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I have only known and admired him in a professional context. Done.
In the fateful words of JTC, ‘everything online is weird and nebulous’, and the ‘South Wales-based performer + theatre maker-come-nonsensical ideasman’, Justin Teddy Cliffe, is no exception. Weird and nebulous figure large in his show, Welcome Back, livestreaming on YouTube, where his particular brand of weird and nebulous is well-worth watching.
In his 30-40 minute one-man show, Cliffe performs live at Le Pub in Newport (Gwent) to cardboard cut outs, while simultaneously reaching human audiences digitally in cyberspace. Nice juxtaposition.
Self-created, directed and performed, with dramaturgy by Jeremy Linnell, Cliffe shows up in his underwear on a circular stage the size of a lazy susan — enough space for one man and four cans of beer. I’m guessing the mini stage was a creative decision — it had to be tight enough to get an upstage shot of his arse and still get audience reaction.
Cliffe’s brand extends to a kind of civilised vulgarity, which, if you don’t typically dance to the vulgar beat, try it. Cliffe delivers vulgar on the off-beat — it’s charming, it’s gentle — but don’t be fooled, it’s still a roller coaster ride with heightened realism, giving us an up ’n over view of the human condition in all its pitiful frailty, perhaps a view from the ‘Pepsi Max aka The Big One’ he still dreams of, dreams crushed like his beer cans, crushed, to delineate scene changes. And if you do like to dance you won’t want to miss his beat box R&B number, Right on Time (Choreography, Kylie Ann Smith).
The extent to which Welcome Back is autobiographical isn’t clear. His only character isn’t named. I suggest he represents Everyman. He questions: ’How will we cope going back into the world after having been in survival mode for so long?’ The Universe answers, ‘Who knows, but before you start worrying about all that, why don’t you toast this strange time with a drink or four and dance like it’s the end of the world as we know it.’ And so he does, for all humans and cut-outs to see.
The show deals with mental health, survival modes, memories, self-preservation and accepting change through a contemporary kind of clowning, and backed up by the science of survival we see in a slideshow at the top of the show, designed to assure us when he goes off on one.
His dreams — abstract memories — form the backbone of the show; song, dance and mini-riffs — like the ‘If You Haven’t Done That’ tale about his wild swimming, kombucha drinking, culture growing neighbours — are crack fillers. Cliffe’s recollections are mutually painful — he hurts, we hurt; he confesses they are ‘not stories I really want to tell, so let’s get on with it,’ a way of bracing himself and suggesting we strap ourselves in, too. And he tackles some tough stuff — but he makes sure that there’s a soft landing, providing billows of laughter at his raucous characterisation and self-styled use of language.
Justin Teddy Cliffe’s kind of humour begs the world to be a kinder, more humorous place. He manages to deliver raw stories, giving us something to really chew on, and edgy messages, sharp edges you’ve got to be mindful of. The combination is a prescription for our well-being: all that chewing flexes and stretches the brain muscles; and those edges require a wholesome flexibility and navigation skills.
Down the rabbit hole and across to Neverland we go, mix in a personal tragedy and that gives you Come Away. A mixed bag of a film that never seems to know where its own story is going, but yet, there are glimmers of hope within its 94 minute runtime. The film ponders the question ‘What if Alice from Wonderland and Peter Pan were siblings?’ Starring the likes of Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo, the latter of which steals the show in every scene he is in, but the film primarily focuses on its younger cast, Keria Chansa and Jordan Nash, as the Littleton children, each destined for an adventure. The film takes a look within the imagination of a child, and how certain events, good or bad, can trigger it.
Within the time of the 19th Century, a time without technology or the violence we see today. Three children, David Littleton (Reese Yates), Peter Littleton (Jordan Nash) and Alice Littleton (Keria Chansa) enjoy their peaceful life, full of wonder in their tea parties or adventure in their forest, where either imagination can run wild as they can travel, encouraged by their mother Rose Littleton (Angelina Jolie) and their father Jack Littleton (David Oyelowo), the three children enjoy a happy, fun life. Unfortunately, a dark storm is cast over the family, with the accidental death of David, each family member spirals into a dark path in order to cope with their grief, Rose delves deep into the world of alcohol, neglecting Alice, who seeks solace with her aunt Elanor Morrow (Anna Chancellor), whilst Jack delves deep into his mysterious and dangerous past, costing him the safety of his family. As Alice and Peter seek to aid their father, they travel to London to put an end to their family’s tragedy, if it were only that easy.
The film’s two central characters Alice and Peter Pan, each come from a beloved piece of classic literature. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, first published in 1865, whilst J.M. Barrie created the character of Peter Pan in a series of novels, the first of which came out in 1902 in his novel, The Little White Bird. Characters and story elements are drawn from both books to create this story, and many characters are found in subtle, but unique and unexpected ways. In fact, some story elements are even taken from the personal history of the authors, for example. J.M. Barrie had an older brother who died in an accident, leaving their mother devastated. J.M. Barrie later attempted to take his siblings’ place in her mother’s eyes. Similar to what Peter did in the story. The idea of the story itself first came to the screenwriter Marissa Kate Goodhill when she graduated from college, after taking a class, she wondered about ‘what if Peter and Alice were siblings’ and began working on the script for the film for years. Directed by Brenda Chapman, the first woman to ever direct an animated film from a major studio, Dreamworks’s The Prince of Egypt.
Her unique vision to the film, brought to life hundreds of different places and characters. Visually, the film looks like it had been ripped straight from an animated Disney movie, bringing a fantasy element, the way she is able to combine the real world as well as the children’s imaginations flow seamlessly, between the false and the real. The visual effects within the first half of the film are flawless. Whilst I do have my issue with the pacing of the first act, the first scene is mind blowing. The children are introduced, as well as establishing the general tone of the film. The characters themselves are a mixed bag, with many of the characters we see, a version of a beloved character from the books. With the exception of the family, each character is given a single character trait in order to make them memorable, however, they do this to the best of their abilities, making some of them extremely memorable. Clarke Peters’ portrayal of the pawn shop owner, the Mad Hatter, makes a lasting impact, and whilst only having a few scenes, he makes a lasting impression on the audience. The same could be said for the character of Elanor Morrow, who is this film’s version of the Queen of Hearts, a much more modern take on her character, with her views on class being her aim driving force, and I do think that her character is generally concerned for her sister as well as Alice, and the scenes of Alice and Elanor together near the start are heart touching. But out of every single character, the character I find we get most attached to is Jack Littleton.
