Category Archives: Reviews

What I’ve been reading lately, part 20

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — J. K. Rowling

By this point, Rowling has hit her stride — which is both good and bad. Having sold millions of copies of her first three books, she had evidently outgrown the commercial need for editing … but not the artistic need. As a result of Rowling’s power by this stage of her career, Goblet of Fire is flabby where Prisoner of Azkaban was taut. If you recount the plot beats in each, the two stories turn out to be about the same length — as testified by the running times of the movie adaptations, 141 and 157 minutes repectively. Yet the book’s 636 pages take literally twice as long to tell that story as the 317 pages of Prisoner.

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How does this happen? Events are stretched out. The writing becomes indisciplined, indulgent. Minor school events that in earlier books would have been skimmed over in a half a page are drawn out into multi-page scenes with each aspect described in detail. As a result, the book is somewhat slow-moving, and I didn’t find myself drawn propulsively through as I did with the earlier books.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 19

THE COMPLETE BEYOND THE FRINGE — BENNETT, COOK, MILLER AND MOORE

I re-read this compilation of the scripts of the Beyond the Fringe sketches because I was also re-reading Roger Wilmut’s history of early British sketch comedy From Fringe to Flying Circus (see below). As with all cultural movements, it’s sort of arbitrary where one draws the line and says “this is where it started” (were Black Sabbath the first heavy metal band, or do we go back to the Kinks’ You Really Got Me?), but a fair case can be made that the 1961 revue Beyond the Fringe was really the starting point of modern sketch comedy: a show written entirely by the performers, with minimal set and props keeping attention on the words, and combining satire with surrealism.

Cast of Beyond The Fringe, by Lewis Morley, resin print, 1961. Left to right: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett; front, Dudley Moore.

Cast of Beyond The Fringe, by Lewis Morley, resin print, 1961. Back row, left to right: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett; front, Dudley Moore.

From this beginning, and from subsequent Cambridge Footlights revues such as A Clump of Plinths (retitled Cambridge Circus for the West End), came most of the distinctive British sketch comedy of the late 1960s, 1970s and 80s — including The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus — and later narrative comedies like Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns. But in truth, it’s not at all obvious from the Fringe scripts that all this creativity was waiting to burst out. It’s clearest in the work of the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore duo, which is more prone to veer off on surreal tangents than that of Alan Bennett or Jonathan Miller. But there is a distinctively upper-class quality to the performances of all four (ironically given the relatively unexalted origins of both Bennett and Moore) — which makes it all the more strange to think that Beyond the Fringe was perceived as dangerously iconoclastic back in 1961.

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A quick question on the “What I’ve been reading lately” posts

Folks,

You’ve probably noticed that, in among all the politics and TV reviews and suchlike, I have several long-running intermittent series on the go: detailed Paul Simon album reviews, Desert Island albums, the annual What I’ve Been Listening To posts — and What I’ve Been Reading Lately.

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None of those posts get a lot of comments. In particular, the WIBRL posts seem to mostly drop into a void. I wonder whether in part it’s because I tend to talk about ten or so books at once. If I posted shorted WIBRL entries — say, three books each — do you think they would be easier to read and engage with?

Happy Accidents (2000)

I can’t remember what made me want to watch this Happy Accidents — I think I saw it mentioned in passing, in an intriguing way, in a review of something else, but I can’t now find that review on rogerebert.com, which would have been the obvious place for me to have found it. But I watched it tonight, and I am glad I did.

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Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anything about it. It would be basically impossible to write a review that didn’t contain spoilers.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011 Movie)

A few months ago, I read John Le Carré’s classic spy novel  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, A few days ago, I finished the lengthy process of watching the BBC’s 1979 TV mini-series based on the book. And the night before last, I watched the 2011 film adaptation.

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It’s very good.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (TV Series)

I read John Le Carré’s classic spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a few months ago, and found it difficult but brilliant. (The same can be said of most of his books).

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Back in 1979, the BBC made a highly regarded TV mini-series adapted very faithfully from the book, starring Alec “Ben Kenobi” Guinness as protagonist George Smiley. I was keen to see it, and to compare it with the book.

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What I’ve been reading lately, part 18

[See also previous and subsequent posts in this series.]

Evil under the Sun — Agatha Christie

Like And Then There Were None, this is set on a smallish island off the south coast of Britian — in fact, apparently, it’s a slightly differently fictionalised version of the same island.

The real Burgh Island Hotel, with the rest of the island behind it. From the hotel's own website.

The real Burgh Island Hotel, with the rest of the island behind it. From the hotel’s own website.

This time, though, it’s a bit more civilised, the island is connected to the mainland by a causeway at low tide, and Poirot is there to sort out what’s going on before too many victims succumb. Lots of very neatly laid false trails, well-planted clues, and a resolution that I didn’t at all see coming but which made sense once it was explained. One of the better Christies, though not in the very top rank.
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