I really do think Ben Fogle and James Cracknell are two of the most brilliant guys on the planet. I'm currently watching the documentary following their attempt to race to the South Pole last year, and it's absolutely fantastic; they truly are living the dream for those of us who long for traditional, Boy's-Own-type adventures in farflung places!
One of the pieces of music I'm practising furiously at the moment is Benjamin Britten's Journey of the Magi, a weird and wonderful setting of the famous poem by T S Eliot. It's a mesmerising piece of work, imagining what might have gone through the minds of the wise men as they journeyed to Bethlehem. A hard time we had of it is the verdict, as they describe the obstacles they faced, and the doubt in their minds: the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly.
The final stanza intrigues me the most, in which the Magi look back at the end of their quest; Eliot, himself undergoing something of a religious awakening at this point in his life, has the men commenting on the strange shadows of Death that seemed to linger around the Christ-child's birth, and their realisation that their world would forever be different.
All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.
Christmas is the only time of the year during which I vaguely schedule my life around television. Here are my four festive highlights this year:
Cranford The marvellous 2007 drama, based on novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, has returned to our screens with an even more astonishing cast of British talent, including rising stars Jodie Whittaker (Izzy in Tess of the D'Urbervilles) and Matthew McNulty (Fisher Bloom in Lark Rise) Outnumbered The funniest thing on television? A close contender. Turn of the Screw Henry James's terrifying ghost story, made into an amazing opera by Benjamin Britten, and now adapted for televsion by the BBC. The preview clips alone chill the blood, so goodness knows whether I'll survive the full drama! Doctor Who Enough said.
One of the most exciting things about a new year is the promise of new theatre. Here, in no particular order, are the plays to which I'm most looking forward in 2010:
Women beware Women by Thomas Middleton (National Theatre) I love the dark grotesquerie of Restoration drama (anyone remember The Revenger's Tragedy from 2008?!) and this play is a brilliant example of the genre. It's directed by Marianne Elliott, whose All's well that ends well was a massive highlight of 2009, so will undoubtedly be startling and original. Henry IV part 1 by William Shakespeare (Globe) It's a play that everyone raves about, and which is most famous for being the first appearance of the fat knight Sir John Falstaff, but I have never seen it and, indeed, know very little about it. The Globe's Artistic Director, Dominic Dromgoole, is helming this production, and he is known for his insightful, honest interpretations of Shakespeare, so this promises to be very excellent indeed. La morte d'Arthur by Thomas Mallory (Royal Shakespeare Company) Wonderful! A brand-new adaptation of the King Arthur legends, directed by the fantastic Greg Doran, and performed by the RSC's resident ensemble. Can't wait! 1984 by George Orwell (Royal Exchange Theatre) Matthew Dunster, responsible for the astonishing production of Macbeth from earlier this year, has adapted this wonderful novel, and will direct the first production. I imagine it will be terrifying and brutal, and excellently theatrical. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (Royal Exchange Theatre) A classic play that I've never seen before. The REX is so good at plays from this period (think of An Ideal Husband, Hay Fever etc) that is guaranteed to be an absolute treat. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (Lowry) The West End's most terrifying play finally tours to Manchester! Hurrah! Eeek!
7. Angels from the realms of glory This appeals to the singer in me, as the chorus is a genuine challenge to sing in one breath... 6. The First Nowell Ever since hearing Olly Hamilton's incredible arrangement at the Platt Carol Service two years ago, this has been a firm favourite; it seems to have a fantastic joy and spirit that, to my ear, is quintessentially festive. 5. O come, all ye faithful A classic. Beautiful harmonies, a sensible key signature that allows everyone to sing the high notes in the right octave and, of course, one of the best descants ever! 4. In the bleak midwinter It's all about the cheesey last verse "What can I give him?... Give him my heart" Lovely! 3. O little town of Bethlehem I'm not totally sure what my favourite thing about this one is - it's a close tie between the hushed awe of the third verse, and the gloriously soaring descant in the final verse. 2. God rest ye, merry gentleman Carols in a minor key make me feel more Christmassy than ones in a major key. A strange fact, but a true one. The best thing about this carol is the final verse of the David Willcocks arrangement, where the sopranos and altos sing wordless, spinetingling chords above the men belting out the tune. 1. O come, O come Emmanuel Again, it's in a minor key, so it's an immediate winner - but this one has an elusively haunting, poignant quality that gives it the top spot in my shortlist; and, of course, the top Ds on "Rejoice!" in the chorus are a bass-baritone's delight!
