Thursday, 3 December 2009

Claire's West Wing article

Implausible as it may sound, I happen to know that someone googled "Claire Handscombe West Wing article" today. Sadly, they would have come up with nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

Well, okay, not quite zilch. We'll call it zilch plus one. They would have come up with my west wing fan fiction, which is how I know they googled it the first place, but that's another story.

But they would not have found my article.

Which is sad. Tragic, almost.

So, dear fans, be disappointed no longer. (Fans of mine, or fans of the West Wing, who knows - or are the two synonymous these days? There go those delusions of grandeur again...)

By way of introduction and a quick plug, this article was written for a fantastic language-learning magazine called the MAG, which is available for advanced students of French, Dutch and English, and which I highly recommend, and not only for the penetrating insights shared by some of the contributors. (Ahem. Those delusions again...) Not even just for my dulcit tones which make an occasional appearance on the accompanying CD.

I wanted to scan in the actual article, but both my computer and my technological powers have failed me, so for now text only will have to do.

So without further ado, here it is - written for an audience who have likely never heard of the amazing viewing experience that is my favo(u)rite TV show... but have hopefully now all been converted!

It’s ten years since the pilot episode of The West Wing was aired, but the TV show still inspires devotion that goes way beyond the norm for a television programme, and arguably with good reason. It informs and educates even the most politically ignorant, but never patronises. But that’s not all it does: it makes you laugh, cry, gasp and occasionally shout and perhaps throw things at your television.

The West Wing gives us a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in politics, in much the same way as ER does with hospitals, or the Wire with the legal world. As the name suggests, it is set in the West Wing of the White House, under the fictional (left-leaning, Democratic) President Bartlet, and features his family, senior staff, and other political types, such as journalists. Sound boring? Think again.

In the words of the late John Spencer, who played Leo (Chief of Staff and closest advisor to President Bartlet): “The West Wing is about human relationships, the backdrop is politics in the White House. But, basically, it's about ... these people who have worked together and formed complex friendships over the years.”

And these people are not just anybody. They are fantastically written, brilliantly portrayed, and complex. (Kudos to Aaron Sorkin, the creator and original writer, for that and so many things). It has been said that “in fiction, in order to engage our attention and sympathy, the central character must want and want intensely."; politicians at this level are deeply passionate people, and that is perhaps the key. This passion in the characters is intensely captivating – you find yourself rooting for them, crying with them, wanting to hug them. Of course, it does not hurt that several of them are rather attractive.

There are even a few love interests, subtly interwoven into the plot, and often doomed and difficult, most notably the smouldering romance between Josh Lyman and his devoted and highly capable assistant Donna Moss. The chemistry between them manages to gently simmer for seven seasons until... well, you’ll just have to watch it and see.

This show has everything you could possibly want from a television series: drama, humour, suspense, superlative acting from an amazing cast. The writing is fast paced and intelligent, with dozens of fantastic one-liners which fans delight in pulling out of their hats at any opportunity. The filming has also been deservedly praised, and the thoughtfully matched, often haunting music also merits a mention. Critical acclaim has been overwhelming, in the shape of 27 Emmy awards and many more nominations for individual actors, the casting as a whole, and various aspects of the writing, filming and music.

Whether you tune into the West Wing with a good grasp of American politics, or with no clue whatsoever, you will come away having learned something, whether it’s the meaning of an obscure Latin phrase such as “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” , or that there are only three words in the English language that start with “dw”. You will have been “ensorcelled” and “bewitched” by the characters (to quote one of them), the big themes, and the outstanding writing. You may even start planning a trip to America or writing fan fiction.

You risk losing a large chunk of your life to the West Wing if you cave to temptation and buy the boxed set of DVDs (currently priced at just under £50 on, a bargain by any standards) . You may be hooked for life. You may never be the same again.

You have been warned.

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