the school’s aim of making him an independent reader by the end of the year.  There was also a lovely family visit to a Waterstones bookshop.

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The budding readers were given a sheet of paper which said “My name is X. I am y years old” and it was interesting to see their strategies.  They were having a go at sounding anywhere on the sheet rather than going from the beginning.  This did seem to confuse a number of them as they were doing it in such a disjointed way that it was too much for them to put together.  This have a go at sounding wherever you recognise a sound must be a method taught to them at school.  The results were not always successful but at least they had the confidence to take a crack at it.

Maria’s Portuguese parents were also shown having great determination.  Maria was not reading at all for a chunk of the programme.  A list of days of the week with Dad were reliant on her memory which failed her whenever she came to read Sunday (Monday? Thursday? Tuesday?) but once again as the narration said “When we started this journey words were monsters but now they have become our friends” – and, as we book fans know, that is a life-long friendship.

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You might have noticed at the opening of this I credited the film-maker with also animating.  This was mainly some story sequences that were filmed with puppetry and stop-motion animation.  I actually found some of this a little unnerving.  It reminded me of children’s television from when I was young which came from Europe and which often scared the pants off me.  I’m not sure how necessary it was for Sam Benstead’s programme other than being another string to a bow.  I personally found the school based scenes involving enough without it.  Maybe the effect was to give a chill to the adult audience and bring back some childhood recollection of them learning to read.

The programme showed you were going to get children to be readers by immersing them in books both at school and in the home.  The school would provide them with the techniques to get them reading but this needed to be supported by the parents and enriched with stories and the whole world of books.  The twin’s mum found a way of introducing death which they had been facing as a family through a book (“The Journey” by Francesca Sanna) illustrating  another very important purpose of books which will remain with us throughout our lives.

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The programme clearly showed the method of getting a child to become a reader.  It did suggest for many it might be initially an uphill struggle but consistency, perseverance and finding the right books would definitely pay dividends.  We all know all this but it was good to see this proved over a year at Kingsmead Primary.

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B is for Book was shown on BBC 4 on Tuesday 5th July.  It is currently available on the BBC I-Player catch up service.

Make! Craft Britain (BBC4 2016) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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In the week leading up to one of my scheduled TV reviews I’m on the look-out for new  or one -off programmes  to write about.  I can usually make up my mind quite quickly on what is going to receive my attention but this week has seen my indecision causing a number of watched programmes to languish in my Sky Planner in case they need re-viewing for reviewing (see what I did there?)

I thought I might write about “Paul O Grady’s 100 Years Of Movie Musicals” (More 4) in which there was a valiant attempt to cram a century into a hundred minutes in a format that seemed rushed and ultimately a little unsatisfying. “24 Hours In Police Custody” (Channel 4) continues its run as one of the best programmes on TV because of its jaw-dropping access and story-telling with this week’s unsavoury episode “In Plain Sight” appropriately recalling the book of the same name about Jimmy Savile as it related two disturbing tales of paedophilia in Luton.  There were also two new series worthy of consideration, “Outcast” (Fox) which was incredibly dark (not dark in the sense of the latest series of “Game Of Thrones” as in “Put a bloody light on!” dark but dark in the sense of exorcisms in small-town America starring Brit Philip Glenister) and Anthony Horowitz wrote a very promising opening episode of a fast-paced BBC1 series “New Blood” which was full of likeable performances and much potential.

However, late Thursday night, after a stressful day I viewed the one-off BBC4 showing from 9pm – “Make! Craft Britain” not the snappiest of titles but an hour of surprisingly good television.  Presented by Martha Kearney who told us were are in the midst of a huge growth in crafting and that we are keen to relearn skills that the previous generation had at their fingertips.  To prove this Martha sat with her crafting mother who had made a beautiful quilt for her some years back which was obviously such a cherished possession for them in terms of the item itself and what is said about their relationship.  From colouring books (sales of which have provided the book market as a whole with greater buoyancy) to gadgets used to produce pom-poms we are spending money on craft materials.craftbritain

Martha Kearney

I am not a crafter but my partner is- just a few feet from me as I write this there is a spread out patchwork quilt which seems to be growing alarmingly with new hexagonal pieces being added.  I attend a monthly craft group but really just to make the tea and cake but the ladies have taught me how to knit, initially for a charity item but I’ve gone on to make a bobble hat and am three-quarters of the way making one of BBCTV’s “The Clangers”  I am around craft and it is actually fascinating watching the ladies of the craft group work- the range of skills and the choices made and the satisfaction of seeing something through to completion.

A bobble hat I made earlier     This is what my clanger should look like

In “Make! Craft Britain” we visited two craft sessions with participants with a range of expertise from none at all to seasoned makers.  We alternated between a lampshade embroidery group in Lealholm in Yorkshire and a paper-cutting group on London and it was fascinating stuff.  You could sense the enthusiasm, the concentration, the decision-making and ultimately the thrill of crafting.  This would have beneficial effects on the viewer at home.  This was a one-off programme but  I could see a series here.  There’s always great feedback for the occasional “Slow TV” BBC programmes of sledges going through snow or railway journeys but I could happily watch a mixed group of people wielding a scalpel onto a piece of photocopy paper.  There was none of the frenetic rush to the fabric store and race against time of “Great British Sewing Bee” and no competitive element so no need for presenter or judges.  People just did what they were told, made their own choices and were delighted by the results.  I think we need more television like this.  The BBC needs to see the potential of this little gem of an idea and act upon it.  It would be cheap enough!  It was both relaxing and inspiring.  I slept very well after watching it.

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Rightly proud of their paper-cutting!

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Make! Craft Britain was shown on BBC4 on Thursday 9th June at 9pm.  It is available for catch-up on the BBC I-Player.