Category Archives: television

What can He-Man and Mary of Scots have in common?

They both ended in 87…400 years apart.

And they’re both royal.

And their stories are about leading with justice and tolerance.

The link between Mary Stuart and the royal family of Eternia may take imagination to see. But in the new film with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, I felt there is an interpretation, if not an intention, to use this historic story to speak to us in our time, just as He-Man and She-Ra were, I believe, meant to have greater morals than the ones spelt out at the end of each episode.

I know this film has now left most cinemas, but I took the time to see it twice and to watch all the other available films/TV and do some reading before commenting, and my observations remain pertinent to our times.

I liked the lack of polarity which I observed in some other stories about Elizabeth and Mary.

It seems to me that these women say: if we’d trusted our hearts, and each other, might all this not have happened? If we’d not let our advisors poison us – several of whom wanted the throne for themselves, or to steer its occupier…if we’d let our draw as women, as sisters guide us…

This is not an anti-men story, but I think it is anti the traditional male rule. Elizabeth felt that society only offered her the choice of wife and mother. To reign, she must cast off her gender, or the limitations of it. Even today, women expect to lead but also be defined by our status usually in relation to a man, and by the children we bear.

The 16th century courts were aberrations of what ought to be. Even the most intimate relationship had become a commodity, a business transaction, nothing to do with love and companionship, but forming an allegiance and keeping bloodlines pure and heirs unambiguous.

What a dreadful way to live – for women and men.

Many of us are feeling that it’s time to do differently. We feel that feeling is a good thing, not something to be suppressed or ignored. In another new film, On The Basis of Sex, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is told she can’t be a lawyer because women are too emotional. What’s wrong with caring? Doesn’t that make better lawyers, politicians, and any role I can think of?

But Ruth wasn’t content, and changed the law, and history.

Mary and Elizabeth were told that a woman couldn’t reign alone. But as Saoirse as Mary says in the film, she’s done lots of things which her male advisors told her were impossible.

The old way – adopted by women as well as men – was all about fear. And so we watched our backs and plotted and tried to never reveal a weakness, which included caring. We tried to amass power through titles, land and wealth to make us unstoppable. We tricked and trapped  and changed loyalties. We made laws which suited ourselves, making us immune but others culpable. We imposed our version of truth and made violent repercussions for those who disagreed.

We pretended that a strong ruler was one who never showed vulnerability, who had few manners and lots of arrogance; was quick to punish and didn’t do mercy, let alone ask for it. We preserved rank and kept those below on their knees.

We’ve too long cited Machiavelli as our political manual. Utopia is sometimes better, but still far from Eternia, and that’s the imaginary world I’d rather look to.

What if we took from She-Ra and He-Man? They forgive, they save even their enemies (is Skeletor an Earl of Moray?). They care about goodness, and about others. Their power is not used selfishly. And they’ll work together, and with other leaders, not to expand their boundaries and their gold reserves, but to fight injustice – never to harm or kill.

She-Ra, like Wonder Woman, has used her womanhood to recruit and turn wicked people to the side of right; like Xena, Warrior Princess, She-Ra needed turning herself – by her brother. Theirs is not a violent rebellion; it’s not about one set of ugly, inflated power overturning another and then behaving in much the same way.

I’ve often wondered: what would British history be if Mary and Elizabeth had been allowed to work together rather than against each other? Where would we be now? Not in terms of our current royal family, but the governance we have, which like the rest of the world, is all out of shape.

I think these stories invite us to put it back again.

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Why I’m selling my Borgen DVDs

I was excited to finally catch up with this TV drama on Danish politics, because I’d enjoyed its lead Sidse Babett Knudsen previously and am interested in how countries run.

Unlike comparable shows, I looked forward to seeing a person of principle in leadership. Sidse’s character’s surname Nyborg means ‘new castle’. And Castle is the nickname of Danish government, from where the show gets its title. So is it saying that the fictional first woman prime minster (what took you so long!) is a new kind of leader and government?

But it didn’t take many of the 30 episodes to make me angry enough to start calculating my DVDs’ second hand worth. In one tenth of the show, Birgitte Nyborg has abandoned what made her endearing, and is very much of the old stronghold. Most of her acts are against the principles I’d expect of her. Yes, she’s meant to be roundedly human with mistakes and struggles. It made the show more appealing than those which just focus on political drama. I liked the early, sometimes naïve and unsure Birgitte. I rallied for her. But she got eaten by the end of episode 3 and from thereon, we only see flashes of her.

I realise the kindredness of Birgitte Nyborg to Wonder Woman – who I often write about on here. Perhaps the looks of Lynda Carter and Sidse are similar. They are women doing unusual jobs for their gender and fighting for democracy and high principles. But the charm faded through their trio of seasons as the lead got harder and tougher, focussing on being slinky, steely and bossy.

And worryingly, according to some comments I’ve heard, slinky and steely does it for the audience. Not for nothing does Borgen often open with a quote from Machiavelli. I thought these were ironic, but Sidse the Statsminister comes uncomfortably close to him. And yet she’s seen as still the heroine.

“You’re the best prime minister that Denmark’s ever had,” she’s told. Well, if true, the Danes have had a bad run and should aim higher.

