Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party

Title:  Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party
Author:  Lisa E. Davis
Publisher: Publisher: Imagine (May 9, 2017)
How acquired:  Edelweiss

What it’s About:  At the height of the Red Scare, Angela Calomiris was a paid FBI informant inside the American Communist Party. As a Greenwich Village photographer, Calomiris spied on the New York Photo League, pioneers in documentary photography. While local Party officials may have had their suspicions about her sexuality, her apparent dedication to the cause won them over.  When Calomiris testified for the prosecution at the 1949 Smith Act trial of the Party's National Board, her identity as an informant (but not as a lesbian) was revealed. Her testimony sent eleven party leaders to prison and decimated the ranks of the Communist Party in the US.

My thoughts:  When I saw this book on Edelweiss, I immediately clicked the request button. It sounded like something that was right up my alley. A little known story about an undercover informant for the FBI during the height of the Communist witch-hunt, who was also a lesbian? I couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve written about Elizabeth Bentley, who spied for the Communists, and then turned informant and this period of history has always fascinated me. My enthusiasm lasted all of five minutes.  It’s clear that the author did a great deal of research, she had access to all of Angela’s papers that she saved and donated to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, read Angela’s own autobiography, as well as the newspaper reports and Angela’s FBI File. Unfortunately, Angela never really comes alive on the page.  It reads more like a text book or a thesis paper. There is very little information about Angela’s early life, other than the fact that she lived in a series of foster homes as a child.  I haven’t read Red Masquerade: Undercover for the FBI, but it has to be more interesting than Undercover Girl, even if it’s filled with half-truths.  

Angela was never a true traveler, she didn’t join the Communist Party, and then become disillusioned, as so many others did when the truth about Stalin came out. No, Angela was recruited by the FBI specifically to target the American Communist Party. They felt that she had an in because she was a photographer, and could easily infiltrate the New York Photo League, a group of amateur photographic enthusiasts, which included a number of communists among its members.  Angela was well paid for her work ($225 a month), she made sure of that. Angela claimed that she wanted to be some sort of hero, but what she really wanted was fame and glory. She volunteered for the jobs that nobody wanted, jobs that would get her the list of party members, that she could then pass on to the FBI.

Angela comes across as ruthless, ambitious, manipulative, a fame-seeker and greedy. She seems not have cared a jot about the people whose lives she ruined, as long as her name was in the papers. Her testimony led to the destruction of the New York Photo League. She was also reckless, the FBI repeatedly asked her not to give interviews before the trials were over, because it could have tainted the case and ruined chances for convictions, but Angela didn’t seem to care.  She had sworn under oath that she had not been paid by the FBI as a confidential informant. If the truth had come out, she could have been arrested for perjury, not to mention that it would have put the trial in jeopardy. The book also spends a lot of time dealing with the other informants and what their testimony was. While this was interesting from a historical perspective, it took the focus off Angela for long stretches of the book.  She also spends a lot of time speculating on the sexuality of J. Edgar Hoover, Mary Margaret McBride, and Eleanor Roosevelt, whether or not they were closeted homosexuals.

Davis briefly discusses how Angela had no qualms about informing on Communist party members who were also homosexual, for example an old girlfriend of actress Judy Holliday who was also a policewoman. That’s fascinating, in the sense, that Angela seemed to have no loyalties to anyone, not even the FBI! I wish there had been a bit more about the lesbian and gay subculture of the Village during the forties and the fifties.  Angela was hiding two secrets, that she was an informant for the FBI and also that she as a lesbian.  The author describes Calomiris as becoming a media darling from her actions, calling her "America's Sweetheart." It's a fascinating reflection on an era where America's sweetheart could be a lesbian with strong Greek features, who had to work hard to try to appear more feminine.  Angela didn’t seem concerned at all that she might be outed as a lesbian! Especially since she was having a relationship at the time with the sister-in-law of her FBI handler.  You have to admit Angela had chutzpah.

Of course, the biggest question is why the FBI, who surely knew or suspected that Angela was a lesbian, would recruit her as a confidential informant? Especially given the prevailing attitudes towards homosexuality at the time? Gay people were not only targets for violence and arrest; they were also considered more vulnerable to blackmail than a citizen of allegedly upstanding moral fiber. Well at the time, the threat of communism was more important than Angela’s sexual orientation.  Even though the Soviet Union ended up being our ally during the WWII, the FBI had been watching the Communists since the 1930’s.  It’s hard to believe that at one point, Communism is seen as a bigger threat than the Nazi’s! The FBI were willing to use any means necessary to root out communism in the United States. While the FBI was willing to overlook her sexual orientation, as long as she got the job done, the Communist Party was not so lenient. She was nearly expelled from the party (which would have jeopardized her role as an informant). Angela had do some fancy dancing to reassure the party leadership that she was as straight arrow as it were.

