Category Archives: Popular Culture

Oprah’s Last Show

Today is the final Oprah Winfrey Show on regular network tv.  I’m very sorry to see her go.  I Oprah - the Farewell show ( watch her on her own network, but I probably won’t.  I’ve seen the titles of some of its lineup – a little too much health, beauty and talk for my tastes.

Oprah was the only talk show I’d sometimes turn on just to see what she was saying.  I started watching because she came on after General Hospital.  If her intro looked interesting, I’d leave the tv on.  I first met Dr. Phil on her show.  I liked him there; not so much in the larger doses you got when he got his own show.

There were actors on her show that surprised and impressed me with their intelligence and passion.  Politicians, community leaders, writers – Oprah brought out the best in them.  You felt like you got to know something of the person beneath the patter and party line.

Her audiences often astounded me – the cheering and chanting, the hysteria that surrounded her entrance.  On her ‘giveaway’ shows, I found the audiences frightening.  But in the safety of my house, I enjoyed the excitement of the free whatevers too.

Oprah in our social lexicon

Oprah in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 17 2010 ( the most amazing thing is how Oprah became part of our social lexicon and arbiter of societal tastes and awareness.  And it seemed genuine.  I never felt I was getting ‘sold’ something by her.

And I listened to her and her guests.  I wrote down a list of the staples that ought to be in a woman’s wardrobe as outlined by an Oprah guest.  Thanks to Oprah, I know how bras and jeans ought to fit.  I remember bits of financial planning advice from her show.  I remember when she talked about staying as an overnight guest with people and her horror at sleeping on pillows that were a couple years old.  Although I didn’t replace my pillows, when I fluff them up I think ‘I’d have to buy new ones if Oprah came to stay.’

Oprah’s power in literature through her Book Club is impressive.  Increased book sales and the simple fact that she causes people to read is significant when reading seems to be waning as a pastime.

Her show on puppy mills brought awareness to the general public of this horrific abuse of animals for profit.  An animal lover herself, she did this show in response to a call from the public.  Bill Smith, a man who advocates against puppy mills, asked her to do a show so she did.

The Big Give: Anti-The Apprentice?

Oprah's Big Give spin-off show she did was one of my favourites.  Perhaps in response to Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, where contestants fight and claw to gain for themselves the Big Prize, Oprah’s Big Give turned that premise on its end.  In The Big Give, contestants fought and clawed to give money away to people who need it.  The one who gave away the most won.  I enjoy The Apprentice, but I loved The Big Give, and I respected Oprah for thinking of that twist on it – fight to give.

Oprah has influenced our television culture and society as a whole.  And she’s done it as a woman of thought and principle.  I wish her the very best.

The Death of Soaps

In April, ABC announced the cancellation of All My Children and One soaps AMC and OLTL title cards x'd outLife to Live.  They will be replaced by a cooking show and a health and beauty show.  Wow, we need more of those.  Maybe they can get Dr. Gupta.  We don’t see him on tv enough.  Maybe they could roll all the talk, reality, health and cooking shows into one and have Sharon Osborne and Jamie Oliver judging people while they sing and cook and Dr. Gupta can measure cholesterol levels.  Any of the gazillion talk show hosts could narrate.  They could just run it straight for 4 hours every afternoon.  Low production costs, so it would work for American network daytime executives.

Why are American soap operas dropping like flies?  President of ABC Daytime Brian Frons says people want different types of daytime viewing.  He says the ratings for soaps are low and the costs are high.  The strong soaps will survive, he says.  I hope he realizes that before too long, only the strong food/health/beauty/talk/reality shows will survive too.  He’s adding two newbies to an already overcrowded screen.  Meanwhile, over 40 years of viewing and production loyalty has been chucked down the drain.

Soap fans do not want to watch beauty makeovers or cooking tips.  Maybe they do, in addition to their stories but not instead of.  The whole point of soaps is that they continue and build.  You follow people’s life and get to know them.  Soap viewers want continuity, not cheap tricks.  We know the denizens of Pine Valley and Llanview – what they’re like, what they’re likely to do and not do.  Inexplicable changes in character, too rapid an introduction of new characters and scenarios don’t go over well with long-time Susan Lucci starfans.  We want to see the full range of characters, those who’ve been around a long time as well as the new ones.  These are points of soap creation that used to be the guiding light, so to speak, for soap writers and producers. Sadly, they seem to have been forgotten in the past 20 years or so.

