Outlander: When Sam Heughan says “Mistress Beauchamp”

Screenshot 2014-08-26 16.20.52When Diana Gabaladon‘s “Outlander” first came out in print twenty-three years ago (damn, how time flies), I remember it took me just two days to devour the entire 600 page novel.  Outlander is the story of a Claire Beauchamp Randall, an English WWII nurse who finds magic in a Stonehenge-like Sarsen stone and is propelled back in time to the years before the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.  There she falls in love and marries a Highland warrior, James (“Jamie”) Alexander Mackenzie Fraser.  Claire is the Outlander – or “Sassenach” in Gaelic: out of her time, her culture, and generally out-of-place.

When Gabaldon announced that Claire and Jamie would come alive on my 50-inch “small” screen, I was not sure I’d like the results, although I knew I’d watch anyway.  After three episodes, I am truly pleased with the adaptation, probably for the attention to detail in the filming and because they’ve stayed true to the original storyline.  Kudos to Starz Originals for buying the series.

Unlike other films supposedly set Scotland but filmed, say, in Ireland or Vancouver, the Outlander series is actually filmed in Scotland in Doune Castle in Perthshire (been there), Falkland and Culross in Fife (there too), Loch Rannoch in the Highlands, and less majestically, a warehouse off the M80 near Cumbernauld. I hear tell this production was the biggest film/TV investment in the country ever. Scotland is an astoundingly beautiful country and not before time that its beauty is captured on a wildly popular international series (the novels have sold at least 25 million copies.)  That’s a lot of eyeballs for the Scottish Tourist Board to convert to visitors.  Just saying.

There are so many fine Scots actors in the show including one of my favorites, Gary Lewis (“My Name is Joe,” “Merlin” (Alator), and “Billy Elliott”).  Love me Annette Badland (“Doctor Who” fame) as Mrs. Fitz.  Tobias Menzies (“Rome” and “Game of Thrones”) hits the right notes as Frank Randall — and so far does a creditable job as Black Jack. The Scots actors learned Gaelic, which is beautiful to hear and adds an authenticity to the Highlands in 1743.   And, they did a good job of casting.

But let’s to it – Claire & Jamie – do they cut it? Irish-born Catriona Balfe does a good job as Claire.  To be clear, that’s not damning her with faint praise.  Claire is a bit prudish, standoffish, independent and uncomfortable in the first few episodes, for all the right and obvious reasons related to finding herself in this very foreign land.  She is a well-brought up (if unconventionally so) Englishwoman in much less refined surroundings.  I’ll be interested to see how Catriona loosens Claire up as things between her and Jamie heat up. I’ve promised my sister Fiona that should happen next week or the week after.  Then, I predict a lot of heat up there in the Highlands.

About that heat – Sam Heughan – first, I’m so pleased the part went to a Scottish actor.  He has Jamie’s quiet heroism, disregard for his own safety, and matter-of-fact ways down perfectly. Not for nothing have kilt jokes been making the rounds of Facebook lately.   Aye, Sam is what my Scots cousins and friends would call a “verry braw laddie.”  It is NOT just the way he says “Missstrrrreessss Beauchamp,”  or carries himself in his kilt.  Sam has great screen chemistry.  I dunno if he has it with Catriona-as-Claire, but he has it with me, my sister Fiona and countless others watching.

We’re into episode 4 next week.  Claire is getting ready to escape…now things will get really exciting!   If you have read the novels, you will find the series is pretty faithful.  Diana Gabaldon has kept the series true to her vision, story lines and characters.  If you have not read the books, I’d say buy it, read ahead and enjoy all things Scotland.


My 2012 field trip to Scotland 

Mary Queen of Scots, CW’s “Reign”, historical accuracy and why I’ll watch anyway


Cast of Reign, premiering on the CW Network 17 October 2013

Pity the poor writers and producers of CW’s “Reign.” It has not yet hit TV screens in the US, yet the network is already defending the dramatic license they have taken with the series. (“Reign’ boss defends show’s relaxed approach to historical accuracy“).  The CW team, defending the series, keeps saying that they are “not the History Channel.”No really?   They need to come up with a response that has a bit more credibility. “We’re not the History Channel, so we can make up whatever we like” is not a real defense.  “We’re meeting a market need for a teenage, historical fiction drama and we chose to create a series about Mary Queen of Scots because  a) b) c) …”  might get them less flak and enable them to take their tin hats off.

