Aotearoa is what the Maori call New Zealand where, as all my regular readers know, I was recently lucky enough to visit courtesy of P&O Cruises. I was the guest speaker on the 'Pacific Dawn' on a 14-night cruise that called at Auckland, Rotorua, Napier, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. We ended the cruise with a wonderful day's voyaging through the gorgeous scenery of the Fiordland National Park right in the bottom western corner of New Zealand. Fantastic!
Here, as promised, are some photos of the trip.
click on any photo for a bigger view
New Zealand's national symbol, the silver fern, in rainforest at Waitakere Ranges Regional Park near Auckland
Anna Campbell with Maori dancer at Waimangu Volcanic Valley near Rotorua
Jazz Band seeing the ship off at Napier, New Zealand's Art Deco city
Anna Campbell on the beach near Pencarrow Lodge outside Wellington
The beautiful Lady Norwood Rose Gardens in Wellington
More roses in the Lady Norwood Rose Gardens
Rivers of boiling water and volcanic vent at Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Murawai gannet colony and coastal scenery near Auckland
Magnificent Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park
All text within this site is (c) Anna Campbell. All design is (c) Paula Roe.
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::February 2011 - Those Long Hot Mills and Boon SummersÖ
I've been a romance reader since I was eight years old (longer if you count fairytales as romances!). My mother gave me a Mills & Boon to shut me up one evening and believe me, it worked! I've always remembered the book as A TOUCH OF SILK by Aussie author Joyce Dingwell. But searching for illustrations for this piece, I discovered it's called A FEEL OF SILK. When I saw the cover, the memories flooded back of how this story held me entranced (although after major flooding this last month in my local area, perhaps I should be careful about mentioning the 'F' word!).
Once a year my mother used to take me up to a book exchange about an hour's drive away and I'd get my annual supply of Mills & Boons. I'd read them by the bucket full, particularly in the long summer holidays which for us in the Southern Hemisphere take place in December and January. The weather was always steamy - a bit like my reading matter! I have incredibly fond memories of curling up as a teenager with classic love stories day after day and losing myself in the fantasy. I also credit these books with sparking my desire to travel. So many were set in wildly exotic corners of the world - mind you, to a girl from Brisbane during those long, peaceful summers, even suburban Britain seemed wildly exotic!
The emphasis was definitely on English writers. Favorite authors included Jane Donnelly and Violet Winspear. Violet used to specialise in the REBECCA-style romance with innocent waifs swept up into a world of glamour and wealth and passion beyond their wildest dreams with sheikhs or aristocrats and bossy millionaires. The titles say a lot - THE LOVED AND THE FEARED, BRIDE OF LUCIFER, THE SILVER SLAVE, BELOVED TYRANT, and this one that I think is just gorgeous and would love to steal, DEVIL IN A SILVER ROOM.
But nobody rivaled Anne Mather in my pantheon. Her books were incredibly hot for the late 60s and 70s and I used to sigh over her arrogant Spanish dukes and tempestuous Mediterranean millionaires. These characters actually had sex (Violet's never did!) and there was always a series of breathtakingly passionate clashes between the hero and heroine before they settled into married bliss. I kept every Anne Mather I ever read in a box under my bed in my room on the farm. Dedicated romance readers that you all are, I know you'll gasp with horror when I tell you that my mother had a clean-out when I was in England and THREW THEM ALL OUT!!!! What a tragedy! I'm still in mourning!
Another favorite was Mary Burchell who wrote a popular series based around the world of opera and classical music. Talk about glamour and drama! I particularly loved her stories featuring the arrogant but compelling conductor Oscar Warrender and his spirited and intelligent wife Anthea, a famous soprano. A favorite was WHEN LOVE IS BLIND featuring a blind concert pianist and the woman he blamed for his accident who then becomes his secretary to assuage her guilt. Yeah, lots of conflict there, yum! Mary Burchell talked about music with such passion, she even stirred me to do some piano practice! Mary Burchell was a heroine in real life too - with her sister, she helped to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution in the 1930s.
My grandmother subscribed to the English Woman's Weekly - as a romance reader and a knitter, that was the perfect mag for her! The WW included two serialized romance novels and a romantic short story in every edition and my grandmother, because she wanted the knitting patterns, never threw them out. You can imagine what bliss I had sifting through boxes of these magazines!
