Ophelia, based on a book by Lisa Klein, who is also a screenwriter here (my guess that gave her leverage to adapt her novel for cinema/television) tells the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from a woman’s perspective, in much the same way Tom Stoppard put centre stage other peripheral figures in the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
I’m not read Lisa Klein’s novel. And I’m not a great fan of Shakespeare’s plays, or theatre in general, which for some people marks me out as a bit of a thicko. And they may well be right. But I’ve speed read the play. I also watched Franco Zefferelli’s version of Hamlet, filmed largely in Scotland. Mad Max, Mel Gibson in the titular role of the Prince of Denmark. Glen Close playing his glamourous mother, with a hint of incest. Alan Bates played the murdering uncle and brother of the king, Claudius. Homer Simpson played my favourite version of Hamlet. Blue-haired Marge as Queen of Denmark.
If Ophelia was in verse such as iambic pentameter then it would have been curtain after five minutes. It starts rather with a more conventional trope, in medias res. Orphelia (Daisy Ridley) drowns herself, as she does in Hamlet. Time spools backwards to her childhood. A bit of a tomboy, she’s taken under the Queen’s wing (Naomi Watts) and made one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting.
She grows into a swan. So far, so conventional. She catches Hamlet’s eye (George MacKay) and they fall in love.
A secondary plot involves the Queen consulting with a witch to keep her beauty and aging at bay. The witch Mechtild (Naomi Watts with straggly hair) is also beautiful. Her backstory involves teenage pregnancy with Claudius (Clive Owen) who let her rot and burn rather than admit his own involvement and parenthood.
She might be in league with the devil with her potions, but she’s not in the league of Morgan Le Fey of Arthurian legend. Morgana Le Fey (Helen Mirren) in Excalibur. Merlin, Lancelot and King Arthur should have just given up and taken the knee in homage to such earthy beauty, as Claudius forces Hamlet, in the name of chivalric honour to bow to the new King of Denmark or commit treason.
I’m probably giving too much away, but if you’ve read Shakespeare or watched The Simpsons, you know Claudius gets his comeuppance. Ophelia? That’s for you to find out.
England can beat Italy and win the Euros. They’re playing at home and favourites. Even I’ll admit that. I’m not anti-English, and I don’t mind them winning the odd game. Although I was never there, I’ve telly memories of Scotland going to Wembley on the fitba specials, beating England, tartan clad hordes of Bay City Roller fans stealing the goalposts and ripping up the turf and eating it to show how hard we were. Payback for all those invasions memorised in Braveheart with Mel Gibson, an Aussie, kidding on he was Scottish, showing the English soldiers who was boss by painting his face two-tone blue and wherever colour he had left on his shitey hand. Wiggling his bare bum at them. Now, he’d just have jumped in a fountain at Trafalgar Square and hung a traffic cone from a statue of Winston Churchill’s baldy napper. But it’s not about us.
England had some fantastic players and have underachieved since their World Cup Win in 1966. Their nemesis Germany in the Euros were a shadow of the teams that used to beat England regularly in World Cup and European competition and send them home to think again. England got a bye into the semi-final. Ukraine had the kind of defensive failures that even a diddy Celtic team last season would have found unfathomable. Every corner or free kick was a goal, or near miss. Denmark should have taken England to penalties after extra-time. But Raheem Sterling fell over in the penalty box. Golden boy, Harry Kane’s penalty was saved, but he finished the rebound. Everything that can go right for England has, and now they’re one game away.
The only time I turned the sound back up was when Denmark scored. They didn’t roll over and capitulate as they were supposed to. Italy had a marathon game against Spain. It was one of the games of the tournament. I’d have preferred Spain to have won that one, because they were the best footballing team in the Euros and would have taken England apart. Rio Ferdinand’s contention that England would have beaten both of those teams is the kind of patronising shite we’re used to hearing. But he did tell a story that puts this into context. Playing against Sergio Busquets (and Xavi and Iniesta), the Barcelona player feigned recognition of the England international. ‘Ferdinand, boom, boom,’ said Busquets, emphasising his willingness to launch it, and not play the ball out from the back.
