Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The 'Dark' Ages: some audio-visual resources

This is very much work in progress, intended for those studying this period.  And books remain the best resource! The most recent thorough survey of the period is Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome; but for an introduction it's advisable to read your way up to this kind of detail with an old-fashioned and readable textbook like Price and Howell, From Barbarism to Chivalry or Koenigsberger's volume on medieval Europe. But a proper bibliography should follow as a separate blog. Here are some audio-visual things, most of them online.

First off, there is an outstanding lecture course by Professor Paul Freedman, Yale Open Course History 210, available on iTunes and YouTube.
I'm also enjoying the podcast series by Joe Hogarty, Europe From its Origins

List of BBC In Our Time programmes listed under Dark Ages
On the art of the period, a good general introduction is SmartHistory, Medieval and Byzantine Art
The following are varied in quality and level of sophistication, but all reward our curiosity in some way.
The Fall of the Roman Empire
In Our Time: The Roman Empire's Decline and Fall
In Our Time: Rome and European Civilization - discussion of Rome's cultural heritage
Useful summary of different positions by Lancaster University
Oxford podcast interview with Bryan Ward-Perkins
Germanic Invasions.
History Tube series, The Barbarians: War Against the Roman Empire (2 episodes)
Series with lots of recreations, firmly committed to the violent invasion reading, with learned talking heads like Peter Heather. Episodes on Mongols, Huns, Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Saxons, Franks: Barbarians
Dark Ages Art
Civilisation, Episode 1, The Skin of Our Teeth
Waldemar Janunsczak, The Dark Ages: An Age of Light
Christianity from 4th century
In Our Time: The Nicene Creed, The Pelagian Controversy
Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity
5th - 11th centuries: The Anglo-Saxons
Outstanding series of 15-minute talks on Radio 3 Essay (downloadable as podcast): Anglo-Saxon Portraits
Francis Pryor, The Anglo-Saxon Invasion (and see his Britain AD generally and the companion book), Simon Schama History of Britain.
Michael Wood. Two older series:  In Search of the Dark Ages (starts before this period; companion book), In Search of Alfred the Great. More recent: In Search of Beowulf; King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons (very good, but pay per view!)
Anglo-Saxon English
Melvyn Bragg, episode 1 of History of English
In Our Time has episodes on Athelstan, Alfred, the Venerable Bede, The Lindisfarne Gospels
Anglo-Saxon art
Nina Ramirez, Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons
A History of Ireland, Part One
BBC 2-part docu, How the Celts Saved Britain
Book of Kells
BBC Learning Documentary
Neil Oliver, Vikings - excellent recent series, archaeology-based, no reconstructions!
Charming introduction on SmartHistory (a good site for exploring generally)
Two French-language programmes from the Arte channel:
Biopic, Charlemagne
Documentary, Au temps de Charlemagne
Byzantium and Byzantine Art
See (or rather hear) In Our Time, Byzantium
Superb TV  documentary series by Stephen Romer, Byzantium: The Lost Empire
SmartHistory discussion of Hagia Sophia
Series by Andrew Graham-Dixon,  Art of Eternity
Rise of Islam
PBS Docu, Islam: Empire of Faith
In Our Time, The Arab Conquests

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

2013-14 Selected TV

Looking back over the last few months, I note I have watched heroic amounts of TV. I am, in fact, addicted to television drama, which has many advantages over the live version: free (well, factor in the license and the LoveFilm sub, and it's still nearly free), often brilliantly acted, sometimes brilliantly written and you can watch it at a time of your choosing with pause facility and no one there to annoy you. Yes yes I know you don't get the chemistry, but then there's a special chemistry too between me and Jack Bauer two feet away on the laptop, soundtrack of pulsing music and CTU's myriad of gadgets pounding into my ears. As well as an accessible alternative to theatre, TV drama is just as absorbing and stimulating as many novels.

