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.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Mapp & Lucia


Another drama that pretty much eschewed younger actors and characters (see earlier) was Steve Pemberton's adaptation of EF Benson's Mapp & Lucia.

Previously adapted in the 1980s with Prunella Scales, Geraldine McEwan & Nigel Hawthorne (which neither of us saw), the new version had Miranda Richardson, Anna Chancellor, and Pemberton as Mapp, Lucia, and Lucia's friend Georgie Pillson. 

Lucia and Georgie move to Tilling to spend the summer, Lucia renting a property from Mapp.  An undeclared war then breaks out between the Mapp & Lucia over social influence in the community, with each resorting to dirty tricks to get one up on the other.

In the age of Instagram and Facebook and the sort of social boasting that those two offer it feels very relevant, even through it's 1920s & 30s. 

The other great thing was that it gave meaty roles to a whole host of great actors, like Felicity Montagu, Poppy Miller, Paul Ritter, and Gemma Whelan.

Most credit must go to long-term EF Benson fan Steve Pemberton both for the idea to adapt the stories again, and for coming up with such a brilliant script.  It almost makes you wish that the powers that be give over a special part of the commissioning budget to former members of The League of Gentlemen, given the quality of work that has come from Pemberton, Mark Gatiss (though we remain skeptical of 'Sherlock)', Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, and also seek out similarly talented bands of writer-performers to conceive new shows. 

We only got 3 episodes, but given the wealth of material in the original six books, and the flexibility of the concept, we hope that there will be many more to come (there were 10 episodes in the 80s)

Friday, 2 January 2015

That Day We Sang



It sometimes seems that all films are made for teenagers - certainly the big box office ones are - but there's a growing counter-trend of producing stories for older audiences, as seen by releases such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and also TV shows like Last Tango in Halifax, and now That Day We Sang.

Scheduled over Christmas, it was one of those dramas where people occasionally break into song and dance routines.  We're not going to be uncharitable enough to say that that would never happen, and we enjoyed this rather tall tale of love among the 40 & 50-somethings.  Set in both the 1930s and the 1960s, it followed the life of gifted singer Jimmy (later Tubby) Baker, as he sang in Manchester's Youth Choir, and their greatest achievement, 'That Day We Sang' at the Manchester Free Trade Hall.

Clearly realism wasn't at the top of Victoria Wood's priorities when she wrote it, but she got good performances and real chemistry out of the two leads Michael Ball as Tubby and Imelda Staunton as Enid (great to see a love story where the woman is older than the man too!).  Harvey Chaisty, who played the young Jimmy was also very good, even if he doesn't bear much resemblance to Michael Ball (which might explain why Enid doesn't recognize him for almost the entire film...).

It seems to have been very well received on IMDB (8.3 rating at time of writing) and by the senior members of the family.  It's probably easy for determined cynics to mock, but a successful production for post-Christmas Day viewing.

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.