Down Memory Street; or, Thanks for the Sesame

The sight was monstrous. There was shouting. They were shooting. Someone stood guard to keep strollers from trespassing while the action went on undisturbed. Few folks seemed to care, though, so familiar had such sights become in New York City. One could always catch up with it later, on television. Besides, this wasn’t a crime scene. It sure wasn’t Needle Park or Fort Apache, The Bronx. This was the peaceful, upmarket East Side, for crying not too loudly, and the wildly gesticulating savage in fur was of the Cookie Monster sort. Sesame Streetwas being filmed on location—and the location, on that May day, was Carl-Schurz Park in my old neighborhood of Yorkville.

It seemed fitting that the beloved children’s television series should be shot here, right in front of Peter Pan, the bronze statue that, some fifteen years earlier—when the park had gone to seed other than Sesame—was violently uprooted and tossed into the nearby East River like an innocent bystander who, some thugs decided, had seen too much. It seemed fitting because Carl-Schurz Park is a tribute to German-American relations—and, in a long and roundabout way, I came to New York City from Germany by way of Sesame Street.

As a prepubescent, I spent a great deal of time in front of the television, a shortage of viewing choices notwithstanding. My parents were both working and I turned to the tube for company, comfort and the kind of guidance that didn’t come in the form of a command or a slap. West German television had only three channels until well into the 1980s, and the third one, back in the early 1970s, was still experimental, reserved mainly for educational programs aired at odd hours. Odd hours would have been anything before mid-afternoon, when regular programming commenced on weekdays.

So, there was literally nothing else on when I pushed the knob of our black-and-white set (a stylishly futuristic Wega) to come across Ernie, Bert, Oscar and the Cookie Monster—and they all spoke, growled or squeaked English. That is how I heard them first and how, several years before I was taught English at school, I got my first lessons in a foreign language.

I had just gotten through the alphabet and the numbers from one to ten when, without “Warnung,” Sesame Street turned into Sesamstrasseand the felty, fluffy foreigners became German, even though they changed neither looks nor situation. Being beyond pre-schooling, I now tuned in chiefly for the puppetry and the antics of the Krümelmonster. That is the way the Cookie Monster crumbled. “Krümel” literally means “crumb,” suggestive of the state to which something solid could be reduced in the process of translation.

Educationally, the early dubbed version of Sesame Street was dubious, to say the least. Spoken and written words and images did not always match.  Sure, “A” is for “apple” as well as “Apfel,” and “B” for “banana” and, well, “Banana.”  But there was little use for “C,” since few words in the German language begin with that letter, at least they didn’t during those days before Computers.

I remember watching a lesson on “A” that ended in “Alles am Arsch,” an expression only a tad short of the exclamation summed up in the last three letters of “snafu.” For once, even my parents took note.

Never mind, I remained loyal to Ernie and Bert, whose odd coupling I envied; and once the magazine accompanying the series was launched, with images of the puppets as centerfolds, the pair became my first pinups.

If only Sesame Street (a pun that, too, is lost in German translation) had remained on the air in its original language.  By the time high school started, and with it lessons in English—British, if you please—I had all but lost the enthusiasm; for the next nine years, I learned reluctantly and none too well, being that we were forced to go through joyless Grammar drills to arrive at the point of meaningful self-expression.

As a child, I never associated Sesame Street with any real place, let alone New York City, the seedy ways of which, back then, conjured scenes of violence and decay: the turf of gangs, the marketplace for drugs, and the inspiration for nothing except TV cop shows. It was just as difficult to get that image out of my head as it had been to get English into it.

Indeed, my first exposure to the Big Apfel demonstrated that image to be truer than the pictures of it in glossy travel brochures; no doubt, I had spent too much time eyeing the Carringtons of Denver, Colorado. That I fell in love with old, crime-ridden Gotham all the same had more to do with hormones than with anything we traditionally understand to be “tourist attractions.”

Since the mid-1990s, Manhattan has cleaned up its act, even though it wiped out much of the city’s character along with the crime—so successfully, in fact, that I once was slapped with a fine for dozing off on a bench opposite Peter Pan because I felt safe enough to rest my eyes.

