Monday, 23 February 2015

Hostages


The latest in BBC4's Saturday night subtitled slot is Israeli drama 'Hostages', similarly styled and paced to things like 'Homeland' and '24' but... shorter (ten 40-minute episodes).  It benefits from the lack of slack, and the baggier US version was not a hit.  Yael, a top Jerusalem surgeon, is about to operate on the Israeli PM.  She's confident and it's a routine procedure, but the night before the scheduled op, masked gunmen break into her nice suburban home and take her family hostage, making it clear to her that either the Premier dies under her knife, or they kill her husband and two children.

Certain things must be taken as read here: Yael is resourceful and is going to try anything to save her family and her career; her teacher husband has serious financial problems which he hasn't yet got around to telling his wife about; her teenaged daughter has just discovered she's pregnant; her son is running a cheating racket for schoolmates in exams; one of the terrorists has been, at least until now, working for the state and another is a psychopath.

So far this has been a rollercoaster of neat surprises, but our question is the usual one, namely can this sustain a further eight episodes without losing the pace on the one hand or losing credibility on the other.  No doubt there are more family skeletons rattling impatiently in the closet, phantoms stalking the hostage-takers and doubtless a few shady secrets surrounding the PM, though, so we're hoping for an entertaining few weeks.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Indian Summers


This is Channel 4's new, lavish drama about the last years of the British Raj, in the tradition of Scott's 'Jewel in the Crown' and Forster's 'A Passage to India', but without their literary sources.  It's set in 1932 Simla, where the colonial ruling class retreated from the heat each summer.

Alice (Jemima West) is taking her baby by train to join her up-and-coming brother Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), having fled an adulterous husband.  Ralph meanwhile has a strange mentor in Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters), the earthy widowed owner of the Simla Club (no dogs or Indians) who uses her servant to procure American heiress Madeleine Mathers (Olivia Grant) for him.  Ralph and Alice haven't seen each other since they were separated by boarding schools as children and are uneasy in their relationship.  The sense of entitlement of the British and the indolence this generates contrast sharply with the busy lives of the Dalal family, where son Aafrin (Nikesh Patel) is romancing a Hindu girl and trying to make his way in the Civil Service while his sisters are involving themselves in the growing call for home rule.  Two incidents - Hindustani graffiti over a portrait of the late Queen Victoria and an injured half-caste boy lying on a railway track - intrude on the struggles for survival and one-upmanship and are the portents of change.  Is Ralph a focus of discontent because of what he represents, or is it something more personal?

The trailers did this no favours, since the first, extra-long episode promises a rather more subtle drama than the likes of 'Downton'.  We were given a cursory introduction to the main actors ("You never told me you were Whelan's sister - he's Private Secretary to the Viceroy!" etc.) but there was enough sex and violence to be going on with and keep up the tension: brutality and illicit affairs seem to be the tropes of any Empire saga, and as 21st Century television, this doesn't shy away from exposing the moral rot that accompanied British rule on the Indian subcontinent.  Will it sustain a further 9 episodes?  Just possibly, and if the experience of the Himalayan foothills and bias cut dresses to a 30s soundtrack doesn't have you fiddling with the remote, you'll probably be intrigued enough to keep following along for now.

Monday, 16 February 2015

The Casual Vacancy


Rather too much ham?

Having not read any of the Harry Potter books, nor watched the films, we can't say we came to this with eager anticipation.  Rowling seems to have set her sights firmly on the crime genre now with her second outing as Robert Galbraith on the shelves, but between magic and murder came 'The Casual Vacancy', an adult lit fic novel that garnered fairly mixed reviews.

Pagford is a fictional Gloucestershire village... and a metaphor for the seething, grasping, petty bourgeoisie of modern middle-England, according to Rowling.  The first hour (of three) introduced us to the spread of characters from the rich Sweetloves ("My wife does fun runs... well she knows people who do") to young hotpants-wearing Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie) whose big mouth and drug-addicted mother bring her nothing but trouble.  The catalyst for the action is the death of Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) who opposed the development of a town spa as "social engineering".  His titular vacancy is now being fought over by the pro and anti-spa lobbies, in a way that will have the Daily Mail frothing about BBC Leftie Dramas and turning over to watch the Good Old Days of the Raj on Channel 4, or possibly the entrepreneurial (if American) spirit of Mr. Selfridge on ITV.