England are not so much a boom boom team in the Euros, but Pickford does launch it, and not always to his own players. But neither are Italy an open, attacking team. Playing at home, England will be expected by their adoring fans to take the game to the Italians. That will suit them. They’ll sit in and hit on the break. They’re not Ukraine, likely to fold and give England the run of the park. The Italians have better players than Denmark, but they’re not Spain. Ironically, the Italians will miss a left back that plays with his right foot. And most of their attacking flair comes from there. I’m sure Sterling will make another few dashes into the box and fall over. One of the ironies of the tournament is Sterling isn’t technically very good, certainly no match for Forlan, but he’s been one of the players of the tournament. The Italians will be ready for him. I certainly hope so. The sound will be off as I watch the final.
Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young was listed as Sunday Times Book of the Year, Guardian Book of the Year, Spectator Book of the year, all in 2017. Since I’ve just read it, it’s also my book of the year for 2020.
When I say it’s Shakespearian in scope, I mean that as a compliment. I’m not really into Shakespeare and find his plays boring. The usual response I get is along the lines of I don’t really understand his work, which is true. I also don’t really understand the Old Testament or Maths, or people that like broccoli, apart from my granddaughter, Tilly, who chews away at the green stuff merrily. He (or they, will the real Shakespeare stand up?) has been responsible for more neologisms in the English language than anybody else. I’m told if I watch his plays I’d appreciate them better. I’ve watched Kenneth Brannagh’s Twelfth Night, with Richard Briers and Caroline Langrishe; Roman Polanski’s Macbeth with Martin Shaw in the title role; Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, with Mad Max, Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glen Close as Gertrude his mother. The best version of Hamlet I saw was The Simpsons, with a renegade knight poring poison in Homer’s ear and it finished in less than ten minutes with a sword fight. Homer won. Homer always wins. I laughed at that, out loud. I’ve seen a few versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and didn’t laugh once. Not even a chuckle, a hint of that could have been funny. I was sitting an exam and stopped writing about the Fool’s role in Shakespeare’s plays because I realized I was bored with it and didn’t have anything worthwhile to say, or regurgitate. That marks me down as not the right type of person. Not properly educated. A laggard fool.
I found Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear tolerable mainly for its black-and-white portrayal of the suffering working classes on the bleak moors. ‘Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are, That bide the pelting of the pitiless storm’. Compare and contrast, ‘shacks become a river which rises, rises, rises. It takes only minutes before the shit flows through the [Kashmiri] hovels, bringing with it rats, big as baby monkeys’.
We all know the story, King Lear dividing his kingdom between his three daughters. The King telling his youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, ‘Nothing will come from nothing’. Bend of break and be cut off from parental love and the King’s legacy, which is shared between his other daughters,
Her dying at the end. Lear’s question unanswered, ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life/And thou no breath at all?’ milked to the full, through the ages, by those of thespian mind.
Preti Taneji does something remarkable. She transports King Lear to modern India and makes me love Shakespeare almost as much as the truncated Simpson episode. The story is the same but it is different. If you know your Shakespeare you know what is coming. If you don’t know your Shakespeare you don’t. But the book also makes sense as critique of modern capitalism. Ideology in action. Self-justification is king. We all know that story all too well. It’s been played out in America and here in Britain.
Taneja begins with the story of Jivan or Jeet, the bastard son of Ranjit returning home from America, where he left his exiled mum and disposable white girlfriend. A first-person account:
‘It’s not about land, it’s about money.’
The United States is on the wane, China on the rise, Indian and new money means the East will overtake the West in the near future. The East is the place to be for an upcoming young man. Devraj’s Company follows the Ford maxim of industrial America. What’s good for Devraj’s company is good for India and vice-versa.
The story of King Lear is also the story of the Earl of Gloucester. Lear has three daughters and no sons. The law of primogeniture, where the people that own the land, own the people on the land is one remove away. Jivan, like Edmond the bastard son of Gloucester, is at the bottom on a heap. No money. No influence. A gerontocracy in which his brother Edgar has at least a future worth having. Worth stealing. Jeet, the son of Saranjit and his half-brother is himself a thief, but with the complicating factor that he is also gay. In Indian society that puts him lower than a dog, or even a woman.
