Friday 24 February 2012

Kidnap & Ransom

Dominic King is a hostage negotiator, and apparently one of the best, if not the best, but strangely his cases seem to go horribly wrong.  Back for a second series, we begin with Dominic (Trevor Eve) warily heaving a sack over the side of a boat into a lake.  A body?  Money?  A full explanation of the script?  Flashback two weeks to a tour bus in India which happens to drive headlong into fleeing hostage-takers with an injured hostage.  Cue the usual mix of fear, brutality, resistance and blundering police, along with scenes of King's estranged wife and colleagues in the UK.  One of the latter has a daughter on the bus.

Involving enough to keep viewers for the second episode, although three, like the first series, is stretching it.  Kidnap is one thing, but hostage-taking has such a high-risk, no-return reputation that it's as much of an endurance test for the viewers as for the poor hostages.  Doesn't it always  have a bloody ending?

Those Who Kill

Another day, another Danish import.  This has Lars Mikkelsen ("Troels!" the mayoral candidate from 'The Killing') in it as a police boss, and a Sarah Lund-alike called Katrine.  It's basically a Danish version of the formulaic and rather nasty 'Wire in the Blood', with the first two-hour-minus-ads episode concerned with a ritual serial killer of young women bringing to mind the real Bundy and the fictional Hannibal.

It's efficiently done but unspectacular, and not in the same league as its recent compatriots.  And why do TV police insist on visiting burial sites alone in the middle of a winter's night?

Inside Men... Again *spoilers*

Was it only us who felt let down by the ending after enjoying every gripping minute?

The performances by Steven Mackintosh, Nicola Walker, Kierston Wareing, Ashley Walters and Warren Brown alone were worth the licence fee, and it could and should provide a masterclass in how to structure a serialised drama.  It just seemed like they didn't know what to do with the titular Inside Men at the end.  Would Chris forgive the man who admits he would have killed him, letting him give him a lift home?  Are Marcus and Gina meant to 'fess all, except their willing involvement, to the police and get away with a few hundred thousand?  And John, whose transition from mouse to lion wasn't ever quite true, gives up his freedom and the money?

Monday 20 February 2012

Upstairs Downstairs

Having blogged about the goings-on at Downton Abbey, we had to comment on those at 165 Eaton Place.

It was rumoured that Eileen Atkins, one of the original creators who played Lady Holland in the Christmas 2010 episodes, had fallen out with the production team over the script, and Jean Marsh has apparently suffered health problems and appears in this series less than she intended.  A shame on both counts, because both have presence and passion for this drama of domestic life above and below stairs in a bygone era.  The 1970s series needs no introduction, but as we've said elsewhere, it covered the ground of 'Downton...' and  did it better.

So why has the reincarnation fared less well than the ITV upstart?  (The original 'Upstairs...' was ironically broadcast on ITV too).  Oddly, it may be the thing that should have given it a head start: the fact that it's a sequel.  Only the character of Rose and the nominal address link the viewer to the well-loved original, so there is little for nostalgics to wallow in, and while there were still households with servants in the late 1930s, it was no longer a way of life for the majority.  The grand era that it encapsulates was already past, and more-or-less ended in the years covered in the original, and in 'Downton Abbey'.

Heidi Thomas also scripted the 8.30pm programme, 'Call the Midwife', but with the guidance of the original memoirs.  The difference here is that the characters lack life.  With Eileen Atkins' departure, Lady Holland has apparently died, while Rose is in hospital, so we have a new 'Aunt' and a new maid.  For viewers who can't work out who is who, who is what to whom and how the War to End All Wars didn't quite come off, there are handy simple explanations in the dialogue: "She's your aunt!"  "We have two small children."  "We fought for our country!"  Unfair?  Maybe, but allied to the preponderance of sandbags, barrage balloons, blackout curtains and gas masks in 1938, and the out-of-nowhere smacker between Hallam Holland and his wayward sister-in-law (whom he'd hated in the previous episodes) this strained for dramatic impact without achieving it.  The monkey had a lucky escape....

P.S. We hear that a young JFK puts in an appearance in the next episode, along with his dad.  Why wouldn't Joe take Joe Jnr along, rather than the (at the time) also-ran John?  Because John became President!  We didn't think we'd be praising 'Downton...' but so far it has happily avoided flying visits from young Winston or Bertie Windsor.


Homeland is the latest big hit American drama to arrive in the UK.  A product of Showtime, rather than one of the networks, it's able to be harder hitting than a lot of American drama, and it wears this edginess and its clearly huge budget very prominently on its sleeve.  For example there's some nudity from the main stars, and outdoor scenes with hundreds of extras, where indoor scenes with few extras would have served just as well.

The concept is that captured soldier Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has been released after seven or eight years in captivity.  Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) of the CIA is convinced that he's been turned, and he's actually a potential terrorist.  So far we don't know whether he is or not - and maybe we won't know by the end of the series - so any TWNH moments might not really be TWNHs, depending on the outcome.

The biggest is that Brody has returned from captivity in pretty great shape.  If someone's been chained to a radiator or in a cell for years, they wouldn't be as fit and strong as he is.  Plus the teeth....  Even Andy McNab, who was only in captivity for a few weeks, needed a lot of dental work when he returned.  For all her suspicions, Carrie doesn't seem to have noticed his physical condition or pored over his medical reports.  So is this poor drama, or a sign that he was turned while he was in captivity?  Could he even turn out to be an Agent Zigzag for our times?  Given that American series are often only part made when they first air, it's possible that the writers still hadn't decided by the time this episode was broadcast.

