Fargo Series 3. The best yet?

Series three of the Coen Brother’s franchise Fargo, created for TV by Noah Hawley, may just be the best yet. The black comedy crime drama has received critical acclaim and been nominated for various awards including several prime time Emmy awards, golden globes and a screen actors guild award for Billy Bob Thornton’s role in the second series.

Known for it’s colourful characters, dark yet humorous plots and photogenic real life North American location, Fargo has become a successful TV series in it’s own right. I’d even go so far as to say it’s achieved further success as a series, showcasing the writing and directing skills of author and screenwriter. The original film was nominated for seven Oscars including best picture, and one best actress and best screenplay for the Coen brothers. Hawley has gone on to develop the wining format with a range of new storylines and characters, each delving deep into the psyche of ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations.

Ewan McGregor takes up a dual role in the latest instalment. He plays brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, who, as a result of their father’s death, both have very different lives. Emmit is a wealthy owner of a car empire while Ray is a balding, pot bellied parole officer, with a grudge. Ray’s determination to get what he’s owed from his brother, leads him on a path of destruction, including an affair with his client Nikki, and a double murder case. McGregor shows his versatility in playing both roles, particularly when he must play Ray, attempting to pass as his brother Emmit, clean shaven and in a dodgy curly wig (only in Fargo) in order to access Emmit’s bank deposit box. Watching this scene unfold was fascinating.

Mary Elizabeth Winsted is Nikki Swango, Ray’s client who quickly becomes his lover. Swango is an ex con, with a radar for mis-justice. She quickly teams up with Ray to help him get his father’s valuable stamp back. Ballsy and direct, Swango is at the centre of the plan to burgle Emmit’s house and even leaves a shocking reminder behind when she is unsuccessful. Winsted portrays Swango well, making her likeable despite her faults. Her actions at the burglary scene remind us, with a horrified punch, that she’s a woman. When she is attacked by Vargo’s men and left for dead, she immediately plot revenge, just as she does when Ray is taken from her in a cruel twist of fate that no one could have predicted.

Emmit’s life, while may seem perfect, also begins to unravel when he attempts to organise repayment on a loan he took out with a shady company who seem less than willing to let it go that easily. Enter one of Fargo’s best characters to date, played by British actor David Thewlis. V.M Varga is a mysterious figure who becomes Emmit’s business partner and slowly manipulates him to sign away large sums of money to offshore accounts. Although far from the traditional villain, Varga has a strong East London accent and a penchant for classical music. His offices appear to be in an abandoned warehouse, with limited lighting and bars in the windows. What is rather extraordinary about the character is his complexities. He is foremost a businessman, authoritative and manipulative but he also appears vain, lonely and vulnerable. While we see him threatening and demoralising Emmit and his work partner Sy, he is also revealed to be bulimic, with the sick habit of picking his gums until they bleed. Thewlis really digs deep into the character, making us want to know why he is this way and what his personal life is like. Something about him unsettles you, yet you can’t quite stop watching him.

Carrie Coon is dedicated police officer and police chief of Eden Valley, Gloria Burgle. Recently divorced, with a son and step father to take care of, Gloria is the ultimate modern woman. She takes her job role extremely seriously and is unafraid of the threats she faces. When the case takes a very personal turn for her, she is all the more determined to solve it. But her discoveries eventually lead her to Varga, the complex man, who appears to have more than luck on his side.

Aside from the characters and the quirky storylines, (how many ways can a person die?), the reason I also love this series is the cinematic quality of each episode. The natural beauty of the North American landscape, which frequently appears snow covered with bleak open fields and long stretches of open road, adds a partially surreal and detached element to the story. The small town communities effected by the events are close knit, the people becoming irritated by every day issues. We first see Gloria Bugle waving her arms outside a shop doorway, in attempt to get the electric doors to pick up her movements. We later learn this is a common issue she has and it gets to her. Moments like these resonate with the viewer and add humour to the drama. The landscape draws you in and takes you into the world of the characters, it is also a consistent of the formula. If it suddenly changed to a sunny California, it wouldn’t work the same at all.

