Saturday, 26 December 2015

And Then There Were None


The best-selling mystery novel of all time, apparently.  A rather hoary old stage chestnut is now brought to the Boxing Day table with its revised PC title, but most of its other thirties prejudices intact.  A group of disparates are summoned to 'Soldier Island' off the Devon coast for a rendezvous billed as a dinner party.  In the comfortable but eerily deserted environs of the island's hotel, they hear a recorded broadcast accusing them all of committing (separate) murders.  By the end of the hour there were eight of the ten remaining alive.

Just about as perfect a holiday drama as you could wish for, following in the wake of this year's successful play adaptations of classics.  Rather darker somehow than the Poirots or Marples, and went down very well with a tipple.

Dickensian


Christmas half-hour gobbets of Dickens seemed to work well on BBC1 with 'Little Dorrit' in 2008, so they've come up with this series of 20 half-hour episodes, airing a bit like a soap over the holidays.  This is another of those reboots/reinventions such as all those spin-offs of Austen novels, featuring characters from various Dickens stories in a murder-mystery.  None other than Inspector Bucket investigates the murder of one Jacob Marley, partner of Ebenezer Scrooge.

It's all rather fun if you like the Dickensian vibe without being too familiar with the original novels.  If you are a die-hard fan you will probably be too busy allocating characters to novels, or being appalled at the licence taken with, for example, the relative chronology.  Young Miss Havisham (Tuppence Middleton) is here dressed much as Estella would dress in 'Great Expectations' some years later.  And then there's Marley, who here deviates from miserliness just long enough to engage the services of young Nancy, through her pimp Fagin, much to Sykes's chagrin.  Meanwhile Amelia Havisham's friend Honoria Barbary is about to disgrace herself with a soldier under the disapproving eye of her spartan sister Frances....

Hopefully it can sustain 20 episodes, because if not it will just look like a lazy purloining of pre-written characters and their stories.  It never ceases to amaze us how what is essentially 'fan fic' can suddenly become respectable if commissioned.  We hear the new series of 'Endeavour' features riffs on famous tales such as 'The Great Gatsby'.  There are masterful reinterpretations, but they are rare, and 'Morse' ran out of good ideas when they'd exhausted Colin Dexter's novels.  So there. 

Monday, 30 November 2015

Capital


Capital is BBC 1's 3-part dramatisation of John Lanchester's credit-crunch novel, set in an affluent Clapham (South London) street.  The crux of the book, and the serialisation, is that many different aspects of life can exist in a single street, from wealthy bankers to cornershop owners, from Eastern European builders to African traffic wardens - though the latter works in the street rather than lives there.

A problem with all books like this is that they are prone to using well-worn stereotypes - see also Amanda Craig's Hearts & Minds, and Sebastian Faulks' A Week in December - and this is even more likely to happen on the screen because you don't have the depth of a book, or the luxury of descriptive narrative.  On screen, the story unfolds with residents receiving postcards, sometimes photographs of themselves going about their business, with the ominous statement, "We want what you have".  What they all have, of-course, from the banker to elderly Petunia (Gemma Jones) who moved in as a bride forty years ago, is prime London real estate where prices are rising virtually by the day.  The likes of Petunia, who moved into an unimposing terrace, would no longer be able to afford to move here.

Capital has been updated from 2008 to 2015, because essentially nothing has changed in banking and property prices, which removes the need to try to do 2008 details, but instead concentrate on the story.  The other major change is the omission of the African footballer character and his dad - apparently some of the dad's lines have been given to other characters.

We enjoyed it more than we thought we would.  Performances are generally very good, although we disagreed about the casting of Toby Jones as the banker.  For Dan he was well cast against type (very different from Lance in The Detectorists, for example) and believable as a brainy but essentially lucky and over-privileged banker.  It's nowhere near as good as 'Marvellous', Jones's last work with Peter Bowker, but it's good.  The banker going broke story has been done lots of times before - for example Sherman McCoy explaining why he's going broke on £2m a year in the 1980s in 'Bonfire of the Vanities', but we liked Jones performance.

We need a great 'house prices' drama, and we need a great 'London as a melting pot' drama, and this was neither, but it's well written and well directed, so we'll stick with it to the end.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Frankenstein Chronicles


A similar concept to the current retake on 'Jekyll', this is a chase around after the jolly scientist who stitches body parts together and reanimates them, only shown later and, rather bafflingly, on ITV Encore.  More names than you can shake a stick at here, with Sean Bean playing decent, syphilitic river cop John Marlott, who senses that something other than macabre needlework is going on.  The course of his investigation leads him to body-dealing hospital porter Pritty (Charlie Creed-Miles), his big boss Peel (Tom Ward, here exchanging his pathologist's apron with Samuel West), patrician politicians (Elliot Cowan and Ed Stoppard) and even authors William Blake (Steven Berkoff) and Frankenstein's own creator Mary Shelley (Anna Maxwell-Martin).  Oh and let's not forget the magnificent carcass of a pig that he throws into the Thames to test the tides.

This was quite fun and focused less on the gore and shocks of 'Jekyll' than the lacks and longings that would lead someone in early Industrial England to create a composite creature out of dead children.  Marlott has his own Big Sadness that he carries around with him and that we know will be exacerbated by both his mercury pills and his determination to find the truth behind the strange goings-on.  Bean is likeable in the lead role, almost a worn-down, less celebrated version of his Sharpe character grown older.  Why Encore, though, when an ITV audience would enjoy this in a 9pm slot?

The Last Panthers


In a tense opening scene, a well-executed diamond heist is underway.  Disregarding the alarm they know will be pressed, the gang pour pink paint over the manager with the combination to the safe (Pink Panthers!) and make it out in the allotted time.  Instead of the usual foot-to-the-floor getaway car, they pound the pavements, having hamstrung the police vehicles with a ring of fire.  Then things start to go a bit wrong, for the gang and for the drama.

It takes them an age to discard their conspicuous white boiler suits, leading one of them to accidentally shoot a child while aiming fire at police.  He then rather unbelievably escapes across a piece of open ground, when a few seconds earlier several policemen, presumably armed since they are in Marseilles, were in hot pursuit.  Though the gang evade capture, their buyer/fence doesn't want to be implicated in a murder and they are forced to try to sell the goods elsewhere.  This turns out to be somewhere in the vicinity of Belgrade, in a shanty town that even hardened criminals would probably eschew in favour of a prison cell.  That they make it out of here alive is thanks to Milan (Goran Bogdan) who has a panther tattooed on his chest, a man who used to be known as 'Animal' and who is about to find that criminal fraternity is a myth.

While this is going on, diamond heist specialist Naomi (Samantha Morton) and her insurance boss Tom who, as played by John Hurt, is surely well past retirement, arrive to check out the scene of the crime and trace the diamonds, quickly clashing with the irritated cops, led by Khalil (Tahar Rahim) who are themselves investigating.  Tom and Naomi soon follow the trail to Belgrade, which is the cue for her flashbacks to the Balkans conflict in what are very cliched and badly-done CGI clips of her in uniform.  By the end of the episode, she too has only narrowly escaped with her life.

