Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Prisoners' Wives

First Footballers and now 'Prisoners' Wives', not to mention 'Mistresses', are the subject of TV dramas.  Women are the focus, but it seems strange in the 21st Century that we haven't been treated to 'Policewomen's Husbands'.

Gender commentary aside, this started with Steve (Jonas Armstrong) telling his young, pregnant wife Gemma (Emma Rigby) that he was her 'dream ticket'.  Predictably, it was all of thirty seconds before armed officers burst in, arrested Steve and turned Gemma's dream into a nightmare.

We were taken into prison as a visitor, with Gemma, and the sense of degradation and humiliation at having scans and body searches was palpable.  Less successful is the character of Gemma herself, whose naivety and ignorance of her husband's life fits the 1950s more than the 2010s.  It doesn't seem to occur to her, for a good while, to ask who the victim was and why the police had charged Steve with murder.  She also seems to have no family or friends of her own, just a creepy and socially inept boss.

In stark contrast is Polly Walker's Francesca, wife to drug-dealer Paul (Iain Glen, villain par excellence).  She's knowing, proud and handy with a stopcock.  A red-hot wife and a Tiger Mother, she's already gone some way to yanking Gemma into the real world, after the heavily-pregnant young woman has hauled herself through the window of her mother-in-law's caravan and discovered the gun her husband swore he didn't own.  Why do criminals always keep weapons, money or drugs in biscuit tins on top of cupboards?

Worth sticking with to see the relationships develop between the women, and presumably deteriorate with their partners in prison.  Plea to production companies everywhere: strong drama is quite good enough to do without the signposting songs, which can safely be left to the likes of 'Holby City'.  Ta.

Monday, 30 January 2012


As cop shows go, this is about as absurd as it gets.  It's a sort of television version of those old true-crime weeklies for obsessives.  Each case DI Chandler investigates with his burly and nerdy sidekicks turns out to be deranged copy-cat killers, who just happen to fixate on notorious crimes and criminals of the past.  So far we've had Jack the Ripper and the Krays.  Now we have the early 19th Century Ratcliff Highway murders.  It would be shorter to list the 'That Would Happens' than the TWNH moments, but the tone is most curious thing, veering between serious and rather bloody killing and tongue-in-cheek humour.  Could we take it seriously if we tried?

Trashy, pulpy, guilty-pleasure fun, but any serious devotee of cop shows should hook up with Sarah Lund, and anyone with a yen for murdered linen drapers should try crime's Grand Dame, PD James' book 'The Maul and the Pear Tree'.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

We'll Take Manhattan

David who?  Jean who?  For anyone who draws a blank whenever the Sixties are mentioned, Swinging or otherwise, this features a few introductory lines.  Apparently, the NYC shoot of the Shrimp by Bailey in 1962 began youth culture and broke down class barriers.  Err... really?  What about young Harry Webb crooning about being a Young One in 1959?  As far as we know, he wasn't titled at the time.

Well, we can forgive them overstating the case, since without some trumpeting you might wonder what material there was to fill a 90-minute drama.  You might wonder that anyway.  A piece featuring icons is always hamstrung by the obvious, namely the familiar features being unfamiliarly rendered by actors who are often known for other roles.  Thus Amy Pond - oops! - Karen Gillan, imitates the luminous Jean Shrimpton by staring a lot and wearing her headscarves well.  Nice legs, as they say, shame about the face, which though pretty, is not similar to Ms Shrimpton's.  Aneurin Barnard as Bailey sports a full-on, cheeky-chappy oik persona.  Maybe the real Bailey was/is such a character (he and Jean Shrimpton are said to have been consulted), but he comes across here as a young Arthur Daley.

The best performance, and probably the most thankless role, has Helen McCrory as Lady Rendlesham.  According to this, she's so conservative and stuck in the past, it's a wonder she's managed to keep Vogue going at all.  We get no sense of why, in a rapidly-changing world, something like fashion, which would typically drive such change, would be so against trying something new.

