Festina Lente by Julie Barker

Julie Barker lived and worked in South Africa as a scriptwriter and story producer for television. In 2015, she completed an MA in Creative Writing for which she wrote a novel called Other People’s Countries. From 2013 to 2016 she worked in the TV Drama department for BBC Scotland as a Story Editor, and worked on River City. She produced a short film, The Hide, which won Best Drama at the 2017 Women over Fifty Film Festival in Brighton. She is currently working on a series of memoir pieces; Festina Lente is one of those extracts.

 


 

Festina Lente

 

Dear Archibald Knox,

In 1903, sixty-three years before I was born, you made a clock. It is silver, with a round face. Instead of numbers there are letters enamelled in blues and greens with the Latin phrase, Festina Lente, which translates into Make Haste Slowly, or the more common phrase More Haste, Less Speed. The hands have red enamelled hearts at their ends, and the face rests on a rectangular column. The column has art nouveau flowers engraved on it, which remind me of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. If you look at the clock from any angle, the flowers appear to move because of how their shape was sculpted on the reflective surface.

Somewhere in my distant and forgotten past, a set of parents, or even grandparents went to Liberty’s of London to buy a present. I suspect it was for a wedding, but I will never know.

On a South African winter’s evening when I was about seven years old, I became aware of an unusual silence while sprawled in front of my grandfather’s fireplace. As if a devoted heartbeat had ceased, and all that was left was a hollow absence, devoid of sound. I looked up at the mantelpiece and noticed that the small silver clock had stopped. My grandfather showed me how to hold it. The clock stood upright on my lap, cold but not too heavy. He gave me the key and taught me to wind it so that I would not overextend the mechanism.

My grandfather was a man who took excellent care of his possessions, and was concerned with–some may say obsessed by–the contents of his will. He explained that, as the firstborn grandchild, I was entitled to inherit his large mahogany grandfather clock and the family bible. However, because I was a girl, this could not happen. Both items needed to be carried down the male line. He was a colonial man who had old-fashioned notions of gender. He was deeply apologetic. He assured me that one day I would receive the silver clock instead, as it was more suitable for a girl.

I’m sorry, Archibald, but at that point clocks–large or small–did not impress me.

When my grandfather died, he kept his word. By this time I had grown to love old things. I placed the clock on my mantelpiece and continued to wind it up when needed. It became a stationary compass of sorts, a link to the few quietly secure moments of a tumultuous childhood while pointing to a future ripe with hope. I breastfed my first child staring at it, numb with lack of sleep. It starred in a short film once. Occasionally people would admire it–not many though; it was humbly unobtrusive. It moved with us from house to house, always occupying a mantelpiece, and sometimes became the object of conversation.

I moved to Glasgow in 2013. After three months, a massive house pack, a content purge and transportation of the cherished family cat, my husband and children arrived with the clock in their hand luggage. We began our new life.

In May of 2016, I encountered an adaptation of William Morris’s Utopian novel, News From Nowhere, published in 1891, in which a character from the present visits the future. You have probably read this book more than once; in fact, you could have been the inspiration for the central character, William Guest, who wakes up one morning to a transformed London. Although it is clearly in the future, the thrumming pulse of that huge city has been transformed into a lush and rural landscape. People don’t work, there is no such thing as money, and the beauty of art and craft is everywhere. In this Utopia the central premise is the celebration of beauty; in limited possessions, natural surroundings, and flexible emotional attachments. It is a world where humanity is living the highest ideal of itself. In the end, William learns that this life needs to be fought and won in his present reality. So he returns to his old life to do just that.

Later in 2016, I lost my job. It was a devastating blow as I was the primary earner in my family at the time. I spent three months applying for every job imaginable, probably close to a hundred. I received very little response and five interviews. With each interview my confidence faltered. I signed on for benefits. Fraught with anxiety, diminishing savings and escalating credit card debt, I took to walking in forests and meditating while trying to find a way to earn a living. On one particularly dark day I got lost and lay down, spent with fear. It occurred to me that my usefulness to my family and the world had come to an end. When the damp earth seeped into my back I realised I had some power left, namely the ability to damage my children for the rest of their lives. I got up and kept walking. Not all powers are wanted. The ones I needed, like self-respect and courage, I would have to fight for and grow.

I came home to an empty house. I found a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions arranging a meeting to discuss my benefits. I sank into the sofa and through the burning blur of tears stared at your clock, gracefully adorning a Glaswegian mantelpiece.

The following week I polished and wrapped it carefully in a cloth bag. Our lack of money was critical. I had reluctantly decided to get the clock evaluated. I went to my first appointment of the day, a meeting with the Department of Work and Pensions. A cadaverous young man was hunched over a keyboard with missing letters. After an unsubtle interrogation, he accused me of benefit fraud. I had delayed in declaring my husband’s recently acquired six month contract because he wasn’t earning enough to cover our bills. The young man told me I would no longer qualify for benefits, and I would have reimburse the total sum I had been paid. His delight at my misfortune was contaminating; I too began to believe that I deserved poverty and would never know anything else again.

I crept out of the job centre and drove to the auction house. A tired nicotine smelling man watched as I hauled out my clock. His demeanour changed when he examined the markings on the underside. It was quite possibly the most animated he had been that year, judging by the thin and arched eyebrow of his associate. I looked at your clock on the stained tablecloth and realised it deserved better.

I learnt that the clock was designed by you, Archibald, a prominent influence in the Arts and Crafts movement, and one of the most far-reaching design movements of modern times. It began around 1880, and grew from a concern about Industrialisation. Not only did it break down divisions between architects, and craftsmen, it believed that design owed its inspiration to nature and real materials. That every day things should be made with love and celebrate beauty. It worked to change the dehumanising effect of Industrialisation and also strove for equality. For the first time, women were embraced as architects and artisans.

I sent photographs to a London auction house and allowed them to process the clock for auction. Six months later the hammer settled on a substantial amount of money, enough to dig my family out a bottomless hole of debt and start again. The first time I’d ever heard your name I was raw from the wounds of my own failures. Your clock had been an enduring companion, its silvery reflection a landscape of my changing life. Finally, at just the right time it could also become my saviour. These are the things dreams are made of; this is what the presence of the divine means.

I imagined you, a solitary child roaming the Isle of Man, your artistic mind absorbing those intricately ancient Celtic Crosses. And in your design heyday for Liberty’s, those same eternally intertwined patterns pouring out like a primeval inspiration into molten silver. How the designs echoed the seemingly fluid permanence of a precious metal. I wondered at you working in the alien detention centre on the Isle of Man during the war, after such a successful career.

Then I visualised you after that, a bearded and self-effacing man with a pipe clenched between your teeth as you brushed watercolour on paper. Until you were exhausted, and would sit back to view your roughly hewn strokes, which became the ruggedness of an old Elm tree or an island coastline. Your paintings were also a spontaneous coupling of nature and design. I read that your grave’s inscription says: ‘Here lies Archibald Knox, humble servant of God in the ministry of the beautiful.’ I felt you reaching towards me through the grace and splendour of your clock and I heard you breathe: ‘beauty changes lives.’

Liberty’s never acknowledged the designs in your lifetime. Did you realise that your work would become so valuable? Festina Lente. Well, you did take your time. The clock was never really mine, as it belongs to the ideals of the Art and Craft movement. However, I was lucky enough to know it for a substantial period of my life. But more than anything, Archibald, who you are and how you created beauty has given me a new way of being.

Yours Sincerely,
Julie Barker


You can follow Julie via her Twitter, @burningsky6.

Workshop: Stranger Things, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. As part of their ongoing workshop series, the two sat down and discussed their varied thoughts on Season One of Netflix’s Stranger Things, which was released in 2016 to widespread acclaim.

This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of Stranger Things. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie’s entire editorial staff.

 


C: In anticipation of Stranger Things’ upcoming second season, we wanted to take a closer look at how the show got the ball rolling last year. Unlike most of the series we’ve workshopped, this was the first that we really binge-watched, and that fast pace is probably indicative or our positive feelings towards the show. I, at least, am already excited about Season Two.

A: Definitely. But because we’re curmudgeonly people, and because this is a workshop, we’re still going to look at what it could have done better as well. Should we start with the cool things, or…?

C: Hmm.

A: I mean, I think the 80s is probably where we should begin. This show has taken a lot of distinctive, iconic 80s films and melded their plots together to end up with a crazy, retro mash-up of ET meets Nightmare on Elm Street meets Pretty in Pink.

C: Sure, yeah. Stranger Things’ 80s aesthetic is very immediate. I had some initial cynicism about the setting–it seemed superficial, an attempt at evoking nostalgia from the 80s without really doing anything new within this genre. Initially the show’s sole aim appeared to be the accumulation of tropes and visuals akin to those which were prevalent in the 80s–and while ST does definitely bank on that quite a bit, sometimes almost to the point of parody, it’s nonetheless very substantive, and it draws you in largely through its characters, who emerge from the 80s woodwork as the show develops.

A: I agree; at first I wasn’t convinced about how well ST juggled its smorgasbord of 80s genres, and, as you said, it felt like it wasn’t doing anything new–it had just harvested parts from other films. But I came round to it over the course of the season, in part because ST really commits to its decisions. They make the 80s work because they were determined to thrust both the positives and (some of) the negatives of that era into the foreground.

C: Yeah, that’s a good point. By the end of the season I was all about the 80s vibe. And they use the 80s aesthetic well and make it work for them. Things like the walkie-talkies fit for the time period but also help to ramp up the drama at certain moments. There is a lot of nostalgia and referencing in the show and it’s very indulgent with regards to the setting and with the genres and tropes which come with it–but yeah, ‘indulgence’ works well here.

A: Right. And it’d be wrong to say that it just steals from earlier shows and films. As you mentioned, it adds a lot of depth to its characters, which in turn adds more layers to the plot and keeps the audience engaged throughout the season.

C: I’d say that ST has very recognizably taken inspiration and ideas from early works. It makes some cool choices which help rework tropes and plots you’d otherwise recognize, but ultimately it’s the mixing of the plots which makes this show stand out. It’s buffet-style cinema–it delivers lots of different things which are pretty standard within their own genre, but what makes them unusual is having them all together. It succeeds as a strong, character-driven story in part because it indulges in a lot of different elements which we’ve seen before while reworking and interweaving them effectively.

A: It’s one of those rare shows where the end result is more than its sum parts. And it does get rid of or subvert some of the more problematic elements in 80s TV and film.

C: Exactly. Would this be a good place to talk about the characters, in particular the show’s presentation of female characters, within its context as Horror, Action/Adventure, and 80s-esque TV?

A: (laughs) With those caveats, I’d say it does great women–but I think it also does well without those caveats. If we look at Nancy and her plotline, for example–I think they do a great job of building her up slowly and developing her character arc. She starts off in a pretty standard teen romance, but as events around her happen, she changes in response to them. ST is excellent at developing its characters so that none of their actions feel unjustified with regards to their original portrayal, but the audience gets to see them develop throughout the series.

