Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Brief Encounters

It's 1982, and on television, that means two things: lurid clothes and furnishings and 'Now that's what I call music 1' on the soundtrack.  We're in Sheffield, so 'Full Monty' territory, and what follows is in the mould of those feelgood British staples.  Money is tight, and where it isn't, life is boring, and these circumstances bring together four women who sell Ann Summers sex products at tupperware-style parties.  The local ladies think vibrators are blenders, while the husbands and partners are threatened or bemused by this liberated behaviour.

Challenging?  No.  Forgettable?  Yes, especially as it hasn't obvious expansion room for further series.  Performed (ahem) with gusto by a decent cast, but set to inspire a summer flirtation rather than a full-on holiday romance.

New Blood

We can't help thinking this was made for BBC3 and, now that the channel has gone online, has found an uncomfortable home at 9pm on BBC1.  Writer Anthony Horowitz was responsible for 'Foyle's War', but is best known as a children's author, and he has definitely pitched this at a young and liberal audience.  The heroes are twenty-something, ethnic minority, professional Brits battling evil Big Pharma and the powers that be who have invested in them.  There are weekly stories within a series narrative establishing a buddy-buddy relationship that generally feels like it's based on banter scripted by a middle-aged man, which of-course it is.

As a 7pm BBC3 offering it would pass muster, but the gimmicky filming and the making light of serious issues are a bad fit on the flagship channel at prime time.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Living and the Dead *spolers*

BBC1 has made this six-part series available for free as a box set on iPlayer and we couldn't resist.  Ghosts!  Period costumes!  Manly chests!  What more could we (well, Ali) want?  Well, something a bit scarier maybe.  Ashley Pharoah was the main brain behind 'Life on Mars', and there turned what should have been a very creepy concept into a lot of fun.  It worked - at least in the first series - because of nostalgia for other cop shows as much as anything else.

This plays on traditional tropes from Thomas Hardy novels to MR James stories, but Pharoah clearly has a love of time travel narratives, and that doesn't fit quite so well here.  Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan) returns to his family farmhouse at Shepzoy in Somerset with young wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) in 1894, and before you can say 'here be dragons, get thee back to London', very odd things start happening.

It's all cleverly done, weaving a contained tale per episode into the ongoing narrative involving Nathan's dead son Gabriel (they're always called Gabriel), but we can't help feeling that some of it is a tad clumsy.  Why is there no mention of Gabriel's mother?  Ah of-course, that's for series two.  Throughout, various influences made themselves felt, notably The Others and the history of Hinton Ampner, and there was a conundrum at the end, in that we'd had have advanced combustion engines a whole lot sooner if farmers in 1894 really had discovered a submerged car in a field.  We always have high hopes of a new ghost story, but this delivered few real scares, and resorted to cliches at times.

It also resorted, rather unforgiveably, to an anachronistic look for heroine Charlotte, who wouldn't draw many odd stares in 21st Century Notting Hill.  Her attitude and that of her maid are also very liberated for the time.  A shame when trouble has clearly been taken to create an atmosphere of a place where rural folklore was still strong, in music, look and tone.  Presumably these aspects were thought to be more accessible to a modern audience.  Should we even try to cherry-pick the past and must we make everything modern?  It seems a manifestation of our disturbing current tendency to distrust anything 'other', but 'other' is what is so fascinating and compelling about the past - and ghost stories - after all.  

Europe - we have our say

Sometimes life overtakes television, alas, and we have had little time for the many new series springing up all over the screen.  Ali's heroine is Alison Graham, who despite watching TV and writing about it for a living, must nonetheless manage to cram about 90 hours into her day.  We have caught up with a few of the terrestrial offerings and they are overwhelmingly... European.  No doubt the Johnson camp will quip that summer is the traditional graveyard for inferior programming.  We'd like to differ, but on the evidence of the recent and current crop, it's going to be a struggle.

So, for a round-up, we began with 'Locked Up', a sort of Spanish 'Prisoner Cell Block H' which blazed a trail in broadcasting terms by airing the first episode on a terrestrial channel and then releasing the rest online.  It wasn't bad, and we can believe it got better, but catty women in orange uniforms weren't enough to drag us online to see more of them.

Then came 'Dicte - Crime Reporter' which is as cheesy as its title suggests.  We're sure this is considered serious drama because it happens to be subtitled.  Imagine the same scenes with the 80s American gloss of, say, 'Wonder Woman', or 'Murder She Wrote' and that's more the credibility level.  What worked with the kitsch 1950s-set noir last year just seems rather odd as a supposedly grittier modern-day piece.