Did we like it?  It had its moments, inevitably with this calibre of cast, but overall its tone was uneven and its characters so stark as to be almost cliche.  No doubt TV producers thought the book was an obvious choice for an adaptation, but the novel is a long one, with plenty of room for nuance, and 180 minutes of television is not going to bring out the best in the material.  We felt bludgeoned by the juxtaposition of soft sandstone exteriors and modern social housing, and an incessant soundtrack.  Extremes exist, of-course, in real villages and towns, so it's quite a feat that this feels so unnatural.  Maybe it's the - it has to be said - Harry Potteresque nature of everyone so far.  The Mollisons (Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie) are shallow, devious snobs while Fairbrother, whose online identity someone is appropriating (or are they?) to comment on the ongoing Pagford squabbles, was just trying to do the right thing for the locals, and his abused nephews.   We have the comically absurd plotting of the Councillors one minute and a toddler being neglected in a drug den the next.  The problem of being not-quite drama and not-quite comedy is that the social commentary comes across as rather blatant, and black and white worlds tend to make drab grey dramas.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Fortitude


Fortitude is Sky's new big-budget drama - reportedly costing £30m for 12 episodes, broadcast here on Sky Atlantic, in the US on cable network Pivot, and pre-sold to a number of other broadcasters around the world.

We should start with the business side of the programme, because it's clearly a business-driven enterprise - an attempt to make an internationally appealing show that will generate revenue and become a 'franchise' or more accurately, a licence to print money.

The different elements are there - an international cast of well-respected actors (Brits, Nordics, Americans), internationally known stars from previous big hits (Sophie Gråbøl from 'The Killing', Christopher Eccleston from 'Doctor who', Michael Gambon from the 'Harry Potter' films, Stanley Tucci from 'The Hunger Games'), a beautiful and unusual setting - the Arctic - and a script that promises lots of twists and turns, not to mention red herrings.

Fortitude is the name of a small town in the Arctic Circle, and serves as the setting for the show.  Based on Svalbard, a town with a population of 2,000 people, Fortitude itself has just 700 people, and as the Mayor, played by Sophie Gråbøl, explains, everyone who is there has a job, so there is no crime.  Characters range from policemen, photographers, doctors, plus what looks like some miners or similarly industrial workers.  Oh - and there's a bar full of hairy heavy metal fans with unspecified jobs, and there seem to be just two children that we've seen so far (and presumably a school teacher?).

Given that you have this community of interdependent people in a hostile environment, what it resembles a bit is a space drama.  Who is killing members of the crew?  Is it a monster out in the wild, or is it the enemy within? 

The first episode moved along well though, and we will continue watching.  Whether it justifies the big investment from a financial point of view remains to be seen; the last show Sky heralded quite as enthusiastically as this was The Tunnel, and that never made it to a second series.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Eichmann Show


A 90-minute BBC2 drama to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, this concerns the televising of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, author of the 'final solution' which murdered up to 6 million, mostly Jewish, citizens considered undesirable by the Nazi state.  Eichmann had escaped at the end of the war and was only captured by Mossad and Shin Bet agents in Argentina in 1960, where he'd been living under the name of Ricardo Klement.  From there he was taken to Israel for trial in Jerusalem.

The decision to televise the trial, as this amply illustrates, wasn't taken lightly.  It was new technology and couldn't even be transmitted live, but was flown overseas in boxed reels for transmission in America and Europe.  The trial judges feared the cameras would be intrusive and distracting and weren't keen, forcing the technical team to build extra walls and ingenious hiding places for the cumbersome equipment.  Death threats were received by producer Milton Fruchtman (Martin Freeman) and his family, while for Leo Hurwitz (Anthony LaPaglia) this was yet another bump in a career path that had already seen him blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee under Senator McCarthy.

For something with so much drama, however, this was rather flat viewing.  It seems to ask all the right questions: was there disproportionate significance in the trial of one man for genocide?  Was Israel the right nation to try him?  Would televising the trial lead to distortions in the chase for ratings (given that Yuri Gagarin was wandering in space and the Bay of Pigs was the scene of an invasion)?  Yet perhaps the distortions are here, in the numerous false alarms that scare Fruchtman and the tense and horrified faces of those watching and listening to the witnesses.  This is not to deny the significance of the trial, or its communication to a worldwide audience, but in the wake of the camps' liberation and the testimonies in the Nuremberg courts, this would have been adding detail to known history, some sixteen and more years after the events in question.  Now, when trials are frequently broadcast live or nearly so, it is a big leap of the imagination to comprehend what this meant to the average viewer.

