Monday 19 December 2011

Just Henry

Great cast, bad characterisation, dull cliches, mad ending.  With more subtlety in the script it could have made a decent enough children's teatime drama.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Without You

We admit, it was hard to concentrate while watching this.  Has Ms Friel had plastic surgery?  We know we shouldn't get distracted by such things.  Why should we care?  Well OK, Dan doesn't, really, he's just mildly curious, but Ali....  The thing is, she looks slightly odd.  This is the beautiful actor who broke new ground with a lesbian kiss, and, umm, put her dad under the patio, but hey, he deserved it?  Yes?  No?  See how one distraction leads to another?  Anyway, it's absurd, because either she's just had some other kind of Hollywood makeover that makes her look odd, or she's been so dissatisfied with her looks, in her thirties (or has succumbed to others' criticism) that she's changed them.  So here's the disclaimer, because first consideration was given to an examination of facial features from various angles shown.  This didn't, we must add, stretch to slo-mo, stills or HD, so it stops short of an obsession.  YES IT DOES.  But...

... not much happened, which may seem strange for a drama based on a Nicci French novel.  Ellie Manning (Friel) finds out her husband Greg has died in a car accident with another woman.  For plot, that's pretty much it.  She runs about emoting.  Did he have an affair?  Her friends think so, even his friends think so, but no-one has a clue.  By the end of the first episode, of three, she's got precisely nowhere in finding out.

Friel's performance is anything but plastic, and she's matched by Marc Warren as her expired but conveniently handy husband.  They even manage to make corny lines like "That's the woman I'm going to marry" sound, if not good, then at least slightly less corny.  But that still leaves us in the position of having no TWNH moments because not enough has actually happened.  Watch on?  We'll see.

Life's Too Short

When we started this blog we were only going to write about drama, but the latest Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant project can't pass without comment....

The show, starring Warwick Davis, has bombed, had a critical mauling, and lost millions of viewers.  Gervais, Merchant and Davis himself have appeared in the media to defend it from accusations that it exploits Davis, and is offensive to dwarves.  Our main complaint though is that it's very, very lazy.

Good sitcoms surely tell a funny, well-plotted story, where the characters end up pretty much in the same position as they started in?  With this it feels far more like they sat down and brainstormed some situations, then added some pretty straight dialogue to get them from one situation to another.  For example, in episode five, Warwick went to a psychic, who told him to "get back out there", so the next scene was him trying to pull in a bar, then you had him at a dating agency, and so on, with a couple of trips to different churches to quiz the preachers thrown in, each as a short sketch.

Good sitcoms have genuinely surprising twists, but here they're all very predictable.  The boy who wrote abuse on Warwick's website, and whom he goes to confront?  He's in a wheelchair.  The woman with whom he gets set up with by the dating agency?  She's also a dwarf.  Never saw either of those coming.  (In fact I did wonder whether the date was going to be in a wheelchair, or even a dwarf in a wheelchair.)

Good sitcoms have good characters.  Here Warwick Davis plays a dwarf version of David Brent as he was in the Christmas specials of 'The Office' - a bit arrogant, a bit of a loser, a minor celeb whom no one recognises.  All of his lines sound like they could have been said by Brent, and all they've done (it seems) is revive Brent, with someone else playing him, but give themselves more to work with by making him a little person, so we get jokes about him being locked in the toilet because he can't reach the door handle.

There are a lot of sitcoms that have been written very quickly; once you have the characters and the situations it can come together very fast.  When Graham Chapman was writing 'Doctor in the House' (or a subsequent 'Doctor' series) he and his co-writers used to write an episode a day, according to the stories in the excellent A Liar's Autobiography.  However, Graham Chapman knew he was bashing the scripts out, and didn't have much respect for his audience.  Do Gervais and Merchant have any respect for theirs, or are they just too busy to do better?

Ultimately 'Life's Too Short' could be the perfect example of a show that people were too scared to turn down, or at least insist on changes.  Gervais and Merchant are such big stars now, with projects on Sky and films to juggle, and it seems that the BBC weren't able to get them to put more effort into making it better.  Sadly, this happens far too often elsewhere, with second novels double the size of the first and with half the impact, and dramatists like Poliakoff writing self-indulgent, much-heralded dramas that, were they submitted by an unknown, wouldn't get the green light.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Black Mirror

If only Rory Kinnear were PM.  He has all the attributes, namely the ability to keep a straight face while saying ludicrous things.  Cameron manages too, but would he simulate sex with a pig on television if the Duchess of C were kidnapped and de-fingered?  It ought to be the acid test.

We declare an interest as Charlie Brooker fans, but his űber-spiky cynicism seems even more suited to satirical drama than to column inches.  Elegant may be a strange way to describe a story involving scoop-hungry journalists, a prurient public and an MP’s bestiality with a sow, but it was a simple premise, fitting neatly into its fifty-minute slot and brilliantly served by its cast.  We wouldn’t play poker with any of them.

Does the fact that it’s satire negate TWNH moments along the lines of mistaking a man’s finger for Suzannah’s?  Or the security forces finding no trace of her kidnapper, whose talent for art was questionable beside his flair for publicity and skill at staging a crime?  Maybe not, but if the absurd realities of modern Britain aren’t slapping you in the face already, this should shift some cogs into action.

There’s also the matter of the PM rising to the occasion when faced with a porcine rear end, but we live in an age of duck-house moats, retail riots and the Murdoch media, and we can believe anything. 

Sunday 27 November 2011

Forbrydelsen - The Killing II

The formula that made the first series such compelling viewing has been followed fairly closely for the second - a woman tortured and killed, political skullduggery, dark secrets from the past and a tenacious Sarah Lund.

Almost halfway through, and no sign of a free Saturday evening and yet... it's a bit less special than series one.  Hard to put a finger on, except that maybe it's a little too like a formula, and that the sexual tension between Lund and Strange is a sorry replacement for the originality of her previous stable (at least initially) relationship.

The other thing this series lacks is the human element provided by the Birk Larsen family and friends, shattered and grieving, and in terms of TV drama, a rare portrayal of the impact and consequences of murder.