Here’s just some of the things which made me angry about Birgitte in Borgen:

– she gives another small, kindred party a made up ministry to fob them off

– she sacks two friends in the 1st season, another in series 3, and many others – without notice

– she orders and rarely thanks. “I need you to come over. I know it’s late,” she says to her staff at 3am! “I need you to… This is not up for discussion,” she tells her husband, who ‘misses his wife’! – And not just because she’s not at home much. We do too, Phillip!

– she leads in the hard headmistress manner, as if it’s weak to ask and consult

I see a lot of Sidse’s role as dominatrix Cynthia in The Duke of Burgundy in Birgitte

– After Amir leaves, she seeks him out at home for a job she needs, but doesn’t apologise

– she lets serious gay persecution pass for the sake a precarious peace deal

– she thinks in terms of strategy and victory

– she’s prepared to use an old misdemeanour to discredit a rival. It’s not her who stops it

– she tells long suffering Phillip he’s weak for leaving her too soon. I’d have gone already!

– she gives in to the medical system twice without questioning (interesting role reversal)

– she medical queue jumps thrice – for her daughter, and twice for herself

– In series 3, she says: this is a room of dreams, but now we need to consolidate. Ie, which of you are with my dream? Or else, you’re leaving

– she never consults or mingles with the public she claims to support and who chose her

– she publicly provokes her old colleague deliberately and pulls holes in his arguments

– she says no to Jorgen the Viking’s financial support because of his strings, but then is back asking for it later

– she is obsessed with the cult of her, her leadership, her ideas, her party. When Unpop Culture blogger calls the New Democrats the Birgitte Party, he’s right.

– she and the show quickly drop the hot potatoes of war, spies, and prisoner cruelty

– she and the show suggest that leaders must be ruthless and put feelings second, and often their principles too. Professionalism means: even my bereavement won’t stop this election


Borgen sometimes is able to bring in many voices to a complex situation; sometimes it clearly comes down with a view, and feels like public information broadcasting rather than drama. Most real media challenges come from the muckraking gutter press; otherwise, the news says what its told it’s allowed to.

Borgen appears to be self reflexive. The show seems to say: news is hot, politics are hot, make sure you tune in and vote and appreciate your official quality broadcasting company (probably by paying hefty taxes to it). Compromise is necessary, idealism not possible. Work before play and personal relationships – be grateful for the sacrifices our leaders make for you, and if you are one or work with one, be prepared to make the same. Note that it’s made by Radio Denmark and over here, it was shown by the BBC. I am avoiding the BBC due to the reasons in my last post.

The fast fire news format is no better than Alex’s gameshows ultimately, for no-one gets to talk properly – it’s all about provocation and spectacle.

Here’s some hard news:

Many of us don’t follow parliamentary politics. Katrine’s angry at a friend for not watching her on the news, but he’s resisting the package they present as what’s happening. Borgen suggests that media and media advisors run the country, but actually that parliamentary politics is far removed from most of our lives and what matters.

We need something and someone much more different than Birgitte and her party, and a show which goes further in its courage to portray life as it really is, and as it could and should be, and to not assume that the latter is impossible.

For much of this show, Birgitte’s got her bra and knickers on the wrong way round: her priorities and values are all askew. She’s not ultimately a Wonder Woman, more a Twisted Sister.

But I’m not taking offers on my DVD set just yet.



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Why TV licences need to end

I note that many countries still have these – but that many have ceased them. In Britain, our license is decades behind what is on offer and how people view.


My issue is firstly that a compulsory legally backed fee was ever levied from the public. Although the British Broadcasting Corporation was created as independent, the fact that its licence was equated in law to tax – and thus has the same punishments of fees and ultimately imprisonment for non payment – shows that it is not independent from the establishment, and thus neither is the BBC. This shows how law and crimes are often relative and privately self serving, not public safe keeping.


That the decision for change has to come from parliament is also telling.


It is often commented on that the BBC is biased. Its news is very negative and feels created to gain a particular response. During the credit crunch and since Brexit, it repeats doomful ideas. Watching it alongside other news – and in the early evening, you can chain watch about 4 different channels – you see the particular tone of the BBC. In a couple of weeks, everyone appearing on BBC TV will wear a red poppy, which has connotations for beliefs about war. The BBC skips over other matters – such as the unpopularity of its licence and the widespread historic abuse in it uncovered around children’s presenter Jimmy Saville.


Although some proponents claim that the BBC is standard bearer in both television and radio, it is not to everyone’s tastes. Its programming is repetitive (thus across more channels we do not gain more content than before BBC 3 and 4 were created), and that its drama is outweighed by the reality and non narrative programmes. Peeking at the BBC’s website, I see that programmes about food, dancing, antiques and nature are high profile. We should not be paying for that website – one I don’t even really rate or find user friendly.


I personally now don’t see BBC as appealing or good quality, in any of its media.


There’s also a certain kind of Britishness associated with the BBC. The BBC creates and maintains a status quo. Many of the BBC’s popular programmes are older ones. I’ve not yet seen it be ahead of the curve, and truly radical.


It’s also pointed out that BBC does have many adverts – for itself – and thus isn’t really better than a commercial channel.


The BBC hasn’t been the nation’s only provider of television or radio for some decades. By the early 1980s, there were four TV channels and three providers; the other two – Independent television (ITV) and Channel 4 – having to fund themselves via advertising, thus introducing the commercial break that is so familiar in other countries. There were other radio stations, locally and nationally, and further, if you could find the frequency. At that time, home video had arrived, and we covered the cost of what we watched in the purchase or hire fee.


And many videos – now in a different format – are of films, and I wonder if there’s a trend that non TV owners are regular cinema goers. Or perhaps they prefer theatre, or music, or sport, or lectures, or they’re involved in churches or politics.


So my point is that yes there are still people who don’t have a television and aren’t interested, and find other ways to find out about the world and have culture in their lives.


But these non viewers can be disbelieved and harassed. No, we’re not all glued to the box.


But it’s not easy to prove that we’ve no such box and that other devices which can pick up pictures are not being used for the purposes that require licensing.


I have seen some websites put out incorrect facts regarding when you need a licence: owning a DVD/video player and TV do not require one, it’s watching new programmes, live or recorded, on any device. It has been the case for some time that viewing prerecorded media only does not require a licence – and rightly so.


And if we’re watching DVDs of cinema films, then why should the BBC expect to gain a share by enforcing a licence that almost solely benefits itself? Or what of television shows that don’t come to Britain, or aren’t British made, or are made by another channel? The BBC doesn’t have to prove its share or gain an audience to elicit its fees, unlike anyone else.


This is the point that many people have made, and it’s been valid since the introduction of the 3rd channel, but especially from the 1980s, which is now over 30 years ago. By 2000, satellite and cable had arrived for many, as had the net. Now of course we have much greater choice and diverse habits and the BBC is an ever smaller offering of our media diet.


The BBC makes most of us pay them a tax (or be prepared to prove why we are exempt) but it itself does not pay corporation tax, as it’s non-profit making. This is huge: that it takes tax but doesn’t expect to have to run like other companies. It has also been accused of avoiding other kinds of tax on a large scale, by using a not long closed loophole.


And then, the most pertinent point: the TV license funds bullying.


I read huge numbers of prosecutions, many of which are thrown out of court. I’ve heard above 180,000 a year, and that 1 in 10 UK prosecutions are to do with TV licensing.


The licensing company has a whole collections arm, which are thus paid for publicly. They employ bully boy tactics, including their fear inducing adverts, with vans cruising about watching for signals from unpaid watchers, and then swooping on whoever answers the door, often exaggerating their powers (which is an offense of both kinds). They say that non payment is unfair on those who do pay, and call non payers “evaders”, which is an emotive and negative word.


But fee abolition website SpiderBomb shows that the BBC’s revenue from licensing creates a huge budget and it’s much more than it needs. Large salaries are pointed out – why should we have to pay for those? SpiderBomb suggests a much more modest fee is viable.


Yes I’ve heard the Beeb themselves argue that the radio part of the licence is pence, that it’s like a pint of beer each week, but what if we don’t drink Beeb beer? The price of beer argument’s a weak one, for some people still struggle with the £147 annual license and certainly the £1000 fine. There’s been much about the economic imbalance that the fee is a flat tax, unrelated to income (or usage), and that the poor are disproportionately harassed and even end up in prison because of this matter.


This sounds so familiar in inequitable governing around the world and history. I believe that the BBC and its overseas branches often argued for are part of empire retention, and that the real issue is about the use of public broadcasting.


And what if we resent funding a salaried collections company who are paid bonuses and given quotas, such as Capita are?


Many of us would be keen to not fund organisations of abuse and oppression, but we’re being forced to do so directly, via British law and our own so called Aunt.


Auntie Beeb is not seen as our caring trustworthy source of news and stories, but a not so subtle controlling matriarch who seems exempt from critique and change.


The BBC is one of a large family now, and a relation we may not ever spend time with, especially due to her brutish behaviour – that she requires gifts for visiting not only herself but other aunts, and sends in her henchmen for those who don’t. Is this someone you want to have a relationship with, and feel should go unchecked?


Today, a debate is happening in Westminster about the TV tax. Let us ensure our views are listened to and that it’s not replaced (which it needs to be) with more draconian rules.


– We need a new system which doesn’t involve further watching the public, as I fear subscription and online based scenarios lend themselves to, and we know that digital television sets assist with


– Fines and especially prison and door to door bullying is an abuse and needs to stop


– TV licensing needs to come off people’s criminal records; it makes a mockery of what law and crime really is


– Look to New Zealand as an example of a country who stopped the licence through peaceful people power


– Find a solution which reflects people’s habits and what there is now


We’ve put off this conversation too many times: we need to listen to the public to create a decision, and make something for them, not against them.







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Middlemarch and Sherwood

What links a Lincoln green clad arrow pinger, a mine magnate’s niece who’s chased by horses and her teacher, and a bonnet wearing philanthropic clergyman’s wife?

If you’ve read the blurb to my novel, you’ll know that I like making unlikely comparisons. If you’ve read the rest of this blog, you will see more of them.

The answer to the first question is firstly geography – for they are all located in the East Midlands; secondly, literature and film; – and lastly – well off people fighting to support the cause of the poor.

Thus Sherwood and Eastwood and Middlemarch are not so far apart.

I wrote my thoughts on Eastwood’s famous son – and the escapades of Ursula Brangwen – on Good Reads.

The rest of this concentrates on Sherwood – whose forest’s inhabitants need no introduction – and the fictitious manufacturing town invented by George Eliot, filmed in Stamford.

I like to read and watch and visit in themes, so if you want to know what my days out to Nottinghamshire and Stamford (and elsewhere in the East Midlands) involved – read them here.

Robin Hood and Dorothea Brooke are further linked by the fact that they are in some ways superhuman archetypes. Robin is borderline superhero, and in some versions (such as 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood) he has a higher calling from a deity, the son of a god, the fulfilment of a long promised title: he is, as the theme song goes, The Hooded Man. (Does anyone else find the otherwise excellent Clannad’s keyboards tinny and dated?). Dorothea – ‘of the gods’ – is likened to not only famous mystic and theologian Theresa of Avila, but saints, angels and the Virgin Mary. (I ruefully acknowledge that Schmoop pointed that out to me).

Robin too has a special Mary in his all male band of called followers, who live rough and itinerant and give, in their way, good news to the poor and freedom for the prisoners and the oppressed… strange how closely Robin’s mission matches Isaiah 61, Jesus’ own self confessed mission statement. Robin descends from the higher echelons to save the people.

Dorothea also cares about the poor, about justice – and mercy – letting sheep stealers off fatal sentences, providing better homes for tenants, doing good with her money, such as supporting overlooked but genuine clergy and would be world changing doctors.

Both though are truly human as well as divine.

There is much in common with 1195 – the years leading to Magna Carter, 1832 – the Reform Bill – and now. All these are the cusp of a sea change  against long oppression and imbalance. Hence these stories keep coming round again. The 2006 BBC Robin Hood (with Jonas Armstrong) made explicit parallels to the middle eastern wars funded at the expense of the poor and where fair justice was dispensed with, and that there was no need to travel to Arab countries to see evil – “the real cancer is right here”.

Hence my satisfaction that seemingly disparate reading and watching material has a common thread.

I’ll talk more about Middlemarch in my next piece, but I wanted to round up by a final parallel which is more than pedantry.

It’s about accents in the TV versions.

In his otherwise excellent site Bold Outlaw, Allen W. Wright says that Kevin Costner’s infamously poor/non English accent in the 1994 Prince of Thieves film doesn’t matter, because we don’t know how people talked in Robin Hood’s day, and some say that the modern American accent is more likely than today’s English one.

As a North American, he would say that.

As an English person, I feel that Americans not adopting the accent of the characters they play is not only cultural laziness but symptomatic of America becoming a synecdoche for all the English speaking western world. If actors of other nationalities play an American part, they change their voice – but not in reverse. Many dramas exported to America are remade, or redubbed.

Only one Robin Hood so far has used the right accent for Robin, going by what we today recognise as Nottinghamshire, and that again is the 2006 BBC series with Richard Armitage.

All the others do what Middlemarch also did – as well as so many films. The rich have a British gittish queen’s English accent, and the serfs and villagers and tradesfolk have the general lazy west country bumpkin voice that I have moaned about so many times. It’s not even true of the West Country! It’s not how people in the Midlands speak. And that accent serves to delineate class via accent and associate the country one with being not only rustic but stupid, poor, ill educated, lower, subordinate.

Thus class – a distinction and divide that Robin and Dorothea are working to erase – is demarcated for yet another era, and that shorthand is perpetuated and spread across not only Britain but all the countries who watch our dramas.

I shall be back with more about Middlemarch (or truly, Lowick and Tipton) shortly.

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Going Off Austen

Published originally on Bookstove and an altered version in Jane Austen’s Regency World Nov/Dec 2010. Some changes have been made – eg I am now familiar with Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility.


For quarter of a century, Pride and Prejudice has been my favourite book, and I have loved rewatching the BBC drama series over 15 years. So why am I considering taking it off my shelf?

I had previously believed it a truth universally acknowledged that anyone of literary taste admired Jane Austen. Like Jennifer Ehle, I first read Pride and Prejudice aged c12, and soon counted it my joint favourite work of fiction. So going off her now is like parting with a best friend of 24 years.

I had seen screen adaptations of nearly all Austen’s work. I started the novels of a few, but soon gave up on all but one. I guessed who Emma married on page 1, turned to the end to see if I was right, and decided I couldn’t be bothered with the middle. The one novel I loved is Pride and Prejudice, which I could reread effortlessly, and be made to laugh out loud.

I have just read one of those dreadful spin off sequels after which I decided to read the original book and watch the 1995 TV version. I am shocked and saddened at my own responses.

In this week’s re-reading, I found the writing to often be laborious; and Lizzie’s speeches to be as ponderous as Mary’s. I wonder about Mary being downplayed in the novel and on the screen, for she seems the only character bent on improving her mind and skill, yet she is often given a little role; whatever offering she does have is ridiculed. Lizzie is a snob, saying that pride is allowed where real superiority of mind exists. Yet no-one in Austen’s creation has it; for no-one is intellectual or learned, no-one speaks of anything lofty or world changing. Lizzie refuses to discuss books at a ball. She nor Darcy have any talents, and he can’t even play the piano. They do nothing to improve society; they do not ponder spiritual or philosophical matters. The upper classes are excessively dull and flat; for their conversation is about balls and partners, clothes and weather.

Jane Austen is observing a particularly narrow world and it again surprises me that her novels are so widely loved by those so outside of her class, and in such a different era. I call even her heroines and heroes vapid, shallow, judgmental. I cannot understand how Darcy is such a fantasy. I now think of Darcy as more akin to Rochester (my other favourite book that I left behind ten years ago) – a smouldering, uncontrolled passion; who is arrogant, pompous, and used to being obeyed, and whose supposedly wonderful act (to Wickham and Lydia) is more about throwing money and power and tidying loose ends then any act of benevolence. Matthew MacFadyen in the 2005 film seemed a kinder Darcy than any other.

For some years, my focus has been on Eliza rather than Darcy. As writer Andrew Davies says, we are all in love in Elizabeth, and I think that is true – whether we look at her as a love interest, friend, or role model. Eliza is not impressive on the page to me now, but she does come alive on the screen. Lizzie always is sparkling and never more so than when played by Jennifer Ehle. It is her almost alone that makes that famous adaptation shine.

The 1995 BBC adaptation felt an important one for me, not just for television or the life of the novel. I wonder if it is comparable to the 1967 Forsyte Saga, where roads were hushed as a large part of the nation watched. I recall looking forward to Sunday evenings that autumn, fighting for the TV from housemates, and even – to one of their shock – missing evening church to see it. My love for it united me with several new but quite disparate friends, as other adaptations have, and I have enjoyed seeing it many times since.

I don’t recall thinking that the 6 part television series was perfect, for it has always seemed theatrically camp. I am no longer of the opinion that books should never have changes or cuts when adapted; I am a writer and adapter myself. I had considered P and P to be hard to condense as Austen does not waste, but I found her dialogue often pompous and not all of her scenes are needed. I felt less cross with the atmospheric 2005 version having to cut down to feature length and wondered at how the story could have been padded out in 1995 to nearly six hours.

Andrew Davies says in the BBC companion book that he’s a ‘show don’t tell’ writer – a tired little phrase in the world of screenplays. But he is not, as there are several scenes I felt unnecessary; and he had talking – clunky dialogue he had added – where none was required. The first few minutes are all wasted as they are things we see again. He repeats the relationship between the houses and the sisters. All Darcy and Bingley needed do on that first scene was to arrive at Netherfield and nod. It is spoilt by showing us what they look like before the Meryton Ball.

Davies has an obsession with not only the corporeal qualities of the characters, but in sexual ones. Every vivacity to him comes down to a very physical sexual desire or repression of one, which is tedious. He began a later Austen TV drama with a sex scene which never made sense; and he is recorded as saying that he wanted to do Tipping the Velvet because it’s ‘filthy’ and wanted to put a kinky lesbian scene on the screen. This latter comment caused more rumpus than the five years of build up to the allegedly bodice ripping Pride and Prejudice, making a touching coming of age story into a deviant romp for dirty old men and tabloids. I question whether any of these are men’s stories – especially not Sarah Water’s same sex romance; but Austen too seems to me the province of women.

I had long wondered at how a book could be popular in our time when the most dramatic plot turn involves a morality that is long past. Austen seems to join Lizzie and Darcy in being shocked by Lydia’s elopement and validating the wider strictures and censure that her behaviour brings. I felt the same of Wives and Daughters, when Cynthia and Molly’s character are put in danger by being seen alone with a man. How can Austen be seen as feminist when her females are always getting sick, nervous, and needing smelling salts over the slightest problem, and whose delicate virtue is tacitly assented to, never challenged?

I am now left in a place of dis-ease, with this old friend ebbing. For I know that my disappointment and criticisms of the adaptations now come down to the fact that I no longer believe in their source material. I am particularly critical of the portrayal of Lydia and Wickham. The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice is watchable due to Jennifer Ehle and Julia Sawalha’s being Lydia, though she is too old for the role and too exaggerated to compensate. It is amazing that the woman who plays sensible, principled Dorcas Lane was once also one of literature’s most irresponsible, thoughtful females.

My overall view is that this supposed drama has a silliness attributed to the younger sisters Bennet.

The Austen adaptation I now enjoy most is the most controversial, and allegedly least like the book, where a Canadian lesbian takes on the English subject and shows us poverty as well as aristocracy, that takes on the slave trade, and allows the shock of adultery into a modernised version, entwined with Austen’s biography, shatters the ideas of bland respectability and gives Mansfield Park a power and point that no other has.

Mansfield will soon be getting its own post – check the tag cloud on the right






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US Things To Give Thanks For

I’m not American, but I wanted to use today as an excuse to reflect on all the things I do like about America. So here’s my favourite exports:

Wonder Woman

Clearly a much delayed role model, I talk about her on here. My favourite superhero, making hawks doves, though a little underdressed for this time of year

Sesame Street

The subversive kid’s show I didn’t appreciate till I had come of age. Witty, surreal, clever and hilarious. Milllllk!

