Amazon Plus Video Review: ‘Blandings’

I didn’t have high hopes for the BBC miniseries Blandings (2 seasons available on Amazon Prime). Comments from members of the Wodehouse group on Facebook were unenthusiastic or downright hostile. I myself found it wanting in certain areas, but better than I feared.

Deep background: Most people have heard of Jeeves and Wooster, but P. G. Wodehouse had other story cycles, notably Blandings Castle (which now and then intersected with J&W). Blandings is an idyllic stately British home in the county of Hampshire. The theoretical master of Blandings is Clarence Threepwood, Lord Emsworth. Emsworth, however, is an amiable idiot, barely sentient, obsessed with gardening and his prize pig. So actual power is wielded by his formidable sister Constance – one of Wodehouse’s legendary “Scaly Aunts.” Constance dominates both Emsworth and his son Freddie, who is as mutton-headed as his father, but more active. A man about town (member of the immortal Drones Club), Freddie divides his activities between losing money gambling and falling in love with girls whom Constance finds unsuitable.

The two seasons of Blandings consist of six and seven episodes respectively. All are based on actual Wodehouse stories. I didn’t follow them line for line, but going by my memory they kept fairly close to the original plots. (The main differences between the two seasons are that George Cyril Wellbeloved, the pigkeeper, is unaccountably dropped in Season Two, and Beach the Butler is recast.)

The adaptations were funny; I’ll grant that. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, as they should be. However, they seemed to me to be differently funny from the original stories. The colors are louder, the comedy broader, more slapstick. Perhaps that’s a good way to compensate for Wodehouse’s essential authorial voice, but it sometimes seemed a tad over the top. The old Jeeves and Wooster series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie handled things better.

Young Freddie Threepwood is a case in point. Jack Farthing plays him pretty broadly, and his garish wardrobe and exaggerated quiff of hair are perhaps what Bertie Wooster would have exhibited, had Jeeves not put his foot down.

The big problem in the casting is with Clarence, Lord Emsworth (Timothy Spall). I think I speak for all Wodehousians when I declare that this is some Imposter (of course, Imposters are an important element of many Wodehouse plots). Clarence in the books is usually described as tall and thin, sporting pince-nez glasses. He prefers to dress shabbily, having no sense of personal dignity. However, the Emsworth we encounter here looks like a madman. His hair stands on end. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man who’d wear pince-nez at all. And he’s fat. He’s funny enough, but he’s wrong.

I was happy, in Season Two, to see the arrival of Uncle Galahad Threepwood, (played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, a name almost worthy of Wodehouse himself). “Gally” is an elderly roué, as at home in the city as his brother Clarence is in the country. He’s much smarter than Clarence, though, and an inveterate schemer. He’s written and acted well, and he sports the requisite monocle. However, Julian Rhind-Tutt, though elderly on close examination, has bright red hair which makes him look too young from a distance. Gally’s hair should be white, though his eye is not dimmed nor his natural force abated.

The most faithful performance, I think, is that of legendary comedienne Jennifer Saunders as Aunt Julia. She perfectly portrays a woman of Strong Opinions who takes no nonsense from the idiot men around her. Without her firm guidance, the whole estate would fall to pieces, and she knows it. Saunders is able to convey, however, that Constance loves her family deep down, and wishes the best for them – though her idea of “the best” is looking respectable and marrying the Right Sort of People.

Blandings is worth watching, and will give you some laughs. But go to the original stories afterward, and see it done properly.

‘Escape,’ by John W. Mefford

Now and then I start reading a book I can’t finish, because it annoys or offends me in some way. Most of the time when that happens, I do not review it. I figure being a bad writer is punishment in itself for the authors of those books.

But sometimes a book really annoys me, and I have to register a protest. I worked my way through about 2/3 of John W. Mefford’s Escape (which I got through a Kindle deal), and I need to vent.

First of all, I doubt that author Mefford cares about my opinion. He seems to be doing very well in book sales. It’s for him to look down on me, as far as pleasing the reader is concerned.

But I found Escape impossible to finish.

Escape is Book 7 in the “Ball and Chain” series. Judging by this particular specimen, it’s about a man and a woman, Cooper Chain and Willow Ball, who are involved in an endless search for Willow’s father. For some reason, which wasn’t apparent in this book. She doesn’t even like him much. Yet they put their lives at risk over and over to follow the obscure clues the old man leaves behind.

