Appreciating Black Cats

 

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Today, August 17, is Black Cat Appreciation Day!

Black cats are often feared, mistrusted and misunderstood.  For centuries they have taken on a soiled reputation and are often thought to bring bad luck. This theory seems most prominent in the United States. Perhaps because of Puritanical roots, or perhaps because of the color black itself — these cats have long been associated with all kinds of willy-nilly superstition.

It is time to dispel these myths! In truth, black cats are loyal, affectionate, funny and fantastic pets.  Historically,  black cats have been celebrated and revered in many cultures. In fact, these ebony beauties were thought to bring good luck in many parts of Great Britain and Asia. Consider the following:

 Seafaring Cats:

In Yorkshire,  it was believed that a black cat kept in a fisherman’s home would ensure his ship’s safe return from sea.  It was also believed that a black cat aboard ship would bring a bounty of fish.  If the cat was banished from the ship, the supply of fish would run out as well.  Cat ahoy!

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Doctor Cats:

In Cornwall,  it was believed that passing a black cat’s tail over one’s eyes would cure soreness and headaches.  In Wales, it was believed that  a black cat could ensure good health.  Modern day scientists have proven that  keeping a cat can actually lower one’s blood pressure, so there may be some truth to these theories.

black cat doctor

Wealth and Love:

“Whenever the cat of the house is black, the lasses of lovers will have no lack”  — Scottish Folk Saying

In Scotland, it was believed that a bride seeing a black cat on her wedding day would ensure a happy marriage.  Scottish folklore also states that a black cat found on your porch will bring financial prosperity. In Japan, a black cat was considered an all around good luck charm.

In Ancient Egypt, black cats were worshiped and revered because of their association with the goddess Bast.  Many pharaohs and queens owned black cats.

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21st Century Cats

In modern times,  the engineer and professor of animal science Temple Grandin has spoken praises of black cats.  Grandin claims that there is a relationship between fur color and animals’ behavior.  Black cats, she says, are known to be more sociable and adaptable. A stray black cat is often more likely to make friends with strangers. In groups of cats, the black ones will often be more affectionate.

If a black cat has graced your life, you already know they are smart, with a great sense of humor!

black cat humor

Despite all of this, black cats are still the last to be adopted out of animal shelters. If you are in the market for a pet, please consider one of these dark lovelies.

Famous black cat owners include Frank Zappa, Marlon Brando, Joey Ramone, Morgan Freeman, Brigitte Bardot, Vincent Price and John Lennon.  (And maybe even smart guy Groucho Marx…)

“A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.” — Groucho Marx

Take time to appreciate a black cat today!

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Happy Birthday Hitchcock!

 

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If you have ever watched the original Psycho, or The Birds, or Rebecca (preferably alone on a stormy night, with all your doors bolted) you know what it is to experience Alfred Hitchcock at his best.

The Master of Suspense, the Sorcerer of Shock, and the King of Comeuppance — Hitchcock is by far one of the best film directors of the 20th century.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on this day, August 13, 1899 in Leytonstone England. His father was a greengrocer, his mother a homemaker. He was the youngest of three children, an average student and a bit of loner.

But yawn. That story is far too mundane. Something must have happened in his formative years to help create his twisted persona, to turn him into the Tyrant of Terror, who would later alarm the world with his disturbing psychological horror.

It turns out a few things did happen.

When he was five years old, Hitchcock’s father wanted to punish him for ‘behaving badly’.  Little Alfred was sent to the local police station with a note asking the officer to ‘lock him up in jail for five minutes’.  This incident left a lifelong scar on Hitchcock, possibly influencing his frequent themes of harsh punishments, wrongful accusations and sly retributions for evil doers. He had a permanent fear of the police.

He also had a permanent fear of Jesuits.

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Hitch was raised Roman Catholic and attended Jesuit Grammar School at Saint Ignatius College. Years later, when asked in an interview how he – a  polite gentleman – managed to create such malevolent stories, Hitchcock replied: “I spent three years studying with the Jesuits. They used to terrify me to death and now I’m getting my own back by terrifying other people.”

His 1953 film I Confess starred Montgomery Clift as a Catholic priest who is wrongly accused of murder, but also hears the confession of the true murderer — and is sworn to secrecy by his priestly vows.

