Babs (BBC1 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Extra



I’m deviating from my usual timetable of reviews to sneak in this extra one-off programme which aired this Sunday on BBC1.  On paper this was a dream for me.  From a small child I’ve loved Dame Barbara Windsor.  One of my greatest childhood treats would be to watch a “Carry On” film even when I was only getting a small proportion of the jokes.  Even now, if I’m feeling a bit off colour an hour and a half spent in the company of Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Dame Babs herself is always a worthwhile remedy.  (By the way, before you ask, “Camping” is my favourite with its so memorable Babs bikini-busting scene- perhaps one of the most iconic moments in British film!).


Carry On Camping – Look out for the string!

There wasn’t a great deal of “Carry On” in Babs, just the much anecdoted first meeting with “difficult” Kenneth Williams on “Spying” which forged a life-long friendship and a fleeting nod towards “Doctor”.  Sid James, an important person in Babs’ life was just a laugh in the background (it can’t be easy to cast an actor to play Sid James).  This 90 minute production focused on Windsor’s pre-Carry On days.  The whole Sid James thing having been covered before in the excellent, revelatory stage play “Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle And Dick” which was adapted for television as “Cor Blimey!” (2000).


Cor Blimey! It’s Babs!

This was quite a theatrical piece written by top television writer and ex-Eastenders head man Tony Jordan and focused very much on ghosts.  Using a pre-Peggy Mitchell Babs, sleeping on pier-end dressing room floors between shows as the central character she reflected on and observed various Babs’ and her past, most prominently the relationship with her father.


The narrative moved back and forwards chronologically.  It was a fascinating structure but it did slow things down considerably and that is why it will not, despite its appealing subject matter, be getting the full five stars.                                                                                              . londonspyspiro

Samantha Spiro – Born To Be Babs

Certainly it was five star in terms of performance.  Samantha Spiro as the 90’s Babs was magnificent.  She’s been equally magnificent in the same role before.  Her performance in “Cor Blimey!” was so spot on that when the real Windsor takes over at the end it took a second or two to register.  Every time I’ve seen Samantha Spiro since I think of that portrayal.  Likewise here, Dame Babs was on hand, playing herself with just the odd aside and comment as she observed some of her life’s proceedings and, grand old trouper that she is, getting our eyes moist with an in-the-spotlight rendition of “Sunny Side Of The Street”, very much a significant song for the Windsor career and used quite heavily throughout.  This moment could have been as cheesy as anything, but as was stressed in the early part of the proceedings Barbara always had a certain something and aged 79 she still has it.


A pair of Babs’ –  Samantha Spiro and Jaime Winstone promoting the show

The Barbara of the Swinging Sixties was played very well by Jaime Winstone who’d got the giggle and the wiggle down to a tee, but was always strong in conveying a more vulnerable Babs behind the (formidable) front.  This section focused on her relationship with bad boy husband Ronnie Knight, a man who made those in her working life distinctly nervous and whose appeal to Babs never really got across here.  Barbara’s early theatrical career and the support given to her by Joan Littlewood at The Theatre Workshop (played by Zoe Wanamaker) was also very well handled.


Perhaps the most affecting Babs ghost on display was the determined pre-teen, turning cartwheels in auditions much to her mother’s chagrin and having to give evidence against her beloved father in court proceedings.  Played by twelve year old Honor Kneafsey (so good in BBC1 Series “Our Zoo”) who painfully brought home each snub received by the man she idolised whilst taking on board that “the show must go on”


The young Babs, happy with both parents

So, wonderful performances and a good feel of the time but really I think there’s a series load of material in the extremely readable Windsor autobiography “All Of Me” so Jordan had to be selective when putting this together.  If it had flowed a little better, I would have no compunction in awarding five stars as it is it was very memorable Sunday night viewing.

In checking the odd fact for this review a few minutes ago I’ve discovered that there has been what the Daily Mail likes to regard as a “ TV Storm” about this and that is was “Slammed by viewers”.  Not having seen any other reviews and not (thankfully) reading the Daily Mail I knew nothing of this whilst writing the above.  I’ve just taken a little look and it seems like the structure and flow which I aired reservations about caused people to find it unwatchable and not know what was going on, although with usual tabloid overstatement there seemed to be a considerable number of viewers and reviewers who praised the production.  So, a mixed reaction but it was great to see a true British National Treasure getting ninety minutes of primetime on a Sunday evening.


Dame Barbara Windsor



“Babs” was shown on Sunday 7th May and is currently available on the BBC I-Player.  The DVD will be released on the 15th May

Jamestown – Sky 1 (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



A big old ship sailed into Sky 1 on Friday night.  It was the launch of their big new eight part drama series with the much promoted tagline “By the makers of “Downton Abbey””.  I don’t watch a great deal on Sky 1.  Since football comedy “The Rovers” which I enjoyed it’s just the rebooted “Hawaii 5-0” that makes it into my planner, but I thought I would give this a go.

