Tag Archives: BBC

James Gandolfini

Not many actors get to portray a character so perfectly that they burn themselves into popular culture. James Gandolfini played the conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano so well that not only did he become forever linked to the character, he added the entire Mafia family to the stockpile of things in which New Jerseyans take ironic pride — hey, we got Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, lotsa Superfund sites and we got Tony Soprano! I felt it when my California in-laws, who had always considered New Jersey something of a practical joke on the rest of the country, suddenly took a keen interest in places like Kearny and the Caldwells.

Shortly after the BBC began airing the show, I was talking on the telephone to a British investment banker with a great toff accent, who idly asked what part of the U.S. I was calling from. When I said “Hoboken” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You know that bridge he drives across in the opening credits . . . “

Another gasp, this one a little louder. “I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!”

I’ll spare you the details of how I gave a lesson in North Jersey geography to a Tory in the City of London, but I will say that even when the series was at its wobbly, self-indulgent, let’s-see-how-we-can-justify-staying-on-the-HBO-sugar-tit-for-another-season worst, I felt a link to The Sopranos. Partly it was commercial: the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits was an easy hook to use whenever I did author appearances in connection with The Last Three Miles. But it was in large part due to Gandolfini’s artistry.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Gandolfini excelled at conveying the sense of deep currents of thought and emotion going on beneath an impassive exterior. Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest of the mob cast became cartoon characters as the show staggered through its last three seasons, but Tony Soprano stayed real, thanks to Gandolfini’s immensely subtle talent.  During the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s switching between the paternal and the predatory made “College” the most perfectly realized episode in the only perfectly realized season. One of my favorite moments in The Sopranos comes when a dirty cop on the mobster’s payroll complains about how he’s perpetually broke. Tony tells him he should stop gambling because he loses so much. “Yeah, well I got two bills on Rutgers this weekend,” the cop says, and Tony replies, in a tone that shows he can barely keep from rolling his eyes, “That’ll solve all your problems.” Gandolfini may have done booster commercials for the Scarlet Knights, but whenever I hear about the latest ups and downs in my alma mater’s Big Time Football crusade, I think of him delivering that line.

Gandolfini did good and even great work after The Sopranos: as a played-out hit man in Killing Them Softly he gave a much-needed shot of oxygen to a film that really should have worked much better than it did. His performance as the father in Not Fade Away, directed by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, showed he still had talent and artistry to burn. There have been a lot of tributes to Gandolfini in the wake of his untimely death, but I particularly like this one from Glenn Kenny, who explains exactly what made him so great in Not Fade Away. As for Kenny’s closing line, all I can say is yes.

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Bruno’s tunes

Regular readers of this blog — to the extent that such people exist — know of my admiration for Dr. Jacob Bronowski, still best known for his magnificent BBC series The Ascent of Man. While doing some research, I came across this January 1974 entry in the BBC’s Desert Island Discs program, in which Bruno listed eight records he would take with him for castaway duty. Bronowski was a formidable polymath but he often joked that music was a language in which he stuttered. Despite all that, his list is intriguing: Winterreise alongside The Threepenny Opera, Ewan MacColl rubbing elbows with Marlene Dietrich, Benjamin Britten playing next to Tom Lehrer. Of course, Lehrer and Bronowski were both mathematicians; when you hear Bronowski’s remarks about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you’ll realize the two men shared other qualities as well. 

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Connecting with James Burke

My one and (so far) only connection with science historian James Burke came about, appropriately, through a connection: a friend who was about to interview the man for the second iteration of his famous television series Connections. The original series, which aired in 10 parts in 1978, was a brain-fizzing history of how several world-changing inventions came about through a daisy-chain of (often inadvertent) innovations and discoveries: e.g., how the increased demand for tapestries during the Little Ice Age laid the foundation for data processing and computers. The fact that some of the connections were more than a little arbitrary was part of the show’s charm: Burke began as a science reporter for the BBC, and his brainy enthusiasm for his subject was irresistible. (Those of you who missed the series can now find it complete and online, so I guess Friday the 13th is your lucky day, eh?) Each episode followed a globe-trotting format, using location shots and re-enactments that kept the show visually interesting without succumbing to vapid flash.

Anyway, my friend was slated to talk with Burke about Connections 2, which was about to air on The Learning Channel — this was, needless to say, the era before the channel abandoned educational programming for Cake Boss and Sarah Palin’s Alaska. He knew my enthusiasm for the 1978 series, so he asked me if there was a question I wanted him to relay to the man himself. I thought for a bit, then told him what to ask.

“You can’t be serious,” he said.

“Go ahead and ask him,” I said.