Sesamstrasse, Carl-Schurz Park, and the old Wega set (images of which I had to google to remind myself).  The neighborhood of memory sure gets crowded as you travel ever further down the road . . .

So Long, Onslow

Onslow? Why not!
One of my too few regrets in life is that I did not manage to inspire any of my fellow students to make up a nickname for me when I was in high school. Not counting “Battle of the Sexes,” that is. That was more of a cut than a nick, and all because I didn’t seem quite ready to shave—or perhaps even to be beyond shaving—at least not where man folk is supposed to. It was much later in life that I earned a moniker, one that didn’t make me feel I should be called Monica, and without having to do much or make an effort to look like much to deserve it, if deserve it I do. Onslow’s the name—a name that, to millions of television viewers, conjures up an image of a lazy slob in what is dead commonly referred to as a wife beater, a bad name given the kind of shirt I tend to don when the point of dressing up beats me, when reaching for a respectably casual shirt seems a waste of time, especially of daylight savings. Is it that shirt, or perhaps the silvery whiskers to the swift removal of which I do not always see soon enough now that I got them, at last? Else, it might just be those extra few pounds around my waist that just scream handle, luv! Handle, nickname, dishonorific, or what have you. It’s a name only an uppity so-and-so like Hyacinth Bucket would call a sobriquet.

That I learned to live with—since that is so much easier than having to live up to anything else—can be readily demonstrated by the above shot taken on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star thus honored is, in truth, character actor Onslow Stevens; but I put my foot down to give the underachieving Onslows of this world their due, especially since I had already shed my shirt in the midday sun and was undressed for it.

Onslow, of course, was, like Ms. Bucket, a character in the Britcom Keeping Up Appearances, and Geoffrey Hughes was the actor who played the part, filling that undershirt better than I could ever hope or fear to do. Hughes died at the age of 68. And while I only knew him as Onslow—or Twiggy on The Royle Family—the fact that his passing topped news about the Olympics on the BBC website well before fatigue about that event set in even among High Jump (or Canoe Slalom or Trampoline or Water Polo) fanatics shows just how big a name he made for himself.

Eur[e]vision

I don’t often indulge in morning afterthoughts. I might—and frequently do—revise what I said (or, rather, how I said it); but I generally just take time, and one time only, to say my piece instead of doling it out piecemeal. Unlike the producers of much of the (un)popular culture I go on about here, I don’t make a virtue of saying “As I was saying” or make my fortune, say, by milking the cash cow of regurgitation. To my thinking, which is, I realize, incompatible with web journalism, each entry into this journal, however piffling, should be complete—a composition, traditionally called essay, that has a beginning, middle and end, a framework that gives whatever I write a raison d’être for ending up here to begin with.

Although I resist following up for the sake of building a following, it does not follow that my last word in any one post is the last word on any one subject—especially if the subject is as inexhaustible as the Eurovision Song Contest, which festival of song, spectacle and politics compelled me previously to go on as follows: “It [a Eurovision song] is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.”

Diplomatic blunder, my foot. My native Germany did win, after all, coming in first for the first time since 1982, when Germany was still divided by a wall so eloquent that, growing up, I did not consider whatever lay to the east of it German at all. Apparently, this year’s German singer-delegate Lena Meyer-Landrut, born some time after that wall came down, did not step on anyone’s toes with her idiosyncratic rendition of “Satellite,” a catchy little number whose inane English lyrics she nearly reduced to gibberish.

Her aforementioned insistence on turning toenails into “toenates” intrigued a number of bemused or irritated viewers to go online in search of answers, only to be directed straight to broadcastellan. Perhaps, the United Kingdom should have fought tooth and nates instead of articulating each tiresome syllable of their entry into the competition, a song so cheesy that it did not come altogether undeservedly last, even if European politics surely factored into the voting.

Britain never embraced European unity wholeheartedly—and those in the thick of the economic crisis now challenging the ideal of Europe may well resent it. Is it a coincidence that the votes were cast in favor of the entrant representing the biggest economy in Europe, a country in the heart of the European continent?

