Monday, December 23, 2013

The Great Train Robbery BBC1

Having hated, absolutely loathed, Jeff Pope's Lucan for ITV, I was amazed to find I loved Chris Chibnall's Great Train Robbery on BBC1.  Why such polarity?  Both were paths well-trodden over the years, both had similar casts, both hinged on deeply unpleasant people.  Both were two-parters.  Well, the former was by-the-numbers, made the mistake of trying to find something empathetic in its principal character, who at the end of the day was the pampered, pompous descendent of a Crimean War loony, and had absolutely nothing to say.

Chibnall, on the other hand, divided his narrative cleanly in two.  'A Robber's Tale' was followed by 'A Copper's Tale'.  We had a cameo appearance of the second-in-command policeman (Frank Williams, played by Robert Glenister) at the beginning of part one, and a coming-together of the main copper and main robber at the end of part two.  Note that it's robber and copper singular, Bruce Reynolds and Tommy Butler, not the story of the gang or the squad.  Thus we could have fully-developed character studies - the ambitious Reynolds, the jaded Butler at the top of his profession but unable to let go until he's caught the last of the gang - which in turn good actors could be hired, both of whom gave eye-opening performances.  You'd expect that, of course, from Jim Broadbent as DCS Butler, whose drooping eyes told us volumes, but I had never come across Luke Evans (Reynolds) before.  Apparently he's primarily a film actor; this may be his first TV lead.  Anyway, I can't wait to see more of him.  Evans dominated his 'tale' every bit as completely as Broadbent dominated his, and when they came together at the end Evans held his own.

It was this two-handed scene which exemplified the main difference between The Great Train Robbery and the woeful Lucan.  There was nothing new for either writer to say about the crimes themselves but Chibnall had a great deal to say about the frenzy created by the train caper. 
At the end of the day all that was stolen was money on its way to be destroyed.  Yes, train driver Mills was bashed over the head with needless brutality - but he was fit enough to drive the train a few minutes later.  The real reason for the frenzy was that the robbery was seen as an attack on the ruling class - a bunch of chippy South Londoners interfering with Her Majesty's Mail.  The ludicrous sentences doled out - 25 and 30 years for robbery, which even now (a far more punitive era, only draws a 14 year maximum - were denounced as ludicrous at the time and, as Chibnall's protagonists discussed in the culminating scene, in themselves led to the inexorable rise of gun crime in Britain.  If a tea-leaf can be sentenced to serve longer than a murderer or a rapist for a robbery armed only with coshes, why risk leaving witnesses alive?

Brilliant.  The BBC Drama Department has had a good year overall, and these two films were as good as any.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

As Britain braces for another winter storm, I was greatly cheered by this (and the article that goes with it) from the Guardian online.  Eric Ravilious, for me, encapsulates the interwar period, although his work as a war artist during WWII led to his early death and is the main focus of the latest exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.  His printmaking is only equalled, not excelled, by his friend and contemporary Edward Bawden.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Euro Crime: TV News: More on BBC Four

Euro Crime: TV News: More on BBC Four

Brilliant news.  Hope it's not too long before it hits our screens because things on the TV drama front have been desperately weary of late (I stuck exactly 8 minutes of the hideous Lucan on ITV last night).

By the way, Euro Crime is one of my favourite blogs.  I link to it on my book blog and visit at least twice a week.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The new Constable

This is the new painting by John Constable discovered by the V&A in an old canvas lining.  Be fascinating to see what it really looks like if and when they restore it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Walk Museum and Art Gallery - Battle of Bosworth

Popped in to the New Walk Gallery in Leicester last Friday, mainly to see the new Arts & Crafts gallery.  Then I bumped into the above, on the landing at the top of the stairs.  It's by William Bass, a local Hinckley artist, and dates from 1839.  It strikes me, therefore, it's a bit early for an English history painting.  It's also unusual in that it's a professional artist, exhibited at the Royal Academy, painting local history.  For non-Leicestershire visitors, the Borough is currently called Hinckley and Bosworth.  The entire work is therefore unusual, so much so that it struck me as horrible at first glance, but I quickly warmed to it, the more I stood and looked, and it has stayed with me now for five days.  There is so much to try and figure out - like, who is the bloke with the un-medieval 'tash on the silver horse?

As for the Arts & Crafts gallery which attracted me in the first place, it's really about the Leicester-born Arts & Crafts designer Ernest Gimson (1864-1919).  It's a small exhibition but the pieces have been nicely chosen.  I especially liked the full-length corner cupboard.

 The City Council has set up a cool website, well worth a visit.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

CWA awards - the year's best crime fiction

Presented on Thursday, televised tonight, the Crime Writers' Association has awarded its daggers for 2013.

Mick Herron won best crime novel (the Goldsboro Gold Dagger) for Dead Lions, published by the small Soho imprint, so a major triumph.  Best thriller (Ian Fleming Steel Dagger) went to Roger Hobbs for Ghostman, and best debut (John Creasey Dagger) was Norwegian by Night by Derek B Miller.