Biopics can work, a recent example being the Morecambe and Wise one, 'Eric and Ernie', but it had a good script by Victoria Wood and fine performances, particularly from a little-known Daniel Rigby.  BBC4 has hit on a formula for dramatizing 20th Century people and events, but with something so visual as its subject, Barnard's Mockney, Gillan's bland, rather vacant good looks and a clumsily on-the-nose script distract fatally from the sheer ebullience and style of the original Bailey and Shrimpton collaboration.  For once, all the interesting stuff was going on in front of the camera (the romance being of most interest to the couple themselves) and so the best way of appreciating the shots and their impact is just to look.

Jean Shrimpton in New York, 1962, by David Bailey
*Happy to donate for this shot.  Dolls' Hospital, Shelter or Save the Children.

Sunday, 22 January 2012


We have to begin by saying that it isn't Dan's kind of thing and Ali wasn't mad about the novel, nor does Mr. Redmayne look like an obvious choice for Stephen Wraysford.

The first half was a beautifully shot 90 minutes, and effectively contrasted the hell of the trenches with the more exquisite hell of a clandestine love affair before the war.  It didn't do it in an original way, however, and the whole thing was soooo slooooow.  The two narrative hooks of what happened to the romance and does Wraysford survive the trenches are barely enough to keep a tired viewer awake.  There are lots of lingering, longing looks between the two leads and enough softly mournful piano music to signpost tragedy more clearly than the blasted intestines of a dying soldier.  The central love story doesn't come to life, however, either through singular characters or dialogue.

Visually handsome and fans of Faulks's novel will probably love it.  Anyone who loves a weepie with a bit of war thrown in, and not the other way around, will probably love it too, and if it prompts them to pick up the book, well... it's a better read than your average Mills&Boon.  It's just  that for the rest of us it's a bit dull.


No, it's not on TV, so no need for panic.  This isn't about to become a film blog, but it's rare that two films on simultaneous release receive such polar-opposite reviews.  We speak of-course of 'The Artist' and 'W.E.'

The former is sublime and deserving of its praise.  Crafted with love and intelligence, it plays with the medium of film and the dubious morality behind Hollywood's dream factory.  It's rare that a film really tries something different and pulls it off with crowd-pleasing aplomb.

So, does 'W.E.' equally deserve the derision it has received from the critics?  To date we haven't seen a single favourable review (Mr Bamigboye in the Daily Mail was more of a sales pitch), so we went with low expectations.  We've seen 'Cassandra's Dream' so we know what a bad film looks like and that's an apt jumping off point.  Would this have attracted such bad notices if the director had been A.N.Other?  Well no... but probably because it wouldn't have been made.  Reading the reviews could make you feel sorry for Madonna, but with her funds, connections and history, it's unlikely she cares much about the negative critical reception.

To start with the positives: Andrea Riseborough is just fine as Wallis, in fact fabulous.  She gets the best deal, screenwise, although it's an undeniable shame that her performance in a better vehicle may well have earned her serious award nominations.  The remainder of the cast are solid in support, and all credit to the casting directors in providing one of the film's saving graces.  It also looks beautiful.  Madonna's background in masterminding several of her own pop videos serves her well in this respect, but just as the film highlights her abilities in wallpaper porn, it also shows up her obsession with appearances and the superficial.

So, what's wrong with it?

