Come follow the bland…

Or, the tour of the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Barnum, as seen yesterday at the Lowry in Salford. Bullet points again, because if the show’s writers can’t be arsed to write a proper book for their musical, I can’t be arsed to write proper prose for the review.

* Brian Conley is really, really, really, REALLY annoying on television.

* Oddly, the qualities that make him so annoying on TV – the glib insincerity, the cheesy grin – work well here.

* His voice is rougher around the edges than it used to be, but he can still sing. More than that, onstage he has presence. He commands attention, and he delivers the score’s rapid-fire patter songs with considerable aplomb. And most of all, he knows how to work an audience, and that’s vital – whoever plays Barnum needs to be a performer as much as an actor. Mr. Conley, somewhat to my surprise – as I said, I can’t stand him on TV – is absolutely terrific.

* So it’s a pity the writers give him so little to do – which, yes, is an odd thing to say about a role in which the actor almost never leaves the stage, and performs a variety of circus tricks as well as singing, dancing and (in theory) acting.

* Here’s the problem: for all the razzle-dazzle of the presentation, Mark Bramble’s book for the show is thin to the point of being emaciated. It’s little more than a set of flashcards; there’s no point of view, the characters are drawn so sketchily that they aren’t even cardboard, and you end the show knowing very little more about P.T. Barnum than you knew going in. Sure, the show’s authors give us the barest biographical details, but there’s no attempt at all to explore what made the man tick. We don’t see where he comes from, we don’t see how he learns the art of humbug (an unkind person might call it con-artistry), and there’s more or less no attempt to explore whatever contradictions might be inherent in, for example, a man who made a considerable fortune by essentially stretching the truth to breaking-point AND who toured the lecture circuit promoting temperance. He’s a loveable con-artist at the beginning of the show, and a loveable con-artist at the end of it, and that’s pretty much all the show’s writers have to say about him.

* We don’t even get much sense of why Bramble, Coleman and Stewart thought this story was worth telling on the musical stage. I mean, Mr. Bramble provides a lengthy programme note on the subject, which is lovely of him, but the effort of writing it might have been better spent on adding some depth – any depth – to the show’s actual book. As it is, the show’s writers seem to be perversely determined to present their subject in the blandest terms possible. It’s as if they simply expect us to accept that Barnum was a great showman, and then just go along for the ride.

* And of course that’s not enough to hang a show on, even when you throw a dozen or so Cy Coleman songs into the mix. The show’s book might be tissue-thin, but the bouncy, brassy score is (mostly) great fun, even if it isn’t first-tier Cy Coleman.

* And yet, despite the (many) flaws in the writing, the show is never less than entertaining. That’s partly because of the excellent ensemble cast, and partly because the physical production is an absolute knockout. Presented more or less as a succession of sideshow acts, the show famously incorporates all manner of circus tricks, from tightrope-walking and fire-eating (both by the actor playing Barnum himself) to trapeze work, stilt-walking, and acrobatics (other members of the cast). There’s always something to look at, even if there’s almost never anything to think about.

* As Chairy, Barnum’s long-suffering wife, Linzi Hateley is some kind of miracle. Of course her singing is peerless – in terms of the vocal requirements, she’s way overqualified for the role – but she manages to create a warm, touching character out of writing that doesn’t even rise to the level of a succession of clichés. ‘The Colours Of My Life’, as a song, is limper than fortnight-old lettuce, but she turns her half of it  into something lovely, and manages to make you forget that the words she’s singing are absolutely vacuous.

* This production is based on the Chichester Festival revival of two years ago (though Timothy Sheader, that production’s director, didn’t bother to show up to direct it again, and his direction has been recreated by an underling – which might matter if the show’s book had any dramatic content at all, so it’s a good thing it doesn’t), so of course it substitutes the new ‘Barnum’s Lament’ (an aria for Barnum midway through the second act, cobbled together from bits of the show’s other musical numbers) in place of ‘The Prince of Humbug’. It’s not an improvement. The show, up until that point, has been entirely superficial. The song comes an hour and a half of stage time into the show, and it’s the very first time we’ve been asked to take an interest in Barnum’s emotional state. Therefore, of course, it just sits there. It’s jarringly out of step with everything we’ve seen and heard up until that moment; Mr. Conley does his best to sell it, but it simply doesn’t work.

* All of this makes it sound like the show is a disaster. It isn’t. It’s great fun if you simply treat it as a spectacle with songs. Stop and think about what you’re watching, though – at all – and the whole confection quickly begins to deflate. I said earlier that it’s never less than entertaining, and that’s true, but it’s never more than that either, and you always have the sense that there’s a much more interesting story that could have been told about P.T. Barnum’s life.

* One more thing: the biggest laugh came when Barnum announced he’d borrowed the money to finance – God knows, maybe Jenny Lind’s contract, or perhaps a Taco Bell franchise – from “a reputable Scottish bank”. Ouch.

wonder?land

wonderdotland

“To give music an identity in the modern musical is… some would say suicidal [laughs], but I couldn’t do it unless the music had that real sense of itself.”

There should probably be some kind of law against artists using programme notes to make any kind of grand statement about the genre they’re working in. It’s usually not a good idea. That’s Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, talking about his new musical wonder.land – wonder-dot-land – which opens at the Palace Theatre in Manchester this week as the centrepiece of the 2015 Manchester International Festival. It’s an ambitious show, and he’s written, with librettist Moira Buffini, a very ambitious score. Unfortunately it doesn’t work – at all – and the most central problem with his contribution is that he seems somehow afraid of letting his music function as the score of a traditional musical.

That’s not to say there’s nothing worthwhile about the production, but it’s one of those frustrating evenings where everybody involved has a lot of great ideas which never quite come together. A present-day sort-of-retelling of Alice in Wonderland in which the ‘rabbit hole’ is the screen of a smartphone is a clever (albeit obvious) concept, and making ‘Alice’ and the other characters in Wonderland avatars in an online game is a logical next step. Making a phone screen the portal to a more attractive world opens the door for a ‘real-life’ parallel story in which an unhappy teenager simultaneously is bullied online and uses her online world to escape her bullies. And showing Aly, the central character, create an idealised version of herself as her avatar in an online game is as good a beginning as any for a plot that’s mostly about coming to terms with who you really are.