While not content, perhaps, to orbit round that center of gravity, other nations may yet feel that it behoves them to acknowledge the star quality of Germany, which, according to contest rules, is called upon to stage the spectacle in 2011. After all, why shouldn’t the wealthiest neighbor be host of a competition some countries, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, declared themselves too cash-strapped even to enter this year.

I may not have been back on native soil since those early days of German reunification, but there was yet some national pride aroused in me as “Satellite” was declared the winner of the contest by the judges and juries of thirty-eight nations competing in Oslo this year along with Deutschland.

That said, seeing a German citizen draped in a German flag as she approaches the stage to take home a coveted prize, however deserved, still makes me somewhat uneasy. Given our place in world history, the expression of national pride strikes me as unbecoming of us, to say the least. I was keenly aware, too, that there were no points awarded to Germany by the people of Israel.

Will I ever stop being or seeing myself as a satellite and, instead of circling around Germany, get round to dealing with my troubled relationship with the country I cannot bring myself to call home? That, after the ball was over, formed itself as a sobering afterthought. And that, for the time being, is the beginning, middle, and end of it. Truth is, I take comfort putting a neat frame around pictures that are hazy, disturbing or none too pretty.

“The Hut-Sut is their dream”; or, Accent on Eurovision

Folks flicking through the May 25-30 issue of Radio-Movie Guide back in 1941 were told about a “New Song Sensation,” a novelty number written by Ted McMichael (of the Merry Macs), Jack Owens and Leo V. Killion. The identification of the tunesmiths aside, this was probably no news at all to America’s avid dial twisters. Published only a few weeks earlier, the “Sensation” in question had already “featured on the air by Kate Smith, Bob Hope and Alec Templeton.” In fact, as early as 23 April, listeners to Eddie Cantor’s It’s Time to Smile program would have been exposed to what was tongue-in-cheekily billed as a “Swedish Serenade” overheard by an illiterate boy who “should have been in school”:

Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.

According to Radio-Movie Guide, Benny Goodman was so keen on the ditty that he wanted to “buy an interest in its profit for five thousand dollars.” It is easy to see the attraction of such novelty nonsense at a time when news from Europe were similarly bewildering yet decidedly less diverting. And before we tut-tut a nation at war for going gaga over a trifle such as “The Hut Sut Song” while being gleefully indifferent to—or woefully ignorant of—the world, we might consider the musical offerings conceived for the current Eurovision Song Contest, an annual agit-pop extravaganza that, in this, its fifty-fifth year, is playing itself out against the somber backdrop of the European fiscal crisis.

Much of Europe may be cash-strapped and debt-ridden, but the thirty-nine nations competing in Oslo this year have it yet in their means to bestow points and favors upon one another—or to withhold them. Even the least affluent countries of greater Europe may take comfort as well in the potentiality of turning freshly minted tunes into pop-cultural currency. Europe is less concerned, it seems, with the phrases it must coin to achieve such a feat.

The emphasis on rhyme over reason is apparent in traditional Eurovision song contest titles—and winners—like “Boom Bang-a-Bang” (United Kingdom, 1969), “Ding-A-Dong” (Netherlands, 1975), and “Diggi-loo, Diggi-ley” (Norway, 1984). It is an orchestrated retreat to the banks of a mythical “rillerah,” a clean plunge into a stream of pure nonsense beyond the realities of the Babel that is Europe. Might an agreement to be agreeably meaningless be a key to intercultural understanding?

“The Hut Sut Song” came with its own dictionary:

Now the Rawlson is a Swedish town, the rillerah is a stream.
The brawla is the boy and girl,
The Hut-Sut is their dream.

By comparison, most Eurovision entries, which, in the past, included “Volare,” “Waterloo,” and some inconsequentiality or other performed by Celine Dion, do not make much of an effort to render themselves intelligible. While by and large performed in some approximation of English, today’s Eurovision songs are, for the most part, incomprehensible rather than nonsensical, as if members of the vastly, perhaps inordinately or at any rate prematurely expanded union were determined to avail themselves of the English language as a means of keeping apart instead of coming together, inarticulate English being the universal diversifier.