Obscure clues. This is the main thing that bothered me. You’re familiar with Hitchcock’s concept of “the Macguffin,” the object, worthless in itself, which becomes the center of the plot because all the characters are after it. (I’ll admit I’ve never entirely understood this. Nothing in a fictional story, including the characters, is of any worth in the real world, because they’re all imaginary). This book is a multiple macguffin story. In which the object of the hunt leaves convoluted puzzle clues that have to be figured out by the heroes. Like the National Treasure movies, which also annoyed me. I raise my barbaric yawp to the world – This never happens in real life. Never. And certainly not repeated times. It’s just a trick by the author to jack the suspense up.

What is worse, the beginning of the book finds our hero in a position in which he obviously was left in a cliff-hanger at the end of the previous book. Which means this book will most likely also end with a cliff-hanger.

I am not going to plow through this implausible plot to be left with a cliff-hanger. That’s an incivility to the reader.

The story starts somewhere in the South (I forget where; numerous insults are slung at southerners as a group), and then follows Ball and Chain to New York City, where a character who used to be their enemy suddenly becomes their friend and they get involved in a side job helping him. It doesn’t make much sense, but this series’ numerous fans seem to like that sort of thing. Bless their hearts, as they say in the South.

I’m out of it. I’ve Escaped.

Another Review: ‘Blood and Judgment’

Mary J. Moerbe continues reviewing my novels with a glowing review of Blood and Judgment:

But then Blood and Judgment adds a few more layers, as weak men must choose between courage and complacency,  humanity and survival. A few Norse Old Ones pop up. Doors between worlds are opened and closed. Viking Hamlet, Amlodd, cannot feign madness and so agrees to gain a feigning mind, effectively switching bodies with one of the actors! Oh, it was delightful!

I think she liked it. Read it all here.

‘The Year of the Warrior’ Review

Lutheran writer Mary J. Moerbe (who happens to be the daughter of Dr. Gene Edward Veith) has reviewed my novel, The Year of the Warrior at her blog, Meet, Write, & Salutary:

The descriptions hit me very powerfully. I mean, normally we would talk about world-building in a piece of fantasy, but this book may have made me even more engaged into my own world, allowing me to see it through re-opened eyes and a broadened perspective.

Read it all here. Thanks, Mary.

Is the Novel on Life-Support?

We hardly lack for prose in this online age. Digital entertainments aside, English- language genre fiction has blossomed into a startling new maturity. Popular biography conveys lessons the novel once delivered — as do popularly presented sociology and ‘New Journalism’, which uses techniques of novel-writing for essay-length reporting. Still, the novel is moribund. Its failure signals an end of confidence about the past values and future goals of what conceived itself as Western culture. The signs of a weakened, diffident and timid culture are written in the dust on the unread books of our library shelves.

Joseph Bottum writes about the decline of the novel in a book by the same name, excerpted in this month’s Spectator. He doesn’t appear to go in the direction you may expect, so read the whole thing. As I read it, I kept wondering if his point is simply a bit beyond my grasp as an ignorant student or is he measuring by a standard I don’t value as much. (via Prufrock)

‘Silent Retribution Man,’ by J. Sato

I’m reading a greater variety of authors these days, as I follow bargain offers on Amazon. This brings me into contact with more poorly written books (which I endure with greater patience than in my palmier days), but now and then I encounter something interesting.

This one, for instance. It isn’t often I encounter a book I consider a genuine original. But Silent Retribution Man by J. Sato was unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s not without flaws, but it was a fascinating exercise.

The Amazon review says the narrator’s name is Lionel Seaver, so I suppose that name must have cropped up somewhere in the text. But mostly he calls himself Silent Retribution Man. Once an ordinary lawyer and family man, his life got demolished in a day. He then found his “purpose in life” (quoting Steve Martin in “The Jerk.” He can barely express himself without quoting movies and TV shows) in getting revenge on the creeps of the world. Not the ordinary run of rude and obnoxious people, but those egregious types who take pleasure in cruelty, or ruin others’ lives for personal gain. Silent Retribution Man finds simple ways to give them a taste of their own medicine. Sometimes his activities are rather pleasant to observe, sometimes shocking. But always effective.

