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Wow, that was kind of a long hiatus! (I made the last one in 1996, it looks like.) I know this has become something of a habit, like that time I tried to make a picspam of my French vacation and only got two-thirds of the way through, so if you are a literalist it looks like I never actually came home but am instead blogging from an attic somewhere overlooking the amusement park in Rouen. (Note to that person: well-spotted, mon frère!)

But I have my act together now, and the time has come for another Catherine Cookson Experience!

Today's is different from most of the others, because I genuinely love this one. It is a pulpy mess, and I enjoy every second of its cheesy glory. You will be able to tell this soon, but I thought I might as well warn you up front: this one is awesome, and I have the eight thousand photos to prove it! This is The Rag Nymph.



Vital Stats:

Era: 1850s, looks like.
Heroine: Millie
Siblings that require looking-after: Well, initially Millie is the one who needs looking-after (when you were niiiiiiiine!).
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): It's like a Law and Order episode; it takes you almost until the end to find out, and by then you don't even care.
Asshole Father?: Oh, jeez. Every father in this thing is a total jerkbag.
Romantic interest(s): Mr. Bingley, Paul Atreides. Tough call!
Bairnsketballs: Nope.
Fistfights: Somebody knifes a pimp. It counts!
Assaults: Oh jeeeeeeeez.

Under here, more When You Were Nine goodness. )
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Briefly, for newcomers: Catherine Cookson wrote some hysterically funny romance-y novels back in the day. For some reason, from about 1994 through 1998, the BBC went CRAZY for them and adapted about a hundred and eighty of them into miniseries. From time to time, I like to recap them, because they're hilarious. You can find a primer here, or catch up with them here.

This week, I run you through The Gambling Man, starring Robson Green.



Here's the thing, for those of you not familiar with British TV: of COURSE this is starring Robson Green. EVERYTHING stars Robson Green. British TV is purposely scheduled so that something with Robson Green in it is airing 24/7, in case aliens are monitoring broadcasts for someone who looks very serious and capable with whom they can make first contact. He got his own show about extreme fishing. If you investigate the history of England, there are cave paintings of Robson Green. Next year they're putting him on the five-pound note. There's no rhyme or reason to it; there's only love and casting.

In case you think I'm joking, he's playing a nineteen-year-old in this movie. Does that make any logical sense? No, it doesn't. But it aired on British TV, so they were contractually obligated to cast Robson Green and by God, they did.

Vital Stats:

Era: I dunno; late 1870s/early 1880s?
Heroine: Robson Green.
Siblings that require looking-after: His brother, who is much nicer than Robson.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Nope.
Asshole Father?: Yup.
Romantic interest(s): Janey, his wife; Charlotte, his wife. Ruh-roh!
Bairnsketballs: Yup! Legitimate, shockingly.
Fistfights: Oh, for fucks' sake, every two minutes there's a fight.
Assaults: One iffy moment, but mostly fine.

Robson Green in ROBSON: The Robson Green Story. )
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Welcome back to the Catherine Cookson Experience! This week we get to Tilly Trotter, in which the lead actress can actually act, the lead actor can actually act, and they have chemistry, which automatically makes this better than most Cooksons. Unfortunately, the entire first half is "Some guy assaults Tilly," which is tedious and gets to the point where it seems more absurd than anything. We’ll get there.



Tilly's just thrilled about it.


Vital Stats:

Era: 18mumbletymumble
Heroine: Tilly Trotter
Siblings that require looking-after: None, but she keeps inheriting families full of people who want to marry her.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Nope!
Asshole Father?: Nope, just the village rapist.
Romantic interest(s): Farmer Simon, Lord Mark. She gets about 800 other proposals from interested parties, though.
Bairnsketballs: Not one! Can you believe it?!
Fistfights: Three…ish.
Assaults: Oh lord, the first HOUR is just nothing but poorly-planned assault attempts.

I've told you before, if it’s down to you and the pig, I'll take the pig! )
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Wow, it's been a long time since I visited a Catherine Cookson!

Ladies and gents, welcome to The Round Tower. It's a sweet little romance about an upper-class girl, a middle-class boy, and the bairnsketball that comes between them!

The Round Tower probably Cookson's most in-depth look at class differences in mid-century England and the turmoil caused by the idea of someone wanting to change their socio-economic strata through hard work. However, since most of those parts were filmed with the light from a single desk lamp, you can't really tell.