This is Mick Herron's own summary of Dead Lions:

"A body on a bus, and a cryptic one-word message on a mobile phone – cicadas – puts Jackson Lamb on the trail of a Cold War legend.

"Alexander Popov never really existed; he was a bogeyman invented by the KGB. But that hasn’t stopped him springing back to life, setting in motion a decades-old conspiracy with a brand-new target: London’s newest, tallest skyscraper…

"Deep in the heart of the country, a long-dormant sleeper network is stirring. With the alarm about to sound, can Lamb’s crew stop fighting each other long enough to fight off a common enemy?"

Sounds like major fun to me - as does Ghostman, again as described by its author:

"When a casino robbery in Atlantic City goes horribly awry, the man who orchestrated it is obliged to call in a favor from someone who's occiationally called Jack. While it's doubtful anyone knows his actual name or anything at all about his true identity, or even if he's still alive, he's in his mid-30's and lives completely off the grid, a criminal's criminal who does entirely as he pleases and is almost impossible to get in touch with. But within hours a private jet is flying this exceptionally experienced fixer and cleaner-upper from Seattle to New Jersey and right into a spectacular mess: one heister dead in the parking lot, another winged but on the run, the shooter a complete mystery, the $1.2 million in freshly printed bills god knows where, and the FBI already waiting for Jack at the airport. To contend with all this will require every gram of his skill, ingenuity, and self protective instincts."

And finally...

"Eighty-two years old, and recently widowed, Sheldon Horowitz has grudgingly moved to Oslo, with his grand-daughter and her Norwegian husband. An ex-Marine, he talks often to the ghosts of his past - the friends he lost in the Pacific and the son who followed him into the US Army, and to his death in Vietnam.

"When Sheldon witnesses the murder of a woman in his apartment complex, he rescues her six-year-old son and decides to run. Pursued by both the Balkan gang responsible for the murder, and the Norwegian police, he has to rely on training from over half a century before to try and keep the boy safe. Against a strange and foreign landscape, this unlikely couple, who can't speak the same language, start to form a bond that may just save them both."

I've got to say, I love the daring of starting a series with an octogenarian protagonist.  I look forward to reading all three of the winning novels, but I hope to start with the Miller.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Wizard

Just learned via Twitter that The Wizard Sir Edward Burne-Jones is now on display in the Pre-Raphaelite galleries and Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum.

Looks like another trip to Birmingham for me, then.

Roger Wood's Biblioblog: Come Unto These Yellow Sands - Angela Carter

Roger Wood's Biblioblog: Come Unto These Yellow Sands - Angela Carter: Angela Carter was a true enthusiast of radio drama which she found ideally suited to her gothic sensibilities.  For Carter, radio was the...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Peaky Blinders and By Any Means

Belated, I know, but I have to say how much I'm enjoying BBC2's Peaky Blinders.  It's about gangland in Birmingham in the immediate aftermath of World War I.  It's by Steven Knight, it stars Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory and Sam Neill, and it is sensational.  The industrial dystopia is rendered so accurately, it creates a sort of steam punk beauty.  The use of 21st century music with traditional folk tropes works wonderfully well.  My only reservation is the supposed police spy about to be planted on Tommy.  I have sympathy for the actress though.  It's hard to be the irresistible vamp when the man is so much better looking - and that's no disrespect to Annabelle Wallis who's stuck with the thankless task.

I gather Blinders is drawing 2 million viewers a time.  It deserves it.  Nice one, Beeb...

... but just as they launch one triumph so, inevitably, they release the stinker.  It's called By Any Means - yes, even the title is half-baked.  It inevitably stars Warren Brown as the cop.  (Do yourself a favour, Warren, the next time the Beeb offer you a cop show, turn it down.  Insist on a costume drama or a romantic comedy.)  It is absolute, unmitigated cack.  I gave up as soon as we got to the unit's secret HQ.

I appreciate that the BBC has to put something up against Downton Abbey but this ain't it.  If we wanted to watch meretricious, derivative, by-the-numbers tripe we'd be watching Downton.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Suite Francaise

Best news I've heard all summer!  Filming has started on the TV version of Irene Nemirovsky's last work, which became a huge bestseller when published half a century after she died in a concentration camp.  The book was stunning - Nemirovsky kept writing it right up to the point where the Nazis came knocking at her door.  There simply is no other version of the Jewish woman's take on the German occupation of France that bears comparison.

Michelle Williams plays Irene.  Other stars include Ruth Wilson, Lambert Wilson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Matthias Schoenarts.  Serious money is being spent - this is an Anglo-French-Belgian co-production with Weinstein money thrown in.  My only fear is that direction is by Saul Dibb, who also co-wrote the script with Matt Charman.  Dibb's previous was The Duchess with Keira Knightley.  Hopefully that was just a way of getting his foot securely on the ladder and Suite Francaise will have a touch more depth.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What Remains

What Remains is the new Sunday night thriller on BBC1, written by Tony Basgallop and directed by Coky Giedroyc, both of whom I am a big fan of.  Throw in David Threlfall, one of our finest stage and screen actors who has rather been wasting his time for the last five or six seasons of Shameless, and I'm hooked before it starts.

