“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

If Socrates is right about this (and far be it for me to disagree with him), he has provided the greatest possible justification for the art of biography.

Biography, of course, is all about the examination of lives.  It is the art of stitching together the facts of an individual’s life into a coherent and credible narrative.  At the same time, the biographer makes a pitch for the specialness of a person, and the extraordinariness of their existence.  A subject’s life is a micro history, a way of understanding the way things were in a certain place and time.  A tall order.

“‘Verbo caro factum est.’ said Ormerod Goode opaquely. ‘The art of biography is a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts.’ (A.S Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale)

Biography is a mistrusted art.  The worst of biography is prurient, exploitative grave-robbery.  It is dull sycophancy. It is composed, if not of bald-faced lies, then of euphemisms, twisted facts and half-truths.

Because the public exposure to a dramatised life is greater, and perhaps because the impact of watching a facsimile version of a famous person can be more intense than reading about them on the page, the criticisms levelled at screen biography tend to be amplified.  The squabbles between filmmakers and families of biographical subjects are great tabloid fodder.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (2003)

The family of Sylvia Plath publicly censured the filmmakers of Sylvia (2003).

But the criticisms of biography of all kind only serve to underline our fascination with the lives of important people, the private selves behind the public facades.  For the film and television industries, biopics are “pre-sold” materials for audiences not that into superheroes.  For film and television makers, biopics are an opportunity to use the film form to probe deeply into various kinds of human experience, or to use an individual life to explore a moment in time.  For performers, it is the opportunity to inhabit the spirit of subject, and try to emulate their behaviour and personality.  Or to win an Oscar.

Imitation Game poster

The Imitation Game (2014) – A recent, and pretty typical example of a British film Biopic

I’ve been interested screen biographies for some years now.  This stems from my work as a scholar of contemporary British cinema and television.  The biopic has been a key genre for UK film for decades, and has provided a large number of critical and commercial successes.  In some ways, it ticks all the cliched boxes for British film: heritage subject matter, refined acting skills on display, offering opportunities for aestheticised period detail, tasteful and middlebrow.

I’m interested in the stories within and behind these life stories on screen.  What version of this famous life is being portrayed, and why? How are their lives narrated?  How do performers attempt to capture their essence?  What devices are used to imply that this version of the life is authentic (or otherwise)?

In this blog, I’ll be analysing screen biographies, both for film and television, and writing about the issues and ideas I have come across in my efforts to understand them better.  Your comments, disagreements and own interpretations are more than welcome – I’m always on the lookout for new angles on biopics!

Why Real Lives on Screen?

“Real” horror – Serial Killers in American Horror Story: Hotel: Devil’s Night

I’m a fan of American Horror Story, and so far forgiven both a lot of its excesses, particularly its repetitive use of archetypes and mise-en-scene with Baz Luhrmann levels of subtlety.  I’ve also been generally on board with its promiscuous use of pop culture referencing, even in places where it is simply meretricious (Elsa ‘Life on’ Mars, anyone?).

Part of the fun of the show is the reworking of horror genre staples: the amoral Nazi doctor, the killer clown, the haunted house.  But these are precisely that – they are generic. The tropes are vague, which allows for innovation, reinvention, and creativity, which I think the show has in spades.

John Carroll Lynch as 'Twisty the Clown' from AHS: Freak Show

John Carroll Lynch as ‘Twisty the Clown’ from AHS: Freak Show

In Devil’s Night (S5, E4), though, the allusions become less oblique.  No longer do we see pastiches of American horrors, patchworks of unspecified nightmares stitched together through expert storytelling and diverting style. This time, the evildoers are given specific names, names we recognise, names that belong to real serial killers.  I found this disturbing on an uncomfortable new level.

A very quick plot summary: on Halloween night, depressed and disturbed Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), drinking alone at the bar of the Hotel Cortez, discovers he has been invited to a party in which all the other guests are, in fact, serial murderers of some repute.  John Wayne Gacy (John Carroll Lynch, who’d already played a clown killer in AHS: Freak Show) , Richard ‘Night Stalker’ Ramirez (Anthony Ruivivar), Jeffrey Dahmer (Seth Gabel), and a still-anonymous Zodiac killer (hooded), are in attendance.


John Carroll Lynch plays John Wayne Gacy

The dinner largely consists of conversing about and, in the case of Dahmer, replaying, the horrors that they meted out on their victims.  Each of them also tells the story of how they first came to the Cortez. The latter tales, of course, are inventions, but they mix aspects of the biographies of these killers into the story  They aren’t real, but they are plausible. Thinking about the mix of fact and fiction is, of course, a preoccupation for me, but here I’m interested in how it is managed in a show so dependent on excessive fantasy (cf Lady Gaga’s gloriously camp turn as ‘The Countess’).

The high-concept of the episode is first introduced through a drunken encounter between Lowe and a roughly dressed woman who looks (and acts) a lot like Aileen Wuornos. Lowe naturally believes her to be dressed for Halloween, complimenting her on her costume and performance.  Of course there is dramatic irony here – we know that the Cortez houses ghosts and other supernatural beings.  If this woman looks like a killer, and sounds like a killer and acts like a killer, chances are, she’s a killer – or the ghost of one.

Lily Rabe as Aileen Wuornos

Lily Rabe as Aileen Wuornos

I enjoyed Lily Rabe’s performance of this character.  She utilised some of the tics we associate with Wuornos through her pre-existent screen representations, the Nick Broomfield documentaries, and, of course, Charlize Theron’s interpretation in Monster (2003), but she seemed to be parodying them rather than going for a straight-out impersonation.  This is one of the ways in which we are distanced from these ‘real-life’ killer characters .

Another is Lowe’s skepticism, which provides an ‘out’ for the viewer (and for the producers).  His insistence that these are actors, that it is impossible for them to be the real-life figures, offers a self-reflexive cue to assure you that none of this is real, so relax.  The last of these comes at the end of the episode, where Lowe is assured by Sally (Sarah Paulson) that the strange and horrific events he has seen were simply Absinthe-induced hallucinations.  Once again, we are reassured of the illusion of it all.  Even though these representations bear traces of real-life ghouls, they don’t really exist.

Except that they do (or, did).  I have issues with that trace, however faint it may be, that connects these representations to (unspeakably horrible) crimes that really happened. I understand that serial killers pass at an accelerated rate from criminal case study to infamy to myth to legend, and that there is a cult of fascination attached to them.

Twitter comments under AHS: Hotel Devil's Night trailer

Twitter comments under AHS: Hotel Devil’s Night trailer

(This, by the way, was made awfully clear to me by looking at the YouTube comments from the teaser trailer above.  In them, you can see people speculating about who can be seen at the serial killer party, with some people hoping for, then disappointed by the absence of, Ted Bundy.  In fact, they call him Ted. We are on first name terms with deceased multiple murderers, apparently.  Honesty impels me to admit that I have googled the names of the figures at the AHS party and read their profiles with ghoulish interest in the past, but even I draw the line at killer fandom.)

