Poetry inspired by the Russian Imperial Family - a collection by me entitled "Russian Snowflakes" - to be published soon. Some of these poems are broadcast today at 5pm on 10Radio. Here's the link:
A pile-driving, emotionally shattering juggernaut of an episode which saw transformations en-masse. For the characters, nothing would ever be the same again.
Having said several times before that I have an issue with the thousand pages of Tolstoy's masterpiece being crushed into approximately six hours, on this occasion, I completely suspend that criticism. The pacing here was incredibly fast, but the way the scenes were put together and juxtaposed was masterly. I was especially impressed with Adrian Edmondson, not usually my favourite actor, but who put in a performance as Count Ilya Rostov that I feel could possibly never be bettered. His slow psychological and physical disintegration in the face of his family's ruin was perfectly portrayed. By the end, when he was together with his wife in his final moments, you really could feel the innate goodness of the man and that he and his wife were, in reality two good hearted teddy bears whose world had collapsed around them, yet who in many ways retained their beautiful innocence even at the last.
And here I also want to praise this version in comparison to the 1973 version. Then you were not told explicitly about the ruin of the Rostov family. I did not realise that they had all gone to live with Princess Maria. Then, we saw Natasha with Maria, but I always assumed she was living there with the princess by herself in the wake of their developing friendship following Andrei's death. This time we actually saw the Rostov family ruined and living in a small flat. The reason for them going to the Bolkonsky's was made quite clear, as was the reason for Nicolai's discomfiture at possibly being thought of as a fortune hunter in consequence. This was all brilliantly handled and explained.
I also want to praise Tuppence Middleton. Her portrayal of Helene was here quite heartbreaking. I have said a lot of bad things about Helene's behaviour in previous posts. But the real genius of Tuppence Middleton's performance was to get you to actually feel something for her as the end neared. You really felt for her in her desperation and I, like Pierre, was really sad that she died alone and in pain, with no friends and no consolation. Nobody deserves that. As I said before in the context of her brother and Andrei - when all is finished, only love remains. So it was very nice to see Pierre making things up with Helene and Anatole's devastated father Prince Vasilli, whom we hope will now be a friend for life, bringing the old man consolation and peace, as it should be...
And now for something I thought I would never see on the BBC. Actual acknowledgement of the presence of something beyond this physical world. Prince Andrei's death was incredibly moving. Seeing him stood by the bed, looking at his body as he was passing to the next world was amazing, accompanied as it was by an intense light and meetings with his deceased wife Lise and his father. Music and image combined here to intense and beautiful effect. It made me cry. I've never seen it done so well and so completely truly. It will be hard to better...Natasha's question should haunt us all..."where has he gone?" In the beautiful answer to that question lies the transformation of us all...as Tolstoy knew so well...
Which brings me to Pierre. His transformation was superbly portrayed by Paul Dano. You really lived with him through his sufferings - his rescue of a child from a burning house - his defence of a woman from near rape by French soldiers - his near execution by firing squad - his imprisonment and finally the retreat from Moscow with the remnants of Napoleon's Grand Army. I want to mention here the very poignant presence of Platon's little dog Sachenka. She stayed with Platon after he was shot. You saw and felt the truth of eternal love here. It never deserts, always stays, always loves...even when night falls...
And I want finally to praise the end scene. This was in its totality one of the most beautiful and touching pieces of dramatic television that I think I will ever see. Pierre's words were so true about love and transformation and faith in the presence of apparent disaster. It is no surprise that in the ruins of the Ipatiev House, it was discovered that one of the last books the family was reading was...War and Peace. It's message spoke to them in their hour of darkness of light and eternal love. It speaks to us still today through this wonderful dramatic interpretation, as it will always do, hastening the final day when all men will be brothers and the world will know peace at last.
10/10. I hope it wins a hat-full of awards. I shall be first in line cheering them on. Bravo!
(many thanks to the BBC for the beautiful pictures I've used in these posts...)
A great episode...(thanks to the BBC for the great picture too!)
This week saw things finally reaching the heart of the matter. The differences between Andrei and Pierre were manifest. Pierre's suffering and introspection has already seen him beginning to look beyond the "illusion" we call "life", to see everything in a wider and wiser context. Andrei, for all his goodness, is trapped in a cold intellectuality that causes him to see things in terms that are too black and white - at least at the beginning. His relationship with Natasha lies in ruins thanks to a mistake spawned by a combination of her immaturity and his over-cautiousness and inability to oppose his father. An act of forgiveness would have mended things, but Andrei is unwilling to go there. Only Pierre's understanding nature prevents Andrei losing his friendship as well.