Happily, the opener exceeded expectations.  Based on the recent case of a young woman who withdrew from the world and was found, mummified, some years later, Threlfall's character, DI Len Harper is given the case at the fag end of his career.  He actually retires at the start of Act Three.  But Melissa's lonely demise won't release its grip because he too is lonely with nowhere to go.

Melissa lived and died in one of the leasehold flats into which a middle-sized suburban house has been subdivided.  The other tenants have their stories and their secrets.  Who is that woman David Bamber seems to keep?  What happened to the other lesbian?  And, of course, who clobbered Len over the napper at the end of the episode?  Compulsive viewing.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Field of Blood

BBC1 ended the week with a welcome follow-up to Denise Mina's Field of Blood, first shown in 2011.  The first series was set in 1982, the second, adapted from Mina's novel The Dead Hour, is coming up to Christmas 1984, during the miners' strike and Thatcher's war on the trades unions.  This alone would be enough to satisfy me, but we also have a takeover of the Glasgow-based Scottish Daily News and the arrival of the owners' representative, diamond-hard Maloney (Katherine Kelly).

Continuing from series one we have, of course, the excellent Jayd Johnson as investigative girl reporter Paddy Meehan, Ford Kiernan as the old hack she's partnered with, and David Morrissey, on top form as the last editor with principles.  The plot device is that Thatcher is using GCHQ to frame the miners' leaders, no news to those of us with memories but well worth reminding the rest of the world.  Especially now they're doing it again, only this time as an offshore agent of the Land of the Free.

The acting was good (check out Bronagh Gallagher's tour de force of expressive silence when Paddy breaks the news at the end of Episode Two) but David Kane's dramatization was a touch perfunctory and his direction was little better.  Had it been shown at a time when it wouldn't be so directly comparable to The Returned and Top of the Lake, I doubt the shortcomings would have been so noticeable.  But, hey, at least this series got a primetime slot, 9pm on Thursday and Friday.  The last series was in the twilight zone after the late news.

Will there be a third series?  Hopefully so - there is a third novel, The Last Breath.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Top of the Lake, Love/Hate and Southcliffe

Top of the Lake is a six-hour mini series from Jane Campion, director of The Piano.  In the States it was shown on the Sundance Channel.  Here in the UK, it's the Saturday night highlight on BBC2.  First off, it looks stunning - the awesome landscape of New Zealand without all the Lord of the Rings crap.  The story is compelling - twelve year old Tui tries to drown herself in the titular lake.  At the police station she bonds with Detective Robin (Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss) but then vanishes.

What we have is a big story on an enormous canvas.  There are dozens of leading characters, all of them distinct and expertly rounded.  In the middle of the maelstrom we have Tui's father, the local hard man (played by Peter Mullan, a hard man in any hemisphere) and the guru of the women's camp (Holly Hunter) which has set up on Mullan's land, the ironically named Paradise.

We're four episodes in now.  Robin's back story is slowly being revealed.  I am spellbound.

A cynic might dub Top of the Lake as BBC2's answer to Channel 4's The Returned.  They're both beautiful and both have lakes in them, but so far at least nobody in New Zealand has turned out to be a zombie.  Southcliffe (C4) is equally reminiscent of Broadchurch (ITV1).  Again, it's not really.  Both are set in small coastal communities, but Broadchurch involved us through its characters and expert plotting whereas Southcliffe has failed to involve me yet (and we're halfway through) because it's just a Hungerford-style shooting rampage and people's reaction to it.  It may improve now that Rory Kinnear's TV newshound has shown up (Southcliffe is his home town and, like Robin in NZ, he has dark secrets buried here) but I'm not confident.  None of these people are likeable, it's all unremittingly grim, and the photography is downright bloody awful.  There was a pub scene in episode two which was shot in shades of ochre - yet it wasn't 1974, so why?

Finally, a cheer for Channel 5 who have to acquire the leavings of other channels but every now and then come up with a cracker.  This summer it's RTE's Love/Hate, about young gangsters in Dublin's fair city.  It stars Robert Sheehan, who was so annoying in Misfits but who is absolutely brilliant in this.  His bête noire is Aiden Gillen, who is meant to be annoying and does it with his customary aplomb.  It's three years old, this series, so it predates his turn in Game of Thrones.  I find myself hooked.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Count Arthur Strong Week 2

I tried.  I kept the faith and tuned in for week two.  I lasted eight minutes, telling myself something funny would happen soon, it had to.  It didn't.  I couldn't bear it.  I turned over and won't be back.  It hurts too much to see this fiasco.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

First Night of the Proms 2013

I'd been looking forward to the Proms for some weeks and was not disappointed.  Sakari Oramo, new conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, got off to a flying start.  As always, we began with a new commission, Julian Anderson's four-minute 'Harmony'.  I feel slightly sorry for these guys: nobody got a ticket to hear them and if the piece is at all challenging, you'd really rather hear it more than once.  Certainly, I would like to hear 'Harmony' again.

