Red Joan (2018) Film Review

Red Joan is a 2018 British spy drama film, directed by Trevor Nunn, from a screenplay by Lindsay Shapero. The film stars Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Nina Sosanya, Tereza Srbova and Judi Dench.

Red Joan is based on a novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney, inspired by the life of Melita Norwood. Norwood worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association as a secretary and supplied the Soviet Union with nuclear secrets. The materials that Norwood betrayed to the USSR hastened the pace at which the Soviets developed nuclear bomb technology.

Cookson performs the young version of Joan Stanley studying physics at Cambridge. She became involved with Communists and radical politics through her friend Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes), a German Jew. Her story, which reaches as far back as 1938, is recalled in flashbacks as Joan in old age, performed by Dench, is questioned by the Special Branch. The questioning reveals that Joan was not actively supporting communism, but was more concerned about “levelling the playing field” to maintain peace in the postwar world.

Most of the film takes place during the Second World War in the offices and research facilities of the atomic researchers. There are scenes in cafes and private rooms alongside a few different interiors but ultimately it plays out like a chamber drama dealing with Joan‘s affair with Max, Leo‘s temptation, chatting with Sonya and only really picks up the pace once Joan is aware of what happened at Hiroshima which leads her to begin committing espionage. This occurs in the third act more or less meaning most of the film is bland melodrama and reiterating how sexist the era was time and time again to labour the point.

These sections are framed by current day events where Joan is taken by Special Branch on behalf of MI5 for questioning. She is put under house arrest with an ankle bracelet and eventually ends up making a press statement, in her front garden. She declares she isn’t a traitor but wanted everyone on equal footing. She wanted everyone to share the same knowledge as it was the only way to avert the horror of another world war. She concludes that she believes if they look back in history they’ll see she was right. A female journalist shouts she should be ashamed to which Nick declares she has no reason to be ashamed and that he would be acting as her legal representative.

The film was inspired by the story of Melita Norwood who, in her 80s, was unmasked as a KGB spy. She was accused of providing British atom bomb research to the Soviet Union in the mid 1940s. She admitted her guilt at a press conference held in her suburban garden. Sue to her age the British Government decided not to prosecute. Known as the ‘Granny Spy’ she died at the age of 93.

The film closes with this text on screen.

Character Based Review

Immediately you see, with even a little knowledge of the real life story it’s based on, how they’ve ‘upgraded’ the central character from a secretarial role into a more proactive scientific contributor when we are informed early on she was selected for her intellect (though her beauty is also noted). As a first class Cambridge science graduate she gets recruited (later insinuated to be via Leo‘s influence) into the secretive research towards atomic energy by the British Government even offhandedly mentioning something the male scientists overlooked thus earning the respect, and adoration, of Max the research lead. She has to keep this all relatively secret but due to connections from her student days, when she spent time with Communist sympathisers, she begins to be influenced into leaking information.

To be honest this in reality might, in the best case scenario, have barred her from even being considered for selection to work on such sensitive information from the very start so there are a lot of conveniences for this heightened fictionalised account to even take place already. More than likely she would be detained indefinitely (however in the film she blackmails a college friend, William, for some tickets to Australia to wait until the heat is off it seems to be implied before returning to Britain in her old age). In the worse case scenario she wouldn’t even be given a trial of any sort and be killed on sight once she commits her betrayal.

She says she doesn’t want the research used as a weapon and remains faithful to her country (yet induced unfaithfulness in the professor who has fallen in love with her and who she sleeps with until later he declares he is getting a divorce to be with her). This goes as far as working with Canadian/American scientists at one point until Hiroshima occurs. This is not so much a shock as an inevitability considering what the research, even on, is being discusses as capable of. She never had the option to stop this and yet then takes questionable actions by arming a foreign power – and it would be hard to argue her leaking of the self same research that enabled the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the latter not acknowledged bizarrely) by arming a foreign nation to induce a nuclear stand off.

There is a lot of talk of ‘you don’t understand how it was back then‘ in scenes with her son and yet we, an audience generations removed and knowing the consequences of such spy work, know of the Cold War paranoia induced by the arms race which is arguably still evident today with Trident and other deterrents. The film asks us not to judge her by that same argumentative logic with which she tries to silence her son – namely that, as much as he couldn’t understand war time mentalities, she couldn’t be assured that the research she leaked would lead to a stalemate, as she hoped, and not immediate utilisation of nuclear arms on non-Soviet territories.

In fact we don’t know how the war affected her personally besides what she tells her son. We only ever see or hear of her experiences in university and the research facilities. Even her time in Australia is at best paid lip service. Did she have relatives who went to fight in World War II? Relatives who were caught in the bombings? It’s as if she was an orphan with no connection to others besides her university friends. I only realised that afterwards and it strikes me as bizarre. Is the film, amongst it’s myriad of options to be interpreted, also suggesting everything we saw was a streamlined fabrication in the manner of Keyser Söze in ‘The Usual Suspects’? Honestly I’m over-reading into this film because it is so unfocused if you look at it on anything but the surface level.

Anti-war sentiments, though occurring before and after the second world war, felt like a very modern in their sensibility and portrayal here. The film tries, unsuccessfully, to stress in it’s ending that her actions were vindicated by history yet it ignores the Cold War era apparently. Often in the framing device, set in modern times, she reiterates her view that, regarding Stalin, they didn’t know about his actions at the time and stresses the relativism of other such values. The film wants her both to be seen as a victim of sexism in the era and yet striking out at that self same society in an act of morally questionable autonomy. She didn’t want atomic research to be used as a weapon so, having seen it’s utilisation as such, she opts to provide research to the Soviet Union which clearly must be understood by her as potentially arming them with weapons too.

Ultimately she was naïve and so for all the film reiterating her intelligence she proved to have little autonomy in her life. What little actions that were her own proved to enforce the archaic attitudes of the men that she was not to be trusted with ‘serious business’. It’s oddly sexist without irony how they portray her. It doesn’t truly comment on the era’s sexism so much as pay lip service to it then double down on it’s own belittling of her.

The bombing of Hiroshima single-handedly acts as the tipping point when she begins to leak information to Soviet spies. Initially via Leo, who often appears professing his love for her, and Sonya who has a child and acts as a friend of sorts.

The film tries to balance you sympathising with her struggling for respect in a man’s world, for example when a Canadian scientist keeps on about how she is going to be impressed by a tumble dryer they have, but also shows the slow progression of her sympathies towards aiding foreign powers. Therefore willingly choosing to be blind to the greater picture of world events playing out in the background (which are barely acknowledged in the film to the point you see no sign of home front efforts towards the cause even) thus endorsing those sexist values that she can’t be trusted.

There is a foreign scientist working with the Canadian scientists who is later revealed as a spy and she emulates this exact behaviour but the film seems to believe you will sympathise on no greater basis than that she is British and a woman, who we see old and frail in the framing device, when being coldly interviewed by MI5 representatives. Kierl, the scientist spy, and all foreigners are on some level to be dismissed, as they do him initially, or mildly suspicious. It’s a film very rooted in an archaic attitude and it doesn’t seem all that intentional as much as part and parcel or British dramas of a certain type for some reason when concerning middle class academics and such.

The film seems unable to settle on a single perspective of how to portray her. Is she sympathetic as a woman seeking validation for her scientific abilities in a patriarchal society? Is she a fool manipulated by others? Is she a traitor – both as a British citizen during war times but also in her personal life where she hid her actions from her family? Yet when we see her interact with other women she is often looking down on them in some way herself echoing the attitudes of the men she worked with.

Despicable for betraying her country? But, besides some dramatic shouting and frustration by her son, we don’t know how her leaks truly had consequences besides Leo‘s death and Sonya running away. Are we expected to sympathise with her when she finds Leo‘s corpse though she rejected him repeatedly and knew the consequences of what she was doing? To sympathise with her loss of her friend when she uses her discovery in Sonya‘s wardrobe to blackmail William? What of her being told the Russian research had somewhat of an unexpected boost? For which it is the professor, Max, not she who is imprisoned – and to which the film asks we sympathise with her anguish seeing him imprisoned apparently. There seems no true consequence to herself until her son refuses to represent her legally – something he later doubles back on for a somewhat forced positive ending. We even see her put the curare pin to her arm but then she is fine later. It’s as if she goes through the motions of regret but without the follow-through nor consequences of it.

Is she a martyr regarding her anti-war sentiments towards the use of nuclear weapons which would shared by later generations? Arguably yes and yet of course, because of such a ‘levelling the playing field‘ attitude to research, this all led directly into the ‘atomic age’ Cold War stand off between nations and all that involves which remains to this day with national defence budgets. The sort which often dwarfs all other spending in government budgets based on the paranoia that someone else might push the button. The sort for which retaliation would be initiated and thus mutually assured destruction the outcome wiping entire continents if not all mankind off the face of the Earth.

So instead of an open war there was, as a consequence of her actions, the suspicion of neighbours, the Red Scare of America and a long list of liberties people across the world lost. Perhaps, on some level, that was the film’s message that despite her best intentions nothing really changed. Everything is eventual and she merely sped up the Soviet Union’s nuclear research. But that would be a very favourable interpretation of her actions to the point of blindly deeming her moral on the basis of the simple logic that a protagonist is intrinsically moral. That’s the sort of naïve logic seen in propaganda.

You could, on some level, argue that due to the nuclear research race she was, by a long sting of sequential events, also partially responsible for Chenobyl. Okay that’s, of course, a stretch but it hopefully indicates how naïve her attitude was in assuming all people think like she does as if governments, let alone individuals, don’t have differing ideologies and priorities just as certain choices led to the meltdown of the reactor and there still being an exclusion zone around the site to this day. The film wants us to act like there were no negative consequences to her actions and MI5 and Special Branch are just angry she leaked information not that her actions led to empowering a foreign power which had ill intentions towards our allies if not also ourselves.

She holds true to the view expressed by Marcus Tullius Cicero that “an unjust peace is better than a just war.” The film enforces this by ignoring later events prior to the interview with Special Branch, save for her discussion with her son of having lived in Australia, as if the height of the Cold War never occurred and thus painting her as somewhat a tragic heroine undeservedly to those who may be unfamiliar with the terrors of the era where people suspected their neighbours of being spies, lists were written (most famously Orwell’s) blacklisting people so they would never be allowed positions of influence or access to sensitive information and so on. All we are presented with is her good intentions and not the consequences of them.

Often, despite the film’s best effort she is a somewhat wretched figure who shows no true autonomy unless it relies on the stereotypically portrayed wiles of women such as hiding secret in a box of women’s sanitary towels knowing a young male inspector will blush out of embarrassment and let her go with it? For the most part she shifts between Leo, the professor Max she is having an affair with (who is later her husband admittedly) and the later Sir William who she blackmails for being a homosexual with photographic evidence so she can escape to Australia from her predicament in Britain at the time.

Ultimately it can be safely said this script could have been written anytime after Hiroshima as a propaganda piece and, depending on what the governing bodies wanted the message to be, to either show her as a traitor, the western perspective, or as a noble spirited comrade thinking of the world as a whole which would be the the Soviet version. Albeit, of course in the Soviet/International Communist version, glossing over the true intentions and values of the Soviet governments of those nations at the time through the rhetoric of ‘worldwide comradeship’ as is seen in much of their propaganda and in the film repeatedly echoed by Leo calling her his ‘little comrade’). People suffered for what she did and she sees only her own sense of right in the matter. Any consequences between the end of the war and her being interviewed by MI5 are never mentioned so we, I presume, can apply real world events. Certainly the film never addresses that aspect even casually.

She is initially faithful to Britain but after Hiroshima’s tragedy she began to leak information to Russian spies. In a truly fictional drama (even let us say and alternative history one where it’s all but our world with a few key differences e.g. The Man In The High Castle), where we don’t know the later events in the world of the film, this can be framed as a noble action – a truly humanitarian action even – but we live in the world where these things played out in reality time and time again due to international espionage so there were consequences unlike in the film. Espionage was very much at the forefront of popular culture (e.g. the novels of John le Carré, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, The Ipcress File, The Avengers, The Saint, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And many, many, more – some grounded, some fantastical but all concerning espionage). People died for less important information than the atomic research she gave and the film cannot, despite it’s best efforts and even having an actor of Judi Dench’s ability, make us ignore this fact.

At one turn the film presents her as intelligent but at another profoundly self involved, contrary and irrational in her decisions. She was ultimately what is termed a useful idiot for the purpose of Soviet scientific, and therefore military, knowledge.

The film tries to pose her as often striving against patriarchal norms but she folds to it repeatedly despite a few momentary gestures of refusing to abide by it. She has values but seems to only act out of spite by leaking the information with no idea of the real consequences of her action. She closes with the statement she was ‘levelling the playing field‘ but that isn’t even naivety but outright, wilful, blind stupidity with no forethought of what such information enables foreign powers to do. To put it bluntly this film ultimately endorses her encapsulating the misogynistic values of men of that era. It’s shocking but watching it it’s undeniable this film holds the values of the early twentieth century not of a contemporary production. The script isn’t sure if it wants you to sympathise, destain her or to have conflicted feelings towards her and so falls back on propaganda like simplification but without the through-line of following through with the sentiment it has woven that she is truly at fault and not someone to even have pity for despite it’s desperate efforts to attempt such a tone by the end.

Both Sophie Cookson, as the young Joan, and Judi Dench, as the older Joan, do their best but the role seems so convoluted scene from scene it’s hard to really gauge how it should have been performed.

Dench arguably has the easier part as her part plays out over a few days rather than years but it then places so much weight on her to carry the production to set the context of how we view the rest of it. Do we view the rest of the film as Joan‘s biased (and somewhat falsified) account of events? Was she truly naïve? Too many questions are left for Dench to imply answers to in her performance without the aid of a better script and editing.

To further my view this film is propaganda in structure we only need see how flat the other characters are written.

Leo, for the most part portrayed as a male femme fatale clearly linked to Communists going as far as to lovingly call Joan his ‘little comrade’ seductively. The only real development he gets with when giving her a locket with a curare poisoned pin once she begins to commit espionage. Later he is is found hung in his apartment. It’s suggested it was the Russians who killed him but it could have just as easily been British Intelligence. The latter is never even humoured in passing as a possibility though it would be more logical as only the one source of information has been compromised. We find out afterwards he truly did love Joan and had a son though it’s implied he also had a similar relationship with Sonya as Joan finds a similar locket at the abandoned home of Sonya later on. Tom Hughes does his best with the one note role but ultimately it feels like a retread of his performance as Prince Albert in ITV’s Victoria.

Max, the professor of the British effort into atomic research and later Joan‘s lover seems incredibly generic in his role in the piece. She has an affair with him, later marries him (after he decides to divorce his current wife who is never seen on screen – divorce itself being somewhat scandalous in the era) and bears him their son Nick who is a grown man in the later set parts of the film. He is apparently dead by the later part of the film though it’s never explained how though presumably it was of natural causes.

