Monday, 25 June 2012

The Newsroom: ten initial thoughts

1. Bradley Whitford would have made a great Will McAvoy. The initial scene seemed to have been written for him. Sigh.

2. Aaron Sorkin has the courage to tell the truth about America. And about the fact that it's not the only country with freedom, thereby elliciting whoops from those of us who nod furiously when played the clip where Obama says he believes in American exceptionalism the way, for example, Brits believe in British exceptionalism. It's the kind of thing that may have riled some Americans, but won hearts in other countries. Because it's true! and refreshing to hear!

3. Aaron Sorkin has a thing about Belgium. I've always suspected this, but to get a mention within five minutes of the pilot episode is quite something. Well done him.

4. Also, he called the UK the UK, and not England. This is unusual for an American, and to be applauded.

5. MacKenzie did not need to be British. But if she was going to be British, she should have been called Fleur, or Sophie, or Fiona. British parents do not name their little girls Mackenzie, especially posh diplomat types. This unnecessary plot complication and unnecessary accent and ridiculously chosen name is likely to irritate me throughout.

5. Until the last scene, I worried that Mackenzie/Will had as much chemistry as Josh/Mandy. Which isn't a problem, except we are clearly meant to be shipping them. Oh well - maybe another meant-to-be-minor character will steal one of their hearts. The best ships are organic anyway. But then, oddly, I found myself welling up at the end. So who knows?

6. But Aaron Sorkin is clearly a romantic. More than that, he believes romantic love to be the motivation behind excellence, the thing that causes us to rise higher than we thought possible. Viz Studio 60 and the Social Network, though not the West Wing in quite the same way.

7. He's chosen to set this show not in a parallel universe, but in our real world - maybe the real world of a couple of years ago, complete with Barack Obama and BP oil spills. Interesting concept. And one which I think I Iike - it should make for some interesting social commentary, and means his creative energy will be devoted to characters and internal plot, rather than coming up with external plot.

8. That episode was really long. Are they all going to be this long?

9. Recognisable Sorkin characters all over the place - most notably Maggie (whose name Mackenzie pronounces with an American accent for no discernible reason). She reminded me of Matt's assistant in Studio 60. In fact, she's basically the same character. Or am I wrong?

10. Aesthetically speaking (and in many other ways), it's no West Wing. And it is certainly no Studio 60. (I doubt the Bradley Whitford/Matt Perry combination can be equalled or surpassed by anything other than Bradley Whitford/Rob Lowe). But John Gallagher, Jr, has grown into a hottie since he was last seen dropping Josh, Donna and Toby off at a station so they could get a train going the wrong way. Maybe it's time I crushed on someone more age-appropriate. Think I can charm him with my British accent (and my genuine British name)?

Sunday, 24 June 2012

All because of Aaron Sorkin: how the West Wing changed me

The internet is aflutter with excitement about Aaron Sorkin’s new television show, The Newsroom. All kinds of questions are being asked: how will Sorkin write a Republican protagonist? Where’s Bradley Whitford? Will The Newsroom air anywhere besides the US?

Here’s what I’m asking: will it change lives?

Because The West Wing changed mine.

For a long time, my friends in London had been telling me I should watch it. “It’s all about politics,” they’d say. “You like politics.” They were right. Once I gave in, the show took over my life. And something surprising happened in me as I watched: I fell in love with the English language.

As a child and teenager, I wrote prolifically -- in French, which is my mother tongue. When we moved back to the UK, and English became my dominant language, I did not feel so inspired. French, I was convinced, was superior. It was beautiful. English was not.

But that was before Aaron Sorkin convinced me otherwise. His mastery of the language awoke something in me that had been dormant for years. “Oratory should raise your heart rate,” says one of his characters, and that is exactly what his words did for me.  I began to devour novels. I began to itch to write again.

Sorkin assumes an intelligent viewer, and yet still teaches them a multitude of things. He doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. And in the language itself there is poetry, too, and rhythm:

“Nice job on the speech,” says one character to another, Sam Seaborn, in the third season.
“How did you know I wrote it?” he asks her.
She quotes some of its phrases. “We did not seek, nor did we provoke… We did not expect, nor did we invite…”
“A little thing called cadence,” Sam replies, and you get the sense that Aaron Sorkin is winking at his viewers through those lines.

Sorkin is also skilled at developing complex and memorable characters, avoiding, for example, the liberal temptation to paint all Republicans as evil.  Life is not black and white, and nor should fiction be if it is to be believable.

Josh Lyman – deftly played by Bradley Whitford - is one such character: arrogant, brilliant, and deeply wounded. He is also at the center of a will-they-won’t-they storyline which kept many viewers hooked; I wanted my writing to do that, too. The restraint which Aaron Sorkin showed in not getting Josh and his assistant Donna together too soon – and the resulting tension - is one of the defining features of the show. I wanted to create characters as compelling as Josh and Donna; I wanted my stories, like Sorkin’s, to reflect the complexities of life in general and romance in particular.

So it was that walking home one summer Saturday after a morning of French teaching, an unexpected thought occurred to me: wouldn’t it be fun to tutor Bradley Whitford?  And that was the start of my first novel, in which someone very much like me teaches French to someone a little like him, who inspires her to move to Washington DC and (many years later) become a Senator.