Friday 18 November 2011

Pan Am

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away across the Atlantic, some television executives were looking for their next success.  “I know,” said one, “let’s take the ‘Mad Men’ thing, that’s hot right now, and ummm... well make it more, you know, accessible.  How about vampires?  They’re hot right now too.”  Silence.  “Umm... a soap?”  The rest, dear audience, is what brings us ‘Pan Am’.

The series has been strangely marketed.  Something so obviously soapy will grab female viewers, but the ads feature be-girdled, lip-glossed, come-hither hostesses.  Anyone labouring under the impression that that's just to hook an audience of either gender before unleashing a subtle, heavyweight drama along the lines of 'Mad Men' is in for a big disappointment.  Early on, pseudo-beatnik Maggie (Christina Ricci) collides with a man in hat and suit who could, from a distance, be Don Draper, but then you remember that he'd be less likely to sleep with Maggie than to have invented her for a campaign.  This doesn't so much debunk the myth of glamour as promote it.  Golly gee, if your colleague's running late, they'll send a helicopter for you to replace her.  As the brand new aeroplane takes off, one of the crew is still missing, another has to serve her married boyfriend and two more are rival sisters.  One of the latter is also a spy, checking out a supposed Russian traveller.  Don't let us say the show's lightweight, when there could be a Russian around.  This was the Cold War after all.   

The tone is pure froth.  Rome is signalled by car horns and men saying 'Bellissima!' a lot.  London has rain, obviously, a view of Big Ben and rooftops that surely never existed outside a Dore illustration and dark hotel furniture.  Blockbuster-style over-orchestrated music does very little to convince us that, wow, waitressing in a pressurised metal tube was just so amazing and liberating in 1963, any more than the frequent crooner tracks or the single crisis-in-Cuba scene add to the mood.  Costumes that are mufti rather than uniform can be found in this season's TopShop or Selfridges, the hairstyles in Vogue or Vanity.  The revelation at the end of episode one is that the missing purser was a British spy, and she's recruited her replacement.  So, while those Pan Am girls look like they should be in the current Virgin campaign, to the point of walking in step and waving in unison, they're all potential Mata Haris.  Maybe that's why Pan Am nose-dived in the business world?  Whatever.  I'm sure BOAC was a much smoother ride.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Downton - spoilers!

From the frantic searches based on the above title, we assume fans of the ‘Abbey’ are desperate for news.  Our lips are sealed on series 3 and the Christmas special (though we know that Santa himself has been in negotiations for a cameo appearance), but we can reveal, from a source known only as ‘Creepy Crawley’ that there are plans afoot as far ahead as series 5.  We are given to believe that:
·         HAVING found an heir, the Earl is so shaken by repeated threats to the inheritance that he hangs on and on, only dying on 3rd September 1939 at the thought of wearing a uniform around the house through yet another war.
·         MATTHEW, racked with guilt over Lavinia’s death of a broken heart, has got engaged to a series of lookalikes, only to lose all of them one after another when they realise that he is still in thrall to Lady Mary’s arched eyebrows.
·         SYBIL has joined the IRA in exasperation after her husband accepts the peace.  Unfortunately her wearing of dark trouser suits means she is arrested not as a terrorist, but being mistaken for her sister Lady Edith, who has joined Moseley’s new party.
·        LADY MARY has had a daughter with Richard Carlisle, who now runs the BBC as well as the Times.  She wants a son, but he dotes on the girl until he realises that she has washerwoman’s elbows that nothing can cure.
·         CORA has tracked down Jane and persuaded her to come and live at Downton as the Earl’s mistress, so that she can concentrate on good works with Isobel and the odd game of ping-pong with O’Brien.
·         WILLIAM’s ghost has been spotted whenever ‘11’ appears in the date.  Carson is slow to believe it until he himself finds the footman’s livery in his old room.  He’s rarely there since beginning a torrid affair with a fellow-servant (we can’t say!).  Downton hasn’t had a footman since 1920, when nasty O’Brien married Lady Mary’s parlourmaid in order to be near to Richard’s young and handsome brother.
·         SAVED at the eleventh (when else?) hour from the gallows, Bates is reprieved by a shady government enterprise on the understanding that he will spy on and, if necessary, assassinate subversive factions.  He marries Anna as cover but his work soon brings him into conflict with both Sybil and Lady Edith.
·         VIOLET expired after eating one of Mrs Patmore’s puddings, to which she added arsenic, misreading the label for arrowroot while wearing pink steamed-up spectacles.  She lives in fear of being discovered and is being blackmailed by O’Brien. 
More news from our inside ears as we get it.

Garrow's Law - series 3

The obvious opener is a call to 'Downton' fans to look no further for their Sunday-night costume drama fix.  Thankfully, 'Garrow's Law' is a very different beast.  Tony Marchant is one of our heroes.  Great idea to take a real legal reformer and make a wigs’n’all Sunday-night drama out of it.  The result is watchable, entertaining and intelligently scripted.  Without knowing it was Mr Marchant, though, we would never have guessed that he penned any of it.  It’s solid, without the dash and power of earlier work such as ‘Holding On’.
Ali loves the Georgians, and is outrageously fond of Mr Southouse, but even she can’t avoid keeping a mental tally of market scenes with livestock and baskets, a tsssk of irritation at the very clean nature of the London streets and the eternal opposition of Silvester in the courtroom as though he were the only other brief in the city.  Marchant has admitted conflating real cases, not all of which Garrow was personally involved with, to fit a structure of one-hour episodes.  Like Channel 4’s ‘City of Vice’, it features a mixture of 18th Century curios – molly-houses and the like – and modern-day preoccupations such as the treatment of sodomy and women’s rights.  So into series 3....
Like ‘Frasier’, it suffers from the unfulfilled longing of earlier series being, umm, fulfilled.  At least we weren’t shown Niles and Daphne having soft-focus, low-light sex.  Not that Mr Buchan and Ms Marshal are unattractive, but we had guessed that Garrow and ‘Lady Sarah’ would be loved-up and loving it by now.  This brings us to another tangle of dramatising a person rather than a fictional character.  Garrow did live in nonconnubial content and eventual marriage with Sarah, who had had a son apparently by Viscount (Arthur) Hill.  However, she had not been married to Hill and was simply Sarah Dore.  The classic romantic triangle was never as fraught as portrayed and in terms of 18th Century sensibilities the real and the fictional situations would be quite different.
Tonight’s opener otherwise dealt with madness, always dubious in a defence case then as now, and particularly so when the accused shot at the same King George whose madness inspired at least one great play, albeit over two hundred years later.  Garrow begins in adversity, as far from being knighted and celebrated as ever, and as usual is brought to his senses by his solicitor Mr Southouse.  The gallery of villains, from the gluttonous judge to the politically-minded lords, are all present and correct.  They all pale when Rupert Graves appears as Arthur, chewing the scenery as Sarah’s ex and Garrow’s arch-enemy.  The real Arthur’s bones must be rattling in the grave.

Land Girls - series 3

An experiment in watching one of the relatively recent attempts to enliven daytime tv schedules.  Not bad at all.  In subject, at least, it doesn’t avoid the pre-watershed taboos of violence and sex, and isn’t constrained like many prime-time dramas by a two-hour slot.  Characters struggle up from the one-dimensional into something like life and if the odd scenario stretches things a bit (would Connie really feel she had no choice but to desert her fiancé for conman Danny, who seemed to operate as a one-man psycho before succumbing to pantomime knocked-over-the-head status?) it was still a well-crafted watch, with strong performances from the eponymous Land Girls, and lovely Nicholas Shaw (Ali).  The other slightly panto character was the old busybody, and both Joe Armstrong and Carolyn Pickles seemed slightly uncomfortable, and a bit out of keeping with the rest.  No offence to either of the actors, one of whom has given two great stage performances we have seen (and whose dad is the lovely Alun – see ‘Garrow’) and the other is a screen stalwart, or would be if there were more challenging roles for older women.  Speaking of which, could somebody please cast Sophie Ward in something where she isn’t terribly elegant and repressed?
Perhaps the best compliment overall would be to say that it’s far better than the 1998 Leland film of the same name, which must have had a much larger budget, and it’s far better than almost anything else to be seen before 8pm.

The Jury

You might be forgiven for thinking that there was enough drama in a retrial for murder to preclude any TWNH moments but ‘The Jury’, while entertaining enough, would have its audience believe some rum stuff.  Top barrister puts question to the defendant (paraphrased): “If you could go back to that interview, would you now tell the truth to the police?”  Since he’d hardly be likely to say ‘no’, is the answer really illuminating?  Is it evidence?  Wouldn’t the prosecution have raised these questions to the judge?  The sister of one of the victims tries to sway the jury, having planted evidence in the original trial.  Why?  Because the victims’ families all want someone to blame and punish.  Yes, understandable, but ideally the murderer rather than some random bloke?
The stories of the jury members ended without any major surprises, perfectly in keeping with drama conventions: the teacher keeps the baby because she’s learned the value of life; the shallow jury-dodger learns the value of doing jury service; the asperger’s sufferer comes out of his shell enough to have real impact in the jury room; the bored housewife decides to work at her marriage rather than go online dating, which after all hasn’t worked very well for the 3 victims; Anne Reid has another onscreen death.  They bond so well that nine months later they assemble to see one of their number sworn in as a British Citizen.  He’d been accepted as an American but having sat on the jury, he has faith in British Justice.  Meanwhile in parliament, trial by jury has been upheld.  Oh and Mr Lane is found not guilty x 3 and slouches off into the sunset with the juror who has been writing him cuddly-but-godly notes.  So they’ve been a pretty naughty bunch of jurors, but it’s all ended well, except... who dunnit?  OK it’s not about that, but it’s an obvious gap.  There’s no dah-dah DAH moment that drops Lane in it, or shows some shadowy murderer preparing to kill after a forced hiatus while Lane was in prison.  All-in-all it would seem British Justice is about not convicting a man whom there’s no evidence to convict, rather than attempting to build a case against a guilty party.
Murder trials are another area with which we have only limited acquaintance (so far, but those responsible for terrible drama beware) so we may be wrong on most counts, and this doesn’t have the howlers of ‘Law and Order’ for one, but if a drama is so blatantly pro trial by jury, shouldn’t it be resolutely and robustly believable?

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Jury

Remember the good old days when you knew where you were with ITV dramas?  Basically you tuned in to watch Ross Kemp/Martin Kemp/Robson Green play a cop/soldier/criminal/lawyer/doctor.  Recently, the envelope has been pushed almost to the point of originality, but with ‘The Jury’ we’re back on familiar ground.  Superior in terms of production, of-course – Peter Morgan, Julie Walters and a smart 5-night airing, plus the sort of mournful humming soundtrack that all but sings depth and gravity – but if Julie Walters had wanted a vehicle, she need have looked no further.  She single-handedly demolishes the opposition in defending her previously-convicted client’s retrial.  We’ve no doubt the law works by shaking the foundations of so-called evidence, but as a jury member we’d say it still looked overwhelmingly like Lane was the man.  Even if he turns out not to be, would it be thanks to his terrier lawyer?

The eponymous jury are worthy to be called his peers.  One is contemplating an affair through a dating agency, another is pregnant by a teenaged pupil, and a third is impersonating the juror called to serve, in collusion with her to gain a promotion.  There’s also a sub-plot involving a mystery woman who claims she served on the jury who convicted Lane in his original trial.  Performances are polished, and it’s intriguing enough to keep you watching, but it’s going to have to cohere into a convincing, emotionally-involving climax to have been worthwhile.  We're not sure it works as stand-alone drama.  Stand-alone, that is, from the previous series of 'The Jury', which despite featuring a different trial and, of-course, different jurors, continues with a format similar to that of a disaster movie: group of characters all have either cliched or unlikely backstories that intersect or are resolved in some way by the situation.

Downton Abbey *spoilers*

"Don't think for one moment that you will see ME in dropped-waist frocks!"