“I’m not going to ask him that,” he said.

“Go ahead. The answer will probably be interesting.”

So the telephone talk took place as scheduled, and Burke was his usual engaging self. At the end, The Question.

“Mr. Burke, I have a friend who admires your work as much as I do, and he has a question he’d like me to ask you. Unfortunately, it’s a very impertinent one.”

Burke chuckled and said, go ahead.

“Here’s how he phrased it. ‘Mr. Burke, why do so many of the great inventions of mankind seem to require a trip to Bologna?'”

He later said that Burke had a good long laugh, and then admitted that Bologna was one of his favorite places in the world for its scenery, wine, and food, so the moment he managed to wrangle an expense account, he figured out a way to connect with la dotta. Any city nicknamed “the learned one” is certainly appropriate for a man like James Burke.

These days Burke is involved with Knowledge Web, an online method for making your own connections. Time to play.

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The knight’s trail

One of my favorite poets, Simon Armitage, is having quite a year. Following on the success of his recent translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he’s  done a documentary about the poem for the BBC, in which he tours some of the places associated with Sir Gawain’s adventures and engages in activities above and beyond the call of poetry:

Of course, there’s no more historical evidence to suggest that Camelot existed than there is for Arthur himself, but that hasn’t stopped Arthurians (Trekkies in chain mail) and tourist officers putting pins in the map from Winchester to Carlisle. Few places, however, have embraced the Camelot legend more than Tintagel, in Cornwall. On camera, I read some of the poem in Merlin’s Cave and stride among the castle ruins on the clifftops as poetically as a pair of elasticated over­trousers will allow. I also meet two latter-day knights, Gandalf and Gary, and voluntarily take a punch in the stomach to test the protective properties of a metal breastplate.

Gary: “How was that?”

Poet (swallowing blood): “Well . . .  I felt it.”

Upon reaching Staffordshire, Armitage spent a night at the Roaches — which, despite its unappealing name, sounds pretty cool — and seeks out the most likely provenance for the Green Chapel:

Several locations have been suggested for the site of the Green Chapel, but for me it has to be Lud’s Church, near Gradbach, Staffordshire. Like an English version of the Grand Canyon, it’s a fissure in the rocks that reaches backward into the hill and is overgrown on all sides with luminous green moss. The clammy air feels as if it hasn’t been refreshed for several centuries, and it’s the perfect setting for the poem’s finale, as the terrified Gawain calls into the echoing cavern and hears above him the grinding of a giant axe. I’m wearing a green sash round my anorak by now, just as Gawain wore the gift of the temptress’s green girdle to ward off death, and I feel a bit like Miss Ireland circa 1976.

Next stop, Afghanistan. Oh the sheltered life of a poet.

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True dat

Undercover Black Man informs us that the DVD editions of my most favoritest TV show, The Wire, are such a hit in the U.K. that the BBC has started rebroadasting all five seasons, five nights a week.
My day job frequently has me calling bankers and other executives in London and a number of other time zones. Several years ago, when the Beeb started broadcasting The Sopranos, one London banker practically had an aneurysm when he heard I sat with my back to the Hudson River five days a week. Imagine a thick, slightly nasal toff accent for the banker:
BANKER: Where is your office, anyway?
ME: Hoboken.
BANKER: (Voice rising in pitch) I know that! That’s where the Sopranos live!
ME: Uh, well, actually, they’re a little west of here. You know in the opening credits, that bridge Tony drives over . . .   
BANKER: (Voice even higher) I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!
It was rather startling to talk to someone who thought of New Jersey as an exotic, interesting place, so I told him that Hoboken is in Hudson County and the Sopranos were more of an Essex County bunch, though they certainly had tentacles extended and bodies buried all through the Meadowlands. I hadn’t finished writing The Last Three Miles, otherwise I’d have talked up the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits. Maybe the investment bank would have bought a couple of cartons for its Christmas party. Oh well. Regrets, I’ve had a few.
I wonder how many Baltimore cubicle-slaves will have people with British accents asking them if they know the spot where Stringer Bell bought the farm, or where Omar got arrested, or how close they are to Prezbo’s school. If one of my London phone-buds says “True dat,” I’ll know the show is having an impact.

ADDENDUM: I just remembered the second season episode when Jimmy McNulty, a working-class American cop played by a British actor (Dominic West) doing a pretty damn good Yank accent, poses as an English businessman in order to get access to a private sex club. So the BBC audience is going to get treated to a Brit playing an American doing a Brit with an American’s bad idea of what a British accent sounds like. I don’t know if Dominic West has a Yorkshire accent in his regular speech, but if he does, then British viewers will probably be able to pick it out.

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