C: I wish they’d emphasized her interactions with Barb more–to be honest I feel like Barb is just undervalued throughout–but yeah, Nancy is initially thrust into a pretty recognizable love triangle, but the show tinkers with that narrative in interesting ways, and throughout that storyline, Nancy has agency. It feels like her decisions matter and factor into the narrative, into the larger story… in that respect this show has avoided more uncomfortable aspects of how films and shows from the 80s depict women.

A: And Joyce! Joyce is great. Some of that just comes from the fact that it’s nice to have a single parent portrayed as the responsible, caring adult in contrast to Mike and Nancy’s indifferent parents. But also Joyce is a really well-developed character; she feels so human and motivated.

C: Winona Ryder does a really good job bringing out the drive behind the character. There aren’t really negatives to workshop here. I’d say that other writing and shows can learn a lot from Joyce. The fact she’s shown to be vulnerable and flawed makes her no less compelling and sympathetic to the audience.

A: Yeah; I think when TV shows especially want to create strong female leads, ‘strong’ often tends to mean ‘genius woman who needs charismatic/buffoonish man to humanize her’. ST has three main female characters whom I would describe as ‘strong’ and none of them are in the way that TV shows often mean that adjective. One of the great things about ST is that it takes the risk of actually making its female leads three-dimensional.

C: It shouldn’t be a risk for a show to present women as more than just a handful of character traits, but you’re right that that’s often not the case, and it was refreshing to watch something which bucked against negative TV trends. On top of that, you spoke about ST having three main female characters, which reminds me that we still need to talk about Eleven, or Elle.

A: Um… having just raved about how great the show is for its women, I did sometimes feel like Elle was more of a plot device than a character, especially in the way that the other children interacted with her–Mike and his friends tended to view her as a weapon, or as a slightly dangerous pet, rather than a person. But I think that’s an issue to do with the writing in a wider context, rather than to do with the show’s portrayal of women.

C: Hmm. Yeah. I don’t know if that is intentional by the writing team or not–maybe the kids are just supposed to be dumb kids who don’t really understand how to comfort someone who has been through so much trauma. That narrative gets stronger throughout the season and leads to satisfying conclusions–and Elle stands out there, in a good way. Also, the fact that this show’s gifted hero character is a girl is cool–and as you said earlier, women stand out in a positive way across the board. I love Hopper, but the most iconic characters in this show are far and away Joyce and Elle.

A: One of my favorite scenes is towards the end when Joyce is comforting Elle in the paddling pool; I really liked that moment. We’ve seen in flashbacks that Dr. Brenner hasn’t done this for Elle, so it’s very gratifying when she finally gets a kind parental figure.

C: And it adds to the feeling that Joyce is just this unequivocal force for good.

A: It’s a lovely moment. But from a workshopping perspective, it’s a really great demonstration of the confidence this show has in itself and in its audience. In the moments before and after Joyce comforts Elle, we aren’t subjected to Dr. Brenner flashbacks or anything like that–these happened in earlier episodes, and the show trusts its audience to be engaged enough to remember and understand how important a moment this is. I think I’ve spoken about this in other workshops we’ve done, but it’s just so nice, as a viewer, to not be continually hit over the head with foreshadowing and the like.

C: And to watch a show which doesn’t keep demanding points from you for achieving the bare minimum with characters. That’s refreshing.

A: I feel compelled to mention (as we do every workshop) that the acting in this is great.

C: True. Though at times we’ve brought up acting in part to say “look, these are very skilled actors; they shouldn’t be held accountable for the faults of the writing team”–and in this case that isn’t why we’re doing so. ST’s acting really helps to ground and legitimize the fantastical elements within the narrative. This show incorporates elements from a ton of genres and some of its buildup might not have worked as well without a strong cast. The writers and the cast alike do a good job of maneuvering between emotional tones, not to mention genres and situations.

A: That’s true. Are there any areas where we think the writing could’ve improved? What about the flashback scenes–did they work for you?

C: Yeah, they did. Flashbacks can be a risk–they take away from the action and can be really ham-fisted sometimes–but here they work terrifically. They aren’t overused and they’re always relevant.

A: I agree. They don’t go overboard and they provide very useful depth. Um, what about the cliffhangers then? And the melodramatic moments like finding Will’s body?

C: Hmm.

A: For me, that was one of the few times where the show is too concerned with being dramatic and in doing so loses sight of the characters. They’re so focused on the suspense within the situation–what are the State Troopers doing at the lake? Is it really Will?–that they entirely miss the human tragedy of the moment. It was a shame that things like Hopper’s devastation were overshadowed by their desire to create a cliffhanger.

C: It is odd how many cliffhangers they inserted into ST. People consume shows like this through Netflix binges, so cliffhangers aren’t needed to bring people back week after week. And a lot of them don’t work because they feel superfluous, unlike most other aspects of the story. For example, Nancy’s brief foray into the Upside Down ends on a misleading cliffhanger which was then resolved about five minutes into the next episode. It was one of the few disappointing elements.

A: Yeah, there’s the sense that they lost confidence in themselves when they put in these overly dramatic moments.

C: And generally the plot is very believable, though admittedly there were a few times that you and I exchanged a look while watching this. After one episode we discussed how the mysterious governmental antagonists have a penchant for the dramatic.

A: They really do. And some of the human villains’ decisions feel very over-the-top and unnecessary.

C: Like shooting the café owner?

A: Exactly. He was sweet but dense. They could’ve lied to him instead of going for this excessively dramatic but ultimately stupid murder. I think that probably all the human villains are slightly too basic; they’re almost pastiches of their characters. We see this especially with the bullies in both the younger and older bracket. Given the lengths ST goes to show how multifaceted the major characters are (and also many of the minor characters, like Scott the teacher), it’s a shame the show drops the ball with the minor bad guys. And that’s true for the main villains too.

C: Yeah, that’s fair. I think we may fundamentally disagree on the nuance, or lack thereof, which is necessary for bullying to happen… actually, I don’t know, I was initially going to disagree, but the more I think about it, there is perhaps a shared lack of depth between the schoolyard antagonists and the big-scary-government antagonists, plus of course the supernatural-horror antagonists. Like many shows and movies, ST (rightly) focuses on establishing its expansive cast of characters first, but as a result they don’t leave a ton of time to build up the first-season villains. The antagonist they spend the most time developing is probably the Demigorgon, who doesn’t really appear that much, especially in comparison to the other villains–

A: Although it is a good monster. I was worried it would end up being a letdown, and that moment-of-reveal would fall short, but actually the weird plant face and everything works well to keep the horror vibe going. And yes, agreed about the human antagonists; as you say, the show mostly gets away with it because they build up the protagonists so well, but they could have given their villains more depth.

C: And possibly some of their minor characters too, like Nancy and Mike’s parents, especially their mother, Karen. She’s this parody of a parent who wants to be approachable but doesn’t understand her children–she spends most of the show telling Nancy either “you can always talk to me about what’s wrong” or “you’re a promiscuous liar”–often in rapid succession… I don’t know, I couldn’t tell if that was intended or accidental, but you leave the season feeling much less sympathetic towards her than you could have, given the show’s circumstances.

A: It was especially annoying because it felt unnecessary to demonize her. I don’t think we’d have felt differently about Mike or Nancy, or even Joyce as another parent, if Karen had a little more substance.

C: To be fair, they do manage to give depth to a lot of the characters. Like Steve–he starts off pretty two-dimensional and you think he’s mainly there to juxtapose with Jonathan, but over time they take the self-centered high school jock trope and develop it into someone with real nuance.

A: Oh my goodness, that scene in Jonathan’s house when Nancy and Jonathan are hunting the Demigorgon and then Steve arrives–it was so stressful! That was not an emotion I’d been expected to feel in connection to Steve.

C: The show does a great job of weaving together the different stories and characters, and of making you care about all of them. To begin with, it matches each of the core casts with a genre: the adults are on this mystery track with horror elements, the teens are entrenched in this high school romance plot, and the kids are in an ET kind of scenario, which contains horror elements intermingled with notions of youthful exploration and imagination. As they bring these casts together, they also bring more horror elements into each of the core stories, which makes it easier to synthesize them.

A: Definitely. ST has a large ensemble cast, which can be tricky for a show to do well, but all the main characters and their plots are engaging, in part because of the way they interact and influence each other.

C: The last ten minutes or so of the season finale are present entirely to set up Season Two. In most shows that would bother me, but here they’ve earned it.

A: Yeah, there are some odd moments in the story where events, fortuitous and gratuitous, save characters from otherwise certain death, but it holds together. It gets stronger as it goes on, too, and whether that’s them finding their feet or just building momentum, I’m not sure, but it works. Unlike a lot of its inspirations and predecessors–particularly horrors and mysteries we’ve seen in the past few years–it follows through and builds on itself well, slowly and steadily. And I really hope Elle’s going to come back.

C: Who can say.

A: (laughs)

C: Within the context of the shows we’ve workshopped, this ranks high; they’ve absolutely earned a second season, and in many respects I think they’ve gone above and beyond.

A: Also, their allusions to Season Two weren’t frustrating. They concluded Season One well and then sprinkled in more details, unlike some shows we’ve seen, which have been so concerned with setting up Season Two they don’t end Season One in a satisfying way.

C: True. As per tradition we should also mention the opening sequence. It establishes what they’re aiming for; it’s an ominous, deep 80s synth. Works well.

A: It’s also super distinctive, and I think they made the right call to have a pared-back opening which is simple but strong. It’s not overlong, which is nice given how much goes on during this show; we want to get to the characters. It’s like the opposite of the American Gods intro. So, I agree, it works.

C: You think it’ll be different in Season Two? I wouldn’t be bothered either way.

A: They could have… blue writing.

C: (laughs) That’s the change?

A: Yes.

C: Yeah. Get it together, Duffer Brothers. Why so much red? That’s the takeaway from this workshop: great show, excellent work, too much red.

A: I meant it’s the blue to red shift–you know, soundwaves? The Doppler effect? And they’re going to go back in time.

C: (processing)

A: Have you never watched the opening sequence to Doctor Who?

C: I’m not really smart enough to process what you’re saying here, but I’m sure it’s right, whatever it is. Let’s just end it here and go watch the Season Two trailer. I’m jonesing.


Angela and Calder are available at their respective Twitter accounts, @MS_a_hicks and @CMA_Hudson. Their previous workshop of American Gods is accessible here.

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Angela Hicks

Angela Hicks is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s Creative Writing programme in 2016 and was one of the storytellers for Edinburgh City of Literature’s Story Shop 2017. She is currently working on her first novel.

 


 

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

 

As part of the Harry Potter generation who grew up with the original book series, I was naturally interested when, in 2016, J.K. Rowling announced a new sequel of sorts in the form of a play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (written by Jack Thorne, with story by Rowling, Thorne, and John Tiffany). But I was also apprehensive–would the magic hold after all these years? I resisted buying a copy of the script for several months; the seventh book ended with the line ‘all was well’–did I really want to discover that that might not be the case? A slew of positive reviews from the likes of The Guardian, The Telegraph, and other mainstream newspapers convinced me to give it a go. Nevertheless, I was aware before I picked up the script that a portion of book-fans disliked Cursed Child, muttering that it was little better than fan fiction and resolutely refusing to view it as canon no matter what Rowling said. Thus I embarked on the task of reading the script with much anticipation and a certain degree of trepidation.