It also has some of the skeeviest lines of any Cookson. Just...wow. This poor, poor young lady.



Vital Stats:

Era: 1950s. And 1960s. And maybe 1970s. Also maybe 2150. They’re in some time warp where they never age and yet five hundred years of the viewer’s lifetime pass before their eyes as they watch!
Heroine: Vanessa Ratcliffe.
Siblings that require looking-after: Nope!
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): She gets a bairnsketball thanks to her father's skeevy friend. Does that count?
Asshole Father?: Oooh yeah.
Romantic interest(s): Angus Cotton, an employee of her dad's who marries her to save her reputation.
Bairnsketballs: Check. Thanks, creepy neighbor!
Fistfights: I started counting, but gave up. I think this entire movie is one huge slapfight.
Assaults: On our characters, no. On our patience, yes.

That was back when she was pure. Untouched. )
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[Previous episodes of The Catherine Cookson Experience here.]

This week, the CCE delivers my biggest letdown so far: Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, stars of the Persuasion (best Austen adaptation ever), team up again!

And man, they suck.

Welcome to The Man Who Cried, which is about a good-looking dude (Ciaran Hinds: well cast, casting person) who keeps tripping and falling into ladies, which disgusts him, just disgusts him. Why won't these women stop getting with him, damn? He spends four hours being emo about how he just wants to be Left Alone with some other woman than the one he's with at the moment. (Doesn't matter which woman he's with; he wants a new one.)



Vital Stats:

Era: 1930s, just before WWII
Heroine: Ciaran Hinds.
Siblings that require looking-after: His ten-year-old kiddo.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): He begets one! Nice job, Ciaran.
Asshole Father?: Yeah, Ciaran.
Romantic interest(s): Every woman on the planet.
Bairnsketballs: Yup...CIARAN.
Fistfights: Largely nonviolent, except for ladies lunging at Ciaran and attempting to climb him like a tree.
Assaults: See above. SIT DOWN, LADIES.

Even the CREDITS are crying, you guys. )

Bond.

Jun. 25th, 2009 10:46 pm
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If Sci Fi keeps airing these, someday I'll have to sit through the Bond movies I haven't seen, just to line up some tropes. Though I still don't know how exactly Bond qualifies as science fiction, most of them are better than Aztec Rex, at least. (Or ARE THEY? I'll keep you posted. I need to finish the Catherine Cookson Experience before I tackle anything else crazy.)

I have to say, the Pierce Brosnan Bonds tended to have excellent supporting casts, though I'm watching The World is Not Enough and I can just SEE the light in Robert Carlyle's eyes going out. Cheer up, dude. You got to act with Sophie Marceau and Judi Dench; Brosnan had to work with Denise Richards. You tell me who lost out.
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So, after last week's happy-go-lucky tale of nice girls with the memory capacity of a goldfish, we get into the gritty reality of what life was like for the ladies of the 1850s. (Answer: sucky.) Behold, The Girl!

Note: There are Cooksons worse than this, but few Cooksons duller. We will be skipping over large portions of repetitive, depressing malarkey. The point Cookson is trying to make: sucks to be a lady in the 1850s who had to make a good marriage Or Else. Point we take away from it: sucks double to be a lady whose only options are your rapey husband or that dude down the street who gets drunk and insults you. (Also, you fall in love with the second guy, which means in this scenario you probably have a concussion. I'm sorry to hear that.)



Era: 1850
Heroine: Hannah Boyle, the young illegitimate daughter of gentleman Mr. Thornton. OR IS SHE?
Siblings that require looking-after: She has three half-siblings who mostly suck, but in case she's the one that requires looking after, because oh my lord, girl gets beat on.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Hannah. Sort of. Whatever.
Asshole Father?: Uh, not to Hannah, but uh, wow.
Romantic interest(s): Ned. Fred, who marries Hannah, is not a romantic interest. It gets gross. *shudders*
Bairnsketballs: Hannah gets one, though technically it's legitimate since she's married. Even though it's not her husband's. It's all very Jerry Springer.
Fistfights: Yep. And caning. And bear traps! And they burn someone's finger off.
Assaults: Innumerable; we see one, and one other that's interrupted by one of the best conversations the world has ever known.

You're trouble! )
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Gillian Kearney was in The Tide of Life, and I liked her because:

1) She is a sweetie, and
2) She has leftover goodwill from being in The Forsyte Saga, where she was repeatedly whacked with the short end of the stick.

