Friday, December 23, 2016

In Plain Sight

Overlapping with BBC1's Rillington Place was In Plain Sight over on ITV1, another three-part real-life serial killer reconstruction set in the 1950s. Is this coincidence or are we witnessing the birth of a new genre, heritage serial killing?

The case of Peter Manual is much less familiar than that of Reg Christie. I wonder why? He was at least as prolific as Christie and also framed another man for his murders. Indeed Manuel is more scary than Christie in that he conducted his own defence in court, successfully beating a rape charge which left him free to claim police harassment whenever they tried to pin the murders on him. Is it, perhaps, because he was Scottish?

Fortunately the actors were Scottish and instead of being allowed to indulge themselves, as was the case on the BBC, here the casting went against type. Douglas Henshall was the stolid middleaged, family man detective and Martin Compston, the BBC's go-to guy for honest-as-the-day-is-long coppers was let loose on Manuel. Both were exceptional. Even in the lesser roles, the simmering, often brutish Gary Lewis was outstanding as William Watt, the man accused of murdering his own family. And as Manuel's father Samuel, Gilly Gilchrist, an actor I have not noticed before, gave us the moment everyone was talking about.

Nick Stevens' script, unfortunately, was a touch below par. I am still not clear what the script said about the trick that got Manuel to confess. I have looked it up and now know, but I'm not at all sure this came across in the programme. Essentially Stevens concentrated, as he needed to, on contrasting the simple family man Muncie with the psychopathic black sheep of the Manuel family. This was echoed in the portrayal of the families. The Muncie family with its teenaged daughter wanting to go to her first parties - just the type Manuel was preying on - and the Manuels, the father who gave his son alibis, thus allowing him to go on killing, the mother who knew but couldn't bring herself to tell anyone, and the sister who did try and get her brother sectioned but who nevertheless told him in the final episode, chillingly, "I'm still your sister, Peter."

John Strickland's direction was perfunctory and the cinematography basically involved pointing a camera at it. Yet, overall, the series was more compelling and satisfactory than Rillington Place.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rillington Place

No prizes were likely for guessing who Rillington Place (BBC1 mini-series November 29 to December 13) was about. Who can forget Richard Attenborough's career-changing turn as serial killer Reg Christie in the similarly-named 10 Rillington Place? Certainly not Tim Roth whose performance here was an impersonation of Dickie Attenborough rather than at attempt at the real Christie. He was scary enough - but how can you not be scary when you're playing a man who lured gullible women to his house of horror for backstreet abortions? And, note to TV hair-stylists who also copied Attenborough's hairstyle rather than Christie's, men go bald from the back of the heard first. Take it from one who knows. Been there, done that.

The difference here was the three-part structure, each focusing on a different character and their interlocking story-strand. The first was 'Ethel', the story of Reg's long-suffering wife and victim. The second was 'Tim', and the third 'Reg'. Writers Ed Whitmore and Tracey Malone used the device brilliantly. 'Ethel' ended with the arrival of Tim and Beryl Evans, 'Tim' with the realisation that Christie was the main witness against him, and 'Reg' began immediately after Tim went to the gallows. They created their own problem, though. 'Ethel' was by far the best episode, partly because it contained material from before the Christies moved from Yorkshire to London, but mainly because Samantha Morton's performance stood head and shoulders above everyone else's. She showed us how an intelligent woman can let herself be controlled by a scheming partner; how she will tolerate any level of abuse rather than admit her weakness.

Roth's performance has already been discussed. Other performances were, on the whole, not great. Nico Mirallegro and Jodie Comer as the hapless Tim and Beryl Evans were instantly forgettable. The only standout for me - in addition to Morton, that is - was Christopher Hatherall as Ethel's brother Harry, fighting every inclination to beat Reg to a pulp and just quietly seething.
The direction (Craig Viveiros) was very good, the design and cinematography (Pat Campbell and James Friend respectively) were superb raising postwar London from seedy to positively gothic.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Young Pope/Close to the Enemy

It has not been a great year for television drama. There has been a lot of it and many of us had high hopes but, alas...

I may well deal with a few of the turkeys in another post. For now, though, I'd like to focus on two sumptuous new series, The Young Pope on Sky Atlantic, and Close to the Enemy on BBC 2.

Both are long form storytelling. Close to the Enemy will not have a direct sequel. It is hard to imagine that The Young Pope will either, although I have to say I am amazed (and grateful) that Sky commissioned it in the first place. Both, importantly, are written and directed by their creators. It really does make a difference. On the other hand, you do have to be equally good at both jobs.