We differed in opinion a bit on this one, with Dan liking it more than Ali, but then he is more of a fan of those violent 1970s French heist thrillers, and more recent ones like 'A Prophet'.  This owes something to them, and thankfully uses subtitles rather than English actors speaking in accents, but the tone is somewhat uneven, and whether there is action enough for all the episodes without spilling over into total implausibility, we shall have to wait and see.  Plus, it must be said, we have nothing against beards per se, but one hirsute man is rather too much like another to immediately identify our cops and robbers, so a shave or two wouldn't go amiss.

Monday, 9 November 2015

London Spy


Honestly, you wait years for Mr Whishaw to appear in a spy drama and two come along at once.  He's currently reprising his role as Q in cinema's latest Bond film, and here he is as a far less geeky Danny, a vulnerable young man in London working in an Amazon-style warehouse.  After a chance meeting, he falls in love with Alex, a mysterious and inhibited young man who says he works for an investment bank, but just as they begin to envisage a future together, Alex disappears.

Exquisite and painful.  The cast, including Jim Broadbent as Danny's friend Scottie, don't put a foot wrong.  It doesn't appear, from this episode, that the homosexuality is a theme at all; these are two young men in love, one of whom has an impossible secret.  It's left to Scottie, a Whitehall mandarin with secrets of his own, to suggest that the man the police are calling Alastair worked for MI6.  By this time, Danny has made a gruesome discovery of his own, that has similarities to the real-life case of the man found in a holdall.  As gripping for its heartfelt portrayal of love as for its murky depiction of espionage, we genuinely can't wait to see what Danny finds out.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Cuffs


That's 'cuffs' as in the hand-locking variety rather than the ends of sleeves or a playful swipe to the side of the head.  A drama about either of the latter might seem to offer less possibilities, but at least they'd have lacked the cliches.  Think 'The Bill' or 'Holby Blue', 'Mersey Beat'... or any of a host of MoR cop shows.  In fact, it's probably easiest to sum up the episode with a sequence of cliches.

1: it's the rookie PC's first day
2: he's the son of the Chief Super (would they really be based at the same station?)
3: he's gay, and gets hit on by an unlikely woman and the male duty solicitor
4. he's paired with a tough, no-nonsense old-timer (Ashley Walters)
5. he makes a couple of serious mistakes but redeems himself by the end of the episode
6. his canteen lunch arrives just as they get a 'shout'
6. his dad has had a fling with a detective sergeant in the station (Amanda Abbington)
7. the aforementioned detective sergeant lives with a dog, to whom she's devoted, and eats microwave dinners
8. the mention of a racist released from prison is immediately followed by said racist attacking a victim
9. a stinger track fails to catch a getaway van but unexpectedly stops a man abducting his daughter
10. the rookie's mentor is proved wrong by the rookie when a vulnerable man hangs himself
11. no-one waits for backup, neatly explained by government cuts

Brighton hasn't featured in a good drama since Peter Mullan developed dementia and lost his criminal empire in 'The Fear', but there was little to enjoy in this beyond shots of the wheel, the piers, the marina, the Lanes and... the A27.  The writer Julie Gearey did superior work in 'Prisoners' Wives' and the main cast, other than newcomer Jacob Ifan as PC Jake Vickers, have all been far better elsewhere.  

Jekyll & Hyde


Jekyll & Hyde, ITV's new Sunday teatime drama, is lots of fun.  Written by Charlie Higson, most famous for The Fast Show, but also the writer of several gruesome thrillers for grown ups (King of the Ants), and kids (the Young Bond books), it's very pointedly not an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but a new spin-off, following the life of his grandson, Robert Jekyll.

It's almost like a Alan Moore graphic novel re-imagining of the story, set in the 1930s with Robert trying to find out about his past, and battling his urges to change from his normal, mild-mannered self to the demonic Hyde.  It also brings to mind 'The Incredible Hulk', with the first transformation coming about when he needs to lift a truck off a small child.  (Thankfully he doesn't inflate and his clothes stay on).  Higson has also thrown a bit of medicine in there, with Jekyll needing to keep taking his pills to keep the attacks at bay.  It's not really much of a spoiler to say that he loses the pills pretty early on.

It's very entertaining, with some great performances particularly from Tom Bateman as Jekyll, and Richard E Grant hamming it up as the baddie Sir Roger Bulstrode, head of a murky organisation investigating the paranormal in 1930s London (we said it was a bit Alan Moore).  It has been criticised for being too scary for the 6.30pm slot, and maybe it is - the bit where intruders enter Jekyll's parents' house was genuinely unsettling - but we remember being terrified by Doctor Who when we were, ahem, somewhat smaller, and he is currently on show pre-watershed on BBC1.

Some bits don't work.  The very brief explanation of Jekyll's ancestry: Stevenson's Hyde had an illegitimate son, who met Jekyll's adopted father in the First World War, having fathered a child himself, which he then abandoned) is a bit convoluted and doesn't explain why Jekyll is called Jekyll, but let's not think about that too much.  

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Last Kingdom



'Sharpe' author Bernard Cornwell penned a Saxon saga which is now billed as the BBC's answer to 'Game of Thrones'.  We're not GoT fans, but it's a misleading comparison.  This is the historical rather than the fantasy genre, though we're making no claims as to historical accuracy (remember those electric guitars accompanying Sean Bean to Waterloo?).

Anyway, the Danes, in their incarnation as Vikings in the 9th Century, invade a Saxon coastal fort in Northumbria and take young Uhtred captive, having slaughtered his father and brother.  Uhtred is brought up a Dane, but never forgets who he is, and won't relinquish his birthright to his scheming uncle Aelfric (Joseph Millson).

That's kind of it, minus a great deal of sword-waving, blood-letting and a rather disturbing scene of childhood sexual assault.  It's the usual tale of warrior honour - Christian and Pagan - with a dash of romance beloved of Cornwell readers and we've no doubt viewers will love it too.  Alexander Dreymon has the kind of pretty-boy looks that won Orlando Bloom a following, i.e. he doesn't look much like a Saxon or a Dane, but a few million will doubtless follow his trek to the titular last English kingdom of Wessex over the next seven episodes.


Thursday, 15 October 2015

River


Remember 'The Sixth Sense'?  "I see dead people."  If the boy had somehow grown up to be Stellan Skarsgard and become a UK detective, this would be his continuing story.  DI John River is accompanied by his recently deceased Sergeant 'Stevie' Stevenson (Nicola Walker, also pleasing the crowds in 'Unforgotten' over on ITV).  Stevie straightens him out, jollies him up and keeps him going.  Sadly for River, he also manages to accrue the ghost of the young man he suspected of Stevie's killing, whom he has chased to his death from a tower block balcony.  He wants his name cleared.  Then there's the subject of the book River is reading, one Thomas Neill Cream (Eddie Marsan), the Lambeth Poisoner, who hanged for his crimes in 1892 and imparts his macabre philosophy.

Given his array of dead head-friends, it's amazing he manages any work at all, but his boss, DCI Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville) states that his clear-up rate is 80%.  That could of-course be down to the fact that the victim drops by to give him a nudge, as in this week's case of a girl whose boyfriend is accused of her murder.

