Netflix TV review: The Queen’s Gambit

Beth Harmon loves chess.

She loves it from first sight, loving everything about it even before she knows what it is. Barely has she persuaded Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the surly caretaker to teach her how to play it, than she is visualising alternative game scenarios on the ceiling of the bedroom at night. She doesn’t so much take to chess like a duck to water as like a fish to water. She is soon living and breathing chess. It has become part of her DNA and she lives for the opportunity to sneak down to the cellar for an illicit chess game with Mr. Shaibel, who effectively becomes her mentor. Soon Mr. Shaibel is actively teaching her basic chess openings such as the Queen’s Gambit and the Sicilian Defence: basically the techniques which mark professional chess players out from the multitude who never really think beyond their next move.

This is good news for Beth, as life isn’t going so well for her otherwise. The story begins in Kentucky in the 1950s and nine-year-old Beth (who is played as a young child by Isla Johnston) has been placed in an orphanage following the death of her mother in a car accident. The orphanage is not an overtly cruel environment but life there does seem very boring and all the children are starved of love and affection. Beth’s only real friend is Jolene (Moses Ingram) a free-spirited older girl.

Alarmingly, all the girls in the orphanage are routinely issued with tranquilisers, as was apparently standard practice at the time. These enhance Beth’s ability to visualise chess scenarios when she is not actually playing chess. On the downside, she soon becomes hopelessly addicted to the pills. As she grows into an adult (played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy), we see her develop further addiction problems, notably to alcohol. Her adult sexual appetites do not seem unusual, however, and her personality as an adult does not stray too far from the conventional norms either, aside from her all-consuming obsession with chess.

In time, Beth is able to escape the orphanage, being adopted by the Wheatleys, a middle-aged and middle-class, mid-20th century, middle-American suburban couple. Although ostensibly a more stable environment, it soon emerges the Wheatleys’ marriage is in its death throes. Alma Wheatley (another excellent performance from Marjelle Heller) seems fragile, overeducated and frustrated. Her husband, Alston (Patrick Kennedy) is a selfish, unlikeable character who always acts as if he’s being distracted from something more important.

Happily, Beth’s burgeoning chess career ultimately provides an escape for both her and for her adopted mother. The stage is set for us to witness the birth of Beth Harmon’s career as a 1960s female chess legend.

Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote the books which became the films, The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell To Earth), this is an endlessly watchable and compelling story of a fictional chess superstar, boosted enormously by a career-defining performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. Fidelity to the source material is not essential to a adaptation’s success. However, anyone turning to the original book after watching the series, will find the show follows the novel very closely with the exception of one major development early in the book, which was cut out of the series.

Following its October 2020 release, The Queen’s Gambit quickly became Netflix’s most watched scripted series to date. It is easy to see why.

A Star Is Born: A poem and a film review

Meet Jack: a country music star,

He can sing and play guitar,

One night, he walks into a bar,

And sees Ally (Lady GaGa).

She’s soon singing La Vie en rose,

She’s has lots of talent (and lots of nose).

He steals her eyebrow: they have quite a night,

She hurts her fist during a fight,

He puts peas on it to ease her rage,

(Later he pees himself on a stage).

You may have seen this tale before,

For this is version number 4,

And here’s a very important thing,

Both stars can act as well as sing,

He: the voice of the raccoon from space,

She:  with her p-p-p-Poker Face.

And credit where credit is due,

Bradley Cooper directs this too.

The Oscars preferred the film, Green Book,

But this film too, is worth a look.

The strange case of Eli Wallach, George Brown and the death of JFK

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Tragedy sometimes brings out the best in people. This is often especially true in the case of our political leaders. Ronald Reagan, for example, demonstrated genuine eloquence in the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster. John Major had a rare fine moment as PM when he payed tribute to his Labour opponent John Smith following his sudden death in May 1994.

It does not always work out that way, however. Such eloquence entirely deserted Labour politician George Brown when he appeared on the TV programme ‘This Week’ on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination on 22nd November 1963.