Until the day it goes wrong.

He tells his story to a journalist. There’s a reason why he’s seeking this publicity, and I did guess that reason before it was officially revealed. But the details were fascinating, and the ending something of a surprise.

The book had flaws. There were spelling problems, as is so often the case in novels today. And the whole story is morally problematic – but that’s kind of the point. We’re forced to confront our assumptions about what’s fair and right and just. There are no easy answers.

I enjoyed Silent Retribution Man, and recommend it for adults. Worth your time.

Ragnarok: Where It All Begins

Movie poster for Netflix series Ragnarok (2020).

Erik (teacher): Why is it of particular interest to talk about the old Norse gods? Especially right here in Edda? Gry?

Gry: Because was Edda was the last town in Norway to become Christian. Ah, and to give up faith in the Norse gods.

Erik: Yes, that is correct. One could say it all happened right here. Ragnarok. The end of the world. The final clash between the gods and the giants.

If I had seen the promotional tagline you see on the poster above, “This is where it all begins,” I might have watched Ragnarok, Netflix’s new six-episode series, in anticipation of an open, unfinished story — a part one. The series does have good character arcs and bring things together at the end, but it doesn’t wrap them up nearly as I was expecting. I kept thinking our hero would have to really lower the hammer in the next episode, but the final showdown isn’t, you know, the end of the world.

Norse myth fans will easily recognize names and characters as they appear: Odin and Frigg, Thor and Loki are represented in the old man with an eyepatch with the oddly serene, oddly prophetic wife, the mischievous brother, and the kind, justice-minded son. And the villain is named Vidar (Lars can tell us what that means).

Ragnarok is set in Edda, another nod to the myths, but it moves as methodically as any high-school superhero origin story might. Magne arrives with his family in this new town, which is his hometown but they had moved away after his father’s death several years ago; his mother’s new job at the undefined industry that supports Edda has brought them back. He befriends the “greenpeace” girl, Isolde, and learns that official accounts of the pristine nature of their town and country don’t fit the evidence they draw from the river.

Continue reading Ragnarok: Where It All Begins

‘Green Light,’ by Tom Barber

Sometimes, even in my reading life, I come across something that reminds me I’m a native of another century. Green Light by Tom Barber is such a book. Rousing, but for me it skipped over the interesting parts.

Sam Archer, hero of the series of novels of which this one is the seventh, is an Englishman working in the New York City Police Department. (The author is clearly English, as he has his Americans employing English colloquial expressions, and the spelling and orthography are uniformly English.) Think Chris Hemsworth for Sam, which is probably what the author has in mind, because if any book was ever written with an eye to making an action movie, it’s this one.

Following a high-octane chase and shootout, Detective Archer and his colleague/girlfriend, Alice Vargas, stop to pick up food at a convenience store. In the parking lot, they observe a young woman being attacked by two thugs. They rush to help, but the thugs pull guns, kill the girl, and shoot both cops who, though caught unprepared, are wearing their ballistic vests. Sam gets away with bruises, but Alice is wounded and rushed to the hospital.

Sam then gets sandbagged, suspended, and even arrested thanks to a police superior who hates him. But he’s gotten a whiff of a conspiracy involving human traffickers and high-level blackmail, and he won’t let up until he finds the men who shot Alice. He’ll have to tangle with more powerful criminals than them, though, before he gets to the heart of the conspiracy. Thankfully, he has friends in the department who’ll go the extra mile for him.

My problem with Green Light was that it was 90% action and 10% character stuff. I like to take time over the course of a story to get to know the people. The human interactions here, when we were allowed to observe them, were perfectly fine. I liked the characters. But they rarely got a minute to rest. And I can’t help thinking (old horse that I am) that even strong young people can’t handle that level of violence indefinitely.

You may like Green Light more than I did, especially if you’re a young reader. Cautions for violence and language.

Kirk Douglas (1916-2020)

As you doubtless know already, screen legend Kirk Douglas died on Wednesday, 103 years old.

Born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York to Jewish immigrant parents, he turned a difficult, impoverished childhood into fuel for a red-hot film career. Whether he played good guys or bad guys, his characters always burned with an inner rage. It was impossible to be bored with a Douglas portrayal.

