Thursday, 29 September 2011


Ber-limey!  La Shirl always comes across as fun and warm in her appearances, almost as though she's cocking a snook at the whole business of personas, image and stardom, while playing along.  If this biopic is to be believed, she was, as a young woman, a fame-obsessed diva who spoke as she sang ("I want a yacht!  I'm going to eat nothing but caviar!")  Maybe Shelagh Stevenson wanted to reflect the stagey aspects of Ms Bassey, but it swamped any feeling of truth about the biopic.

Ruth Negga gives an amazing, assured performance, nicely complemented by Lesley Sharp as her down-to-earth mother in Tiger Bay/Splot, and Charlie Creed Miles as her manager, but the curtain came down in the 60s, onstage, singing 'This is My Life'.  Where was the rest?  What was the point?


Maybe it's budget cutbacks, or the shortening days, or maybe we're just getting old(er) but the schedules seem suddenly tired.  The shows that looked vaguely interesting aren't delivering in subsequent episodes:

The Body Farm - from the ridiculous to the slightly less ridiculous.  The characters haven't the flashpoint chemistry of the 'parent' Waking the Dead and Keith Allen is frankly bizarre casting.  He'll be turning up as a nice gentle hero next.  And why did the woman exit her own vehicle and walk home rather than turfing out her prisoner sister?

DCI Banks - bright policewoman is stupid enough to start an affair with an expert witness... who then turns out to be *Tah Dah!* the killer.  The only other possibility for the seasoned viewer was that he'd die.  Plus, suspect says he followed the victim into the alley because he wanted to see who she was dating, then in next breath says he'd seen her kissing her boyfriend the previous week.

Spooks - one big, fun TWNH.

Downton Abbey - see above.  Mr Fellowes is very defensive about anachronisms, but his toffs are extraordinarily fond of breaking the house rules and slumming below stairs, while his lower orders don't bat an eyelid about airing their opinions to the toffs.  It remains glorious froth in glamorous frocks while, as David Hare said of an Oscar-winning Bertolucci film, nobody says a single interesting thing from start to finish.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


We just wanted to see a lurid tabloid headline for variety.  News has broken that James Bolam is to leave 'New Tricks', and just after the nation rejoiced at the announcement of two further series.  This is no exaggeration; 9 million viewers is as much as the nation unites around one telly channel these days.  The prime-slot crime caper of three old timers and their lady boss notches up more viewers than the much-praised 'Downton Abbey'.

There are already pages of comments ranging from pleading by fans to the usual insults by the unpleasant.  Ali would like Mr B to stay too - the show's success is in the chemistry in her opinion - but it's none of her business.  It says strange things about our relationship to famous people we've never met that we feel we have the right to comment on career decisions.  To say he's 'ungrateful' for leaving the show is absurd: is he not allowed to retire, take a break or work on other things?  No doubt he's unperturbed at anything the Twittering classes have to say.

If the show isn't stale to watch, it's because of the cast and some sharp writing, but energy is hard to sustain over several series, and with a 56' format.  Mr B has said in rare interviews that he's unsentimental about his work and it's maybe one of the qualities that's allowed him the versatility to play the likes of Terry Collier, Trevor Chaplin, Harold Shipman and Jack Ford.

RIP Jack Halford, you'll be sorely missed, but we hope to see Mr B again very soon.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Spooks *spoilers*

We try, but we haven’t the time or the stamina to watch everything, nor to stick to things that no longer surprise and/or please.  Ali was the last to leave, in this case, but she didn’t even see out Adam’s tenure, so this was a trip down memory lane purely for the love of the blog.

‘Spooks’ began in the wake of 9/11 as an exciting, plot-driven series for a whole new, paranoid world.  MI5 had never looked so good nor had it had so many eager recruits.  The writing was strong, the humour was weak, and the latter was what wore us out.  Just how many hours of po-faced tension can one stand?  Browsing the internet for a crash course in what we’d missed, we’ve sort of plugged the gaps: Ros, Jo, Lucas and the ever-rising star Ruth.  Harry still frowning on proceedings.  All set for the last ever series.