Jack Littleton is perhaps the most interesting character, presented as a good father, and an excellent carver, coming from an unsavoury upbringing within the crime world. He is extremely hard working and sets in motion the story that gets their family into trouble, when after David’s death, he returns to his gambling ways. Whilst I do not think any of the characters is more essential than another, Jack is the character that holds the family together, having connections to both Peter Pan and Alice and Wonderland. After David, I would argue that he is a principal character.
However, despite the film’s highlights, there are a large number of issues that I think could have been fixed with a couple lines of dialogue and better pacing, the film could have been improved, significantly. My first major issue is the film’s pacing, during the first act as we led up to David’s death, the film was extremely slow, apart from the fast paced stellar first scene, the film doesn’t improve from there, until the death of David that is, were the film picks up the pace to deliver that in my opinion, the most interesting act, especially the Jack Littleton plotline. The true calamity however is the third act, by far the worst part of the film, a rushed conclusion that never tells us truly what is going on. I will not spoil the film, but, in the final scenes of the film, we are left to wonder what is real and what is not, leading to confusion, which is quite annoying, another issue with the final act I have is the terrible effects, which I am surprised at, since up to that point, the effects stood strong.
The connection between Alice and Peter was well developed, until it was not. At the essence of their relationship, is a strong dynamic, Alice is a child who wants to grow up, whilst Peter is a child that never wants to grow up, and through the second act, their bond is developed, with David now gone to hold them together, they are forced to find their own way, learning to work together. However, the two characters are too separated through the film, for them to forge a connection that was memorable, and therefore, forgettable. They also bring, A List actors, such as Michael Caine and Derek Jacobi, who only appear for one or two scenes. Scenes that I feel could have been replaced with up and coming actors that could have made the exact same effect.
Ultimately the film is bland, it is something special in my opinion, sure the actors make the best out what they are given, but it is not enough to save them from poor pacing and a story that feels unconnected and unhinged. What makes it even worse we that there was a strong and interesting story within the film, the story of Jack Littleton, I feel that the film could have been much better by focusing much more on this, I feel that, whilst I enjoy that particular aspect, the film fails to catch what made is so interesting in the first place. I enjoy the stories of Peter Pan and Alice and Wonderland, the latter of the two much more, however, by combining them, it was given a muddled story, down the rabbit hole they went, but when the story fell, it never stopped falling.
Signature Entertainment presents Come Away on Blu-ray and DVD on 12th April.
Ethan is a member of The Torch Theatre, Young Film Ambassadors, this is a new scheme for those aged 14-18 in Pembrokeshire that will give opportunities for young people to watch, discuss and review the latest independent, UK & International, and blockbuster films. The scheme will give the young ambassadors the opportunity to get their reviews seen, and, to find out more about cinema and filmmaking in focused workshop sessions for aspiring reviewers with special guest speakers.
Sir Anthony Hopkins was the latest of many Oscar winners with a Welsh connection, one in particular is often overlooked. The greatest film ever made is considered to be Citizen Kane, but it lost out on Best Picture in 1941 to a story about a family of Welsh coal miners.
How Green Was My Valley is about the Morgan family, and set between 1890-1914. It tells of the lives of Gwilym, his wife Beth, and their seven children living in a coal mining village in the Rhondda. Derided for its inaccuracies, mining families of the time could barely recognise their own lives. The novel was also far from authentic as the writer, Richard Llewellyn, was the son of Welsh parents who ran a pub in London. Born and raised there, he had an English accent, and never set foot in Wales until he was an adult. Most of the background came from listening to stories told by others, and written while on army service in India. The rights were bought by Fox for $300,000 and adapted by American screenwriter Philip Dunne, who had no idea about Wales. It wasn’t even filmed there: The original intent was to make it on location, in colour, and as a four hour epic like Gone With The Wind, but the outbreak of World War Two ended that. Instead an entire village was built in Malibu Creek State Park, taking 150 builders six months and costing $110,000, with the hill painted black to look like coal slag.
Studio executives also watered down the politics of the story, uneasy with its pro-union and socialist message. Gwilym Morgan is seen as being an independent leader, opposed to unions. Most of his sons disagree, and it is this issue that eventually leads to the decline of both the Morgan family and the valley itself.
The biggest criticism of the film is the poor Welsh accents by the actors, as there was only one Welsh person in the entire cast. Rhys Williams from Clydach plays Dai Bando, the miner who teaches Huw how to box. The rest are Irish, Scottish, English and even Canadian. One of the better accents comes from Mr Parry the chapel deacon, played by Arthur Shields. The brother of Barry Fitzgerald who plays Cyfartha, he fought in the Easter Rebellion in 1916 and was imprisoned afterwards in a camp in Frongoch, Wales. Oddly enough John Loder (Ianto Morgan) was a British officer and fought on the other side.
Despite the criticism it should be remembered that the film won 5 Oscars, and brought Wales to the attention of the world. It also managed to create a genuine feeling of Welshness by using traditional songs & hymns, such as Men of Harlech, Cwm Rhondda and Calon Lan, employing most of the Welsh singers in California. For me it has the one thing that Citizen Kane lacked, heart.
There is one scene in particular that captures the poetry, sadness and humour that are endemic to Wales: a disaster brings everyone to the mine, including Dai Bando, his constant companion Cyfartha, and Mr Gruffydd, the preacher who was about to leave the valley. With men still trapped, he appeals for volunteers to rescue them:
Mr. Gruffydd: “Who is for Gwilym Morgan and the others?”
Dai Bando: “I, for one. He is the blood of my heart. Come Cyfartha.”
Cyfartha: “Tis a coward I am. But I will hold your coat.”