‘Monkey see, monkey do’ became the new mantra – if a plot works on one show, copy it whether it fits well or not.  If ratings drop, bring in somebody, anybody to make a splashy entrance, whether they fit in the ongoing stories or not.  Bring in a new headwriter or executive producer with a new ‘vision’, whether it fits this soap or not.  Such knee-jerk reaction to soaps creation hasn’t worked.  Soap fans did leave.  I know – I’m one.

Leaving the soaps

From the early 1980s until about 2 years ago, I watched the soaps.  Several of them, with General Hospital and The Young and the Restless being my mainstays.  I taped, I watched in real time – whatever worked.  Then I gradually stopped.  It wasn’t that I was gone or didn’t have time.  It was that I realized that I just wasn’t interested anymore.  I would watch at the kitchen table and play solitaire in the commercial breaks.  When I realized that I was no longer stopping my game when the show came back on, I knew there was a problem.

General Hospital was the first to go.  I just got tired of the mob stuff.  I loved The Sopranos, then airing on network prime-time, but I didn’t want to see The Sopranos on my soap.  Later I stopped watching Y&R, don’t know why really.  I guess it’s like falling out of love; once you start getting disenchanted, it’s hard to stop.

I haven’t replaced my soaps with cooking or health shows.  The tv is now just off during the day.  Until Coronation Street, the UK soap, comes on.  No sign of it being cancelled, 50 years after starting.  Why?  If I knew the answer to that, I hope I’d be getting the big bucks American daytime executives are.  But I’ve got some theories.  “Tune in next time for ‘as the soaps die’…”

eBay forand

Hats off (or on) to the past few days!

It’s been quite a four days – perhaps best summarized with The Hat.  Everybody’s had a go at this new game.

The Hat – the inspiration

Princess Beatrice and The Hat at the royal weddingFriday was the birth of The Hat. The day was a bank holiday in the UK so that everyone could watch The Royal Wedding.   Millions of us elsewhere also watched.  The Hat made its first appearance. On Princess Beatrice’s head, blocking the view for many.

Photoshopping The Hat

White House, with hats, from FacebookBut while we were watching the fairy tale wedding, in the White House other events were being watched.  Friday, so we learned, was also the culmination of 10 years of The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.  The Hat was there, helping.

Sunday, Celebrity Apprentice was pre-empted in the last few critical moments (would Nene pleasepleaseplease be fired?  No – she Star, Hope and Nene in the boardroomwasn’t, oh no!)  The Hat should have been there – this is its natural habitat.  Some of the outfits worn by these “celebrity” women would fit right in those worn by the Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice.

Donald Trump, with The Hat, from FacebookWhy did President Obama interrupt The Donald?  Osama bin Laden had Osama bin Laden, in The Hat, from Facebookbeen killed by US troops.  Before this news was made public, The Hat had already found its way to bin Laden’s head.

Monday, Canada’s election produced an odd result.  A Conservative majority with (for the first time ever) the NDP as official Opposition.  The Liberals and Michael Ignatieff, with The Hatthe Bloc were pretty much wiped off the political map.  Gilles Duceppe said his goodbyes to his party Monday evening, Michael Ignatieff waited until Tuesday morning.  The Hat talked him into it.

Brilliant Speed, with The HatAnd coming up on Saturday, hats will be big in Louisville.  It’s the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby.  Having tried my hand at photoshopping The Hat, I’m definitely rooting for Brilliant Speed. He very kindly loaned me his head. It looks quite nice on him. But it would make for serious wind resistance.

Patrick wins – no hat

Patrick Chan, doing victory lap at WorldsBack to last Friday, Patrick Chan won gold at the World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow.  Hurray Patrick, hurray Canada. (no hat)

The Hat on Princess Beatrice is an AP photo from Friday’s wedding.  The Hat on Michael Ignatieff was done by Jim Stewart.  The others of The Hat are from Facebook.  The photo of Patrick Chan is by AP and the boardroom photo of Team ASAP is from buddytv.