The Fargo based characters all have a similar vernacular too, the Minnesota nice of ‘okay hon’s’ and ‘you betcha’s’ which also transcends the three series. This helps to break up the scenes of violence and heavy intensity.

The music also adds to the authentic feel. Set in a very recent 2010, Series 3 is the most modern yet, with an eclectic soundtrack of jazz, rock and Russian chanting. This certainly helped to add to the intensity of the action scenes. In one clever move, the drum style tapping returns as Vargas goes to meet Nikki to discuss secret files she has on Emmit’s company. As the car moves up the abandoned street, out of town somewhere, we see a man tapping on something which links the soundtrack nicely into the visual.

The final scene of Series three is one of the most tense and gripping scenes in television drama that I can remember. As Gloria questions Varga and he refuses to admit anything to do with her investigation, a clock ticks in the background. Varga then reveals that in a short time, someone will walk through the doors and reveal something to her that she cannot argue with, and he will be free to leave. Her resolve doesn’t falter, but the camera moves to the clock, just above the door and remains there as the minutes tick away. Then the screen falls black. Infuriating yet brilliant, we will never know who the person is that Varga is talking about, if anyone will actually come and what Gloria will do if or when they do.

An open ending narrative such as this is not as common as people might think. Often criticised for not leaving the viewer satisfied, or even as a weakness in the writer for not really knowing what to do next. In my opinion, the open ended narrative works best in situations such as these. The storyline so far has been solid and clear, yet far from simple. The character of Vargas has appeared far from straight forward, readable or even understandable. His motions and indeed motives have been very unpredictable. Therefore an ending like this works perfectly. It fits within the story and the characters involved. Frustrating? Yes. An easy way out? Definitely not. In fact, it just sets the standard expected for the next series.

With Fargo, I think the Coen brothers have found a successful formula. As long as the TV series continues to stick to that, while bringing fresh ideas to the page and using consistently talented actors, as far as I’m concerned, they can do nothing wrong.


Dunkirk – Review

A dignified homage to Churchill’s ‘Miracle of deliverance’.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tells the story of the miraculous evacuation of British troops by Naval and civilian vessels, from the beaches of Dunkirk during the height of World War 2.

Known for box office hits such as Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar, the award winning Director and Screenwriter was the ideal choice for such a big British film. He certainly handles it with dignity and style.

The most surprising thing about Nolan’s adaptation is the lack of dialogue for the first quarter of the film, and the limited dialogue thereafter. This story is not about the characters or connections, but rather the effect of one event on a community and a country.

The film begins in a small French town, where a group of soldiers have been driven back by enemy forces. As all but one of the group are shot down by enemy fire on the ground, one escapes through a French barricade announcing that he is British. We then see the full impact of his point of view as he stumbles onto the beach, where thousands of soldiers line up awaiting their fate. Moments later, an enemy plane flies over and the men drop to the ground as bombs scatter the beach. Two soldiers race the length of the beach with a stretcher, exertion in their features. They push their way through the crowds to get the injured man to the leaving ship.

What follows is a tense and fast paced 90 minutes as we experience events from the land, sea and air.

Dunkirk was filmed on one of the beaches where events took place 77 years ago. Knowing this is all the more poignant as we watch men wade through choppy waters thick with foam, packed onto the jetty, awaiting their turn to step onto the limited boats, with bombs and gunfire overhead.

Limited dialogue between the men, except to communicate when necessary ensured the focus remained on the action. One direction star Harry Styles (as soldier, Alex), failed to overshadow the other actors, Nolan keeping his presence and contribution to a minimum. As an actor, Styles delivered his lines with emotion and conviction, but didn’t particularly stand out for his talent.

