Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Hour



“The Devil is in the detail” says Freddie the newshound at one point in The Hour’s hour, and he’s right.  Every set, every costume is painstakingly recreated, as though daring a challenge.  It looks telly-land perfect, which is to say that most of the usual signposts for 50s London are there, but the people look younger and better-dressed than they ever do elsewhere.  It’s a tough balance to make a programme look *wow, so old-fashioned!* and yet not alienate the viewers with the less sexy attributes of the period.  (Where are the ubiquitous hats and gloves?)  The advance publicity seemed to present it as a British version of ‘Mad Men’ with a dash of ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, the 2005 Clooney/Downey Jr film about CBS news during the McCarthy era.  This did it no favours as far as anyone with an inkling of knowledge about 50s Britain is concerned: Manhattan was glamorous in the 1950s and early 1960s, and perceived as such.  London was not. 

The cast do their best against the yesteryear scenery.  Ben Whishaw (Freddie) has a natural look of someone who is hard done by and prepared to whine incessantly about it.  This has served him well in his career so far (‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Criminal Justice’ to name but two) and does so here.  Abi Morgan had better give him ample opportunity to shine or he will remain thin in all senses of the word.  As for Romola Garai, nobody does ‘gutsy woman in a man’s world’ quite like her, whether she’s playing a fortune-hunting Victorian miss, a fortune-hunting Victorian prostitute, or as here, the producer of a news programme in the exciting new world of television.  And lest we forget that Dominic West isn’t from Baltimore, or serial-killer Fred, here he is as a suave (but not as suave as he thinks he is) presenter who has married his way to success.

So far, so fun nostalgic news drama, but this has a murder with cold-war political/spy undertones thrown in.  It’s an odd hybrid, with as much tonal difference as black-and-white to glorious technicolour.  So far our only link is Freddie, and the stage would appear to be set for a pleasant few hours of conspiracy-hunting, risking life and career and ultimately transforming the state of Britain and its news.  Phew!  Let’s hope they pull it off.  We have a list of visual clich├ęs, made before we watched, and we’re hoping to reach the end without ticking them all off.  (Dan won the bingo: housekeeper, gentlemen-only drinking establishment...)  The dialogue is smart and sharp, so no need for story cues like rehearsing interviews in the mirror, the chatty newsman and the sudden realisation of (un)likely hiding places.

Whether you love or hate it, though, you can neither miss nor fault the BBC’s great timing in airing a series all about the emergence of challenging television journalism just as the Sky Corporation’s cracks are appearing and our fine police and politicians are being sucked right into them.  Opposition, independence, public service – more please!  

Friday, 15 July 2011

Single-Handed


Lovely, remote Connemara.  Lovely, remote Jack Driscoll.  So remote is the area that he must be the only eligible bloke in sight, hence a magnet for any eligible women.  So remote is he that he manages to lose each new love each week.  This TWNH spoils what is otherwise a likeable cop drama.  We’d almost prefer him to have a sidekick to confide in and shout at, and even have an affair with if he got lonely enough.  His two-short-planks junior (though older) colleague hardly counts.
In-between love affairs, Garda Jack drives through beautiful bleak landscapes, has a warm if gently chiding relationship with his dear old mum and looks miserable.  This may be partly because of his disastrous love life.  (In series one he managed to commit incest, albeit unknowingly, and had left Dublin because of his affair with a married colleague.  He also fell out with his dad, who then died.)
Yes, he does solve the odd murder or two, exposing the nasty underside potentially lurking in isolated rural communities.  Not, we hope, that the crime rate is at all realistic (we’ve been to Connemara and saw all sorts – another blog – but thankfully nothing to alarm the cops).  Last night's opener set up a possible murder with a probable suspect, which in telly-speak means he won't have dunnit, guvnor.  This plotline is low key, so far, in comparison with Jack's troublesome family.  Cue Stephen Rea, thankfully minus his 'Shadow Line' hat.  We shall be tuning in for episode two in a week's time, and may even be thankful for the 'Previously on...' intro.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Night Watch (spoilers!)



Aha!  Just as we get mired in cops and more cops, along comes this.  More historical lesbian shenanigans courtesy of Sarah Waters.  I know how un-PC that sounds, but... frankly it’s what distinguishes it from several other dramas about historical shenanigans.  This time it’s WWII and ‘anything goes’ and, judging from this, frequently went, without giving a damn.  First, we like the setting, we like the cast.

We won't discuss merits relative to the original novel, except to say that without literary and descriptive prose, and squeezed into 90 minutes, this is ultimately little more than a sexual merry-go-round told in semi-backwards fashion, a la Pinter's 'Betrayal'.  Kay, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, helpfully bookends as narrator, telling us we're joining partway through.

So, leaving sexual orientation out altogether, and taken chronologically, character A leaves character B for character C, who then leaves character A for character B.  With me so far?  Character B then turfs character C.  Meanwhile, a colleague of character C - character D - has a brother - character E - who is in love with character F, who, of-course, falls for character D. 

To reiterate, the cast are very good.  Anna Maxwell Martin, Claire Foy, Jodie Whittaker, Harry Treadaway, JJ Feild, Claudie Blakley, Kenneth Cranham, Liam Garrigan and Anna Wilson-Jones are all on fine form as frail, shell-shocked human beings, coping or not coping in their own way.  The costumes and sets are finely detailed, down to visible plumes of breath in cold wartime bedrooms.  However, it didn't really need the badly mocked-up shots of London burning, or St. Pauls by night, to set the scene.  Also, the music was distracting.  It sounded very weepy-melodrama and intruded on scenes unnecessarily (so they're unhappy: we get it).  And did we really need the rewind device to drag us back in time?  It did take us back - straight to the 80s and all that messing about with the VCR.

