Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Mr Darcy: the wet T-shirt winner

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a hero drenched with water is sexier than a dry one.

Every woman I know has seen the infamous ‘lake scene’ from the 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but the deprived minority and any male readers can see it here:

This version of the literary classic set the bar high for the period dramas to come after, especially in terms of romance. Although Darcy is renowned for being a somewhat solemn character, screenwriter Andrew Davies wanted to give the men more presence and more screen time. This involved, to the delight of many and displeasure of an uptight few, actor Colin firth perspiring beautifully whilst fencing, lounging languidly in the bath (and throwing his hair back in fair imitation of a shampoo advert) and of course the aforementioned lake scene.
Whilst some have tried to explain this as Darcy physically punishing, and distracting himself from desires he cannot control, the more practical of us will admit that it is in fact the viewer’s fanaticism over Darcy in the abstract that is being rewarded. Fans of Austen admire the physicality of this Darcy so much that Colin Firth’s depiction is repeatedly voted the favourite in various polls. Many of these same fans would melt if they knew Davies’ original intention was to have Darcy dive into the lake naked! Surely Austen would faint at such brazenness? But what else is to be expected from a writer who gave us some of the more overtly sexualised dramas of the past decade: Tipping the Velvet (BBC, 2002), A Room With A View (ITV, 2007), Fanny Hill (BBC, 2007) and Sense and Sensibility (BBC, 2008) to name a few.
Although Firth almost didn’t take the role, and seems constantly at war with the public opinion of him as the embodiment of one of literature’s greatest-loved heroes, this scene has been paid homage to in several of his later roles. This is made obvious in St. Trinians (Parker, Thompson, 2007), in which he strolls towards ex-love Camilla Fritton having been thrown out a window into a pond and soaked, however, in Love Actually (Curtis, 2003) the reference is more ambiguous.  To rescue his writing and save face, his character, Jamie, jumps into the lake while unromantically exclaiming “Right, and now she’ll think I’m a total spaz if I don’t go in too”.  And of course who could forget Bridget Jones Diary (Maguire, 2001) and its sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Kidron, 2004) in which he plays Marc Darcy in a pastiche of his previous role as Mr Darcy. It all gets very confusing and meta from there folks. 
But what of the extension of the Pride and prejudice legacy? The 2005 film starring Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy vetoed the lake but gave us another swoon-worthy damp shirt moment in the first proposal scene. But perhaps the most eloquent reference has been in Lost In Austen (ITV, 2008) when a giggling Jemima Rooper asked Elliot Cowan as Mr Darcy to stand in a lake. I can imagine a collective gasp as all the viewers shared in her gratuitous appreciation - “I am having a bit of a strange post-modern moment here”. The phrase bodice-ripper has long been applied to period dramas of the more erotic persuasion, but given this recent bending of authenticity, should we be calling them shirt-drenchers instead?
Some might ask why this particular subject holds sway over large groups of women, is it just a reversal of the male gaze, the female gaze having power over the objectified male body? Although I’m sure it would serve Austen’s criticism of gender inequalities and despite all my pandering towards that conclusion, I think not. This moment, crafted to perfection by Davies and his team, is one of revelation. Darcy is caught at his most vulnerable, all his snobbery and superiority are forgotten in his utter shock at seeing Elizabeth Bennett. She too, having seen him minus all the pomp and circumstance, begins to recognise Darcy’s true self. This scene fits the narrative completely, his state of undress providing a reason why Darcy must excuse himself so abruptly (something left slightly ambiguous in the novel) and perhaps adding a more romantically flirtatious bent to Elizabeth’s later confession that she began to love him “from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” (* I refuse to imply the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’, but I give you permission to infer it)
So does being soaking wet make a period drama hero sexier? Damn skippy it does. But the academic and television enthusiast inside me refuses to believe that is the only reason Colin Firth appeared on tv in damp ruffles and britches. After all he did have the option of going naked. 

A Defence of Science Fiction

I wrote this about a year and a half ago for a student-run online magazine called Qwerty, for the second issue that never got published. I was writing my dissertation at the time which, against the advice of my dissertation supervisor, was about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "it's not what you'd call literature, is it?" He also made some sexist comments about girls liking science fiction which I won't repeat; suffice to say that I wrote the dissertation, it got an A, and I graduated with a First from one of the top universities in the world. Up yours, prof.

This accusation of Hitchhiker's not being literature did gall me though, and it's one that I come across a lot from people who think all science fiction is without depth. I wrote this short article for Qwerty to try and get my feelings on the matter down on paper (or on a laptop screen, anyway), and to put some of my dissertation research to further use. Now I'll leave it for you to read. You can make up your own mind.

A Defence of Science Fiction

My love of science fiction started at eight years old. I was upset, struggling to get to sleep, and my father gave me a home recording on audio tape (yes, tape – I am that old) of the first two radio episodes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I instantly fell in love with Douglas Adams' writing and the comedic talents of the actors involved, and I've listened to the whole series at least twice a year since then (including the three later series made with the original cast in the early 2000s). 