Then it was Britten's four sea interludes from Peter Grimes.  Marvellous - sensitive, sensuous, profoundly melodic.  Orama seems to have an affinity for bleak, watery landscapes - then again, he's Finnish.  The highlight of the evening, though, was Stephen Gough (above) playing two variations of Paganini's caprice (known to my generation as the theme from The South Bank Show).  The first, Rachmaninov's, is pretty well known, especially that sumptuous segue towards the end, Lutoslawski's, which followed, less so.  Personally, I would have opted to do them the other way round.  Lutoslawski has charm but only lasts nine minutes and has nothing like the scope of Rachmaninov.  Watching Gough was a treat in itself.  His fingers flittered over the keys in a sort of speeded-up ballet.  Mesmerising.

I had been looking forward to the big finish, Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony from 1909.  That's because I had never heard it.  Never again - pompous, overblown and incredibly, insufferably long.  I'm afraid to say I gave up.

This year the Proms are devoting a colossal amount of time to Wagner, who would have been 200, had he lived.  Not for me - I have no interest in a musical version of Lord of the Rings, albeit with a better script.  I shall be looking out forb the Britten (a stripling of only 100) and something exotic, to complement the weather.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Count Athur Strong moves to TV

I first glimpsed Steve Delaney's decrepit vaudevillian back in the 80s.  More recently I became addicted to his surreal adventures on Radio 4.  Now Count Arthur has blundered his way onto BBC2.  Delaney himself, or rather Delaney as Arthur, survives remarkably unscathed.  The same cannot be said of everything else.  The familiar sidekicks have been dumped, which is perhaps understandable as they pretty much were only funny voices.  But Arthur has been inexplicably uprooted from Doncaster and dumped somewhere in London amid sidekicks who are not even funny voices.

The magnificent and subversive Graham Duff, who had a significant hand in the radio show, has been dumped for an alarmingly supine Graham Linehan, who for the first of the series reheated some very stale tropes of farce.  Rory Kinnear, as the anal son of Arthur's onetime comedy partner, was a beacon amid the car crashes, but Rory Kinnear is brilliant - he's supposed to be the new Doctor Who, for Pete's sake.

The foot-spa McGuffin came nowhere near equalling Father Jack's pet brick, and is a measure of how far Linehan has lowered himself for this gig.

Did I laugh?  Of course I did - it's Count Arthur Strong.  Will I watch next week?  Yes, for the reason aforementioned.  Did I love it?  No, sorry.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Returned, Jo, The Americans

A jewel buried amid the summer dross (re-runs of the abysmal Father Brown and wall-to-wall tennis) is Channel 4 import The Returned.  There has been some comment that C4 has ventured into the subtitled market; I'm simply amazed it has taken them so long.  Buy more, C4!  Show us the best there is and then model your own productions accordingly.

It's a zombie thriller, there is a serial killer on the loose, but The Returned is neither slasher nor horror.  It is a simple tale of well-to-do Alpine folk whose loved ones suddenly come back from the dead.  They're not dropping to bits or mouldering away.  They are unchanged and have no memory of the gap in their lives.  They walk, eat, and mostly talk.

The dilemma for each returnee and those they left behind is different and defined - quite a shock at the end of episode 1 when returned thirteen year-old Camille comes face-to-face with her grown-up twin - but my favourite so far is the relationship between isolated nurse Julia (Jean-Celine Sallett) and silent Victor the creepiest kid since Damien in The Omen, played by Swann Nambotin (above).  Tomorrow's third episode is 'Julia', so I am especially anticipatory.

The scenery, inevitably, is beautiful.  There is a subplot on the go about water levels falling in the local reservoir and the cinematography in these scenes alone is a masterclass of the art.  The direction by Fabrice Gobert is assured; he is fully committed to his characters and leaves space for emotion.  The pace is leisurely, any temptation towards wham-bang horror scrupulously avoided.  The writing (Gobert and others) is elliptical, flowing between past and present, moment of death and recovered life, in slow, sweeping waves.  Brilliant, essential viewing.

On the subject of Euro TV, Fox is currently showing Jo, a horrendous hodgepodge that is often hilarious yet strangely watchable.  It's in English but set in Paris.  Jo himself, the police inspector on the verge of a heart attack, is the brilliant Jean Reno, who does a splendid job (the man walks with the weight of the world on his horizontal shoulders) and, as we all know, speaks English with a near impenetrable French accent.  He is the only French actor in it, so everyone else has to try and match him.  Most of the actors are English but do their French accent in American, because they figure their worldwide audience is accustomed to Amer-English.  Sadly, the returning baddie with something over Jo is Sean Pertwee, who has calmed down a bit in recent episodes but on his first appearance treated us to the full 'Allo 'Allo with an inexplicable calypso vibe.  The mighty Orla Brady, who plays Jo's boss, is above such frivolity and just does it in Irish.  One last twist - the production is German.

Finally, in the just-about watchable stakes, we have The Americans on ITV, a bold choice to be fair for the purveyors of Saturday night crud, scheduled immediately after whatever festering sore has replaced Britain's Got Talent imported from Hungary

It stars Cardiff's own Matthew Rhys, but he of course has long been playing Americans in America.  In this FX/Dreamworks production, however, he plays a Russian playing an American.  It's the 1980s, Reagan has just become president, and Rhys and Keri Russell are Soviet sleepers posing as the all-American Jennings family.  It all gets a little more interesting when FBI agent Noah Emmerich moves in next door.

It's slick without being frivolous.  It can be dark and dangerous.  The relationship between the two principals - literally a forced marriage - is complicated and subtly developed.  I enjoyed the first two episodes but the third dropped off slightly.  Still, at this time of the TV year we must be grateful for small mercies.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Fall

I've been meaning to post about The Fall (BBC2) for the last month, but I've held back for fear of looking foolish after the next serpentine twist in the tale.  Well it ended last night and I never ever guessed that ending.  Lesson One in how to avoid the Broadchurch problem when you're commissioned to do a second series.  In short, the ending was startling, yet absolutely right.

The Fall featured two standout performances from Gillian Anderson (rapidly becoming the best actress on the BBC speed-dial) and Jamie Dornan as the psycho-killer we knew from the outset.  I haven't seen Dornan before - I just hope this brilliant performance doesn't see him permanently typecast as the stuff bad dreams are made on.  The rest of the cast were neither here nor there - which is not a criticism as their sole purpose was to be scenery for what was a psychological two-hander.  Of course, the two principles had to come in contact with one another, but the way it was done, via an unmonitored mobile, was a stroke of genius.

And the big breakthrough here was screenwriter/creator Alan Cubitt, who has previously written for the Beeb's Sherlock which is essentially Doctor Who without the sonic screwdriver (please, please, let Matt Smith take the screwdriver with him when he goes!).  Cubitt has also written for Prime Suspect and it shows - he has created a believable female top cop, everything Jane Tennyson wasn't - ice-cold, professional, cerebral, captivating.  Indeed, Cubitt has had a good go at reinventing the genre and I'm praying that in Season 2 he can continue to avoid all the tired old clichés.

This wasn't just another attempt at a British version of The Killing.  It was every bit as good as The Killing, for refreshingly different reasons.

Friday, May 24, 2013

New Fred Fixler site

Former students have created a site to memorialise the quintessential American illustrator Fred Fixler, who died in 2010.  Well worth a visit.  To go there, click here.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Murder on the Home Front

ITV's latest wartime crime drama (a kind of mash-up Foyle's War, Bletchley Circle, CSI) is a two-parter by David Kane based on the memoirs of Molly Lefebure, wartime assistant to legendary Home Office Pathologist Keith Simpson.

OK, it was yet another serial killer yarn from a time before serial killers proliferated, and the names of the principals had been changed to protect the actual, but despite a fairly perfunctory script the show rattled along.  The direction was strong, the performances good from a cast of emerging stars rather than the usual old hacks who would have featured had this been a BBC drama.  The settings were, for me, a pleasure in themselves - but the special effects in terms of the Blitz were truly awful, the worst I have seen since the amateurish Titanic, a flaw made all the more glaring by the brilliant title sequence of actual bombs being dropped on London.

Another solid contribution from ITV Drama, which is enjoying something of a golden period.  It certainly offered some relief in what has to be have been the worst week's TV since Christmas.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Crimson Horror

Last night's episode of Doctor Who was the best of the series by some distance.  Unfortunately it may have been because Matt Smith was in it less.

The Crimson Horror was by Mark Gatiss, the best of the series regular writers.  Only Gatiss can combine Victorian Gothic with off-the-wall science fiction and - the key factor - a thoroughly cultivated sense of the dramatic.  Here were no silly time tricks - even the flashback of how the Doctor got to be 'the monster' were handled by period photography.  Returning characters were there because they were exciting - the Silurian lady detective Vastra, her kiss-ass lesbian lover Jenny, and simple-minded Silurian butler Strax.  Best of all, though - and a sure sign of how prestigious the re-born Who has become - was the appearance of Dame Diana Rigg, no less, and her daughter Rachael Stirling.  Not only were they magnificent, but they seemed to inspire the rest of the cast to up their acting game.

