Not So Stiff Upper Lip

Having written a chapter of my dissertation on the cult of sensibility and its effects on attitudes to the theatre, watching the first part of Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain was rather like having an impromptu revision session. Hislop traces the changing attitude of the English towards their feelings – from the cult of sensibility that emphasised the nobility of emotion to an increasingly reserved ideal of stoicism and refined opinion. These changes affected contemporary tastes for a wide range of entertainments, from theatre to the rise in popularity of pleasure gardens. Hislop visits the excellent Johann Zoffany exhibition at the Royal Academy; Zoffany’s portraits demonstrate the increasing emotional involvement of eighteenth-century portraits.

The cult of sensibility and fine emotion allowed the public to demonstrate their morality and virtue. It was accepted that everybody was capable of emotion, but those higher in society cultivated their feelings, and there was an almost competitive element to the displays of emotion that the elites experienced in response to theatrical performances in a bid to assert their superiority and understanding of the play’s deep sentiment. These displays could be almost pantomimic, with ladies falling into hysterical outbursts that were as much about demonstrating their emotional capacity to others as about any deep personal response to the play.

The cult of sensibility dominated eighteenth-century society while it lasted, but it was fleeting, and it increasingly came to be replaced by the ideal of politeness. While it was still acceptable to show feeling in response to the theatre, moderation and manly composure became predominant. Excessive displays of emotion became more and more associated with femininity and a lack of control. Hislop looks at James Boswell’s diary as an example of a man attempting to balance the holding in of coarser feelings with the letting out of refined opinions. Boswell identified the need to put up a public façade to hide his emotions– yet I would say that sensibility had equally been about creating a public façade.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft urges women to stoicism, to fight against the ideas of ‘femininity’ that they have been taught. Women were thought to be enslaved to feeling and not rational – a tendency exacerbated by ‘feminine’ pastimes such as reading novels. As sensibility fell out of fashion emotional displays were increasingly felt to be a feminine weakness.

The move away from sensibility was catalysed by the fear of social breakdown that accompanied the onset of the French Revolution. This was perpetuated by Britain’s imperial expansion and the Industrial Revolution – both of these factors expanded Britain’s ambitions and created a new moral seriousness in the country. Zoffany’s work reflected this change, as he abandoned his old subjects in favour of depictions of the Revolution – his later work is hellish, showing the mob gone wild and the normal order of society turned on its head. Excessive emotion was becoming increasingly linked with radical politics in the public consciousness.

Until now I had never really considered the marked difference that exists between the sensibility of the eighteenth century and the stoicism and reserve of British imperial culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – another area that I studied in detail. Hislop identifies the lasting impacts of the French and Industrial Revolutions as well as British imperialism as creating the beginnings of the idea of the stiff upper lip that has come to define the British. The next episode of Hislop’s documentary promises to explore how the Victorians entrenched the stiff upper lip as a national characteristic.

Treasures of Ancient Rome

Treasures of Ancient Rome is an excellent new BBC4 series examining the changing styles of Roman art and its uses. Roman art is an understudied area, and presenter Alastair Sooke is seeking to debunk the myth that the Romans’ art was unoriginal and uninspiring and to raise the profile of art of this period. The art included in this broad category is varied, with widespread influences and geographical locations.

Sooke’s documentary groups the art into 3 programmes; how the Romans pioneered warts ‘n’ all realism, the artistic legacy of Rome’s emperors, and art during the fall of the Roman Empire. The realistic style of early Roman art gives us a unique insight into how these Romans looked and how they wanted to be perceived – as wise and experienced, including wrinkles and receding hairlines. It was not until the Emperor Augustus that Roman art sought to portray people as charismatic, youthful and handsome.

The second episode focuses on the patronage of emperors and their use of art as a status symbol and as a means of propaganda. We see the wide geographical spread of Roman art and the variety of locations where it was found; Sooke explores the remains of the pleasure palace of Emperor Claudius (now submerged underwater), the cave where Tiberius held wild parties and the Pantheon in Rome. Next week, we will see the art that flourished throughout the Empire in places such as Libya and Egypt. The series really gives a sense of the scale of the Roman Empire and the extent of its influence on the ancient world.

