Category Archives: television

Re-reading classic plays: ‘Look Back in Anger’ vs ‘Death of a Salesman’

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Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson in “Look Back in Anger” directed by Judi Dench

I recently re-read two celebrated plays of American and British theatre, respectively – Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ and John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’.

I enjoy reading plays – though some people find it curious. You can pick them up for a few bucks in book shops, they come in thin, handy-sized paper-backs perfect for reading on the train and you can finish them in a day or two.

The directness of the dialogue – spoken by interesting, intense, quirky characters – can, I find, be very pleasing to the intellect, and an escape from the drab, bored faces of fellow commuters with their fingers stabbing at smartphones.

The last time I read these ground-breaking plays was at university 20 years ago, where I was profoundly affected by both of them.

So I was curious to see what effect they might have on me two decades later.

Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (1956)

The Faber and Faber edition I read featured a red tie draped over an ironing board on the cover symbolising the play’s domestic setting (it was one of the first plays to be  coined a “kitchen sink drama”)  and its exploration of the lives of the working classes after the Second World War.

The action takes place in a flat in the English Midlands in the 1950s. The chief protagonist is Jimmy Porter – the quintessential “angry young man” who feels he has no place in English society. Without a war or a cause to fight for, he takes his existential frustrations out on his sweet-natured flat mate Cliff and timid, anxious girlfriend Alison. His principal aim is to spark some kind of fight or reaction from Cliff or Alison and later Helena – a posh actor friend of Alison – who comes to visit (and replaces Alison as Jimmy’s girlfriend in a weird love triangle).

JIMMY (on a rant): Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm – that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! (He beats his breast theatrically) Hallelujah! I am alive. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we have a game? Let’s pretend we’re actually alive….look back in anger

And so he goes on – ranting and rallying against the boring weekend papers full of the same vacuous people and meaningless stories; trying to stir some kind of emotional response from his wife ironing away like some kind of Lady Macbeth trying to remove every bit of dirt or discomfort from her life. Alison at first won’t respond to Jimmy’s taunts about her stuck-up brother Nigel or her parents that hated him or how he is sick of being cooped up in a flat on another dreary Sunday. Only through accidental violence (play fighting with Cliff), can he draw a howl of pain and a reaction from her.

There are plot twists – a pregnancy, the death of a friend, family revelations – but it all feels quite artificial and staged. Jimmy is just an angry man crying out for attention or looking for a fight, using what ever horrible means to spark a reaction:

JIMMY (to Alison): If you could have a child, and watch it die. Let it grow, let a recognisable human face emerge from that little mass from indiarubber and wrinkles. Please – if only I could watch you face that.

In the end, I just wanted Jimmy to shut-up – even when he was played by the fantastic Kenneth Branaugh alongside Emma Thomson as Alison in a TV adaptation directed by Judi Dench (You can watch the whole play in full on YouTube).

It just didn’t ring true. It felt like a silly, dated soap opera – though with the occasional memorable bits of dialogue thrown in the mix.

Verdict: 3 out 5

(At university, we watched a version of this play with the great Welsh actor Richard Burton in the lead role – so perhaps I should track it down and give it another chance.)

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)

Kate Reid and Dustin Hoffman in "Death of a Salesman"

Kate Reid and Dustin Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman”

The story of 60-year old Brooklyn travelling salesman Willy Loman who can no longer sell and who cannot face the reality of his own past mistakes and self-deception. It’s also a play about what it means to become worthless in society and how the great American Dream (your own home, family, prosperity) can turn to dust.

WILLY: The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighbourhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should have a law against apartment houses.

Willy Loman carries some of the anger of John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter – but whereas Jimmy is young and can change, Willy Loman is a broken man, a classic study of failure and of redundancy, with little hope of redemption.

While set in a different era, Death of a Salesman is a timeless classic and has lost none of its power.