The film in it’s fractured efforts wants us to both enjoy their budding relationship yet also potentially judge it possibly. He with his clumsy confession that he chose her for her mind but she has a nice face too (later confessing to her, post-coitus, it’s at that moment when he fell in love with her), and her for not rejecting him knowing he was an already married man. In fact the adultery side of it, which was a legally permissible grounds for divorce (damaging to Max as the adulterer), is severely downplayed though it would have been the reputational ruin of both at the time. (which in part might have played a role in escaping to Australia too in hindsight).

Again her later declaration ‘you wouldn’t understand how things were back then‘ comes to bite this fictionalised narrative in the rear. Adultery would be highly immoral in the era (and not exactly something we think well of even now without extenuating circumstances).

We never learn anything about Max‘s previous wife except she was a barrier to him getting together with Joan. Yet at that point in the film they want you to like Joan, going about it almost forcefully, as the next scene is her being spoken down to by a Canadian scientist saying she would be more interested in a tumble drier they have. It almost begs us to side with Joan, having shown her sympathetically, yet due to how it’s depicted it falls on deaf ears for being so on the nose.

Do they want you to look past the surface and already begin to disassociate with her or do they want to lull you into considering this act of adultery as okay (which was deemed so immoral, to the still quite archaic legal system at the time, you could cite it as good cause for an immediate divorce and the adulterers would be a social pariahs at the time let us not forget). Why? Because they end up together in the future? The repeated phrase of Joan‘s about not understanding the time period again comes into question. Divorce was something people were judged for too though that would be a case of deeming them of ‘poor moral character for not being able to maintain a stable relationship/ as a source of gossip for others/unable to control or satisfy their partner’ rather than the far more scandalous faux pas of adultery where they would have been deemed ‘wantonly immoral in their lifestyle and a risk to be associated with if you needed to be considered of good moral character’ for employment or other matters in polite society.

The film glances over those aspects as though they didn’t matter. Certainly Max‘s previous wife would have potentially been likely to spend her life unable to marry again in that era because of him. But they’re not core to the narrative so get omitted I guess though they would add to furthering an audience’s views of Joan’s morality and consideration of how her choices affect others. A missed opportunity.

As for how Max comes across… he is a generic portrayal of a stereotypical Cambridge (or Oxford) academic of the era. Have you watched other British dramas set during World War II about the intelligence services’ efforts? Then you’ve seen him many times before with a different name whether based on a real person or fictional. They are all interchangeable in how they are portrayed. There is nothing notable about him. Even the affair is played out in the staid, emotionally mute, passionless, way the English seem to enjoy such things being portrayed for that era. (Basically as shorthand consider Lady Chatterley’s Lover in how clueless the titular character seems to be of her own needs and emotions yet desperate for intimacy). I say that but they so love seeing illicit affairs portrayed in dramas which speaks something of the national character. He is just a placeholder in the narrative. Prior to the Special Branch/MI5 interview it’s implied he is dead and likely never knew the full extent of what Joan did. When her son presses her on how much he was aware of she replies bluntly yet confusingly ‘enough’.

Unfortunately it seems Stephen Campbell Moore is also doomed to repeating his performance of another role from a different production or indeed, possibly, he repeats this performance again when portraying a character in the film adaption of Downton Abbey which was made the following year. He seems typecast into a lot of these emotionally blank upper/middle class Englishman roles. He is good at it but it must be soul crushing to be so typecast even if it does pay the bills and ensure a steady flow of incoming work offers.

Sonya is a well off university friend, of foreign origins (Russian emigre in origin I think but I’ve honestly forgotten), who later has a child and meets with Joan outside of her work at the research offices. She clearly holds sympathies for the east but it’s never clear if that does as far as betraying British values. Later in the film, when Joan visits, Sonya has already hurriedly cleared her room of both her own and her child’s possessions to evade capture by the authorities. In a wardrobe Joan finds items of Leo‘s including a photo of a boy and handwritten notes with a photo of William kissing another man. At the end it’s revealed she returned to Moscow with her child by way of Switzerland where she had contact with Leo‘s son. Another woman caught in the world of espionage but apparently one who, implied off-screen, more fits with how we imagine women of the era being involved in espionage as depicting in other media i.e. somewhat of a socialite using connections and unguarded chatter to gain information.

For the most part she serves as the only other prominent female character in the narrative. The only two other women to appear are a Special Branch/MI5 interviewer in the modern sections, who is just a functionary thus has no characterisation beyond being a stoic interviewer and a secretary/tea lady in the war time parts who, unaware of her real intentions, gives Joan a box of sanitary towels where Joan hides the information she is leaking as an investigation begins in the offices where she is working.

Tereza Srbova, a Czech actress, does her best but this role is relatively one note on paper and doesn’t really give her much space to imbue it with anything short of coming across as clearly a questionable figure in her allegiances. Nonetheless she is one of the better performers and comes across as appropriately charming yet suspicious. I have no doubt she is someone worth checking out in other roles.

To briefly digress regarding the secretary/tea lady is the only person with a British regional accent in the film and how she is interacted with implies she is somewhat stupid and looked down upon by Joan. That’s an issue with these sort of British films – everyone is middle class and that carries a worrying level of class bias with it where if you are not an RP speaking English person you are somewhat looked down upon or ‘foreign’ in the sense of being incapable of understanding events from the unquestionably virtuous and intrinsically fascinating actions of the middle classes.

The most succinct way I could describe it is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza where the middle classes can’t conceive of the working classes being capable of intelligence equal to their own. Even when doing the same things (or consuming the same media) the middle classes somehow are deemed to be appreciating it on some profound level beyond the ability for working class people to contemplate let alone achieve. To the middle classes the working class are base illogical creatures there to serve a purpose not play a role and British dramas of this sort tend to endorse that by omitting them, marginalising them or playing them up as something to be looked down upon.

Refer to my reviews of J K Rowling’s Strike adaptions for a few demeaning portrayals of working class people in contrast to their betters. As for foreigners they’re all portrayed with a certain level of contempt to varying degrees in these period dramas with the Canadians being quasi-American in their depiction here, Kierl (the spy scientist) is mocked for his manner repeatedly until he is revealed to be a spy (at which point he is mockingly praised) and we have already noted Leo and Sonya who are presented as questionable figures even before they’ve said more than a few words (though in their case it’s justified within the narrative’s context). If you’re not English, middle class or better, then your a caricature in these sort of dramas very often. ‘Stiff upper lip’ and ‘no sex we’re British’ and all that…

Nick, Joan and Max’s son, who serves as her legal representation acts as the moral adjudicator speaking on behalf of the audience. In turns angry, frustrated and despairing. He denounces her and says he will not legally represent her but apparently relents by the end – albeit off screen so we never see how nor why he changes his decision except for it being his mother. Certainly it would be a very dark mark in a legal career to have a spy as a mother and nothing would soften that stain on his reputation though it is never addressed here in aid of giving a positive ending. Joan is an old woman and therefore we should forgive her apparently despite the clear implications of her actions. They even have him shout at a reporter who shouts ‘traitor’ at her before giving an impassioned speech.

I’ve seen Ben Miles in other things and he can really pull something out of nothing with roles and he proves it again here. With a few scenes you fully appreciate the position his character is in and he brings a nuance to it which just doesn’t exist in the script. If you ever have a chance to see a recording of The Lehman Trilogy he was in then it is unquestionably amazing even if you’ve no interest in the subject because it is a powerhouse performance by Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and himself.

William Mitchell is another college friend. I honestly barely recall him during the film even when referred to by his later title Sir William. In short he is there as a narrative device to explain how Joan went to Australia with Max after his imprisonment. It seems overly convenient. Also it shows that not only are the working class near non-existent in Joan’s experience of the war but the lone upper-class person she knows is beholden to his vices of homosexuality ( illegal at the time in Britain though as a member of the upper-classes it wouldn’t make him a social pariah and at risk of attack, or even at risk of murder, but just deemed ‘eccentric’). So he also is someone the middle classes, at least through Joan’s perception, are allowed to feel superior to due to giving into his vices though she herself gave into lust by committing adultery. Later William Mitchell reveals Leo had a son and Sonya went to the boy in Switzerland before heading onto Moscow. Joan wants to go to Australia and so blackmails him with the photos she found thus leading for him to arrange for Max to be released from prison so the couple can go to Australia.

He serves as little more than a forgettable narrative device and to portray middle class people in an even more profoundly self-aggrandising light as moral arbiters of societal norms despite all that has been committed by these characters without due criticism.

Freddie Gaminara has absolutely nothing to latch onto in the role and does what he can for the brief time he is present. Part of me feels perhaps the edit was unfair to him and he might have had more of a role in the initial cut of the film as he is all but absent past the college scenes barring one offhand mention when Nick and Joan are talking in the interview room and his later blackmail scene.

Everyone else I’m sad to say play such fleeting roles in the story they barely warrant mention. They do well with what they have. That’s the best I can say. Nina Sosanya as the MI5 agent does well and is a face many may recognise f you watch a lot of British dramas. There are a lot of recognisable faces in this film.

Melita Norwood reading her statement in her garden

Brief overall review of the Film:

You’ve seen British dramas set during this era of history? Here’s one more to add to the pile. Read about the real life event it was based on or go look elsewhere.

It’s all blandly filmed with a muted colour palette. The pacing is sedate until the third act when there’s the slightest suggestion of urgency when Joan has to cover herself during an inspection and a few consequences of the espionage occur. Even then it’s glacial.

This is at best a ‘Sunday evening drama’ on TV (ITV here in Britain to be exact, e.g. Poirot, if you need context). If you’ve seen those then that’s what you are getting more or less. It’s slow moving, overly ‘chocolate box’ in presentation and doesn’t help you understand the consequences of what she did nor it’s consequences outside of her immediate (very isolated) social circle. If you want a film which will illicit the response ‘there’s a war going on you know‘ from you here it is.

It actually reminds me of dramas from decades ago involving Gregori Rasputin where the court intrigues of the Romanovs all but make the First World War a minor background note to the events occurring inside the palace.

This film comes across in much the same way with events outside Joan’s immediately social circle being little more than passing bits of dialogue by other characters. Even the turning point about Hiroshima is merely some one telling her about it casually rather than her reading a newspaper, hearing a news report on the radio or some other method.

It’s hard to make a film where a woman is both the victim and manipulator of patriarchal society without coming across as a bit of an immoral person who challenges our own moral values. However it’s even more of an achievement to do that and also make the character not illicit any sort of strong reaction whatsoever. But here it is. She had an affair, she committed espionage against her country and there are no consequences whatsoever to her personally. Oh yes she reacts to Max‘s imprisonment, to Leo‘s corpse and to Sonya‘s overnight escape – but it’s others who suffer not her. She does these things and it all passes as if it was always going to be this way it seems. Everything is eventual. Perhaps in an earlier draft it was more clear how older Joan’s views affected her perception of the past and she had come to terms with how things turned out and justified them to herself as inevitable but the film as it stands merely plays out as if the character’s themselves read the script and were merely playing their role in a drama in some poorly done meta-fictional way. But again I am trying to find something that isn’t there as it is so miserably generic.

It’s a dull, near aimless, British drama. If you’ve seen others you’ve seen this. Read about the real life events instead and you’ll find more of interest. If you like real life espionage this gives you nothing. If you like British drama this is bland so worth skipping. If you want a World War Two drama… go elsewhere… I can’t stress that strongly enough as there is absolutely nothing here.

As soon as it began with the ‘based on a true story‘ text I knew this was going to be biased but I didn’t think it would be such a generically British, middle-class centric, film. The actual events of espionage feel like they play second fiddle to the melodrama of the affair, Leo’s flirting and scenes of men being sexist toward Joan.

Apparently leaking sensitive information and blackmail is acceptable behaviour to be an anti-war quasi-feminist. The Cold War apparently is something you can forget happened when making a spy seem virtuous. It’s actually quite insulting to what people actually underwent for just being accused of it let alone found guilty. Perhaps that was the point – Melita Norwood never faced consequences for her actions as the British government decided she was too old to undergo it and thus this fictional version is never truly held to account for anything she did in her life. She was a puppet in others games even when she believed she was doing what she wanted and had no accountability.

It couldn’t be more demeaning to women if it tried despite how it probably hoped people would interpret it. The moments where Clement Attlee jokes she is in charge of making the tea at a meeting about atomic fusion, a Canadian scientist insists on how a tumble drier will impress her and other moments only serve as gilding the lily of what is already at it’s heart a deeply demeaning narrative. The views of men from a past generation we can view in context but it seems the narrative itself seeks to rob her of any sense of autonomy by making her a mere pawn in the agendas of others due to her emotional response to the bombing of Hiroshima to justify her espionage activities (which barely last 15 minute of the run time it seemed despite being the marketing focus of the marketing) or by accentuating her physical frailty and moral powerlessness in old age.

Earlier I mentioned how the main character seems to reflect Marcus Tullius Cicero’s quote that “an unjust peace is better than a just war.” I wish the film had actually discussed that more by addressing the Cold War era but it didn’t and thus deflates the entire core of this film. How can we evaluate the character of Joan when over half a century of her life and events in the world as a consequence of her espionage are ignored? It’s a bizarre decision even if it was only addressed in passing to make her acknowledge what her choices led to. It’s frustrating if not infuriating.

It’s a plodding British historical drama filled with worthy English actors fussing about their middle class affairs and underplaying the historical aspects of the narrative to the point it feels like it’s in contempt of them. British historical dramas of this sort: you’ve seen one – you’ve seen them all. Embarrassingly it is true here…

Tl;dr

”What if they took a British propaganda script, written in the early Cold War era, and made a mildly propagandist melodrama film today with no alterations to the dialogue?” – you get this more or less.

Yes, even with the older Joan parts. The ‘script’ wouldn’t be aware of the events of the Cold War and it’s universal sense of paranoia at that stage. Those scenes would be presented as her ‘some time in the future’ having been a woefully naive ‘useful idiot‘ puppet of the Soviets (except here they tried to make her somewhat sympathetic and fail).

It’s embarrassingly bland in presentation and generic in it’s narrative. There is little actual espionage despite what the marketing suggests. Go elsewhere. Whatever makes you interested in this go elsewhere. No really. On your head be it unless you are suffering insomnia and want a cure!

Escapes (1986) : Horror Anthology Film Review

An anthology of five tales of terror, each originally produced for video. The titles are “A Little Fishy” (a.k.a. ”Something’s Fishy”), “Coffee Break”, “Who’s There”, “Jonah’s Dream” and “Think Twice”. There is also a framing story called “Hall of Faces” featuring Vincent Price.

Framing story – part 1: ‘Hall of Faces’

A young man, named Matt Wilson, gets a VHS in the mail delivered to him . He didn’t order it but decides to watch once home for the evening. It has Vincent Price in a hallway of mannequins embedded in the wall who introduces the selection of stories. Imagine if the candelabras from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast were placed in a 1980s music video based on German Expressionist cinema with neon lighting. After a slow pan through the curved corridor is Vincent Price waiting for his cue to begin his monologue. That’s the first part of the framing device called ‘Hall of Faces’. We go on to watch the various stories and return to the young man’s motel like home at the end to conclude the film.

Story 1 – ‘A Little Fishy’

A fisherman goes fishing on a riverbank but ironically gets fished himself via a red apple he finds and decides to bite into on the river bank. The line pulls on the hook in his mouth and he is dragged into the water. That’s it. It’s the first story and thus a ‘mood setter’ I suppose… or a one note bad joke made into a short film.