By themselves, though, ideas aren’t enough, and unfortunately wonder.land plays as if the writers had a long brainstorming session and then just took the Microsoft OneNote files that came from it and splattered them all over the stage. Albarn talks in the programme about giving his music a real sense of itself, but in its present state the score is meandering and unfocused. A lot of his music is attractive, and a lot of it is interesting, but it’s maddeningly unstructured and rather too pretentious for its own good, apart from one sequence which is apparently supposed to be a Victorian music-hall pastiche but which sounds more like a speed-fuelled gallop through the chorus of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’. The show is a sort of continuous tapestry of song, underscoring, and dialogue, but the fragments of music rarely coalesce into a satisfying musical number. Buffini’s libretto doesn’t help, either – she and Albarn seem to have excused themselves from making the lyrics sit properly on the music, to the point where there are awkwardly mis-stressed syllables in nearly every line. Worse, her libretto is repetitive; in the (relatively few) musical sequences that are more than mere fragments (a duet for Aly’s estranged parents, Aly’s song to her baby brother, the mad hatter’s tea party sequence, the headmistress/Red Queen’s introduction) you invariably get the point within the first twenty seconds, and then Buffini simply has the character repeat it over and over and over and over again until the scene changes. It doesn’t make for exciting drama; a lot of the time, it isn’t even particularly involving.

The physical presentation, on the other hand, is a knockout. Director Rufus Norris and choreographer Javier de Frutos conjure a fluid, sometimes thrilling staging that moves seamlessly back and forth between Aly’s black-and-white real world and the colourful, surreal gamescape of wonder.land, rendered spectacularly in Rae Smith’s set and 59 Productions’ extraordinary projections. A second-act set-piece involving a zombie-killing computer game is brilliantly realised; elsewhere, wonder.land’s magical garden is as visually fascinating as Buffini’s libretto is dull, and the monochrome tower blocks, bus stops and classrooms that form the backdrop of Aly’s non-virtual real life have a strange, forbidding beauty about them. de Frutos’s choreography neatly delineates which characters are human or computer-generated, but the oddly fragmented score does not leave him many opportunities for dance, as opposed to musical staging. His work is terrific – he even finds an odd poetry in the tired shuffling of a bus queue – but you won’t find any showstopping production numbers here.

And that, actually, points to the show’s basic problem. By allowing the writing to remain so frustratingly unfocused, Albarn and Buffini short-change the cast, none of whom are given enough to do. As the Cheshire Cat, Hal Fowler stalks lasciviously through the action singing the word ‘fabulous’ a lot, but whatever significance he’s supposed to have remains elusive because the musical material he’s given never adds up to any kind of coherent statement. Rosalie Craig’s blonde bombshell of an avatar is a brilliant performance, as far as it goes – her timing, her un-human movement, her unnerving mimicry of the human she’s supposed to reflect are all beyond criticism, but she’s hamstrung by a libretto that gives her too little to play, and by a score that gives her too little to sing. Lois Chimimba’s Aly should be a far more touching figure than she is, and it’s not Ms. Chimimba’s fault: she does everything superbly well, but the writers give her a string of moody-inner-city-teenager clichés rather than an actual character. The most successful performance comes from Anna Francolini as the mean, teenager-hating headmistress Ms. Manxome – Buffini even gives her a couple of jokes that land – but she, too, is held back by the formless writing. Dressed and wigged as a more uptight version of Cruella de Vil (albeit without the penchant for fur), Ms. Francolini launches into her big introductory patter-song with lip-smacking relish – but the song just peters out instead of building to the kind of showstopping conclusion it needs, and the actress is left stranded without the tools she needs to make her character make sense.

What’s missing from the writing, simply, is structure, coupled with a shot of good old-fashioned showbiz pizazz. Albarn is more than capable of composing a memorable song – there are at least half a dozen on every Blur album. Here, though, he and Buffini have allowed themselves to lose focus, and they seem to be more interested in Making Art than in telling their story, defining their characters, or entertaining the audience. As it stands, every single character needs further development, and the music would almost certainly land better if it was broken up into a more defined series of musical numbers. There’s nothing wrong with allowing a song to build to a big finish, ending on a button, and allowing the audience to applaud, and wonder.land desperately needs the infusion of energy that comes when an audience applauds a showstopping number. There is a lot of talent on display on the Palace’s stage – including Albarn and Buffini, who have both done much better work than this – but too often, the show’s heart is as elusive as the White Rabbit Alice spends half the evening chasing. The visuals are great, but they alone are not enough: in the hiatus between the Manchester run and the show’s reopening at the National in late November, Albarn and Buffini need to go back to the drawing-board, sort through the ideas from their (apparently very productive) initial brainstorming session, cut out everything in the libretto and score that wastes time or repeats information we already have, and find some actual characters for their cast to play.

Oh yes, one more thing: a big thank you to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre for letting the show start ten minutes late on Wednesday night and then letting the interval overrun by five minutes. Public transport in Greater Manchester shuts down way earlier than it ought to given that this is the country’s second-largest urban area, and some of us had buses to catch; to where I live, those fifteen wasted minutes were the difference between getting home in under an an hour and getting home after midnight.

Word salad

rings resonantly

Yes, this is from one of those Playbill clickthrough pieces – in this case, about actors who’ve won a Tony award but then not appeared on Broadway since. Yes, I sometimes read that stuff (and yes, I remember – dimly – when Playbill’s content was mostly news). And no, unfortunately, if you can figure out what the author means by the phrase “rings resonantly with no sign of abating”, you do not get a prize.

But you probably should.

Oh, Vienna…

Brace yourselves. It’s here again. Like many of you, I can hardly contain my excitement. Eurovision is back. Back! BACK! There will be glitter, there will be dry ice, there will be whimpering behind a cushion until the scary parts have finished (you think the Weeping Angels are scary? They have nothing on Ukraine’s 2007 entry, which looks like what would happen if Rosa Klebb found herself at the epicentre of a silver lamé explosion), and since the show is being staged in Austria there will probably be dirndls. There will be Graham Norton muttering in the background, there will be a weird interval act, and there will almost certainly, before this is over, be multiple snarkgasms.

I’m ready for the cheese – I have crackers, I have a cushion, and I am only about twelve feet from the nearest bathroom. As ever, I am not watching this live – since I don’t drink and therefore can’t use Margaritas to dull the pain, I need to be able to resort to the fast-forward button in the event of it all getting too much, which usually happens less than twenty minutes into the show. Also, really, who has the patience to sit through the more-than-an-hour-long voting process? I certainly don’t. I mean, I could use the time constructively and read a book or something, but by the time the voting begins, on past form, my IQ will have temporarily dropped by about forty-five points. Best to just get it over as quickly as possible.

