Tuesday, 21 October 2014
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.
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.
Monday, 29 September 2014
Marvellous was... Marvellous. Inspired by a Guardian article from 2010, Peter Bowker has written a very engaging, very inspiring biopic of 'living legend' Neil Baldwin, a man who refused to let his learning difficulties hold him back, and has lived life to the full.
Now in his 70s, the film mainly looks at the time in the 1980s when he played an active role in Stoke City FC, working as kit man having introduced himself to new manager Lou Macari, who comes over as a real saint, and offering his services. Over this period it looks at Neil's relationship with his mother, and her attempts to get him to be more independent, his relationship with the church (he has a very powerful faith, and is a lay preacher), and his role at Keele University, who recently gave him an honourary degree.
On paper this seems like a very unlikely recipe for a TV drama, let alone a good TV drama, but that is what this was. Neil's positive outlook on life, and his likeability gets him through all manner of challenges. Somehow Bowker managed to strike a balance between heartwarming pathos and real humour, and Toby Jones' performance was perfect as someone who clearly has learning difficulties, but accepts them and moves forward. At one point he says 'If you meet people who don't like you, then just meet other people who do like you'. The whole cast was note perfect, but we should praise Gemma Jones (no relation) as Neil's mother Mary, and Tony Curran as Macari.
The production was interspersed with songs from a ukulele orchestra and choir, and also featured Neil himself, Lou Macari, and other 'real people' appearing to comment on the action, but this never distracted from the piece.
Like Neil's own story, Marvellous was an incredibly unlikely success, but a real success it was, possibly the best one-off TV film we've seen for the past few years. It only got 1.5m viewers, but the critical reaction seems to have been uniformly positive, so let's hope for a quick repeat in a better slot.
Tuesday, 23 September 2014
What we expected from the first hour of this three-parter was a set-up episode, perhaps with a hook-in 'chaos' opener to set the scene before flashing back to the main story some hours/days/months/years before. We got what we expected, and, it must be said, quite a bit more besides
It wasn't a wordy script, so maybe it was just the top calibre acting from Morrissey and Hart, in particular, that made us care about the taxi driver struggling to make a living and dealing with gobby kids, a staid marriage, and stultifying middle age; we even cared about his longtime, ex-con mate. There wasn't anything particularly unexpected here, but we felt the allure of easy money in the face of dealing with his vile passengers (and their bodily excretions) and his growing horror at being confronted with what he'd previously refused to countenance: complicity in some very dark goings on.
There were moments of subtle humour in there too, which is rare (think 'Breaking Bad') and even more incredibly there were no glaringly obvious TWNH scenes where we just wanted to scoff knowingly and say that no-one in their right mind would do X or Y.
Bring on episodes two and three: the best thing so far this autumn.
Surprise, Surprise! Sheridan Smith continues her single-handed take-over of feisty working-class females in TV biopics. Here she is as Priscilla White, better known to the public as Cilla Black, in this three-parter on ITV. Classy cast all round with Ed Stoppard as manager Brian Epstein - who also managed that little-known moptop foursome The Beatles - and Aneurin Barnard as the love of her life Bobby Willis. (Quite why they cast a raven-haired actor to play blonde Bobby is beyond us. Maybe Mr. Barnard has a thing for strange hairstyles after his Richard III portrayal. 'Tis a relief that Edward Scissorhands is already made.)
Anyway, Jeff Pope's screenplay is solid enough and while the scally-speak is sometimes hard to fathom (is this because we're not au fait with Scouse or because the actors are heading hither and yon from Liverpool? We can't comment.) it has all the scenes you'd expect. Sheridan Smith acts her socks off again, and with that and some belting rock'n'roll numbers, it's a lorra lorra fun (sorry Cill).
Monday, 8 September 2014
One of BBC1's half-hour-each-weeknight dramas, all on the Secrets theme and quite starry. This first episode has Olivia Colman reluctant to help her mother Alison Steadman commit suicide. Hard to know what to say since this may not be representative of the whole series, but this was very depressing for a Sunday night. The obvious counterpoint of Olivia Colman's pregnancy (death and birth, the cycle of life, yes?) and the incidental humour of Alison Steadman's smoking a joint didn't relieve the bleakness much, and the legal arguments were largely sidelined. Yet surely it was the legal status of assisted suicide which made this a secret at all? What made this watchable were the performances of the three leads, understated to such a degree we wondered if the dialogue was improvised. If the rest of the acting is of this calibre, the remaining episodes will be worth watching.