Tuesday, 19 May 2015

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL review, BBC1, Sunday 17 May 2015

'Pull out your purses and procure some curses.' Sunday night TV just got weird and wonderful.

Mr Strange (Bertie Carvel) and Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan). (Image: BBC)

Did you see the first part – or rather ‘chapter’, as the titles stylishly informed us – of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the BBC1 adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s modern Gothic novel? It was a truly wondrous thing.
If someone was telling you about it, you’d make a sceptical face and think the pitch for the series was unlikely fare for a primetime Sunday night TV drama. In the 19th century, two magicians (Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan, in the shoes of the eponymous pair) offer their skills to the British government in the war against Napoleon. Harry Potter meets Sharpe? Taxi for the writer please…
What’s so clever about the series is that, as it draws the audience into the familiar territory of a prestigious BBC costume drama, it treats magic as something real and historical, ‘as much part of this country as rain’ – a striking metaphor, suggestive of how literate and lyrical the dialogue and names are – so that you don’t question the authenticity of moving statues or revived corpses.
The story is a rich one. There’s the fascinating idea that magic is disreputable and not something that 19th century gentlemen, particularly those in the government, should be involved with. There’s also the very contemporary idea that once magic is presented to the fashionable houses of the great and good (the 19th century equivalent of Twitter), it will be restored to its rightful stature at the heart of the nation.
As well as all this intrigue and period detail, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell demands your patience, tantalising you with exotic hints of a dark, developing story – the coming of an ominous presence called the Raven, the identity of a spectral apparition called The Gentleman (a spellbindingly sinister Marc Warren), why magic suddenly stopped being practised 300 years ago – confident that viewers will take to this carefully constructed, quirky alternative England.

The takeover of a Sunday night audience pining for Ross Poldark’s reassuring pectorals is completed by the casting. The look of the series may owe a lot to the work of the artist William Hogarth, who had a taste for the grotesque, but the acting and characterisation is vintage BBC Dickens. Strange himself is bumbling, a drinker, potentially raffish but well-meaning, endearingly brought to life by Carvel. Marsan, simultaneously one of the most versatile and underrated actors on the planet, plays Norrell as a down-to-Earth, dour Yorkshireman. He’s the opposite of what you’d expect from a wizard, and because of that doubly effective. Elsewhere in the ensemble cast, Enzo Cilenti is an understated marvel as Norrell’s laconic manservant Childermass, while Paul Kaye’s malevolent trickster Vinculus almost steals the show, slyly suggesting that this deranged man is more powerful than he initially appears. Even if the ‘fantasy’ angle had put you off, the quality thesping of this lot would win you over.
Mission accomplished, then: the straightforward and safe BBC Sunday night drama slot has been hijacked by something that looks like a costume drama, but which has made the subversive and surreal mainstream and acceptable. The BBC’s attempt at their own Game of Thrones?
Of course, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell may completely bomb in the ratings, which would be a terrible shame. Not just for the series, but for the evolution of British television generally.   

See if this remarkable series can put you under its spell.

Friday, 1 May 2015

CENTREPIECES: The Stables Gallery Art Exhibition - report

Come along to the mental health art project Centrepieces' latest exhibition and be inspired, moved and enlightened.

The gallery with the sculpture 'Mediation' centre-stage.
(Image: Dawn Tomlin)

The Stables Art Gallery, Hall Place, Bourne Road, Bexley, Kent DA15 1PQ25 April - 24 May 

I’m sitting typing this on Sunday morning with the London Marathon on the telly in the background. As ever, it’s always inspirational to see so many people braving themselves against April drizzle to run, have fun and raise money for so many deserving causes. Of course, having national TV coverage helps, so I’d like to take the opportunity to sing the praises of an equally deserving (if not so well publicised) charity-based event I attended on Saturday 25.