Meanwhile two pilots monitor events from the air and fight off enemy planes, situated over the skies where real men would have lost their lives. In a clever move, one of the pilots is only revealed as the actor Tom Hardy at the end of the film, after he has shot down an enemy plane, to great celebration, cruising in over the beach on a near empty fuel tank before landing and being taken away by enemy soldiers. Hardy portrays his role with his usual commitment and intensity.

Sir Mark Rylance is captain of a civilian vessel, representing the small community of Dover and the surrounding area which joined the evacuation mission. Rylance plays the role with humility, determination and British spirit.

The only drawback of such a film is the references to military jargon. The first chapter of the film, highlighted by a rather distracting and perhaps unnecessary typeface, is titled ‘the mole’ which I assumed referred to the stage of the operation, but is actually the name for the area of jetty on the beach. It was also noted by one of my group, who has a Naval history, that the Naval Officers were wearing full presentation uniform on the vessels rather than what would usually be worn at sea. Perhaps this was just cinematic license? Or a way to clearly identify the officers and the crew?

Visually, Dunkirk is incredible. From fighter planes cutting through the clear skies, to clouds of smoke rising from explosions on the beach and exhausted men with oiled faces bobbing out at sea as ships sink in their midst. There are some impressive shots which portray the emotions of the soldiers without words. A lone soldier surveying the devastation, the aerial shot of several small vessels heading towards the French coastline. The glistening eyes of a Naval Commander (Theatre and screen legend Kenneth Brannagh) as he first sees the fleet of civilian boats that have come to their aid.

Winston Churchill’s infamous words play over the final scenes of the film as two British soldiers return home. Believing they will be considered cowards and the mission a disaster, they are surprised at the welcome they receive. Churchill’s words fade into the background as the crowds welcome the two men as the heroes they were. 330,000 British, French, Dutch and Belgian soldiers were evacuated during the Dunkirk operation and it’s still considered one of the biggest operations in military history. Nolan’s film does every justice to the men involved, without embellishment or exaggeration. With a cast of fine British actors and a talented screen writer and director an infamous story is finally brought to the screen for all generations to relive a fascinating moment in British history.

By Amanda Griffiths


Hay Festival 30

This was my eleventh year at Hay Literature festival in Hay on Wye, the book town near to Hereford just over the Welsh border. In its 30th year since very humble beginnings, the seeds of which were sewn around a kitchen table in 1987, this was probably the best yet. The first visit, a two-hour and twenty-minute drive visiting family on the way, was a chance for me to indulge. To be selfish and to return to the festival with only myself in mind. I walked the narrow pavements littered with stalls set up by local residents selling drinks, cakes, antiques, books and crafts. It was a scorching hot day. I took in the backdrop of rolling Welsh hills. The lush greens and browns. Excitement buzzing through me as i glimpsed the white tops of the marquees that spelled home for me. Inside I wondered through the festival, grabbing an iced tea from a familiar drinks stand, talking to the local stall holders, browsing new reads in the book shop. I checked the venue for the evening event I had a ticket to. Helen Fielding in discussion with Viv Groskop on the Bridget Jones franchise and the leap from stage to screen.

Later I walked back along the pavement into the town. Pubs, hotels, shops and houses were linked in unison with coloured bunting emblazoned with the festival message. Imagine the world. Words that seem all the more poignant right now. In the town square two students were performing poetry for £1. I was treated to Lewis Carol’s Jabberwocky by a jolly man with a cloth cap. There followed a brief conversation about the character’s appearance in Alice in Wonderland, which I admitted I knew better. But I praised and admired the men for their unique idea of bringing literature out onto the street, something which reminded me of the old days of street performance. Their chalk board was scrawled with familiar names like Keats, Wordsworth and Shelley. Their knowledge and memory of poetry was impressive. I have long envied the writers and readers who can directly quote their favourite poems or enter discussion referencing and comparing several different writers at one time.