Whether or not this counts as science fiction is the subject for another time – my dissertation, in fact – but there is a more worrying question I often encounter: whether or not it counts as literature.

Science fiction is, to a lot of people, synonymous with space opera: a tiny part of science fiction, exemplified by the big franchises Star Trek and Star Wars. They are long stories about men in ships looking for stuff and killing people. They are masculine, plot-driven, simplistic and, worst of all, enjoyable. Surely this can’t be literature? Well, if you take it out of space and put it back on earth, you have the plots of two of the most celebrated texts in European literary history: Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.

Space opera owes a lot to Homer. Every long-running sci-fi series of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – Battlestar GalacticaStar TrekBabylon 5 – re-iterates the classic tropes of the epic, only the gods have become aliens and there are a few more women aboard. Just as Odysseus searched for home, so the crew of Battlestar Galactica seek a new planet to colonise, so the crew of the Enterprise seek ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. Intrinsic in all of them is the somewhat imperialistic way in which humanity spreads through the universe. Humanity conquers planets everywhere, bravely slaughtering whole civilisations of aliens (foreigners) who have the audacity to pre-exist the (predominantly British and American) human race. Even inStar Trek, which claims to respect alien traditions, the earlier episodes were mainly about Captain Kirk shagging his way around the universe. Postcolonialists would have a field day looking at some of the earlier ‘epics’ of science fiction.

But science fiction isn’t just space opera. SF, as it is sometimes called, has its own canon shaped by changes in society. The debate continues as to when SF began, but it undoubtedly stretches back as far as H. G. Wells and his stories about time travel and alien invasion. Like a lot of literature in the latter half of the nineteenth century, H. G. Wells engages with ideas of Darwinism in his work. The Morlocks in The Time Machine are ape-like, seen by the time traveller as degenerate and evil (another common image for other non-white races), with the more child-like Eloi idealised as naive descendants of man. This is also a study of class – the Morlocks are descended from the working classes, forced underground in some later Industrial age, and the Eloi are descended from the lazy aristocracy.

These obvious dichotomies continued to influence SF into the twentieth century, and it was in the 1920s that what is now commonly recognised as SF began to emerge. The period from the 1930s to the 1950s has become known as The Golden Age of Science Fiction, with a key figure of this time being John W. Campbell. He was editor of several science fiction magazines (especially Astounding) and his name inspired the phrase Campbellian: deeply conservative science fiction, hard-SF, that placed man at the centre of the universe. This tendency for SF to be anthropocentric was a point against which later writers rebelled, and which the New Wave of the sixties and seventies detested. J. G. Ballard was one of the most prominent writers of this time, credited with creating the ‘mad astronaut’ archetype. His stories were concerned with the infinity of space, the insignificance of man, and the internal landscape externalised.

The 1980s heralded a new way of reacting to political and social change. Cyberpunk was born, a subgenre that explored the anxieties of a society under threat of nuclear war. It is largely concerned with body and mind invasion: the characters’ lives are dominated by technology, often inserted into the body through invasive surgeries. Governments infiltrate the lives of characters through mind control and drug abuse. SF becomes the literature of paranoia, rather than the somewhat propagandistic literature of previous movements.

A potted history of SF such as this cannot cover everything, but it does illustrate the presence of a canon. Science fiction is more than mere space opera: it can be used to explore profound questions about the human experience. In the past twenty years, SF writers have drawn on all these influences and more to create hybrid works of literature. One such writer is China MiĆ©ville, who identifies himself as a writer of ‘Weird Fiction’, because of the ambiguous nature of the term ‘SF’. It does not merely stand for science fiction, but also speculative fiction: a mode of literature, in which the author conducts a ‘thought-experiment’. The author poses a ‘what if?’ scenario and extrapolates an alternative present or future. What if there was no gender, as there is none in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)? What if all children were genetically engineered, as they are in Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? What if Big Brother saw all like in 1984 (1948)? Science fiction is the literature of prediction and philosophy, looking forward through the lens of cynicism. If the ‘what if?’ scenario is based on real past events, the structure is an alternate history, the extrapolation of an alternative present or future based on a changed past. These texts can often hit a little close to home; they are unsettling depictions of the dystopias we only just missed.

And so we come back to Hitchhiker’s. No, it is not a plausible scenario, but it does pose a question: what if the earth was destroyed by Vogons? Apparently, a quintessentially English man would escape with the aliens and be continually bemused by his friends’ enthusiasm, whilst searching desperately for a decent cup of tea. In Arthur Dent, Douglas Adams is mocking the Campbellian archetype of the romantic hero: rather than courageous and triumphant, Arthur is confused and succeeds purely by luck. Adams satirises the body and mind invasion of cyberpunk, the earnest counter-cultures of New Wave, the self-importance of speculative fiction. Through satire, he proves what many people wish to deny: that science fiction is worthy of literary analysis. It is significant enough to have a self-contained intertextuality and to attract satirical imitation. It is serious. It is literature.

