Since I'd been asked to introduce it for the local Lit.Com festival, I thought I'd best see the film.  Through various real-world reasons I won't bore you with, I didn't get to see a preview before launch day but, since I was talking about The Shakespeare Authorship Question in general, rather than the movie's specific take on it, that wasn't such a big deal.

But, purely out of a sense of professional courtesy, I felt that I should go see it.  So I did.  I am forced to wonder if, out of the same sense of professional courtesy, either writer John Orloff or director Roland Emmerich have bothered to see any Shakespeare plays, or were they working from the Cliff Notes?

I am by no means a Shakespearean scholar.  I have read no more than a handful of his plays and they have all been in a school or college environment.  Never-the-less, I detected a fairly free-wheeling attitude towards his work and its historical context.

It's obviously set in some alternate version of history where Henry V was Shakespeare's first performed play, followed closely by Romeo and Juliet, then Hamlet, Richard III and, finally, King Lear.  All in about a year. (It's possibly the same Emmerichian alternate universe where the pyramids were build by aliens riding woolly mammoths).

Okay, so this is a work of fiction and maybe these details aren't that important.  After-all, one of the things the film is concerned with is the cloud of doubt that surrounds Shakespeare so, I don't know, maybe the documents that have always told us when the plays were first performed are fake.

Could happen.  So, let's leave that and move on.

The mission here was to create an Elizabethan political thriller, concerning the machinations of court (inspired, possibly, by the similarly Machiavellian activities depicted in Elizabeth's dad's court in the hit TV show The Tudors).  That, at least, seemed perfectly feasible to my historically-uncultured eye.  Indeed, Edward Hogg has a considerable amount of fun playing the villain, Robert Cecil - who has a hump!  I imagine some imaginative stage director will already be casting him in a revival of Richard III.

All of this courtly behaviour, however, is portrayed with a lack of conviction and subtlety, which results in it seeming nothing more than camp! Particularly in the case of Rafe Spall who plays the talentless actor called William Shakespeare who becomes the front, the patsy pretending to be the writer.  As the film progresses he degenerates from an interesting possibility to a pantomime bad guy. 

So, how do I do the Ifans eyebrow?  Is this it?
You know that look Rhys Ifans has on his face in Notting Hill, that mischievous arched eyebrow he has when he can't believe what he's getting away with?  Well, he wears that expression through pretty-much this entire movie.  He plays Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, who has written these heartfelt plays, using the most sophisticated language and most gripping narratives ever put on paper ... But can't come out because, well, being a writer is vulgar and beneath an Earl.  I suppose one character hiding behind the facade of another is an idea that occurs time and again in Shakespeare's plays, though none of the ones seen here.

Unfortunately, as wafer-thin as his character's motivation is, I would have probably swallowed it, and Ben Jonson's inexplicable willingness to go along with all of the repercussions that arise from the deceit, if only I believed one word coming out of any of the actors' mouths.
"Dude, even his moustache is, like, as unconvincing as the dialogue."  "Totally!"

This is an unfortunate occurrence when an American script-writer and a German/American director clearly decided they knew more about the way English actors spoke four hundred years ago, than the English actors actually reading the lines. Consequently, there is a general air - and not just in Ifans' performance - where the actors simply don't believe what they're saying.

With one or two exceptions ... Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave are astonishingly similar as young and old Elizabeth ... Leaving one to feel that a time machine had been employed to allow one person to play both ends of their own life.

Joely Richardson, just 74 years young!
This leads to the film's other major problem ... The film isn't just set in one hazily-sketched-in historical period, but two.  So we have DeVere played by Ifans in one period, and by the red-hot-cos-he's-in-Twilight-so-let's-overlook-the-fact-that-he-looks-nothing-like-Rhys-Ifans Jamie Campbell Bower opposite Richardson's Young Elizabeth.  It then makes things even more complicated by chopping-and-changing between these two narratives.

Apart from Richardson/Redgrave, no one looks like their younger selves (well, okay, David Thewlis is pretty good at playing his younger self) but this makes everything appallingly complicated and you just know that it isn't worth the brain-power of trying to figure out who is meant to be whom. 

Sorry, who did you say you were, again?
To be fair, there is a pretty-good pay-off to explain all this, but, as I was watching it, I was getting increasingly irritated and confused by it all.

The film is, then, a mess on several levels.  Not least because it is hilariously funny in places; a fact which, I imagine, will come as a depressing surprise to the writer and director but not to the cast.

It's just a shame Derek Jacobi decided to take the money (for what must have been just a day's work) because his presence at the beginning, serving the role of the Chorus introducing the drama, lends the film some credibility which it certainly doesn't deserve.



All we ever ask our political leaders to do is protect us. Waging war is the single most despicable way they can fail ... And there is, hopefully, a special place in Hell for Blair, Bush, Thatcher and every other leader who sacrifice young men and women for a vote or a profit point. 

I sometimes fear that generations of weak, mendacious leadership have left us so cynical that, if were ever again in danger of military invasion, if our freedom and lives were every *really* at risk ... No one would step up and take a stand.