Meanwhile, the ruined relationship, and Andrei's growing discontent with his military career, combined with a dawning awareness of the futility of war finally causes him to behave in a suicidal manner at the Battle of Borodino as he fails to drop for cover when a whirling cannon-grenade lands near his men. He literally and willingly stares death in the face...
Pierre is also busy on the battlefield and is rapidly coming to similar conclusions about war. While helping out a cannon emplacement he is nearly killed when he and a soldier he has come to know are blown up by the detonation of an ammunition box as it receives a French direct hit. The young soldier is literally blown in half. All Pierre can do is comfort him as he dies. This is all graphically shown. There have been some complaints about the level of blood shown in this series. But I want to defend it. There is nothing - absolutely nothing - heroic or beautiful about war. It is nasty and brutal and shows the deepest savagery and most depraved aspects of humanity. These should rightly make us question what humanity is - what it means to be human and alive. Warmongers get away with it by refusing to show war as it is. Only when we are brave enough to stare at the brutality and stupidity of war - stare it in the face and know it for the ridiculous and tragic thing that it is, will we begin to try to understand one another, love one another, and begin to know peace. Tolstoy knew this. It is one of the deep messages of the book. The Battle of Borodino, superbly shown here, bears this message out. The final, sad picture most of all. Andrei lies mortally wounded on a rough wooden table next to a young man who is having his shattered legs amputated. That young man is the same man who, months earlier, had seduced and nearly eloped with Natasha. Anatole Kuragin lies dying in agony. The man Andrei had wanted to kill. In this moment of truth, how does Andrei react? He holds Anatole's hand. Because, in the end, when all is finished, only love remains.
Bravo BBC and War and Peace cast and scriptwriters this week!Now we begin to get to the heart of the drama. And it's a 90% success...
Andrei and Natasha are very much in love (and who wouldn't be after that beautiful ball at the Imperial Palace?). But Andrei's eccentric father (another brilliant turn by Jim Broadbent) gives him a test. Stay away for a year and take a cure. If his love is still strong at the end of that time, then fine. The marriage will be OK. Now Andrei is 31. Mature, stoic and disciplined. Used to having to wait and obedient to his father. Natasha is still a teenager - raging hormones and all. And she has a terminal problem with her attention span, in spite of being a really good, kind-hearted soul. So waiting for a year was always going to cause trouble. The distractions of the visit to "Uncle" were well done, but the point of Natasha's dance (a beautiful turn by Lily James) was rather lost in the surrounding "atmosphere", for all it looked gorgeous. I notice that the bloody and brutal end to the hunt, put in in the 1973 version was tastefully left out this time. And I think that's OK. We get far too much de-sensitising violence on TV these days. Violence is OK too. But where it is needed, not gratuitously. Having said that, there was a point to the hunt in the Tolstoy novel - Natasha here gets close to the facts of Nature and the Land, represented by "Uncle" in a way that Tolstoy felt was essentially part of the core of Russian-ness. Again with the rushing of the plot, this point was largely missed. And it is a point Tolstoy repeats to a degree in Anna Karenina, in the character of Levin.
Eventually the waiting gets too much for poor Natasha. The impressionable and distressed teen is fodder for the twin horrors that are Helene and Anatole. This nasty pair of soul-mates love playing with their "toys", about whom they care not a fig. And Natasha is their latest target. The drama handled this part exceptionally well - showing in some psychological depth how the Helene/Anatole double-team worked to crack Natasha's crumbling reserve. The acting here by all concerned was brilliant, especially Tuppence Middleton's horrifying and psychopathically reptilian portrayal of Countess Bezukhov.
Lily James did Natasha's subsequent psychological disintegration perfectly and Paul Dano was wonderfully sympathetic as Pierre, conflicted in his love for Natasha and Andrei. Natasha's journey towards love through suffering is now well under way. And because of Napoleon, all of Russia is about to be sucked into the Black Hole of War with her.
Part 5 is coming. And it's going to hurt. Everyone.
