A widow ‘of a certain age’, Nancy (not her real name) books a hotel room and a fit young sex worker, Leo Grande (not his real name). Nancy never had an orgasm during thirty-one years of married life, so she has some catching up to do.
Emma Thompson’s performance and Katy Brand’s crisp script convey very believably the awkwardness and nervousness Nancy feels. Take out the sex and nudity (please don’t!) and this could have been written by Terence Rattigan to be played by Deborah Carr back in the 1950s. There is a degree of theatricality to the film, although Thompson gives her all and courageously bares her all (my mum would say “You could see what she had for breakfast”) in a role that most actresses of her generation would have reluctantly turned down. In 2001 I saw Linda Gray nude, at about the same age as Thompson, in a stage version of The Graduate, and Kathy Bates did a naked hot-tub scene with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt in 2002 – bravissime these ladies!
Daryl McCormack matches Thompson for both bravura and skill as the young escort who’s not as self-confident as he pretends. More explicit even than Netflix’s Sex Education, this is not a movie for porn perverts, it’s a serious study of desire, disappointment and desperation. Both its stars deserve to pick up awards next winter. And if they make a movie of my novel Lillian and the Italians (please do!), I want Emma Thompson to play Lillian!
Alan Bennett: HOUSE ARREST
After the heft of previous volumes of his Diaries, Mr. Bennett’s House Arrest, covering the Lockdown and Vaccination years, is little more than an Epilogue at a mere 49 pages – a bit longer than a Talking Heads monologue.
His observations are as crisp and sharp as ever. The Queen watches the Remembrance Day ceremony at The Cenotaph with “a beady eye on the revamped choreography.” Bennett’s eye is beadier than Her Majesty’s. Boris Johnson’s nightly addresses during the Pandemic are “pretty pointless… a poor orator and speaker generally… the plainness of Keir Starmer a relief.”
As always, Alan’s mind is half in the present, half in the past. He still cherishes memories of Mam and Dad and schooldays in Yorkshire. Now eighty-six and arthritic, he has swapped his bicycle for a wheelchair, but he gave us two new monologues for the revamp of Talking Heads in 2020 – the royalties from which he donated to NHS charities. Short as it is, House Arrest is, please God, not his Last Post. It is, like everything else he has shared with us, undiluted joy to read.
John Le Carre: SILVERVIEW
Despite it’s James Bond-ish title, this is very much not John Le Carré’s send-up of Goldfinger. Unless he left some notes or incomplete manuscripts for somebody else to knock into shape (hopefully not), Silverview is the final novel from Mr Le Carré. Initially I found it a bit tiresome and undeserving of the glowing reviews with which it’s prefaced. But after going back and starting again I can see what an appropriate ‘swansong’ it is.
A Polish émigré called Edward Avon is at the heart of the story. City high-flier Julian Lawndsley, who has retreated to an unnamed seaside village to open a bookshop, finds that Edward is a neighbour with knowledge of Julian’s father’s secrets. And Stewart Proctor, a middle-ranking figure in MI6, is investigating an intelligence leak that seems to point to Edward.
Proctor is a blatant clone of George Smiley, our favourite spy chief (Proctor even has a faithless wife), and there’s more than one female with strong echoes of Connie Sachs, which makes Silverview read a bit like a pastiche of the author’s most famous works. Some of the scenes of marital life recall The Naive and Sentimental Lover (my least favourite of his books); and they come with an acerbic tone reminiscent of Muriel Spark and Fay Weldon. Le Carré switches erratically between past and present tense, sometimes in the same paragraph, which many readers will surely find annoying. The book has a surprising but entirely appropriate ending.
Silverview lacks the magisterial tone of the Smiley books and some of the later polemical novels, but it does serve to remind us that this was one of the finest writers of his time, producing – like Graham Greene, with whom Le Carré was always compared – novel after novel that illuminated the bitter betrayals of the spy-world and of the human heart. All Le Carré’s books seem to convey, vividly, that sense that – against great odds – ‘Look, we have come through.’ RIP.