Eurovision songs have always suffered—or, you might well argue, benefited—from less-than-sophisticated lyrics. Take these lines from this year’s Armenian entry, performed by one Eva Rivas: “I began to cry a lot / And she gave me apricots.” Which begs the question, I told a friend the other day: if she had only laughed a little, might she have gotten . . . peanut brittle? Well, perhaps not. Apricots are a symbol of Armenian nationality.

In its well-nigh incomprehensible delivery, “Satellite” takes the cake, though. According to British bookies and the internet downloads on which they rely to establish the odds, the quirky, bouncy little song representing my native Germany—where it became an instant success—is second in popularity only to the entry from Azerbaijan (which, as the contest rules have it, lies within the boundaries of Europe).

A Danish-German-American collaboration, “Satellite” scores high in both the “bad lyrics” and “strange accent” categories, proving, as only a Eurovision song can, that those categories are not mutually exclusive:

I went everywhere for you
I even did my hair for you
I bought new underwear that’s blue
And I wore it just the other day.

The singer, Lena Meyer-Landrut hails from Hanover. Not that this should lead us to expect any pronounced British connections in her house. Still, being a graduating high school student, she ought to have a firmer grasp on the English language. At least, her origins and education cannot account for—or explain away—references to painted “toenates” and underwear “thay blue.” Since, after weeks of tryouts and rehearsals, she still can’t, er, “nate” those undemanding lyrics, her accent is clearly an affectation. Could it be anything else?

Just what kind of “Hut-Sut” are European “brawla” dreaming of these days as they insist on diving, seemingly pell-mell, into the turbid “rillerah” they make of English? Not of a unity achieved through universality, I reckon. Perhaps, they are simply getting back at the native speakers by twisting their tongue in ways that are as likely to alienate as to amuse, and are having the last laugh by turning this recklessly appropriated language into Europop gold with which to pay back the British for steadfastly refusing to adopt the sinking Euro. The apricot stones-filled cheek!

Whether “Satellite”—or Germany—wins this Saturday has perhaps more to do with the recent bailout of Greece than with the merits of the song or the quality of the performance. Then again, a Eurovision song, however frivolous, is generally looked upon as something larger than its number of bum notes and odd intonations. It is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.

A Room With a View-Master; or, Four-Eyes in the Third Dimension

What the Bwana Devil! I’ve been trying on various kinds of glasses to take in Channel 4’s 3D fest—but none transport me into the third dimension. Turns out, viewing the weeklong series of films and specials, culminating in a “3-D Magic Spectacular” and a clipfest of “The Greatest Ever 3-D Moments”—requires special goggles that can only be obtained from a certain chain of supermarkets whose reach does not extend to Mid Wales. By the time we got around to driving some 100 miles down south, the glasses had already been snatched up. The thought of having a digital recording of “The Queen in 3-D”—contemporary film footage of the 1953 coronation—without being able to take it in makes me want to jump out and hurl flaming arrows at whoever devised this regionally biased marketing scheme.

Had the coronation taken place only a year or two later, this experimental and previously unseen documentary might never have been shot right at you. After all, 1953 was a big year in three-dimensional filmmaking; but it proved little more than a fad. By the time Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder was released in the spring of 1954, the novelty had already worn off and, to this day, few viewers get to experience the climactic scene in the way it was re-conceived for the film.

I caught up with the stereoscopic movies of the 1950s—among them It Came from Outer Space, House of Wax, and Miss Sadie Thompson—when they aired on German television back during the early 1980s 3D craze, which was similarly brief yet decidedly less distinguished: Parasite, Metalstorm, Spacehunter, and the inept Indiana Jones knockoff El Tesoro de las cuatro coronas.

Ever since I got my first stereoscope, known as a View-Master, I have been enthralled by three-dimensional images, or at least by the idea thereof. Rather peculiar, this, considering that those of us fortunate enough to have a set of matching peepers get to experience the same effect without having to sport ill-fitting, nausea-inducing eyewear.