The Royal Wedding

I stayed up all night and watched the Royal wedding pre-pre-coverage, pre-coverage, main event, balcony scene and after coverage.  I switched between CBC and CBC NewsNet, CNN, an entertainment news show and went online to BBC.

Piers Morgan & Anderson Cooper at Buckingham Palace CNN bureauInterestingly, my husband and I stuck with CNN for the actual wedding.  Both of us usually choose CBC or CTV over any American channel for political, sports or ‘significant event’ coverage.  But Piers Morgan was great.  He, Anderson Cooper and their guests were informative and witty in their commentary.  Donald Trump did a good thing with Celebrity Apprentice in introducing Piers Morgan to US media.

The wedding was beautiful, the dress was fabulous, the singing of God Save the Queen brought tears to the eyes, the balcony kiss was sweet and funny.  I wish she’d ridden in the glass carriage to the Abbey, but it still was a total fairy tale wedding.  Just one observation about the music in the ceremony – the lovely choir piece that was composed as a wedding gift sounded to me very similar to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast theme song.

Royal Wedding Style

In the pre-coverage talk about the dress, there was a lot of emphasis on Kate’s sense of style.  I was thinking huh?  She’s got all the money in the Queen’s realm and all the Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice at royal weddingadvisors in the fashion industry and the palace to ensure that this dress is the epitome of elegance and high-style.  How could she not look absolutely fabulous?

And then I saw the Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice.  I saw you can have all the fashion mavens and money in the world and still look like you got dressed from a Salvation Army clothes bale.  I liked their shoes though.

In my fashion assessment of the event, I divided the family women into two categories. (Kate and her sister Pippa, both stunning, were in their own category.)  On the ‘regally elegant’ side were the Queen, Mrs. Middleton, Camilla and the Countess of Wessex.  On the ‘WTF?’ side were Eugenie, Beatrice and the Princess Royal.  Now, Anne I can accept – she generally always looks as if she grabbed whatever was clean and not wrinkled from her closet.  She’s never been an icon of fashion; she has other things she’d rather do.

But those girls!  I think that they’d like to be fashion plates, and they have the looks to do so.  If they’d take half the owl eye makeup off and not wear clothes that are jumbled and way too busy and not flattering to their faces or figures in any way.  And they sat right behind their Gran!  So you couldn’t even look at the Queen without being distracted by the costume party escapees behind her.

Best Wishes

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge balcony kissI wish the new Duke and Duchess the very best.  I don’t envy them though.  One commentator said something like ‘this marriage cannot fail.  There is no reason it can’t last:  they’ve lived together, she’s been part of his world long enough to understand her role, they’re both mature enough.  If it doesn’t last, the British monarchy will end with it.’  Gee, that’s not much pressure is it?

The Oscars (2011)

Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren - 2011 oscar dressesThe dresses, that’s the Oscars for me.  The beautiful gowns and the ones that make you wonder ‘what possessed her?’  So anything that provides both oohs and aahs of admiration and WTFs of astonishment is worth watching.

But there’s a whole show wrapped around the dresses.  This year’s show was one of the most disjointed that I’ve ever seen.  The hosts – why?  Anne Hathaway I expect to see accepting an award or sitting in the audience.  And James Franco – I hang my head in shame (as a long-time but former GH watcher) but I’ve never heard of him.  And he was nominated in Best Actor category.  I thought “aren’t there enough people in Hollywood that they don’t have to double up?”

James Franco & Anne Hathaway, with big OscarListening to CBC Radio’s Q this morning, the panelists on the Oscars gave shape to my rather confused impressions of the show.  Actors, one said, should not host.  If they’re at a career high, they’re likely to do it no good by hosting (James Franco being the case in point).  And if they’re not, they’re not going to help their career.  In that panelist’s opinion, stand-up comedians and talk-show hosts know how to do it.  They know timing and know how to ad lib.  And they are not being viewed, and therefore judged, as ‘Actors’.  They are of the industry, but apart from it.  Please God, there must be some young comedians or hosts able to do the job if the Academy wants youth for the sake of drawing the ‘prime’ demographic.

Another point made was that the most articulate and interesting acceptance speeches came from writers, not actors.  You would think, the point was, that actors would know enough to write out their lines and memorize them.  But no, flailing around and saying nothing at great length – that’s what we got.