Lionel Davidson: KOLYMSKY HEIGHTS
I’ve decided to re-read a few of my favourite books. When I read it in the 1990s I thought that Kolymsky Heights was one of the best adventure thrillers I’d ever read.
A captive scientist in a secret research station deep in Siberia smuggles a message to an Oxford professor he knew earlier in his life. The CIA send Jimmy Porter into the post-Soviet wilderness to infiltrate the station. Porter is a Canadian-Indian (now more wokely called a “native Canadian”), a gifted linguist and survival expert. Getting him into Siberia in the guise of an “indigenous Russian” takes up two thirds of the narrative. What’s going on at the secret establishment has echoes of the X-Files. Getting him out with this world-changing secret is another challenge.
Lionel Davidson vividly recreates the Siberian permafrost and the people who live there (it’s where gold and other minerals are mined in huge quantities). This is a story like no other, bone-chilling in its setting and nerve-shredding in its tension. After twenty-five years I still rate it in my all-time top ten thrillers – maybe in my top five.
DOWNTON ABBEY: A new era
Another episode in the upstairs/downstairs soap-opera life of the Crawley family, their heirs, their spouses and their friends – and, especially cherished, their servants.
We’ve moved on a year or so from last episode. Tom Branson has married Lucy, Imelda Staunton’s heiress daughter. Lady Mary’s car-crazy husband is away on a rally, leaving her to develop a crush on the director (Hugh Dancy looking cuter and less fraught than he was in Hannibal) who’s filming a historical (almost hysterical) movie at Downton (the fee will restore the leaky roof). Mary will also have a key role when the movie goes from Silent to Talkie. The film crew brings new romance into the life of Barrow, the gay butler in a very anti-gay era.
His lordship and most of the family decamp to a gorgeous villa in the South of France which Violet, the Dowager Duchess (Maggie Smith in her usual Lady Bracknell form) has inherited from an old flame. The French scenes are very Scott Fitzgerald (minus the sex), and the Downton film invasion brings strong echoes of other movies about movie-makers.
How wonderfully all the cast slip back into their familiar (and much-loved) roles after a gap of two years or more. Dame Maggie, of course, dominates her every scene. Hugh Bonneville is given reasons to cry and he does tearful as believably as he does starchy. Mary and Edith are adorable as always. Mr Molesley gets to save another day.
Plenty of people pooh-pooh Downton and its fans. I don’t watch any of the British or Aussie soaps, but I wouldn’t miss an instalment of this. There’s talk of a third movie. Bring it on!
In 2013, on Dame Edna’s “Farewell Tour”, Les Patterson and the lady herself tottered onto the stage of Brighton’s Dome gasping for breath. I half expected to see one of them die on stage, like Sid James or Tommy Cooper. But last night Barry Humphries toddled onto the stage of Eastbourne’s Devonshire Theatre, seemingly sprucer than ever at the age of 88.
This is not (not quite) the Les and Edna show; this is the ‘Making Of’ show, with Humphries talking about his early life in Melbourne and the ‘conceptions’ of Dame Edna as a send-up Australian housewife and Sir Les as a drunken Events Director who got promoted to Cultural Attaché. These two long ago took on lives of their own and are now much-loved figures on the global celebrity circuit.
Humphries talks candidly about his boyhood and his near-fatal struggle with alcoholism. If there was one jarring note last night, it was his quizzing members of the audience about their bathroom decor: cringe-making when Edna does it, this doesn’t work when performed out of Edna costume. Throwing ‘gladdies’ was probably another misjudgment, especially without inviting the lucky recipients to wave them during the closing song.
Overall, the evening was a joyous reunion with Edna and Les – in hilarious video clips, including Edna’s naughty invasion of Charles and Camilla’s box at the the Royal Variety Show in 2013 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1r3S5UKP7ME).
The Barry Humphries show is touring. Don’t miss it if it’s anywhere near you. Newsflash: we are promised another ‘Farewell Tour’ next year. Edna may take as long to leave the stage as that earlier Australian diva, Dame Joan Sutherland!
