Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Ark

So, you live with your large, grown family who have terrible table manners but otherwise rub along pretty happily together.  One day, while sitting and contemplating your strangely arid farm, God's messenger, in the form of Ashley Walters, plops down beside you and tells you God is fed up with the greed, selfishness and violence of human beings and is going to send a flood to drown them all.  Understandable enough, you reckon, if a bit drastic, but then comes the killer: you alone can save mankind!  All you have to do is build an enormous wooden structure, waterproof it and persuade as many people as you can to join you, and drag in some animals that will come your way.  The phrase "easier said than done" could have been coined for poor Noah (David Threlfall), previously considered a devout, strict but kindly old eccentric.  It goes without saying that Mrs. Noah, Emmie (the estimable Joanne Whalley) and the offspring don't exactly jump at the idea of hard labour and ridicule for building an ark in the sunny desert.

This is a nice re-telling, emphasizing the human aspects of the story - the sons' longing for independence; the wife's despairing, "Please tell me you've miscalculated the size?!" - if a little oddly paced.  Thirty minutes into a ninety-minute production before God's instructions arrived meant little time for the actual flood, which was, as CGI effects go, pretty underwhelming. Forty days and forty nights took little more than forty seconds of rather muddled images of water walls.  For bibliophiles, too, it may have been puzzling, since Canaan (Nico Mirallegro) is here Noah's son who strays off the righteous path through no fault of his dad's.  Ah well.  The core message of, umm, keeping faith despite all, comes through, and the acting was nicely understated for a biblical epic.  It made a nice change from Easter-centric crucifixion tales and yes, apparently rainbows are a reminder of man's covenant with God, not leprechauns and pots of gold, and the two are not the same....

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Ordinary Lies

You'd expect ordinary lies in a second-hand car showroom along the lines of "Never been in an accident, mate," or "only one careful owner and two thousand on the clock"; not "my wife's just died" when she is at home with a mild outbreak of irritable bowel syndrome.  Salesman Marty's rather extra-ordinary whopper is, it's hinted, the tip of the iceberg among his colleagues' lurking secrets, but it's his story that features in the first of six 'Clocking Off' style episodes.  When his mid-life low leads him to drinking, late or no-shows for work and rows with his wife he is given a final warning.  The next day - running late again - he phones in and finds himself telling his colleague that he has just become a widower.

If you can get over this wholly unlikely scenario, and the fact that he relies on his sulking wife to wake him up in the morning when he has a working alarm, then this is an entertaining hour.  You know he's going to get found out, even he knows he's going to get found out, but it plays out well enough.  Jason Manford (Mark Addy's younger sibling, surely) is a real find and conveys the agony of a decent man who finds himself in a downward spiral of his own making.  He's ably supported by a great cast, notably Rebecca Callard as lonely do-gooder Grace, and things move from comic to serious as bumpily as Marty's own journey through his crisis.

Whether this is anywhere near as good as 'Clocking Off', or Brocklehurst's own recent 'The Driver' is still in the balance.  (The author also wrote 'Exile', which turned out to be a bit less than the sum of its parts.)  There are clear storylines shaping up here about a broken marriage, a missing partner, drug couriering and old family secrets, and they will need a sure hand.  So far, we're sticking with the characters, but needless to say, we wouldn't buy a second-hand car from any of them.

Sunday, 8 March 2015


If you like your swashes buckled, your bodices ripped and your upper lips stiff as you like, you really are spoiled for choice on UK TV at the moment, with the 'Musketeers', 'Banished', 'Arthur and George', 'Indian Summers' and 'Mr. Selfridge' all jostling with each other in the schedules, and now, going head-to-head on a Sunday with two of the above, comes 'Poldark'.  (That's pronounced 'PolDARK' btw, with the emphasis on the last syllable, Cornish-style.)  The series of eight episodes is based on the first two of Winston Graham's novels which form an epic family saga of late 18th Century tin mine-owning squires.  Several were filmed in the mid 1970s and that adaptation, staring Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees, retains a fan following so devout that an attempt in the late 90s at a sequel following the next generation (but without any of the original stars) sank without trace.

Galloping up, then, is Aidan Turner, who admittedly looks the part to the extent that you wonder why he hasn't already been cast as Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester and every other brooding hero you care to name.  Turner plays the eponymous Ross Poldark, newly returned in defeat from the American War of Independence, to find his once-prosperous home and mines gone to wrack and ruin after his father's death.  Thinking Ross lost in the war, his fiance Elizabeth (Heida Reed) has got engaged to his drippy cousin Francis (Kyle Soller), none of which turns Poldark from a brooder into a cheery chap.  This first episode sees him rescuing young tomboy Demelza Carne (Eleanor Tomlinson) and suffering the violent repercussions of her brutish kinfolk; meanwhile he vacillates about whether to make something of his dwindled inheritance or leave the crashing Cornwall waves behind him.

So, will this be as popular as the '70s version?  Almost certainly not, but that has as much to do with the multitude of channels and viewing-on-demand available now.  Times have changed in other ways too - the original saw Sunday evening church services in abeyance because parishioners were apparently glued to the screen.  This is a perfectly respectable adaptation of Graham's original prose, and so far faithful to the previous TV version too.  It's also good Sunday evening hokum with a cracking cast and that lovely wild coastline as a backdrop.  It's a worthy last job for the late Warren Clarke as Uncle Charles Poldark, and Ruby Bentall finally steps out of dim-girl roles as the centre of gravity of the piece, Ross's cousin Verity.  (There's also an improvement, in the persons of Beatie Edney and Phil Davis as Prudie and Jud, whose every appearance in both book and previous version had the attention wandering.)  If they keep up this standard, we hope they go on to become a Sunday staple.  After all, this has the blessing of the previous Ross, Robin Ellis, who makes a cameo appearance in the series.  

Thursday, 5 March 2015


Considering how few dramas are set in penal colonies, compared to, say, cop and doc shows, this felt unsettlingly familiar.  Convict James Freeman (Russell Tovey) sticks up for Anne Meredith (Orla Brady) when a nasty blacksmith steals her food.  Being a classic bully, the blacksmith promptly returns the woman's food and takes Freeman's, delivering a brutal assault as he does so, and sneering that Freeman will never eat again.  No-one helps out the hungry man, not even his friend Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind-Tutt), who has trouble of his own in the form of Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring).  She has been caught paying him a nocturnal visit and when she refuses to name her lover, is given 25 lashes.  The lovers wish to marry but have living spouses back in England, and when Barrett refuses to live without her it looks like tragedy will ensue.

Timberlake Wertenbaker got there first, and crafted a curious, lyrical and often brutal tale of unfortunates shipped off to a barren land as punishment.  This is very much McGovern's take on proceedings, and while he's an old hand at old lags, he's had most success with contemporary tales, and his decorously begrimed actors betray their well-fed 21st Century origins with almost every line.  As you'd expect, the main characters are noble, have honour, feel love, and fight a gutsy battle with tyranny and their straightened circumstances.  Barrett even claims he is innocent.  Meanwhile the soldiers and the clergy protect the blacksmith because they need his tools; the soldiers use the women prisoners for sex with impunity, and state that a dead convict is just one less mouth to feed, that scum and whores shouldn't breed etc.

It's entertaining enough, but has found a strange berth at BBC2.  The first of seven episodes had a histrionic climax and a sudden happy ending, leading us to think that the remaining six will tackle a familiar issue each week: rebellion, disease, pregnancy, unlikely friendships, the ever-present threat of death.  No doubt McGovern has done his research, and there are contemporary accounts to supplement any histories with authentic voices, but to his viewers the past is less a foreign country than an all-too-familiar landscape.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Arthur and George

Julian Barnes's bestseller is a decade old, so fond readers may think an adaptation long overdue.  This is such a fun three-parter it should have been shown at Christmas, though any case that is based on real life and involves such elements as senseless animal slaughter and racial intimidation is far from cosy.  Martin Clunes does a passable Scottish accent as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, feeling guilty and at a loose end after his long-ailing wife's death and unwilling to commit to another Sherlock Holmes adventure.  Arsher Ali plays George Edalji who has served three years for killing horses under the cover of darkness, and still wants to prove his innocence.

It's a three-part ITV adaptation of a fairly hefty novel and moves quite slowly, though with some exciting Holmes-like moments.  Viewers are served up pretty much what they'd expect, which in this case is a classy cast, swirling fog, comfortable middle-class Victorian homes and altogether the sort of mystery that requires only a sofa and a hot toddy to really enjoy.