So far this year I have put up with putting on special spectacles to see five 21st-century 3D movies, among them Coraline, The Final Destination, and Up (not counting the partially 3D IMAX presentation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince).  It seems that 2009 is even a bigger year for 3D than 1953. Yet while I rejoice in the prospect of further excursions into space, it strikes me that, as 3D goes mainstream at last, the technology has lost some of its rogue appeal. Movies like Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs do not exploit the potentialities of the medium with the abandon the added dimension invites. I mean, why throw money at 3D films if they don’t throw anything back at you? Maybe I’m wearing rose-colored glasses, but I am still hoping for a throwback to those 1950s throwaways. In the meantime, I’ll gladly return to radio drama, the invisible, immaterial theater whose action unfolds in the fourth dimension.

Television and the Individual Talent

Edwin C. Hill

“What happens to these ambitious people after their first appearance? Do they go on, succeed, become famous and lead the lives they’d dreamed of living? Or, after a brief glimpse of glory, do they return, disappointed and broken, into the humdrum lives they’d led before?” Those are question many viewers feel compelled to ponder after watching common folk like Susan Boyle perform on amateur competition programs like Britain’s Got Talent. Now, Boyle did not win last night’s finale, and a chance to sing for the Queen; still, her audition turned the unassuming, middle-aged belter-weight into what we are wont to call an overnight sensation. She so captured an international audience of television viewers and YouTubers that a movie deal and a musical seem pretty much in the bag, even though a career as a recording artist strikes me as somewhat less likely for La Boyle.

The world—or a considerable part of its too readily distracted population—fell in love with a moment, not with a voice. It was an instant in which our media-forged preconceptions about appearances in relation to ability was being checked in a way that was eye-opening without being cause for contrition. Boyle was duly rewarded for dealing with our initial cynicism, with the schadenfreude with which we approached her and to whose temporary check she so greatly contributed. Watching that performance was not so much a guilty pleasure as it was pleasurable guilt.

For anyone who has seen the audition performance (I only caught up with it online, days after the original broadcast), that sudden realization that she was proving us wrong by proving we had wronged her can never be recaptured. From now on, we simply expect a boffo performance worthy of all the ballyhoo. We are accustomed to the face and, having gladly suffered the momentary loss of ours, we keep our jaundiced eyes open for another chance to snicker and sneer. After all, as T. S. Eliot famously remarked in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), “criticism is as inevitable as breathing.”

The thing is, though, that the above questions were not raised by a contemporary reviewer; rather, they were voiced on this day, 31 May, back in 1937, by American news commentator Edwin C. Hill. Hill was referring to the rise of the amateur hour, a programming format he called “[o]ne of the most interesting radio developments in recent years” and commended as a “very human, very appealing movement”—“and a worthy one.”

The comment was made on Your News Parade, ostensibly with one Helen Gleason in mind:

Well, Saturday night on the radio, Helen Gleason answered this question—at least insofar as her particular case was concerned. Winning an Amateur Night Contest was the beginning of a brilliant career for Miss Gleason . . . a career which has carried her around the vaudeville circuits, through the concert halls of Europe, to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera Company . . . and more recently to stardom in operetta.

I say “ostensibly” because that blurb about the “appealing” talent show format was only another occasion to advertise cigarettes, Lucky Strike being the sponsor of Your News Parade. The media may create “overnight” sensations; but in their exploitation of such phenomena, in the milking of the cash cows of human kindness, they foster the very attitude of doubt that they make us question.

Somehow it has only gotten worse with the advent of video. On radio, Boyle might have had a chance to show off the talent she came to display and to be judged by that ability alone. It is television that makes us look like asses by encouraging us not to believe our ears . . .

[This post came to you a day late, on account of the exceptionally fine weather we’ve been enjoying.]

The Ironed-Out Curtain; or, From Russia With Love Songs

“I’m in love with a fairy tale / Even though it hurts.” It was with these lyrics, a fiddle, and a disarming smile that Norwegian delegate Alexander Rybak came to be voted winner of the 54th Eurovision Song Contest—an annual spectacle-cum-diplomatic mission reputed to be the world’s most-watched non-sporting event on television. However intended, the lines aptly capture the attitude of many Europeans toward the contest, just as the entries in the ever expanding competition are a reflection of all that is exasperating, perverse, and wonderful about European Unity—a leveling of cultures for the sake of political stability, national security, and economic opportunity.