I’ve already posted a couple of times my surprise that the CW would take huge license with the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Her life is replete with all the drama and scandal a series could wish for when told with detailed accuracy.  From the day she  escaped from the approaching English army and hid at Inchmahome Priory on Lake Menteith, Mary’s life was a rollercoaster of dazzling highs (crowned Queen of France) and humiliating lows (abdicating her throne; eventually being beheaded by her cousin Elizabeth I).  Who needs to make s*** up?  I could have given the CW years of great storylines on Mary and her posse (I’m still available for the asking, btw).  Skillfully handled, her story is amazing and heartbreaking.

I love the true life story of Mary Stuart.  I still have a copy of from the early 1970s of Lady Antonia Fraser‘s wonderful non-fiction biography of her, which I read when I was just eleven years old (and very precocious with it!) and captivated me.  I hate that her life is being brought to the small screen with less than great attention to detail and the real drama that was her life.  It is my hope that the creators of Reign have color just a little outside the historical lines, and not disregarded them completely.

But I get it,  I watch the CW from time to time.  OK.  Week to week.  I confess I have a wee addiction to the CW’s ‘Vampire Diaries‘ and have always thought that Ian Somerhalder would make the perfect Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (here’s my blog post on that sensational story).   I know, I’m probably the oldest CW viewer (it’s sad really).   There is absolutely nothing real about the Vampire Diaries, nothing at all and yet I love it.  Similarly, I watched Starz’s ‘DaVinci’s Demons‘ which, I’m guessing, bears not much more than a passing nod to reality, but I enjoyed it anyway.  Ditto both  The Tudors and The Borgias TV series.  In the CW’s defense,  its target market is probably the 18-24 year-old crowd who want fast-paced, slightly steamy entertainment (I’m guessing here, but I was in that age bracket once) and that target audience are not too worried about what is true and what is not.  The CW is great at marketing to its target audience, and I have to believe they know what it wants.

So if writers and producers make free with historical fact, but create really entertaining drama, should we complain?  Is the CW getting an undeserved kicking before the show even airs?  Perhaps.  For me, I have to see how far they’ve taken their creative license.  I mean, if teenage Mary Stuart starts having it away with, say Nostradamus (who I understand is cast as a young big of al’right played by Rossif Sutherland) I might complain.  But if they are making more of the relationship between Mary and the Dauphin Francis, her betrothed, then I could be OK with it.

One way or another I’ll be watching the series end-to-end when it premiers in October.   For one thing, I can’t imagine Megan Fellows as Henry II’s wife, Catherine de Medici.  It will take some great acting to make me see her as anyone other than Anne of Green Gables!  (Megan, I’m rooting for you.)

Here’s a link to a preview.  (Someone tell me why Mary, Queen of Scots, has an English accent? — People! The actress is Australian, surely they could’ve coached her?)

Quest for the origins of supernormal species tantalizes in “A Discovery of Witches”


A Discovery of Witchesis clever, interesting, well-written fiction that is so good I read it twice.  I almost never do that. It is one of the most engrossing, entertaining novels I’ve read in a long, long time.  I picked it up on the recommendation of a friend for a light romantic read, and while there was romance, there was so much more.  It had me hooked from the first page and I did not speak anyone for three days while I read it and its sequel “Shadow of Night.”  I’m just sorry I have to wait for the third volume in the trilogy…and the film.

In the world created by author Deborah Harkness witches, vampires and daemons live alongside us ordinary humans.  In this supernormal world we meet Diana Bishop, American descendant of Salem witch Rebecca Bishop. Diana’s is at England’s prestigious Oxford University as a visiting history of science professor reading 16th century manuscripts.  During her research Diana comes across an enchanted book on alchemy that immediately stirs up the vampires, witches and daemons.  The book–Ashmole 782–is thought to be a magical “Origin of the Species,” and each faction wants it for its own purposes but none has been unable to access it.  Diana has a unique ability to attract and open the book, and the supernormals are quite willing to threaten Diana’s life to gain access.  But Diana’s a witch who has turned her back on magic, and has no idea what she did or why the book responded to her alone.  Neither does the Congregation, the governing body of supernatural beings, whose attention is now as riveted on Diana and the powers she may possess as it is on Ashmole 782.