A lot of the serials were afterwards published by Mills & Boon or in anthologies from the Woman's Weekly. That's where I found WHEN LOVE IS BLIND, for example, in one of these soft cover books featuring a couple of full-length stories in a format that was a cross between a book and a magazine. One difference between the Woman's Weekly stories and the Mills & Boons I was addicted to - the magazine stories were very light on the physical stuff! In fact, one of their most popular writers was Iris Bromige who wrote charming love stories that at their hottest featured hand holding or perhaps a peck of a kiss at the end. Occasionally there would be no physical contact at all, just a few meaningful looks leading to a marriage proposal and a happily ever after. The world of romance has definitely changed!
Speaking of how romance has changed, for a bit of fun, check out this slide show of vintage Mills & Boon covers from the Guardian newspaper: I couldn't resist TAKE ME, BREAK ME! A man needs a lot of self-confidence to get away with leopard print, I always feel!
::March 2011 - Speaking Frankly
When I was recently in New York (now, how's that for a way to start a column?), I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the musical COME FLY AWAY. My first Broadway show (well, on Broadway!).
This combines Twyla Tharp's classical given a modern twist choreography with the beloved songs of Frank Sinatra. Basically we're talking a ballet. Frankly (yeah, I know, pardon the pun!), I was in heaven!
They had a big band on stage and a female singer who would occasionally duet with Frank but mostly it was just Frank. In all its baritone richness, his voice floated above the beautiful, original arrangements. I'm not quite sure how they did it technically but it was very effective. The only thing better would to have been to have Frank himself - but that would, sadly, have involved a seance. John Edward? Are you in the house? There's an opportunity here for you!
The musical was about love in all its various permutations from sweaty and passionate to sweet and innocent. Appropriate when some of the greatest love songs ever written formed the score. The dancers were mainly from classical companies and were spectacularly good.
But the best bit was still the music! As you'll probably have gathered by now, I love Frank's voice. I love his way with a lyric. Just check out how beautifully he delivers the story behind "I Get a Kick out of You" in this video:
There's been a lot of imitators but I don't think anyone comes close to the combination of worldly sophistication and weary romanticism he conveys.
One of the things I loved about COME FLY AWAY is that they concentrated on the later, swinging Sinatra (not often you can use 'swinging' without irony, is it?), the Chairman of the Board days. The 1940s Sinatra who the bobbysoxers lined up to see was just a bit too vulnerable for my tastes. While the voice was effortlessly brilliant and he delivered those lyrics like Shakespeare, the unrestrained emotion of his early performances doesn't strike my heart the way his more restrained later work does.
By the late 50s and 60s, he's a guy who's been around the block a few times and he knows if he wears his heart on his sleeve, someone's going to rip it to shreds, then throw the bloody remnants into the mud and stamp all over them.
But he's still got a heart and much as he tries to pretend he can roll with the punches, love and life hit him hard. Sigh! Adore those songs.
One of the most romantic songs I know is "Fly Me to the Moon". Listen how he delivers this beautiful lyric with a jauntiness that somehow underlines the deep emotion.
By the way, check out that groovy Orrefors-glass style backdrop on that video! Wow, baby!
Another breathtakingly romantic song is "Strangers in the Night". Listen to the crackle of emotion in his voice as he sings this. He's getting old in this recording - finding videos for this piece ended up being quite hard - but you get that emotional punch in spades, don't you?
Have you heard the joke?
SOCRATES: To be is to do.
ARISTOTLE: To do is to be.
SINATRA: Doo be doo be doo.
One of my favorite songs is one you don't hear so often but it's on a beautiful compilation CD I own called MY WAY: THE BEST OF FRANK SINATRA. It's "A Very Good Year". I couldn't get a video of Frank singing this but here's a compilation of evocative photos from his life that go perfectly with these lovely lyrics:
I think the first time I heard this I was a very little girl and it was in a tire ad (might even have been for Goodyear!). It's always made me want to cry - that yearning reedy oboe in the introduction cuts right to the quick.
Sinatra always used amazing arrangers (Nelson Riddle is the one everybody mentions). The way the orchestra or the big band weaves around his voice or answers back or comments on the action creates sonic magic. This arrangement for "A Very Good Year" is one of my favorites - it's quite subtle but so beautiful. For example, listen to the way the pizzicato strings echo champagne bubbles when he likens his memories to vintage wine. Or in that last verse again, how the grim march of time is subtly alluded to in the slow throb of the woodwinds. Magnificent!
"A Very Good Year" is very beautiful but rather melancholy. So I thought I'd finish this rave about Mr. Sinatra with the very upbeat "New York, New York".
This song has special significance for me because before I was published, I used to press repeat on my stereo and lie in the bath and sing it over and over. Always cheered me up! Not sure the neighbors felt the same! They probably wished me in New York, New York!
So to me, Frank is A number 1, top of the list, king of the hill!
::April 2011 - Attenborough is THE MAN!