In understand all of this, but it still makes me queasy,  because these were rapists, torturers, murderers with victims, whose real lives, and the lives of those around them, were destroyed.  There is a disturbing lack of care for the dignity of those individuals.  The subjects represented by docudrama or biopic in film and television (and their families) often have this complaint to offer – the feeling of being used, misunderstood or exploited – and it is one with which I have a great deal of sympathy.

This does not mean I believe that difficult, frightening or evil events or people should never be represented on screen.  I would simply argue that there is value in respecting the humanity of the victims.  No matter how much the programme uses devices like the ones discussed above to undermine its own reality claims, it still gleefully perpetuates the legend of murderers.  It does so in a fantasy programme that could easily have invented cyphers for them, used the abundant imagination  of its producers and writers to avoid the clash with reality.  For me, this is a moral failure.

Iris (2001)

Iris Poster, Judi Dench, Kate WinsletSynopsis:  Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench), internationally renowned author and philosopher, is eking out a quiet semi-retirement with her academic husband John Bayley (Jim Broadbent).  Prompted by atypical lapses in memory,  Iris reluctantly agrees to visit a doctor, who diagnoses Alzheimer’s disease.  Iris must contend with a gradual erasure of her memory and personality, and John is forced to come to terms with her decline.  The film meanwhile tells the story of their early life, and Iris’s vivacious and, to John, often infuriating personality, in flashbacks (with Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville).

Iris is a straight-down-the-line, middle-of-the-road, effective but mostly just functional biopic.  There, I’ve said it.  At surface, there doesn’t seem that much that’s special about it.  I tend to agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment, that in focusing on the tempestuous beginning and sad end of Murdoch’s literary life, it cuts out the aspects of her that are most important: the brilliance of her work, the fierceness of her intelligence.

What I think is interesting, however, is the use of two stars playing the central role at different ages.  There is nothing unique about this. (The latest major biopic I can think of that has chosen this route is Love and Mercy, starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Brian Wilson.) Most biopics have younger actors portraying the protagonist at earlier life stages.

What’s different about Iris is its use of two stars with quite different personae, performance styles and physical appearances to play its subject.

Film stars bring with them not only marketability, but also a constellation of expectations – about what kind of film this is, about the personality of the character they portrayed, even about what kind of response you as a viewer should have to the character. Some of this is extra-textual (i.e. ideas we impose from outside of the film itself, often information we have from what we know of the star’s personal life). And some of it is to do with performance style.

When films are about real life personalities, though, the expectations we have about character are drawn not only from the star, but also from our knowledge (however partial or even incorrect) about the subject. Biopics scholar George Custen put it this way: ‘the moviegoer is drawn to resonant aspects of the impersonator as well as the life impersonated.’   He gives the example of the Bette Davis, who tended to play powerful, dominant women, portraying Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

In the case of Iris, the subject of the film was portrayed in two different time periods – glibly summarised by A N Wilson as the ‘bonking’ and the ‘bonkers’ phases of Murdoch’s life, – by two star performers who bring with them two separate sets of performance expectations.

Judi Dench as M in James Bond, SkyfallDame Judi Dench, usually portrays regal, powerful figures, so her star persona is based around her personal magnetism, gravitas and quiet grace. Kate Winslet’s star persona at the time, on the other hand, invoked dynamism, youth and vitality.  Christine Geraghty has suggested that Winslet brought a Hollywood-style performance of freedom and physicality to her roles in British heritage films, a genre/mode more readily associated with constraint and reserve. Kate-Winslet-Photos-Beautiful-Hollywood-Actress-Kate-Winslet-Pics-11-280x196

The film exploits these star personae in order to separate its two versions of Murdoch. This seems to be deliberate in Iris, taking into account the physical dissimilarities between the younger and older Irises (Winslet is considerably taller than Dench, with longer limbs) in comparison with the efforts to make Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent look the same as John Bayley.

The youthful star persona of Winslet is exploited to exaggerate the young Iris’s sexuality, provocativeness and energy. Judi Dench’s performance of the older Murdoch’s dignity in the face of the realisation that she will eventually lose her mental faculties to Alzheimer’s disease recalls other moments of her career in which similar moments of overwhelming emotion are performed with quiet restraint.

In the case of Iris Murdoch, not only are Dench and Winslet playing a real person, but also portraying in audiovisual media an individual whose image was recorded in audiovisual media, a person who existed in living memory.

A key moment in Iris ties together these issues of performance, interpretation and impersonation. Dench’s Iris visits a television studio to be interviewed by broadcaster Joan Bakewell. Before being led into the studio, Iris views on the monitors in the gallery archive footage of her younger self being interviewed for television.


This ‘archive’ material, in fact, features Winslet performing what we might assume is an impersonation of a television interview with Murdoch she has studied.  It is perhaps this one, with Frank Kermode, made especially for sixth form students and broadcast in 1965.  Winslet conveys Murdoch’s  playfulness well, and captures her searing stare into the eye of her interlocutor.  I think she misses the careful speech patterns though, the reticence before speaking so that Murdoch can ensure she has found the correct turn of phrase, which is ironic given the film’s insistent focus on the importance and value of language.

Dench then performs as the older Iris in the studio, with a large photograph of herself-as-Murdoch in the background. Here the film invokes both the celebrity of the real Murdoch – represented in the large portrait of her in the background – and the celebrities of the two actresses.

Iris1This confusion between impersonated and impersonated even continued into the marketing materials – even a tie in reprint of Bayley’s memoir, which bears Dench’s image on its cover in the place of Murdoch’s.

Iris, then, integrates two quite different performance styles but also uses both references to real-life mediations (TV interviews, for example) and extra-textual materials (like a tie-in book) to re-emphasise the relationship between actor and subject.  You could read this as a marker of anxiety – that the viewer needs to be reminded that these two quite separate actresses are the same person.

Alternatively, you could view these differences in performance style, and their emphasis as deliberate (or, at least, productive). This separation between the old and young Iris contributes significantly to the film’s central themes, of the fallibility of memory, and the centrality of memory to identity and personality. The tragedy of Iris’s story, one that the film wishes to emphasise, is that her failing capacity to remember engenders a decline in her identity. It is not simply that Winslet and Dench play Iris at different ages.  It is that they play two different versions of the same person.

References used in this post:

George Custen (1992) Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

Christine Geraghty (2002), ‘Crossing Over: Performing as a Lady and as a Dame’, Screen 43:1, pp. 41 – 56.