Also interested in Ashmole 782 is devastatingly handsome 1500 year old vampire Mathew Clairmont (I picture Eric Bana in this role, Hollywood hear me!).  He wants the book as much as the other supernormals, but with a slightly different purpose. He is a geneticist and has discovered that each supernormal species is showing early signs of extinction.  He believes the book may explain how the four species developed from one, and how to save them.

When Matthew meets Diana sparks fly, passion simmers and they are inexplicably drawn to each other.  But their love defies long-established rules of species segregation and brings them into further conflict with those seeking the magical book.They find shelter with their families, overcoming established prejudices, as they seek to understand Diana’s power as a witch, her reluctance to use it and how she, and she alone, could call Ashmole 782.  Villains materialize, good conquers evil–for the moment–but the stakes are high.

And I can’t tell you more.  I’d spoil it.  you have to read it.  Then we can talk about it.

I’m not a huge vampire-witch fan, and definitely no Twi-Hard, so the fact I loved this book comes as a surprise.  The mix of history and magic pulled me in along with some great characters.  Harkness draws her characters very well – there’s lots of conflict, large and small, and plenty of room for character growth, change.   The themes are fundamental and universal: where do we come from? How do we fit in? Why can’t we love where we choose?  The stakes–survival of each species–could not be higher.

I loved the settings–Upstate New York, rural France and (sigh) Oxford, England.  The production company will have an easy time with location shoots.  Harkness did a particularly great job of describing life in Oxford.  Once upon a time I lived there, so I relished the descriptions of the river, the colleges and the surround area. (Sigh. I must go watch some Morse or Inspector Lewis, just for a fix.)

If the Oxford setting drew me in, what kept me going was the history of  science that permeates the novel.  It kept the book fresh, and different.  From discussing the works of early alchemists in the context of the development of modern scientific enquiry, to framing the Origins of the Species and work on extinction as one of the driving forces behind Matthew Clairmont.  Brilliant!

Loved, loved it. Deb Harkness please hurry with the last book in the trilogy!

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Production gets in the way of acting in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina

I’ve read Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina twice, first when I was 12—precocious, no? And again a few years ago. I’m not sure it is my favorite story —tragic ending and so forth. But that did not deter me from looking forward to watching a DVD of Director Joe Wright and playwright Tom Stoppard‘s adaption of Anna Karenina on Saturday with my mum.

First, a shout out to the actors, in particular Jude Law as the wronged, self-righteous prig of a husband Alexei Karenin, Mathew Macfayden (who I would like in anything, it’s true) as Anna’s adulterous but loyal brother Stiva Oblonsky and Domhnall Gleeson as Constantin Levin, the moral heart and soul of the piece. Keira Knightley also did a fine job, though something she does with her neck make her head bob forward and back in an unsightly fashion. That said, it is hard for Ms. Knightley to be unsightly–she is quite beautiful as Anna.

More good news—The costumes designed by Jacqueline Duran are to-die-for gorgeous, luscious ball gowns, dramatic hats (with veils, so cool). No wonder she is nominated for an Oscar. I definitely fancy myself in a Russian fur coat and hat (fake of course) after seeing multiple versions on Keira Knightley. Dario Marinell’s Oscar-nominated musical score is beautiful and haunting. (Note: I’m the parent of a figure skater and I expect to hear this music in 2013 freestyle programs).

But the actual production—the set design—resembles a play in a theatre and, for me, it took away from the story and the acting. It was odd, and distracting and I wished for a smoother, more traditional approach to filming. But Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Katie Spencer’s set decoration are both nominated for Oscar’s along with Seamus McGarvey for Cinematography — so what do I know?

Finally, I concluded I’m not a fan of the actual story line: lovely, moral housewife content in her hum-drum life gets drawn into adulterous affair with ne’er do well bad boy and loses everything, family, children, reputation and finally the bad boy himself. In despair, she throws herself under a train. No hope, no redemption, certainly no happy ending for Anna. The only characters with heroic qualities are Levin and Kitty Oblonsky, who find true love despite initial setbacks.

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Already Getting It Wrong: CW’s “Reign” about Mary, Queen of Scots

Already Getting It Wrong: CW’s “Reign” about Mary, Queen of Scots

History is not that hard to get right people!  I am sorry to see that the producers and writers of the CW’s new teen drama “Reign”- if this story (link above) is to be believed – are playing a bit fast and loose with historical fact.