Hitch I Confess

Hitchcock’s first job was as a draftsman for an electric cable company called Henley’s.  Even then, as a teenager, he was already writing scary tales. Some of these were published in the company’s newsletter, The Henley Telegraph.

Hitchcock’s first piece, “Gas” tells the story of a young woman who imagines that she is being assaulted one night in London—but the twist at the end reveals it was all just a hallucination in the dentist’s chair induced by the anesthetic.

Interestingly, one of the episodes featured on Alfred Hitchcock Presents seems reminiscent of this tale. In the newer version, the woman’s hallucination involves a futuristic society in which all men have been eradicated through a medicine originally intended to kill rats.  There are no more men in the world! Babies are born through test tubes and they are always females! The woman wakes up from her dream to find that in reality, a famous scientist is currently experimenting with a medicine which will rid the world of rats!  The woman takes a shotgun, attempts to kill the scientist and… Well, you will just have to watch the episode to find out what happens.

His other early stories also indicate Hitchcockian creepiness and weird sexual overtones. One short story “And There Was No Rainbow” (which some folk thought should have been banned)  tells of a young man who goes out looking for a brothel, but instead stumbles into the house of his best friend’s girl. Hitch also wrote a piece called “Fedora” which gave a ‘strikingly accurate description’ of his future wife Alma Reville, although he had not yet met her!

At the tender age of twenty, Hitchcock got a job at Paramount Studios as a title card designer for silent films. Within five years he was directing those films.  His first commercial success was a thriller called The Lodger about London’s notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper.  

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 Around this time Alma Reville became Hitch’s assistant director. The two were married on December 2, 1926.   Alma became Hitchcock’s closest collaborator.  He rarely discussed her contributions to his films, although some were credited on screen. Alma was clearly ‘the woman behind the great man’ but she avoided public attention.

Hitchcock had the unique experience of working in the film industry as it evolved through all its massive changes of the 20th century. In 1929, his production company began experimentation with sound, producing the first ‘Talkies’.  Hitchcock’s contributions included Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much and his highly acclaimed The 39 Steps, which made him a star in the United States.

The 39 Steps established two unique Hitchcockian traditions: the ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ and The MacGuffin’.

The Hitchcock Blonde was the beautiful, ice-cool, perfect leading lady who often became a victim of twisted circumstances.

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First personified in The 39 Steps by actress Madeleine Carroll, his other blondes included Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh. Hitch believed that these flawless, classy women left much to the sexual imagination –  they were ladylike in public but potential whores in the bedroom. He described this archetype as follows:

“I think the most interesting women, sexually, are the English women. I feel that the English women, the Swedes, the northern Germans and Scandinavians are a great deal more exciting than the Latin, the Italian and the French women. Sex should not be advertised. An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she’ll probably pull a man’s pants open. … Without the element of surprise, the scenes become meaningless. There’s no possibility to discover sex.

The MacGuffin is a plot device — an object thrown in for the purpose of intriguing the audience, but which will have little consequence in the overall story.  In a lecture at Columbia University, Hitchcock explained The MacGuffin as follows:

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”

The MacGuffin took on a life of its own in filmmaking. It is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legends.  Some modern examples include:  the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name; the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane; the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III, and  the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic.

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Hitchcock’s recognition and fame continued to grow. In 1939 he received The New York Film Critics Circle Award for his film The Lady Vanishes.  Picturegoer Magazine called him ‘Alfred the Great’.  The New York Times called him ‘the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world’, placing him alongside other English treasures such as the Magna Carta and the Tower of London.

In 1940 Hitch directed Rebecca based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. (If you have not read this masterpiece, you must do so immediately!) The film won an Academy Award for best picture, with a best director nomination.

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Hitch and horror novelist Daphne Du Maurier formed a natural collaboration. His film The Birds  — a story of rebellious birds that slowly and creepily take over a California town — was also based on a story written by Du Maurier.

A few years ago my local movie theater ran a big screen production of The Birds. Tippi Hedren,  an iconic Hitchcock Blonde who stars in the film, came in as a guest speaker.

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I swear to god she looked EXACTLY the same as she did in the film!  Some forty years had passed and the woman had not aged, not one day!  You will find pictures of Tippi Hedren on the internet where she looks older, but these (I swear!) are not real.  I believe she might actually have some weird Dorian Gray arrangement going on… Perhaps the internet pictures are aging as she herself stays young.  (Anything would be possible in Hitch’s world.)