It’s 1619 and the men sent to colonise Virginia have been there for twelve years.  Now the ship is bringing them in women, known as “maids to make wives”.  With one exception, the men and women have never met, yet deals have been struck and they have already been paired off.  It’s a good premise.  It had the slight feel of the Jimmy McGovern penned  Australian-convicts- on- the beach BBC2 series “Banished” from last year, but this doesn’t star Russell Tovey and is probably going to be less edgy and grim.


The Women Of Jamestown – Jocelyn, Verity and Alice

“Jamestown” seems as if it will focus on three of the betrothed women who have survived the journey to meet their men.  Alice (Sophie Rundle) thinks she has lucked out when she sees the man waiting for her, only to discover that it is the brother of the man and that she is really betrothed to a churlish Henry (Max Beesley) who wants a quick return on his investment and rapes her whilst she is out walking on the first night.  We can all tell that his brother Silas (Stuart Martin) is a much better bet.  Alice’s good friend Verity (Niamh Walsh) has a bit of trouble finding her man until she discovers he is the one with his ear nailed to the stocks for blasphemy (watch out Stephen Fry!).  Meredith (played by Dean Lennox-Kelly) is a drunk and is soon gambling using Verity as stake.  Perhaps the most interesting of the female characters is the one with the back-story, a woman who tells Alice before they dock that she had to leave England as a man had been killed and who has already met her beau, the company recorder, Samuel.  This is Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick) who in the first episode looks like she is being set up as the Alexis Carrington of the piece as she schemes and manipulates to get her own way and to ensure her survival and that the man she has been paired with will prosper in this new community.


Jamestown itself was the first permanent English colony in America with its existence pre-dating the Pilgrim Fathers.  The programme makers have chosen to relocate this in Hungary as the series has been filmed near Budapest.  It is written and created by Bill Gallagher, who has previously worked on those comforting historical dramas “Lark Rise To Candleford” and “The Paradise”.  The first episode was directed by John Alexander, a man with historical pieces “Indian Summers” and “Sense And Sensibility” among his many television credits.


Jamestown Colony

The most striking thing about the series was how lovely it looked.  Colours are quite vivid, making the sea (when calm) a vivid shade of blue. True, there is no doubt going to be a lot of mud, but this New World has a clearness and lushness which just might keep a few viewers along for the ride just to wallow in the scenery.  Also in the cast there are some good old reliables such as Burn Gorman (“Torchwood”/”The Hour”) Jason Flemyng (“Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels”/”Primeval”) and Shaun Dooley (“Broadchurch/”Cuffs”).  In this first episode they were all rather upstaged by the dim but devoted domestic help, Mercy (Patsy Ferran), who judging by her non-appearance on the IMDB cast list might not play much of a future role in the series.  (Surely IMDB cannot make a mistake?) If this is so, then this is a shame because it was played with the making-the-most-of-a-minor domestic role which spans way back to Ruby from the original “Upstairs Downstairs” and includes Daisy from “Downton Abbey” (By the makers of Jamestown).  I couldn’t help but wonder, as Mercy was already there when the boatload of women arrived why she wasn’t the most popular girl in the town and already shacked up with one of the better looking men.  But then, that’s seventeenth century class differences, I suppose.


The jury is still out if I’m going to last the distance with “Jamestown”.  I’ve already got one historical drama on the go, the cup-runneth-over “Harlots”, which is a mass of tightly contained heaving bosoms in a series which is actually beginning to win me over with its tale of eighteenth century London rival brothels, shunted for some reason onto ITV Encore ( a channel I don’t think I’ve ever watched before). To keep the Downton connection going to the very end this features the ill-fated Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) as the highly-esteemed Charlotte the harlot, currently making out with a much more downmarket Irishman than the chauffeur she elevated from downstairs in “Downton”.  All in all, I’ve decided I’m going to be paying a visit to Jamestown for the next episode at least.  There’s plenty of dramatic potential in the characters and the scenery is gorgeous.  Whether the makers have another Downton on their hands I’m less convinced.


Jamestown is on Friday nights at 9pm on Sky 1.  The first episode is available to watch on Sky catch-up platforms.

Peter Kay’s Car Share – BBC1 (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



The success of the first series of Peter Kay’s Car Share certainly took the  name-checked star and director by surprise.  It was a much lower-key  piece than we had come to expect from this larger-than-life stand-up.  It was subtle and character-led.  I was talking to a friend about it today who said they watched just one episode and it was like watching paint dry and in a way I know what she meant.  I think expectations were high for another series like “Phoenix Nights” which could make you laugh until your sides ache or something which reflected his live shows with not enough recovery times between jokes.  A series largely composed of two people sat in the car on the way to work needed time to work its magic.  But for those of us who stuck with it, the charm of the piece hit home.  It was almost a case of letting the jokes find you.  There were the big laugh moments but for much of the time this viewer would have little more than a wry smile.  Series 1 won the BAFTA award for Best Comedy and a viewer voted National TV Award.  This was a great surprise to Kay but not, perhaps for the majority of us who are now struggling to find TV comedy funny.  For the BAFTAs it was up against “Peep Show”, which I had given up with quite a few series back and “Chewing Gum” and “People Just Do Nothing”, two shows on smaller channels E4 and BBC3.  Kay’s uncommercial idea was the most commercial of the lot. The audience rating led National TV Award saw him a worthy winner against two comedy juggernauts, long past their prime “Benidorm” and “Birds Of A Feather” and “Not Going Out” of which I’ve seen only one episode.