Brown and JFK

Brown was not a full blown leader: he had been beaten by Harold Wilson for the party leadership the previous February following the death of Hugh Gaitskell. But he was very senior party figure destined to be Foreign Secretary in the forthcoming Labour Government. He had also been closer to Kennedy than almost any other British Labour politician of the time. But his performance was to be hugely embarrassing “a compound of maudlin sentimentality, name dropping and aggression” according to author Peter Paterson.

Brown had met Kennedy three times, once in 1961 and twice in 1963, most recently just under a month before on October 24th 1963. A note undoubtedly supplied by the London Embassy for Kennedy’s perusal before his meeting with Brown, summarised the current thinking on the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party:

“He was a poor loser…His reaction to defeat, together with accumulating doubts as to his suitability for high office because of certain character defects such as irascibility, impulsiveness and heavy drinking, have left his future position in the Party in doubt.”

On November 22nd, Brown agreed to be interviewed soon after hearing the shocking news of the assassination while attending a drinks reception. Brown (who had had a dispute with presenter Kenneth Harris on air in the past), took immediate offence at the perfectly innocent and reasonable opening question: “I know you met President Kennedy once or twice. Did you get to know him as a man?”

“Now, you’re talking about a man who was a very great friend of mine…” Brown growled back, glaring at Harris fiercely and immediately began peppering his answers with over-familiar references to “Jack” and “Jackie” Kennedy. At one point tears welled up in his eyes: “Jack Kennedy, who I liked, who I was very near to…I remember it’s not many weeks ago I was over there with my daughter who lives in New York…and she was talking to Jackie across the garden. One is terribly hurt by this loss.”

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In Private Eye magazine parlance, the Deputy Labour leader was (not for the first or last time) “tired and emotional”. His speech was slurred, his arms moved too much. He was “unwell” in the Jeffery Bernard sense of the word.

In short: he was pissed on air.

Worse had actually occurred behind the scenes before filming had begun. Brown had very nearly provoked a physical fight with fellow guest US film actor Eli Wallach, the star of ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

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Having noisily asserted to everyone that the new president Lyndon Johnson (who he had also met) would be a great president, Brown began taunting the actor who was subdued and clearly upset by the day’s news, after he refused to be drawn into Brown’s increasingly tactless and insensitive conversation. Brown loudly asked why actors were so conceited and suggested Wallach was the sort who carried a newspaper around with him with his name in it. Wallach denied this, saying in fact no doubt accurately, that many people recognised him but could not place him or identify him by name.

The film actor attempted then to walk away, before the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party followed him and asked him if he had ever been in a play by Ted Willis (a Labour-supporting British playwright unknown outside the UK). “You’ve never heard of Ted Willis? “ Brown exclaimed before launching into more about the conceit of US actors.

Wallach snapped: “I didn’t come here to be insulted. Is this bastard interviewing me on this programme? If so, I’m leaving now!” Brown said more and Wallach took off his jacket. “Come outside and I’ll knock you off your can!” Brown told him to sit down and shut up.

Wallach ultimately had to be restrained by the other American guests. “I don’t care who he is, I’ll still knock the shit out of him!”

Later, Brown apparently made amends. But he still insisted on having the last word. “And now you’ll know who Ted Willis is!” he shouted at Wallace later.

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Although his behind the scenes row with Wallach was not publicised at the time, ultimately, Brown’s very public drunken TV appearance humiliated him. The fact that he had a tendency to get drunk very quickly on very small amounts was already well known in Westminster circles. Now everyone outside Westminster knew about it as well.

Brown made things worse with a badly phrased apologetic letter written to the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy soon after. The assassination was “particularly harrowing for me” Brown wrote, “since it marked the end of a year which began with the death of my own colleague Hugh Gaitskell.” He seemed to be implying his own suffering was similar in scale to the former First Lady’s, a woman who had very nearly been killed herself when her husband was shot dead while sitting right next to her.

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Ironically, Harold Wilson who had beaten Brown in the February 1963 leadership contest and who would lead Labour both in power and opposition until 1976 was effectively an alcoholic too, drinking much more than Brown but functioning better (at least until the mid-Seventies).

Brown survived the scandal but later described the last week of November 1963 as the “most miserable” of his life.

Thanks to “Tired and Emotional: The Life of Lord George Brown” by Peter Paterson (Pub: Chatto & Windus, 1993).

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