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    I have no idea what to call this

    It’s interesting that Kim du Toit posted a series of pictures of Janine Turner this weekend, because I’d kind of been thinking about her myself.

    Atsushi brought back with him a tape of an NHK nature special about Mandarin ducks, not just because I like those sorts of programs but also because of a now sort-of-ongoing joke. When I asked him to pick up another video while he was out shopping, he apparently went to the mystery section and found the series Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime. (The episode he chose, BTW, was The Affair of the Pink Pearl. Yeah, if they ever do start rounding up the queers and herding us into camps, this household’ll be the first shoved onto the wagons, baby.)

    At first, I assumed he’d picked one of them up because we’ve already seen all the Miss Marples with the unsurpassable Joan Hickson. Then I looked at the Japanese series title: おしどり探偵 (oshidori tantei: “the Mandarin duck detectives”). This will make sense to those who know the series from twenty years ago on PBS’s Mystery! or who read the (badly plotted) novels on which it was based. Partners in Crime–it started as a book of short stories–centered around a husband-wife detective agency. The fun, of course, was seeing how they played off each other. At least, it was supposed to be. The books, as I said, were lame. The series was not, largely because the role of the wife, nicknamed Tuppence, was played by Francesca Annis.

    Annis has been known at home in England for decades–I think she’s most famous for playing Lady MacBeth. But she also participated in one of the gayest sequences in movie history–at the end of Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, as one of the queen’s handmaids. She’s not the one that gets to answer Octavian’s retainer (“Was this well done of your lady?”) with the gay-coronary-inducing line, “Extremely well–as befitting the last of so many noble…rulers,” while sliding poisoned-ly down a polished stone platform. Annis is, rather, the one who hands Elizabeth Taylor the fruit basket, after which there’s a brief but unforgettable shot of the darkly glossy figs being stirred from below by the asp.

    Speaking of darkly glossy, by the time of Partners in Crime, Annis was mature and beautiful rather than pretty. The scripts frequently called upon her to feign innocence while asking a client or suspect some key question, and she did it expertly: the eyes widen and flash with what looks like guilelessness to the person addressed but can be recognized as shrewdness to the television viewer. And unlike today’s flat-voiced starlet types, she could curl her voice up, down, and through syllables very expressively. Wonderfully pert carriage, too. It’s a shame, as I say, that the plots made Charlie’s Angels look intelligent.

    And I realized while watching it this weekend that it was Francesca Annis whom Janine Turner had been reminding me of, which had been driving me crazy because I couldn’t figure it out. One of the cable channels here has been broadcasting, for the last few months, this Lifetime serial about a women’s clinic. It’s called Strong Medicine, and the first time I happened on its opening credits, I noticed that it was produced by Whoopi Goldberg and was set in Philadelphia. So, of course, I was hoping that it would turn out to be some socially-conscious soap with campy, contrived subplots about women put in horrible positions by the Nasty Patriarchy. I mean, I grew up around people in straitened circumstances and do not dismiss real desperation lightly; by contrast, central-casting desperation, when done with sufficient ham-fisted ineptitude, can be a fiendish delight. And, you know, Whoopi Goldberg as executive producer? Very promising.

    My stars, I was not to be disappointed. See, the Rittenhouse Hospital has an OB-GYN for the paying customers who’s a luminously beautiful, kind of fragile white girl (this would be Turner’s character). She gets to help the well-off with their genteel diseases and need for fetus-threatening surgery. She also gets to fence with the doctor who runs the free clinic. The free clinic, which serves The People, is headed by Dr. Chica Sista-Girlfriend, a Latina single mother who had to work her way through med school, fights for patients who are invisible to the system, and is always there for her son but still works her ass off at the clinic because she Really Cares.

    The supporting cast has the unintended-comedy thing down pat, too. There’s a male nurse-midwife–a scruffy, gentle-voiced vegan who prescribes massage therapy and stuff. The joke is that people sometimes think he’s gay, but we viewers in the tribe know he’s not because he quite clearly doesn’t think his penis was made for anything except taking a wee-wee. Oh, yeah, and the hospital receptionist is a reformed hooker. She’s a black woman. Guess what her assigned personality trait is.

    No, really. Guess.

    You lose.
    The correct answer is “shallowness.”
    Kidding! Kidding! Of course, our reformed-hooker receptionist is actually a SASSY black woman. Whoopi Goldberg is looming over this show, after all.
    Now, the great thing about a program on this kind of PC autopilot is that you don’t actually have to watch it to watch it. You can run the vacuum cleaner over the dialogue, go change loads of laundry, and cook in the part of the kitchen from which you can’t see the TV, and as long as you saw today’s subplots being set up at the beginning, you know exactly what will be happening when you come back in 20 minutes. Of course, you may be wondering why I’d bother, anyway.
    There are two reasons. One is that the commedia dell’arte levels of subtlety make many of the scenes irresistibly hilarious–and, as you might imagine, the more manipulatively heart-tugging, the funnier. The other is that, when Turner comes on screen, you can’t look at anything else. She’s given bad hair and make-up, and her chief job is to be thrown into emotional tizzies over her patients’ predicaments, but you get the sense that she’s overplaying because the director is pushing her to. In the scenes that don’t have some kind of sociological point, when she’s allowed to relax, the lower register in her voice comes out–both sexier- and more intelligent-sounding than the shrill “On my count!” breathiness she uses when things get frenetic–her brow unfurrows, and she seems as if she really could be a doctor trying to keep her equilibrium. She doesn’t actually look or sound like Annis, and the personality traits she’s portraying are different. Nevertheless, the effect is similar, because her voice becomes very musical, her eyes look keenly alert, and you get the feeling that she’s graciously pretending to be acting in a better show than she really is.
    Added on 7 January: Revealing the dangerous murder-obsession we all know grips every private gun owner, Jeff at Alphecca also just posted something related to Agatha Christie, listing his favorite books of hers. All good ones. He’s also correct that the movie adaptations of Ten Little Indians are all frightful. Directors just can’t resist changing the setting to a shadowy, creaky old house and slapping on a happy ending in place of Christie’s original very bleak one.
    I do think, though, that besides the abominable Miss Marple movies with Margaret Rutherford, the very worst Christie adaptation is the 1982-ish all-star The Mirror Crack’d. Angela Lansbury plays Jane Marple in lace-trimmed plunge necklines and with incessant, annoying tosses of the head. Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak humiliate themselves in roles as rival has-been actresses; and Rock Hudson walks around clearly thinking that, by comparison, it may not have been so bad to have to pretend to be in love with Doris Day, after all. A complete train wreck, and not a fun one, either.

    One Response to “I have no idea what to call this”

    1. Alphecca says:

      Around Town…

      I’m being lazy tonight. I just got home from work, I’m enjoying a glass of wine and surfing the net. Normally on Sunday nights I work on the Weekly Report but there was no real coherent theme so I’m just…