Unfortunately for Angela, she didn’t exactly ingratiate herself with the FBI.  She kept demanding that they find her a job, but not just any job, it had to be one that Angela felt was worthy of her talents. Working for Life or Look magazine as a staff photographer.  No starting at the bottom for Angela. While other FBI informants had movies made of their stories, no one would touch Angela’s with a ten-foot pole.  There would be no movie deal, or TV show detailing her exploits.  Instead, Angela faded into obscurity.  She took her savings, moved to Provincetown and bought a great deal of property.  She eventually moved to Mexico where she passed away in 1993.


In the end, while this book is an interesting snapshot of a tumultuous time, it ultimately fails as a biography of a controversial woman.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Spirit of a Dove - Guest Post by Stephen Bourne

Spirit of a Dove
 
The closest rival of Josephine Baker, British siren Evelyn Dove was an international star in the 1920s and 1930s. In his new biography, Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen, featuring over 50 rare photographs, Stephen Bourne reviews a life marked by success, scandal, heartbreak and obscurity.
 
Evelyn Dove was one of the true pioneers of the booming cabaret age of the 1920s. She thrilled audiences around the world and her exquisite stage costumes helped to make her one of the most glamorous women of her time. Evelyn was a black British siren who toured Europe throughout the 1920s and 1930s, courting admirers and fans wherever she performed. Her mesmerising movie star looks and grace captivated those in her presence. The public and press couldn’t get enough of the rising star who went on to replace Josephine Baker as the star attraction in a revue at the famous Casino de Paris. In 1936, amidst a frenzy of public interest, she became the first black British singer to try and conquer America, 25 yearsbefore Shirley Bassey. Evelyn headlined a cabaret show at New York’s popular Connie’s Inn. This rivalled the Cotton Club as a showcase for the best in black talent.
 
However, Evelyn was unsuccessful at winning over American audiences. Black and white American audiences did not take to a sophisticated black Englishwoman who sang a repertoire of songs in French, German and Italian. At that time they expected a black woman to sing either upbeat jazz numbers, or tear their hearts out with the blues. In fact, Evelyn was disadvantaged from the start. At Connie’s Inn she had to follow the enormously popular Billie Holiday who had scored a big success with her show Stars Over Broadway in which she co-starred with the legendary Louis Armstrong. The personalities and singing styles of Evelyn and Billie could not have been more different.
 
Evelyn’s career was one of many highs and lows, but at the height of her fame in the 1920s and 1930s she was a young adventuress who refused to be constrained by her race and English middle-class background.
 
 
 
 
 
Evelyn was mixed-race, born into privilege in London in 1902 to a West African father and English mother. Her father, Frans Dove, was born in Sierra Leone into a wealthy family and in the 1890s he spent time in London studying law. He married Evelyn’s mother, Augusta, in 1896. Evelyn was educated privately until she studied singing, piano and elocution at the Royal Academy of Music. As a trained contralto, in the early 1920s she hoped for a career on the concert platform, but this was almost impossible in Britain for a black singer at that time. So Evelyn worked in London cabaret shows instead and the all-black cast jazz revues that toured Britain and eventually took her to Europe where she was a sensation.

 
 
Evelyn spent several years in Italy where she proved to be enormously popular with audiences and then, in 1932, she travelled to Paris to replace the legendary Josephine Baker as the star attraction of the Casino de Paris. For the revue, Evelyn wore Josephine’s flimsy, revealing costume. Consequently the prim and proper middle-class English girl scandalised her family by appearing semi-naked on stage in Paris and it was said that her respectable and strait-laced West African father disowned her.
 
 Following her disappointing trip to New York, Evelyn took off to India in 1937 where she triumphed in cabaret at the popular Harbour Bar in Bombay (now Mumbai). One newspaper, The Evening News of India, introduced her as “an artist of international reputation, one of the leading personalities of Europe’s entertainment world” and “the closest rival of the great Josephine Baker”. The review of her cabaret show was rapturous: “Evelyn Dove is very easy on the eye with her splendid, tall figure, and her pleasant face and flashing eyes.”
 
When Hitler’s war clouds appeared over Europe, Evelyn couldn’t go back to France or Italy. Instead she returned to Britain. Throughout World War II she enjoyed the same appeal as the ‘Forces Sweetheart’, Vera Lynn. The BBC employed Evelyn all through the war, and she proved to be one of radio’s most popular singers, appearing in a wide range of music and variety programmes. Many of these appearances were broadcast to the forces, while others could be heard on the BBC’s West African and Caribbean airwaves. In fact, as early as 1925, Evelyn had the distinction of becoming the first black woman to sing on BBC radio.
 
Starting in 1939, for almost a decade Evelyn made radio broadcasts, including over 50 editions of the series Serenade in Sepia in which she was featured with the Trinidadian folk singer Edric Connor. The series was so popular that, in 1946, the BBC transferred it to their television service. Evelyn and Edric became household names and they were among Britain’s first television stars in the early post-war years when the medium was still in its infancy. Regrettably, none of their appearances exist, having been transmitted live before technology was invented to make recordings of television shows. 
 