Deja vu is a double-edged sword.  Harry!  Ruth!  Offices with acres of glass and screens!  We could go on.  In fact, we can't resist it: Russians!  CIA chiefs!  Fat-cat diplomats!  Lines like, "Now is the time to make our move"!  Explosions!  And all in the first twenty minutes.  It's like eating a tub of what used to be your favourite ice-cream and remembering that you stopped eating it because the last time it made you sick.

Which isn't to deny that what 'Spooks' does, it does well.  It's well-paced, slick and involving.  The rest of the cast could be anyone.  Simon Russell Beale (forever Powell's Widmerpool), Lara Pulver, Max Brown et al have taken up the mantles of Robert Glenister, Tim McInnerny, Keeley Hawes, Hermione Norris, Matthew Macfadyen, David Oyelowo, Rupert Penry Jones and Richard Armitage.  The list reads like several seasons of impressive rep casts at Stratford, playing the same parts.  After nine previous series, there would have to be bona fide vampires and aliens to surprise the audience, so finality is probably a good move.  (As an irregular viewer, Ali was still able to predict Erin's motherhood and Harry's fatherhood.)

Meanwhile... Harry goes into a library - not just any old library, an old-fashioned romantic one (the London Library?).  He's followed by at least two people and he knows it.  He pulls a folded note from the spine of a book.  The ragged handwriting reads, "We have to meet.  Tourmaline is in danger.  Sharecropper."  It's the sort of spy caper to have you wriggling on your cushions and chewing the wasabi popcorn.  And never mind those elegant little Bond shooters, these guns are huge.   What's not to love?

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Downton Abbey *spoilers*

We waited with bated breath for the onslaught, just like the soldiers in the trenches, but mercifully instead of guns and shells we only expected clichés: zeppelins, nurses, shell-shock, telegrams and tears, disillusion, emancipation etc. etc.

There is some alchemy to this drama.  It does very little more than update 'Upstairs Downstairs' for a 21st Century audience, utilising all the storylines that may not have been so familiar to viewers in the 1970s, and yet... it's undeniably watchable.  Much has been said of its wide appeal: the toffs, the oiks, the grand houses and pretty frocks, the intrigues and romance and now wartime tragedy.  Well, we're not surprised that Mr Fellowes didn't change a thing from series one, adhering to the usual adage of 'if it ain't broke...', or rather, 'if it happens that it works...'  The characters, then, have not sprung to 3-dimensional life but remained easily definable as hero or villain.

So, we started as we were bound to go on, with a shot of a muddy trench, and sure enough there were the white feathers, the upper-class-gal-becomes-nurse and the soldier so desperate to leave the front he deliberately incurs injury.  Odds for the wound not being severe enough and a subsequent desertion are lowering by the minute.  In addition to the stock stories of war we have the stock stories of love, too, with the chauffeur declaring his adoration of Lady Sybil and the once-bitten valet romancing a maid.  Then there's Lady Mary, devastated by Matthew Crawley's engagement to - quel horreur! - a commoner.  This is the same Lady Mary who, in the last series, for purposes of dramatic entertainment and seemingly very little else, dithered over whether to marry her beloved Matthew when it looked like he might lose his status as heir to Downton.  Her prospects otherwise were not so rosy, in the light of gossip about a Turkish diplomat dying in her bed, but maybe she foresaw freedom and flapperdom on the horizon?  Unlike any of her family, who are now busy looking aghast at all the changes.

By themselves, the broad brushes are not offensive.  A period drama set in a country house and scripted by Julian Fellowes was never likely to be edgy or controversial, and there is something cosy about Sunday night comfort-blanket entertainment that's as easy on the other four senses as on the eye.  Our excuse (OK, Ali's excuse) is a love of history, but that same love creates the minor irritations, the pea under all the mattresses, if that isn't too impertinent a thing for a red-blooded female ('gal' if you must) to say?  There is the inevitable expositional, on-the-nose dialogue, with characters telling others what they would already know of an 'I need to explain this to you' variety.  This is brought about by clumsy set-ups.  It's true that, despite the rigid rules that governed, there were no absolutes in 1916 any more than in 2011, so rules were bent and broken, but an Earl saying to his valet that he thought they were friends?  That same valet accepting a life of misery rather than say to his employer that his dissolute wife had him over a barrel concerning a Crawley family scandal?  Servants questioning their employers unasked and the Dowager Countess remembering the servants' names?  Well, 'Downton' on television has far fewer than 'Downton' in real life, aka Highclere Castle, would have had, so it probably isn't difficult to recall who's who.

