Bran the Blessed and Jim Gandolfini – gigantic heroes!

Feeding the Cauldron of Regeneration
Feeding the Cauldron of Regeneration

I was not long back from the Mabinogion Festival weekend in Aberystwyth, banjaxed by the depth, richness, emotional power of this sequence of Welsh medieval tales, and knocked out by the courage, skill and brio of the six storytellers. It was an eight hour marathon, presented here in English and Welsh with evolving illustration provided by artists. This time I was particularly affected by the second tale, of royal siblings, Bran and Branwen, here transmitted with passion and precision by a team of three women, Christine Cooper, Cath Little and Fiona Collins. It is a story of about war and the horrors of war. It has all the features we see everyday in our news – revenge killings, valiant efforts at peace-making, the suffering of innocents, bloodbaths, torture and the devastating effects of post-traumatic stress on the survivors of these horrors. It features the giant-king, Bran, or Bendigedfran, who spawned the Welsh saying ‘he who would be king, let him be a bridge’ when he lay down over the river Shannon so that his men could cross it and rescue his sister. It is the head of Bran, cut off at his own instruction, which is buried under the White Tower in London to protect these islands from invasion.  Those ravens are his birds.

I was so flaked out when I got home that I slumped on the settee and watched the end of series five of The Sopranos, which I just received from Lovefilm. No escape from being harrowed here!

Jim Gandolfini
Jim Gandolfini

There he was, Tony Soprano, played by the brilliant late James Gandolfini, stumbling down a story arc remarkably similar to that of Bran. Not only that, but Gandolfini was actually a giant of a man, big with the brooding power of a monster-giant drawn by a child, but also possessing rare sensitivity and subtlety as an actor, and thereby lending mob-boss Tony Soprano the stirrings of a moral sense. Unlike some of his more psychopathic followers.

In the Bran story, Bran’s half-brother, Efnisien, horribly mutilates the king of Ireland’s horses, in a vicious act of revenge. To keep the peace, Bran should kill him, but, because he is is a close relative, he does not, and Efinisien goes on to commit further horrors and destroy all chance of peace between the two countries – the Island of the Mighty and the Island of the Blessed. Meanwhile in the Sopranos, Tony makes the mistake of being soft on his cousin, also called Tony, who has a ‘rage problem’ and has killed outside the rules, including a woman and the son of a fellow mobster. Although Tony Soprano does the necessary in the end, it is not before relatively innocent people have suffered and seeds of future troubles sown.

In the Mabinogion story, Efnisien, having perpetrated heinous acts, is finally smitten by remorse and makes the redemptive act of jumping into the cauldron of regeneration and splitting it into smithereens – so that the Irish can no longer renew their fighting men. This allows seven British men to survive, including Bran. I haven’t seen the end of the Soprano series so I don’t know how Tony’s arc develops, but I do know that both the medieval tale and the contemporary TV drama have something extraordinary and special: an understanding of the grim realities of power.  Although Bran is a good king, he cannot save his kingdom from defeat and ruin – though he can keep hope alive by the burying of his head. Tony Soprano struggles with his good and bad angels to make himself a soul but becomes irretrievably isolated by the responsibilities of his position as a mob leader and trapped in a world where no-one is to be trusted and there is no way to escape into a good and innocent life. He even has to order the death of his nephew’s pathetic girlfriend because she has been embroiled with the FBI. It’s going to haunt him, I know that, because he actually really liked her… I could hardly bear to watch the moment where she realises she is to die.

The two stories are still haunting me.

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‘What remains’ versus ‘Top of the Lake’ – no contest!

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The closing scenes of What Remains on BBC 1 last night left me gasping with disbelief while also gulping with spasms of laughter, a painful combination.  Various people staggered around covered in blood, having been whacked with bags of ice, died at their own hand or been pranged with a bow and arrow.   I had given the 4-part murder a chance of coming good and was watching the last episode on my new 32″ Smart TV (previously had a teeny tele).  Now I was seething with frustration and disgust.  Even in razor-sharp HD, I didn’t care a damn for any of the characters – each one was barely 2-dimensional.  The baddies were bad all the way through, except when they were bland.  The goodies (the old cop, played by Threlfell and the young pregnant woman) were just….good.  So when most of them met a gory end, I didn’t mind at all.  The plot was complex and clunky, but, when characterisation is thin, plot chicanery doesn’t work.   There were some good actors in there, but they had nothing much to act on.