'Disparu' was a lot like 'The Killing', but set in Lyon.  Spoilt young Lea Morel goes missing and everyone's a suspect.  Rolled out quite well over eight episodes shown in four blocks, but the ending was contrived and opened more questions than it answered.  Why was Lea so upset about her boyfriend's infidelity when she had been carrying on an affair of her own?  How did the smart cops believe that Lea's loving uncle would just suddenly flip and batter her because she was crying?  Would he and his daughter cover up a genuine accident, disposing of the body and managing to keep their stories straight through weeks of interrogations by the murder squad?  As is so often the case, this was rather less than the sum of its parts.

And last, and probably least, comes 'Versailles'.  There are many fascinating tales of the Sun King's court, but this curious Anglo-French hybrid favours sex, violence and terrible dialogue.  And then more sex.  Should we leave Europe, France will no doubt cease to fund dramas like this, which is the only decent argument for Brexit we've heard yet.  An example of Louis XIV, to his sister-in-law and mistress, Henriette: "Our lives have blossomed in summer, but now the nights are drawing in...."  We suspect if the real Louis had said any such thing, Henriette would have lost her head for laughing at her king.  We'd rather re-read 'The Man in the Iron Mask' than watch another episode of this.  'Rome' and 'The Tudors' have a lot to answer for.


22.11.63 is an 8 part series from Stephen King (who wrote the original book) and JJ Abrams (producing), that deals with a man travelling back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK.

All time travel shows depend on a) the means of travelling back in time, and b) the rules you need to obey once you get there.  Here it's pretty clunky - the means is a cupboard in a diner, and the rules are that i) you end up at the same time and place as a starting point each time, ii) that 2 minutes passes no matter how long you spend in the past, and iii) if you try to change history bad things happen.

The central premise is good, and apparently King thought of it in the early 70s.  However it seems rooted in the past, because surely an American man in the 2010s would actually want to go back to stop 9/11 and the Gulf War, rather than keep JFK alive and (supposedly) then stop Vietnam. 

It looks very glossy, and clearly has had lots of money spent on it.  Why have one vintage car from the 1950s to set the scene when you can have about 30 parked up?

At this point, Dan's will to blog gave out.  He didn't watch beyond episode one.  Enough said.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Secret

In 1991, Colin Howell (James Nesbitt) is a Coleraine dentist and family man whose main recreation is a bible study group, until he meets married mother Hazel Buchanan (Genevieve O'Reilly), a local teacher, at the church.  She then becomes his main hobby, because, err, God meant it to happen.  Of-course he did.  That old nonsense about not committing adultery, indeed.  The pair aren't particularly discreet, so it isn't long before their pastor (Jason Watkins) finds out and informs all parties.  Forgiveness follows, and all seems well, but as Howell's wife Lesley gives birth to their fourth child, the affair starts up again.  Knowing his wife is distraught, and Hazel's husband similarly upset, Colin hits on the plan to do them a favour and put them out of their misery, stage-managing a suicide pact, enabling him and Hazel to join their families together.

Too far-fetched for drama, it had to be real.  Howell was convicted in 2010 of double murder, and his former lover was also convicted.  They had long since split up and married other partners, who were both presumably ignorant of their spouses' bloody past.  It's all rather sordid and depressing.  Nesbitt is charismatic as the hypocritical happy-clappy man o'God, but the tale highlights the sorry state of a religion so out of sync with the times that a follower would rather commit murder than be seen to commit a lesser offence. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Houdini and Doyle

Houdini and Doyle is, like last year's Frankenstein Chronicles, a British-made show for ITV Encore, set in a chocolate box-cum-theme park version of history.

Based (in the very loosest sense) on Harry Houdini's friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it's an odd-couple crime drama, similar in some respects to The Persuaders, where Tony Curtis and Roger Moore had to cooperate to solve crimes and right wrongs way back in the early 1970s.  In fact, they're probably re-booting it in similar pastiche style right now....

This time it's Michael Weston as Houdini, very rational, but also smart and knowing, and Stephen Mangan as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reserved, British, very believing of supernatural things, but also with scientific ideas learnt through his medical background.  It's a good idea for a show - Houdini was a famous skeptic, and Doyle famously gullible - and they did know each other - but as a show it's 'bubblegum tosh' at best.

Some critics have compared it to Jonathan Creek - for the similar magic background - but it's just not as good as that was in its heyday, or many other things on the TV at the moment.  It just feels like it's not good enough, and while it has a few quirky touches - a rather anachronistic WPC to help them out for example - it feels too much like it's ticking boxes, capitalising on costume drama, and in particular 'Sherlock', and not enough like a creative and original piece of work.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016


The success of 'War and Peace' and 'The Night Manager' on BBC1's 9pm Sunday slot has left big shoes to fill.  'Undercover' treads confidently, if a little predictably, in its opener.  A juggernaut narrowly misses crushing Maya (Sophie Okonedo) within the first few minutes (she was fumbling for her phone on a desert highway, as you do).  She's a lawyer, fighting for client Rudy (Dennis Haysbert)  facing execution on Death Row.  We don't quite know what he's done, but Maya likes him and he's played by the cuddly President in '24', so we feel he has to have been unjustly sentenced.  Maya lives in London and is happily married to Nick (Adrian Lester) with three teenaged children, one of whom is autistic, but Nicky has a secret that threatens to expose the basis of their relationship as a lie....

Good so far.  Just enough hints and flashbacks to keep us guessing what happened, why and to whom in 1996.  This clearly takes its cue from the recent, controversial court cases involving long-term undercover cops who engaged in relationships with those they were investigating, even in some cases having children from those relationships, in addition to ongoing relationships under their own names.  We hope it holds its nerve and becomes an outstanding drama, since it is tackling such major themes as justice, prejudice, public and personal trust and betrayal in the modern democratic state.

The Durrells

Seemingly as long as there is British Television there will be new adaptations of Gerald Durrell's Corfu novels, particularly 'My Family and Other Animals'.  Five minutes (OK, a few years) after the last one, along comes another on ITV, with charmingly illustrated credits and a new generation of child actors .  Keeley Hawes plays put-upon Mrs. D, who decides to end her dreary suburban penury in favour of eking out an existence with her four unruly children in sunny Corfu.  Thanks to the book and all the previous versions, we mostly know what happens next, but there's no reason newcomers to the tale shouldn't enjoy this adaptation.  That is, unless they are pedants and wonder what on earth young Margo (Daisy Waterstone) is doing sunbathing in a bikini in 1935.


Rowan Atkinson assumes the mantel of Simenon's pipe-smoking French detective in ITV's new adaptation - the first of two - shown on Easter Monday.  Atkinson wisely underplays the Inspector, but we found it hard to put Mr Bean and various Edmund Blackadders thoroughly behind us.  All credit to him for those lasting creations, but it hindered our immersion in the lively, rather seedy Montmartre of the 1950s.

This story concerned that modern crime drama staple, the serial killer, and naturally the victims are women who happen to be out alone late at night.  Maigret's team are stricken at their inability to catch the culprit, and threatened with being taken off the case, until the great man comes up with a daring ruse to smoke out the killer.  Will it work, or go horribly wrong...?

An oddity, is all we can say.  Ponderously slow except for a chase which feels like it was crowbarred into the midst of proceedings to liven things up.  Most of it looked expensive, but the chase appeared to have been filmed on a camcorder.  Maybe it's the nature of its dated source material, but the dialogue was as stilted as if it had been lifted directly from the French, and the interior scenes had the staged feel of a forgotten drawing-room play. A waste of a very good cast and some lovely couture.


Marcella (with a hard 'ch' rather than a soft 's' sound), is a murder squad detective who has taken a long career break to raise her children, but now finds herself abandoned by her husband and compelled back to work on her old unsolved case of - what else - a serial killer.  Anna Friel has a serious line in angsty, gutsy ladies and she gives it her all here.  Every modern detective needs a quirk, it seems, and Marcella's is that she loses her temper and blacks out.  Not a great trait for a cop, we think, but then the team behind this were responsible for 'The Bridge.  The autism spectrum was used to great effect in the character of Saga, and in today's supposedly touchy-feely police force, that's an equally unlikely asset for a detective. 