Awards, ratings, a Christmas special and a third series.  Hmm.  ‘The Wire’?  ‘Mad Men’?  ‘The Killing’?  We’re wondering what series 3 of ‘Downton Abbey’ could possibly deliver.  Are there any clichés left?  That flicking sound is Mr Fellowes and co leafing through the pages of ‘The 1920s, a short introduction’.  We just can’t wait for the Charleston – not to mention the Black Bottom – mentions of gangsters and prohibition in New Yoik, the General Strike, jazz, flappers, aeroplanes and the rise of some brown-shirted types in decadent Berlin.  Meanwhile the staff are dwindling because they’re all off to the shops and the factories.  If we’re missing any stereotypical landmarks of the age, they’re sure to turn up next Autumn.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Top Boy (spoilers)

OK, first things first: it’s not ‘The Wire’, though they have similarities.  For a start it’s a four-hour drama not a sixty-odd-hour one, so it’s tightly focused on drugs gangs rather than branching out into the cops, local industry, the schools and the media.  There are moments in ‘Top Boy’ that aren’t great, usually because their tone echoes directly ‘The Wire’ or even ‘In Bruges’ (Leon IS Cutty, Ra’Nell IS Michael and as for the sheared fingers....).  This also doesn’t baulk the conventions, such as the beloved dog earmarked for death from its first appearance, nor the temptation to make its anti-hero sympathetic.

So, with that out of the way, all that’s left to say is that we liked it.  Ronan Bennett’s recent offering ‘Hidden’ pales in comparison.  Thankfully, neither the real worlds of high crime from Westminster nor low crime from Hackney are overly familiar, but the difference in realism between Top Boy’s characters and Hidden’s equates to that between Pixar and Noggin the Nog.  Here, Bennett makes no attempt to untangle the lives of Dushane, Sully et al, just to show how life is, what choices exist and what they mean for youth on an inner-city estate.  So the ending brought the drugs deal and several lives to a close, without any neat tying up.

Referring to lack of on-the-ground knowledge by us, we'll qualify the TWNH to a TWProbably NH, but would Raikes be a lone and unprotected operator?  How did Dushane keep finding cash for deals when he had his 'food' stolen twice?  Minor quibbles, since we probably missed the explanation as mumbled by characters while running, selling or shooting.

Must also say that Brian Eno's score was a rare example of a soundtrack that enhanced rather than distracted from, or was superfluous to, the visuals.  Television aimed at intelligent viewers is in short supply and we’re grateful to Channel 4! 

Monday 31 October 2011

Downton Abbey, episode seven, series two

Watching 'Downton' is like viewing in fast-forward.  If the Keystone Cops turn up it wouldn't come as a surprise.  (The evenings are long now and the competition in the wake of 'Spooks' non-existent, so that's the excuse.)

Matthew walked!  Sybil eloped!  And came back!  Robert tried it on with a housemaid!  The O'Briens were ruined!  Bates is going to cop it for murder!  Richard tried to bribe Anna to spy on Mary!  Ethel burst in on an upstairs luncheon with her illegitimate baby!  Whom, btw, the short-sighted cook had recognised in an instant....  And everyone kept broadcasting that times, they were a-changing (life's so dull after a war, skirts and hair are getting shorter, there's this dreadful flu going around etc.)  It's all about as subtle as a poke in the eye, and as believable as if the poking finger belonged to Mickey Mouse.  Roll on WWII?

In the meantime, roll on 'Top Boy', which seems to have advance praise.  Same writer as 'Hidden' but we won't hold that against it.

Friday 28 October 2011

Why is Death in Paradise being shown on a Tuesday night?

The BBC's new series Death in Paradise with Ben Miller as Detective Richard Poole started this week at 9pm on Tuesday night.

I think it was a bit mis-sold (sez Dan).  From the trailers and the publicity it looked like a pretty stretched series of 8 episodes about a British detective sent to solve a murder in the Caribbean; what we got was the first of a set of self-contained whodunnits, that was mostly good, but a bit of a mish-mash.

(Here's where we say that if we were doing 'TWNH' we'd be here all night.  Almost none of it would have ever happened)

The show has elements of other series.  The most obvious two are Life on Mars (cop from the UK is a fish out of water in his new station where they do things differently) and Jonathan Creek (geeky genius solves apparently baffling puzzles), but there's also bits of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency (exotic setting, high budget co-production, in this case with French TV). 

What's good about it is the mysteries.  The locked room murder was explained very well, and the bit with the vase (Poole being a geek stuck all the bits of the broken vase together, then used it to re-create the crime and work out where the bullet landed) was stunningly well done.  If we can have solutions this clever every week then I'm going to like it a lot.  However the first episode was a bit rushed, and the supporting characters (Danny John Jules, DonWarrington) didn't get much chance to establish their personalities.  I'm also not sure that Ben Miller is right for it.  If they'd done it 20 years ago Griff would have been in it, ten years ago Hugh Laurie would have been cast (pre House) but BM hasn't done enough yet that's different to lots of parts he's played in sketches.  He may be too well known - Alan Davies hadn't been on TV very much when he was cast as Jonathan Creek.  Anyway, we'll see how Ben develops.

The other problem is the scheduling.  some shows are perfect for some days - Downton on Sunday. HIGNFY on Friday, Creek on Saturday - but I can't see why this is on a Tuesday.  It's a clever whodunnit starring a comedian, with nothing that means it needs to be after the watershed.  It seems perfect for Saturday night 8.30 - 9.30, but the problem is that these days Saturday night is less flexible as it's become dominated by the talent shows.

I hope that this lives up to its promise, and I hope that it finds an audience, but I think the Tuesday night scheduling is wrong for it.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Brass! (Downton Abbey spoiler alert)

Forget alchemy, forget fool’s gold, ‘Downton’ is now Brass.  That is to say, a surreal and funny parody.  Bradley Hardacre’s trouble at mill was billed as comedy, however, and in ‘Downton’ viewers have to look very hard, probably with HD, 3-D and freeze-frame, to find any sign of an actor’s tongue residing in their cheek.  Or for any intentional humour at all.  Well, there was a Great War on, don’t you know.  It was a time of such deprivation that the rich Crawley ladies were having to turn out week after week in the same dinner frocks.  I say!  Nothing to do with ITV budgets in our own straightened times then?

Last Sunday’s episode tipped the balance.  The previous two weeks had strained the scales with Lady Mary’s reedy-voiced rendition of ‘If I were the only girl in the world’, something she always seems to have believed, and a cameo by Harry Hill.  (No?  Different show?) and the deathbed wedding of footman William.  He looked remarkably well for someone who was dying, but clearly wasn’t up to the mark, since he failed to notice his bride’s utter lack of passion for him. This Sunday we had the brief re-appearance of the soon-to-be-ex Mrs Bates, before she exited in another way entirely.  Her snarling all-round villainy had us expecting a green complexion, a long warty nose and an even longer pointy hat.