I'm not sure if Sir David Attenborough is quite the institution in America as he is in Australia and presumably Britain. I first became aware of him when the magnificent series LIFE ON EARTH premiered in 1979. Can it really be so long ago? I'd never seen a wildlife documentary with such epic sweep yet fascinating depth. Who can forget the scenes with Sir David and the mountain gorillas? Still amongst the best TV I've ever seen. Even more amazing, I heard DA interviewed many years later about that footage and he said that basically all they got were outtakes because of a technical problem with the camera.
After that, anything with Sir David's name attached was a guarantee of an outstanding viewing experience. After LIFE ON EARTH, we got THE LIVING PLANET five years later. Clearly natural history masterpieces aren't built in a day! This is the series where we saw that astonishing but harrowing footage of the killer whales hunting baby seals and after they caught them, playing with them like a cat plays with a mouse.
After that, we were lucky enough to see a plethora of wonderful BBC nature series, all with the Attenborough imprimatur. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF PLANTS. THE BLUE PLANET. THE TRIALS OF LIFE. THE LIFE OF MAMMALS. LIFE IN THE UNDERGROWTH. LIFE IN THE FREEZER. I could go on! All feature scenes that steal your breath away with wonder.
One of my particular favorites is THE LIFE OF BIRDS, perhaps because birds are such a pleasure of living on the Sunshine Coast where I am now. I've always remembered the beautiful footage of wandering albatross, so much so that it became a life's ambition to see albatross, something I achieved on my New Zealand cruise in 2010. Here's a short extract from those magical moments on YouTube.
Just finished on ABC TV here in Australia, we had what has been announced as Sir David's last project, FIRST LIFE, an exploration of how life on Earth began. It's the same compelling mixture of brilliant storytelling and fascinating science as all the others. What struck me forcibly when I was watching it is that Sir David has lost none of his zest for exploring and explaining the wonders of the natural world. It's that enthusiasm and never-ending curiosity that lie at the heart of why these series are such marvellous television. DA can make the slimiest, erkiest worm fascinating and the events of its squirming, squishy life as suspenseful and dramatic as anything you'll see on HBO.
Like most people, I watch a lot of TV but the series that stand out as unforgettable are fairly rare. These BBC wildlife documentaries certainly do. Sir David, thank you for all those hours of pure viewing pleasure and for making me see the world through fresh eyes.
Somewhere in this house Iím living in now is a battered composition book from grade two in which I proudly penned an essay stating my ambition to be the next Enid Blyton. My mother stowed it away for posterity and I remember seeing it a few years ago when we had a major household clean-up.
I have a theory that most/all writers are slightly obsessive. I know I am Ė and from an early age, Iíve obsessed about writers I love. The first writer who possessed my imagination to the exclusion of almost all else was Enid Blyton. I must have started to read her not long after I learned to read (I couldnít read before I went to school Ė Iíve certainly made up for that since!). I can remember ruining my eyes by reading EB with only the light from the kitchen shining up the hallway to light the words. I just couldnít put those stories down!
The first Enid Blyton I read was THE ROCKINGDOWN MYSTERY which struck me as majorly creepy at the time. The four intrepid children who solve the mystery break into an abandoned manor house (the Rockingdown of the title) where the aristocratic familyís oldest son had fallen to his death as a baby from the nursery. The house, understandably, is reputed to be haunted but guess what? Bad guys are using the cellars to ship some sort of contraband (I canít remember what Ė this is MANY years ago). I adored the English setting and the gothic atmosphere and even more, I adored the camaraderie among the children. Someone has commented elsewhere that Enid Blyton created a world without adults and that creates magic for a young reader. The characters included a couple of middle class children from the Linton family and this extremely cool slightly gypsy-ish boy called Barney who had a monkey called Miranda. Miranda was the beeís knees and used to torment the black spaniel Loony (called that for reasons that quickly become obvious in the story).
Enid Blyton was also way ahead of the publishing game in that sheíd twigged that people love series where they can catch up on beloved characters. THE ROCKINGDOWN MYSTERY was one of a series all with ĎRí in the title and all featuring the Lintons and Barney and the animals. In the last one, Barney is reunited with his parents - a sigh-worthy moment if ever I read one.
These books invaded my mind to the extent that in grade three, I actually started a pastiche novel called the Rochedale Mystery, all about horsenapping (horses were my other obsession at the time). So I can directly trace the start of my writing career to THE ROCKINGDOWN MYSTERY.
Other series by EB that I loved included THE FAMOUS FIVE, MALLORY TOWERS and ST. CLAIREíS. I read but wasnít so keen on THE SECRET SEVEN. Not sure why. Maybe seven was too many to cope with. But my other two favorite series, right up there with the Rs, were the Adventure series and the Secret series, neither of which seem to receive a lot of attention.