That evening, I sat in a packed marquee listening to Fielding talk about her rise to fame as a comedy writer, and now winner of the Bollinger Everyman comic fiction award (for her fourth book Bridget Jones’ Baby). From her early days working as a journalist and writing books about her experiences in Africa, to the moment she was asked to write a sex and the city style column for the The New Yorker about her single life. This she exaggerated and adapted through the character of Bridget Jones which then went on to become a best-selling series of books and a film franchise. She admitted she was at first embarrassed to say she had written the columns, but later embraced it. As I listened to her talk I couldn’t help but see the Bridget in her. As she took her book from her ‘new’ handbag, which, Groskop noted, the author had insisted she bring on stage. Then popped a pair of fashionable frames onto her nose and said excitedly ‘my new glasses’. As she read a passage from Bridget Jones’ Baby, it was clear to see how much she loves her character and also how well she knows her. ‘I see everything through Bridget’ she commented as the interviewer asked if there might be another book in the pipeline. ‘Would people still want to read about a 50-year-old Bridget?’ The reaction from the audience was positive which delighted her. On a more serious note she fought of accusations that her books were anti feminist and commented that Bridget would be more accepted today, in light of the fact that being single at 30 is not a big issue anymore. 

My second visit to the festival was with a friend who had never been before. This time I was seeing everything through her eyes. Which encouraged me to see it differently too. We walked around and took some photos, sat on picnic benches under the bunting lined tents sipping coffee and homemade lemonade. We visited the food hall and tried different foods: smoked sausage, homemade pizza, brisket rolls and haloumi fries with chilli dip. Sat among other festival goers discussing arts and literature and politics. The ceiling of the food tent was decorated with cloth models of fish, meat and vegetables. It reminded me that Hay leaves no space empty. Everywhere is a canvas, everywhere is the blank page. The same goes for the town.  The castle was bubbling with life, the streets were filled with people selling things, promoting literature or events. Even the windows of the regular town shops had gone to every effort to create a display worthy of the celebration. In one of my favourite bookshops, while looking for folio editions of the classics we discovered a lovely cafe. Loose tea and homemade scones served in a modern building, walls adorned with book cover prints. The Importance of being Earnest caught my eye and reminded my friend to buy a copy.

We saw two events on the final weekend of the festival. Both of which left me inspired and excited. The first was a reading by the poet Simon Armitage of his latest collection Unaccompanied. Having accidentally discovered the Sheffield based writer at a free BBC event a few years ago, which focused on his involvement in The Great War: an elegy  a programme commemorating World War one. I really enjoyed the event and tapped into his connection with the war theme as it’s something close to my own heart and ingrained in my family history. This time I wasn’t sure what to expect, if the previous event was as impressive as I’d remembered. The hour spent in that tent, listening to the words of Simon Armitage reminded me why I love language, why I want to write poetry. He has a way with words, a dark yet often humorous message in each of his works. His ‘still life’ exercise, in which he picks a random object and writes a poem about it, to practice his craft, resulted in some clever interpretations of every day objects such as a chair or a bed. It was something which I immediately wanted to try myself. After the reading, we both bought the collection and queued up to have it signed. Simon was very gracious about our waiting and buying his book. I only wish I could have portrayed just how much I enjoyed the reading, and how much I admired him. My friend noted too how often when faced with someone whose work you have just heard and enjoyed, you’re not sure just what to say or how to convey something sincere.

On the second morning of our visit, we went to see a free event in the BBC marquee with Sherlock and Doctor Who writer and producer, Steven Moffat. I was particularly excited about this event, being a massive fan of the modern Sherlock and the writing of Moffat himself. The event was being recorded for Radio 4’s Front Row programme and consisted of an interview and question and answer session. Steven talked of his earlier work writing for shows such as Pressgang, Chalk and Coupling, while we were played sound clips of each. He vocalised his embarrassment at his early attempt at comedy, learning along the way and often falling for cheap gags and rude jokes. He sited the wonderful creations of characters like Sherlock and Doctor Who for giving him something more to work with. He appeared warm, funny and very graceful in relation to his great success with the two BBC shows. Although he will be completing work on Doctor Who alongside Christopher Eccleston after the Christmas special, the changeover he noted would be ‘slightly different than it’s been done before.’