We also had an English Patient-esque, errrm, Canadian patient, who claimed he was English.  He also claimed, through his burns and bandages, to be the heir to Downton, supposed drowned on the Titanic in the very first episode.  No DNA testing, no identifying features and only hazy memories of hiding from the nanny cut no ice, nor mustard, with the Earl, who preferred paralysed, barren Matthew to inherit rather than a “not very pretty” Canadian.  The discovery of a fellow passenger on the ill-fated liner with the same name as the wannabe heir sealed his fate, and off he wheeled into the sunset with a note to Edith about it being too hard to try to be a Crawley.  The silly girl had believed him.  She’d obviously never heard of the Titchborne Claimant.  Her dad’s granite countenance softened rather too much on seeing the new maid, taking us further into Hardacre territory.  All he needed was a fat cigar.  He’d been given a handy excuse, though, in the form of his wife’s sudden transformation into a schemer.  She'd reintroduced the wet Miss Swire to distract moping Matthew, thereby clearing the way for press baron Rupert Murdoch Richard Carlisle to intimidate Lady Mary into marriage.

Phew!  As if that weren’t enough for one episode, former maid Ethel was forced to give up hope of support from her caddish lover and father of her illegitimate child when he died at the Front, Lady Sybil is still half-heartedly pursuing the chauffeur, the sour-faced O’Brien duo managed to sneak in yet more smoking breaks and eavesdropping moments, while butler Carson was persuaded to forsake Downton for Lady Mary’s sake and... Matthew felt a tingling in his legs!  He’ll be up and about again in no time, we’re sure, and doing the Charleston in a mad attempt to forget the horrors of the trenches, until the Earl loses all his money in the Crash....

Ali will step away from 'Downton' and let Dan talk about 'Death in Paradise'.  Neither of us could face 'The Slap' but there's a reasonable UK press review of it here and another here.

Friday 14 October 2011

Hidden (episode two) *spoilers*

OK, not quite so chic....

Gripping.  Everyone’s grubby, and the plot’s enormous.

But, a couple of pedant’s points:

  •  The newsreader’s scorn at the PM’s activities didn’t sound professional, more like Paxman in overdrive.
  • Would the Helpdesk allow their Clean Skins to operate in the UK?  For the uninitiated, or those confused or forgetful, that translates as: would the shady pseudo-establishment outfit allow the criminals they’d officially killed, but unofficially kept alive as state assassins, to do their stuff in the UK?  What are the chances they’d bump into someone who knew them?  In this small world of ours, we’d say pretty high and it’s the premise of the whole show after all….
As for Anna Chancellor, she gets our vote, for being far more smartly turned out and downright chic than any woman MP we can think of, and for looking so darned comfortable and confident on that sofa while plotting a coup.  You’ve come a long way, Duck Face!

Friday 7 October 2011

Hidden *spoilers*

With Walter Bernstein of Watergate fame as one of the creative team behind this, you wouldn't be expecting a cosy caper, and the first episode delivered pretty much what you'd think: violence, corruption, sex and drugs, which translate, of-course, into 'gritty, dark, urban thriller'.  The setting is a fictional, contemporary Britain, where the coalition government is crumbling amid schisms and allegations, while on the streets, protests at austerity measures turn into riots.  Did I say 'fictional'?

Philip Glenister is Harry Venn, classic staple of political/noir thrillers, the slightly seedy solicitor with dodgy connections and a murky past.  With a lippy, casual office junior, he's a PI gumshoe in all but name.  There's a mysterious woman representing a shady client who needs his help.  It goes without saying he'd rather sleep with her - she even looks a little like Lauren Bacall.  Then there's the link with his supposedly murdered brother, his own criminal past and his wayward son.  This has four leisurely hours to unravel, but the writing so far is snappy enough and thankfully it's not quite as in love with itself as was 'The Shadow Line'.

Thekla Reuten is the obligatory sex bomb - in the noir world, you understand - Gina Hawkes.  Why are they always foreign?  Would British automatically mean Maureen from Skegness?  Apologies to Maureens from Skegness, many of whom may be shoe-ins for femmes fatales at auditions, I grant you.  Anna Chancellor as a political shaker is so constantly onscreen these days playing the savvy, world-weary operator that she must have been asked to stand for Parliament by now.

As usual, the details don't bear too much scrutiny.  Would Harry really be left alone with a prisoner and able to physically intimidate him?  Is he really so irresistible to women that his dumped girlfriend and his ex-wife offer themselves up?  (You know his leading lady can't be more than three episodes behind them....)  Fans of Mr G would say yes, but his character so far offers little to add to his looks.  And before anyone can think 'Gene Hunt' let alone talk about firing up the Quattro, here's Harry having flashbacks of being the victim of a Gene-like interview, involving blood and bruises.  The bad old days aren't so good, in this case, after all. 

So far, then, so could-go-either-way.  Since the end of last night's episode involved an explosion aimed at our (anti?) hero, we're hoping the only way is up. 

