Saturday, 29 March 2014

Oscar Best Picture: The Hurt Locker (2010)

Moving swiftly forward in time from the Broadway Melody, we watched The Hurt Locker tonight, which won in 2010. I'd not actually seen it before and was looking forward to it. It's a great film, very tense. I was debating with my husband how we would rank it compared to Wings (1927), which is, so far, the only other Oscar Best Picture winning war film we've seen. It's really tricky. Wings, which is a silent film, is very dated and the plot seems obvious now (although, in 1927 it probably wasn't so much). I liked The Hurt Locker better, but I think both should be judged in the period in which they were made. Wings, with its aerial special effects, revolutionised war films. Similarly, I think that The Hurt Locker has also moved the genre forwards with its unrelenting look at the uncertainties and dangers of war.

So, anyway, it's still early days yet, but my personal ranking goes: 1. Rain Man, 2. The Hurt Locker, 3. Wings, 4. The Broadway Melody.

The Broadway Melody of 1929

I watched The Broadway Melody of 1929 yesterday as part of our Oscar Best Picture winners challenge. It's the second winner and the first talking picture to win. It's also the first musical as we would recognise them (i.e. with the songs moving the plot along and telling the story).

As a piece of cinema history, it's an interesting film. The plot centres on two sisters: Hank and Queenie, who have a Vaudeville act and are trying to make it on Broadway. Hank is engaged to Eddie, who helps get them into a Broadway revue show. With forbidden love, self sacrifice and sibling rivalry, it is well acted, but very dated. If I'm honest, it is not a film that I would particularly want to see again, or really enjoyed. That said, however, it is an interesting film. There are actually only a few songs in the film - it's clear that what made a musical was not really settled in 1929 (unsurprising, given the fact that talking pictures were still a novelty and, due to this, a silent version of the film was also produced). It's worth a watch as a piece of cinema history, but probably wont be many people's cup of tea...

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Go Back Further in Time

Issue 141 (April 2014) of Your Family Tree magazine is now available. I wrote the cover feature 'Go Back Further in Time', which looks at the best medieval records for family history research and gives tips on going back to 1066 and, perhaps, even further.

The key to taking your family back before 1066 is to find a 'gateway ancestor' in the medieval period. This is an ancestor with royal descent, since only established royal genealogies break the 1066 barrier. For example, I wrote a book about Bessie Blount a few years ago and still carry out a lot of research into her family. Although the Blounts were a fairly minor gentry family, they were descended from an illegitimate son of Richard, King of the Romans, who was a younger son of King John's. John's grandmother, Empress Matilda, was a great-great-granddaughter of King Aethelred the Unready and the family can therefore trace their descent all the way back to the ninth century kings of Wessex and possibly further. Fascinating!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Tracing Medieval Female Ancestors

The April 2014 issue of Family Tree magazine will be hitting the shops in the next few days (and is also available online at Look out for my article on tracing medieval female ancestors. I look at the best sources available for finding your maternal family, whether high or low status, in the period between 1066 and the early sixteenth century.

Stoneleigh Library Event

Join me at a World Book Day event at Stoneleigh Library on 23 April 2014 at 7.30pm. I will be talking about how I go about writing a history book. Using Anne Boleyn as an example, I will set out how to locate sources and set out a biography of a historical figure. There will also be a question and answer session. Details of how to get a ticket are on the poster below.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Oscar Best Picture Challenge: Rain Man (1988)

For the next film in the Oscar Best Picture winners challenge we moved forward several decades to 1988's Rain Man. The film, starring Tom Cruise as selfish and shallow Charlie and Dustin Hoffman as his brother, the autistic Raymond, is a real classic. It presents a journey of self-discovery for Charlie as he and the brother that he had forgotten he even had take a road trip towards California.

Rain Man is set when it was made - in the 1980s. As such, the technology is fascinating. I loved the Sony Watchman portable TV! It was a serious departure from Wings, which we watched the previous week. I enjoyed both films, although for different reasons. Both are very much of their times and Rain Man, as the more recent, seems more relevant today. I was thinking about ranking the Oscar winning films. It's obviously a very personal thing and everyone will have a different hierarchy. So far, for me, it is Rain Man first and then Wings. I think, for me, Rain Man will eventually be very high up the ranking!