Mary Stuart left Scotland for the Court of Henri II of France when she was 6, not 15 years old.  I’m not sure why the need to change it — unless budget constraints prevent flashback to the reasons for her departure.  But it is a material point:  Mary left France so young and became French in so many ways.  That she became more French than Scots was one of many factors that hampered her return to rule Scotland.

Mary had four friends, all called Mary — known historically as “The Four Marys” (and yes, they are the subject of my novel).  The CW has created three Marys — another budget decision?

Apart from that, hurrah for the casting…

I will still watch, but I can tell it is going to drive me nuts.

Teen drama “Reigns” about Mary, Queen of Scotland in development by US CW network

Portrait Mary Stuart at the age of 13.

Portrait Mary Stuart at the age of 13. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Media reports, including the Digital Spy, suggest the US CW network is developing “Reigns” a teen drama about Mary, Queen of Scots.

Of course, I think this could be fantastic and think about some of the frothy period series like “Camelot,” “Robin Hood” … and think it could be well done.  Could it be as deep as “Game of Thrones” — not without a lot of stretching of the truth.

The teenage Mary, Queen of Scots was a bit of a yes girl.  She lived in France with the French royal family (Henri II, Catherine de Medici, Diane de Poitiers) and was engaged to Francois, the heir to the throne.  Her life revolved around standard court activities, even after her marriage.  There is not a lot of historical fodder for a “warrior queen” series until she is a bit older.

Her marriage lasted just a year.  Widowed at 19, Mary returned to Scotland where – yes- there is plenty of skullduggery, intrigue, death, battles and betrayal.  But not really in the teen sphere.

I like the idea, but I fear the CW will go further than even the “Tudors” in their creative use of historical fact to create drama.  And of all the famous Queens, Mary Stuart life does not need fictional drama!

Of course, the casting could be a lot of fun… I’ll defer judgment but will post more as I hear it. And I’ll be watching.

Henry VII, Beset and Beleaguered in BBC’s The Shadow of the Tower

If you’ve read “About the History Lady” on this blog, you’ll know the BBC dramas The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R captured my attention as a 10-year-old and launched an interest that has held ever since.  The Shadow of the Tower is the third installment of the BBC’s series that was not (I believe) ever shown in the US.  It is every bit as good as the first two, but it focuses on the less glamorous (or less famous) of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VII.  But Henry VII is important not just as the founder of the Tudor dynasty but for his own achievements, probably too often eclipsed by his larger-than-life descendants, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

The Shadow of the Tower follows the reign of Henry Tudor from his victory over King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Henry united the warring houses of Lancaster and York by marrying Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece and eldest daughter of Edward IV.  Despite securing the crown and uniting the country, pockets of rebellion and dissent continue to plague him throughout his reign.  Henry lives in the shadow of the Tower, aware of his tenuous hold on the throne.  As Henry VII, all he wants is to keep the realm at peace, fill the depleted royal coffers, secure the Tudor dynasty and be loved by the people. None of that is easy.  He is beset by royal competitors and pretenders (Lambert SimnelPerkin Warbeck), uprisings (Cornwall) and sundry traitors—real or imagined—from the Duke of Suffolk to the Earl of Warwick.  He keeps the Tower and its executioners quite busy.

It is actually a very good series, though you have to approach The Shadow of the Tower with an understanding of its limitations—some of which are glaring. You have to get past the really quite awful opening music and accept its set production is not of the 21st Century.  The screenwriting is very good—as is the acting, in particular James Maxwell plays Henry VII beautifully, trying hard to be a good, benevolent beloved king but having to continually to mete out the King’s Justice.

I nearly gave up on it after the first DVD with three episodes, at least two of which dragged a little, but persevered and was rewarded (perhaps I got used to the clunky sets and music).  The Perkin Warbeck episodes have terrific scripts, are well-acted and full of dramatic tension.  I finished the series, all 640 minutes of Tudor-loving viewing, very satisfied.  Yes, the story could use a remake, but it is still worth the screen time.

If you have not seen the two other dramas in the series, you must.  Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth R has not yet been surpassed even by Cate Blanchett or Dame Judi Dench (as terrific as they were).  Keith Michell in the Six Wives of Henry VIII is probably my second favorite Henry  ever (I give top marks to Ray Winstone in Henry VIII).

A couple of Tudor links you might find interesting: