Why have I stopped watching Prisoners of War/Hatufim?

The American TV series Homeland was a big hit in the UK. I had recorded it in advance, but after watching episode 1 was sure I did not want to watch more, and deleted the rest. Later, the Israeli series Prisoner of War (Hatufim, literally “The Abducted Ones”), was shown, written by the same author (Gideon Raff) and by all accounts much better – and with subtitles! I therefore set up the series to record and towards the end of its run, began to watch it. After three episodes, I’m stopping. Why?

On the basis of what I’ve seen, I find Prisoners of War vastly superior to Homeland, benefiting enormously from its absence of a mad neurotic voyeur who bugs the returning prisoner’s home and obsessively observes him having sex with his wife. Apart from that big plus, the whole thing is so much more real. You can believe in the two returning prisoners, their wives, their respective personal dilemmas, and the situation of the third woman, the sister of the man who did not return.

After watching an episode all about the homecoming, a second episode about the reunion with the families, and a third about the debriefing of the two men in a secure facility, I lost interest. The pace is glacial, and I’m learning nothing. The constant flashbacks to scenes of torture and abuse (physical and mental) are upsetting and abhorrent. They are done of necessity, and are not gratuitous, but I don’t need to keep seeing them – I believe the men had a dreadful time of it in their 17 years of captivity, and I don’t need to keep witnessing the details.

I care that one man is finding it hard to reconnect with his powerful wife, the woman who has kept the faith for him all these years, who has kept her family together and made their house a perfect home that now seems to have little place for him. I care that the other man has been betrayed by his girlfriend, and find the dance of mutual lies between them convincing and moving. I care that the sister of the third man is pole-axed by her grief, and identify with her relationship with her brother’s ghost. I hate the psychiatrist who interrogates the returned prisoners, pushing them again and again to detect small inconsistencies. But at the same time, these scenes become boring to watch.

I don’t care enough to see more. I don’t care if either or both the men have been “turned” by their captors, or if their families do or don’t survive the emotional dramas of their return. I think that the Israeli version’s method of splitting the issues between three men rather than focusing them all in one, as in the American version, is much better. But I don’t want to see any more mangled bodies, scenes of abuse, or mentally agonising interrogations. I just can’t bear to sit through another 9 hours of slowly, beautifully filmed, pain and occasional happiness. If the story had been told at film length, or slightly longer, it would have held my interest. Yet at this pace, it is all too much. What am I missing by not watching any more of this?

Guardian: Prisoners of War: why the original is always the best.
Israeli drama Hatufim displays a level of sophistication that US remake Homeland didn’t quite achieve.

Guardian: TV review: Prisoners of War (Hatufim). What Hatufim doesn’t seem to be from the early evidence is the white-knuckle ride Homeland was. It smoulders rather than burns; less of a thriller, more of a thoughtful, psychological thriller – without the sniping and bombs. More of a family drama too, with the emphasis not so much on the action but on the PoWs rebuilding their lives. In other words, it hasn’t been given the 24 treatment.

Guardian: Why the Israeli version of Homeland has even more shock value. Homeland, with its US marine who has become a devout Muslim, packs an even more powerful punch in its original Israeli version.

Wikipedia: Homeland and Prisoners of War (spoilers).

Homeland and Prisoners of War are both available on DVD.

TV review: Single-Handed

Single-Handed (2007) is an Irish TV drama series consisting of three one-and-a-half-hour films. I was given the DVD as a Christmas present by someone who had never heard of it before – neither had I – but the quote on the cover “The most impressive non-American policier in years” (Time Out) gave the purchaser reason to think that I might like it.

And very good it is, too. Each of the three films tells a different crime story, but are linked by the character of Garda Sergeant Jack Driscoll (Owen McDonnell), who has abruptly left his job in Dublin and transferred to the remote, small town in Connemara where he grew up. Jack’s father was the Garda sergeant there for years, but has recently retired and has in some way swung the job for Jack. The younger man is very much under his father’s thumb, therefore, enduring his network of “good old boys” who may or may not be stretching their interpretation of the law a bit too far. Jack has his work cut out to establish his niche and gain the respect of the community. The first two films have a strong theme of Jack’s conflicted feelings about his father, both on a personal level and about the extent to which he may have been corrupt.