The first thing to say about CC is that the plot, in the broadest terms, is fine. It’s a time travelling romp; there are tense scenes and humorous moments. The concept of a character travelling to the past and thereby altering the future is not new (think the Back to the Future trilogy), but CC manages to be an enjoyable narrative for all it lacks in originality. Time travel plots often suffer from their sheer illogicality–if one stops to consider what’s really happening, things tend to fall apart pretty quickly–but CC has so much going on that there’s no time to think, much less care, about whether it holds together. One doesn’t dwell too much on what paradoxes are being created, nor how likely certain things connected to Voldemort are, because you’re caught up in the story. Similarly, it just about gets away with most of its more outlandish moments (such as the transformation of the Trolley Witch in 1:11) because of this fast pace as well as the quick and often light-hearted dialogue.

That dialogue (along with the stage effects) is probably the element which translates least well from the stage to the page, since we’re given no sense from the script alone how certain lines should be delivered. As just mentioned, there are a lot of one-liners or rapid fire exchanges (predominantly between Albus and Scorpius, but also between Ron and Hermione). It makes for a fun read, although there’s the sense that the writers were more concerned with making their protagonists witty and amusing than in having them speak like normal people.

There’s also the peppering of colloquialisms and slang throughout the script. On the one hand, making them sound more like today’s teenagers is a way of differentiating the younger generation of witches and wizards from those in the original series. However, part of the reason that the Harry Potter books have stood the test of time (20 years since the publication of Philosopher’s Stone) is probably because they manage to not be period-specific–they exist in their own private sphere outside most real world influences, and they avoid obvious time-markers such as slang. I doubt CC will age so well.

I also wonder how future generations of playgoers will react to several of the character portrayals. To begin with, there is Albus and Scorpius’ friendship/relationship. The script spends a lot of time and energy setting them up as a couple before finally deciding that they’re both straight. Naturally a very deep friendship between people of any gender can exist without it needing to transform into love; however, the script actively promotes the idea of their blossoming romance for nine-tenths of the narrative. One reason I’m upset that Albus and Scorpius don’t become a couple is because of the blatant disregard for the author-reader contract. I would be annoyed that CC laid this groundwork and then didn’t follow through regardless of whether it was about a gay relationship, or whether it was about Albus getting a pet dragon/becoming an animagus/introducing Irn Bru to the wizarding world. Following the principle of Chekov’s Gun, when a piece of fiction sets something up, your expectations are raised and if–as is the case with CC–it doesn’t deliver, the reader ends up feeling frustrated and betrayed.

In a less literary vein, it would have been nice to have the leading characters being a gay couple. CC as a stage-play has rightly been praised for its representation of minorities through its casting of black actors in major roles (Noma Dumezweni was the first actor to play CC’s Hermione in the West End, followed by Rakie Ayola when Dumezweni reprised that roll on Broadway). However, these casting decisions were made by individual productions and aren’t guaranteed to always be the same; it would’ve been better if the script itself included representation of minority characters. Moreover, leading with a gay couple would have worked well with CC’s plot: the play focuses on people not fitting in and being pressured by society, and other’s assumptions about them, so it would have made sense to add coming to terms with one’s sexuality into the piece. I feel like several opportunities were missed with Albus and Scorpius in this respect.

There are also problems with other characters. There were elements of disappointment with the ‘old cast’, as it were, from the books. Some of these are more overt, such as the fact that Harry–someone who was always portrayed as a caring, well-balanced individual who just happened to be fated to fight the Dark Lord–has transformed into a grumpy and distant parent. Others only occur on reflection; it’s slightly galling to learn that an unmarried Hermione is considerably meaner than a married one. It’s also disappointing to discover that Ron and Hermione, again people who in the original series were generally depicted as nice children who weren’t particularly prejudiced, have raised a snob like Rose.

However, the most egregious discrepancy between the original series and the book with regards to characters is Cedric Diggory. Although he appears for a limited time only in Goblet of Fire (and is briefly mentioned in earlier books), he is clearly depicted as a good person–he helps Harry figure out the second challenge and accepts Harry’s proposal to be joint winners of the tournament. In CC, however, his innate goodness is apparently so flimsy that he turns completely to the dark side when he’s laughed at. Not only is it a shame that probably the most famous member of the often least well-regarded house turns out to be evil, but it’s also infuriating that no one comments on how stupid his reasoning is. Being laughed at is never a good reason to commit mass murder, and I really wish that someone in CC had remarked about how messed up Cedric turns out to be, instead of tacitly endorsing his behaviour. Or better yet, not made him so messed up. It wouldn’t have been difficult to change Cedric from incompetent Death Eater into incompetent good guy–Neville could easily have died shielding Cedric, or in friendly fire from him. Instead, the script goes out of its way to portray Cedric as someone who is only nice when people are nice to him. Moreover, the audience/reader’s knowledge that Cedric became a Death Eater really damages the ending of CC–Harry visits Cedric’s grave and has a sort of poignant moment with his son about how he goes there to tell Cedric he’s sorry (4:15). That would be a beautiful ending if only we weren’t all thinking that Harry is wrong to be sorry because Cedric would have probably turned out to be a terrible person in this time-stream too.

Perhaps my expectations about Cursed Child were too high, both in terms of the script itself, and also in its ability to bring back my childhood. I certainly found it enjoyable while I was reading it; as a play script, especially one primarily aimed at a teenage audience, it was a quick read, and it was nice to romp through the wizarding world again, albeit briefly. But once I’d finished, the illogicalities and odd choices started to pile up, while my regrets at the script’s missed opportunities, particularly with regards to characters, became harder to ignore. While a lot of fans of the original series have embraced Cursed Child, the vocal minority describing it as nothing more than fan fiction remains undaunted. For all that I want to love this new addition to the Harry Potter universe, I cannot help but regretfully side with those who prefer to view the play as an Aunt Muriel of the books–invited to family gatherings when it has to be, but generally best left forgotten.


You can follow Angela on her Twitter, @MS_a_hicks. More of her work is accessible here.

Personal Essay: Dear Body by Jonatha Kottler

Having previously worked as a university lecturer in Albuquerque, Jonatha Kottler now lives and writes primarily in Europe. Jonatha was one of Edinburgh’s 2016 Story Shop writers and has contributed to ECAS, to the Dangerous Women Project, and to Edinburgh’s Write Like a Grrrl community. Her work has also been published by The Guardian and by 404 Ink in their hit collection, Nasty Women. She is presently writing her first novel, and one of her essays is slated to appear in an upcoming collection entitled No Filter.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.


Dear Body

 

Dear Body,

I recently wrote two articles about being fat. Being fat isn’t new for me, but writing articles about it is. One was published in a collection of essays and was subsequently picked up by a major website in the US. They wanted to re-publish it to help promote the book. It had a moderated comments section and the things people said weren’t all that bad–mean things that I expected, but nothing as mean as I’d heard about, or seen written about other women online (like those who dared to read their own poetry on YouTube and were threatened with death—levels of criticism that Charles Dickens never had to deal with).

I wrote the second article for a major UK newspaper, and there were a lot of comments–about a thousand at the time that I decided I had read enough–and that came as quite a shock to me. They were still not at the level of what some people have come to expect (for doing things like simply playing or writing about video games). I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get caught in the comments–I would take the high road and not read them–but of course, I did read some of them. I was glad that I did—there were many friendly suggestions for places I might consider looking for clothes (it was about plus-size shopping) and some people who felt that I articulated things which they couldn’t say themselves. Things I wrote meant something to someone, and that’s part of why we write things, isn’t it? To share our ideas and experiences and hope they connect with someone else.

But then there was one man’s comment–the one that made me wish I’d never looked at any of them, made me even wish I’d missed out on all the kind and important things that others said. It was a comment about my size, and obesity, and how I look and whether or not I should be allowed to take up the space that I take in the world. He read the piece I wrote and went looking for other mentions of me on the internet (I imagine he found some old comments by my students, too!). When he found a link of me at a reading, on YouTube, he linked back to it in the comments section of the article and said, “This is what this author looks like. I don’t think we should normalize this.”

I was caught in this spiral in my head where I couldn’t help but imagine: he read what I wrote–a piece about my own life experiences–and had been so upset about it, disgusted or angry enough to go out and Google me (it doesn’t take long, I know, but I cannot imagine bothering to do this after reading something in the newspaper. After all, it was the first sunny Saturday in April). He’d had a “ha HA!” moment when he found me, looked at my image–on a day when I was pretty proud and happy, doing my first public reading–and decided my image was an excellent exhibit to submit into evidence in the trial, The People v. How Jonatha Kottler Looks. He’d linked the piece in, to save others the arduous task of finding it. He’d felt that he had a point so trenchant that it only needed the 1,000 words my picture stood for to make it.

I try to keep a positive perspective. I’ve had lots of lovely comments and messages–a woman who used the articles to reconnect with her sister and speak honestly on this topic for the first time. My words broke down a wall between them.

But I was thinking about that link. The case against me being normal. Judged guilty by the comments section of your local newspaper and the sentence pronounced: your words don’t matter because your body isn’t normal. And I’m the one who let him in, invited him to have a lovely place at the banquet in my mind, where the smorgasbord includes my self-worth, my dignity, and my desire to put words in public, and he can devour as much as he wants. All for the low, low price of a Google and a copy and paste.

How utterly fucked up is that? He’s fucked up–a moralising asshole who judges and destroys in a few clicks what took much longer to create. And me, I’m fucked up, too, giving him the comfy chair in my psyche.

So, no more. Last call for assholes. You don’t have to go home, but you aren’t allowed to take up space in my mind, my heart. I will not populate myself with the members of the comment section, or be one of those people, either. I am writing a new comments section: the one my body deserves.

Dear Body,

You have taken some serious shit, my friend, from the outside world, and also from me. This is a letter of apology to you, for things I’ve thought, and things I’ve done, and things other people have said that I have let burr against you. I pledge to protect to you from this, to be your armour, and to shine that armour with my words of praise.

Dear Body,

You are my companion–we have been through everything together. You have held me and taken me places, all the places of my life.

Miracle-Strong Body,

You have battled germs, and made the tears for me to weep when only tears would do. You are there, strong to hold me up, or tired to drag my buzzing head down to rest. From inside you have cradled my thoughts, and laughed to dizziness and known pleasure, somehow, without any help from my Hamlet-swirls of endless thought and decision-indecision-regret.

Dear Body,

In spite of all of that, you turned some cells into another person, you transformed food into tiny earlobes, and eyelashes, and a brain, and toenails and a heart muscle. Sometimes old brain here has trouble choosing dinner from a menu, and yet you, quietly, steadfastly, made a completely separate and marvellous human being, and brought him into the world, and fed him and held his hand and held the book of stories and read the words over and again. And all of this while keeping me going, heart, brain, toenails, all moving along.