Neale Donald Walsch

I have to acknowledge his place on my spiritual journey, turning the boat from the Mayflower to…this is where my boat knowledge lets down the metaphor… Magical Mystery Tour? Rainbow Warrior?… not quite either of those… but a ship willing to include a new path and wider crew, and some radical thoughts about the captain

Jo Dunning

My favourite spiritual speaker and healer right now. I love to tune into her monthly Quick Pulse seminar, even though it involves staying up til 2am due to time differences. Jo’s voice is calm and truthful and I’ve been very impressed with her – I’d not normally believe some of the things she offers, but something in my gut says I can trust her

Elaine Aron

Elaine represents a whole load of things that would only come out of America, but the rest of the world needs. Normally I would resist such a statement, but I’m only doing grateful today. I’m glad that America has identified things that some other cultures would never name or explore and champion. Elaine has a trait she has called Highly Sensitive Person, which she sees as neutral-positive that explains why some people can be overwhelmed. There are many things implicit in this about growth and acceptance that I think some of American culture can be good at encouraging and addressing.

The Constitution

Sadly not what it’s living by, but a beautiful and inspiring piece to nations everywhere – and I like being built, like Camelot (as per recent post) on an idea

Sasha Cagen

She who founded the Quirkyalone movement whose blog posts are wise and inspiring, celebratory of full personhood, of sensuality, of singleness, and seeking the very best of relationships

My US friends

My life has been touched by various Americans, I have some in particular in mind at present. They’ll get personal messages.


I shall eat sweet potatoes tonight in your honor with and without a U!

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My Bad Girls Series 1 fan fiction has arrived!

I posted it yesterday on Zetaboard’s Nikki and Helen forum. I’ve also started and contributed to other posts on this site, I love the insights on there.

Under the first instalment, I explain how weird it was to write other people’s characters and that it’s not my usual style. We’ve been debating the style of Bad Girl’s writing, and whether it’s too short and misses things, or whether its subtly is part of its quality. Personally, I think the former.

It wouldn’t let me put them all in one file as it’s too long (22,000 words). Here’s the links: eps 1+2 3-5 6-8 9-10

If you’ve got any more specific feedback (make criticism constructive please) I’d love to hear it

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Bad Girls: Why Nikki and Helen don’t work


I say this with sadness as they were a hugely important couple for me and their relationship is Bad Girls, the ITV/Shed Prison drama that ran their story 1999-2001 in Britain and from 2005 in US.

It’s been called one of the best love stories between two women – or anyone – to hit the screen, with a central forbidden love and much emotional complexity.

But I’ve reviewed their story in detail and can’t get past the thought that it’s not properly written. No wonder there’s so much fan fiction, filling in missing scenes and finishing off their story.

We never see the turning points we need. For instance, Cabenson fills in why Helen decides to break off with Sean at; but the TV series never did. The same is true of Helen’s acceptance of Sean’s proposal, her first resignation at Larkhall  and subsequent visit to Nikki – when she’s never expressed interest before… and of most scenes in fact, when I really analyse them.

I’m shocked to also conclude that ultimately, I don’t like Helen – who was my favourite character. I want better for Nikki, though she often annoyed me with her anger and immaturity and lack of thinking through consequences.

Helen may seem mature, older than her years, and a good leader…. but she’s emotionally inept and never gets better at that. She uses her professional power any time she’s ruffled. She is always the one calling it off with Nikki. She can find Nikki when it suits her – for she has the keys – and knows that Nikki can only be in a few limited places (her cell, the servery, the library, the garden). All Nikki can do is phone – but we never see Helen answer.

I am sick of the amount of times that Helen walks away: after the potting shed; after the kiss; after her first resignation and the cattle truck incident – with that shit line, “Shit happens”; after the row over Dominic; after the love scene; after Femi. That’s quite a few for 3 series – and that doesn’t count every time Helen walks out of Nikki’s presence or orders Nikki to leave. Only a few times does Nikki leave Helen’s. Often she’s the one seeking Helen out.

The one that most angers me is the Femi one. To recap: Helen is encouraging Nikki to appeal and saying that if they put their relationship on hold they hope they can soon be together properly on the outside. Nikki stages a protest over the awful treatment of a frightened non English speaking Nigerian prisoner, but Helen – who’s fought so much for fairness and welfare – isn’t interested in Femi and is angry over Nikki’s stance. Now as acting Governing Governor, she’s all power trippy and not very nice. She tells Nikki it’s over and she doesn’t even feel sad.

If I were Barbara Hunt, I’d tell Nikki that Helen really isn’t worthy of her. This time I’ve no sympathy for Helen’s position. She seems as keen to protect her own reputation and impress VIPs as Simon Stubberfield ever was. She sounds callous. She’s more than once told Nikki to look elsewhere and can’t seem to cope when Nikki does. Yes we know Caroline’s a nonce and Helen is to some extent protecting Nikki – but again she holds power over Nikki, having the right to separate her from the few women she can meet whilst in prison, but Helen can move on freely.

The end of the series is way too rushed, padded out with rubbish and new characters when it should be winding down. The length of time spent on Nikki and Helen’s finale makes it more like a movie than the 36 hours they’ve had over 39 episodes to tell this yarn properly.