Story 2 – ‘Coffee Break’

An obnoxious young delivery driver asks and old man for directions and promises him he will drive slow, enjoy the scenery and stop for a coffee at a diner. However he drives past it deliberately and yet finds himself in a loop until he finally stops at the diner to ask for directions.

The server is the same old man who gave him directions previously and who goes on to offer him a cup of coffee. The old man tells him he didn’t keep his promise so now he has all the time in the world to enjoy his coffee along with the other occupants of the diner.

The young driver tries to escape in his vehicle but ends up back at the diner again where the patrons laugh at him as the man comes outside to offer him coffee again. The young man ends up stuck there forever drinking coffee.

Story 3 – ‘Who’s There?’

Experimental ‘apes’ escape a lab, watch some kids play football and stalk an overweight jogger through a forest. One of them runs around wearing the guy’s tracksuit jacket which he abandons at one point. A chase ensues through the forest as the jogger is pursued by the largest of the creatures. As soon as it catches up to him it says in clear English ‘tag, you’re it’ and they all run away from the man laughing like excited children. To them it wasn’t a terrifying pursuit but part of playing a fun game of tag.

Story 4 – ‘Jonah’s Dream’

An old female gold prospector finds a piece of gold and goes into town to sell it. In town people greet her as Mrs Tucker and comment on her continuing efforts to find gold up in the mountain long after her husband passed away (just because it was his dream it is later revealed). The shop owner tells her people were worried about her but he can’t give her much for what she has brought on that day as she hasn’t paid her last bill yet. He reiterates he can’t give her anything and advises her to sell the mountain and move into town. She says it was her husband Jonah’s dream and refuses to take his advise. The shop owner says they’re there if she needs them.

She is well liked by the community and even gives one of the kids outside an Indian arrow head she found when she was prospecting before heading back to the mountain. The men outside ask the shop owner how much in value she brought in and are told $92. (Bear in mind that’s $92 in the 1980s so he probably could have given her something and kept the excess value for himself as interest). They agree she has gold fever like Jonah did.

She goes and puts flowers on Jonah’s grave. Later, in front of the fire, she reflects on what people have been saying and looks at an old cameo/portrait of Jonah remembering him panning for gold and how happy he was to find gold. The kettle whistles.

There is an explosion outside and the roof of her barn has been caved in. With her shotgun ready she inspects inside. There’s a glowing spaceship emitting noises. Eventually she removes the debris from it at which point it does a ‘Simon says’ toy sequencing of light and opens. There is lots of smoke then another bang which presumably knocks her out.

Mrs Tucker wakes up in the morning lying on the ground. The barn is flattened and there is no sign on the space ship now. On the ground are a number of dull rocks which are apparently gold. She calls out to Jonah that they had been sitting on the gold all that time because they had built their barn and house on top of it.

Story 5 – ‘Think Twice’

A man runs through some city streets. The sort which only existed in 1980s cinema. He mugs someone and looks through the bag he took for anything of value. A tramp with a shopping cart rolls by. He unfurls a cloth to reveal a gem stone he is carrying. He holds it close to his face and it begins to glow red.

The criminal mugs the tramp who begs him not to take his gem as it will be of no use to him. The mugger runs away past another homeless guy but then gets run over by a man in a suit who is drink driving through another alleyway. The driver gets out and inspects the blood on his car’s hood then picks up the gem which begins to glow in his hand. He drops it and gets back in his car.

The gem now glows blue as the tramp picks it up and smiles before breathing on it to make it glow red again. It brings the mugger back to life and, as the tramp watches, a police car appears with armed officers telling the mugger to drop the knife and purse he is holding. The mugger is arrested and looks on as he is taken away by the police. The tramp returns to walking the streets with his shopping cart happy with his glowing gem.

Framing story – part 2: ‘Hall of Faces’

The young man who has been watching the VHS listens to Vincent Price’s host giving a wrap up about the six stories. Except there have only been five. In a twist the last one involves the young man and addresses him by his name thus breaking the fourth wall. He tries to stop the tape and attempts to remove it to the denouncement of the host. As he runs through his house the characters of the stories on the VHS appear and crowd around him as the host laughs maniacally. Then the young man wakes up. On the back of the VHS case he sees it says starring Vincent Price and introducing Matt Wilson i.e. himself… then, in one final twist, Vincent Price dressed as a mail man laughs maniacally at him once more implying it was he who brought the VHS here in the first place.

The end…

The ‘A Little Fishy’ segment of the film.

Overall Anthology Review

When you compare this anthology’s host with figures like Tales from the Crypts’ Crypt Keeper, Brazil’s Zé do Caixão (a.k.a. Coffin Joe), John Carpenter’s Undead Mortician in the 1993 anthology film Body Bags and many other such anthology hosting figures… well the host of this anthology can be sincerely summed up as ‘ooh look we hired Vincent Price which is worth the price of admission alone’. No it isn’t. He is in about 2 minutes of it at most and only to rattle off an opening monologue, a few seconds of dialogue and laugh at the conclusion. He is the only thing that would draw people’s attention to this anthology. Oh but, in fairness, maybe you were looking up anthology horror films like me – that’s the other reason. Heads up anything other horror anthology will seem better after you see this including “H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion” the seventh vignette of 2012’s anthology film The ABCs of Death where a Nazi fox furry tortures a British bulldog furry. No really. At least that’s memorable… and mildly traumatic for the wrong reasons.

There is no set tone for the Escapes anthology. Some stories are meant to be funny, others are karmic retribution but there always seems a tone where you are meant to be taking them more seriously that the writing itself suggests. This is ‘fun’ horror and better aimed at children really but, at the time it was made, would have probably been classified as too scary for them by censors. I seriously doubt children nowadays would react to this with anything other than boredom.

‘A Little Fishy’ really seems like a student film or what some friends with a film camera would make as a fun project over the space of a day or two once summer. It’s like a Yakov Smirnoff joke: ‘In Russia you don’t fish fish – the fish fish you!’ There’s not much to say. It’s a one note short story to set the tone but it gives you the impression what you will be seeing are karmic stories where people get their comeuppance. Arguably they do albeit some end on a positive note.

‘Coffee Break’ really stands out as the best section in concept and execution. It is tonally quite close to ‘Creepshow’ or ‘Body Bags’. I might also say an episode of ‘Tales from the Darkside’ even might be the best comparison but with a heavy metal soundtrack. Lots of long shots of the van driving along roads are used to pad the run time though. Lots of heavy metal which reminded me of Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive. The coffee guy and the delivery driver both play off each other well but it’s a little too drawn out sadly. In fact most of these stories feel bloated by about 20% each in order to reach the run time when they would have a stronger impact being more concise.

‘Who’s There?’ definitely could have been the basis for a script on something like ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ or ‘Goosebumps’. It’s an amusing little piece and in a more light hearted, child marketed, anthology it would have fared far better and possibly become a fondly remembered piece. As it is it just feels like another mismatched piece in a collection of stories that are tonally uncoordinated. If the low budget creature costumes, with their weird little ear stalks, were not enough then the fact one wears the discarded jogging jacket correctly should have tipped you off this is a lighter story. Honestly the application of the make-up on the main creature is well done for the era. It’s a nice simple concept with an amusing little pay off. Like most of these it needed tightening up choosing whether to play up either the humour or the threat through a greater sense of tension. Initially it seems to want to play to the latter but the resolution completely deflates that aspect.

‘Jonah’s Dream’ is the most drawn out and weak overall. It doesn’t really go anywhere for at least ten minutes then pushes a spaceship/meteor scene in at the end before the main character wakes up after encountering the spaceship. Maybe the encounter itself was a dream but there is no way you could interpret it that way from what I recall. In better hands it would have been a good one person monologue piece but instead seemed to be where money was wasted instead of tightening up aspects of the other stories. It is easy to see it being revised as a short drama where she discovers the gold under the house without the alien ship aspect of the story which feels stuck on to force it as part of this anthology. There is a lot of build up in this story with a relatively dull conclusion. The community gets fully fleshed out and it seems sort of redundant unless it was to get friends of the production and their children cameos for whatever reason. Really the important parts could all have been done by the one actress as Mrs Tucker with a flashback sequence featuring her husband (and even then it could be her recounting her words to herself so even that would be unnecessary). The whole exchange in the shop merely served as meaningless exposition. As part of the anthology series Amazing Stories it would be deemed a weaker episode probably.

‘Think Twice’ is well made but the core aspect of what exactly the ability is of the crystal makes it hard to follow. It grants wishes? It is an extension of the homeless man? It’s never clear except it leads to the defeat of the mugger and the homeless man is very attached to it. As long as you can get past that this is relatively good but unsatisfying due to the ‘rules’ or context of it not being explained or at least contextualised for the audience to reach a satisfying understanding. What the crystal is exactly isn’t explained so there is a distinct frustration regarding this story. What are the limits of the item? Really something else should have been used despite, presumably, a glowing, colour changing, crystal serving as a unique aesthetic for the film’s promotional material. What is the homeless man’s connection to the gem? If they revealed he was an alien (or something as convoluted) it would have made more sense to explain the crystal rather than leave it a mystery why the homeless man claims it will be of no use to the mugger and the things it apparently does. This seems like a concept meant for Creep Show.

The framing device ‘Hall of Faces’ is weak. Honestly it feels tacked on with little thought. Most framing stories are relatively weaker than the main stories inevitably but at least they contribute a fitting setting for, and reinforce the themes of, the other stories being told. V/H/S, despite also having it’s framing device criticised, at least has a little more impact than ‘old man laughing at you’. Tales from the Crypt (1972) reveals all the story protagonists who gathered had died in their individual recounted stories and were destined for hell together, Trick ’r Treat (2007) has Sam wander though each of the stories, Southbound (2015) has the separate stories occur along the same stretch of road and there are many other examples of how to construct a cohesive anthology.

His inclusion in the framing story is just an excuse to plaster Vincent Price’s face on the cover of the VHS in order to sell it. Okay, it’s a pretty standard way to wrap up an anthology and connect the stories (though if you paid attention some share actors between each other). It reminded me a bit of the final story in season 4 of Yamishibai where the storyteller is revealed to have brought all the stories to life (oddly enough that isn’t as big a spoiler as you might think as the introduction of each episode in the series features a masked storyteller). Framing stories tend to be hard to make effective though there are some from the 70s (and those noted above) which achieved it but they had a stronger thematic through-line between stories so it already felt connected even without the framing story to create a cohesion between them.

There’s nothing to draw you to this unless you feel like riffing on it with friends or having an example of how cheesy some 1980s and early 90s horror anthologies could be. It’s B movie horror stories in the bad sense. As is always said of anthologies they’re only as strong as their weakest link and the overly drawn out panning shots used throughout instead of establishing scenes just seem there to pad out the running the time. Having read the above you’ll imagine something better than what was depicted on screen. I looked up the IMDB entry and it sees this was a vanity piece for David Steensland who directed, wrote and produced it. Who was he? Where did he go after this project? Was it a pseudonym used by an established person in the industry? We might never know…

The entire film is on YouTube should you want to watch it. It’s not worth it to be honest. ‘Coffee Break’ is classic cheesy 80s horror. The ‘Who’s there?’ one is a funny story to tell a child to amuse them (no need to watch it – any embellishment you make will be an improvement). ‘Think Twice’ is flawed but could have been good if what the gem was was at least alluded to and honestly the rest are rubbish.

There is a version of Escapes which runs 16 minutes longer but I don’t know what that adds to it as this is already a bloated film. I don’t think there is an omitted story just more overly long panning shots I presume. If you’ve seen the longer version what extra is in that version?

Tl;dr

For anyone interested I would rank the stories, best to worse, as: Coffee Break, Who’s There?, Think Twice, A Little Fishy, Jonah’s Dream, Hall of Faces.

Skip it or go check it out on double speed on YouTube if you must check it out. It’s forgettable and poorly made. More a fantasy than horror anthology. I bet you only came here because there’s so little information about it. Admit it – you did. If you liked it, besides due to rose tinted nostalgia from seeing it many years ago, tell me and explain why.

Amy Speace concert at Acapela, Pentyrch, Cardiff

Anyone wanting an update about how Acapela is doing these days can consider this an update from the previous post years ago.

Awkward text placement…

Amy Speace is a folk/Americana American singer-songwriter from Baltimore, Maryland. National Public Radio described her voice as “velvety and achy” and compared her to Lucinda Williams. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee. A former Shakespearean actress, her music has received critical acclaim from The New York Times, NPR, The Sunday London Times, Mojo Magazine, etc. Speace’s song, Weight Of The World, was recorded by singer Judy Collins on her 2010 album Paradise.

Seen on 5 February 2020 at Acapela Studio.

As soon as you walked in there was a guy in a t-shirt acting as the doorman with a clipboard checking if you had bought tickets. There seems a lot more space in this bar area now. If every person who had a seat in the performance room came in here there would still be plenty of room to move about. You can see the kitchen area behind the bar where there’s a stone oven to cook the pizzas which they seem to specialise in.

Every time some pizza came past it looked nice enough with some fresh salad. To me though there was a particularly acute rancid smell to them. It was probably a certain sauce or something I just found an unappealing smell. I’m not sure how to describe it but as we were sat near the door it assaulted me a few times unintentionally.

There were about 20 people initially and by the time it started 50 or so had assembled in the audience. It really wasn’t that many and no one was sat upstairs (well Amy’s mother along with the guy controlling the lights and sound on his iPad but not any paying customers). Amy isn’t that well known here ‘but is on the rise’ as far as people are concerned like some other American folk singers who didn’t get larger crowds until they had come here a few times to build up word of mouth. It’s an intimate venue but indeed it wasn’t filled to capacity sadly. Presumably it is the pizzas helping to keep things ticking over.

Since the last time I was here they’ve removed more of the hard wood church pews and replaced them with stackable chairs and small tables. I suppose it’s to create a sort of ‘cafe bistro’ performance venue atmosphere. The table I was sat at was wobbly so you dare not lean on it but I’m sure the other tables were more sturdy. There are rows of chairs on the side (under the stairs), a few rows of chairs at the back and tables to the front. So if you’re unlucky and arrive later when there is unallocated seating you not only are sat with far less space for yourself but will also be watching the performers from behind people eating too. Oh and there are pillars too but that only restricts a few very specific seats and they’ve clearly tried to counter that by giving more space for the performers more floor space, to stand further forward, than previously.

No one was eating during the performance, unlike the last time I was here, but I don’t know if that was enforced by the venue or just a coincidence. When Amy came out she commented on the pizza to the effect of something like ‘surprising to find nice pizza in Cardiff’. I think most performers find it odd but all really like the acoustics of the former chapel so it’s a bit of a trade off.

We were sat downstairs by a pillar but with a good ¾ view (i.e. not at the front nor side of the performance area). There isn’t a raised platform stage area and the floor looks very scratched up now as the varnish has gradually been worn away by equipment being moved about. Someone walked by before the start smelling of toilet fragrance aerosols… or maybe it was a very cheap perfume? And it lingered… nasty. Not the venues fault but it was such a strange smell I couldn’t help but note it. The venue is perfectly fine smell wise but this perfume and the pizza were very pungent.