The film left its mark on several of the cast and crew: Anna Lee (Bronwyn) became pregnant halfway through filming, Maureen O’Hara later named her daughter Bronwyn, Donald Crisp & Beth Allgood (Mr & Mrs Morgan) were nominated for Best Supporting Oscars, with Crisp winning, and John Ford won his third Best Director Oscar. The film also won cinematography and for Art Direction, due mainly to the village set. Although many believe Citizen Kane to have been robbed, I think that at a time when the world was going to war, a film about a family struggling to stay together through tragedy was the right choice.
“Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still – real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my Valley then.”
There is a moment in the final series of Keeping Faith when Eve Myles becomes Celia Imrie. The transformation is extraordinary. There is no CGI or special effects; rather, just Eve Myles doing what Eve Myles does best. It’s why we’ll miss her as Faith, the gutsy, emotional, steely and vulnerable lawyer who has been through the ringer, so to speak, over three series of the hit Welsh drama. Throughout that time, Myles has more than embodied the character. She has become her. And in this, her final swansong, Imrie has matched her star quality as Faith’s cold, manipulative and deliciously deceitful mother, Rose. Together, the two of them have simply sparkled onscreen. Their sparring matches have been so emotionally explosive that they have enthralled and exhilarated in equal measure. The introduction of Faith’s backstory has been a stroke of genius by the show’s creator, Matthew Hall, and these two acting heavyweights have helped to make it so. However, they are by no means the sole contributors to its success.
What made the first series of Keeping Faith so hugely popular was not just the superb acting talent of Eve Myles but the strong cast of characters that surrounded her. Keeping Faith has always been, at its heart, a drama about family. It is to Hall’s credit that he has managed to retain this as the central focus, the effect being, in this final series, a real depth to those supporting characters, whose arcs are as important to and invested in by the audience as Faith’s. Catherine Ayers deserves special mention for her heartrending portrayal of Lisa’s alcoholism, the scene at her first AA meeting being one of many powerful moments in this final series. The quiet resolve grown in Tom by Aneirin Hughes is another that has been beautiful to watch, with the presence of strong women, such as Suzanne Packer’s Delyth, being key to this change. I have loved watching Demi Letherby and Lacey Jones grow in their roles as Alice and Megan respectively, each bringing a different temperament that perfectly matches the stubbornness and fragility of Faith herself. Then there is the warm and gentle manner of Steve, who is played to perfection by Mark Lewis Jones, opposite the increasingly jealous and controlling Evan, played by Bradley Freegard. These two men have been magnificent, circling around the magnetic Myles with performances that have helped steer the romantic element away from soppy sentimentality, and ensured that the depiction of a relationship breakdown has been studiously honest and suitably dramatic. Such significant attention to detail has been the difference in ensuring that Keeping Faith has not just been engaging drama but has won the devotion of many fans too.
This devotion has also been generated, in no small part, by its memorable soundtrack. Amy Wadge was rightfully recognised for her musical contribution to the original series, with ‘Faith’s Song’ proving incredibly popular even outside of the series’ run. It returns in this final instalment with a greater appreciation than its more intrusive presence in series two. There is a mixture of recognisable favourites and brand-new compositions, all of which complement the action onscreen. It is in the final scenes though that the emotional weight of the title track in particular is laid heavily on the shoulders of the audience. The complete absence of music in the last episode before this point contributes to the tear-jerking moments that follow. The appearance of Osian (Keogh Kiernan) – having survived the operation that Faith fights so hard for in this series – Alice’s poignant speech, and the intimacy of Faith and Lisa as they walk across the beach to the sea, is enough to get the lip quivering. But it’s the presence of that iconic yellow coat, now firmly worn by Faith, and accompanied by her song, that really starts the waterworks off. It ensures a truly satisfying end to a show that has changed the face of Welsh drama, and been taken to the hearts of so many in Wales and beyond.
From its humble beginnings as Un Bore Mercher on S4C to its primetime slot on Saturday night BBC1, Keeping Faith has been a juggernaut of a drama. It is rare that I get on my hobby horse but I think it’s important, given the constant criticism levelled at its news output, that the future of the BBC and its licence fee is not debated on such a narrow-minded understanding of the corporation to the detriment of gems such as this. Keeping Faith demonstrates the BBC’s commitment and ability to produce quality Welsh drama that is made in Wales, for the people of Wales, but with the potential to reach beyond Wales too. It may not always get it right (see Pitching In) but without it, there is little evidence to suggest that the commercial channels will step up to the mark. The Pembrokeshire Murders(ITV) may represent a rare foray into Welsh representation. However, its risk-taking (a true story crime drama) leaves a lot to be desired. Keeping Faith is unlikely to have been made without the backing of the BBC & S4C. Could its success herald the possibility of a sea-change? I doubt it. But whatever happens, we will always be grateful for Faith Howells. So thank you, Matthew Hall. Thank you, Eve Myles.
Hannah Daniel gives an impressive performance in S4C’s latest drama series, Bregus. She is almost unrecognisable from her best known role to date, playing straight-faced, sharp-tongued lawyer Cerys in Keeping Faith. Instead, she takes on the character of high-flying surgeon Ellie, whose vulnerability and fragile mental state begin to unravel following the sudden death of her sister, Luce (played by Sara Gregory). Daniel manages to create a richly compelling personality, surrounding her with an air of mystery that is greatly enhanced by the use of camera, music and cinematography. In doing so, she makes the transition from supporting actor to leading lady with aplomb. No doubt awards will follow.
The series begins almost as a mirror image of Keeping Faith, with Daniel adopting the organised chaos of the married middle-class professional with kids first thing on a weekday morning. The initial picture that is painted is one in which everything appears perfect. Life is good. But then an unexpected twist turns everything upside down. Where Bregus then veers from Keeping Faith becomes more apparent, not least in the actions of Ellie, whose accompanying blank expressions could not be more different from the swirling emotion conveyed by Eve Myles as Faith. This is where Daniel excels in producing a sense of detachment both within the drama itself and from us, the audience. She becomes something of an enigma. The lingering close-ups, jarring soundtrack and surrealist techniques all contribute to this unknown element. But it is what surrounds the dialogue between Ellie and husband Mart that really unlocks the general feeling of unease that accompanies the strangeness of this drama.
