Mr Selfridge

“Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle.”

Mr Selfridge

As soon as ITV began advertising Mr Selfridge I knew that I wanted to watch it. Come on people, it’s a period drama about a shop. And not just any shop: Selfridge’s, possibly the most famous shop in London. What’s not to like?

But, as is often the case with such things, Mr Selfridge did not exactly live up to its potential. It tells the story of the founding of Selfridge’s, the problems it faced, the ideology of its eponymous founder (“I’m going to make shopping thrilling!” exclaims Jeremy Piven in an irritating American accent), the excitement it promoted. It’s all vaguely Going Postal-ish, and even has similar music.

The best scenes are those dealing with the shop, with all the preparations for opening, staff hiring, decoration etc. The scenes between Mr and Mrs Selfridge are just intolerably syrupy, and you can see the cliche of “husband who cares too much about work and not enough about family” looming in future episodes. And can someone tell me what Becky from Coronation Street is doing in Edwardian London? Has she stolen Lewis’ TARDIS?

Overall, fairly entertaining but light on emotional development. Just like shopping, then.

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Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

Attack of the Clones

Continuing our aborted Star Wars marathon, we move to episode two, otherwise known as The Confusing One that Goes On Forever. Because, well, it’s confusing and it goes on forever. It’s taken me about three viewings even to understand the essential politics of it. What’s up with the clone army? Why does Obi-Wan randomly go to that red planet with all the giant flies? Most importantly, what does the Sith Lord have to do with the separatists? Because in the later films, the separatists are the rebels – the good side, in other words. What possible reason can the Sith Lord have for sponsoring a group that will later turn against him? It’s all too convoluted and random.

Plot Synopsis: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are assigned to protect Senator Amidala (yes, she’s a senator now) from an assassin. Obi-Wan tries to find out who the assassin is and uncovers an insidious plot to create a clone army…

The first time I watched it I wouldn’t even be able to tell you that much.

This film just goes on for ages with the politics and the bounty hunters and the convoluted plot. There was a nice touch with the introduction of Darth Vader’s theme, giving us a hint of what is to come, and the CGI is, of course, very good. But I just couldn’t bring myself to care.

50 Greatest TV Magic Tricks

“Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke

Tonight’s post is more a shout-out to the general amazingness of magic than an actual review, because there’s not really anything you can say about these list programmes that hasn’t been said before. Interminable adverts, unexplained ranking critieria, annoying talking heads (this one had a GP, for heavens’ sake) – that says it all, really.

So, here it is: Magic Is Amazing.

The best thing about magicians is that you know it’s not really magic, that there’s an illusion or a trick to it, which makes it all the more amazing: “How did he DO that? How is that even humanly possible? How?” And then you while away a happy evening trying to work out how Dynamo managed to walk on water or how Penn and Teller caught those bullets. “Well, if he did this, then this would work, and the audience was distracted by that funny story about the mouse…”

See? It’s fun.

Sorry for the slightly inconsequential post tonight, but there really hasn’t been anything interesting to write about. Hopefully tomorrow will bring better news.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

“Hard to see, the dark side is.”

Yoda

Ah yes. We’re back to the old favourites. In fact, The Phantom Menace is a fallback, because there is never any good telly on any more. It also represents the beginning of a failed Star Wars marathon. We got bogged down in episode two, but I’ll save that rant for another post.

The Phantom Menace is technically episode one, but it’s newer than episode four, because of the unique order in which the Star Wars films were made. Essentially, the original three were so popular that George Lucas made a prequel trilogy. The Phantom Menace is therefore the first of the prequel trilogy. With me so far?

The evil Trade Federation invades the peaceful planet of Naboo in what appears to be a dispute over trade routes but is actually part of a grand plan by the dark side of the Force. A couple of Jedi knights rescue the queen of Naboo so that she can plead her case before the Galactic Senate in Coruscant, the planet-city.

The Phantom Menace is really amazingly political. In the slow bureaucracy of the Senate there are echoes of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, as well as the Roman Republic and the rise of Hitler. Now tell me Star Wars is frivolous and meaningless.

Am I overthinking this?

One of the annoying things about this film is the fact that there are multiple high points. At the end of the pod race, you think “Surely it’s finished now?” No; we move on to the battle of Naboo. “Now has it finished?” No; there’s the Epic Duel between Darth Maul and the Jedi. There’s not really any one event that the film builds up to, rather a string of equally climactic events. And there’s no one character upon which the film focuses: Anakin Skywalker, Queen Amidala, Quai-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Senator Palpatine, Jar Jar Binks all spin in and out of focus without any central point of reference. The result is a film that definitely feels like part of a trilogy: there’s little internal coherence, and you can tell that it needs the next films to tie up the loose ends. Contrast this with A New Hope (episode four), which makes a perfectly good stand-alone but can still lead neatly into a sequel.

And I’m slightly puzzled by Hugh Quarshie. British viewers might know him better as Ric Griffin from Holby City, but he has a supporting role as a Naboo guard captain or some such. My question is this: what is he doing in a British soap, of all things, when he had a not insignificant role in Star Wars, one of the biggest films ever? Seems like an odd career move.