David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross – about real estate salesman fighting for their jobs (made into a superb movie with Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Alec Baldwin) owes its central theme – meaning through work – to Arthur Miller’s ground-breaking play.

As journalist working in an industry with an uncertain, constantly-evolving future – the fear expressed by Willy Loman of “still feeling – kind of temporary about myself” rings true.

Indeed for many working people, the fear of becoming redundant because of technology or of being replaced by cheaper labour in far-off countries is very real as is the sense for older people of waking up 30 years after a career and wondering where all the years went and why you’re still struggling to make ends meet.

death of a salesmanThis fear is brutally expressed in one of the great and awful moments in modern theatre when Willy finds himself begging his boss, Howard –  the son of the man who first hired him – for his job:

WILLY: You mustn’t tell me you’ve got people to see – I put 34 years into this firm, Howard,  and now I can’t pay my insurance. You can’t eat the orange and throw  the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.

Earlier in this scene, as Willy arrives at Howard’s office determined to get a desk job in the city, he finds his boss demonstrating a primitive dictaphone that records his son’s voice.

Replace this device with a smartphone or an iPad and you have a modern day fable.

Verdict: Five out five

(Make sure you watchthe 1985 TV adaptation starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman and John Malkovich as his son Biff.

Gerald Durrell’s idyllic Corfu childhood: a review of “My family and other animals”

My_Family_and_Other_Animals_BookI had hardly thought of Gerald Durrell, the author and naturalist until my wife bought me his boyhood memoir “My family and other animals” as a gift.

It tells the story of the four years he spent from 1935 to 1939 as a young boy living with his family on the Greek island of Corfu.

The family left the dampness and cold of London for the fresh air, sunshine and open spaces of the Greek island at the behest of Lawrence Durrell – Gerald’s oldest brother, who himself would go on to be a famous novelist, essayist and travel writer.

Picking up the book, I recalled a childhood memory of Gerald Durrell from a television show he presented that ran on South African television in the 1980s: a short, plump man with a white beard who appeared on television to tell us fascinating things about exotic animals. I looked at photos of him online and my memory served me well for he was indeed, short, plump and bearded.

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Gerald Durrell as I remember him from my childhood

The book is a wonderful account of an idyllic childhood for a young boy fascinating with nature. It’s one of the most entertaining books I have read, full of wonderful anecdotes about Gerry (as the family called him) and the animals he collects and brings into the family home.

These include: an owl, snakes (that end up being kept in the bath tub), frogs, a pigeon called Quasimodo, a tortoise and scorpions (that scatter one day across the floor during dinner) to name just a few.

Gerry Durrell is part Steve Irwin – unafraid to pick up creatures to see them up close – but more so Sir David Attenborough, with a wonderful eye for the details of nature and how it works plus the skills of a gifted novelist to bring it all to life.

In one scene he describes a gecko who has come to live in his room, which he names Geronimo:

He would sit on the window sill gulping to himself, until it got dark and a light was brought in; in the lamp’s golden gleam he seemed to change colour from ash-grey to a pale translucent pinky pearl that made his neat pattern of goose pimples stand out and made his skin look so fine that you felt it should be transparent so that you could see the viscera, coiled neatly as a butterfly’s proboscis, in his fat tummy. His eyes glowing with enthusiasm, he would waddle up the wall to his favourite spot, the left hand outside corner of the ceiling, and hang there upside down, waiting for his evening meal to appear.

This wonderful gift for describing a scene and revealing the wondrous details and idiosyncracies of nature is found throughout the book.

It is a mix of boy’s own adventure (Gerry accompanied by his faithful dog Roger exploring the island with almost unlimited freedom in which “all discoveries” filled him with “tremendous delight”) accompanied by hilarious tales of family life – Larry and his arty friends invading the island, his diet-obsessed sister Margo and the adventurous, gun-mad Leslie.