So, yes, all of 24 Season 7 and now halfway through 8 and realizing with joy that I have completely forgotten the disposable plotlines of all the others so can watch them again. Seem to remember the first was actually a taut thriller about protecting a presidential candidate with no nuclear bombs or imminent threats to a whole seaboard in sight. I love the intense talk of protocols and schematics, the data analyst as hero, the guilty feeling of being absorbed in right-wing apologetics (not so bad when a corporate nutcase steps forward as top baddy), the glorious predictability (it's not one plot but a series of them: as soon as baddie no.1 is dealt with, we learn there's someone EVEN BIGGER behind them, in a kind of reverse Russian doll sequence), the way an English actor (in 6, I think) has to breathe life into lines like 'I'm not going anywhere without you'.

But 24, and indeed most things in this dull sublunary sphere, wilt and fade before the majesty of Breaking Bad. Walter White, the teacher I should have been (never good enough at Chemistry, alas; and it's hard to break bad armed only with the skills of close reading of poetry and a smattering of Stanislavski). My thoughts on this are not yet beyond the visceral exclamatory stage. Gus Fring! Tuco! Hank! The season where every episode starts with shots of the pool (copied from, or by, House? I haven't checked the dates)! There are episodes (Grilled, Phoenix, Fly, Dead Freight, Ozymandias) that stand on their own as amazing dramas, taking you to emotional areas that linger in the mind long afterwards. There is a sense throughout that this is modern capitalism, scrabbling and killing for medical insurance money, right on the edge of civilisation; the parched desert becomes the image of the contemporary, atrophying soul. But for close  reading of this, best to go to the careful reviews on Den of Geek (oddly banned from our filter as a gaming site). From the desert to the snowscapes of Minnesota, and Fargo was a recent pleasure. There are no rules, as great villain Lorn Malvo patiently explained to Martin Freeman. Though didn't he turn from something extra-human into a normal mortal at the end? True Detective was brilliant at the start, turning into something more regulation buddy-cop thriller at the end, but as with BB and Fargo making a whole landscape - in this case the swamplands of Louisiana - the main character. J and I ended our long-term project of watching all eight seasons of House, enjoyable right to the end despite the diminishing circles solely because of the central character, brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Laurie, though Wilson provided a fine comic foil. And going back almost a year, time to mention the enjoyable, atmospheric oddity of Jane Campion's Top of the Lakes, the ultra-miserablisim of Southcliffe (comparable to David Greig's The Events as a response to inexplicable mass killing) and the historical portraits of life in The Village and The Mill.

For other British TV, much enjoyed watching The White Queen and having it explained to me by nJ who was studying The Wars of the Roses at the time. I gave up on the first In the Line of Duty (bolt-cutters are my limit) but watched the second series through, held by one genuine shock moment and the compelling Keeley Hawes, right up until the messy ending, where tying ends together just created a big knot. Serial killer series The Falls (our answer to The Killing and The Bridge) was, added to those, too many young women being tormented and killed for our televisual entertainment. My diet of Euro TV, aside from Scandinoir, has included Braquo - like Spiral, a French equivalent to The Shield only the subtitles make you feel clever - and (just started) Isabel from Spain.

So - good to get away from the grimness with some comedy, and have loved the Office-style psuedo-docu of Parks and Recreation and W1A (following 2012 - but why are British comedies so pathetically short compared to US ones, by the way?), the crazy fun of Brooklyn Nine Nine, the love and pain of Rev (the Easter episode incredibly moving). Coogan and Brydon's The Trip to Italy became steadily less interesting: I wanted to hear more about the food and less of their admittedly accomplished impressions.


Caught Northern Stage's production of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 at the Nuffield just over a month ago. Brief recollections: stunning set, dominated by the fuselage of a bomber, creating unusual angled spaces to work in. Throughout there was deft characterisation, some genuinely affecting moments (the death in the aircraft, the non-arrest of a rapist and murderer, medical scenes linger vividly). I loved the spots of music and choreographed movement and wanted more; though I wanted about half an hour less of the whole thing, which felt too long: Heller's work isn'tt carried forward by any plot imperative. Apparently Heller wouldn't let anyone else adapt his novel, but his own inflated adaptation (which was put on here) has not had many takers. But it's hard to imagine the text being done greater justice than in this production. The meaning of the expression 'Catch-22' came over clearly, the corruption of officers in collusion with  the black market and the use of black humour as a way of processing the unspeakable still carries a punch. Phillip Arditti compelling as Yosarian. Lots of the audience were complaining about the cold in the theatre. I rather liked it.

