Moor than enough: Joss (Sean Harris) in Jamaica Inn. Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC
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Jamaica Inn: yet another gloomy period drama, or a gem worth sticking with?

Television dramas are so gloomy lately that you can barely make anything out. “Pass me the night-vision goggles!” you think, as you squint at the screen.

Jamaica Inn
BBC1

I’m not sure when you’ll be reading this. It might be just before the BBC’s new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn starts (21-23 April, 9pm) – or it might be after it has begun. So I’ll be careful. Some of you will know the ending of the novel, so strange and so violent; a few will know the book inside out. But rest assured that if you don’t, I’m not going to be the one to reveal the name of the story’s Mr Big, for all that, in the case of this version, you’re likely to work it out pretty quickly yourself. If he (or she) had a neon sign above his (or her) head that read, “Warning! This is Mr Big – he is not what he seems and he has a pistol in his pocket!” it could not be any more obvious.

The BBC has given us a fairly faithful adaptation of du Maurier’s melodrama of smuggling and murder in the 1820s. It’s a shame that the pencil sketch – fans will know what I mean – found by the heroine, Mary Yellan, as the narrative hurtles to its end has disappeared. Its replacement with damning evidence that is altogether less subtle makes her final confrontation with Mr Big feel rather odd, almost as if it has come from another film altogether (possibly The Wicker Man).

Elsewhere, the show’s writer, Emma Frost, has stuck pretty close to the novel. This script is certainly better than the one she wrote for The White Queen. She’s working with vastly better material – Philippa Gregory is barely fit to touch the turn-ups on du Maurier’s tweedy, wide-legged trousers.

Sarah Brown Findlay as Mary Yellen in Jamaica Inn. Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC

Sarah Brown Findlay as Mary Yellen in Jamaica Inn.
Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC

I was nervous when I read that Jamaica Inn had been directed by Philippa “Call the Midwife” Lowthorpe. The icky tone of that series has infected the BBC schedules with distinctly putrid results (see, for instance, The Crimson Field, the woefully sanitised drama about attractive and plucky nurses during the First World War). But she has done good work here. The landscape shots are wonderfully bleak and lingering: a mail coach moving over the moor like a beetle crawling over a boulder; a group of wreckers committing foul acts in salty water with a determination that is just a heinous notch off appearing playful. Best of all, everyone looks authentically dirty and wet. In close-up, even their fingernails are black.

The pace is slow. The BBC should have commissioned a 90-minute film rather than three hour-long parts (an atmosphere of fear and foreboding can’t be created simply by dragging something out). That was hardly Lowthorpe’s fault. The BBC is all about “value” these days and doubtless those tumbledown Yorkshire locations – yes, Cornish people, much of the series was filmed near Barnsley – didn’t come cheap.

About the casting, I was less sure. Jessica Brown Findlay, late of Downton Abbey, is good as Mary: sullen, fiery and brave. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Sean Harris (the shooter in Southcliffe) puts in a nice growling turn as her uncle, Joss Merlyn, even if he lacks the physical heft I’ve always pictured, a mere ferret to the bear of my imagination. I couldn’t stand Matthew McNulty (from The Paradise) as his brother, Jem. No charisma. I couldn’t believe in his relationship with Mary. The pair of them seemed somehow to be going through the motions, like Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy, only grubbier and with more ale.

Aunt Patience was played by Joanne Whalley, whom I haven’t seen on-screen for a while. She ably pulled off the masochism involved in the role but she looked all wrong. At first, I thought it was her burnished skin. Then I realised it was her teeth, which could not have been less 18th century if they’d tried.

On the plus side, they come in useful at times. Television dramas are so gloomy lately that you can barely make anything out. “Pass me the night-vision goggles!” you think, as you squint at the screen. But it was always possible to see Patience. Her gleaming white gnashers were a beacon and I wondered why her husband didn’t use her to lure the laden ships of the East India Company on to the rocks. She could very easily have done the work of his lantern and saved him goodness knows what on tallow.

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 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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