Wessex on Screen: Coming of Age

Coming of Age was a BBC Three sitcom about sixth form students set in Abingdon, though mostly filmed at the BBC Television Centre in That London. A pilot, with several of the leads played by different actors to those featured in the eventual series, was broadcast on 21st May 2007. The brainchild of Tim Dawson, who was 19 when he first started writing it, it was very much a freshman effort, filled with obvious gags and broad performances from its young leads. It was, however, immensely popular with its late-teenage target audience, pulling in over a million viewers per episode and running for three seasons from 2008.

Critics were less kind. Harry Venning pretty much summed up the critical consensus, writing :

I sat through Coming Of Age with the will to live seeping from my every pore, leaving me drenched in a puddle of despair. 

The Stage, 13 October 2008

Venning was presumably not a teenager when he wrote that, though. If the success of Coming of Age proves anything, it's that audiences respond to seeing themselves more or less accurately represented more than they analyse the polish of the finished product.

TV Review: His Dark Materials episode 1

His Dark Materials is an adaptation of Philip Pullman's novel Northern Lights, set in Oxford and partly filmed in Gloucestershire. The Oxford in question is, in the words of the opening crawl, part of "a world both like and unlike our own", where souls take the form of animals known as daemons, and where Oxford University is run by a powerful church known as The Magisterium. The TV adaptation is a hugely expensive co-production between the BBC, HBO and a number of independent production companies, as evidenced by the vast army of executive producers listed in the opening credits.

I have never read the books, though I have seen the film The Golden Compass, which bombed at the box office back in 2007. The film version was criticised for supposedly soft-pedalling Pullman's anti-religious message. This message was not very much in evidence during the first episode of this TV series. We are told that the Magisterium is not very nice, but the portrayal so far seems more like garden-variety anti-Catholicism than anti-religion per se. You will find stronger criticisms of the Church in pretty much any comic written by Pat Mills.

Other people who have not read the books have complained that the opening episode was impenetrable to those not familiar with the world of the novels. I personally didn't find it difficult to follow. I did find it a bit of a slog, though, with its running time feeling much longer than an hour. But there was enough mystery to keep me interested, and Dafne Keen (Wolverine's clone daughter in Logan) is a likeable lead, so I intend to keep watching. I hope the pace picks up a bit, though, in future episodes.

Wessex Attractions: Fyne Court

Fyne Court is a National Trust owned garden set among the ruins of a burnt-out Georgian house rumoured to be the original Castle Frankenstein!

Before I explain what I mean by that, a little overview of the garden as it is today. Set in the Quantock Hills, Fyne Court covers 65 acres. It provides a popular venue for orienteering, and three walking trails. one of which forms a part of King Alfred's Way. Species that can be found here include red deer. skylark, and Dartford warbler.

The house formerly belonged to Andrew Crosse (1784-1855), a pioneer in the field of electricity. Sir Humphry Davy visited Fyne Court in 1827, and the two of them were among the first to create voltaic piles. a type of primitive battery, Cross later experimented with separating copper from its ores using electricity. During one experiment, he noticed a number of mites, which he believed had been hatched from eggs laid in the ores. He was accused of blasphemy, usurping the role of God by "creating" the insects (which he never claimed to have done). A popular legend claims that this was the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It's a nice story, but unfortunately, the experiments took place some 20 years after Frankenstein's publication, so it could not possibly be true.

Fyne Court was burned down in 1894, not by an angry mob of villagers carrying flaming torches, but by an ordinary kitchen fire. Parts of the structure still remain, and the National Trust has tried to recreate the layout of the house, for example by placing doors in the same position as they would have been when the house was still there.

The postcode, for satnav purposes, is TA5 2EQ.

Wessex Attractions: White Barrow

White Barrow is a neolithic long barrow south of Tilshead in Wiltshire, which was the first property to be bought by the National Trust purely for archaeological interest. Prior to that, the Trust had mainly been interested in stately homes, parks and gardens. But in 1909, the Committee of Imperial Defence, forerunner to today's Ministry of Defence, was buying up land on Salisbury Plain for military use, and so the Trust decided to preserve it for the nation. They bought it by subscription for the princely sum of £60.

The barrow is approximately 77.5m by 47m, and carved out of the chalk, giving it its name. It has never been fully excavated, keeping it well-preserved, and was first described by the archaeologist William Cunnington. Human skulls were found that were believed to have been subjected to cranial trauma, suggesting that the people buried there had died by violence, but later examination showed the "wounds" to have been inflicted post-mortem.

Rare bees and wild flowers can be found at the site. In 1998, a badger sett was relocated in order to prevent the badgers from burrowing further into the burial chamber.

White Barrow can be accessed on foot from a byway leading south-west from the A360. The postcode, for satnav purposes, is SP3 4RX.

Wessex Worthies – John Hanning Speke

Light blogging for the next couple of weeks, as I have to make a trip to Greece on family business. The miracle of post scheduling means that blogs will still appear, but they may be somewhat shorter than usual.

For a region supposedly filled, according to popular stereotype, with ignorant bumpkins, Wessex has produced more than its fair share of scientists, philosophers and explorers. One example of the latter was John Hanning Speke (1827-64), discoverer of the source of the River Nile.

Speke was born in Buckland Brewer, Devon, in a historic manor dating back to Saxon times. in 1845, his family moved to Dowlish Wake, Somerset, where they ran a small natural history museum in their home. It is not known exactly when John started collecting specimens for the museum. but there is record of him having been refused permission to cross into Somaliland for that purpose while serving in the army, as it was considered too dangerous. He did undertake several solo expeditions during his army days, however, including one into Tibet. This brought him to the attention of the famous explorer Richard Burton (1821-90), and he finally achieved his ambition of going to Somaliland. The army appered to have been correct, though, as the expedition was viciously attacked, and Speke barely escaped with his life.

In 1856, Speke and Burton went on an expedition to Africa's Great Lakes. Accompanied by the experienced Bantu guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay (1820-85), they reached Lake Victoria. Speke believed this to be the source of the Nile, but Burton vehemently disagreed. Subsequent expeditions appeared to confirm Speke's hypothesis, but the results were inconclusive.

Upon their return to England, the better-known and more charismatic Burton was able to sway public opinion to his side. He was not about to be upstaged by this upstart who had discovered Ripon Falls without him. It didn't help that while in Uganda, Speke had fallen in love with an African woman, much to the disgust of Burton, who was notoriously racist even by the standards of Victorian England.

Burton and Speke were due to debate before the Royal Geographical Society in September 1864, but before the debate could take place, Speke was killed by his own gun whilst out shooting, at the tragically young age of 37. It is not clear whether his death was an accident, or whether Burton's public humiliations had driven him to suicide.

Speke was subsequently found to be correct, too late, alas, for his reputation to be restored. He was buried at Dowlish Wake. The rivalry between Burton and Speke was dramatised in the 1990 film Mountains of the Moon, in which Speke was played by Iain Glen and Burton by Patrick Bergin.