Now, I know ‘dark’ is fashionable and I don’t mind ‘dark’ because I was a sincere admirer of Top of the Lake’ which got about as dark as you can get – no, the problem is, I think, that the power-possessors in British TV  just don’t get why we viewers  admire the Scandi-noirs and the TOTL and The Wire so much, why we enjoy them so much.  We like them because we are given time to get to know the characters, we are not rushed.  And the characters, especially in the wonderful Wire are deep, contradictory, surprising, both dark and light, like real human beings are.  When Tui is saved in TOTL, when the young black snitch is executed by his best friend in The Wire, when the PM’s marriage collapses in Borgen, we really care. We weep, we rejoice, we recognise that something worthwhile is being said about human nature.  But us Brits seem to have lost the ability to reflect the truth about human nature in our dramas.  Instead we do bland and sentimental on the one hand (New Tricks?) and  horror movies masquerading as serious drama (What Remains) on the other.  We seem to be scared of depth.  There is something worrying and decadent about this and I am depressed not to be proud of British drama.  See, the end of TOTL, where Robin edges into the paedophiles’ cellar, gun in one hand and mobile phone videoing in the other, her erstwhile boss expiring from gun wound outside the door, is as horrific and bloody as you can get, and yet, I could watch it again and again because I care about Robin, about the kids and even about her evil boss, Al.  That’s the alchemy of a great drama.

TOP OF THE LAKE – violence, abuse and hatred – why we love it.

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I really loved Top of the Lake.  Yes, it had flaws, inconsistencies, threads which never got tied up, but it was intense, shocking and haunting. I could not get the brutal ending out of my mind.  But I felt throughout in safe hands with Jane Campion and her co-writer, Gerard Lee .  As Linda Grant commented on Twitter, it was a joy to watch a detective series with no pornographically blood-spattered or mutilated corpses of women in it.  Campion has wondered, in an interview, why she, as a ‘sort of Buddhist’, ends up making films about violence and hatred.  Well, the truth is that these are the big bugbears of life on earth, and, if we can’t sort them out soon, we have a short future.

But can we sort them out?  Trouble is, they are so attractive!  I love to get angry, especially righteously angry.  It makes me feel powerful and alive.  Here’s a story: there was a man who decided to hate me.  He had done wrong to a friend of mine when she was vulnerable and, in defending her, I got involved and he included me in his hatred.  I am not used to being hated – I am sure people often find me annoying or irritating but I don’t arouse much actual hate, so  to feel his piercing eyes on me one day when I was sitting innocently watching a film, was an unpleasant and uncanny experience.

I started to fantasize about what I would do if I met him in the street.  I imagined the contemptuous words I would speak, how I would be unafraid to slap his face or give him a push.  The one day, as I approached the door of my favourite coffee shop,there he was waiting in the queue. I paused: could I trust myself not to go in there and smack him?    I could easily end up in the local co-shop, with a charge of GBH.  I turned round and went home.

It was only when I discussed this with a few friends that I realised how serious it was and saw that I needed to sort myself out.  Sure, this guy was a pathetic idiot, but I was using him to arouse and indulge all my own latent anger (I have Glaswegian roots and have hit people in the past, sorry Gita).  I sat and thought it out: how would I react if I met him, how could I respond without getting snagged up in the anger-hatred cycle?  It took me ages to think of a strategy: I realised all I could say was ‘let’s put it behind us’, and, if he would not, I would have to walk away.  How dull, how unsatisfying, how undramatic.  How right.

I noticed, reading some reviews of Top of the Lake, that there were some pretty vicious comments about it from readers: people spitting venom about a series which they had hardly watched.  Why?  Surely the normal thing, if you don’t like a programme, is to switch it off?  But no, these folk had to get their punch in and maybe the fact that Jane Campion is a woman, a feminist and a truth-teller was what really got their goats.  I hope so – oops, there I go, indulging again.

The Horror of Pobol y Cwm

I am a faithful admirer of the Welsh language soap, Pobol y Cwm, shown daily on S4C, but this week’s episodes are reaching a  level of bloody melodrama which is trying even my forgiving eye – and stomach.  It is hard not to snigger as the wonderfully saturnine Richard Lynch (who plays reforming bad boy, Garry Monk) starts dragging the corpse of his rival, Kevin (Iwan Roberts) into hiding as the police buzz at the door and partner, Sheryl (Lisa Victoria), who has clocked Kev with an iron (because he raped her the day before) has hysterics. The actors must be having a hard time taking all this seriously.  And this strand is being woven in with another about Macs (Rhys Bidder), raped by a nasty psycho, and now revealed to have Hepatitis B, possibly infecting half the cwm, with whom he has, for one weird reason or another, had sex.