But she should just be lucky that she made very few bad decisions in that miniseries, which made her the only one.

When I saw The Forsyte Saga back in 2004, I wrote it up for Defenestration, because I was amazed that you could yell, "What a terrible plan!" at EVERY character you saw EVERY time ANYONE did something and it would ALWAYS be right. I saw it again last year, and seriously, it's like a How Not To Do This of bad decision-making.

(Disclaimer: At the end of Forsyte Saga: To Let, I cried so hard I basically bruised a lung. So don't think that just because I'm snarking means the miniseries isn't good. It's good; Damian Lewis and Amanda Root carry even the dull parts of the original series, and Damian Lewis pulls the entire second series basically by himself, and his performance is good. It's really good. It's so good it bruises your lungs when you sob like a nerd through the end credits.)
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So, there are two or three more really dismal installments of The Catherine Cookson Experience coming up, and I thought that before I hit all the marital rape and spouse-slapping, everyone could use one that's pleasantly absurd. Behold, The Tide of Life!



Here's the thing about this miniseries; Gillian Kearney is a really good actress. She worked her ass off in The Forsyte Saga, and I really love the sort-of-documentary biopic she did on BBC, and – she's not the poor soul who played Cissie Brodie, is what I'm saying. She has genuine charisma, and you root for her.

The problem with The Tide of Life is that while she seems perfectly sweet and capable of making normal-person decisions, she agrees to go steady with any dude who enters the frame, so you end up wondering if she has a concussion. Also a problem: the title sounds like a tampon ad. (Not Cookson's fault; just saying.)

Era: early 1900s
Heroine: Emily Kennedy, housekeeper and concussion victim
Siblings that require looking-after: One sister, also a concussion victim
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Shockingly, all the major characters are legit.
Asshole Father?: Nary a dad in sight.
Romantic interest(s): Sep, her first employer; Larry, her second employer; Nick, who wanders into frame in the last twenty minutes.
Bairnsketballs: One for our heroine, one from an extra, plus a tumor everyone thinks is a bairnsketball. (Nobody in this movie is very bright, come to think of it.)
Fistfights: Hell yes. Also, murder, pistol-whipping, chasing someone into the ocean, and lighting a houseful of stuff on fire.
Assaults: Two (attempted)

That's what you are - NOWT! )
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I have to admit that, after thinking about it a little, I was hard on Isabelle Fischel from The Dwelling Place. Sure, she was nuts, but let's just review:



Wearing this dress meant slapping this thing on every day:



I KNOW, RIGHT?

A closer look. )

Heaven knows the clothing of the 1830s would drive me up the wall. If I had to wear it, I too would be riding around the countryside with my rifle shooting anyone who looked remotely comfortable in their clothes. So, you know, point to Isabelle.
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This week, I tackle the seemingly endless and screamingly worst of all the Cookson adaptations I have seen, The Dwelling Place.

Brief note about the Experience: I don't think I'll be recapping each one. Some of these are deadly dull stuff. However, I'm starting out with some of the really terrible ones to build appreciation for the ones that aren't so bad. It's like Stockholm Syndrome involving overwrought, cheaply-made period dramas of the 90s. By the time I hit The Wingless Bird, you'll think I'm screencapping Citizen Kane.

So, The Dwelling Place is about the fiercely beautiful and clever Cissie Brodie, who marries her rapist.



I'd like to say this is an unusual screencap, but it's not. We just sort of have to take the movie's word for it that she's smart and pretty, since she spends most of the movie staring blankly into space and marrying rapists.

Anyway, after her parents' death, Cissie packs up her passel of brothers and sisters and moves them all into a cave to prevent them having to go into the workhouse. Life sucks, and then it sucks more when the lord's son rapes her and she comes down with a case of bairnsketball. It's a searing commentary about the plight of the poor! Also, Cissie marries her rapist.

Era: 1830s
Heroine: Cissie Brodie, hardscrabble young lady who marries her rapist.
Siblings that require looking-after: Innumerable downtrodden siblings played by varyingly-talented child actors.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Her bairnsketball.
Asshole Father?: Check!
Romantic interest(s): Matthew Turnbull, the local carpenter; Clive Fischel, rapist.
Bairnsketballs: Oh, is there ever.
Fistfights: Does it count as a fistfight if you shoot your own sister?
Assaults: One rape, by a man she MARRIES LATER. OH MY GOD.