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Hitchcock’s career peaked in the 1950’s and 60’s when he directed gems such as Rear Window, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, and of course Psycho.  This movie was the creepiest creep-fest of all, about a young woman (Janet Leigh) who goes to stay at a hotel run by a taxidermy obsessed man (Tony Perkins) who has a strange relationship with his dead mother…

 

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Hitch’s television series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ had a ten year run from 1955 to 1965. The fascinating thing about these segments is that, by today’s standards, they are very plain.  No bells or whistles, no special effects –  just simple black and white cinematography, flat lighting, and mostly unknown actors – yet the brilliant storytelling speaks for itself.

Equally entertaining was Hitch’s deadpan delivery  of introductions which always began with “Good Evening” and went on to speak of outrageous things.

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Hitchcock moved to California and became an American citizen in 1955, although still retaining his English citizenship. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980, a few months before his death. Film critic Roger Ebert considered it something of a snub that the Queen took so long to give Hitch his knighthood, writing:  “Other British directors like Sir Carol Reed and Sir Charlie Chaplin were knighted years ago, while Hitchcock… one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, was passed over.” Maybe the Queen was a bit spooked by him, or reluctant to invite him to the palace?

On April 29th, 1980, Sir Alfred Hitchcock died of renal failure in his home in Bel Air California. Despite his professed fears of the Jesuits, two priests came in his closing hours, giving a final mass at Hitchcock’s home and hearing his last confession.

Gone but not forgotten, we will never ditch the Hitch!  He shall always be alive in legacy, legend and the ominous voice that warns to lock the doors and be afraid. Be very afraid.

Happy Birthday Alfred!

This short tribute is a great celebration of the man and his art. Hope you like it!

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Juliet: A True Leo!

 

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Juliet Capulet, from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy ‘Romeo and Juliet’, is one of the few (or perhaps the only?) characters in the Shakespeare canon whose exact age and birthday we know without a doubt.

How do we know?  Shakespeare tells us!

In Act I of the play – before all the romance, sword fights and slayings occur – Juliet’s mother (Lady Capulet) and her Nurse discuss plans for Juliet’s marriage.

Lady Capulet seems a bit clueless about her daughter’s age.  She asks the Nurse:

“Thou knowest my daughter is of a pretty age… She’s not fourteen?”

The Nurse replies:

“I can tell her age unto an hour.  I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth she’s not fourteen! How long till Lammas tide?”

Juliet’s mom replies:  “A fortnight and odd days.”

The Nurse then says: “Even or odd, of all the days of the year, come Lammas Eve at night she shall be fourteen.”

Juliet and nurse

It is around two weeks until Lammas, and the Nurse remembers, to the exact hour, Juliet’s birth the night before.

(We will, for the moment, abandon our horror at the substandard  parenting.  Juliet and her mom do NOT have a close relationship. The Nurse has been Juliet’s pseudo-parent and confidante.  We will also forget our horror at the idea of the adults planning a marriage for a thirteen year old…)

Lammas (also called Lughanasadh) is a traditional Harvest Festival celebrated on August 1st.  Because the Nurse says ‘Lammas Eve at night’ we know Juliet was born on the night of July 31st.

This makes Juliet a Leo!

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Not surprising. After all, Leo the Lion is ruled by the sun. They are headstrong and passionate, natural born leaders, and by far the most loving and generous sign of the zodiac.

If you have ever known a true Leo, you know they are loyal, big-hearted, and will stop at nothing to pursue Love.  Juliet lives up to the Leo characteristics.

First, she falls deeply in love with Romeo. At first sight.

Well, you can’t blame her for that.

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Secondly, when Juliet discovers Romeo is from the enemy camp, she comes up with the heartfelt but illogical scheme that they ought to simply change their names  — and then (la la la) their love would be acceptable!

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other word would smell as sweet…  

Romeo, deny thy father and refuse thy name

And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

Youth and naivety.  But hey, someone had to be optimistic.

Then, even though she has only known him for a few hours, Juliet says she is willing to lay it all on the line for Romeo:

“And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay

And follow thee my lord throughout the world.”

Juliet

Later,  Juliet marries Romeo in secret.  Even though she has only known him for one day.

