Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey etc

I've watched both and read a few negative comments about Billy Piper as Fanny - mostly gripes about the authenticity of her hair. I have to say though that this is the first time I have ever perceived that Fanny might be a sympathetic character and this is almost entirely down to Billy. Mansfield Park is probably my least favourite Austen novel, just as Northanger Abbey, the first one I ever read, remains my favourite, although only just! But it is hard to like Fanny.
The film version, which was shown recently, with its heavy handed political correctness, and unattractive hero, only served to emphasise just how trying a real life Fanny might have been - perhaps a measure of how much times have changed. But that's so infrequently an Austen fault, her people are invariably so real and recognisable, that as a reader or viewer you somehow feel it must be your own fault for not understanding. However there was a good natured charm, coupled with a sort of rock solid sense of what was right, about Billy as Fanny. It was an interpretation that I could not only live with, but found enlightening. So I could forgive her hair. I was too busy watching her performance.
The Radio Times did a little carping about Northanger Abbey (funny how they seldom seem to do this about major BBC productions) but I found it worked rather well, particularly Catherine's overheated imaginings. I once dramatised The Mysteries of Udolpho for Radio 4 - it was meant to be part of a Gothic season, but in the event, Udolpho was IT. A bigger load of old hooey I have yet to read, although I think I made a pretty good job of it, even if I do say so myself, with my tongue rather firmly in my cheek.
The only jarring note in Northanger came with the depiction of General Tilney as being much too close to one of those unrelenting Gothic villains. As I remember the story, Jane, true to life as ever, tells us that not only did the General really love his wife, but once he realises that Catherine isn't completely poverty stricken, he comes round in the end. The older I grow, the wiser I think that this woman was in her perceptions of the infinite adaptability of human nature to whatever the current situation happens to be!

Radio Rage

Just imagine for a moment, that you are watching a good, old fashioned, romantic movie. How about Brief Encounter? Rachmaninov is doing his spendid tear jerking stuff in the background, and Celia Johnson is talking about an ordinary men in an ordinary mec and then quite suddenly, in the middle of all this, up pops a musicologist (I envisage him in faded cords, and a kipper tie, and wild hair) and starts to rabbit on about Rachmaninov, his life history, and the interpretation of his music. Startled out of your absorption, you spend the minute or two that he is lecturing at you thinking 'what the hell...?' so you don't actually hear what he is saying. Thankfully, he shuts up, and you slide back into the movie, only this time, you're a wee bit rattled, so it takes a little longer to get back into it. So long in fact, that by the time you've settled down, he's at it again. 'At this point in Rachmaninov's career....' he says, interrupting poor Celia in mid speech.
By the end of the movie, and if you haven't already given up on it, you are incandescent with rage. Nor have you absorbed even a hint of information about Rachmaninov. All you want to do is throttle the commentator, slowly, with his own tie.
If the same thing happened in a theatre, I doubt if the musicologist would get away unscathed. I suppose the audience might just think he was part of the play of course, and it would be alright if he was part of the play, a well written, well rounded character of the kind that Brian Friel does so brilliantly - in other words, part of the playwright's vision.
But I don't mean that, at all. I mean a perfectly good drama, ruined by some 'expert' constantly interrupting the play with a parallel and utterly distracting commentary.
And yet BBC Radio inflicts these abominations on us over and over again. Yesterday, there was one more. An absorbing and rather moving love story was spoiled by an intermittent lecture on the music that was part of the theme of the play. What in God's name was the point? All we needed was what the writer had already created - a character who knew about the music in question and could talk about it, eloquently, but more importantly in character.
To invade the audience's suspension of disbelief, time and time again, is nothing short of madness.
So why on earth do they do it?
It shows such a profound ignorance of how drama works that one is forced into the assumption that the only reason for it can be as a money saving exercise - fewer minutes of actual drama to be paid for. But surely this can't be the case? And even if it was the case, wouldn't it be better to have a shorter, uninterrupted play, followed by a talk about the music for those who want to listen? Or are we - in this increasingly didactic and prescriptive age - to have the academic perspective thrust at us, whether we like it or not, on the principle that a spoonful of dramatic sugar will help the unpalatable but worthy medicine go down?