Next week, sadly, the Cybermen return yet again.  What is it with the rebooted Doctor Who and the least frightening monsters since Dusty Bin?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Broadchurch finishes, The Village continues to thrive

ITV's Broadchurch finally revealed the killer last night.  The killer's identity was, as is so often the case with whodunnits, a surprise and a slight disappointment.  In a series this good, however, it didn't matter.  Writer Chris Chibnall and his production team used every last second of the 8hr running time.  The sequence where DCI Hardy walks through the house to find out who is using Danny's phone was almost unbearably tense.  DS Miller's emotional breakdown - just mesmerising; if Olivia Coleman doesn't win a Bafta for this, dissolve Bafta.  And the final sequence, beacons being lit all along the coastline in memory of the dead boy ... schmaltzy yes, beautiful undeniably, just about the perfect ending.

According to the fan site, Broadchurch has been recommissioned for a second series.  Initial reaction - really?  But it worked for The Killing...

Chibnall, of course, has been a Doctor Who writer.  Across on BBC1 show-runner Peter Moffat has redeemed himself with the magnificently grim The Village, which bids to be a history of a community over the last century.  This initial six-part series is about World War I, the childhood memories of Bert, Britain's second-oldest man, whose flittering mind (more moth than butterfly in David Ryall's finely judged portrayal) introduces each episode.  Bert's parents are Maxine Peake and John Simm, happily casting aside every last vestige of likeability.  The scene in which Simm tried to hang himself from the one tree on his failing smallholding until Peake and Bert (Bill Jones) arrived to take his weight, was truly jaw-dropping.  Sunday evening on BBC1 - the Cranford/Lark Rise slot - who would have thought?  Also grabbing my attention are the inbreds up at the Big House.  I haven't noticed Kit Jackson, who plays Lord Allingham, before - but I've certainly noticed him now.  And Jim Cartwright, writer of Little Voice and Vroom, the only film set in my native Nelson, as the pub landlord - who knew he could also act?

Doctor Who itself is back and I'm afraid I've lost interest.  I liked the ice warrior the other week, but failed to get excited by this week's micro universe despite an exceptional cast.  Matt Smith's Doctor has become irritating - I for one would love to stick his bloody sonic screwdriver where the sun don't shine - and we have yet another tiresome overarching story about the true nature of new companion Clara Oswald.  Perhaps I'm alone in this but, as one who watched the very first episode back in '63, I thought unexplained mystery was part of the appeal.  It's a shame, because I enjoyed the Christmas special this year and thought we might have escaped the overarch.  I will doubtless watch the 50 year special but I'm not sure I can be bothered to watch this Saturday's episode.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Scroll for springtime

Could resist this beautiful image of a vase and peony on a Chinese paper scroll.  From the British Museum's online collection via Twitter.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TV drama - The Lady Vanishes & Challenger

I'm starting to wonder about the commissioning process for BBC1 drama.  A fortnight ago we had the overly contrived Mayday; this last weekend we had the hopeless The Lady Vanishes.  First off, what's the point.  There is the classic version which, helpfully, Film4 showed all weekend.  The Beeb themselves showed it as recently as December 28.  Secondly, why do a remake unless you can bring something significantly new to the party.  And there was nothing new here.  Absolutely nothing.  Casting was largely the usual suspects, with poor Tom Hughes, after Dancing on the Edge, already condemned to a career of off-kilter toffs, the compulsory Rhind-Tutt, this time as the other half of the equally mandatory Keeley Hawes, and Pip Torrens, the Maurice Denham de nos jours.

I am unfamiliar with Ethel Lina White's original novel, The Wheel Spins (1936), and am likely to remain so after this.  Apparently Hitchcock made loads of changes for his adaptation, and no wonder.  The script by Fiona Seres was pedestrian, Diarmuid Lawrence's direction apathetic, and the performances, by and large, would have shamed weekly rep on a wet Wednesday afternoon.  Tuppence Middleton, as the alleged heroine, was odious.  This was no doubt intentional and I'm sure she is a much better actress than evidenced here.  She needs to develop better taste in material.

Apparently it took three BBC execs to commission this tosh.  They should hand in their notice.

Of a different calibre entirely - so superior that it might have been a separate artform - was Challenger, a feature-length drama for Monday night on BBC2.  This was the inquiry into the Challenger space-shuttle disaster through the eyes of maverick Nobel laureate Richard Feynman.  A BBC/Science Channel co-production, it had a fine, unobtrusive script by Kate Gartside and was directed with a fine eye for the technology by James Hawes, a regular Doctor Who director.

The script excelled because, despite the scale of the subject matter, it kept things personal because we knew Feynman was battling a serious disease.  Then there was the suggestion that, because he had done the math for A-bomb (which may also have caused his disease) Feynman was working towards a redemption.  The performances were classy.  Fine American A-listers like William Hurt as Feynman and Brian Dennehy as the inquiry chairman, the crème of English actors - Henry Goodman as Feynman's doctor, Eve Best as first woman in space and a wonderfully nuanced cameo from Joanne Whalley as Feynman's Yorkshire-born wife.  I wondered where Whalley had been of recent years - apparently she's been in The Borgias, shown in the UK on Sky Atlantic, which I gave up on after two episodes.

