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.