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.