Peter Kay speechless at the BAFTAs

For those who had stuck with Series 1 and its more leisurely pace Series 2 was an essential.  The relationship between characters John Redmond (Kay) and Kayleigh, his car share partner from the supermarket where they work (Sian Gibson) was simmering nicely.  The warmth generated by these long-time off screen friends was palpable and it was this rather than laugh out loud jokes which made it special.  Series 2 consists of four episodes and once again followed the now more common but radical idea of having all four episodes available on BBC I-Player as soon as episode 1 has been transmitted.  Last time round I watched each episode as they were shown on a weekly basis, not really understanding why anyone would do anything different.  At time of writing two episodes of Series 2 have been transmitted, but for the purpose of this review I have found myself downloading and watching the other two.


Checking reviewsrevues for a good review?

This series seems to be bookmarked at each end by two quieter episodes.  The first re-establishes the characters, carries on from Kayleigh giving John a copy of her all-time favourite album (Now 48) with a note to listen to a specific track (“Pure And Simple” by Hearsay).  According to news reports the reintroduction of Now 48 to Series 2 caused a huge demand for the 16 year old double compilation CD which led to appearing it on’s Charts on the basis of its second-hand sales alone.  That demand is still continuing.  Now 47 and 49 are in plentiful supply for a penny, yet Now 49 will currently set you back £24.75.  I absolutely love that this has happened on the strength of its mention in a comedy show.

I bet that has got you going off to the CD shelves to see if you own this potential money-spinner.  (I’ve just checked Now 46 is the closest I’ve got).  I enjoyed this first episode with Kayleigh attempting to find her own way to work “I’m in court shoes, I’m not Zola Budd.”  Much of the humour came from the soundtrack of Forever FM and the character’s reactions to the ads and playlist (Eurovision runner-ups Bardo’s “One Step Further” being a little gem here).  The fourth episode has to deal further with the relationship between John and Kayleigh with some knockabout comedy when Kayleigh finds herself locked indoors and a nod towards “La La Land” for the resolution.  Once again there’s musical highspots in Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” and Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”.  However, in both of these episodes I found myself wishing that there was just a little more to laugh at.


Get it on E-Bay quick!

What lifted this series were Episodes 2 and 3 for different reasons.  Episode 2 (shown on BBC 1 last Tuesday) set the comedy up with John and Kayleigh on the way to a staff do fancy dress Chinese banquet but then handed the whole thing over to a new character, Elsie, who they give a lift home to dressed as a Smurf.  (“There’s no taxis, it’s the Ramadan”). Costume and make-up were so convincing that I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t Peter doing one of his double roles, which had fooled many people in “Phoenix Nights” days when he played Brian Potter and the bouncer Max.  It turns out that this comedy-tour-de-force was Conleth Hill, best known for his role as Varys in “Game Of Thrones”.  Peter played second fiddle and the result was comedy gold.  But for bigger belly laughs Episode 3, which will be shown on BBC1 this week is a gem.  When John and Kayleigh decide to skive off work for a day it leads to a section which had me laughing like I haven’t done for a TV comedy in ages- a sequence where laugh is piled upon laugh which was certainly nothing like paint drying!


Not Peter Kay but it could have been!


Elsie – 2017’s great new comic character

This second series of four episodes has felt familiar and yet surprising.  I love Peter Kay when he is unsubtle (presenting Royal Variety Performance and in the magnificent TV talent show spoof “Britain’s Got The Pop Factor….”), I love his stand-up (made Guinness Book of Records for most successful of all time playing to 1.2 million people) I loved the whole set-up of “Phoenix Nights”, have enjoyed his three number 1 UK hit singles, but admittedly was not wild about his “Max and Paddy’s Road To Nowhere” series.  This revitalised attempt at a very British road trip, a car share journey to work, has seen him once again getting close to comedy gold.

fivestars(On the strength of Episodes 2 and 3)

The third episode of “Peter Kay’s Car Share” will be shown on Tuesday on BBC1 at 9pm.  The whole series (4 episodes) is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.


Empire- (E4- 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



Midway through Season 3 this dynamic series took what felt like a very extended break.  (In the UK the mid-season break is still seen as a strange thing where US viewers seem to take it in their stride).  I was very much missing it and hoped to rely on my Sky Planner to pick up on the series’ resumption to get my dose of the manoeuvrings of the Lyon family to liven up the long winter nights.  My Series Link did not pick it up and it was lucky that I caught a trailer in the ads of the only other E4 show I watch (“Tattoo Fixers”). The Sky Box let me down but “Empire” certainly hasn’t.


I’m old enough to remember when American family dysfunction topped the television ratings over here with shows such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty” and “Empire” is the natural successor to these over-blown tales yet is rather lost here tucked away on E4.  I love this show.  It has an epic grandeur that can be seem to be almost Shakespearean at times and yet is set to a hip-hop beat.