Dear Body,

I have treated you unkindly, giving you too much of some things and not enough of others, and criticizing you all the while. Reducing you into segments to appraise minutely–eyes too narrow, thighs too wide. I have made you into a letter of complaint: the person next to me has got a much better nose, why is she so thin, so beautiful, so glossy, so unwrinkled, when what I got was this.

Dear Body,

Recently I described you as an old reliable car–you keep running but if I try to explain you to someone it is as a list of quirks: the passenger window doesn’t open and you can’t listen to the radio and use the windscreen wipers at the same time…

But, Dear Body,

You aren’t a list of complaints, or a series of regrets, or a mass of scar tissue, or a thing to be judged. You are GLORIOUS–a home and a companion and the only one who has been with me my whole life, and instead of wishing you were thin and unwrinkled and not sore, instead of being a quirky car that I’d keep until it wore out but would never buy in this condition, instead of all of that, I will say:

Dear Body,

Thank you. Perpetual motion chug chugging heart, expanding lungs, gentle touching fingertips, blinking eyes. Thank you. You deserve my gratitude and my care and my shining armour against those who would hurt you with sticks and stones or words. Dear Body.


Jonatha can be followed on Twitter.

Workshop: American Gods, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. They set out to workshop Starz’ new series, American Gods, shortly after the show’s debut; once they’d completed its first season, the two conducted the following discussion to express their thoughts.

This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of American Gods. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

C: As is tradition, we’ll begin by specifying our knowledge of the source material for this show. Angela and I have both read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (in its original 2001 version, rather than Gaiman’s preferred text–the slightly longer tenth-anniversary edition). I don’t think either of us are Gaiman fanatics, but we were both interested in this show and we’d planned on watching and workshopping it for a long time. I was super enthusiastic about this going in; I’d been reading a lot about the show–interviews, promotional materials, that sort of thing–and it all looked promising.

A: American Gods felt like a good book to adapt for TV. It’s a long tome so they had plenty of source material; it has one main story narrative–Shadow’s journey with Mr Wednesday; it has a lot of interesting characters. But the book also has weaknesses–times when characters are underdeveloped, for instance–which I felt that a show could change and redress quite successfully.

C: Yeah, agreed. [sighs] With that said, having watched the first season, I have to admit I’m colossally disappointed in the results. I don’t think this is the weakest show we’ve workshopped but I’m overwhelmingly disheartened by the end product. The show has many positive aspects, but its execution felt wholly underwhelming.

A: Underwhelming is a good word to use for this show. It has the source material, it sets things up, but somehow it fails to deliver, leaving me pretty indifferent with the end result.

C: Now we have the challenge of considering why that is. We do these as workshops rather than reviews because we’re interested in looking at the way certain things work–or conversely don’t work–in shows, and how they can be fixed.

A: That’s part of the reason, I think, that we review the first seasons of shows–because they can often still be in that developmental stage, finding their feet and working things out.

C: Right, and because it means we get to watch lots of new shows.

A: [laughs] That too. But back to AG–what do you think the main reason neither of us were…super excited at the end of this first season?

C: I think if I were to describe the show in one word–and I don’t think this word is necessarily a damning thing–it’d be “indulgent”. That’s true of the book as well–particularly Gaiman’s preferred edition–and on the one hand the detail is often very visceral and evocative. But the negative of this approach is that pacing can feel laggardly and blunted by the excess of interjections and information in the main narrative. The takeaway the show should have had from the book was, put bluntly, the story needed more conciseness and forward momentum, but if anything, it’s worse than the books in this respect. The show had the chance to improve on some of the book’s vulnerabilities, but it didn’t learn from those lessons at all.

A: I think when you talk about overindulgence and slow pacing, it falls into two separate categories, both of which are detrimental to the show. Firstly there’s the drawn out cinematography which overemphasizes many details. We’re shown a gramophone, then we’re shown it being set to play, then we’re shown the needle start, and then we watch the record turn… Any tension is undercut by boredom as the audience waits for things to happen.

C: It’s clearly a conscious choice by the show, but I think you’re right–it doesn’t work, at least not to the extent they use it.

A: And secondly, they add in even more material which doesn’t appear in the book. And it’s not a short book to start with. Some additions work–I think Vulcan as a gun producer nicely brings it into 21st century America. But then we get an entire episode–the seventh out of eight, so really close to the end, when we should be building up to that big finale–which is all about how the Irish fairies came to America via the tales of a random woman called Essie. It just feels like superfluous filler.

C: To be fair, the story behind the seventh episode exists within the books; it’s just not as overemphasized. I expect the Essie narrative was included to try to create a more multitudinous, mystical atmosphere, but given the pacing already felt slow before then, it was exhausting. In some cases this same issue doomed more interesting ideas, too, which is a shame–like how we’re given more backstory for Laura Moon, Shadow’s dead wife. It’s a nice idea to develop her story, but they dedicate an enormous amount of time to it without giving it any drive.

A: I didn’t think the Laura stuff worked. This is one of those cases where less is more. Adding in so much doesn’t make her sympathetic or engaging, it makes her less interesting. Also, by showing her so much from the start, it undercuts the power and impact which she has in the book when she returns to Shadow’s life.

C: I think we disagree about that to some extent, but I do agree that Laura’s enigmatic agency, which really comes through in the book, feels obfuscated by the show’s excess. From a workshopping perspective, you’re right; there are whole shots, scenes and pretty much whole episodes which could all be heavily cut or removed entirely without the audience feeling they’d lost something conducive to the show’s central premise.

A: Agreed. And I also think that they have too many narrative threads which aren’t streamlined or interwoven.

C: Like Czernobog–we meet him in what might be my favorite sequence in the show, and he seemingly joins the core cast, only to never show up in this season again. The book is already sprawling, but the show takes this to a new level and it’s so frustrating. In the book Czernobog’s there in the famous ‘House on the Rock’ scene for the big reveal about the gods–the plot’s crux–which is where I assumed they were going to end the first season of the show. Instead they don’t get to this natural focal point, which would have established the show’s goals and stakes really effectively in a poignant finale. They get seven-eighths of the way there, but because they’re moving so slowly, they don’t make it–but they still want the content from that scene, so they shoehorn it in earlier, lessening the impact of those big, exciting reveals.

A: If they’d cut the Essie episode, they could’ve easily reached House on the Rock, and it would have been nice to tie in Czernobog and Mr Nancy again.

C: Exactly. It’s… it’s disappointing, to say the least. But, on a happier note, I want to touch on all the positive things about the series too–some of the additions and alterations the show makes are really great. Some minor characters are reworked from cameo appearances into much more fleshed-out roles; for example, the character of Salim (played by Omid Abtahi) has only a minor role in the source material, but he is transformed in the show into a more crucial (and interesting) figure. I wish the show had included more of him.

A: That’s true. I also think the depiction of Media (Gillian Anderson) is very well done and an occasion where the show’s penchant for stylization is effective and suits the character.

C: As always, we can’t fault the casting of the show. Anderson does terrifically in the role of Media.

A: And, as mentioned above, the show’s addition of the character of Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) and his acceptance of the new world order also worked well. The show does a good job of updating itself while partnering certain atmospheres with certain characters. The same is true of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), whose role has been nicely expanded from the book. The show takes time to set up why some of the old gods take the deals offered by the new regime of Mr World et al., something which the book doesn’t manage as effectively.

C: The show also makes sound choices and changes with respect to Shadow himself (played excellently by Ricky Whittle). He’s far more vocal than his book counterpart–an expected change given the different mediums; as a result we get a bit more of his immediate reactions to situations he and Wednesday find themselves in. Shadow’s been adapted well for the screen and Whittle does a terrific job of bringing him to life.

A: You’re right; keeping him predominantly silent wouldn’t work–though Whittle is very talented and gets a lot across with facial expressions and body language. I found this Shadow more likable and nuanced.

C: Another positive part of the TV series–my favorite segment from the season, which I touched on earlier–is the chess game between Shadow and Czernobog (Peter Stormare). Not only are the individual performances top-notch, but the atmosphere in that scene is excellent–and to give credit where credit is due, when this show is good, it’s good, and it certainly knows how to establish atmosphere. Moments like that are incredibly satisfying. It’s just a shame that too often the show hasn’t considered the book’s vulnerabilities or learnt from mistakes made by other shows of its kind.

A: Such as its often iffy portrayals of women? The book also isn’t always excellent at its female characters, but it was admittedly written some time ago–TV shows today should get less sympathy, given they have a chance to modernize.

C: I think the way this show tackles some issues like race and sexuality is quite effective, but yeah, I wouldn’t really say it tackles anything relating to women or femininity.

A: I don’t know that it really is that good at portraying different races and different cultures–it has quite a cherry-picking approach to representing their mythologies which perhaps means it veers closer to voyeurism than true representation. But to focus on women for the moment–there are certainly some issues regarding its portrayal of women. There’s Laura, who sort of… asserts her dominance through espousing a fondness for sex, and through distancing herself from other women in this regard.

C: Yeah, you can tell a guy wrote a lot of that.

A: Yes. It’s… it’s whatever–lazy, under-developed, out-of-touch, cheap. And then there’s the voice-over line uttered by Mr Ibis of “Intelligence has never been uncommon among women”, which is at best weird, and at worst incredibly patronizing and insulting. It’s one of those lines you can’t quite believe that all of the writers, editors and actors read and thought was good.

C: It’s one line, but it’s an immensely disappointing line indicative of overarching issues with the script.

A: Speaking of immensely disappointing…

C: Sure.

A: That opening scene of episode one–the prologue–the scene which is meant to hook viewers in. I hated it. It’s one of those many times where the show’s languorous style really doesn’t work. It could have been a powerful scene, but it ends up being tedious and, as is so often the case in this show, raising too many questions which it has no interest in answering–for example, why do the Vikings, when they decide to fight to please the gods, fight each other and not their enemies inland? I think that the book’s opening–of Shadow in prison–is a better beginning, and more coherent.

C: I had fewer problems with the show’s opening, but yes, if you’re going to change things from the source material, then you need to be damn sure that it’s better; this show doesn’t manage that.

A: And about the show’s ending, which, as you mentioned earlier, is not that similar to the corresponding scene in the source material. I got the sense watching AG with you that, while I was annoyed at it from pretty early on, you gradually lost patience with it throughout the season. But did that dramatic finale redeem it for you at all?

C: Sadly, it didn’t. This show takes so much time–a whole season–to establish one of the central tenets of the story: for the gods, belief is power, with worship strengthening them and disinterest making them atrophy. And yet the show repeatedly overrides said rules; in cinematic situations this central rule is thrown out the window. The show ends with Easter (or rather, Ostara)–who is described as having only a sort of proxy-power at present through her alliance with the modernist cabal–essentially depriving America of all its crops and agriculture. This is a much greater display of power than any other god or deity has shown in the show thus far, so it’s disorienting, given that Ostara has supposedly been living off of referential praise and not true worship as the show asserts. The rules don’t seem to matter all that much.