Maybe if our Joe hadn't set a trap for the rabbit… )
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I really don't think all this Cookson-mainlining is good for the health.

On the other hand, never have I been so grateful to be living today, when I am in the middle of a swine flu epidemic, and yet I can vote and own property and treat infections with antibiotics and eat tofu and wear pants.
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We begin The Catherine Cookson Experience with "The Glass Virgin." This miniseries was the one that started it all - and stopped it all, since I didn't go back to another one for over a decade. By the end of my re-watch, I knew why.

The Glass Virgin is about a young girl, raised as gentility, who finds out she's actually the daughter of a whore and therefore socially untenable. Distraught, she leaves the house with estate groom (and total hottie) Manuel in tow. Will she make it in a cruel working world? Will he make it into a life as his own man? Will they, you know, Make It?

NOTE: These screencaps are awful. I can't do better. Think of it as part of the joy, like that soundstage echo in the 1970s Masterpiece Theatres.

Era: 1870s
Heroine: Annabella LeGrange, gentlewoman, seventeen, dumb as a sack of hair
Siblings that require looking-after: None, unless you count Annabella.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Self.
Asshole Father?: Check!
Romantic interest(s): Manual Mendoza, the groom at her estate
Bairnsketballs: None
Fistfights: Four

MANUEEEEEL! )
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So, before we begin dissecting individual episodes, there are some things we need to talk about. They are not spoilers, per se; that would imply that knowing about them spoils how the plot will go, which implies that there is any plot to begin with, which is very sweet of you to think but not really so much what Catherine Cookson was good at. So these aren't so much spoilers as they are ingredients; combining them in different ways produces different kinds of cookies in an unsurprising but delicious process.

Please be warned; some of Catherine's favorite tropes are totally skeevy. I'll label the episodes that have nasty goings-on, so those who would rather not deal can just skip.

On to the tropes!

Class Issues: Universal theme that more or less singlehandedly pilots the plot of every single one of these suckers. I have not seen a Cookson miniseries with fewer than three social classes in the mix. If she had a primary obsession, it would be this.

Illegitimate Bairns: If she had a secondary obsession, it would be this. Cookson's heroines are a spectacularly fertile bunch. If you're in one of her books, be warned - you fall on a peen just once and you are probably going to turn up with a bairn*. If the heroine isn't having an illegitimate bairn of her own, she probably is one, or her sister's having one, or she's going to end up marrying one. (Hopefully when he's older.)

* Note: All bairns are portrayed by half a basketball strapped to the heroine's waist. Poor little bairnsketballs.

Oh, that's not all. )
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When I was fifteen, my French teacher lent me The Glass Virgin.

"You'll appreciate this someday," she said, pressing it into my hands.

I watched it, and promptly forgot most of it. I retained some vague memories of a dude slathering himself with a lady's bathwater as a sign of love (no joke), and a spindly woman shouting "Manuel!" at the top of her lungs, but it vanished into my memory and became a soft, pulpy mess. Given how I usually cling to movie memories more than any memories of my actual life, this seemed strange; I decided it must not have been very good, and as the years passed I assumed my French teacher had simply been wrong.

A few weeks ago, a friend came to visit and handed me a DVD.

"You'll appreciate this," she said, pressing it into my hands.

It was The Moth. I watched it twice in one day, sat back, and realized what my teacher had meant.

They are pulpy, social-commentary, random-romance, varying-production-values crack, and they're hysterical.

I am in the process of devouring all I can get my hands on, and will be reporting here, to make sure that no incorrect hoop skirt, longing glance, windswept vista, class struggle, cave dwelling, pointless romantic interest, interrupted molest attempt, bastard dad, random occupation, or illegitimate bairn gets lost in the shuffle. I can't promise perfection, though, since it's possible to watch some of these and feel like you missed a plot point, only to realize later there was no plot to begin with.

Despite her issues (and girl has issues), I think she occupies some strange, ever-shifting space between Dickens and Nora Roberts, where women try to fight a class system that oppresses them and keep falling on penises by mistake.

Join me tomorrow as I begin digging through the luster of Awesome British Actor Camp graduates, past the visible chemises, to the stinky, mushy pulp that pulses in the very core of these overblown dramas.

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Genevieve Valentine

September 2010

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