This year, forty-two countries qualified for the semi-finales, among them Albania, Andorra, and Azerbaijan, while former, traditional contestants Austria and Italy have opted out of participating in the competition. The friction between East and West has become more pronounced in recent years, leaving a frustrated West to contribute awkwardly self-conscious throwaway songs that further diminished the chance of a winning song from, say, Ireland (a seven-time winner), the United Kingdom, or Germany. It was as if the West chose to cloak itself in a mantle of irony to set itself garishly and haughtily apart from the closely-knit, sheer impenetrable post-Iron curtain it perceived to be obstructing Eurovision.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about a shift in the voting, with viewers of Eastern European nations favoring the songs representing neighboring countries, since voting for the representative of one’s own country is not permitted. For the West, the contest has become both an embarrassment and a liability (the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Spain being the chief sponsors of the event and guaranteed a place in the finale). The chance of winning the contest based on merit or popularity became tantamount to wishing for a happily-ever-after. Until last night.

This year’s live event was hosted by Russia, the previous winning nation. Although Russia’s 2008 victory was not necessarily undeserved, the bloc voting had become so flagrant as to call any success of an Eastern European act into question. The thought that the triumph of the East was by now all but certain became so irksome to organizers and broadcasters in the United Kingdom that long-time commentator Terry Wogan withdrew from the contest and musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber stepped in to prevent Britain from suffering another abject yet just defeat.

To increase the chances, voting procedures were changed once again, this time combining popular vote (via phone and instant messaging) with the vote of a presumably less partial jury of musical experts. In a reversal of the dreaded trend, the British entry finished fifth, and that despite Lloyd Webber’s low-voltage power ballad and a somewhat flawed performance by the heretofore unknown Jade Ewen. Still, the United Kingdom may have regained the respect of the jurors by deciding to put an end to defeatist silliness and to reconsider the meaning of “Song” in “Eurovision Song Contest.”

Inspired perhaps by the participation of Baron Lloyd-Webber, the overall quality of the songs and the performers was superior to the dross and folly to which the pop-cultural event had been reduced in the 21st century. Sure, Alexander Rybak was born in the former Soviet Union—but there is no doubt that Norway won because of the exuberance, charm, and catchiness of its entry, just as neighboring Finland rightly came in last. “I don’t care if I lose my mind / I’m already cursed,” the lyrics continue. Thanks to last night’s event, those words no longer reflect the attitude of Western contestants.

Hattie Tatty Coram Girl: A Casting Note on the BBC’s Little Dorrit

They’re still after him, those producers of television drama. And they know that many of us are eager to follow and go after him as well. In a way, we can’t help being After Dickens, to borrow the title of a study on “Reading, Adaptation and Performance” by John Glavin. It’s a sly title, that. After all, we are belated in our pursuit; we don’t just try to catch up. We are bringing something to the most dangerous game that is the act of reading. We make sense and we remake it, too. This time around, Andrew Davies, the writer responsible for the award-winning dramatization of Bleak House, has tackled Little Dorrit (1855-57), one of the lesser-known works in the Dickens canon. Having greatly enjoyed the former when it first aired back in 2005, I am again drawn away from the wireless to go after what’s being shared out, a little at a time, by radio’s rich, distant relation.

Now, it has been some time since I last read Little Dorrit. During my graduate studies, the novel tantalized me with its perplexing nomenclature. Dickens’s uncrackable code of names and monikers inspired me to dabble in the dark art of onomastic speculation. The result of my academic labors, “Nominal Control: Dickens’s Little Dorrit and the Challenges of Onomancy,” is available online. While Dickens’s names still have a familiar ring to me, some of the faces, as interpreted and fixed for us by the adaptor, seem to have changed. Never mind Arthur Clennam, who is rather younger than the middle-aged man Dickens was so bold to place at the center of his novelistic commentary on the manners, mores and money matters of Victorian Britain. The character of Tattycoram is the one to watch and not recognize: a foundling turned changeling.