Throughout the series Sooke also watches modern artists recreate art using Roman techniques, giving us a clear idea of the way that this art was made. It is fascinating to see how these ancient pieces of art were formed from marble, bronze, or even egg yolk and pigment. Both the ancient and modern art provide for a visually dynamic and interesting series.

Sooke’s has an obvious passion for the subject and he is always engaging; he’s a natural communicator. As in his 2010 series Modern Masters he has the ability to make everything interesting through his enthusiasm and intelligent presentation. Sooke’s excellent presentation, and a wide and interesting subject matter, make this series thoroughly engaging.


The second series of the BBC drama Accused has been as successful as the first. It follows those in the dock, taking us back so that we see the unfortunate circumstances that led to their crime. Even though the prologue of Romeo and Juliet tells us that “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” it doesn’t stop the play gripping its audience, and similarly Jimmy McGovern’s drama draws you. You find yourself rooting for the defendant in the dock as the events surrounding their crime unfold.

The drama is carried by an excellent cast. Sean Bean as a transvestite in an unlikely relationship sustained his episode almost single-handedly, with support from Stephen Graham as his confused lover. Anne Marie Duff and Olivia Coleman both gave outstanding performances as mothers struggling to deal with the impact of local gang culture. Robert Sheehan nuanced performance as troubled teenager Stephen stood out as he depicted a young man struggling with mental health issues and not finding the support he needs. He was supported by Sheridan Smith as a somewhat sinister nurse who becomes Stephen’s step-mother and John Bishop, better known for comedy, who also gave an emotive performance as Stephen’s father. Anna Maxwell Martin was excellent in the final episode as an overworked prison officer who must deal with the fall-out after a prisoner commits suicide.

Accused excels in creating believable dilemmas, where ordinary people face impossible circumstances. Morality is never black and white, and in Stephen’s story not even the facts of the event are clear. We are left in suspense as to whether his suspicions about his step-mother are delusional or founded in reality. Where Accused really succeeds is in continually posing moral questions that challenge the audience; there is no right way to respond in these situations and the characters are trapped by circumstance and the actions of others. It is certainly one of the most gripping and thought-provoking television dramas of recent years.

Parade’s End


From its announcement, Parade’s End has inevitably drawn comparisons with ITV’s Downton Abbey. I enjoy Downton, but it’s completely outclassed by Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s work. I hadn’t read it before I learnt of the BBC adaptation but, borrowing the books from the university library, I found them deeply engaging as a portrait of the tumultuous state of the aristocracy, and the country, in the early twentieth century.

Downton tends to cover social change with quite inconsequential details such as the addition of a telephone to the house, and Sybil’s involvement in the Suffragette movement seems intended largely to generate drama and familial discord rather than to make any insightful point. While Downton portrays the period in a descriptive way, Ford’s work is a detailed exploration of the decline of the aristocracy, the impact of the First World War and changing social ideals.

Both Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens and Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia give excellent performances; these characters could have been distinctly unlikeable in the wrong hands. Cumberbatch was the obvious choice for the conservative, intellectual and emotionally repressed Tietjens, and he certainly delivered in his portrayal of the complex emotions suppressed behind Tietjens’ controlled façade. Hall gives Sylvia, portrayed unsympathetically in the books, enough likeability to prevent us from condemning her outright as she amuses herself at the expense of others.

The BBC drama adopts the fractured structure of the novel, flitting between time and place at the start of the first episode. It certainly demands your attention, but is easier to follow than I feared it might be (perhaps aided by the fact that I have read the book). While the first episode largely sets the (rather complicated) scene, I’m looking forward to the next instalment, which promises an increase in the action and the onset of war.