I gaze at the blank-eyed mouth-breathers I sometimes teach and think that our (great) grandparents went through unimaginable suffering, simply so our generation could become ignorant, apathetic and arrogant. 

Then I think about the people who still get off their arses and march and protest and camp outside St. Paul's simply because they have the right to have their say ... I think about the people who train for months to run marathons for charity, year after year ... I think about the people who risk their lives every day in lifeboats or as volunteer firefighters or mountain rescue when it would be so much easier not to ... Or who go unarmed into warzones and disaster zones to help, not because anyone makes them, but simply because they couldn't live with themselves if they didn't.  

I realise that the spirit that inspired people to walk into harms way back then, still exists today. We still have heroes. There are some pretty extra-ordinary ordinary people in the world. Hopefully we'll never need to carve their names in stone.


Me, intelligently wearing black in a black-walled cinema, with the lights dimmed.
And so it came to pass that I was asked to introduce 'Anonymous'.  This film, written by John Orloff and directed by Roland Emmerich, tells the story of the political intrigue surrounding Queen Elizabeth's court in her dotage and how this impacts on one nobleman's secret desire to write plays, necessitating the use of a 'font', namely one William Shakespeare.

Now, whilst this is the first film to deal with the idea, it is very far from a new idea, so my introduction looked into the whole matter.

So, to begin, we all know what William Shakespeare looks like, yes? 

He looks a bit like Voldemort’s younger brother …Or, if you’re a Doctor Who fan ...
... You probably think he looks like that bloke off Shameless who does the Homebase ads …
This is the most famous likeness of Shakespeare … It is an engraving by Martin Droeshout – This engraving was published in the so-called ‘folio’ – the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works – published in 1623, seven years after he died.

The only other portrait that is considered ‘legitimate’ is that on his Funerary Monument which is inside Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. 
As its name suggests – this was also created after his death – but before the folio was published – because the intro to the folio mentions the Funerary Monument, so we know that was there first!

But both of these portraits were created from memory AFTER Shakespeare died!

There are various paintings which claim to be of Shakespeare and to have been painted in his lifetime – but most are completely dismissed by academia – except:
The Chandos Portrait, painted in 1610 by John Taylor (not the Duran Duran bassist – but the Elizabethan painter … Of whose work no other examples exist)  This is the one that The National Portrait Gallery has put its weight behind.

But then – in 2009 – another painting was discovered … Claiming to have been painted in 1610 also! 
Called The Cobbe Portrait – It is further claimed that this painting was copied for the Droeshout Engraving.
The National Portrait Gallery thought, don’t like this idea … they maintain that this is ACTUALLY a bloke called Sir Thomas Overbury … Who was famous for a sex scandal that got him imprisoned in the Tower, where he died – but that’s another story.

Is it credible that a painting could have hung on a wall for 400 years without anyone clocking that it was Shakespeare? Well, The Cobbe collection includes works handed down from the family of the third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's only known patron.

So, how come there are no DEFINITIVE portraits of the country’s greatest playwright?  And how come those portraits we do have … all look different?  That kind of uncertainy is exactly where conspiracy theories spring from!

See, this is not a new idea …

At the time of his death, Shakespeare was considered a great writer – but not THE GREATEST … Indeed – his works were adapted and re-worked many times over the years … No one saw his texts as Holy Writ … Personally I’d LOVE to see 1681 version of King Lear … with the happy ending!
Indeed, Shakespeare had been dead and gone a century before his works reached the heights of their popularity.  By the time of the Licensing Act of 1737 – one in four of the plays on in London was a Shakespeare.  His plays began to be studied.  His reputation spread across Europe.

In 1785 a scholar named James Wilmot could find no evidence that Shakespeare had ever written anything so decided the plays must have been written by the philosopher, lawyer and scientist Sir Francis Bacon. 
Further fuel was added to this when it was realised that Bacon stopped writing under his own name in 1613 – when he became full-time Attorney General.   This was two years after Shakespeare supposedly wrote his last play, and three years before he allegedly died!

By the mid 1800s, when science was suggesting that we were evolved from apes, not Adam and Eve … And historians were beginning to wonder if The Bible was really written by God … Or if Jesus ever actually existed … A fella called Samuel Schmucker (!) wrote a book called Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare -  it was meant to be a satire of other historical studies … But he inadvertently started something.

The flood of Shakespearean Authorship Doubters … Began with a woman.  An American.
Delia Bacon was her name – rather improbably … And she believed she had evidence that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by a gang, a committee of famous playwrights and dignitaries – led by Sir Francis Bacon (no relation) and Sir Walter Raleigh!
Or: As you may remember him from the movie, Elizabeth:

Anyway, the problem with this theory is … Well, have you ever read anything written by a committee? Best plays ever?  I don't think so.

But this unlikely idea didn’t go away … Books continued to be written, investigations undertook and, as late as the 1930s, bodies were being interred for ‘proof’ of Shakespeare’s identity.  However – proof – whether for or against … Continues to elude historians!