  • The modern-day storyline set in New York.  It's just weak, doesn't add anything in its supposed parallel to the W.E. thread and is wildly implausible.  Wally is clearly neurotic, her husband is almost a pantomime villain (modelled on Mr. Ritchie, perchance?) and as for the Russian security-guard-cum-intellectual with his spacious apartment, expensive watch and grand-piano-playing abilities... they're "a dime a dozen"?  Come on!  Sotheby's  also apparently have the worst security of any auction house in history.
  • The dialogue.    Lots of exposition along the "Welcome to the first day of the auction of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's estate here at Sotheby's" and "but he's my brother!" lines.  The rest was either trite, pretentious or just plain dull.
  • Wallis and Edward.  Theirs may be a larger-than-life tale of the 20th Century, able to be pored over from many angles, but it has already been the subject of countless dramas, documentaries, books etc. and they make regular cameo appearances in works about that time ('Any Human Heart' being a recent case in point).  In addition, there just isn't the material to sustain a two-hour film, which is where TV costume dramas have won out.  The minutiae of the relationship translate to a small screen far more convincingly than they do to a bigger picture experience, obviating the need for the uninteresting modern storyline.  The other sticking point about the pair is their unsavoury reputations.  Even Wallis's biographers don't seem to like her much, despite thinking her chic and rather formidable.  This film continually dismisses or downplays the Nazi angle and depicts the late Queen Mother in a particularly nasty light (nothing new, we admit).  Tellingly, what's also omitted is Wallis's well-documented viciousness towards her, nicknaming her 'Cookie' and so on.  Here, she's portrayed only as the victim of the royal family's snobbish rejection of her.  We could go on in the same vein but here is a woman who needs a revisionist history no more or less than the QM, and like her is unable to comment on her own behalf.
  • The talked-about Sex Pistols dance sequence.  Just plain odd.  (It didn't work for Sophia Coppola either, Madge, if that's any consolation.)  Like the whole Wally strand, it added sod all, and that goes double for the inclusion of Mohammed Al Fayed.  Are the modern rich, famous and powerful so insecure that they must draw comparisons to the glamorous - if 'pretty vacant' - dead?
So, yes it's their money and they can do what they want with it, and who is anyone to say that anyone else shouldn't branch out and try to create something new?  But... it's galling as ever that clout opens the doors that remain closed to talent.  Worst film ever?  No, but critics can rest easy that they are taken at their word: there were three other people in the cinema with us.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sherlock *spoilers*

We're wondering whether the BBC had the jitters about this series, or whether Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat had them about the BBC.  Despite the success of series one, series two has featured three key stories, as though they wanted to make all their favourites in case it either wasn't recommissioned, or Benedict Cumberbatch or Martin Freeman moved on.  They can go back and do the other stories - as with Conan Doyle, he didn't stay dead after the Falls - but they're making it hard for themselves to keep up the pace and tension.

We liked the reworking of 'Baskerville' particularly.  It had that sense of gothic paranoia that ran through all the original stories, while elegantly using the paraphernalia of modern life to update both setting and relevance.  Overall, though, the series feels like it was made it for teens, with that breathlesss, over-the-top sense of... 'Dr Who'?  We can't help but wonder if it isn't another facet of dumbing down.  Not that the scripts themselves are crude or witless, or that it is necessarily a bad thing to pander to arrested development in some sense - who wants to grow old anyway? - but the England of Conan Doyle's formidable hero was very different to one in which every third household has single occupancy and Playstation games are among the favourite pastimes for adults in their 40s.  The modern Sherlock, in the current film as well as on the Beeb, is undeniably fun, but at the expense of something quite sinister and adult that marked the original.

Call the Midwife

We've not read Jennifer Worth's memoirs on which the series is based.  No doubt they're an absorbing social document of a specific time and place (late 1950s, London's East End).  As dramatised by the BBC, think 'Casualty' meets 'Casualty 1900', bumps into 'The Royal', takes a detour through 'District Nurse' and ends up being very close neighbours with all manner of heartwarming post-war grubby England tales.

Is that unfair?  Maybe after one episode it's too early to judge, and the performances and production values are all they should be, but... it's all so familiar: the young newcomer, years of tradition, the agonies and ecstasies of childbirth, the nostalgic look back at a bygone age and even the carefully chosen soundtrack.  Granted, it has been made for the 8pm Sunday slot and it doesn't shirk from showing the less salubrious side of life.  So far it's so-so, but for emotional impact and a recreation of the 1950s without the childbirth, see 'Vera Drake'. 

Friday, 13 January 2012

Drood – the Denouement

It may be limp to say it just didn’t feel right, but then, the arts are not science and there are no objective, empirical measures, so... it just didn’t feel right.  All credit to Gwyneth Hughes for even trying to conclude a Dickensian tome when he’s arguably even more popular now than in his lifetime, and not known for his simplistic plots.   The resolution she proposed, however, seemed a mish-mash of modern psychology (Jasper’s bad because Daddy didn’t love him) and enough coincidences to out-Dickens Dickens (not only are Drood and Jasper brothers, rather than nephew and uncle, but the Landless twins are also the product of Drood Senior’s lust).  We were tempted to ask whether Ms Hughes had helped out with the recent spoof with Stephen Fry et al.