It is not about what is said so much as what is not said that makes Bregus so intriguing. The surface dialogue contains such rich subtext that it is hard not to be gripped by the exchanges of Hannah Daniel and Rhodri Meilir in particular. Meilir is perfectly cast as the quietly controlling Mart. His ability to play a character with such threatening calmness is ideally suited here. There is always a sense of an ulterior motive behind his composed exterior which, like in his previous role as Bill in 35 Diwrnod, is never quite confirmed until the final episode. In the meantime, it is the suspicion that surrounds him that helps build tension here, with the revelation of his character’s true nature being even more powerful when it finally comes. It is in the final scenes that everything that has been bubbling underneath the surface is suddenly unleashed in explosive fashion. The dialogue then becomes explicit, so carefully crafted as to cut like a knife, and revealing Bregus as a beautifully feminist piece that is incredibly moving to say the least.
Bregus is this wonderful mix of mystery drama, psychological thriller and family psychodrama. At its heart is a wonderfully complex female character whose actions are often far removed from the stereotype. Hannah Daniel portrays Ellie exceedingly well as a mother, wife, friend and surgeon who is not immune to the challenges and external pressures that come with these roles. Her responses are often unexpected and at times surprising, which is partly what makes this drama so absorbing. Its sense of intrigue is elevated by music that is so resonant at times that it overwhelms; close-up shots that are so immersive that they enthral; and the use of surrealism such that one is never quite sure whether what Ellie is experiencing is real or not. It is in the subtlety of expression alongside the dialogue though that should be particularly commended. Daniel and Rhodri Meilir excel at this, though the rest of the cast have their moments too. It is in the mystery at the heart of these relationship dynamics that makes Bregus such a fascinating watch. And it is the vehicle through which Hannah Daniel finally announces herself as a solid and very capable lead.
With less to do during lock-down, Simon Kensdale has been resorting to the BBC i Player. He has noticed how many broadcast crime series consisting of murder enquiries. Some are truly horrific, like The Serpent, in the sense of being both true and frightening. It has made him wonder if there is a danger of TV audiences gradually becoming desensitised to violence. Simon explores these areas in the article below.
There is a secondary story in The Serpent about Herman Knippenberg. He’s a Dutch diplomat obsessed with tracking the killer – Sobhraj – down and his meticulous record-keeping finally results in success. His obsession costs him his marriage and threatens his career prospects. He’s odd, too, keeping boxes of paperwork with him wherever he goes, rather than throwing anything away. But at least Knippenberg’s activities are normal – ish. In following the series, through him we see a bit more of humanity than that of a unique, psychopathic killer who gets off on drugging and murdering young travellers in the Far East.
Knippenberg’s behaviour makes him similar to the average TV detective. We can almost predict – as yet another crime series kicks off with yet another discovery of the body of a dead woman – that there will be someone on the case who can’t let go and who also cannot maintain a private life. The detective will be divorced or uncommitted to a relationship. Recently several detectives have been shown on TV as also having problematic relationships with their daughters. Ironically, in The Investigation – the true story of a particularly bizarre Danish murder, committed on a privately-owned submarine – it turned out that the Head of Homicide really had been alienated from his adult daughter.
What seems to happen in all these series is that the main thrust of the narrative – the need to apprehend a killer – is cross-cut with ‘everyday’ human drama. The lives of the detectives and the supporting cast of police officers are presented as if they are representative of the wider community. I rather doubt that the professional upholders of law and order are as interesting as the TV companies make them appear to be, or even as interesting as Knippenberg, but I admit that this could be a personal bias. In any case, their personal dramas are never meant to be as important as the main story line. It’s as if no-one believes there’s any serious drama going on in human situations anywhere that does not involve a killing – or three, or nine. Everything that is not murder is soap.
But murder is rare in European societies. It is a comparatively easy crime to solve, as there is usually a connection between the murderer and his victim. Of course, recently the police clear-up capability has been speeded up by the information processing of computers and by the scientific advances which make DNA recordable, storable and traceable. The police can also monitor mobile phone usage and draw on the massive amounts of film footage accumulated by security cameras. But where there is no connection between victim and killer – as in the case of Sobhraj – or where there has been a professional ‘hit’ – the police are still ineffectual. They often have to wait for the killer to make a mistake – as in they did in the case of the Yorkshire Ripper – before they can solve the case.
The fact that you and I know about these new developments is an indication of how many crime series we have swallowed down whole. We could almost all now write one ourselves. You open with a shocking and mysterious death, preferably in an unusual setting; you introduce in a handful of ‘interesting’ characters and some back story. When you feel the tension level flagging, you throw in some more bodies, as if adding fuel to the fire. (You needn’t concern yourself with the fact that with murders more is actually less, since the audience can’t keep on meting out its sympathy and will get emotionally confused as the body count increases, forgetting who got killed first.) You can enrich your material with a red herring or an unexpected clue and you must include a chase, on foot or using cars. You might even put in some comic relief before you wrap it everything up with a dangerous, ‘dramatic’ confrontation with the murderer. The over familiar narrative process is meant to reassure everyone that, however bad things appear to be, truth will out and justice will be delivered.
More than exciting an interest in the nastier side of life and the worst forms of human behaviour, I think there is a problem with this narrative form. Seeking to reassure a mass audience with a basic fantasy is a form of brainwashing. We are seduced into abandoning our rational awareness that murder enquiries are nothing like as tense and interesting as the way they are presented (The Investigation is an exception to this rule) because of the real time they take and because of the dull routine of the work involved.
More importantly, few of us live the experience of confronting a problem which gets solved, allowing us to we live happily ever after. Instead of having one large and horrific issue to grapple with we have innumerable minor difficulties that most of the time add up to make our life either frustrating or frightening. We know this situation is never going to change, that nothing we can do will make any difference and that nobody is coming to help. If we are not actually the victim in an unsensational case, we will be like the junior police officer expected to solve a crime with access to limited information and having no authority, struggling with a mountain of bureaucracy, against a background of incompetent management and competitive colleagues. Our family life may not be any more straightforward than our work life. It will be banal but it will consist of more than a communication difficulty with a daughter.
