Friday, 22 May 2015

Empire

Empire, the new series from Precious and The Butler director Lee Daniels, is a total blast. 

Telling the story of the succession battle for the empire of rap mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) between his three sons - Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), the gangster rap one, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the gay one, and Andre (Trai Byers), the business one - it leaves no cliche un-mined, but does it with such brio that you forgive it its sins.

A typical scene starts with two characters talking, with a third character walking on stage left, with some news.  The three then discuss, then head off in different directions.  Action moves very quickly, with characters falling out, falling in love, or killing each other in minutes.  If Fortitude was this speedy it would have all been done in two episodes. 

Added attractions include Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, Lucious' first wife, newly released from prison and stealing every scene, and cameos from Cuba Gooding Jr as a songwriter and Naomi Campbell as (I thought it as 'herself but IMDB says) 'Camilla Marks', who Hakeem has an affair with.  Of course he does.

 In the States it was the hit of the season, ending up with 20m viewers an episode on Fox.  It's a bit strange that it's ended up on E4 rather than Sky Atlantic, and it may graduate to a bigger channel if it builds an audience.  Its natural home will be as a box set and on demand though - it's very more-ish and perfect for indulgent binging.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Affair


The Affair is an American series starring British actors Dominic West and Ruth Wilson as the two protagonists who (not a spoiler alert) have an affair.  The big selling point of the show, apart from the two leads, is that each episode covers the same amount of time twice, from the two characters' different perspectives, first his, then hers, as they each tell the story of the affair in a police interview room. 

Set in The Hamptons, it follows New Yorker Noah Solloway and his family on vacation at his wife's dad's large house.  Noah's father-in-law is a famous writer, whose works are filmed, hence lots of money, while Solloway is a teacher and aspiring writer, essentially living a pretty affluent life thanks to loans from his in-laws.  In the Hamptons he meets Alison Bailey, a waitress recovering from the death of her son, and they then start a liaison.  The viewer is never sure whose accounts are accurate, with both being (potentially) unreliable narrators.

For example in his account her clothes are always more revealing, and women are always coming on to him (he comes across as a bit of a sleaze even in his own version...).  In hers she's a woman in torment, dealing with grief, but also her husband's reaction to the death.  In his version she's pursuing him, and vice versa. 

It's a good drama, without many unrealistic elements, but since it runs over 20 weeks (according to IMDB) we do wonder if they're stretching it out a bit, and also what is likely to happen in series two - a different affair?  Or will it, unusually for American TV, have a natural life as just one series?

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell


Magic has been absent from England's shores for around 300 years by the end of the 18th Century, and while the clique of dilettante students of the arcane arts meet regularly for meals, they don't attempt any actual spells, something seen as rather naive.

Enter Mr. Norell (Eddie Marsan), an unlikely last magician residing in a cavernous abbey near York.  Sought out by a frustrated young magician, Norell proves his worth by bringing to life the statues in York Minster.  Inspired to believe his time has come, he takes a house in Hanover Square....  Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvell) needs to find a useful occupation in order to win his beloved's hand.  When street magician and all-round weirdo Vinculus (Paul Kaye) tells him that he and one other are destined to bring back magic to England, Strange decides to follow his fate.

A brave choice for the BBC 9pm slot, despite being based on a popular novel by Susanna Clarke, but so far this appears to be more than a classy fantasy along the lines of 'Atlantis' et al.  Eddie Marsan evokes immediate sympathy, even when he conjures Marc Warren as a sort of Ziggy Stardust evil alter-ego.  The hokus pokus is charming, but Norell's journey as a self-taught talent at the time of the Napoleonic Wars is also perhaps an everyman struggle.  Could well turn out to be magic indeed.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

1864



Something of a departure for the 9pm Saturday night 'subtitle' slot on BBC4, '1864' is the new Danish drama series set during the Second Schleswig War, when Prussia and Austria forced Denmark to cede territory.  It opens at the end of the First Schleswig War in 1851, when Danish soldiers returned victorious.  Young Peter and Laust's father (Lars Mikkelson from 'The Killing') has been fatally weakened by a serious leg wound, while aristocratic Didrich (Pilou Asbaek from 'Borgen') has something we would recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  We follow their lives from the rediscovered journal of Inge, the estate master's daughter who shares bookish Peter and robust Laust's idyllic childhood, when patriotic fervour bordered on arrogance.

There's an awkward framing device of a modern tearaway teenager, all hair dye, facial piercings and mouth, befriending the elderly curmudgeon in the 'big house', who will no doubt turn out to be Inge's son or grandson, and reading the diaries to him.  This is more than unlikely, it's a hackneyed old device, and while there was much to admire in these first two episodes (of eight - only one month's worth!), it felt overall as though it was aiming at Tolstoy and settling for one of those slick historical American mini-series from the 1980s along the lines of 'Washington' or 'North and South'.  Each episode ends with a montage of scenes from the forthcoming hour, set to rousing music, which is overblown to say the least.

Predictably, the brothers both fall in love with Inge before departing for war in 1863, while she is also lusted after by the now-depraved Didrich.  Handily, she prefers the manly, extrovert Laust, while there's a more suitable mate for Peter in the form of the gyspy daughter who shares his love of plants.  There are a number of TWNH moments therein, not least the drama convention of never speaking up when it would be obvious to do so, prolonging misunderstandings, and the way that 19th Century Inge is able to spend so much time unsupervised with young boys below her station in life.  As a backdrop, in case the Danes are as clueless as we are about obscure historical skirmishes, we are shown politician Monrad taking lessons in speechmaking from stage star Mrs. Heiberg  (Sidse Babett Knudsen, 'Borgen's Brigitte Nyeborg) and even get the odd glimpse of the Prussian court, Iron Chancellor Bismarck and Moltke, whose sights are firmly set on a Germanic empire - which ultimately lead, of-course, to two wars most nations will never forget.