“Empire”  is an R&B record company owned by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) – a former rap superstar.  Amongst his artists (they seem to come and go somewhat) are his two sons, girl magnet rapper, Hakeem and soul singer Jamal.  His older son Andre is on the board of the company.  Jamal challenges the prejudices and stereotypes of the hip-hop community by being gay (something Lucious himself is very uncomfortable with).  To add to the positivity of the programme he is played by Jussie Smollett- an out gay actor.

The heirs to The Empire – in black and white (first picture Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Y Gray and Trai Byers) (second Byers, Smollett and Gray)

The show centres on the music but it would be wrong to give the impression that you need to be a hip-hop fan to enjoy it.  In the first two series the music was produced by Timbaland and it was believed that it would spawn many chart hits as the series progressed with tracks being released quickly as had been so initially successful with “Glee”.  This didn’t happen although the music was every bit as relevant as today’s chart music.  For series three Rodney Jenkins (producer of hits for Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, The Spice Girls, Jennifer Lopez amongst many others) and songwriter Esther Dean have taken over the music duties.  The music now still has a central place yet does not appear to be quite as dominant as in the early episodes- perhaps when it was being used more as a marketing strategy.  Now there’s usually some kind of showcase or event (think the Oil Baron’s Ball on a weekly basis- Dallas fans) where the music is featured but it is the over-the-top drama which is the show’s real strength.


Cookie and Lucious

And much of this comes from the fabulous creation that is Cookie Lyon, being played as a real tour-de-force by the formidable Taraji P Henson.  Cookie is the former wife of Lucious who took the rap and a seventeen year prison sentence when they were both dealing drugs to found Luscious’ early music career.  Now freed, Cookie wants what she feels is rightfully hers.  There has not been so much manipulation and one-upmanship since JR and Sue Ellen Ewing hung up their Stetsons.  In this resuming episode Cookie took a baseball bat to Lucious’ record label memorabilia and gold records in an attempt to get even over his latest slight.  (The trigger here was Lucious’ current wife, Anika (Grace Gealey) being promoted into a position of power for the umpteenth time.  She is incidentally, also the mother to Lucious’ youngest Hakeem’s baby and pushed Andre’s wife to her death).

Lucious’ women played by Taraj P Henson and Grace Gealey 

There’s been enough murder, treachery, catfights, staircase falls, interrupted weddings, hidden family members  and sex scandals to make Aaron Spelling weep with joy and like no other shows since the glory days of “Dallas” and “Dynasty” this is done with quality and conviction.  You could watch it to laugh at it but there’s something about the family dynamics, the big star cameo roles (Naomi Campbell, Courtney Love, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Kelly Rowlands amongst others) and top-notch performances from the leads, and also from Trai Byers as bi-polar Andre and Andre Royo, in his best role since Bubbles in “The Wire” as Thirsty Rawlings, the Lyons’ dubious legal adviser which draws this particular viewer right in.   The good news is that Series 4 has been given the go ahead, so there’s plenty more life in this show yet.




Empire is currently on E4 on Monday nights at 10pm.  Earlier episodes can be found on the All Four catch-up service.

This Is Us (Channel Four- 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



For the last fifteen weeks tucked away in the shifting transmission time-zone of  Tuesday late evening Channel Four has been this real gem of a series.  “This Is Us” has been feted in its homeland where the American Film Institute has awarded it as a Top Television Programme and has been nominated for Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice and Screen Actor’s Guild Awards whereas here (because of its scheduling?) it has largely slipped under the radar.

“This Is Us” is the story of the Pearson family.  Kate and Kevin are two thirds of triplets and when the third was still-born their parents adopted an African-American baby, Randall, who had been found abandoned at the hospital.  The story is shared between modern day with the siblings in their thirties and at various times in their childhood and in their parents’ lives.


In the present Randall is a high-achieving businessman with wife, two daughters and a rediscovered birth father, who has terminal cancer.  Jack was a successful TV sitcom actor until he jacked in his lead role as eye-candy male au-pair “The Manny” in an attempt to be seen as a serious stage actor and Kate, his former assistant, is attempting to deal with weight issues and a new romance as well as trying to establish her own identity and position within the family.  Their father is dead and their mother is now with his best friend.  In the flashback sections Dad is very much a central character as the couple cope with the dynamics between the three children and their relationship with one another.

It is very much an ensemble piece with a collection of executive producers (the show was actually created by Dan Fogelman) and writing teams (common enough in US TV) but also with an ensemble cast, not terribly familiar to British viewers who inhabit their roles with great style and intelligence.

Inevitably, awards committees will single out performers from ensembles and so far it has been singer and actress Mandy Moore (who became an international music star back in 2000 with hit single “I Wanna Be With You) who plays the triplet’s mum Rebecca in both time frames, Chrissy Metz (best known her role in “American Horror: Freak Show) who plays Kate and Sterling K Brown (who plays adopted brother Randall) who have received the acting nominations.