Cilla (ITV, 2014)

I was, of course, inspired to write about Cilla after the sad news that its subject, the singer and TV presenter Cilla Black, had died.  Like most British people my age, Cilla Black played a defining role in Saturday nights as I was growing up.  If I remember it correctly, ‘Miss Cilla Blaaack’ and her show Blin-duh Date was part of a relentless ITV schedule juggernaut, which included Baywatch, Gladiators, Catchphrase and Stars in Your Eyes. This must have driven my parents nuts, but I loved it.

Cilla became, then, an ITV stalwart, and it is only fitting that the network should have produced this high-quality and flatteringly extensive portrait of her early years in showbiz.  In some ways its a shame that the series stops just before her TV career, as it is for this that she is best known and will continue to be loved.  It seems crazy now to think that a programme fronted by a middle-aged woman could bring in 18 million viewers, or, indeed, that a major peak time programme would be fronted by a middle-aged woman at all. According to a BBC obituary of Cilla, she was chosen as host of Blind Date because, amid concerns from the regulator about early evening innuendo on foreign versions of the show,  she was considered the most ‘sexless person on television’.

Sheridan Smith in ITV Cilla

But, according to  Cilla, she wasn’t always so. The programme opens with scenes of ‘swinging Cilla’ (Sheridan Smith) roaming through the clubs of Liverpool as a party girl and aspiring singer.  She’s intent on having a good time and pursuing work in show business, much to the annoyance of her mother (a superb Melanie Hill), who has her sights on a glittering secretarial career instead. The first episode traces this attempt to become a singer, concluding with a failed audition for the legendary Brian Epstein (Ed Stoppard), orchestrated by Cilla’s mate Ringo (Starr, of course, played by Tom Dunlea).

At times, the storytelling in the first episode suffers from ‘Beatles syndrome’.  Of course you can’t tell a story about the Liverpool music scene in the early 1960s without reference to them, but mention of the band does seem to be shoehorned in at such regular occasions that you start to feel a lack of confidence about how interesting the Cilla story really is.  Occasionally, the first episode feels like a Beatles movie by the backdoor.

Cilla Black Sheridan Smith Brian Epstein Ed StoppardThroughout the whole mini-series I got the feeling that Epstein, rather than Black, may have been the preferred protagonist of Jeff Pope, the screenwriter, but that Cilla has that invaluable name-recognition for selling the show to audiences.  Nevertheless, the programme does provide a fascinating portrait of Epstein, whose narrative is one of bitter loneliness and repressed sexuality, though his character is one of clear humanity. Apparently Black told Pope to be careful in his portrayal of her relationship with Epstein, who she did not know was gay.  It is written with great sensitivity, and played superbly by Smith and Stoppard.  She is able to be at once demanding and caring, showing grit and tenderness in subtle ways.

Sheridan Smith Cilla Black Aneurin Barnard Bobby WillisThe other significant relationship here is, of course, with Bobby Willis (Aneurin Barnard), despite religious differences between her, a ‘Scotty Road Catholic’ and him, a ‘proddy’.  This is the primary tension that is pursued throughout the whole three episodes regarding their relationship, and it does feel that this issue is forced.  This is probably because Black’s marriage was a famously happy and successful one until Willis’s early death in 1999, with the pair only reportedly ever spending four nights apart from one another.  Some romantic jeopardy is, of course, required for storytelling, but it seems that a far more interesting route to pursue would be Cilla’s selfish refusal to allow Bobby to pursue his own music career.  This is briefly portrayed in Episode Three, but with nowhere near the attention that is given less controversial parts of the story.  Perhaps this is because the programme is so determined to show Cilla in a positive light, which is easily understandable given her National Treasure status, made abundantly clear in the past few days.

In some ways, a three episode series was more than the material here really needed, and a single fiction could have covered the story.  However, this would have robbed me of one of my favourite moments in the whole series, engineered to provide an uplifting ending to Episode Two. We have seen Cilla record ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ earlier in the episode, but this is told from Bobby’s perspective, as he paces around outside the studio like an expectant father outside the delivery wing.  There is no music here, diegetic or non-diegetic, which struck me as odd for a recording scene.  The reason for this, though, becomes clear at the end of the episode, as Cilla receives the news from Brian that her single has gone to Number One in the charts.  We then cut back to the song being recorded in studio, intercut with images of Cilla’s family and friends listening to the song, and finally Cilla and Bobby celebrating, the glorious city of Liverpool fading into the background. The song, which starts quietly and plaintively but builds to the rallying cry of ‘Anyone who had a heart would love me too!’, carries the drama here in proper melodramatic fashion.  A more economic telling of the story would probably have ended here.

Sylvia (2003)

Synopsis: After meeting at Cambridge, Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) and Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) form an unequal literary marriage: his star is on the rise, while she finds herself suffering perpetual writers’ block.  Her chronic mental illness, coupled with his infidelity conspire to consign her to abject misery, but, although left alone with two children, she is finally able to write.  

sylvia-2Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, famously refused to co-operate in the making of this film.  She published a censorious poem about the filmmakers in Tatler magazine in May 2003, which explains her objection to the co-option of the poetry for the writing of the life:

They want to use her poetry
As stitching and sutures
To give it credibility.
They think I should love it-
Having her back again, they think
I should give them my mother`s words
to fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.

Her main accusation here is that the makers of the film want to fetishise her mother’s depression and suicide, and that they’ll use her poetry as an alibi for doing so, ‘to give it credibility’.  But in practice her refusal to cooperate, to allow her mother’s words to form the basis of the film’s representation of her, ironically forced the filmmakers to focus more on the dramatic ‘soap opera’ aspects of her life than on her literary work, as Kara Kilfoil has pointed out.

Without the poetry, what is the poet?  She is the sum of her actions, behaviours, experiences.  For the film, these include a tempestuous relationship with Ted Hughes, one that is predicated on deep erotic and intellectual attraction, but also her simultaneous inferiority and superiority complexes.  We feel Sylvia’s deep frustration with the role of wife and mother, playing second fiddle to Ted, watching him drift into cruelly casual infidelity.

But most of all, it is Plath’s depression that the film persistently focuses on, because too often in the logic of the Drama film depression= seriousness= worthiness.  Paltrow plays this depression at first as a dreamy detachment from or indifference to living, her voice languorous and thoughtful.  A particularly striking scene comes as she describes a teenage suicide attempt to Ted, in which she hid beneath the floorboards of the house in an earnest attempt to avoid being found and revived.  The dialogue here crudely borrows the title of one of Plath’s poems, as she tells Ted – “Lady Lazarus, that’s me”, a means of alluding to the literary output it can’t use.

The latter part of the film sees a more angry, insistent depression in the protagonist.  Sylvia is devastated at losing her husband, cries, wails, burns his personal effects (another visual allusion to a Plath poem, ‘Burning the Letters’).  She rages against the injustices visited on her, but the hurt and pain unlocks her creative faculties.