A: I had similar questions about AG’s internal logic in other places too. For example, it adds in deities like Jesus who are still worshipped today. The plot of “old, forgotten gods versus technological dominion” is good, but through adding in religions which are still followed in the present day, the premise starts to get a lot more confusing and woolly–why does the character who believes in Allah end up with the Egyptian god then, and so on? I think having ‘modern’ gods was an unnecessary move which clutters things up. The show would’ve been better to shore up and improve what they already had rather than introducing more partially-explained concepts to the narrative.

C: I actually disagree there–I do think they could have made the inclusion of the different representations of Christ work, had they exerted a bit more effort. But you’re right–the world’s rules are very unclear in the show, which is disheartening given that it has time to make them clear. The show has plenty of source material–what it needs now is gumption.

A: And to return to your comment about the finale–yes, if it’s going to invent an ending which diverges quite heavily from the book, it needs to have increased its pace and plot a lot, because otherwise viewers have too much time to consider plot-holes, and to find faults in what you’re watching. The show should either have done a whistle-stop tour of action, or a very pared-down adaptation with respect to characters, but with a lot more depth. Instead it fails on both fronts.

C: Yes indeed; though there are benefits to the show’s indulgent approach, this indulgence causes significant problems in relation to depth and pacing. To go back to the show’s opening, we spoke about the prologue, but not the credits; I think–if this isn’t too cliché a thing to say–the opening credits are emblematic of the show with respect to overarching flaws. They aren’t ugly, but they’re excessively long, and don’t do much other than take up time. This show has a very specific visual aesthetic–one achieved predominantly through a lot of vibrant colors and CGI–which actually works well by and large; some of the animated sequences are very pretty. But it all adds to the feeling that, for all the show’s glitz, there isn’t enough substance beneath it; it’s all frosting with no cake underneath. And look: I understand that this show is beginning with some preset laurels it can rest on. Similar shows are doing well on TV; they clearly paced this out to have multiple seasons; Gaiman’s book is already beyond celebrated. But their desire to set up a long-running saga has resulted in a bumpy introduction.

A: You said, after the end of the last episode, that you’d grudgingly watch a second season of this show; I’m not sure I would. The show isn’t abysmal–as you argued, the visual style works at times, and some scenes are wonderfully atmospheric–but I gave it eight hours and it couldn’t bring it together for me.

C: That’s tough, but fair. Though I quite liked the book and though I had immense hopes for this show, I’m not sure it deserves the second season which will assuredly follow this one down the line. Even if they failed to learn from the book’s missteps, I hope the writing team behind the show can learn from the mistakes they made when starting out; moving forward, I hope American Gods can find the momentum and substance its first season lacked.


Angela and Calder are available at their respective Twitter accounts, @MS_a_hicks and @CMA_Hudson. Their previous workshop of The Last Kingdom is accessible here.

Commentary: Self-Publish and Be Damned by William McIntyre

William (Willie) McIntyre is a criminal defence lawyer and the author of the Best Defence series, a continuing saga of Scottish criminal law novels enveloped in themes of noir, wry humour, and social commentary. Having been both published and self-published, Willie is readily familiar with the ins and outs of the Scottish publishing scene.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

Self-Publish and Be Damned

 

At the Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh, there was recently an exhibition celebrating the 30th year of Ian Rankin’s famous fictional creation, Detective Inspector John Rebus. One of the items on show is the first rejection letter the author received from a publisher. Brilliant. I know if I’d had Mr Rankin’s good fortune I’d be sending those rejecting-publishers a Christmas card from my yacht in the Caribbean every year. Not that I’m knocking publishers. They’re running businesses–they need to use their best judgement and sometimes they get it wrong (but, seriously, Inspector Rebus? There’s wrong and there’s really wrong).

Speaking as someone who submitted his own book (Relatively Guilty, first in the Best Defence Series) to a number of publishers several years ago, it’s the ones who don’t give writers a fair chance that annoy me. One of my first submissions was to a publisher whose guidelines refused electronic transmission–it might have been the 21st Century, but they wanted it in size 12 font on paper, double-spaced and with one inch margins. That’s a lot of ink and paper for a 95k word book. Fortunately I ran an office with a large stationery cupboard; I printed it off, put it inside a large brown envelope and placed it and my covering letter in one of those large grey indestructible plastic bags, along with a similar plastic bag stamped and addressed to me for return of the manuscript if, inconceivably, it was to be rejected. And returned it duly was… more than three months later, with a standard rejection letter. This surprised me on two counts: firstly, I thought it was a good book (admittedly, I’m biased) and, secondly, it was clear to me that the brown envelope containing the manuscript had never been opened. Unlike Mr Rankin, I didn’t keep the letter, and, although I don’t remember the date, what I do remember is that it was the day I thought, ‘Stuff this’ (or words to that effect) and self-published the book on Kindle, where five years later it remains my best seller.

Many traditional publishers complain about those who self-publish. One never hears of artists being criticised for self-hanging-paintings-on-a-wall, or would-be popstars for self-singing-to-folk-in-a-pub. Literature is different. Publishers and agents view themselves as the gatekeepers to quality, and that’s fine, so long as the gate is kept open and your book, or even part of it, is actually read by someone–and you don’t mind waiting… and waiting… and waiting.

On the other hand, publishing an e-book is straightforward and immediate. The finished product may not be quite as well-polished as it would be had it gone through editing and proofreading by professionals, but then again, one doesn’t have to hang on for months only to receive a pro forma saying how much the publisher ‘adored *insert title of book* but don’t think it’s a good fit for us’. Moreover, it was self-publishing my books on Amazon that acted as a portal for me to being traditionally published by the discerning folk at Sandstone Press.

If the ink is in your blood, you will write. Do not be ashamed to self-publish. Let the world see what you’ve written. Somebody might like it. I don’t mean to come over all Gray’s Elegy about things, but think how many potential Ian Rankins and JK Rowlings there are out there who can’t wait forever, hoping that some astute publisher will take a chance on them. Think how many budding Ian Rankins have given up on that rejected manuscript which could have made them famous, or at least could have made them a living?

Do it yourself. Publishers don’t always get it right. Mr Rankin has that in writing.


More of Willie’s writing is accessible via the Best Defence website. The next book in the Best Defence series, Last Will, arrives in stores this November.

Interview: Chrys on Game of Thrones by Calder Hudson

Chrys is an online exegete known for her distinct blend of humor and insight. Several years ago, she began her popular series Chrys Reviews, in which she analyses TV shows through episodic recaps. These are presented as a compilation of stills from the show with her thoughts as subtitles (often satirizing the characters and scenes being portrayed). Chrys’ commentary thoroughly dissects the episode, paying special attention to dialogue, relationships between characters, and the (sometimes unabashed) mishandling of tropes. Chrys’ reviews are well-received on multiple platforms, including Tumblr, Reddit, and Imgur. Over time, she’s incorporated a number of different TV shows (including Westworld, Sleepy Hollow, and How to Get Away with Murder) into her Reviews series; she’s reviewed more Game of Thrones than anything else, with thirty-five episodes of the show’s sixty episodes covered.

In this interview, The Ogilvie’s Chief Editor Calder Hudson speaks with Chrys about her review process as well as her thoughts on HBO’s Game of Thrones and its upcoming seventh season. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

CALDER: What was it that first made you decide to do the Chrys Reviews series? With respect to the screenshot-style, did you have the format and presentation planned out in advance, or did your method develop over time?

CHRYS: I wanted to make people laugh and to challenge myself as a writer (or as a friend lovingly says, “shitpost generator”). The screenshot-style recap has been a Tumblr staple for quite some time, and while I’d never actually seen the show, Hannibal screenshots that made me laugh (even though I had no context) were the reason I thought it might be fun to do my own. At first I didn’t really know what I was doing, as might be evident in some Teen Wolf recaps, but I soon found that giving each character a voice of their own helped tremendously. The format itself shaped the style more than anything else. Text on a limited space means verbosity is out of the window, unless you make the very deliberate effort to turn that into a joke–a wall of words can effectively communicate the fact that a character is monologuing or rambling. Screenshots are also great for pacing; there’s nothing like a text-free shot to give a joke time to land.

Between the screenshotting and the commentary, how long does it usually take to complete each episodic review? Is there a particular process you have with respect to making them?

It really depends on the length of the episode. I normally go through every single frame of a scene to find the best facial expressions (Conleth Hill–Varys in GoT–and Ed Harris–the Man in Black in Westworld–are prime examples of actors that spoil me for choice). This also helps me to notice details I might have otherwise missed. The time it takes to write an episode recap can vary, especially from show to show. Since I go frame to frame, the longer the episode, the more work I have. It usually takes between five and eight hours total. Writer’s block can happen, but I think it usually affects the quality of the writing (and my mood!) more than the length of time spent on a piece.

In some cases you’ve written an accompanying text post with your thoughts on an episode. When you begin the recaps, do you usually go in with a skeleton-structure of what you want to address in the episode, or do you do the full write-ups after you’ve finished the recap?

The write-ups always happen after I finish the recaps, while I’m waiting for the images to upload. I keep notes while watching the episode and always have a mental list of things I want to address, for the most part managing to get my point across as succinctly as possible without forgetting anything. The trouble with writing something at around (or past) midnight is that memory and editing become… interesting creatures.

The shows you’ve picked (Westworld, How to Get Away with Murder, Teen Wolf, Game of Thrones, etc.) cross an array of genres. How do you select which shows you want to review?

All those shows are high drama, with ridiculous plot twists, situations, and characters. They’re fun! Even Westworld, with its more cerebral approach, can become a parody of itself without particular effort on my part. Additionally, they’re shows that sometimes become controversial and deeply affect the fans watching. This means I can be critical at times and provide much needed levity during others. My Patreon supporters also have a say, but they still choose from shows I’m interested in doing. Westworld recaps could just have easily been Luke Cage recaps save for a few votes, so that’s an interesting road not taken. The most important thing is that I either love the show or love-hate it. If I find myself bored, disappointed, or just plain tired of its nonsense, I stop (and have done so for at least three shows off the top of my head). I do have to admit to liking my version of events so much I’m still watching Game of Thrones as part of some sort of weird and narcissistic exercise in writing.

Yes—you also mentioned earlier that you wanted to challenge yourself as a writer. What sort of writing do you do outside the Reviews?

I’ve written a few short fanfics and generally like to play with characters and ideas. I’m currently wrestling with an original fantasy novel and the recaps have been excellent training for letting myself abandon the pursuit of perfection in order to get something (anything!) down.

On the subject of Game of Thrones—you’ve done more GoT episode recaps than you have for any other TV show, and earlier you mentioned you either need to love or love-hate a show to proceed to review it. If you had to put GoT into one of these two categories…?