It's sad and it's funny.  There's a matter-of-factness about the talking dead for River, while his interactions with the living at work force you to remember that he's in danger of a breakdown.  In fact, talking dead aside, the main TWNH is that even solving 80% of cases wouldn't save him from an enforced period of rest when colleagues have witnessed him talking to and even punching people who don't exist.  Morgan's writing can be great, so we're hoping for something of substance.  There are comparisons to Scandi noir, but this is no 'Wallander' or 'The Killing', and none the worse for that.  We were reminded in his recall of his late colleague of the scenes of Craven and his murdered daughter in 'Edge of Darkness'.  If it maintains the edge, rather than skipping into vacuous light or tumbling wholesale into darkness, this could be among the best dramas this year.

Honorary mention for Adeel Akhtar as Rivers' new DS, Ira King.  He was so good as Wilson Wilson in 'Utopia', we were shocked to see him with two good eyes.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Unforgotten


A bit like a longer, more-involved 'Waking the Dead'... and featuring two of its stars (Trevor Eve and Claire Goose), this begins with the discovery of a skeleton by builders and follows the investigation by dogged cop DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and her glum DS, Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) into the fate and identity of the remains.  Simultaneously, we are shown the lives of some families who, as becomes apparent in the last scene, are in some way linked to the murdered man.

It's gripping.  Walker and Bhaskar are a genuis pairing, and both are watchable in just about anything.  The supporting cast are stellar - Bernard Hill, Gemma Jones and Tom Courtenay to name three - and you sense an all-too-human tragedy lurking in the past and waiting to be dug up with the victim's body.

Any drawbacks?  Cases in real life do turn on amazing luck and tiny clues, but this is sailing close to the TWNH wind in the connections made so far.  (They could identify the car from a key found nearby; it only had one owner; it has survived since 1965; there was a bag in the boot!; there's a dated diary in the bag!; the ink is rendered legible by a forensic process! etc.)  We're hoping that with the names of the other characters being foiund within it, no further coincidences need happen.  Please.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

From Darkness


At an early point in this BBC1 Sunday-nighter, Claire Church (Anne-Marie Duff) tells her ex-boss DCI John Hind (Johnny Harris) that he's a walking cliche.  It's hard to disagree with her, and he's one of many.  A traumatic, unsolved case involving the serial murder of prostitutes in Manchester in 2000 sent the young DC Church to the faraway Western Isles, where she finds cold-water swimming, marathon training and a local single dad an easier proposition.  The discovery of a long-buried woman's body then sends the investigating officer after Claire, to find out what she knows about the case.  Despite her reluctance she is inevitably drawn back into the investigation, which looks to have claimed a new victim.

This feels like a composite of several previous ITV crime dramas, some more forgettable than others.  Claire's breakdown predictably had as much to do with her affair with her married boss as with modern-day Ripper killings.  His reasons for dragging her back to the past are clearly not professional (or likely, after 15 years), and if she's half the cop he keeps saying she is, then she'd know that too.  Whatever it was that attracted her to him isn't apparent in the present, and Harris plays him as a rather sleazy, pathetic character you can't imagine the intrepid Claire having any time for whatsoever.  This is partly thanks to Duff, of-course, who can always make the viewer care whether or not she makes it to the next episode.  We're not against less-than-cozy Sunday night offerings, but they need a bit more originality to keep us awake.


Monday, 28 September 2015

Cider With Rosie


If you liked 'Lark Rise to Candleford', then you'll love this....  Well, ok, they're at least not spinning this out to a twee Sunday evening staple, but we did wonder why this rite-of-passage memoir was part of the short 'literary classics' series rather than a Boxing Day special.

It was a solid, if episodic, adaptation of the much-loved book, with Samantha Morton holding things together nicely as Laurie's long-suffering mother.  A voice-over by Timothy Spall as the older Lee gave viewers a taste of the lyrical prose which would otherwise have been lost and there was enough nostalgia for the chocolate boxers in the form of rolling hills and meadows, quaint print frocks and the sort of ramshackle country cottage that would nowadays fetch a cool million.  There was also enough grit left to appease the anti-chocolate box brigade, with a child's death, a murder, a war deserter and a father who behaved like Lord Marchmain in 'Brideshead' in refusing to return to his family after WWI (with less obvious cause).

For us, though, it was probably most memorable for the astonishingly brief cameo appearances of Annette Crosbie and June Whitfield as the warring grandmothers, and the inclusion of two young actors who are the offspring of... two actors.  Neither was a bad performance, but there are concerns about the accessibility of the profession to those without privilege, with the likes of David Morrissey and Christopher Eccleston raising doubts as to whether their current counterparts, starting out, would be able to make a living at it.  By 'privilege' they may be referring to the likes of Eddie Redmayne and Ben Cumberbatch, products of Eton and Harrow, who could no doubt have afforded to rest indefinitely between jobs even before becoming successful.  Aren't the ranks of actors, we would argue, equally homogenised by keeping it in the family?

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Midwinter of the Spirit


A new crime series based on Phil Rickman's series of novels, with the twist that heroine Merrily Watkins (Anna Maxwell Martin) is a vicar and a trainee exorcist.  Umm, that's kind of it, really, and we sat down to watch in anticipation of shivers down the spine, but the first episode didn't quite gel.  The novels are set in the fictional Herefordshire town of Ledwardine and other than a few pretty shots of quaint streets, there was little sense of place.  The surrounding Marches country has an attraction part way between comfy Cotswolds and wild Welsh; a perfect place, in other words, for the eye to see beauty but the mind to think of hidden forces, particularly in view of its long and often bloody history.

But no.  This was mostly establishing Merrily as that most modern of Christian clerics, the laid-back, drinking, straight-talking, tolerant type.  She's recently lost her husband and is doing her best for her sparky teenaged daughter, and despite being very much at the novice stage when it comes to driving out demons, is the first port of call when a man is found crucified in the woods.  Oh and when another priest starts acting very strangely and can't comfort a dying man in a hospital.  The dying man has freaked out the nurses, and when he gets hold of Merrily, rather literally, he almost frightens the faith out of her.  There are the usual upside-down crosses, shrine rooms with pentangles and goat skulls and lots of mentions of evil, but it's all feeling rather disjointed and muddled so far.  Let's hope David Threlfall as Merrily's seen-it-all exorcist coach can sort things out.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Go-Between


The past is a foreign country: they made things differently then.  The 1971 adaptation by Joseph Losey starred three stalwarts of British cinema in Alan Bates, Edward Fox, and Julie Christie as the luminous Marion.  The three instantly-recognisable stars and Losey's distinctive style somewhat swamped the novel's close adherence to Leo, the boy at the centre of the story.  Ben Batt, Stephen Campbell-Moore and Joanna Vanderham as farmer Ted Burgess, Viscount Hugh Trimmingham and Marion Maudsley are, while not unknown, easier to accept as people whose lives swim in and out of the focus of a twelve-year-old boy.

This is the third in the short series of 20th Century classics adapted by the BBC and to our minds the most successful so far.  It hasn't the controversial baggage of 'Lady Chatterley' nor the stage bound setting of 'An Inspector Calls', just a first line that (unlike the current shenanigans with Hamlet's monologue on the London stage) belongs in the opening scene.  Nuanced performances from Lesley Manville as Mrs. Maudsley and Campbell-Moore as the facially scarred Trimmingham keep the novel's fine balance of ambiguity and acuity as young Leo (Jack Hollington) is dropped deep into the maelstrom of adult love, class and propriety, never to be the same again.

Much has been made of the scheduling opposite the opener of the final series of 'Downton Abbey', but they are surely not fighting for the same audience.  That's cod roe, and this is caviar.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Gamechangers


We must first of all come clean and say that if the target audience for this drama about the Grand Theft Auto controversy are those who have a close relationship with GTA and games generally, then we are not it.  Dan is part-qualified and Ali only vicariously by male friends and relatives.  This, therefore, is a review from a layman's perspective.

It's great that BBC2 are investing in one-off 90-minute dramas, and investing heavily enough to get Daniel Radcliffe and Bill Paxton on board.  It also has a British perspective, as Rockstar, the brainy outfit behind GTA's success, are - or were in 2002 - a group of Englishmen in NYC.  This is basically the tale of a battle of wills between the young game designers, with huge commercial success on their side, and the moral crusader who ended up with very little on his.  Does a game that brings a fantasy of sex and violence in gangland USA influence players to the extent that they think little of extending that casual brutality to their offline lives?  It isn't a question that has been thoroughly answered, so it largely depends on where your sympathies lie.  The fact that most people who play don't gun down their neighbours does not, for many, relieve the responsibility of the game for the few who do.

This followed a pretty predictable route and covered all the usual angles - the thrill of invention and innovation; the fallout, violent and otherwise, on those who immerse themselves in an online world, and the pressure on the home life of the man who very publicly campaigned against the game's licence.  The characters involved were portrayed fairly (as opposed to accurately, on which we can't comment), with as much screen time given to Paxton's unyielding anger and frankly bonkers fellow churchgoers as to the petty squabbles and patronising absurdity of the design team when exploring the mean streets 'for authenticity'.  Luckily - of-course - the threat dissipated when the local lads turned out to be avid fans of GTA, seeing the depiction of their world, with added gloss and gore, not as exploitation but as simple fame.

Despite the modern morality tale and the sympathetically human characters, however, this is rather uninteresting if you're not into games, and on that level it failed to transcend its major drawback in a way that superb dramas - 'Marvellous' with football and 'Longitude' with science spring to mind - need to speak to a mass audience.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

An Inspector Calls


If you enjoy watching actors waft about in pretty costumes as characters of wealth and ease, then this will be as much your bag as 'Downton Abbey'.  It parts company with the latter on its message, however.  The household at Downton, as written by Julian Fellowes, is a jolly affair where the boss is paternal and ties of love and human fallibility link those upstairs with those downstairs, (who nonetheless know their place, naturally).  The Birling family, by contrast, are the sort of smug, arrogant types who see their servants and employees as borderline beings, foreign to their own sensibilities and hardly worth a moment's thought, never mind decent wages.

Produced in 1945, at the fag end of the most violent conflict in recorded history, JB Priestley's play places the blame for almost half a century of unrest on a settled order that relied on enormous inequality.  Set in 1912, with talk of a coming war among the European powers jockeying for empires, the successful industrialist Birlings are celebrating the engagement of their daughter to a business rival's son with a quiet at-home, i.e. an extravagant dinner.  They are visited by Inspector Goole, investigating a young woman's suicide, and it becomes apparent that far from the poor woman being nothing to do with them, they have each played a part in bringing her to wretchedness.  Having thoroughly shamed them, Goole then bids them good evening, but their unwillingness to face up to their culpability leads them to question what has happened.  It seems there is no Inspector Goole, and no suicide, but....

About half the UK population will probably be reminded of their schooldays, since this has been a staple of English courses for some time.  Familiarity may breed contempt for what is actually a clever piece of theatre, only dulled somewhat in Goole's rather expositional moralising about community.  Clearly Margaret Thatcher either never saw this, or won a prize from her Edwardian-loving teachers for her essay rebutting Priestley's ideas.  This television adaptation, as part of a season of BBC remakes of 20th Century classics, featured a fine cast and good acting, with Ken Stott as the blustering Arthur, Miranda Richardson as his thin-lipped snob of a wife and David Thewlis as the eponymous Inspector.  A little old-fashioned in tone it may be, but with its depiction of the well-off claiming to have no responsibility for anyone outside their immediate family, it's as pertinent as ever.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Doctor Foster


Doctor Foster went to... Hitchin, apparently.  Probably just as wet as Gloucester.  This is the latest star vehicle for Suranne Jones, alongside lately-arrived leading man Bertie Carvel from 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell').  Doc Gemma Foster is happily married - she enjoys sex with her husband, you see - has a nice son, a lovely home and is senior partner in a GP practice.  She has friends, nice clothes, a rapport with almost all the hypochondriacs in town - you get the picture.  Anyway, things start to change when she finds a long, blonde hair on hubby's scarf, and a strawberry lip balm in his pocket.  From that point on, nothing can quite convince her that he isn't having even better sex with a long-haired, strawberry-lipped blonde.

There were a few clunky-feeling moments in the first episode.  I'd be none too happy if my GP broke off in the middle of my appointment to check a text, nor would I agree to spy on her husband for her if she promised to give me the sleeping pills I wanted and she had previously felt inadvisable.  There are four further episodes to go, so this could start to feel either tedious or ridiculously OTT very soon.  However, the first episode was gripping enough.  From thinking her perfect exterior life must hide a wholly paranoid and insecure woman (a hair and a flavoured lip balm wouldn't have satisfied Othello as proof of infidelity, after all) we were drawn into her doubts.  The script cleverly had her slipping back and forth from telling herself she was just being daft and showing that she wasn't: his phone was clear, but he never came straight back from work; he bought flowers, but they were for his mum... but then he tells Gemma he visits his mum most days, and she can't find him in the visitors' book they are made to sign... and then her amateur sleuth follows him to a house where he is seen kissing another woman.... Finally, Gemma finds something that seems to prove that her whole life is something other than she thought it was.

Strong stuff.  Reallly hoping it can sustain four further episodes with a credible plot and no over-reliance on quoting incongruous Congreve in a drama concerned with how the modern age enables the privacy of a double life while disabling a properly private existence. 

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Lady Chatterley's Lover


Constance Chatterley, newly-married, looks a little apprehensive here, as though she can see into the future.  The umpteenth adaptation of DH Lawrence's racy 1928 novel, which originally caused a sensation, a 1960s trial, and a comment about the material being unsuitable for one's servants, is here a 90-minute one-off.  Within the first 15, Constance has met Clifford, fallen in love and married him; he's gone off to war and been seriously injured, while one of his men Mellors has survived both a mining disaster and the war and returned to find his wife pregnant by another man.  It takes another 25 for Lady Chatterley to sneak off to the newly-appointed gamekeeper's shack for the sex she can no longer enjoy with her paralysed husband.

The best thing about this production is James Norton as Clifford Chatterley, cast against type as an impotent hero and sympathetically portrayed as a man bound by the expectations of his peers and upbringing.  Holliday Grainger caught the voice and mannerisms of pampered Connie perfectly, but while she has 'a good face for period', and is around the right age, something about her doll-like features made her seem like a petulant child.  The cleric who married her appeared to be about twelve also.  Presumably the war didn't slaughter the nation's aged clerics to this degree?  Richard Madden, as the earthy Oliver Mellors, bore an unfortunate passing resemblance to Peter Sutcliffe, aka the Yorkshire Ripper, which made it rather hard to understand his attraction.

Generally, the faults are those of the novel, i.e. the slow pace, the overblown melodrama and the giggly nature of the John Thomas references.  It has something to say, rather heavy-handedly, about the changing nature of class in England after WWI, but in terms of personal choice, we couldn't help thinking that sex with Mellors would have to be amazing to compensate Lady C for the loss of about six sumptuous dresses and the huge dining table of Wragby Hall.  It isn't as though there had been any hint of anything beyond the physical in their relationship, and until they were found out, Constance appeared content to have her beefcake and eat it.  They drove off in the final scene, inexplicably in a posh Chatterley car, with an unborn Mellors waiting, but how long before the romance faded in the face of unplucked chickens, unpeeled vegetables and unwashed nappies? 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Trials of Jimmy Rose


In the first of this three-parter, Jimmy Rose (Ray Winstone) is released after a twelve-year stretch and returns home to find his family less than overjoyed to see him.

Despite the familiar premise, this is actually pretty good.  Ray Winstone's strength as an actor is in showing his characters' vulnerability, as true when he was a young tearaway in 'Scum' as it is here.  It's not clear what crimes he committed, to get a ten and then a twelve-year sentence, but he has a nice house, a lovely wife, two grown children, grandchildren and a good friend.  In his bear-like pacing about his home, it's clear how lonely and frustrating it must be to rejoin a life lived without you for a dozen years.  His wife is clearly angry with him and unsure of their future, his son doesn't want to know him, his granddaughter has taken up drugs and her drug dealer, and smart phones are a mystery.  (Would they be?  Phones are officially banned in prisons, but....)  Anyway, Jimmy is determined to get back his family and self-respect, and it's clear that his trials have only just begun.

Resistance


Instead of 'Anzac Girls', More 4 now brings us a French WWII version of 'Spy Kids'.  Well OK, it's not as bad as it sounds, in fact it's more akin to the recent 'Saboteurs', which shaped up rather well.  This does at least eschew exposition, to the point where we wondered whether, five minutes in, we were watching the second or third episode rather than the first.  The viewer is plunged straight into Occupied France with only what he or she has learned in class to help them.  Luckily we made it through the first episode and are alive to see another one, as we quickly learned that the Museum of Mankind (rough translation) in Paris is the seat of an underground resistance movement churning out anti-Nazi leaflets on a hand-cranked press.  A lot of the couriers are still at school or of student age, so we are more in 'White Rose' territory, since this too is based on real events.

It's tense and very earnest, with Lili and her peers acting their socks off despite their pretty 21st Century faces.  They mention frequently how hungry they are, but look in blooming health, and so far there has been little in the way of moral dilemmas.  The teenagers and their mentors have backstories that may yet yield something, but we currently don't doubt any of them, with the villains depicted squarely as Nazis or police collaborators.  They speak to one another very freely about resistance, even in public places, and even with the justification of not yet realising just how brutal their new oppressors are, we wonder how the entire resistance wasn't wiped out prior to 1942.

Danny and the Human Zoo


This is essentially Lenny Henry's account of his early days in showbusiness.  Danny Fearon (Kascion Franklin), from a Jamaican family in Dudley in the 1970s, faces a future as a welder in British Leyland unless he can overcome the usual odds, in addition to staggering racism, to win his dream of becoming a comedian.

Good on Henry, for his success, for his writing about it as an inspiration to struggling artists, particularly those who face prejudice, and for his understated portrayal of his own stern father.  The 90-minute drama was entertaining, featured some great performances, not least from Kascion Franklin as Danny, and was at its best when showing the eye-wateringly casual racism that was everywhere, even on mainstream television, in the 1970s.  It seems incredible to us now that 'The Black and White Minstrel Show' was allowed on air, and still more incredible that anyone actually wanted to watch it.

Where it suffered, for us, was in the rather cosy portrait of adolescence that most of us would feel writing our autobiographies.  Maybe another hand would have helped here?  (Not a common problem when most celebrities leave the writing to someone else!)  Henry's writing is serviceable in terms of dialogue and structure, but the drama follows a familiar biopic route, complete with period signifiers that are cliches: glam rock and disco on the soundtrack; ill-fitting wigs and execrable wallpaper.  The ending - his (white) girlfriend having left him because his career has stalled, and the possibility of a new future with a Jamaican girl - seemed rather a hollow choice, particularly in view of the real Henry's later marriage to fellow comedian Dawn French.  His coming to terms with the death of his father through his funny, touching eulogy at the funeral felt a far more apposite milestone in his career and personal life.  Far more goes on in the human zoo, after all, than the mating game, and Danny's triumph over his unusual family set-up is a case in point. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Pinkertons


A series based on the real-life cases of the Pinkertons' National Detective Agency sounds like a good idea.  Allan Pinkerton, here played by our own Angus MacFadyen, founded the first major detective firm in America, joined after the American Civil War by his rough and ready son William (Jacob Blair) and Kate Warne (Martha MacIsaac) as the first female detective, whose modern ways incline towards what we would term forensics.

A good premise alone does not a good series make, however.  It needs decent writing, a fair cast and reasonable production values.  This lacks two, and the third is compromised by the lack of the rest.  This is Canadian, and we have to say that if Canada feels superior to its southern neighbour, it's not justified by the television they sell to us.  You might expect Canada to try producing the likes of 'Mad Men', 'The Wire' and 'Breaking Bad', but this feels more like 'Bonanza' or 'The High Chaparral' with slightly less slush and more brutality.  With a banal script and looking bizarrely like it was filmed on a hand-held camcorder by a tourist at a wild west show, the fascination was in watching the actors battle to gain even an ounce of verisimilitude.  MacFadyen, who has presence and delivered some good performances in his back catalogue, sounds like he is putting on an accent even though Scottish is presumably second if not first nature.

Anachronisms are inevitable, no matter how small and despite all efforts at attention to detail, but the 'CSI 19th Century' franchise is much better served by 'Ripper Street', in the form of Captain Jackson, and even by Canada's own 'Murdoch Mysteries', which at least has charm and a modicum of tension, even if the female pathologist clearly races back and forth a hundred years between each episode.  This Pinkertons tale of bushwhackers was curiously bloodless, and the buddy banter failed to establish any rapport between the characters.  Crime and the Old West, on this occasion, are not a great combination.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Scandalous Lady W


Seymour Fleming (Natalie Dormer), young, beautiful and rich, is courted by Sir Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans) and marries him, only to discover that his pleasures are voyeuristic, and her fortune, in 1780s Britain, now forfeit to him.  She elopes with a neighbour, Captain George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), having already borne his child, but her husband sues for damages in the court that would cripple the pair financially.  As a defence, Seymour decides to publicise her enforced extra-marital liaisons, and enlists her former lovers to testify, proving that all her affairs were at her husband's behest.

