Monday, 15 December 2014

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

In ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum’, Heinrich Boll’s eponymous heroine has a romantic encounter with a man who is wanted by the police, is vilified by the tabloid press and shoots the reporter responsible; summary justice of the kind not advocated by the Leveson Inquiry.  Writer Peter Morgan draws parallels between the fictional victim of press intrusion and Christopher Jefferies, who was an early suspect in the December 2010 murder of landscape architect Joanna Yeates.  There are two crucial differences to Boll's story, however.  One is that Jefferies was an entirely innocent victim and the second is that the press used his unusual appearance and other personal lifestyle choices as indicators of deviant tendencies.

Real-life reconstructions are hazardous.  Where and how are lines of taste drawn?  There has been criticism of the focus on Jefferies rather than on Jo Yeates, whose life wasn’t just changed but ended in December 2010.  Was it appropriate to use news footage of Ms. Yeates’ parents as they appealed to the public to help find their missing daughter?  ITV chose to show this drama over three hours on two consecutive nights (with multiple ad breaks) and at times, in a purely dramatic sense, it plodded along.  Jason Watkins as Jefferies gives a career-high performance as the man whose combover almost landed him in the dock, but there was a definite sense of Morgan and Roger Michell, the director, trying too hard to portray him as the Great English Eccentric, who inspired devotion in ex-pupils and whose curmudgeonly tendencies disguised a warm and noble heart.  Jefferies may be the sort of person whose bakery gives him free loaves for a month in order to lure his return as a customer, but highlighting this made it dangerously close to the black/white character summaries of which the press is so often guilty.

In case we were in any doubt, there was Steve Coogan’s fictionalised meeting with Jefferies while waiting to appear before the Leveson Inquiry, in which they discussed press intrusion, but for us (well, not for Dan, whose recurring nightmare is in fact being wrongly imprisoned) this got to the real heart of the matter.  Is it justifiable to invent a meeting in a drama based on a real-life case that is all about truth, distorted interpretations of the truth and downright lies?  The only dramatic point that this scene made was not that Jefferies’ appearance drew suspicion upon him, but the fact that he was not a celebrity: Coogan’s wild coiffure wasn’t even remarked upon.  What was referred to in the drama as the renowned English tolerance, even celebration, of eccentrics seems more to us like western society’s double standards.  Howard Hughes (and perhaps also the late Michael Jackson) minus millions would be less a figure of mystery than a hospital inmate.  The press tend to draw characters around the plot, describing any victim as the most promising, loved person cut down in their prime or before they could flower, and any culprit as having shown obvious signs of cruel and criminal intentions in their introvert behaviour or choice of sombre reading material.  Jefferies was a victim of our sensation-seeking, which essentially encourages journalists to appeal to mass ignorance.  Ironically, as a committed teacher, it’s something he’s battled against for most, if not all, of his career.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Remember Me

It seems almost bad sport to find TWNHs in televised ghost stories, not least because fans are starved of decent offerings on TV.  There is no shortage of generic horror/supernatural dramas ('Penny Dreadful', 'Intruders' etc.) but ghosts usually only appear on TV at Christmas, and the last non-festive tales we recall were 'The Secret of Crickley Hall' and 'Lightfields'.  Still it must be said, would anyone outside of TV drama choose to enter a stranger's house alone after dark, and would anyone spend more than, say, 0.3 seconds in a supposedly deserted room that had a fire blazing and several candles lit?

While we're getting the grumbles out of the way, there were distinct nods to both 'The Woman in Black' and 'Oh Whistle & I'll Come to You My Lad' in this story of strange goings-on involving a curmudgeonly pensioner (Michael Palin) who fakes a fall in order to escape his house and be sent into a home.

To reiterate, though, ghosts are fairly thin on the ground on TV, so viewers must be grateful for what they get and this was in many respects a fairly promising first episode (of three) with some genuinely scary moments.  Most of those are thanks to some good camerawork, cutting and sound effects, but there are some decently disturbing chills in there.  If you're thinking of going to Scarborough for a break, we advise waiting a few weeks 'til the story's told.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Intruders

Unusual 8-part, prime-time fare from BBC2 with a cross-Atlantic cast.  If it's true that vampire stories originated in our former ignorance of decomposition, as many contend, then the plethora of zombie/possession tales around seems to testify to our having a hellraiser of a long way to go to find out what keeps body and soul together, or parts them.  This starts bafflingly: a young girl in California in 1990 is visited by two menacing men in the middle of the night and given a number '9', after which she kills herself in a bath, leaving a note for a man who in the present day appears to enlist the help of ex-cop Jack (John Simm) while looking into the death of a mother and son elsewhere in America.  Needless to say, the family were visited and killed by these same two 'men in black'.  Simm's character meanwhile has troubles of his own, namely his wife, who on her birthday has suddenly started dancing to jazz, which she hates, and then disappears on a supposed business trip to Seattle.  Then there's nine-year-old Madison, celebrating her birthday when she too is visited by one of the gangster duo and thereafter starts behaving very strangely indeed. 

Still following?  No opportunity for menace is overlooked.  A car fender, a pair of arms, the pupils of an eye all seem to betoken something sinister.  By the end of the first episode a conspiracy-theory loner DJ has also fallen victim to James Frain (whom we wouldn't want on our doorstep on a dark night either) who knew the murdered family and is investigating a secret society who have, by way of organ pipes that can't be heard by human ears, conquered death.  Yes really.  It would appear that the dead girl, Simm's wife Amy (Mira Sorvino) and Madison are inhabited by other souls, long past their due dates.  As with all of these wonderful schemes, like time travel for instance, there are glitches.  Not all of these immortal souls get along.  Frain (yes, he's one) is chasing after little Madison, who is now partially possessed by Marcus, a criminally-inclined man.  Amy is turning Japanese, literally.

