Reviewed: The Lady Vanishes by BBC1

Technical Hitch.

The Lady Vanishes
BBC1

One gathers that The Lady Vanishes had been gathering dust at the back of the BBC drama cupboard for quite a while until its screening this month – it was originally supposed to be shown last Christmas – and now I’ve watched it, I can see why. They might have got away with it on Boxing Day afternoon, when its audience would have been fat and farty and more than usually easily pleased. But on a cold and clear-eyed Sunday night in March? Not on your life.

I bet plenty of those who started watching it soon flipped over to ITV’s much-hyped film about the Queen – a documentary that revealed, among other things, that the royal household subscribes to Majesty magazine. (The more I think about this, the more it seems like one of the best facts ever; slip off her crown and isn’t HM basically Alan Titchmarsh – with longer vowels?) If I hadn’t been reviewing this, I would have done exactly the same.

A remake must have seemed like a great idea at the time. You can very well imagine the innocent enthusiasm at the commissioning meeting. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, which was based on the novel The Wheel Spinsby Ethel Lina White, is a marvellous confection, all camp thrills and derring-do. No one who has seen it ever forgets the cricket-obsessed young men, Charters and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), who are rushing back to England from the Balkans in order to see the Test match. Except . . . yes, the people who made this version – it was written by Fiona Seres and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence – did forget them. Or at any rate, they left them out. Why? I’m damned if know.

All I can tell you is that this was a bizarrely pared down version of The Lady Vanishes, its silliest corners ruthlessly eliminated in favour of its central plot. Which would be fine if its plot – a seemingly daffy woman called Miss Froy is taken hostage on a steam train by villains unknown –wasn’t so silly in itself. Throw too much weight on it, as Seres did, and all you will hear is the loud creaking it makes as it turns. (Had she gone back to the novel? I’m not sure; I haven’t read it. But if she had, it was naughty to bait the viewer with Hitchcock’s superior title.)

But perhaps we shouldn’t get too bogged down in the plot and the various tedious ways it had been modified. That could take some time. The performances were universally lovely, which made it seem all the sadder that the writing was so dull and the mechanics so laboured. Gathered on our trans-European express to Trieste and beyond were some fine actors, hamming it up with great verve, gusto and, well, brio.

Keeley Hawes was fabulous as the cynical Laura Parminter, the ennui wafting from her in great, powerful waves (I almost fancied I could smell it, rising noxiously above the Fracas or the Jicky). Alex Jennings played a character called the Professor and he was predictably lovable; his quizzical, period face might have been made for horn-rimmed spectacles. Gemma Jones and Stephanie Cole put in expert turns as bitchy spinster sisters, Evelyn and Rose Flood-Porter, who fell on every morsel of gossip as if on a bridge roll. Selina Cadell was Miss Froy, her eyes like marbles about to roll from her head. Pip Torrens was the Reverend Kenneth Barnes and he – Torrens, I mean – is never anything less than hilarious, always looking as if he has just swallowed a frog.

In the lead role as the beautiful Iris Carr – it’s the spoiled but plucky Iris who notices Miss Froy no longer appears to be on the train –was Tuppence Middleton. She had an awful lot to do, for all the reasons I’ve already explained, so it was hardly her fault if she sometimes seemed weary both of her role and of Max (Tom Hughes), the hungry-looking young man who kept thrusting his cheekbones at her whenever they were alone in her compartment. She has, as they say, a long career ahead of her – and with a name like Tuppence, I’d be willing to bet good money (ha ha) that she will soon be a big star.

Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes in "The Lady Vanishes". Photograph: BBC

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

Show Hide image

Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.