No, I did not watch the semi-finals. There is a point at which pain stops being pleasurable; if I’d watched the semi-finals, that point would likely have arrived at about 8.25pm on Tuesday, and we wouldn’t be here now. Judge for yourselves whether or not that would be a bad thing. I have – by dint of very selective viewing of Facebook and Twitter for the past three hours – managed to remain relatively spoiler-free, so that’s nice. I only have to sit through this once… unless there’s something really ghastly, in which case I reserve the right to pause, rewind, and watch it over and over about twenty times until my brain finally implodes in disgust at what I’m forcing it to witness.

ANYway. So. Thanks to the victory last year of the faaaaaaabulous Conchita Wurst, we are in Vienna this year. I like Vienna. A long time ago, as an undergraduate, I sang in both the Karlskirche and the Stephansdom as part of a tour of Eastern Europe with my college’s chapel choir. I think it’s a reasonably safe bet that nothing we hear this evening will much resemble the programme of English choral music we performed on that trip. Of course, on that trip I also saw The Phantom of the Opera at the (very beautiful) Raimund Theater – in German, so I didn’t have to suffer the English lyrics. I may flirt with the highbrow from time to time, but it seems I usually end up back wallowing in the cheese.

I spoke too soon. We’re beginning with the Vienna Philharmonic getting their Mozart on in the grounds of the Schonbrunn palace. Have I mentioned that Vienna is a gorgeous city? Don’t worry, the sequence only lasted two minutes. That’s the last natural beauty you’re going to be seeing tonight.

And heeeeeeere’s Conchita! Mr. Norton is telling us we can go online and download a scorecard – or at least, you could if you were a) watching it live and b) gave a shit about the scoring.

Now we’re seeing lots of happy Austrians standing in a circle and releasing balloons. No idea why. Inside the arena, the first thing we see is a giant glittery ball – not a glitterball, that wouldn’t be classy enough – dropping from the ceiling to a solo violinist, backed by a full orchestra, giving us the melody of Conchita Wurst’s ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’. And guess how Ms. Wurst enters?

(I’ll give you a clue, it involved a trapdoor and a lift. Geddit?)

The opening number is called ‘Building Bridges’, because of course this entire event is supposed to be some kind of celebration of international cooperation and peace and love and mutual understanding and all that crap. Conchita is flying on a wire above the audience while the orchestra plays a generic slab of Europop. If you were watching anything else, you’d think it couldn’t possibly get any more kitsch, but this is Eurovision. Sure enough, they immediately wheel on a choir of children.

The opening number passed without anyone letting off any fireworks, though, which is disappointing. Maybe there’ll be some later.

(“Maybe”? Yeah, right.)

Now all the contestants are parading into the arena. It looks like a cross between a Primark fashion show and the entrance of the athletes in an Olympic opening ceremony, if the entrance of the athletes in an Olympic opening ceremony was staged in a gay nightclub in Benidorm.

I’ve forgotten what this year’s British entry looks like. I’ve forgotten what it sounds like too, which is possibly no bad thing. Our recent form in this competition is not good.

And just in case we missed the point, everybody’s singing a slowed-down reprise of ‘Building Bridges’. You can just feel the love, can’t you?

Never mind.

Our Austrian presenters are welcoming this year’s special anniversary contestants – Australia, because why should anyone expect any of this to make sense? – and telling us a little more about the theme of building bridges “between countries, cultures, musical styles” and so on blah blah blah. Film montage of people around the world backed by a Russian power ballad about people coming together as one. Sweet.

The Austrian presenters are Not Very Good, and I think I missed most of their names. One of them might be called Arabella, and all of them might be robots. We are told, once more, that you can’t vote until all contestants have performed – this is a recent-ish innovation – but you CAN, this year, vote via an app, assuming you can be arsed to download an app in order to vote in Eurovision. Since the whole thing is over now because I’m not watching live, it’s a moot point.

So, entry number one. Slovenia. Maraaya, with a song called “Here For You”. She’s wearing enormous noise-cancelling headphones, possibly so she can’t hear herself. The song is hipsterish pop, she sounds like the love-child of Duffy and Basil Brush, and a black-clad dancer with white Christmas tree baubles sewn onto her jumpsuit is playing air violin next to her. It’s bizarre, but not bizarre enough. The lyrics are completely incomprehensible, but it’s got a catchy chorus. It won’t win, but it’s a decent start.

Two. France. Lisa Angell, “N’Oubliez Pas” Black-clad woman with smudged eyeshadow singing a prettily doomy ballad while images of an urban wasteland are projected on an enormous LED screen behind her. She has a nice enough voice but no presence, and the song is sludge.

Oh. Now there are four military drummers drumming alongside her. She does at least hit all the notes, and she has a bigger voice than you’d guess, but that wasn’t France’s finest hour.

Three. A screen caption warns us the next performance contains flashing images and strobe effects. Duh, this is Eurovision. Israel, Nadav Guedj, “Golden Boy”. Not, sadly, by Charles Strouse. He’s apparently 16, but could easily pass for 40. It’s basically a slightly Middle-Eastern boyband song – he’s got three backing singers/dancers behind him – and it’s good, energetic, clean fun. And there are fireworks. See? I told you there’d be fireworks. We only had to wait until the third number to get them. At Eurovision, that’s what passes for delayed gratification.

Four. Estonia. Elina Born & Stig Rasta (there’s some kind of accent over the first A in his surname but I can’t be frigged to look up the ASCII character), “Goodbye to Yesterday”. Moody Johnny-Cash-meets-rockabilly, beautifully staged with spectacular projected shadows behind the two performers. They’re sexy, they can both sing – her better than him – and it’s quite a good song. Once again, though, the sound system is obliterating the lyrics. They probably aren’t very good, but that’s not quite the point – the sound is so bad that if I didn’t know these people were singing in English, I possibly wouldn’t guess.

Five. Us. The UK. Electro Velvet, “Still In Love With You”. Now I remember. Fun slab of electronic swing music, nicely performed, staged like a 21st-Century Art Deco hallucination. There’s black lighting AND their costumes actually light up. It’s not remotely subtle, but it’s also not remotely embarrassing, which puts it several steps above about half our last dozen entries. It won’t win, but it’s got as good a shot as anything we’ve entered in a while.