 In the 1940s Evelyn enjoyed another decade at the top of her profession, with numerous radio broadcasts, concert appearances, and by becoming the first black woman to star in her own television series. The following decade her career took an unexpected downward turn. Work became scarce and, in 1955, desperate, she applied to the post office for a job as a telephonist. But even more humiliating was the fact that she had to ask the BBC for a reference. In 1956 the tide began to turn when she landed an acting role on BBC television as Eartha Kitt’s mother in the playMrs Patterson. Two years later she was back on stage, in London’s West End, as one of the stars of Langston Hughes’s musical Simply Heavenly. Evelyn then joined one of Britain’s first black theatre companies, the Negro Theatre Workshop, founded by her former co-star Edric Connor and his wife Pearl. The Workshop staged its first major production A Wreath for Udomo in London in 1961, with a memorable cast that included Earl Cameron, Lloyd Reckord and Evelyn. The Workshop also gave opportunities for a new generation of young black British actors to learn their craft, including Rudolph Walker and Nina Baden-Semper. In 1965 Evelyn made one of her last stage appearances in the Workshop’s acclaimed production The Dark Disciples, a blues version of the St Luke Passion.
 
After her star began to fade, Evelyn suffered from depression and in 1972, at the age of 70, she was admitted to a nursing home in Epsom, Surrey. In the 1950s Evelyn had befriended a young singer and actress called Isabelle Lucas who later found fame as Lenny Henry’s mother in the television sitcom The Fosters. Isabelle later explained what happened to Evelyn: “I felt very sorry for her because she had so much talent, so much to give. I stayed in touch with Evelyn until she died in 1987. She was still a lovely woman when she was old. I went to her funeral, but no one else did, apart from one or two members of staff from the home. It made me very sad.”
 
In the 1920s and 1930s many African American expatriates settled in Europe including Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall and Elisabeth Welch. They captivated audiences with their songs, beauty, elegance and style. Evelyn stood alone as a black Briton who joined these trailblazers. They were women who created a glamorous new image for black women in show business, far removed from the bandanna-wearing mammy.
 
Evelyn Dove was a trailblazer who was a head of her time, forging new barriers and facing up to her own personal struggles with determination and defiance. Her spirit remains alive in all of us.
 
Stephen Bourne’s Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen is published by Jacaranda books ($18.95). For further information about Stephen’s books go to www.stephenbourne.co.uk
 
 
 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Interview with Faith L. Justice about the New York Chapter of HNS

I've been a member of the Historical Novel Society since 2011 and I have attended conferences both in the US and in London.  Recently, I joined the board planning the 2017 conference in Portland, Oregon.  In the run-up to the conference, I recently had the chance to talk to Faith L. Justice who is the current co-chair of the New York Chapter of HNS. Long-time readers of the blog may remember that Faith wrote a guest post a few years ago about Hypatia.

Q) Faith, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about the New York chapter of HNS.  How did the chapter come about?

According to legend (I didn’t join the local chapter until a couple of years ago) there was a Yahoo list serve that was fairly active. Around 2011, someone on the list suggested they get together in person. The first meeting was in a restaurant, the next in a public atrium. They continued to get together in semi-regular fashion with people joining and dropping out until they found a regular meeting space at the office of one of the members. Patricia Rich and Lisa Yarde took over as co-chairs and held meetings quarterly for several years. We’ve recently upped our game. More about that below.

Q) How does the chapter interact with HNS?

We were pretty much left to our own devices. Whenever Richard Lee got an inquiry about a local organization in the NYC area, he passed it on to Pat who reached out, but other than that, not much interaction at all. Several of the members are also active in the national and frequently attend the conferences. There is usually a “conference report” to the membership in the fall where those who attended talk about their experiences and what they learned in presentations. Just recently the parent HNS group reached out about cross-promoting. We’re looking forward to that.

Q) What do the meetings entail and how many meetings are there a year?

For several years the group met quarterly and talked about general interest kinds of topics. The attendance varied from ten to twenty people and a lot depended on the weather. A few blizzards and the occasional hurricane disrupted the schedule. Last year we surveyed the membership, restructured the organization, and got more people involved in leadership. Pat and Lisa presided over the transition and Lisa Yarde is still co-chair with me.

We now have an active Steering Committee that works on programming, promotion, social media, and membership outreach. This past year we met monthly from August through May with outside speakers (agents, editors, authors) at most of the meetings. Attendance is up, especially when we have outside speakers, but we still have to contend with the weather—four of our last five meetings have been during Biblical-style deluges. Our members have to be dedicated hardy folk. We usually take the summer off, but we’re looking into some local trips we might take to museums or lesser known historical sites.

Q) Is the chapter mainly a way to network with other Historical Fiction writers? Do members get together to critique each other’s work?