Given the source of my inspiration, it was perhaps inevitable that politics would provide the backdrop to the story. My friends in London had been right: this wasn’t a new interest. I chose Sociology in my last two years of high school and almost studied Social and Political Science at University. I was once passionate about that stuff. And The West Wing prodded at that, too. Prodded and poked and awoke the beast.

And of course, I had to visit Washington, and the city stole my heart. Maybe it was the majesty of the monuments or the colors of autumn: we don’t have the deep, deep red of the maple tree in Europe. Maybe it was the surreal sense of stepping into a fictional world that had seemed only to exist on screens and in my imagination. Maybe it was eavesdropping on high-level conversations in classy restaurants. Maybe it was the abundance of literary events and of bookshops with names like Politics and Prose. Maybe – most likely of all – it was the fact that my writing feels intricately bound up with DC and the corridors of political power. Hard to tell. But I knew I wanted to live there.

Writing, by then, had become a serious passion; I began to dream about studying it full-time. And when I dream, I reach for Google. I typed in “MFA” and “DC”, omitting “two birds”, “one stone”. And it came up with American University, a place which not only offered exactly what I needed in terms of the course but which also –  oh, happy day! -- was rated number one nationally for its political involvement.

I applied but wasn’t accepted. Would Donna Moss have let that deter her? No, she would not. I worked on my admissions essay and sent in a better writing sample the following year, and this time it was a yes.
I’ll be moving to DC in August. Perhaps to embark on a whole new chapter of my life complete with best-selling novels, a part-time voluntary job at the Democratic Party, and my very own Josh Lyman. Or perhaps just for a two-year adventure. But either way, it’s because of Aaron Sorkin. It’s because of The West Wing.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Nice places to eat: Keops Palačinkarnica, Belgrade

I've been saying for months now that I'm going to start blogging about places I've enjoyed eating.

I've also had a conversation today about the things we say we should be doing but feel bad for not doing and instead wallowing on the sofa, thinking "I can't be bothered".

So, here we go.

One of the best places to be in the early-evening yet still stifling heat of Belgrade is by the river. And the river is helpfully lined with cafés. We chose one towards the end of the row, because we had a pushchair with us and this particular one offered reasonable access, and also because my friend had been there before and knew they did good crepes.

There was  a table free right by the water's edge: a good sign from the start. I feel terrible assuming that people away from home naturally speak my language, but was chuffed when it turned out that they had a menu in English. I went for a Rafaello - the white chocolate, almond and something. The reason I don't remember the something is that I asked for it to be replaced with Nutella - although it's not called Nutella here. My friend pulled a face and said "that'll be really sweet" - and it was, but it was also delicious, and plenty big enough too. I rounded off my mini-meal with my second fresh pink grapefruit juice and enjoyed the view and the relative cool of the evening air. Recommended.

Service: 9/10 - polite, efficient, multi-lingual but not over-eager
Food and drink: 8.5/10 - the bonus .5 point is for their being obliging in modifying my order! (Always important for me, since I tend to "know what I want" - as parents say of stubborn toddlers.)
Surroundings: 9/10 - looking out onto the river
Overall experience: 9/10 - not too touristy, not too busy, good atmosphere, non-intrusive music, and a welcome evening breeze. Great place to savour a dessert.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Past perfect, future not so tense...

I'm in the advanced stages of a profound bout of nostalgia this morning.

I was trying to remember the name of a Spanish grammar book we used at university, and in desperation emailed the languages faculty at Cambridge - not expecting for one minute to hear back from the secretary who was there when we started in 1997. I remember her really fondly, so I  exchanged a few emails with her, as well as another lecturer. I had a quick look on the homepage - most of whose contents would not have been online "back then". I found, among other things, my own exam papers from 1999 and several well-known names among the staff.

All of this reminded me that I loved university - I often think about the social side, and the picturesque surroundings, but I had forgotten how much I enjoyed learning. I'm giving my notice to my landlady today, which is more or less going to break my heart, so that was just what I needed as I set off for another two years of study. Now I'm excited...

(Apologies to Barry Cooper for the mildly plagiaristic title of this post...)

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Newsroom: a confession

I have a confession to make. 

I am a little bit afraid about The Newsroom

Let's face it, Studio 60 was no West Wing. Not even close. It was enjoyable, I will grant you that; I would happily have watched another couple of seasons of it. After all, not only was it written by Aaron Sorkin, not only was there much Bradley Whitford goodness, there was the very handsome Matthew Perry too, and the two of them had great chemistry. And the Christian-girl-falls-for-Jewish-guy plotline will always have a place in my heart, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who knows me. 

But The Newsroom will have none of those things. 

Granted, I liked The Social Network, which had none of those things either. But would I have wanted to sit through episode after episode of it? No. 

I really wish I could believe that Aaron Sorkin's bright future is not, in the oft-repeated words of Bradley Whitford, behind him. But, alas - and it isn't often you get to use the word alas in a blogpost - I fear that nothing will ever compare to The West Wing

I long for more Sorkin brilliance in my life. I am afraid that The Newsroom will merely deliver Aaron Sorkin greatness. 

Friday, 8 June 2012

Brave is starting again

I guest posted on a friend's blog a while back about the scary yet exciting adventure that awaits me in America. You can read my post here.