The contrivance of Edwin’s having gone to Egypt without telling anyone, therefore leaving everyone to believe him dead, and turning up again just in time to tie up all the loose ends, was less than convincing, to say the least.  They may not have had email, but they did have post and even, for some of the distance, telegraph.  His reputation had enjoyed something of a renaissance by then – strange how often this is the case with the dead – yet despite his growing maturity he hadn’t seen fit to bother informing anyone for the supposed year he was away?

Perhaps the main problem with finishing the creative vision of someone else, particularly when the original work is from a different era, is that it can’t be picked up from where the author left off.  The externals that shaped Dickens’s thoughts are so far gone that the modern writer must rely as much on Dickens’s other novels as on history books.  Had he lived, he would undoubtedly not only have finished writing but revised earlier parts of the book, perhaps making major changes, and what he left us with is by default inferior to what would have been published, had it reached that stage.  There is a continuing fad for ‘additionals’, be they sequels, prequels or reimaginings, and some have more success than others but, we would argue, one of the reasons for the popularity of Dickens in this cynical, business-driven age, is his ability to take his world and from it create something new.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Edwin Drood

Dickens’s famously unfinished last novel gets the BBC treatment.  For those seeking comfort, his stocks-in-trade are mostly to be found: aptly-named characters, Cockney urchins and grubby old drunks, and coincidental love-interests.  Where ‘Drood’ differs from the rest is in its lack of a sympathetic central character.  The main trio of Edwin (Freddie Fox), Rosa (Tamzin Merchant) and Edwin’s Uncle John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) are all in need of a good shake, though at least Rosa comes to her senses towards the end of the first episode of two.

This made the unfolding drama less gripping than it might have been, and we can’t help but speculate as to whether Dickens would have revised and re-written swathes of it, as he often did after first serialisation.  Or maybe, in his declining years, he decided to shade his characters a little differently.  There is a lovely atmosphere of darkness, perfect for a winter evening, and as usual it all looks sumptuous but we’re not sure about the casting.  Fox is boy-band pretty with a voice to match, and does it really add anything to have the Landless twins as mixed race?  We’re not talking about colour-blind casting – their ‘foreign’ nature is a key narrative feature – but Dickens wasn’t explicit about whether they were Colonial British and seen as inferior for that reason, which was a very real prejudice of his times.  OK, it’s quibbling, and the hour rollicked along with everything pointing towards the perfect solution of Neville Landless (Sacha Dhawan) marrying Rosa, his sister Helena (Amber Rose Revah) marrying Rev. Crisparkle (Rory Kinnear), Edwin growing up a bit and Jasper suffering eternally for his impure thoughts.  Castration might be a safer solution for Rosa, but we doubt Dickens would ever have made that particular revision....

Being a 19th Century novel, however, ‘downhill’ doesn’t mean an easy ride, and we were left with a scene of Jasper apparently carrying out his laudanum-induced desires of murdering Edwin, believing him to be a rival for Rosa.  So, is Edwin really dead at Jasper’s hands?  Will Neville be blamed?  Has it left Rosa vulnerable to the unwelcome attentions of her music master?  Dickens wrote more, with his usual large cast of characters, and even hinted at an ending, but it’s been left to screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes to script her own conclusion.  It may be hard to please Dickens purists, but at least anything she comes up with won’t be any more outlandish than anything written by the great man himself. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Above Suspicion

Here we go again: plucky female cop, lusted after by boss, envied by colleagues, investigating brutal murder of glamorous young woman.  That's just about it.  Nothing superior about the script or the production, and the above-average cast fail to rise above the below-average material. Or, in short, 'Prime Suspect' this ain't.  Kelly Reilly has come on a lot since the terrible sequel to 'Poldark' (the less said, the better), but she looks too young to be a DI, and we suspect policewoman viewers must be either laughing or appalled at her pencil skirts, high heels and Kohl-rimmed eyes.  Nor is she or Ciaran Hinds able to convince us that they've got chemistry.  A drunken fumble after a party maybe, but real passion?  Just because they admire each other's ability to snarl at colleagues and suspects alike?  Hmmm.