We’re still working on our mission but the majority of our members are writers who want to advance their careers. There is a lot of formal and informal networking going on. Programming is geared to providing information and resources to writers. We’ve had critique groups in the past and hope to have some again in the future. That said, we want to expand to readers as well. We’re going to experiment with a readers’ group this summer and see if we can make it a more permanent part of the mission.

Q) What has been the most beneficial thing for you as member of HNS?

Personally, the best thing about HNS-NYC is that it gets me out of the house. As a full-time writer, I spend way too much time alone. It’s a delight to get out, meet fellow writers, hear what they’ve been up to, mentor folks who are new to the game, learn from those who have tried something new, and just be with delightful creative people.

As to the parent organization, I’ve attended all the North American conferences but one (coincided with my daughter’s graduation). I initially went for the pitches. Now I go for the friends I’ve met along the way—and the great content, of course! So here’s my shameless plug for a presentation I’m giving in Portland in June with Mary Ann Trail—join us for “HOW FAR CAN A HORSE WALK IN A DAY and Other Questions of Accurate Historical Travel” If you can’t make it to the workshop, button-hole me at a meal or mixer and we’ll talk research—my favorite topic!

Thanks, Elizabeth, for allowing me to represent our chapter HNS-New York City in the run up to the North American conference. Anyone who wants more information can contact me at HNS-NYC@gmail.com

Faith L. Justice writes award-winning fiction and articles in Brooklyn, NY. Her novels and short story collections are available at all the usual places. You can sample her work, follow her blog, or ask a question at www.faithljustice.com. For fun, Faith likes to play in the dirt—her garden or an archaeological dig.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: ENEMIES OF VERSAILLES: A Novel (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy) by Sally Christie

Title:   ENEMIES OF VERSAILLES: A Novel (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy)
Author:  Sally Christie
Publisher: Atria Books (March 21, 2017)
How Acquired: Net Galley/TLC Book Tours

Back Cover:  In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.

“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute is quite another kettle of fish.”

After decades of suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness (this should really be dauphine, who wrote this back cover copy?) Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.

My thoughts:  This is the third and final volume of Sally Christie's absorbing trilogy about the court of Louis XV, and it does not disappoint. The story is narrated in alternating 1st person POV, divided between Madame du Barry and Madame Adelaide, one of the six daughters of Louis XV.  The story starts when young Jeanne is still a child. Her mother works for a courtesan in the kitchen, while young Jeanne dreams of a life of luxury and indolence. From the very first chapter, we meet a small child who is fun-loving, lives in the moment, not book-smart, who has a kind heart. She's also amazingly naive for someone who grew up so poor that she has to walk barefoot so that she doesn't ruin her one pair of shoes in the mud. Jeanne is sent to a convent where she is loved by the students AND the nuns, which has to be a first. She's effortlessly charming but hopeless at the whole employment thing until she's employed by an expensive boutique where she meets the Comte du Barry and her journey really beings.

Madame Adelaide is a different kettle of fish all together, and I have to say that her sections of the book were my least favorite in the beginning, probably because she's the complete opposite of Jeanne. Madame Adelaide is rigid, very concerned with her position and the etiquette of the court. She reminds me of that one co-worker who is a stickler for the rules, who reports even the slightest infraction, but who also gives unsolicited advice. The type of person who is always taking classes, and reading self-improvement books and tells you about them endlessly.  Her one saving grace is that she loves her family.  Her love for her father however is possessive, she wants to be his favorite. While she worries for his soul, and abhors his relationship with 'the fish woman' as she insists, she wants to be the one that he turns too. 

However, her chapter gives fascinating insights into the lives of the daughters of France, five of whom never married. They are the superfluous women of the court as they grow older, their influence waning over the years. It's rather sad, and it reminds me of the lives of George III"s daughters, many of whom also never married. The book can be divided really into 2 parts, Louis XV, and afterwards. The book loses steam a bit until it runs headlong into the revolution. 

Christie does an amazing job of painting a vivid portrait of court life at Versailles but also the two women.  While Madame Adelaide considers du Barry (and before her Pompadour) to be an enemy, du Barry basks in the love of the King and the friends she makes at court. Jeanne's character is as uncomplicated as Madame Adelaide's is complicated. Interestingly as the book went on, I found myself growing more frustrated with Madame du Barry and more understanding of Madame Adelaide who eventually grows and changes while Jeanne seems to stay the same fun-loving child.

One of the great things about the trilogy for me was that I knew very little about the court of Louis XV. I knew the names of Pompadour and du Barry but very little of what they were like as people other than Pompadour's libido couldn't keep up with the King's. Since I knew so little, I was able to come to the trilogy without preconceived notions of the characters which I think helped because I was able to turn off that internal historian that sometimes can get in the way when I read historical fiction, particularly about a period that I know a great deal about. You can see how the seeds of the French monarchy's destruction were sewn tighter by Louis XV.  If only he hadn't followed the model of his great-grandfather and been a more enlightened monarch.  Christie makes several comparisons in the novel between how the British monarchy evolved and the French monarchy didn't. 