When she learns Romeo has been exiled, Juliet is still determined to lose her virginity and have a night of passion with her husband. She bids the Nurse to arrange it:
“But I a maid, die maiden widowed?

Come, come, come, Nurse, I’ll to my wedding bed

And death if not Romeo take my maidenhead!”

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After that she goes against her father’s wishes when she refuses to marry Count Paris. Here,  Juliet the Leo proves herself headstrong and innovative. A girl of Juliet’s status going against Dad’s orders was definitely taboo.  Of course, Mr. Capulet has no idea what his daughter has actually been up to…

juliet and dad

Later, Juliet risks it all for love once again when she agrees to take Friar Laurence’s really bad, but well meaning advice of swallowing a potion to fake her own death.  Juliet’s actions are the classic heart-over- head moves of a young and passionate Leo.

Shakespeare knew astrology.

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And then of course, the shifty and fateful stars cross again. Romeo, thinking Juliet is ACTUALLY dead, drinks poison at her graveside.  Upon awakening to find a dead Romeo, Juliet stabs herself.  She knows life without Romeo is simply not worth living.

Ah well.

But you gotta give the girl credit for trying!

Juliet knew love. She knew love of the highest order, and more importantly she knew a universal law: Love, in its infinite supply, is the one thing that never runs out.  This was perhaps Shakespeare’s hidden meaning.

Although it is often dismissed as a play about ‘those crazy star-crossed teenagers’ who were ‘dumb enough to commit suicide’ — I believe Shakespeare had a bigger message in mind. The world in which they lived refused to allow their love, and yet after their deaths, the Caps and Montagues resolve all conflicts. Love grows and goes on, even in death. Romeo and Juliet are buried together. Love never dies, love is infinite, and there is enough for everyone.

Consider Juliet’s words to Romeo in the famous Balcony Scene:

“And yet I wish for the thing I have.

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

My love as deep; the more I give to thee

The more I have, for both are infinite.”

 

Pretty deep for a thirteen year old, eh? But then again, she was a Leo.

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** If you would like to know what REALLY happened to Romeo and Juliet (hint: it was not nearly so tragic)  please read my story Juliet at Lammas Eve.

 

 

 

 

Lizzie and the Pre-Raphaelites

 

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Today, July 25th, marks the birthday of England’s first Victorian supermodel, Elizabeth Siddal.

Over a century before Twiggy hit swinging London, and 150 years before Tyra Banks began her search for America’s Top Model, English beauty Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal was the new face that launched a thousand ships.  She was an artist’s model for a group of cutting-edge painters known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

‘America’s Top Model’ — a reality show which takes beautiful urchins from mundane backgrounds off the streets and somehow transforms them into stunning supermodels – may actually have a lot in common with the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood ( PRB.)

In the mid 19th century a group of young painters decided to defy restrictions, throw caution to the wind and break the ceiling of what they thought had become very boring, regulated and prescription art in England.  They were led by the  rebel stud Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

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The PRB left behind stuffy universities to begin their own style. Their new art hearkened back to a more naturalistic pre-industrial time, and resembled Renaissance works popular before the painter Raphael became the accepted standard. (Hence the name Pre-Raphaelite.)

To our post-modern eyes, the PRB paintings might look very staid and classic, but in their own time they were quite shocking. One innovative thing the PRB did was to find their models among common people in the streets. These women were often shop girls or prostitutes. The Brotherhood would transform them into magnificent goddesses.

Elizabeth Siddal was one such model. She was born on July 25, 1829 to working class London parents. In her late teens she took a job in a hat shop in Cranbourne Alley.  In 1849 Lizzie was ‘discovered’ by PRB artist Walter Deverall, who was working on a painting to depict Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’.

Deverall needed a model to portray the cross-dressing Viola — in her boy role as Cesario.  Elizabeth apparently had the androgynous beauty that was needed for the role.

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Lizzie was described as: “a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck, greenish-blue eyes, brilliant complexion and a lavish wealth of coppery golden hair.”

As luck would have it, Deverall’s model for the role of Feste the Fool was fellow painter and notorious bad boy Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Here is the entire panel, Gabriel as the court jester and Lizzie on the far left.

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When Rossetti and Elizabeth met, sparks flew. Thus began their tumultuous love affair. They became engaged and defied convention by living  together for almost ten years. They finally married in 1860.