Martin Creed, what's the point of it?

Years ago, I discovered Creed at Southampton Art Gallery: he filled one room with stuff from the museum warehouse, another with balloons (by the time I got there largely deflated) and there were scrunched up bits of paper. The photos in the catalogue made it all look beautiful. On day release from a nineteenth-century theme park I found it bracing.

His big show at the Hayward felt like a series of little challenges: What do you make of this then? Does this mean anything to you? Does this do anything to you? What's the point of it? An art of non-commital, perhaps. In the Martin Creed A-Z leaflet we learn 'what something might mean to someone is unknown' (Ambiguity), 'I don't believe in conceptual art. I don't know what it is' (Conceptual art: but then, is this just another concept?), 'I find it difficult to make judgements, to decide that one thing is more important than the other. So what I try and do is to choose without having to make decisions' (Decisions).

Is there any positive principle at work in  all this evasiveness? The artist does think that art is primarily and essentially a vehicle for the conveyance of feeling, which is reassuringly traditional. My overall sensation was initially of a kind of enervating cleverness, repetition (in which he finds 'comfort and reliability') and a love of surfaces and systems - but then I realised this felt need for order and pattern is something I could respond to. It's why I can't get enough of Glass, Reich, Nyman I suppose.  What else is at work in the functionless brick wall, the whole wall decorations, the pile of boxes and other readymades? A ghost of the classical order, space and simplicity which mediated modernity eschews? I liked, in a liquid ephemeral way, the car, the film of the two dogs, the series of colour prints. I felt sorry for the attendant having to bash away at the piano. There's always the feeling that there's a a club of clever people who 'get it' while you don't. But then I thought perhaps the key is to be less rather than more intellectual. Some of the comments by Creed are winningly and affectingly simple: 'everything that everyone does is always an expression. Whether you're answering a phone in a call centre or making a piece of sculpture which is going to be exhibited in an art gallery, it's creative. People express themselves in everything they do' (Expressionism). Amen. Maybe. Doesn't that extinguish something richer in the idea of 'creative'? Mould a piece of blu-tack and stick it on the wall. Just for the fun and the mystery of it. Go on. That's the spirit (Spiritual).

Fred & Alice

At the recent NISDA (National Independent Schools Drama Association) conference I was lucky to see Fred & Alice: Love in the Time of OCD, written and directed by John Sheehy for Ireland's Callback Theatre. It's an entertaining and touching two-hander about characters with certain obsessive traits, falling in love over a period of years and charting their way to and through independent living. Like Curious Incident, it appears to avoid portraying any particular clinical condition and uses theatrical means to celebrate uniqueness and the quirks of human imagination untrammelled by everyday mundanities: the miniature house and tennis rackets becoming electric guitars stick in the memory. But it was the central performances that most beguiled: Ciaran Bermingham's physical performance was so remarkable it was actually surprising to see him at the curtain call without the physical tics and eyes apparently pointing in different directions; Cora Fenton captured hyper-activity, affection and vulnerability through a tremendous vocal range. Terrific one-acter. I have to applaud Oran Mor in Glasgow, that offers lunchtime theatre in the form of a play, a pie and a pint, which must surely be the pinnacle of Western Civilisation thus far.