Mrs Gargi Devraj Grover, granddaughter, daughter, wife, and sister. Her birthday is coming up soon. It’s to coincide with the opening of a new hotel complex in the politically poisonous land of Kashmir. ‘ Eldest and dutiful daughter of the Devaraj Company, custodian of the keys to her father’s office.’
‘Sin comes in many forms… doubt is one of the worst sins of all.’ Fanaticism and loyalty. Deveraj told her who to marry and when to marry. Her father’s words were law. No one would go against him. Certainly, not the beautiful Radha her sister, whom Gargi mothers, even as a school girl, having no mother of their own. Devraj, in turn, indulges his youngest daughter, his favourite daughter and sends her to England to study. We that are young is a war cry. But it is Sita, the youngest and most headstrong, that refuses to marry who Devraj tells her, refuses to bow before his mastery. Sita that refuses both the loyalty and the love test. The stage is set for conflict.
Billy Connolly might well be Scotland’s greatest export after whisky. Both ITV and BBC are competing to squeeze the last dregs of life out of The Big Yin. I’ve checked, he’s not dead yet. But he does have motor- neurone disease and he’s coming up for seventy-five. He said it himself, other people’s success tend to form an inverted U-shaped curve. His success is of the hockey-stick variety. Everything he shites turns to gold. Even his doodles are framed, exhibited as art in Glasgow’s People’s Palace. He’s come a long way from strumming a banjo and being a Humblebum. Remember Baker Street and Gerry Rafferty? Unlikely, unless you’re an old codger. Here’s a reminder. I once danced to this song, or at least moved my feet, which was much the same thing.
Billy Connolly conquered Scotland with his Wellie boots and took on the bigots with his Crucifixion. He conquered London, by which I mean England, when he appeared on The Parkinson Show in 1975. But the Big Yin wasn’t as big as Benny Hill. Remember him? Semi-nude woman and eye rolling and a chase that went on for an hour. That was comedy then. They’d chase you for that now. For drama try on Frankie Miller. Billy Connolly had a part in Peter McDougall’s Just A Boy’s Game, one of the Play’s for Today, everybody in Scotland watched and said—fuck—that’s us in Glasgow around 1979, the time of the first Referendum.
Now fuck off with Boris fucking Johnson. It wasn’t until Braveheart in nationwide cinema that its small-screen reach could be matched and let’s face it, Braveheart was Mel Gibson chalked blue and talking shite. But in the United States, where they they’re not keen on anyone that’s not American and even then they’re a bit iffy, Billy Connolly is known. He’s a brand. That Scottish guy with the hairy face that’s been in a couple of films, nobody much watched. But Billy Connolly’s loaded anyway, so that makes him half American. It doesn’t matter. He’s one of us.
I’ll tell you a secret, I remember Billy Connolly and I heard his jokes, but I didn’t laugh. I’m funny that way. I get them, I really do. He’s a representation of the guy we all know that’s funny as fuck. Connolly is a nostalgia feedbag for a better Scotland that you can strap over your nose to feel better. I like him better now. I often chuckle at his jokes now I know the punchline, in a way I never did then. Drumchapel, a desert wae windows—that’s genius, in anybody’s language.
Billy Connolly is still working, he must have Cadogan Street on his back. 5000 folk died while waiting to be re-assessed and that’s no joke. That’s the Scotland we live in now, so there’s a lot to be said for nostalgia.
While the BBC archives are trawled for stuff that tells the Billy Connolly story it’s wrapped around a poor man’s excuse—it’s all about art. Here’s the sketch, three different artists get to paint a picture of the Big Yin. Cover your ears, I never thought I’d say I was a conservative, but see that modern art-shite. I’ve really got no standards worth talking about. Here’s my preference reading from left to far right: John Byrne, Jack Vettriano and Rachel Maclean.