Gwyneth Paltrow Sylvia Burning Letters

Visual and verbal allusions – like this one to ‘Burning the Letters’ are only likely to be registered by those who have a certain level of knowledge of the Plath oeuvre.

Here we have that tired old idea of a direct relationship between anguish and creativity, rendered in a montage writing sequence which juxtaposes half-formed Plath lines cross-dissolved on the soundtrack with that hoary old cliche of the hunched up, tear-stained writer over the typewriter, scrunching up her papers.  It concludes with Sylvia providing a supposedly impassioned reading of ‘Daddy’ to Al Alvarez (Jared Harris) which I have always found excruciating because of Paltrow’s robotic intonation.  As so often in this film, the passion is emphasised at the expense of Plath’s searing intelligence.

The film is obsessed  – and accuses Plath of obsession – with death, from the very opening shot.  It shows a horizontal Paltrow/Plath filmed in close up with stark lighting. Her pale face and closed eyes make the figure appear to be dead, indeed, there is a matching shot of Paltrow/Plath at the end of the film after she has died. This immediately brackets the film’s narrative with Plath’s suicide, presenting exactly the ‘Sylvia Death Doll’ that Hughes feared.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath 2003

The film’s opening and closing image – the ‘Sylvia Death-doll’ feared by Frieda Hughes.

Even before the film starts, it announces this framing – its sickly tagline  was ‘Life was too small to contain her’.  This implies that the version of Plath we get will be a woman of excess, of overwhelming intellect, passion, or artistry.  This is not the version we get: this film’s Plath is too small to contain the mass of contradictions represented by Plath, a complex figurehead for female melancholia.  Instead, we get a portrait overwhelmed by hindsight, a reading of the poet dominated by death rather than life – a thanatopic, not a biopic.

Pandaemonium (2000)

Synopsis: Poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Linus Roache) and William Wordsworth (John Hannah) form a friendship and creative partnership after becoming involved in revolutionary activities inspired by events in France at the end of the 18th century.  Encouraged by Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy (Emily Woof), they seek inspiration from nature, and each other, for a new kind of poetry.  Their fruitful relationship quickly turns sour, as Sam gets closer to Dorothy, to the dismay of his wife Sara (Samantha Morton), becomes addicted to laudanum, and becomes the subject of William’s destructive envy.


I’ve written about Pandaemonium and how it adapts poetry before, in a more formal academic essay (you can read it here, but it is paywalled). The film has also been discussed a lot in terms of its campy, postmodernist structure and style – something its director Julien Temple is well-known for.  It certainly is playful – how many other period dramas can you think of that deliberately include aeroplane cloud trails and sound effects, or end with the main character riding on the Millennium wheel to an Olivia Newton-John soundtrack? (Yes, it is ‘Xanadu‘)

So instead of discussing that, let’s look instead at how the film uses its characters to paint an alternative portrait of the Romantics.  Here, it caused something of a stir.  Esteemed literary critic John Sutherland took exception to the considerable liberties the film took with the story of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s friendship:

Pandaemonium has been produced for the BBC with a generous subvention from the Lottery fund.  Poetic licence I’ve heard of.  This is TV licence run mad.

My work has focused for a long time on public service broadcasters (and their interventions in British film), and Sutherland’s phrase has always stuck with me as it summarises so neatly the extra expectations that certain kinds of institutional support can bring to bear on a film – in this case that the material should have a degree of accuracy to the ‘real’ story.  But this is a discussion for another time.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film’s writer, dealt with this complaint nicely in a Guardian rejoinder:

The film is clearly told from the drug-befuddled, paranoid point of view of poor, tormented Coleridge. It does not therefore offer itself as a reliable Ofsted report on the Lakes School.

Linus Roache as Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Pandaemonium - Kubla Khan Sequence

‘Where Alph the sacred river ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea’

It is clear that this characterisation of Coleridge does, indeed, assist a reading of the film that avoids obsessive fact-checking, but it also plays into a tired trope that equates mental instability and genius, even if it is done here with some verve. There is a particularly nice dream-sequence around the composition of Kubla Khan  where Sam sails through the imaginary caves that would lead him to Xanadu, were it not for the interruption of the infamous ‘person from Porlock‘.  Who else could this be but Wordsworth who, the film insinuates, deliberately sabotages the writing of the poem through jealousy and spite?

John Hannah as William Wordsworth in Pandaemonium

One morn we stroll’d on our dry walk,/ Our quiet house all full in view,/ And held such intermitted talk/ As we are wont to do.

Wordsworth is presented as Machiavellian jobsworth, a plodder who leeches off the superior talent and genius of his friend and sister.  Wordsworth actually works at his poetry: we see him stomping through the countryside, his hulking steps matching the iambic pentameter of his verse, suggesting, I think, that he is quite literally a pedestrian writer.  Though John Hannah plays him with some sympathy – a frustrated man who recognises his own shortcomings beside the talent of his friend – this Wordsworth is uneven, and his motivations often obscure.

For me, the most interesting and frustrating character here is Dorothy Wordsworth.  Dorothy becomes a central character in this version of the poets’ lives, and the film portrays her as an independent spirit, a challenging intellectual, a fierce and difficult woman.  All that potential and energy, though, is put into lubricating the creative engines of the men in her life.

She acts as a creative crutch to her brother, literally re-writing his poems for him line by line.  This leads to the silliest joke in the film: William muses “I wandered lonely as a cow”, to which Dorothy gently suggests that ‘cloud’ would be better.  Dorothy is used here to serve the film’s characterisation of William Wordsworth as a creatively stifled non-genius.

For both poets, she is the object of sexual fantasy, but mostly of creative inspiration, a muse.   She is the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl: encouraging William and Sam out of stifled conformity to verse structure and proper subject matter, persuading them to convert sensual and natural experiences into poetic expression.

Emily Woof as Dorothy Wordsworth in Pandaemonium (2000) The costuming of Woof for the role is revealing in this regard.  She wears deep primary colours, brilliant blues and deep reds.  In this image, the (anachronistic?  I’m no expert) sequins on her bodice are visible, typical of her costuming, designed to showcase the personality flashing brightly against the natural, beautiful landscape.  Her hair also really captures the film’s desire to have its period drama cake and eat its Millennial pop stylishness – long enough that it appears in keeping with the historical time the film is set in, but styled in such a fashion as to give Woof a distinctly early-00s choppy pixie cut.

Contrast this to poor Sara Coleridge. (Apologies for the terrible quality of the photos.  I had to screen grab from a VHS- DVD conversion.).  For the larger part of the film, Sara is de-glamourized, clothed in natural colours, head covered, children her only accessory.  Dorothy’s spinsterhood offers her the freedom to live a life of the mind, Sara’s duties as wife and mother tie her to a life of earthy drudgery in a manner that is not, for me, sufficiently critiqued by the film.