It's nasty and not particularly new, but may shape up, and if Ms Friel's particular brand of angsty, gutsy character makes you reach for the remote, there is a more than decent supporting cast to distract you.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Blue Eyes

More 4's latest Friday foreign drama takes up where 'Spin' left off.  Paris is replaced by Stockholm but the skullduggery, betrayal and downright dirty politics are all present and (in)correct.  Disgraced former Chief of Staff Elin (Louise Peterhoff) is waitressing when she is re-recruited.  The previous occupant has supposedly gone on sick leave but we know that Sarah was tailed and that her abandoned car is in the woods.  She was last seen pleading with Annika, a middle-aged mum who supports the far right.  When Annika is threatened, things start to look conspiratorial.  And intriguing.  And generally like a timely and engrossing drama.  Hurrah.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The A Word

Joe is five, and spends most of his time belting out his dad's favourite music while listening to the songs on his headphones.  He doesn't get invited to his classmates' parties.  His mum and dad reluctantly consult doctors as to whether their son is somewhere on the spectrum of the 'A' word.

We seem to recall a similarly-themed one-off drama on ITV a few years ago with Keeley Hawes and Ben Miles as worried parents of a young boy.  As there, the wider family get involved (the boy's brewer uncle and his adulterous doctor wife, the un-pc granddad played by a surely-too-young Christopher Eccleston) and there's clearly a rocky road ahead.  It's watchable, has great performances and beautiful Cumbrian scenery, but at the moment it feels a little by-numbers and predictable.  It's true we've been spoiled with the likes of the second series of 'Happy Valley' - better than the first - and the upcoming third series of 'Line of Duty', but we're not yet sure what this will have to offer to offer above and beyond another exploration of autism.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Follow the Money

The latest Saturday night Scandi offering from BBC4 is 'Follow the Money', which is less a noir than a conspiracy thriller.  The Corporates Dun Bad again, and this being the 21st Century and Denmark, the Bad Corporates are in supposedly sustainable, clean, renewable, green energy.  The adjectives may seem superfluous, but apparently they don't all mean the same thing, and they are anything but clean in the hands of Sanders, whose company Energreen has a wind turbine empire staffed by itinerant workers too scared to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. 

Meanwhile nice cop Mads is on the case of one of them who turns up dead, and his efforts to convince his father to talk result in the father's death too.  Luckily, a colleague in the fraud squad turns up to rescue him from the gloom and guilt - and the similar feelings engendered by his wife's MS - and they embark on an investigation which encompasses Sanders' ambitious new head lawyer and, we suspect, will eventually engulf the mechanics with criminal sidelines.

This is shaping up well, albeit not along unexpected lines.  We're hoping for some moral grey areas writ large over the next month.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016


Vinyl is the new glossy HBO series about the music industry in New York in the 1970s, produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, and currently showing in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

The 1970s was a very interesting time in music.  You had the big beasts like Led Zeppelin and The Eagles still selling shed loads, you had lots of classic pop, big disco hits and the nascent twin forces of punk and hip hop starting to bubble up. 

You'd think that Jagger and Scorsese, having lived through and been involved in this era would know a good few stories and be able to bring this to life (just change the names and some details and it's not libelous...), but apparently not, and this is sadly pretty dull as a result.

Characters seem pretty much straight out of central casting, with a drug-taking maverick as the record company boss, a pretty secretary trying to break through the glass ceiling, rock stars sleeping with groupies and so on.  'Real people' appear in each episode - Robert Plant, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper - but they're more an annoying wink at the camera than there for any reason.  Scorsese's brought some of his tropes to the party - an accidental murder, gangsters and so on, and Jagger's brought his son James, who plays the leader of the punk band, but seems much too well-fed and clean to be authentic. 

We'll keep watching as it's now half way through, but if there is a second series can it be closer to what we all hoped it would be like?

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Doctor Thorne

Who better to adapt one of Trollope's gossipy, class-fixated 19th Century tomes than Downton's Julian Fellowes?  This in fact occupies the same 9pm, Sunday-night ITV slot lately vacated by the Crawleys, so don't expect a risk-taking, rule-breaking adaptation.  Instead we get a decent cast and a handsomely-mounted hour introducing us to the eponymous Dr Thorne (Tom Hollander - confusingly the camp, bitchy Corkoran over on BBC1 at the same time) and his illegitimate niece Mary, who is in love with the handsome young squire at the big house.  He returns that love, but alas has no money and must marry it.  Could there be a chance that Mary's unacknowledged other uncle will bestow a fortune on her...?  Fans of Trollope's novels will be either delighted or disappointed in the adaptation, but for the rest of us all that can be said is that it competently covers familiar ground.

Saturday, 5 March 2016


A dishevelled-looking young woman runs along a suburban street and into a phone box.  She says she is Ivy Moxam, kidnapped from the street thirteen years ago as a thirteen-year-old girl and missing ever since.