More serious talk of Moffat’s treatment of women in his writing was offset by a question sent in by a ‘Mr M Gatiss’ asking what Sherlock ‘must never do’. This resulted in laughter from the audience and seemed to throw Moffat slightly, before he replied with ‘you can’t say your character will ever not do something. That’s just bad writing’ He then suggested the extent of Sherlock’s sexual experience was often in question.

We met Steven in the bookshop after the event, where he signed our tickets. He seemed very warm and genuine, asking if we were enjoying the festival and smiling when I announced my love for his work on Sherlock. Unfortunately I’ve never been a Doctor Who fan. But after hearing him talk so passionately about the show, maybe I’ll give it another go. After all, Hay is also about trying new things, about learning and growing as a reader and writer.

This year’s festival was certainly full of surprises and new experiences. Where else can you share your love of literature with others in one big tent, or a grassy patch in the middle of a field? Where else will you hear spoken poetry on the town streets, meet writers of best-selling TV drama or outstanding poetry? Where else in the world would you want to be in those ten days between the months of May and June? I know my answer.

In the words of Stephen King

Progress on my new novel has been going rather well lately. I’m finding more time in my busy schedule of full time work, family/friend commitments and other writer related tasks such as reviewing and proofing. I read an article in an old edition of Writing Magazine which sited that one of my favourite and most admired authors, Stephen King, writes at least 2000 words a day. A few years ago, this would have seemed a lot. This would have been my maximum for a week, maybe two. But the fact that he was able to achieve this every day of the week, sometimes by 11.30am, (admittedly it is his main income) made me think about the way I was approaching my own writing time. Despite trying to fit a few hours into each week of writing, I was not surprised to discover that this was not enough to keep the momentum going on my novel, or to make any real solid progress, before I had to down tools and make dinner, or head off to work. But during the past few years, my time freelance writing for local press has allowed me to build a faster typing speed and an efficient turn around of ideas into articles. Which put me back into the practice of writing more faster. I soon realised if I gave myself the time, when the ideas where there I could easily write 2000 words in a few hours. The every day thing might be a problem. But a few days a week, this was definitely doable. Particularly when I have a novel to finish.

That edition of Writing magazine also came with a year planner which I decided to put on my wall, to chart the amount of hours and the word count for each day I wrote. Not surprisingly, I am already writing more frequently and finally setting a pattern and some continuity for work on my novel. But what constitutes writing time? Any time spent at my keyboard, whether that be reviewing, blogging, working on my novel, even the crucial editing stages, are all recorded. I don’t allow more credit for one or the other. These are all valuable hours spent crafting words into an effective art form of one or the other. They all count towards becoming a better, more practised writer.

Of course the article also claimed that Stephen King thinks three months is plenty of time to complete a first draft of a novel. And it probably is, in an ideal world. I agree that leaving a book unfinished for too long can make the characters or situation go stale.  I was beginning to find this with my current novel, which has been ten years or so in the making. But the characters are still very much alive, wanting their stories to be written and I’m still excited to see the end result. I’m looking forward to completing my first draft of my second book, it just may take me a little longer. I have also been getting some exercise first thing in the morning before starting my writing, something which King also practices in his own daily routine. There’s nothing like a walk in the fresh air to get the creative juices flowing. I also liked King’s take on the artists muse. A concept that so many writers, including myself, often have difficulty with.

Don’t wait for the muse. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine til noon…If he does know, i assure you sooner or later he’ll start showing up. 