Some of the best fan fiction I’ve read so far is Gina Dartt’s “Dead Slow.” I was appalled to rewatch the show and find out how few lines are given to the reunion of Nikki and Helen, ending with that one. Gina takes that as her starting point and has nearly 50,000 words to say – most of them necessary – to take Nikki and Helen to a place where as viewers we feel happy with them as a couple.

I’d not have let Nikki go so easily if I were Trish; why should this Helen be allowed to supersede a lover of 9 years just for turning up in a new red jacket? I wouldn’t have made the court steps speech Nikki does, for Helen did give up on Nikki: she does not owe Helen her life – she’s here despite Helen. Why wasn’t she at the law court then, if Helen valued Nikki so much? Why did she keep dumping Nikki, offering a carrot and then snatching it away?

In her attempt to be careful and professional, Helen stopped Nikki and her getting to know each other. How did they know that there was a relationship worth having on the other side of the prison gate? They mostly talked about Nikki’s appeal or argued in the very short scenes – another problem I have with the writing of Bad Girls.

No, the subtext and layered performances are not enough. To be mature, you need to learn to speak what you feel. Helen never again tells Nikki she loves her and wants to be with her. She doesn’t explicitly say she’s sorry, or ‘will you still have me?’ I’d have left Helen standing outside, because that’s what she ultimately deserved.

For them to have a fighting chance at survival – and viewers to feel happy with them as a couple – we needed them to be open and articulate, to get beyond angry exchanges and running off when something’s difficult.

There was a suggestion of making a Nikki and Helen special episode – it was badly needed. And the harassment charge re Fenner should have been followed up and we could have ended it all at series 3½, satisfied.

As it is, I’m wondering if Nikki shouldn’t have gone for ‘Mink instead of Beaver’ after all and found a better life with Babs!

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Bad Girls: Borrower nor Lender Be

There’s likely to be quite a chain of posts on Bad Girls and I’ll also be posting some fiction and views on fan sites, which I will give links to – I am  currently writing fan fiction for the first 3 series, focussing on Nikki and Helen (and their essential companions and nemeses).

For now, I have some more prison critique and reform to share:

Sharing itself is banned in prison. That means an act of trust and kindness is forbidden where those sorts of qualities matter most.

With the gagging bill going though this week, it means more unviolent people could end up in prison – but the only threat they are is to the establishment, not to the society that they want to improve.

The location that Bad Girls used – Oxford Prison – is now a hotel and heritage attraction. That’s what I’d like to see the majority of prisons become.

Check my tag cloud for other Bad Girls related posts. There’s two already.

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Bad Girls – The Cathy Come Home of Women’s Prisons

I like this phrase, I’ve used it of Moll Flanders (The Cathy Come of the late Stuart England) and Black Beauty (The Cathy Come Home of Equine Welfare). Cathy Come Home was a shocking 1960s television piece directed by Ken Loach which stirred up Britain’s social conscience, using fiction to demonstrate real life abuses and problems. The ITV drama Bad Girls, aired in its natal Britain from 1999-2009, still has fans globally and has become a cult show. Through the camp entertainment, it held up some important mirrors. I’ll write several posts about characters and writing later, but I want to focus on those mirrors here.


Monica’s final speech is the belief of the show’s creators, Shed productions: that prison only makes a bad situation worse. I think that could be put more eloquently; erudite, articulate Monica was a character who could have done so.

It’s unfortunate the original name for the show was taken, so Jailbirds became Bad Girls. As well as sounding cheap and crude and making it harder to do an internet search for (without encountering X rated sites), Bad Girls suggests that these convicts are bad, as well as using the juvenile term for female humans. Surely a better title could’ve been conjured which does not connote against the show’s ethos, for Bad Girls implies that those serving in South London’s fictional Larkhall prison are debauched. Prisoner Cell Block H (refilmed as Wentworth) and Within These Walls and Orange is the New Black all managed to find show names that did not denigrate the inmates they wish to sympathetically portray, so surely the minds that came up with some incredulous plots could have generated better for the inmates of G Wing.

Bad Girls’ consultant was an ex professional thief who set up a women’s prison charity. I was upset to think that around the world (especially in Canada) there is the Elizabeth Gurney Fry movement, and yet in the country that the reformer lived in, we have no such society. As someone who’s lived in Elizabeth’s natal city and sat on the benches she did at Goat’s Lane Quakers’, I was very disappointed in the apparent lack of local campaigning that most convicted women shouldn’t be in prison. Britain does have such an organisation, Women in Prison, whom Bad Girls supports. (I’m now thinking that much of prisons’ problems stem back to Elizabeth Fry and I’m no longer sure that I admire her… another article).

