Joseph Quinn on Catherine the Great, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and more

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I also think the timelessness of the human condition is quite interesting for the viewer – seeing people in different times and in different environments that are foreign to ours, still going through the same shit that we go through. People get jealous, people get angry, people get depressed, all these things that are attached to what it is to be human.

I think maybe there’s some kind of comfort there [in seeing that] or definitely a kind of fascination. We do [historical drama] better than any other country, I’d say, because we’ve got such a rich history. There’s definitely a need for [historical drama] and I think that we keep turning them out, but I think we’re doing it and doing it well.

Joseph Quinn! Took a little while to arrange this one, but Joseph was great to talk to when we eventually got around to doing the interview – very polite, which is always a plus, and some great answers too. He, I suspect, is going to have quite a long and interesting career ahead of him.

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Genius: Picasso interrogates how gender has defined our understanding of genius

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Genius draws attention to how the patriarchal expectations imposed on Francoise Gilot, by both Picasso and society in general, limit her success as an artist; just a few short weeks after Picasso left Francoise “alone, sick and pregnant to care for a baby for almost a month” while he was in Poland, he objects to her going to Paris, asking “Who’s going to look after the children?” The parallels aren’t subtle – he refuses to look after the children because he “wouldn’t get any work done”, when just a few lines earlier Francoise told an art dealer “I’m afraid I don’t have anything new to show you. I’ve been too busy with the children”. Another moment, reminiscent of many recent #MeToo stories, sees the same art dealer tell Francoise he can no longer represent her, for fear of Picasso’s anger – even after their relationship has ended, Picasso’s influence continues to stymy her art.

Genius: Picasso does some genuinely interesting work in terms of its depiction of female artists; its interrogation of how gender has defined, and restricted, our understanding of genius isn’t so much subtext as it is openly, emphatically… text. The National Geographic drama isn’t just about great men of history, but about the genius left unacknowledged, the genius that wasn’t allowed to thrive, because of such a traditionally myopic understanding of what is or isn’t genius. Time and time again, Genius: Picasso asks why you’re not instead watching Genius: Maar or Genius: Gilot instead, and the indisputable answer it offers is a suffocating, gendered understanding of genius.

I was left in a bit of an odd place with this piece.

My plan, from around the fifth episode of Genius: Picasso, was to write an article about how the show depicts creativity, and the struggle to define your creativity – as well as perhaps also touching on how it grapples with the myth of apolitical art, and the need to use your platform responsibly when you have one. I might still write about that a bit, actually, I’m not sure.

Anyway, though, as I came to write it, I found it difficult to get to grips with that piece, in part because my plan to do it as a sort of personal essay seemed more than a little pretentious and arrogant (convinced though I am that we’ll eventually reach Genius: Moreland). Plus, I was increasingly fixated on another angle I’d thought of for Genius – how it engaged with gender. At first I was planning on writing it for the Mary Shelley series (giving me time to catch up on the Einstein series, which had apparently also done some interesting things vis a vis its depiction of women), or maybe the fourth series if it were also about a woman (I’ve kinda plotted out a 5+ series arc for Genius in my head where it’s this really interesting, feminist sotry).

But! I couldn’t get the creativity piece to work, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the gender angle, so this is the piece I wrote. I was quite pleased with it in the end; it’s a little longer than my Yahoo columns tend to be, though I had a lot of ideas I wanted to cover, and even then didn’t quite manage to get all of them in. I must say, I really did quite enjoy Genius.

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The politics, passions, and people of A Very English Scandal

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One of the more interesting comments Russell T Davies made in the weeks before A Very English Scandal first aired was that he thought “both [Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe] were victims”, in a way.

It’s perhaps not immediately apparent why Davies considered Jeremy Thorpe a victim, given after all that A Very English Scandal dramatises Thorpe’s efforts to have Norman Scott killed. It’s a story of power, politics, and passion, of conspiratorial whispers in the hallowed halls of power, and Thorpe is at the very heart of that. Casting Hugh Grant was, in many way, a stroke of genius; his Thorpe isn’t just suffused with predatory menace, but, as many have noted, feels informed by his past as a charismatic romantic lead. In turn, Grant’s Thorpe is a vision of that charm, curdled into something darker – there’s an undefinable, irresistibly engaging quality about him, even knowing there’s something rotten lurking within. Declaring Norman Scott must die with as much conviction as he opposes racism in the House of Commons, or planning how to dispose of his body with the same light, casual ease as mimicking the Prime Minister, doesn’t exactly seem to support the understanding that Thorpe is anything short of a Machiavellian villain.

But, if it’s difficult to see Thorpe as a victim from the first two episodes, it’s a scene in A Very English Scandal’s closing episode that renders Davies’ point crystal clear.