The OED defines literature as ‘writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect’. Even if the naysayers deny the high standards of writing in science fiction, they cannot deny its emotional effect. Especially on an eight-year-old girl who can’t get to sleep.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Sometimes, I'm okay with murder...

I was in London for a few days where I was supposed to talk to strangers and ideally charm my way into employment (which failed because I both fear strangers and can only be charming in a stands-about-awkwardly-while-avoiding-eye-contact kind of way). While I was there, failing, I went to see some shows, including Sweeney Todd with Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett.
Since I have seen Imelda Staunton play both parts, I was trying to figure out why I can like Mrs Lovett and hate Dolores Umbridge when the former could arguably be seen as more heinous than the latter. Even when Mrs Lovett locks up poor Toby (a little kid who adores her) so that Sweeney can kill him and protect his secret, I still like her. I like Toby too and I don’t want him to die but I like her. Yet I’ve never forgiven Umbridge for calling Harry a liar. It’s not even that she forces him to scar his own hand (which is hideous), or how indifferent she is to other’s suffering that makes me hate her, it’s just her persistent denial of the truth. Her unfairness. And I know I’m not the only person who hated her far, far more than Voldemort. I like Sweeney Todd as a character even while he casually slits throats, singing wistfully about his daughter but I don’t like that bloke his daughter runs off with. I can’t like a man who sees a pretty girl locked up in a house and immediately decides to ‘steal’ her. How about just freeing her, you prick? It’s because he’s supposed to be the good guy that I have a problem. Sweeney Todd doesn’t think of himself as a good person, he thinks everyone is terrible. (‘We all deserve to die, even you, Mrs Lovett, even I…’)
I’ve been trying to work out what it is that makes a villain likeable. The older I get the more on the villain’s side I seem to be (though it has been a habit of mine since the 90s version of Gladiators. I loved Wolf as a child. I think I felt bad for him because of all the booing he got. That and he was Wolf. I fucking love wolves.) Re-watching Sleeping Beauty a couple of years ago I found myself adoring Maleficent. She’s fantastic. Every time she so much as arches an eyebrow, ominous music plays. How can anyone not respect that? People differ in tastes of course. I love Littlefinger in Game of Thrones while my flatmate can’t stand him. She sees him as smug, manipulative and evil. And he is. But I’m okay with that. He is a player in a power struggle, he had little born advantage so he has become grasping and immoral to get where he is. He badly screws over other characters that I adore but I still like him. I’m not entirely sure why but I think it’s because he is terrible, he knows that and he doesn’t care. In the TV show during his sexposition monologue he beautifully sums up his Machiavellian spirit; ‘I'm not going to fight them. I’m going to fuck them.’ (A line almost as memorable as the aggressive ‘Play with her ass’ in the same speech which has a very special place in my heart.)  I think on a personal level I respect characters who don’t care about morality.
When writing a story it is generally good advice to remember that to everyone’s own mind, they are in the right. We are at the centre of our own universes and morality is different to different people. But I find the characters who try to justify their actions to themselves and to the world pretty boring. I don’t want a sob story or grey areas. I want them willingly immoral. Knowing full well what they are doing is wrong but that it’s beneficial to them ergo worth doing. I don’t mean sadism. I’m not a fan of people getting off on others’ pain. I am however fine with characters who are entirely indifferent to suffering. Which I worry about. That’s not what I’m supposed to feel, is it? But then plenty of other people must be similar. Ultimately whether the public likes an evil character depends on their personality. If someone is charming and if they are pretty it is remarkably easy to forgive them. My favourite moment in The Dark Knight was the Joker slamming a man’s head into a pencil. I delight in it. It makes me smile. It’s quick and clever and gruesome. The casualness of it is fantastic. Which I admit is pretty sick. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in the BBC’s recent series of Sherlock is insane and thinks he is better than everyone else. And I agree. He is better. Certainly better than me. I don’t look nearly as good in a crown. Hannibal Lecter is well loved  despite the whole killing a eating folks because he is charming and intelligent. That’s it. Sure he has a soft spot for Clarice but really we like him because he’s interesting.
There are plenty of terrible, terrible fictional characters that we adore simply because of their intelligence or confidence or humour or charm. I love my villains calm, self-aware and efficient. Add in some wit and a pretty face and I’ll fall in love with them. Which is pretty messed up.
The lesson? Morality is not very important when it comes to making likeable characters. It’s not a new thing, I know. When Thackeray’s Vanity Fair came out the reading public loved Becky Sharpe for the conniving, clever bitch she was. She never murdered anyone but let’s be honest, plenty of people would have forgiven her is she had.
Basically I’m starting to think if I was willing to kill people maybe I’d be charming enough to have a job by now.

Sunday, 15 April 2012


A group of (mainly) unemployed students and graduates saying things with little rhyme or reason.