Tag Archives: History

Lady in Waiting – a review

The stiff upper lip is as much a part of the British stereotype as our tendency to drink tea and talk about the weather. With the 87-year-old Lady Glenconner’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude, her hit memoir is not such a bad book pick during a pandemic.

Her father was an earl – higher than a baron but lower than a duke. The Coke (pronounced Cook in a quirk typical of the British aristocracy) family have bowed and scraped to royalty for centuries.

Growing up near Sandringham, she was playmates with Princess Margaret, whom she would later serve as lady-in-waiting for thirty years. She recalls a childhood of stately homes, parents away on long voyages, WWII, wicked governesses, boarding school.

Things take a gaudier turn with her formal entrée to the marriage market, where she nabbed the very rich socialite Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, and was crowned ‘Debutante of the Year’ by society bible Tatler. Her father was a bit sniffy about the match – believing the Tennants to be miles below the Cokes.

Described by Princess Margaret as ‘a fairly decadent fellow’, Tennant was the life and soul. His party tricks included wearing paper underwear, then reaching down his trousers and ripping them off and eating them. Meanwhile, his tantrums earned him a lifetime ban from British Airways.

But Tennant – who died aged 83 in 2010 – is best remembered for buying and transforming the barren island of Mustique into a celebrity paradise. Photos show the couple at spectacular parties, surrounded by the biggest stars of the day.

Despite his rages and affairs, they made a good team, Glenconner writes, probably through gritted teeth. Yup, never a dull moment. Besides, one doesn’t dwell, even when one’s husband leaves his millions to a manservant.

Halfway through, we arrive at her three-decade stint as lady-in-waiting for Princess Margaret, whom Glenconner (understandably) wishes to defend from peasant biographers.

Being by Margaret’s side offered an escape from both her psycho husband, and tragedy; Glenconner has endured the deaths of two adult sons, while a third, Christopher, was left brain-damaged in a motorbike accident.

Princess Margaret was a supportive, compassionate friend, and most unfussy. She’d come to stay at the Tennant’s Scottish family estate with a kettle to brew her own tea in the morning. (She couldn’t actually operate a kettle, but it’s the thought that counts.)

She always forgave Margaret’s ‘royal moments’. Behind the monarch, after all, she was at the top of Britain’s rigid class system. As for her rep for rudeness – her icy put-downs to commoners were usually well-deserved. Woe betide anyone who didn’t know their place.

Glenconner has worn many different hats – debutante, travelling saleswoman, maid of honour at the coronation of Elizabeth II – and been brought to life on Netflix’s The Crown. After a life well-lived by the Queen’s mantra: ‘Never complain, never explain’, her memoir is an interesting contribution to social and royal history. Her first crime novel – entitled Murder on Mustique – is out later this year. 

Helen Mirren in Catherine the great Press cuttings

Catherine the Great’s open relationship

In Catherine the Great – HBO and Sky’s new four-parter – the cast talk like they’re in The Crown (Jason Clarke does his own thing – more on him later). Luckily the big fur hats let you know you’re in RUSSIA.

With Helen Mirren playing Catherine, the series aims to provide a balanced image, celebrating her as a socially enlightened female ruler in a man’s world, while not shying away from the fact she ruled with an iron fist.

Politics and empire-building are just a backdrop, though. The true heart of the piece is slowly revealed to be the passionate bond between Catherine and her military leader Potemkin (Clarke), whose existing letters to each other show a loving, open relationship, and an almost modern way of working together.

In the series, Catherine has usurped her husband and their son. Amid tension with her military co-conspirators – including her estranged lover Orlov – she glimpses the swaggering Potemkin. Catherine likes hunky (younger) men, but she’s running a country, so she gets her lady-in-waiting to test his er, political prowess.

By hour two, we’re two years into the Russo-Turkish war. Potemkin has been away covering himself in glory, rising through the ranks. Catherine impulsively orders his return, only to ghost him. They try to make one another jealous, before having an awkward chat about their exes.

It’s true Catherine had multiple lovers, and her sexual liberation gave rise to fake news. Even now, urban legends persist – including the notorious slur involving a horse. Despite the recent press hype, Catherine and Potemkin’s onscreen romance is only steamy in the sense that they (eventually) kiss in a bathhouse.

They settle into domestic bliss, but, rather like the ‘action man’ Prince Phillip portrayed by The Crown, a (literally) thrusting Potemkin becomes petulant and bored. He wants to Make Russia Great, annex the Crimea, and shag half the population while doing so.

As Potemkin, Clarke goes from a clean-cut Aussie Don Cossack, to sounding and looking like the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.

Poor Catherine can’t live with him, can’t live without him. She pines for him and distracts herself with toy boys – some procured by Potemkin, who then has the comical nerve to be jealous.

The script reminds us repeatedly that she’s a brilliant woman, a patron of the arts, but she mostly indulges in sex, paranoia, and bickering with her son and council. It presents a sad case of living long enough to see yourself become the villain, tossing the Voltaire on a bonfire.