Six. Armenia. Genealogy, “Face the Shadow”. There are six singers, and they’re all smiling like they’ve drunk a little bit too much Robitussin. I have no idea what they’re singing about because the miking, once again, is crap, but it all seems to be terribly meaningful. And they’re using the wind machine, and it’s building to an overwrought climax. It ends with fireballs shooting into the air behind the singers, because Eurovision.

According to Mr. Norton, we have now, having seen the Armenian entry, plumbed the depths of tonight’s contest. That, apparently, is as low as we go.

Pity.

Seven. Lithuania. Their singer has apparently attempted to enter Eurovision several times before, so of course the pre-song introductory film shows the poor woman doing a bungee jump. Monika Linkyt & Vaidas Baumila (which sounds like something you’d put on a cold sore), with “This Time”. It’s one of those very, very peppy, enthusiastic acoustic guitar-driven pop songs that leave you thinking nobody could possibly be so high on life. The melody is absolutely forgettable, the staging is big and bright and colourful – there’s a projected deco sunburst behind them – and as the song progresses, it gradually starts to dawn on you that their fake smiles might actually be sincere, which is frightening.

Eight. Serbia. Another warning about flashing images and strobe lights. Bojana Stamenov, “Beauty Never Lies”. Silver ballgown, sequinned cape, glittery hair, four white-clad masked figures behind her waving flags. It’s All Very Dramatic, and a minute into the song the masked figures whip their masks and overalls off to reveal contemporary party clothes. Ms. Stamenov has a hell of a high belt, the lighting is completely bonkers, it’s camper than a whole stack of Canvas Holidays brochures, and it’s probably the most genuinely entertaining entry so far.

Nine. Norway. Morland & Debrah Scarlett, “A Monster Like Me”. This time you can hear the lyrics. Unfortunately the first lyrics you hear are “I’m telling the truth/I did something terrible/In my early youth”. His vocals are upsettingly Chris Martin-esque; she looks a bit like a young Bernadette Peters and sounds like a backed-up drain. It’s one of those songs that’s probably going to end with some kind of suicide pact involving either both singers or the entire audience.

Oh no, we’re still here. That was a bit traumatic, wasn’t it? Let the healing begin.

Ten. Sweden. The favourite, apparently. Mans Zelmerlow, “Heroes”. Very clever staging which has the singer interacting with stick-figure projections behind him. It’s a decent song, he can sing, and the staging is a knockout. It’s not the kind of compelling, charismatic turn that won it for Conchita Wurst last year, but it’s head and shoulders above anything we’ve seen so far.

Eleven. Cyprus. John Karayiannis, “One Thing I Should Have Done”. A sincere, rather lovely ballad, presented relatively simply until the demented lighting effects cut in at the dramatic part of the song’s bridge. Unfortunately for Mr. Karayiannis, this is Eurovision. Sincerity doesn’t play well here. He’s very likeable, but he won’t win.

Twelve. Australia. Guy Sebastian, apparently a big star Down Under, with “Tonight Again”. It’s a very slick, polished performance, but it’s also the sort of thing that makes you long for the playful wit and emotional depth of, say, Justin Timberlake. It’s bouncy, energetic, and completely forgettable. Moving on…

Thirteen. Belgium. More flashing images and strobe effects. Loic Nottet, “Rhythm Inside”. He’s walking slightly robotically, and so are his five white-clad backing singers. It’s a bit like Depeche Mode circa 1984 with better harmonies and slick choreography. It’s endearingly strange, they perform it with absolute conviction, and it hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.

Fourteen. Austria. The Makemakes, “I Am Yours”. Also known as the please-God-don’t-let-us-win-this-year entry (the winning country gets saddled with the bill for staging next year’s event). Slightly Lennon-and-McCartneyish piano-and-guitar pop, “sung” by a long-haired hipster who might have learned his vocal style from being waterboarded. Halfway through the second verse, the piano catches fire. Unfortunately it doesn’t take out the band, and they get to finish the song. Damn.

Little intermission. Conchita takes us into the Green Room. What’s the Wurst that could happen? Well, one of the plastic presenters could try to be funny, and the joke could land like a concrete Sachertorte.

The joke involved a reference to Ms. Wurst’s long hair and beard and the 2008 French entry, whose backing singers all sported conspicuously fake flowing wigs and long beards. Laugh? I thought my pants would never dry.

And we’re back to the songs. Fifteen, Greece, Maria Elena Kyriakou, “One Last Breath”. Flowing blonde hair, low-cut glittery evening dress, tinkly piano, wind machine, drums coming in at the keychange into the second chorus. We’re in cut-price Céline territory here – there’s always at least one. It’s a lousy song, and she doesn’t quite have the power to really sock the climax home, although she hits all the notes. Not one of the evening’s highlights, either for the right or the wrong reasons.

Sixteen. Montenegro, Knez, with “Adio”. A violinist playing a folksy melody, drum machine underneath, people striking weirdly dramatic poses, and a slightly seedy man with glittery lapels on his black jacket trying to sound sincere in a language 98% of the people watching this don’t speak. It’s less interesting than I’m making it sound. Fast-forward time.

Seventeen. Germany. Ann Sophie with “Black Smoke”. The guy who won the selection process in Germany dropped out, so we’re getting this instead. Aren’t we lucky? The song is a bit Bond Theme-y, and Adele wants her (borrowed) vocal stylings back. Or she might, if Ann Sophie could sing half as well as she can. Ms. Sophie borrowed her (low-cut) black belted jumpsuit from 1968, and her right earring possibly doubles as a feather duster. That’s not a bun on her head, either – when she’s done singing, or whatever it is she thinks she’s doing, she’s going to use it to cosh people who don’t vote for her. I think that’s going to keep her quite busy later on.

Not Germany’s best effort, this one. Better luck next time.

Eighteen. Poland. Monika Kuszynska, “In The Name of Love”. Ms. Kuszynska has, we are told, overcome considerable personal adversity (a serious car accident which left her in a wheelchair) in order to be here. The song is a pretty middle-of-the-road midtempo ballad, and she sings it very prettily, although the backing singers drown her out a bit. She’s lovely – but, again, sweet sincerity is not necessarily what works at Eurovision.

Nineteen. Latvia. By now I’m not even noticing the warnings about strobe lights. Aminata, “Love Injected”, a title which mostly just serves to remind us all that we’re dealing with this without the aid of pharmaceuticals. Plinky plonky intro, she’s singing a weird un-melody and wearing what looks like an inverted tulip. Then she strikes a pose and shreiks. Her dress has apparently rendered her immobile from the shoulders down; wondering whether she walked onstage herself or had to be wheeled into place is more interesting than actually listening to her song. Oh thank God it’s over. That was quick, or maybe I zoned out.