His words appear to ring true. The more I have set a regular schedule for my writing, a routine of producing 2000 words as many days of my week as possible, the more the ideas seem to come, the keyboard seems to work itself with me simply watching over the creation, no more than a guide. I am yet to read King’s On Writing, a part memoir part writing masterclass, which charts his rise to success as one of the best selling Authors of all time. It sits on my bookshelf, among other practical manuals such as The Writers and Artists Yearbook, Grammar for Dummies and Inside Book Publishing. One day soon, I’ll take it down and dust it off. Maybe I’ll discover some other tips to help me to become the kind of writer I’d like to be.



Red letter day

At the beginning of the New Year, I made a promise to myself. Not a resolution, I’ve long given up on the idea of setting goals that are difficult to keep, if not totally unrealistic. This Year, I decided to focus on a form of writing which I’ve always enjoyed, and to do my part in keeping this fading genre from dying out completely. I decided that I would write a series of hand written letters. The recipients could be family members, friends or acquaintances and the rules were as follows.

They would be written by my hand, with pen and paper my only tools for creation.

The people I chose would be unaware of my project, until an envelope appeared at their door.

I would not plan anything that I was going to write.

The idea for this project came from several sources. A few years ago, I was at an event at Hay Festival which would combine bestselling anthology ‘Letters of note’ by Shaun Usher and ‘To the letter’ by Simon Garfield with the launch of the now hugely successful letters live, where celebrities such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law and Olivia Coleman would read a series of letters to a live audience. These letters were written by people young and old, alive and dead, well known and unknown and covered a series of themes such as art, politics, love and friendship, war and loss. One of the most striking for me, was Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, left for her husband to find, before she walked into a river. Her depression had been ongoing and her final words of pain and anguish were extremely moving. On stage Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey (his Sherlock co star) read a series of letters from a soldier to his lover back at home. The mixture of emotions that both of them face throughout the exchange is very real, and all the more poignant in a society were the only form of contact was by letter. The weeks, even months of waiting for news, certainly took its toll on the young couple.

This event and the letters in the book played on my mind for a good year or so after. At which time I began to read through my own Granddad’s letters which he had kept from his time during the Second World War. These are first hand accounts of his experience in the Army, from his early training in the artillery, to his work as a Dispatch rider, travelling across Africa, Palestine and Italy. Reading through them now, long after my Granddad’s death, the words are very much alive with emotion and experience. In the pile, I found a solitary letter from my Great Grandmother to my Granddad, her only son. The concern and anxiety seeps through the fading ink, and her talk of my Great grandfather fire watching and the ‘Yanks’ in their jeeps nearly running her over in town, adds an authenticity, a realness that I could never have imagined. This sense of only having one way to contact someone, of waiting for news, of discovering things in writing, whilst incredibly difficult and frustrating at these times, was also incredibly valuable.

When I was a child, I used to write to pen pals. I had several friends all over the world and enjoyed getting to know people in this way. Family and friends who lived away used to write to me, and when I could I’d write back. When my sister moved abroad for a year during her Spanish degree, we sent letters and cards to keep in touch, as phone calls and internet wasn’t as cheap and readily available then. I found these letters recently, as well as letters that my best friend and I used to write to each other, silly ramblings when we were at school and during the holidays. Then more mature letters when we regained contact after our Uni years. Finding these letters made me realise that we just don’t communicate in the same way anymore. Sure we text, email, Whatsapp, Facebook chat, but it’s just not the same as an old-fashioned, printed letter. I love reading old literature where the crux of a story hangs on the fact that they may or may not have read the letter (Tess of the D’urbervilles anyone?).

So I made this promise to myself, that I would write a series of letters, to friends and family, with the idea of giving them something special, something personal that they can keep, a nice surprise at the beginning of a long day. It would also be good for me, a kind of therapy to get my thoughts and feelings written down, to share my plans and dreams for the future. This way it will be easier to complete them. This way i am more likely to do something about them, because i had shared them in a very permanent and personal way. I’m up to letter number four, and have chosen my next subject. So far, they have been very well received. I have even wrapped ribbon around those for my girlfriends and slipped a recent photo inside for family members. It feels good to be doing something positive and to be sharing that with others. Hopefully it’s the start of a very positive writing year.