As crime stories, the plots are solid and resist cliché. In the first film, the body of a young woman is discovered in a caravan. It turns out that she was from eastern Europe, and only Jack seems to care enough to find out her identity and what happened to her. The second film is about a young mother whose two-year-old baby is abducted. Everyone assumes the boy’s father is responsible, but Jack’s discoveries begin to point to other, darker possibilities – while his father is giving evidence at a tribunal investigating the possibility of past false confessions and other aspects of police wrong-doing. In the final film, Jack tries to rescue a drowning man, eventually becoming tied up in a drug-smuggling ring.

I liked these films because they avoid all the usual TV stereotypes of car chases, heroics and so on. There are shades of grey in almost all the characters – hardly anybody is a hero or a villain, and the pressures they come under are well-depicted, whether or not they are driven to contemplate criminal activity. The scenery is beautiful – as are Jack’s girlfriends (the exception to the lack of cliché is that Jack has a new one for each film). Jack himself is no slouch in the looks department, either.

I highly recommend these films for crime-fiction enthusiasts who want to watch something that is not bogged down by formula. I found them a perfect mix of thought-provoking plots, interesting major and minor characters, strong atmosphere and sense of place – all in all, the stories are unsentimentally dark and yet entertaining. A second series was made and first shown in November/December 2010; I’ll be looking out for it when it comes out on DVD in April.

Single-Handed series 1 was written by Barry Simner and directed by Colm McCarthy.

Single-Handed at Wikipedia, including links to various reviews and articles about the series.

Single-Handed series 1 at Amazon UK.

Unwritten rules of TV thrillers

Owing to some unusual circumstances, I have recently watched a couple of crime thrillers on TV. One was a two-part adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories; the other was a five part original series by Anthony Horowitz called Injustice.

I rarely watch contemporary TV, preferring to be highly selective and wait a few years after a programme has aired to give it a chance to mature into something that many people think is good (eg The Wire), or see it consigned to oblivion so I don’t need to bother watching it. These two recent series, and another one I watched a few weeks ago called Exile, all had several features in common which makes me wonder whether all TV series have to obey a set of laws?

  • Even when someone has written a script, certain scenes are repeated several times (especially if they concern a scantily clad woman and/or someone being killed, ideally both). We see endless shots of Jackson Brodie running; Brodie as a boy running through woods calling his sister; woman being shot in head against wall; Injustice lawyer staring at same images of cctv footage; woman in black underwear on bed; man shooting other man at least 3 times per episode; Dad beating up son (Exile) and so on – over, over and over again. Does someone think viewers are automatically stupid? In the case of Case Histories this was particularly annoying as far too many storylines were being crammed into a kind of superficial roundabout inbetween the repeated rehashes.
  • Perfect production values. Houses interior and exterior are perfect, as if in an upmarket magazine: Jackson Brodie; his client whose daughter has been killed; Mr Perfect Ipswich lawyer and wife; even the slightly more downmarket properties in Exile looked more like design museums than places in which real people exist: the impoverished animal activist in Injustice lived in a shack, true, but with stylish posters on his walls and in the middle of a very tastefully photographed field. Costumes, similarly, are beautified and over-perfect: even when people wear jeans, they are careful jeans.
  • Use of music to signify plot elements, or even not to signify anything but to obscure the dialogue. Case Histories in particular had lots of noisy music that seemed to jar with the plot and atmosphere.
  • Excellent acting, over and above the call of duty for these choppy, unevenly directed dramas. The actors are so much better than their material! This effect is exacerbated in cases where some talented, famous person is wheeled out for one scene, eg Imogen Stubbs in Injustice and Timothy West, reduced to a spluttering, dialogue-less blimp in his one main scene in Exile. The acting, like the production values, overwhelms the mediocrity of the plotting.
  • Boredom at the end. Throughout these series there are threads and story elements that seem to be building up to something – but by the final episode most of these are jettisoned mid-air in favour of some cod-action finale as if everyone concerned has just run out of steam or interest.