A fairly clean saucy romp in all respects, there is never any suggestion of 18th Century filth beyond Richard's libido and a brief mention of venereal disease.  Despite 27 lovers, young Seymour wanted only to be cherished by her husband and, later, Bisset instead, and was thwarted in both instances.  Based on historian Hallie Rubenhold's book, 'Lady Worsley's Whim', this suffers, like most dramatic adaptations of biographical works, from a simplification of the known facts and a subjective presentation based mostly on speculation.  The real-life Seymour was rather less attached to her children and ended her days married to a much younger man, but the drama stopped neatly at the moment when she was exiled to France, alone.  Far be it from us to besmirch a lady's reputation, especially when it's an undeniable truth that women were ill-used and lacked basic legal rights in the 18th Century, and continue to be judged in a manner different to that of men for promiscuous behaviour.  Nonetheless, does this do women any favours by presenting her as rather a suffering saint at the hands of cretinous and spineless men?

A fun watch, though not particularly illuminating as to what went so wrong with the menage a trois, this is mostly worth watching as a starting point for those interested in the Georgians (read the book for detail) and for the attractive leads wearing gorgeous costumes.  In reality their looks and clothes would have been somewhat compromised by dirt and disease, regardless of their wealth and status.  Television, like the past, is definitely a foreign country.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Partners in Crime


Tommy (David Walliams) and Tuppence (Jessica Raine) are a couple who embark on amateur detective adventures in the 1950s in this BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie's dwarfed-by-Poirot/Marple novels.  For the three people remaining in the English-speaking world who still haven't heard of Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa, she had a mind for murder like few others, and millions have whiled away a cosy afternoon or evening reading about stabbings, strangulation and poison.  Murder may appeal, but coupled with 1930s or 1950s settings and costumes and the attendant traditional trappings of a country house, or a steam train, and the mysteries are irresistible to large swathes of the population.  Readers and viewers don't expect too much gore, and hardly any realism at all, and they are rarely disappointed.

'Partners in Crime' will have pleased its target audience, we think it fair to say.  Dan is not fond of the elderly lady with the knitting, nor ze little man wiz ze grey cells, but even he found this watchable and has made a note for Sunday evenings.  The nonsense plot, as always, turns on rather unlikely coincidences and some deeply unpleasant types, but the Beresfords are enjoyably batty - even if Walliams is too Walliams to be entirely Tommy - and good on the writers to keep them of their time in their so-hideous-it's-wonderful interior design and their boarding-school son.  The script has (adds?) a soupcon of wit, Jessica Raine  is wonderful as Tuppence and the production looks gorgeous.  Is the licence fee worth it?  How can you ask?!  We're already hoping for a Christmas special. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Witnesses


C4 have pinched what would have been an ideal BBC4 Saturday night foreign cop drama, presumably buoyed by the popularity of their previous French offering, 'The Returned'.  Being French, there's a bit of a gruesome twist on the procedural, with the victims in this case having been exhumed and posed in show homes as a family group, despite being probable strangers to one another.

Our lead, Sandra (Marie Dompnier), is a seemingly together woman with a rebellious past and a potentially adulterous boyfriend, whose former tutor at cop training college, Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte), is connected to one of the crime scenes by way of his photograph appearing on the bedside table.  He too has some skeletons impatient to escape his closet, in the form of his wife's death and his own subsequent car crash and retreat to seclusion.  There's a nice mood of menace building up, but it was slow and puzzling in places.  Why did Sandra fail to confront her boyfriend about the lipstick in his car, despite being agitated by it?  Why did Paul get into a cable car and, having reached the summit, almost immediately plunge back down again?  And what the hell was a wolf doing in a beach hut?  This could knit together nicely, or all fall apart with an unconvincing denouement.  We're hoping at least for some gripping stuff beyond the sudden outburst of violence at the end of the first episode.  

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Life in Squares


We are probably not the best judges of this 3-part offering from BBC2, since Dan is reluctant to watch anything that neither makes him laugh nor worry in any way and Ali tends to feel suicidal even thinking about Virginia Woolf.  But we tried.

'Life in Squares' is a biopic about the bohemian lives of the so-called Bloomsbury Set, a  group of early 20th Century artists and writers whose illustrious members included the above-mentioned author of 'Orlando' et al (here played by Lydia Leonard), her sister Vanessa Bell (Phoebe Fox) and husband Clive (Sam Hoare), Lytton Strachey (Ed Birch), John Maynard Keynes (Edmund Kinglsey) and EM Forster.  No doubt they were a lively lot, but this managed to be mannered and turgid despite the numerous sex scenes with various combinations of lovers.  Part of the problem, we suppose, is that it represents a fast set from a much slower age.  What would have shocked and/or excited their contemporaries in pre-WWI England is mundane a century later, and other than a rather staid aunt (Eleanor Bron) there is no real context to show what the friends were rebelling against.  Corsets and marriage were the rather heavy-handed symbols of conformity that the Stephen sisters rejected, at least in part, and the script was hampered by references to everyone by name and their relationship to everyone else, so that we wouldn't confuse two men with, for example, similar moustaches.

By the end of the hour we left the Bells exploring an open marriage and the promiscuous Duncan Grant (James Norton) switching his affections from Strachey to Keynes, strangely interspersed with a scene of the older set (still painting and chatting in a garden) in the 1930s.  It painted a picture of gilded and indulgent types who daubed everything in sight in lurid colours, yet still managed to be miserable.  We think assertions that this will cause a flood of tourists in Bloomsbury a la Poldark in Cornwall are premature.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Outcast


Just in case you were tempted towards nostalgia for the era of Miss Marple - even, bless, a juicy murder or three - along comes a handsomely mounted, superbly acted drama that'll have you happy that the past is a foreign country, where things were done very differently.

Based on the novel by Sadie Jones, this is the tale of Lewis Aldridge (George MacKay), who becomes the eponymous outcast after witnessing his beloved mother's accidental drowning as a boy.  We haven't read the novel and thought the scant publicity looked rather liked (whisper it) chick lit, but this was 90 minutes of sensitive storytelling, beginning when Lewis's father Gilbert (Greg Wise) returned from the war a damaged, distant near-stranger.  Unable to share his grief at Elizabeth's (Hattie Morahan) tragic death, he sends his son off to boarding school and remarries.  Young Alice (Jessica Brown-Findlay) tries to become a mother, to her stepson and in her own right, but she fails at both, and by the time Lewis reaches his teens he is in very deep trouble indeed.

Yes, these were the days of sunny bike rides in green pastures, solid furniture, swishy table skirts and smoke-filled jazz clubs in sexy soho, but the same era brought disgusted incomprehension towards self-harm, guilt, loneliness and grief.  There's still a chance that this will turn out to be a very 21st Century take on the 1950s (we've left Lewis sentenced after burning down the local church) but so far this has been a welcome addition to the current rich pickings on British TV, alongside 'Humans', 'Odyssey' and 'The Saboteurs'.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Odyssey


Ms. Friel again, playing here a modern plucky gal rather than a 1940s lipsticked one in 'The Saboteurs'.  This time she's American, and the security of western democracy is in her hands.  Or something.  A bit like 'Homeland', in other words.  However, a rather tired-sounding premise and a few early cliches (a young activist in New York is the son of a powerful businessman; a moral mover-and-shaker - who happens to be a dead ringer for a young Matthew McConnaughey btw - has a wife who delicately reminds him what a good job and lovely house he has) flourishes into a watchable, decent drama.  OK, Odelle Ballard (Anna Friel) manages to escape death almost as often as James Bond, if with rather more reliance on outside aid, but her journey along the Mali/Algerian border, interlaced with the attempts of her fellow Americans to find her, had us gripped for the extra-long 90-minute episode.