Aired originally on BBC3, the youth-oriented channel that has recently moved online, this taps into today's bogeyman, namely the patient, organised and utterly deranged keeper of girls in cellars.  Similar ground was covered in the 2010 novel 'Room' which is now a film too.  This takes a decent stab at portraying the unimaginable post-nightmare readjustment, with Ivy (Jodie Comer) displaying bewilderment, relief and sorrow while trying to come to terms with what has happened to her.

The enormous impact of her emergence after such a long absence on her family and friends is also made apparent, and convincingly played, but the show is really Jodie Comer's as the girl who has lost her anonymity along with everything else.  The writing pays attention to detail, with Ivy more than a one-dimensional victim - she has a believable manipulative streak, contradictions in her behaviour and story and a possible case of Stockholm syndrome.  Her sister's doubt of her identity is quickly ruled out by DNA, but this doesn't lessen the mystery of what has happened to her, how it has changed her or indeed her personality before her disappearance (she was playing truant on the day she was abducted).  The identity of her captor is quickly established, but he is on the run, and apparently worked at Ivy's school.  A timely reminder that the sensational stories in the news are far from ending with a reunion.

Churchill's Secret

'Elderly man isn't all that well' isn't really a revelation, but when the man in question is Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Michael Gambon), symbol of British Bull-doggedness in WWII, the news is not to be bandied about.  Loyal members of his cabinet want the PM's stroke kept under wraps, lest there's an unseemly scramble for power in the absence of both Churchill and likely successor Anthony Eden (Alex Jennings), who was having gall bladder surgery abroad.  Mrs. Churchill, the redoubtable-in-her-own-right Clementine (Lindsay Duncan), wants Winston away from the temptations of Westminster and brings him back home to the Kent countryside home of Chartwell.  To nurse him, they contract Nurse Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai) but their peace is short-lived when the in-fighting Tories - plus ca change! - and the equally quarrelsome younger Churchills flock to Winston's bedside.

One of those 'rather nice' dramas that will go down well in America, this is a bit of a curio.  The storyline runs in a similar way to 'The Madness of George III': statesman brought low, struggles of his family and the succession, slow recovery, lessons learned etc.  It's beautifully filmed, some of it at Chartwell itself, now a National Trust gem, and is directed solidly by Charles Sturridge.  Overall though, it's rather a byway in the great man's life, and not that one that really altered the course of his remaining decade or so.  The addition of a fictional character to nurse him, who of-course happens to be from a Labour family, seems an unnecessary addition to proceedings, and merely a cypher in whom Clemmie can confide about the grief of losing her young daughter Marigold some thirty years earlier.  Things only really spring to life when the children arrive and, facing their father's death, are candid about the drawbacks of growing up with parents who were almost always otherwise engaged.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016


If you think the word 'banker' begins with a 'w' and studiously avoid anywhere at the weekend likely to be filled with boozed-up men, this is for you.  A bunch of deeply unlikeable characters go on what else but a stag-hunting weekend in the Highlands.  The weather is terrible, but turns out to be the least of their troubles when weird things start to happen.

Ian (Jim Howick) is the brother of the bride and odd man out, bullied by the supposed alpha males he may soon see a lot more of.  The others' treatment of the mild-mannered man is enough to alienate us, and while reviews have stressed growing sympathy with the staggers, the first episode didn't raise more than a grimace when a man's dismembered legs were found in a clearing.  Subtle this isn't, in terms of humour or grotesquerie.  There's a link in the imagination between black comedy and sophistication and Reece Shearsmith, here an early casualty, is a master of those with the 'Inside No.9' series written with Steve Pemberton.  This doesn't quite hit that high, and in fact often resembles a lame episode of 'Lost' with few redeeming characters.  By the end of the hour we couldn't help wishing that whoever is after them would just hurry up and finish them all off for the sake of everyone who knew them.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Night Manager

Freely adapted from prolific spy scribe Le Carre's 1993 novel, this quickly gets going - and gripping - but is every bit as far-fetched as a Bond movie.  Ex-army officer Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a night manager at the swanky Nefertiti hotel in uptown Cairo.  During the Arab Spring, the beautiful mistress of a dodgy local playboy entrusts him with a document implicating famous businessman/philanthropist Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) in arming terrorists.  When he leaks it to Simon Ogilvy (Russell Tovey) at the British Consulate, the consequences for them both are shattering.