The other problem is the plots.  Whereas La Plante's successes like PS or even 'Widows' are firmly rooted in some kind of sleazy, sordid reality of crime, 'Above Suspicion' likes to focus on fantasy and even fetishistic aspects of murder.  Previous series have featured a famous actor who murders women to re-enact his revenge on his abusive prostitute mother, an international drugs dealer who has plastic surgery to change his face and a killer who is copying the so-called Black Dahlia murders of post-war California.  The current story, 'Silent Scream', tackles the murder of a famous young actress who, naturally, was hated by just about everyone who met her.  It features the sort of uber-clichéd on-set diva rivalries not seen in a drama since 'The Mirror Crack'd'.  Actors may not be known for their down-to-earth qualities, but the lines as spoken by Joanna Vanderham as the victim, Amanda Delaney, and her former friends from drama school were virtual caricatures.  Given that Ms La Plante was herself an actress, it's not encouraging.

Saturday, 7 January 2012


There's no escape.  'The Killing' has been too successful.  BBC4 is scouting for endless Danish drama to fill the 9pm Saturday slot.  Don't they want thinking viewers, those tough enough to flirt with double-episode subtitling, to have any Saturday nights on the town?  Don't they think the restaurants, cinemas, theatres and pubs need an economic boost?  Clearly not.  Of-course, we also have the likes of 'Wallander' and 'Spiral' to thank, and it's encouraging that we've not (yet) been awash with substandard Swedish and French serials in the wake of those.

'The Killing' has, in both series, featured the Danish political scene quite heavily, and in particularly the struggle between centre, right and left for control.  In terms of gripping viewing, the politics in both series has been eclipsed by the gruesome murders, so we crossed our fingers that this wouldn't be 'The Killing' minus killings.  We did get a body as a promising start, and we got slightly distracted by the appearance of Lund's sidekick and her love interest/villain from TK, (and doesn't the Labour leader Laugesen bear an uncanny resemblance to a youngish Peter Fonda?) but we only spotted one serious TWNH so far: the dead man was married, with children, and a senior politician to boot, and he died in the arms of his mistress in a rented flat.  The mistress calls an ex, also in politics, who takes very peremptory and wholly inadequate measures to disguise her presence in the flat.  Will reality bite and this catch up with him?  It should.

This is made by the same production team as TK, and the twists and turns of political intrigue are all present and correct, but less annoyingly - Nyborg is already being hailed as the new PM by the end of the first episode.  She is not de facto in the leader's chair, however, and her agonising negotiations with slippery colleagues are compelling stuff.  Will she compromise?  Will she win through and live happily ever after?  Or be found brutally murdered and a focus for Sarah Lund's next case?

What we like most, though, is the inclusiveness of these serials.  The cast are not unfeasibly gorgeous or well-dressed (knitted sweaters excepted), the characters not one-dimensionally bad, good or single-minded to further the plot.  Something may be rotten in the state of Denmark, but it's the politics, not the drama.

Eternal Law

So, God is called Mr Mountjoy, his right-hand woman is Mrs Sheringham and he has angels called things like Terry.  The Devil, in case you're interested, is known as Richard Pembroke, or at least he is at the moment, while residing in York and looking like Tobias Menzies.

In this sort of a world, what TWNHs could there possibly be?  Where they hide their wings?  Despite an obvious scope for moralising, or pondering on just how weird we humans are, this takes a refreshingly light approach to the world of law, mortality and the rest.

After one episode, it's hard to say if it will continue to be as much sharp-scripted fun - Ashley Pharoah created 'Life on Mars' - but we hope so.  We know it sounds awful, and the plot's every bit as holy as the premise suggests (pardon the pun, please) but it's actually... well, just give it a try if you're in the mood for something daft.