Any reader who loves intrigue, royalty, beautiful clothes and a dramatic period of history should pick up The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

V for Victoria

Happy March everyone! Today is also the first day of Women's History Month.  I know it has been quite a while since I've blogged and I apologize profusely. It has been hard lately juggling a job with working on my own writing as well as blogging.  And I know that I still owe recaps of the last 5 episodes of The Crown! I thought I would kick off this month by talking a little bit about Queen Elizabeth's however many times great-grandmother Queen Victoria, the 2nd longest ruling monarch in British History.

This January saw the debut of a new series on PBS entitled appropriately enough VICTORIA starring Jenna Coleman as a young Queen Victoria in the first years of her reign.  Author Daisy Goodwin, who was the driving force behind the series, also wrote the novel VICTORIA which came out last fall. I had the privilege of reading an ARC of the novel thanks to Net Galley. And what a wonderful novel it was. While I enjoyed Goodwin's first novel THE AMERICAN DUCHESS, I was not quite as enamored of her second THE FORTUNE HUNTER. However, VICTORIA lived up to my expectations and more.  It was just the balm I needed after the bruising US election season. Reading this novel was the equivalent of being enveloped in a warm, fuzzy blanket on a cold day, with a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea.

The book opens with Victoria receiving the news that William IV is dead, and she is now Queen. Goodwin paints a vivid, vibrant portrait of the young Queen who is very much a teenager. She makes mistakes early on in her reign, most specifically with Lady Flora Hastings. She is impetuous, stubborn who likes to get her own way but she is also a young girl who has been starved of affection and dominated by her mother and Sir John Conroy. The bulk of the novel (and the series) concerns her relationship with her first Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, whose late wife Lady Caroline Lamb famously carried on an affair with Lord Byron which scandalized the ton during the Regency. Like Victoria, Lord Melbourne is lonely. His wife has passed away as has his only child Augustus. The two develop a father/daughter relationship with overtones of something more. I won't spoil it here but if you have seen the TV series, you know that Goodwin adds a dimension to the relationship that some have quibbled with. I have to say that I totally bought into it. It made sense that she would develop a crush on the first man to be kind to her who treated her as more than just a sovereign.  Melbourne guide and taught Victoria but he didn't try to dominate her. Instead, he tried to gently point out the errors that her stubbornness caused. For example, refusing to give up any of her Whig ladies when the Tory Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister.

We also get to see the Victoria who loved dancing, singing and a good party. And we get to see the Victoria who was wooed by a succession of suitors before finally falling head over heels for Prince Albert when he finally arrives in the fall of 1839. There is nothing so satisfying as two crazy kids with mommy/daddy issues finding each other! I highly recommend this book. It is going on my keeper shelf along with the Jean Plaidy's Victoria series which encompasses 4 books.

Unfortunately, although I loved Goodwin's novel, I'm not quite as much of a fan of the TV series.  My biggest problem is that I really have no interest in what is going on downstairs at Buckingham Palace, mainly because there is so much good drama going on with Victoria learning the ropes of Queenship. And I wish that the TV series had given us a glimpse of Victoria's life before she became Queen.  Before I watched VICTORIA, I re-watched the film THE YOUNG VICTORIA with Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend.

One of the best things about that film is that we get a glimpse of Victoria's relationship with William IV and Queen Adelaide, as well as the antipathy that the King had for Victoria's mother Victoire. There were also several wonderful scenes between Queen Adelaide and Victoria after she became Queen, where Victoria looked to her for guidance. Also, I found it curious that Baron Stockmar, a very important figure in Albert's life, was missing from the recent TV series. The biggest problem that I have with the series though is the casting of Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne.

This is Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne:


And this is the real Lord Melbourne at the time of Queen Victoria's reign:


While Rufus Sewell captured aspects of Lord Melbourne's character, he was just too good-looking and youthful for the part. And not nearly quite as fatherly as I'm sure the real Lord Melbourne was. You can understand why Jenna Coleman's Queen Victoria wanted him around 24/7. Frankly he was so delicious as Lord Melbourne, that when Albert finally showed up in the series, he was a bit of a let down. It's no wonder they went for the 'I hate you, no I love you' scenario for Albert and Victoria in this series. And then after the wedding episode, Lord Melbourne disappears despite the fact that the real Lord Melbourne was still Prime Minister for another year.  The other weakness in this series (and this goes for The Crown as well) as that there was way to much mansplaining in this series. Victoria is not allowed to do anything without some man explaining things to her. It was fine with Lord Melbourne but now Albert is doing it, as if Victoria hadn't formed any opinions about anything before Albert came along.