Game of Thrones is something I have a lot of thoughts and emotions about, especially as the show relates to the books. I will always love the show for introducing me to the world and to a lot of people who enjoy talking about it. I also kinda hate the show for the way it cheapens and distorts the source material. A Storm of Swords is my favorite A Song of Ice and Fire book and I started recapping the show during Season Four, extremely excited to witness the Lannisters tearing themselves apart. To say that I was disappointed by the way certain elements were adapted is putting it lightly, so the recaps became a way to deal with all my nerd rage… and Season Five was just bad! However, the recaps help me adapt the adaptation—and having enjoyed the sixth season, I think GoT has become a show I’ve accepted. Like the weather, good or bad. For the most part I just like talking about it. It also doesn’t hurt that people apparently like what I’m doing; getting feedback of any kind is wonderful and the response to the recaps has been overwhelming.

GoT gets a lot of flak for how it’s adapted George R.R. Martin’s ASoIaF series, as you mentioned. Book fans and show-only fans often end up at odds with one another—do you feel you enjoy the show more or less because you’ve read the books and have that awareness of the differences between them?

Ignorance is bliss, yet it’s pretty hard to remain engaged and ignorant on the internet, no matter how hard YouTube commenters strive to disprove this point. I think I’d probably enjoy the show a bit more if I hadn’t read the books, but given how loud book fans can get, I doubt I’d remain in the dark and would eventually be disappointed.

Some of your recaps touch on the fact that GoT has gradually moved away from ASoIaF, especially insofar as how certain characters and plotlines are represented (or, in some cases, are not represented). Do you think this differentiation is why many fans feel less enthusiastic about recent seasons (particularly, as you said, Season Five), or are there other causes for that fallout?

I know a lot of people, book readers and show watchers alike, who were extremely excited about Dorne. I think disappointment hit both sides hard. It’s probably one of the few things we can all agree on: the Dorne plotline was subpar and a waste of everyone’s time and talent (particularly that of Alexander Siddig, who played Doran Martell). And then there’s the whole mess with Stannis which was… poorly executed. I’ve also noticed that production values just aren’t what they used to be. Screenshots from Season One make later seasons look like they were filmed in a basement using post production color grading as lighting… and let’s not even mention the wigs. At the end of the day what hit the hardest for me personally was seeing a whole bunch of people who used to love the show abandon ship and write quite bitter, eloquently phrased articles about it. To say it didn’t help quell my own dissatisfaction is an understatement.

With respect to “adapting the adaptation”, what do you think is missing most from the show which is present in the books—and on the flipside, is there anything you’re glad the show has altered from the source material?

The books make an effort to show that war and revenge slowly strip away people’s humanity. While graphic at times, the writing doesn’t glorify violence and savagery, and contains beautifully written anti-war rhetoric. The show is not only missing this, but also refuses to give characters the complexity they have in the books, a sin I could forgive in a movie adaptation but not in a series of ten-hour seasons. As far as things that are better… the aging-up of some younger characters makes for more palatable watching. While certain actions can’t be excused of adults–resulting in characters who are rash or stupid rather than childishly immature or overwhelmed–it’s easier to see horrible things happen to people around 20, rather than to people under 16.

As you said, a great many fans of the show have jumped ship in the last few years. Meanwhile, some book fans are also voicing resentment, having grown increasingly impatient during the wait for the release of The Winds of Winter. This has created another point of contention within the fan community, with dissatisfied readers going head-to-head with those defending the speed of GRRM’s writing. Has this controversy impacted you or your reviews?

I’m not that impacted by the controversy. This is probably due to the fact that the parts of fandom I’m most involved in are comprised of writers who are almost unanimously defenders of his speed, even while joking about it. Essentially it’s a conflict happening far away and which my environment ensures I’m on the right side of, since I’m of the opinion that we don’t own GRRM’s time, no matter how much we love his work and how disappointed we are by the fact there’s not more of it (and I find it all kinds of hilarious that show watchers get to be smug about spoilers).

Back in May, Entertainment Weekly reported that HBO is considering four different Game of Thrones spinoffs. Given your feelings towards the show in its current state, what are your immediate thoughts on that?

Honestly, my immediate thought was “Ugh…” but having read the article, I can think of at least a couple of stories from GRRM’s canon I’d love to see adapted (the fall of Valyria in particular). Maybe by a completely different team of creators, though.

The Fall of Valyria would an interesting base for a spinoff. Most people initially predicted that they would cover Robert’s Rebellion, Dunk & Egg, or the Dance of the Dragons… all parts of the canon which GRRM has already written a great deal about. Choosing something he hasn’t elaborated on much would allow for more artistic liberties and would enable them to avoid some of the lost-in-translation issues GoT has faced. Would you like to see the Fall of Valyria because GRRM has kept it ambiguous in many ways, or is it just part of the canon you’re very interested in?

I love the stories surrounding the fall of empires. There’s just something about the grandiose tragedy of it all, especially when combined with a kind of sick, morbid delight at seeing something that epic falling to its knees. In all honesty, though, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that curiosity has a lot to do with it.

With Season Seven of GoT only a month away, some spoilers have already surfaced through set photos and leaks. Have you looked into these, or are you keeping away from them until the start of the season?

I don’t go hunting for spoilers, no. I like to go into new seasons knowing next to nothing, though I have inadvertently seen set photos and that wonderful paparazzi shot of Kit Harington in full armor with sunglasses on.

With Season Seven in mind, is there anything you’re particularly nervous or enthusiastic about with respect to the show’s direction?

Sansa’s characterization is always a worry. That’s the big one. What I’m most looking forward to is all the characters’ roads converging as we head into the final season.

Is there anything you’re planning or predicting with respect to the new season of GoT—or the other shows you review, for that matter?

I have more than a few theories about what will happen in GoT (e.g. Jaime killing Cersei which I’d love because of the Aerys parallel, or Jon and Dany hooking up which I’d hate because it’s boring). As far as actually using any of them in the recaps, well… we’ll see. The GoT subreddit has rather draconic rules concerning spoilers and I’d rather censor myself than deal with the appropriate spoiler tags. In the case of Westworld, on the other hand, I felt completely at ease jumping on a theory’s bandwagon before it was revealed to be canon.

As far as those predictions are concerned, I expect only time will tell–though in the meantime, the Chrys Reviews series will continue to offer hints! On that note, do you think your close analysis of shows–even shows which can at times be so frustrating–honed your artistic instincts? Has making all these recaps left you with any lessons on writing and creativity at large?

Pointing out other people’s mistakes should help one avoid making them, right? I would hope that’s true, but we all have our particular quirks. I’m still someone who edits as she writes, doubting word choice and structure to distraction, yet the fact that I had to have something delivered every Monday has helped me to learn to just let go. It’s been good. Typos are still annoying, but they’re not the end of the world and I’ve made enough to know. What else… setting limitations for yourself is great. I’ve tried to avoid obvious and lazy jokes or references and the result is almost always better than what I might have originally written. Comedians who complain about PC culture really annoy me in this regard, because if we remove the whole hurting people aspect of their comedy they’re really just demanding the right to rest on the same lazy old tropes… deciding to not use the word “bitch” was hard, particularly because I swear a lot and Jesse Pinkman made it goddamn hilarious. But: the format is great for learning to create characters and flowing dialogue. I’d highly recommend it to anyone wanting to improve.


Chrys’ reviews and other projects are accessible through her website and her Patreon; she is also on Tumblr and Twitter.

Workshop: The Last Kingdom, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. They began watching BBC’s historical drama series, The Last Kingdom, in early 2017; after completing its first season, the two sat down to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of The Last Kingdom. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.

 


 

Workshop: The Last Kingdom, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson

 

C: Before we begin there is something we should make clear. The Last Kingdom is based off of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series, and shares its name with the first book in that saga. Neither of us have read that series, which is quite out of the ordinary for us; I think we’re used to considering these sorts of shows chiefly as adaptations–from history, from literature, and sometimes from both–but that isn’t true in this case. Not having read Cornwell’s source material, we cannot comment on how accurate or inaccurate an adaptation this series is. If you are reading this and are familiar with the books, you can enjoy any dramatic irony we may incur.

A: Yes; we’ve chosen to look at this TV series not as a good or bad reflection of the books, but as a TV series. We’ll also try to avoid making too many comparisons between The Last Kingdom and Vikings, the last show we workshopped.

C: Although admittedly there are obvious parallels between them regarding setting and what they’re attempting to portray and achieve.

A: Right. But with respect to this review, we’re not going to–at least, we’re going to try not to–continually use this as more space in which to criticize Vikings. With that said: whereas our last workshop mainly picked out the things wrong with that show, this workshop will largely focus on positives–the “hey, these are the ways it can actually work” moments.

C: A good starting point is the minor characters. One of the things that makes TLK continually entertaining is just how the minor characters are fleshed out. Across the board, with respect to both acting and writing, I’m still fascinated by how well they’ve done characterization in this show. The characters fluctuate between good and bad decisions, they develop, they…

A: I think, not to interrupt, but: “minor characters” covers a whole array.

C: That’s true.

A: For those less familiar with the show, there’s one major character, Uhtred, and then there’s a whole bevvy of second-tier characters, for lack of a better term: Alfred, Brida, Leofric, Beocca–characters who are consistently important and involved with Uhtred’s journey. Then there’s the third-tier characters who are named and get dialogue and agency; Guthrum is one, Prince Æthelwald’s another. And all of these characters, regardless of tiering, are given weight in the narrative.

C: Even truly minor characters–unnamed sergeants and huntsmen–are given a lot of personality and attention.

A: Yeah, I cared too much about everyone. I am very much traumatized by all the death. But looking at this from a workshopping perspective, it’s great that both the writing and also the filming of the show–frames with just minor characters in them, lingering shots, and so on–give so much attention to all the characters. It makes watching it a much more engaging experience.

C: True. Too often a lot of shows do a handful of main characters and then have underdeveloped background characters as set-dressing, and it’s just less interesting. There are so many shows–not just Vikings–which aim for a aesthetics and atmospheres like TLK’s, but lack this crucial feature. I think this is my biggest takeaway from TLK, and I’d argue is TLK’s greatest asset: this show treats all of its characters like human beings, not like set-pieces. Probably the most obvious example is Hild.

A: To summarize her arrival about two-thirds into the season, there’s a scene where an unnamed nun is being sexually assaulted in the wake of a battle. The sexual assault is stopped by a group of established characters as they leave the battleground.

C: Scenes depicting sexual violence have become a staple for many shows in the fantasy and historical fiction watershed. Game of Thrones has developed a terrible habit of including sexual violence as a plot device at the drop of a hat; often shows use it to point out how heroic the victims’ rescuers are–so when that occurred in TLK, we weren’t particularly surprised. But then–and I can’t stress how unusual this felt–rather than having that unnamed nun disappear into the background, she accompanies the main characters as they leave, and continues to be a character in later episodes as well. Hild remains relevant; she possess her own agency; she takes part in conversations and significant moments for the rest of the season. She’s given a fully-fledged personality.

A: And she has a pre-existing story which is brought in. That’s also worth emphasizing: often it can feel like characters who appear midway through a show have had no life prior to the main character finding them, but that’s not the case with Hild, as we learn through conversations she has in later episodes. Everyone feels so real.