The big moment was Melissa Leo’s “f” word.  I’d thought she’d seemed kind of insincere at her shock at herself.  I thought maybe she was just covering, the way you do when you say something stupid then try to pretend you meant to say it.  The Q panel thought she had meant to say it, and described her “shock” as the worst piece of acting ever seen.  I don’t know if her wrestling Kirk Douglas for his cane as they walked off stage was planned or NYC school choir at Oscarsnot – it was pretty funny.  So was Christian Bale seemingly forgetting his wife’s name in his thank-yous.

The Best Song candidates seemed mashed up together without much fanfare.  The historical flashbacks to previous Oscar winners were confusing to me.  The school choir at the end – why? Nice for them, certainly, but this is the sort of thing you shouldn’t have to watch until you’re living in the old folk’s home.

I wish Best Picture could have gone to both The King’s Speech and The Social Network.  But, given that it can’t, I’m glad The King’s Speech won.  Maybe the reign of King George VI is long past, but speech impediments aren’t.  It’s a story about a real issue, and a real history poster image for the Oscarsthat is worth knowing.  It’s impossible to deny the reality and influence of the story of Facebook too.  Especially when, as was happening in my household, one person was carrying on a dialogue about the Oscars on Facebook during the commercials.  I was surprised that no one from The King’s Speech or The Social Network thanked the people who lived the stories on which these movies were based.  Christian Bale did that for The Fighter.

And my favourite dress?  The woman from ABC. Stunning, and I couldn’t find a picture of it.

The King and Us

George VI portraitColin First as George VI, in The King's SpeechWallis Simpson makes me think that there may well be a God, and that He is on “our” side.  I cannot imagine what the world would look like had Edward VIII remained on the throne.  And it’s thanks to Wallis Simpson that he didn’t.

He came to the throne in 1936 when the build up to WWII was already taking place.  Hitler had firm control of Germany and was looking to expand that control further in Europe.  Neville Chamberlain, British PM at the time, believed the best way to handle Hitler’s Germany was through “appeasement” – let him have what he wants and he’ll leave us alone.  Edward VIII, it seems, went even further than appeasement.  He and Wallis were pretty close to Nazi-sympathizers.  They enjoyed socializing with high-ranking Nazi officials.

Edward VIII, Duke & Duchess of Windsor, at home with pugsNow, maybe that was Wallis’ choice more than his.  It seems that she did the thinking in that family.  But I believe that if it hadn’t been her, it would have been someone else leading him around by the nose.  The one thing that seems very clear from reading history from that time is that Edward was a fun-loving man who really didn’t want to be bothered with heavy matters of state.  So he may have fallen in love with another woman who was marriage material, but based on assessments of his personality she probably wouldn’t have been any more competent as a war-time Queen than he would be a war-time King.

"We Four" at home, with dogsAs unsuitable as Edward was to inherit his father’s crown, so too seemed Albert, his younger brother the Duke of York.  As second in line, he’d never really had to worry about wearing the crown.  An introspective man, he wanted to pursue his own interests.  As Duke of York, that was just fine.  He married a strong woman, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.  She, a perfect home-grown match for a royal marriage, had been long courted by him and had refused his proposals.  She didn’t want a life anywhere in the Royal Family.  At that time, life as the central Royal didn’t seem a likelihood!

Edward VIII to Duke of Windsor

Poor Bertie stuttered badly, but it didn’t really matter – he wasn’t going to be in a position where public speaking was a major part of the job.  Then the unthinkable happened.  After George V’s death, David became Edward VIII and he refused to give up the American twice-divorced Wallis Simpson.  Parliament refused to waive the rules about divorced persons joining the Royal Family and there was the abdication crisis.  That was a crisis for the country.  Succession to the Throne had to be a familial crisis for Bertie and Elizabeth and the two Princesses.  “We Four”, as the Duke of York called his family, had a good and comfortable life mapped out near the limelight and with benefits, but not in the limelight.

Coronation photo of George VI and familyBut step up he did, and became George VI.  Elizabeth became a stalwart Queen consort.  Britain, still under Chamberlain as PM, engaged in war with Germany and won.  George VI truly lived up to the oath that England’s monarchs take in that being King probably cost him his life.  His daughter Elizabeth has gone on to be one of the two longest-reigning British monarchs ever.  And she has seen the Royal Family through some spectacularly rocky times during those decades.  She’s done it with grace and wisdom, just like her father and mother.