And there is something comforting about the idea of bungling angels and their boss Mr Mountjoy watching over us, if only for an hour a week.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Public Enemies - spoilers

Paula Radnor probably doesn’t win ‘Probation Officer of the Year’.  Having let one of her clients go AWOL, then given him a second chance and thereby allowed him to murder someone, she’s now given a second chance to newly-released, volatile Eddie, convicted of murdering his girlfriend ten years previously.  Quite why she was reinstated at all isn’t clear, unless “you can’t be with them 24/7” is any sort of an accepted justification.  Anna Friel does harried and emotional quite well (‘Without You’) but Daniel Mays steals the acting honours as Eddie, believably portraying the transition from euphoria at being freed to vulnerability and hurt as he comes to terms with the damage a lost decade has done to him and to those around him.  You could argue that Mr Mays is typecast – he must have played every nuance of Cockney/Essex/Thames Estuary Geezer by now – but he’s also very good at it.

The plot twist at the end of episode one takes us in a new and not entirely welcome direction: Eddie claims he’s innocent.  Does Paula believe him?  Do we?  There have been a couple of hints that it could be one of his former friends (would a GP have on his list the father of the victim as well as the murderer, who happens to be an old friend?).  It will keep us watching, but we would have done that anyway, and we would have rooted for Eddie in trying to make a go of his life in the shadow of the crime he committed and the punishment he received.  Too soon to say, but here’s hoping Tony Marchant hasn’t opted out of a tough choice in order to avoid controversy.


We are sad to say that Episode Two has strayed far into TWNH territory.  It was fine not to focus on the murder if the drama was about what happens to an ex-prisoner.  Having turned it into a did-he-or-didn’t-he story, the holes become too big to ignore.  Marchant keeps the audience guessing about who the murderer is, pointing first at one friend and then another, but it’s unclear why the police investigation at the time didn’t uncover the girl’s promiscuity, or any DNA evidence pointing to anyone else.  All we’ve been told is that she was strangled, which is usually a pretty hands-on process?

It may seem churlish to fault a drama which is (a) original and (b) features fine performances but there were several forced, false moments in last night’s hour: would Paula really back Eddie into a corner by forcing him out of a job?  Don’t they run anger management courses in the early evenings, at lunchtimes or weekends?  (We assume some people with anger issues hold down jobs.  In fact – no offence to colleagues - we know they do.)  Why didn’t she just send him straight back to prison, in that case?  The scene which culminates in him losing control in the hostel was also contrived – she just happened to be there when he listed all the ways in which she made him angry?  And wouldn’t the inevitable outcome of his rage both at the hostel and against Doctor Somers (Joe Armstrong) result in his going back inside?  Paula’s attempts to uncover a sound basis for her instinctive belief in him, by talking to his trial solicitor, Trevor Brotherton (Nicholas Gleaves), and to the murderer she’d previously left free to murder again, were unconvincing.  Nothing in the solicitor’s words or demeanour led us to think that he believed Eddie innocent, and surely she knew better than to believe Eddie just because Philip Pointer (Glen Davies) looked nasty?

Eddie’s relationship with Jayd (Aisling Loftus) was better, and believable, even if the bumper car and seaside scenes were unoriginal.

We are hoping that the final episode won’t reveal some absurd denouement, but the central plot is now very much more about innocence or guilt than it is about what life is or can be like for someone who has served their sentence for a serious crime.  Anna Friel has resumed major aspects of her role in the recent ITV drama ‘Without You’, running around trying to prove someone’s innocence without succumbing to the doubts of everyone around her.  Same tears, same face shapes....  Wouldn’t this have been better as a story of the parallel struggles and diverging lives of two ex-cons assuming, as the producers seem to, that a relatively simple story isn’t enough?


The classic cliche wasn't even avoided, a too-close relationship between probation officer and released prisoner.  Not a great advert for the probation service in general.  Get their expert view at http://probationmatters.blogspot.com/2012/01/public-enemies.html  Not only is it highly unlikely that Eddie would have been released to the same area but, we think, it's equally unlikely that his friends, sister and victim's family would have remained there for the last decade, with all their bad memories.