The other wonderful aspect of the book are the lovable eccentric local characters: There’s Spiro, the Durrell’s taxi driver, “guide, mentor and friend” – a “short, barrel-shaped man” with a unique grasp of the English language and who adored the family, the tremendously fat and cheerful Agathi who taught Gerry peasant songs and the immaculately groomed, sparkly eyed, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s guide  to the natural world plus a parade of doctors, housekeepers and tutors.

Gerrald Durrel with 'Spiro' on Corfu

Gerald Durrell with ‘Spiro’ on Corfu

Durrell writes of an afternoon spent with Agathi outside her “tumbledown cottage high on a hill:

Sitting on an old tin in the sun, eating grapes or pomegranates from her garden, I would sing with her and she would break off now and then to correct my pronunciation. We sang (verse by verse) the gay, rousing song of the river, Vangelio and how it dropped from the mountains, making the gardens rich, the fields fertile and the trees heavy with fruit.

By the time I finished reading the book, I yearned for just a few days of Corfu sunshine and a walks among its hills, valleys, gently swaying Cypress trees and olive groves.

I challenge you to find a more charming, magical account of a childhood we should only dream of giving to our children.

Federer, Nadal, Becker and Curren: remembering my tennis moments

tennis-ballsIt wasn’t the classic match I’d been hoping for, but it was still a thrill to sit under the lights at Rod Laver arena and watch two of the modern-day greats, Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal, duel it out for a place in the Australian Open final.

Nadal was too aggressive , Federer made too many errors at the net with only the occasional glimpses of his sublime ground strokes, and it was all over in straight sets.

As I sat in the arena with Danni Minogue behind me, Pete Sampras chatting away in the distance (and never applauding a single point) and the great man, Rod Laver himself, watching intently with his distinctive mop of red hair and pointy nose, I thought about my own relationship with tennis and the role it’s played in my life.

Growing up in Germiston, a mining town about 30 minutes east of Johannesburg, we lived across the road from a Catholic convent and next door to the school’s tennis court. The nuns graciously gave us a set of keys and it was quite a novelty to have friends over and then head down to the courts to hit the ball around.  The court’s were cracked and the nets frayed and we frequently lost balls into the neighbouring homes, but it was our own private tennis club.

I was never much of a player, occasionally I’d string a couple of good shots together and fluke a serve down the line, but I’d have been a lower grade club player at best if I’d had lessons and practiced. Still, there probably wasn’t a family holiday, where we didn’t take our rackets and have a game. I recall being rather competitive and not averse to smashing my racket against the ground and not always the best loser.

More so though, my relationship with tennis revolved around the four majors – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, which seemed to define the calendar year and the seasons.

South Africa might have been isolated from the world in the mid-1980s, but every game was shown on SABC (the South African Broadcasting Corporation) with our legendary doubles champion Bob Hewitt waxing on in English about this shot and that and someone else providing the alternate Afrikaans commentary.

The French Open and Wimbledon were always my favourites – the former played on those bright red clay courts, with smartly dressed men and sexy, haughty European women in sunglasses watching from the stands (expertly picked out by the cameramen) while the umpire called the points in French.

They was probably the only words in French I knew:

“Zero – quarante” (Love – 40)

“Jeu” (Game”)

“Quarante – trente” (40-30)

And my favourite, the oh so very sophisticated:

“Egalite” (Deuce)

I loved all the sliding across the red clay, the ability to see exactly where the ball landed in the court when a dispute was called and the long baseline rallies by the likes of Mats Wilander, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster and the tiny, plucky Michael Chang and his famous win over Stefan Edberg in 1989 (where I seem to remember a point he served underhand).

But Wimbledon holds the strongest memories for me.

It was always played in the middle of winter in South Africa, crisp, days when the afternoon sun streamed in through the sliding doors of the living room and always while I was studying for mid-year exams. I remember I’d structure my study time  – 40 minutes at my desk, then 20 minutes of tennis, which soon turned into 30 minutes and sometimes until my mother called the family over for dinner.

The men’s final evokes strong memories of family gatherings. Uncles and aunts and cousins would arrive for tea, cake and biscuits and then we’d all retire to the family room to watch the final. My father would invariably fall asleep (I have photographic evidence somewhere) but wake up in time for the trophy presentation by Duke of Edinburgh.

One year was particularly special – 1985. I was 12 years old and a South African had made it all the way to the final. His name was Kevin Curren. He was tall, awkward looking, softly spoken guy who blitzed the likes of McEnroe and Connors with an endless stream of aces and unplayable serves to power his way into the final against an unknown, unseeded 17-year-old German “wunderkid” called Boris Becker.

This was in the deep, dark days of apartheid isolation with only the likes of Gary Player and a few other individual sportsman able to still represent our country on the global stage.

The nation held its breath that day as we prayed that our new sporting idol, Kevin Curren, would play one more storming match and give us our first Grand Slam champ since Johan Kriek won the Australian Open in the late 1970s.

Sadly it was not to be. The fresh-faced, precious talent that was Boris Becker leaped onto the world stage on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon and tennis was changed for ever. It was upsetting to see our hero lose, but the truth is I became an enormous fan of Boris Becker with all his theatrical dives at the net and that powerful, trigger serve of his.

In the subsequent years, I remember the three Wimbledon Finals between the raging, tear away Boom Boom Becker and the cool elegant Swede, Stephen Edberg between 1988 and 1990 as among the most thrilling of my young adult life.

Later, while living in London, I was lucky enough to attend Wimbledon a couple of times, taking the train after work, queueing up for five-pound tickets and wander around the famous courts, indulging in some rather disappointing strawberries and cream and sitting on what was then called “Henman Hill” (now called Murray Mound) in the long summer days.

In 2004, I slept over at a mate’s house in Croydon  and we awoke at 4am to queue early for tickets for one of the show courts.

We got to watch a young very attractive talent by the name of Maria Sharapova on her way to her first Grand Slam, but the highlight was watching the panther like Roger Federer on his way to his second of seven Wimbledon Crowns.

And this week I got to see him again  in the twilight of perhaps the greatest of tennis careers.

To inappropriately quote Eric Clapton and Cream: Anyone for tennis, wouldn’t that be nice?

Breaking bad: father figures in the ‘Golden Age’ of television

It could be argued that the Golden Age of television (that is television far superior to the movies) began when New Jersey mob boss-elect Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) waded into his swimming pool in his bathroom robe, to feed a family of wild ducks that had arrived to live in his backyard.

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Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and those ducks

It was the pilot episode of what was to become arguably the greatest television series of all time,  introducing one of the most terrifying, complex but also most loved characters in modern pop culture – and also a father.

In the next few weeks, two other great shows of the golden television era – Dexter and Breaking Bad – will come to an end with climatic, thrilling episodes.

And both have as their central characters – fathers.

There’s Dexter Morgan, the blood splatter expert working in Miami homicide, efficiently disposing of serial killers in plastic covered rooms for eight seasons, who is also the father of blonde-haired Harrison and stepfather to the hardly ever seen Cody and Astor.

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Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and Harrison

And there’s Walter White, a poorly paid school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer turned arch-druglord and master crystal meth cooker, who is also the father to handicapped teenager Walter White Jr and infant Holly. He is also very much the “father figure” to his drug lab partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) but rather than guide him away from drugs and crime (as most fathers would do) he leads him deeper into the spider’s web.

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Walter White (Bryan Cranston) isolated from his family

Both are loving fathers and yet dreadful role models.

Walter White starts off as a meek, dying father, deeply attached to his wife and children, who by degrees becomes more ruthless as he becomes powerful, who resorts to murder – including the poisoning of a child – to build his financial fortune.

Dexter Morgan has little time for traditional fatherly duties, palming off his son to a carer or who ever it seems will take him, while he pursues and butchers serial killers, keeping their blood samples on glass slides behind the air conditioning unit.

They are liars, deceivers, criminals and terrible fathers by any standard or measure and yet we love them. Through eight lumpy seasons of Dexter and five faultless seasons of Breaking Bad, my wife and I have taken comfort in “Darkly Dreaming” Dexter and cunning Walter White (though not so much when he’s in his white underpants).

Similarly, Mad Men’s Don Draper hides his true identity from his family. He may be the best dressed, smoothest man ever to appear on television (and most frequent user of brylcreem), but he’s also a serial womanizer who makes Michael Douglas look virginal. He loves his three children, but frequently greets their visits with a frown and can only relate to them as he does to adults. His chief role as father – when he’s involved – is to tell them off.

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Don Draper (Jon Hamm) with his two children

And let’s not forget Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) the drunkard, bent cop of that othere groundbreaking television show, The Wire, who also happened to be a father.

But back to Tony Soprano. The late James Gandolfini played him with Shakespearian range as both a terrifying tiger and a soft, cuddly teddy bear – fond of his cigars, two colour bowling shirts, tracksuits, whores, extortion rackets and murder when necessary.

But also a man who loves his children deeply and who is a great protector of his family.

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Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) with his son Anthony Soprano Jr (Rober Iler)

This dichotomy of loving father/ruthless mob boss is partly what made the show so watchable.

An episode that stands out is when Tony accompanies his daughter Meadow to visit a prospective college, and in between strangles Fabian Petrulio, a former mobster turned FBI informant. Tony savagely murders him, despite Petrulio pleading for his life. The job done, he takes Meadow to another college interview. Here he stops to ponder a quotation from the writer: Nathaniel Hawthorne :

“No man… can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one may be true.”

This could apply equally to Walter White, Dexter Morgan or Don Draper, fathers whose sense of identity disappears behind the masks they wear, the lies they tell.

It is interesting to note (and Freud would certainly have found it telling) that both Walter White and Tony Soprano’s sons bear their own names – the sins of the father passed on to their children in name and deed.

Perhaps some of the power of these shows, what makes them so compelling and addictive, is the fact that their main characters are so deeply flawed as fathers and family men.

And its interesting to note, that David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, claims his father was “an angry man who belittled him constantly as a child” while Jeff Lindsay, who wrote the Dexter novels on which the series is based, penned a column for the newspapers called “Fatherhood” while raising two daughters, before he struck the big time.

The Biggest Loser tips the scales when it comes to bad taste

bathroom-scale-psd39515I confess. I watched the last two seasons of MasterChef religiously.

And yes I found all the plugs for Coles and cooking products and restaurants and celebrity chefs annoying but at its heart MasterChef was a show about people showing or developing a skill and demonstrating so under the immense pressure of knowing you are being watched, over boiling pot and sizzling pan, by a nation of eager foodies.

I don’t like Australian Idol or The Voice or The Block or even the Amazing Race, but at least contestants on these shows demonstrated some kind of ability or skill or talent, even if it’s just being able to read a map or choose colours to paint a bedroom.

On the other hand, the Biggest Loser is nothing more than exploitation for commercial profit without any redeeming qualities.

I happened to catch part of an episode the other night.

In between ads for Coles $3 pizza (Could you advertise a more inappropriate product?), I watched every contestant humiliated to the point of sobbing after being chided in video messages for being fat by family or friends.

I could only stomach (excuse the pun) a few minutes and at risk of hurling the remote control at the television, I changed channels.

The bald facts are that the Biggest Loser is a contrived freak show around which advertising is sold to make Channel Ten a lot of money.

And it all appears during prime time television, when the entire family can gather round to watch the “fattest people in Australia” run until they think they are going to have a heart attack or until they are literally throwing up in a bucket.

The show is based around three things: exploitation, humiliation and money.

The contestants are exploited because of their size and inability to do something about it.

They are humiliated by tortuous training regimes and verbal abuse if they don’t try hard enough (not to mention those half-naked weigh-ins).