I haven’t yet seen the movie The King’s Speech, but I hope Colin Firth wins the Oscar for Best Actor – for his sake and Queen Elizabeth’s.

Days of our Lives and Chex Mix

product placement on DOOL with Sammi opening Chex Mix bagHaving fallen off on my American soap viewing, I didn’t know about the new product placement on soaps until I saw the spoof of it on the Colbert Report.  I thought he had to be photoshopping the tape somehow to have Sammi extolling the virtues of Chex Mix while in a cozy little scene with some guy. 

But no, I thought, Stephen Colbert doesn’t artificially enhance the insanity of something in our society – at least not the original Stephen Colbert saved by Cheerios & evil twin Pavros holding productsinsanity.  He may add to it, as he did here with being confronted by his evil twin Pavros (looking more like Stephen Nichols’ “Patch” DOOL character than the evil Stavros of General Hospital).  So he, consciously I think, mixes his soaps up to great comedic effect for all of them – especially when he’s shot and protected by his courageous Cheerios box.

So I Goodsearched* for DOOL product placement.  It’s true and it’s appallingly awful.  And they’re all doing it or going to be doing it, apparently.  Even Coronation Street will be engaging officially in product placement as of January 2011.

Product placement in Coronation Street

Norris in front of cigarette display in KabinCoronation Street long has, but perhaps unofficially and unpaid for, on its store shelves.  Look at the stock in Dev’s corner shop and you see recognizable food packages.  Look at the cigarettes behind the counter in Dev’s and the Kabin.  I recognize Silk Cuts among other brands I’ve seen in England.  When someone is pouring tomato sauce over their food, you recognize the shape of the bottle even if the hand is over the label.  When Peter was swigging from his bottle outside George’s house, it certainly looked like Ballentine’s Scotch to me.

I’ve never minded that: it’s not shoving the product in your face and it makes it look more realistic.  I’ve not known if the show was paid for this or not.  It seemed to me they ought to be since it is showcasing a particular brand instead of another.

Coleman talking to Brooklyn at bar, General HospitalSometimes I’ve wished to see product placement in American soaps just to make it seem more realistic.  Someone says to the bartender “give me a beer” and the bartender walks away and comes back with a beer.  The very few times I’ve seen the bartender ask “what kind?” the answer is something like “whatever you’ve got.”  You’ve probably got 20 or 40 different kinds at least.  If you don’t want to do unpaid product placement, just make up some names. That’s what Coronation Street did with the brewery Newton and Ridley.

Soaps: history in the name

American radio serials started with ‘ads’ for soap manufacturer products incorporated into the storyline.  Then the ads moved to separate commercial breaks, leaving the storyline to unfold on its own.  The division between advertiser and production became clearer as networks or independent production companies, instead of “soap” companies like P&G, increasingly owned soaps.  Now with the new product placement on soaps, they are getting back to their roots.  And, if this is the only way to keep soaps on the air, well, so be it.  But surely it could be done with a bit more finesse than DOOL is showing!

However, DOOL is a lifeforce of its own I often think.  For twenty years or so, since the days of James Reilly, DOOL has been over the top in its stories and acting.  It’s driven viewers away but it’s also drawn viewers in just to see how bad it can get.  So it’s totally fitting that, if product placement is to be done, it’s done on DOOL in the absolute cheesiest fashion possible.

This is my contribution to product placement. It’s for the search engine Goodsearch which donates a penny per search to a charity of your choice.  My search pennies go to Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm. Near Lexington Kentucky, It is a retirement home for thoroughbred racehorses, including stallions.

Lifeboys: Reality tv before “Reality TV”

In the spring of 1992, I heard an interview with Pat O’Rourke, of Liverpool, on CBC Radio’s As it Happens. It was about Lifeboys, a television show that he was making, based on the real lives of real people. O’Rourke and his wife owned and ran the Shipperies, a long established Lifeboys Shipperies Pub, Durning Road, Liverpoolpub in Wavertree, part of Liverpool in the north of England. In it, they were making Lifeboys, based on their pub and its patrons.