Stephen Poliakoff is the last remaining significant British TV dramatist; he writes films and series purely for TV and now concentrates primarily on the first half of the 20th century. Now he directs all his own stuff he has thankfully dispensed with the services on the BBC casting directors and thereby spares us the usual suspects, who are all busy with series two of The Missing as it happens (a drama series which is mainly missing an audience). Thus the lead here is the very impressive Jim Sturgess as Callum Ferguson, something important in British military intelligence whose last task before demob is to persuade a snatched German scientist to work for the Brits. To do this he takes the scientist and his young daughter to a commandeered luxury hotel in London.

The city in the immediate aftermath of World War II is one giant bombsite. The hotel itself has been bomb damaged more than once but still clings to a veneer of luxury. Ferguson entirely embodies my idea of a smart young man on the verge of returning to Civvy Street. He has a relaxed, easy charm, and a sporty sway to his gait. He is very good indeed. Alfie Allen is his slightly creepy assistant Ringwood. There is a mysterious blonde, seemingly a call girl, hanging round the hotel. Every else our hero is shadowed by an intense brunette (Phoebe Fox) from the War Crimes Unit. The plot takes its time and is all the better for it. Rather than lurch from climax to climax, it radiates potential.

Over on Sky The Young Pope has been running for three weeks. It began with a double episode, which is all I needed to become hooked. Now let me be clear: I am no fan of Jude Law, I am a huge fan of Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty and Youth, which I bought on DVD yesterday), I am in no sense religious and have no interest whatsoever in Catholicism. In theory, I am not the audience at whom you would expect this series to be pitched. I mean, the idea of a 47 year-old American pope? Who gives a---?

Me, it turns out. From the opening scene of a naked baby crawling a across a hill of dead babies or baby dolls, only for Jude Law to crawl out the other side in his white papal skullcap and vestments - count me in! It's a dream, of course, a double-dream it transpires, but oh boy does it set the tone. Absolutely none of what follows conforms to expectations. Jude actually plays someone slightly older than himself. He is pretty, of course, but strange and remote. There is no big scandal surrounding his election although his mentor (James Cromwell) has taken it badly. The cardinals who run the Vatican machine expect business more or less as usual. The Machiavellian secretary of state Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) has even knocked up a few notes for Pope Pius XII's first homily to the faithful from the balcony overlooking St Peter's Square.

Pius prefers to write his own - and keeps the staff waiting. The wait takes up the whole opening double-bill, so anyone who thinks Poliakoff takes his time should steer well clear of Sorrentino. First Lenny, his pre-papal name, brings in the nun who brought him up (Diane Keaton), then he makes her his chief of staff. Then he announces his demands for coverage of the homily. Utterly counter-intuitive, pretty-boy Jude insists he will not be photographed or filmed; he will simply be a shadow on the balcony. He then harangues the crowds. They have forgotten God. They do not deserve to see his (Pope Lenny's) eyes. They will not see his eyes until they have acknowledged and accepted God. Rain pours down. Lightning flashes... Elsewhere in Rome Cardinal Voiello hugs the crippled young man who is either his son or his brother.

The real star of the show, as always with Sorrentino, is the setting. I cannot believe that he was allowed to film in the real Vatican, nonetheless his Vatican sings true in every aspect. The show is filmed on an epic scale. The international cast is standout good. I didn't notice a single dud. I cannot recommend it too highly. It is by far the best TV drama of the year. Exceptional in every sense. Jude Law is superb.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Beck Bogert & Appice

The thing about Jeff Beck is why is he not more prolific? Indeed, why is he famous at all? Hi Ho Silver Lining  was huge in the early Seventies but it was recorded in 1967 and not released until a year later when it failed to make the Top Ten. It is also atypical of Beck's work, being written by American commercial tunesmiths and produced by Mickie Most. Since then Beck has always been referred to reverentially as a Guitar God. Where's the evidence? Not here, I'm afraid. I truly believed it was when I eagerly sought out the album in '73-'74 but hearing it again today I realise that the catchy riffs on Black Cat Moan and Superstition are in fact bass riffs and presumably the work of Tim Bogert. Actually, when Beck's lead kicks in on Superstition the track wanders off into meaningless axe whiffle.