Elizabeth became Gabriel’s chief muse. Reportedly, he painted over a thousand portraits of her.  He likened her to Beatrice Portinari, the muse of 13th century writer Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy.)  Dante was also Gabriel’s namesake and he seemed to have recreated their courtly love affair, starring himself as Dante and Lizzie as Beatrice.

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As torrid as their relationship was, Gabriel’s antics and constant affairs with other models apparently made for a not so smooth ride.  Plus, Elizabeth suffered from ill health and eventually became addicted to laudanum.

Nonetheless, they were a fascinating couple!  The PRB were the revolutionaries of Victorian London and their beautiful models were the ‘it girls’ of the day.  Elizabeth was a poet in her own right, and although her poems were never published in her lifetime, I think they are pretty good.

Here is an excerpt, called Dead Love:

Oh never weep for love that’s dead
Since love is seldom true
But changes his fashion from blue to red,
From brightest red to blue,
And love was born to an early death
And is so seldom true.

Perhaps it is a rather revealing version of her relationship with rogue Gabriel…

Elizabeth posed for numerous paintings and eventually began studying art herself, under Gabriel’s tutelage. She produced many sketches and watercolors. Art critic John Ruskin became her patron, and paid her the modest sum of £150 per year for her work. (That is about £12,000 in today’s money. Still, it was a big deal for a woman to have her own income!)

Elizabeth posed for many character portraits, but perhaps her most famous one was Ophelia by John Everett Millais.  Here she stars as Shakespeare’s tragic character from Hamlet who committed suicide by throwing herself in a river.

The image is so lifelike, you almost expect to touch her hands or smell the fragrance of her flowers.

lizzie ophelia

In real life, Elizabeth also committed suicide.

She became pregnant in 1861, but the baby, a girl, was stillborn.  Elizabeth, who also had a long history of depression, then suffered from post-partum and entered a dangerous darkness.  She died of a laudanum overdose on February 11, 1862.

Although coroners deemed her death an accident, reportedly, Lizzie left a suicide note. Gabriel later destroyed it, as he knew killing oneself in Victorian England was both illegal and immoral, and would have brought scandal upon her family.

Here is an excerpt of one of Lizzie’s eerily prophetic poems, called Early Death:

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.

Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.

Now here’s where the story takes a really weird twist!

Gabriel, overcome with grief at his wife’s death, buried in her coffin a book of poems he had written to her.

Seven years later, in 1869, Gabriel became obsessed with the idea of publishing those poems.  He, along with his agent Charles Howell, applied for an order to have Elizabeth’s coffin exhumed.

Gabriel, a heavy drinker, may have really gone off the rails at this point.  Supposedly he was going blind and was no longer able to paint, and therefore looking to write and publish more poetry.

The exhuming of Lizzie’s grave was done (creepily!)  in the dead of night, so as not to draw attention.  Gabriel was not present, but Charles Howell claimed that Elizabeth, lying in the opened coffin, was still well preserved with her beauty in tact!

Also her long red hair had continued to grow, and therefore, Elizabeth’s corpse retained much of her stunning charm!

lizzie grave

(This is how vampire legends got started.  Remember, it was Victorian Times, ripe with Gothic ghost stories of the dormant  undead, and other wild imaginings.)

To be fair, laudanum is known to be a great preservative, and Lizzie had plenty of it in her body.  Also, she was no stranger to alcohol and other formaldehyde-type drugs.  She was a “devoted swallower” of Fowler’s Solution, a so-called complexion improver made from diluted arsenic.

Could all these drugs have made for a well preserved Lizzie?  There is a folkloric belief that hair and nails can continue to grow after death.

I cannot help but notice another similarity to Shakespeare’s Ophelia.  Hamlet — who was Ophelia’s lover — jumped into her grave at her burial, unable to let her go.

lizzie ophelia grave

Is truth stranger than fiction?

Whatever one makes of their personal lives, the PRB no doubt left their mark in the art world.  They produced some of the most stunning, radiant and thought-provoking works ever created.

Happy Birthday Lizzie!

The TV series Desperate Romantics was a fictional account of the PRB.  If you want to know more about them (or just be fabulously entertained by Aidan Turner as Gabriel and Amy Manson as Lizzie!)  tune into this episode. Running time is about one hour. Hope you like it! 🙂