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.


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.