On the plus side, I think that Jenna Coleman is doing a magnificent job as the young Queen Victoria. She's almost the right height for the role, and she comes across very much like a teenager in the early episodes, careening from one emotion to the next. David Oakes steals every scene he's in as Prince Albert's older, more louche brother, Ernst, and I can't say throw too many superlatives at Alex Jennings who plays Victoria's Uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, widower of the late Princess Charlotte.  Jennings is making quite the career for himself playing various members of royalty. So far he's played Prince Charles in Peter Morgan's The Queen, The Duke of Windsor in The Crown, and now King Leopold. Who is next? I still prefer Miranda Richardson's portrayal of the Duchess of Kent to Caroline Flemmings. Caroline comes across mainly as wan.  I have to admit that Tom Hughes as Prince Albert grew on me.  The chemistry between Jenna Coleman and Rufus Sewell was so amazing, that Hughes had huge shoes to fill. It doesn't help that Albert comes across as a bit of a pill in his first appearance. His personality seems to have come out more now that he and Victoria are married. Hughes is also incredibly sexy as Albert although once someone mentioned that he looked like Prince circa PURPLE RAIN, I had a hard time unseeing that whenever he came on screen!

If you have any interest in Queen Victoria, I urge you to purchase VICTORIA, the Official Companion to the series. There is a lot of really good information about the real life characters, particularly Skerrit and Francatelli. It is written by Helen Rappaport who is an expert on Victoria as well as the Romanovs. And there is a new biography out by Julia Baird entitled VICTORIA, THE QUEEN.

I have only read the sample that I downloaded from Amazon, but it looks like a winner. I would also urge people to find a copy of the early nineties miniseries VICTORIA AND ALBERT, starring Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth (Colin's little brother). It is interesting to see what is included and what is left out when people are crafting a film or television series.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Crown Recap: Episode 6 'Gelignite'

gel·ig·nite
ˈjeləɡˌnīt/
noun
a high explosive made from a gel of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose in a base of wood pulp and sodium or potassium nitrate, used particularly for rock blasting.


So QEII is finally crowned and we now get to the juicy part of the series, the revelation of Princess Margaret’s relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend. A reporter at one of the tabloids is working on a story speculating on the relationship between the two. See, he saw the Princess pick a piece of fluff of the Captain’s uniform at the coronation. The editor is not sold, but the reporter insists that where there is smoke, there is fire. Actually he calls the article 'gelignite' since it seems that the name of the episode has to be referenced at least once. Picking the fluff off a man is a gesture even more intimate than a kiss because it suggests that the kissing has already happened. When the owner of the paper is appalled that the editor is planning on running the story but he doesn’t put the kibosh on the story. Tommy Lascelles (played by Pip Torrens who is so brilliant and evil as George Warleggan’s Uncle Cary in Poldark) is miffed that the owner didn’t tell his editor to kill the story. In real life, the American papers were actually the first ones to report on Princess Margaret’s relationship, which is what also happened in the 1930’s with King Edward VIII’s relationship with Wallis Simpson. The British papers were late to the game in both instances. Tommy informs the Queen Mother who wants to issue a denial but is talked out of the idea.

We finally get to see the Queen at the races in this episode. She attends the Epsom Derby with Prince Philip. It’s nice to see the show finally acknowledge one of the great passions of the Queen’s life, her horses. We get a lovely scene of Margaret watching the coverage on telly while canoodling with Peter Townsend. One wonders if the Queen Mum was so worried about the relationship, why she left Margaret and Peter alone together so often! They talk about the Queen's popularity. Margaret says that she doesn't care because she has Peter and they are going off to Rhodesia on tour. Yes, the tour is really the Queen Mum and Margaret, but these two seem to be able to find lots of time to sneak off together. 

In case you were wondering, Philip is still being an alpha hole in this episode.  He’s spending time with his equerry Mike Parker at a lunch club where they drink a lot, ogle the waitresses and talk about current affairs.  Yes, really, we are treated to a short lecture on what is going on in Egypt with Nasser (which will come up in later episode).  Philip points out to Elizabeth all the unrest going on around the world that she should be aware of. Earlier Princess Margaret rings up the Queen to invite her to dinner and we are treated to the logistics of the effort it took to connect Clarence House with Buckingham Palace. It is a nice reminder of what was life was like back in olden times. Claire Foy managed to give a simple word like ‘Oh,’ any number of meanings.  At dinner, Margaret and Peter announce that they would like to get married. Elizabeth is taken aback that the relationship has gone this far. Elizabeth informs Margaret that she needs to take advice but that as her sister, she would never try to prevent it. (In real life, everyone knew about Princess Margaret's relationship with Peter Townsend at this point).


While Elizabeth isn’t enthused about the marriage, Philip is downright hostile. He finds Peter to be boring and dreary. He thinks the best thing would be for Peter and Margaret to forget the whole idea and for Peter to reconcile with his wife. The Queen suggests that Princess Margaret get married in Scotland where they could get married in a church (Princess Anne remarried in Scotland) since it is not possible to marry in the Church of England if the divorced person still has a spouse living. Margaret is overjoyed.  The Queen is brought swiftly down to earth however by the Queen Mother and Tommy Lascelles.  Apparently the Queen was not aware of what the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 actually entailed.  This another ham-fisted way that show shares information with the audience. It is incredibly clunky but whatever! Tommy informs the Queen that Princess Margaret has the Queen’s permission to marry if she is under 25 and given that the Queen is the head of the Church of England, it would be unwise. However, if Margaret waits until she is 25, then she no longer needs the Crown’s permission. They suggest that it would be better for Peter and Margaret to wait out those two years in separate countries given the media frenzy. Margaret is not happy especially since Peter will not be able to accompany her and the Queen Mother on their tour of Rhodesia (I swear the first time I watched this episode, I had no idea what country she was talking about! Her upper class accent was so hard to understand). We finally get another intimate scene between the Queen and her sister, unfortunately it is one where she is bringing bad news. It is a lovely scene but it makes one wish that there had been more of them. Peter is just happy that he will be in Brussels where he can at least be close enough to see his sons.

The Queen promises Margaret that she and Peter will be able to have a few days together when she returns before he leaves to take up his new job as air attaché. She also asks Peter to accompany her and Prince Philip on a tour of Northern Ireland.  Unfortunately, the press is more interested in the Group Captain, then they are in the Queen. Peter also sticks his foot in his mouth when he sidles up to the Queen on the plane and calls her Lilibet, her childhood nickname, used only by close friends and her family. When Tommy comes to see her, Elizabeth tells him to make sure that Peter has to leave early for his new job, despite what she promised her sister. When Peter is told the news by Tommy and Martin Charteris, he tells them that they are making a mistake, the press are on their side. Tommy ‘the moustache’ Lascelles will not be threatened by a peasant like Townsend.


Here is where I have a problem with this episode.  All of a sudden, Peter Townsend seems to have turned into some sort of smarmy bounder who is drunk on his own press. It goes back to the episode where he refused to leave royal service, despite Tommy’s best efforts. It came across than as rather self-serving and that is not the impression that I have gotten over the years in the various biographies I have read about Princess Margaret and the royal family.  Did he overstep by falling in love with Princess Margaret? Maybe, he was older and married, but I also got the sense that he was surprised to find that Princess Margaret returned his feelings. What the show does well is illustrate just how immature Princess Margaret is compared to Peter Townsend who has a much more realistic view of life. This is also an episode that could have benefited from some flashbacks to Prince Philip’s courtship of Princess Elizabeth as a contrast to Margaret’s relationship with Peter. Instead we’re just told about it.

Margaret receives a telegram in Rhodesia telling her that Peter won’t be in London when she returns. She is furious and yells that she needs to speak with her sister immediately. There is a bit of comedy as switchboard tries to locate the Queen at one of her many residences. She’s finally located at Sandringham where she is examining one of her horses. Margaret unloads on her, telling her that since the Queen didn’t protect her, she won’t protect the Queen. “You reap what you sow.” The episode ends with a montage of various people reading the latest article on the royal romance. We start with Philip and Elizabeth, move on to Churchill and Clemmie and end with the Duke of Windsor and Wallis practically crowing over the article. 

What this episode did well is demonstrate that Elizabeth is beginning to learn that there is a clear distinction between the Queen in her private life, what she might want and do, and the public face of the monarchy and sometimes they don't coincide.  It is a painful lesson and one the Queen obviously never thought she would have to face, at least in Peter Morgan's version. We get a brief scene of party-loving Princess Margaret at Clarence House instead of in a night club where it might have been more appropriate.  I'm amazed that the Queen Mother didn't stomp in and try to shut it down. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Crown Recap - Episode 5 'Smoke and Mirrors'

Finally we get to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. But first we have the obligatory flashback to 1937. George VI is rehearsing in his office when Princess Elizabeth comes for a visit. He immediately ropes her into playing The Archbishop of Canterbury. It is a lovely scene, not only between father and daughter but also between monarch and future monarch. Jared Harris is so lovely as he explains the word inviolate to her. I don’t know who the young actress who plays the 10 year old Princess but she certainly resembles the real Princess at that age. You can just feel the love between father and daughter. I love the flashbacks because we get to have a glimpse of what the Queen was like as a child and more of her relationships with others like her father. George tries on St. Edward’s crown and we cut to the Queen trying it on.  She asks if she can borrow it for a few days to practice and the man from the Tower looks flabbergasted that she would even ask. He points out that she has more right to it than anyone.  With the children trailing behind her, she goes to show off the crown to Philip who is off doing god knows what.