Just as with Hi Ho, the standout tracks here are the work of others - Stevie Wonder, obviously, for Superstition, and Don Nix for Black Cat Moan and Sweet Sweet Surrender. Nix also produced the three standouts whilst the other five tracks are the work of 'The Boys'. Of these Why Should I Care is my favourite of the moment. It would make a fabulous Ramones-style punk anthem if only it could be shorn of the self-indulgent solos in the middle.

Tim Bogert and Carrmine Appice joined Beck after Vanilla Fudge disbanded in 1970. Both are still working today. Beck's career is now in its sixth decade. He still shows up from time to time on other people's albums. Every couple of years he pops up accompanying someone more current on Jools Holland's TV show Later. What I feel he has failed to do is establish a solo identity or signature sound. You can usually tell when Clapton is playing. You can always tell when J J Cale is playing. How do you know it's Beck?

Beck, Bogert & Appice the album is a milestone in the career of all three members. It stands as an antidote to the prog rock nonsense of Yes and ELP which was big at the time. It is simple, honest and at its best when most bluesy. Black Cat Moan should really be as well known as Hi Ho Silver Lining and is a classic of its kind. Beck, Bogert & Appice the band came together at the end of 1972 and had broken up by the middle of 1974. This and a live album of their one and only tour are memorials to a moment.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The Secret Agent TV dramatisation BBC 1

I've very much enjoyed Tony Marchant's three-part dramatization of the Conrad original. It's been twenty years or more since I read the novel, so I only remembered certain aspects. I remembered the name of the agent (Verloc) and who it was got blown up by the anarchist bomb. But I hadn't remembered Winnie's fate or a confrontation between Stone and the Russian. I certainly hadn't remembered anything at all about Ossipon. Indeed I wondered why such an obviously peripheral character was getting so much airtime. Then came the multiple twists at the end of Episode 3. Are they actually in the novel? Only one way to find out.

Some critics objected that Episode 1 was too talky. I assume they allude to the political discussions hosted by Verloc at his pornography emporium in Soho. These were critics in rightwing broadsheets and they are instructed that only media pundits are allowed to discuss politics in the UK, especially on the BBC. Marchant, thankfully, is too well-established to care what the Murdoch/Barclay Press has to say about anything. He gave his anarchists due consideration, as did Conrad, who of course shared their Eastern European lineage if not their beliefs. It is always hard with Conrad, in his later works (The Secret Agent was written in 1907 though it is set a generation earlier) to judge where his personal sympathies lie. He is a writer of extraordinary complexity and depth. Marchant was rightly content to leave the viewers to make their own judgements.

The acting was first rate. Toby Jones is a major star and brought a servile, pathetic quality to Verloc which I had not seen in earlier adaptations. It therefore became clear that the only way he could marry a fiesty younger woman like Winnie (the magnificent Vicky McClure) was by taking on her mother and half-witted brother. Stephen Graham was compelling as Inspector Heat and I have never seen Tim Goodman-Hill give a finer performance as his socially and politically ambitious superior. Ian Hart  gave a bravura cameo as the bomb-making Professor and Raphael Acoloque may well become a star on the back of his performance as Ossupon. He has a great face for film and TV.
The direction was good, apart from one weird cut from Goodman-Hill leaving the Russian embassy to a tight close-up on Winnie in Soho, and the production sumptuous.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bowie - Pin-Ups (1973)

At last I've got myself one of the new retro record players. At last I can revisit my record collection, some of which I won't have heard in over 30 years. I can revisit my youth.

I was 18 when this came out but even though I was a huge Bowie fan, I probably didn't get my copy until '74 or '75. It seemed counter-intuitive, an artist as groundbreaking as Bowie doing an album of covers. I was more concerned with the wholly new albums like Diamond Dogs and Station to Station and Young Americans.
It seems odd now, when the likes of Adele can go four years without an album. Back in the 70s Bowie was unbelievably prolific, issuing two or three a year, each with a new persona, each with a new sound.
Yes, Pin-Up was a hurried cash-in on the stupendous fame that had hit him after Aladdin Sane. Yes, there was only one real hit single that I recall (Sorrow) but it also served as a reminder that Bowie wasn't 18, he wasn't an overnight sensation springing up out of nowhere. He had been playing since the mid-sixties. The bands covered here weren't what he'd listened to on the dansette in his suburban bedroom. These were bands he had seen and performed alongside.

