Sunday, 27 November 2011

Forbrydelsen - The Killing II

The formula that made the first series such compelling viewing has been followed fairly closely for the second - a woman tortured and killed, political skullduggery, dark secrets from the past and a tenacious Sarah Lund.

Almost halfway through, and no sign of a free Saturday evening and yet... it's a bit less special than series one.  Hard to put a finger on, except that maybe it's a little too like a formula, and that the sexual tension between Lund and Strange is a sorry replacement for the originality of her previous stable (at least initially) relationship.

The other thing this series lacks is the human element provided by the Birk Larsen family and friends, shattered and grieving, and in terms of TV drama, a rare portrayal of the impact and consequences of murder.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Pan Am

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away across the Atlantic, some television executives were looking for their next success.  “I know,” said one, “let’s take the ‘Mad Men’ thing, that’s hot right now, and ummm... well make it more, you know, accessible.  How about vampires?  They’re hot right now too.”  Silence.  “Umm... a soap?”  The rest, dear audience, is what brings us ‘Pan Am’.

The series has been strangely marketed.  Something so obviously soapy will grab female viewers, but the ads feature be-girdled, lip-glossed, come-hither hostesses.  Anyone labouring under the impression that that's just to hook an audience of either gender before unleashing a subtle, heavyweight drama along the lines of 'Mad Men' is in for a big disappointment.  Early on, pseudo-beatnik Maggie (Christina Ricci) collides with a man in hat and suit who could, from a distance, be Don Draper, but then you remember that he'd be less likely to sleep with Maggie than to have invented her for a campaign.  This doesn't so much debunk the myth of glamour as promote it.  Golly gee, if your colleague's running late, they'll send a helicopter for you to replace her.  As the brand new aeroplane takes off, one of the crew is still missing, another has to serve her married boyfriend and two more are rival sisters.  One of the latter is also a spy, checking out a supposed Russian traveller.  Don't let us say the show's lightweight, when there could be a Russian around.  This was the Cold War after all.   

The tone is pure froth.  Rome is signalled by car horns and men saying 'Bellissima!' a lot.  London has rain, obviously, a view of Big Ben and rooftops that surely never existed outside a Dore illustration and dark hotel furniture.  Blockbuster-style over-orchestrated music does very little to convince us that, wow, waitressing in a pressurised metal tube was just so amazing and liberating in 1963, any more than the frequent crooner tracks or the single crisis-in-Cuba scene add to the mood.  Costumes that are mufti rather than uniform can be found in this season's TopShop or Selfridges, the hairstyles in Vogue or Vanity.  The revelation at the end of episode one is that the missing purser was a British spy, and she's recruited her replacement.  So, while those Pan Am girls look like they should be in the current Virgin campaign, to the point of walking in step and waving in unison, they're all potential Mata Haris.  Maybe that's why Pan Am nose-dived in the business world?  Whatever.  I'm sure BOAC was a much smoother ride.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Downton - spoilers!

From the frantic searches based on the above title, we assume fans of the ‘Abbey’ are desperate for news.  Our lips are sealed on series 3 and the Christmas special (though we know that Santa himself has been in negotiations for a cameo appearance), but we can reveal, from a source known only as ‘Creepy Crawley’ that there are plans afoot as far ahead as series 5.  We are given to believe that:
·         HAVING found an heir, the Earl is so shaken by repeated threats to the inheritance that he hangs on and on, only dying on 3rd September 1939 at the thought of wearing a uniform around the house through yet another war.
·         MATTHEW, racked with guilt over Lavinia’s death of a broken heart, has got engaged to a series of lookalikes, only to lose all of them one after another when they realise that he is still in thrall to Lady Mary’s arched eyebrows.
·         SYBIL has joined the IRA in exasperation after her husband accepts the peace.  Unfortunately her wearing of dark trouser suits means she is arrested not as a terrorist, but being mistaken for her sister Lady Edith, who has joined Moseley’s new party.
·        LADY MARY has had a daughter with Richard Carlisle, who now runs the BBC as well as the Times.  She wants a son, but he dotes on the girl until he realises that she has washerwoman’s elbows that nothing can cure.
·         CORA has tracked down Jane and persuaded her to come and live at Downton as the Earl’s mistress, so that she can concentrate on good works with Isobel and the odd game of ping-pong with O’Brien.
·         WILLIAM’s ghost has been spotted whenever ‘11’ appears in the date.  Carson is slow to believe it until he himself finds the footman’s livery in his old room.  He’s rarely there since beginning a torrid affair with a fellow-servant (we can’t say!).  Downton hasn’t had a footman since 1920, when nasty O’Brien married Lady Mary’s parlourmaid in order to be near to Richard’s young and handsome brother.
·         SAVED at the eleventh (when else?) hour from the gallows, Bates is reprieved by a shady government enterprise on the understanding that he will spy on and, if necessary, assassinate subversive factions.  He marries Anna as cover but his work soon brings him into conflict with both Sybil and Lady Edith.
·         VIOLET expired after eating one of Mrs Patmore’s puddings, to which she added arsenic, misreading the label for arrowroot while wearing pink steamed-up spectacles.  She lives in fear of being discovered and is being blackmailed by O’Brien. 
More news from our inside ears as we get it.