I went to visit the O’Rourkes at the Shipperies when I was in England soon after, while researching Coronation Street for a radio documentary. I liked what they were doing: making art out of their reality, or portraying reality through the art of being Liverpudlian, “Scousers.” Either way, it was blurring the lines between reality and entertainment.  It was neither documentary nor fiction. Now we would call it reality tv; then it was comparable only to continuing serials like Coronation Street and East Enders.

I wish O’Rourke had met another producer in England who, at that time, was also thinking of how to change the stories told on television. Charlie Parsons had an idea for a different kind of show based on reality. He wanted to put ordinary people into extraordinary, and stressful, situations and tape what happened. His idea eventually came to fruition on Swedish television in 1997 as Expedition Robinson. It enjoyed some success there and was produced by broadcasters elsewhere. The idea exploded when Mark Burnett sold it in 2000 to American audiences as Survivor.

Competition or “Real Life”

Since then, there has been every kind of reality show imaginable. Some are competition of stress and manipulation, like Survivor. Some are talent shows.  Others are daily lives of regular people doing whatever it is they do, like a television diary. Some have huge prizes for the winners. Some have only the prize of having your life documented and aired.

UnStable website (CMT) horse and womenI started thinking about the “record of life” type of reality show when I watched one called UnStable. Being interested in horses, I’ll watch anything with the word stable in it. I still can’t figure the show out, other than it seems like a “reality” version of CBC’s Alberta-set horsey drama Heartland. I thought to myself, somebody in Alberta must have watched Heartland and said, “this isn’t what our lives are really like, I bet I could tell better stories about what it means to be a rancher in Alberta.” And, with a proliferation of cable stations looking for cheap programming, they indeed found a buyer in CMT (Country Music Television). They’ve got a nice website and presumably lots of fans who want to see “real” families running “real” horse ranches instead of, or as well as, the fictional ones on Heartland.

So that’s what made me think of Pat O’Rourke and what he had put his heart into. But he was thinking of it in terms of continuing serials like Coronation Street and Liverpool’s Brookside. A couple years later, when reality television began flooding the airwaves, I think his eavesdropping on a Liverpool local would have been a hit.

Lifeboys and Wrinklies

What O’Rourke wanted to do was produce a tv show about his pub patrons by his patrons for his patrons. He had worked in television and film and was an actors’ agent. He borrowed and bought equipment and set up the upstairs of the pub as a production studio. There he and writer Paul McKane wrote and produced scripts based on the stories and lives of the people in his neighbourhood, the people who frequented his bar.

The bar is divided into two – a large public room on one side, bar in the middle, and a smaller parlour on the other. The younger people tended to congregate in the larger bar where the music was loud, the older people in the smaller room. The ones in the large room, at least the men, were known as “Lifeboys”. The people in the smaller room were generally known as “Wrinklies”.

The stories O’Rourke wanted to tell were those from both sides of the bar, but the name he liked for the whole was “Lifeboys”. So the real lifeboys and wrinklies told their stories, and Pat videotaped and took notes. He then edited the tape into short episodes and aired them in the big room for the patrons. Everybody loved it.

Watching at The Shipperies

Evenings when episodes were shown began drawing capacity crowds from the neighbourhood. Lifeboys began getting a lot of media attention too. UK, European, even Canadian tv, radio and newspapers wanted to know about the “pub soap”. O’Rourke and McKane had hopes to get Lifeboys picked up by a network for national broadcast. They thought their product told the real stories of Liverpool. They thought they could go up against Brookside, Emmerdale and, yes, even Coronation Street.

It didn’t happen.  I don’t know why. O’Rourke, McKane and all the actors wanted to make a good product that entertained and reflected their reality, and did. I spent a wonderful three days at the Shipperies, with the real lifeboys and wrinklies, and with the actors and production crew.

Lifeboys didn’t make it into my radio documentary on soaps. But it did inform my look at Coronation Street and the other British network serials. Little things like how local are the actors, are the accents authentic for the characters, are the stories believable for these characters in this place? These are questions that also concern Coronation Street and the other UK serials. But opinions vary on how well they succeed in recreating a realistic picture of their environment. Lifeboys is a section of the book on soaps I later wrote. There I could explore the questions of authenticity of voice that O’Rourke had raised as well as issues of reality and story narrative, accuracy and entertainment.

