TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A forerunner of Afro-punk named Opal, who's an unapologetically Black feminist from Detroit, and a withdrawn, white British singer-songwriter named Nev are the improbable duo at the center of the new novel "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev," written by my guest, Dawnie Walton. The story is told in the form of an oral history written in 2015 by Sunny Curtis, the first Black editor-in-chief of the music magazine Oral that's a rival to Rolling Stone. Sunny's father was the drummer for Opal Nev when they got together in the early '70s. He was killed during a riot at a music showcase where Opal and Nev performed on the same bill as a Southern rock band known for wearing Confederate flags and for attracting a rowdy audience of bikers.
Sunny's motivation in doing this oral history is to find out more about her father, who died just before she was born. FRESH AIR's book critic Maureen Corrigan said she had to make sure that "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev" wasn't a true account of a real-life rock duo from the '70s. That's how authentic this odd novel feels. The Washington Post review described the novel as a dazzling triumph. Dawnie Walton drew on her own experiences as an editor at Essence, Entertainment Weekly, Getty Images and Life. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and lives in Brooklyn.
Dawnie Walton, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed your novel.
DAWNIE WALTON: Thank you so much, Terry. I'm honored to be here.
GROSS: So I'd like you to describe Opal and Nev as a music duo, what they both represent musically and why they're such an unlikely pairing.
WALTON: Sure. So Opal and Nev, they are an interracial duo. Opal is a Black American woman from Detroit. She's a singer. And she's not the best singer. But she definitely has an X-factor, that thing that you can't put a finger on that makes her fascinating to watch. She's a wonderful performer. And Nev sort of discovers her at a Detroit amateur hour. He's a white Englishman from Birmingham. And he's a bit of a quirky songwriter. He starts in the folky tradition. But he has some chameleonic tendencies. So as trends change, as music change, Nev tends to change with those things. And they get famous together in 1971 through a riot that occurs at one of their concerts. And it launches them into a spotlight. And they become a little radicalized. So they're making music that's a little ahead of their time, a little bit punk. And it's very political in nature. And they are only able to last for a couple of years that way. And then they sort of go their separate ways.
GROSS: Did you have real musicians in mind when you created Opal and Nev?
WALTON: I absolutely did, especially for Opal. I had three that were really key inspirations for me. There was Grace Jones, mostly for her style and her performance art. There was Nona Hendryx, who is one-third of the group Labelle, who were a great funk rock trio in the 1970s. And Nona was sort of the songwriter of the group and also, probably, the most political of the group. And then there was Betty Davis, who was an early '70s funk star on the downtown New York scene. And for Nev, you know, he was a little harder for me to put my finger on because he was such a chameleon. But in terms of his physical look, his aesthetic, you know, I was thinking about David Bowie. I was thinking about Elton John. I, you know, was thinking about kind of singer-songwriter types and some of the Laurel Canyon folks. So both of them are amalgamations of real people that I am a fan of.
GROSS: You describe Opal as being idolized by weird Black girls. And I'm wondering if you saw yourself as a weird Black girl when you were growing up?
WALTON: You know, I think when I was growing up, I did because I was really from a family who were music lovers. You know, my grandparents loved jazz artists. And my parents were into conscious soul, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. So I had a wonderful grounding in Black American music of all forms. And I loved all of that. And when I was a teenager, my curiosity went in different places. So - you know, this was in the early '90s when Nirvana broke through and changed absolutely everything. And I was drawn to that music because it felt taboo to me. It felt exciting to me and a little bit scary to me in a way that was strangely appealing - alternative rock, indie rock and a lot of music out of the U.K.
And the problem with that was that I, you know, rarely saw myself reflected in it. And there was - in my hometown, there was an all-ages dance club that played a lot of this music. And I was often one of the only Black girls there, you know, usually was the only Black girl there. And that was difficult for me. And it had me sort of questioning who I was. But then, years later, I went to an HBCU. I went to Florida A&M. And when I was there, I discovered that it wasn't so weird after all, you know? I was in this diversity of Blackness and discovered that we all kind of had quirks and liked different things. And I met, you know, a friend, who eventually became a roommate, who was the biggest Tori Amos fan I ever met, for instance.
WALTON: And, you know, it was just interesting to understand that I wasn't so weird after all even though I felt that way when I was growing up.