It's apparently the most expensive Danish television show ever made, with the multi-funding clearly aimed at exports, and it looks sumptuous, whether fields of corn or book-lined interiors are on show.  It's interesting to see a European drama's take on history, rather than crime, and it's unlikely this will be spun out (1874? 1884?) but we've a feeling it's not going to be a box-set-buy.  The performances by some of the younger cast are a little uneven, and as for the poor animal in one particular scene... the less said, the better.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Enfield Haunting


Readers of Guy Lyon Playfair's book, 'This House is Haunted', may be surprised at the number of liberties taken with the text in this dramatisation.  Not content with unexplained activity that may be a poltergeist, this has young Janet Hodgson (Eleanor Worthington Cox, with just the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and sassy retorts) literally haunted by a nasty-looking old ghost (Struan Rodger!) who, when he deigns to speak via a medium (Amanda Lawrence) reveals himself as a paedophile.  No wonder the name of the 'entity' or 'voice' was changed from former resident Bill Wilkins to a fictitious 'Joe Watson'.  We get the presumed message about paedophiles being the new demons/bogeymen, but it feels here like a ham-fisted and unnecessary add-on.  Wouldn't it be terrifying enough to have endless knocking, ambulant furniture and an aggressive force in your house?

Suspected hauntings in reality don't lend themselves to drama - the supernatural by definition is nothing if not unpredictable and inconsistent - so it's an odd choice to dramatise for TV in an era when the audience is thoroughly jaded with cheap thrills and has no patience with a slow build of tension.  Timothy Spall plays Maurice Grosse, an SPR investigator still grieving the loss of his daughter, also called Janet, the previous year.  In 1977, Grosse was called by the SPR and assigned to the case of the single-parent Hodgson family, suffering knocks, moving objects and other strange phenomena in their modest home in Enfield.  The activities seemed to centre on Janet, the younger daughter, who was soon to reach both secondary school and the menarch, and while Grosse, Guy Playfair (Matthew Macfadyen), journalists, neighbours, police, a medium and other SPR members witnessed or experienced things, they also realised that the children were, at least some of the time, guilty of mischief.

The tone of the drama follows that of the book, in portraying this as one of the most inexplicable series of events ever recorded, and well recorded it was, despite the mysterious power drains and corruption of media that, we hear, are frequent occurrences in similar investigations.  It isn't relevant to draw conclusions from a drama, of-course, but we can't help but think that this isn't going to convince sceptics that something repeatedly went bump in the night in Enfield.  By using the same cinematic tricks used in countless horror films, it appears more like a tall story than the perplexing and troubling case that it was.  


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

No Offence


We need say no more than that this is penned by Paul Abbott, who wrote 'Shameless', for it to be clear that the title is ironic.  It's a comedy drama about a police team, and episode one throws caution to the wind and irreverence towards police, criminals, victims with learning difficulties, people with physical disabilities....  It has some funny moments, but at the moment is an uneasy, fairly queasy mix of serious storylines (prostitution, kidnapping, attempted murder) and the comedy of human selfishness and folly.  We remember Abbott wringing laughs from a man with Tourettes Syndrome with discomfort... but then again, the 90s US sitcom 'Seinfeld' regularly induced guilty laughter at the extreme awfulness of its central characters.

This does have Abbott's verve, his knack for the unexpected and the sharp line, and a great cast, so at the very least it's a nice change of pace from cop procedurals or slapstick sitcoms, and it could turn out to be much more... though not, as the title theme suggests, 'Breaking Bad'.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Home Fires


Ever wondered how the Women's Institute came to be associated with jam?  Nor did we, but it's apparently because a rebel group of nice women in Great Paxford stood up to their snooty leader and formed a breakaway branch, and their first act of defiance (jam being rather common) and towards the soon-to-be-declared war effort, was denuding all the local blackberry bushes of fruit and making a squillion pots of sweet sandwich filling.  This is based on a non-fiction book, 'Jambusters', and you can see the boxes ticked by commissioning editors here: WWII for the nostalgia, strong roles for women etc.  

Watching this a few days after 'Anzac Girls', it's striking how by-numbers they both are: haughty toff, nice toff, man-hungry girl and even the One with a Secret turn up again here, though this time it's a man, Ed Stoppard, who as the local doctor, Will Campbell, is set to abandon his patients' hernias and whooping coughs and head for the rugged plains of war.  Alas for him, his nasty smoking habit has given him lung cancer, so he won't be going anywhere.  Tsk tsk.  Then there's redoubtable Pat Simms (Claire Rushbrook), abused by her writer husband Bob (Mark Bazeley) and determined to keep it a secret, she poisons his pilchards.  Alas for her, she hasn't put enough in....

It's all very Sunday night - as opposed to 'The C Word', broadcast on BBC1 at the same time - and has a strong cast that includes Francesca Annis, Samantha Bond, Ruth Gemmell, Frances Grey, Fenella Woolgar and Anthony Calf.  There may be trouble ahead, as the song goes, but while there's the WI, the women of Great Paxford won't find WWII too unbearable, and nor will viewers wanting to unwind on a Sunday evening.