    Well, that’s about it for my rant. These three series were all “OK” but Case Histories should have either been longer or dropped at least one of the “histories” because what one ended up with was a confused mish-mash, if you hadn’t read the book, or an unsatisfactorily superficial precis of some really rather moving stories if you had. Injustice and Exile were both far too drawn-out for their slender material (Exile was almost entirely dependent for its impact on good acting) – they should have been half the length, each.
    All of these series could have been a lot more: Exile had a powerful theme about a man with Alzheimer’s disease and his relationship with his two adult children, all three played by superb actors. But it degenerated into a risibly and lazily “plotted” thriller. Injustice picked at some interesting themes about the prison system and the book publishing industry (with one or two nice little allusions for readers), and had some inventively repellant characters (including one who would easily win Worst Mother of the Year award) – but ended up with a plot twist that was so clunky and predictable as to be embarrassing, and a “punchline” that was not so much signalled but endlessly shown to the viewer beforehand to be sure there was absolutely no suspense whatsoever. Case Histories went for a mish-mash of styles and clichés over the individuality and substance provided in the source material that could have been imaginatively reworked into something a bit different for the visual medium.

    Oh well, I don’t suppose I shall be watching more contemporary TV for a while, but will stick to old series that have stood the test of a few or more years; or films that have similarly been well-received. Most of the time, of course, I shall be reading a book instead.

    [Images are, from the top, from Case Histories, Injustice and Exile]

    More about Exile, Case Histories and Injustice, including video trailers and excerpts, episode summaries and so on.

  • Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez, books by Ann Cleeves

    The Vera Stanhope novels by Ann Cleeves are currently being shown as four episodes on ITV in the UK (the photo shows the actress Brenda Blethyn (right), who plays Vera, with the author), and doubtless elsewhere in the world subsequently. As I have reviewed all four books, I thought I’d write one post to aggregate these links, for the interest of those who know Vera only as a TV character but who might want to get to know her better.

    The Crow Trap (# 1)

    Telling Tales (# 2) (Episode 2 of the TV series)

    Hidden Depths (# 3) (Episode 1 of the TV series, reviewed at It’s a Crime!)

    Silent Voices (# 4)

    Ann Cleeves has written many other novels, of course, among them a series called The Shetland Quartet. These are excellent crime novels, which I highly recommend for their sense of location, atmosphere, and strong characters. Each is set on a different island and tells a distinct story, but the novels are linked by police detective Jimmy Perez, his colleagues and the woman he comes to love. I have reviewed these books for Euro Crime.

    Raven Black (# 1)

    White Nights (# 2)

    Red Bones (# 3)

    Blue Lightning (# 4)

    There are rumours both of a fifth novel in this series (if so it will have to change its composite “quartet” title!), and that these books might also find their way onto the TV screen. Read more about the author, her books and lots more at Ann Cleeves’s very good website. She has also recently started Tweeting as @AnnCleeves .

    Smiley’s People by John Le Carre

    Having enjoyed watching the BBC adaptations of John Le Carre’s books Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People on DVD over the Christmas break, I thought I’d go back and re-read the novel Smiley’s People, first published in 1979. I chose this novel because against my expectations I enjoyed the TV series more than I did Tinker Tailor (it was the other way round when I first read the books, probably around the time of original publication). Le Carre, with John Hopkins, wrote the script of the BBC Smiley’s People, which perhaps partly accounts for its superiority, but also I think the plot is better. Tinker Tailor focuses on which of four people running “The Circus” (the British Secret Service) is a Soviet mole, and though the story is compelling as well as brilliantly acted, it is somewhat simplistic in outline. (The novel is better, being more layered.) Smiley’s People is constructed more as a classic detective novel, in which we do not know the central mystery until near the end (unless we guess it before the author reveals it) – but pretty soon we can see that it is both nested and, at its core, obscure.