8.05pm the performance began.

Amy was wearing a long navy dress with small diamond patterning and white pixie boots. It reminded me of the sort of dress country singers wore in the 1970s.

She told stories between the songs about her parents’ religiousness (the father is a lapsed baptist who gave her a big, leather bound, white bible while her mother is a Catholic and there was an unspoken agreement the children would be raised Catholic) and political e.g. How she is a folk singer so her being a liberal should be a given to some degree yet some complain saying they thought she was going to do songs like a Country singer (i.e. the stereotypical Texan republican who loves their country blindly). She had her son in her fifties and named him Huckleberry as her husband teaches Southern literature and she thought it would be unique… only to discover someone else had also used that name.

Amongst the songs she performed were the following:

She forgot the lyrics to this one when she was about to perform it
She felt the need to explain a Lorna Doone is a shortbread biscuit before singing this. I mean I immediately thought of the novel when hearing the name. Americans have awkward names for their snacks don’t they?
She told a story about when she had written this after a break up and later was performing it when her new boyfriend’s family were sat in the front row. She panicked worrying they thought it would be about him. In her mind she was running a script of ‘but I won’t write a song about your son…’ in tune with the instrumental. But fortunately her loud Texan friend, from the back row of that performance, shouted ‘AND YOU DID!’ at the end of it. Anyway she married her boyfriend and had her son, named Huckleberry, when about 50 years old. Her husband teaches Southern literature and people find it odd a Yankee (northern states) person would want to name their child something like that.
She finished with this song doing it without the amp.

She performed most songs with an acoustic guitar connected to an amp but one or two she did sat at the grand piano too.

At 9.03pm there was an interval. A staff member rushed in zealously seeking empty glasses to take off tables. It got to the point he seemed to be eyeing up half filled glasses as if ready to claim them as having been abandoned if people were not sat next to them to ward him off. Out by the bar Amy’s mother was selling CDs of three of her albums, t-shirts and apparently one album on vinyl. Amy would sign them too. About 10 or so minutes later the second half began suddenly signaled by the lights suddenly being turned off again.

While performing she forgot the lyrics to a few of her songs so a friend had to look them up for her. It was fortunately made more charming rather than awkward. Earlier she had joked at other performances she had had to do that too.

After she remembered and performed the first forgotten song a guy shouted “got there in the end” which the classic sardonic Welsh sense of humour. It’s not meant in a bad spirit but I imagine it so easily could be misread as such if people are not familiar with it… and let’s face it when you have visiting foreign artists I do often wonder if it gives a bad impression and if it’s affected the chance of people coming back again. However Amy mentioned how polite British audiences are as American ones have to be made to shut up and often will throw things at the performers. British audiences chuckle while American audience guffaw it seems. Probably it makes it easier to read the tone of the room compared to more reserved audiences.

She had gone up Snowden and it was the first time her parents were touring the UK. She seemed hung up, like all visiting American artists, on the whole ‘divided nation’ aspect of America at the moment regarding Trump and said Britain probably is too now due to Brexit. She joked politicians need to get better hair and some exercise in reference to Trump and Boris Johnson.

At 22:25 the concert ended after she said she would do a false ‘walk off and encore’ by turning away a few seconds rather than walk out the room. She did one of the last songs acoustically without her guitar plugged in. Oddly it might have been better to do that more in this venue but I guess everyone is used to instruments being amplified these days that just having the instrument sounds less ‘authentic’ somehow…

It was very enjoyable. The stories actually felt personal rather than just a script she rattles off to every audience. It’s a bit concerning she forgot the lyrics to her own songs though. But overall it was very enjoyable. I recommend seeing her if you’ve the chance though it is one of the few occasions where I’ve seen a performer forget their own lyrics which in a less seasoned act would be criticised as being unprofessional.

Parking is still the biggest issue the venue faces really even with it’s relatively small capacity. Park on the road side and if you can’t then you’ll have to park further down or in a residential space. There are no real alternatives to be honest but that’s the cost of it being in a community’s former chapel.

P.S. Here are some names of other acts coming here soon if you want to look them up… The Magpies / Daisy Chapman / Maz o’connor / Emily Mae Winters / Mr Tea and the Minions / Morganway.

On Bear Ridge

“One minute we had customers, the next minute there was no-one.”

In a lost village, blurred by redrawn borders, hidden under a crumb on the map, Bear Ridge Stores still stands. After a hundred years, the family butchers and grocers – a place for odds and ends, contraband goods, and the last petrol pump for 30 miles – is now silent. But owners John Daniel and Noni are going nowhere. They are defiantly drinking the remaining whiskey and remembering good times, when everyone was on the same side and the old language shone. Outside in the dark, a figure is making their way towards them…

One of Wales’ most celebrated writers, Ed Thomas (co-creator of Hinterland) makes a momentous return to the stage with this semi-autobiographical story about the places we leave behind, the indelible marks they make on us, and the unreliable memories we hold onto.

Ed Thomas speaks about writing the play

Writer Ed Thomas

Co-directors Vicky Featherstone & Ed Thomas

Designer Cai Dyfan

Composer John Hardy

Sound Designer Mike Beer

Cast

Noni: Rakie Ayola

The Captain: Jason Hughes

John Daniel: Rhys Ifans

Ifan William: Sion Daniel Young

World Premiere in Sherman Theatre‘s Main House

National Theatre Wales and Royal Court Theatre

Performed in English (though there are a few Welsh words present e.g. bara brith).

Contains strong language, scenes of an adult nature, loud noises & gun shots

Running time: Approx. 95 minutes (no interval)

I saw it on 25 September 2019 at 7.30pm.

The cast and staff speak of the play.

Synopsis

I usually give quite detailed, near exhaustive, accounts of a narrative but I feel due to how new this play is it would be a disservice to do so. I will just give a general outline for those who want it. A lot of the impact is in the dialogue and performance of this play, so much so it could easily be adapted for radio, so it may seem relatively uneventful. It’s an allegorical narrative regarding the playwright’s memories of his community and concerns about the challenges the Welsh language and culture face both from the past and going forward when there are so many foreign influences, most notably that of England. I probably have forgotten certain elements or omit them intentionally in the following paragraphs so there are some things for you to experience for yourself.

A man, John Daniel, awakens in the remnants of his burnt out butcher’s shop after an aerial carpet bombing raid. He laments he is all alone now in the dark as snow falls about him. He begins to recount the birth of his son with his wife Noni and how proud he was. (I’ve forgotten the son’s name ironically but he does have one).

We then see him and his wife waving their butcher’s cleavers as planes fly overhead. They condemn that they don’t know if they’re on their side or against them during an ongoing war. A war that apparently ended decades ago yet still seems to affect them currently. They then spend a while discussing how their community at Bear Ridge has dwindled as they relive the memories of their past both in terms of recalling their customers, food and events. Their young slaughterman Ifan William comes from out of the trapdoor and goes into the fridge and returns to the underground slaughterhouse after some brief chatter. The couple continue their discussion once he has left reciting their mantra of foodstuffs happily to each other relishing the memories.

John Daniel and Noni dancing to the radio

As the couple are dancing to a repeating song on the radio a captain, who was involved in the ongoing war, walks into their shop and holds them at gunpoint not sure if they are friend or foe. Once reassured he chats with them and says the song reminded him of his mother and youth. He recounts a number of things, including how his commanding officer gave him the order to clear the mountain before then shooting herself to his shock. Eventually he gains the couple’s confidence. They discuss memories and ‘the old language’ which only John Daniel now knows how to speak but laments he is forgetting. He only remembers it because he remembers speaking it to others but they’re all in the past so all he has are his memories with which to keep the language alive. His son spoke it fluently, Noni learned some but he is ultimately alone now in knowing it which throws him into despair.

Suddenly the captain is on edge when Ifan William comes from out of the trap door again. He demands to know why they didn’t tell him of this third person. ‘You never asked’ John Daniel replies drily. Ifan William recounts his childhood growing up and going to university with the now dead son of the couple. The son went to university and was very progressive, philosophical and wanted to keep the ‘old language’ alive. However the son and Ifan William (who the son taught Welsh) were beaten by others one day in the street accusing them of being Germans and other nationalities though they were not as these aggressors didn’t recognise the old language of their own country and assumed the worst (the identity of the characters in the play as native Welsh people is never explicitly stated but some words and phrases dotted throughout the dialogue suggest this along with the distinctly Welsh naming styles of the characters). The son died in the war and had so much potential the characters who knew him lament. Ifan William admits he truly loved their son and their son loved him (to the degree it’s implied to have been romantic in nature but this too is never made explicit). John Daniel silently embraces Ifan William for their mutual loss.

The captain holds his service revolver to his head as Ifan William watches

The captain, after offering Ifan William a swig from his canteen, again recounts his memories. How he was ordered to clear the mountain by a commanding officer who then killed herself immediately afterwards in front of him having fulfilled her duty. The couple refuse to leave, despite being the only people left, as this is where they belong as does Ifan William. The captain tells them he is on the same side as them. Noni, agitated by such a broad declaration, asks if he really is or not and compares it to a river where there are two sides – the side they are on and the other side. People who want to swim over can try but the current is strong and deep many drown in the effort (as if referring to the Severn river which acts as both the physical and metaphysical division between the Welsh and English identities). She asks the captain again if he really is on their side or not. He insists he is. Now they’re all assured Noni offers to make tea and the captain excuses himself asking to go to the bathroom. John Daniel says it’s around the corner, behind the rocks, outside the building (actually it may have been in the building but the actor exits the stage via the rear). The captain leaves silently.

Ifan William enters carrying a tray piled high with a china tea service. The couple and Ifan William sit down to drink. A single gun shot rings out (presumably the captain coming to the same conclusion his commander did and committing suicide). Nothing is said. No one reacts. They sit in silence drinking their tea and then, once everyone is content, a plane flies overhead and it suddenly cuts to black and it seems a bomb was finally dropped on Bear Ridge to clear it.

The End.

Arguably this loops back to the start of the play though you could also read the beginning as John Daniel lamenting his isolation as the only person who knows the old language… which he truly is if the play loops back to that opening scene as his wife (who was a learner), his son (who was fluent) and Ifan William (who was, I think, semi-fluent) are all now gone leaving him truly alone both in his memories, knowledge and physically.

Costumes

I won’t go into great detail. They’re all dressed in the manner one would expect of people left with little to sustain themselves during an ongoing conflict with few if any supplies available over a long time.

John Daniel is dressed in a worn jumper and the white, but now grubby and worn, coat of a butcher with an orange gilet over it. Around his ankles are scraps of cloth over his worn boots. A shaggy beard and overall dishevelled state indicate he has little time to pretend like he is at all at peace with life to attend to such things. Not just due to the situation they find themselves in but it seems like he’s always been a bit like this and the gilet is, as explained during a piece of dialogue, a birthday resent from his wife and the only clean thing on him. Life weighs heavy on his shoulders.

Noni wears an apron and cardigan with a tattered skirt and hobnail boots. Even in these bad times it’s evident she tries her best to maintain normality by taking care of herself appearance wise unlike her husband.

Ifan William is young and his clothes are relatively clean with little sign of wear. They are also of a much more modern, casual sportswear, design compared to those of John Daniel and Noni who, in comparison, could be from a hundred years ago or yesterday in their style of dress (except for the gilet which seems to act like a life vest keeping John Daniel afloat in modern times). The only dirt on the young man’s clothing is the dried, caked, blood from the job he does on his butcher’s apron. His beard and hair are relatively well trimmed in comparison to his wild, mountain man, looking employer John Daniel.

The captain has outerwear of a military design. I would say it reflects the clothing of a First World War office in the trenches but I believe it is meant to evoke a timeless militaristic style really. He wears heavy boots, a serviceman’s belt of pouches and a holster with his service revolver. A large, thick, scarf is wrapped around his neck obscuring any signs of a uniform and he wears a full length woollen, olive drab coloured, trench coat so little else is visible on his person beneath it.

Staging

A rough sketch of the stage layout. I forgot to include the debris at the sides of the stage.

Throughout the play the floor is covered in a light layer of fake snow as though the interior and exterior of the butcher’s shop is gutted.

There are three walls to represent the interior of the shop. On the left wall is a cupboard where Noni keeps the trinkets she has collected and which spill out at the start of the play. On the right is a fridge door which when opened lets the actor walk through as if entering a room sized fridge. Again this too is featured at the start of the play but neither plays any purpose besides establishing the characters of Noni and Ifan William.

The rear wall is in fact technically two pieces which sit either side of a green door frame and door. These are the shop front, gutted by a previous bomb explosion it can be assumed, and a broken window. The door itself is intact with a ‘sorry we are closed’ sign on it and a set of lace curtain netting across it. These are all removed about half way through the run time once everyone is, presumably, stood outside.

A pile of broken school desks and furniture sits left of centre representing all the furniture they’ve had to break up for firewood during the ongoing harsh weather conditions on the mountain without any outside aid arriving. Hidden within this pile are two milk crates used for seats at certain points of the play. Ifan William later uses a tin box as a stool too which I think he brings up from the trapdoor.

Beyond the ‘shop’ are black, dead, trees and high piles of rock to represent the mountain range. A path leads behind the rocks which is where the captain goes, off stage, at the end of the play.

The backdrop is a curved white sheet lit in a manner to give the illusion of a heavy misty skyline beyond which nothing can be seen. It becomes brightly lit when planes fly over to silhouette the characters against it.

Overall I feel it’s very effective though I question if you could actually reduce the staging to be even more minimalist to be honest as so much of the play is in fact grounded in it’s dialogue rather than actions. Throughout the only ‘actions’ that occur are the couple wave their tools at the planes flying overhead once or twice cursing at them, an overfilled cupboard spilling, the couple dance, the captain firing his gun in frustration, Ifan William going in and out of the trapdoor, in and out of the fridge and later kicking up some dust, John Daniel when lamenting the loss of the old language scrabbling about creating a dust storm in frustration and the tea service being brought on at the end of the play. In fact you could even embellish it if you wanted to be honest without detracting from the core dynamics of the play.

An interview, featuring clips, about the play in Welsh. Turn on the auto-translation of the Closed Captions if you want to follow the comments made.

Review

The allegorical play begins with an incredibly strong echo of Dylan Thomas’ lyrical dialogue style most notably heard in Under Milk Wood when John Daniel and Noni begin reciting a list of customers and the foodstuffs they sold and enjoyed in the past as if relishing and being nourished by the language and memories they share.

Throughout John Daniels has a phrase he often uses ‘no, you’re alright’ when he wants to assure others or dismiss something troubling. You could reflect he says this because he himself is not alright though I’ve often heard fellow Welshmen, admittedly of an older generation, use the phrase in the same tone Rhys Ifans uses where it is more akin to ‘I don’t approve but I accept the situation at hand’. There is a lot of the dour Welsh humour present in the play and I wonder if non-Welsh people will ‘get it’. Only when it’s performed in England will we know. I’m sure they will but sometimes it does seem people unfamiliar with that Welsh style of humour feel it can be harsh hence the stereotype some hang onto of us being isolationist when in reality we are very warm towards visitors.