This has all the right ingredients: glamorous locations, a good-looking cast, subterfuge, violence, sex, good vs. bad and so on.  It's engrossing in the same way as a well-put-together, handsomely mounted Hollywood movie.  The slight glitch for an English audience is the self-same cast.  Hiddleston is a great hero, but an unlikely night manager, while we kept expecting Laurie to reprise his goggle-eyed Regency Prince from 'Blackadder' and Tovey to be the cheeky chappie he usually plays.  Horribly unfair to the actors, who turn in top-class performances, along with Olivia Colman as gutsy intelligence agent and mum-to-be Angela Burr, and several other staple Brits besides.

Escapist and a good ad for the intelligence services if you are reckless.  It isn't after all the governments who wield the power and pose the threat these days.  Businessmen are rather less exposed.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

One Child

China's culture, history and current situation seem rich with dramatic possibility.  Unfortunately this is a rather poor offering.  Mei is a student of astrophysics in London who gets a message one day from a journalist claiming to be a friend of the mother who gave her up for adoption in Guangzhou in 1992.  Her mother subsequently had a son, Mei is told, and the young man is now in prison under a death sentence for a crime he didn't commit.

The first problem is that we know from the beginning, through a long sequence in a nightclub, that the boy is innocent, so there is far less tension and moral ambiguity than there might have been.  The second problem is the TWNH of the premise: apparently the journalist tracked Mei down via the adoption agency because her western upbringing meant she might have connections.  Rather unlikely.  Anyone who has dealt with Chinese officialdom in any capacity is likely to agree with Mei's adoptive parents that foreign interference is not welcome, and the best thing Mei could do for herself and everyone else is to stay out of it.  She goes to the British Consulate who unsurprisingly won't help a local citizen, having no mandate to do so.  The third problem may seem like a minor detail to a western viewer, but it's set in south-eastern China (and apparently filmed in Hong Kong), where the local dialect is Cantonese.  The official language may be Mandarin, but Cantonese is spoken everywhere.  During the whole hour, everyone spoke Mandarin or fluent English.  Mei's mother may be from Yunnan province, but the locals speak only Mandarin too.  Overall, a disappointment.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

Watching 'The People v OJ Simpson' is, if you'll pardon the pun, a game of two halves.  For the People, we have a solid team of clenched-jaw DAs, including divorced mother Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and her boss Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood).  They are going into bat in much the same way as their counterparts in 'Law and Order' and other US legal dramas.  Then there's OJ, 'The Juice', Simpson, whose life is a surreal circus of strung-out hangers-on, overblown dramas and facially re-arranged alpha males.  If this is to be believed, Simpson had the best PR ever, since behind the smooth celebrity charm was a hysterical, immature and pathetic man.

This is a curious piece of television, the first in the UK of the 'American Crime Story' trials, dramatising this one notorious case over ten hours and featuring a diverse cast that almost enhances the farcical nature of proceedings on OJ's side: Cuba Gooding Jr is the carpet-chewing OJ, lent support by David Schwimmer's Robert Kardashian (now best known as Kimmy's daddy) and John Travolta's shark lawyer Robert Shapiro.  Travolta also produced this, based on the book by Jeffrey Toomin, so you wonder, as a fellow celebrity, whether his stance on Simpson's guilt or innocence is going to be revealed.

Entertaining, yes, and the ex-Mrs. Simpson's friends and family don't fare too well here either, but it's sometimes a little too easy to forget that Nicole Simpson and her fellow victim were brutally murdered, possibly by an all-American hero, stirring up the racial and economic divide that remains at the heart of America.

Sunday, 14 February 2016


Extreme Scandi alert!  Danish heavyweights be warned - the Icelanders are on the case.  Sharp-eyed viewers may recognise the ship's captain from both 'The Killing' and 'Borgen' but you know Iceland must be small if Denmark embodies the big, bad, criminal nation.

The latest in the BBC4 foreign drama slot is no advertisement for the cold little country, however.  Not only does a dismembered torso turn up in some fishing nets (check your fish finger sandwich very carefully) at the same time as a Lithuanian trafficker who bears an uncanny resemblance to Rasputin, but the kind of storm is blowing which has even the hardly Icelanders looking doubtfully at their snow chains and opting for a cuppa.  Grumpy bear of a policeman Andri (Olafur Darri Olafsson) is called in, and in the best tradition of crime dramas, he has a troubled private life to think about, with his estranged wife showing up for the weekend with a new boyfriend.