GROSS: That you were allowed to like what you like?
WALTON: Exactly. You can like what you like. And it doesn't change you. It doesn't change who you are. It doesn't change your pride in being Black. It doesn't change your connections to Blackness. It just is what it is.
GROSS: Did you sometimes feel like you were two different people depending on whether you were with your family or with your friends? And I'm specifically talking here about your white friends.
WALTON: I certainly did. I think that I was a master code switcher (laughter) from a very early age. And I remember going on family vacation, actually, to Miami to meet cousins that I didn't know that well. And I was excited because these were age-mates of mine. One of my cousins was maybe a couple of years older than me. And I was so excited to, like, get to know them. And I brought for the road trip down a tape case full of, like, music that I would listen to on my Walkman because my mom listened to her music in the car. And I just had my headphones on sometimes.
And I remember going down there and really hitting it off with this cousin. And she was in the car with us. I can't remember where we were going. But she happened to see the little tape holder. And she opened it up and was like, oh, wow. Do you like this music? And I remember feeling at the time that it felt like very kind of, like, a shaming moment. It felt like an indictment. And I look back at that now. And it was probably that she was just curious, you know, that she wanted to know me a little better. But I remember kind of stammering through the moment and feeling a little ashamed and feeling very kind of vulnerable that she had discovered that I kind of like this very white music, you know?
GROSS: So Opal has alopecia, which is - is that an autoimmune disease?
WALTON: It is. It is.
GROSS: Yeah. So your hair falls out, but it doesn't fall out evenly. So you have patches of hair and patches of baldness. And so she suffers through that until it's diagnosed. And eventually, she just, like, shaves her head and, as I said, makes it into a fashion statement. Of all the things you could've given her, why did you give her that? And I'm wondering if you had issues with your hair, not alopecia but just issues with your hair?
WALTON: I don't know that I would call them issues. I think that with - you know, hair is a really big topic...
GROSS: I know. I know. I know.
WALTON: ...When it comes to Black women. It's a really big thing. And I have always been a bit of an unfussy person. I am simple in the way that I dress. I don't like to spend a lot of time getting ready. And, you know, I grew up with a perm. And getting a perm was a whole thing. It was a day spent at the beauty shop, you know? It was being, you know, a little bit worried about when it rained or, like, different things. And it was, you know, curling it at night, sometimes before bed with these - those old, awful pink rollers, you know? It was a lot, a lot of fuss. And when I went to college, I actually - I didn't shave my head, but I did what we call the big chop, which is where you let your natural hair grow out, and then you cut off all the perm (laughter).
WALTON: So I remember I did this with a woman who lived off campus. She wasn't a professional stylist or anything. But she would do big chops. And I went to her house, and I was just like, ah, please cut it off (laughter). Like, I don't want to deal with it. And I also thought it was a really beautiful - a beautiful way to kind of just show my face, you know, and be open to the world. And a lot of women will describe the big chop as a very freeing moment, you know? Like, you don't have to wear a shower cap (laughter). You just, like, hop in the shower, wash your hair, wash and go, and it's very, very freeing.
So, you know, I cut all my hair off, and everyone at home was shocked. The first time I went home (laughter), you know, I think my mom was, like, a little surprised. But she was also laughing because she was like, oh, your grandma is going to kill you. Your grandma is going to - she's going to, like, fuss at you (laughter). And my grandmother actually did not say a word. She, you know, hugged me as normal when I came home, and she didn't fuss. She did not say a word about it.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dawnie Walton. Her new novel is called "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRACE JONES SONG, "PRIVATE LIFE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Dawnie Walton, author of the new novel "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev."
The story is basically - it's an oral history, the way you tell it in your novel. And all the characters from this music duo's lives are interviewed, and they get to tell their story from their perspective. And the points of view sometimes align, and sometimes they don't; sometimes they don't agree about things that happened. But meanwhile, Sunny - the main character who's writing this and who's the first Black music editor of a Rolling Stone-like music publication - she's writing the book to find out how her father was killed at a record label showcase featuring the duo Opal & Nev. He was the drummer for the band. And a fight breaks out when a Southern band that wears Confederate flags on its jackets and Confederate flags on the drum kit - the band's frontman has a Confederate flag as a cape. There's a lot of bikers who are their fans in the audience for this music showcase that both Opal & Nev and this Southern band are on the bill for. Long story, but a big fight breaks out, and in that fight, the music editor's father, the drummer in the band, is killed.
