How much can I say this: I love War and Peace. It’s compelling, exciting, beautiful and – perhaps most surprisingly of all – (intentionally) funny. So if you’re hating War and Peace in any way at all, my (somewhat gushing, I’m afraid) reviews are not the reviews for you. Most people, however, are loving this six-part drama, concluding Sunday 7 Feb. I calculate that precisely 4.9% of viewers *are* not enjoying it. These people claim that it’s just not faithful enough to the original. I also calculate that approximately 99% of these people are only pretending to have read the book. In the main the comments are positive and jubilant. It has certainly made large numbers of people want to read the original (whether again or for that first time), which for a 540,000 word book is an amazing feat in itself. And don’t get me started on Dolokhov and his amazing feats (and feets and hands and general physiognomy).
This is my last programme at the Independent Bath Literature Festival (10 days, 150 events, 20,000 audience), where I’ve been Artistic Director for the past three Festivals. It’s a job I love and I couldn’t sum up this year’s programme better than blogger Claire Hayes, one of our army of 200 volunteers:
“This year marks the festival’s 21st birthday, and – just in case the impossibly hip might consider it over the hill – is defiantly themed Forever Young. And, despite appearances from luminaries like Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and Tracy Chevalier, this means Viv Groskop, in her final year as Artistic Director, has resisted the lure of the literary pipe and slippers in favour of a record number of emerging new writers.”
To help us celebrate our 21st we have a great cast: from Gloria Steinem (with Jenni Murray), Sebastian Faulks and Pub Landlord Al Murray in The Forum to Pat Barker, Joan Bakewell, Austentatious and The Shakespeare Gala (featuring Salon Collective and Extempore Theatre, the world’s only Elizabethan-language improvised play) in The Guildhall. Full programme (26 Feb to 6 Mar) here.
Writing this piece for the Guardian on all the things I’ve inherited from my grandparents was cathartic but also difficult. I hoped it would help me to give away (throw away?) some of their stuff. But it just made things worse: it made me want to keep it all the more…. Still waiting for the phone call from Britain’s Biggest Hoarders. Some great advice in the comments and this issue sparks an interesting divide: half of the comments say “Get rid of it all — you will feel better”, the other half say “How could you ever let this treasure go?” I’m still torn.
This was great fun to write. Highlights for me? Lionel Richie at Glastonbury (“When he was not reinventing himself as the “commodore of love” (“We [the Commodores] decided: we’re gonna make love to every girl in the world. That was our mission statement”), the 66-year-old Ritchie was celebrating selling 100m records.”), Suranne Jones in Dr Foster (“Was there anything on TV more deliciously entertaining and brilliantly captured than Jones as the GP Gemma Foster”) and Catastrophe (“Is there anything funnier than two hopeless but likeable people having a baby together? Apparently not.”).
And so the Downton era comes to a close! I have been blogging on Downton for the Guardian since September 2010 when I wrote this piece: “Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville in a Julian Fellowes period drama? I may have died and gone to Sunday night TV heaven.” Ah, how the folly of our youth returns to haunt us… What I wrote during series one (and the comments underneath, suggesting what a surprising success this is for ITV) contrasts horrifically with what was to come. By 2014, I was writing that it was“one of Britain’s most toxic exports.”
Downton was a lovely surprise (for one series) that outstayed its welcome. It should have been cut off at series two or three (or ideally, actually, series one). It had enough meat to sustain one perfect outing (just like Gosford Park) but it never became a proper soap opera. Good soap opera is meticulously planned and calibrated. This always felt as if it had too many plots and too many characters and was just throwing anything at the (beautifully papered) wall to see if it would stick. Fortunately the gloss and style of the thing camouflaged this expertly and turned it into a cash cow the likes of which ITV must only have dreamed.
Tonight’s Christmas episode yielded no surprises (warning: spoilers) with Uncle Julian tying up the ends he could be bothered to tie up (sometimes rather too tightly) but leaving may things dangling. This is the Downton way. I will miss it, strangely. And I will also dream of Mr Pamuk and the Lost-in-Germany Newspaper Man.
I spent much of Christmas Eve ALONE in the Woman’s Hour Green Room, where the only catering is very bad coffee and highly oxygenated mineral water. This is because the discussion on “Christmas traditions as documented on Woman’s Hour” was the last item on the programme and everyone else had already gone into the studio and was having a high old time whilst I sat on a sofa matching my (red, of course – it’s Christmas) dress listening to their frolics ALONE. All for this discussion with Jenni Murray about (1) changing sheets (or not) when guests come to visit (2) what to wear on Christmas Day (A RED DRESS) and (3) how to cope with children and their consumerist demands (er, probably ignore them). Hats off to Lianne Carroll who performed a beautiful song about being utterly miserable in December. Appropriate.
I have only ever had weird experiences aboard the Blundabus belonging to comedy legend Bob Slayer. So I can only imagine that doing a one-hour show aboard this vehicle will be even stranger. The bus is as it sounds: it is a bus. A double decker bus. The upstairs is converted into a comedy bus with seating and a stage area. (Yes, you do have to use your imagination a bit. And I will have to stoop. For the audience it is very comfortable, I can report.)
I will be performing the last not-in-London show of 2015′s Edinburgh show Say Sorry to the Lady at the Nottingham Comedy Festival at 6pm on Saturday 14 November on the top deck of this bus. I’ve done stand-up on the bus and I’ve been a guest on Irish comedian Christian Talbot’s addictive show Cheaper than Therapy on the bus. This time I will have the bus all to myself for a whole show. Well, hopefully, not quite all to myself. Tickets here. Review of the Edinburgh show here. See you there, people of Nottingham who want to come to comedy on a bus! I have every faith this is an actual demographic.
It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. Downton is almost finished. And yet it is not quite yet finished. Here’s the latest on last night’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (warning: spoilers). It has been a rocky ride being the series blogger since series two of this peculiar British export which is as preposterously successful as it is, er, preposterous. There was no series blog for series one because it wasn’t a phenomenon at that stage, hard though that seems to believe. Instead when it launched, I wrote things like “I have died and gone to period drama heaven” in September 2010 (I now shudder to read this) and (I cringe) “Oh Downton, how we will miss you” in November 2010.
What a difference five interminably long and pointless series make.
I’ve almost thrown in the towel a few times, especially when the plot lines have seemed to rotate, a la Groundhog Day. But I’ve stuck with it largely because it is my job to do so (and to attempt to remain open-minded and balanced) but even more so because of the community of commenters who gather every Sunday at 10.01pm to rip the show apart — or, occasionally, heap lavish praise. I like to think we’re fair to Uncle Julian. Although if we’re not, he can take it. Downton has sold to over 100 countries and is one of the most successful exports in ITV’s history.
Edinburgh is over. What an amazing month. Having barely survived two weeks the previous year, I had a lot of concerns about managing the whole month — 24 shows at The Stand, plus guest spots and stints at the Edinburgh Book Festival interviewing Irvine Welsh, Anne Enright, Kirsty Logan and Peter Pomerantsev. But it was spectacular. Not least because Edinburgh is a great place to live for a month. (Although I did cry when I came home and saw a red bus again for the first time.)
Say Sorry to the Lady pulled in a five star review, this from Funny Women (“cleverly structured and the kind of show that gets wilder and funnier towards the end of its run”) and played to full houses most nights, thanks to the excellence of The Stand. More on behind the scenes here, on the inspiration for the show and why sorry is not the hardest word in TV Bomb here and on why women should stop apologising in the Guardian here. By which I mean that women should stop apologising. And they should also stop apologising in the Guardian.
Writing in today’s Sunday Times Style about the challenge facing over 1,000 performers this month: what on earth do you wear on stage if you’re doing the same show night after night for a month? Plus dashing between loads of other shows? It’s hardly a recipe for glamour.
“I have a one-hour evening show almost every night this month, plus some other shows during the day. I chose it, I love it, but it’s also trial by image. The buzzword for performers this year is “TV-ready”, which means trying to look 15 years younger than you are, pretending to be really into yoga and drinking a lot of coconut water. That’s the face and the body sorted, but when it comes to clothes, there is no code. Unless you are a 21-year-old man, and then you must wear skinny jeans, a slogan T-shirt and Mr Whippy hair.”
Thanks to Kyle Hilton for the illustration. Someone in the fashion department (who advised on the wardrobe choices above) obviously thinks I should dress like Velma from Scooby Doo. Hmm. Whatever happens, I will definitely wear something on my bottom half.