Twenty. Romania. Voltaj, “De La Capat”. Voltaj have apparently been big stars on their home turf for about twenty years. They’re a Proper Group, with instruments and everything. The sound system is rendering the Romanian lyrics far more clearly than it’s managed with anything sung in English this evening. Too bad I don’t speak Romanian. The song is a bit Gary Barlow-ish – pleasantly inoffensive, with a Great Big Chorus which isn’t quite as memorable as they’d like it to be. It’s an enjoyable performance, but I think not a winning one.

Twenty-one. Spain. She’s dating a Man Utd player, apparently. I’ve never heard of her. I’ve never heard of him either. Edurne, with “Amanecer”. She begins by kneeling on a comatose man’s torso while wearing what look like red sequinned terry-cloth widow’s weeds. In the second verse, the comatose man gets up and holds her train, then yanks it – and the red sequinned terry-cloth thing – off as she goes into the chorus, revealing a glittery silvery somewhat see-through dress which is cut so high you can see her knickers. All of this is more interesting than the song she’s singing. There’s some kind of desert landscape projected behind her, and then the half-naked male dancer comes back and lifts her up. And then he’s gone again, possibly blown away by the wind machine which cuts in for the final chorus. I’m sure it all made sense to somebody when they started rehearsals.

What am I saying? No I’m not, this is Eurovision.

Twenty-two. Hungary, Boggie, “Wars for Nothing”. Earnest young woman in burgundy polyester singing about Whirled Peas. Four other singers are classically attired in blue and white polyester (blue suits and white shirts for the men, blue skirts and white blouses for the women, all looking like they were bought for £8.99 at ASDA), and behind them the screen is showing a projection of a tree made out of machine guns. It’s very low-key and a bit tuneless, but they have lovely voices. The last verse, which they sing in harmony, is quite nice, but it isn’t going to set anyone’s pulse racing.

Twenty-three. Georgia. Vampira McScary, or rather Nina Sublatti, with “Warrior”. She looks like a teenage goth throwing a tantrum – she’s obviously been practicing her grimace in the bathroom mirror for, ooh, minutes – and the pointy feathered shoulders on her outfit could take someone’s eye out. She’s got a dagger-like headpiece in her centre parting, her hair is even limper than the week-old celery in my fridge, and behind her there’s all the dry ice in the world. She can sing, but the performance is all posturing. It’s a bit like watching Katharine McPhee trying to play Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Ms. Sublatti has possibly spent a little bit too long watching reruns of “Dark Shadows” and “Xena, Warrior Princess”. The song is instantly forgettable Europop, which rather works against the sneering attitude she’s trying to strike as she sings it.

Twenty-four. Azerbaijan. Elnur Huseynov, “Hour of the Wolf”. Pleasant pop ballad sung (quite well) by a blandly good-looking young man as a pair of writhing dancers – one of whom is bare-chested – perform what appears to be a carefully-choreographed mashup of a wrestling match and a bilious attack around him. They all get through the song without giggling, which is more than I can manage.

Twenty-five. Russia. Apparently one of the favourites. It’d be fun if the campest international television event on the planet ended up being staged next year in a country which last year passed into law some of the most repressive anti-gay legislation on the books anywhere in the developed world, wouldn’t it? Perhaps Putin could host. Without his shirt. While wrestling a bear.

No, not that kind of bear.

Polina Gagarina, “A Million Voices”. All about love and tolerance, according to Mr. Norton – values that Russia’s current political leaders so clearly espouse. At least, they reeeeeaaaaallly love Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine. But let us not speak of The Unpleasantness. Ms. Gagarina is about to sing. It’s a big power ballad, the above-the-waist part of her dress is apparently a couple of bits of kitchen roll and a piece of string, she’s got a big voice, and her roots need doing. It’s got a huge singalong chorus, and – all snarking about her ridiculous President’s appalling record aside – is actually pretty good in a you’ll-hate-yourself-later-for-enjoying-this sort of way. Dull presentation, though. The visuals do count for something – the contest, these days, is about acts rather than songs.

Twenty-six. Albania. Elhaida Dani, “I’m Alive”. That’s nice for her; after having been watching this for a couple of hours now, I’m not sure I am. It’s low-key, it’s classy, it’s boring as shit, and her vocal “style” appears to involve going off-pitch a lot. Fast-forward time. Bye bye, Elhaida.

Oh, crap. I didn’t quite miss her big shreik at the end. Bummer.

Twenty-seven. The last one. Italy. Il Volo, “Grande Amore”. They’ve toured as Streisand’s opening act, apparently. Three cheesily, generically handsome men with improbably vertical hair and slightly operatic voices singing Sarah Brightman-esque crossover pop. They can sing, they have remarkably mobile eyebrows, and I really really really REALLY hate this kind of music. They do it very well indeed, and it stinks.

So. We’ve seen it all. Conchita wants us to applaud because everyone was AMAZING. The presenters have changed their dresses and I still can’t remember their names; they’ve got to talk for a bit while the stage is cleared for the interval act, and I can fast-forward through the recap of all the acts which they always do when voting begins.

One of the three nameless presenters – Miriam? – just sang a snatch of ‘The Hills Are Alive’ really badly. Thank God they didn’t hold the show in Salzburg, it would have been wall-to-wall dirndls.

Ohhhhkay. Martin Grubinger and the Percussive Planet Ensemble with ‘Speeding Up The Images’ and ‘All Is In A State Of Flux. It begins with a big dramatic chord and a lot of people playing percussion instruments like they’re on meth withdrawal, and I’ve a feeling I may not be watching this all the way through.

Oh.

Oh dear.

It’s never a good sign if, two minutes into watching something, you start to think you’d rather be watching “Riverdance”.

(Yes, I have seen “Riverdance”, and not just their Eurovision intermission act from years ago.)

Now there’s a quiet bit with French horns. I may not have to go and stick my head in the freezer after all.

Everybody in the green room is holding a pose. I think they’re supposed to be heart shapes.

And now a choir of very classy musicians are singing something generically modern/classical and almost, nearly maintaining straight faces as they do so. This is deeply silly, and not in a good way. Flags of all nations (well, all the nations that are here in the arena) are waving all around them. Like a lot of things this evening, it’s obviously supposed to be Very Very Meaningful, but it isn’t.