Especially where we are now with Confederate flags finally coming down and Confederate monuments coming down or at least being questioned, but many of - you know, many have come down. It's really interesting to go back to, say, the early '70s, when this novel takes place and the head of the record company can say, yeah, I just thought of Confederate flags as, like, another slice of Americana.
GROSS: When you were writing this novel, did you go back and look at Southern bands from the '70s that actually wore Confederate flag as part of their clothing or, you know, put Confederate flags on their amps?
WALTON: So really, I was thinking about Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Lynyrd Skynyrd...
GROSS: Yeah, I thought maybe (laughter).
WALTON: Yes, yes.
WALTON: So they are from Jacksonville.
GROSS: Which is where you're from.
WALTON: That is where I'm from. And they went to Robert E. Lee High, which was the high school I would have been zoned to go to, except I went to a public magnet school. And Lynyrd Skynyrd, where I'm from, were huge. You know, you would go to any kind of concert, and people would just start randomly screaming "Free Bird," you know? (Laughter) The Confederate flag was really - you know, growing up, I - you would see it everywhere. You would see it in gas stations on keychains at the front counter. You would see it on bikinis at the beach, you know? And I have the record label head, Howie, in the book talking about, yeah, he thought it was just another slice of Americana because it's shown in "Gone With The Wind." It's on the General Lee, the car that's the star, basically, of "The Dukes Of Hazzard."
And I remember being young and watching "The Dukes Of Hazzard" with my cousins and not knowing what that thing was on the top of the car and my parents not wanting to, like, lay all this heavy stuff (laughter) on me about what it meant, you know, and wondering why they seemed a little uncomfortable with us watching "The Dukes Of Hazzard." And it was all things that I grappled with when I got older and, actually, when I left the South, when I lived in other places and would see it.
GROSS: After the riot breaks out at this music showcase and bikers who have come to see this Southern rock band start really doing damage, the drummer for Opal & Nev is killed. And the music journalist writing this oral history is his daughter. So part of why she's writing this history is to learn more about who her father was and how he died because her mother was pregnant with her when her father died, so she never really got to meet him. After this horrible incident, Opal, who was injured in that incident, is really shaken and feels partly responsible for what happened. And she writes a song called "Who's The N-Word Now?" (ph) - I mean, she uses the word in the song. And again, this is 1970. So tell us about that song and why you wanted her to write it.
WALTON: Well, it's actually more of - it's a collaboration between her and Nev. This is the point where - before the riot, Nev has been the songwriter, and Opal has been his featured singer. You know, she mostly sings background vocals, and she occasionally takes the lead on the song. But this is the first time that, lyrically, they've kind of worked together on a song. And I think what happens is Opal & Nev come into Rivington Showcase, which is this concert - they come into it one way, and they leave it greatly changed. For Opal, I think it is a moment of politicization. She has been traumatized. She is also very angry. And I think that she leans into those things. She leans into those feelings.
And the song - you know, I only have a couple of lyrics in the book - but it's in the story song tradition that Nev writes, but it is a bit of a revenge fantasy, the song. And I think Opal is really, in this moment, grappling with who she's going to be as an artist. What feels authentic to her is to come out of this tragedy, this moment, really saying something provocative. And I think that's what it is for her. You know, the N-word is one that is flung around at the Rivington Showcase, and this is the way of sort of turning it on its head through this song and making a very big splash with it.
GROSS: The song is basically saying, I've got the power; I've got the weapon, so who's the N-word now? But there's a point where Sunny, the main character who is writing this oral history, where she thinks - and Sunny is the first Black editor of the music magazine. She thinks no matter how much they have presented themselves as politically aware auteurs in the wake of Sunny's father's death, the fact remains that their art had exploited Black pain. Now, she comes to kind of question that perception. But can you talk a little bit about that idea of, you know, artists exploiting Black pain?
WALTON: Yeah. So I think with Sunny - who is a journalist and thus a little skeptical, a little analytical - I think what she's seeing is, you know, before this moment, before this concert, Opal & Nev weren't making very much of a splash at all. They weren't selling very well. Their concerts weren't well attended. Their label was on the brink of dropping them. And then there's this incident in which her father is killed, a very serious headline-grabbing moment, and she sees them as sort of using that, right? And I think there's two different ways of looking at that.