And money is the incentive to get them on the show and for Channel Ten to air it.

As a prime time show, the Biggest Loser needs an audience, a feat it accomplishes with ease because Australians are obsessed with obesity, one of the biggest health issues facing the nation.

But The Biggest Loser is not about confronting this issue, despite Channel Ten’s ridiculous claim that it is not a game show but a “social movement that aims to break the vicious cycle of generational obesity”.

If you’re wondering what sort of impact the Biggest Loser has had on changing eating behaviour or encouraging people to lose weight since it first aired in 2006, the answer is zero.

According to the most recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 63.4% of Australians were overweight as of 2011-12 with 70.3% of men obese or overweight and 56.2% of women obese or overweight.

In 2008 the rates of obesity and being overweight were 62.8% for males and 47.6% for females.

And in 2005, one year before the Biggest Loser first aired, obesity rates were 61.6% for men and 44.6% for women.

So since the show started airing obesity rates have risen, not fallen.

There was recently an excellent article written by News Limited journalist Petra Starke for the Adelaide Advertiser where she neatly summarised the real point of the show:

“It’s for people like you and me to plant our ample buttocks on our cushy sofas and watch other people being humiliated while we eat whatever fast food they’re selling us in the ad breaks.”

“The Biggest Loser is like one big schoolyard bullying session, and we’re all complicit in it,” Starke goes on to say.

I also like this summation from Fairfax’s Ben Pobjie:

“The Biggest Loser, the show for everyone who believes being overweight makes a person worthless, and that anyone who refuses to lose weight deserves loneliness, derision and an early death. And that anyone can get into shape, as long as they have a personal trainer working on them full-time and cameras on them 24/7 to prevent them ever straying from their prescribed diet. But I’m sure most people can manage that.”

Starke and Bopjie are not the only ones shaming Channel 10 for airing this disgraceful show.

The complaints and accusations are flying from all corners.

Eating disorders advocacy group Fed Up NSW Health is demanding the show be pulled from the airways, with one of its chief concerns being that for the first time it features contestants as young as 15.

One woman, Ella Graham who is involved with Fed Up NSW and has battled eating disorders for 11 years, recently told The Age newspaper that personal trainer Michelle Bridges shouting at contestants makes her “shudder”.

Graham has written to the producers of the show, Shine, warning that it is negligent because research shows that the biggest risk factor for developing an eating disorder is a restrictive diet and excessive exercise (the basic premise of The Biggest Loser).

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton calls the show “totally unrealistic” and “done for entertainment”.

Child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg says there can be fewer shows more toxic than The Biggest Loser warning that “young viewers may be negatively influenced, setting them up for a lifetime of body-image issues and an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise”.

Another advocacy group, Eating Disorders Victoria has condemned the show.

The list goes on and on.

Australia is getting fatter and the Biggest Loser is just entertainment, though of the most exploitative and unredeeming kind.

One hundred years ago they used to have freak shows at the circus where you could see the world’s fattest man or the world’s hairiest woman – in the modern age of reality television, you can tune in between 7.30 pm and 8.30 pm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday on Channel 10 to get your fill, can of coke in one hand, pizzas slice with extra toppings in the other.

And sure someone will win and make a lot of money and go on chat shows and the radio and maybe perhaps host a show of their own. And perhaps they’ll even keep the weight down, for appearance sake of course, (otherwise they can kiss those lucrative media contracts good-bye).

But as for the rest, it will be back to doing it for themselves; but with the added bonus of knowing what their families really think, having already humiliated themselves on camera for the nation.

A few weeks ago I turned on the television to a promotion for an upcoming television show.

A very large woman sits down and opens a two litre tub of vanilla ice-cream.

She takes a bottle of chocolate sauce and spreads it liberally over the top of the ice cream.

She starts to eat from the two litre tub of ice-cream.

There is a time-lapse.

The tub is empty.

Then come the words: “The Biggest Loser: The next generation starts this week.”