Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Living and the Dead *spolers*

BBC1 has made this six-part series available for free as a box set on iPlayer and we couldn't resist.  Ghosts!  Period costumes!  Manly chests!  What more could we (well, Ali) want?  Well, something a bit scarier maybe.  Ashley Pharoah was the main brain behind 'Life on Mars', and there turned what should have been a very creepy concept into a lot of fun.  It worked - at least in the first series - because of nostalgia for other cop shows as much as anything else.

This plays on traditional tropes from Thomas Hardy novels to MR James stories, but Pharoah clearly has a love of time travel narratives, and that doesn't fit quite so well here.  Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan) returns to his family farmhouse at Shepzoy in Somerset with young wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) in 1894, and before you can say 'here be dragons, get thee back to London', very odd things start happening.

It's all cleverly done, weaving a contained tale per episode into the ongoing narrative involving Nathan's dead son Gabriel (they're always called Gabriel), but we can't help feeling that some of it is a tad clumsy.  Why is there no mention of Gabriel's mother?  Ah of-course, that's for series two.  Throughout, various influences made themselves felt, notably The Others and the history of Hinton Ampner, and there was a conundrum at the end, in that we'd had have advanced combustion engines a whole lot sooner if farmers in 1894 really had discovered a submerged car in a field.  We always have high hopes of a new ghost story, but this delivered few real scares, and resorted to cliches at times.

It also resorted, rather unforgiveably, to an anachronistic look for heroine Charlotte, who wouldn't draw many odd stares in 21st Century Notting Hill.  Her attitude and that of her maid are also very liberated for the time.  A shame when trouble has clearly been taken to create an atmosphere of a place where rural folklore was still strong, in music, look and tone.  Presumably these aspects were thought to be more accessible to a modern audience.  Should we even try to cherry-pick the past and must we make everything modern?  It seems a manifestation of our disturbing current tendency to distrust anything 'other', but 'other' is what is so fascinating and compelling about the past - and ghost stories - after all.  

Europe - we have our say

Sometimes life overtakes television, alas, and we have had little time for the many new series springing up all over the screen.  Ali's heroine is Alison Graham, who despite watching TV and writing about it for a living, must nonetheless manage to cram about 90 hours into her day.  We have caught up with a few of the terrestrial offerings and they are overwhelmingly... European.  No doubt the Johnson camp will quip that summer is the traditional graveyard for inferior programming.  We'd like to differ, but on the evidence of the recent and current crop, it's going to be a struggle.

So, for a round-up, we began with 'Locked Up', a sort of Spanish 'Prisoner Cell Block H' which blazed a trail in broadcasting terms by airing the first episode on a terrestrial channel and then releasing the rest online.  It wasn't bad, and we can believe it got better, but catty women in orange uniforms weren't enough to drag us online to see more of them.

Then came 'Dicte - Crime Reporter' which is as cheesy as its title suggests.  We're sure this is considered serious drama because it happens to be subtitled.  Imagine the same scenes with the 80s American gloss of, say, 'Wonder Woman', or 'Murder She Wrote' and that's more the credibility level.  What worked with the kitsch 1950s-set noir last year just seems rather odd as a supposedly grittier modern-day piece.

'Disparu' was a lot like 'The Killing', but set in Lyon.  Spoilt young Lea Morel goes missing and everyone's a suspect.  Rolled out quite well over eight episodes shown in four blocks, but the ending was contrived and opened more questions than it answered.  Why was Lea so upset about her boyfriend's infidelity when she had been carrying on an affair of her own?  How did the smart cops believe that Lea's loving uncle would just suddenly flip and batter her because she was crying?  Would he and his daughter cover up a genuine accident, disposing of the body and managing to keep their stories straight through weeks of interrogations by the murder squad?  As is so often the case, this was rather less than the sum of its parts.

And last, and probably least, comes 'Versailles'.  There are many fascinating tales of the Sun King's court, but this curious Anglo-French hybrid favours sex, violence and terrible dialogue.  And then more sex.  Should we leave Europe, France will no doubt cease to fund dramas like this, which is the only decent argument for Brexit we've heard yet.  An example of Louis XIV, to his sister-in-law and mistress, Henriette: "Our lives have blossomed in summer, but now the nights are drawing in...."  We suspect if the real Louis had said any such thing, Henriette would have lost her head for laughing at her king.  We'd rather re-read 'The Man in the Iron Mask' than watch another episode of this.  'Rome' and 'The Tudors' have a lot to answer for.


22.11.63 is an 8 part series from Stephen King (who wrote the original book) and JJ Abrams (producing), that deals with a man travelling back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK.

All time travel shows depend on a) the means of travelling back in time, and b) the rules you need to obey once you get there.  Here it's pretty clunky - the means is a cupboard in a diner, and the rules are that i) you end up at the same time and place as a starting point each time, ii) that 2 minutes passes no matter how long you spend in the past, and iii) if you try to change history bad things happen.