The two faces of Mandy Moore in “This Is Us”

Chrissy Metz and Sterling K Brown

Probably the most familiar cast member is Dad Jack, played by Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli in international hit “Heroes”) and there have been some lovely performances from Justin Hartley as the third sibling Ryan; Susan Kelechi Watson as Randall’s wife, Beth and Chris Sullivan as Kate’s boyfriend Toby.  Because of the time lapses in the narrative structure these actors are all pretty much the same age.  The gravitas performance is an excellent turn by Ron Cephas Jones as William, Randall’s biological father who is dealing with his failing health, coming to terms with a whole new family and a male partner.


Mandy Moore with Milo Ventimiglia


 Ron Cephas Jones

The whole thing is character led and beautifully written and the flashback sections work just as well as the present day narrative, with the two linking together, often subtly but always convincingly.

In the latest episode shown this week on Channel 4, Valentine’s Day and an impending band tour caused tension between Jack and Rebecca; Ryan’s “serious” play was due its opening night and the strain of work and family were getting to Randall leading to a conclusion which was both heart-warming and eye-misting.  If character led drama with the natural comedy of families interacting with one another appeals this is a prime example.




This Is Us is currently being shown by Channel 4 in the UK on Tuesdays at  around 10.30pm.  The last few episodes can be found on the All-4 catch up TV service.


SS-GB – BBC1 (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



For the next five weeks BBC1’s Sunday prime-time series is the first television adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1978 novel.  It feels like there have been trailers for some time now and they all made it look very polished.  I’ve recently read the book and although the premise of an alternative history whereby Britain was occupied by the Nazis following defeat at the Battle of Britain is fascinating (and meticulously planned by the author) the plot felt a little lacklustre, characterisation dated and the relationships between the main characters somewhat stilted.  However, I did get some enjoyment from the book and thought this visual interpretation would help me at moments if my attention wandered from the story.  I do think, however if I had the job at looking at what to adapt for television I might have given this a miss in favour of the similarly themed but more satisfying novels by Tony Schumacher.


My assumption about the visuals felt correct from the opening moments as a spitfire looped a loop in the countryside before flying into London and landing on the Mall with a bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace in the background.  A truly impressive set of pre-credit visuals to get the series off and running.  A radio news broadcast announces the relaxation of a curfew to celebrate German/Soviet Friendship Week, which we feel might suddenly become less friendly as a member of the British Resistance guns down a German Officer.


It is November 1941 and we soon meet (post-coitally) Douglas Archer from Scotland Yard who is now solving crimes alongside the Nazis.  He is played with disappointing throatiness by Sam Riley, an actor, model and musician best known for playing Joy Division’s troubled front-man Ian Curtis in “Control” and as Diaval in “Maleficent”.  I’d not seen him before this and do not know if he naturally speaks in low, hushed clipped tones or whether he feels this is part of the film-noirish elements of the piece which didn’t appeal to me when I read the book.  Before I’d seen any of this I’d written about Deighton’s novel; “it feels like it should be read out of the corner of the mouth with a cigarette on”.  I might have suspected Riley of taking my note literally, that is if it hadn’t been filmed what seems like an inordinately long time ago at the end of 2015.

About ten minutes in, you realise what is going to happen and it has nothing to do with the plot.  This series is going to be most remembered for that bugbear of the BBC Drama – mumbling.  Like “Happy Valley” which wasn’t spoilt by the much complained about mumbling and the much-maligned “Jamaica Inn” which certainly was it is the mumbling grumbling which is going to dominate.  Indeed by the day after broadcast there had been complaints to the BBC (apparently less than 100 by Monday afternoon from a 4 million viewing audience, but the press always like a good BBC-baiting news story) and it is fairly evident that there’s little that can be done about it because the lead actor has chosen to play it that way.  Is this the reason behind the length of time between production finishing and transmission?


On Friday’s “Gogglebox” we watched the viewers straining to decipher what was being said, which was funny, but which also means that from here on we will be watching this differently.  I had put the subtitles on very early on and it did not especially mar my enjoyment.  It was good to see James Cosmo (since the filming of this becoming much better known because of his likeable stint in the Celebrity Big Brother house earlier this year) co-starring as Harry Woods.  I also understood every word he said.

The rest of the cast wasn’t particularly familiar to me (apart from Aneurin Barnard who had been so good as “Our Bobby” in “Cilla”) and it is interestingly by a German, Philipp Kadelbach and has been written and adapted for television by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who may address some of the shortcomings of the novel.

Once we’d risen above the audibility issues the first episode felt reasonably close to the book and so I share the same reservations I had for the novel.  I am going to stick with it, however.  I am especially looking forward to a Highgate Cemetery scene which given the high production values in the visuals promises to be a series highspot.


SS-GB is shown on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1.  The first episode is still available on the BBC I-Player.

Roots- BBC4 (2017)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review



In the 1970’s and 1980’s a British television staple was the American Mini-Series.  Over three or four nights we were entranced by much higher budget productions than we were used to seeing over here of works by the likes of Irwin Shaw, Colleen McCullogh, Barbara Taylor Bradford and (yes, unfortunately) Jeffery Archer. All these were big heavyweights in the publishing industry who were rewarded by this exposure with life-long buoyant careers.  But the best of these, the one that made the most impression certainly in the playgrounds I was hanging around in at the time was “Roots”.  Based upon a memoir of his family by Alex Haley this was first shown on BBC1 in 1977.