I think for Opal, it is, again, this is me being authentic and actually speaking on these issues that I've witnessed firsthand. For Sunny, it's more like, OK, well, this is how you got very famous, right? After this moment - like, this is the thing that put you into the spotlight, and you continue to lean on it. You continue to lean on the provocative and this very violent moment in which I, you know, lost my father; I never got to know my father. And so what does that mean? And it's very complicated. You know, Sunny has incredibly complex feelings toward Opal. She both admires her and is a little bit queasy thinking about the ways in which Opal sort of uses this moment to seize the spotlight.
GROSS: My guest is Dawnie Walton. Her new novel is called "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev." She'll be back after a break. And John Powers will review the new British mystery series "Whitstable Pearl." Here's a hit by Grace Jones, one of the performers who inspired the character Opal in Dawnie Walton's new novel. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIE EN ROSE")
GRACE JONES: (Singing in French).
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Dawnie Walton, author of the new novel "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev." It's about an unlikely music duo from the early '70s. Opal is described as an ebony-skinned fashion rebel and Afro punk ancestor, an outcast Black girl from Detroit. Nev is a withdrawn, goofy white English boy who writes stories that take place on other planets and becomes a singer-songwriter. The story is told in the form of an oral history written in 2016 by a music journalist who recently became the editor of a music magazine, the first Black editor-in-chief of that magazine. Her father had been the drummer with Opal and Nev. He was killed in a riot at a music showcase featuring Opal and Nev and a Southern rock band that wore Confederate flags. This is Dawnie Walton's first novel. She's worked as an editor at Essence, Entertainment Weekly, Getty Images and Life.
There's a photo of Opal and Nev taken right after they were roughed up at the riot that broke out at the concert. And I want you to describe the photo.
WALTON: Yeah. So the photo is Nev coming out of the riot with Opal riding piggyback on him. They're coming out of the theater. Opal has broken her ankle, and she has seen - from her vantage point on the stage, she has seen Jimmy be killed. And she's coming out. She is screaming in the photo, so her mouth is open. And she has on her stage costume still, so she has the sequins on her eyes. She has sort of a strip of hair down the middle, a wig glued to the middle of her scalp. And it's sort of trailing behind her. And she - at first glance in the photo, she looks sort of like a warrior, you know. She's got her hands kind of up and this very tense and screaming face. And, you know, what she - as she recounts in the book, she's actually screaming to go back and get Jimmy because she doesn't know at that point he's dead. She's just seen him be beaten very badly. And Nev has broken ribs, and he's sort of bent over and very kind of - you know, he's got this black eyeliner on that's all streaked and a white button down and jeans. And he's sort of, you know, kind of stumbling underneath her weight. And just after the photo was taken, they kind of stumble on to this red carpet.
GROSS: So this picture becomes very famous. And for the photographer who took it, it's her moment of fame, and it opens doors to other things for her as a photographer. But I think Opal thinks of this photo as being kind of exploitive, that it took a moment of great pain and made it into this kind of, like, dramatic photo.
GROSS: And so during the period when you were an editor at life.com, you had to work with a lot of photographs and use them to illustrate stories or to just tell stories through the photos.
WALTON: We told stories through the photos, yes.
GROSS: Did you have to think a lot about what kind of photos were kind of exploitive in their own way and how to use, like, great dramatic photos that showed somebody's moment of intense pain, physical or emotional?
WALTON: Absolutely. And I was thinking about those images that seem to encapsulate a moment, something political, something cultural. And I was thinking very much about photos like the photo from Kent State and thinking about the young woman...
GROSS: With a woman kneeling over her friend who has just been shot.
WALTON: That's right. And that photo represents so much about that period of history in terms of protest and Vietnam and all these different things. But this - there was this young girl grieving and screaming for someone to help her, you know? And it was very interesting in my work at Life. You know, I worked a lot with celebrity images and entertainment and things like that. It was very interesting to look at different pictures and piece them together, piece - try to piece a story together using historical context but also calling in the photographer's notes, which were very neatly kind of often typed on onionskin, and trying to bridge the gap between what I'm feeling when I look at something like this and what was actually true and real. And that was the tension that I wanted to get at with the photograph was that, yes, it does seem like you can read a lot into that photo, you know?
And I think I have - in the novel, there is a whole, you know, someone doing a TED Talk about the picture and everything it represents in terms of, you know, race relations and gender relations. But really, you know, it's a moment for Opal of great distress. And it is the worst moment of her life. And to see how it is sort of elevated to kind of art and commentary and all of these things is upsetting for her.
GROSS: Do you think there's often a gap between what a photo comes to represent and what really happened at the moment it was taken?
WALTON: I do think that. I do think that there can be a gap, you know? And I love photography, and I love dreaming into photographs. I love trying to figure out, like, what might have been going on. There's a great Gordon Parks picture of Ingrid Bergman. He goes to shoot her, actually, at, like, this peak moment of scandal in her life where she's left her first husband and daughter for Roberto Rossellini.
WALTON: And they're filming this film in Italy. And there's a picture of Ingrid Bergman that he takes where you see these three - I think it's three women in the background. And they're sort of looking at her and she's got her eyes cast down. And it's like, is it a look of shame? Are they nuns, you know. Because they're kind of blurry in the background, and they're wearing kind of drapey black clothes, you know. There's all these things that you dream into, but you don't really know the truth. And so I always kind of keep my mind open. Like, of course, I think everybody is going to project a story onto images like this. But you also have to keep your mind open to, like, what the actual truth is.
GROSS: Right. And maybe Ingrid Bergman was just looking down for a second. Maybe she was blinking.
WALTON: That's right. Exactly. Exactly. Maybe she was just blinking.
GROSS: Yeah. So Opal is a kind of proto-Afrofuturist as a performer, and Afrofuturism has become, like, really popular. And I'm wondering if you're kind of hooked into that and what it represents to you.
WALTON: You know, I'm - I don't know a whole lot about it. I find it fascinating, though, and I think anything in which, like, Black people are dreaming I think is just fantastic (laughter). Like, imagination opening up and possibilities, I think that's hugely exciting. And I think how it manifests in Opal is just it's all - she's someone who is - she dares to dream very radically, and she dares to demand that there will be better and smarter and all of those things. And I think that throughout her life, she's always someone who's a few steps ahead, you know, ahead of her time. And that's how I wanted to present her.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dawnie Walton. Her new novel is called "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF YASIIN GAYE'S "INNER CITY TRAVELLIN' MAN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dawnie Walton, author of the new novel "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev." The book is told in the form of an oral history that's being written by a music magazine's first Black editor-in-chief. And her father was the drummer for this duo, and he was killed at a concert in 1971 after a riot broke out in the theater. And Dawnie Walton has been an editor at several publications, including Essence, Entertainment Weekly and Life.
So you took a big leap, leaving a steady job as a magazine editor to become a novelist. And you went back to school. You studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. What was the turning point for you that made you decide this was a perforation point? You were going to leave the security of a job and write a novel.
WALTON: So this was in 20 - I started writing this novel in 2013 at the point, you know, I was working at Essence. I was the deputy managing editor there, and it was a huge job with very long days. And I was also at the time going through some personal changes at home. You know, I had been married before and was going through a divorce at the time and was really questioning so many things about my life. You know, for so many years, I had been kind of on the straight and narrow in terms of my career. I went to undergraduate school for journalism. And, you know, even in high school, I worked on my school newspaper, and I was just sort of plugging away at that and climbing up the ladder. And by the time I was sort of reaching the top of that ladder, I still had a little nagging dissatisfaction. As much as I loved working at Essence, it was such a wonderful and supportive place, I was meeting as part of that job so often, like, the incredible Black women, you know, who we would cover in the magazine or feature at the festival. And these were women who were doing amazing things to make their dreams come true. And I think a lot of that spirit kind of rubbed off on me.
And when I was going through, you know, that divorce and kind of reassessing my life, I was like, well, you know, I've made the nest. I have this nest egg and what do I want to do with the rest of my life? And I had been writing on the sort of edges of my day, you know, waking up at 5 in the morning, staying up sometimes if I had the energy after work to plug away. And I just thought, you know, maybe there's something here. Maybe it's time to do something completely selfish and just take this risk.