I am so, so proud of this piece, I’ve got to say. Genuinely, when I’d finished it, I was absolutely beaming – I was convinced, and still am, that it was one of the best pieces of writing I’d done in quite some time.

The only thing that, admittedly, is less than stellar about it is the title. I don’t think it really conveys what it’s about, does it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure it conveys much of anything, it’s a bit… empty. Better, though, than other variations, such as “the politics, power and prejudice”.

Anyway, I’d really appreciate any shares that this one gets, because like I said, I’m extremely proud of it.

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Naomi Battrick, Niamh Walsh, Abiola Ogunbiyi, Abubakar Salim and Ben Starr on Jamestown series 2, historical drama, and more

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Anything about anything is a product of the time of when it was made. We all know that. You go and study history; history is not the study of what happened, history is the study of how it was recorded. It always has been, so this isn’t possible to get away from.

This show, when it was made, at this time, [was made] because there was a climate in which we were looking for shows like this, and it was telling a story that hasn’t been told before but would have happened, but told in the point of view of a society that was looking to see history in a different light. Ten years ago, this show would have been told completely differently, and it would have been told differently decades before that. I think this is a product of its time, so this is reflective of universal values that we can all look at.

This is an interview I’m extremely proud of, for a couple of different reasons. The first is that I think it’s simply just genuinely very good – we touched on a lot of interesting ideas, and I think their passion for the show really leaps off the page. Certainly, it was palpable in the room – which brings us neatly to the second reason why I’m extremely proud of this interview.

My two Jamestown interviews were actually the first interviews I’d ever done in person, which was, as you can probably imagine, a very different experience from the phoners I’d done before. I was deeply terrified, and more than a little bit out of my depth I suspect. It probably showed. But! I really appreciated quite how friendly the Jamestown cast were (and all the PR people who arranged it, come to think of it), which really put me at ease. Lovely people (Niamh Walsh and Ben Starr loved my cool yellow shoes), and it really meant a lot – and still means a lot – that they were as lovely as they were. Aw.

And, of course, if you liked this piece, you might be interested in the article I wrote about Jamestown series 2, which I spoke to Ben Starr about in the interview. Sort of. It was basically his idea to write it.

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Sophie Rundle, Stuart Martin, Steven Waddington and Luke Roskell on Jamestown series 2, power dynamics, and more

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There’s the political stage, but the domestic front as well, and everyone trying to survive isn’t it? I think when you go to create a new world and you have a new microcosm of society it becomes very clear what people’s greatest desires are – and you see very quickly the people that want power, and want authority, and want prestige. And some people just want a peaceful simple life, and I think that’s what this is: a study of human nature, and what different people are craving, and what lengths they’ll go to, to get and protect what they want.

Here’s the first of my two Jamestown interviews, both of which are very special to me – they’re the first interviews I did in public! This set specifically, actually, is the first of the two I did, so the other was a little easier in that regard.

I was very lucky, and very appreciative, that those first in-person interviews were with people who were as lovely as Sophie, Stuart, Steven and Luke (sure, we can be on a first name basis, why not) – you always hear those stories of, like, diva actors who’d kick up some fuss or another, but these guys couldn’t be further from that. Wonderfully nice and accommodating while I was doing my best to hide how utterly terrified I was.

I’d love to interview them again, actually – maybe for Jamestown series 3, come to think of it. Not because I think, like, I’d do a better job of it and want to take a second try (I probably would do better, though I do also think this is a really, really good interview), but because they were really good interviewees, and I think it’d be neat to talk to them again.

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Jamestown and the dynamics of power

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Focusing, as the series does, primarily on three female characters, it’s interesting to note how the series examines gendered portrayals of power. When the series debuted last year, a common critique of Jamestown was that its depiction of women was ahistorical – that, largely speaking, portraying the female characters exercising their own agency was inaccurate. Fealty to history aside, it’s worth noting that that’s not really the point; as with any historical drama, Jamestown is much more about the present than it is the past, depicting as it does still relevant concerns about patriarchal power structures. 

This examination of power and gender is most obvious through the character Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), a widow who refuses to remarry, and gets increasingly involved with the political machinations of the colony. Marriage, in Jamestown, is an explicit microcosm of the wider confines of the patriarchy; Jocelyn refuses to be “owned, possessed, confined, or determined by wedlock”, in turn arguably exercising the most agency of any character on the programme. Notably, the opening of the final episode draws an implicit parallel between Jocelyn and Governor Yeardley (Jason Flemyng), the ultimate authority at the colony – both dressed in shades of blue, atop their horses, at this point the pair are near equals.

An article I was actually very pleased with, on a show I quite enjoyed. This was actually prompted, in a couple of roundabout ways and in a few more direct ways, by some interviews I did with the cast of Jamestown. I watched the very first episode of Jamestown when it was broadcast, and admittedly didn’t quite like it; there was a sexual assault scene about halfway through, which I was rather dubious of, so I didn’t continue with the show.