THE SECRET ISLAND starts the Secret series (all the books have secret in the title) and I must have read it 100 times. I had a very loving family and a very comfortable life, but for some reason this story of four children who run away and live undiscovered on an island for a year absolutely fascinated me. In the next book, the glamour quotient is raised when the same children rescue a captive prince, Paul, who joins in later adventures.
Not long after reading THE ROCKINGDOWN MYSTERY, I read THE VALLEY OF ADVENTURE. Another series, another common word in every title, in this case Ďadventureí. It was similarly creepy. Four children survive a plane wreck in the Austrian Alps and are soon discovering art treasures stolen by the Nazis. The art treasures are hidden deep in a really eerie cave Ė I can still remember being pleasurably terrified by the scenes where they first enter the cave. Needless to say, I then read every single one of these Ė my favorite character was Kiki the parrot who liked to shriek and rhyme. Pretty much a good description of me in my mid-primary school years!
Do children still read Enid Blyton? Perhaps that world of lashings of ginger beer and class-ridden England is too far distant now for modern kids to be bothered. Speaking for myself, those stories taught me so much about the insatiable hunger to reach the end and find out what happened. Enid Blyton really did spin a marvellous yarn and I thank her for turning me into such a voracious reader. Iíve spent my reading life in the pursuit of the same heady pleasure I found in those dramatic, adventurous stories I read as a child. Thankfully, I always find it in a great romance novel!
:: June 2011 - I Wish I Own Iona!
I think we're due for a couple of travel pieces to give you a break from books and music. So this month, I'm talking about the gorgeous Isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland and next month I'm talking about the most romantic British historic house (well, in my opinion), Haddon Hall in Derbyshire.
There are two sacred islands off the British coast. One is Lindisfarne which is a mystical and wonderful place (and will probably form the subject of a future My Favorite Things) where St. Aidan established a monastery in the Dark Ages. The other is Iona, a tiny island off the larger island of Mull (which is my favorite place in the world - lots of favorites in this post!) in the Inner Hebrides. Interestingly enough, St. Aidan was originally a monk on Iona before he set off to convert the people of Northern Britain in the seventh century. Clearly he'd developed an eye for good island real estate!
St. Columba, an Irish prince banished from his homeland, set up a monastic community on Iona in the sixth century and from here, he evangelized the Scottish mainland. Legend has it that he chose Iona because it was the first place his boat landed where he couldn't see the Ireland he longed to return to over the horizon. Legends abound about St. Columba, by the way - it's hard to avoid coming away with a head crammed with stories about the saint when you visit Scotland.
One of my favorites is his encounter with the Loch Ness Monster who reared up ferociously over his small boat when he was out on the loch. The saint blessed the monster and said "Go in peace, my son," and the monster has ever since. Cool, huh?
Legend or at least unconfirmed history has it that the beautiful Book of Kells, currently in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, was created on Iona. What is true is that the island became the center of religious power in northern Britain and that it was a thriving site of learning and faith until the Vikings brought that to a fiery end in the eighth century. The island has kept its religious affiliations. Today there's an ecumenical religious community established in 1938 and religious pilgrims still form a substantial proportion of the visitors to the island.
The island is also famous as the burial place of Scottish royalty, including Macbeth who was nowhere near as bad as Shakespeare painted him. There's a wonderful book by Dorothy Dunnett called KING HEREAFTER that gives a much more accurate portrayal of the historical person including a beautiful if tragic love story with Lady Macbeth (who doesn't have insomnia in this version).
I've been to Iona twice. Once was on a very stormy day in 1995 (the photos of the 13th century church, rebuilt by the modern community, date from that visit). The second was during my long trip to the U.K. in 2004 when I got to spend several magical days on the island. It was May, the weather was perfect and spring had sprung in a really big way. The photo of the wildflower meadows gives you some idea of how pretty the machair was. Machair (pronounced to my non-Gaelic speaking self like macca) is the rich meadowland that extends up from Hebridean beaches in spring. The sheep love it - there were plenty of extremely happy fat lambs on Iona when I was there in 2004.
Iona is actually quite small (only 3.4 square miles) so it's easy to cover most of it on foot. The majority of it is owned by the Scottish National Trust so visitors have free access to the beautiful beaches and fields. The beaches are clean white sand and the water in the sunlight has the opalescent color that I more readily associate with the Greek Islands than the Hebrides. The two beach photos really don't look like Scotland, do they? One is of Martyrs Bay where two monks were slaughtered by Vikings (sad history for such a beautiful spot) and the other is the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. How could you resist such a name? The lighthouse is on the Isle of Lismore and this photo was taken from the ferry on the way to Mull. You'll pass this on the way to Iona (a side benefit of visiting Iona is that you have a spectacular trip across Mull before you reach the ferry to your final destination). The picture conveys a hint of the way the hills rise from the sea in an endless panorama.