This scene is contrasted later with The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the present day, welcoming a reporter into their home outside of Paris. The article is clearly a puff piece as the reporter asks for their tips on entertaining and what makes a well-dressed man. There is a montage of the couple wearing one fabulous outfit after another. Someone on another blog pointed out that the Duchess seems to stick to a 1930’s silhouette in these scenes.  In reality, she did wear more current fashions. The point seemed to be that they were a couple stuck in the past while the Queen represents the future. The scene takes a turn when the Duke takes the reporter to his inner sanctum where he keeps one of the government red boxes, the one that held his abdication papers. The reporter shows her ignorance by asking why are there no photos of the Duke wearing the crown. He has to point out to her that he never had a coronation, hence no photos with the crown. It is a terribly awkward moment followed by another awkward moment when the Duke mentions that he plays the bagpipes when he’s melancholy for England. That night he tells Wallis, as they are lying in bed, that he has to go back to dreary England because his mother is dying. He then asks Wallis if she wants to have sex! That’s not the word he actually used but it was quite a leap to go from his mother to wanting sex, particularly since in real life at this point Wallis was hanging out with Jimmy Donahue.


Philip and Elizabeth are dressing to go to some charity premiere or something that requires a tiara. Apparently he was out all afternoon flying, trying to get his pilot’s license in the shortest amount of time ever. Yes, that is basically all Phil has going for him right now while Elizabeth is out ‘Queening’ as he puts it.  She tells him that she’s decided to make him head of her Coronation committee despite the fact that the Duke of Norfolk is normally in charge. Phil tells her not to ‘matronize’ him which had me rolling on the floor. He will only agree to the plan as long as he has full autonomy. Elizabeth tells him not to go mad.  She then has to inform everyone of this change in plan which does not go down well, particularly with Tommy Lascelles and his mustache of doom.

The Duke shows up to spend time with Queen Mary.  There is a somewhat poignant scene of him sitting on the bed with her, she asks him not to leave and he tells her he won’t, calling her ‘Mummy.’  Of course, it’s ruined by a voice over of his letter to Wallis where he is awful about his relatives yet again.  The Archbishop of Canterbury calls to set up a meeting. The Duke realizes that since he is no longer King, he has to go to the Archbishop, not the other way around.  Yet another reminder of what he has given up since he abdicated. The meeting, which includes Jock Colville and Tommy Lascelles, is basically to tell the Duke that he is persona non grata at the coronation and under no circumstances is Wallis invited.  Instead of acting like an adult, the Duke proceeds to insult the Archbishop by repeating a rather horrid poem that he wrote about his predecessor. He really doesn't know how to read a room. It has been 17 years since he abdicated, as the Duke points out, one would think that he would have gotten used to the attitude of the establishment. 

The meeting is called to a halt by the death of Queen Mary.  So we are treated to yet another similar funeral scene where Philip spends his time criticizing that fact and how Elizabeth’s coronation has to be modern and up-to-date and not stuffy and traditional. His timing is awful.  I know that Prince Philip was considered reckless and a bit coarse by the powers that be, but I sincerely doubt that he would spend his time critiquing his wife’s grandmother’s funeral.


Of course, the Queen gets a call from Churchill that Philip has gone made with the coronation, wanting it to be televised, and trying to do away with some of the pageantry.  The royal couple has a huge showdown in the vestry of Westminster Abbey. Philip manages to get his point across about televising the coronation but blows it by suggesting that instead of kneeling to take the oath, he stand beside her. Elizabeth is not having it. She is a traditionalist above all. The coronation means something to her and she is not willing to budge on this point. Philip pouts.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are having a viewing party at their chateau (in real life they watched the coronation at a party thrown by a rich American acquaintance.) The Duke can’t resist revealing his inside knowledge to the crowd. Although he abdicated, he still respects the awe and majesty of the crown and what it means. The title 'Smoke and Mirrors' I'm assuming refers to the magic of the coronation, that the monarch enters the coronation an ordinary person but leaves anointed by God. When a guest asks him why he turned down the chance to ’be a god,’ the Duke turns to the Duchess and replies it was for love. Later, Wallis finds Edward on the veranda playing the bagpipes, tears streaming down his face.


I watched a documentary about the coronation after watching this episode and they managed to recreate it very well. Philip manages to kneel to his wife, although the look on Elizabeth’s face indicated that she wasn’t sure what he was going to do on the day. There is no indication of the lapse of time between their argument and the coronation, so the viewer has no idea if they made up later, if they have spent the past few days glaring at each other over their tea and toast. I would also have liked to have seen some behind the scenes from the day of the coronation such as the moment the Queen is about to walk into the Abbey and she tells her Maids of Honor 'Ready Girls?'. More intimate moments and not just the pageantry, although it is magnificent don't get me wrong. 


I know this series is called The Crown, not The Queen, but I think it is a mistake to focus so much on the institution. I would love to have seen more happy moments between the Queen and Prince Philip before she became Queen. Perhaps if the series had given us a glimpse of their honeymoon at Broadlands or more of their life on Malta before she became Queen, it would make the scenes of the distance in the marriage more poignant. I was hoping that perhaps the writers would treat us to some flashbacks of Philip and Elizabeth's courtship but alas it seems that all the flashbacks we are getting are simply regarding The Crown.