C: Hild was not included solely to make Uhtred appear heroic or to provide a fight scene. The way the show handles her character is representative of the way it portrays the entire cast. It’s refreshing to watch a show which avoids so many typical tropes.

A: If we were to just describe certain characters from TLK, they would sound like tropes–but they take those traits and make them into a fully realized person. Brida’s a good example–she could easily have been a love interest who becomes the scorned woman, but instead she gets to be a proper character with emotional range and an understandable set of motivations behind her decision making. And you understand how she’s fitting into this society as a woman without it being horribly trope-y or contrived.

C: Characters of all sorts–Brida, Leofric, and Ælswith, among others–shift from episode to episode; they make choices that feel true to their characterization and own motives, rather than always acting helpfully or detrimentally towards the protagonist.

A: You once described it as “the same personality from different perspectives.”

C: Yeah.

A: That’s easiest to see in pious characters like Alfred and Beocca; at times we’re very happy that their codes of conduct are beneficial for Uthred’s fortunes, and at other times we are frustrated by their rigidity and implacability. This depth and complexity of characters is impressive.

C: Definitely. This show takes the time to show that depth. I don’t feel that TLK’s world–as in, the actual environment in which these characters exist–is necessarily more developed than other shows of its ilk. From a set and tech perspective, a lot of the shows we’ve mentioned have really impressive budgets and do a good job of conjuring up the appearance of medieval/pre-medieval life. In appearance, TLK isn’t better than them–but its writing is in a totally different league. The characters feel realer against the time-specific backdrop. And when–given that we just watched the season finale, we were bound to talk about this–when characters die, it never feels contrived, regardless of the circumstances. Deaths contribute to the story as a whole while still feeling abrupt and realistic and upsetting. It doesn’t feel like characters are being killed off for shock value–a growing stigma with shows of this type. When people die in TLK, the show focuses on the right things, chiefly how other characters react. It’s not intended purely to catch the audience off-guard. In the finale a character died in a major battle seen as a result of, you know, being in a battle, which makes the battle actually feel dangerous. The battle has weight.

A: That death also happens quite close to the start of the battle and the battle continues. When the character dies the world keeps moving without them, which adds to the atmosphere of danger and realism.

C: Also, there’s no overwhelming feeling of plot armor in TLK. Compare that to Vikings where the main characters were invincible tanks who murdered everybody in every single battle and didn’t look the least bit ruffled afterward–those battles weren’t stressful or worrying because there was no feeling of consequence. There was no weight to the human bodies being tossed around and eventually we stopped caring. There needs to be emotional weight and meaning behind the fighting–another thing TLK got right. Viewers care more about fights if you give them reasons to be interested–I know that sounds basic, but it really is overlooked in some cases.

A: TLK’s battles always feel justified and they all feel distinct. Not only are they staged differently but they conjure up different concerns and feelings for viewers–sometimes Uhtred seems to be on the wrong side, sometimes he’s in single combat… And, even with our knowledge of history, they didn’t feel like foregone conclusions. They were stressful to watch!

C: Speaking of our historical knowledge, we should address the historical accuracy stuff–

A: Yes. The thing we’d both heard before watching this show was, “Oh my god, the Anglo-Saxons use square shields–the fools! The fools!” which, well, [laughs] I think we disagree on this point a little–I feel that minor historical accuracies are fine…

C: Fair enough. [laughs] I didn’t realize I was a zealot about accuracy until this moment, but fair enough.

A: …As long as those inaccuracies are justified. To use the shields as an example: having one side in battles use square shields while the other side uses round shields makes the different armies easier to identify. And if that’s the least accurate part of the show, than the show is doing a lot right.

C: That’s true. TLK has worked hard to keep the majority of its inaccuracies tied to the show’s aesthetic rather than its writing. Better to have a realistic script and a few contrived looking sets and costumes than a hyper-realistic set and awful writing.

A: Broadly–and I think this is probably true for all aspects of writing–if it serves a purpose and is the best way of achieving that purpose, then it’s okay.

C: I agree–and clarity is particularly important given how much content is crammed into TLK; a ton of things happen in this show. There is so much content. Ignoring all the politics between Wessex and the Vikings for the moment, Uhtred himself is all over the place on a real rollercoaster of a narrative. The sheer amount that happens is both a strength and weakness.

A: This season aired first on the BBC, meaning a sixty minute show is more or less sixty minutes, not forty-five. Those extra fifteen minutes gives them time to pack more in. The number of narratives and developments depicted over the eight episodes is certainly impressive, particularly when a character can appear one episode, undergo an entire character arc in the following episode, and die in the next. That can be…a bit much, at times.

C: There’s one episode in the middle of the season which is predominantly set in Cornwall; it introduces so many new characters and plotlines–a number of which are respectively killed or resolved later in the same episode–that it feels almost like a film in of itself. While I think we both love that level of immersion, it does at times feel a bit too much.

A: Not to mention the array of Anglo-Saxon names can be tough to remember, spell, and pronounce.

C: Because there are so many characters, how much time you spend on each one is a difficult distribution to get right. Some names are said once or twice–and yes, those names are hard to pick up–and if you don’t get the name then and there, you’ll be referring to that character as “second priest guy” or “sister two” or “horse man” for three or four episodes before you hear their name again. That’s not the end of the world but it evidences that there’s a lot to juggle, for the writers and the viewers alike.

A: I think the fact that we watched this show one or two episodes at a time is probably good; this isn’t a show I’d like to binge watch. So much happens in a single episode, if you watched more than two of these in a row, I think you’d come away with a headache.

C: Though again, the fact that this show gives you a lot to process and ruminate on could be seen as a strength. Part of the show’s appeal is how many interconnected plots are going on and how much is happening.

A: There’s a fine line. One doesn’t want to have too few characters doing too much or vice versa. TLK mainly walks that line well, but it does dip over at times.

C: With that said, it’s so exciting to have a show which trusts its audience enough to give them this much depth, content, and characterization. Sometimes it can be a bit much, but given that this is so rarely a problem for shows, I’d be loath to suggest they change that. Far better that they keep giving us slightly too much than too little.

A: That’s true, although one area that I might potentially “de-complicate”, is Uhtred’s character arc. This could be an area where not having read the books is a big problem; my suspicion is, in the books, arcs happen over a longer and more drawn out timeline, so there’s more time to see different stages of Uhtred’s life. By truncating the time, his motivations shift a lot–sometimes he’s set on getting back his ancestral home, sometimes he’s focused on revenge; he doesn’t actually get very far with planning how to achieve either.

C: Uhtred’s foster-sister Thyra appears to be, quite literally, abandoned for most of the season. We only realized in the season finale that Uhtred thought she was dead; until then we’d believed he knew she was alive and had effectively given her up as lost. That obviously changes the feel of that entire arc, given that Uhtred and his foster sibling are constantly ruminating on how to revenge themselves on their father’s killers.

A: That whole arc is awkward in many ways because every time it comes up, we wonder why the siblings are taking so long. Uhtred spends much of the season in Wessex, which is admittedly a distance from where he grew up, but not so far that it would be unreasonable for him to return there with soldiers. He is, after all, able to get men to follow him out of Wessex into Cornwall for the promise of silver, so why he never goes north is odd. His foster brother Ragnar makes this stranger still, given that he frequently travels between Ireland and Wessex, largely to see Uhtred about said revenge. Every time this theme comes up it is a bit annoying given that some of the reasoning behind it remains unspecified for so long. I can see that the show was aiming for “dramatic irony”–the audience knowing about Thyra while Uhtred doesn’t–but it really backfires here. It might have been better, if we were changing something, to either make it clearer that he believes her dead, or alternatively have the audience also think she’s dead until that dramatic reveal in the final episode.

C: TLK takes time to develop all its elements, but given that it’s setting itself up as a saga, the backstory isn’t always the prescient part of the narrative. The north becomes largely irrelevant after the second episode, as do all the antagonists associated with that region.

A: As a side note, that is very saga-ish; in the opening of Njal’s Saga the length of someone’s hair is described, then is never mentioned again until it becomes super-relevant about eighty chapters later during her husband’s death scene, when her hair could have been used to restring his bow. And talking about Thyra, we should discuss the tropes surrounding women in shows like TLK.

C: Tropes which, yeah, definitely do still haunt this genre.

A: With both Brida and Mildrith, Uhtred’s wife, we’re given two interesting female characters with distinct personalities disconnected from their looks. It’s easier to see with Brida at first glance. Both Vikings and Game of Thrones–again using the easiest examples–present these “sexy warrior women” who don’t actually feel like real people. TLK manages better, though it’s not precisely clear how they’ve avoided that stereotype. Because admittedly she’s very pretty, and she does have a relationship with the main character–

C: And she’s a warrior.

A: And she’s a warrior. But, she has a lot of depth and we see many different aspects of her life as her own story develops. She’s presented as a scorned woman in some moments but she is also a cool-ass warrior, and it never feels annoyingly contrived.

C: It doesn’t feel as though TLK is trying to prove anything. The show isn’t trying to win points by presenting characters like Brida; it feels like they set out to create real and interesting characters, both men and women. That’s admirable, particularly given this genre is bogged down by so much fetishizing and incoherency when it comes to women.

A: The non-combative are also well portrayed. Mildrith is a capable woman who doesn’t kill people; it’s equally rare to have a strong woman who isn’t wielding political power or an axe but who still manages to be–oh, and we haven’t mentioned this at all thus far: this show is really funny.

C: Yeah.

A: The intention is never to be farcical; lines are just likeably witty much of the time.

C: Another achievement for the writing team.

A: Yeah. And the humor is spread around–there are characters who are written to have better senses of humor, but they’re not just comic relief. To return to Mildrith, she is someone who has principles, sticks to them, develops, and avoids the trope of “pious wife”; she holds her own, she’s determined, and she’s also often quite funny. You don’t feel cheated by the decisions she makes towards the end of the season, when she chooses her own path.

C: Like many characters, Mildrith is shown taking time to reflect on what’s happening to her, and she then acts on those stimuli. Which is what, you know, humans do–and they don’t only do that when they’re in the presence of the main character.

A: Shout out to both the writers and the actors for very strong performances. Even characters we haven’t mentioned yet, like Iseult, prove to be far more interesting than the tropes we initially suspected they might be. So full credit for all the women on this show, pretty much without exception.

C: TLK manages far more effective and more diverse representation of women than many similar shows–

A: While being the least boastful, as you said.

C: If it isn’t already clear, we should mention that we like this show a lot. [laughs] For my own part I’d strongly and unequivocally recommend TLK; what we’ve seen thus far has been very good. One more point: one of the first things you encounter when watching this show is its opening credits, which, I mean, maybe this is just something we’re particularly attentive toward, but…the opening credits.

A: I love them.