The original “Roots”

Overnight it turned the name “Kunte Kinte” into one of legend in schools, colleges and workplaces.  It starred those standard mini-series Big Hollywood names – Burl Ives, George Hamilton, Lorne Greene, Ed Asner, Lloyd Bridges but it brought to the fore the largest number of African-American actors to be seen on British television.  (Remember, at this time a Saturday night regular on BBC1 was still “The Black And White Minstrel Show).  It introduced many Brits to Black American history and brought home the horrors of slavery like never before.  The plight of Kunte Kinte stayed entrenched in a generation’s consciousness.  In the US its ratings alone made it a significant landmark in television history.  I do remember watching it all over again when it was repeated and last watched it only a few years ago when I thought, all things considered, it had pretty much stood the test of time.


Time Magazine cover Feb 1977

Those in television perhaps do not agree as tucked away on BBC4 this week, forty years on, was the first part of a four part remake with (probably) a bigger budget and scenes of perhaps greater intensity and violence.  The remake has lost the washed-out brownish tones of 70’s television, the nightmare of slavery was now depicted in crisp HD, but I wondered, being someone who remembers the original whether a remake is a worthwhile enterprise.

The answer is a conditional yes, if the intention is to once again bring this story to a public’s attention.  It is now an American classic and we don’t usually object too much to classics being remade for a new generation.  I think we will need to accept that it would not stop the world in its tracks like the original, as we are far more aware of this aspect of American history.

I have only watched the first episode which did seem to feel faithful towards what I remembered of the original series.  Over the one and a half hours we got the sense of some of Kunte Kinte’s life in his homeland, his abduction and sale into slavery, his introduction to life in a tobacco plantation where attempts to beat the African-ness out of him look, to his owners, as if they are becoming successful.  Fiddler (Forest Whitaker and a very memorable Lou Gossett Jnr in the original) advises the horrifically beaten Kunte Kinte, now renamed by his new owners, Toby, to “Keep your true name inside.”


The role of Kunte Kinte, which was so brilliantly played by LeVar Burton as a young man and John Amos as the older was here taken on by Malachi Kirby, a twenty-seven year old British actor who before this had appeared in an episode of “Dr Who” and a handful of “Eastenders”. A huge casting achievement for him and he takes on the mantle of this legendary tv character with great aplomb.  Fellow Brit, James Purefoy, is playing “Massa” John Waller.  We don’t seem to be departing too far from the time-honoured tradition of having Brits play the most repugnant characters with Scottish actor Tony Curran playing the hideous overseer, Connelly who tracks down the fleeing slave and beats him to within an inch of his life.  In fact, this scene, together with those of the sea journey down in the hold of the ship makes for extremely difficult viewing and both may have been ramped up a little from the original to permeate through our post-Millennium thicker skins.


Brits in Roots- Malachi Kirby, James Purefoy, Tony Curran

This remake of “Roots” was commissioned by The History Channel.  I am working from memory here but the only real significant change was to make Kunte Kinte’s life in Juffure seem more precarious than in the original.  I seem to remember it more as an idyllic African existence that he was unknowingly plucked from.  Here there was an attempt to give this a bit more context with rival tribes, an especially eye-watering initiation to Mandinka manhood ceremony and Kunte Kinte’s conflict in wanting to move away to study at Timbuktu University in the moments before his abduction.  Perhaps we will get a feel of a more contemporary perspective as the series continues.  The other moments that made such an impression the first time round were all present here.


I’m still not totally convinced of the need for a remake (there is a danger that remakes dilute the power of the originals).  I will stick with it, however, because it is important we watch, especially in these fractured times and I am looking forward to upcoming performances from Anike Noni Rose as Kizzy, Jonathan Rhys Meyer as Tom Lea and Anna Paquin, Mekhi Phifer, Laurence Fishburne and the original Kunte Kinte himself. LeVar Burton, in the cast.  I am interested to see where it goes.  The original had its wobbles, after the first couple of so impressive episodes it did occasionally veer towards soap opera and sentimentality so it will be interesting to see what happens here when the intensity of the pace is reduced.


Roots is shown on Wednesdays at 9.00 pm on BBC4.  The first episode is available on the BBC I Player.

La La Land (2016) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



Now here’s a confession………..In the last 10 years I have been to the cinema exactly twice.  I saw “Dreamgirls” which I loved and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which I didn’t.  It wasn’t so bad that it put me off going but the two cinemas where I live on the Isle of Wight are not exactly local and the running of the guest house meant that I did not often have the leisure time to go to the cinema and when I did have the time sitting in a darkened room with an overpowering smell of tortilla chips and popcorn was not top of my priority list.  It’s not that I don’t watch recent films, it’s just that by the time I get my act together they are out on DVD anyway.

So, was it this much-hyped film which caused me to return to the multiplex after so long an absence?  You might conclude that seeing one of the last films I ventured out to see was a musical.  You might think “he’s a musical buff waiting for the right film to come along”.  Fair assumption, but it’s largely wrong.  The main reason was 2 for 1 cinema tickets for a year thanks to those meerkats and a switched insurance policy when I moved from the guest house.  They can be used on Tuesdays or Wednesdays and I’ve had them three months already and not had time to use them.  This week I merged the fact that I was available on a Tuesday with more than a passing interest in what this film is about and returned to La La Land.