Its difficulty is having three decades of history, but only four hours. There needs to be a focus, and the series loses sight of it. Only a pivotal final scene goes a long way to redeeming Catherine the Great as a bittersweet mini-epic about one of history’s greatest love affairs.

Lady Bird DVD

Film reviews from the 2018 – 2019 Oscars

Lately, I’ve hated most movies. Where I used to watch any old thing, I withstood two minutes of the latest Guardians of the Galaxy before switching off.

I began to wonder if I was on a permanent downer. I decided to ease myself back into film-watching with some of the latest, more highly-acclaimed movies – after all, Oscars are a sure indicator of quality, right?! First up:

FIRST MAN (2019 nominee) 

Having glanced at the Neil Armstrong biography First Man (Ryan Gosling) is based on, I expected it to be as entertaining as a double seminar on the physics of rocket propulsion.

It’s the practical effects that really excel; NASA was essentially firing men to space in tin cans. “You’re a bunch of boys,” rages Claire Foy’s formidable Mrs. Armstrong. Sometimes that’s all it takes…

I’d rather watch Brad Pitt fight Moon pirates tho.. 🐞🐞🐞🐞

THE FAVOURITE (2019 nominee)

A luminous Restoration-era comedy-drama, The Favourite is the fictionalized tale of ailing Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) relationship with brash aristocrat Sarah (Rachel Weisz). They’re depicted as carer/patient, friends, and as lovers, with Sarah the power behind the throne.

Where Mary Queen of Scots was a traditional costume drama with a woke angle, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is unconventional to its marrow.

Emma Stone, so insipid in La La Land, inserts herself into the bawdy period setting – and the Sarah/Anne relationship – with razor-sharp skill (plus a spot-on English accent).

Where women in power are as vile as the men. 🐞🐞🐞🐞🐞

LADY BIRD (2018 nominee)

At her Catholic private school, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ (Saorise Ronan) is embarrassed by her relatively poor background, so she mean-girls to fit in with an edgier crowd.

Set just post 9/11, she can’t wait to ditch her hometown of Sacramento for college on the coast – upsetting her hard-working mother, frustrated that her daughter can’t be grateful for what she has. (I’d say putting a continent between them is clearly for the best.)

Even if Lady Bird needs to spread her wings, director Greta Gerwig makes their shared hometown look like bliss. It’s a love letter to contentment, and Sacramento.

Little Women still looks insufferable. 🐞🐞🐞🐞🐞

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2018 nominee)

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) believes local cops failed her slain daughter, so she rents three billboards with a damning message for Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), provoking his Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) into a conflict that escalates to Molotov cocktails.

In Martin McDonagh’s earlier, 2008 cult hit In Bruges, you felt sorry for Colin Farrell’s bungling hitman, even though he (inadvertently) shot a child. You laughed when he beat up the Canadian Guy. In Ebbing, senseless violence makes viewers wince, while racist thug Dixon never endears like Farrell.

A ‘dark fairy tale’, or just full of plot holes? 🐞🐞🐞

GREEN BOOK (2019 nomine)

Named after the pre-Civil Rights guidebook for African-American road trippers, Green Book is based on the true story of classical/jazz musician Dr Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) tour of the South.

Meant as heartwarming fare about the power of friendship, comedy is mined from the pairing of the refined Shirley with his driver/heavy Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), an uncouth, working-class Italian-American.

So feelgood, you could almost forget why it was called ‘Green Book‘!

Yikes, Aragorn really went to seed. 🐞🐞🐞

I, TONYA (2018 nominee)

This reminded me of David O. Russell’s American Hustle, so a no-go for me straight off the bat-on. It’s something to do with the camerawork or heavy-handed period detail.

Staged mockumentary-style (à la Drop Dead Gorgeous) I, Tonya follows 90s champ skater Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) connection to the attack (orchestrated by her husband, Jeff Gillooly) on her rival Nancy Kerrigan.

Tonya’s traumatic childhood and abusive marriage are set to retro tunes. She’s playfully presented as a gutsy chick sticking it to the snooty skating authorities who never gave her a chance. An interesting take, challenged by some…!

As stressful as Margot Robbie’s frizzball hairdo. 🐞🐞

DUNKIRK (2018 nominee)

Christopher Nolan’s film about the evacuation of Allied soldiers in WWII sees practical effects again triumph. Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance do stoic bravery; pilots Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy do stoic RAF fighter cover, while young soldiers including Harry Styles run the gauntlet.

Historical disaster re-enactment. 🐞🐞🐞

What are your fave films that featured at the Oscars in the last two years? Recommendations please! Lx

queen of scots book

Film vs book: Mary Queen of Scots

The CW’s Mary Queen of Scots soap opera Reign took an axe to historical accuracy. Yet beneath the fashion and fantasy, the vital beats were there; Adelaide Kane’s Mary married the Dauphin of France, before returning to a turbulent Scotland as a teen widow.