In the original story, Tattycoram (alias Harriet Beadle, alias Hattey—the act of naming is that complicated in Little Dorrit) is introduced as a “handsome girl with lustrous dark hair and eyes, and very neatly dressed.” As portrayed by Freema Agyeman, Tatty certainly fits the bill: a handsome girl with dark hair and eyes, and, my hat off to the costume department, neatly dressed. Hang on, though. The color of her skin has changed; and it is a change that really makes a difference. Has Tattycoram just “growed” that way? Or is this a case of revisionism?
It sure is not simply a case of equal opportunity, if such cases are ever simple. A black Tattycoram transforms the very fabric of Little Dorrit. It imposes an historical subtext on our reading of the story and the young woman’s part in it.

Adaptors, like translators, frequently engage in such updates, if that is the word for what amounts to anachronism. I was not bothered by the Lesbian characters the BBC insisted on sneaking into the staid mysteries of Agatha Christie, even though such reorientations seemed gratuitous and, in their treatment, out of place and time. The transformation of Tattycoram, however, is altogether more complicated.

True, slavery was abolished in Britain well before the story of Little Dorrit commences; but, in the Victorian novel, the black or mulatto figure remained largely invisible, or else was the brunt of derision. One such laughing-stock character is Thackeray’s Miss Swartz, the “rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s” who parades through Vanity Fair being “about as elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day.” In Dickens’s Bleak House, sympathy toward blacks is dismissed as the folly of “educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.”

The BBC revision of Little Dorrit comes across as an un-Dickensian, modern extension of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its sensitive and unsentimental treatment of the girl from Coram, the notorious London hospital recently revisited in Coram Boy. As a result, Tattycoram is less of a caricature than most of Dickens’s typically flat characters. Of the nearly one hundred personages we come across in Little Dorrit—which, according to the Radio Times, were reduced to around seventy-five in the process of adaptation—it is Tattycoram who now stands out as she struggles to emerge from her socially imposed conspicuous invisibility. It is an undue attention, warranted only by her transformation.

Showing a little skin, or skin a little darker, Davies’s retailoring may strike some of us acquainted with the genuine article as a bold new cut. To others, it seems that, in the process of giving the old Empire new clothes, the Dickensian fabric has gotten more than a Little Tatty. It got a new, postcolonial label that makes it seem like a knockoff.

They’re still after Dickens, all right. The question is: do they even try to get him?

Thank you for being . . . Sophia Petrillo

Today, 25 July 2008, would have been the 85th birthday of Estelle Getty, who passed away last Tuesday. Since I was unable to share my thoughts here on that night, I shall do so now. The actress was on my mind that very night, before I even learned about her death. There is nothing uncanny about that, though. I often think, talk about—even talk like—Ms. Getty and the Girls. As I have related here previously, I owe much to Getty and her memorable television character, the feisty octogenarian Sophia Petrillo. To commemorate the anniversary of her birth, I have been going through old diaries to determine just when Sophia entered my life.

Picture it. New York City. The summer of 1989. I was on a six-month visit designed to delay my return to what I feared might be a lifetime of office work for which I, despite a three-year apprenticeship, was entirely unsuited. It would take nearly another year before I finally found the nerve to pack my scant belonging and move to Manhattan. Anyway. The Golden Girls were already in syndication when, staying at a friend’s place, I happened upon the series one morning while channel-hopping onto the fledgling Fox network.

I was unaware then, but nonetheless sensed, that Getty was a gay icon. She had played Harvey Fierstein’s mother in Torch Song Trilogy. Sophia wasn’t quite one of the Girls, who went off with their assorted beaux, shopped for condoms at the supermarket, entertained a lesbian friend, a closeted gay brother, or faced an Aids scare in their very midst. There was hardly room enough for that “fancy man” of a cook in Blanche’s kitchen, even though he, according to Sophia, was “an okay petunia.” Initially, I even mistook Bea Arthur for a drag queen.

While at the very center of it all, the Sicilian spitfire was, for the most part, a bystander who poked fun at the crazy going-on around her. Unless, of course, there was a Japanese gardener around, or Cesar Romero stopped by. “I’m tired of being the Tonto of the group,” she complained. She was like me, in that respect, wanting to be one of the girls.

So, I woke up to those Girls every weekday morning, week after week, and learned about American culture, about Jerry Falwell and Harvey Milk, about Tammy Faye Baker and Anita Bryant. I will surely “sehr vermissen” the Girls when I’m back in Germany, I noted in my diary on 14 September, shortly before my return to the stultifyingly bourgeois world I was at once desperate and terrified to leave behind.