It's hard to describe the atmosphere on the island. It's serene but somehow alive and you're aware of centuries of history scrolling back from the present as you wander the quiet paths. You certainly feel the monks are still watching over you - and they're a friendly presence, much as I think Columba would have been a friendly presence. The light is clear and the scenery is gentle and strangely welcoming. One of the lovely things about staying on the island is that you can hear the ghostly voices of the past most clearly once the rush of the day is over. A lot of day tours visit the island and while it doesn't get crowded (especially if you wander beyond the Abbey Church), it's more tranquil once the hordes have gone away. Adding to the atmosphere of somewhere disconnected from the stresses and strains of the modern world is the fact that there are very few vehicles. You walk the land just as the monks did (well, they probably weren't wearing Nikes, but you get the idea!).
In late spring, when I was there, the evenings seemed to last forever as the day died in soft golden light. Or perhaps the soft golden light was the result of the glass of Drambuie with which I marked the end of each lovely day. There isn't anything much nicer than sipping a heady Scottish liqueur while looking across the still sea and watching the sunlight fade away over the hills of Mull. Magic!
click on any photo for a bigger view
:: July 2011 - I Wish I Had Haddon Hall
As anyone who has had any extended contact with me via the Internet or real life knows, I adore old houses. My father loved architecture-in fact he often said that if he'd had the opportunities available to people now when he was a schoolboy in the 1940s, he would have become an architect. I suspect he would have made a really good one-he had an eye for proportion and a great facility for cutting through the fog of received wisdom to devise practical solutions. My mother loved old and elegant things like fine china and classic movies. So really, I was born to love old houses, wasn't I?
Some of my favorite old houses are in the United Kingdom and I always have a wonderful time incorporating stately homes I've visited into my books, usually under a pseudonym and sometimes cobbled together in a weird melange to suit the needs of the story. To give you an example, Cranston Abbey in MY RECKLESS SURRENDER had Blenheim Palace's grounds, Burghley House's interior (especially the fabulous Heaven Room and Hell Staircase - how can you resist nicknames like that?) and Grimsthorpe Castle's exterior.
One house I'm yet to incorporate in a book, although I'm sure its day is coming, is the impossibly romantic and beautiful Haddon Hall in Bakewell in Derbyshire, just near the much more elaborate Chatsworth and the Peak District National Park.
This is one of England's oldest houses-parts of the building date back to the 12th century although as it currently stands, it's mainly the result of extensive restoration in the early 20th century when the Duke and Duchess of Rutland moved in. The renovations were wonderfully sympathetic-you really feel like you're in an ancient house when you visit, especially in the marvellously atmospheric cellar kitchens and the great hall with its minstrels gallery. My favorite rooms, though, are the Tudor ones - the gorgeous long gallery, with its mullioned windows and elaborate plaster ceiling, and a gorgeous compact dining room with a low painted ceiling.
I hope you enjoy the photos from my visit in 2007. You can see how romantic the house is, including the magnificent gardens. And isn't that view down across the bridge and the fields beautiful? When you stand at the crenelations and look down, it's not hard to imagine a Crusader's wife doing the same, as she waited for her lord to come back from the wars. The only picture that isn't mine is the beautiful and very poignant effigy of Lord Haddon in the gorgeous 14th century chapel. The boy was only nine years old when he died. He was the oldest son of the Duke and Duchess who restored Haddon to its former glory. The duchess herself carved the sculpture-it's heartbreaking when you see it. The boy looks like he could wake up and speak at any moment, but of course he never did.
Speaking of romantic, there's even a Romeo and Juliet story associated with Haddon Hall, although one with a happy ending, thank goodness. By the mid-16th century, the Vernon family who built the original house had dwindled to a young woman called Dorothy. The Vernons were Catholic and Dorothy was heiress to a huge fortune. Sir John Manners , a Protestant, came courting and Dorothy fell in love with him, much to her father's disapproval. The couple eloped but eventually reconciled with Dorothy's father and she inherited the hall in 1563. The story of Dorothy and John was particularly popular in the 19th century when several historical romances used the events as inspiration and Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote an opera about the elopement (transposed to the English Civil War and the clashes between Roundheads and Cavaliers).
