Friday, 16 March 2012

Concerning Moomins

A friend gave me this slightly plaintive looking moomin as a present recently:

The Moomins were, of course, created by Tove Jansson and if you haven’t read the eight volumes that make up what is somewhat grandiosely known as The Moomin Saga, then you have a treat in store.

They are children’s books sure enough, but such joyous ones. Or at least the early ones are.There’s a facebook application where you can identify which Moomin character you most resemble. I took it and was informed that I was Moomintroll:

I was slightly disappointed as for all that Moomintroll is, pretty much, the hero of the series and is in all but one of the books, I had been holding out for Snufkin, who is so much cooler.

The first five books are cheerful enough, though Moominvalley Midwinter has a melancholy streak to it.

But the surprising one is Moominpappa at Sea.

I suspect that these days children’s books about the male menopause pretty much fill up the kids’ shelves in Waterstones, but back in the early ‘70s they were not so common. I remember my mother reading this one to me as a bedtime story and stopping off now and again to ask me if I wanted her to continue. I did, but in a wide-eyed, slightly scared way. It’s an uncomfortable read yet, though excellent.

The joy of the stories is the number of sympathetic and beautifully drawn characters. There’s the Hemulen who always wore a dress that he had inherited from his aunt:

the sinister yet ultimately tragic Groke:

the mysterious and enigmatic Hattifatteners:

and if you find the Snork Maiden a bit too pliant a female character:

she is all but off-set by the true star of the series, Little My!

Tove Jansson also wrote excellent books for adults, but that is for another time. For the moment, let’s finish with the last words of The Exploits of Moominpappa:

"…a new day…can always bring you anything if you have no objection to it."

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Me Blogger, You Reader

I recently read Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, mainly as a result of hearing an radio documentary about the character who is apparently a century old this year. It turned out to one of those books that is startlingly unlike what you are expecting. Previous examples I have come across are You Only Live Twice, the James Bond novel, which is breathtakingly unlike the film, and The Day of the Triffids which we read at school. I still remember my fellow pupils saying with increasing desperation, ‘But when are we going to get to the bit in the lighthouse?’*

*This makes sense if you’re of the age to have seen the 1962 film version which starred Howard Keel for some reason.

Well, Tarzan of the Apes is a bit like that. There’s none of that ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ stuff. Tarzan is highly fluent in first Apeish and then, somewhat unexpectedly, in French. English is his third language, as far as I can make out, and he speaks that with remarkable ease.

Weirdly enough, Tarzan in the first instance can speak Apeish but read English, having found books for his education in his parents’ hut. In one of the more disconcerting sequences of the novel, he takes a few years to teach himself to read, with the skeletons of his parents lying by him. He does not know that they are his parents, but it still makes for an odd, yet touching, image. Oh, and if you think it is unlikely that a teenager could teach himself to read from first principles with only the aid of a primer, at least it is more probable than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where the creature learns to read by peering through the hole in the wall of a peasant’s cottage, this view luckily allowing him to look over a child’s shoulder as she looks at her school books. Honest.

I have a soft spot for Edgar Rice Burroughs and first read him as a child, specifically At the Earth’s Core which was a highly entertaining film at a time when decent children's films were few and far between. England, in those distant days, laboured under the dread hand of an organisation called the Children's Film Foundation which made, God help us, highly worthy films which occasionally starred Keith Chegwin. I say no more.

Anyway, onto this bleak cinematic landscape, At the Earth’s Core burst with a glorious pre-Star Wars exuberance. With truly appalling special effects (only its predecessor, The Land That Time Forgot had worse, again ask any UK subject in their ‘40s about the pterodactyl in that film, I dare you) and a cast that included Peter Cushing, Caroline Munro and the thrice bless├ęd Doug McClure, it was a joy, an action filled adventure about two Edwardian adventurers who gain egress to an underground world by virtue of brilliantly designed mechanical ‘mole’.

Or so I remember. In a move I may well come to regret, I have ordered At the Earth’s Core from lovefilm and I suspect that it may not quite live up to my memories. But just as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was compelled to shoot the albatross, I am similarly bound to do this.

Mind you, I might appreciate Ms Munro a bit more on this viewing.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

RIP Richard Carpenter, 1933 - 2012

So farewell then Richard Carpenter, television scriptwriter. Depending on your age and viewing habits you might have happy memories of Catweazle, The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Dick Turpin,Smuggler or Adventurer. For myself, however, his finest show was Robin of Sherwood. Partly this is nostalgia, I was enjoying being a student when it was first shown, but also because Carpenter managed to do something not many have done. He changed the legend.

The original Robin Hood ballads concern an outlaw who fights against Sir Guy of Gisborne, a corrupt monk, the Sheriff of Nottingham and the King. His companions are Little John, Much the miller’s son and Will Scarlet. And that’s about it. No Maid Marion, no Friar Tuck and, most noticeably to us, no stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Oh, and no Richard the Lionheart or Prince John.

Maid Marion, Friar Tuck and the rest were added as time passed. Walter Scott in Ivanhoe transplanted him from the reign of Edwards I to III (where internal evidence from the ballads places him) to the reign of King Richard I. the Victorians added the giving to the poor stuff and decided that he was a displaced nobleman (Robin, Earl of Huntington rather than Robin, yeoman of Locksley). Douglas Fairbanks and, gloriously, Errol Flynn made him a laughing force of benign resistance looking to restore the King and so everything was in place. The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Richard Greene, was a highly popular TV series in the 1950s.

Then along came Richard Carpenter and Robin of Sherwood in 1984. I can remember the excitement. The series was heavily advertised and Robin was positioned as a rebel, I remember one advert labelling him as a rural guerrilla as opposed to the then popular phrase 'urban guerrilla'.

And it was fun. There was Clannad’s music and high production values and heavy use of location shooting and all was well. It ran for three series, surviving the loss and replacement of it’s lead actor, and was brought down by the financial collapse of Goldcrest Films, who put up the bulk of the money, not by a drop in viewing figures.

To me the most interesting thing about the series is its additions to the Robin Hood stories. Richard Carpenter is on record as stating that he was surprised that, unlike the King Arthur tales, there was no magic in the Robin stories, something he proceeded to correct. A strong celtic mysticism runs through many of the stories. This, however, did not take and subsequent re-tellings have remained firmly rationalist. But something else was, possibly, added. In the first episode the villain has a sidekick, one Nasir (played by Mark Ryan) who, in the original script, was defeated and killed after a swordfight with Robin. The producers, however, were so taken with Mark Ryan’s look and performance that they decided to change the script and have Nasir instead join Robin’s band. Richard Carpenter originally balked at this, but then acquiesced which is why, incidentally, Nasir has hardly any lines in the first series.

Then along comes the Kevin Costner film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And what have we here? Robin has a Saracen sidekick. Jump to this century and the BBC’s last version of the series had Djaq (Anjali Jay), a Saracen, albeit a female one this time round.

So it is possible that Richard Carpenter and the makers of Robin of Sherwood have added to the legend just as Walter Scott and various others have over the centuries. And that, I feel, is an achievement to be proud of.