So why watch?  There's 'Spooks' on the other side (next up...), emails waiting to be answered, or there's Scrabble in the cupboard, a guest dessert chef at the local bar.  Maybe it's the displacement to distant times, places and people of danger, fear and disappointment from the wars, crises, civil unrest, disasters, scandals and corruption that we absorb most of the time.  Or maybe it's just fun, and a change from murder.  If Julian Fellowes changes anything, let it please not be turning 'Downton' into the whodunnit 'Gosford Park'.  As Dowager Maggie says, one does hate drama that happens offstage.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

DCI Banks

Could Stephen Tompkinson look any more lugubrious?  We fell asleep.  Woke up to a scene in a morgue: Banks, a charred body and a man brought in to identify it.  Yes, he says, it's his daughter, but he then notices a wound in her head, explains he's a GP and launches into a forensic pathologist's explanation of how she died.  Unsurprisingly, it involved heat.  Rather more surprisingly, she still had a fairly decent head of hair.  We fell asleep again....

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Next up...

'DCI Banks', 'Spooks', 'Downton'.  Our televisual cups, while in no danger of running over, are at least half full.

Meanwhile, 'New Tricks' has been re-commissioned for two further seasons, so it seems Auntie likes it after all.  Everyone's Auntie....

The Body Farm

And the prize for the daftest programme currently on British television goes to...!

The premise: four scientists led by Eve Lockhart (Tara Fitzgerald) from ‘Waking the Dead’ are such über-geeks that they share a remote farmhouse–cum-high-security-lab where they, umm, do their stuff.  Judging from the first episode, that stuff seems to be responding to calls from DI Hale (Keith Allen) involving particularly gruesome organic matter.

The plot: a bathroom in a derelict tower block has been turned into a charnel house, with the floor, walls and ceiling covered with exploded flesh and feeding flies.  What happened?  Enter the above Fantastic Four to find out.  They’re not cops, you understand, they’re just the cheaper alternative to sending samples to Germany, now that swingeing cuts have closed the official UK labs.

The characters: sensible, moral, sultry-voiced lead who narrates an introduction about making a promise to the murderers to find them, and the victims to find out what happened; sensible, moral man who cooks and is in love with above; rash young crusader; mentally disordered agoraphobic with a thing for flies; grumpy cop.

The verdict: this first episode revolved around three teenagers in a sex triangle, a deaf man who used to work for the MoD and... not much else.  In tone it appears to be striving for something dark and offbeat, but the bookending narration – the closing voice-over was a preachy line about revenge not equalling justice and justice not always being what you expect – made it feel like ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ with a large dose of ‘Midsomer Murders’.  Only the seediness was all its own.

Appropriate Adult - conclusion

The second and concluding part of ‘Appropriate Adult’ was (once again) unable to maintain the standard of the opener and in this case it seems to highlight the difficulty of dramatizing factual events and the inevitable blurring of boundaries.  Here would seem to be one retelling that needs to be accurate, not only out of respect to those whose lives have been blighted, but also because invention could add nothing to an already ghoulish chain of events.  Yet we hear that some details were wrong and suspect there are other errors.  Janet Leach’s children were not living with her through the investigation and trial, according to her eldest son, and would she have been allowed so much unsupervised access to Fred West?

What these misgivings give rise to is a general feeling of discomfort.  It was far more obviously Leach’s subjective view of events this time around, and weaker as a result.  She is shown as a naive and needy woman, it’s true, but one who commits perjury by denying that she has sold her story.  That same story is the one adapted here for television, so from the viewers’ perspective she is, by default, a classic unreliable narrator.