As You Like It (SATF)

Here's how to do it. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory's As You Like It is stylish, clear, beautifully paced, engaging throughout. The stage is a largely empty space with just a few pieces of furniture here and there and a striking backdrop whose abstract swirl hints at forests real and metaphorical. And from the opening moments it's clear that we're going to get an intelligent and unfussy account of this exploration of hatred, love, disguise and reconciliation, focussed on bringing out the characters and situations without any intruding directorial concept. If Orlando's defeat of Oliver at wrestling was slightly hard to credit (but then it always is), the resulting love / infatuation was instantly believable and charming, thanks to the acting talents of Jack Wharrier and the fabulous Dorothea Myer-Bennett. Clear and unfussy is all very well, but everything depends on the text feeling like a release of intellectual and emotional energy. Some relationshiops have to work impossible fast, and Celia (Daisy May) and Oliver (Matthew Thomas) managed the impossible. Vic Llewellyn made us believe we understood the Elizabethan wit and charmed us through the ghastly scene (one of the bits of Shakespeare I hate most) when he chases off the luckless William. Great attention to detail: Audrey lifting her skirts, the comic brushstrokes of Le Beau and Martext (Vincenzo Pellegrino); Paul Currier as Jacques finding humour in the melancholy humour (and reminiscent of Mycroft?). Anyway, love what Tobacco Factory are doing. They even produce a programme worth paying for, vanishingly rare these days.

Johannes Möller

I’m remembering a few months back to Johannes Möller, the brilliant guitarist (from Sweden, I think) who gave a recital in Eastleigh in January. It was another reminder of the array of astonishing guitarists out there all competing for a smallish natural audience. But if the classical guitar is going to expand beyond a niche status in the musical world, it will surely be through the creative and immediately appealing music being made by artists like Möller. Most of the programme was original work, some (Silk, From Her Source to the Sea) inspired by India and employing Indian ragas convincingly. The technical range was dazzling – it would be hard to think of a technical device not used at some point – but the listeners were won over not by mechanical skill but by the emotional and dramatic feel of the pieces. The 1981 preludes covered a wide range of moods (in 10 different keys), and the concluding ‘A star in the sky, a universe within …’ and ‘The Night Flame’ were affirming larger-scale works with a burning drama to them. A refreshing release from mdoernist idioms of anguished interiority and irony. It was good along the way to be introduced to the composer Giulio Regondi (1822-72). The whole recital came over with tremendous charm and the playing carried with it a passionate desire to communicate. Thanks due to SCGS for putting it on. Rememebring Piotr Anderszewski at Turner Sims recently, and the terrific recent Nuffield season, I'm increasingly bemused by those whos till feel they have to slog off to London to get live culture.

Henri Matisse, The Cut-Outs

We start with a painted still. Next to it is a cut paper version, where objects and angles can be altered, shuffled. Reshuffling in the mind, we consider the possible local dramas of form meeting form, colour against colour. We need to tap into these instincts to follow what happens in the narrative of this show.

Dancers survives the scenery of Massine's ballet to music by Shostakovich. 'That's the kind of dance I hope to see one day!' exclaimed Massine on seeing Matisse's rhythmic mural figures. The sense of the performative continues in the book Jazz, where circus and theatre figures are accompanied by elegant, strikingly large handwritten notes. There's a tension going on between the private world of the artist and the sense of public exhibition: the dream is transmuted into the dance. Volume dissolves into flattened plane, and the title irrestibly helps us feel improvisation and complex rhythms in these sequence of figures of pure colour. Organic forms follow in Oceania and the Vence studio, places where the room was transformed into a gallery of frondal, amoeboid creations. Thanks in part to a film of Matisse in his declining years cutting away, we feel in touch with the creative process, from the dreamy doodly conception through cutting, gluing, layering and arranging. The shapes create worlds around them, from the spiritual universe of the Vence chapel to the exotic parakeet, mermaid and snail. In later work compositions become larger. The vibrant, exotic, dynamic creations are an affirmation of life by an artist increasingly limited in movement.

Immediately pleasurable, and about the pleasures of sensation and a life force, the cut-outs escape through some gap between the categories of fine and decorative art. Childlike, yet based on a  lifetime's intuition for composition. Visually busy, but infinitely peaceful, requiring more time and silence than a Tate blockbuster can offer. Loved the children's art done on computer at the end. Coffee upstairs in the members' louunge, where one returns from dizzying tones to the familiar fashion world of London grey and black.