I’m not sure what my preconceptions about this film were or really knew why it was receiving such critical acclaim.  When I returned from the cinema I discovered it received the highest ever Oscar nominations for a musical beating Mary Poppins and is up there in the all-time list of nominations ever.  Is it partly to do with a need for escapism in a nervous post-Brexit vote, Trump-ridden world.  I cannot normally predict what my response to musicals are, I’m a little wary of relating to actors not known for singing and dancing (Ryan Gosling).  Sometimes (in the case of “Les Miserables” I’m blown away, other times “Into The Woods” springs to mind I’m seriously underwhelmed).  There’s also my ultimate can’t make- up- my- mind- about- it movie that fits into this category.  I’m strangely fascinated by “Moulin Rouge” but watching it makes the hairs stick up uncomfortably on the back of my neck and my hands go clammy with what I think is embarrassement.  Part of this response is the way in which familiar pop songs are used in a manner reminiscent of the old children’s TV favourite, the “Crackerjack” finale with Peter Glaves and Ed “Stewport” Stewart fitting chart songs into some lame comedy sketch but I discovered I did not need to worry about this.  “La La Land” has its own score of surprisingly melodic songs which work really well in the context of the film and a couple which might last beyond that.  (The Oscar panel seem to think so as two are nominated for Best Original Song “City Of Stars” and “Audition”).

I was nervous about the two leads but needn’t have been.  Ryan Gosling (Seb) has charm if not brimming with charisma and Emma Stone (Mia) is well cast.  I’m not totally convinced that both should be up there for Best Actor Awards but there is undeniable chemistry between them.  (They have worked together in films before).  The singing is okay and much of the dancing is up to mid-season level of “Strictly Come Dancing” but it all works well.  Some of the quite elderly audience on this Tuesday afternoon showing were expecting Fred and Ginger all the way, but it’s not and that needs to be accepted if you are going to get the most out of it.

Undeniable chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

It does come out of the stalls running with a colourful, brash choreographed traffic jam scene which is visually very impressive and the first half of the film certainly lived up to the audience’s expectations of a musical.  By mid-way through the story had moved to more standard boy meets girl/loses girl fare and there was momentary snoring in the audience (now I remember why it’s been ten years – other people).  I think the audience (and maybe me if I’m honest) expected the glitz and glamour of the first half to last but then it might have ended up a visually impressive but ultimately shallow experience.  We had the glitz, then we had story, with an alternative story glitzy ending which made a lot of sense.  We can’t have too much of a good thing – it is 2017 after all!


I enjoyed John Legend’s contribution to the film which gave it a more contemporary feel and I loved  that it was a film about passion, for acting in Mia’s case and (especially) for Jazz in Seb’s.   There’s a quote in the film, and I don’t have it verbatim (I wasn’t taking notes!) when Mia is persuading Seb to follow his dream and open a jazz club which he thinks would be unprofitable about how people are seduced by the passion of others and this rang very true with me.lalaland7

John Legend

All in all I had a really good couple of hours.  It has brought me back into the world of cinema, which I adored for most of my life so really not sure what this hiatus has all been about, other than I got out of the habit of going.  I don’t think “La La Land” will be the best film I’ll see this year but I’m certainly praising it for triggering my latent enthusiasm and getting me back to the cinema.  I’ve already made a mental note to seek out “Figures” starring the excellent Taraji P. Henson (Cookie in “Empire”) as soon as it comes out.


Taboo (BBC1 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



The new season of shows on BBC1 continues with what seems like a brave decision for peak time on Saturday night.  It is best described as brooding – which is traditionally not what we like to do on a Saturday, but this brave decision might just very well pay off.


What has tempted BBC1 to make this ratings risk alongside its Saturday night family fare of light entertainment and medical drama? Answer- One Tom Hardy.  Oscar nominated for “The Revenant” Hardy has the power to burn up every thing he appears in.  On TV he has been unforgettable as Bill Sikes and as the lead character in the Martina Cole series “The Take”.  Filmwise, it was the otherwise forgettable 2006 low-budget comedy “Scenes Of A Sexual Nature” which had me sitting up taking notice with a full-on-sexual chemistry scene with Sophie Okenedo on Hampstead Heath.  Since then the superbly intense performances have kept coming – the title role in “Stuart: A Life Backwards”; martial arts contender in “Warrior”;violent criminal Charles Bronson; Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” and both the Kray twins in “Legend”.  This is a man who can turn out excellently high-octane performances – so perhaps the BBC are not taking too much of a risk.