Sorrow is the standout track. I still love it. But what I wanted to hear most - what made Pin-Ups the first album I plucked out of my battered record case - was Here Comes The Night (I  might be old but I'm not old enough to remember Them troubling the charts) and See Emily Play, which I do remember, Pink Floyd with Syd, magical. Of the two, Emily works best for me now. Syd was experimental, but Bowie takes the randomness further. Tracks I don't like are I Can't Explain and Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere? This is because I never did like The Who, not in 1965, not in 1967. The Kinks I adored - I saw them perform in '73 and the first record I ever bought was their Dedicated Follower of Fashion EP in, I guess, '64 or '65. Where Have All The Good Times Gone disappoints here. Ray Davies frankly did it better. One I had completely forgotten, Shape of Things by The Yardbirds, works really well.

I'm so glad I got my record player and embarked on this tour of my younger days. Yes, you can get the same albums on CD but who wants them digitally remastered? Who thought themselves entitled to fiddle with the work of great artists and, Gawd 'elp us, enhance it? This is what Bowie heard when he listened to the playback in 1973. This is what he produced it to sound like. This is what he wanted, and that's plenty good enough for me.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

George Shaw: In the Woods | The National Gallery, London

Huge fan of the Coventry-born Shaw, ever since I saw his homecoming exhibition at the Herbert.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Malicia (Pure Evil) - Argentinian crime drama on All4

Malicia (rebranded Pure Evil for those discerning enough to find it but too dumb to figure out what 'malicia' means) is part of Channel 4's world drama package, Walter Presents.  Available only online via the All4 app. it consists for thirteen half-hour episodes.

At its black heart is Daniel Parodi (Gabriel Goity, seen above), a cop who seems to have been on permanent sick leave since the death of his daughter six years earlier.  Despite this, he seems to be on an informal retainer with the prosecutor, played by Ana Celentano, with whom he may be in love. They meet for a swim most days.  Meanwhile Parodi has assembled an ad hoc investigation team in the bookshop run by former policeman Ernesto.  Their principal case for the last six years has been the murder of Parodi's daughter Laura.  There is no doubt she was murdered - the killer lured Parodi there to watch.  That is the hook that kicks off the series.  That is when we realise we are in for a tour de force of acting from Goity.

Soon everyone from psychiatric patients to human traffickers is dying and all deaths seem to be linked to the works of Argentinian uber-author Jorge Luis Borges.  Then the prosecutor is raped at the swimming pool, a young girl is kidnapped and renamed Laura Parodi, and it becomes abundantly clear that the titular malice is being deliberately piled onto the shoulders of Parodi.

The cast is fantastic, Goity in particular.  The interplay with Celentano is subtly done. The story is - pace Borges - labyrinthine and the half-hour format means we get twice as many cliffhangers than in the usual 6 x 60 minutes.  I'm on Episode 12 and still don't know for sure who's behind it all or how Parodi will figure it out in the remaining 30 minutes.

The All4 app works well and is a great way to watch a series like Pure Evil.  I am hooked.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Yet more Scandinavian drama - or is it? 100 Code

It's set in Sweden, a lot of it is in Swedish, and it co-stars Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, hero of the original and by far the superior Swedish Millennium Trilogy.  But the story originates in the 2014 novel Merrick by the Northern Irish writer Ken Bruen, and Nyqvist's co-star is the German-born British actor Dominic Monaghan, best known as one of those bloody Hobbits in the tedious Lord of the Rings blot on the cinematic landscape, the TV series Lost, and - it goes without saying - Hetty Wainwright Investigates.  To mix things up a little further, here Monaghan plays an American cop, possibly from New York but I'm not entirely clear on that.

It's a bit of a Euro-mongrel then, 100 Code, but unlike other unfortunate mash-ups such as, say, Fortitude, the series works.  The acting is well above average (I especially like the young woman who plays Nyqvist's headstrong daughter) and the photography is great, but really it's down to the plot.  Monaghan's character Conley is in Stockholm because he is tracking a serial killer who seems to have moved from the US to Sweden.  Halfway through the series, which is roughly where we are now, it turns out that we have a whole bunch of serial killers being encouraged and equipped by someone they only know via the Internet.  There is a suggestion that he or she, the controller, is a voyeur who gets his/her kicks by watching the murders.

Back to Ken Bruen - he's a strange case.  He is well published and critically well-received, yet his books are only apparently taken up by foreign TV companies.  His Jack Taylor series, which I have reviewed on this blog heretofore, was essentially a German production, albeit featuring an entirely British and Irish cast.  Why haven't the mainstream British channels taken a punt, I wonder? The audience exists - I gather Series 2 of 100 Code has been confirmed.