The Manners family eventually became the Dukes of Rutland and descendants of that happy union between Dorothy and John still live in the house. I've mentioned before that there's something special in the air when the aristocratic family still owns the historic house and that's no different here. It's really a family home-family photos and flowers everywhere and just something in the atmosphere that indicates that it's a well-loved private home you're lucky enough to visit.
Haddon may look familiar! It's been used as the setting for countless films and television programs. I was sure I recognized it watching THE PRINCESS BRIDE a couple of weeks ago and I was right! It was also the setting for the most recent BBC adaptation of JANE EYRE with Toby Stephens (2006). When I was there in June 2007, they had some of the costumes on display in the long gallery.
If you're spending any length of time in England (it's a bit far to go if you're only having a few days in London), I'd strongly recommend a trip up to Derbyshire to see Haddon Hall (and Chatsworth and the Peak District). This lovely, ancient house brings history alive.
click on any photo for a bigger view
:: August 2011 - Jumping for Judy!
This month's My Favorite Things is a tribute to one of my favorite actresses, the wonderful Dame Judi Dench.
Recently, I watched the BBC adaptations of Elizabeth Gaskell's CRANFORD and RETURN TO CRANFORD. Unlike a lot of classic dramas, heaving bosoms and wet shirts are at a minimum in these gentle stories of a town facing change in the 1840s with the arrival of the railway. But there's a wonderful, compelling charm about these quiet tales of female life in the Victorian era - Cranford village is full of strong women and most of them are played by English actresses of a certain age and enormous talent.
Judi Dench plays Miss Matty Jenkyns and every time she was on screen, I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was just luminous and she glowed with sweetness and benevolence. The lovely performance made me think of how incredibly versatile she is. When she plays M in the Bond films, she's steely eyed and ruthless. I've seen her play nervous women, strong women, passionate women, cruel women, queens and flirts. And whatever role she plays, she turns it into something unforgettable. An amazing gift.
Dame Judi still works actively in theatre as well as television and films. I lived in London for a couple of years in the mid-80s and was lucky enough to see her in a brief role in Harley Granville Barker's WASTE in the West End. And yes, the play was just as grim as it sounds, sadly. But Judi was utterly compelling, playing a woman who seduces an up and coming member of parliament and destroys his career. She dies halfway through and what hadn't been a promising evening in the theatre turned into absolute sludge afterward.
Even nicer, I saw her in person one day. I used to sell perfume at Covent Garden Market and one morning early she and her late husband Michael Williams walked past my stall. I must have looked surprised and pleased to see her because she gave me one of those magical glowing smiles that so illuminated the screen in CRANFORD.
I came across one of my favorite Judi Dench stories in a book of theatrical anecdotes. When she had her first leading role as Juliet with the Old Vic company, her parents were in the audience. In the play, she asked, "Where are my mother and father, Nurse?" Her father called out from the stalls, "Here we are, darling, in Row H." Cute, huh?
The first time I remember seeing Judi Dench in anything, it was a wonderful old BBC romantic comedy series called A FINE ROMANCE. She played an uptight and very insecure unmarried English lady who starts a sweet and often faltering romance with a landscape gardener played by her real-life husband Michael Williams. I can still remember how poignant she made this character, who could have come across as a humorless snob. And I remember being entranced by the famous 'crack' in the voice. Later, AS TIME GOES BY was an institution in my family - we all loved it. Again, a sweet, gentle comedy with an unlikely romance at the heart of it, this time with Geoffrey Palmer.
Speaking of the crack in the voice, check out this wonderful rendition of "Send in the Clowns" from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. The emotional truth of this performance always has me wanting to cry.
:: September 2011 - Ghosts are the new Black
I could have sworn I'd already done a favorite things post on THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. Clearly I'm losing my mind because I hadn't. I hadn't even done a blog on it. And it seems such a no-brainer as a subject when it's one of my all-time favorite movies.
Anyway, my neglect of this obvious subject for an MFT worked out really well. As part of the launch of my mini novella "The Chinese Bed" from THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF GHOST ROMANCE (out in the UK 6th September), I can continue the ghostly shenanigans of this month's website updates. When I was writing "The Chinese Bed", I remember describing it to the anthology's editor as more THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR than NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I wanted to convey a similar beautiful romantic melancholy.
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR is based on a 1945 novel by R.A. Dick (which I haven't read) and was made in 1947 by 20th Century Fox. Joseph L. Manckiewicz directed (he's probably best known for ALL ABOUT EVE in 1950 and CLEOPATRA in 1963). It was photographed in luminous black and white (if they ever colorize this, the end of the world is nigh) by Charles Lang, who also shot SOME LIKE IT HOT, another black and white masterpiece.