Dancing With Titian

 I’m quite an Olympic-sceptic and, dare I say it, I was rather underwhelmed by both the Olympic torch relay and the Olympic rings that have been stuck on the side of Box Hill. Not being proficient in Ancient Greek, I’m also unable to fully appreciate Boris Johnson’s recital of a new Olympic poem. But Dancing With Titian, the Imagine documentary covering the multi-arts project that is part of the Cultural Olympiad, is rather more up my street. I’m likely to watch any documentary on ballet, but this also played to my interest in Titian and Venetian art, fuelled by studying early modern Venice at University.

The scale of the project was amazingly ambitious, featuring contemporary art and sculpture, new choreographic works by the Royal Ballet, and poetry. The documentary was equally ambitious, covering all of this in just 75 minutes. All of the subjects were fascinating; from Titian’s work itself to the multiple poets, painters and sculptors, dancers, choreographers and set producers involved in the project. There was probably enough material to make a sizeable documentary about each area of this project.

The amalgamation of mediums and the collaboration between contributors made for a fascinating comparison between the differing creative processes of those involved. I find ballet rehearsals and choreographic processes as interesting as the finished performance, and it was interesting to see the various approaches of the individual choreographers as well as the diversity of the finished pieces.

While not quite convinced by some of the art (although I did like Mark Wallinger’s concept of voyeuristic viewing of a real bathing Diana) each of the three dance pieces seemed beautifully choreographed; I would like to see the full works. Their success is a fitting tribute to Monica Mason at the end of her tenure as Director of the Royal Ballet. This unique collaboration between the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet has produced a body of thought-provoking work that will surely encourage people to re-examine the three Titian paintings on show as part of the exhibition as well as Ovid’s Metamorphoses itself.

The Go-Between

Last year I fell in love with the musical adaptation of The Go-Between at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and have been meaning to read the book since. Although I still haven’t got round to it, when I saw that a radio adaptation was being broadcast this week I was interested to see how it compared to the musical.

As well as being excellent in its own right, the radio adaptation brought back memories of the musical, which had a beautiful score that perfectly captured the emotions of the story. Being on radio, I was able to apply my memories of the musical to the adaptation; my view of it may have been different if I hadn’t seen the musical or if I had read the book.

While the musical’s set conjured a beautiful sense of the period, one of the benefits of radio drama is its ability to create a framework around which the listener constructs their own ideas. The simplicity of radio drama lends itself both to pared-down storytelling and to dramas set in lavish locations, or which would require extensive special effects (such as The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy). I find the power of the audience’s imagination fascinating; just as theatre productions with the most minimal sets and props can be the most effective, radio is perhaps the most diverse dramatic medium and provides endless possibilities.

The Go-Between explores the theme of entrapment, whether by family duty, societal expectations or personal feelings. Marian’s mother is plagued by worries over her daughter’s impending nuptials while Marian is forced into an unwanted marriage, and her duty prevents her from pursuing her relationship with the famer Ted. Meanwhile both Ted and Marian force Leon into continuing as their ‘go-between’, playing on his devotion to Marian and disregarding his discomfiture. It is this involvement of a child, who cannot comprehend their affair, that results in the final tragedy.

While I felt that the drama was very good, it was perhaps less emotionally engaging than the musical. This may have been due to the excellent music, or the presence of a real person on stage putting a face to the voice. However, I feel that it was probably down to the fact that although the musical also told the story from the viewpoint of Leo, the other characters received further elaboration than was allowed in the radio drama and the audience therefore felt a greater investment in them. Despite this, standing on its own Radio 3’s The Go-Between remains an interesting and emotive look at love and deception at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Hollow Crown: Richard II

Although I’ve been working long hours at Wimbledon for the last week and therefore haven’t had much time for watching TV,  I managed to find two and a half hours to watch Richard II, the excellent first episode of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown series comprising of televised versions of Shakespeare’s history plays. The production was beautifully shot and constantly engaging, and made excellent use of both stunning scenic shots and of intimate close ups in which the actors commanded attention. The production is full of symbolism, both religious, with references linking Richard and Jesus, and otherwise, for example Richard’s name in the sand being erased by the waves. Incidentally, Ben Wishaw (who plays Richard) would make an excellent Jesus with his long hair, beard and robes.