Friday, 14 March 2014

A Worthy Womman Al Hyr Lyve

Issue 3 of the Discover Your Ancestors bookazine is now available (and will be for the next year). You can buy a copy at WH Smiths or online at

I wrote an article on the lives of medieval women for the bookazine ('A Worthy Womman Al Hyr Lyve'), which aims to bring women of the period out of the shadows, as well as giving ideas for sources that can help you learn more about women's lives. Did you know, for instance, that a married woman had no legal status and could own no property or goods? Also, find out why the fourteenth century French knight, Geoffrey de la Tour Landry sat down to write a 'self-help' book to teach young girls how to be virtuous. Women make up fifty per cent of the population and, although often less visible than men in the medieval period, it is still possible to learn about their lives.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Elfrida in All About History Magazine

On the subject of reviews, I've just seen that Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England got a great write up in the January 2014 issue of All About History magazine. 'An engaging portrait' and 'an insight into life in England'. It is included as one of 'the best books, films and apps on English kings and queens'.

The Anne Boleyn Papers Review

The Tudor Roses blog has just published a great review of The Anne Boleyn Papers, which is the paperback edition of Anne Boleyn in Her Own Words and the Words of those Who Knew Her (I like the new title better!).

'This book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in Anne, but a must for those doing research'.

'Norton's introductions are excellent'.

'Norton, with precise fashion, has arranged a wonderful account of Anne's life through its collection of papers'.

'This book is a must for Anne fans but it is also for anyone with an interest in the Tudor period as it is an invaluable resource. For me this book is up there in my top books to have close to hand'.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Wings (Best Picture Oscar winner 1927-8)

This is world's away from my usual posts on here but I thought, why not! My husband and I (and my sister separately) are currently trying to work our way through all the best picture Oscar winners, from 1927- 1928 to the recent Twelve Years a Slave. Unfortunately, there are no Tudor-related winners, although The Private Life of Henry VIII and Anne of the Thousand Days were both nominated. However, this trip through cinema history should still be fascinating.

Naturally enough, we decided to start with Wings, which was the very first winner back in 1927-8. It is also the only completely silent film to win the Best Picture Oscar (although The Artist, of course, is very nearly silent).

I love silent films. One of the things that I find fascinating about them is the way that film is able to capture a moment in time. The people in the oldest of films continue to exist - to some extent - in spite of the generations that had passed. The actos who appear in Wings, who include the famous Clara Bow and a bit-part from Gary Cooper, are the same generation as my great-grandparents and I find it intriguing that their work is still available to be watched now.

I had heard that Wings was very dated and, to a certain extent, this is true. Title cards instead of spoken dialogue take some getting used to, as to some of the themes (for example, the fact that the heroine, Mary, is compelled to dress in a revealing sequined dress in the hope of luring the very drunk hero out of the arms of another woman). The special effects, for the period, are superb. The flight scenes are fabulous and it really is Top Gun for World War I. The plot is also very engaging and, although fairly predictable, it is compelling. It is also very well acted and I found the scene with David's parents, when he is going off to war, very moving. I really enjoyed watching this piece of cinematic history and am looking forward to watching other winners over the next year or so (it's going to take a while!).

Has anyone else watched Wings? Or do you have any recommendations for which winners we should watch next? I think we probably wont stay in strict chronological order. Alternatively, does anyone want to join us in watching all the best picture winners? If you do, keep me posted on what you are watching and what you think of them.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism

I reviewed Marina Warner's reissued Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (OUP, 2013) for Women's History Magazine Issue 74, Spring 2014. It was a fascinating book and one that I recommend. Warner seeks to look both at Joan's life and her afterlife in her study of the French heroine's impact and historical importance.

Warner ends her comprehensive study with the analysis of Joan that 'she has been set up as a stable monolith in an unstable world, and yet all the different uses to which she has been put proves only the vanity of our widespread refusal to accept that it is impossible to trap the idea of virtue within boundaries that will not alter'. Her Joan is both stable and changeable, with the historical figure still firmly at the core of the myth.