We wouldn’t dismiss the idea of creating a drama to explore the criminal, immoral and unacceptable acts of which we are capable, nor would we expect it to provide answers, but if its purpose is to promote questioning and widen understanding around this behaviour and our reactions to it, then this ultimately didn’t achieve its aims.  The impact on the victims’ families and friends, and on the Wests’ own relatives, went unexplored, and we discovered nothing of the background or motivations of either Fred or Rose.  To learn that anyone, i.e. someone who isn’t a sexually deviant serial killer, can form a toxic attachment to someone who is everything they morally reject, is no surprise. 

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Inspector George Gently

AKA Gently Round the Bend.  Never was viewer in search of guilty pleasure so confused.  Martin Shaw?  Check.  Lee Ingleby?  Check.  Geordie accents?  Check.  Beehives, mini-skirts and kohl-rimmed eyes?  Check check check!  Just as we thought it was safe, up pops craggy-faced Sean Gilder to the unmistakeable strains of quavery-voiced angst used similarly in 'The Shadow Line'.  Then, as if one puzzle isn't enough, there's a 60s anthem, followed by another, and then another at regular intervals, providing aural backdrop to the neat 60s cars.  Ah, so this is 'Heartbeat'!  Or...

By the end of the 90-minute episode, we'd worked it out: 'Gently' has turned into a prime example of television's plat du jour.  Here's our version of the recipe:

  • Cops!  Between two and four, usually two; one older, one younger (other examples:- Lewis; Scott & Bailey)
  • Kitsch historical setting.  N.B. anachronisms no object.  'Gently' served up a Geordie housewife at an evening yoga class in 1966.  Hmm.  (Heartbeat, The Royal, Born and Bred, The Hour, Downton Abbey etc. etc.)
  • Kitsch geographical setting.  (Heartbeat, Ballykissangel, Doc Martin...)
  • 'Quavering-voiced angst' soundtrack (The Shadow Line, Wallander)
  • Cliche!  A plot involving deviant sexuality of some kind (too many examples to mention)
  • TWNHs!  They knew the facial cuts were fresh despite the face having been eaten away?  The teenager was such a natural in the TV audience that she was made host of the show?  The friend named the wrong colour of dress worn by the above teenager, thereby proving she hadn't turned up "til much later"... but when she had turned up, presumably she'd have been wearing something??
Stir thoroughly for up to 90 minutes, but don't worry too much if the mixture doesn't achieve a decent consistency.  For extra flavour add seasoned actors, et voila!  A dish that can be served up time and again.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Field of Blood *spoilers*

Monday's conclusion, unsurprisingly, didn't quite live up to last week's opener.  Like comic book heroines before her, Paddy only had one hour to save the world... well, solve the crime.  She did so admirably, but we're not sure the end justified the means.  Most of the hour was spent with her running around annoying her seniors (cliche #1), being told she was unattractive (TWNH), being told she was beautiful by colleague who wanted to sleep with her (cliche #2), putting herself in dangerous situations without telling anyone (cliche #3) and having her out-of-line a*se saved by colleague who was terminally ill (cliche #4).

With all of the above happening, it wasn't easy to work out what had happened and why.  Paddy's young cousin Calum had apparently killed little Brian because he was forced to by a disturbed lad (Danny?) who had previously killed his own half-brother... I think.  The scene in the prison, where Calum tells Paddy and his father what happened, hits all the right notes but nonetheless leaves us wondering if a child would commit such an abhorrent act - there is no suggestion that he was willing to comply - on the threatening say-so of a teenager, and then fail to crumple under pressure from his family, police, social workers etc. to tell all.  Paddy accuses the 'real' killer of trying to make Calum just like him, which seems a slim motive, unless we're once again at tellyland's catch-all motive of 'they did it because they're mad'.