GROSS: Your novel is written in the form of an oral history. One of the brilliant things about using that as a form is that every story is self-contained. You don't have to get people in and out of rooms. You don't have to make transitions, you know, between paragraphs in the sense that, like, somebody talks, then somebody else talks and it just eliminates a lot of problems.
WALTON: Thanks for revealing my secret, Terry.
WALTON: Yeah, you know, and when I brought it in, you know, people were like, oh, I don't know how you can write like this. It seems so hard and so structured. But I actually found it very freeing. And it was probably - of all the things that I've written because I've written some short fiction here and there, and I'm trying to work on something new that is, of course, not this form, I found it very freeing to allow just the characters to be wild and raw and to just get down exactly what they would say. And just - it was the thing that, like, I was able to make it flow. Like, I could write, you know, regularly a thousand words a day very easily.
GROSS: You went to an HBCU, Florida A&M. Did it change your life to go to a historically Black university?
WALTON: It changed everything. And it was the best decision I think I have ever made in terms of, like, decisions for myself and my career and my education. It was the place where I feel like my identity finally came together. And my confidence came into play. And my comfort with myself as I stepped out into the world - my HBCU experience, I credit it with that very much.
GROSS: Talk a little bit more about how it did that for you.
WALTON: So I think I came into Florida A&M, I had - you know, in my high school experience, I had a lot of white friends. And I felt a little different when I was among Black people my age. I felt - and I was projecting this onto them, I realize now. I thought that, you know, they thought that I was weird or an Oreo (laughter) or not happy in myself somehow or a little sad, you know? And I think that going into a Black college experience, just being disabused of all that and understanding, like, how - what a beautiful thing it is to be able to be your whole self all the time, there was nothing like it, you know? Like, I could never talk about race in that same way with the white friends I had in high school, as much as I loved them, you know?
Like, there had been moments that had made me uncomfortable. You know, there were comments sometimes that were made that made me uncomfortable. And I would just kind of swallow them down. And to not have that experience anymore, to be able to bring everything that I was, including the weird music that I liked or the - you know, all of those things that you realize, they don't define you. Like, they're just tastes, you know? That was a huge epiphany for me. And to create that kind of community in college has been one of the gifts of my life and taught me a lot about moving forward in my life and the kind of community that I want to have around me and that brings me peace and strength.
GROSS: Are you working on another novel now?
WALTON: I am in the place where I am starting to think about characters, because that's how it all starts for me is thinking about who the new sets of characters are and how I would like them to interact and intersect. So at the very beginning stages, yes, yes.
GROSS: Is it ever a relief to you not having anybody reporting to you, not editing other people's work, not having to report to somebody above you...
WALTON: Yes (laughter).
GROSS: ...And just, like, write what you want to write? Yeah.
WALTON: Yes. It's very free. I have to say, I'm really enjoying this phase of my life. I'm very grateful to my journalism career. I actually credit my journalism career for helping me to write this book because there's so much of that career in this book. There's the form itself of the oral history. There's, you know, my - the Sunny character, the journalist. All of those things really informed a lot of what was on my mind and on my heart. And I feel like - you know, I'm going to be 45 in June. And I'm finally, like, playing. I'm having so much fun.
GROSS: I'm glad to hear that.
GROSS: Dawnie Walton, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
WALTON: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Dawnie Walton is the author of the new novel "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev." After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new British mystery series "Whitstable Pearl." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "THE STRANGER IN THE MIRROR")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new British mystery series "Whitstable Pearl" is set in a small city on the English coast. The show, whose first two episodes start streaming today on ACORN TV, follows the adventures of its heroine, a local restaurant owner who helps the police solve murders. Our critic-at-large John Powers says the show's themes are familiar but no less appealing for that.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When we talk about television nowadays, we tend to measure new programs against stellar ones, like "Fleabag" or "Watchmen" or "The Crown." Yet when we turn on the TV at the end of a hard day, we don't need or necessarily even want a show that's a peak experience. We're looking for something to ease into, a show that doesn't have challenging themes but does have characters we enjoy being with. Everyone has their own favorite kind of go-to shows, mine are crime dramas, especially the British models. I whooshed through the preview episodes of "Whitstable Pearl," a new series on Acorn TV, the Anglo-centric streaming service that clearly aims to have a show set in every picturesque town in the British Isles, including the imaginary ones.