It is also difficult, now as then, to consider the difficulties of televising the trial as anything other than a 'first world problem' alongside Eichmann's crimes and what they stood for.  Sidelights can be interesting, but treacherous for drama, as in the recent 'Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies' which focused on the unpleasant experiences of a man accused of a horrible crime.  What was difficult for him was far worse not only for the victim, Joanna Yeates but, one imagines, for her family and friends too.  'The Eichmann Show' is well structured, with the production team questioning what the trial means for them and being reassured by the reaction of survivors who finally feel believed and understood, but the most powerful scenes, unsurprisingly, remain the archive footage from the camps.  For us, while well meant, this didn't quite bridge the gap between a worthy documentary and thrilling drama.

Wolf Hall


The superlatives came thick and fast even before broadcast.  Is this the most eagerly anticipated BBC drama in years?  All the augurs were good: two Booker-winning novels, a long hit run of a two-night play at the Globe and in the West End, and not forgetting much-loved predecessors covering similar territory ('The Six Wives of Henry VIII' etc.).  Hype, however, is a double-edged sword, and the transformation of over a thousand pages of close, nuanced text into a compelling televisual feast was always going to be a challenge.

On the evidence of the first episode, fans of 'The Tudors' will be sorely disappointed.  Other than the necessary bursts of tedious exposition ("The Emperor's men have taken the Pope!  That's Queen Katherine's nephew and he'll never let the Pope grant a divorce!") this panders hardly at all to an audience in search of Henry-lite storytelling.  The costumes do not flatter, the dialogue retains the sour wit of the original prose and Cromwell himself, though reconfigured from villainy, is too elusive to be a hero.

Broadly speaking, this follows the chronology of the novels, a teasing, pleasing structure that takes small hops forward and back like a courtly dance.  We accompany Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), son of a blacksmith, with a murky, violent past on his journey through the often sad, always brutal rise and fall of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy).  Rylance, for anyone who has yet to be convinced, is wonderful, his expression and demeanour conveying in stillness or mobility the man Cromwell, aware he is engaged in dangerous manoeuverings and beset by men who kill easily, take confession and eat with a hearty appetite afterwards.

It is, to be slightly pedantic, a bit clean.  Floors are swept, draperies untouched by dust or grease, even in Cromwell's middling home.  It's forgiveable though, when the sound is audible, the music unobtrusive and the filming in appropriate light such as fire and candlelight gives beautiful shade and depth to the scenes.  This isn't history, it is Mantel's re-imagination of a man's life in Tudor England.  We know relatively little about the figure with the steely gaze in Holbein's portrait, but this telling surely does him proud.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Esio Trot



We like Roald Dahl, and we liked Esio Trot, Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer's adaptation of one of the shorter books, broadcast on New Year's Day - but blimey was it over-long.

Too many shows seem to be too long - too many minutes, too many episodes, false endings and so on - and this one used all the tricks to extend the narrative, including James Corden's walking, talking narration, and the addition of the neighbour, Mr Pringle, played by Richard Cordery.

It's very possible that as a 30-minute story it wouldn't have attracted its stars, Dustin Hoffman and Judy Dench, or got picked to be shown on New Year's Day, but are we being churlish to wish they'd spent a bit less money & time on this, and commissioned some new writing to put on in a similarly high profile slot?

(For the record we'd like to say that all the acting was great, Corden didn't annoy us as much as he did some Twitterists, and the locations in particular were wonderful, especially the main reception area and staircase at Bevin Court.)

Generally speaking, the Christmas schedules were disappointing this (last) year.  Not many prime-time treats to look forward to, and just a couple of safe bet specials where audience figures were concerned, on 25th itself, of 'Midwife' and 'Downton'.  Now that January is here we are at least being offered returning dramas in the 9pm slot ('Musketeers', 'Broadchurch', 'Witless Silence'... sorry, 'Silent Witness'), but over the holiday season when some people might actually have been at home to watch?  Nada.