While this interpretation of Richard II was gripping and entertaining, more prosaically (and equally importantly as someone who was unfamiliar with the play) it was also easy to follow, with all of the performances enhancing the viewers’ understanding of the play. The issue of clarity of meaning and emotion when performing Shakespeare is picked up on in the excellent documentary Shakespeare Uncovered with Derek Jacobi which followed the BBC production.

Jacobi discusses the play with actors (the excellent Jamie Parker and James Garnon) at the Globe as they take on the play. There are also interviews with Richard Gould, who directed the BBC production, and Ben Wishaw. Gould says that he’s thought of Richard II as a “sort of Michael Jackson figure; sort of sexually ambiguous, separate, playful, capricious, diva”, and retrospectively I can see a semblance of Jackson in Ben Wishaw’s portrayal of Richard. There are certainly parallels, with Richard swept up in the pomp, rigmarole and “celebrity” of kingship. The documentary highlights the timeless relevance of the play, citing modern examples, from Gaddafi to Thatcher, of people who have met with Richard’s fate.

All of the BBC’s recent programming centring on Shakespeare has been interesting and informative, but I think that this Shakespeare Uncovered benefitted from accompanying a performance. It’s almost the equivalent to the articles in a theatre programme which give background information and explore the themes of the play, and means that the viewer doesn’t need to have any previous familiarity with the play to get the most out of the documentary. Yet I believe that all of the Shakespeare Unlocked programmes have met their target of making Shakespeare more accessible; a letter this week in the Radio Times is from a lady who has been converted after 56 years of not “getting” Shakespeare by the BBC’s Shakespeare season. As Ben Wishaw states, “I get irritated when you’re made to feel like it’s [Shakespeare’s] something difficult and a bit beyond you. I really hate that. People are so stuffy about it, but it’s really easy”. Wishaw’s Richard II certainly made Shakespeare seem easy, and the production was easily accessible. Programmes such as these open up Shakespeare to a whole new audience; they are the sort of programme that the BBC is best at, and a worthy addition to the Cultural Olympiad. I’m definitely looking forward to the next three instalments of The Hollow Crown.

West End on Film

The BBC 4 documentary London on Film is a compilation of fascinating archive footage of London spanning 100 years, giving an intriguing insight into London across the eras. The first episode focuses on the West End and features evocative footage alongside that of more mundane scenes. We see Covent Garden when it was still packed with fruit and veg, and an array of beautiful period clothes. There is black and white footage of men cleaning the Underground ventilation shafts, alongside a clip from a time when bin men still collected rubbish by horse and cart. An interview with a market stall trader reveals a supreme confidence in his selling abilities that would rival any modern Apprentice candidate.

There is also an article on the introduction of parking meters and traffic wardens to the West End: “it’s all going to be done courteously, no slanging matches, just say ‘what awful weather we’re having, sir’ and fine him £2”. The archive narration is perhaps more entertaining than the footage itself; while modern voiceovers can grate and seem unnecessary distractions, this older commentary is only improved by the RP delivery. I would find many modern documentaries far more entertaining if they were accompanied by an old-fashioned BBC-style narration.

The documentary moves on to Soho: “life after dark with an enamel gloss and the cracks showing – garish, gay, avaricious and a little sleazy at the edges”. We meet a posh stripper, just back from Morocco with her boyfriend. She is a source of some rather bizarre quotes: “for me [stripping] is just the same as standing on stage and singing the Schubert Lieder like I used to when I was in the convent”. We explore the entertainment of the West End, from clubs to cinemas and theatres. There is a particularly incongruous interview where the brilliance of rapping is discussed by men in suits with cut glass accents.

Clips featuring protests and riots merge together, from charwomen seeking an extra thruppence three farthings, via the Vietnam War and Poll Tax Riots, to football hooliganism; this reflects the effect of the film as a whole in bringing out continuities across the period. While the programme flits from one topic to another it continually demonstrates the timeless qualities of the West End, and of life in general.