The title presumably refers to everyone being trapped in the small coastal town - even the pathology team are trapped in comparatively comfy Reykjavik - so if claustrophobia is your thing, you can wallow in ten episodes shown in five parts.  Sort of like a very long drawn out Agatha Christie.  It manages to keep up the tension over the first two episodes, but not without some TWNHs on the way.  Would a prisoner be allowed out of the cell to go to the toilet, with only one guard?  Wouldn't there be facilities in the cell, or two on duty?  No prizes for guessing what ensues....  And would the children run off in a snowstorm when it's dark and the weather is so bad they can't see a yard in front of them?  It all feels a little contrived to drag the thing out.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Deadline Gallipoli

The cinema seems to be producing lengthy epics at the moment, and right on trend arrives 'Deadline Gallipoli' to the small screen.  We're served this in two great dollops of two hours over a weekend - including the Drama channel's ad breaks - and this is something of a fresh take on WWI in that we in the UK don't see all that much about the Dardanelles campaign, nor from the perspective of the war correspondents.

The slaughter that took place among the outer edges of the crumbling Ottoman Empire saw nearly 400,000 Allied casualties in less than nine months and almost cost one Winston Churchill his career.  While the subject is interesting, however, the production is rather on the nose.  We have the usual stereotypes of effete English dilettantes, upper-class brutes of officers and the odd dedicated war correspondent from England and Australia whose growing awareness of the horrifying realities of mechanised warfare is at odds with the censorship of the press by the government back home.  Morale must be kept up, and women must continue to be empty-headed unless the silly things decide to take up nursing.  We wanted to like this and there were some good scenes but the endless wordy scenes were unenlivened by good dialogue as they laboured to make the points, which are, of-course, the same as those made by most other WWI dramas regardless of the geographical field of conflict.  In a word, sadly: dull.

Friday, 8 January 2016


One of the current 'Walter Presents' picks of foreign-language television on the 4 family, this six-parter is pretty timely in the wake of the 2015 attacks in Paris.  The President is assassinated but no-one claims responsibility.  As always in a power vacuum, various ministers jostle for power, by fair means or foul, and one of their main assets is the modern spin doctor.  At the emotional heart are a pair of these sharp operators, Simon Kapita (Bruno Walkowitz) and Ludovic Desmeuze (Gregory Fitoussi), old friends but divided by their current jobs supporting opposing candidates for power.  Fitoussi will be familiar to British viewers from 'Spiral', 'Mr. Selfridge' and 'Odyssey'.

This is the sort of thing that can be slick to the point of superficiality, and it keeps up the pace with various skullduggeries and deals going on, but Walkowitz makes a sympathetically human agent for truth in the treacherous world around him.  This looks set to tackle sexism and racism, not to mention the deep unpleasantness at the heart of the democratic establishment, head on.

Thursday, 7 January 2016


Newly-widowed Annie Quaintain (Jessica Raine) faces ruin as she discovers her late husband's debts.  The former schoolmaster's wife finds her friends are fair-weather and must sell up and take her two children to the... wild west.  North Yorkshire to be more precise, specifically to the shanty town of Jericho, where navvies are building the Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle railway line.  Here she opens a boarding house - not to be confused with the bawdy house next door - and takes in a couple of lodgers, including gentlemanly hunk Johnny Jackson (Hans Matheson).  We know that Annie has come down in the world because her hair comes down too, from an elaborate Victorian nest of coils to a far more 21st Century loose look.  Not very respectable for a mother, but rather more comely to Johnny.

The 90-minute opener fitted in brawls both male and female, a fatal accident that imperils the future of the project, theft, an accidental murder and a cover-up.  All to a slightly twangy soundtrack that, if not Morricone, leans westward of York.  Despite the basis in fact, this is of-course rather soapy.  We have the western stock characters of pragmatic madam, slutty daughter, respected gang leader, plucky young mother, violent brute and even a rather unlikely black incomer from the real west.  Well Baltimore (Clarke Peters, lately of The Wire).  What is this need to re-imagine our foggy Victorian past as an Anglicised Dead Man's Gulch?  Life was hard and the ironic achievement of this symbol of Britain's industrial might over the empty valley would be hard to do justice to in a drama.  There are seven more episodes, so it could still go either way.  Hopefully that way won't be further west.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Deutschland 83

A series with German subtitles seems a curious choice for going head-to-head with 'War and Peace' on BBC1 and ITV's warhorse 'Endeavour' (where tonight's plot is a riff on 'The Great Gatsby' which seems less ingenious than plagiarist).  This is a rite-of-passage as well as a spy drama, in which young and ardent East German border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is recruited by his fanatical aunt Leonora (Maria Schrader) to go undercover as a top military aide in Bonn.  Stranger things probably happened, but the premise feels like a tall tale, since the 24-year-old is virtually blackmailed into his spy role and trained in just 3 weeks, then let loose in the decadent, capitalist West.