    As the book opens, George Smiley is again retired, having reconstructed The Circus in the wake of the mole’s identification in Tinker Tailor, but having been elbowed out by the odious Saul Enderby while away in the Far East (a tale told the The Honourable Schoolboy, the middle novel in the trilogy – and a real favourite of mine). Smiley is called to a safe house by the home office security minister Oliver Lacon, where it emerges that an ex-Russian general in exile, “Vladimir”, has been shot on Hampstead Heath while attempting to meet a representative from The Circus to show him some vital information – information which is greeted with derision or total lack of interest when Vladimir makes initial contact to try to pass over the crucial evidence. Vladimir had been part of Smiley’s circle of informants, but in a round of cost-cutting, Lacon and Enderby had “let go” the old networks, so Vladmir’s adherence to the old procedures is considered mystifying or quaintly ridiculous. But when he is murdered, Lacon becomes desperate that news of Vladimir’s death is not associated with secret-service (botched) activity, and that no blame attaches to his department. He therefore assigns Smiley to “clean up” to ensure nobody who might know anything talks to the press or anyone else.

    Smiley is quietly furious about the treatment meted out to his old network, and sets out to find out what Vladimir had discovered that was so urgent. The rest of the book is told from Smiley’s perspective as he slowly and minutely follows up every train of thought and every possible shred of evidence, interviewing a range of tenuous and close associates of Vladimir and his circle in several European countries, ranging from an old Russian warehouse worker in Paris, to a long-distance lorry driver based in the East End of London, to a German night-club owner, and more. Gradually he uncovers more and more of a picture, bringing in the sparkling Toby Esterhase, now a shady art dealer, to help him in the end game, in a delightful sequence of cat and mouse as the old rejected guard, relishing its unexpected new relevance, closes in on the conspirators, orchestrated by Smiley.

    Apart from the tight plot, there are two other aspects of the novel that I liked a lot. Both concern Smiley, who is the heart of the book. First, Smiley is nearing the end of his days, and his thoughts (to which the reader is privy) are coloured by his gradual detachment from matters that did concern him intensely in his youth – his hopeless love for his flagrantly unfaithful wife Ann, his irritation with the petty ignorance and arrogance of the current Circus staff, and his reflections on what has been important to him as he looks back on his life – his love of German literature as a young man, and his research at the St James’s library for example. Second, is Smiley’s relationship with his nemesis “Karla”, which began as a straight war of wits, but by the final showdown at the end of this novel, Smiley is almost uninterested. As the novel closes, there is a final twist to the symbol of the cigarette lighter, and we witness in the background (through the filter of Smiley) the reactions of the Circus staff to events, but Smiley remains detached. The reader can decide for him/herself where Smiley has arrived on his life’s journey – does his reaction indicate his own disgust at his ruthless pursuit which has rendered him not much different from his enemy, as some have suggested, or does it indicate a more general detachment from the emotions and passions of life that concern younger people, that comes to everyone as they reach old age?

    Smiley’s People was written and set 40 years ago, in very different times – 10 years before the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union was a cruel enigma to the West, and before many of today’s technological marvels that we take for granted. Yet it is utterly contemporary in its analysis of national paranoia in the face of identified enemy countries; the plight of immigrants who flee from repressive regimes and try to settle in more palatable countries; our lack of ability to deal with injustice and cruelty in the world – when we find out about it.

    I read the first US mass market paperback edition of this novel (Bantam/Random House – UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton), purchased at the time, now yellowing with age and with multi-cracked spine. The flyleaf proclaims that “not a word has been removed” from the hardback edition, but even so some words have evidently been altered – for example when Lacon’s daughters play Monopoly, they argue about the rent payable on “Park Place”. Never mind, it’s an excellent book! The novel is still in print and can be obtained cheaply in online bookstores.

    Smiley’s People entry on Wikipedia, based on an essay by Neal Stephenson in The New Republic.

    The BBC version of Smiley’s People at the IMDB. The 6-episode DVD can be bought very cheaply, for example it is £4.99 on UK Amazon.

    The Silence: BBC TV drama

    Extraordinary news – I've watched a TV programme over the past two or three evenings, due to an unusual combination of no football, no Prof Petrona, daughters busy doing other things, and not being impressed enough by current reading for it to keep me awake for a whole evening.