No TWNHs but one cliched moment when Kay, retrieving dead children after a bombing raid, stares at a pile of rubble with a rag doll on top.  To paraphrase a scene in 'The Wire' where they're watching war footage: "Oh no, not the doll again.  Can't he leave it out?  There's always the damn doll...."

Has it made us want to read the book?  Not really, despite having read and enjoyed others of her novels (Ali).  Perhaps that's the acid test for an adaptation?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

New Tricks




Not new at all.  Another programme that feels like it’s been on forever, and with more justification, since the new series is the eighth.  What would be terrible with a lesser cast and dull writing is actually quite fun, though visibly just as much for the actors as for the audience.  It’s not going to take you anywhere unexpected, and probably not anywhere you don’t want to go, which is part of  its charm.  It does its stuff just well enough to be an amiable diversion, and if you watch TV to see good actors, then the regular and guest cast are usually worth the hour. Brian, Gerry and Jack are pretty well-defined as, respectively, the reformed alcoholic visibly on the autism spectrum; the bluff, womanising, chain-smoking old-schooler (ok, Dennis Waterman combines his roles in 'The Sweeney' and 'Minder' here, even singing the theme tune, but hey) and the mostly gentle but curmudgeonly widower.  They are anchored, sometimes almost literally, by boss Sandra, who despite looking much too glam for the job, is just about as convincing a detective as Jane Tennison. 

Just don't expect it to be TWNH-free.  If the cases veer regularly into the wildly unlikely, however, at least it's done with less hand-wringing angst than the thematically similar 'Waking the Dead'.  Enjoy it while it lasts because despite its popularity with viewers, it's one of those programmes the BBC seems uneasy about.  The Beeb appear to think it appeals to the same age range as the cast, i.e. not everybody's target audience of adolescents (of any biological age).  Since we're apparently an ageing population, according to their reckoning this series is headed for a ratings explosion.  Meanwhile, I'll just fetch my slippers, plump up the cushions and wait for Dennis's dulcit tones....

Monday, 11 July 2011

Law and Order: UK


This series is so formulaic that it feels like it’s been running for at least as many years as the various US versions.  Senior and junior cop (cuddly and thus unlikely Bradley Walsh and Jamie Bamber) investigate death for 30 minutes minus ad breaks, then idealistic barrister and zealous assistant attempt to prosecute arrested suspect, with occasional advice from senior CPS guy, usually with a last-minute revelatory ‘find’ thanks to aforementioned assistant, and much searching of soul.  That’s the next 30 minutes minus ad breaks, and then it’s all over.  You’ve seen every series in its entirety.

Needless to say, in the interests of serving up both police investigation and legal proceedings in the kind of neat but twisty story arc so beloved of American TV network scriptwriters, TWNHs abound.  Law-breaking is universal, so the crimes may adapt readily enough to the UK, but law-making differs quite a lot.  The sight of the CPS running around chasing suspects is not quite as ridiculous as the path-lab heroes and heroines of 'Silent Witness', but it's not far short.  As for confidentiality, or knowing basic rules such as disclosure of past misdeeds to your brief before taking the stand - forget it. 
The new series has even lost the charismatic (still charismatic when wet) Ben Daniels, currently wowing them at the Donmar, and also the lovely Bill Paterson.  Instead we have Dominic Rowan, who may be currently wowing them with his ‘no sex please, even with Romola Garai’ at the Royal Court (why the hell are we writing a blog about TV and not theatre?) but has here about as much screen presence as David Cameron.  Oh and Peter Davison has the Bill P part.  Alesha (zealous assistant played by Freema Agyeman) doesn't seem to have noticed that the only two people in her office have changed.  In something so rigidly plotted, maybe we won’t notice either....

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Camelot



If you love ‘Rome’, ‘Spartacus’, ‘The Tudors’, ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ or ‘Game of Thrones’... don’t bother watching this, you’ve seen all the soft-porn sex, bloody gore and ancient superstitions TV can throw at you.

The Killing (US version)



Those of us who loved ‘Forbrydelsen’ can’t resist a peek at the US remake but, good as the original was, we don’t want to watch it over again, sans subtitles, quite so soon.  The new version, judging by the first double episode, is almost a scene-by-scene remake, with characters having similar names, similar clothes – THAT jumper – and similar dialogue.  Even the music is borrowed from the parent series.  The only real differences so far are the unpleasant nature of a couple of characters and the talking up of marriage plans for Sarah.  The cynics in us can’t help wondering if these are in anticipation of an audience in need of black and white amidst all the colour.  Not to mention brevity: 13 episodes instead of 20.

So, in sum, one word: why?  All that money for Americans too lazy to read subtitles?  Admittedly they will probably like this, having no Danish ghosts answering to the names of Lund, Nanna, Pernille, Troels et al.  

Friday, 8 July 2011

Stolen



The word 'harrowing' is over-used, but it applies here.  The stories of children brought to Britain as slave labour, investigated with varying degrees of success by police, were genuinely distressing. As the one-off drama showed, many of these children remain completely under the radar into adulthood, and many were sold or sent off to work, never to see their families again.

This is the sort of understated, low-key production that the BBC does very well.  Other than the occasional use of split-screen, and a few strangely-angled shots, there was nothing showy to detract from the substance of the story, and the dialogue was sparse but effective.

Only one possible TWNH, and sadly I can't be sure, but I can't imagine that a steady stream of people would pass by a dying or dead child (with visible blood).  Even if only for the self-importance, somebody would stop, and lets be optimistic and say a number of people would offer help.  Nonetheless, the reality of parents happy to exploit others' children is a depressing one, and if we had any doubts about it, the evening news on 7th July had one such story.