Given this reality, in my opinion what we need from the purveyors of fiction, is a constructive reflection on our circumstance – an experience exploring the outlines of the predicament we find ourselves in. This should be done in a way that is not escapism disguised as realism. The proliferation of crime dramas based on murder stories suggests that TV as a medium, despite the talent and intelligence of the people working within it and despite the quite astonishing technical facilities available to them nowadays, is not able to offer this kind of creative reflection. Maybe I am expecting too much from what can only ever be light entertainment. If I want the kind of imaginative experience I am defining, perhaps I have to read novels or go to the theatre.
I did appreciate the ingenuity of The Serpent, in particular the way the timing of the action moved backwards and forwards. I was suitably appalled by what Sobhraj did, although he was presented as being so perpetually cool and self-controlled that he seemed quite dull. Little space was given to exploring his capacity to be so charming and desirable that his partner and indeed his ex-wife both found him irresistible, despite their knowledge of what he was capable of. For me, the really interesting questions surrounding Sobhraj remains not what he did or how he got away with it, so much as why he did it and why others helped him.
Otherwise I thought the acting in the series was of a good standard – although Tim McInnerny hammed it up as a Belgian. The dialogue was credible and moved the plot on even if it didn’t say much about Sobhraj’s motivation. Since the series draws on a true story for its outline it only required the details to be coloured in carefully. The impressive settings for the action in Thailand, India, Nepal and Paris were like pages from a holiday brochure.
Would a closer focus on Sobhraj have demanded too much of us? It would have required us to sit and pay attention and respond to words and phrases in conversations and note small gestures and aspects of behaviour in the way we do in front of a live performance. We would not have been able to just get up and go and make a sandwich or look at our texts or carry on with the ironing. We might, though, have been truly moved by what we were watching. We wouldn’t have wanted to either pause an episode or wait until next week for the sequel. The story would have possessed us.
Numerous people have said they ‘loved’ The Serpent. Personally, whilst I might admit to loving plays by Shakespeare and Moliere, or novels by Dickens and Tolstoy, I can only say the series temporarily distracted me whilst my options of doing anything else other than watching TV were limited by lockdown. Despite its expensive ingenuity it did not tell me anything new about the human condition and it did not give me that sensation of excitement that engagement with a work of art provides.
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The recent S4C series Fflam was a slow-burner. I came to it with much intrigue and anticipation given the concept and acting talent. The idea of a woman, Noni, seeing her dead husband, Tim, again, after years believing he had died in a fire, sounded like the perfect spark from which to ignite a gripping narrative. The fact that Gwyneth Keyworth (Bang, Craith/Hidden) and Richard Harrington (Hinterland, Poldark) played the lead roles only served to excite and offer high expectations. So it was with sadness and disappointment that I found myself ultimately underwhelmed by its delivery. It did manage to strike a few matches throughout its six, half-hour episodes. However, these failed to set alight a series that was full of promise but low on satisfaction.
The performance of Keyworth was central to giving the drama a certain kudos that it may otherwise have lacked. Her ability to convey Noni’s internal emotions onscreen was akin to that of Eve Myles in Keeping Faith. The difference here though was the oft understated way that Keyworth did this. She demonstrated the conflict between grief and passion going on inside through very subtle expression which, nevertheless, with help from the camera and editing suite, was full of depth. Her appearances alongside Richard Harrington, particularly those in a restaurant over dinner, provided some of the most enjoyable scenes of the series. The gentle charisma that Harrington brought to his mysterious character, opposite the romantic infatuation that Keyworth successfully tempered as Noni, helped create a sense of ease. It led to a free-flowing script that meant their conversations appeared natural onscreen. These moments became absorbing as a result, giving some required fizz to a drama that, outside of them, felt a bit flat and unengaging.
I wonder whether the drama would have benefitted from having a more compressed narrative in which its central premise was played with a lot sooner and the final twist in the series was incorporated a lot earlier. This would have contributed to the retention of dramatic tension that, instead, bubbles up and then peters out at several points throughout the series. It is not helped by the fact that the characters of Deniz (Memet Ali Alabora), Ekin (Pinar Ögün), and Malan (Mali Ann Rees) were underserved by a subplot that lacked the same level of emotional investment as the main thread. And even in respect of the lead characters’ encounters, the pull-and-push of their developing relationship, though understandable in capturing Noni’s reticence, became increasingly frustrating. It simply took too long to progress, with the undesired effect being that, at points, the series felt like it was playing for time. By the time the revelations started to come out in episode five, they did not elicit the same degree of interest as they might otherwise have done had the narrative been pacier. As such, Fflam would have benefitted from an adaptation that condensed its source material into much more flavoursome half-hour chunks than we get here.
Overall then, Fflam has plenty of plus points to prevent it from being a damp squib even as it fails to set fire to the landscape of Welsh television drama. It is refreshing to see an image of Wales that is multicultural and inclusive played out onscreen, even if the presence of diverse characters only serve to circulate around a central narrative in which they play a limited part. Gwyneth Keyworth cements her status as one of Wales’ most exciting and talented screen actresses, with Richard Harrington and Mali Ann Rees again proving solid and reliable actors in their own right. If a second series is forthcoming, as expected, then Fflam has plenty of room for improvement. But it also still retains enough unrealised potential to warrant another chance.
This year has been the year of the audio. Scratchworks Theatre Company have brought their original stage play, written by Jack Dean to an audio tale with accompanied Science experiments for children.
Combined in a couple of audio sections, Faina and The Snow Beast features the tale of an Orphan, Faina, who dreams of becoming a scientists. Raised by the owl who found her abandoned, Maud, who believes in the magical and extraordinary, the two, with the help of Faina’s mother’s journal, undertake the most exciting adventure full of trials and tribulations to find The Snow Beast.
The story is very easy to get into. Able to download, you can dip and dive into the story whenever you want to. With the talented voices of Scratchworks, a range of different character’s are animated within our consciousness with the use of accents and skillful voice acting, evoking images and fueling our imaginations of the character’s and their adventure.
Known for their brilliant voices and musical styling, Scratchworks bring in magical yet homely and folk like music to accompany the story, making the atmosphere and the story feel sensational, with a Disney-like quality to the story in drumming up visions of the adventure.
Punctuated with their science pack, children are able to listen to the story and are encouraged and inspired to follow Scratchworks and make their own scientific experiments. The story highlights that science and the extraordinary are not necessarily different to one another. Maud states something along the lines of why should you only have the choice of belief in science or of the magical and unusual. By bringing the two together in a theatrical story telling and with science to attempt, children and adults alike can enjoy the magic of science and stories.