Paying For It

I've been reflecting on my previous post, and I think I know one of the reasons why Scottish publishing is so masculine. I think it has a lot to do with Calvinism, and the general 'we'll pay for it' - or 'we'll pey fer it' as they say down here, whenever a watery sun pokes its head out - mentality of so many inhabitants of this country that I love so much. And make no mistake, I do. Love it I mean. But the default setting of many Scottish men in particular is pessimistic verging on dour. And that goes for publishers as well. You know who you are.
I'm also convinced that this inherent truculence lies at the root of so much of the religious bigotry that still dogs the Central Belt. Even now, when I'm asked where I went to school, I know that there will be a slight - very slight, these days - reaction to the name of a school which is so obviously Catholic. What did you expect, I want to say, from the daughter of a Pole married to an Irishwoman?
The original (and possibly reasonable in the circumstances) suspicion of outside political interference has been replaced by a completely unreasonable suspicion of the drama, colour, exuberance and general all round theatricality that is such a characteristic of the church of Rome. It's a characteristic of big, bold romantic novels as well. Couple that with the exploration of love, relationships and the occasional promise of a happy ending, which are part and parcel of commercial women's fiction and you can see how the 'it'll all end in tears' brigade would object. Such things make them uncomfortable, embarrass them, not least because they are - God forbid - enjoyable: a guily pleasure, as somebody commented about my own novel, The Curiosity Cabinet.
Some members of the arts establishment often couple this dourness with literary snobbery. I occasionally play a party game of discussing TV programmes with people who don't know me well, waiting for them to tell me, as they invariably do, how they 'can't stand soaps.' Oddly enough, they always know the plotlines. I wait for an opportune moment, and then tell them that I love Coronation Street. (True). A look of dismay crosses their faces as though I have made some dreadful faux pas. Quite often they ask why, and I tell them because I think it's a well made drama with some of the best parts for older people you will ever see on television, brilliantly written, directed, and acted. Why would anyone need or want to disapprove of something so entertaining, something, moreover, that gives harmless pleasure to so many people?
The sad thing is that when Scots loosen up a bit they can and do write passionate love songs and stories that would put the rest of the world to shame. I have, on the whole, met far more hopelessly romantic Scottish men than women, so these guys must go around in a constant state of repression. A woman who indulges in real life romance usually knows what she's doing and generally keeps something back. A parachute of sorts. When a man falls, he falls harder, faster and more comprehensively. Icarus to the life. Not, mind you, that those men who do dare to write about such things get much approval from their fellows . Or at least not until they're dead. Then it's alright. Like poor old Rabbie Burns, they have well and truly peyed fer it, and can be mourned with due dour solemnity.

Why is Scottish Publishing So Masculine?

You know how women sometimes say I'm not a feminist but... ? Well I am a feminist (though by no means a man hater!) and...when I recently took myself for a wee trawl through the websites of various high profile Scottish publishers, my first instinct was to wonder if my own prejudices were showing. Then I spoke to a few female writers (and potential readers) of my acquaintance and decided that I was right after all. We've all noticed it. Scottish publishing is, on the whole, a depressingly male dominated world, full of books (fact and fiction) about football and serial killers. I haven't actually counted the ratio of male to female authors, but even the most casual glance will show that the guys predominate. Moreover, even the crap is, let's face it, macho crap. The exception could be so called 'serious' fiction, but I'm not even sure about that. Most Scottish publishers will look much more kindly upon 'visceral coming of age novels' from young male writers, which they are happy to label as literary, than they will upon 'emotional coming of age novels' from young female writers which they will all too often dismiss out of hand as a kind of guilty pleasure. What hope then for the experienced female or even male storyteller, creating a well written, well researched, popular novel, possibly with a Scottish setting, of the kind that so many woman, and some men too, so desperately want to read?
Is there no woman or man out there, who would be prepared to set up a Scottish based publishing house, dealing in good, popular fiction, historical or contemporary, that is neither visceral, nor provocative, nor overly dark but unashamedly popular, and with an emotional depths. Come to think of it, whenever I see something described as 'provocative', I know with a fair amount of certainty that the only thing it is going to provoke is boredom, and a desperate desire to open a bottle of wine, but adolescent shock tactics do tend to pall after a while. Film gets it right lots of the time, and the companies seem to have no trouble marketing the movies either.
As another hugely talented Scottish writer remarked recently, were Robert Louis Stevenson around today, his novels would almost certainly be rejected out of hand by every single contemporary Scottish publisher. And she's absolutely right. Kidnapped? Treasure Island? Way too popular - wouldn't suit their image. Catriona? But isn't it the story of love triumphing over politices and doesn't it feature an astonishingly sexy reference to stockings? Whooo, can't possibly publish the genre that dare not speak its name. (romance) The same goes for a number of other Scottish writers. Grassic Gibbon? Domestic violence in a rural setting. You must be joking. Neil Gunn? Emotion, poetry and mythology? What on earth next? Mrs Oliphant? Middle class ghost stories, difficult to sell in the current market.....
I do wish that some brave soul out there would bite the bullet and start a Scottish imprint that wasn't so deeply, pathologically, cringingly ashamed of its feminine side. Go on. Try it. You have nothing to lose but your prejudices.