Garrow's Law - series 3

The obvious opener is a call to 'Downton' fans to look no further for their Sunday-night costume drama fix.  Thankfully, 'Garrow's Law' is a very different beast.  Tony Marchant is one of our heroes.  Great idea to take a real legal reformer and make a wigs’n’all Sunday-night drama out of it.  The result is watchable, entertaining and intelligently scripted.  Without knowing it was Mr Marchant, though, we would never have guessed that he penned any of it.  It’s solid, without the dash and power of earlier work such as ‘Holding On’.
Ali loves the Georgians, and is outrageously fond of Mr Southouse, but even she can’t avoid keeping a mental tally of market scenes with livestock and baskets, a tsssk of irritation at the very clean nature of the London streets and the eternal opposition of Silvester in the courtroom as though he were the only other brief in the city.  Marchant has admitted conflating real cases, not all of which Garrow was personally involved with, to fit a structure of one-hour episodes.  Like Channel 4’s ‘City of Vice’, it features a mixture of 18th Century curios – molly-houses and the like – and modern-day preoccupations such as the treatment of sodomy and women’s rights.  So into series 3....
Like ‘Frasier’, it suffers from the unfulfilled longing of earlier series being, umm, fulfilled.  At least we weren’t shown Niles and Daphne having soft-focus, low-light sex.  Not that Mr Buchan and Ms Marshal are unattractive, but we had guessed that Garrow and ‘Lady Sarah’ would be loved-up and loving it by now.  This brings us to another tangle of dramatising a person rather than a fictional character.  Garrow did live in nonconnubial content and eventual marriage with Sarah, who had had a son apparently by Viscount (Arthur) Hill.  However, she had not been married to Hill and was simply Sarah Dore.  The classic romantic triangle was never as fraught as portrayed and in terms of 18th Century sensibilities the real and the fictional situations would be quite different.
Tonight’s opener otherwise dealt with madness, always dubious in a defence case then as now, and particularly so when the accused shot at the same King George whose madness inspired at least one great play, albeit over two hundred years later.  Garrow begins in adversity, as far from being knighted and celebrated as ever, and as usual is brought to his senses by his solicitor Mr Southouse.  The gallery of villains, from the gluttonous judge to the politically-minded lords, are all present and correct.  They all pale when Rupert Graves appears as Arthur, chewing the scenery as Sarah’s ex and Garrow’s arch-enemy.  The real Arthur’s bones must be rattling in the grave.

Land Girls - series 3

An experiment in watching one of the relatively recent attempts to enliven daytime tv schedules.  Not bad at all.  In subject, at least, it doesn’t avoid the pre-watershed taboos of violence and sex, and isn’t constrained like many prime-time dramas by a two-hour slot.  Characters struggle up from the one-dimensional into something like life and if the odd scenario stretches things a bit (would Connie really feel she had no choice but to desert her fiancĂ© for conman Danny, who seemed to operate as a one-man psycho before succumbing to pantomime knocked-over-the-head status?) it was still a well-crafted watch, with strong performances from the eponymous Land Girls, and lovely Nicholas Shaw (Ali).  The other slightly panto character was the old busybody, and both Joe Armstrong and Carolyn Pickles seemed slightly uncomfortable, and a bit out of keeping with the rest.  No offence to either of the actors, one of whom has given two great stage performances we have seen (and whose dad is the lovely Alun – see ‘Garrow’) and the other is a screen stalwart, or would be if there were more challenging roles for older women.  Speaking of which, could somebody please cast Sophie Ward in something where she isn’t terribly elegant and repressed?
Perhaps the best compliment overall would be to say that it’s far better than the 1998 Leland film of the same name, which must have had a much larger budget, and it’s far better than almost anything else to be seen before 8pm.

The Jury

You might be forgiven for thinking that there was enough drama in a retrial for murder to preclude any TWNH moments but ‘The Jury’, while entertaining enough, would have its audience believe some rum stuff.  Top barrister puts question to the defendant (paraphrased): “If you could go back to that interview, would you now tell the truth to the police?”  Since he’d hardly be likely to say ‘no’, is the answer really illuminating?  Is it evidence?  Wouldn’t the prosecution have raised these questions to the judge?  The sister of one of the victims tries to sway the jury, having planted evidence in the original trial.  Why?  Because the victims’ families all want someone to blame and punish.  Yes, understandable, but ideally the murderer rather than some random bloke?
The stories of the jury members ended without any major surprises, perfectly in keeping with drama conventions: the teacher keeps the baby because she’s learned the value of life; the shallow jury-dodger learns the value of doing jury service; the asperger’s sufferer comes out of his shell enough to have real impact in the jury room; the bored housewife decides to work at her marriage rather than go online dating, which after all hasn’t worked very well for the 3 victims; Anne Reid has another onscreen death.  They bond so well that nine months later they assemble to see one of their number sworn in as a British Citizen.  He’d been accepted as an American but having sat on the jury, he has faith in British Justice.  Meanwhile in parliament, trial by jury has been upheld.  Oh and Mr Lane is found not guilty x 3 and slouches off into the sunset with the juror who has been writing him cuddly-but-godly notes.  So they’ve been a pretty naughty bunch of jurors, but it’s all ended well, except... who dunnit?  OK it’s not about that, but it’s an obvious gap.  There’s no dah-dah DAH moment that drops Lane in it, or shows some shadowy murderer preparing to kill after a forced hiatus while Lane was in prison.  All-in-all it would seem British Justice is about not convicting a man whom there’s no evidence to convict, rather than attempting to build a case against a guilty party.
Murder trials are another area with which we have only limited acquaintance (so far, but those responsible for terrible drama beware) so we may be wrong on most counts, and this doesn’t have the howlers of ‘Law and Order’ for one, but if a drama is so blatantly pro trial by jury, shouldn’t it be resolutely and robustly believable?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Jury