And we’re back with the crazy percussion people. I’m fast-forwarding.

Apparently that was all based on themes by famous Austrian composers. I’m sure their music is super, but thank God it’s over.

And here’s another recap of all the acts. Fast-forward time.

Second interval act: Conchita Wurst with two new songs, reminding us she’s a more compelling, more exciting performer than anyone else we’ve seen all night, even though several of the acts we’ve seen feature better singers. The songs aren’t very good, but Ms. Wurst is one of those people who can hold a stage just by standing there and striking a pose – which doesn’t mean they don’t bring out a gaggle of flamboyantly weird dancers and the full weight of the show’s weapons-grade lighting rig for the second number.

Unfortunately, the performance is followed by a painfully stilted scripted chat with one of the presenters-whose-name-I-can’t-remember in which they repeatedly plug Ms. Wurst’s new album. Even by the standards of everything else we’ve seen tonight, this is cringe-inducing.

Now we’re introduced to Vincenzo Cantiello, winner of last year’s Junior Eurovision. Holy crap, that kid is loud. His neighbours must be either very understanding or profoundly deaf.

And NOW, one of the presenters is describing the trophy as “a real piece of art”. It looks like it came from a pound shop.

We see a montage of past winners, and it’s almost time for the points to be announced. But first, a word from Jon Ola Sand, the ESC’s executive supervisor… like I give a shit. Fast-forward time.

Un-fast-forward. The Romanian presenter appears to be standing in front of a backdrop of smog. 10 points to Russia, so hopefully they won’t invade.

Just kidding.

Judging by the Moldovan presenter, the Jaclyn Smith look is still big over there.

Azerbaijan give douze points to Russia. They don’t want to be invaded either. We picked up a point somewhere, I don’t know where from.

Latvia’s presenter is powered by Duracell, and his hair is made out of styrofoam and taped into place.

Early on, it looks like it’s between Russia, Italy, and Sweden.

Awww. France gives Belgium douze points. Bless. It’s more of a race than it’s been the last couple of years.

Germany’s presenter seems to be wearing some kind of pizza cutter. We’ve picked up another point from somewhere, aren’t we lucky?

Electro Velvet are now third from bottom, Germany and Austria still have nul points. Somewhere, an Austrian network executive is breathing a heavy sigh of relief.

Hungary gives Belgium twelve points, and we all need a moment to recover from the sight of an Eastern Bloc country NOT giving their highest score to another Eastern Bloc country.

The UK’s points are being presented by Nigella, who sadly doesn’t whip up a sumptuous pasta dish as she announces the results of our phone-in vote. She does, however, speak flawless German, Italian and French. We gave ten points to Australia, and I’m losing the will to live. Douze points à la Suède. We’re still third from bottom.

San Marino gave us three points. They’re the 35th counrtry to announce their results, and their three points more than doubles our score. I think Electro Velvet are probably going to be down the dumper quite soon.

The Norwegian presenter has had someone embroider licorice allsorts into the shoulders of her frock. Oh, those wacky Norwegians.

(No, they really are. Let us not forget, Norway is the country that sent both Jahn Tiegen and Benedicte Adrian to Eurovision. Obviously there’s some kind of strange national sense of humour there that the rest of the world will never quite be able to understand.)

We’re now fourth from the bottom, not third. Yay us.

And it’s all over bar the shouting. We’re fourth from bottom, Austria and Germany both have nul points, and Sweden – deservedly – wins by a fairly clear margin. Can I put in an early vote for them to bring back Petra Mede as presenter next year?

Here’s the winning entry, and we should all get some kind of group hug for having made it through to the end of the show:

And there wasn’t a dirndl in sight. I want a refund.

Imelda’s Turn

gypsy savoy

Or, some quick thoughts about the current London revival of Gypsy:

* It’s one of my favourite shows (I wrote about that the last time I saw it), so to me, ANY production is an event.

* Given Imelda Staunton’s reviews, both here and in the production’s initial run in Chichester, this revival is rapidly turning into An Event. Ms. Staunton is giving one of those landmark performances that people will be talking about for years.

* Yes, she can belt. Not that everything in the score has to be belted – the role was created by Ethel Merman, but there’s more than one way to sing this score – and Ms. Staunton brings a great deal of light and shade to her interpretation of the music. The fact that she can unleash a great big belt voice when she needs to seems to surprise some people, though. Perhaps they didn’t see her in Guys and Dolls.

* Ms. Staunton, though, is an actress before she’s a singer, and this is first and foremost an acting performance. Her performance is both funnier and darker than other people I’ve seen in the role have been – she’s an immensely skilled comic actress (I mean, she even managed to be funny in the witless sitcom Is It Legal?), this is a musical comedy, and she finds every laugh you’d expect, along with several you don’t. At the same time, though, she is truly formidable – and it’s also clear from the outset that this Rose, psychologically, is a little out-of-kilter with the rest of the world. She can be charming, but she’s fuelled by rage, and when she explodes – as in the scene in Granziger’s office towards the end of the first act – her anger is disproportionate. This is a woman with very little sense of perspective.

* This serves to make her, oddly, more fragile than some other Roses have been. Her big numbers at the end of each act – Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn – are each, here, genuine breakdowns. Staunton’s Rose’s Turn, in particular, is emotionally wounding in a way nobody else I’ve seen in the role has quite managed. I think the entire theatre stopped breathing until the number was over.

* Actually, I think my mouth was hanging open for most of the second half of the second act. Even if you know the show by heart – which I do, more or less – this is an unusually compelling production.

* Peter Davison’s Herbie and Lara Pulver’s Louise haven’t received enough praise. Davison has always been underrated as a stage actor, and this is some of the best work he’s ever done. Pulver sings beautifully, of course, but her second-act scenes with Rose, again, are more bruising here than they’ve been in other productions. Nothing escapes these actors; this is as good an account of the show’s book as you are likely to see.

* It’s a pity, therefore, that they’re using the slightly cut-down revised version of the book from the 2008 City Center revival (no ‘Small World’ reprise, much shorter version of the hotel scene in the first act in which Rose no longer accuses the hotel manager of attempted rape, a few other nips and tucks). None of the alterations are improvements; I’m not sure the cuts are mandatory, given that they weren’t included in the last British revival, and when everything else here is so good, it’s a shame to find them working from a slightly less effective version of the script. The stuff that’s missing here is not superfluous.