And whoever killed Paddy's colleague Heather Allen (Danny or his devoted grocer dad Naismith), couldn't have thought she was Paddy, despite her using Heather's name, because they'd both met Paddy and she looked nothing like her.  It may have been dark and she may not have had her splendid 80s bouffant blonde hair on show, but... wouldn't you check you had the right victim before you bagged and bludgeoned them?  We kept being told that Heather was gorgeous and slim, while the shorter Paddy was the 'fat tart', so seemingly men don't look at the mantelpiece when they're smothering the fire, either....

As far as Paddy is concerned, a little less would be a lot more.  The story focused on her to the detriment of the central, horrific act of child murder.  We haven't read the book, so we can't say if this takes its lead from the original, but issues like marriage versus career and the demands of Catholicism on its followers are touched on but not fully explored, so why not background them and get on with the story?  We also take back the wish for more of the supporting cast.  David Morrissey got to give Paddy her dream job (cliche #5) and Peter Capaldi recited poetry in a drunken drawl that was barely understandable and very maudlin.

Would we watch more?  In an optimistic mood, maybe.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Appropriate Adult

On hearing that Dominic West was to play serial killer Fred West in an ITV drama, our first reaction was to ask why.  In terms of honing your craft etc. as an actor, serial killers must be good roles to get, with no dearth of talent lining up to play the likes of Crippen and Shipman.  However, with this subject matter there’s obviously a fine line between an informing and provocative drama and one that skews the truth and encourages mere morbid curiosity.  As with all matters of taste and decency, it’s hard to judge where that line should be drawn.  The names of Fred and Rose(mary) West conjure in most of us an almost primeval fear, as much, we would suggest, to do with lurid tabloid headlines and the consistent use of the same, instantly recognisable images, as with their crimes.

With regard to the crimes themselves, the details have been mostly withheld, through respect for the victims’ families and a fear of copycat behaviour that goes at least as far back as ‘On Iniquity’, published in 1967 in response to the trials of Brady and Hindley.  Very few of us are incapable of imagining horrors as terrible as those that happened at Cromwell Street, and as a result the Wests appear as modern bogeymen.  What is harder to imagine is the response of the victims’ families to a dramatisation of what is probably the worst thing ever to happen to them.  How could anyone else presume to suggest that it is good to remember, rather than to forget, or that a dramatic re-enactment will provide any sort of catharsis?  How could it avoid being deeply upsetting?

According to ITV, an early decision was taken not to portray the crimes, but to centre on the investigation, and in particular the appropriate adult of the title, who provides the everyman response to the discoveries.  This largely voids the voyeur argument and doesn’t detract from the shocking nature of these events.  Some viewers may object to the portrayal of Fred as a man with a roguish charm, every inch (or playing?) the yokel as he flirts with and manipulates Janet Leach, evades questions, or describes matter-of-factly how he dismembered his daughter.  Apparently it’s an accurate portrayal.  We're on slightly shakier ground with Ms Leach, who despite her fear and revulsion won't give up the case, and subsequently sold her story to a tabloid for a six-figure sum.

There was also humour in last night’s first half, the sort of gallows humour to be found in crime dramas and also, one suspects, in police stations and prisons all over the country.  “We’re here to search for the remains of your first wife, Fred,” says DC Savage (Sylvestra Le Touzel, compelling as always) as West waxes lyrical on the beautiful Gloucestershire countryside where he has buried her.  Dominic West and Monica Dolan as Fred and Rose are entirely believable, while Emily Watson, rather less mousy and more glamorous than she is playing, nonetheless conveys the bewilderment of someone fresh from training, immersed in a complicated family of her own, and out of her depth with what she must now face.

There will probably never be consensus on fictional depictions of real crimes, with real victims.  We would tend, generally, to prefer documentaries about something so recent and so sensitive.  'Five Daughters', shown early last year, won general acclaim by focusing entirely on the lives of the victims and the subsequent effects on their families, something that doesn't feature at all in 'Appropriate Adult'.  However, what this drama has done is to humanise demons: people who have families, children, homes and jobs, and live superficially innocuous lives are capable of the most extreme, violent, disgusting acts.  Seeing the Wests as something removed, something ‘other’, misplaces a fear which, disturbingly, should be much closer to home.