Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Edward Woodward (1930-2009)

I first heard of Edward Woodward when we were living in America and The Equalizer was on television. Apart from my parents, the only English accents I heard regularly were the ones on television – you know, how Americans thought we talked in the 80s; the Joan Collins/Stephanie Beacham type – they were good for playing the cold-hearted bitch on soap operas it seemed – or the stuffy housekeeper Mr Belvedere type.

I was desperately missing tough gritty English accents and so I loved The Equalizer immediately. Edward Woodward was a British former secret agent or something who was now working for the Americans and cleaning up the stuff that they couldn’t (often involving pesky Ruskies) like a slightly more contained Michael Caine – he didn’t blow any bloody doors off that I recall. Actually, I don’t recall much about it at all apart from the voice, the fact that he wore a long gangster/football manager coat and looked like he couldn’t run to save himself. And yet, curiously, I loved it!

I later discovered that he was a very fine actor and a pretty good footballer. He apparently played for both Leyton Orient and Brentford and studied at RADA. He trod the boards as a real Shakespearean actor in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet in the West End in the mid 1950s, before taking his talents to Broadway and Australia. It’s rare for an actor to be so well received on both side of the Atlantic so that’s a fair testament to his appeal.

Him Outdoors rates The Wicker Man (1973) as one of the scariest films ever – he says there’s atmospheric tension and a horrific final scene that makes you question human nature – I’m too scared to ever watch it. So Edward Woodward’s versatility spanned stage, film, TV and even musical comedy; High Spirits (1964-1965) won three Tony Awards.

However, I remember him most fondly because he features in one of my favourite jokes.

Q: What do you call a man with a tree on his head?
A: Edward
Q: What do you call a man with three trees on his head?
A: Edward Woodward
Q: What do you call a man with four trees on his head?
A: I don’t know either but I bet Edward Woodward would
Q: Why has Edward Woodward got so many ‘d’s in his name?
A: Because otherwise he’d be called Ewar Woowar.

Apparently this is a Morecambe & Wise joke, but I first heard it from a friend whom I ever afterwards called Ewar – that’s how he is programmed into my phone. He disappeared into the mountains for a while and I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, until I saw someone who looked a lot like him running around the Southern Bays in the Harbour Capital Wellington Marathon.

I yelled out “Come on Ewar” and he grinned (grinned, I tell you, at about 30km into the race) and laughed, “No one’s called me that for a while!” I was riding my bike and he kept pace with me chatting for a bit. Perhaps he shouldn’t have done that. He came fourth in a time of 2:49:57 (30 seconds behind the chap in third). I wonder what Edward Woodward would have done.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Books read in May

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in May. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

Pynter Bender – Jacob Ross (4)
Pynter Bender is born sightless, two days after his twin brother, Peter. He is raised by his female relatives in Grenada, in the Caribbean who believe he is bestowed with magical powers. They love and hate with a fierce passion. When Pynter’s eyesight returns to him, he tries to illuminate their metaphoric blindness, by proving that there can be tenderness and that love and violence don’t have to go together. Women are all powerful in this novel, but they still cannot tame their men.

The men are surrounded by the tall sugar canes and they work the land, hemmed in by the sea which they fear. They feel they are still slaves to the owners of the island and they ‘walk’, leaving the women behind as they explode in violence and recrimination. Revolution or education seem to be the only ways to escape this troubled island. Pynter will not hide behind hope or optimism but wants to face things with knowledge. He has to find his own voice to tell his own story, which is not like the government or the education authorities or the politicians or the military who all speak volumes in this novel.

Boys mysteriously disappear, picked up by the soldiers and the men seek revenge, but Pynter refuses to yield to aggression. He is almost a Christ-like figure in the face of Leninist views. Although drawn into the civil war, Pynter knows that anger and hatred only destroy a person from within. Do you nurture the hatred and the hurts, or do you allow yourself to move on? Is it weakness or maturity not to seek retribution?