It's clear we're in old school movie territory. And I just love it. This film is vivid with unashamed romanticism.
Young widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) defies her bullying in-laws and sets up home in Gull Cottage at Whitecliff-on-the-Sea on the English coast. The house is haunted by mercurial ghost Captain Daniel Greg (Rex Harrison) who is rumoured to have killed himself (there's some nice touches of black humor on this subject, believe me! Actually there's plenty of humor in the film even if here I've concentrated on the emotional highlights). Automatically we have a wonderful conflict separating the two lovers - I mean, Captain Greg is dead. That's a genuine obstacle to true love!
Lucy and Daniel fall in love but when a suitor (a superbly slimy George Sanders) enters the scene, Daniel metaphorically falls on his sword (perhaps dives headfirst from the cliff would be more appropriate imagery here) and disappears from Lucy's world so she has a chance of happiness in this life. Awww. Don't you just love it when the guy's so noble?
I can't tell you how many times I've seen this film. When I was a kid, it seemed to be on TV all the time and I remember it creeped me out until I was old enough to respond to the sizzling unresolved sexual tension. I must have been about 12 when I really fell in love with this story about passions frustrated in this world and only fulfilled in the next. It struck me then (and still does) as such a romantic film. The powerful love between Daniel and Lucy infuses the whole story and I never fail to cry at the end when they're finally united for eternity.
Another scene that always brings tears to my eyes is the magnificent moment when Daniel relinquishes the woman he loves for what he believes is her own good:
If you haven't seen this before, a couple of things I'm sure struck you. One is how beautiful Gene Tierney is. Another is how sexy and compelling Rex Harrison is. Check out the way he looks at her as though she's the most gorgeous thing he's ever beheld and the poignancy of that last 'm'darling' is so sharp, it cuts like a knife. Beautiful. I wonder if he's free to haunt my place!
And the music. Bernard Hermann's score is one of the most evocative ever written. It's rich and symphonic and the way he writes the various moods of the sea that binds Lucy and Daniel together is breathtaking. Listen for the way the harps play the sparkle of the sun on the waves or how those few slow poignant harp notes at the end of the scene above echo Daniel's reluctance to leave the woman he loves. I often write to this soundtrack - perfect music to accompany a romance novel.
I could go on! All I can say is if you haven't seen this film, watch it pronto. If you have seen it, I'm sure I'm speaking to the converted. When I say this is a haunting film, I'm only make a SMALL pun.
click on any photo for a bigger view
:: October 2011 - Fun in Tropical Melbourne
From 11th to 14th August, 2011, romance writers from all over the world congregated at Melbourneís Hilton the Park for the annual Romance Writers of Australia conference. I did a round-up for Barbara Vey on her Publishers Weekly blog, Beyond Her Book, if youíd like more info. As promised, here are some fun photos of the conference.
Oh, horrors! Zounds! Gnashing of teeth! Wailing of whales! Weeping and hair tearing and assorted indications of distress! Theyíre remaking DIRTY DANCING.
Why? Why? Why?
Canít see the point myself. The original is perfect. I donít want a new take on this story. I want Jennifer Grey as Baby and Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle (be still my beating heart) and all the other wonderful characters and situations. You canít tell me anyone today could have the impact of Mr. Swayze swaying across the dance floor to claim Baby from her corner. I just donít believe it.
So thatís one ticket the new movie isnít going sell.
In Septemberís MFT, I did a piece on THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR and commented on the fact that I couldnít believe I hadnít featured it as a favorite thing. Well, turns out I havenít featured DIRTY DANCING either! Barbecue my merengue and turn it loose in Texas!
DIRTY DANCING was produced in 1987 and was a huge hit. I looked up the box office on IMDB and after costing $6 million, itís raked in nearly $214 million.
I vividly remember the very first time I saw it. I went on my own on a rainy afternoon (cyclonic rainy!) on the Gold Coast and I found myself utterly bowled over. I think I went to see it twice again in the next two weeks. Couldnít get enough! I canít say how many times Iíve seen it since. I watched it again so that I could write this piece. I found myself completely involved all over again in this ostensibly simple story of first love between a rich Jewish teenage girl and the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks who has a heart of gold under his leather jacket.