So after all the red herrings, it was the dad.  "Can't help you, son," he says to Eddie, "I have to believe it's you."  Obviously bonkers.  That just leaves Eddie with a serious anger management problem and a shifty bunch of friends.  Oh and his probation officer who's in love with him.  Nobody mention Jayd, whoever she was, or poor Will (Barnaby Kay), but hey, he didn't manage his anger either, did he?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Annual TWNH Awards

Ta-dah!  What self-respecting drama reviewer can avoid awards?  Oh it was such a hard choice etc etc but in this our first ever year, we have started when the blog began, in May.  Was there anything worth noting beforehand?  Well, probably, so our apologies in advance, but we're lazy.  Nominees are a bore, so where there's been more than one serious contender, we've let them share the crown.

Best in show (actor) - Ashley Walters for 'Top Boy'; Alun Armstrong for dying so admirably in 'Garrow's Law'

Best in show (actress) - Jayd Johnson for 'Field of Blood'; Ruth Negga for 'Shirley'

Worst in show (actor) - Rafe Spall for a grand-guignol tour-de-force in 'Shadow Line'

Worst in show (actress) - Tara Fitzgerald for keeping a poker face in 'Body Farm'

Biggest TWNH - 'Injustice', for the whole plot

Most effective and least obtrusive music - 'Top Boy' (Brian Eno, take another bow)

Most obtrusive and least effective music - 'Shadow Line' (Emily Barker, Martin Phipps: sorry, we liked the song itself!)

Sounds-like award - Downton Abbey (Upstairs Downstairs, anybody?); Scott & Bailey (had everything Cagney and Lacey had except New York and several moustaches)

Best show - Black Mirror, for doing what it said on the tin, imaginatively.

Festive Feasts 2011 - spoilers


Downton Abbey – The Christmas Cracker.  Sensibly, this developed earlier storylines, albeit tedious ones, and brought them to at least some sort of resolution.  The breathing space of a two-hour slot, minus many ad breaks, meant fewer of the twenty-second scenes and would have added a little credence to plotlines from series two such as the disfigured claimant.  It almost managed to avoid being tongue-in-cheek except for a few innuendos which must have got them sniggering at the read-throughs.  The biggest TWNH was the Crawleys turning out en masse for Bates’s murder trial, and at Christmas!  Dear dear me....

But, with 1920 already begun, i.e. eight years having passed since the first episode (onscreen, of-course, it hasn’t been that long in reality, however wearisome), how long can life stay essentially the same for everyone at the Abbey?  And with Jonathan Ross featuring a spoof Carson Christmas Album, surely series three should be the last?

Fast Freddie, the Widow & Me – We’ll be honest, this looked sentimental, clichéd and better suited to children’s tv, so out of respect for Lawrence Fox and Sarah Smart, we gave it a miss.

This is England 88 - This definitely took us back to '88 - it was very similar to 'Brookside'.  Lots of laughs from peripheral characters, and lots of bleak stuff in the main storylines, and like in Brookside she killed her dad (not a spoiler because that happened in '86). 

Lol is 'This Is England's version of 'Mad Men's Betty, in that she can be guaranteed to remove any fun from any scene, and also as Lol she's the most inappropriately named character in the history of TV drama.  

Nonetheless, Vicky McClure deserves every award going for her portrayal of a woman on the verge, and her scenes with Joseph Gilgun (Woody) at the end were very emotional in the best possible way.  It wasn't as good as '86 - Mick (Johnny Harris) was the scariest TV villain of recent years - but it wasn't as bad as '86 either: no daft weddings, shaggings or group sing-songs this time.  If they do '90 we'll watch, but please can it be a bit less bleak? 

Great Expectations – What better way to spend Christmas than among the mouldering remains of Satis House with mad Miss Havisham, cold Estella and social-climbing Pip?  As a story, it’s unfair to judge it on its merits, which are firmly of their time, but as an adaptation, and an umpteenth one, it started badly.  The first episode crept along slower than the dry rot in the house and the casting jarred.  Gillian Anderson obviously enjoys playing against her glamorous image these days, judging by this and her turn as Mrs Castaway in ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, but here she looks like a twenty-year-old with a skin condition and an off-the-vintage-peg frock.  She probably is about the right age for Miss H, as opposed to the old grand dames who have played her in the past, but Miss H would look older than her years, not younger.  The casting seemed to operate in reverse for the Gargerys, who were cast older, but look about right in terms of the premature ageing that comes with a hard life.  Douglas Booth as Pip was also odd, since he seemed always to belong to a later era and to Eton rather than a rural Victorian forge.  Only Ray Winstone as Magwitch seemed recognisably Dickensian.