Now, we have a wannabe serious, grown-up movie, inspired by John Guy’s sympathetic biography – originally published as My Heart is My Own.

We pick up with Mary (Saorise Ronan) washing up on the shores of her native land. She takes one look and retches. Her half-brother James is a bastard (as in Jon Snow), while the country is in thrall to David Tennant’s firebrand Protestant cleric John Knox.

Then there’s her cousin, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Screenshot_2019-07-19-09-30-16-01.jpeg

Mary had become Queen of Scots as a baby, but through her grandmother (Henry VIII’s sister) she also had a claim to Elizabeth’s throne.

Having grown up safely in the French court, critics saw Mary as a pampered princess. Guy, however, describes a charismatic, multifaceted diplomat.

The movie shows this by having Elizabeth’s courtiers say, “She’s formidable, Madam!”

At nearly 6ft tall, Mary liked to dress as a man to punk ambassadors. Just don’t expect to see this in the film – she might have been a fun gal by 16th century standards, but in steely Saorise Ronan, Mary is a straightforward, strong heroine.

She marries a vile brat named Darnley, who is murdered by Bothwell (established early as Mary’s sworn defender but absent for most of the movie), who then coerces Mary into marrying him instead.

The film dashes through the sequence of events leading to Mary’s downfall.

Her flight to Elizabeth climaxes in a fictional meeting in a laundry shed. Despite losing her own country, Mary won’t shut up about what a superior Queen she’d be. Facing her young, beautiful ‘rival’, Robbie looks shook. The greatest enemy to her insecure, frail Elizabeth is ageing before modern medicine or Instagram filters.

In Guy’s (well-researched) revisionist account, Mary was Britain’s unluckiest ruler, prey to Elizabeth’s Catholic-hating advisors, the Protestant Reformation, and the factionalism of the Scottish nobility. Tragically trusting of family, Mary – still only in her twenties – had disastrous taste in men.

For Josie Rourke’s film, this is largely simplified to Mary being the victim of gender bias. She’d have been best friends with her cousin-over-the-border if it weren’t for the patriarchy. The fact that one of them chopped the other one’s head off should serve to remind us, the #metoo generation, that men suck.

Sure, it’s just a film. But if you want historical fan fiction about the perils of female leadership in a male world, featuring ‘woke’ royals, you’ll have more fun with Reign over on Netflix.

The Crown – Netflix review

Netflix’s new series, The Crown, cost around 100 million dollars to make, which would cover nearly a third of the huge cost of the Buckingham Palace renovations. It’s got great reviews, too – the series, not the building work – which is proving quite controversial. (And all for a palace that according to this series, nobody wants to live in.)

Now I don’t enjoy cooing over the royals, or cooing over pretend-royals in sumptuous costumes. But I love royal history, and The Crown is a well-made, cinematic imagining of Queen Elizabeth II’s life behind palace doors.

Ten episodes take us from the then Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 marriage to Prince Philip, to the brink of the Suez crisis of 1956. In between the historical milestones, the young royal is embroiled in family dramas, and in each chapter she will have to choose between the ones she loves, and duty.

“The fact is,” her grandmother admonishes her, “the crown must win – must always win.”

I wasn’t sure about Claire Foy as our unknowable queen (Sarah Gadon in the fanciful A Royal Night Out looked more the part.) but she is believable as a supposedly simple countrywoman, more interested in dogs and horses than politics or people.

Creator/writer Peter Morgan’s series is actually all about the hat, not the person wearing it. “An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination,” is how her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, describes Elizabeth during his bitchy coronation commentary. Once anointed, she is transformed, he says, into a “goddess”.

Matt Smith layers his rubbery-faced, zany energy over the mannerisms and ‘wit’ of the notoriously prickly Duke of Edinburgh. I kept expecting him to suggest a Doctor Who-themed nursery for Charles and Anne.

In fact, almost everyone seems far nicer than they probably were/are in real life – even Eileen Atkins as scary Queen Mary. Well, almost everyone. There’s the fabulously brittle duo of Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor and Lia Williams (I had to check it wasn’t Game of Thrones’ Red Woman – Carice van Houten) as Wallis Simpson.

The Crown is secure enough in its power that we also spend plenty of time with the politicians. Still really needing a movie to themselves are John Lithgow as Churchill, and Stephen Dillane as the painter Graham Sutherland, hired to produce a portrait of the PM. (It ends up on a bonfire – true story, apparently).

It can all get artificial, as things are explained to viewers. Underlings tell Her Majesty: “And your father’s real name was Albert, and of course your uncle’s real name was David and your name is Elizabeth…”

It’s a bit like a popular history book come to life, and I suppose we couldn’t have expected anything more controversial in our nostalgia-obsessed times. With six more series to go, I’m waiting for someone to stop fretting over whether the Crown will endure, and instead wonder if it should.