This isn’t helped by the fact that Shakespeare himself didn’t seem to know who he was – since, in his signatures, there are 25 different spellings, such as ...

William Shakspere      Wm Shaxpere     
Wm Shaxberd     William Shakspear     
William ShakspÄ“r      Willm Shakp
Wm ShakspÄ“      William Shakespeare
Willm Shackspeare      Willm Shakp
By me William Shakspeare

Of course, there is a long-standing conspiracy that the serious search for alternative authors is being suppressed, as though by some pernicious orthodox organisation … A sort of Stratford Association of Shakespeareans … Or SAS!

Another conspiracy believes that Shakespeare was REALLY Christopher Marlowe …
The fact that Marlowe was killed in a pub fight fully 20 years before Shakespeare stopped writing doesn’t deter these conspiracy theorists … Because, they point out, Marlowe was a spy, working for Queen Elizabeth – and being officially ‘dead’ gave him the perfect cover to be both a spy AND Shakespeare’s ghost writer.

You see … there is a problem which just won’t go away – How did a self-educated dealer in grain and wool from the Midlands, rise through the London ranks from actor to director to the greatest playwright and poet to ever walk the boards?

Some people simply can’t accept this … They feel that Shakespeare MUST have been from the educated nobility.  And there have been A LOT of famous fans of this theory …

Sigmund Freud wrote: “It is undeniably painful to all of us that even now we do not know who was the author of the Comedies, Tragedies and Sonnets of Shakespeare”

Looks like he’s reclining on his own couch here!
Charlie Chaplin wrote in his autobiography:  “I am not concerned with who wrote the works of Shakespeare … but I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude.”
Orson Welles commented: “I think [an alternative candidate] wrote Shakespeare. If you don't, there are some awfully funny coincidences to explain away.”
But let’s leave the last word to Charles Dickens … Arguably the SECOND greatest person ever to put pen to paper in Britain:  He said - “The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something turn up.”

There are A LOT of theories about who Shakespeare was … NONE of the ones I have mentioned appear in the film you are about to watch … They have gone for a very different explanation.  They may be right.  We have no way of knowing.

For what it’s worth … I think I know who wrote the greatest literary works ever in the English language … Isn't it obvious?

Blu-ray: THE DEAD

Gimme a kiss, white-boy ...
I’m not a big fan of zombie films, for very much the same reason I don’t really have time for stalk and slash films … Because they’re all the same! I’ve seen Psycho (1960), Halloween (1978) and Scream (1996), that’s all I need.  Similarly, with zombies, I’ve seen all the George Romero films and find no one else’s take on his zombie idea really adds anything. We all die. The end. Seen it; next please.

But I decided to have a stab at the lastest British-made-but-set-in-Africa zombocalypse movie ... The full review is, as you're doubtless becoming wearily accostomed ... here on What Culture!


Yes, in his day, Ollie could light fires with his heat vision!
These are two of my favourite British films of the seventies ... Because they are so oddball.  But then Richard Lester films are always a curate's egg of weird creative decisions.

They draw together the unlikeliest call-sheet imaginable … So you have the truly bizarre spectacle of Charlton Heston ordering the torture of Spike Milligan (a Lester regular) who is married to Raquel Welch.  Indeed, the first film opens with a fight scene between Michael York (playing D’Artagnan) and Joss Ackland (playing his dad) … Yes, you read that  right: Basil Exposition crossing swords with Chuck De Nomolos!

And as for the rest of the cast ... You've got a starring vehicle for Oliver Reed (Athos), who was a formidable force of nature at the time, and is rarely to be seen having more fun on screen. He is supported variously by Richard Chamberlain (as Aramis), Frank Finlay (as Porthos) and a delightful Roy Kinnear in the almost silent role of the put-upon squire, Planchet.  Allied against our heroes are Christopher Lee as the one-eyed Rochefort (who made this film in-between his turns in The Wicker Man and The Man With The Golden Gun) and the scheming, ice-cold Milady DeWinter (played by the then white-hot Faye Dunaway).  Wow.

The full review of these great, under-valued British classics is here on What Culture!

One thing you won't find on the What Culture! site is this - my favourite Spitting Image sketch ... "Just tell 'em you went for a drink with Ollie Reed!"

TRUE BLOOD 4.12 – “And When I Die”

How'd you like your stake?

It's been a while ... Crazy time!  Now for a little catch-up:

The series finale of True Blood.  Overall, I thought this was the best-written and most satisfying episode we’ve had this year.  As a whole, the season seemed to lack focus, for me … It rambled.  The questions asked in the first episode were not satisfyingly answered in the last, and that means that the structure of the series seems off-kilter. 

And, as for Sookie ... She spends NINE episodes doing precisely nothing.  Yes, I understand that the show is about her emotional development, but couldn’t they have had her doing something useful and even interesting whilst being in love with New Eric?

For a show like True Blood, a season needs to be like a novel, with each chapter leading you progressively towards a satisfactory conclusion.  Fair enough, leave a few loose ends if you want, but do it with subtlety.  Like Dexter does it, in other words!

Anyway, my full in-depth review is on What Culture! here: