Next weekend is the big weekend for comedy buffs in Market Harborough. For the first time Leicester Comedy Festival ventures out into the benighted boonies. All the details are at www.comedy-festival.co.uk or phone 0116 4566812.
The year begins with Sky releasing Escape at Dannemoraas a box set. This is while the series is only partway through in the US, so it couldn't be more current. The subject matter is remarkably current, too. The escape took place as recently as 2015. Essentially, two convicted murderers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora NY, assisted by the prison seamstress Joyce 'Tillie' Mitchell, with whom both men were having sex. It's this latter twist, naturally, that makes the story exceptional.
Intriguingly, the director is Ben Stiller. Stiller might have made his fortune in comedy but he is an accomplished director. Here there is no comedy whatsoever, but Stiller's ability with character is critical to bringing the nasty little story of three losers to life rendered in all three dimensions. Stiller's presence is doubtless what attracted big name writers (Brett Johnson, who worked on Mad Men and Ray Donovan, and Michael Tolkin, creator of The Player), not to mention actors who have between them won shedloads of awards: Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano. Dano intrigues me. Anyone who saw him as Pierre in the BBC abridged War and Peace would never recognise him here. Is he an actor or a chameleon? Always recognisable and always a boost to any film or TV series is David Morse, America's ultimate supporting actor. Here is a prison officer, too friendly with del Moro's Matt, compromised from the get-go.
Del Toro is very good. It took me about ten years to really see in him the talent others raved about. I have since realised it is his quiet compulsion that buries itself in your head. The performance of episode one, though, has to be Arquette. There is a scene in which she is walking down the street in a snowbound hick town after a row with her thick as a plank husband. Down the street she sees a player who looks a bit like del Toro with a couple of young women and a flashy car. He sees her, smiles and tips the brim of his cap. Still leaves his camera on the dowdified Arquette as joy breaks across her face, then ebbs completely.
Cinematography also deserves mention. I read an interview with Stiller in The Times on Saturday in which he said he wanted to conjure up the steely realism of films from the 70s like Dog Day Afternoon. He managed that to the letter. He couldn't have done so without Canadian Director of Photography Jessica Lee Gagne - a name to look out for.
Escape at Dannemora is a 7-part limited series (8 parts in the UK, apparently, the US episode 7 being feature length) from Showtime, who are also responsible for my current favourite, the aforementioned Ray Donovan.
The BBC has launched its autumn dramas all at once, which makes it a chore to keep up. Press (Thursdays at 9pm) was definitely a chore. The premise - rivalry between two newspapers which, apparently, we are supposed to care about - is fair enough, a sort of workplace drama doubled up, largely based on simple contrast. But Christ was it clumsy - heroine with one paper, anti-hero with the other, and ne'er the two shall meet, except in the final act for some flimsily contrived future plot point. There was a chunk of exposition plonked down just as we were getting tired of meeting all the characters that was so blatant it was almost as shocking as the car-bomb in Bodyguard, but not in a good way.
The direction and photography were apparently the work of devotees of Brecht's alienation theory. It certainly alienated me. The actors were all supposed to assume the expression of catwalk models - deeply bored and sucking a very strong mint - because, presumably, they are cutting edge journalists, albeit none of them seem to have cars or phones.
But then Ben Chaplin showed up, as super-smooth, supremely nasty editor of The Post (yes, that much imagination has gone into the show). Things came alive. He gives the impression that he knows the material is tosh but he's being paid good money and feels he ought to put an effort in. Given he is the only one who feels that, he stands out a mile. Quite simply, the series will stand or fall on his performance. It is worth watching just to study Chaplin's technique. David Suchet, as the mysterious owner of The Post, swanned in for a cameo at the very end. Suchet is an exceptionally good actor, especially on TV. Perhaps he has been in so much tosh over the years that he has become immune to embarrassment. He made eye contact though, which was beyond some of the actors, but Chaplin acted him off the screen.
I'll give it another go next week. It's clearly meant to be an open-ended or continuing series and only the very best of those get fully up to speed in the first episode. Episode 2 is called 'Pure'. We'll just have to hope that it's not meant in the context of Andrew Miller's 2011 novel Pure, winner of the Costa Best Book Award.
The BBC has been relentlessly trailing Jed Mercurio's new series, focussing on trite lines and very little action, but boy, has it been worth all the hype!
Mercurio (who I discovered this morning hails from the same town as me) is by a country mile the best writer in British TV today. Line of Duty is mandatory viewing (and I'm pleased to see they are filming the new series), Bodies and Critical were both game-changers which should have run longer, and his dramatisations are pretty decent too. But this - this is way better than anything he has done before.
Episode I starts with our hero on the train, bringing his children back to London from visiting their grandparents in Scotland. He notices something amiss, as he is trained to do, being a Special Branch officer and ex-military. He intervenes and prevents a major terrorist incident. This takes up a third of the episode, during which the tension becomes virtually unbearable. There are obvious things at stake but we always know our hero will survive. The tension is ramped up by humanising the suicide bomber.
As a result of his actions, PS David Budd (Richard Madden) gets promoted. He is now the official bodyguard of the Home Secretary Julia Montague, who is both beautiful (it's Keeley Hawes) and deeply repellent (it was clearly written during Amber Rudd's brief time in office). Montague is virulently right wing - a decade earlier she was a vociferous proponent of the US-UK invasion of Afghanistan, in which Budd served. Budd saw his friends killed and mutilated for no gain whatsoever, which adds to the tensions. Equally Budd is separated from his wife and kids and doesn't seem able to do anything to rectify the situation; thus sexual tension is added to the mix.
Episode 2 was shown the next night. I'm not the only one thinking they're not going to be able to top the train section in 1. But Mercurio can. With not one but two nerve-shredding incidents. In one, Budd and the Home Sec come under sniper fire in the middle of London. In the second, terrorists drive a van loaded with explosives at the school Budd's kids go to. Both were brilliantly realised by director Thomas Vincent and his team. I have never seen a better car-bomb sequence, with the van smashing its way down suburban side streets.
Bodyguard is a work of genius. I'm not overly familiar with Richard Madden but his performance here is faultless and Keely Hawes hasn't been this good since her two series of Line of Fire. That said, a strong production elicits strong performances from everyone, no matter how small their part. Gina McKee is in it, and Vincent Franklin, and Stuart Bowman. Even Andrew Marr gives an ace performance as himself. The photography and editing are both superb. Whoever found the locations deserves a BAFTA for going above and beyond the call of duty.
I know a lot of people are disturbed by the sexual elements of the series. Don't let that mislead you. What really hits a nerve with viewers is the rawness and contemporaneity of the issues.
I seem to have focussing on acrylic painting this year. Here is my latest, First Violin. It's only a detail because it's an odd shape and won't quite fit on my printer/scanner. In the full view, his right hand is shown holding the bow.