It has made me think about why all soaps seem to go down this particular drain eventually. East Enders is unwatchable now because of it.  It is a degeneration of the storytelling which can make soaps so entertaining into something daft and even a bit pornographic.  I don’t mind the dark themes – after all human life is full of suffering and we all lose what we love, often as a result of our own bad behaviour – and in some ways soaps are more truthful about our lives than romantic comedies or thrillers. But there are limits!  Or rather, there are ways of developing stories without resorting always to the same old melodramatic tropes.  I just dread watching tonight’s episode: supposing Kev starts banging in the boot of the car he’s been dumped in, and comes back to life to wreak terrible revenge?  I don’t think I can face it.

I have a suggestion for the PyC production team: bring in a new character, a mysterious Tibetan Buddhist (plenty of them in Wales) who wants to set up a Buddhist centre in the village, and transform all their rage into equanimity by teaching them to meditate.  The village divides into those who like the idea and those who are against the thought of non-Welsh-speaking immigrants arrogantly displacing the power of the chapel.  One of the local girls falls for the lama and he resists the temptation for only so long, and then….oh hang on I am going down the same old road myself!  Conflict, battles, hatred, murder, remorse, misery, loss and suffering.  It’s true: equanimity just doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to gripping drama.  And of course I will watch, just to see how bad it can get.

My mother in the House of Stories – and The Good Wife

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 Last night I dreamed I was wandering in the House of Stories with my mum.  I reckoned it was the House of Stories for two reasons: 1] because my late mum, Jan Webster, was a writer who had many stories and novels published, and 2] we were in the bedroom of one of the characters from Pobol y Cwm, the very well-scripted Welsh language soap I watch religiously.  The door out of this tiny room was blocked by clothes hanging over it, and, as we forced it open, the clothes fell on us.  I guess we were looking for something, but being thwarted.  Well I am certainly looking for something – a killer ending for my screenplay!  Even in my sleep I was at it.

             I think I had the dream because, just before going to bed, I watched a very interesting little film, tacked on the end of The Good Wife DVD I had been watching.  The Good Wife by the way is one of the best drama series on the TV, starring  the marvellous Julianna Margulies playing Alicia Florrick, a woman who returns to her work as a lawyer after being betrayed by her politician husband. This is one of those shows which is about everything – love, ethics, betrayal, bringing up kids, how to be a good person in a corrupt world, sex, friendship, intrigue, even religion and its role in American life – and is never predictable or playing to the lowest common denominator.  It is deeply satisfying to watch and Julianna M is an actor of great subtlety, who plays Alicia as a highly intelligent and aware woman who is constantly having to manage her own emotions to deal with the tensions of her familial and work world. 

            I had wondered why this series was so good (as good as Borgen!) and this little film explained why: the programme is produced by a very creative and harmonious collective of people, benevolently overseen by the original creators of the series, Michelle and Robert King.  We see the discussions going on in the writers’ room, where a team of about ten writers ‘break’ the script, meaning work out the detailed storyline, over a week.  It’s then passed to one writer to flesh out.  Each writer has his or her area of expertise – the law, character, relationships – and the film claimed that they all worked together with mutual respect and productivity. They did look as if they were enjoying themselves and such moods are difficult to fake.

            The collective spirit carried on into the actual shooting of the episode and the post-production – and it did not seem to be a repressive collectivism which thwarted creativity but a genuine bonding in the service of something unusually worthwhile.  This was inspiring to me because, although I spend many lonely hours at the word processor, I am basically a ‘group’ person.  I love working on a creative project with other people, and already I have benefitted from the insights and the creative input of friends into each draft of my screenplay. But I know I can’t ask others to be involved in a more gritty way until that screenplay is agreed by those whom I trust, respect and admire to be a truly lively blueprint for the film to come.  If the basic concept is good and it is well realised so far, I reckon others will come on board with me.

            But I don’t yet know if it is good enough.  I am either nearly there, or about to find out that this cherished concept of mine doesn’t have legs to stand up out there in the world of other people.   I reckon I will get there – but only because my friends can point out the weaknesses in my work, and then I can try to go the extra mile.   Thanks, guys, and thanks to my mum for cheering me up by appearing in my dream.