Other than that it was a good drama.  A bit soapy - Brody's wife had found a new lover while he was away - but certainly enough to it to keep us watching.  Most of all, hoping that like various other US series, this doesn't turn a great premise into a strung-out and less than credible drama.  We know already, for instance, that Brody is lying to the authorities and his family.  And would Carrie's CIA bosses not know that she was on medication for bi-polar disorder?

The bit at the end with the fingers was very well done, although let's hope it doesn't try to sustain its welcome simply by pulling a clever moment like this five minutes from the end of the episode every week!

Saturday 11 February 2012


Eternal Law

Series One ended with a cliffhanger, almost literally, with Zac and Hannah embracing among the crenellations of York Cathedral's roof.  Sadly there may not be a second series, owing to viewing figures as low as two million.  Reviews have been mixed, but we're fans.  Like Pharoah's 'Life on Mars', it took an element of fantasy and a staple TV genre and shook them up together for a fun cocktail with a serious twist.  So why didn't this take flight (deliberate pun, sorry) in the way that LoM did?

The only reasons we can come up with would make Mr Mountjoy groan.  Legal dramas aren't as cool as cop dramas, and angels and devils aren't as cool as Gene Hunt eating Hoops and driving a Cortina.  Yes, folks, a decent script and acting alone gets you nowhere on the darkling plain known as modern England.  As a legal drama it was perhaps twee and peremptory, but there are few legal dramas that can claim otherwise.  We watched for the angels, who were more human than... well, most characters in legal dramas.  When 'Hustle', with its cartoon villains and dubious plots, can run for eight series, it looks like the fallen angels are winning.


A copycat Jack the Ripper was an intriguing premise.  Secret twinned offspring of the Kray twins was ludicrously off-the-wall.  Now we have a killer who happens to have mimicked the Ratcliffe Highway murders, but unintentionally.  The history has gone from being the mainspring of the drama to a few incidental add-ons.  This series inhabits the same laughs-to-gorefest limbo as 'Midsomer Murders' and leaves the viewer as nonplussed, like watching a car crash of muppets.  

We can deal with this, provided the stories cohere, but here we were expected to accept a man who killed innocent people to make one selfish one suffer.  This is presumably in a parallel universe where selfish people are extremely sensitive to losing their work colleagues or lazy student housemates?  And then there was the inspired casting of Dave Schneider as a genuinely scary type, who managed to talk his way out of a prison cell, but wasn't the murderer and disappeared into 'thin air'.  Clearly the killer managed to do this, too, having built some kind of labyrinth within suburban houses that enabled him to be everywhere at once.  If you're going to build something up with visual darkness and twanging strings, make the payoff pay off and tie up those loose ends.  Please.

Prisoners' Wives

Rattling along in an agreeable way, though realism has already been sacrificed to drama.  The bailiffs remove all the furniture and threaten Francesca with eviction, but what did her drug dealer husband owe?  It's hard to believe he was given a mortgage, even if he needed one.  Or that, if he owed criminals, they'd have called in legal bailiffs.  If it was down to the Proceeds of Crime Act, why would it take them six years after the conviction to confiscate the goods?

Gemma meanwhile raids her mother-in-law's caravan again to recover her husband's gun, which the police still haven't managed to find.  At this point, they are apparently following her, so they aren't up to much if they don't follow her to a caravan park in the middle of the night.

Inside Men

Rattling along in an even more agreeable way, though we're not quite convinced by John's sudden transformation from straight-down-the-line grey suit to ruthless gang leader and convincing liar.  In January he reluctantly sacked an employee for stealing £20.  In March he's prepared to fake his wife being taken as hostage - unknown to her. 

Saturday 4 February 2012

Inside Men

Are cash-counting houses supervised by one person?  And do they take on dodgy staff from the casual labour force?  Stranger things have happened.  These aside, the only other TWNHs we noticed so far are more a matter of sloppy characters rather than sloppy writing: Marcus lights two gas rings for warmth in the middle of the night while wearing just a t-shirt and his partner Gina sleeps with full make-up.  They must be heading for a fall.

A promising start, enlivened by that old staple of a heist gone bloody and then wrenched around 'til you want to trust everyone but can't trust anyone.  The best thing about Basgallop's script is the seamless set-ups of unhappy private circumstances and compromised morals that form the background for most crimes.  Upright John sacks an employee for minor theft but suggests a daring robbery and pauses on the brink of shooting security-guard Chris.  In turn, Chris has given a helping hand to Dita, the thieving employee above, but has he only done so because he finds her attractive?  And he, too, is not above thieving from his employer.  Marcus is the amiable loser who thinks nothing of siphoning funds or even selling plans of the warehouse to the highest bidder.  By the end of the first episode, with another three to go, it looks like the robbery has been planned and executed by these three inside men.

At its heart is a serious and depressing proposition.  Are people well-behaved on principle, from a belief that it is morally right, or from half-baked notions, ideas badly taught and a fear of the consequences of doing otherwise?  Luckily for non-philosophers, it's a gripping drama too.