Noni is a difficult character to categorise. She collects trinkets, she laments her sons death and she loves her husband who it seems is notably older than her. The only real information we get about her past, her memories, tends to be through John Daniels recounting the birth of his son and his first encounter with Noni where they both knew they were meant to be together. She fits the Welsh archetype of a valleys girl, that is to say bubbly, chatty, but not afraid of confronting people she doesn’t agree with, however it feels she has the least substance presented to the audience. She seems secondary to the male characters and even her dead son whose ghost echoes throughout the memories of the others. While it can be said that there’s an element of this enforcing traditional stereotypes of women place being in the shadow of the men in their lives it’s not as simple as that in Wales. We have been a soft matriarchy throughout history so a woman being quiet and ‘knowing her place’ is quite alien to us and only crept into our culture through the influences of the English. So there’s an underlying question regarding her character where arguably she is the most conformist of the ‘native’ characters but we don’t have a chance to explore that aspect of her characterisation during the plays run time and it has to be portrayed via the actress’ mannerisms more so than the dialogue.

Ifan William has two scenes, one at the start is somewhat light hearted and merely acts as a set up for the sudden shift in tone towards the end. The actor has some great material to work with as he confesses his feeling to John Daniel and Noni about their son. It could feel a bit laboured by a less skilled actor so to see the shift of the character from somewhat lackadaisical to heart-rendingly broken by his memories really delivers a contrast to John Daniel and Noni. The older characters recount happy times in the past and bemoan their current circumstances while here the younger man finds trauma in the past but, having survived an assault by bigots, seems to thrive in the current circumstances having found his place in the world. So through him we have elements of discussion regarding the ‘truth’ of cultural heritage and the effects of rose tinted memories on passing it to the next generation. While John Daniel speaks of a united community under one language Ifan William presents the harsh reality of conflicting cultures and of prejudice which isn’t acknowledged by the older generation.

The captain, in contrast to the other characters, is notably different sounding not just in accent but diction and phrasing. He is an outsider but I feel the role is being played far too safely so as not to feel jarring when contrasted with the other characters tonally. If anything I would actually like the play to be a bit more bold in this to truly challenge the audience in the later part when he is asked if he is ‘on our side’ or not so they question if he is sincere or playing along for survival. The actor performs the role well but I feel maybe there needs to be some work on the role. Whether it’s to make him more of an outsider conflicting with the other characters or truly get across his desire to be on their side by gradually emulating them.

As it is I assume the intention is for the audience to decide for themselves his motives and values by the end of the play’s events. Does he shoot himself just to repeat history as his commanding officer did; did he do it because, despite his words, he truly couldn’t be on their side despite his intentions as he lacked the language and other cultural aspects to do so; was it because he didn’t seek to become like them. Could it even be the case we should interpret his behaviour as PTSD where he keeps reliving the moment he saw his commanding officer shoot herself, after giving him his orders, thus leaving him to wander in a liminal state somewhere between constantly reliving that memory as a soldier and incapable of reacclimatising to civil society (as is the case for many servicemen who suffer trauma during their service).

I think my overall question about him is, PTSD possibility aside, whether he was a soldier carrying out his duty, but faltered when the opposition was given a face, or a refugee like figure trying to escape the war and ‘join’ the others in their world view of not being defined by the conflict. He feels vaguely defined and I’m not completely certain that was intentional to the degree it appears. Although, in fairness, we never learn his name and it is certain he was meant to be culturally ‘othered’ to the shared culture and history of the other three characters as an outsider.

The staging is good but perhaps needs some refining as I noted when discussing it earlier. At times when a sense of claustrophobia is required it feels there is a bit too much space inside the shop’s interior and yet when they’re meant to be stood outside it feels far too claustrophobic ironically. I’m not sure if that’s because the Sherman’s stage wasn’t quite right for their planned layout but maybe on smaller stages the rubble on the sides (which I omitted from the stage plan though it remains throughout the performance) could be removed to give them more space in the later parts of the play. I only say this as there is a moment later in the play when John Daniels is meant to walk away from the others to ‘speak the old language to the moon’ but unfortunately he is barely 3 metres away on the stage. In fact Rhys gave a cheeky look to the audience at this point as if acknowledging it. Perhaps for that moment he can go onto the ‘mountain path’ the captain later uses leading backstage instead as that would be more effective? It’s an minor issue to be honest.

The performances are excellent but certainly I feel there might be a need to work on the pacing of dialogue or where to emphasis certain lines as sometimes there were moments of speaking over each other with little narrative purpose for it. Also while the characters are distinct I feel there needs to be more confidence in the delivery by the captain as he doesn’t seem as affected nor distinct from the others as he needs to be. As much as none of us wants to see overacting I do feel for John Daniel and Noni to fit the Welsh archetypes they are referencing they may need to be slightly more embellished with John Daniel having a slightly more intense manner with some pregnant pauses possibly.

I understand why the performance choices were made however part of me feels, when the play moves onto the Royal Court Theatre, it’s been done early to ‘tone down’ the Welshness to be more accessible and that feels counter-intuitive considering what the message of this play seems to be. I’ve seen that done in translation of various works to localise things but it never feels like a good idea in the long run. In effect it seems to have caused a Welsh playwright, writing about Welsh cultural matters obliquely, to ‘other’ his message in his own work as if self censoring which speaks volumes about how entrenched the cultural persecution of the Welsh culture and language is in our mindset as a nation.

Part of me feels the refusal to actually name Wales or Welsh in any form is possibly part of the narrative in the sense it is self censorship as the ‘Welsh Not’ was in the classroom for a time in the early twentieth century. However it also in effect makes the play more universal while still retaining the irrefutable inclusion of Welsh things such as the characters’ naming (except the captain who is only known by his military rank title and never his personal name), a reference to bara brith and other elements which seem all too obvious in context to a Welsh audience but might not to a different culture if there was a foreign production of the play. (e.g. how Welsh seems part of the ‘Elder Speech language’ in the Polish fantasy literature series The Witcher and it’s adaptions going as far as the card card in it being called Gwent).

Wales has a number of Welsh playwrights who, when doing work for television, are lauded and award winning yet to set a play in Wales seems to ghettoise it unlike if you set it in England. Perhaps that’s just me recalling my issues with Niall Griffith’s novel ‘Sheepshagger’ which felt like it could have been set in England’s west country or elsewhere rurally without losing anything as it’s so devoid of inherent ‘Welshness’ unlike this play.

I fear, in later productions, this play might have the Welsh elements edited out of it to localise it and thus lose its inherent message. As I said with my review of Gary Owen’s adaption of The Cherry Orchard, which localised Chekov’s play to 1980s Wales, there is a risk of losing part of a message or altering it in adaption which I dearly hope doesn’t occur here as discussion of the trials Wales has faced in maintaining its culture seem to be muted whenever presented to a wider audience. Certainly in my experience few people from other countries know much about us without it being tinged by English imperialism to the point they assume we are part of England and not a separate entity.

There is great potential here but as I’ve seen it so early in it’s run I feel everyone is still finding their stride in their performances and no doubt, should you go see it, they’ll have worked out those nuances so what is already a thoroughly enjoyable, evocative, play about identity will become a modern classic. Already it is getting high praise and, despite the critical tone of this review at times, I thoroughly recommend seeing it!

Eurovision 2019 : Tel Aviv, Israel

Knee jerk, irreverent, reactions to watching the live final… a fortnight late because no one looks at these posts but it’s a useful reference.

This year themes and notable moments : Bland performances by singers with songs that don’t suit their voices, lots of 1990s feeling costumes and songs, conservative boybands, performers dressed like fighting game characters and zettai ryouiki.The sentences will be legible but I won’t tidy the grammar up so it retains that ‘instant reaction’ tone. Ukraine again makes a political statement regarding Russia but this time end up withdrawing an none of their chosen acts will perform for them due to the terms of the contract they proposed but Maruv is allowed to perform her song especially for the interval as a gesture of goodwill to her by the contest. Madonna is showing her age and gets a very muted response from the audience when she performs during the interval.

I’ll put the key sentences of each country’s commentary in bold for the lazy Tl;Dr casual scanning readers looking for specific content.

[edit: on a side note it’s the same ‘flame columns’ pyrotechnics very act seemed to have so I guess it was that or nothing which was allowed… which is very restrictive. In fact the ‘screen’ visual effects were also very limited this year. On the whole this year felt like a downgrade from previous years and really makes you appreciate how much effort other countries put into the experience while Israel puts out a ‘budget’ version and yet has the cheek during one of the intervals to hire Gal Gadot to promote the country to people for tourism].

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Malta : Chameleon – Michela Pace

Nice song but completely the wrong tone of voice for it. Staging isn’t much. One year someone will dress as the european comic character Corto Maltese and boom… there’ll be a mass flood of fan votes. Very 90s style of costume. The sacrificial lamb first act of this year. A generic pop song. I am certain I’ve heard songs exactly like this on the radio. Knee socks and a jacket with see through vinyl sleeves, ending with denim cuffs, on a denim jacket. Odd look once you pay attention and one not seen since 1990s British girl bands.

Albania : Ktheju Tokës – Jonida Maliqi

The song title means ‘return to your land’ – so there’s a mild unintentional xenophobic tone to the title until you hear the song. I like it as it represents the heritage of Albania’s music with a modern twist. Then again I’ve been playing Koudelka and the Shadow Hearts series of games and the soundtrack has echoes of similar ‘epic ballad’ aspects so it’s a mild unintentional bias by me there. Pretty standard staging of a singer in operatic looking dress with backing singers. I liked it in context. [edit: after hearing all the songs I favour it a bit more for at least taking a risk compared to the more pop song like entries].

Czech Republic : Friend of a Friend – Lake Malawi

Catchy song. For a moment the guy sounds like he has an Essex accent when saying the girl moved back in which caught me completely off guard… that was random. Yes, nice beat. The lyrics, just like many from the boy band One Direction’s, have a slightly sinister entilted misogynistic tone to them yet you never hear it commented on openly ‘he’s cute and misunderstood and I can fix him so it’s okay if he doesn’t treat me well and always gives be backhanded compliments implying I’m nothing without his love as he can see past how ugly I am to my true beauty in supporting him’. Boy bands and romance novels is where all those life long insecurities begin. Nothing new when you look back to Wuthering Heights and other classics. Three handsome guys in trainers, skinny jeans, baggy jumpers playing instruments playing repetitive inoffensive music… Every teenager girls wet dream… to be honest you can imagine them being drowned out by the screams of teenage girls at a concert. Inoffensive stuff but the longer it goes on the more low energy it feels.

Germany : Sister – S!sters

A blonde and brunette duet. Call each other sister.. but, plot twist, they are not sisters. It’s nice. A good solid entry with a good rhythm and perfomance with stripped back staging. Instantly forgettable though but you can imagine it being used in a pivitol scene in a feel good drama’s climax when two friends reunite after some disagreement or something. It’s a nice song but maybe didn’t capture people’s hearts. [edit: public vote = 0 points… so indeed it didn’t].

Russia : Scream – Sergey Lazarev

You already realise this blog will be biased towards this entry but in fairness they tend to have quite solid entries in fairness year on year usually. It’s a solid entry and a strong contender. Building chorus and everything. Again throwing everything at it instrumentally and staging wise though the vocals might feel a bit softer than you’d hope when listening to it. Actually the staging with the multiple screens gets a little ridiculous and I wonder if there should be some rule against some aspects used as it felt a bit like it ended on an echo effect/recording. Very good though… I’ll forget it it soon enough. He took part in 2008? or 2018?

Denmark : Love Is Forever – Leonora

A very 2000s song. It reminds me of someone like Kate Nash. It looks nice when you watch the video but bear in mind she starts off with her back to the audience so it’s not as good an experience when there in person. A giant chair… it reminds me of those American photos of workmen eating their lunch on skyscraper worksites miles bove the city skyline. It’s a nice simple song. I mean once everyone’s sat up on there you spend more time in anticipation of someone falling off more than anything…

San Marino : Say Na Na Na – Serhat

Serhat is a dentist and claimed this took 5 minutes to write. Well yeah with lyrics like ‘na na’ I’m not expecting it to have been a struggle. It’s… very karaoke friendly. Another ‘I swear I saw this in the late 90s’ entry. Staging wise they have that effect that looks like the video files got corrupted for the background imagery and just went with it. It’ll get in the highlight reel for the year no doubt. It’s enjoyable. You won’t forget the chorus. Then he begins getting ‘yeah going crazy’… yes. Na na na. Say na na na. Say na na na… sayonara San Marino. Everyone, costume wise, looks like they’re going to the tennis court immediately after performance.

North Macedonia : Proud – Tamara Todevska

Sincerity. Well this is hitting all the buttons for me. Opera length dress and husky voice. Motivational lyrics. Maudline tone. I’ll be honest it does look like her dress slipped down due to the ‘exposed bra cups’ design. That’s as sexy as it gets this conservative year. It’s enjoyable. Another ‘you’ll hear it on an advert or during a moment in a drama’ song. Never really hits the pinacle I was hoping might arrive before the end so it feels incomplete.

Sweden : Too Late for Love – John Lundvik

Striped back staging with the one ‘caught escaping’ light behind him. Strong lyrics. Nice lead into the beat and then cuts back to vocal priority. Yes strong entry. Enjoyable. It’ll do well I assume. I can see them twisting this for Brexit/other conflicts use in future. No doubt we will hear this again over the next few years.

Slovenia : Serbi – Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl

They met on Instagram apparently. The intro reminds me of a lot of Sting’s songs. She looks like she has Down’s Syndrome. If she actually has it’s very progressive to feature her. I would like more, staging wise, if they didn’t have her stood singing right into his face as he plays the guitar. I like the song for that sort of lamenting tone it has but… it probably isn’t going to do good if people want an upbeat song this year. Both wear white and hold hands later on but it’s very… teenagers at a school assembly talent show due to how they’re dressed. Bit of a mantra quality to it. It’ll be big with the normie ‘I like feeling creeped out’ audience and those who think that the couple look a bit incestuous. I like the song and her voice – it’s just they don’t look like they gel together visually and are a bit too awkward on stage which in turn makes the audience feel a bit awkward watching. The song is good though. I want to hear it again [edit: …and this is one of, if the only, song of the finalists I honest can say that about this year].

Cyprus : Replay – Tamta

Vinyl zettai ryouiki. [Other acts also feature it so maybe this was the only way to be ‘sexy’ this year due to the more conservative nature of performers’ costumes due some behind the scenes mandate the public never heard of]. She is dressed the way early 3D fighting game characters dressed due to low polygon counts. Then the pull the top off and it’s even more like a costume of that era of gaming! It’s a generic sounding dance track… nothing else to add really. I forgot it instantly in indeed I was even able to remember it as I was listening to it.

Netherlands : Arcade – Duncan Laurence

One of, if not the, favourites this year going into the finals according to bookies etc. Yeah this has ‘Eurovision winner’ written over it the way ‘a Hollywood film where an attractive actor ‘goes ugly’ for a role by putting weight on [Chris Hemsworth as ‘fat Thor’ is in the running no doubt this year by that logic] or portrays disability or depicting ficitionalised real life events of someone’s experiences during World War’ 2 has ‘Oscar winner’ written all over it. Anthemic. Sad. Warbbling. He mimes playing the piano. Yeah this will be top 2 if it doesn’t win. [Spoiler: It wins.]