Let's be honest, Hurt's wig gave a better performance than anyone in The Lady Vanishes.

Friday, March 08, 2013


ITV launched Broadchurch the evening after the BBC started Mayday.  I have already criticised the latter as amateurish.  Broadchurch, then, can largely be characterised as everything Mayday was not.

One thing they had in common was the murder - in both cases a child, in this instance eleven year-old Danny.  In Mayday everyone was a suspect and whilst I have been to villages like that it makes for irritating viewing because you know you're being led up the garden path.  Broadchurch wisely took the opposite tack.  Nobody is a suspect - why would anyone want to kill an ordinary brat like Danny?  Instead writer Chris Chibnall made Olivia Coleman's DS the epicentre of all the conflict in Episode One.  She is the local, she knows everybody; her son was Danny's best friend, her nephew is the pushy reporter for the local rag who dreams of Wapping.  She returns from leave to find the DI post she had been promised has instead been given to David Tennant's Inspector Hardy who apparently needs to be hidden away in Mummerset until the furore of his last case dies down.

Tennant and Coleman, it goes without saying, are superb.  They are two of the best actors to still be plying the bulk of their trade on TV.  It's a wise move to let the drama unwind slowly over several weeks rather than Mayday's striping which only works if you're in real time and the dramatic clock has started ticking down early in Act One.  The writing here was subtle, so far as I can tell original, and definitely character-based.  Little asides therefore intrigue - Danny's mum was extremely young when she had his older sister.  Is that important?  I suspect the editor of the local paper might have a role to play, but maybe that's just because I've always considered Carolyn Pickles underused and underrated as an actress.

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace

Unmissable, surely?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

TV drama update

The highlight of the year so far was meant to be Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing on the Edge, seven hours of it on BBC2. 

It began brilliantly, and was sumptuously shot throughout, but something died along with Jessie (Angel Coulby) at the end of episode 2.  Everyone else was just too laid back to engross.  There were, though, some marvellous performances - John Goodman, for example, as the psychotic American plutocrat, and Tom Hughes as Julian, his twisted English protégé.  It was great to see Mel Smith back on screen as the hotel manager Schelsinger, and Jacqueline Bisset as the mysterious Lady Cremone. Jane Asher was positively chilling as Julian's mum.  But there were too many loose ends, threads like the Nazis and the Royals were set up but never went anywhere, and the homage/rip-off from The Godfather which culminated in Julian's death was a dreadful misjudgement.  It remains the case: what Poliakoff desperately needs is a bloody good editor.

Over on C4, meanwhile, Dennis Kelly's Utopia was much more challenging.  A bunch of geeks - and one chavvy brat - stumble upon an apocalyptic conspiracy via an obscure graphic novel.  The twists just never let up (though sadly it was all too obvious, to me at least, who Mr Rabbit really was) and it left us with the tantalising prospect of a second series.  I sincerely hope so, but only if they can get Marc Munden back to direct.  His painterly long shots were integral to the success of the piece.  Munden previously directed The Crimson Petal and the White, which was similarly idiosyncratic.  I'm amazed he hasn't gone Hollywood.

The casting was masterly.  Big names like Stephen Rea and James Fox contrasted with young guns Adeel Ahktar (the wonderfully named Wilson Wilson), Alesandra Roach, and above all Oliver Woollford as Grant.

This series was exactly what Channel 4 should be doing.

Otherwise, Spiral is back on BBC Four, which now co-produces.  Borgen has been and gone without rippling the pond overmuch.  Big new US formula series have arrived.  Kevin Bacon's The Following rapidly ran out of interest for me but has nevertheless been recommissioned for a second run, and Vegas, a vanity project for Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis is silly but watchable.  Mayday, on BBC1 over five nights this week, is extraordinarily bad.  The premise is silly - Midsummer Murders meets The Wicker Man - and to describe the writing as perfunctory would be generous.  I made it fifteen minutes into episode 2 and could tolerate no more.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mid-century Drama - Laurence Kitchin

I was browsing the might Skoob in London's Brunswick Centre when I found this.  One key aspect of my research is the role of radio drama in developing British theatre in the 1950s and early 60s.  One contention of my thesis is that only the patronage of BBC radio brought Beckett, Pinter and Arden to audiences sufficiently large to warrant commercial management (and it was all commercial in those days) risking them on the London stage.  Note, I do not claim that radio was the only way for the angry generation; for example Osborne and Wesker went straight to the stage.

Anyway, I was disappointed.  I should have known I would be when I realised that Laurence Kitchin was the drama critic of the Times, which has naturally scorned the most democratic of performance media since Day One.  Instead what we get here is a tour of everything that alienated audiences from the clique that was London theatre circa 1955 - the tedious, impenetrable visits from the Moscow Art Theatre and the Comedie Francaise - with a sort of baffled consideration of why anyone might think television could contribute to art.  In that sense the book was useful to me - as a launch pad for why I and my generation rebelled against this highhanded elitist guff.