If she manages not to have an affair with any of the men who are looking for her, it'll be more believable than 'Homeland' for that alone.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Cordon


There are lots of jokes about the Belgians, not least that the three things they do well are chocolate, gravy trains and overcharging.  We can vouch for the last, but disagree with the generalisation of the first two.  So the words 'Belgian drama' don't have quite the thrill of Nordic, Skandi or even, these days, US drama.  'Cordon' is all about an infectious disease.  Biologists are doubtless on the edge of their seats, waiting to lambast the portrayed security protocols or the claimed provenance of some disease.  For the rest of us, it's a bit like a disaster movie, i.e. a good part of the first hour is spent establishing some characters and their backstories in order to throw them mercilessly into the path of tragedy and chaos.  It's all a bit bewildering thus far.  What is this flu-like virus that they're so scared of, and who are all these people milling around the Antwerp Institute of Contagious Diseases?  It's not 'The Cassandra Crossing', which made everything crystal clear (we were dealing with the Beubonic Plague) but it's just as depressing.  Not very Saturday night!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Black Work


Jo Gillespie (Sheridan Smith) has an undercover cop, Ryan (Kenny Doughty) for a husband, with whom she has a daughter and a stepson.  His frequent absences from her life have led to her seeking solace with one of his colleagues (Matthew McNulty).  She decides to give her marriage another go, but before she can do anything about it, he is found shot dead in an empty warehouse.  She'd believed he was at a football match (that went on all night...?) and so she begins a quest to find out who her dead husband really was and how he died.  Unsurprisingly, the police aren't too keen, especially as it soon becomes clear that they aren't too sure what he was doing either.

The post-mortem discovery of a loved one's secret life is hardly a new formula, but there's plenty of basis in reality for the scenario, at least, with recent news stories and trials concerning cops undercover for years, going 'native', having relationships and even children.  Difficult to tell whether this will be credible, as so far there have been a few implausibilities or handy coincidences (surveillance teams would go to the trouble of putting bugged conversations on CD, of all things?  Said CDs are stowed in the airing cupboard?  Obliging lover leaks information about dead hubby's undercover identity?  Same dead hubby has a hideout his bosses haven't investigated?).  The next two parts could give us explanations for these things, and the cast is strong enough to keep us watching to find out.  In addition, there's some nice footage of Leeds and West Yorkshire as neither the grim Northern hell nor the American-sell gloss usually depicted.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Saboteurs


This is a six-part co-production of Norwegian, Danes and Brits, about the race to develop nuclear weapons in WWII.  The Germans have Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry in the early 1930s; the Danes have Niels Bohr; the Norwegians have a plucky Professor and the Brits have Anna Friel as one of those clipped gals who knew what was wanted to win a war, by golly.  What the Norwegians also had, and everyone wanted, was heavy water, which you need for a nuclear bomb, so the Nazis invaded Norway.

Does it bear any resemblance to history?  Who knows, beyond the intellectual heft of Heisenberg et al and the invasion.  It's gripping, though.  Think 'Foyle's War' with subtitles and more at stake than a missing ration book or some dodgy tractors.  Only a few of the major players knew the stakes were high, and even they weren't sure what they were creating.  Scary.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Wayward Pines


Wayward Pines is an adaptation of Blake Crouch's novel series 'Pines', and is produced by M Night Shyamalan, with Matt Dillon as the main character Ethan Burke.  It's what we'd class as 'good tosh' - pretty implausible all the way through, but with enough twists and turns to keep us interested.

In format it's a strange mix of Life on Mars (is he imagining it all?), Twin Peaks (strange town with quirky inhabitants), The Truman Show (he's constantly being monitored) and The Prisoner (each episode - so far - he's tried to escape).

Despite the author being an exec producer, there is lots online about the differences between the books and the TV show, and it also seems to turn into a very different sort of show once - spoiler alert - some new characters come to live in Wayward Pines in episode 3, and again in episode 5 where a completely new set of characters are introduced.  

One thing we feel though is that drama shows are now buying up books to adapt based on a high concept format - with this being the mix of LoM, Twin Peaks, Truman and Prisoner - and more coming in in episode 5.  As such it's a pretty flexible format & setting - a bit like Lost was - and we can see it running for several series, just by bringing in new story lines and characters.

Another book currently being adapted for TV, by Amazon, is Philip K Dick's The Man in The High Castle - about an alternate history of the US in the 1950s where the Axis powers won the second World War, with Japan in control of the Western states, and Germany in control of the East coast, with an independent federation of states in between.

Again, if you cover the original book's plot pretty quickly you have a flexible format to create lots of new stories & presumably the rights for these things aren't all that expensive compared to the potential profits from a long-running drama.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Humans


Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) buys a synth in a sale and calls her Anita (Gemma Chan).  Synths are synthetic humans, aka androids, who serve their employers in whatever way they wish.  Sounds great?  It goes without saying that things aren't quite what they seem.  A quick flashback to only a few weeks earlier reveals that 'Anita' was one of a handful of renegade synths who were led by human Leo (Colin Morgan) to freedom, before being recaptured.  These particular products were given 'singularity', i.e. consciousness.  Oops.  Joe's wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson, who won our sympathy in 'The Honourable Woman') is suspicious of the sleekly perfect new presence in their lives, whose responses are just a little too pat for her liking.  Meanwhile Dr. Millican (William Hurt) turns down super-synth Vera (Rebecca Front) in order to hang onto to a malfunctioning model he's possibly become fond of... or who just knows too much, while a policeman (Neil Maskell) is hunting that same older model for causing a disturbance, and a synthetic prostitute is developing very negative feelings indeed. 

So far (one of eight) it's familiar SF ground, well covered by classics like 'Blade Runner' and 'Terminator'... and not-quite-such-classics as 'I, Robot'.  Advance blurb described this as a cross between 'Black Mirror' and a treatise on the nature of consciousness, and that describes it pretty well.  It's good enough to cover the human interest angles well, though, and the story is building nicely.  If the inherent silliness of pretending that the currently impossible is reality deters you, then this probably isn't going to be your bag, but so far this is high-end SF nonsense.

Sunday nights on UK TV this summer are clearly all about jam: ITV serves it up cosily with the trials of the village WI amidst spitfires and sandbags; C4 brings a humanoid who can't stop telling you that your favourite flavour is apricot....