That the founder, who shares a name with a great composer, stole for the hell of it rather undermines her message. Bad Girls attempts to show that many of the inmates are there due to defence or provision for themselves or loved ones – in fact, any character I can think of in the first three series (which I will focus on) can, even obliquely, come into that category. The Julies ‘knobbed and robbed’ as a team to support themselves and their children when their marriages broke down; Nikki Wade stopped her girlfriend being raped by a policeman; even gangsters Yvonne and Renee were taking care of their own; Denny is an abused young woman who was in some sense defending herself and the injustice of being moved on from the one children’s home she was happy in; Shaz was bullied at work and feared the abuse of her stepdad if she was sacked; Denny’s mum was on the bottle because she too had been abused; Crystal stole out of desperation after burying her mum in the West Indies and returning to find her home and job gone; Barbara committed euthanasia to release her husband from the suffering of his illness; Monica was one of those carrying the can for the crimes of love of her life, as were Rachel Hicks and Zandra. Michelle Dockley would argue that the unspeakable act she did to another woman she was defending her love: I think it is untrue, but she too has been horrifically abused.

The show shows how prison splits up families and friends on the inside and the out (eg the Julies and Monica from their children, Nikki from Trish, Zandra from fiancé and baby). Sometimes those relationships are destroyed altogether; sometimes it leads to loss of life (Monica’s Spencer and Rachel Hicks; one could argue, Zandra too.)

Warm friendships are formed between unlikely people in prison but the splitting up punishment is used as a way of control (Shaz and Denny). Lesbianism is against the rules, so that connections, happiness and physical fulfilment are to be denied in a place that leads so many to despair. Barbara Hunt said she and Nikki would be sharing not so much cells, but private hells; and prison brought Rachel, Monica, Rachel, Charlotte Middleton, Julie J and Michelle to attempt suicide.

Not only are these people excluded from society, they are told when to rise, eat, wash, go to bed. Their property is taken away and the little they are allowed with them can be rifled through at any time. You can be divested of clothes – by force if necessary – not just in your induction (what a welcome) but if the drugs team wishes or anytime you are sent to the segregation block. Staff don’t even have to shut the door or look away.

Prisoner’s health is not of concern to many staff. Zandra is seen simply as a junkie and so any symptoms she has are deserved. I was angry that the results of her tests were hidden from her – as an adult, it’s her right to know she has a tumour, not something for her wing governor to keep from her. Her treatment doesn’t seem negotiable and she (like many outside) are wheeled off to hospital and to operations or stuffed with drugs without gaining permission or explanation. When Shell breaks down in series 2, she’s dosed up in the hospital block – is that really what she needed? Doesn’t seem to help: she’s soon back on G wing bullying, but has she really had closure on her abusive past? Pam and Tess are also confined to the “Muppet” psychiatric wing and the ministrations patronising, drug dealing Dr Thomas, supposedly a goodie.

I’m continually struck by how regressive prisons are. Grown women, often called girls, are treated like they are at school: being put on report, sent to the head, living by bells, calling officers ‘sir’ and ‘miss’ (how uneven those terms are between the genders – Sir being what you call the king or a knight, Miss sounding pejorative). You have to ask for permission to do anything and can’t leave the gates without special application whilst in the institutions’ care.

I also note how people behave unpleasantly whilst in prison and are not really themselves. The actress who plays Nikki – Mandana Jones – says she puts on a London tone to sound tough when dealing with bullies, and makes physical and verbal threats. Many women find themselves fighting or using violence as a means of protection who would never do so on the outside (even Monica and Barbara). Worse than in school, there’s the unwritten rule that one never complains or tells, so that you cannot get justice the right way. Ands then you are punished if you take justice into your own hands by fighting bullies back. Bullies steal goodies – sweeties of a different kind – and despite their outside market value, class A drugs are swapped for phone cards; but then the price of communicating with the outside world probably is priceless.

Like being on benefits, the government decides what money you get each week and can take it away if they deem that you don’t deserve it. There’s a tuck shop hatch, like a jobcentre screen, through which you receive what you’re allowed via the rules and whims of the government employee on the other side.

The staff too behave regressively. Senior staff treat their minions like naughty school children – both Helen and Karen slipped into this mode when they governed. And Helen especially used it as defence when a nerve was touched, pulling rank against Nikki whenever an argument goes the wrong way, especially when intimate feelings are touched. It cannot be healthy for the development of either senior or officer grade staff. It’s another reason that I don’t support the army for having this hierarchical, unquestionable system of obedience through fear and punishment.

Punishment is something I am questioning too, not just in prison. I presented a piece I’d written in an alternative church service about why the Christian faith as well as society is based on an If…then threat system to keep others doing what you want. Why do we need punishment? Although legally considered offences, are most of what these women have done actually, really crimes in the wider moral sense? When you can get sent to prison for not paying council tax, for having your event’s noise levels too high, or for letting your punters drink outside on the street, it’s clear that prison isn’t about keeping us safe from dangerous people. And when those convicted of fraud (perhaps wrongly) or who even are recovering from alcoholism squat over the same bug ridden open loo as a torturer and assassin….! And so people inside are more at risk from people they either avoid on the outside,  or because they are reunited with problems (such as Renee and Yvonne, rival gangsters;  Zandra is decrutched by Denny, and Karen is threatened with a syringe of HIV infected blood, both for grudges from a previous incarceration).

Prison augments and creates issues, it does not remedy; it’s just an expensive way to pretend that they are dealt with and decapacitated. It’s not about justice, but a place of forgetting (an oubliette) by everyone but their jailors.

Bad Girls rightly wanted these women visualised and vocalised.

More on characters, storylines, links to my fan fiction and thoughts on drugs all coming soon

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