    So, based on some good reviews in the paper during the week and with some technical assistance with the iPlayer (a new experience on me), I watched the BBC's four-part series The Silence, and rather enjoyed it – the first two episodes anyway, before it slipped into predictability. The plot is that the 18-year-
    The silenceold, deaf  Amelia witnesses a murder while walking her uncle's dog in the park. The uncle is a senior detective in the Bristol police, Jim Edwards. Amelia is staying with Jim and his family while she undergoes therapy for her recent cochlear implant. Before she witnesses the murder, she sees the victim, a policewoman, having sex with a boxer at a local gym. She is so terrified by her experience that she does not tell anyone. Jim is a workaholic and brings CCTV tapes home of another investigation he's working on. Because Ameila is deaf she's jolly good at lip reading, so looking over Jim's shoulder while he's watching the tapes, she speaks out loud what the people are mouthing. This makes Jim realise that the case is linked to the murder in the park. His dilemma is that he suspects police corruption, so does not want to reveal to his colleagues that his niece is a witness as this would put her in danger, or that she has seen the tapes as this would compromise that investigation as well.

    The positive aspects of this series are overwhelmingly the acting of Douglas Henshall, who plays Jim, and Genevieve Barr, the deaf woman who plays Amelia. Amelia's psychological relationship with her condition, together with her fraught relationship with her mother, are excellently portrayed, as is the whole "teenage condition". 

    The downsides are the usual "beautifully designed TV lifestyles" of everyone and the cliched character of Jim's wife, overplayed by Dervla Kirwan in a way that reminded me of a marshmallow; the number of coincidences which if you stop to think about it is very silly; the length – two episodes would have been far better than four; the police complaints woman who looks like all those other suited, lipsticked-to-death TV detectives who surely bear zero relationship to reality; and the ending which threw in as many new (and blindingly obvious) ideas as it could in the last 15 minutes and then didn't do anything with any of them. (Oh, and while I am about it, the baddies were exceptionally stupid in the end, having been marginally cleverer than the impulsive and short-tempered Jim for the previous 3.75 episodes, but pretty comprehensively bettered by the cooler, more thoughtful Amelia.) 

    Well, that seems like quite a lot of downsides. Even so, I did enjoy it: perhaps because the first two episodes were far superior to the last two, I was sufficiently mellow to forgive all the latters' laziness and cliche. In sum, a reasonable enough way to pass the time if you don't have anything better to do, but my TV-watching experiment has not convinced me that I'm missing anything much by not doing it and reading books instead.

    The Silence at the BBC website, with various links including to the iPlayer version, good for a few more days on the TV and for about 3 weeks on your computer, I believe, if you are in the UK.

    About The Silence at Douglas Henshall's website, including lists of cast, crew, episode guides, etc.

    Reviews of The Silence at The Guardian blog (positive, mainly about deafness), HeraldScotland (negative), The Telegraph (mixed), The Arts Desk (mainly positive).

    Spiral is back for a third series later this year

    Ever since the online version of The Times has been converted to paid-for, the print edition keeps featuring interesting articles to which I'd quite like to link. The new subscription-only website does not let you even create a link to an article without registering, which I am not going to spend time doing just to find out whether or not linking is even possible (some publications allow you to read an abstract free, others don't even do that).

    So, I write here about an article on page 47 of the print edition on Wednesday (14 July) all about Engrenages (Spiral, though a literal translation is "Gears"), the French TV series which is jolly good 
    Spiral  indeed. Seasons 1 and 2 are out on DVD in subtitled versions, and series 3 will be broadcast in the UK "later this year". I was first alerted to the existence of this series by Euro Crime, and have never looked back since. I do, however, recommend either watching these filmic series on DVD or recording the episodes and watching them more frequently than once a week, to keep up with the convoluted plots.

    The Times feature is by Sarah Hay, and describes her experience watching part of the new series being filmed. She calls it "France's answer to The Wire" for its "complexity of its characters, realistic depiction of Parisian life and biting portrayal of the French judicial system". If the depiction of Parisian life is truly "realistic" then the city would never attract any tourists – this is the Paris of Dominique Manotti, not the Paris of Gene Kelly or Coco Chanel. I should also add in all fairness that the three main characters: the policewoman, her main antagonist and the prosecutor, are all extremely good-looking. 