Based on a set of novels by Julie Wassmer, "Whitstable Pearl" takes place in, yes, Whitstable, a touristy seaside city that, to judge from the show, has a murder rate to rival Medellin in its drug cartel heyday. Kerry Godliman stars as Pearl, a single mom who runs a seafood restaurant, The Whitstable Pearl, along with her widowed mother, Dolly, played by Frances Barber. Pearl also has a small detective agency where locals come to get help with their problems - you know, a missing spouse or trash cans that keep getting moved. Invariably, these problems end up with a corpse or two lying around.
Pearl's work keeps her stumbling across a newcomer to Whitstable, Mike McGuire, a Black cop who's transferred down from London after the death of the wife he adored. Played with taciturn charisma by Howard Charles, McGuire initially mocks Pearl's gumshoe aspirations. But seasoned viewers can tell that two things are going to happen - Pearl will turn out to be a sharp detective, and the two are destined to become close, maybe romantically. Pearl's mom has hopes.
Here, as the two work in the kitchen, she notes that Pearl's son Charlie will soon be heading off to university.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHITSTABLE PEARL")
FRANCES BARBER: (As Dolly) Charlie showed me the prospectus for his university. Ignoring it won't make it go away. He's going to move out sooner or later.
KERRY GODLIMAN: (As Pearl Nolan) Yeah, well, not today.
BARBER: (As Dolly) Have you considered that this might be the perfect opportunity for you to live a little, to fill the inevitable void with something new, someone even? When was the last time you went on a date?
GODLIMAN: (As Pearl) Well, I'm a bit more quality conscious than you.
BARBER: (As Dolly) Quantity's more my thing. Do you even remember what a penis looks like? You know what happens to a wooden boat when it's been out of the water too long?
GODLIMAN: (As Pearl) Which part of me are you comparing to a wooden boat?
POWERS: The show is rooted in the notion, made canonical by Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett in the 1920s, that small towns are essentially hotbeds of festering secrets - buried crimes, decades-old resentments, illicit sexual encounters. While this conceit probably reached its delirious pinnacle in "Twin Peaks," it's still hard at work today. You find it in the enjoyable new Australian movie, "The Dry," which you can catch on VOD, and on HBO's current series "Mare Of Easttown," set in small-town Pennsylvania, which also centers on a sleuthing single mother with a sassy mom who wants her to go out on dates.
Now, in terms of ambition, "Whitstable Pearl" isn't in the same league as "Mare Of Easttown," whose blue-collar realism is anchored by a tremendous performance from Kate Winslet. Mare bristles with all the lived-in jaggedness that a character like Pearl would have in real life but that would sink a series as cutely titled as a "Whitstable Pearl." Where Winslet is clearly working hard, putting on weight and a much-discussed Delaware County accent, Godliman doesn't break a sweat. She offers a more traditional kind of TV heroine - a warm, salt-of-the-earth type who's smarter than you might think.
Yet if "Whitstable Pearl" is slighter than "Mare Of Easttown," it's also less taxing. The violence isn't grizzly. Family life isn't emotional carnage. And we don't feel life's darkness glowering down at us. Instead, in classic episodic TV fashion, Pearl and McGuire catch a new murder each week. And though the plots aren't exactly crafted with a clockmaker's precision, the puzzles are tricky enough to hold us and offer the satisfaction of closure. Besides, it's pleasant to spend time in Whitstable, a gentrifying city with moody skies, oyster beds and boats bobbing in the harbor.
And the cast is fun to watch, Godliman makes a very likeable Pearl. Charles' McGuire is excellent at laconic impatience. And Barber, who's played leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, steals all her scenes as Dolly, who may have secrets of her own. Does all this make "Whitstable Pearl" a great show? Far from it. But if you're a fan of series like "Inspector Morse," "Midsomer Murders" or "C.B. Strike," I suspect that on a sleepy Monday evening, you'll find it plenty good enough.
GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic at large. He reviewed the new British mystery series "Whitstable Pearl." It starts streaming today on Acorn TV.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR. My guest will be Annette Gordon-Reed, the author of a new book about the holiday Juneteenth, commemorating the day that enslaved African Americans in Texas were told that slavery had ended - that was two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. Her book is part memoir, part history. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book "The Hemingses Of Monticello." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN ALLISON'S "GREEN AL")
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