Authenticity of Story

Historic Fire Station and Shipperies Pub LiverpoolPat O’Rourke cared about seeing Liverpool accurately presented, and Manchester and Yorkshire (homes of the other Northern serials). But his concern went further than that. His question was why create fictional people and situations when such richness of character and lifestories is all around you. The real stories are just as entertaining and moving, and to the greatest extent possible, the best people to tell them are the real people themselves.

He found it’s hard to actually do, with time and budget constraints. Especially if you are aiming at well-oiled machines like Coronation Street as your competition. Also the networks had their continuing serial roster pretty well filled up. With home-grown major products, smaller regional soaps in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and Australian imports giving a shot of sunshine and skin, there wasn’t much room for another one. But there might well have been room for a real-life look inside a Liverpool pub and the lives of its patrons in a couple years. By then, pretty much anything that could be made into a reality show was, and was being bought and aired.

Reality TV

In the years since the original Survivor, there have been every kind of reality show imaginable, and then some. In contest form or storytelling, all (except celebrity ones) are “ordinary” people acting in “real” ways.

Perhaps the genre that Lifeboys should have been a part of is the “reality tv” one, not continuing serials. Yes, the latter are a representation of daily life but are clearly fictional. Like a good novel, they reflect reality but don’t intend, or pretend, to replicate it. Pat O’Rourke wanted to document reality and present it as entertanment. In that he had more in common in Charlie Parsons and Mark Burnett. From what I saw of Lifeboys compared to what I’ve seen of reality shows, I much prefer Pat O’Rourke’s vision.

I still don’t know what I think of UnStable. I watched a couple episodes but haven’t felt moved to watch again. The stories didn’t grab me. But that’s pretty much how I feel about Heartland too. I Heartland website mastheaddon’t care about the people that much, and they always seem so clean even after mucking out stalls. I like the horses, though, on both shows and wish they had bigger roles.

flickr photos of the Shipperies by Caroline & Phil Bunford, top, and Jim Malone, bottom. UnStable and Heartland photos are from their websites.


Secretariat: The Movie (2010)

Amazon link for movie Secretariat
Amazon link for dvd

The thing that annoyed me most about the movie Secretariat was that the horses playing him were not in the credits. In particular, the one who played him in close-ups was superb – playing to the camera, acting the ham. Just like the real Big Red, so those who knew him say. I hope I will learn his and the others’ names and more about them on the dvd.

Ok, that’s my criticism. Other than that, I loved the movie. It’s the story of Secretariat’s fabulous 1973 Triple Crown win, and the story of his owner Penny Chenery Tweedy. Now, I’m a Man o’ War girl when it comes to that important question – who was the greatest racehorse of the 20th century? It’s not a decision based on any real knowledge of thoroughbred racing, just that he was the first racehorse I knew anything about. I had a put-together model kit Man o War 1920of him when I was a kid, and it caused me to find a book about him in the library. And, even if you’re in the Secretariat “greatest horse” camp, you can’t deny the magnificence of Man o’ War, the original “Big Red”. His stride, as marked out at the Kentucky Horse Park, is still the longest of any known horse, including Secretariat.

The 1973 Belmont

But that win by 31 lengths! Nothing has ever been seen like that. I didn’t see the actual race. I was living outside North America and didn’t have a tv set. I’ve watched replays since but, thrilling as even that is, I cannot imagine what it felt like to actually see the race not knowing what the outcome would be. By 1978, after Seattle Slew and Affirmed won back-to-back Triple Crowns, I felt that having a Triple Crown was pretty exciting but not particularly unusual. I never imagined that it would not be done again for so many years. No horse, before or since, has won even one of the individual races that make up the Triple Crown in such a spectacular fashion. Especially the Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three. Watching him is like watching a horse fly. It’s magic and majesty and pure joy.

belmont stretch panorama secretariat.comThe sheer magnificence of Secretariat is why I didn’t find jarring the overvoice of a passage from the Book of Job at the movie’s beginning and end. Such beauty and strength as a horse possesses calls up reverential words and imagery. The solemnity and beauty of the words fit the magnificence of the animal, one of the most beautiful in creation.