(thanks to the BBC for the picture above once again)
Where do I start? To begin with, the part about Nicholas I was generally accurate. Having said that, Lucy completely missed all the controversy about the disappearance of Alexander I in 1825 - note - disappearance, not, as she told you, death. For much more on this, read Alexis S. Trubetskoy's "Imperial Legend", which deals directly with this and was published by Spellmount in 2003. This was only the beginning. Alexander II was rightly celebrated for his liberation of the Serfs in 1861 (preceding Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves in 1865). But the part concerning his intentions for constitutional monarchy was badly mishandled. On the day he was assassinated in 1881, Alexander was on his way to enact a law granting a form of constitutional monarchy. If successful, fringe groups like The People's Will would never have gained much support. They knew this. They also knew that the only way they would ever see power was to successfully assassinate the Tsar, leading to a knee-jerk reaction from his successor, which would in turn lead to an unstoppable pressure for revolution - and they could then seize the power they craved. The People's Will as a name is a sick joke. They never intended that the people would see any kind of power at all. They simply wanted the Tsar's power - for themselves. And because of Nicholas II's vacillation in 1905 and the results of the carnage of World War I, they got their wish, and Russia suffered from 1917-1991 under the yolk of the Red Tsars, starting with Lenin.
Lucy's conclusions, concerning Autocracy as "the way power works in Russia", were extremely suspect. She correctly stated that it was the Romanov's autocracy that paved the way for what we have in Russia today. But she utterly failed to point out that this was the direct result of one bunch of autocrats - Lenin and the Bolsheviks - seizing power from another bunch of autocrats - the Romanovs. She also failed to mention that Alexander II's reforms, correctly implemented, would have inevitably led to a Russian kind of constitutional monarchy - and also that it was Nicholas II's wish to implement his grandfather's reforms - should the allies win the war. It was his hope that the Provisional Government would be able to carry this through where he had not, which was the central reason for his abdication. None of this was said.
The part on Rasputin was superficial and emotionless - and failed to get to the heart of Rasputin as a man. If you are interested in the real man, read Maria Rasputin's book on her father or find a copy of Rene Fulop-Mueller's 1928 book on the man. As for the assassination, she failed to mention that the fatal shots were likely fired by an agent of British Intelligence - Oswald Rayner. Indeed the involvement of British Intelligence in the murder, and recently broadcast on BBC2's Timewatch. was completely ignored.
As for the fate of the family, well, again, where do I start? What are the "most sources", that Lucy mentioned in her presentation that "agree" on what happened? The gaping holes in the protocol of Yakov Yurovsky were never mentioned. Neither was a ballistic fact. That eleven men firing pistols and rifles in a small stone room at a group of terrified people, some of whom were, by her own admission, wearing the equivalent of armour plating, would likely have killed themselves before any of the people they were firing at. And that's only the start. For more, consult the reading list at the back of my novel and judge for yourselves.
In the end this was very poor history. Most of the "facts" Lucy presented could have been culled from standard English text books. And the part on Nicholas II was very skewed, in favour of showing that autocracy is the only way to hold power in Russia, having simultaneously showed that it was this very concentration on autocracy that led to the end of Romanov rule in the first place.
In fact, as I pointed out earlier, the October Revolution of 1917 merely replaced an autocratic family - the Romanovs - with the Red Autocracy of the Bolsheviks. The possible democratic Revolution of February 1917 was over-run by a bunch of power-hungry men who had been playing the long game since the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. And Russia is still suffering from the effects of this today.
Finally. This programme was "presented" by Lucy Worsley. But who wrote it? This went unsaid...
Now this episode moved me...and I wasn't expecting it. Things did not look promising at first. Again with the rushing of the plot...Andrei and his tree...snatched moments with Pierre and Andrei...things were looking distinctly clunky. Helene and Boris...what exactly was that? And was it all entirely necessary? A bit of "sexing up" to be sure...and Tuppence Middleton is very pleasing to look at...in spite of the character's very obvious nasty vapid emptiness. I'm sure I don't know why she is the most popular character with viewers...oh wait...I figured it out...modern society is as vapid, nasty, shallow and empty as Helene is...and this production of War and Peace was in danger of following suit. Even the duel between Pierre and Dolohov was empty of emotion. I just didn't believe them. If you doubt me, just compare the same scene in the 1973 version with Anthony Hopkins and you will FEEL the difference...unless you have a heart of stone.
BUT THEN came the Ball Scene with Natasha and Andrei. Suddenly things didn't just look up, they took off. And I have to also say that the scene at Otradnoe between Sonia and Natasha with Andrei listening while the girls looked up at the moon was absolutely magical. Full marks.
NOW the production has finally got going. Strong performances from Lily James and James Norton and also, eventually, Paul Dano, who by the end of the episode was no longer just sleepwalking through his part. Having to yell and throw things at Helene's character obviously "woke him up", although she is, I'm afraid, irretrievable (the character, not the actress - Tuppence is doing a great job in portraying a very difficult and unsympathetic role).
I hope the good momentum keeps up! Roll on Episode 4! (many thanks once again to the BBC for the great picture of the Waltz Scene!)