The second part of the book is cheap and nasty - reverential interviews with the theatrical great and good of the day lifted straight from the pages of the Times where they first appeared.  The interest here was thin: Peter O'Toole before Lawrence, the realisation how early Ashcroft was made a dame.  I was interested in the interview with Peter Holmes, who seems to have been seen as a star of the future whilst at Oxford, unusually combining the roles of actor, student and road navvy; it seems he later became a respected teacher and died in 2010.

My favourite of these interviews was the last, with Stella Adler (1901-1992) whose long career meant that she worked with Stanislavsky, the Group Theatre, Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro.  She lectured at Yale and founded her own acting school.  I find this much more impressive and appealing than Kitchin evidently did.

Here is a thoughtful review from John Wyver, to whom the book was more useful since his research is into stage plays on television.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hilary Mantel on the royal bodies

Hilary Mantel's controversial speech slagging off Princess Kate of Middleton can be found in full here, complete with audio.  It's not the lack of due British deference that irritates me - nobody is less interested in our royals than I am - it's the lack of insight and, frankly, intellectual weight.  For me, it's much like your Cromwell books, Hilary.

Monday, January 28, 2013

BBC Audio Drama Awards 2013

It only took the BBC 88 years to recognise the form it invented in 1924,  This is the second year, officially titled 2013 but self-evidently recognising plays broadcast in 2012 (or a little before - it's like under-21 football in that respect).

The full details can be found here.  The headlines for me are always in regard to scripting.  The writing highlights were:

Best single play, On It by Tony Pitts.  Best serial, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, Heinrich Boll, abridged for radio by Helen Meller.  Best adaptation, A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Tanika Gupta.  Imison award for a first radio play, Do You Like Bananas, Comrade? by Csaba Szekely.  Tinniswood award for best radio play, Kafka the Musical by Murray Gold, himself a former winner of Imison.

Congratulations all round.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ripper Street, Spies of Warsaw

It's been a month since my last post.  There is a reason for the hiatus.  For us non-metropolitans at this time of year culture is pretty much confined to TV, and British TV has never been worse.  The Guardian described last night's schedules as the worst ever but I can't agree.  The worst ever was Christmas Eve.  Oh how we would have rejoiced to see half-forgotten minor celebs belly-flopping into Luton Pool (ITV's pitiful Splash!) for our festive entertainment.  Instead we got a feeble repeat of the pathologically unfunny Vicar of Dibley.

Things have not improved greatly since the turn of the year.  Ripper Street (BBC1) is now on its fourth episode and is by some way the best of a very bad lot.  It is a BBC America co-production and this shows in its casting: Matthew Macfadyen, Jerome Flynn and minor US TV actor Adam Rothenberg.

The premise is that this is Whitechapel six months after the last Jack the Ripper killing.  DI Fred Abberline, who led the investigation, has gone (and I for one wish he hadn't come back to ruin the first episode) and his successor, Macfadyen, is using radical new techniques (forensic science) to restore confidence.  Ex Pinkerton, ex army medic Rothenberg has taken up residence in one of the cells to gleefully slice up bodies.

It's anachronistic, very violent, and pretty much tosh.  But it's beautifully done tosh.  The performances are tremendous - only Macfadyen can make a bowler hat look cutting edge - and the principals all have deep back stories which are only hinted at week-by-week.  Some critics say it is misogynistic but I would suggest that it is in fact misanthropic.  Everybody outside the charmed circle is up to no good.  Episode 1 was about pornography, 2 was an updated Fagin (staggering performance by my fellow Lancastrian Joseph Gilgun), and 3 was biological warfare.  I don't care if tonight is aliens, I'll still watch.  Actually I think it's about the early days of the Tube.

The other highlight of January thus far has been Spies of Warsaw, hidden away on BBC4 despite starring David Tennant and a script by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais.

A dramatization of Alan Furst's 2008 novel, the tenth in his Night Soldier series, it's set predominantly in Poland in the lead up to the war, with Tennant as an attaché (spy) at the French embassy in Warsaw.  The problem with the TV version was structural.  Fresh Films, the maker, sold two feature-length episodes; Clement and la Frenais felt that episode 1 must end with our hero being caught and carried off by the Germans, even though this was summarily resolved five minutes into episode 2.  And they hadn't got enough material for the rest of the running time without incorporating what felt like a very abridged version of the subplot.  Nevertheless this was quality entertainment, well acted (with lots of Polish actors, all with impeccable English) and beautifully shot by director
Coky Giedroyc (The Hour).

One thing these dramas had in common was a merciful lack of the usual suspects, casting-wise.  They are all in series 2 of Death in Paradise (BBC1) which is already past its sell-by date.