Faina and The Snow Beast aims itself at children, but adults are also fully taken away to far away lands, flying in hot air balloons and feeling the blizzardy atmosphere The Snow Beast creates. A joyous and sensational story.
Get The Chance critic, Beth Armstrong, chats to Tamara Harvey, Artistic Director of North Wales theatre, Theatr Clwyd. Tamara is the director of new online play, The Picture of Dorian Gray, featuring cross-county creatives and a star-studded cast. This adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel is a collaboration between the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre and Oxford Playhouse with partner venues including Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Torch Theatre.
Tamara,congratulations on being named The Stage, Regional Theatre Of The Year. Can you tell me what that meant to you and the whole team at Theatr Clwyd?
It was just an amazing start to the year because everyone in the team has worked so hard whether they’ve been working on serving our community or creating online content or whether they’ve been on furlough and have had to navigate the emotional difficulties of that – home-schooling, friends and family being ill – so to have a moment where the industry and The Stage said ‘you’re doing alright’, you know, ‘keep going’ – it was a really good way to start 2021.
Well it’s a brilliant achievement. So your new production, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is an online play. Now online plays are becoming more commonplace amid the pandemic but each theatre has their own definition. Could you give us more details on what this play might look like or are you keeping it under wraps?
Yeah I’m very happy to. Essentially it’s born of the question of: ‘What can we do?’ So we can’t tell stories on our stages right now. What can we do? It’s a combination of audio recordings, found footage, filmed extracts – some filming taking place in person, socially distanced, obviously, and some in people’s own homes, so it’s come from adversity but hopefully it means that we’re just creating a slightly new way of experiencing the story.
It sounds really innovative. And there have been a lot of brilliant pieces of theatre, TV and film made during lockdown. Does your adaptation make any coronavirus parallels or does it provide a brief respite from it all?
I think it certainly provides respite, I would say, in that it’s full of brilliant actors and it’s a fascinating story. It is set now so there are moments that allude to the world we’re living in now but it isn’t a story about a pandemic. It’s a story about people living their lives in a particular moment in time.
So as you said it takes place now. The play modernises Oscar Wilde’s story and transforms Dorian Gray into a social media influencer. Recently many influencers have been criticised for travelling despite restrictions. Do you think audiences will have less sympathy towards the character in light of this? Will their opinions of him change in any way?
Ah, interesting…I think we each when we watch a story, when we experience of piece of theatre or digital storytelling, we bring our own experiences and our own opinions to it so I think everyone is likely to react to Dorian in a slightly different way, depending on whether they have experience of that online world or they don’t, whether it’s something that they’re completely familiar with or something that they find totally alien. I think, and I hope actually – it’s one of the stories with making a piece of theatre, whether it’s on screen or on stage – I hope that people will have different reactions depending on their own experiences.
Social media and the idea of keeping up appearances seem to be a key theme. Do you think the pandemic has increased our anxiety of showing off our best selves online or instead alleviated some of the pressure, as teachers and colleagues are now allowed a little window into our lives everyday – messy kitchens and all?
It’s certainly increased my anxiety! *laughs* There’s nothing like having to be on a TV screen every day, you know. The great joy of discovering you can turn off your self-view on Zoom is amazing. Look, I think it’s done both, hasn’t it? We’re having to spend more time – even if only at the moment when we sign onto a facetime or a Zoom or whatever – we’re spending more time seeing our own image and for some of us that’s, you know, not a pleasant experience, for others I’m sure it’s delightful. We’re also able to have pyjama bottoms on as long as only our top half is seen so it’s a really curious mix. I put on heels for the first time yesterday and it felt totally bizarre because I haven’t done that in months and so yeah, perhaps with all of these things, each of us is having such a different experience. You know it’s that thing – people have said we’re all in the same storm but in different boats. I’m having to spend almost all day everyday on Zoom and there are other people who don’t go near it. So I think it’s impossible to generalise really.
Rehearsing online and with social distancing measures must have presented a lot of challenges but are there any positive aspects or creative innovation to have come out of these restrictions?
Well the whole piece is a creative endeavour that wouldn’t have happened under any other set of circumstances. So the fact that it exists is in itself a positive coming out of this moment. Online rehearsals are…difficult. Partly because of the time lag, partly because there is a focusing thing that happens when you walk into a rehearsal room – you’re leaving your life behind, plugging into a different space and that focuses your mind, whereas if you’re in your own home, you’ve got the door going or you’ve got the dog barking, you know, or your kids running round, whatever it is. But there are advantages; I still get to have tea with my kids every day and people don’t have to leave their loved ones behind to travel. Given the choice, I will still want to be in a room with people but it is possible to find positives even online.
Yeah I think that’s true. So starring as the title character Dorian is actor, Fionn Whitehead, who audiences will no doubt recognise as the breakthrough star of Dunkirk. What do you think Fionn brings to the role?
Fionn is just extraordinary. On screen he is completely mesmerising and I think that’s to do with the rare combination of vulnerability and strength. And wit. And innocence. He’s a kind of fascinating mix and the other thing that’s such a joy about him is he’s just an incredible person to have on set because he’s utterly delightful every second of the day. That means that you can be playful and collaborative and try things and as a director, feel able to make mistakes or try something unexpected because he’s so open and engaged. He’s extraordinary.
The show is currently in pre-production but are there any aspects or ideas you’re particularly excited to share with the cast and other creatives?
Well we’ve kind of got everything, as it were, in the can. We’ve now done all of the filming. The bit that’s happening now, which is quite new for me and therefore really exciting, is the editing. And I’m in this lovely position where I’m spending most of everyday on Zoom with our amazing director of photography and editor, Ben Collins, from the Barn Theatre with both of us watching the dailies and working out the edit so there’s something really heart-warming in this moment about knowing that I’m up in North Wales in my regional theatre and he’s down in Cirencester in his but there’s this invisible string reaching between us as we both create a thing. And the whole time we’re watching onscreen all these other people who’ve come together, whether physically or remotely, to make a story in order to support regional theatre and that feels pretty special.