He played two Norwegian roles in his career (that I’m aware of) The Heroes of Telemark, and The Vikings, and I’m grateful for them. We sometimes make jokes about the Jewish Vikings in 1958’s The Vikings, but in one sense I’d say he was the best movie Viking ever. The film itself, in spite of some minimal efforts at authenticity within the limits of the scholarship of the day, is fairly cartoonish, though undeniably rousing. But Douglas himself (even beardless) caught the spirit of the Viking perfectly. It would be very hard for any actor today to match the swagger, the sheer, strutting male display that Douglas brought to the role.

In the clip above, he and some extras do a trick that’s recorded in the Saga of Olaf Trygvesson — running along the ship’s sides on the oars. Douglas insisted on doing the stunt himself, and was a good enough sport to leave his falls in.

RIP, Kirk Douglas, one of a kind.

Sir Novelty Fashion Turned Poet Laureate

Colley Cibber (1671-1757) was an actor, playwright, and theater manager who made a name for himself initially as a comic actor in his own play, Love’s Last Shift, playing Sir Novelty Fashion.

Hilliaria: Oh! For Heav’n’s sake! no more of this Galantry, Sir Novelty: for I know you say the fame of every Woman you see.

Novelty: Every one that sees you, Madam, must say the fame. Your Beauty, like the Rack, forces every Beholder to confess his Crime–of daring to adore you.

He also reworked Shakespeare’s Richard III and Moliere’s Tartuffe. It was for crimes such as these that he was made Britain’s poet Laureate in 1730, drawing ire from contemporary poet Alexander Pope and his friends. They mocked him aggressively in print, some perhaps in good fun, some perhaps with malice.

Benham’s Book of Quotations gives sixteen pages to Pope’s words and to Cibber’s one column, and lest they die their appointed death too soon, I’ll repeat some Cibber lines here.

“Poverty, the reward of honest fools.”

“The aspiring youth that fired the Ephesian dome
Outlives in fame the pious fool that raised it.”

“Ambition is the only power that combats love.”

“Dumb’s a sly dog.”

Continue reading Sir Novelty Fashion Turned Poet Laureate

Amazon Plus Video Review: ‘Yancy Derringer’

It’s a rare experience for one of my gray hairs and reverence to watch a beloved childhood TV show and discover that it’s actually better than remembered. But such is the case for me with Yancy Derringer, a 1958-59 show that’s technically classed as a Western. It’s not really, though, because it’s set in New Orleans and the action is mostly urban. You could make a case that it’s really historical Noir (of course, I see Noir under every bed).

The eponymous hero, Yancy (played by stunt man and actor Jock Mahoney), is a scion of New Orleans’ elite society, a Confederate veteran, who returns from a sojourn in the Wild West to find that his riverboat is in someone else’s possession, along with the old family plantation, and his mansion (the same one they used in Gone With the Wind, by the way) has been turned into a casino.

Burning with anger at the local criminal element, Yancy gets an offer that you’d think anyone could refuse, from the federal administrator of New Orleans, currently under martial law. This man is John Colton, played by a Scandinavian-American actor named Kevin Hagen. He wants Yancy to be his (unpaid) “underground agent,” keeping tabs on the illegal side of life in the post-bellum Big Easy. Yancy, who like most 1950s TV heroes can apparently subsist on danger alone, agrees, because he cares about his city.

This perilous life is made safer by the fact that he comes equipped with full-time personal security. This is in the person of Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah, a Pawnee chief who (according to the story line) once saved Yancy’s life, and is now obligated by tribal tradition to protect him forever. Pahoo, though he never speaks and communicates only through sign language, is one of the highlights of the show. Immobile and impassive as a cigar store Indian much of the time, he still manages to command our attention, and when he springs into action he’s silent and deadly. He’s played by X Brands (his real name), a German-American actor who played a lot of Native Americans. But his costume is far more authentic (to my eyes) than anything we generally saw in old Westerns (I wonder if it wasn’t copied from a George Catlin portrait or some such), and, at least according to TV lore, his sign language is correct. Real Native Americans praised his performance. It’s particularly fun to watch Brands and Mahoney work together in action scenes – they’re a smooth tag team, perfectly in synch.