Sara Coleridge

It’s particularly disappointing given how the character is presented early in the film: she’s a firebrand, enthusiastically engaged in revolutionary activities, able to stand up to those around her, a proto-feminist who creates neologisms in political protest at her lack of formal education.  Her choice to join Sam and Robert Southey (Samuel West) in their attempt to construct a ‘Pantisocratic’ society (in which intellectuals commune with nature and live off the land in a 19th Century version of The Good Life) is her downfall, as Sam’s irresponsibility consigns her to a life of care.

Not enough is done with this story, nor any of the micro-narratives in the piece: none of them quite land with the punch that they ought to.  That, indeed, is Pandaemonium’s problem, not its lack of respect for historical accuracy or pantheon poets.  It wants to speak of one fin-de-siecle from the perspective of another. It wants to apply late 20th century postmodern irreverence to a story taking place after the groundswell of revolution at the end of the 18th century.  It wants to make Coleridge and Wordsworth into atavisms for Lennon and McCartney.  But none of this quite comes off.

Women We Loved: Margot (BBC Four, 2009)

Synopsis: Approaching her retirement, prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn (Anne-Marie Duff) aspires to settle down with her diplomat husband Tito Arias (Con O’Neill) in his home country of Panama. Tito has used Margot’s money to fund several unsuccessful coups, so she must keep dancing.  Luckily, the young Russian maverick, Rudolph Nureyev (Michiel Huisman) revives her enthusiasm for dancing.  Their passionate onstage relationship escalates into an offstage love affair, but Margot’s life is changed forever after Tito is shot during an assassination attempt.  

Anne-Marie Duff in Margot

Anne-Marie Duff and Michiel Huisman in Margot

Body double and actors’ faces melded fairly seamlessly.

Margot was both the audiences’ and critics’ least favourite of the Women We Loved films, but I liked it best of the three.  This may be because I’m a sucker for Romantic music and, because the film is set in the world of ballet, there is plenty of Chopin, Satie and, of course,  Tchaikovsky. The film also boasts some lovely, artful dance sequences which I’m sure are irritating to ballet aficionados, but, to me, do a good job of integrating shots of Anne-Marie Duff’s and Michiel Huisman’s face, arm and torso with shots of their professional stand-ins.

Penelope Wilton Anne-Marie Duff and Lindsay Duncan, Margot

The women in Margot’s life – Madame (Linsday Duncan) and Mother (Penelope Wilton)

Outside of the dancing, there are real acting treats in Margot – Lindsay Duncan is underused but instantly effective as Madame (Ninette de Valois), sour-faced, pursed-lipped and implacable. Penelope Wilton plays Margot’s ambitious and overbearing but  caring mother with her usual quiet dignity.

Derek Jacobi and Anne-Marie Duff in Margot

Cigarette in one hand, cup of tea in the other. What could be more English for the “inventor of English ballet”, Frederick Ashton (Derek Jacobi)?

Derek Jacobi is clearly enjoying himself playing Frederick Ashton, the gregarious and gloriously indiscreet choreographer of the royal ballet, waving fagash around the studio and making comments like “Fuck me, darling, he’s better than Nijinksy!” talking, of course, about Rudolph Nureyev.  Huisman plays him with oodles of swagger, but his eyes lack the fierceness of Nureyev’s.  Duff’s performance of Margot emphasises her gentleness, and she does manage to capture, to some degree, the naughty glint that is sometimes faintly visible in her face when photographed or interviewed.

The film utilises the narrative device throughout of an implied series of (television?) talking head interviews.  The voice of the female interviewer, who we assume is just offscreen, is heard asking Margot questions which accommodate the story, and allow her to reflect on events that are happening around her.  Her reflections, though, rarely match the ‘reality’ of what we have seen on screen.

Anne-Marie Duff as Margot Fonteyn

Indeed, more often the interview material emphasises the extent to which Margot, as she puts it herself, ‘leads a double life’: the fantasy woman onstage, the flesh-and-blood human being in ‘real life’.   Except that we are asked to question if there is such a binary at work here, or if Margot is, in fact, both?  This is made clear in the dialogue through Tito’s persistent accusations that Margot cannot distinguish between ballet stories and ‘real life’ – “How much make-believe is there in that head of yours?!” he asks her.  The blurred lines between fantasy and ‘reality’ are also conjured by the dance sequences: it is unclear if these are diegetically real or taking place in Margot’s imagination. She only seems to think and feel through her body.

In the use of the interview conceit to show Margot’s flexible relationship with the ‘truth’,  the film seems to have borrowed an aspect of Fonteyn’s real life: her often dishonest relationship with the press.  Her biographer Meredith Daneman has it that:

Certainly from the time she took up with Arias, she adopted a far less placatory tone with the press, brazenly lying to them if need be.

It is certainly the question of her marriage that reveals the largest gap between ‘reality’ and Margot’s version of events (echoing the earlier Women We Loved film, Enid).  We have seen that Tito is an exploitative and less than faithful husband, who consistently undermines her career in order to advance his own.  “You must admit” he proclaims of his revolutionary activities in Panama “It’s more exciting than tripping around on your toes with nancy boys.”

Margot’s marriage to Tito is sustained by her ballet – she pays for his revolutionary activities and, after he is shot, his medical bills – but is also consistently threatened by it.  Tito wants her to give up the ballet to become emphatically HIS wife, an ambition that Margot claims to share.  Her actions are more difficult to read – does she continue for financial reasons, or is she really unable to give up the stage life, the only life she has known, and for which she has made untold personal and physical sacrifices?

Margot surgeonThe litany of personal sacrifices – including changing her name, and not having children – are detailed in a climactic showdown with Mother, who refuses to allow the most successful ballerina of her generation to feel sorry for herself.  The physical ones – which, as Black Swan so vividly reminds us are liable to horrify – are dealt with more coyly. We see Margot suffer pain and tiredness in class, we know she injects her feet to keep her agony from affecting her performance, and we see her in closeup, face contorted by the hands of a plastic surgeon who will keep her young enough to play 13-year old Juliet at the age of 45.  But only in the final intertitle, which reminds us that Margot Fonteyn continued dancing into her 60s despite crippling arthritis, do we get the palpable sense of the toll Margot’s delayed retirement took on the woman.

As a meditation on the question of retirement and its impact upon personal identity, then, Margot is compelling.  It is also strong as a portrayal of someone whose physical expressiveness is excessive, to the exclusion of thinking or, really, feeling.  But as a biographical portrait it has its shortcomings, especially the creation of a melodramatic villain from the husband who, by her own account at least, Fonteyn truly adored, and a romantic hero of Nureyev, consigned to a role too minor to convey his mercurial character in a satisfying way.  I doubt that any ‘real life’ drama involving Fonteyn and Nureyev could ever be made as captivating as the duo in movement onstage.

