Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Musketeers

Cynics may say that the lack of a 'three' or a 'four' in the title allows for growing room, should the series be successful.  Adapting the entire Dumas sequence of novels all the way to 'The Man in the Iron Mask' would mean ageing the actors some thirty odd years, after all, and in the days of serialised novels, the author packed in a fair heft of wordy padding that can be less than a thrilling read.  Far better to have our heroes in lots of off-piste adventures, and replace them when they wear out. It may happen quickly, since 'reinventing' anything for the 21st Century seems to involve making it faster and more physical.  Our heroes are here played by relative unknowns except for Tom Burke as Athos, and their arch-enemy Cardinal Richelieu is none other than our new Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi.

For purists, it's not a good start.  "Paris, 1630", says the onscreen blurb, which is a full four years after D'Artagnan originally clomped into the city on his father's yellowed horse.  Not a major difference, perhaps, but things quickly diverge further from the original, which admittedly is only 'based on the characters by Alexandre Dumas'.  This is less the 'Sherlock' treatment though than the 'Robin Hood' one, with the merry band appearing strangely modern and each week facing a different, resolvable case of swashbuckling, intrigue and romance.  Extra characters abound, and the writers have chosen to change some particulars with no obvious reason.  Porthos is not the giant hercules of the novels, nor Milady the fair 17th Century ideal of beauty, and she has already identified her fallen-noble husband in his disguise as a musketeer; the super-subtle subterfuge of Richelieu is also exchanged for a Cardinal who stoops to disposing of his enemies directly.

Although none of these are deterrents to non-Dumas fans, and perhaps only a minor annoyance to those who aren't purists, it's hard to see what the series offers (other than Tom Burke, whose brooding, drunken Athos may yet rival the old hellraiser Oliver Reed in the sumptuous Lester film version of the 1970s).  The newly-invented plotlines are unoriginal, and having already imperilled the lives of at least one of them, it's hard to see how the series will build thrills towards its 'season finale' - that's last episode to most of us in the UK - a whole 9 episodes away.  Its titles may be based on those of 'Ripper Street', but this fails to do for 17th Century France what 'Ripper' did for 19th Century Whitechapel.  Probably not helped by the females appearing in semi-undress that wouldn't look out of place in the Wild West.  It's getting to be a cheap shot to use established characters to write new storylines, because unless those plots are good enough to rival the originals, or go somewhere excitingly different, it's a pointless exercise.  Why not adapt a work and keep the elements that made it good in the first place, or else create something entirely new?

Saturday, 11 January 2014


Apologies for the delay.  Ali is still a conscientious objector to Sky, but... a fan of James Meade Faulkner's 19th Century novel and becoming rather fond of young Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard.  Thus, she shamelessly asked Dan to do the honours and record it.

Since the romantic adventure novel first appeared, there has also been a 1950s film starring Stewart Granger, a 1980s Sunday teatime serial starring Adam Godley and now this 100-minute offering over two nights with Mr. Barnard as young wannabee smuggler John Trenchard and Ray Winstone as gang leader with a head and a heart, Elzevir Block.  Shown over the Christmas holidays, this is solid stuff, with the first episode being largely a setup for the more exciting second.  There's much to love (and no, Ali isn't referring to the underwater nude scene; honestly) in the story of the quest for a wicked forbear's hidden treasure, which retains all the staple elements of the young man's rites of passage, his filial relationship with the seasoned Elzevir and lots of derring-do.

If the romance falls a little flat it's largely because of a lack of tension.  Magistrate's daughter Grace Mohune (Sophie Cookson) is rather too available and forward for an 18th Century well-born lass.  They've hardly said 'hello' before they are cavorting on the beach like Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in 'From Here to Eternity', so her father hardly poses a threat.  All of which makes it sit just a little uncomfortably in the prime-time schedules.  Is this a family drama or for adults?  Its (naturally) happy ending would suggest the former, as would the somewhat rushed storytelling.  For a 'good lad', why is John drawn towards violence and smuggling?  Presumably in the 21st Century he'd be a drug dealer.  What is he doing crawling around a graveyard at night?  How does he just happen to meet Grace so often?  What sort of relationship does she have with her father?  Why do Dorset villagers have Cockney or Welsh accents?  None of these quibbles are inexplicable, but no time is taken to develop things.

So, Sky, you beckon and beguile with your wares, but you have not tempted everyone over to the empire yet....

Monday, 6 January 2014

The 7.39

Written by 'One Day's David Nicholls, this is unsurprisingly a story of romance blossoming, in this case between two commuters.  (Those with a daily commute who spend it giving thanks that they're not spliced or sharing a shower with any of the great unwashed elbowers sitting anywhere near them may find this a bit hard to swallow.)

Sally (Sheridan Smith) and Carl (David Morrissey) have comfortable lives but are mildly dissatisfied, a fact that they face when they start a friendship on the 7.39 and find themselves attracted to each other.  Sally is engaged to sweet-but-gormless Ryan (Sean Maguire) while Carl is happily married to Maggie (Olivia Colman) with two teenaged children.  Sally works in admin at a leisure centre while Carl has a middle-management marketing job with a boss who puts David Brent in the shade.  It isn't hard to identify with both their frustrations and their guilt at their frustrations.  What grates is the unlikely emptiness of the trains, streets, gym etc. and the frustratringly out-of-whack geography and yes, even trains, for anyone who knows London and commuting.  Would Sally's job pay enough to justify an hour-long commute each way?  Then there's an agonisingly cliched moment where they lurch into each other on a train and another where they skirt around sharing a hotel room during a train strike.

The episode ends when they are about to sleep together "just once to clear the air".  Oh please.  This can only end in tears, but it's hard to care whether they're the Brief Encounter tears of denial, or the tears of ruining their other relationships.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Thirteenth Tale

The novel may have been a bestseller in 2006, but we'd neither of us heard of it, so we waited in vain for a haunting, or something even vaguely creepy to happen, but this was very much a cosy-slipper affair - familiar gothic/psychological thriller territory - and not much more than an ok way to spend 90 minutes of post-Christmas torpor.

Olivia Colman reprises her blunt, out of her depth role, here as biographer Margaret Lea, who visits ailing writer Vida Winter (Vanessa Redgrave with startling Titian tresses) in her country pile to hear the titular 13th tale.  This turns out to involve another country pile nearby, the crumbling Angelfield, sibling incest, insanity, suicide, murder and red-haired twin girls who reminded us disturbingly of those in 'The Shining'.  Perhaps the novel is more artfully constructed, but the television adaptation could have been the result of throwing du Maurier, the Brontes, Collins et al into a pot and seeing what was cooked up.  Yes, it was written by Christopher Hampton, but... he remains best known for something he adapted over 25 years ago.  1950s Yorkshire, we suspect, was unlikely to be a place of total isolation for these characters for years on end.  Who'd have thought that 'Heartbeat' could compare favourably in the reality stakes?  Margaret has previously written a biography of the Brontes, but doesn't seem to recognise Yorkshire, unless Hampton couldn't think of a subtler way to signpost the Moors to us.

The twist in the tale is not particularly satisfying, and instead throws up more questions, like a 'Midsomer Murders' story in overdrive, and the wholly unnecessary hint of romance for Margaret with the doctor (Steven Mackintosh) at the end just brings the whole thing down to the level of chick-lit with a kink.  Bit of a waste of a talented cast.  Speaking of which, we're hoping Emily Beecham gets to play someone sane and Tom Goodman-Hill someone other than a faithless rotter in the near future, for their sakes.