Monday, February 15, 2016

More Scandinavian drama on UK television - Occupied

Based on an idea by Jo Nesbo - and can't you just tell.  Norway declares itself a green-fuel state.  The EU doesn't like it.  Russia absolutely hates the idea.  So Russia takes over Norway's North Sea platforms with EU backing.  That's what I call High Concept!

It's a soft occupation.  No tanks, no troops in the street.  Just the Russian ambassador - a superbly icy Ingeborga Dapkunaite - making things abundantly clear to the idealistic Prime Minister (Henrik Mestad). And in the unwanted role of go-between, the security officer Djupvik (Eldar Skar) who found the PM after the Russians briefly abducted him while the rigs were commandeered, and then saved the ambassador from an assassination attempt.

The ten-episode series is said to have been Norway's most expensive to date.  A lot of the cash is to be seen on screen.  You can really tell that the crew have had that little extra time to get the shots just right.  The cast, all unknown to me, are excellent, especially Skar, who does an exemplary job as the protection man forced to become an international diplomat, whilst simultaneously solving every crime that might upset the Russians and delay their departure.

For those who don't have Sky, Occupied is a must-get box set.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Grayson Perry's The Vanity of Small Differences

I finally saw this exhibition a fortnight ago at the Herbert Gallery in Coventry.
What we have is six tapestries, each about the size of decent-sized rug. Together they form a series based on Hogarth's The Rake's Progress. Here we have Tim Rakewell from birth, through unhappy education (the one illustrated above), social climbing marriage, success, the realisation of the world disintegrating around him, divorce and death. Grayson, of course, only designed the images. Others had what must have been a mammoth task of translating all that detail into single stitches.
Snaking through the images are what I can only describe as tapes of commentary and dialogue. These work very well and add an extra dimension to the core images.
It's amusing, challenging, and unfortunately left a couple of days after I saw it. The good news is it's a touring exhibition and should be pitching up at a gallery near you sometime soon.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

TV Drama Imports

The new season of TV drama is under way. Leading for the BBC is War and Peace, which I have already reviewed below and won't expand on here, save to say that Episode Two was awful, almost cartoonish in its superficiality, though the scenery is still stunning and the character of Natasha still utterly pointless.

In this post I'm going to focus on three imports, Deutschland 83 on Channel 4 and Walter Presents, Spin on More 4 and Walter Presents, and From Dawn Till Dusk: The Series on Spike.

Walter Presents is Channel 4's big idea for extending its digital reach.  Several subtitled series are available as box sets on the All4 app, and two are also being shown in conventional format. The first of these to air, Deutschland 83, went up against the first episode of War and Peace, so in earlier times it would have disappeared without trace.  However, thanks to watch-on-demand and the sumptuous tedium of War and Peace it got a lot of attention - and rightly so.  Where W&P is inevitably overblown, Deutschland 83 is muted and considered and takes its largely single-focus story over eight episodes.

Martin (Jonas Nay) is happily doing his National Service in East Germany when his aunt (Maria Schrader), who just happens to work for the Stasi, puts him forward for an undercover mission in the West.  This is the time of Ronald Reagan, the last Cold Warrior, and US missiles are about to be deployed on the East/West Border.  Martin just happens to look like Mortitz Stamm, newly-appointed ADC to General Edel, West Germany's lead officer on the NATO deployment.

Like all spy-thrillers, the hand of coincidence lies heavy.  The genius of this series is the deployment that little-known German characteristic, irony.  For example, when Martin innocently asks his seedy Stasi handler Walter what happened to the real Moritz Stamm, cut to glamorous Stasi agent on a train shooting him dead.  The only sense in which Martin can't pass for Moritz is that Moritz is an accomplished pianist.  No problem: Walter snaps one of Martin's fingers.  And the absolute highlight of Episode 2, when Martin steals the NATO plan from a hotel safe - "There's nothing here but a square plastic thing with a hole in the middle" (i.e. floppy disk).  It's a cracker.  The good news is you can catch up whenever you like online.