Monday 3 October 2011

Sunday nights, 9pm, ITV1

Not in costume.  Repeat: NOT in costume

The aforementioned alchemy is swiftly being exposed as fool’s gold this series (except for ITV, who are cashing in to the extent of dishing up 53 minutes of drama in a 75 minute slot).  Credibility is stretched to groaning point to service the soapy plots:
  • Despite being as large and grand a house as, say, Highclere Castle, the inhabitants of Downton just can’t avoid clashing with decoratively wounded officers when they open for business as a convalescent home.
  • Said home is ‘managed’ by none other than Thomas the Evil Footman, who is only a Corporal.  Did they have ‘managers’ besides officers, doctors and nurses?  The Crawleys are reconciled to this unsettling state of affairs, despite Lord Grantham knowing just how Evil Thomas really is, because hey, he’s a soldier now, not a footman anymore, and he’s been made an honorary Sergeant so the officers will respect him.  Of-course.
  • Bates the sanctimonious ex-valet returns to a local village, despite having been blackmailed into leaving with his jealous wife, and is working in a pub.  Is this because he’s in love with Anna the goody-goody maid?  Well, yes, but when she offers him everything she’s got, he refuses.  She makes the offer in the pub, where she’s gone on her own as a respectable working-class woman.  As you did in 1917....
  • Mary the snooty eldest daughter makes a heroic self-sacrifice, losing the chance of happiness with heir Matthew to protect strangely-coiffeured Lavinia who’s been bad, but for good reasons.  The world was very much smaller in those days: Matthew’s fiancée has a past with the man who’s asked Mary to marry him.  (Apparently Mr Fellowes finds Mary attractive because ‘she doesn’t need to be liked’.  Hmm.)
  • Matthew’s Ma has transformed from the voice of reason in series one to a bossy harpy in this one, even telling the Earl that he can’t have his wounded friend to stay because it’s not approved by ‘the system’.
  • Every man is suddenly very fond of plain Edith, whom everyone has previously agreed is spinster material and who indulged in a smooch with a married farmer last week.  And talking of last week, Carson the butler has made a miraculous recovery from his collapse.
  • The Chateleine is abrasive with the similarly spiky Dowager but allows her Evil maid - mother of Evil Thomas - to lecture her about what she can allow to happen in the household.
  • The Crawleys are now so poor that Mary must wear the same evening dress to every event.  At least she has a new hairstyle in the offing, after her maid tries out her curling tongs....
Throwing in hurried mentions of the Russian Revolution and a subplot about an Irish chauffeur who lost a relative in the Troubles is no substitute for plausible plotting to keep an audience believably in 1917.  Just about the only likely event was footman William’s belief that baby-faced Daisy would be his sweetheart when in fact she doesn’t fancy him.  Daisy’s got engaged to him just so he doesn’t kill himself at the Front.  This has happened in virtually every WWI drama ever made, so it must be true, no?

Thursday 29 September 2011


Ber-limey!  La Shirl always comes across as fun and warm in her appearances, almost as though she's cocking a snook at the whole business of personas, image and stardom, while playing along.  If this biopic is to be believed, she was, as a young woman, a fame-obsessed diva who spoke as she sang ("I want a yacht!  I'm going to eat nothing but caviar!")  Maybe Shelagh Stevenson wanted to reflect the stagey aspects of Ms Bassey, but it swamped any feeling of truth about the biopic.

Ruth Negga gives an amazing, assured performance, nicely complemented by Lesley Sharp as her down-to-earth mother in Tiger Bay/Splot, and Charlie Creed Miles as her manager, but the curtain came down in the 60s, onstage, singing 'This is My Life'.  Where was the rest?  What was the point?


Maybe it's budget cutbacks, or the shortening days, or maybe we're just getting old(er) but the schedules seem suddenly tired.  The shows that looked vaguely interesting aren't delivering in subsequent episodes:

The Body Farm - from the ridiculous to the slightly less ridiculous.  The characters haven't the flashpoint chemistry of the 'parent' Waking the Dead and Keith Allen is frankly bizarre casting.  He'll be turning up as a nice gentle hero next.  And why did the woman exit her own vehicle and walk home rather than turfing out her prisoner sister?

DCI Banks - bright policewoman is stupid enough to start an affair with an expert witness... who then turns out to be *Tah Dah!* the killer.  The only other possibility for the seasoned viewer was that he'd die.  Plus, suspect says he followed the victim into the alley because he wanted to see who she was dating, then in next breath says he'd seen her kissing her boyfriend the previous week.

Spooks - one big, fun TWNH.

Downton Abbey - see above.  Mr Fellowes is very defensive about anachronisms, but his toffs are extraordinarily fond of breaking the house rules and slumming below stairs, while his lower orders don't bat an eyelid about airing their opinions to the toffs.  It remains glorious froth in glamorous frocks while, as David Hare said of an Oscar-winning Bertolucci film, nobody says a single interesting thing from start to finish.

Tuesday 20 September 2011


We just wanted to see a lurid tabloid headline for variety.  News has broken that James Bolam is to leave 'New Tricks', and just after the nation rejoiced at the announcement of two further series.  This is no exaggeration; 9 million viewers is as much as the nation unites around one telly channel these days.  The prime-slot crime caper of three old timers and their lady boss notches up more viewers than the much-praised 'Downton Abbey'.

There are already pages of comments ranging from pleading by fans to the usual insults by the unpleasant.  Ali would like Mr B to stay too - the show's success is in the chemistry in her opinion - but it's none of her business.  It says strange things about our relationship to famous people we've never met that we feel we have the right to comment on career decisions.  To say he's 'ungrateful' for leaving the show is absurd: is he not allowed to retire, take a break or work on other things?  No doubt he's unperturbed at anything the Twittering classes have to say.

If the show isn't stale to watch, it's because of the cast and some sharp writing, but energy is hard to sustain over several series, and with a 56' format.  Mr B has said in rare interviews that he's unsentimental about his work and it's maybe one of the qualities that's allowed him the versatility to play the likes of Terry Collier, Trevor Chaplin, Harold Shipman and Jack Ford.

RIP Jack Halford, you'll be sorely missed, but we hope to see Mr B again very soon.

Monday 19 September 2011

Spooks *spoilers*

We try, but we haven’t the time or the stamina to watch everything, nor to stick to things that no longer surprise and/or please.  Ali was the last to leave, in this case, but she didn’t even see out Adam’s tenure, so this was a trip down memory lane purely for the love of the blog.

‘Spooks’ began in the wake of 9/11 as an exciting, plot-driven series for a whole new, paranoid world.  MI5 had never looked so good nor had it had so many eager recruits.  The writing was strong, the humour was weak, and the latter was what wore us out.  Just how many hours of po-faced tension can one stand?  Browsing the internet for a crash course in what we’d missed, we’ve sort of plugged the gaps: Ros, Jo, Lucas and the ever-rising star Ruth.  Harry still frowning on proceedings.  All set for the last ever series.

Deja vu is a double-edged sword.  Harry!  Ruth!  Offices with acres of glass and screens!  We could go on.  In fact, we can't resist it: Russians!  CIA chiefs!  Fat-cat diplomats!  Lines like, "Now is the time to make our move"!  Explosions!  And all in the first twenty minutes.  It's like eating a tub of what used to be your favourite ice-cream and remembering that you stopped eating it because the last time it made you sick.