I recall the first time I got one of Sophia’s zingers. I was learning English back then and struggled with those one-liners, with words not in my pocket dictionary and proper nouns for which I had no image in my head, over which went many of the cultural references for the appreciation of which today’s viewers, like me back then, require a few footnotes. It was easier for me to pick up the odd noun watching Family Feud, which I did. Zsa Zsa Gabor, after all, was still enhancing her dictionary by following the spinning Wheel of Fortune. The words and phrases I picked up watching the girls were far more rewarding than those to be gleaned from whatever “survey says.” Slut. Yutz. Queen. Botchagaloop? And “Floozy.” Inexperienced as I was, I lived in constant hope of warranting such a moniker one day.

“Get some Windex!” Sophia exclaimed. It was her response to the vain, delusional, middle-aged Blanche, who thought it was “just like looking in a mirror” to see her niece, an oversexed adventuress half her age. Luckily, I had just come across a bottle of Windex somewhere in the bathroom cabinet while trying to get the thick coating of Aquanet from the floor to which my socks had gotten stuck. In my native Germany, references to commercial products were not permitted, which made the sarcastic remark all the more startling and memorable to me. Not permitted? That woman could say just about anything! And did. Ahh, to have her mouth, I thought. And that perfect excuse for saying anything you like.

Watching the Girls at times takes me back to those days in 1989, when I was anxious to arm myself with a few choice words from Sophia so as not to be tongue-tied when confronted with the wolves roaming the Big Potato (okay, that was Rose). New York wasn’t Disney World back then. I can still “picture it.” Batman and Indiana Jones ruled the box office, an African American Democrat was about to make history by taking office, and I was glad not to be stuck in an office. Hey, it’s like looking in a mirror. I know, I know, “Get some Windex!”

Secondary Childhood; or, Pandas to Ponder

It is not dotage, but a momentary state of doting. Not the reliving of one’s own youth, however romanticized, but an imagining—or experiencing—of what it means to be very young while looking at objects or confronted with performances not created with me in mind. Not reverie, in short, but empathy. That is what I call “secondary childhood”—the state of being elsewhere in time and space, being young there while being here and quite otherwise. Listening to so-called old time radio programs, I am keenly aware that I am entering worlds once inhabited by millions of children born in a country other than mine, past generations whose reflections are lost to us and, all too frequently, even to them—worlds the passage to which might have been blocked and obscured over time, but that might nonetheless be recoverable.

This recovery effort is quite distinct from the nostalgia of which I am so wary, the attempt of forcing oneself back through that passage and, failing to do so, creating one through which one may yet squeeze wistfully into a niche of one’s own making. It is quite another thing, to me, to set out to gain access to the worlds of other people’s childhoods, to tune in with one’s child’s mind open. I try not to make assumptions about audiences and their responses; instead, I try to become that audience by permitting myself to be played with so as to figure out how a game or play works.

As I have had previously occasion to share after a trip to Prague, I enjoy looking at old toys. Visiting the grand and rather austere neo-Norman castle of Penrhyn last weekend, on an excursion to the north of Wales, I was surprised to find, housed in that forbidding fantasy fortress, a corner devoted to a collection of dolls. Now, it seems perverse to be so drawn to the two stuffed animals pictured above, stuffed as Penrhyn is with exquisite furniture and impressive works of art (a Rembrandt, no less). I gather it was the bathos of it, the relief after having had greatness thrust upon me to be surprised by these unassuming and, by comparison, prematurely timeworn objects.

Turns out, the twin pandas in the straw hats are Wili and Wali, marionettes who co-starred in a long-running Welsh children’s program titled Lili Lon (1959-75). Upon returning home, I immediately went online in search of the two; but, aside from a history of their creators, little can be found about them. I have become so accustomed to Youtubing the past that I was surprised to find no trace of Wili and Wali. No doubt, they still dwell in the memories of thousands who shared their adventures. I was not among them; yet, as is often the case when I come across titles of lost radio programs or fragments thereof, I imagine myself enjoying what is beyond my reach . . .