* The strippers – Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe, and Julie Legrand – are hilarious. Their “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” brings the house down.

* Director Jonathan Kent’s big achievement here lies in the performances. It’s a solid staging of the show, but not a startling one. He has a superb cast, and he keeps out of their way.

* A string section would have been nice. This production has a trio of central performances that may be as close to definitive as anyone has achieved since the show’s original Broadway cast in 1959; it’s a pity they’re working to a somewhat reduced orchestration, although the reductions are quite skilfully done. It’s not a tiny band, but it’s not the original orchestrations either, and the original orchestrations are glorious.

* It’s a little bit anal of me, I know, but it’s not my very favourite thing when a theatre programme refers to a character by a name that’s never mentioned in the script:

Imelda Momma

* Those are minor quibbles, though. This production is running until November. If you love theatre, musical or not, you need to see it. Staunton is doing the strongest work of her career so far, and everybody else rises to her level. Theatrical experiences as thrilling as this don’t come along often.

Now, God knows, anything goes

…and I sort of wish it didn’t.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the production. In fact, I almost don’t have enough superlatives to describe the production. Under the artistic direction of Daniel Evans, Sheffield’s Crucible has produced an impressive series of musical revivals, many of them directed by Evans himself. His production of My Fair Lady a couple of years ago was impeccable, and this Anything Goes – now on a UK tour after a run in Sheffield at Christmas – is at least as good.

What makes this all the more impressive an achievement is that Anything Goes, despite a stellar score, is not exactly one of the most durable shows in the canon. This is a typical Thirties musical comedy, albeit one whose book has received several spruce-ups over the past eighty years (the version being performed here dates from 1987), which means Cole Porter’s peerless songs are strung around a set of barely-two-dimensional characters and groan-inducing jokes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the show can be glorious, but it does mean it’s rather tricky to get it right. The upbeat songs are brassy, but make them too brassy and the characters singing them can become unpleasantly strident. The romantic numbers are meltingly lovely, but can seem melodramatic next to the comedy material if they aren’t delivered with a light touch. The jokes creak, and you can see half of them coming a mile off, but push the comedy too hard and the show rapidly deflates. It’s a soufflé, and all the ingredients have to be in perfect balance.

Happily, they are. Evans begins his production surprisingly quietly; the opening sequence, which takes place in a Manhattan nightclub, is accompanied only by a solo piano and a (very, very muted) trumpet, and we don’t hear the full band until the action shifts to the cruise ship on which most of the show takes place. What follows is a total delight. We have gorgeous costumes and an elegant forced-perspective Art Deco ocean liner set by Richard Kent, good-humoured but not too on-the-nose choreography by Alistair David, appropriately splashy lighting by Tim Mitchell, and sensitive, swinging musical direction from Tom Brady, leading an impeccably tight nine-piece band. Sure, the plot is outlandishly ridiculous, but when the action is led by Debbie Kurup’s sweet-but-hot evangelist nightclub singer (really!) Reno Sweeney and Matt Rawle’s goofily charming stockbroker Billy Crocker, who cares? They land every single laugh, and so does everybody else, and they find both the wit and the ache in Porter’s effervescent score. There are no stunt-cast X-Factor finalists or has-been pop stars here, and everybody involved clearly loves the material. More than that, everybody involved clearly trusts the material. Evans and his cast don’t try to force or in any way punch up the script’s hoary old groaners; they know the jokes work, ancient as they are, and they give the material room to breathe. Even Simon Baker’s sound design is a cut above what you usually get on the touring circuit – you can actually hear all the lyrics, and the sound system doesn’t assault your eardrums every time the music starts. A larger band might be nice, but this is otherwise about as good as revivals of classic musicals get.

So what’s my beef? Two things. First, cellphones. Yes, AGAIN. I didn’t hear any phones ring, but there were far too many people texting/checking email/whatever when the lights were down. In a darkened theatre, the light from smartphone screens can travel a surprisingly long way. It’s distracting and unnecessary, and it’s also incredibly rude to the actors, who can see those screens from the stage.

And then there are the programme notes. Oh my God, the programme notes. Programmes in this country are not free, like they are on Broadway. You pay for them, and they are relatively expensive – for this show it’s £4.00, and that’s for a programme, not a souvenir brochure. For this you get the usual – cast/creative bios, list of musical numbers, some kind of article about the production, and so on. You do not, in this instance, get bios of the people who actually wrote the show – no bio of Cole Porter, much less of Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, who wrote the version of the show’s book that’s being performed here. That’s bad enough, but it pales next to John Good’s lazy, inaccurate production history of the show, which is the first thing you’re likely to read when you open the (overpriced) programme. Among other things, we are informed that Mr. Crouse and Mr. Weidman wrote a new book for the National Theatre production of the show in 2002 (nope), and Patti LuPone starred in a London revival in 1969 (when she was in college… in New York). Now, OK, most people aren’t as geeky about this stuff as I am, but these are not obscure facts. This is the sort of stuff you can research in ninety seconds by visiting the show’s Wikipedia page, and the fact that this tripe made it into print in a programme we’re expected to pay for reeks of a certain disdain towards the audience – that it’s OK to dash off any old crap for the programme in five minutes without checking it because most people watching won’t know any better, and that it won’t matter if you omit the writers’ bios because they are not, Cole Porter aside, particularly famous in this country (never mind that one of the authors of the show’s original 1930s book is P.G. Wodehouse). When every single thing you see on the stage – every set-piece, every prop, every line, every note of music, every light cue, every dance step, every throwaway aside – is executed with such love of and care for the material, I’m afraid I find that profoundly depressing. It wouldn’t have been very difficult to make the programme as good as the production – or at least not loudly disrespectful towards both the material and the people who wrote it – but the powers-that-be, in this instance, simply couldn’t be bothered. The show’s authors deserve better, and so do we.

One more thing: the theatre (the Opera House in Manchester) was less than half full (granted, it’s one of the largest houses the tour will play). The show is on the road until the early autumn, and it’s well worth seeing. In case I haven’t said this enough, revivals as good as this one don’t come along very often, and this show deserves full houses.

Just maybe skip buying a programme.

The Casual Vacancy

How do you take a long, bleak, depressing novel whose single sympathetic character dies within the first five pages, and turn it into a compelling TV series?