Next came Spin, also from Walter Presents, on More 4.  This is a French series with overtones of Borgen, except that it is seen entirely from the POV of the spin doctors.  When the President is killed by a suicide bomber, the awful Prime Minister Philippe Deleuvre (Philippe Magnan) spins it as a terrorist attack, which it isn't, in order to promote himself as the only man strong enough to take on the presidential challenge. Super-duper PR man Simon Kapita (Bruno Walkowitch) was a friend of the late president and knows how much he hated Deleuvre.  His favoured candidate is the Minister for Social Affairs, Anne Visage (Nathalie Baye, below) who, to no one's great surprise, was the president's last mistress.

Not that Kapita is in any position to criticise.  He seems to have slept with every female in the storyline except Anne (give him time).  Valentine (Clementine Poidatz) is the speechwriter who got the President elected last time.  She was sleeping with Kapita at the time, obviously.  Since Kapita decamped to New York and the UN she has been sleeping with Kapita's protege Demeuse (Gregory Fitoussi aka him-out-of-Spiral), who Kapita sold the business to.  Now Demeuse has signed up as the Prime Minister's doctor of spin.  Fabulous.  First rate television.  Only one teeny quibble - why Spin?  The original title is Les hommes de l'ombre or Shadow Men, which is surely more interesting.  What is really interesting is that, despite the hideous relevance of its storyline, Spin is actually three years old.

Also a surprise late-comer to British TV is From Dawn Till Dusk, Robert Rodriguez's 2014 play on his iconic 1996 movie.  This we know is going to be a hit because it has already had two series in the States.  A third has been commissioned.  The premise - in Series One so far - is to explore the backstories of the various characters before the end up in the vampire club.  Rodriguez himself directed the two episodes aired to date and, as well as beautiful photography and iconic actors (Don Johnson and Robert Patrick) we have ingenious tricks with time.  Key to success are the Gecko Brothers, the newly escaped Seth and mad-as-a-box-frogs Richie.  Fortunately both are superbly played by D J Cotrona and Zane Holtz.

Spin is compelling, Deutschland 83 is compelling and darkly funny, From Dawn Till Dusk is captivating and often hilarious.  For TV drama 2016 has got off to a cracking start.

Monday, January 04, 2016

War and Peace - BBC TV dramatisation

The latest BBC version of Tolstoy's doorstopper was always going to be a little light.  That said, six sixty minute episodes is long than any film adaptation and the last BBC dramatisation back in the Seventies was well night unendurable, it went on so long.  Yet the 2016 is disturbingly light.  On the evidence of the first episode the balance between concision and backstory just doesn't strike me as right.

There is much to admire.  The young cast of relative unknowns are currently playing characters too young to have much personality, and with the exception of Paul Dano's Pierre (above) it is difficult to keep track of them.  Pierre is, by definition, different from his fellow aristocrats, and anyway the first episode was almost entirely about him.  For the rest of that generation, all seemed enthusiastic and adequate so far as they got to show anything.  Lily James is meant to sparkle as Natasha, and she certainly gave it a good go, but for me she fell into the trap of actors pretending to be ten years younger than they are, and came across as childish.

The older generation were given cameos that were meat and drink to them and any one of them could have done in their sleep.  Actually, only Brian Cox as Kutusov seemed to have actually done so.  Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Ade Edmondson and the luminous Gillian Anderson, were all excellent, but two standout performances for me were Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhalovna and Greta Scacchi (who we don't see often enough nowadays) as Natasha's mother, the Countess.

The civilian world was beautifully shot, indoors and out, a real visual feast.  The battle scenes were a bit schizophrenic, crudely amateurish half of the time, and truly stirring at others.  What was meant to be eyecatching - a messenger galloping across the battlefront - was risible, whereas the charge from the woods which he brought the orders for, was breathtaking.

Andrew Davies did the dramatisation.  This, of course, is mandatory on the BBC and may well pass into law.  He rightly points out in various defensive interviews, that contemporary consumers of television drama are quicker on the uptake than their forebears, thanks to HBO and digital editing.  What he doesn't accept is that sad truth that they have also moved on for his hatchet-job technique.  Modern viewers absolutely demand depth.  That said, I don't for a moment think that Davies was responsible for the overused device of wandering off from conversations.  Perhaps Davies couldn't quite get the material down to 52 or 53 minutes (allowing for grandiose set-up and the usual BBC 'adverts' either end, and so this was a way of suggesting hidden depths whilst saving time.  Or maybe director Tom Harper has the attention span of a goldfish.  We shall find out in future weeks.  And we shall find out because, never mind the odd shortcoming, this is essential Sunday evening viewing, ideal for its slot, and a major statement of intent from the beleaguered BBC.