I love that sense of connection that you have. So would you like to add anything else?
I suppose the only thing is that it’s worth saying that it does have what Henry Filloux-Bennett, who is the adapter, has done so beautifully – he’s managed to hold on to the spirit of the original which of course has all the wit of Oscar Wilde so as well as talking about social media and being about the downfall of this young man it’s also funny and fun and irreverent and all of those things.
Thank you so much. I think that just leaves me to say best of luck and I can’t wait to see it.
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In our latest Playwright interview Director of Get the Chance Guy O’Donnell chats to Wales based Playwright Neil Bebber. Neil discusses his career to date, his latest project “Short Stories for Stressed Grown-Ups”and his thoughts on opportunities for Playwrights in Wales.
Hi Neil great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?
Hello! I’m a playwright, screenwriter, copywriter and graphic designer. I enjoy cycling, sea swimming, hiking at night under star-stuffed skies, endlessly scrolling though Netflix trying to find something good to watch, cooking (though my recent attempts at culinary genius have fallen short) and playing online Scrabble with strangers. For the record, I haven’t lost a game. Yet.
So, what got you interested in the arts?
Pantomime. Probably. I remember the feeling I had watching a school panto when I was maybe ten years old. The Seven Dwarves had left for the day to hi-ho off to work and Snow White was left alone in the space. A sequence followed where she just made the most of having the space to herself and I was transfixed.
From an early age, I was curious about the world. Talking to people as soon as I could talk. Asking “why” even more than most other kids. That question can take a child either way. Science allows us to understand how something works. The arts allow us to explore how something makes us feel. I’m a combination of the two. But, having turned down a potentially lucrative career in banking, in favour of a poorly-paid graphic design “apprenticeship” (that’s a whole other story!) I’d chosen my path.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Where do your ideas come from?
I used to fool myself into believing the romantic notion that I could only write when I was wallowing in a pool of self-indulgent pity, but I now realise that’s not true. I don’t know who said it, but writers write. So, the most important part of the process is to start by writing something.
It’s a cliché, but it is a muscle. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. And the more addictive it is. On the many courses I’ve been on, the forensic detail of process has been useful, but I’ve always got more from the automatic writing exercises. It’s a great way to unlock the unconscious mind and discover those seeds lurking in there between the teeth of doubt.
And I make a lot of notes. The romance of a notepad and fountain pen has been superseded by the iphone, but I’m glad that, should I ever hit a pothole on my bike and find myself flattened by an oncoming bus, nobody will ever get to access my notes. There’s a lot of strange musings there. Today I wrote a paragraph about how a crow, battered by the wind, seemed to be perfectly content to walk across the road sideways. And how that might serve as a metaphor. But I don’t know what for yet.
GULL, the play recently read on Zoom by the brilliant The Far Away Plays came about like that. A note about watching gulls rip apart bin bags and hungrily tuck into a pile of used nappies. The revulsion fed the atmosphere of the play.
In terms of dialogue, I believe that writing good dialogue is more about listening than writing. Before our freedoms were curtailed by a microscopic enemy, I used to sit in a lot of coffee shops, just listening to exchanges and watching people’s body language. In recent years, I probably haven’t been the best company, socially, choosing to observe and makes notes, rather than get involved.
Can you describe your writing day? Do you have a process or a minimum word count?
Writing days vary depending on the project. I’m also lucky enough to be able to supplement an artist’s income with commercial copywriting. But, either way, I start early. Check emails, social media between 8 and 8.30 and then make a start on the writing. At the moment I’m in the process of editing an audio play for a competition, writing a new speculative TV drama and also writing, recording and editing my stories for my YouTube channel, “Short Stories for Stressed Grown-Ups”.
Producing my own work has also made me realise the amount of time that’s needed for its design and promotion. The “Short Stories…” project needed to have an eye-catching brand, as well as accompanying visuals for each story. And all of this needs to be shared with the online world. I hope I’m finding the balance between, “oh, that’s interesting, I’m so glad he let me know” and “for God’s sake, not another post about his bloody stories!” If there’s anyone brave enough out there, do let me know!
Why and where do you write?
I write because I have something to say. About something I‘ve seen or something I’ve heard. Or something I feel passionately about.
I write because it’s a compulsion. A bit of an addiction. Especially when I get to see how an audience responds to it, good or bad. Maybe that’s some deep-seated need for validation. But then maybe that’s why any artist creates anything.
I write because it helps me repair. Relax. Forget. Make sense of a world (or of people) I don’t always understand.
I write because it’s satisfying and often surprising to be taken on a journey by imaginary characters, into unfamiliar scenarios and behaviours.
In terms of where I write, I can write anywhere. As long as I have something to balance a laptop on and a reasonably comfortable chair to sit on, I can write. There’s no ritual, no lucky desk or chair of inspiration. So, the photo is of a number of places where I could easily write. And the list is always being added to…
You are a prolific writer working across multiple mediums and forms. How has the Covid-19 Pandemic affected you and your creative process?
It was clear from the beginning that the lockdown, and the continuing response to a global pandemic, was going to fundamentally change a world that relied on the physical gathering of human beings in close proximity, whether audience or performer.
But, pretty early on, I saw an opportunity to get work out to a wider audience. Admittedly, it’s not the same experience as sitting in a studio theatre, tightly-packed with an appreciative audience, breathing the same air and having a collective experience.
When Jordan Bernarde contacted me about re-staging BREATHE (to avoid him climbing the walls during the first lockdown), after a short and successful run at The Bread & Roses the year before, I jumped at the chance. And it’s success has shown that there’s an audience for online theatre.
Theatres talk a lot about diversifying their audience base and this provides the perfect opportunity to do just that. Anyone who might previously have been intimidated by physically visiting a venue, can now watch a performance online and maybe discover that it isn’t the inaccessible, exclusive experience they may have expected. And, from a writer’s perspective, there’s an entire planet’s worth of connected people looking for content. The challenge is standing out amongst the noise!
From my own point of view, there’s been a shift towards demand for more audio drama. I’ve been working on a new play for the Papatango prize, which this year will be awarded to three audio works. And I was commissioned at the end of last year to write a multiple choice audio drama, which would be navigated purely through using Alexa. Exciting stuff!
One of your latest initiatives is the new new YouTube-based spoken word project, ‘Short Stories for Stressed Grown-ups’
You’ve written a number of short stories, which you’ve also narrated yourself. This is how you’ve described the project:
“Remember when you were a kid? And how it felt to be all tucked up and have a story read to you? What a shame that, as adults, we don’t get to enjoy the sheer, indulgent escapism of those moments anymore. Well, now that’s changed. Short Stories for Stressed Grown-ups by Neil Neil is now live! So all you have do is find somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed, and listen to an original short story that will transport you from the troubles of your day.
Whether you use it to help you get off to sleep, or to re-set in the middle of a busy day, every story is written just for you.”
What response have you had to this new area of writing and storytelling?
The short stories were a suggestion by a producer friend of mine, Simon Regan, who I’d worked with on an arts podcast, EVOLUTIONS, shortly before the pandemic kicked off
I was frustrated at the time it took to get work “out there” so he suggested I might do it myself.
I researched the short story market, as well as potential gaps in provision for audio content and I thought a combination of meditative and escapist character-based short stories, narrated in the style of a bedtime story, might work.
The response has been really encouraging. The audience has been very frank about what’s working and what isn’t, the real-time feedback giving me an opportunity to modify the style and content of each new story. I’m also keen to interact with the audience, using names for characters taken from contents pages and maybe asking for suggestions on story ideas and destinations.
It’s great to know, too, that these stories are temporarily distracting people from the stresses of their day and, in some cases, helping them sleep. I’m hoping my voice doesn’t have the same effect during face-to-face conversations, when we return to the “real” world!
In November your latest play GULL was read online by the team at The Far Away Plays. We think the Far Away Plays have been one of the highpoints of creative activity in Wales during the Pandemic. Have you had an opportunity to listen to any of the other Far Away Plays, play readings? And how was it to have your latest play produced on Zoom?
GULL was originally scheduled to be performed at WMC’s Ffwrnes Scratch night in March 2020, but then the world plunged into chaos. So I was thrilled when The Far Away Plays chose it for one of their online performances late last year. Their commitment to getting work out to online audiences, as well as dealing with all the logistical stages in between, has been immense.
I was also excited to be able to cast three incredible RWCMD alumni. Luke Nunn, Cecilia Appiah and Meredith Lewis were just some of the standout actors from 2020 and it was a real privilege to witness their brilliantly instinctive and nuanced performances, especially given the limited time they had to rehearse.
The director James O’Donnell also deserves a special mention. Having put a callout on social media for a director at late notice, James answered the call. The way he was able to take a potentially static medium and turn it into such a dynamic performance was miraculous. I always get really nervous before any production of my work, but it was clear within minutes that GULL was in safe hands, so I was actually able to sit back and enjoy it!
I’m waiting to hear from FAP if there’s a recording I might be able to share with all of the Artistic Directors who weren’t able to make it, because, as good as it was to see the work performed online, this play would (and this team!) clearly work brilliantly on stage.
There are a range of organisations supporting Welsh and Wales-based writers, I wonder if you feel the current support network and career opportunities feel ‘healthy’ to you? Is it possible to sustain a career as a writer in Wales and if not what would help?
“Healthy” might be a misleading term. The opportunities are available, but I wonder how writers are made aware of them. For opportunities, my go-to is BBC Writer’s Room Opportunities page. Then I check London Playwrights, which is another brilliant resource. I’m not sure if there’s a central database for opportunities in Wales. If not, it would be great to have one, where all aspects of writing were covered, plays, films, TV, etc.
Also, there are a number of theatres offering writer’s courses and residences, but there are rarely the resources available to sustain the momentum, once they’ve happened. I’ve been on three writer’s courses and one residency and none of these led to a tangible, ongoing relationship with the respective theatres.
In terms of sustaining a writing career, I think it’s important to diversify. I’m lucky to also be a freelance copywriter and graphic designer, but, even if I was commissioned to write three plays a year, the income generated wouldn’t be enough to sustain a family, mortgage and other regular day-to-day commitments. From what I can gather, to make any sort of living, TV writing seems to the way forward. Ideally I’d like to be able to do a bit of everything, though, as I’ve been lucky enough to so far.
If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?
I think a TV writing academy would be a valid investment now. As Wales becomes used increasingly as a destination for production, and companies like Bad Wolf continue to thrive, a joined up, sustained TV writing “lab” could help nurture home-grown talent and ensure Wales was increasingly self contained, moving forward. Especially given the increase in demand for content from online providers like Netflix and Prime.
What excites you about the arts in Wales?
Diversity. The sheer extent of opportunities to make and view art for a country with a reasonable small population. I’m hesitant to use the term, “punching above its weight”. Oh, too late. I have.
And then there’s always the occasional parallel universe curveball of one of Tactile Bosch’s performance art nights. That’s what first made me realise I was living in a capital city. Ah, I miss Kim Fielding. What a lovely man.
What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?
There are so many things that have either left me speechless, laugh uncontrollably or made me cry, sometimes all at the same time.
I remember sitting down in my office (in the middle of the first lockdown), with headphones on, to watch Complicite’s “The Encounter”, and feeling within minutes as if I’d been transported to another world, by both the performance and its remarkable aural soundscape. Not sure if it’s still available to view online, but there’s more, here:
Charlie Kaufmann’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (on Netflix), whilst sometimes being incomprehensible, felt like a pure artist’s vision, unimpeded by the demands of people-pleasing. Maybe the best art is selfish. And this felt like that. But in the best possible way.
And no conversation (I say conversation, though this has all been a bit one way) with me goes without a music mention. The Dandy Warhols’ 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia has been my favourite album for years. And at the end of last year, they performed a live stream of it, in its entirety, for the first time. For that hour, I was there, front and centre, dancing like a kid in a sweet shop. The sweets being the songs. But not in jars. Obviously.
Anyway, that’s three. Because there’s never any shortage of great things to share.
Thanks for your time
And thank you for this brilliant opportunity to ramble.
Creating opportunities for a diverse range of people to experience and respond to sport, arts, culture and live events. / Lleisiau amrywiol o Gymru yn ymateb i'r celfyddydau a digwyddiadau byw