Peter Scott-Presland: A GAY CENTURY
This is a collection of ten short plays, designed to be performed as mini-operas. I watched several of them, played but not sung, on Zoom last year. They each encapsulate a chapter of gay history, revisited or re-imagined. All of them are clever and interesting. They are all good. A few of them are outstanding. My absolute favourite is the first one, Two Queens, set in 1900, in which Queen Victoria visits Oscar Wilde on his deathbed in Paris. Her Majesty is given liberty to borrow some of Oscar’s most famous lines!
Wilde (or his ghost) pops up in some of the later dramas, affirming his role as the “patron saint” of gay liberation. EM Forster, Siegfried Sassoon. Noel Coward – many iconic gay figures of the century are here, revisited or re-imagined. Radclyffe Hall supplies, rather earnestly, the L in LGBT. Ivor Novello, sentenced to prison for fiddling petrol coupons during WW2, shares a cell with a psychotic gangster. The Jeremy Thorpe scandal is re-interpreted with Norman Scott’s dogs given voices and a key role! There’s an episode in Weimar Berlin that features Gerald Hamilton, said to be the inspiration for Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris; the play is a splendid ‘companion piece’ to Cabaret; I’d love to hear it sung.
Peter Scott-Presland has risen splendidly to the challenge of giving historical characters an ironic and incisive new script (to sing!). A Gay Century is a towering achievement. And Volume Two is due out soon.
William Boyd: TRIO
The three protagonists in William Boyd’s novel are linked by being in Brighton in the summer of 1968 while a movie is filmed. Elfrida, whose philandering husband is directing the picture, is trying to start a new novel about the last day in the life of Virginia Woolf (who went into a river not far from Brighton). Talbot, the film’s harassed co-producer, fears that his partner is trying to freeze him out; he also has mild urges to venture down new sexual paths. Anny, the movie’s self-obsessed American star, is juggling two lovers and having to deal with an ex-husband on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
This trio of diverse human dramas is a variant on familiar Boyd ‘territory’. The 1960s Brighton setting evokes Graham Greene, who clearly has been a major influence on Boyd’s writing life. The story teeters on the edge of both comedy and tragedy. None of the main characters is particularly sympathetic to the reader (to this reader), and the first chapters are a bit scrappy, but towards the end Boyd’s writing recaptures the quality of his best novels (Restless is the most outstanding of the last half-dozen).
The principal character in Hillary Clinton’s literary debut is – can you believe it? – a female US Secretary of State. With terrorist bus bombings in three European cities and a clear and present danger of outrages in the US, Ellen Adams, newly appointed to the new administration of President Douglas Williams, goes on the diplomatic offensive, jetting to Kabul, Tehran and Moscow to meet leaders who may help to defuse the situation. She is handicapped by hard-right ‘moles’ in Washington who are in league with those – a global group – orchestrating the outrages. It’s very gung-ho, very Jason Bourne; Ms Adams is frequently in the firing line, from fisticuffs in the Oval Office to shoot-ups in caves in the mountains of Baluchistan.
President Williams has a potty mouth which calls Richard Nixon to mind more than the current incumbent. His predecessor, Eric Dunn, presided over “four years of chaos” and now lives in kingly splendor in Florida – hmmm. Other world figures, up to and including Iran’s Supreme Leader, are lightly (very lightly) fictionalized. Russia’s President Ivanov was famously photographed shirtless on a horse!
The sheer geopolitical scale of this taut and tense thriller suggests that Mrs Clinton has contributed more than just her name to the project. I’m guessing it’s the Second Lady rather than the Former First Lady who’s responsible for the actual writing. Characters are pithily described. The pithiness extends to the staccato prose style: short sentences, short paragraphs – a style practiced by the late Jackie Collins, among many others. Not a style I warm to, but the exhilarating plot and the sheer pace kept me engaged through to the nerve-shredding (if slightly daft) conclusion.
Most conspiracy buffs believe that Cosa Nostra did play a key role in the events in Dallas in 1963; Oliver Stone’s movie JFK included this and several of the other scenarios in a mash-up of the conspiracy to end all conspiracies. The Shot offers one more tense, imaginative chapter to the Mythology of “Camelot”.