In My Queue: Call the Midwife

Part of my preparation for the role of Eliza Doolittle involved trying to find good examples of the Cockney dialect. This proved a bit difficult, particularly because the Cockney dialect of the early 20th century doesn’t really exist anymore in modern life. But one suggest from our esteemed dialect coach was to try watching Call the Midwife. Well, it’s a show set in mid-century in England with a strong female cast and a willingness to observe all classes of life, which is right up my alley, so I gave it a gander. And it has quickly become one of my favorite shows to watch when I have some downtime alone.

And apart from the obvious immersion in East End London dialect, it is a fascinating story. Briefly, the first few seasons are directly based on the memoirs of a Jennifer Worth (nee Lee), who worked as a midwife in the East End of London. My favorite part is that the show follows the stories of a class of people who have not traditionally been represented in film and television, or else represented in a romanticized way. As the show progresses, the characters take on enough of their own life to let the show stray from the original source material, especially when the main character of Jenny Lee leaves the convent at which she works. Currently, I’m in the second season, so I’m curious to see how the show handles losing the main character, but so many of the other characters are engaging enough, I imagine it will work well.

I will admit that I originally avoided this show because for some reason I thought it was a modern reality show. It is, however, a rather gritty look at the reality for women in the East End in the mid century. The show does not shy away from the harsh conditions these women have to face, and it also gave new context to the lines spoken by Eliza and her father in Pygmalion. When Mr. Doolittle says “What else is there but the workhouse in my old age” if he throws away a bequest that has been needling him into respectability, this is not a flippant remark about Doolittle’s aversion to hard work; it is an honest fear that he will end up in a place that leaves people traumatized or worse. When Eliza remarks that her old flat “wasn’t fit for a pig to live in,” she is not engaging in hyperbole. Some of the places the midwives visit seem like the sort of place you would call animal control if you saw a dog forced to live there.

By contrasting the lives of the East End patients and the lives of the midwives, the show is an interesting study of privilege. When she first comes to the convent, Nurse Lee shows her privileged ignorance when dealing with her patients. Well, no, the woman who is abused by her husband can’t necessarily leave him. And there are many other examples. The character of Chummy is a particularly fascinating look at class and privilege, as she comes from a wealthy, upper-class family and often finds herself clashing with one of the convent’s sisters over class differences, simply because she doesn’t know that others didn’t have the access to things she had growing up. But she shows no stubborn pride and is able to become both an able midwife and a relatable friend to the other characters.

I will say that I am excited that the show continues on after the departure of Nurse Lee because it really sets it up as a true ensemble cast, as opposed to a main character with an ensemble behind her, the trap that Penny Dreadful fell into, to my dismay. I look forward to continuing to enjoy this lovely series, long after Pygmalion closes and I no longer need to drop my haitches and muddy my vowels.

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In my Queue: The Paradise

One thing that is nice about watching mostly Netflix is that their algorithm for recommending things is generally better than my friends’ recommendations. Specifically, since I like things that are British and/or full of lovely costumes, I get a lot of recommendations for British costume dramas. The most recent suggestion I took was The Paradise, a Victorian-set drama about an early department store in a northern English town. It’s based on a novel by Emile Zola, although his story was set in France.

It focuses primarily on the character of Denise, a young woman from a small Scottish village who comes to live and work with her uncle, a draper, only to find that his store is barely staying afloat, so she has to take a position at the new department store, the Paradise. It’s a lot like Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs only in a store, not a manor house. It’s actually really interesting because the class dynamics include more about the merchant class, which seems to straddle a bit of a line, no doubt due to the original French material. But my favorite thing about The Paradise is that the story focuses so much on the women’s stories, rather than making everything about the men who, admittedly, would have dominated most of business life in that day and age.

But, seriously, this is a costume drama, so let’s talk about costumes. From the opening sequence, it becomes clear that The Paradise is about eye candy. The costumes are not only beautiful, they add to the feel of the show. From the elegant but understated attire of the shop girls to Moray’s somewhat flamboyant suits and waistcoats to Lady Katherine Glendenning’s dresses, the attire fits the characters. In season two, Lady Katherine finds herself in mourning (half mourning?) for most of the season and her attire becomes darker and more severe. And despite the fantastic costumes, I love that she wears dresses more than once. A real Victorian lady, no matter how wealthy, would not have had a new dress every single day without repeat. It just adds that special something.

My only complaints are twofold: the quick cancellation and the treatment of Lady Katherine in the second season. The show had only two seasons and, while it comes to a satisfying end, it still left me wishing I could see what happened next. It was not enough time spent with the characters they’d developed. Finally, I was displeased with how the plot treated Lady Katherine in the second season. She had been set as one of the antagonists to sweet, blonde Denise in the first season, and her plotline in the second season almost seemed like punishment, when really her only “crime” was to reach for what she wanted, contrary to society’s strictures. But some of her strength eventually came through and she remains a wonderfully flawed character.

I highly recommend The Paradise for a few weeks of eye-candy and Victorian period enjoyment. Perhaps someday something like it will come back.