However! Ahead of the second series, I was invited to watch a screening of the premiere and interview the cast. I wasn’t going to turn that down, especially since it was going to be the first interview I ever conducted in person, so off I went into London (getting horrendously, embarrassingly lost in the process) for that. Somewhat surprisingly, I actually really enjoyed that episode, and the cast were all lovely – I stuck with the show, having more or less decided on writing this article already, and also having promised Ben Starr I’d write it.

And so, this is the article I ended up with. Meant to tweet it to them all but never did (though Max Beesley, who I didn’t interview but is on the show, came across it independently and said it was great, which was nice) – I’ll try and remember to before the third series.

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Why Beryl is the standout episode of The Crown Season 2

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It comes back to a portrait – a metonym that the series used to great effect last year, in the widely acclaimed episode Assassins, framed around a lost portrait of Winston Churchill. Here, the series invokes the infamous pictures of Princess Margaret taken by Armstrong-Jones to similar effect.

There’s something ekphrastic about it, as the episode realises the shock and intimacy represented by the photos. More than that, in fact – it’s here that The Crown realises its initial promise, moreso than anywhere else. “No one wants complexity and reality from us,” declares the Queen Mother. But that’s what the photos represent, candid and intimate as they are – and what The Crown delivers for Margaret.

I really enjoyed The Crown series two, much moreso than the first – here’s an article on one of the standout episodes, about my favourite character.

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Alex Lawther on The End of the F***ing World, his creative influences and more

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I read somewhere, someone much more eloquent than me, saying “it doesn’t matter if [a character is] likeable but they have to be interesting“. You don’t have to like them, but you have to want to know what happens next. Even if you hate them or you’re scared of them or if you… as long as they’re not boring you, because boring is passive.  It’s not so much not being liked… they cause you to be interested in them actively and to see where their objectives are going to take them. Which I think is the analytical way of putting it, yeah.

This is one of my favourite interviews I’ve ever done, because I absolutely loved talking to Alex Lawther – he’s just wonderful, I’m a huge fan. I promised to learn French for him, in fact. (At time of writing, and by writing I mean editing all my old posts for the new wordpress site, my duolingo streak is 177 days.)

(I would continue to talk about how great I think he is, but… well, I don’t want to overdo it, you know?)

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Gunpowder was a powerful explanation of the real reason why we remember the 5th of November

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Here, in fact, is where Gunpowder displays a penchant for subtle, intelligent choices. When in Catholic Spain seeking help with his plot, Catesby sees the Spanish authorities burning a Jewish man at the stake – a mirror of the Catholic priest hanged as the drama began. In creating that parallel, Gunpowder makes it obvious that this isn’t a case of good against evil, rather the powerless against those with authority. Director J Blakesonemphasises that again as the drama ends, juxtaposing a gold necklace presented to spymaster Lord Cecil with the noose placed around the necks of the plotters – it’s about power rather than morality. If Gunpowder can be said to be on the side of the Catholic plotters, it’s not because they are Catholic.

I was mostly pleased with this article. Not super sure about the title in hindsight though.

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The Crown was an unfailingly positive yet fundamentally toothless drama

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By the same token, The Crown is unwilling to ever criticise the monarchy; there is no meaningful commentary offered on its flaws and failings. It is, fundamentally, a programme quite firmly on the side of ‘the crown’, as you’d expect from the title; while it’s not quite fetishistic, it undoubtedly glorifies the institution, painting it in an unfailingly positive light.

It ultimately hobbles any of the thematic resonance that the drama is supposed to hold; questions of duty and the cost of being Queen are all well and good, but if the greatest criticism you’re willing to make is “having to smile a lot is hard”, then the supposed cost of this duty isn’t conveyed particularly effectively – or at all, frankly. It’s often difficult to see our characters as anything other than beneficiaries of the privilege they enjoy, rather than flawed people suffocating under the weight of it.

So, this was an attempt to put together something of a definitive take on The Crown, after having reviewed it for CultBox, and generally struggling with it – certainly, I was always pretty out of step with the general consensus when it came to The Crown.

Were I to try and distill it to a sentence, I think my problem was that a lot of The Crown was about how difficult it was to be the Queen, while never actually engaging with much critique of the monarchy – not in terms of, like, “oh, we need to abolish it”, but in terms of how it impacted their lives. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched it, but an example that stood out particularly was Elizabeth spending a while upset that she’d never received a general education – but never mind, it was alright in the end anyway, because the special royal education she got was useful too.

Part of why I think I responded so much better to season 2 was that it shifted away from that angle, and put more focus on the actual relationships between different characters. It was, I think, a better approach, and I hope The Crown maintains that in future.

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