So, there we go. Any controversial choices? You decide.
The BBC recently adapted Andrea Levy's bestselling novel Small Island, and it is currently available to watch on iPlayer. It's a fantastic drama, taking place over the 1930s and 40s and telling the story of a Jamaican couple, Gilbert and Hortense Joseph, who move to London in search of a new life. Here they become involved with Queenie Bligh, a young landlady awaiting her husband's return from the War.
It will come as no surprise to learn that a big theme of the film is racism. It's a subject that is hardly new fodder for TV drama, but I really was sobered by the outrageous way in which the Josephs are treated by so many of the British public in this story. When you reflect on the fact that we are only a mere eight decades away from the era in which Small Island is set - less than a lifetime, really - it is an unsettling experience.
For the most part, the Josephs maintain an impressive dignity in the face of their struggles and, in many cases, seem much more civilised than their mockers. There is a lovely moment when Gilbert introduces Hortense to the wonders of fish and chips; he explains that the English eat the meal straight from newspaper, without cutlery, and Hortense's response is an utterly bewildered "Like monkeys?"
Oh, and the ending had me shedding a small tear! Cracking stuff.
I have been uncharacteristically extravagant in recent days; normally I only buy books second-hand, to save money, but there have been a few good offers in Waterstones et al, and I have taken these opportunities to restock my bookshelves. Consequently, I am in the joyous position of having NINE shiny new novels waiting to be read:
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M T Anderson The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale Nation by Terry Pratchett Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz The Gift by Cecilia Ahern The Lost Art of Gratitude by Alexander McCall Smith Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
The Anthony Horowitz is particularly exciting as it is the latest in my beloved series of Alex Rider novels - a brilliant collection of books about a teenager in the employ of MI5.
Exciting! If there is anything particularly notable in any of them, perhaps it will even find its way onto this blog...
This Christmas will be, in many ways, a time of worldwide mourning, as something unthinkably sad is going to happen... David Tennant will be leaving the role of the Doctor forever!
While I have no doubts at all about the quality of his successor Matt Smith (a lead role in the marvellous Sally Lockhart Mysteries plus a play at the Royal Exchange - who can ever cast aspersions on his acting credentials?!), Tennant's departure will be very difficult to accept! I am undoubtedly going to cry like a little girl!
There is something about the traditional, old-fashioned, round-the-fire ghost story that seems inextricably linked to Christmas. I suspect that's something to do with the dark nights, and the idea of a reunited family shutting the curtains and gathering around to share chilling tales...
In any case, I have, for the last few years, endeavoured to read a good ghost story over the Christmas period. It's usually the Victorians and Edwardians who understood the genre best (and the titles are always brilliant - who but Henry James could pen something like The Strange Romance of Certain Old Clothes?!) but the one modern writer who I think has properly inherited her predecessor's talents is the wonderful Susan Hill. This Christmas, I shall be reading her acknowledged masterpiece The Woman in Black, which is now most famous for its stage adaptation, one of the West End's most successful plays. From browsing the first few pages, I know it to be the story of a young man named Arthur Kipps who experiences something terrible in a lonely house on the moors and, years, later is compelled to relate the tale:
They had chided me with being a spoilsport, tried to encourage me to tell them the one ghost story I must surely, like any other man, have it in me to tell. And they were right. Yes, I had a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy. But it was not a story to be told for casual entertainment, around the fireside upon Christmas Eve...
Right, I have come up with a personal challenge to try and get me back into the habit of blogging: it's twelve days until Christmas, and on each day between now and then, I shall endeavour to write a post that has some vague relation to the number of days left...in a vague semblance of the 12 days of Christmas... Bear with me! It might be fun!
Well it's taken me over a year, but I just might have found the inner strength to return to the world of blogging... We'll see how it goes.
Many things have changed in my life since my last post: the Ginger House, tragically, has disbanded; I'm now at the Royal Northern College of Music, doing a Masters in vocal performance; and, most significantly for this blog, I have read many more books and seen a lot more theatre. There is definite potential for some Confessions, methinks...