In My Queue: Agatha Christie’s Poirot

I discovered the works of Agatha Christie while living with a couple who owned many of her books. It was fascinating to borrow them and devour them. I love a good mystery, as evidenced by my love of television shows about mystery and crime. And when I was cast in a local play based on one of Christie’s books, I had to look up a dramatization of the book on which it was based.

Lately, Netflix has added a lot of new episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot to their offerings, the play I’m in among them. So I was able to watch that particular dramatization. David Suchet is such a wonderful Hercule Poirot. He has fantastic facial expression and his sense of timing it so excellent. And whoever styles his mustache deserves some sort of award.

Because Poirot is based on the various novels and short stories of Agatha Christie, it doesn’t necessarily follow a thread of plot, but rather enacts one novel per episode. Christie was a prolific writer, and already there are seventy episodes of Poirot to enjoy. So far, I’ve mostly focused on the few stories I’ve read, along with one or two others whose synopses sounded interesting.

My favorite to date is the dramatization of Murder on the Nile, which features Emily Blunt as a wealthy American who appears to have been murdered by a romantic rival. But when the rival has an airtight alibi, things get murkier. It also has the actor who plays the lead in one of my favorite shows, Monarch of the Glen, Alastair Mackenzie. Personally, I think he’s adorable, so I enjoyed that surprise.

The aesthetic of the settings is also fun to watch, as the series moves from the early part of the 20th century, through the 20s and into the 30s. There are subtle markers in the costumes, as well as in the historical references, but the time period settings never become heavy handed. The focus is always on the mystery. And because they’ve chosen such excellent source material, the plots are always just intricate enough to stay interesting.

I highly suggest giving it a watch. Don’t set yourself on watching them all in order. Take a look at the titles and plots and choose one that sounds interesting to you. Or check out Death on the Nile first.

In My Queue: Ripper Street

One of my guilty pleasures of TV are police procedurals. Ripper Street combines this with my love of British TV and historical drama. It’s like CSI: Victorian London. It’s quickly become one of my favorite weekend shows, not least because of the clever references to the modern world, along with the atmosphere created by the costumes and characters.

The show follows Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, the head of the Whitechapel police division during the time of Jack the Ripper. Whitechapel is not the nicest of places, and it turns out they have far more than the Ripper about which to worry. The show skews decidedly political, following revolutionaries and outsiders, and reminds me of a steampunk world, only it tries to be historically accurate rather than speculative.

One of my favorite things about the show is the characters. The show focuses on an Edmund Reid who is noble, kind, determined, and very, very honest. The show juxtaposes him both with the status quo of London police — who are as often as not corrupt and often in the loop with the wealthy and politically connected — as well as with the American character. While there is some vagueness about his specific politics, the American doctor Homer Jackson is the outsider for which much of the plot must be exposed. He also represents the march of progress, both politically with his socialist leanings, and physically, as he brings forensic science into the 20th century. His “dead room” is an autopsy room where he turns Ripper Street into CSI: Victorian London. Rounding out the main male cast is Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake, a traditional, former-military copper who uses his fists to talk and tends to stick to tradition, though he is ultimately an honest cop. His boundaries are challenged when he falls in love with a prostitute.

The female cast is led by Long Susan, who is a madame with a secret past. She is married to Jackson, and she runs her house of ill-repute with a firm but caring hand. The show focuses upon some of her girls more than others, but makes sure they are more than pretty stereotypes. In contrast to Long Susan, Reid’s wife is a progressive woman in a traditional role. Their marriage is strained due to a past tragedy that is revealed as the first series goes on.

My other favorite thing about the show are the costumes. I love the bold use of color, adding splashes of saturated jewel tones to Jackson’s costume and Long Susan’s girls, while keeping the gritty, slightly dingy look of 19th-century London. The costuming, coupled with the often-veiled political references actually remind me of Firefly. The repartee between the characters doesn’t hurt on that score, either. Here’s hoping it stays running for a long time yet.

In My Queue: Rosemary and Thyme

I’ve mentioned before that I’m an Anglophile, and one of my favorite things about the UK is their entertainment. I don’t watch normal TV, but I keep lots of British TV shows in my Netflix queue. Lately, I’ve started watching the series Rosemary and Thyme, a cozy mystery series about a duo who solves crimes focused around gardens.

The basic premise is that Rosemary, a plant pathologist who has lost her position at a university, and Laura Thyme, a jilted policeman’s wife, meet over the death of Laura’s brother. While Laura helps Rosemary diagnose some horticultural problems at the house, the two of them figure out whodunit and decide to team up. They travel the countryside, taking jobs from those with gardens who need tending. And if someone mysteriously ends up dead? Well, that’s within their area of expertise.

One of my favorite things about the show is the scenery, all set in the English countryside, with a few overseas episodes. And in the first series, at least, I was amused that various characters the two women meet assume their involved as more than just friends and garden partners. Laura Thyme has one of the most beautiful reactions to a particulary ham-handed bout of homophobia from one detective.

It really is hilarious how thin the pretense can be. It’s like death just manifests around these two. I think the show flirts with self-awareness toward the end of the first season, when Laura expresses concern that their current job has to do with “the tree of death.” One would think she might be getting tired of all the coincidental deaths mucking up their gardening.