Greece : Better Love – Katerine Duska

Distinctive voice… it’s the vocal equivilant of Marmite. Balletic sword fighters duel weilding. Dancers fluttering wings. A arched churchdoorway mini-stage. I like it but that voice is going to throw a lot of people off. ARGH when she goes for high notes! She’s one of those women who is single and you wonder why then you hear her voice… I joke. It’s a nice song and the staging is very nice. Nonetheless that voice is going to lose votes probably. Very ‘Florence + the Machine’ in style.

Israel : Home – Kobi Marimi

”Hometown Hero” – no one was allowed to see them rehearse so… could be amazing could be a shitshow. Those rhymes… I… he is losing me with every line. The chorus aiding him improves it… but indeed it’s very much f a ‘this is me’ generic rising chorus ‘confidence gaining’ song from a musical. I like the ‘beams of lighting’ staging watching it but having been at events using it it’s a death ray if you’re sat in the wrong seats and get blasted by it for minutes straight. It’s a nice song… the warbling highnote at the end kind of mutes it. Good response as he’s the home hero but… eh it’ll do okay but it’s not the best.

Norway : Spirit in the Sky – KeiiNO

George Harrison. Admit it you too were wondering if it was going to be a cover though those are not allowed at Eurovision. Primark military style jacket. Essex face lift pony tail for the lady and… IT’S THE YODELLING BALD MAN! INSTANT WINNER! Nice dance track but that yodelling man… damn that’s a winner addition! He even gets a solo!!! and Yggdrasil, the tree of life from Norse legend, makes an appearance! Eurovision gold!

United Kingdom : Bigger Than Us – Michael Rice

From Hartlypool. The British entry so maybe I’ll be mildly bias. It’s a nice ballad. I don’t think he starts on the right note… Anthemic but subdued. It could go any way to be honest. Who are we kidding he’s the British entry… as soon as he gets in the greenroom they’ll get him as drunk as possible to numb the inevitable pain of the low votes. If we get on the left side of the score board it’ll be a small miracle. It’s a nice pop song. I honestly feel a bit more impact was needed though. I mean the backing vocalists almost drown him out on at least one occasion. He thanks Europe and says he is living his dream performing there Cool, good manners. Good boy.

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Midpoint: The male presenter behind stage, in he green room, asks the San Marino entrant Serhat the dentist a question then cuts him off before he can answer properly. ‘Presenters being presenters’ as ever… can’t cut into that running time even to be polite.

Here are some comments by the British Eurovision commentator Graham Norton about the entries:

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Iceland : Hatrið mun sigra – Hatari

‘Hatred will Prevail’ is the meaning of the title. Thus very ‘anti-Eurovision’. Very anti-capitalist too aparently. Weirdly electro-punk with industrial style accoustics. I like. Eurovision needs more rock music like this and Lordi. Flame spikes. Edward Scissorhands outfit and mohawks. Well this is my favourite but it won’t win. No doubt people are claiming it scares them, for some reason or other just because it’s not mainstream, as if they’re going to wake up suspended from the ceiling in a gimp costume as part of someone’s sex dungeon… such people shouldn’t have been allowed to read 50 Shades of Grey as it’s given them ideas. Saying that it should have been about 30 seconds shorter as I got bored by the end.

Estonia : Storm – Victor Crone

Pretty guy in a leather jacket with an acoustic guitar. Mr generic cool guy to every generation… He will have a better than he would otherwise as a contrast to Iceland’s entry no question. Even got some clapping along early on by the audience wanting to spirit away the dark energy Iceland left them with. Nice breezy song. I enjoy it. Might be a bit too ‘seen it already’ due to others having similar songs though. Really the longer it goes on the more I think ‘I’ve heard that bit elsewhere…’ Enjoyable though. Apparently augmented effects were used. That’s becoming more common for the staging on the night of course.

Belarus : Like It – Zena

She reminds me of the blogger Angelika Oles. Then she has one of those hot pink and white with black accent outfits that looks like a cross between an F1 pit girl and a gogo dancer. She has B-boy backing dancers. Nothing really stands out. Zettai ryouiki again and a bared midrift. The only two areas acceptable in clean family entertainment to indicate sex appeal. [edit: when I typed that I was thinking of Princess Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin only to find out in the live action film version they give her a most conservative costume with a corset like covering for her midriff]. The song is an ‘also ran’. Even when listening to it it wasn’t sticking with me. ‘Impossible’ you say? You’d be surprised.

Azerbaijan : Truth – Chingiz

Thumping beat. Robot arms. A laser on his chest like the Predator is about to kill him. Husky male voice singing. Good good. Goes into a higher register but fine. ‘shut up about it’ he chants.. in a song called Truth… interesting. Yeah nice song but not going to get too high. More about the staging with the electro girl head than anything really. He is dressed like a character from a 1980-90s SNK beat-em up. No really. Look up ‘King of Fighters’ and you’ll find his outfit on a guy with a ponytail. It’s the year of ‘beat-em up costumes!

France : Roi – Bilal Hassani

A feminine looking man. He is like the lead male character from the most recent trilogy of SNK’s King of Fighters games! Or Remy from Street Fighter III! He’s also deaf and doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes apparently. The ‘progressive’ vote then but also he would get the Japanese boyband vote too if there was one. ABBA outfit. On fleek eyebrows. Guy will launch his own makeup Youtube channel and brand if he hasn’t got one already. Obese dancer… she actually moves quite well. However they replace her with a tiny Asian lady soon enough. He reminds me of an anime Bishonen (pretty boy) or androgenous villain with his look. No seriously go look up anime and scroll down the images and I am certain you’ll find someone with his look. As for the song… it’s a standard Eurovision entry. Good but you’ll forget about it.

Italy : Soldi – Mahmood

The ‘I like rap’ option for what it’s worth. Badass in a hawaiian shirt and earring with one of those wallet chains you’ve not seen since the 2000s with American skater punk bands like Limp Biskit or Sum41. Clap clap. You’ll hear this in the clubs. It’ll get a really good dance remix. It feels a little lifeless on the night unfortunately compared to others. It really needed the audience participation to go wild for it and they didn’t. The backing dancers I swear pulled off a few American line dancing moves a few times by boot scooting… It’s a good song by itself but not one that will ultimately win Eurovision.

Serbia : Kruna – Nevena Božović

The title means ‘crown’. Slow ballad. Has the look of a rocksinger in the 1980s… like Bonnie Tyler. She reminds me of the film ‘White Chicks’. The design of her dress to show the leg with an intentional arch of fabric instead of a split is a bit forced as if they put the top of a jukebox on her. I like it. Of the ballads I probably like it best. I kind of wish she didn’t alternate language as it probably would sound better in just the one. Also thanks the crowd. Good good. Enjoyed it.

Switzerland : She Got Me – Luca Hänni

They last won in 1988 with Celine Dion apparently. The boy band entry… well ‘one man boy band’ entry. Flashing lights and all the tricks. Well choreographed. The backing dancers being dressed in red, in red light, with a red background makes them barely viewable if you’re there in the crowd and not by the front. It’s a nice upbeat entry. All the boys go… All the girls go… Everyone goes… eh, it’s alright and I can dance to it so it’s got that going for it. He’s got that leather vest under a sleeveless jacket look which no one can pull off… and again I’ve seen that costume on a fighting game character I swear. [edit: e.g. Robert Garcia in both SNK’s ‘Art of Fighting’ and ‘King of Fighters’ series]

Australia : Zero Gravity – Miller – Hedke

Australia is in Europe everyone jokes… and yet still they compete. At least others are geographically close if not in Europe. Ice queen outfight with tiara crown. It’s a flying Statue of Liberty. Yodelling woman… cunning. I like it. Then it goes all ‘electro-dance beat… well this is going to compete hard then. Are they all on stilts? Oh no they’re on… sticks. I’m sure the staging is amazing if you’re there but it looks comical at home. I’m getting ‘Christ at the Crucifixion’ vibes due to the crown and there being three of them. The ‘death of Liberty’ undertext. It’s pick up votes from oldschool Eurovision lovers no question.

Spain : La Venda – Miki

Comic panel staging. It’s meant to be a house but nope. Full on 6 panel newspaper comic look. Very upbeat and fun. This will get votes for it and by people who’ve forgotten all the others. Weird light giant thing on stage too. Fun. The backing dancers look like they are meant to be doing an exercise at home doe a ‘exercise at home with [insert name of a reality TV celebrity]’ moneygrabbing name recognition exercise video. This should get quite a few votes. Good one to end on. It’s been a bit of a dour year to be honest with far too many ‘safe’ entries.

* * *

Apparently if you vote you get a thank you video from the artist you voted for. They did that for the Olympics too for some reason.

While you vote they showed previous years’ winners singing other winners’ songs and some favourites of the past. Quite interesting really. They did it as a sort of Cabaret thing. Conchita’s outfit took inspiration from Hakke Andrey a character from Atlus’ Maken X computer game it seems.

* * *

Madonna appears and does a song. Like a wild pokemon in the long grass. Wearing an eyepatch with a costume suggesting both pirate and pearly queen of London’s Eastend. Promoting her album Madam X. Then gives some inspirational words to the performers which come across as a bit patronising. A presenter says she knows what she is talking about which… yes please tell musicians to pay attention for some life advice as if it’s not their career and think it’s not at all insulting to them you grovelling little scab. Madonna? Knowing about being a successful singer? No really? Musicians performing at Euroviosn not knowing their stuff? Really? Then she quotes her own song and tries to get people to repeat it but it falls flat.

Then someone else performs.

Oh it’s Ukraine who pulled out of the contest! Except not really. Ukraine forbade Maruv to compete because she had toured in Russia and so Eurovision let her perform her song as a sign of goodwill on their part though not representing Ukraine obviously.

(Not Ukraine) interval act: MARUV – Siren Song (Bang!)

Well you can’t lose if you don’t compete! Oh yeah this is far too sexual for this year’s tastes. They’d have to tame it down immensely. Phwoar nonetheless. Going for that dad vote like Poland did a few years ago with their ‘My Słowianie – We Are Slavic’ milk churning women in traditional ress performance in 2014 but Maruv makes it clearly more dominatrix in tone.

However I recorded it as ‘a song called something like ‘Boee (Come With Me)’ was played at this point. I assume in hindsight it was Maruv as the lyric ‘come with me’ is mentioned.

I prefer music reflect the culture of the performers and this does. I wish more of the songs had followed this tone as it makes it much more interesting than the euro-pop that got humoginised over time and then got a slight revival due to developments in staging with back projection, slim large 4K HD monitors and such.

Also the ‘political protest is not allowed’ seems a rule very weakly enforced depending on which country is saying it. Here’s one video about the events happening outside the event.

Quavo appears. His first time at Eurovision. He is, like Madonna, dressed as if they’re filming a Mad Max or Waterworld sequel. He says his mom grew up listening to Madonna. Mikedrop moment as if he had been throwing shade intentionally or not…

Then a mentalist trick with a ‘not Derren Brown’ guy to pad the run time while the votes are going on.

Then ‘chicken song’ [a.k.a. ‘Toy’] singer Netta, who won last year, appeared in a yellow ‘na na banana’ dress with a new song. It’s like a song for preschool children got given a remix… When a 9 year old girl is asked what she wants at her birthday party I image something like this. She wants a classy evening dress affair dinner party but then she also wants bright colours and pop music.

Then Madonna, after the third or fourth reminder of all the entrants, fnally performed. Everyone was waiting for another ‘throttled by her cape’ moment of course. The staging screams Gregorian chanting monks even without the costumes. So it’s one more step down the ‘no, I’m not being blasphemous’ road like her videos in the 1980s which got her in trouble with the Catholic church back then. They’re trying to make her songs sound like anthemic hymns by doing them a beat or so slower tempo wise with chanting backing singers and a beats machine. I mean… okay. But it’s also weird considering it’s what you would hear if all the sound equipment failed at a concert.

Then the monks carry logs or pillars up the steps. She seems out of breath. Then she does a quasi-Shakespearean bit with one dancer to Tchaikovsky’s the sugar plum fairy… the dancer has a white gas mask on and a flower crown which seems quite political surely. Weird segway. Then the Quavo guy turns up with heavy vocal balancing effects on his voice and Madonna sounds like she is underwater.

She got a muted response in the hall…

* * *

The VOTES:

The.. vote… finally… the votes… it seemed shorter between the final act and the votes when they used to allow more entrants per year than it does with these never ending interval acts and padding.

Then the presenters have Gal Gadot turn up in a VT promoting the country… because what else can they do to pad it out even further. I don’t recall over host coutries doing this but maybe I’m forgetting them.

Jokes about Israelis but in a self-depricating manner. However only on light topics like music and things that come across as an advert for the country’s tourism board. Gosh ren’t we a quirky fun country? Nothing bad happens here. Just forget all the active warzone on the borders kind of stuff – we are all about the chicken song and Gal Gadot. Forget the whole ongoing conflict you might get caught up in as a visitor… it’s all good here we love everyone… well except ‘those people‘… but apart from them everyone is welcome.

Jury votes!!!

It starts off with last year’s host Portugal with Inez whoever she is… 12 to Netherlands…

We, Britain, gave 12 to North Macedonia…. the power of ‘dressing like your on the pull on a girl’s night out and it’s 2.30AM’ wins us over.

Russia has a piano player to do the point announcement…. after doing a brief recital piece. I mean all the point announcers are having a 30 second of fame moment I guess though they’re famous people in their own country anyway and it’s not enough time for people to remember them… presumably. Greece had an electric guitar rock band guy too.

And now I’ll just recount the ones who gave Britain points… any at all… and let’s not think ‘potential trade union deal partners post-Brexit?’ while doing it.

Norway – 2 points.

Hungary – 2 points.

Belarus – 5 points [also phwoar… shockingly the only true one this year it seems! Actually was she on a previous year?]

Armenia – 2 points

Georgia – 1 point.

Switzerland – 1 point

13 professional jury points in total! We are not ‘nul point’ this year! Others are doing worse than us and that’s as good as we can ask!

We gave Norway 12 points… wel they gave us two so that’s okay…

The public vote

3 points from the public. FUUUUUUUUUUUUUU…. well that’s this year’s sacrificial lamb done with.

Germany got no public points… brutal.

Once it was down to Sweden vs Netherlands they dragged out the final announcement to up the tension for no good reason repeating that Sweden needed 253 points. They got 93.

The winner was… The Netherlands with 492 points. 1975 was the last time they won. Last year’s winner hands the trophy to the new winner. The run up to get it is dragged out. The music loops. He holds it aloft. Someone, somewhere is shedding tears. Others are sat on the toilet evacuating their bowels. It’s over for another year.

So another year and another low ranking place. Once it as due to participation in the Iraq war… now it’s Brexit. In fairness some of the entries were bad and others were just throwing something at it and seeing if it would work some years. Some years we actually had good acts, others were ‘bring out the old horses to flog’ and a few were ‘sod it we just can’t be bothered’.