Which isn't to deny that what 'Spooks' does, it does well.  It's well-paced, slick and involving.  The rest of the cast could be anyone.  Simon Russell Beale (forever Powell's Widmerpool), Lara Pulver, Max Brown et al have taken up the mantles of Robert Glenister, Tim McInnerny, Keeley Hawes, Hermione Norris, Matthew Macfadyen, David Oyelowo, Rupert Penry Jones and Richard Armitage.  The list reads like several seasons of impressive rep casts at Stratford, playing the same parts.  After nine previous series, there would have to be bona fide vampires and aliens to surprise the audience, so finality is probably a good move.  (As an irregular viewer, Ali was still able to predict Erin's motherhood and Harry's fatherhood.)

Meanwhile... Harry goes into a library - not just any old library, an old-fashioned romantic one (the London Library?).  He's followed by at least two people and he knows it.  He pulls a folded note from the spine of a book.  The ragged handwriting reads, "We have to meet.  Tourmaline is in danger.  Sharecropper."  It's the sort of spy caper to have you wriggling on your cushions and chewing the wasabi popcorn.  And never mind those elegant little Bond shooters, these guns are huge.   What's not to love?

Sunday 18 September 2011

Downton Abbey *spoilers*

We waited with bated breath for the onslaught, just like the soldiers in the trenches, but mercifully instead of guns and shells we only expected clichés: zeppelins, nurses, shell-shock, telegrams and tears, disillusion, emancipation etc. etc.

There is some alchemy to this drama.  It does very little more than update 'Upstairs Downstairs' for a 21st Century audience, utilising all the storylines that may not have been so familiar to viewers in the 1970s, and yet... it's undeniably watchable.  Much has been said of its wide appeal: the toffs, the oiks, the grand houses and pretty frocks, the intrigues and romance and now wartime tragedy.  Well, we're not surprised that Mr Fellowes didn't change a thing from series one, adhering to the usual adage of 'if it ain't broke...', or rather, 'if it happens that it works...'  The characters, then, have not sprung to 3-dimensional life but remained easily definable as hero or villain.

So, we started as we were bound to go on, with a shot of a muddy trench, and sure enough there were the white feathers, the upper-class-gal-becomes-nurse and the soldier so desperate to leave the front he deliberately incurs injury.  Odds for the wound not being severe enough and a subsequent desertion are lowering by the minute.  In addition to the stock stories of war we have the stock stories of love, too, with the chauffeur declaring his adoration of Lady Sybil and the once-bitten valet romancing a maid.  Then there's Lady Mary, devastated by Matthew Crawley's engagement to - quel horreur! - a commoner.  This is the same Lady Mary who, in the last series, for purposes of dramatic entertainment and seemingly very little else, dithered over whether to marry her beloved Matthew when it looked like he might lose his status as heir to Downton.  Her prospects otherwise were not so rosy, in the light of gossip about a Turkish diplomat dying in her bed, but maybe she foresaw freedom and flapperdom on the horizon?  Unlike any of her family, who are now busy looking aghast at all the changes.

By themselves, the broad brushes are not offensive.  A period drama set in a country house and scripted by Julian Fellowes was never likely to be edgy or controversial, and there is something cosy about Sunday night comfort-blanket entertainment that's as easy on the other four senses as on the eye.  Our excuse (OK, Ali's excuse) is a love of history, but that same love creates the minor irritations, the pea under all the mattresses, if that isn't too impertinent a thing for a red-blooded female ('gal' if you must) to say?  There is the inevitable expositional, on-the-nose dialogue, with characters telling others what they would already know of an 'I need to explain this to you' variety.  This is brought about by clumsy set-ups.  It's true that, despite the rigid rules that governed, there were no absolutes in 1916 any more than in 2011, so rules were bent and broken, but an Earl saying to his valet that he thought they were friends?  That same valet accepting a life of misery rather than say to his employer that his dissolute wife had him over a barrel concerning a Crawley family scandal?  Servants questioning their employers unasked and the Dowager Countess remembering the servants' names?  Well, 'Downton' on television has far fewer than 'Downton' in real life, aka Highclere Castle, would have had, so it probably isn't difficult to recall who's who.

So why watch?  There's 'Spooks' on the other side (next up...), emails waiting to be answered, or there's Scrabble in the cupboard, a guest dessert chef at the local bar.  Maybe it's the displacement to distant times, places and people of danger, fear and disappointment from the wars, crises, civil unrest, disasters, scandals and corruption that we absorb most of the time.  Or maybe it's just fun, and a change from murder.  If Julian Fellowes changes anything, let it please not be turning 'Downton' into the whodunnit 'Gosford Park'.  As Dowager Maggie says, one does hate drama that happens offstage.

Saturday 17 September 2011

DCI Banks

Could Stephen Tompkinson look any more lugubrious?  We fell asleep.  Woke up to a scene in a morgue: Banks, a charred body and a man brought in to identify it.  Yes, he says, it's his daughter, but he then notices a wound in her head, explains he's a GP and launches into a forensic pathologist's explanation of how she died.  Unsurprisingly, it involved heat.  Rather more surprisingly, she still had a fairly decent head of hair.  We fell asleep again....

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Next up...

'DCI Banks', 'Spooks', 'Downton'.  Our televisual cups, while in no danger of running over, are at least half full.

Meanwhile, 'New Tricks' has been re-commissioned for two further seasons, so it seems Auntie likes it after all.  Everyone's Auntie....

The Body Farm

And the prize for the daftest programme currently on British television goes to...!

The premise: four scientists led by Eve Lockhart (Tara Fitzgerald) from ‘Waking the Dead’ are such über-geeks that they share a remote farmhouse–cum-high-security-lab where they, umm, do their stuff.  Judging from the first episode, that stuff seems to be responding to calls from DI Hale (Keith Allen) involving particularly gruesome organic matter.

The plot: a bathroom in a derelict tower block has been turned into a charnel house, with the floor, walls and ceiling covered with exploded flesh and feeding flies.  What happened?  Enter the above Fantastic Four to find out.  They’re not cops, you understand, they’re just the cheaper alternative to sending samples to Germany, now that swingeing cuts have closed the official UK labs.

The characters: sensible, moral, sultry-voiced lead who narrates an introduction about making a promise to the murderers to find them, and the victims to find out what happened; sensible, moral man who cooks and is in love with above; rash young crusader; mentally disordered agoraphobic with a thing for flies; grumpy cop.

