Monday, 24 November 2014
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
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
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
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.