Rauch, under his alias Moritz Stamm, proves rather an inept spy and we're guessing that in future episodes he gets disillusioned and begins to question the world and his place in it.  The tone is a little uneven, with similarities to the unreal atmosphere of 'The Americans', and there's painstaking musical scene-setting, but whatever your moral stance on Soviet power, Ronald Reagan and European capitalism post-90, this is an interestingly different take on Germany's recent past.

War and Peace

Even a six-hour adaptation isn't going to do justice to Tolstoy's doorstopper.  It is, after all, the sort of book you could take to a desert island and still be ploughing through when the rescue ship hove into view.  Nonetheless the Beeb have gamely taken it on, and crammed in every Brit actor of note they can find, with American star Paul Dano as Pierre.  Rather confusingly, this includes a couple of the cast of 'Dickensian'.  So for the next five weeks we'll have to extrapolate Stephen Rea's Inspector Bucket from a devious Russian aristocrat and Tuppence Middleton's innocent Amelia Havisham from said Russian aristocrat's shallow daughter, though she looks rather more like Messalina than Helene here.

It's visually gorgeous (though we're not sure about one-shoulder dresses in a high society salon), and is shaping up to be perfect Sunday-night escapism.  Purist fans of the novel should probably steer clear though.

Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands

Sometimes it's easier than others to write an objective review.  We admit that, faced with a host of CGI monsters and dragons generic enough to have appeared in many another fantasy drama, it's difficult.  The problem is that, devoid of an affinity to beasts of this sort, the fantasy tropes, or - to put it unkindly - the similarities between all the stories, render it difficult to tell them apart.

So is this good fantasy or bad fantasy?    Well it's more enjoyable froth, if you like fantasy.  One thing it isn't is 'Beowulf', as in the early Middle-English poem/story.  As is currently common, it takes the classic as some very basic source material and weaves a new bunch of episodes around it.  One thing it is, therefore, is similar to most other tales.  Old warrior is waning, so young(ish) warrior prepares to assume power and undertakes a journey, but there are rivals to his claim etc. etc.  It's at 7pm, so the younger kids should be in bed and the adults not yet on the sofa.  We'd suggest it's not going to convert any dragon-haters, but should please dragon-lovers well enough.

Just have to say that Joanne Whalley looks great (and not mucked about with surgically, praise be).  If nothing else, fantasy does at least have strong roles for mature actresses that don't require them to look either underage or like someone's great-grandmother.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Harry Price Ghost Hunter

Harry Price famously investigated the 'most haunted house in England', Borley Rectory, but this finds him much earlier in his career, cheating gullible clients out of their cash by telling them what they want to hear using the technique of cold reading.  When a client whom he - in the guise of the man's dead brother - has advised to be at peace takes him rather too literally and shoots himself, Price (Rafe Spall) has a rethink and begins to expose other charlatans.  He is then approached by a senior Liberal (Michael Byrne), who asks for his help on behalf of the party's rising star, MP Edward Goodwin (Tom Ward).  Goodwin's wife Grace (Zoe Boyle reprising the rather wan and wet type she played in a season of 'Downton Abbey') was found hysterical and naked in the middle of town, and claims she is being haunted.  After Harry reluctantly begins his search, he finds more than he bargained for in terms of corporeal threats from the doting husband and the sharp-tongued parlourmaid Sarah (Cara Theobold).

ITV clearly hope this will be a series, since it ends with the formation of a partnership and the solving of the mystery.  It definitely lends itself to a definition of 'enjoyable froth', and hedges its bets on the supernatural Big Q (Are there ghosts?).  There are real cases to dramatise, including Borley, but here they have fictionalised, and at times rather lazily.  The Goodwins are stereotypes a la 'Lady Chatterley' and their mansion is improbably grand for a former workhouse.  If it becomes a TV fixture, then on the current evidence it isn't likely to blaze any trails.