During the first episodes, Yancy is the archetypal impoverished aristocrat, subsisting on gambling winnings, skipping meals sometimes, but always impeccably dressed, usually in a white suit. He’s as smooth with the ladies as James Bond, and there’s a fresh flirtation in every episode. His chief companion, however, is Madame Francine, played by Frances Bergen (wife of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and mother of Candice). Madame Francine’s business is ostensibly a gambling house, but it’s full of beautiful girls, and this is New Orleans, so we all know what was going on. But you didn’t mention such things on TV in the ‘50s.

The series was created and partly owned by a husband and wife team, Richard Sale and Mary Loos. Sale had an amazing career, starting as a pulp writer and eventually becoming a Hollywood script writer and director. Mary was the niece of legendary screenwriter Anita Loos, but had a formidable career herself. Their sensibilities are visible all through the series – minorities are treated with unusual respect for the time, and women play strong parts. The scripts are generally sharp and clever, considering the limitations of the medium and the time constraints of the half-hour format.

A nice feature is that Yancy Derringer anticipated today’s miniseries. The show kept continuity between episodes – if Yancy mentions in one episode that he’s taking the train to Nevada soon, the next installment will show him on the train. Several minor characters return more than once. Previous events do not disappear, but are recalled and remarked on.

Yancy Derringer was a ratings success, and was on track to be renewed for a second season. Then, according to legend, the network tried to get a piece of the ownership, the owners refused, and negotiations collapsed. However, in those days one season meant 34 episodes. So you can have a pretty nice marathon by streaming it on Amazon Plus – though they omit one episode because (apparently) a good print of it no longer exists. You can see them all if you buy the DVD set.

I finished streaming it today. And had a very good time.

By the way, the first time I heard the expression “I’m your huckleberry,” popularized by Val Kilmer in Tombstone, was in the pilot episode of Yancy Derringer.

‘London Large: Blood On the Streets, by G. & R. Robson

When we Americans pick up a British mystery or police novel, we generally expect something a tad more refined than our own domestic product. Great Britain, after all, is a society that takes pride in being disarmed, in not having either criminals or cops running around the streets with guns.

Forget all that when you pick up London Large: Blood On the Streets, by the writing team of brothers G. and R. Robson.

Harry “H” Hawkins is a London police detective, and a proud dinosaur. He has no time for sociological policing, and little comprehension of online resources. (He leaves such matters to his partner, a young ethnic Indian woman named Amisha, whose talents he has gradually learned to appreciate.)

But for H, policing is still mostly a matter of wearing out shoe leather, barging in on suspects unannounced, physically threatening them when necessary, and occasionally jogging their memories with a good beating.

H is a veteran of the Falklands War and suffers from PTSD, which he self-medicates with alcohol.

When he’s called to the scene of the murder of two upper class women in fashionable St. James Park, he can barely keep himself together. One of the victims is the wife of his best friend, Ronnie, who saved his life in the war and is now a successful businessman. The brass won’t let him work the case, but that means nothing to H. Not even suspension from the force will keep him from doing whatever it takes to identify the killer and stop a vicious and perverted conspiracy at the highest level. In the end it will be just him and Ronnie at war again, and woe to anyone foolish enough to stand in their way.

The purpose of the London Large series (this is the first volume of it) would seem to be to show us Americans that the English can write books as violent and bloody as ours. The body count is certainly all you could ask in a Jack Reacher or Mitch Rapp novel, and H seems to have little trouble getting his hands on all the firearms he wants, even if he has to go to illegal sources. Nor is he hesitant to use them.

For me, however, the book was kind of ham-fisted. The writing was often clumsy, and the violence seemed to be the product of people who don’t understand weapons very well – in one scene, for instance, a thrown knife pierces someone’s forehead – I’m pretty sure that’s not possible.

On the other hand, character development was surprisingly good – certain characters exhibited unexpected strengths, something I always like in a story.

All in all, though, I found London Large: Blood On the Streets a little much. Over-violent, awkwardly written, and – oh yes – lots of profanity.

‘The Names of the Dead,’ by Kevin Wignall

Not only was he less sure now of the difference between their crimes, but there was also this other side to it, the love these people here in Lisbon felt for a man who the world viewed, with good reason, as a monster. Who would speak for Wes in such a way? One person, maybe, and she had died for it.

I’ve become a fan of Kevin Wignall’s novels, but I’ve never liked one of them as much as I like his latest, The Names of the Dead. Other readers are likely to have different opinions, but this one worked for me.

James “Wes” Wesley is a former CIA agent, abandoned by the agency and now languishing in a French prison for war criminals. He’s not quite innocent, but not as guilty as the world thinks. His best friend is Patrice, an African and former commander of God’s Own Army, a very real and vicious (ostensibly Christian) terrorist group. Patrice is repentant, and spends much of his time studying the Bible. He shares his wisdom with Wes, but Wes remains skeptical.

Then news comes that Wes’s ex-wife has been murdered. Also, their son (whom Wes didn’t know about) has gone missing. Wes gets compassionate early release. His former CIA colleagues try to kill him, but he manages to escape. Then he’s rescued, more or less, by a young woman. She is Mia, the granddaughter of one of Wes’s fellow prisoners, recently deceased, a Croatian war criminal. Mia is on the autism spectrum and doesn’t care to be touched, so there’s no question of romance. But she has nowhere to go and likes to drive (stopping frequently to visit cathedrals), so they form an unlikely team as they travel across Spain, Portugal, France, and on into the Balkans.

Wes’s plan is simple and limited – he will find the men who framed him, and kill them. Then he will find his son.

But on the way, guided by the Bible Patrice gave him as a going-away present, Wes will learn to see himself in new ways. And in the end he will make the hardest decision of his life – and the most right.

I have no knowledge of author Wignall’s faith or lack of it, and it would be wrong to call The Names of the Dead a Christian novel. But it’s a book that takes Scripture seriously, and in a positive way. The questions Wes struggles with – about human connections, personal choices, and moral good – resonated for this reader. I recommend The Names of the Dead highly.

‘Ragnarok’ on Netflix

At long last, and now that I am well and truly out of the script translation business, you’ll have the opportunity to view a Norwegian production I had a hand in translating. (I can’t watch it myself, having divested myself of Netflix in the recent austerity initiative.)

Ragnarok can perhaps be described, in what scriptwriters call an “elevator pitch” (a description short enough to be given during an elevator ride) as “American Gods,” crossed with “Stranger Things,” set in a Norwegian high school.

The theme is environmental, and the visuals are, by all accounts, spectacular. I worked on two or three episodes, and some of my work will probably have survived in the subtitles. Not for younger kids.

‘The Mountain Divide,’ by Frank H. Spearman

I’ve read and appreciated a couple of Frank H. Spearman’s classic westerns (he wrote Whispering Smith, most famously), and thought I’d try another. The Mountain Divide is somewhat different from my previous choices. It has the feel of a boy’s book, a genre which was big at one time. That’s mainly because the main character is a 17-year-old boy, and due to the lack of a romantic element in the plot. The book is also different from the others in not being set in the author’s contemporary time, but several decades back in history. It’s about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, just after the Civil War.

We first meet Bucks, our hero, as a newly hired telegrapher in the track town of Medicine Bend. Faced with a mob of angry customers, he handles himself with coolness and good sense, gaining the favor of his bosses and senior employees. Important among them is Bob Scott, the action hero of the book, who – interestingly enough – is a “half-breed.”

The story proceeds with Bucks advancing in his career, and clashing again and again with the outlaw element that accompanies the progress of the track laying. In the end it will come to open war between the railroad men and the lawless elements. Hostile Indians are also a constant threat. Bucks and Bob Scott will nearly lose their lives before their final triumph.

I should probably mention that, to the best of my knowledge, author Spearman gives a false impression of the legal situation. The recent miniseries Hell On Wheels, which I gave up watching, more realistically portrayed the arrangement – the saloons and gambling dens and houses of ill fame went west with the construction, and were tolerated – or facilitated – by the railroad companies. In this story, the two groups are mortal enemies.

As you’d expect for a book written around the turn of the 20th Century and aimed at boys, The Mountain Divide is a pretty straightforward adventure story, easily enjoyed. I consider Spearman a superior stylist to most of his contemporaries, and I liked this book.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture