J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Spelling a Cast over Turn

Last night, just after the season finale of Turn: Washington’s Spies, Den of Geek published my review of the episode. This link will take you to all my episode reviews from both seasons of the series and a couple of auxiliary articles about its historical background.

I must confess to having trouble getting all the actors’ names right, especially in season 1. I got to watch episodes on a website a couple of days before they were broadcast, but I didn’t receive any press material listing the cast. Therefore, I used I.M.D.B. as a reference.

Unfortunately, that website gets updated unsystematically around the same time I was writing. I struggled to match modern head shots of the actors with how they looked on the show in eighteenth-century coiffures. (Which, in some cases, weren’t eighteenth-century coiffures at all.)

Then there were discrepancies between the site and the show’s credits. The actor playing Judge Richard Woodhull is Kevin T. McNally on Turn, Kevin McNally on I.M.D.B. The opening credits list the actor who plays Robert Rogers in all-caps as “ANGUS MacFADYEN.” I.M.D.B. calls him Angus Macfadyen. And for the first season I usually called him Angus Macfayden because that seemed more familiar.

Likewise, on some tight deadlines I turned Burn Gorman into Burn Gorham and Samuel Roukin into Simon Roukin—probably miscued by his character’s name, Simcoe. Those were my careless mistakes.

But the actors’ names really didn’t help. Mary Woodhull is played by Meegan Warner, not Megan Warner. Jordan/Akinbode is played by Aldis Hodge, not Hodges. And then there’s the man who plays Maj. John Andre:
JJ Feild
Not J.J. Not Jayjay. And not Fields or even Field. Feild. My spellcheck changes it every time.

I resolved to be more careful the second season. I knew it would be a bigger challenge as Turn added more regular characters, including Benedict Arnold and Margaret Shippen. As portrayed by:
Owain Yeoman and Ksenia Solo
Oh, come on!


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

An amusing post, John.

I must agree with you about the strange names some current actors bear, whether because of parental narcissism or their own desire to stand out from the pack, e.g. "Meegan" instead of good old "Meghan." As for JJ Feild, according to Wikipedia he was born "John Joseph Feild" so clearly he could have gone with something easier on copy editors like "J.J.," "J.Joseph," etc.

But I must take issue with you on Ksenia, which is one of several variants of a well-established Slavic woman's name derived from the ancient Greek "Xenia." IMDB and Wikepedia both state that Ksenia Solo is Latvian of Russian ancestry, so the distinctiveness of her name can't be blamed on either her, or her parents', desire for her to have a handle that "stands out." (Of course my being the father of a Ksenija has nothing to do with my sensitivity toward this!)

As for "Turn" itself, what puzzles me is why and how AMC, which in "Mad Men" produced a series so carefully attuned to a particular period's styles and morays, could put out something so laughable when set in the eighteenth century.

I hate to say it, but I think there is just something about the colonial/Revolutionary period that leads film makers/producers/designers (except, say Kubrick) to take a fundamentally unserious attitude towards the era. Perhaps the notion of men wearing wigs and breeches seems so fundamentally silly to Hollywood types that they feel they have full license to do whatever they want in terms of costume, material culture, and even the characters of the "historical" figures being presented. I think you'd be hard pressed to see the Civil War era treated quite so cavalierly.

J. L. Bell said...

A lot of the Turn cast are from Britain and Ireland, including several who play Americans, and the spellings of their names might be more common there. They might also face an issue that American actors sometimes run up against, of needing to distinguish themselves from predecessors in the profession with the same name. Hence, JJ.

I don’t blame Ksenia Solo for her name, and she’s also doing a fine job now on Orphan Black. But as I typed up reviews on deadline, I did wish the Turn producers had given me more Jamie Bells and Heather Linds to work with.

I think you’re right that Hollywood has trouble with eighteenth-century style. Shows like Turn want their males to be distinct in look, which is a problem when characters are in uniform, or adopting very similar styles of wigs and suits. The show gives Rogers and Brewster anachronistic beards and ridiculous costumes to emphasize their supposed loose-cannon nature. Studios also want the leads to be attractive to audiences, which means tailoring the look of the period to current standards of handsomeness and beauty.

In season 2 of Turn, the show’s explicit discussions of beards and Andre’s braid made clear the producers had heard the critiques on those points and were having fun with the coiffure choices.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Good points, John.

You know, however, I think Hollywood does at least somewhat better with 18th-century films set in Europe, I suppose because it's seen as something of an alien world anyway.

Dangerous Liaisons, for example, was I think reasonable on the costume front.

I think things get worse when you combine America, the 18th century, and film: then the schlock factor seems to go way up, and there's an expectation that every colonist involved in some sort of military role needs to look like the 1950s version of Davy Crockett. I know you've encountered the same syndrome when it comes to graphic novels set in the period.

J. L. Bell said...

You’re right that an American studio and an American audience had no trouble with John Malkovich as an eighteenth-century fop in Dangeous Liaisons. In fact, the opening credits made a big deal about how his dress and hair were so unfamiliar. As I recall, some people complained that his accent was not unfamiliar enough, that he seemed too American because he wasn’t putting on an outrrrageous acsohnt.

American popular entertainment about the founding era have the burden of being heritage as well as history, as telling us Very Important Things about ourselves. So of course some of the men have to seem manly, both in looks and in action, according to viewers' standards. Women likewise have to be attractive, though standards of beauty also change over time. And the complexities and paradoxes of real history get sanded down. Entertainment without that cultural freight might have more freedom.