Jacob Ross writes with a beautiful, descriptive, lyrical mixture of poetry and politics. When Pynter hears chicken hawks, “Their cries reminded him of bright sharp things – knives and nails and needles.” This novel is full of bright sharp things but introduces the prospect of something softer that can smooth off the rough edges and produce a pearl from the grit in the oyster.

Ill Met By Moonlight – Sarah A. Hoyt (3.8)
This is a preposterous but rather fun Elizabethan fantasy weaving elements of elfish legends and Shakespearean sonnets and plays into a finely crafted folklore. The background is earthy and real, full of details of bread making and ale brewing, although the fanciful speech and Shakespearean quotes sprinkled throughout seem to work because we accept that fairies or elves speak in an ethereal way.

The forest is established as the seat of myth where the young Will Shakespeare encounters strange creatures, magical worlds and – straight from the realm of fantasy – a knife inscribed with ancient designs that glows with a bright blue/white fire when elves are near. He naturally explains such things away as a midsummer madness or a wild dream.

Much of the novel is simply a story of a young man growing up in a repressive society and learning to be a man. He considers going to London but he has no trade and knows intelligence is no substitute. His imagination is stirred by a royal pageant where he is seduced by the dancers, the plays and the tableaux – in fact, the wonderful world of theatre. Real life is full of debts and hard work, but this fantasy world offers irresistible riches.

Hoyt fashions a novel explanation for the bewitching dark lady; she is an elf who changes from male (Quicksilver) to female (lady Silver) form and has ‘glamoury’, a power that humans are largely unable to resist. Shakespeare is a mere mortal and of course falls for him/her, which allows the author to hint at the homosexual content of some of the bard’s great works. She incorporates aspects of much of the cannon – of course Midsummer Night’s Dream with the magical and otherworldly aspects, but also Hamlet with revenge for the unnatural death of the parents and the spurned advances of a young beauty (Ariel). She alludes to Romeo and Juliet with the feuding fairies resulting in death of friends in fatal duels, and even MacBeth with equivocating creatures and over-reaching ambition.

If nothing else, her interpretation is original. Academics have puzzled endlessly over how a provincial boy became the world’s greatest playwright. This is certainly not a scholarly explanation but is an entertaining one.

Shakespeare’s Wife – Germaine Greer (4.4)
The prospect of rampant feminist Germain Greer taking on one of the least known and most derided of literary anti-heroines is an intriguing one and it doesn’t disappoint. It is no surprise that Greer launches a spirited defence of Ann Shakespeare, née Hathaway. More than merely defending a much-maligned woman, she also attacks the (male) fanciers of William who despise his wife without knowing anything about her. “The Shakespeare wallahs have succeeded in creating a bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women, and have then vilified the woman who remained true to him all his life, in order to exonerate him.”

Greer debunks all the theories against Shakespeare’s wife – she was too old; she was ugly; she trapped him into marriage; there are no records of affection between them; he spent a lot of his time away in London; he wrote the sonnets clearly pining for some other lover, etc. Shakespearean scholars generally accept that Ann had nothing to do with the publication of her husband’s work and certainly didn’t inspire any of it. Greer discounts both of these assumptions. She suggests that Ann was actually quite a catch, and explores some of the occupations that she might have done, including brewing, farming or some involvement in textiles.

As well as a defence of Ann, Greer also questions the commonly held theory that the Shakespeare family were Catholic and afraid of persecution. The biography also contains a lot of interesting background information and social setting. There is lots of information about marriage, domestic arrangements, employment prospects, medical practices of the day, the treatment of syphilis and the brewing of ale. There are also some fascinating anecdotes about land enclosures and protests that may or may not have involved Ann Shakespeare.
Greer is happy to admit that most of the positive things she has to say about Ann are based on conjecture and speculation, but are “probably neither truer nor less true than the accepted prejudice.” Her spirited defence of Shakespeare’s wife is no more or less than I would have expected from one of the world’s leading feminists.