The presenters thank the broadcaster and it’s almost 2AM in Israel and they’ve still to wheel the piano out. They skip it and have him miming the piano this time (not that he was playing it anyway probably). He calls on the audience to sing the chorus with him as streamers fall from above.

Reign well God-king of the Netherlands, ride unto the shores of Valhalla all shiny and chrome upon the unplayed piano that is your steed. Let the thundering arsecheeks of the farting oarsmen clpa their rhythm in your wake. Let the warble of your voice be the birdsong that sends your opponents to their fate. Their defeat was a foregone conclusion as the fates foretold through their oracles bookie’s stakes…

* * *

Bonus: Those who didn’t make it to the finals

For the first year of doing these I’ll also include those who fell before the final hurdle. Sadly I actually liked some of them more than those acts who were in the grand final!

Semi-Finalists

Armenia : Walking Out – Srbuk

Zettai ryouiki again… it must have been the fashion this year. The only flesh allowed to be shown to be ‘sexy’ without offending Israeli TV censors I assume. Pyro technics which really punctuate the end of the song but… the whole song is in minor key though you feel it should be in major so… it was good but I can see why on balance some other acts edged it out into being in the finale.

Ireland : 22 – Sarah McTernan

The checkerboard pattern and popart featured gives the staging that aesthetic retro ‘1950s yet with a 1990s twist’ I recall a few British boybands having in some of their music videos. Red leather skirt ad strappy heels – again sexy in a conservative manner. She has a husky voice which I don’t feel fits the song and the syling they’ve used as you associate the 1950s with higher pitched singers of that era… this song if it was more upbeat with a different singer would definitely sound more like a 1950s hit but instead it sounds a little like it is meant to act as an ‘in those good old days’ reflective sad ballad but it just doesn’t work. A different song would have worked with her voice. So it’s understandable they didn’t progress to the final. Oh and obviously it’s a surprise Ireland didn’t get into the finals but this probably isn’t the first time ever though, from a British perspective, we tend to notice their absence.

Moldova : Stay – Anna Odobescu

Using sand/salt art projected onto a screen is interesting but I think it was done in previous years and… I’m not sure but I think that’s the Ukrainian artist, Kseniya Simonova, who is famous for it they have doing it live on the stage with the singer… wait yes I just confirmed it’s her. Well considering Ukraine pulled out this year as a protest [and yet did the interval somehow] I am assuming she is going to be getting a lot of criticsm in her homeland… [apparently not in hindsight]. Anyway the singer is wearing a dress which is half 1980s wedding dress and half modern ‘going out tonight’ dress. Heer voice reminds me of the American singer Anastacia. It’s very much a dramatic Eurovison style ballad and I enjoy it so I’m a bit surprised it didn’t get through considering how bland some of the fianlists were. Maybe some of the notes didn’t hit the heights the judges would have liked to give that extra punch to the songs impact.

Latvia : That Night – Carousel

I feel this and the Slovenian entry would have been an interesting juxtapositon to each other. Apparently there was only room for one soft song of this type this year and the young couple had the better ‘story’. A simple lace dress with boots and a wide brimmed hat to give that summertime mood when singing the reflective romantic song while accompanied by a 3 piece accompaniment. They all look much older in the official video. It’s a nice easy listening song. The singer has a charm making her appealling but I guess it was just too mellow for this year’s judges which is a shame as it would get my vote.. if I was the sort to vote for these things. Ultimately the stripped back staging with just a swaying dance, with a few turning walks, was just too little of an impact for a contest that seems to need more and more spectacle in the projected visuals nowadays.

Romania : On a Sunday – Ester Peony

Interesting costumes where it’s rhinestone/sequins covered eveningsuit wear on top with a punk-charcoal puffskirt rock lower half with platform Goth boots. Phwoar. You know who her look reminds me of? Missy from Dr Who a few years ago. The dancers look like they are meant to promoting a computer game… specifically the character designs of the fighter when the Mortal Kombat series first dabbled in 3D use. It’s going for that sort of alternative rock look but the song is a quite traditional Eurovison ballad. It’s an also ran entry ultimately. Take the dancers away and it’s not got anything unique in the song itself. Singer phwoar; song snore. The first line or so she has very odd pronunciation for Sunday as if warbling the line. The backing singers have an oddly ‘baby doll’ look to them. It’s all very ‘what fashion designers think of when given the brief to produce something ‘dark’ themed so they break out the black fethers, leather books and harsh tailoring or otherwise go to the Gothic Lolita side of the ‘dark’ spectrum. Indeed it is understandable why this didn’t get to the finale though I’m certain the singer is capable of better than this when allowed to do her own thing. I don’t get the audience’s reaction when the pyrotechnics go off unless they were not expecting them as they showed appaulled by them from their tone not excited as you might expect. Maybe they were too cloe to them.

Austria : Limits – Pænda

A soft uplifting song for the most part though it has one point towards the end where she sounds quite bad. Lighting gradually growing with the intensity. Her costume really doesn’t fit with the style of song. Is she wearing a dress or trousers? It’s just she has the look of a middle aged woman desperate to pull on Fridy night in the local bar kind of aura… [also considering the look of many of this years acts she is showing too much skin for the judges’ /broadcaster’s liking no doubt]. She sounds like she hits a lot of bad notes when she gets to the more intense moments. A very disjointed entry and indeed one I can definitely understand didn’t get through. If anything it represents my issue with this year everything is far too restrained and dull. The songs are all too focused on presenting something which appeals to the broadest dynamic and so instead of something memorable it’s all of the lowest common denominator.

Croatia : The Dream – Roko

Taking the lyrics and the whole ‘I’m an angel in a lake of fire’ aesthetic into account… is he meant to be playing Lucifer?! I mean that’s gutsy to be doing that in Israel of all places… Then the backing dancers come down and honestly it’s the look you see as a parody of an ‘overly pretentious pop act’. The song is nice enough but I think they shot themselves in the foot with their visual concept…

Lithuania : Run with the Lions – Jurij Veklenko

This would have been an interesting contrast with the Greek entry as both have distinctive vocalists. Visually there’s all the ‘generic stylish young handsome guy’ boxes ticked. He sings surprisingly high for a lot of the song if I’m honest. I know there’s singer/songwriters like Passenger who are like that but it’s not an easy sell for most people. The song is decent if generic. It’s quite bland and forgettable to be honest though there’s nothing wrong with it to be honest.

* * *

Non-Qualified Countries

Hungary : Az én apám – Joci Pápai

Straight away I feel this has a lot more impact than many got through to the finals. It really gets a good reaction from the audience there. Barring the ‘performing in bare feet’ bit he is very much in the standard ‘generic safe male performer’ visually. It’s actually shocking someone of this calibre didn’t get through. There’s not much to add. It’s disappointing this didn’t get through as it would have done well.

Montenegro : Heaven – D mol

Dance music start. Very conservative outfits… maybe a little too conservative as they remind me of American Evangelical preachers. The third guy is very nasal which sticks out like a sore thumb for his moment. It’s the sort of song you can imagine having been performed about ten years ago at the latest. They’re all decent but in a year of bland they’re the wrong kind of bland. They’re not ‘what a middle aged panel of judges thinks appeals to young people these days’ inoffensively safe but just ‘old fashioned’ safe. Too safe in a year I felt was overly safe… which is kind of tragic.

Georgia : Keep on Going – Oto Nemsadze

I still recall previous years entries by them. Georgia is the country always certain to do entries I thoroughly enjoy and would listen to independent of the Eurovision contest. Each year I forget and each year they surprise me and I recall the quality the country produces. I like this but it is in stark contrast to many other more mainstream, safely commerical, entries this year so got excluded for a ‘smoother’ running order experience I guess with only Iceland being the notable ‘see we let different acts take part’ token gesture entry. The wailing bit really adds support to his main vocals. Then a male choir chorus too! And pyrotechnics?! They really built this up throughout the song to a good climax. And he even thanks the audience which not every act does. They were robbed of a place! This is my ‘spiritual’ victor who sadly didn’t get placed!

Finland : Look Away – Darude feat. Sebastian Rejman

Leather jacket and blue jeans… is it the 1980s, 90s or 2019? A dance track song. Yeah it’s okay. Dance music isn’t my thing though it’s one of the pan European crowd pleasers. It would have stuck out a little this year but like some others feels like it’s missing the ‘punch’ it needed to just get a bit more traction. It’s better than some of the finalists to be honest. Generic for a previous year but for now it would have been distinctive. The dancer does very well considering all eyes are on her more than him during it. Oh it’s Darude… and he didn’t get through?! Shock result! Even I know who he is! Maybe he was felt to be a ‘ringer’ being entered into this contest and it would have been unfair as he would have taken so much of the popular vote from the public…

Poland : Pali się – Tulia

Nation of ‘we don’t take this serious’ with their milkchurning girls in traditional dress with ‘My Słowianie – We Are Slavic’ in 2014, a wheelchair user in 2015 performing In The Name of Love and now… they’ve early 90s girl band vocals like Elastica while wearing quasi- traditonal Slavic yet Mongolian ceremonial dress?! Their voices are cutting through me. Bit too repetitive but they get the audience on side. I would have liked to see them in the final as a novelty act to break up the monotony. Their floating heads on the screens seem more in keeping with this years tone than their costumes on stage. I can see why it didn’t get through but good on them thanking the crowd.

Portugal : Telemóveis – Conan Osíris

This should have got into the finals! The song has a very sort of Arabic chant style but mixed with Eastern mysticism style before exploding into a sort of Electro-synth dance beat reminding me of the soundtrack to Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell anime film. It actually seemed really interesting costume wise in a ‘Mortal Kombat if Kazuma Kaneko did the costume designs’ way… On the whole this year felt very ‘safe’ in terms of most of the acts. At least this one had some style to it even if not to everyones’ tastes. Again thanking the audience. Maybe in the final they were not allowed to or their microphones got cut off when they did it?

Belgium : Wake Up – Eliot

Taiko drums? And this didn’t get placed? Let’s see why… drumming on the beat. Um… yeah his vocals are not strong enough sadly. Someone with a bit more power to their voice and this probably could have gone through but as it is it sounds like a teenager covering it for a school talent contest. The audience clap in time with the beat to support him. Well hopefully he can go away, train his voice some more and we will hear from him again. The drummers do very well in fairness. Smoke effects? I don’t think anyone else had those. Maybe he got cut so they wouldn’t have to fork out for those in the final?

* * *

Ukraine’s withdrawal this year: Maruv was allowed to perform by Eurovision without it being connected to representing Ukraine for the reasons detailed below. In hindsight is very good of them as it’s not her fault that the country she was to represent took umbridge with her touring obligations which inevitably included work in Russia despite the broadcaster imposing what were clearly politically motivated conditions of her contract if she were to represent Ukraine. Kudos too should go to the show of solidarity by ‘Freedom Jazz’ and ‘Kazka’ who were offered the contract when Maruv wouldn’t agree to the terms.

So what’s the story?

Ukraine withdrew from the competition this year. It was politically motivated, though they would deny it of course, hence why Eurovision extended a hand to let Maruv perform even if she wasn’t able to compete. A goodwill gesture by them to the performer surely should be applauded as there was no political intent behind her decisions though the Ukraine frame it as such because she honoured tour dates that had, by the time of the contract being proposed, been agreed upon long beforehand.

To quote the Wikipedia article’s synopsis of events:

“During the final of the national selection, it was announced that the broadcaster had reserved the right to change the decision made by the jury and Ukrainian public. Following Maruv’s win, it was reported that the broadcaster had sent her management a contract, requiring Maruv to cancel all upcoming appearances and performances in Russia in order to become the Ukrainian representative. After it became clear that she would be performing in two concerts in Russia the following months, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Culture Vyacheslav Kyrylenko stated that artists who toured in Russia or “did not recognise the territorial integrity of Ukraine” should not take part in Eurovision. She was also given 48 hours to sign the contract or be replaced. The day afterwards, Maruv revealed that the broadcaster’s contract had additionally banned her from improvising on stage and communicating with any journalist without the permission of the broadcaster, and required her to fully comply with any requests from the broadcaster. If she were to not follow any of these clauses, she would be fined ₴2 million (~€67,000). Maruv also stated that the broadcaster would not give her any financial compensation for the competition and would not pay for the trip to Tel Aviv.

On 25 February, both Maruv and the broadcaster confirmed that she would not represent Ukraine in Israel due to disputes within the contract, and that another act would be chosen. National final runner-up Freedom Jazz announced on 26 February that they had rejected the broadcaster’s offer to represent Ukraine as well, with third place finisher Kazka confirming they had rejected the offer as well the following day.

It is considered controversial for Ukrainian artists to tour in Russia following the 2014 Russian military intervention in Ukraine.”

Blog Update: Blwyddyn Newydd Dda! Happy New Year! С новым годом! 2019

For over a year I’ve updated this blog daily and seen a surge in the number of visitors and views for which I’m deeply grateful. However, as I’m sure you’ve already realised before I even finish this sentence, such a frequent rate of uploading can’t be maintained.

I’m not stopping the blog but just altering to a more manageable frequency of posting. There will definitely be one poetry entry per week with the possibility of additional posts if there’s an opportunity. On the bright side this gives me time to post longer poems as you’ll have noticed that, more often than not, there’s a limit to the length of those featured so far.

It’ll also give me a chance to post the reviews and other such articles that I keep drafting but putting to rot in a folder. There are a number of events dating back years now that should have been posted at the time but I can now look at them with hindsight and better assess their impact.

So yes, in brief, there will less frequent uploads but there’ll be more variety. It’ll only be reduced down from daily to weekly posts which is surely still reasonable as I am just one person and you’ve multi-person teams who barely upload something once a week (if that).

Most likely it’ll be more reviews and such coming alongside a weekly poem. I’ll try to remember to alternate between Welsh and Russian poems but I might throw in some others from different sources too.

There are over 800 posts on the blog so you’re welcome to delve into the archives in the meantime and comment on anything if you’ve any views or questions you would like to express.

So what’s with the title image?

Have you heard of the following Welsh traditions?

The Mari Lwyd is a wassailing folk custom in South Wales conducted around this time of year. The tradition entails the use of an eponymous hobby horse which is made from a horse’s skull mounted on a pole and carried by an individual hidden under a sackcloth. It represents a regional variation of a “hooded animal” tradition that appears in various forms throughout Great Britain.

Also recently there was Plygain: a traditional Welsh Christmas service which takes place in a church between three and six o’clock in the morning, traditionally on Christmas morning.

On a sidenote I’ve gotten into Folk Horror recently and attended Snowcat Cinema’s evening of BBC Ghost Stories at Penarth Pier a few weeks ago so look forward to a few posts about that topic too.

I hope you have a nice New Year’s Day and if you’ve any suggestions for the blog such as Russian films to review, Folk Horror stories to read, films/TV episodes to watch or anything about Wales you’d like to hear about then please comment below as everyone is welcome.

Eurovison 2018 Grand Final

So as per tradition here is the list of the Eurovision grand final entrants with videos of their songs and the contest’s results along with my usual irreverent comments… not that anyone takes Eurovision that seriously anyway hopefully.

