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.