    From The Times piece: "In Engrenages, viewers follow Captain Berthaud, a workaholic cop played by Caroline Proust, as she tumbles between the gritty underlay of Parisian life and the Kafka-eque corridors of justice, where ambition and intrigue thrive. Standing between Berthaud's team and resolving their cases are Pierre Clement, the handsome, idealistic deputy prosecutor; Judge Francois Roban, whose doddery 
    Spiral2appearance hides a sharp instinct for unveiling conspiracy; and the deliciously unscrupulous lawyer Karlsson. In series three the web of storylines tightens until a nail-biting denouement, hinting at corruption that reaches to the very top." (Sounds just like series 1 and series 2, then.)

    Among other revelations in the article, we learn that red-headed Audrey Fleurot, who plays the unsavoury Karlsson, has a role in Woody Allen's next movie (currently shooting in Paris), and that a real-life lawyer recently gave a press statement on behalf of rogue trader Jerome Kerviel, using the phrase "C'etait un engrenage") – a title which Kerviel used for his book. 

    Like The Wire, the criminal plot lines are created by an experienced police superintendent, who says that all the situations in the TV series are based on real cases. Viewers who can't speak French and rely on the subtitles are often in the same boat as native French speakers, because the dialogue is full of argot and police insider-slang. The pace, the secondary characters, everybody is guilty and everyone is losing the plot, the sidekicks and, of course, the main characters – these, according to The Times, are the factors that make this series such a delight and why I am so much looking forward to series 3. (And the good-looking actors, of course!)

    Official series website.

    Engrenages at Facebook

    Euro Crime posts about Engrenages.

    Detectives in novels and on screen

    I am sure many other people will have read the article in today's (13 October) Times, in which P. D. James and Ruth Rendell (who also writes under the name of Barbara Vine) discuss their lack of regard for the TV adaptations of their novels. They weren't too keen on their respective leading detectives – Baroness James says that Dalgliesh does not have a moustache (you never see a senior detective with one, according to her), and Barnoness Rendell that Wexford was ugly (she thinks George Baker too handsome). I did see a few of these adaptations years ago, and I suppose I must agree. I invariably prefer books to TV or film adaptations, so have just learnt to see them as completely different entities.

    If I were an author of a series, I'd find it hard to continue once actors were firmly established as my characters. As a reader, it is bad enough – can one read a Henning Mankell now without visualising Ken Branagh as Wallander? Whatever one may think of Ken Branagh in that part, he is not the books' Wallander. Everyone liked John Thaw as Morse – I was already a fan of Colin Dexter's books long before the TV series was dreamed up – but even though I did not see all that many of them, it is impossible to detach Morse from John Thaw in my mind.

    The best part of the Times article, for me, is this: "Baroness James said that she had given up trying to make sense of changes made to her stories when they were adapted for television. “I don’t read a script of adaptations because I know I’m not going to like it. They do things sometimes that are nonsensical.”
    Dame Ruth said that her stories were always augmented with irrelevant action sequences. “They put a car chase in all of mine. There’s no reason for a car chase but everyone likes one. In the end you don’t care.” "

    Absolutely. Fewer car chases and more plot, please (ideally, a plot that actually makes sense). I doubt this will ever happen. But it is why I tend not to watch detective programmes (or anything else) on TV -  because it is always obvious what is going to happen after the first few minutes. One exception to this rule was Cracker, which started out being about a truly unpleasant person (Cracker, played by Robbie Coltraine) and some gritty police procedural, headed up by Christopher Ecclestone. He (Ecclestone) soon jumped ship, and before you knew it, Cracker had morphed into a "loveable old rogue" and I switched off. David Jason as Frost was (is?) similar: the character on TV had very little connection with the scurrilous, politically incorrect man in the books – superficially wisecracking with very off-colour humour, bursting with obsessive energy, but a very sad, lonely person at some level. Again, I switched off after a few episodes. Not because I'm a purist about differences between page and screen, but because the screen versions were boring in their predictability and sameness to each other (both within and across series).

    Last words to the Baronesses: "Dame Ruth, who has written 21 Wexford books, said that she had no creative control over television adaptations but that they were not important to her. “I think that people expect us to be far more concerned with our television productions than we are. You can say that television makes you famous and sells your books but you don’t care very much about it.” "

    TV series, armed birds, unpresents, writing and not blogging

    A few items from the web that caught my eye, in case you missed them.