It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? Given the book’s sales – nowhere near Harry Potter numbers, but it was still a huge bestseller – there was no doubt that J.K. Rowling’s sprawling, angry debut “adult” novel The Casual Vacancy would be adapted for television or film – but given the novel’s relentless bleakness, that wasn’t necessarily an enticing prospect: Rowling’s fictional village of Pagford is populated by a monstrously unappealing cast of characters, and during the course of the novel’s 500-odd pages most of them behave very badly indeed. Parts of the novel are extraordinarily vivid – a passage in which an unhappy teenage girl repeatedly cuts herself is genuinely upsetting, all the more so because Rowling renders the character’s fractured emotional state with unusual clarity – and the novel’s ending verges on nihilistic. Even the novel’s comedy – and there is a surprising amount of it – is of the pitch-black variety; anyone expecting the nostalgic charm of the early Potter novels would have been sorely disappointed – and indeed, it was greeted with dismay by a number of reviewers. It’s a decisive break from Rowling’s earlier work, and in some ways a very brave move. She obviously wasn’t in any danger of being left destitute by the commercial failure of a new book, but she did risk alienating some of her readers: as state-of-the-nation novels go, this one is unusually brutal, and Rowling clearly does not much admire what she sees in this country on either the right or the left.

Given all of that, it’s more than a little surprising that BBC One’s television adaptation of the novel has turned out to be such a complete triumph (albeit one that lost a couple of million viewers between the first and final instalments, which was probably inevitable given the nature of the material). Not coincidentally, the screenwriter, Sarah Phelps, has played fast and loose with the novel’s plot, streamlining it into three tautly-written hour-long episodes which capture the essence of Rowling’s (intermittently brilliant) novel but do not necessarily strictly adhere to it. There are some major omissions (that cutting scene is gone, and the character involved initially appears to be reduced to a sullen background presence – although five minutes from the end of the final episode, she is given the most significant line in the whole three-part series, in terms of encapsulating what the story is about), and the ending is different than in the novel, offering a possibility of redemption for at least one or two characters. Throughout, more or less every important plot event covered by the TV adaptation is in some way different from the way it is depicted in the novel. It’s not a slavishly faithful reproduction of the source material at all, and – surprisingly – it’s all the better for it.

In place of the novel’s brooding, darkly sardonic social analysis, what Phelps gives us is a tight, laser-sharp comedy of bad manners in which the pretensions and failings of the various protagonists are quietly but ruthlessly dissected, usually within seconds of the character appearing on screen for the first time. Her screenplay moves very quickly – even in this streamlined adaptation, there’s a lot of plot to pack into three hours, and a lot of characters to cover – but it’s written with remarkable economy, and every single detail counts. It’s still bleak, and it still goes to some extremely dark places, particularly in the final episode, but the novel’s nearly unrelenting procession of human misery would have made turgid viewing on TV. Instead, what Phelps – and the director, Johnny Campbell – have made is a show that looks, on the surface, like a typically glossy, shallow Sunday night TV drama, but which has real bite underneath.

And the performances are tremendous. As Krystal Weedon, the at-risk teenage daughter of a drug addict whose collision with the cosily middle-class inhabitants of the village where she lives provides the motor for much of the plot, Abigail Lawrie is a real discovery. The whole cast obviously relish the snap and crackle of Phelps’s nastily funny dialogue; they’re playing awful, awful people, but the whole thing is carried off with a commendable lightness of touch. You don’t really sympathise with anyone – apart from Krystal and possibly Samantha Mollison, the unhappy daughter-in-law of Howard, the monstrous deli-owner and leader of the Parish Council – but it doesn’t matter; the sheer (and recognisable) nastiness of these characters, here, is partly what makes them so entertaining, and the fiction Phelps (via Rowling) draws here is only a couple of degrees meaner than real life. If you’ve ever sat through any kind of committee meeting, the kind of closed-minded pettiness that drives The Casual Vacancy’s plot will not be entirely unfamiliar to you. We’ve all met self-important social-climbing windbags like Howard Mollison; here, refreshingly, Michael Gambon plays him without any kind of twinkle, offering a portrayal that verges on grotesque, although he stops short of making Howard into a boo-hiss pantomime villain. As star turns go, this one is bracingly obnoxious – which in this case is a compliment.

The cherry on the cake is the brilliantly vicious double-act between Keeley Hawes as the aforementioned Samantha Mollison and Julia McKenzie as Shirley Mollison, the monster-in-law from hell. Hawes, whose television work I have not always enjoyed in the past, is in top form, playing Samantha as a tightly-wound woman who survives her family’s bullying by deploying the only weapons available to her: cheap wine, deadpan sarcasm, and her tits. McKenzie’s lyrically toxic busybody of an interfering mother-in-law, opposite her, is simultaneously hilariously funny and chillingly unpleasant (“You aren’t a victim, dear,” she simpers to Samantha at one point in the final episode, “you’re a failure.”). Their final scene is one of the moments that, in contrast to Rowling’s ending in the novel, suggest the possibility of reconciliation and redemption; it’s beautifully written, and Hawes and McKenzie play it superbly well.

None of this, though, adds up to a series that’s exactly likeable – or at least, it’s the polar opposite of the kind of warmly reassuring television drama you’d usually expect to find in the 9pm Sunday slot on BBC1. I loved it, and I’ll be buying the DVD when it comes out (and probably watching it again before then, I haven’t deleted it from the DVR), but it lost a huge chunk of viewers between the first and the final episodes; reading the reviews, too, not everybody is a fan of all of the changes Phelps makes to Rowling’s plot, particularly when it comes to the TV series’s somewhat less brutal ending. It’s anyone’s guess how it will go over when HBO show it in April; it looks, on the surface, like the kind of cosy, comfortable English drama series that plays very profitably to a US audience, and I’m not sure how viewers expecting a modern-day Downton Abbey or a Nice Family Drama will take to a series in which there’s repeated drug use, a certain amount of squalor (and not “designer poverty” either – the production makes no attempt to romanticise the horrible conditions in which the Weedons live), and a fair sprinkling of salty language and behaviour, including a library scene that should make every librarian who sees it refuse to touch a book ever again unless they’re wearing rubber gloves. It’s not simply that the series spits at the complacent small-C conservative middle-classes, although it does – the new ending, indeed, explicitly makes the point that well-meaning do-gooders can inadvertently cause a great deal of harm. It’s that it spits at everyone, perhaps even more than the novel, in which there was more space for Rowling to show us each character’s good traits as well as the bad ones.

And if nothing else, the TV adaptation seems to have really upset the Daily Mail’s appalling Jan Moir. That, in itself, is an achievement worth celebrating.