 Margot is available on DVD.

Women We Loved: Gracie! (BBC Four, 2009)

Synopsis: After undergoing life-threatening surgery,  singer and actress Gracie Fields (Jane Horrocks) is preparing to leave Britain to convalesce in Capri with her family and film director Monty Banks (Tom Hollander).  Her plans are interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, and the request that she perform as part of the war effort.  When she marries Italian Monty, she must choose between staying in Britain and risking his arrest and detainment as an enemy alien, or leaving for America.  On choosing the latter, her popularity is dented by a vicious press campaign against her.
Gracie TV film Jane Horrocks

This image from Gracie! sums up nicely the story that the drama wants to tell.  In the foreground, smiling and singing in the snow to cheer up some good old British Tommies who have accosted her for a song, is Gracie Fields.  Relegated to the background, out of focus but visibly put out by the whole thing, crossly folding his arms in disapproval, is Monty Banks, Gracie’s tour manager and soon-to-be husband.  Gracie’s determination to do the right thing by her audience comes always at Monty’s expense.

Gracie! tells the story of Fields’s dutiful sacrifice of health and marriage to put herself through a gruelling series of international concerts during World War II, the proceeds of which went towards the war effort.  It is intended as a corrective to the vilification that she had suffered at the hands of the press during the war, where she was accused of deserting her country, taking her millions with her to America and forgetting her loyal fans.

In its attempt to rehabilitate Gracie’s reputation, then, the film’s version is remarkably close to the cheerful, hardy, stoic personality that might be familiar to viewers who have seen any of Fields’s films, suggesting (unlike Enid), that she was really all she seemed.

The on-stage and off-stage person are one, as emphasised persistently in the dialogue.  When Basil Dean (Alastair Petrie) is trying to persuade Gracie to join ENSA , he tells her that the public “think you’re one of them”, to which she retorts “I AM one of them!”.  When she promises Monty that she will give up being ‘Gracie Fields’ to become Mrs Bianchi (his real surname), he  reminds her “this is who we are, this is what we do”.

Gracie! 2009It’s curious that the film’s take on Gracie is that her identity and her career as performer are inextricably intertwined, because the thrust of the narrative, really, is about whether Gracie can give up her career and be a better wife to Monty.  This is summarised in the passage of a postcard between them – the image on the front is a publicity photograph bearing the caption ‘Our Gracie’.  Looking at it disapprovingly, Monty says wanly “I should have known you’d never be my Gracie”.  Gracie duly adds a ‘Y’ to the beginning, as a means of promising herself more fully to him.

As I’ve written about in great detail elsewhere (forthcoming, Journal of Popular Television), casting native Lancastrian Jane Horrocks to play her was an important step in making this version of Gracie seem authentic, as the women’s shared northern heritage is one that is associated with ‘realness’, simplicity, and honesty. Put simply, there is no edge to this Gracie – you are to take her as she comes.

It seems that Horrocks had been keen to play Fields for some time, and the project was initiated by her.  The screenplay is written by her partner, Nick Vivian, which lends its emphasis on the story of the put-upon non-famous husband to a popular  star something of a frisson.  If Horrocks saw something of herself in Gracie, what might Vivian have seen in Monty?

Because the storyline of the film is fairly thin, there is also a lot of emphasis on sequences of on-stage performance.  These have two functions.  The first, and most straightforward is as a showcase for Horrocks’s really excellent imitation of Fields’s singing.  This had already had a well-known public outing in Little Voice (Mark Herman, 1998)

These impersonations help to reiterate the closeness between actress and character, to seemingly authenticate the portrayal of Fields.

The second function of the performance sequences, though, is a dramatic one.  Because the overall argument of the film is that Fields was more or less the same person on stage as off, the performance sequences allow us equal insight into Gracie’s state of mind than off-screen sequences.  Indeed, it is in performance sequences that Gracie’s emotions are actually most visible to the audience.

Jane Horrocks Gracie Fields

Made tiny in the frame and with patriotic paraphernalia surrounding her, Gracie performs to a hostile audience.

Jane Horrocks Gracie Fields

Stoically ploughing through the song through the chants of ‘Traitor, traitor’, Gracie is visibly shaken.

Jane Horrocks Gracie Fields

Close up of Gracie’s eyes show them widening in fear and hurt.

Towards the end of the film, Gracie is booed while she sings ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ to audiences in America.  They have clearly been reading the newspapers, and view her performance as a hypocritically patriotic one.  The selection of the overtly nationalistic song, obviously, is meant to be ironic, but it also works both lyrically and in its marching rhythm, to emphasise Gracie’s stoicism – she continues singing despite the emotional difficulties she is experiencing, but she is visibly and audibly shaken by the process.  Her eyes widen with fear, and the smile with which she usually performs contorts into a grimace.

The film concludes with Gracie returning to England to perform at the Palladium. She sings ‘Take me To your Heart Again’ – as the real-life Gracie did – a version of La Vie En Rose with new English Lyrics. The sentimental lyrics and music here provide the film with an ending of heightened emotion.  As before, Horrocks performs Gracie’s emotion on stage –

In these performance sequences we can see the film using melodramatic techniques, allowing music and facial gesture in particular to carry meaning.  Horrocks’s talent as an impersonator is expedient for making the performances enjoyable and recognisably ‘Gracie’, but its her talent as an actor that make Gracie feel believable, even where I think the character is disappointingly one-dimensional for a portrayal of a real-life individual.

Gracie! is available on DVD.  For those of you in the UK, it is also regularly shown on the UKTV Drama Channel.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)

If one is not permitted to express anger or even to recognize it within oneself, one is, by simple extension, refused both power and control. (Carolyn Heilbrun, 1989)

It feels like the right time for a biographical portrait of Nina Simone, virtuoso pianist, singer and activist.  Civil rights, seemingly off the agenda for so long, have been tragically thrust back into consciousness through a series of events scarcely believable in their frequency (and in the fervour to excuse them outside of racial contexts).  It seems to me that the #blacklivesmatter movement could use a figurehead as creative, outspoken and openly angry as Simone was, and a protest song with the rage (and catchiness) of ‘Mississippi Goddamn’.

What a shame, then, that What Happened, Miss Simone’s portrait of this musical giant seeks to explain away her righteous fury by using a diagnosis of bipolar disorder to excuse her erratic, sometimes violent behaviour, and, to some extent, to account for her genius.  I find myself repeating my frustration with this cliche over and over again in relation to the biopic: mental illness is not the cause of genius.  It is also not pathological to be angry about a lifetime of discrimination, oppression and disappointment. The intersection of Simone’s race and gender do complicate this issue further, and make the representation in the film more troublesome still.  Indiewire’s Tanya Steele put it better than I could when she says:

I am all for addressing mental illness as it relates to Black women. What I am not here for is ascribing it to her creative dexterity. Nina Simone was a child prodigy. Yes, mental illness is part of her legacy, but there is another aspect to her, her process, her heart, her insight.

As with Amyanother recent jazz-related documentary, the lack of attempt to understand the creativity of the figure here is a major blockage for me. Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, she wanted to be the first great black classical pianist – an unlikely dream, perhaps, for a dark-skinned, poor girl from North Carolina.  But her innate talent matched with gruelling years of practice took her to a Juilliard scholarship. Rejection from the Curtis Institute, which, she later found out was racially motivated, signalled the end of her dream of a professional career. She took up singing and playing in clubs in Atlantic City to make ends meet.  This was the birth of a truly unique artist, who melded classical, soul, spirituals, jazz, blues and rock music with her distinctive contralto voice. But that racist rejection from the classical music community was to haunt Simone’s musical career: she told her mother in 1963 that, although she was playing the prestigious Carnegie Hall, she’d have rather been playing Bach.

The film tells this story simply – through voice-overs (though with an oddly limited roster of participants), archive images and, most enticingly, long passages of performance footage which go some way to capturing Simone’s hypnotic charisma and passion as a performer.  The film also begins with an intriguing premise, provided by her daughter, who said that people are wrong to presume that Simone assumes a character on stage, when in fact her mother was ‘Nina Simone’ 24/7.  While the film does a fairly good job of expressing the intensity with which Simone lived her life, matching her performance, it falls short of truly considering the implications of this.

The documentary was made in collaboration with Simone’s estate, which would usually be cause for alarm, but it’s refreshingly forthcoming about Simone’s flaws.  This had the positive effect of providing the filmmakers access to Simone’s diary, allowing glimpses of her private thoughts and interpretations of events. She writes frankly about her troubled relationship with her abusive husband (who, troublingly, is interviewed for the film), at one point even stating plainly “I hate him”.  Similarly, the use of archive interview material is often revealing  She noted in the early 1990s, for example, her own disappointment at the decline of the civil rights movement: “there are no civil rights any more. Everybody’s gone”.

Reviewers have tended to be positive about the film.  I wonder how much that has to do with the residual awe collectively felt for the woman, since the film itself is a perfectly functional documentary, but structurally not much more. It feels most like an earnest attempt to provide an often too literal answer to the question posed by its own title.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is on Netflix now.

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

Amy film Poster Asif Kapadia 2015Amy, like its predecessor Senna (2010) is a biographical documentary woven from fragments of a life – a mosaic of images illustrating recollections from friends and family delivered in voiceover not as talking heads, a stylistic decision that presumably is intended to distinguish these films from less artful documentaries.  The story told here is, for the most part, a familiar one – a tortured genius, a fragile talent ravaged by fame, a vulnerable woman exploited to death by the men in her life.

Because it largely follows a chronological path through Winehouse’s life, the film is modelled on a simple ‘rise-and-fall’ structure.  This made the first half, in which we see a prodigiously gifted young woman develop rapidly as a credible jazz artist, much more enjoyable and coherent than the second half, which focused on the escalation of Winehouse’s considerable health problems as her fame and the success of her second album spiralled out of control. The middle part of the film is far too in love with the irony of these opposing trajectories – the ascendency of the ‘artist’, the decline of the person.

The first half revealed a Winehouse rarely remembered, but easily understood if you listen to the lyrics of her songs – one with a caustic wit, an incredible emotional literacy, a fiery intelligence. The use of the lyrics onscreen was quite effective in this regard, even though aesthetically it strikes you as a little bit cheesy. As an autobiographical lyricist, Winehouse is a gift to the filmmakers.  Her songs map closely to the story told, and Kapadia is careful to include plenty of reminders from Winehouse herself that she is only able to write from personal experience, as if to justify the often quite literal biographical readings of her lyrics presented here.

We hear much more of Winehouse’s voice in the first half of the film, as her voice-over recollections are interspersed with those of her loved ones.  Her candour and articulacy enable her to tell her own story in a way which captivates more than other people’s narrations.  I wish the filmmakers could have continued this throughout, but presumably there was a lack of available archive for the latter part of her life.

We also see amateur footage of her mugging to camera, being silly, enjoying herself.  We see her discomfort with the ‘work’ of the contemporary pop musician, particularly the inane photoshoots and interviews. My favourite moment in the film is watching Winehouse’s face move from bemusement to amusement as a half-witted music journalist tries to compare her to Dido.  Remember Dido?  Another fun aspect of the film was seeing the detritus of early 2000s popular culture – Winehouse’s single was being promoted on a billboard next to So Solid Crew and B2K, whoever they are.

This version of Winehouse contrasts uneasily with the dishevelled, sickly woman familiar from paparazzi photography of her later life – used in the second half of the film in a manner that I think is ethically questionable.  Indeed, the second half of the film allows images and video from the tabloids to overtake Winehouse’s own voice. I suppose you could read this as a metacommentary on Amy’s life story – the image overtaking the talent –  but I found it quite tasteless, particularly the images of the body bag being carried from her Camden flat.  Even four years after her death, we cannot leave her alone.

The film captures brilliantly, viscerally the horror of constant hubbub of her life after Back to Black: the bombardment by paparazzi camera lights, the noise, the frightening sense that she was never and always alone.

It is also careful to explore how Winehouse’s reckless behaviour affected her relationships with others, particularly in the reflective voiceovers.  An especially heartbreaking moment came when her long-term best friend Juliette Ashby tearfully recollected Winehouse telling her that winning a Grammy was ‘boring without drugs’.

I was  disappointed that the film was so insistent on making the strong, determined Winehouse into a victim, both of her own demons and of the men around her.  Both her husband, Blake Fielder, and her father Mitchell, are treated contemptuously here, with the latter blamed for much of her behaviour in a tired argument about paternal abandonment and mental instability.  Fielder is accused simply of using his wife as a gravy train.  Since Winehouse clearly loved both men, surely it would have been more interesting to explore why, rather than simply lay parcels of blame at their doors?

Kapadia’s stated aim was to reveal through this film the ‘real’ Amy Winehouse, with little regard, seemingly for the role of his authorship in constructing a version of Winehouse.  His Amy occasionally has the wit and verve I recognise from the songs, but is still overburdened by the sadder tale of physical and mental decline.  One of Winehouse’s idols, Tony Bennett compares her singing voice to the greats – to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, and says that she will be considered in that pantheon in years to come.  I hope that he’s right, that the woman’s talent will eventually overtake her colourful biography as the aspect of her that is remembered .  However, this film is not going to help achieve that.

Amy goes on general release in the UK on 3 July 2015.