This film is a fairytale in many ways, an Ugly Duckling story. Itís lovely watching Jennifer Grey turn into a swan by the end through the magic of love. There are also elements of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
Balancing these fantasy themes is the emotional truth of the story and thatís where the movieís deepest power lies. I love that itís so fixed in a particular time and place. The early 60s at a holiday lodge in the Catskills before Kennedyís assassination. Itís ostensibly a time of innocence, but there are monsters in this Eden, including the slimy Robbie who sets his sights on Babyís older sister Lisa. I love that the relationships ring true, not just the growing intimacy between Johnny and Baby but also her complicated interactions with her father (a wonderful performance by Jerry Orbach). One of the most touching scenes in the film is when Baby and her father finally confront each other about their disappointment in each other. Thereís so much love and so much pain in this scene, it always makes me cry. The screenplay by Eleanor Bergstein is so subtle and clever, she fleshes out a whole lifetime in a few moments. Like the outwardly confident Lisaís pathetic joy that her father no longer treats Baby as his favorite anymore.
And itís such a romantic film. Sincerely, genuinely romantic. There are so many scenes that make a romance novelistís heart beat faster. The lovely dance lesson in the water where Johnny and Baby start to connect on a profound level and see each other beyond the stereotypes of their personas. The first love scene with its undercurrents of poignant uncertainty. The last scene where Johnny marches in and takes control of his kingdom. This scene with its ďNobody puts Baby in the cornerĒ line comes in for some mockery and thereís certainly an element of cheese about it. But somehow itís the perfect ending to this film, bringing the fantasy elements to a vibrant conclusion and drawing everybody together through the power of music.
I could go on and on. I suspect Iím speaking to the converted. I canít imagine many of the people reading this column havenít seen this film and I hope you loved it as much as I did.
And boo ya hiss to the remake!
:: December 2011 - Hitchcock Is Hot (part 1)
I've got a treat for you today. Some lovely clips from films by one of my fave film directors, Alfred Hitchcock.
When I was growing up, my parents were great fans of Alfred Hitchcock. Which I think says a great deal for my parents' taste! Hitchcock was blessed to be working at the same time as so many wonderful actors of the golden age of Hollywood. His preferred leading men were Cary Grant and James Stewart. He loved icy blondes who concealed fiery passion within. Grace Kelly. Ingrid Bergman. Eva Marie Saint. Stunningly beautiful women all.
The first film I remember seeing by Hitchcock was in a double at a local drive-in (which dates this particular reminiscence) with BORN FREE. It was 1959's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (quite a contrast to lovely Elsa the lioness loping across the veldt). I remember being really scared by the crop duster scene where it's Cary Grant loping across a dusty cornfield:
Watching it again, it's still really creepy and isn't it a masterly stroke of direction that there's no music so the crescendo and diminuendo of that engine plays on the viewer's nerves? And Cary Grant's! Speaking of the music, I think this is one of Bernard Hermann's best scores - really spiky and rhythmic. This is a film I've seen several times since - there's a marvellous romance between Eva Marie Saint, the baddie's mistress, and Cary with some very steamy byplay in a restricted train compartment. And James Mason makes a wonderfully slimy villain!
Hitchcock did some really sexy films. I couldn't talk about his films without including the famous kiss scene from 1946's NOTORIOUS. The production code imposed a time limit on kisses so Hitchcock got around it by having lots of short kisses, resulting in this wonderful sequence. If you haven't seen the film, it's set during World War II and Ingrid has a bad reputation as a party girl. Not only that, her dad is a Nazi. Cary has recruited her as a spy and intends to infiltrate her into the circle of Nazi sympathisers in Rio. He's basically pimping her out to Claude Rains, something that adds an extra zing of darkness and conflict to the romance. Watch Cary's face as he tries really hard to resist her and watch the subtle signs that he just can't. Oh, the angst!
Another of my favorite Hitchcock films - and another featuring a passionate romance and the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman - is 1945's SPELLBOUND. I think the surreal elements that depict psychological disturbance have dated badly, especially a grotesque dream sequence by Salvador Dali that was highly touted at the time. But the love story between Gregory Peck playing an amnesiac possible-murderer and Ingrid playing an icy psychiatrist who finds herself well and truly melted when she falls in love is fantastic. And of course, there's the continual rumble of disquiet - who is Gregory Peck really? And is he a murderer? And why does he keep going ape every time he sees dark lines on a white background? Hitchcock never makes it easy for his lovers which is one of the reasons I love his films. A romance writer can learn a stack about sexual tension and conflict watching these movies.
Anyway, here's a breathtakingly romantic scene from SPELLBOUND where Ingrid still thinks Gregory is the new director of the mental hospital where she works, instead of a handsome loony who has no idea who he is.
Oh, be still my beating heart. "This afternoon it was like lightning striking. It strikes rarely." You can hardly blame Ingrid for going weak at the knees, can you?
I had intended to talk about a few more Hitchcock films but I might extend the pleasure into next month. Tune in next month for HITCHCOCK IS HOT PART DEUX!