Remember the good old days when you knew where you were with ITV dramas?  Basically you tuned in to watch Ross Kemp/Martin Kemp/Robson Green play a cop/soldier/criminal/lawyer/doctor.  Recently, the envelope has been pushed almost to the point of originality, but with ‘The Jury’ we’re back on familiar ground.  Superior in terms of production, of-course – Peter Morgan, Julie Walters and a smart 5-night airing, plus the sort of mournful humming soundtrack that all but sings depth and gravity – but if Julie Walters had wanted a vehicle, she need have looked no further.  She single-handedly demolishes the opposition in defending her previously-convicted client’s retrial.  We’ve no doubt the law works by shaking the foundations of so-called evidence, but as a jury member we’d say it still looked overwhelmingly like Lane was the man.  Even if he turns out not to be, would it be thanks to his terrier lawyer?

The eponymous jury are worthy to be called his peers.  One is contemplating an affair through a dating agency, another is pregnant by a teenaged pupil, and a third is impersonating the juror called to serve, in collusion with her to gain a promotion.  There’s also a sub-plot involving a mystery woman who claims she served on the jury who convicted Lane in his original trial.  Performances are polished, and it’s intriguing enough to keep you watching, but it’s going to have to cohere into a convincing, emotionally-involving climax to have been worthwhile.  We're not sure it works as stand-alone drama.  Stand-alone, that is, from the previous series of 'The Jury', which despite featuring a different trial and, of-course, different jurors, continues with a format similar to that of a disaster movie: group of characters all have either cliched or unlikely backstories that intersect or are resolved in some way by the situation.

Downton Abbey *spoilers*

"Don't think for one moment that you will see ME in dropped-waist frocks!"

Awards, ratings, a Christmas special and a third series.  Hmm.  ‘The Wire’?  ‘Mad Men’?  ‘The Killing’?  We’re wondering what series 3 of ‘Downton Abbey’ could possibly deliver.  Are there any clichĂ©s left?  That flicking sound is Mr Fellowes and co leafing through the pages of ‘The 1920s, a short introduction’.  We just can’t wait for the Charleston – not to mention the Black Bottom – mentions of gangsters and prohibition in New Yoik, the General Strike, jazz, flappers, aeroplanes and the rise of some brown-shirted types in decadent Berlin.  Meanwhile the staff are dwindling because they’re all off to the shops and the factories.  If we’re missing any stereotypical landmarks of the age, they’re sure to turn up next Autumn.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Top Boy (spoilers)

OK, first things first: it’s not ‘The Wire’, though they have similarities.  For a start it’s a four-hour drama not a sixty-odd-hour one, so it’s tightly focused on drugs gangs rather than branching out into the cops, local industry, the schools and the media.  There are moments in ‘Top Boy’ that aren’t great, usually because their tone echoes directly ‘The Wire’ or even ‘In Bruges’ (Leon IS Cutty, Ra’Nell IS Michael and as for the sheared fingers....).  This also doesn’t baulk the conventions, such as the beloved dog earmarked for death from its first appearance, nor the temptation to make its anti-hero sympathetic.

So, with that out of the way, all that’s left to say is that we liked it.  Ronan Bennett’s recent offering ‘Hidden’ pales in comparison.  Thankfully, neither the real worlds of high crime from Westminster nor low crime from Hackney are overly familiar, but the difference in realism between Top Boy’s characters and Hidden’s equates to that between Pixar and Noggin the Nog.  Here, Bennett makes no attempt to untangle the lives of Dushane, Sully et al, just to show how life is, what choices exist and what they mean for youth on an inner-city estate.  So the ending brought the drugs deal and several lives to a close, without any neat tying up.

Referring to lack of on-the-ground knowledge by us, we'll qualify the TWNH to a TWProbably NH, but would Raikes be a lone and unprotected operator?  How did Dushane keep finding cash for deals when he had his 'food' stolen twice?  Minor quibbles, since we probably missed the explanation as mumbled by characters while running, selling or shooting.

Must also say that Brian Eno's score was a rare example of a soundtrack that enhanced rather than distracted from, or was superfluous to, the visuals.  Television aimed at intelligent viewers is in short supply and we’re grateful to Channel 4!