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Stonemouth


We're beginning to think the BBC are saving us the trouble of reading Iain Banks's books.  Admittedly there's been a big gap between 'The Crow Road' in 1996 and this, his penultimate novel before his untimely death in 2013.  However, there are similarities strong enough to stir memories across the intervening years.  A cheeky-chappy average Scots lad, here played by Christian Cooke, returns to the small town where he grew up for the funeral of someone he loved, and suspects foul play.  There's also a love interest, who is ever-so-perfect, and a more suitable and human girl lurking nearby.  It's not bad, but it feels like Banks' point is that men never mature mentally beyond their teens.  The less charitable opinion is that Banks himself didn't move beyond this one narrative, and maybe just wrote well enough to enchant readers regardless.  On television, it's not an advert for 'Visit Scotland', on the plus side, but more of an extended 'Taggart' episode with a voice-over.  Has there ever been a drama that has been improved by a narrative voice?  

The Interceptor


Terrible title, cliched show.  Actually we're not even sure we can say anymore about this.  Dedicated, maverick Ash is a customs officer recruited to a crack-but-shadowy team who go after the big criminals rather than the small fry they usually manage to catch at borders.  Dialogue by numbers, some who-cares chases and some gadgets had us tuned out halfway through.  We suffer for our blog, but only within limits.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Empire

Empire, the new series from Precious and The Butler director Lee Daniels, is a total blast. 

Telling the story of the succession battle for the empire of rap mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) between his three sons - Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), the gangster rap one, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the gay one, and Andre (Trai Byers), the business one - it leaves no cliche un-mined, but does it with such brio that you forgive it its sins.

A typical scene starts with two characters talking, with a third character walking on stage left, with some news.  The three then discuss, then head off in different directions.  Action moves very quickly, with characters falling out, falling in love, or killing each other in minutes.  If Fortitude was this speedy it would have all been done in two episodes. 

Added attractions include Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, Lucious' first wife, newly released from prison and stealing every scene, and cameos from Cuba Gooding Jr as a songwriter and Naomi Campbell as (I thought it as 'herself but IMDB says) 'Camilla Marks', who Hakeem has an affair with.  Of course he does.

 In the States it was the hit of the season, ending up with 20m viewers an episode on Fox.  It's a bit strange that it's ended up on E4 rather than Sky Atlantic, and it may graduate to a bigger channel if it builds an audience.  Its natural home will be as a box set and on demand though - it's very more-ish and perfect for indulgent binging.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Affair


The Affair is an American series starring British actors Dominic West and Ruth Wilson as the two protagonists who (not a spoiler alert) have an affair.  The big selling point of the show, apart from the two leads, is that each episode covers the same amount of time twice, from the two characters' different perspectives, first his, then hers, as they each tell the story of the affair in a police interview room. 

Set in The Hamptons, it follows New Yorker Noah Solloway and his family on vacation at his wife's dad's large house.  Noah's father-in-law is a famous writer, whose works are filmed, hence lots of money, while Solloway is a teacher and aspiring writer, essentially living a pretty affluent life thanks to loans from his in-laws.  In the Hamptons he meets Alison Bailey, a waitress recovering from the death of her son, and they then start a liaison.  The viewer is never sure whose accounts are accurate, with both being (potentially) unreliable narrators.

For example in his account her clothes are always more revealing, and women are always coming on to him (he comes across as a bit of a sleaze even in his own version...).  In hers she's a woman in torment, dealing with grief, but also her husband's reaction to the death.  In his version she's pursuing him, and vice versa. 

It's a good drama, without many unrealistic elements, but since it runs over 20 weeks (according to IMDB) we do wonder if they're stretching it out a bit, and also what is likely to happen in series two - a different affair?  Or will it, unusually for American TV, have a natural life as just one series?

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell


Magic has been absent from England's shores for around 300 years by the end of the 18th Century, and while the clique of dilettante students of the arcane arts meet regularly for meals, they don't attempt any actual spells, something seen as rather naive.

Enter Mr. Norell (Eddie Marsan), an unlikely last magician residing in a cavernous abbey near York.  Sought out by a frustrated young magician, Norell proves his worth by bringing to life the statues in York Minster.  Inspired to believe his time has come, he takes a house in Hanover Square....  Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvell) needs to find a useful occupation in order to win his beloved's hand.  When street magician and all-round weirdo Vinculus (Paul Kaye) tells him that he and one other are destined to bring back magic to England, Strange decides to follow his fate.

A brave choice for the BBC 9pm slot, despite being based on a popular novel by Susanna Clarke, but so far this appears to be more than a classy fantasy along the lines of 'Atlantis' et al.  Eddie Marsan evokes immediate sympathy, even when he conjures Marc Warren as a sort of Ziggy Stardust evil alter-ego.  The hokus pokus is charming, but Norell's journey as a self-taught talent at the time of the Napoleonic Wars is also perhaps an everyman struggle.  Could well turn out to be magic indeed.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

1864



Something of a departure for the 9pm Saturday night 'subtitle' slot on BBC4, '1864' is the new Danish drama series set during the Second Schleswig War, when Prussia and Austria forced Denmark to cede territory.  It opens at the end of the First Schleswig War in 1851, when Danish soldiers returned victorious.  Young Peter and Laust's father (Lars Mikkelson from 'The Killing') has been fatally weakened by a serious leg wound, while aristocratic Didrich (Pilou Asbaek from 'Borgen') has something we would recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  We follow their lives from the rediscovered journal of Inge, the estate master's daughter who shares bookish Peter and robust Laust's idyllic childhood, when patriotic fervour bordered on arrogance.

There's an awkward framing device of a modern tearaway teenager, all hair dye, facial piercings and mouth, befriending the elderly curmudgeon in the 'big house', who will no doubt turn out to be Inge's son or grandson, and reading the diaries to him.  This is more than unlikely, it's a hackneyed old device, and while there was much to admire in these first two episodes (of eight - only one month's worth!), it felt overall as though it was aiming at Tolstoy and settling for one of those slick historical American mini-series from the 1980s along the lines of 'Washington' or 'North and South'.  Each episode ends with a montage of scenes from the forthcoming hour, set to rousing music, which is overblown to say the least.

Predictably, the brothers both fall in love with Inge before departing for war in 1863, while she is also lusted after by the now-depraved Didrich.  Handily, she prefers the manly, extrovert Laust, while there's a more suitable mate for Peter in the form of the gyspy daughter who shares his love of plants.  There are a number of TWNH moments therein, not least the drama convention of never speaking up when it would be obvious to do so, prolonging misunderstandings, and the way that 19th Century Inge is able to spend so much time unsupervised with young boys below her station in life.  As a backdrop, in case the Danes are as clueless as we are about obscure historical skirmishes, we are shown politician Monrad taking lessons in speechmaking from stage star Mrs. Heiberg  (Sidse Babett Knudsen, 'Borgen's Brigitte Nyeborg) and even get the odd glimpse of the Prussian court, Iron Chancellor Bismarck and Moltke, whose sights are firmly set on a Germanic empire - which ultimately lead, of-course, to two wars most nations will never forget.

It's apparently the most expensive Danish television show ever made, with the multi-funding clearly aimed at exports, and it looks sumptuous, whether fields of corn or book-lined interiors are on show.  It's interesting to see a European drama's take on history, rather than crime, and it's unlikely this will be spun out (1874? 1884?) but we've a feeling it's not going to be a box-set-buy.  The performances by some of the younger cast are a little uneven, and as for the poor animal in one particular scene... the less said, the better.