Just because I can: (from top left) Tom Hardy, as Charles Bronson, in Scenes of A Sexual Nature, in The Take.  Bottom row – Oscar nominated in The Revenant, in Warrior


Double Take! As the Kray Twins in Legend

When you look into it the lack of risk actually becomes apparent with this eight-parter.  It’s from an original idea by Hardy and his father who wanted to create a character for Hardy to play; an amalgamation of Bill Sikes, Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lecter, Heathcliff and Jack The Ripper and they believed they came up with the goods with Jack Delaney.  The whole thing has been a labour of love for Hardy father and son and it has taken years to get to Saturday night BBC1.  Their idea has been developed and written by Steven Knight.  Knight is also known as a film director.  In 2014 he received great acclaim for the innovative one hander “Locke” which starred Tom Hardy with just a car and a hands-free phone for company.  Hardy has enlisted Ridley Scott alongside him as Executive Producer and Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm- the man responsible for “The Killing” (a man who can certainly evoke dark and brooding) to direct the series.  On a night when BBC1 introduced light-entertainment-by-numbers show “Let It Shine” and ITV were relaunching previous BBC flagship “The Voice” (for no apparent good reason), “Taboo” felt thrillingly unpredictable.


It’s London in 1814 and Jack Delaney (Hardy) has returned from Africa for the funeral of his father, a man with shipping interests at loggerheads with the East India Company, headed by Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce).  Delaney has long been believed dead and his return is a shock, especially to his half-sister, played by Oona Chaplin (excellent in BBC2’s “The Hour”).  Delaney’s return means that he will inherit his father’s assets, including a strip of land, Nootka Sound, where Hardy’s mother lived as part of a tribe and where she was reputedly  bought by his father.  His father’s solicitor, Thoyt,(Nicholas Woodeson) does his best not to make it sound like a good proposition;

“If America were a pig facing England.  It is right at the pig’s arse.”


Chaplin, Hardy and Pryce

The interest of the East India Company suggests otherwise and political factors make it a highly desirable piece of land.  It is certainly not in Delaney’s nature to give in graciously.  His half-sister states, “He doesn’t belong in this world” and he himself says “I’m not a fit man to be around children”.  Hardy in interviews has been comparing this character to Saddam Hussein, so there is plenty of intrigue and wrong-doings left to enjoy.

And enjoy it I did.  Taboo’s London is the visceral, gritty London of nightmares.  There’s vats of chopped meat being stirred, there’s graverobbing, seedy brothels, mud and grime and the whole thing is probably too dark and too mumbled for the Daily Mail viewer but it was really quite fascinating.  “Peaky Blinders” might come to mind (also starring Hardy) in its approach, but that was never a Saturday night BBC1 show.  It also reminded me of last year’s rather splendid adaptation of “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” which was a weekend show (Sunday nights) 0n BBC1.  I think that this has a lot of potential and however much was paid from our licence fees to Mr Hardy the BBC are sure to get their money’s worth.

fourstarsTaboo is shown on BBC1 on Saturdays at 9.15pm.  The first episode is available on catch-up on the BBC I Player.

My Top Re-read of 2016

My Top Re-read is a book I first read 14 years ago and it really impressed me then.  I think it worked even better a second time.  This book is……………

Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)


I read and reviewed this back in January, partly because I had agreed to do a piece for Newbooks magazine comparing the book to the film.  Obviously, when I first read the book the film had not been made but this was one occasion where the images of the film had seared their way into my brain.  I re-read the book before re-watching the film, was blown away by both and wrote a piece for NB 88  which to celebrate the lofty position this book has attained for me this year I’m going to republish here.

Atonement written by Ian McEwan ( Vintage 2001) Vs. Atonement-directed by Joe Wright (2007)

When thinking of a modern novel where the film version is of an equally high quality to the book the first that came to mind was “Atonement”.  To see if my initial reaction was correct I have recently revisited both.  On re-reading, the book was even better than I remembered, the film, watched so soon after completing the book, slightly less so, but both deserve to be considered as modern classics and offer five star experiences.


Ian McEwan had up to this point, not fared as well as might have been expected with film adaptations.  I had high hopes of 2004’s “Enduring Love” starring Daniel Craig but it didn’t match the intensity of the book.  McEwan’s 2001 masterpiece is written in four sections- a country house in a heatwave in 1935: at Dunkirk in 1940; at a London hospital at around the same time and London in 1999.  The first section translates to film sumptuously, closely follows McEwan’s careful plotting and often dialogue (Christopher Hampton wrote the Screenplay).  It is beautifully performed with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley particularly shining throughout.



Where we have a deviation with the intensity of the novel is the second section, particularly on the road to Dunkirk, which to an extent, is glossed over.  This is a brutal, visceral section of the book, quite difficult to read and obviously deemed too difficult to watch.  The Dunkirk of the film has been rightly praised for the vividness of the depiction but is a place of far more hope than McEwan’s vision and by taking away some of the bleakness it, to an extent, diffuses the power of some of what comes afterwards.  This had passed me by on first viewing but with McEwan’s words and images so firmly in my mind it became apparent.  I had to keep reminding myself to breathe when I was reading the book, and although, the film was intense, it was less so.  To an extent the viewers have been spared quite a bit of the horrors of war, which probably made sense when marketing the film.

The end section avoids the delightful sense of completion to the story but does make a final twist more definite and more shocking which had me scurrying back for the book for confirmation.  Without doubt the film-makers got it right and made a film which was stunning in both appearance and content.