Well...this was interesting. A nice bit of history programming. But Lucy and the "talking heads" (now there's a name for a rock band) didn't go deep enough. To be sure there were a lot of pretty scenes, but there were several places where Lucy's innate "Englishness" gave her away. Somehow strong and deep emotion seem to elude her intellectual understanding. The words are right - from a certain perspective. But the deeper understanding of "Russian-ness" is missing. The whole business of the serfs for instance, is looked at very much from a "Triumph of the West" point of view. Nobody would ever dispute that serfdom of any kind is entirely wrong, nor that in Russia it went on for far too long and that it was one of the root causes of the Revolutions of 1917. But there are other ways of looking at not just this aspect of Russian history that Lucy and her team seem to be either glossing over or missing altogether. The facts seem mostly correct. But history is not just facts and gloss. And the emotions of the times need to be understood - in the context of the times in which they occurred - not from the perspective of a 21st century person living in a different society and possessed of 20/20 hindsight. To do that in a programme that purports to be historical fact is just plain lazy.
9/10 for facts. 1/10 for everything else.
Now what will happen in Part 3 when we get to the real meat of the consequences of the Romanov's slowness and failure to acknowledge what was coming until it was way too late to stop the juggernaut crushing everyone? Let's see...
(Thanks to the BBC for the lovely picture of Lucy)
It's taken me a few days to compose myself to write this. I had to look back at my copy of the 1973 version having watched the new episode 2 to focus what I really think of this version. It seems that everyone concerned has done a heroic job with what they have been given. Andrew Davies, with the best will in the world, does not have the screen time that Jack Pullman had in 1972. The result is that the story is pared down to the extreme limit. As a consequence, the characters are not having a chance to unfold naturally as they do in the book. Nor is the philosophical background having any chance at all to come through. In the 1973 version, plot, character and philosophy unfold in a beautiful and seamless fashion. Everything is together, like the unfolding of a flower or a great symphony. In the new version, the philosophy is almost entirely missing (at the moment) and the characters have been reduced to cardboard cut-outs. Again, I have to emphasise that this is the fault of the small amount of air-time the serial is being crushed into. The actors have done a great job with what they have been given. And there have still been some great moments. I am thinking especially of the death of Andrei's wife Lisa. This was beautifully done and very moving. Stephen Rea and Lily James were standouts also. Lily in particular could well turn out to be the entire productions saving grace. Once again, the locations and costumes (on which most of the budget was spent I suspect) took the breath away. I only wonder how much better it all might have been if the BBC had concentrated less on getting the locations right and thus had more money to give to air-time to let the story unfold at its proper pace. Then the 2-dimensional characters we are being given might perhaps have been given a fighting chance to become real flesh and blood and the true eternal beauty of Tolstoy's ideas might possibly have had a chance to reach our hearts...
I await episode 3...
....and again, many thanks to the BBC for the beautiful picture of the three lead characters...
Hats off to Lucy Worsley! The first part of Empire of the Tsars, covering the period from Mikhail Romanov's accession in 1613 to the death of Peter the Great in 1725 was a very colourful and entertaining programme. Highlight for me was Lucy at the wheel of the first Royal Yacht to be called Standart - part of the Emperor's fledgling Navy. Her assessment of Tsar Peter in particular was nicely balanced, celebrating his achievements while at the same time highlighting his sometimes excessive cruelty, even to his own son. This side of the Romanov legacy was well put. It should be obvious to any student of history that the Romanovs insistence on their rule coming from God (similar to the mistake of England's Charles I) would only lead to trouble in the end. As we shall hopefully see in later episodes, Alexander II, the visionary "Tsar Liberator" tried to save Russia from the consequences of this, but was cruelly stopped by "The People's Will" - later to morph into the Bolshevik's and "Red Tsars", whose thirst for absolute power exceeded even the worst crimes of Ivan the Terrible.
I can't wait for next week, which will see the excitement of Catherine II and Alexander I. I hope she will explore Alexander's "disappearance" and look into the evidence that he survived beyond 1825. That mystery has always intrigued me. Alexander was a deeply spiritual man and has always been one of my heroes...
Lots to look forward to. So far, so brilliant...
More excitement for lovers of Imperial Russia. Tonight at 9pm on BBC4, the excellent Lucy Worsley begins a new 3 part series on Romanov Imperial Russia. It promises to be very illuminating. I love her style and her way of presenting facts so this should be a terrific ride. Check out the BBC site here...
...and good luck Lucy! (Grateful thanks to the BBC for the lovely picture of Lucy appropriately dressed in red on Red Square...:-) )