It's intriguing, but whereas something like France's recent 'The Returned' was elegant in its opacity, and focused on the identifiable pain of people faced with the simultaneously sublime and terrible - the return of dead loved ones, just as they were when they disappeared - this is more unpleasant than disturbing.  Frain is your archetypal cold-blooded assassin, presumably all but undefeatable having had hundreds of years to perfect his methods of violence.  The returned were only vaguely aware that something was wrong, and that the something was them; here, the inhabitors of others' bodies are intent on survival.  Even John Simm's American accent isn't as scary as we expected.  We're always hopeful that series based on books will have more coherent plots than screenplays that have other agendas and may have been hastily put together, but we shall have to wait and see.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Missing *spoilers*

Neither an original title nor plot - Tony and Emily Hughes' five-year-old son Ollie goes missing while they are on holiday in France in 2006 and in 2014 he still hasn't been found.  Not unlike true cases - the McCanns immediately spring to mind - this pieces together the loss and immediate aftermath of the disappearance in tandem with Tony's (James Nesbitt) continuing search for his missing son.  Emily (Frances O'Connor) has seemingly moved on with her life, away from her husband and in with one of the policemen assigned to the case, and his son, who is unnervingly close in age to that of Ollie.  In this, the first of eight episodes, Tony re-enlists the help of a reluctant French detective from the original case to follow up a new lead.

It's gripping and the performances are great.  We felt the Hughes' pain as they searched in vain for their missing little boy and also the wariness of the local population in dealing with this old case which brought so much unwelcome publicity to the town.  What makes us slightly wary, however, is how far credulity will stretch over an eight-hour run.  How many red herrings must we swallow and will there be an ending to justify the hours of watching?  That's to say, there's only room on the airwaves for one 'Amber'.  There were also rather unlikely plot points: a second-hand clothes shop owner who recorded the names and contact details of all those who donated items?  A family who returned home from holiday and didn't notice graffiti on their cellar wall or a scarf that didn't belong to any of them?

We're hoping these minor quibbles are not the precursors of major ones.  It was a good start but there's a long road ahead, every Tuesday 'til Christmas.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Great Fire

Forget what you learned at school.  A bit of plague and Pudding Lane were rather dull anyway, weren't they?  No, ITV have given this particular history lesson a 21st Century make-over.  The baker is hunky Andrew Buchan, married to a comely wench (Rose Leslie) and unwittingly involved in intrigue at the highest levels.  In 1666 this of-course means randy Merry Monarch Charles II (William Houston), his secretly Papist brother James and, err, Charles Dance in full sinister mode and a terrible wig.  Joining him in the hirsute syrup stakes is Daniel Mays as lusty Samuel Pepys, who proves his acting chops with a convincing performance away from his usual Cockney chappies.  Nonetheless, a scene where he plays posh opposite Andrew Buchan playing Cockney, with rather less success, is bizarre.

The Fire itself gets going about 40 minutes into episode 1, which gives rise to a rather unlikely Hollywood action movie sequence where Buchan rescues his daughters from their burning bakery.  Here again things depart from school history, or for that matter fire awareness courses, since the Great Fire is the Slowest Fire Ever To Get Going.  Even our overstuffed sofas can cause fatal conflagrations in a couple of minutes, but the incendiary bundle of naked flame, straw and timber smoulders away and kindles into the sort of flames seen in gas fire ads.

While the fire is thinking about getting going, the drama plods along in soap-like fashion.  Charles has his eye on fresh young meat; a Catholic skulks about the court with a knife and the sort of sly glances that would in reality have caused his head to be parted from his torso in a flash; baker Farriner pleads with Pepys to help him out of debt; Mrs. Pepys overcomes her lack of children by learning to dance.... etc.  With no spoilers necessary in any direction, we can only hope it whips up the pace before viewers start wishing the fire had been even greater, or perhaps hadn't started at all and left the characters all to succumb to the Black Death.

The Code

Despite best intentions, we missed this.  Letting the side down and otherwise living life.

Monday, 6 October 2014


This is one of those fluffy-robe-and-slippers dramas to cosy up to of an autumn evening.  It's set in the nice, safe 1950s and has such a nostalgic glow it's almost sepia-toned.  Those who remember the 1950s may be scratching their heads at the likes of this, but along with 'Call the Midwife' and 'Quirke' it ticks a plethora of boxes for maximum appeal.  Here we have a kindly, lovelorn young vicar (James Norton, whom we recently saw cold-bloodedly raping and killing as Tommy in 'Happy Valley') who befriends a kindly, careworn old cop (Robson Green, taking a break from angling) to solve murders in the titular sleepy English town.

This first story, based one of James Runcie's books, has a supposed suicide whom his mistress suspects was murdered.  She's a suspect, of-course, as is his melancholy German widow, his business partner and his secretary.

Nothing new in the plot, so what about our hero?  A former soldier in the war who drinks whisky, smokes, has a crush on a girl who's now engaged to someone else and loses at backgammon.  Oh and he's open-minded in a way very few vicars - or indeed anyone else in a town like the fictional Grantchester - were in the 1950s.  The preview for next week had the token black character who is musical, fun, popular, and the obvious suspect in a theft.  OK, this is ITV prime-time stuff but does that have to mean anachronisms and cliches?  It's not bad, but it could be so much better.