Magnificent Lady in the Van

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Just got around to seeing this splendid film at the cinema. Terrifically written by Alan Bennett, as could be expected, but also bravely written with such honesty about his own life and thoughts which gave the film real truth. Maggie Smith was staggeringly brilliant as Miss Shepherd, inhabiting her character and investing her with an exceptionally broad range of traits, tics and genuine emotion. Alex Jennings did an excellent job of portraying Bennett rather than simply giving us a superficial impersonation. The supporting cast of top-notch British character actors were all just right, with Jim Broadbent especially good in a small role – an even slimier version of the policeman he played so memorably in Only Fools & Horses. Overall, the film successfully gives us drama, tragedy, tension, satire and humour at all the right times.

The Magna Carta Plays at Salisbury Playhouse

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An interesting and thought-provoking quartet of specially commissioned plays put on by the Playhouse to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. They were generally making the points, missed by many in the anniversary celebrations, that Magna Carta made little difference to the lives of the vast majority, and that we still have a long way to go to achieve fully protected human rights. The most intriguing of the plays was the bleak future imagined by the fourth: We Sell Right by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Overall, the writing was good but the choreography and acting were outstanding. Worthy of being singled out was the performance by Trevor Michael Georges in Pink Gin by Sally Woodcock. Four stars for the Playhouse.

The best book ‘On Writing’ I have read

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Stephen King’s On Writing is a terrifically easy read, largely thanks to the interwoven autobiographical anecdotes. Witty, straightforward, and full of no-nonsense tips, the book debunks on the way many of the sillier elements of current perceived wisdom on creative writing.

Puppy Love for Detectorists

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At last! For the first time this century, the BBC has produced two (count them: one, two) situation comedies which show originality, wit and genuine pathos. Congratulations to the makers of Detectorists and Puppy Love.

Well-packed Lunchbox

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The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra, 2013) is a wonderful little film: a romance which avoids sentimentality and with just the right amount of humour (bittersweet, of course). It is beautifully written and performed and displays subtlety of character and plot development of which Hollywood can only dream.

Mansfield Park: a great satire brilliantly read by Juliet Stevenson

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Once again, Juliet Stevenson proves herself the best audio book reader of Jane Austen. In Mansfield Park, where Austen delves into much sharper satire of love, infatuation and manners than in her other books, Stevenson’s reading brings it to life in a way none can match. As always with Austen, the unabridged version is a must.

Brilliant Blink at Salisbury Playhouse

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Theatre isn’t always my favourite medium – especially on an intimate scale. An even greater achievement then by this week’s studio piece at the Salberg at Salisbury Playhouse. Blink by Phil Porter provided the most enjoyable evening I’ve had at the theatre for years. It was beautifully written, intricately weaving a story of love, loneliness, loss, grief and vulnerability through dark and original comedy – and all in one and a quarter hours. A two-hander, the performances of Lizzy Watts and Thomas Pickles were superb. I was impressed particularly by their skilful use of the props which, like the set, perfectly fitted the play and the space.

Juliet Stevenson: the best Austen Audiobooks

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Just finished listening to ‘Emma’ in the unabridged version read by Juliet Stevenson. It’s difficult to add value to Jane Austen but Stevenson’s brilliant characterisations and speech rhythms bring new vibrancy to the text. Her readings of the chief comedy characters (Mrs Elton and Miss Bates) are especially strong but there are no real weak spots. ‘Emma’ could perhaps stand the odd edit here and there by today’s standards but with Stevenson’s readings there are no longueurs.

Listening to the audiobook prompted us to watch the film version with Juliet Stevenson as Mrs Elton. She’s very good in that too but Sophie Thompson is magnificent as Miss Bates, capturing all the essential aspects of that character: a study in pathos.