The second and third episodes picked up the pace and were subsequently a more enjoyable watch, but we can’t help but wonder whether money was well spent in yet another remake, rather than showing a previous version and spending the money on a less-adapted work or even, horreur, original drama?

Ben Hur – Tucked away on Channel 5, this required herculean effort on the part of the audience as well as the titular hero, at a running time of over three hours.  While Dan couldn’t get over the lack of Charlton Heston, whose appearance is required in anything sword and sandals, Ali quite liked it.  Like ‘Great Expectations’ it is, after all, an adaptation of a Victorian novel, and as such is bound to contain the same absurd coincidences and wholesome moral endings that characterised most similar fiction.  Get over that, and you had an entertaining tale of friendship, love, betrayal, revenge and forgiveness – the usual, in other words – with what seemed a reasonable production budget and a decent cast.  There was something about Hollywood epics that suited these overblown tales, that doesn’t quite translate to the earthier, bloodier and more sexually explicit approach of modern takes on the era such as ‘Rome’.  Combining an old story with a new adaptation is a risk that seemed to pay off here though, maybe because most of us know too little of the ancient world to spot the anachronisms, but with the likes of Marc Warren, Art Malik, Alex Kingston and Ben Cross appearing, not to mention Magwitch and the Earl of Grantham turning up as a decent Roman and Pontius Pilate, respectively, you know you’re in good hands.

Sherlock - pacy, witty, fun and, were we adolescent, probably one of the best things on TV.  As it is, well ok, it's still one of the best things on TV, providing perfect Sunday evening viewing, with a nod to Conan Doyle and a wink to the audience.  Bring on the Hounds!

And bringing up the rear...

Endeavour – The words 'barrel', 'bottom' and 'scraped' came to mind on hearing about this.  What next?  Young Marple?  Even older Poirot?  Not a new idea either, given the juvenile Bonds, Sherlocks, Indiana Joneses and James Herriots ('Young James Herriot'?  We just couldn't.)  that have populated the shelves and/or screen for a while.  It wasn't as bad as it sounded.  Shaun Evans had clearly studied the late John Thaw's mannerisms and cadences of speech, and Roger Allam added some nicely underplayed support as his boss, Inspector Thursday.  Otherwise, it has to be said, this felt like overkill.  It added nothing to the genre in either style or substance, the story being one that could have featured in 'Gently' or even any modern procedural, like... 'Lewis'.

What distinguished early 'Morse' was subtlety and class: a superior script, quiet performances and a mood of death and secrets conjured by Barrington Pheloung's haunting score and slow-panning camerawork that was almost languid.  What bound the spell was the central performances of Kevin Whately and John Thaw as Lewis and Morse, characters well enough developed from their literary origins, but blessedly free of the cliched quirks and ticks and private-life complications that so easily distract.  The quality had declined somewhat, a while before Morse's fatal collapse in a quad in his beloved Oxford.

Then came 'Lewis', a pale shadow of its predecessor with so-so scripts and unlikely plots.  And now, 'Endeavour'.  Pointless discussing it as a stand-alone drama, since every five minutes there's a huge hurrah for Morse and even Thaw fans.  His daughter Abigail Thaw's cameo had her asking the young DC Morse whether they'd ever met and responding to his negative reply with, "Maybe in another life".  A wholly inconsequential moment, plotwise, and a crossover from internal logic to fan followings.  Not content with merely showing young-pup Morse, we are also offered the origins of his love of opera, beer and jaguar cars.  Are we missing anything?  Oh yes, the opera heroine and potential love interest turns out to be whodunnit.

The hum-drum is not the worst of it either, there's at least one juicy TWNH.  A shady, sinister government type produces a very large gun at the end and threatens a politician with a bullet if he doesn't resign.  Somehow we think if this were an approved tactic, that given the number of resignations by arrogant politicians, there would doubtless be a decent handful of assassinated ministers over the last forty years.  Step forward any pro-Morse conspiracy theorists?