Women We Loved: Enid (BBC Four, 2009)

Synopsis: Enid Blyton (Helena Bonham Carter) is a successful and prolific children’s author, married to publisher Hugh Pollock (Matthew Macfadyen), and mother to two daughters.  Just before the second world war breaks out, her marriage starts to fail, as Hugh drinks heavily and she devotes more and more time to her writing and her ‘friends’ – the children who love her books.  She embarks on an affair with surgeon Kenneth Darrell Waters (Denis Lawson) and forces Hugh to divorce her, then refuses him the promised access to their children and uses her clout with her publisher to see that he can no longer work in the industry.  Despite all this, the main source of discomfort to Enid is the persistent accusation from the press that she is not the sole author of her tremendous catalogue of authored works…  ENID

Blyton's first outing on television, 'Adventures of Noddy', was for independent, commercial television, which seems fitting for an independent, commercial author.

Blyton’s first outing on television, ‘Adventures of Noddy’, was for independent, commercial television, which seems fitting for an independent, commercial author.

I’m unsure how well-known it is that the BBC had a semi-official embargo on Enid Blyton, the prolific children’s author.  Her stories were never broadcast on BBC radio during her lifetime, and it was only with the arrival of ITV in 1955 that her stories made it to television The digitised BBC archive provides a fascinating selection of letters by and about Blyton, which reveal some comically condescending attitudes to a hugely popular storyteller. The view that Blyton was a second-rate writer, and that the popularity of her work was inexplicable became more or less official BBC policy, as is indicated in this memo by Jean Sutcliffe of the School’s broadcasting department, sent in 1954:

No writer of real merit could possibly go on believing that this mediocre material is of the highest quality and turn it out in such incredible quantities. Her capacity to do so amounts to genius and it is here that she has beaten everyone to a standstill. Anyone else would have died of boredom long ago.

Ouch.  Sutcliffe goes on to say that the trouble with Blyton isn’t necessarily the work itself, but that its popularity (or, tellingly for a BBC document of this time) its ‘commercial success’ is being mistakenly confused by parents for ‘quality’.

Helena Bonham Carter as Enid

“I am the guardian of our children’s morals. But how can I uphold this position if there is the merest hint that I am not what I seem?” How indeed?

Knowing this about the BBC’s attitude to Enid Blyton makes Enid a much more fascinating watch.  It feels a little like an ex post facto justification for the institutional shunning of the author.  It’s not just that Blyton’s work was second-rate, it seems Auntie was right to be suspicious – as Enid was truly awful as a human being as well.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BBC’s  Blyton ban is not mentioned or even alluded to in the drama.  Indeed, it opens with an image of Enid nestled behind a BBC radio microphone, being questioned on the “subterranean rumblings” that she does not write her own books.  Enid responds with haughty disgust, implying that a lack of public belief in her is tantamount to child cruelty, since she is the moral bedrock for her young readers. The very next image is a close-up of Enid applying lipstick.  What better symbol of (feminine) mendacity could there be than make up – literally concealing your ‘real’ face?  This first sequence can easily be read as the thesis statement for the programme, and, to some extent, the Women We Loved season, as a whole.  This woman really is not what she seems.

The film amounts to a character assassination of the author.  Enid, played with relish by Helena Bonham Carter, queen of the wild-eyed baddies, is cruel, selfish, childish and callous.  She puts her career before husband and children (gasp), but continues to portray herself publicly as perfect wife and mother.

Scene from Enid 2009

A Pathe newsreel used by Blyton as a PR exercise is re-constructed using the actors from Enid. The family happily play tiddlywinks on camera…

Scene from Enid 2009

… but when the camera stops rolling, mother and ‘father’ promptly get up for an evening out, leaving the children to clear up.

The film enjoys tearing apart the Enid Blyton PR machine, for instance, in a sequence which reconstructs the making of a Pathe Newsreel about the family, the voiceover of which ironically marks the distance between Enid’s self-created public image, as a driven career woman who nevertheless makes time to mother her children, and the reality that the children spend most of their time with nannies. There is here a clear delineation between the public face of Blyton (in grainy black and white), and the reality of her cold abandonment of her daughters.  Enid is, according to the film, a fundamentally dishonest person.

She is also a determined one:  her gynaecologist tells her she is unlikely to have children because of an underdeveloped uterus, she retorts, “If I want a child, I shall jolly well have one.” According to Blyton biographer Barbara Stoney, the stalled growth of Blyton’s reproductive organs at the age of 13, which coincided with her father absconding, can explain much about her perpetual adolescence.  This seems an oddly antique idea about the location of female agency and experience – it reminds me of the ‘wandering womb as the cause of hysteria‘ notion. Stoney argues that the combination of Blyton’s childish outlook on life combined with adult literacy skills allowed her to write so successfully for young readers.  The film takes this argument one step further, by implying that Enid actually uses her writing for a children as a crutch that allows her to escape from the realities of adult life.

Clouds and type

Point-of-view shot from Enid’s imagination – we ride with her on the ‘magic wishing chair’.

For example, after spotting her husband Hugh through a window drunkenly stumbling around the garden, Enid retreats to her desk to  compose lines from The Magic Wishing Chair.  As Bonham Carter’s voiceover reads lines from the story, the image consists of a gradual dissolve between the printed words on a page, and grainy, brilliant blue and white images of sky and clouds.  We move through these clouds in a first-person point of view shot, implying that we are in Enid’s imagination, where she is herself in the ‘wishing chair’, wishing, we assume, that she could be rid of Hugh.

Enid presents the version of Blyton famously described by her daughter Imogen Smallwood:

The truth is, Enid Blyton was ­arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind and without a trace of maternal instinct.

Enid’s other daughter, Gillian Baverstock, has given a wildly different account of her mother, that she was nurturing, fun to be with and hardworking.  I suppose, though, that ‘beloved children’s author was a bit of a shit’ makes for a more compelling story than ‘beloved children’s author was an angel on earth’.

Still, I found the film’s incessant desire to judge Enid on the grounds of being a cold, egotistical fantasist frustrating. Enid Blyton was a troubling figure for many reasons.  Her books were limited, repetitive and formulaic – hence the BBC ban.  She had no compunction about including awful gender, race, class stereotypes in her books, and normalised a very narrow, middle-class view of the world.  Criticisms of the author on these grounds – on grounds that actually have something to do with her public-facing career – seem to me to be more legitimate than ‘she was a bad mother who didn’t get along with her first husband’. By creating a pantomime villain of Enid in this way, the film dilutes its own critique.  As an intelligent reassessment of a prominent cultural figure, then, it fails, even where it succeeds brilliantly as a compelling maternal melodrama.

Enid is available on DVD.  If you’re in the UK, it is also frequently on the Sony Movie Channel.