The central premise is good, and apparently King thought of it in the early 70s.  However it seems rooted in the past, because surely an American man in the 2010s would actually want to go back to stop 9/11 and the Gulf War, rather than keep JFK alive and (supposedly) then stop Vietnam. 

It looks very glossy, and clearly has had lots of money spent on it.  Why have one vintage car from the 1950s to set the scene when you can have about 30 parked up?

At this point, Dan's will to blog gave out.  He didn't watch beyond episode one.  Enough said.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Secret

In 1991, Colin Howell (James Nesbitt) is a Coleraine dentist and family man whose main recreation is a bible study group, until he meets married mother Hazel Buchanan (Genevieve O'Reilly), a local teacher, at the church.  She then becomes his main hobby, because, err, God meant it to happen.  Of-course he did.  That old nonsense about not committing adultery, indeed.  The pair aren't particularly discreet, so it isn't long before their pastor (Jason Watkins) finds out and informs all parties.  Forgiveness follows, and all seems well, but as Howell's wife Lesley gives birth to their fourth child, the affair starts up again.  Knowing his wife is distraught, and Hazel's husband similarly upset, Colin hits on the plan to do them a favour and put them out of their misery, stage-managing a suicide pact, enabling him and Hazel to join their families together.

Too far-fetched for drama, it had to be real.  Howell was convicted in 2010 of double murder, and his former lover was also convicted.  They had long since split up and married other partners, who were both presumably ignorant of their spouses' bloody past.  It's all rather sordid and depressing.  Nesbitt is charismatic as the hypocritical happy-clappy man o'God, but the tale highlights the sorry state of a religion so out of sync with the times that a follower would rather commit murder than be seen to commit a lesser offence. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Houdini and Doyle

Houdini and Doyle is, like last year's Frankenstein Chronicles, a British-made show for ITV Encore, set in a chocolate box-cum-theme park version of history.

Based (in the very loosest sense) on Harry Houdini's friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it's an odd-couple crime drama, similar in some respects to The Persuaders, where Tony Curtis and Roger Moore had to cooperate to solve crimes and right wrongs way back in the early 1970s.  In fact, they're probably re-booting it in similar pastiche style right now....

This time it's Michael Weston as Houdini, very rational, but also smart and knowing, and Stephen Mangan as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reserved, British, very believing of supernatural things, but also with scientific ideas learnt through his medical background.  It's a good idea for a show - Houdini was a famous skeptic, and Doyle famously gullible - and they did know each other - but as a show it's 'bubblegum tosh' at best.

Some critics have compared it to Jonathan Creek - for the similar magic background - but it's just not as good as that was in its heyday, or many other things on the TV at the moment.  It just feels like it's not good enough, and while it has a few quirky touches - a rather anachronistic WPC to help them out for example - it feels too much like it's ticking boxes, capitalising on costume drama, and in particular 'Sherlock', and not enough like a creative and original piece of work.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016


The success of 'War and Peace' and 'The Night Manager' on BBC1's 9pm Sunday slot has left big shoes to fill.  'Undercover' treads confidently, if a little predictably, in its opener.  A juggernaut narrowly misses crushing Maya (Sophie Okonedo) within the first few minutes (she was fumbling for her phone on a desert highway, as you do).  She's a lawyer, fighting for client Rudy (Dennis Haysbert)  facing execution on Death Row.  We don't quite know what he's done, but Maya likes him and he's played by the cuddly President in '24', so we feel he has to have been unjustly sentenced.  Maya lives in London and is happily married to Nick (Adrian Lester) with three teenaged children, one of whom is autistic, but Nicky has a secret that threatens to expose the basis of their relationship as a lie....

Good so far.  Just enough hints and flashbacks to keep us guessing what happened, why and to whom in 1996.  This clearly takes its cue from the recent, controversial court cases involving long-term undercover cops who engaged in relationships with those they were investigating, even in some cases having children from those relationships, in addition to ongoing relationships under their own names.  We hope it holds its nerve and becomes an outstanding drama, since it is tackling such major themes as justice, prejudice, public and personal trust and betrayal in the modern democratic state.

The Durrells

Seemingly as long as there is British Television there will be new adaptations of Gerald Durrell's Corfu novels, particularly 'My Family and Other Animals'.  Five minutes (OK, a few years) after the last one, along comes another on ITV, with charmingly illustrated credits and a new generation of child actors .  Keeley Hawes plays put-upon Mrs. D, who decides to end her dreary suburban penury in favour of eking out an existence with her four unruly children in sunny Corfu.  Thanks to the book and all the previous versions, we mostly know what happens next, but there's no reason newcomers to the tale shouldn't enjoy this adaptation.  That is, unless they are pedants and wonder what on earth young Margo (Daisy Waterstone) is doing sunbathing in a bikini in 1935.