Against the odds

Attempting to live life as a serious, full time writer is always going to be difficult. Despite our best intentions, we are often caught up in the day jobs that promise to pay the bills; the family and friends wanting attention and other things that seek to keep us away from our true calling. If you’re lucky enough to be able to give your full attention to your art, to be able to set aside large amounts of free time to your work, I envy you. For many, like myself, creative time seems to fall last on the list. Often being pushed aside for more pressing chores and engagements. Often for the mere necessity to eat and sleep. Creativity doesn’t choose an appropriate time to come calling, those ideas often come at the most inconvenient time. Only to be pushed to the back of our minds or hurriedly jotted down on a shopping receipt between tasks. When there is time, it is often at the end of the day, when tiredness creeps in and threatens to kill any seed of an idea before it reaches it’s full potential.

I was talking to like minded friend recently about this issue. As an artist, she shared my concerns of the pressure a full time job puts on creative output. While the money may be more reliable, it leaves little time for inspiration or practical creative tasks. We talked about the need to dedicate regular hours to an ongoing project, the continuity that is so important to a finished story or painting. Also of the lack of time to see friends and family, to travel and do things that inspire new ideas. I once read that doing mundane chores or tasks can aid creativity, because our brains are not actively engaged with what our bodies are doing, therefore freeing them up to work away on an idea that may be waiting for development. But I believe this only works if a balance is achieved between the time doing the mundane tasks and the free time available after to develop the idea. (The irony is I’m editing this in between paying bills and making dinner!) Writing, like painting and other creative arts, is a workout for the brain, just like any other muscle. So the more you do, the more time you have to dedicate to the exercise, the more you will build that muscle and the more effective it will be. Perhaps too much creative exercise can actually be more harmful. We all know of the Shakespearean phrase ‘too much of a good thing’.  Maybe it’s not so much an issue of writers being able to do what they do full time, but rather a question of what they feel capable of. Every writer, like every artist, works differently.

Sometimes that decision is not in your hands. The Arts are one of the most difficult professions to make a career out of. Which is why so many established writers also turn to day jobs, albeit media related, as well as regularly running workshops and promotional events. In a multi dimensional media world it helps to have multiple skills.

When it comes down to it though, surely any output of creativity is positive. However many minutes or hours you find. With this in mind, all you really need is a quiet room somewhere, a full belly and a good night’s sleep. The rest will come naturally.

Re discovering Dahl

We all have those books that changed us, those authors who inspired us to the path we may not have taken. For me, Roald Dahl is the most influential author in my life. Discovering his stories led me to a world of fun, excitement and possibility. They made me want to write my own stories and I attribute my love of imagination and storytelling to him. So, the fact that this year marks the centenary of Dahl has allowed me to enjoy the events going on throughout the country and by reading some of my favourite childhood books, to relive my own experiences of Dahl from an adult perspective.

In April I enjoyed a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory inspired afternoon tea in the beautiful grounds of Llety Cynin hotel and restaurant, situated in St Clears in the West Wales countryside. The homemade food included finger sandwiches with fillings such as ham, egg mayonnaise and tuna; mini toad in the hole; blue berry pies; toffee apple cake pops; chocolate cups and a blue fizzy soda capped with whipped cream. Unlimited tea was also served in floral china teacups. Afterwards we took to the James and the Giant Peach trail (probably meant for children – we were two grown adults) which on entrance through the hand painted doors, took us on a tour of the local woodland where we came across several clues in the form of colourful props. Collecting pieces of a jigsaw as we went, at the end of the trail we were awarded with a prize and complimentary drink which we enjoyed in the late afternoon sunshine.