C: [laughs]

A: [laughs] They’re very pretty! I’d equate them with the Game of Thrones credits in that they’re very elegant and also serve an immediate purpose. TLK’s opening credits are done to look like woodcuts of different characters and places, accompanied by simple but dynamic music; the Viking invasions are represented by the map of England being burned away. We both came to this show with a good amount of knowledge–we both knew, for instance, that the last kingdom would be Wessex–but for those who don’t come to the show with that knowledge, this is a good way of showing what’s happening. And as I said it’s very pretty. It’s a great representation of the show in that it’s clearly made with love and care and effort, all while remaining informative.

C: Yeah. That’s a very effective summation.

[pause]

C: I’m sorry to do this.

A: [laughs]

C: It’ll be the last time. To hell with it. Okay: we watched a season and a half of Vikings before giving up on it, so we’re pretty familiar with its opening sequence. I have seen that opening sequence with burning boats on the open sea–

A: With the main characters drowning–

C: With the main characters drowning! By the end of our time watching that show I was looking forward to that scene becoming a reality. I suppose they went with that opening because they thought it was cool, but it represents absolutely nothing of the show other than unfulfilled promises. Meanwhile you have TLK over here with nonstop highlights right out of the gate. It’s pretty, it’s cohesive, it’s expansive, it gives a damn, it’s…

A: [laughs]

C: Sorry, I got worked up there, but it’s good. Go watch The Last Kingdom; it’s–it’s good.

A: I’d also add that TLK’s opening helps remind viewers of the backstory and the stakes it initially presents, even when the show is focused on other narrative threads in the short term. It establishes the setting eloquently and is emblematic of the series as a whole.

C: The Last Kingdom’s plot can occasionally move quickly and there are some minor historical inaccuracies, but the reason these aspects are frustrating is because of how likable the show is, and how immersive it can be. Yes the story moves a mile a minute, but it does that to consistently deliver depth and development at a level I haven’t seen in any similar series.

A: Those minor things that we would change–and there are very few of them–are outweighed by its many assets, which include exemplary women characters, its respect for its audience’s intelligence, and its historical detail. There’s so much right with The Last Kingdom that it feels better to focus on those strengths.


Angela and Calder are available at their respective Twitter accounts, @MS_a_hicks and @CMA_Hudson. Their previous workshop of Vikings can be found here.

Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix), Season One by Angela Clem

Angela Clem earned her MSc by Research in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2016, and her BA in History from Macalester College in 2015. Currently based in Overland Park, Kansas, she works in Financial Aid at Johnson County Community College and is also Social Media Coordinator and Online Editor for The Ogilvie.

This review contains spoilers for Season One of the Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as vague spoilers for the original book series of the same name. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.


 

Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix), Season One

 

I’ve been a die-hard fan of Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (ASoUE) since I first read them when I was ten years old. Upon every re-read, I’m drawn in by his morosely humorous narration of the tale of the Baudelaire siblings, three unlucky children who are consistently undervalued, misunderstood, and often mistreated by the adults around them. Perhaps the most notable characteristic of ASoUE is Handler’s wrecking-ball destruction of the fourth wall by writing under the pen name Lemony Snicket and then including Snicket as a character in the series. Ultimately, though, my favorite thing about these books is how they calmly step off the beaten path of children’s fiction: the world is not entirely a good place, people don’t always do the right thing, and intelligence and kindness aren’t necessarily rewarded with fortune and happiness. Over the course of the series, Handler slowly reveals a much more realistic (and according to some, postmodern) world than that which is so often portrayed in books written for children.

In their Netflix adaptation of the first four books, developers Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld manage to uphold Handler’s grim tone, while making a few necessary changes to translate the books into a TV series that is both amusing and clever. The show’s very prominent inclusion of the narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) preserves the source material’s literary nature, as does the fact that each book spans two episodes. A two-episode arc occasionally sacrifices a steady pace for languorous exploration of Handler’s universe, but this is a much more preferable problem than that of the 2004 film adaptation, which crammed three books into 107 minutes. By allowing an ample length of time for each story arc to unfold, Hudis and Sonnenfeld cede the floor to Handler’s idiosyncratic style, which is best enjoyed holistically rather than selectively.

Take Episode One: following Snicket’s touching dedication to a mysterious woman named Beatrice, the first scene takes a claustrophobic, conspiratorial and clever tone as Snicket–illuminated by a dim row of wall sconces and a solitary match–warns viewers against watching this “dreadful, melancholy, and calamitous–a word which here means ‘both dreadful and melancholy’–” show. This echoes the various moments in the books at which Handler advises, “…if you wish to avoid an unpleasant story you had best put this book down.” For me, this is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the ASoUE books, and I was delighted to see it echoed in the Netflix adaptation. It’s worth noting that Snicket’s warning (along with many other lines from this episode) are quoted almost directly from the original text. While I wouldn’t necessarily encourage copying dialogue from the page to the screen ad verbatim, it works surprisingly well here due to the fact that Hudis and Sonnenfeld have allowed Handler’s books to drive their show. It’s a pity, therefore, that later episodes don’t follow suit; I found Episode One to be the strongest because it perfectly showcases Handler’s playful approach to postmodern narrative for a young adult audience, as reflected in Warburton’s deadpan yet lyrical delivery.

The show’s visual appearance is extremely reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. This is no surprise, seeing as how ASoUE production designer Bo Welch lent his talents to both. After Snicket’s initial monologue in the underground tunnel, the camera tilts up through a cross-section of the pavement to follow a wholesome, brightly colored street trolley as it rattles down a tree-lined avenue. Such shots bring to mind the quaint model sets of Thomas & Friends and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood… complete with shiny red fire engine. Conversely, at significant turning points in the Baudelaires’ lives, Welch depicts the children (dressed in pastel or bright colors) as completely isolated amongst a sea of neutral greys and faded browns. Welch’s style is at once wondrously childlike and darkly sardonic—a difficult but necessary balance to strike, as Handler’s books are intended for a young audience, but also deal with themes such as loss, grief, and abuse.

Younger viewers are likely to enjoy Welch’s almost cartoonish style, along with the mischievous main title theme and the precocious young protagonists. Older viewers will appreciate several familiar faces among the cast including Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack), Sir (Don Johnson), and Georgina Orwell (Catherine O’Hara), as well as Warbuton’s Snicket . By nature of the plot, Harris is the most likely to dominate the show, but he doesn’t. He brings his extensive musical theatre experience to the role, providing the lead vocals for both the main title theme and for a comically operatic, off-kilter song introducing Olaf and his theatre troupe in Episode One. For the season-ending song, however, his vocals blend with those of Warburton, K. Todd Freeman as the hapless banker Mr. Poe, and the three Baudelaire children. Thankfully, the actors who play Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith, respectively) hold their own, both in the season’s finale theme and among such a strong cast–a generally uncommon occurrence in screen adaptations of children’s books. Weissman’s and Hynes’ deliveries are occasionally stilted which contradicts their characterization as exceedingly bright children, but the flip side is that one must only look back to the books to see Handler employ equally repressed, buttoned-up, Victorian-style language.

Those among you who have read the books might be frustrated with the liberties taken by Hudis and Sonnenfeld regarding plot pacing. Certain Very Furtive Developments in the plot not introduced until the fifth book are dramatically telescoped for the purpose of enticing a television audience. Klaus’ discovery of the small spyglass in the ashes of his home, for example, kick-starts the darker, more mature plot of V.F.D. and its hidden influences on the children’s lives. This is mirrored through a fantastic minor plot following a mother and father (Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett) in their attempt to return to their children.

Season One ends on a note of resignation–literally–with a delightfully morose tune that drives the season home to its conclusion. Obviously, this was not part of Handler’s books (although I like to think that he would have employed musical numbers if it could have been done). The song’s lyrics echo what Snicket has been urging us from Scene One: that the tale of the Baudelaire orphans is exceedingly miserable. We as viewers have been trained to crave a reliable sinewave of positive and negative occurrences in the narratives we consume, but sometimes “…that’s not how the story goes.”

We leave the Baudelaires at a grim, graveyard-esque boarding school where they will presumably experience even more unfortunate events. However, with the tantalizing promise of this continued misery, Hudis and Sonnenfeld—thanks to their successful translation of Handler’s playfully postmodern style—have us on the edge of our seats, a phrase which here means, “eagerly awaiting Season Two.”


Angela can be reached via email and Twitter.

Review: Trainspotting 2 by Gina Maya

Gina Maya is a Welsh writer and trans activist, currently studying for her PhD in Transgender Narratives in Popular Culture at Edinburgh University. As well as being a nostalgist for 1980s American football, she loves movies and writes about her experiences in Edinburgh’s cinemas.

This review contains spoilers for Trainspotting 2. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.


 

Trainspotting 2 (T2) at the Cameo Cinema

 

The screening rooms for T2 continue to be full in Edinburgh. Is it the shots of the city that make this more than just a film, as if we’re almost in the story? The protagonists on Arthur’s Seat, reflecting on life the way we do; the bar fight in a run-down pub, a reminder of another side to this gentrified student city that many of us never see. This feeling of familiarity might be the closest some of us ever come to being in a movie, and if this sounds melancholic, it’s a perfect place to talk about the film.

T2 is a story about men. Jaded, frustrated and just a little anxious with a fifth decade of life looming without achievement, fame or money, or even a settled family life or career. I did think about Fight Club (1999), and the men who make up the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. Here, though, in T2, we have a poignant potential for friendship and hope to accompany the threat of violence that wafts through the film from time to time.

We also have betrayal, the one that ended the original Trainspotting in 1996. It lies at the heart of the sequel as Ewan McGregor’s Renton returns from the Netherlands, twenty years on from his theft of his friends’ drug money, to confront the past, and with it three former friends nursing grievances to different degrees. Logically, they should hate him, and predictably, the psycho of the group, Begbie, summons rage that can only be sated by Renton’s brutal death. That, then, is the main plot, but T2 is about much more than the obvious cause-and-effect. In fact this is a film in which three of the four forty-something men face up to the emptiness of their lives, and the friendships that might give them salvation.

Ultimately, then, the extremities of that first Trainspotting, with its drug- and alcohol-fuelled surrealism and violence, is replaced by pastel shades. If the 1996 movie features the dehumanizing of a gang of men via different substances, T2 is the gradual reversion to humanity. Even the obnoxious Begbie has his moment towards the end, a brief understanding of his flawed masculinity. Of the others, the character Spud enjoys some of the film’s tenderest scenes. We get glimpses of his sensitive, perceptive nature, the driving force behind a desire to commit suicide early on, in awareness of the shame he causes his wife and son. We get his rescue at the crucial point by Renton, back from Amsterdam. Spud, of course, forgives him as is his nature. The other, more complex friendship concerns Renton and his one-time best-friend ‘Sick Boy’ Simon. The film dabs our screens with childhood photos of Renton and Sick Boy in their football tops, with the world at their feet. The film returns us there, full-circle, to the denouement.

For all the references to the past, though, T2 is not sentimental; beyond Begbie’s violence, more comedic than horrific in this sequel, I found this a moving and even uplifting depiction of middle-age men who manage to confront their underwhelming lives and find their own personal redemption.


You can follow Gina’s reviews, as well as her weekly diary posts on her transitioning, at her website: www.ginamaya.co.uk.