The Phantom Menace is all right, but I’d much rather watch the originals. If you’ve never watched Star Wars, start with A New Hope. It’s much better.

Midsomer Murders: Death and the Divas

“Hate is a waste of time.”

Midsomer Murders

Oh yes, Constant Reader. We are back to the Murder Mystery.

This week, a new series of Midsomer Murders, featuring Fake Barnaby! With tasteful red titles that look like blood! (That was sarcasm, by the way. It doesn’t work so well when you read it.)

Midsomer County (yes, it is a county – according to a signpost seen in the episode, anyway) adds to its already rather large stock of murders when a biographer writing about a local celebrity and her Hollywood sister is, well, murdered. Obviously. A string of ‘orrible murders follows, each copying a murder scene from one of the Local Celebrity’s films.

From all this one may deduce that there are some very strange people in Midsomer County.

And some not very intelligent policemen, either. The most incongruous moment in the episode was when Fake Barnaby (Real Barnaby’s brother, allegedly) made a grandiose speech wondering where the killer had gone, as if it were one of those “doors locked from the inside” murders, and then it turned out that there was a whole other staircase. Not hard to work out, really. You’d have thought he would have checked rather than talking to himself. No wonder there are so many murders in Midsomer, if this is who’s catching them.

Admittedly, this wasn’t a bad episode, by the standards of Midsomer Murders. Having said that, Lewis is much more interesting and entertaining, and it’s coming back on Monday!

On the Origin of Species

“A mountain is an island on the land.”

Charles Darwin

Well, here it is, Constant Reader. Finally. My review of On the Origin of Species, by Mr Charles Darwin, arguably the most influential science book ever, explaining the idea of evolution by natural selection.

The first thing that struck me was how very tedious it was. Darwin, I thought, was going on and on about various obscure animals and plants, going back to points made before, taking baby steps, pointing out the obvious, for 500 pages.

But then I realised that this length, this endless explication, was necessary in Darwin’s time, because the ideas were so revolutionary and so heretical: up until then, the prevailing idea was that God created each species separately. Darwin explains (politely, of course) why this view was illogical and, well, a bit stupid in the light of all the evidence. And then he shows, logically, painstakingly, what the truth must be. He talks about embryology, climatology, geology, any number of ologies, all with the aim of showing incontrovertibly that natural selection is the only possible explanation for the vast and ever-changing range of organisms on our planet.

Now, a bit of nit-picking, because that is what the English Student does best. In the introduction to the edition that I read (a facsimile of the first edition, in attractive green binding; I love university libraries), Ernst Mayr, whoever he is, claims that Darwin did not cite his sources. I’m sorry, but of the several charges that could be levelled against Darwin, this is not one of them. What is this but an acknowledgement of a source?

In a letter to me, in 1839, Mr. Herbert told me…

Anyone?

And I did something of a double-take when I read this:

Mr. Prestwich, in his admirable Memoirs on the eocene deposits of England and France…

Either the meaning of the word “memoir” has changed considerably since the Victorian age, or Mr. Prestwich is very old indeed.

Sorry. That was an attempt at a joke. I won’t try again.

On the Origin of Species is not exactly what you might call “light reading”. (Unless you’re Hermione Granger, that is.) But it’s interesting to see where it all began, and it certainly is convincing. And if you don’t want to commit to the whole 500-page slog, there’s a potted version in Chapter 14.

Ulysses

“You find my words dark.”

James Joyce

Glory glory hallelujah, I have finally FINISHED this 700-page monolith which at the moment feels like my greatest achievement of 2012. This in a year that included getting into university.

The above quote isn’t the best to be found in Ulysses, but it sums up the novel so well that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write it down. It is just so, so obscure. The plot is basically non-existent: two men wander around Dublin for a day and think about things ranging from Shakespeare to soap.

That’s it. For 700 pages. Oh, sure, there’s lots of surreal modernist stuff, playing with narration, reinventing old tropes, etc., but everything that actually happens can be summarised in a paragraph.

There are twelve “episodes” (I think), each supposedly corresponding to twelve “episodes” of Homer’s Odyssey (Ithaca, The Sirens and so on), although the link is tenuous to say the least. What, exactly, does Oxen of the Sun, set in a maternity hospital, have to do with the bit in The Odyssey where the sailors kill the cattle of the sun god? Answers on a postcard please.

I feel a bit guilty saying all this because Ulysses is supposed to be the best thing to happen to English literature since the invention of the novel. But when, after eleven chapters of surrealism and obscurity, I read this in the notes:

Ithaca appears formally to take leave of literature altogether

I nearly lost the will to live. At least I’m not the only one; a former English student has written in the margin (it’s a library copy; no I don’t write in library books, but other people do) of a particularly difficult passage about aspiring poet Stephen Dedalus “I HATE YOU STEPHEN”. It provided a moment of light-heartedness in the opprobrium of an endless stream of words about, well, what, exactly? In the end, what is Ulysses about? Irish nationalism? The breakdown of society? (That one’s a pretty good bet – nearly every work of literature has some breakdown of society in it somewhere.) Being A Writer? I have absolutely no idea. And, it seems, neither does anyone else. Yay!