Each act drew in which half of the Grand Final they would perform. As host country, Portugal drew its exact starting position (8) during the Heads of Delegation meeting in March. The running order is being decided to ensure each act has the opportunity to stand out. The producers look at the genre of music, whether a song is performed by a solo singer or group, the use of props, music tempo and various other aspects of each act. In other words the run order is ‘quiet, LOUD, quiet, LOUD, slow, FAST, slow, FAST, etc’

The running order in the finale was:

  1. Ukraine – MELOVIN: Under The Ladder

He is a vampire… or one of the goths off South Park. During one of the green room interviews the presenter, via a translator, asked him about it… That aside the backing singers paw the air and he sets fire to a set of stairs leading up to a grand piano. Common practise for Eurovision then… The song is generic so I can’t really comment on it. It was okay but forgettable thus they sacrificed him as the first act in order to warm the crowd up.

  1. Spain – Amaia y Alfred: Tu Canción

She looks like a young Rachel Weisz. He looks like the Jonas brother Disney locked away but has escaped. This is the ‘we really are in love, no honestly! – we’ve been in love the past 3 weeks/months… around the time we were put forward for the contest’ entry. It was a good ballad. I wish it had done better. I wonder if they’ll be together now the contest is over.

  1. Slovenia – Lea Sirk: Hvala, ne!

Electro beat, lots of synchonised dancing and a costume that makes me think she is going to run off into a plane and go do a bit of wingsuit glding like a flying squirrel… It’s meant to a motivational song but… it comes across like an exercise class down the local recreation centre by a motivational speaker.

  1. Lithuania – Ieva Zasimauskaitė: When We’re Old

This is the first of the ‘wait is that being projected as a hologram so the audience there see what we at home are seeing?’ moments. A 1970’s dress, twee millennial song and baiting ‘isn’t being in love for a long time great?’ for votes. Then to cap it off her husband comes on and awkwardly gets her attention before giving her a hug. Rewatch the clip for the moment he taps her to get her attention. It was a hilarious micro-transaction. Also do Eurovision have a ban on kissing? Becuase that would have been more appropriate as it seems this was a planned moment and would have been more fitting. It’s a nice song… but like all twee minor key ‘girl in love’ music I would likely be out for blood if having endure it repeatedly over the space of a a short amount of time. This sort of music seemed to be everywhere a few years ago.

  1. Austria – Cesár Sampson: Nobody But You

A good, soulful, song. His shirt is of a fabric last seen worn in the early 90s. Actually seeing it again I notice a ruffle on it’s left sleeve. It looks jut like a basic tshirt with a rubberish surface but apparently not. The song starts off well by by the end gets a bit too repetitive for my liking but what are you going to do really? It was a good effort.

  1. Estonia – Elina Nechayeva: La Forza

Sing opera. Wear an elaborate dress they project imagery on. I like it but it feels ridiculously melodramatic even for the Eurovision let alone an operatic performance. I really liked it but it was inevitable something more ‘accessable’ would win… [rant incoming…]

  1. Norway – Alexander Rybak: That’s How You Write A Song

The second, and most motable of the ‘does the audience there see all these effects or do they just see him miming?’ moments. The song title is arrogant thus his manner and everything becomes ‘I’ve done it once and I’ll easily do it again compared to these Eurovision amateurs. The backing dancers look like they escaped from a 90s housing estate. The man’s face at 1:32 of the video sums up everyone’s reaction to this song… Then the guy pulls a violin out his backside and does a shuffling dance. No one in the audience is singing along though at one point in the song he calls on them to. Yeah…

  1. Portugal – Cláudia Pascoal: O Jardim

Pink hair = SJW agenda? It sounds like Dido or the XX but it’s an original song but the influence is there… It came in last place at the end of the night which really was undeserved as it had more merit than some other songs. Ultimately it was a victim of ‘on the night’ having a weak vocal performance. I don’t know if it was the best choice to have the second person come on stage for that one refrain really… who also hasa very retro 80/90s hairstyle. It was a good song so it’s a shame it did so poorly.

  • break position

    The hosts go about goggle eyed interviewing people, making jokes and coming across incredibly awkward even for Eurovision hosts… especially the one with the constant look of shock doing all the work in the green room unfortunately.

  1. United Kingdom – SuRie: Storm

There was a stage invasion during this performance and apparently they’ve chosen to not give the ‘grand finale’ version but the Jury Show version done the night before the final. But fear not for here is the moment!

It was a decent song but admittedly nothing spectacular. I think we should have done better to be honest but then as the memes of Twitter commented Brexit no doubt played its part and everyone joked we should win and then deny anyone coming for the contest visas. But then there’s hold over from the Iraq war resentment and such too no doubt. Some countries, a few which were surprises, gave us points and there were jokes they’ll be seeing a boost to their tourist as an act of their good faith. I think what got to people was the lack of sympathy votes of a point or two from all but a few countries. The audience at the venue however gave her a rousing cheer so t least she has that. She recovered incredibly well after the stage invasion and was given the opportunity to perform again at the end of the running order if she wanted but she declined. As for the stage invader he was rapper, political activist and serial stage invader ‘Dr ACactivism’, who was plugging his book with a slogan on his t-shirt.

  1. Serbia – Sanja Ilić & Balkanika: Nova Deca

Obviously the pipe player got ‘MVP of the night’ no question. The male vocalist reminded me of Rasputin from Hellboy. You know it’s around now I began noticing how few of the perofmrers seemed to be wearing any colours besides black and white tonight which is a massive shift from previous years… it’s ll getting a bit too earnest nowadays. Nonetheless I enjoyed it. Later on, in the green room, apparently the singer kissed the presenter there unexpectedly and people on twitter were commenting on informed consent and such…

  1. Germany – Michael Schulte: You Let Me Walk Alone

The song reminds me of James Blunt, David Gray and singers from the early 2000s. People compared him to Mick Hucknell. He, like the Lithuania entry, has old photos showing in the background to get the emotional response. He was decent in fairness but it’s not the sort of music I’ve ever found appealing.

  1. Albania – Eugent Bushpepa: Mall

I really enjoyed this. His jacket’s design was interesting. People thought he looked like Elijah Wood. I’ve not much to add really. It reminds me of any number of songs I hear as the title song for computer games or at the end of films during credits – but in a good way.

  1. France – Madame Monsiuer: Mercy

How did this not steamrolled over other acts when getting points? They performed 13th and came 13th… It had it all… a message, the performance, while a bit weaker than previous ones, was still strong, they won over the audience… Maybe it’s just it’s very up my street and it charmed me. Admittedly the ‘half skirt’ they both are wearing and her shoulderpads are a bit ‘odd but not in an eccentric way’. The red shoes seem a bit unco-ordinated with the rest of their outfits barring her lipstick and nail polish.

  1. Czech Republic – Mikolas Josef: Lie To Me

Geek chic… or I should say ‘unflattering depiction of intellectual characters in a comedy from the early 90s’… Everyone was wondering what was in the backpack and kept comparing him to the lead character in the film ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’. The dancing was good. The song was decent pop. Um, yeah nothing to be critical off except the costume to be honest. Probably a nice guy but the whole thing gave an attitude he probably is a bit of a wanker ‘lad’ going out on a drinking session on a Friday night in costume for some reason like a stag do…

  1. Denmark – Rasmussen: Higher Ground

Everyone compared the red haired singer to a character from Game Of Thrones. This was a great anthemic song… yet also only got middling vote numbers by the end. This year was baffling. Admittedly the ‘stomping in formation’ choreography is a bit funny but overall it was a good performance. I get it was too ‘one note’ or something compared to others who seemed to completely shift their musical style mid-song this year.

  1. Australia – Jessica Mauboy: We Got Love

Indigenous Australian lady performing for her coutnry and apparently had quite the heartwarming tory behind rising from an amateur ordition on a reality show all the way to performing here. As people noted her dress was far too short for some of the dance moves she was busting out towards the end. Or to be more exact the cameraman’s angle was clearly aiming to get a gratuitous shot or two. Nonethless it was a strong entry from Australia as per usual… but also came near the bottom. On Twitter were a lot of photoshopped maps reminding everyone that Australia isn’t in the southern hemisphere but actually just the other side of Ireland.

  • break position

I can’t remember what happened. More ‘comedy’ and interviews. I think this is when the presenter got an unexpected kiss and everyone suddenly began to decry informed consent and such. Who knows? I didn’t see the exact moment myself just the stillframe shots of her reaction… which looked just like her normal face as she had a PTSD stare the entire evening.

  1. Finland – Saara Aalto: Monsters

If this had been the second act of the evening you would think there was a horror theme to tonight’s finale. People said the backing dancers looked like Fascists or Star Wars rejects. People thought this, rather than the Irish entry, would be the gay anthem of the night. The spinning wheel and going upside down was good. The song is a bit too repetitive for me but there we go. This was second to last in the final votes of the evening which… well it was as good as many others but it wasn’t bad and at least had the backing dancers in interesting costumes.

18. Bulgaria – EQUINOX: Bones

As people said the female singer has a very Lady Gaga/1980s cyberpunk look though she reminds me of Gwen Steffani more so. The song is decent pop though its lyrics are a bit repetitive but whatever… Fun fact: I almost left this off the list by accident somehow.

  1. Moldova – DoReDoS: My Lucky Day

The staging and perfromance is classic Eurovision. The song is classic generic Euovision in sound reminding me of Abba… but that’s it. They’ll be on lots of ‘hilight clips’ no doubt. It’s just all very ‘Scooby Doo chase’ and cheesy 70s sex romp comedy really…

  1. Sweden – Benjamin Ingrosso: Dance You Off

Is this a remix of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Rock Your Body’ song and it’s music video staging? The intro part definitely makes you think of it. So that’s 80 seconds before he actually does his own song… then goes back to the copyright infringing part. Then he begins doing drunk dad at a wedding ‘I used have some moves in my youth’ dancing… The staging is nice for a pop song in fairness but it is quite bland to me.

  1. Hungary – AWS: Viszlát Nyár

It reminds me of a lot of recent rock music with the screamed lyrics. It’s in Hungarian so that’s novel but I swear I’ve heard parts of this in other rock music recently. Someoen joked it was nice to see the band ‘Bullet For My Valentine’ getting work. I can imagine this being on the soundtrack for an action film aimed at teenagers. I enjoyed it and it’s a change of pace for this competition.

  1. Israel – Netta: Toy

Chicken noises. What I’m assuming will get claims of ‘cultural approriation’ from certain quarters. It’s the sort of act that always gets included in the highlights for being flamboyant and eccentric. The sad thing is you can hear she has some ability as a singer but the nonsense noises and such just make it unpalatable. It’s not so much the act itself that bothered people as much as this is what won in the end… personally I’m fine with such entries but there were some that were seriously worth doing better and to have this as the victor feels like it rubs salt in the wound for those entrants.

  1. The Netherlands – Waylon: Outlaw In ‘Em

A Netherlands country singer, who worked with Waylon Jennings before his death so is definitely trained by the best, and his backing dancers who honestly must have been at a loss at what choreography to do to the song short of line dancing… so chose gurning and flailing. The costumes for this all seemed to be wrong. The song was good country music in fairness but I think no one was sure how to stage it at all… also… leopard print? Really?

  1. Ireland – Ryan O’Shaughnessy: Together

A milquetoast song. Due to this one having the dancers depict a homosexual relationship and the tattoos of other acts the showing of the Eurovision song contest was banned in China as it was against their broadcasting regulations. The dance choreography was good. The song is a bit too scchrine for my tates what with the sustained ‘whine’ sounding note. People want Dustin the Turkey to have another go at Eurovision and to go represent Ireland in Israel next year.

  1. Cyprus – Eleni Foureira: Fuego

People said she was a Poundshop (i.e. budget/cut price/cheap knockoff) version of Beyonce. In fairness the dancers are all incredibly well synchonised but this is definitely more about the dance than the song which I swear I heard last year or recently at least. Maybe the dance reminds me of those ‘man in high heels’ ancers that were on British adverts in Britiain a few years ago (if you don’t know what I’m on about by all means go look for the ‘Money Supermarket’ adverts on YouTube). To be honest if this had been performed earlier in the running order I don’t think it would have had the votes it got in the end but it did at least stand out amongst this year’s entries.

  1. Italy – Ermal Meta e Fabrizio Moro: Non Mi Avete Fatto Niente

This seemed like the definite winner to me. However on the night the staging and such was a bit bare bones. I still think, despite getting 5th, this should have done better. This was Italy sending out it’s big hitters with an anthemic song with a message…

THEN THERE WAS AN INTERLUDE WHICH SEEMED LIKE IT WOULD NEVER END. It was slow songs (ONUKA last year were brilliant and other years they’ve had people like Justin Timberlake but it fell on it’s face this year save informing anyone who wasn’t aware that last year’s winner had a heart transplant and is in good health now), terrible comedy sketches by the presenters, interviews, cut aways… it just seemed like an eternity to many people on Twitter with some professing they had lost consciousness or grown a beard in the meantime.

But then finally the votes came along. The world rejoiced… for a moment.

The highlight being the greeting ‘hello humans’… as if the woman speaking was a humanoid lizard or something. The low light being the needless booing when the Russian judge appeared. It’s hard to say things are not political when you have such pantomime behaviour like that…

The Voting results in full

  1. Israel 529

  2. Cyprus 436

  3. Austria 342

  4. Germany 340

  5. Italy 308

  6. Czech Republic 281

  7. Sweden 274

  8. Estonia 245

  9. Denmark 226

  10. Moldovia 209

  11. Albania 184

  12. Lithuania 181

  13. France 173

  14. Bulgaria 166

  15. Norway 144

  16. Ireland 136

  17. Ukraine 130

  18. The Netherlands 121

  19. Serbia 113

  20. Australia 99

  21. Hungary 93

  22. Slovenia 64

  23. Spain 61

  24. UK 48

  25. Finland 46

  26. Portugal 39

Thus Israel won. The gag entry won.

I guess, in a year of such diverse acts, it proves that in such situations where there is so much choice to suit different people’s tastes it’s ultimately the lowest common denominator which ends up rising to the top… and for Eurovision that is novelty acts.

I can’t wait to see how Israel deals with this. Everyone complained about going to Russia due to any number of reasons. Meanwhile everyone will act like it’s perfectly fine entering a country which [insert whatever is the current news coverage when you’re reading this regarding any middle east conflicts and such] happening on it’s borders if not inside them. It’s going to be fun finding out which acts will be barred from entering due to political reasons just as the Russian competitor was barred from entering Ukrainian territory last year and told to perform via satellite feed if at all… [Fun fact: it was the same person meant to perform this year but she didn’t make it through to the grand final].

Usually I enjoy the contest but the near silence regarding the stage invasion by the (even more wooden than usual) presenters acknowledging it and the underwhelming tone of the event, as a whole, really made this worse than many recent years. There were a few outstanding songs but the subdued tone of it all means this year will be quickly forgotten. I think we have all got used to the spectacle of elaborate staging in recent years and that was something that felt like it was missing this year. Perhaps there’s a much tighter budget or something and if so it has had a detrimental effect sadly.