    A hit in the US, the psychotherapy drama has quality acting from Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Wiest and a great script. So why are UK networks afraid to commit to the couch? Clare Birchall examines the reasons why The Treatment won't be appearing in UK TV screens on The Guardian TV and Radio blog. Pity, as it sounds a good show. Maybe it will eventually be available on DVD. There's a comment to the post that made me laugh, by someone who could try reading a book or getting out more: "As usual, UK networks underestimate the audience's desire for intelligent, quality drama. We watch stuff like Holby City or Casualty because that's mostly what's on in the evening, but it doesn't mean we love it."

    If you like Improbable Research, you'll know what to expect if you check out these armed bird photos (not babes with guns). I'm nost sure if this is more silliness or welcome sanity: Scott Adams's negative Christmas (or birthday): "rather than giving gifts, you can force a family member or friend to discard one item that he or she already owns. The selected item might be a hideous shirt that you consider an abomination, or that pair of bedroom slippers that are an insult to all footwear. The idea is that the unrecipient should be better off without the item you ungift."

    As is well-known, more than 90 per cent of blogs last for less than three months, many of them only ever featuring one post – a bit like the diaries I started on 1 January when a child. The New York Times recently ran a feature on this statistic, which I idly read thinking it might contain some new insight on this old (internet timescale) chestnut. It didn't – people stop blogging because nobody reads their blogs, because they don't make any money at it, because their readers get too intrusive, because they get no comments, or for other predictable reasons. You might like to read one or two of the case-histories, though, which are mildly amusing, particularly the poor mystery author who was surprised to discover that nobody read her rants against the Bush administration.

    Finally, a couple of useful posts for writers. Random Jottings reviews A Seriously Useful Author's Guide to Marketing and Publicising books by Mary Cavanaugh, which sounds pretty good, in particular this excerpt provided by Elaine (the reviewer): "A bookblogger is an independent person who takes it upon themselves, for no financial reward whatsoever, to post online articles about books they have currently read, mostly on a daily basis……their reading output is amazing…..as well as being devoted and fanatical readers, they also review books. The biggest breaks of my literary career were made by Book Bloggers and without them I would have got very meagre coverage in any sphere". Hear hear! And Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works provides a very useful round-up of writers' forums, with a great set of comments providing feedback about these sites. Best comment (selected by Jane): "the major benefit in using writers' workshops is in the critiques you write on other people's work, not in the ones you receive.".


    Thoughts on The Jewel in the Crown

    Jewel Watching the magnificent The Jewel in the Crown, based on the (even better) Raj Quartet by Paul Scott brings back many thoughts and memories of the year of first transmission (1984), a significant year for me. Putting that to one side, two of the many things that strike me watching the series again now:

    Although only half-way through the series, the style of the dramatisation is one that seems unimaginable nowadays. Each episode mainly consists of two-handers between characters – sometimes main, sometimes minor. These scenes are long interactions, sometimes unbearably tense (I literally could not watch the prison scene between Merrick – who was the most hated man in Britain the day after the first transmission – and Kumar) and sometimes apparently banal – but it is through these scenes that the allegories and drama are perceived. This structure is repeated in episode after episode, providing a stylised framework for the exciting events that occur during a world war and a country in the throes of cultural and revolutionary change.

    And second, I am amazed at the roles for women "of a certain age"! Not only do we have the young Daphne Manners and the sisters Susan and Sarah Layton, but we have a range of middle-aged and elderly women – Barbara Batchelor (Peggy Ashcroft), Mabel Layton, Lady Ethel Manners (Rachel Kempson), Mildred Layton (Judy Parfitt) and other less central ladies – who are allowed simply to "be" themselves, at relative length. How often these days does one see ladies who will not see 30 again (by a long way) as significant characters in a mainstream drama series? (I exclude series with titles along the lines of "a drama series about oldish ladies".) Because I rarely watch TV, I don't know the answer, but I can guess it. It is truly wonderful to watch these actresses convey so subtly and convincingly and unhurriedly, their characters' experiences of life, emotion and wisdom.