The Stables Gallery in the picturesque surroundings of Hall Place, a very big house in the country on the edge of Bexleyheath, is the venue for the latest art exhibition by Centrepieces. Inside, you’ll find a truly diverse and impressive range of artwork, brought to life in an equally impressive variety of media, taking in oils, acrylics, watercolours, textured paste, collage, ink and pencil, ink and thread, charcoal, glitter, buttons – yes, buttons – sculpture and photography. When you consider the high standard on display, it becomes even more remarkable when you learn that it’s been realised by people who’ve had, or have, mental ill health.

The opening event on Saturday 25 April. (Image: RF)
That’s what Centrepieces is for: it’s primarily an organisation for people who wish to engage in art who’ve suffered from mental illness, although membership is also open to individuals who have an interest in, or understanding of, art and mental health. Crucially, the Centrepieces experience is a proven and significant factor in helping patients recover through self expression, which in turn builds confidence and self belief. And, happily – as you can see from now until 24 May – deliver brilliant art inspired by subjects as varied as Liam Gallagher and Lewis Carroll.

Centrepieces was founded in 1999 by local artists who had all experienced mental health issues and, after being established with a £5,000 award from the National Lottery, was based in Crayford for over ten years. With financial support from Oxleas NHS Trust, in June 2014 Centrepieces moved to its new premises at the Lodge in Hall Place, continuing to develop its program of activities: helping people grow as artists, improve their artistic skills and give them the chance to exhibit and sell their work. There’s also volunteering, which I’ve recently put myself forward for.

John Davey, Jane Parish & Guy Tarrant
at the unveiling of the Nest. (Image: RF)
This atmosphere of mutual support and personal development is very encouraging, as is the work Centrepieces does in the community. To name a few, there’s been The Worrier statue in Crayford Riverside Gardens, kinetic sculpture with children of the Vietnamese Community Centre, the Emotional Spiral installation at Pinewood House and, officially opened on Saturday, the Nest sculpture in the grounds of Hall Place. As someone who’s always had a belief in the strength of communities, large and small, it’s great to see stimulating community arts projects like these flying in the face of modern austerity.

The Lodge is an ideal setting in which to encourage art. If, like me, you’ve got ongoing mental health issues, the minute you arrive there after turning off the busy main road into Bexleyheath, the abundance of floral greenery and air of calm in the grounds and surrounding grasslands immediately makes you feel settled and want to be creative. It couldn’t be a better home for Centrepieces.       

Dawn Tomlin's performance art piece
'Don't Look at Me.' (Image: RF)
What I really find inspiring and heartening about this latest exhibition, and the charity in general, is that the artists have overcome severe difficulties, largely by being empowered through art. Chatting to the members of Centrepieces and reading through the Artists’ Profiles available at the gallery, you’re immediately struck by their honesty. Tony Bennett, ‘a functioning alcoholic and drug addict’, credits Centrepieces with bringing ‘art back into my life’, to the extent that ‘the concentration and enjoyment I get helps keep out all the rubbish that’s in my head’; Georgina Bowen talks of her depression being alleviated by her painting, revealing that ‘it has been very therapeutic for me, and very beneficial for my health and well being’; Barbara Anne French’s art ‘fills up my time and via my paintings I am transported into another world. A happier one’; Joan Sher says that ‘in times of stress and worry I find it quite uplifting splashing around with very bright colours’, while Trevor Whiting sums up the whole ethos of Centrepieces by saying ‘working alongside such a diverse and friendly group of artists… is helping me become more confident in both my own ability as an artist and my self-esteem.’ Endearingly, John Exell is able to see the funny side of his illness, wryly commenting that ‘the pot and acid didn’t help.’

And they are a diverse group: among Centrepiece’s artists are a member of MENSA, a secretary, an engineer, a textile designer, an IT technician and, apparently, a poultry maid. And now me, I guess: a graphic designer and sometime writer on popular culture, feeling a bit lost after having to abandon the idea of moving out of London and finding myself out of work, not to mention dealing with recurring depression. All things considered, I’m glad I found Centrepieces when I did.

If you can, please visit The Stables exhibition. I think you’ll be inspired, moved and enlightened too. And you may well decide to join up.

Email: info@centrepieces.org              

A movingly diverse exhibition (Image: RF)