The verdict: this first episode revolved around three teenagers in a sex triangle, a deaf man who used to work for the MoD and... not much else.  In tone it appears to be striving for something dark and offbeat, but the bookending narration – the closing voice-over was a preachy line about revenge not equalling justice and justice not always being what you expect – made it feel like ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ with a large dose of ‘Midsomer Murders’.  Only the seediness was all its own.

Appropriate Adult - conclusion

The second and concluding part of ‘Appropriate Adult’ was (once again) unable to maintain the standard of the opener and in this case it seems to highlight the difficulty of dramatizing factual events and the inevitable blurring of boundaries.  Here would seem to be one retelling that needs to be accurate, not only out of respect to those whose lives have been blighted, but also because invention could add nothing to an already ghoulish chain of events.  Yet we hear that some details were wrong and suspect there are other errors.  Janet Leach’s children were not living with her through the investigation and trial, according to her eldest son, and would she have been allowed so much unsupervised access to Fred West?

What these misgivings give rise to is a general feeling of discomfort.  It was far more obviously Leach’s subjective view of events this time around, and weaker as a result.  She is shown as a naive and needy woman, it’s true, but one who commits perjury by denying that she has sold her story.  That same story is the one adapted here for television, so from the viewers’ perspective she is, by default, a classic unreliable narrator.

We wouldn’t dismiss the idea of creating a drama to explore the criminal, immoral and unacceptable acts of which we are capable, nor would we expect it to provide answers, but if its purpose is to promote questioning and widen understanding around this behaviour and our reactions to it, then this ultimately didn’t achieve its aims.  The impact on the victims’ families and friends, and on the Wests’ own relatives, went unexplored, and we discovered nothing of the background or motivations of either Fred or Rose.  To learn that anyone, i.e. someone who isn’t a sexually deviant serial killer, can form a toxic attachment to someone who is everything they morally reject, is no surprise. 

Thursday 8 September 2011

Inspector George Gently

AKA Gently Round the Bend.  Never was viewer in search of guilty pleasure so confused.  Martin Shaw?  Check.  Lee Ingleby?  Check.  Geordie accents?  Check.  Beehives, mini-skirts and kohl-rimmed eyes?  Check check check!  Just as we thought it was safe, up pops craggy-faced Sean Gilder to the unmistakeable strains of quavery-voiced angst used similarly in 'The Shadow Line'.  Then, as if one puzzle isn't enough, there's a 60s anthem, followed by another, and then another at regular intervals, providing aural backdrop to the neat 60s cars.  Ah, so this is 'Heartbeat'!  Or...

By the end of the 90-minute episode, we'd worked it out: 'Gently' has turned into a prime example of television's plat du jour.  Here's our version of the recipe:

  • Cops!  Between two and four, usually two; one older, one younger (other examples:- Lewis; Scott & Bailey)
  • Kitsch historical setting.  N.B. anachronisms no object.  'Gently' served up a Geordie housewife at an evening yoga class in 1966.  Hmm.  (Heartbeat, The Royal, Born and Bred, The Hour, Downton Abbey etc. etc.)
  • Kitsch geographical setting.  (Heartbeat, Ballykissangel, Doc Martin...)
  • 'Quavering-voiced angst' soundtrack (The Shadow Line, Wallander)
  • Cliche!  A plot involving deviant sexuality of some kind (too many examples to mention)
  • TWNHs!  They knew the facial cuts were fresh despite the face having been eaten away?  The teenager was such a natural in the TV audience that she was made host of the show?  The friend named the wrong colour of dress worn by the above teenager, thereby proving she hadn't turned up "til much later"... but when she had turned up, presumably she'd have been wearing something??
Stir thoroughly for up to 90 minutes, but don't worry too much if the mixture doesn't achieve a decent consistency.  For extra flavour add seasoned actors, et voila!  A dish that can be served up time and again.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

The Field of Blood *spoilers*

Monday's conclusion, unsurprisingly, didn't quite live up to last week's opener.  Like comic book heroines before her, Paddy only had one hour to save the world... well, solve the crime.  She did so admirably, but we're not sure the end justified the means.  Most of the hour was spent with her running around annoying her seniors (cliche #1), being told she was unattractive (TWNH), being told she was beautiful by colleague who wanted to sleep with her (cliche #2), putting herself in dangerous situations without telling anyone (cliche #3) and having her out-of-line a*se saved by colleague who was terminally ill (cliche #4).

With all of the above happening, it wasn't easy to work out what had happened and why.  Paddy's young cousin Calum had apparently killed little Brian because he was forced to by a disturbed lad (Danny?) who had previously killed his own half-brother... I think.  The scene in the prison, where Calum tells Paddy and his father what happened, hits all the right notes but nonetheless leaves us wondering if a child would commit such an abhorrent act - there is no suggestion that he was willing to comply - on the threatening say-so of a teenager, and then fail to crumple under pressure from his family, police, social workers etc. to tell all.  Paddy accuses the 'real' killer of trying to make Calum just like him, which seems a slim motive, unless we're once again at tellyland's catch-all motive of 'they did it because they're mad'.

And whoever killed Paddy's colleague Heather Allen (Danny or his devoted grocer dad Naismith), couldn't have thought she was Paddy, despite her using Heather's name, because they'd both met Paddy and she looked nothing like her.  It may have been dark and she may not have had her splendid 80s bouffant blonde hair on show, but... wouldn't you check you had the right victim before you bagged and bludgeoned them?  We kept being told that Heather was gorgeous and slim, while the shorter Paddy was the 'fat tart', so seemingly men don't look at the mantelpiece when they're smothering the fire, either....

As far as Paddy is concerned, a little less would be a lot more.  The story focused on her to the detriment of the central, horrific act of child murder.  We haven't read the book, so we can't say if this takes its lead from the original, but issues like marriage versus career and the demands of Catholicism on its followers are touched on but not fully explored, so why not background them and get on with the story?  We also take back the wish for more of the supporting cast.  David Morrissey got to give Paddy her dream job (cliche #5) and Peter Capaldi recited poetry in a drunken drawl that was barely understandable and very maudlin.

Would we watch more?  In an optimistic mood, maybe.