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 fiancĂ©e 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?