After seeing the movie, I checked online reviews. My interpretation of the use of the Book of Job is at variance with most of those I read. Quite a big deal was made of the fact that director Randall Wallace is an outspoken Christian. I did not know that going in so it didn’t influence my viewing of the movie.

Oh Happy Day

Two other scenes of the movie are focused upon as evidence of the Christian message of the director and/or Disney Studio. The choice of Oh Happy Day, as music coming from the stable radio, and as the horses are coming down the final stretch in the Belmont. The first time, when it’s coming from the stable radio, I just heard it as a popular song by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and fitting when everybody in the scene was happy and poster for movie Secretariatfeeling good about Secretariat and his prospects. The second use of it, in the ultimate race, I found distracting just because it was loud and I’d have rather just heard the hooves pounding on the track. Music accompanying that beautiful sound is gilding the lily. Not necessary, not an improvement.

Two reviews stood out for me. One is by Steve Haskin in Bloodhorse Magazine. This is a fair and insightful review both about the movie and the story of Secretariat and his connections. He points out a number of inaccuracies and glossovers of actual fact. One he doesn’t mention is that the coin toss which decided Secretariat’s ownership was actually more complicated and dramatic. To save movie time, I suppose, it was abbreviated. Still tense with drama, but if you want to read the real story, look for The Secretariat Factor by Tom Kiernan (Doubleday 1979). That’s where I read it, but I’m sure it’s also told in other books.

“Tea Party-flavored”

The second review is by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon. He says that he wanted his review to be provocative and well, yes, it is. His reading of Secretariat is as “Tea Party-flavored” propaganda for a mythical American past when all was well. For this, he holds the director and Disney responsible for perpetuating the myths of nostalgia and inaccurate simplification. That, I believe, is hardly news. O’Hehir for sure has read Critical Theory and wanted to be sure that we all knew he had. The argument is along the lines that popular culture is a particularly effective way to create political or ideological propaganda because the consumers are entertained primarily and therefore unaware that they are being fed propaganda. Ok.

Can you, as does O’Hehir, read Secretariat as Christian right wing propaganda? Of course.  Just as you can read iconoclast comic Dennis Leary’s tv drama Rescue Me as anti-Muslim propaganda. Everyone in North America developed a heightened pride in and respect for police officers and firefighters after 9/11. Leary became a well-known advocate for firefighters in thanks to them for their efforts after that tragedy. The tragedy was caused by anti-American extremists – Muslim extremists. So do the math the same way, and you can consider Rescue Me propaganda just as easily as you can consider Secretariat right-wing Christian propaganda.

The movie Secretariat and real-life

O’Hehir argues that the movie’s negligible mention of the social and political upheaval in early 70s America is evidence of its propaganda/mythologizing of the past. Maybe it is. Maybe, too, those events didn’t directly affect the lives of the people whose story this is except through the schoolgirl political activism that is shown. Like O’Hehir, I lived through that time period, but my conclusions on the inclusion of sociopolitical context differ from his. I don’t think you need to cram in historical context just because it exists. Not if it doesn’t fit with your characters’ story.

As a teenager at that time, I was aware of what was happening in the US. I was active about it at about the same level of political acuity as Mrs. Tweedy’s daughter. My social concern got about the same kind of attention from my parents as did hers. It wasn’t that my family was living in a rarefied zone of privilege and wealth.Nor were they unaware of political and social events. It was that they had their hands full just getting on with their own lives without worrying about other people and cerebral political notions.

I think perhaps the same thing would have been true for the Tweedy-Chenery family. It may not be any more complicated than that. Mrs. Tweedy was a housewife with four kids and ailing parents. She had enough on her plate. If I asked my mother, I think I’d get the same answer.

A story of horses

Jack at Secretariat statue, KY Horse Park, Xmas 2007Anyway, I loved the movie Secretariat. Steve Haskin said that the actor horses didn’t “capture the majesty and physical presence” of Secretariat but that there “isn’t a horse alive who could’ve done justice to him”. Secretariat is a feel-good story with a happy ending (except, of course, for Secretariat’s main competitor, the magnificent Sham, who made him run the race he did). And Secretariat’s story is not told in its totality in the movie. How could it be? What is told, however, is worth watching – and cheering and crying.