Last week I went to see Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG. One of my favourite books, after Matilda, I was excited to see what the famous Director had done with this wonderful tale of one child’s discovery of a Big friendly Giant; a strange talking man who captures peoples’ dreams while they sleep and uses them for good. Named after his granddaughter (the now famous model and writer in her own right, Sophie Dahl) Sophie is an orphan who lives in London. Curious about the world and unable to sleep one night, she comes face to face with the ‘boogie man’ of the children’s nightmares and panicked he takes her away to Giant country. From the first moments of a Victorian looking London at night, to scenes of lush meadows of Giant country, then the starlit, reflective dream world the film cinematography is beautiful. Mark Ryland is astonishing as the BFG. With a warm west country accent, lumbering gait and Dahlian dialogue he is immediately lifelike.

Spielberg’s creation is part CGI, and this adds to the surreal element of Sophie’s discovery. With the help of CGI Ryland’s BFG is an eye smiler, something Dahl talks about in Danny the Champion of the World. ‘He did it all with his eyes…His eyes would flash and if you looked carefully, you would actually see a tiny little golden spark dancing in the middle of each eye. It meant he never gave a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you’re not feeling twinkly yourself.’ Danny is talking about his Father of course, who in a way is his own BFG. Moments later his father tells him a bedtime story about the BFG and his dream catching.

Ryland brings Dahl’s character to life with humour, emotion and humanity. Rebecca Hall is the newcomer as book loving orphan Sophie and she is a brilliant co-star. Her reaction to her surroundings is a mixture of fear, curiosity and uncertainty. She soon comes attached to the BFG and tries to help him in his dream work and standing up to the bullies of Giant country, whilst putting herself in constant danger. The bond between them is a common theme of Dahl’s stories, along with humour, danger and excitement in the surreal. Penelope Wilton is great fun as Queen Elizabeth, interacting with Sophie and the BFG as they attempt to rid the world of the Unfriendly giants. There are some nice nostalgic touches, setting the story firmly in the 1980’s, including the Queen speaking to President Reagan. Spielberg’s triumph which has been praised by critics, belongs in the archive of classic films and is a tribute to the wonderful storyteller who is loved by so many generations.

To continue my re-discovery of Dahl, I have been re-reading some of his children’s books. My first choice was Danny the Champion of the World. I chose this lesser known book because I am going to see an outdoor Theatre production at Cardigan Castle in Ceredigionshire. Most of Dahl’s stories, besides Matilda, I remember only vaguely. Bits here and there of eccentric characters or astonishing events, key things that Dahl is known for. Some I even confuse from one book to another, as his stories can be read as a continuous exploration of a world, with characters and ideas breathing life into each other.

It was the same with Danny. I did worry that the childhood excitement and awe at first reading would have disappeared with the 20 odd years in which i’d grown up. I was delighted to find the same joy on beginning the story which only increased as I turned the pages and the characters of Danny and his Father, the evil Mr Hazell and others came to life. Suddenly I was 12 again. I was Danny, living with my father in a Gipsy caravan, just like the one in the garden of Dahl’s own Buckinghamshire home. And I was excited, exhilarated to live the story again. In discovering this, that what I hoped might be true, I gained a new-found respect for Dahl, an admiration for someone who can create something which endures, not just from child to adult, but through generations and decades. I keep thinking back to those moments in the cinema, goose bumps prickling my arms. Sat beside two 7 years olds, who wriggled with anticipation, I too felt their excitement, the magic of it all. I realised, in that moment, that Dahl is a creator, a magician, a hypnotist, who can captivate an audience, and whatever age, he can bring out the child in them and make them feel that anything is possible. It’s so refreshing to realise that something you loved as a child, does not have to be forgotten as an adult. Something that hasn’t changed when you return to it, although you may have changed a great deal. To find that in literature, I feel, is a very rare thing. For that, Dahl will always hold a special place in my thoughts.