Movie Mondays: Gritty Brits

As Sinéad O’Connor sang in the ’90s, “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses,” but the seductive pull of Downton Abbey and its celebration of wealth and landed gentry may have given us rose-colored glasses about merry old England. These films remind us that the United Kingdom is diverse, gritty and much more interesting than its Royals and its manicured gardens would suggest.

Click here to view Dirty Pretty Things in the SPL catalogDirty Pretty Things (2002): A behind the scenes look at immigrant London in which a Turkish woman (Audrey Tautou) who is a hotel chambermaid and a Nigerian doctor who now drives cabs (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stumble upon a crime that puts their lives in danger. Continue reading “Movie Mondays: Gritty Brits”

London Calling: a Reading List.

“London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play & a story & a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets… To walk alone in London is the greatest rest.”   ~ Virginia Woolf, Diary, March 28, 1930.

Image of Sunset over Parliament courtesy of MSH via Flickr.So you say your tickets to the London Olympics got lost the mail? Yeh, mine too, and I couldn’t be more disappointed. London is one of my cities – one of those distant places we return to and develop a kinship with. Having visited London countless times in my mind, it has also been my pleasure to stroll her streets, seeking and finding all manner of treasure. I’ve searched in vain for 84, Charing Cross Road  or traces of The Old Curiosity Shop amidst the beguiling bookstalls, lost rapt hours in the British Museum and walked up and down the Thames under the changing weather, gazing at a mackeral sky or sighing over a Waterloo Sunset. G.K Chesterton – who created his own surreal versions of London once wrote that “London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.” I’ve never felt Down and Out in either, but of the two London’s just the riddle for me.

  • Capital, by John Lanchester. The various residents of posh Pepys Road each receive a postcard reading, simply, “We Want What You Have.” A smart, stylish contemplation of getting and spending.
  • London, by Edward Rutherfurd. If you like your history fictional, this epic novel covers an entire millennia. British Michener, if you will.
  • The Sexual History of London, by Catharine Arnold. A different take on 2,000 years of carnality and illicit intimacies from the Roman brothels to Soho smut shops.
  • The London Scene, by Virginia Woolf. Six essays bring to vivid life London in the 1930s. Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway also brims with London life.
  • The Lodger Shakespeare, by Charles Nicholl. Explores a curious historical artifact – a recovered deposition of Shakespeare from a 1612 court case – to offer a rare window into the real life and art of the great playwright.
  • The Buddha of Suburbia, by Hanif Kureishi. Karim Amir samples the various kinds of Nirvana on offer in South London, circa 1970.
  • A Week in December, by Sebastian Faulks. Fast forward to 2007: this thick slice of London life follows a diverse cast of characters who worry about terrorists while being fleeced by bankers.
  • Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. In this richly imagined urban fantasy, there is not one London, but two, each wonderful in its way.
  • Portobello, by Ruth Rendell. A random act of kindness becomes a target for evil in this keen work of psychological suspense, filled w/ London broodiness.

You’ll find many more titles in Eternal London: in fact and fiction, a reading list in our library catalog. We’ve only just scratched the surface of this many storied city. What are your favorite London books?

Beyond Tea & Crumpets: Gritty Brits on DVD

Think of British TV mystery and you may conjure up images of teacup wielding dowager sleuths, peering through the foxgloves at some suspicious goings on about the Village green. Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple. Arsenic and tweed. But there’s a whole other side to British Crime – a tough contemporary side where hardened detectives battle it out with society’s most depraved and disturbing felons on the streets. In addition to longer narrative arcs and fewer commercial interruptions, the British seem to have a knack for depicting compromised coppers with truly dark sides. American prime time TV might make much of hinting a detective’s brush with alcoholism or insanity; in British crime TV, it’s almost a given.  Here are some of my favorite gritty Brit crime shows.

Find The Commander in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Best known among these is probably Helen Mirren’s star turn as embattled detective Jane Tennison, struggling against twisted baddies and her own sexist colleagues in Prime Suspect. Fans of this might also enjoy another Lynda La Plante created series featuring a lady cop – Clare Blake – whose personal and professional lives get muddled in highly inappropriate ways: The Commander. Then there’s tenacious private eye Cordelia Gray, hero of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, a series loosely based on the novel by P.D. James, and single mother DCI Janine Lewis juggling her messy life in Blue Murder.

Find Wire in the Blood in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Of course there are plenty of wonderfully messed up male detectives, from Robbie Coltrane’s a-bit-too-criminal psychologist Cracker to John Hannah’s portayal of Ian Rankin’s hardened Edinburgh detective John Rebus to Idris Elba as the brilliant but troubled John Luther whose ability to enter the criminal mind leaves him badly scarred. This is also the case with quirky genius Tony Hill in Wire in the Blood, based on one series by the prolific Scottish author Val McDermid. Then there’s the wonderfully twisted odd couple Dalziel & Pascoe, one bent the other a bit too straight, based on the novels of Reginald Hill.

My latest discovery while browsing the stacks was another Find Trial and Retribution in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Lynda La Plante series, Trial and Retribution, which has got some of the darkest crimes and wonderfully shocking scenes I’ve ever seen on TV (particularly one unforgettable bit in which Richard Grant playing a tortured manic schizoid presents DI Pat North with a little gift – a scene that made my wife leap off the couch and run around the house screaming), together with the usual assortment of battered, flawed detectives. We chain watched all five seasons, and can’t wait ’til more come out. In the meantime, I’ve just checked out Case Histories, based on the novels by Kate Atkinson. Not quite as dark, but it looks good. There’s also the cold case squad in Waking the Dead, and what I’ve seen so far compares well with the best American crime drama.

Fans of gritty crime psychodrama will find many other fine British series in our catalog, from The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, standalones based on Minette Walters’ The Sculptress or Val McDermid’s Place of Execution, and the wonderfully perplexing mini-series, Collision. (And yes, of course, we have Miss Marple too).

Inspired by Darcy: Characterizations of Jane Austen’s proudest hero

Jane Austen's character Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice
Mr. Darcy

Have you noticed how many novels are based on or inspired by classics, especially novels by Jane Austen? First there are the retellings of stories, like Emma and the Vampires, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, in which an author takes the original classic and adds exciting paranormal characters. Sequels to Pride and Prejudice, from the efforts of Emma Tenant, Joan Aiken and Jane Gillespie to more recent novels like Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma by Diana Birchall and Letters from Pemberley by Jane Dawkins prove that Austen’s popularity is still going strong.

Novelists seeking good characters for their stories often insert Austen herself into their books, like Jane and the Canterbury Tale by Stephanie Barron, the newest in a mystery series featuring Jane Austen. Other examples are According to Jane by Marilyn Brant, Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathly and Just Jane by Nancy Moser.

What astonishes me is the sheer volume of fiction about Mr. Darcy.
I can understand a crush on Edward Cullen (Twilight) or even Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, whose “half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire…” But Continue reading “Inspired by Darcy: Characterizations of Jane Austen’s proudest hero”

Everything and the Kitchen Sink: Social Realism in post-war Britain

The rain falls hard on a humdrum town
This town has dragged you down
And everybody’s got to live their life
And God knows I’ve got to live mine…

Find The Smiths' "Louder than Bombs" in the Seattle Public Library catalog.So goes the opening verse of The Smiths‘ classic song, “William, It Was Really Nothing,” a brilliant pastiche of British post-war, kitchen sink dramas. The Manchester group’s lyricist and singer, Morrissey, was famously enamored of the genre and its proud Northern roots, even featuring one of its more colorful figures, Shelagh Delaney, on the cover of their double album, Louder Than Bombs.

The term “kitchen sink realism” was coined in the mid-fifties to describe the cultural trend in British painting, literature, and film toward bleak working class themes, often set in or by artists from the industrial north of England, and featuring domestic dramas with troubled working-class anti-heroes. Perhaps one of its most prototypical and well-known examples was Nottingham writer Allan Sillitoe’s novella, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, about a young delinquent, Colin, who has been sent to a “borstal” (the English equivalent of juvenile detention). Colin is a gifted runner, and the school authorities offer him early release if he can win a race against a prestigious public school. His skill brings an opportunity to boost the borstal’s image, and for him to escape its daily drudgery by being allowed to train outside its confines. But in a confounding final act, Colin defies the authorities and both cements and destroys his personal freedom. The theme of young, socially alienated protagonists straining against and yet trapped by the poverty and frustration of provincial life is central to the kitchen sink genre.

The kitchen sink writers also shared many common threads and were often conflated with a group of writers known as the “Angry Young Men,” whose work was exemplified by John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1956), but also included the likes of Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim, 1954), John Braine (Room at the Top, 1957), and Colin Wilson (The Outsider, 1956).

Find "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Literary kitchen sink realism deeply influenced early sixties British film. Notable adaptations include Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, John Braine’s Room at the Top, and Alan Sillitoes’ Sunday Night and Sunday Morning (starring a young Albert Finney). Television was impacted as well with series such as The Eastenders, and the long-lived Coronation Street, which began in 1963 and is still in production. And its influence has even extended to popular music such as, most obviously, The Smiths, but also other quintessentially English bands such as The Jam, Squeeze, and The Kinks.

Selected reading, viewing, and listening:

Books and Plays: