Stevie Wonder – A Musical History (BBC4 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Friday night is traditionally music night on BBC4 and over the last few weeks there have been a series of “Musical Histories”. These have been genre based, this is the first one I have seen which have focused on one artist, I didn’t actually realise that this was linked in with this series until I saw the return of the dodgy retro graphics which have opened these programmes and which are reminiscent of some afternoon children’s pop show from the 1970’s. Next week it is Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music who come under the spotlight with another performer scheduled later in the year for this three part artist retrospective.

I did manage to watch three of the Musical Histories which focused on Disco and Electronica, Soul & R&B and Greatest Voices. The format was of two artists or experts from the chosen genre discussing an ultimate playlist and watching clips of their chosen tracks. Thus we had Ana Matronic and Martyn Ware on Disco, Trevor Nelson and Corinne Bailey Rae on Soul and Beverley Knight and James Morrison focusing in on voices. At times it proved to be odd television, you couldn’t help but feel it might have worked a little better on the radio as pairs, in relative states of ease and unease, discussed their choices perched on soft furnishings. The clips, although fascinating to see, seemed a little well-used, having been featured on many such music compilation shows in the past. Nevertheless, I was interested to hear what the presenters had to say and this kept me tuned in.

stevietv3Get back on that sofa James and Beverley!

Friday’s hour focused on Stevie Wonder, who I have been thinking about recently, having written a review for his “Love Songs”, one of my Essential CDs, only last week. What I hadn’t realised when I spotted this in the schedules was that it would largely be the pairings who talked about genres over the last few weeks talking about Stevie Wonder. There were a few talking heads who went it alone, including Martin Freeman, Alexander O’Neal, Norman Jay, journalist Sian Pattenden and broadcaster Emma Dabiri and these tended to be more insightful and less off the cuff than most of the duos’ comments . The most natural of these pairings were Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris but they are a couple who were used to working together (and have been married since 1993). They were featured the least. The Knight-Morrison pairing was featured the most and this at times became grating because of James’ over-eagerness to agree with everything that Beverley Knight said. This made for slightly uncomfortable viewing. BBC4 recently found a successful pairing with good chemistry between them for their series about British pop which sent Midge Ure and Kim Appleby out on a road-trip but here the couples here perched on sofas were not exactly sizzling. But format aside, it was really the music here that should do the talking.

stevietv1Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris

It did provide a good overview of Stevie’s career and stressed just what it was that made him special. Musically it went from his first Top Of The Pops appearance in 1966 with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” his initial UK hit to 80s tracks such as “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (his biggest selling single in Britain) and “Part Time Lover”. There was a mixture of TV appearances, live concert and video (Stevie was never really well served by video. Beverley Knight really nicely built up “Ribbon In The Sky” one of his lesser-known 80’s tracks yet the video shown was cringe-making in the way that American videos of the 80’s could be (Lionel’s “Hello”, anyone?) I especially liked the songs performed for a very uncool (judging by the earnest audience) German show called “Musikladen” in which a smoking 70’s Stevie performed “Superstition” and “He’s Misstra Know It All” and “Higher Ground”.

People got to mention their favourites, thus we had Alexander O Neal championing “Sir Duke , Martin Freeman “As” and Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17 the beautiful (and quite late in the canon of Wonder hits) “Overjoyed”- which is one of my all-time favourites of his. Emma Dabiri reminisced over her childhood Stevie Wonder impersonation to “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. What was brought out by the talking heads and I was pleased to note this is, as it is often forgotten, is how young Stevie was when he was churning out absolute classic tracks, just how good is voice (a great natural range without having to use falsetto) and also the importance of him as a political and social protestor.  At one point we learnt he was going to give up the music business to concentrate on social issues (what a loss that would have been). He is a man who was able to put his message in his music in a way which never diluted what he was saying but was incorporated into the exuberance of his music, tracks like “Higher Ground” “Living For The City” and the lyrically dark “Superstition” are all examples of this. In the early 80’s Stevie’s role in the campaign to get a US holiday established to commemorate Martin Luther King was instrumental and ultimately successful and couched in his million-selling “Happy Birthday” single.

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One thing about the clips which disappointed me came with another of my favourites “Isn’t She Lovely” which was taken from a concert clip that I had seen before. In the concert Stevie announces that the song, about the birth of his daughter Aisha, and who featured as a baby gurgling in the original track, was dedicated to one of his backing singers, that very daughter Aisha. This was a really touching moment which has stayed with me and the clip shown does feature Aisha looking understandably emotional at singing an all-time classic song which was written about her. I would have liked the talking heads to have picked up on this and mentioned it but they didn’t, which deprived the audience who hadn’t seen this clip before of a lovely story.

Despite the cheapness of the format I was once again drawn in and for a Stevie Wonder fan there was perhaps no better way to spend an hour on a Friday evening. If these Musical Histories focus in on an artist or a genre that you are interested in, or that (you younger generation out there) you are interested in finding out more about then they are certainly worth seeking out.

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Stevie Wonder – A Musical History was shown on BBC4 at 10.00pm on Friday 30th November.  It is currently available to watch on the BBC I-Player

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Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups (BBC4 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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It has been Man Booker announcement week. After the last couple of years of reading the shortlist, beginning as soon as the long-listed titles were chosen so I got some chance of fitting them in time before the winner’s announcement, I decided this year not to read any of them.

There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, last year’s winner “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders proved what a lottery the whole thing is (Julian Barnes has referred to the award as “Posh Bingo”). Secondly, despite reading a good chunk of eligible literary fiction during the year I hadn’t even read one title on the longlist and when the shortlist was announced I wasn’t motivated enough by the choices to put this right. I did think that after the last couple of last summer/autumns getting through the titles that it was going to become a bit of an obsessive feature in my reading year, but I haven’t missed it in the slightest this year.

That is in many ways a shame because it this Literary Prize’s 50th Anniversary and I don’t know whether the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the award, Anna Burns for “Milkman” was the most deserving winner. (I’d read one previous novel by Richard Powers but not his latest, all the rest of the authors were new to me). I didn’t even watch the announcement on TV.

I did, however, tune in to this BBC4 documentary which was shown to mark the Booker’s 50th and which concentrated more upon the Prize night and the intrigue and controversy which has dogged or (more probably) enriched its history. Apparently, “the Booker has always been a magnet for scandal “ and this hour long documentary was prepared to spill the beans.

It was a mildly diverting hour which saw such anecdotes as John Banville recalling how one short-listed year he had got so drunk that had he won the award he wouldn’t have been able to collect it (he didn’t win), Anne Enright not being able to visit the loo, judges falling out over their choices and Selina Scott floundering on a live TV presentation by not recognising the judges. More shocking than all of this was the amount of cigarette smoke wafting in the air in clips from award ceremonies of just a few years back and also the number of times we saw the same bits of footage (Yann Martel jumping to his feet in triumph on quite a few occasions, for example).

Despite it being one of the literary world’s most prestigious prizes it can be a bit of a rod for the winners’ backs. 2103 winner Eleanor Catton, the youngest recipient, confided it has taken her years to get back on track and Dotti Irving, PR for the prize, said; “Quite often writers are in the middle of their next book. They want peace and quiet for that, well, they’re not going to get peace and quiet in the wake of the Man Booker.”

Nevertheless, this is the one that everyone, whether they admit it or not, wants to win. Kingsley Amis famously claimed he didn’t until he did, then it was a different story. Some of the older clips illustrated how media-savvy the modern writer has to be compared to the intellectual ramblings of literary titans of the 70’s and 80’s a time when everything seemed very beige.

I really want the Man Booker to feel more relevant. You can find the odd gem on the shortlist but they do need to ensure that they are getting the balance between quality and readability right and I do think that the Costas, for one, are currently doing this better. However, I certainly would not turn down the opportunity to be a Man Booker judge. This year there was a different feel to the longlist with both a graphic novel and more commercial crime fiction (Belinda Bauer’s “Snap”), which could have shaken things up had it appeared on the shortlist. With Val McDermid on the judging panel I had high hopes but it was not to be.

barneys22018 judges with the shortlisted titles

Judging from the title BBC4 gave this there was an emphasis on the in-fighting in an attempt to make it all seem a little more sexy and watchable than it turned out to be. It did get me looking up how many Booker winners I have read from the last 50 years and I make it 15, which is probably more than the average reader. Will this year’s winner bring my total up to 16…..? You’ll have to watch this space…..

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Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups was shown at 9pm on BBC4 on Monday 15th October. It is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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In my review of Kevin Kwan’s debut novel posted this week I said I thought it was ;

“an obvious choice for a film adaptation if Kwan’s balance between the slight plot, winning characterisation with great cameo parts and sheer opulence is maintained.” 

Yesterday I took my chance to find out.  I rarely go to the cinema, probably once a year is a reasonable estimate, despite me having the two-for-one-deal for Tuesdays and Wednesdays from those pesky meerkats.  We have two cinemas on the Isle Of Wight, one the multi-plex Cineworld in Newport where I can use my two-for-one vouchers and The Commodore in Ryde which is continuing to battle alongside the big chains with its staff of what seemed like yesterday one person and cheap entry prices.  I paid £4.50 a ticket for the afternoon showing of “Crazy Rich Asians”, which makes it comparable with the two-for-one at the other cinema which was showing the same film but at a less convenient time.

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The Commodore, Ryde -a cinema from another era! (Free bingo available)

There were just four of us in the auditorium to witness Kwan’s novel come alive on the screen, which might have been the smallest audience I have been in ever.  (The other couple did not even sit next to another but had a couple of seats between them which meant when they talked they had to do so across a bigger space, reminding me of one of the main reasons I don’t go to the cinema that often- the other main reason being the film trailers for forthcoming productions which end up showing so much of the film that when you watch it on DVD some six months later you end up believing that you’ve seen it before).

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I did enjoy the film but the richness that I wrote about in Kwan’s cataloguing of the wealth is largely lost in making a fairly standard rom-com.  What I really liked about the book was that it dealt with a level of richness that was beyond the norm, so much so that it became unobtrusive, the Youngs were so wealthy that normally wealthy people did not know who they were.  When Rachel Chu visited her college friend’s opulent mansion in the book her family did not know of the Youngs nor of the grandmother’s vast estate that was situated in their neighbourhood.  In the film they knew all about the Youngs.  I was looking forward to seeing this extra level of wealth portrayed but obviously it couldn’t be conveyed successfully, so we got a super-wealthy family rather than a super-super wealthy and throughout I felt that the richness was toned down.

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The book offered a wealth that we had never seen before in its description of the stag and bachelorette parties and the wedding that provides the main focus.  In the film these came across as less splendid, even a touch tacky.  The only thing I’d never seen before was the bride and attendants wading through a water-filled aisle.  Who wants that?!

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Stars Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding

Other than that niggle (quite sizeable as it was my fascination about this that made me want to go and see the film) it more or less had everything I was looking for.  There was a playing down of some of the characters – the subplot of Astrid and her husband’s philandering was much pared down and you did not get that same great sense of family and the inter-relations between the characters.  One character who had their part beefed up was Rachel’s friend Peik Lin played by American rapper Awkwafina.  She, together with her trashily rich dysfunctional family stole the show as far as I was concerned.  They lit up every scene they were in.  Constance Wu was spot-on as Rachel Chu.  She brought a maturity to the part (Wu is 36) that lifted it above many rom-com heroines.  I had never seen her before but Time magazine have her listed in their current 100 Most influential people in the world list, so a great choice to play Rachel.  British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding was also spot on to play Nick Young and his dazzling handsomeness shone through even in a cinema of four people.  Although how Rachel did not know he was from at least a well-off family with such a posh British accent was a little mystifying.

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Awkwafina, Constance Wu and Nico Santos 

Kwan’s vision of the film has hopefully been rendered successfully with its all-Asian cast.  He reputedly optioned the film rights for $1 with the proviso that he remained in creative control after a suggestion to turn Rachel into a white American rather than Chinese-born American.  The whole thing is light and frothy, with a plot as slight as the novel but like the book it managed to win me over.  In the book v film argument I would say that this time it is the book that has the edge.
fourstars

 

 

Strictly Come Dancing 2018 – BBC1 – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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It’s back! Here comes the first TV show to be reviewed on this site twice.  Last year I wrote about The Movie Special, which I think was Episode 3 and complained that the series opener had “seemed to go on forever and was just a conveyor belt of people you either vaguely knew or hadn’t heard of.” 

Well, it was a fairly miserable Saturday night weather-wise last night so I, probably alongside most of the rest of the UK settled down for how long was it140 minutes !!! of the BBC’s (glitterball) jewel in the crown.

If last year I thought the contestants were not well known this year they are even less recognisable to the average television viewer.  There was almost a palpable despondency in the nation as contestants were named over consecutive days in a ploy to get our interest but which for many compounded their confusion.  What has happened to the big name contestants of yesteryear?  Or was that in fact just like long hot British summers of the past (not counting this year of course when we really had one)  something  that we all claim to remember but which never happened.  Certainly if you look down the cast lists of the first couple of series there are names you will struggle to recall.  Also, with the proliferation of easy-money celebrity reality shows perhaps on “Strictly” they have to work just too darn hard for their money.

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The show began with the professionals competing with water spouts on a mash-up of what we know now as the Moulin Rouge version of Elton’s “Your Song” peppered with some operatic voices.  This began outside at (I think) Somerset House and by “the magic of television” (and a Strictly Come Dancing staple) was transformed mid-way through into the studio.

With a long evening ahead of me (and a long week behind me which could have caused Saturday night fatigue- a posh way of saying falling asleep on the sofa) I  decided to be my own judge and give scores to the celebrities and their first offerings.  So here is my very own Strictly Score Card in ascending order.

strictly20183Something you won’t see in Week 1

Susannah Constantine & Anton – Week one and Anton has decided once again to play up the comedy in this samba.  The “visual trick” of appearing as if she was wearing a voluminous dress didn’t work as we could see instantly see she was just standing behind it.  Anton camped it up to the hilt but couldn’t hide the fact Susannah was being dragged around.  The weakest dance by some way but viewers vote for the pair at the bottom of the leaderboard and especially for Anton so we can expect more of this for some weeks to come.  My score 2.    Judges score 12

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Seann Walsh & Katya – Seann is a comedian but I have not seen him before.  Tangoed to Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback” and was all the things Craig Revel-Horwood hates, stompy with splayed hands and overly aggressive.  Head judge Shirley Ballas suggested he “tidy himself up a bit” which seemed a bit off.  Two or three off the bottom of the judges’ leaderboard   is always a dangerous place to be when they start factoring in viewers’ votes so Seann will need to up his game a little next time if he isn’t going to be first off.  My score 4.  Judges score 18

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Katie Piper & Gorka – Waltzed to Adele’s “When We Were Young” and was a bit jiggly and stumbly.  In the bottom two of the judges score but I think she will garner a lot of public votes (as will Gorka).  My score 4.  Judges score 17

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Lee Ryan & Nadia – “Blue’s” Lee Ryan is always a little unpredictable on this kind of show.  He’s done a lot of reality TV in the past and you’re never sure what you are going to get or if he will last the course.  He’s taken a long time to do Strictly seeing as bandmate Simon Webbe did it quite a few years ago.  He also tends to muck things up when they seem to be going well, which may win the audience over.  I thought his waltz to the Eagles seemed quite safe and wasn’t that good but the judges were more enthusiastic.  My score 4.  Judges score  22

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Kate Silverton & Aljaz– Certainly won’t be going anytime soon as this combination will be popular with the voting public.  News and current affairs people always tend to last longer than their abilities suggest as viewers like seeing them let their hair down and Aljaz is one of the most popular of the professionals.  This cha cha cha to “Kiss” took a little while to get going but there’s potential there.  My score 5. Judges score 20

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Vick Hope & Graziano – With this pairing of probably the least well known of the celebrities and a new male dancer they really had to come up with the goods to put them on the map.  The choice of a potentially audience-pleasing jive might have been a little too much too soon but I actually thought she did quite well.  My score was as high as Bruno’s, the others marked lower putting her very much in the danger zone.  I would imagine that a slightly less demanding and frantic dance will lift her out of this next week, so perhaps lucky that we are not just voting on Week 1.  My score  6. Judges score 18

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Lauren Steadman & AJ – Winning a gold medal in Australia just before training will certainly endear her to the voting public.  Their waltz had nice spins but otherwise felt safe.  Judges liked it more than I did. Got the first mention of the Dame Darcy Bussell staple “a strong core”.  What has AJ done to his hair?  My score 6. Judges score  25

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Ashley Roberts & Pasha – Judges put this Viennese Waltz jointly on the top of the leaderboard.  Ashley will really have to prove herself to the British public with a dance background which led to a stint of judging on ITV’s “Dancing On Ice”.  We have fallen in love with her once before on “I’m A Celebrity” but she is really going to have to ensure she is quite high up the leaderboard week after week.  American competitors tend to go “before their time” on this show.  Came up with the truism of the week when she said of her dance “It’s just steps but it’s so hard.”  I like Ashley but I never totally rate the sheer twirliness of the Viennese Waltz so that might be why my score was lower than the judges.  Got the first “Gorge-ous” from Craig.  My score 6.  Judges score 29
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Graham Swann & Oti – Not being a cricket fan I’d never even seen this competitor before  the launch show and he didn’t look like he would be up to much.  There is the thing that cricketers do well on this show and have won twice and get good audience support but I was expecting “Dad dancing”.  To pair him with Oti was genius as each season she proves herself to be a great teacher and choreographer and this once again showed in an enthusiastic samba to cricketing theme “Soul Limbo”.  My score 6.  Judges score 22strictly201812

Stacey Dooley & Kevin – I wouldn’t have known who Stacey was had I not seen a clip of her “Armageddon” documentary on “Gogglebox” the night before.  Did a crowd-pleasing quickstep with Kevin.  My score 6. Judges score 24

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Joe Sugg & Diane – Youtuber Joe looked absolutely petrified every time you saw him in the background behind Claudia so wasn’t expecting much yet he turned out a much better than anticipated jive with lots of good kicks.  My Score 6.  Judges score 27

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Dr Raj Singh & Janette –  A man who is going to be working long shifts in a real (not television) hospital during the week doing his day job and the odd spot on morning TV and fitting his training in around this.  You might as well give him the glitterball now and let’s move on to having Christmas.  The public will love him.  His cha cha cha to Whitney’s “How Will I Know” was overly gimmicky which was unnecessary as he was dancing really quite well.  Earned him the Dame Darcy Bussell difficult sentence of the week award (there’s always at least one) when she praised him on his smile; “Don’t wipe that ever off”.  I think we knew what she meant.  My Score-6. Judges score- 27

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Danny John-Jules & Amy – I love the theme to “Top Cat” which they turned out a very proficient foxtrot to.  Opened the show so deep in most viewers distant memories.  He’s going to be a strong contender and an obvious all-rounder.  Don’t know much about him, never watched “Red Dwarf” but surely there’s considerable dance background there.  Seemed very balletic.   My score  7.  Judges Score  27

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Faye Tozer & Giovanni – A predictably confident, long-legged cha cha which I really enjoyed but after over two hours of this I was decidedly wilted.  Chosen to close the show so obviously had impressed in rehearsals and put jointly on top by the judges.  My score  7. Judges score-29

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Charles Venn & Karen – Don’t watch “Casualty” so had never seen this actor before the launch show.  I think his cha cha cha to “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)” was decidedly undermarked as it was dripping in style- although was it the red suit that distracted me.  Only Bruno marked it as high as I did and Shirley said it was too disco.  Perhaps that’s why I thought it just edged ahead as my favourite of the night.  Certainly one to watch.  I was a big Ore Oduba fan from the start a couple of years ago.  He had the same sort of easy style  and he really grew into the show. I think Charles could do the same here.  Don’t forget last year’s winner Joe McIntyre also came from the BBC hospital wards of “Holby City”.  My Score 7.  Judges score 25.

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So no clear favourite after just one dance but as always I am going to be with this show for the duration.  When the cast were announced I wondered if I might give it a miss this year.  I did a one-man protest over the moving of Bake Off to Channel 4 last year and refused to watch and then wavered and had to watch the first four episodes one after another on Catch-up.  I watched the launch show but it still hadn’t totally convinced me (too set-up even for a show that pretends it’s Sunday when it’s Saturday night).  This first episode has brought me well back into the Strictly fold.  There’s going to be a whole lot of dancing to watch this autumn.

fourstars(but will proabably go back up to 5 when it stops being so longgggg!)

Strictly Come Dancing is on Saturday evenings on BBC1.  The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player catch up service.

 

The Bodyguard (BBC1 2018) Vs. Vanity Fair (ITV 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The evenings are only just drawing in and the battle for weekend ratings have started.  In a couple of weeks we’ll see the Clash of The Titans when Saturday night juggernauts “X Factor” and “Strictly Come Dancing” (I’m not counting last night’s non-essential “pairing” show) come face to face in what will no doubt be a very one-sided affair but much is also being made of these two newcomers on Sunday evening schedules in which a clear winner also appears to be emerging, both critically and ratings-wise.

“The Bodyguard” had a one week head start and decided to go consecutive nights for the first two episodes to draw us in, “Vanity Fair” did the same a week later, a strategy which no doubt we’ll be seeing more and more.  “The Bodyguard” had much of its audience hooked within the first fifteen minutes with a breath-sapping bomb on a train scenario.  Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere must have been depleted as the viewing population drew in a breath and held it.  (Yes, I know it’s biologically more complex than that but I’m making a point).

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I had very high hopes for writer Jed Mercurio’s latest series as I have only recently got round to watching (on Netflix) his “Line Of Duty” and have spent the last few months bingeing on this extraordinary police drama.  I’ve watched three series but haven’t seen the one everyone really talks about starring Thandie Newton (that isn’t on “Netflix” but  remain hopeful that it will appear), so no spoilers please.

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What makes “Line Of Duty” such gripping television is its sheer unpredictability.  It is unusual to watch TV in this day and age with no idea as to the direction it will go and Mercurio has certainly achieved this again with “The Bodyguard”.  Each of the three episodes I’ve seen so far will have rooted audiences to their seats by its dramatic shifts.  (That barometer of public taste “Gogglebox” returned this week and one of the highlights of opener was the looks of complete disbelief on assorted faces as episode three revealed its twist).  Keeley Hawes who became the ultimate victim in “Line Of Duty” despite being a tough and uncompromising character may very well be revisiting these traits as Home Secretary Julia Montague with her Thatcherish sharp edge yet the very human weakness for the man detailed to protect her.  And Richard Madden’s turn might just make Sunday night viewers forget that Aiden Turner’s “Poldark” and Tom Hiddleston’s “Night Manager” ever existed.  I know some opted to give this a miss fearing a re-tread of Costner and Whitney scenarios but the relationship, although central, is just one small facet of this television diamond.  There is so much going on and whilst we know what is happening when it happens (unlike many TV dramas with a political slant) we have no idea as to the direction this will go in and that makes for essential television.

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So, how can we compare this to “Vanity Fair”? They are polar opposites yet their scheduling and their respective channel’s confidence in them is demanding comparisons be made.  With “Vanity Fair” of course we know the direction it is headed from its existence as a novel and the number of previous adaptations.  I love the book although I haven’t read it in a long time.  It seems that every time I plan to re-read another version comes along making it seem less of a priority.  Here I think the show has been a victim of its pre-transmission publicity which suggested something youthful, vibrant and edgy.  Younger actors have been cast in main parts and we were told to expect modern music.  I have so far been aware of Madonna’s “Material Girl” at one point which seemed too obvious a choice and somewhat clunky in its scene.  I was expecting this version, created by Gwyneth Hughes to up the cool factor in much the same way Baz Luhrmann did for Leonardo DiCaprio in old Will Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” back in 1996.

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I don’t think this has happened.  It hasn’t sparkled in anything like the way I was expecting.  I did enjoy the opener more and yet the scenes in Vauxhall Gardens which had the potential to display the series’ wares felt surprisingly low-budget for a channel hoping to push this as the new “Downton Abbey”.  Some of the casting doesn’t feel quite right.  I’m not totally at ease with the younger male characters, especially Dobbin nor Martin Clunes as Sir Pitt Crawley.  I do like Olivia Cooke who is playing Becky Sharp but she seems to be playing her as more opportunistic than manipulative and I’m not sensing the joy that was in the best portrayal I’ve seen by Reese Witherspoon in the 2004 film version where Julian Fellowes’ screenplay aimed for a more sympathetic character but Reese didn’t lost the glint which is so essential.  This version also has a great set of portrayals from the likes of James Purefoy, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Rhys Ifan as the stolid Dobbin.

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By Episode 2 I was wilting, Frances De La Tour’s arrival boded well but I was still wondering whether I’d actually last the course of five more episodes.  Perhaps I should just re-read the book for my dose of Thackeray.

It seemed as if Sunday nights were going to be superb for television with the launch of these two highly-anticipated shows.  One is certainly proving this, the other is showing room for improvement.

Here are my ratings for the first three episodes of  “The Bodyguard” and first two for “Vanity Fair”

fivestars   (The Bodguard)

threestars (Vanity Fair)

Both Vanity Fair and The Bodyguard are shown at 9pm on Sunday evenings.  Catch up editions are available on the ITV hub (VF) and BBC I-Player (Bodyguard)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rupaul’s Drag Race: All Stars (Sky Box Sets) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Ah, Rupaul!  The main reason I set up a Netflix subscription was because they had a run of seasons of Drag Race which had been shown only sporadically on UK main platform TV.  (Okay, I’ll included two other reasons, “The Crown” and “Riverdale“).  This gave me a chance to glut one one of the best TV competitions ever- the search for “America’s Next Drag Superstar.”

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We really had to ration this as it is such addictive viewing but have now caught up.  It has a large US audience and wins awards.  In the UK it has a smaller devoted audience, devoted to finding it in the schedules, There are countless blogs and fansites which concentrate on this show.  For those without Netflix I understand that Season 10 has begun tucked away on Comedy Central, a channel I can’t say I’d ever watched.

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I also discovered that Comedy Central had shown Season 3 of the All-Star spin-off show where a selection of those who did not quite make it to become “America’s Next Drag Superstar” are given another chance.  I had been looking out for this, had thought it would be shown on VH1 or Netflix or Amazon Prime and was really disappointed not to discover who had shown it until after it had finished.

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Rupaul with guest judge Lady GaGa, 

However, the other day I stumbled on it listed as a Sky Box Set.  My Sky Variety package did not allow me to watch Box Sets but after one of those inexplicable phone conversations with the company I ended up with their Entertainment package and Sky Box Sets for considerably less than I had been paying.  Looking at the Box Set listings (life’s too short for most of them and a lot end up with you having to fork out more money at the Sky Store) this may well be one of the only series I will be watching in this way.  So, “KEEP IT ON THERE, SKY, UNTIL I’VE FINISHED!”

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The All Star Season 3 contestants before they had all been revealed

It actually won’t take long because although I’m trying to ration myself to one episode a day (I’ve watched two so far) with the summer weather taking a break I might find myself sneaking the odd extra in to an evening’s viewing.

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The warm heart of this programme is Rupaul, with a 30+ year career in which he does not seem to have aged one iota.  Perhaps best known over here for his pairing with Elton John in the revamp of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” which made #7 in 1994 he is the judge, mentor, support, inspiration, mother hen (I can go on..) Some of the contestants have faced much conflict in their lives and  their encounters with Rupaul can only strengthen them.  All contestants are welcomed into the ever-expanding family (in the way that the UK version of “Strictly Come Dancing” does this to some extent but here this is far more pronounced with real pride of being an alumni of the show).  I do not think it is possible to overestimate the role of Rupaul in the development of LGBT+ issues and attitudes on American television.  He is as important as Oprah is for the way she has represented African-American women on TV.  Last year Time Magazine had Rupaul listed as one of the most influential people in the world.  And much of this has been achieved through this long-running entertainment reality show which goes from strength to strength.

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Season 9 contestants

This is a show rooted in both reality (and sheer likeability of its participants) and illusion.  There are often extraordinary transformations – American drag being more rooted in illusion than British drag where the focus tends to be more on character) or as Rupaul has it, “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent.”  This is going to be a late summer treat.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to do much online research for this in case I inadvertently things I do not yet wish to know so no season spoilers please.  I’m hunkering down to really enjoy this drag race’s ride.

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I’m watching Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars as part of Sky Box Sets.

Picnic At Hanging Rock (BBC 2 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I’m still not totally sure what to make of this Australian six parter which began this week on BBC2. Based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay “Picnic At Hanging Rock” found more fame in the UK via the 1971 film version directed by Peter Weir with its out-of-kilter slightly trippy feel which is considered a significant moment in the development of Australian cinema.

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Lindsay’s book has grown in reputation especially in her homeland where it has become pretty much a standard text in the school curriculum. On its publication the author was keen to fudge the lines between fiction and fact implying it was based upon a real-life incident. This has added to the reputation and mystique of the work. I saw the film many years ago on television, probably when I was about the age of the schoolgirls in the tale. I remember it being odder than I was expecting it to be and that I enjoyed it. I’ve never read the book and am not sure whether Lindsay herself incorporated this almost hallucinogenic feel into her writing (published in 1967 so possible as this would fit into the feel of the times, although the author herself was 71 by then so maybe not). The trippy feel is certainly incorporated into the TV adaptation.

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The reason I chose to watch this was for its lead, Natalie Dormer, who has excelled in the past in history-based series. I will always remember her as Anne Boleyn in the delightfully demented “The Tudors” but she was also very strong as Lady Worsley in the BBC one-off “The Scandalous Lady W” (2015). She made her mark world-wide in “Game Of Thrones” as Margaery Tyrell who had a memorably short-lived marriage to the noxious young King Joffrey and she’s also been very good in contemporary pieces such as “Elementary” and “Silks”. There’s always great strength in her characters who often do not suffer fools gladly and there’s sometimes an ambiguous darker edge so she is a perfect choice to play the enigmatic British headmistress Hester Appleyard.

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The plot hinges on an event on February 14th 1900 when a number of schoolgirls from Appleyard’s school disappear on a picnic at Mount Diogenes. School trip risk assessments did not exist in turn of the century Australia as evidenced by the choice of location for a day out amongst venomous snakes, poisonous ants and a brooding, precarious rock formation. On this opener we begin with Natalie Dormer’s character viewing the property she intends to convert into the school in a scene which clearly indicates she is not who she is attempting to convey. We move in time to the school which has been set up, in Hester’s words, in “the arse end of the world” and onto preparations for the picnic culminating in this episode with the disappearance. It actually all moved faster than I was expecting it to in this first episode. The oddness of the piece was perpetuated by some jerky filming, tilted angles and odd viewpoints which took a few seconds to right themselves. This gave it, at best a slightly feverish feel but there were occasions when it felt like an 80’s pop promo.

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What was effective was the soundtrack composed by Cezary Skubiszewski which was anachronistic for turn of the twentieth century but atmospheric particularly in a scene when Miss Appleyard is handed some evidence of her hidden past by one of the girls amidst a pulsing, tense rhythm track.

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There’s undoubtedly going to be a significant focus on the development of the girl’s sexuality. We saw this is in a scene where one of the girls (and the headmistress) got the better of a lusty young chap; a naïve girl unaware of the changes of puberty and a frenzied exchange of Valentine cards amongst the pupils and staff members which showed the school to be a hotbed of emotions on the morn of the picnic, a scene whose change of pace felt unusual amongst the distanced, cool feel of the piece which largely emanates from Natalie Dormer’s performance. Miss Appleyard tells one of the girls; “The dark gets in you. You can’t just say I’ve had enough now. It gets everywhere”. I think this darkness will continue to infiltrate over the next five episodes. She also said “Infection spreads” which might very well be a theme for the piece.

Produced by the Australian Fremantle company using a mainly female team led by director Larysa Kondracki it feels like a piece with high production values which certainly looks good but I’m not sure whether the source material will have enough to sustain me in this six hour treatment. I’m going to stick with it for the time being though.

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The Picnic At Hanging Rock is shown on Wednesday nights at 9.00pm on BBC2. The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player.

A Year To Fall In Love (Channel 4-2018)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With sport dominating the early summer TV schedules those of us who are looking for an alternative are being pushed towards the search for love.  Or that is what it feels like in my house where I’m still needing my nightly fix of Love Island and on Tuesday night Channel 4 unleashed “A Year To Fall In Love”.  This documentary show features the video diaries of 20 people over a year as they attempt to find “the one”.  This appealed because I thought it was going to be pacey – 20 people, one year all in the space of an hour.  I thought this might curb Channel 4’s love of the “recap” as there just wouldn’t be time.  In the TV schedules this programme did look like it was going to be a one-off rather than a series.  At the closing credits (when we’d seen less than 20 people) I discovered this was just a taster for the rest of the series which would be tucked away on the All-4 catch up service rather on Channel 4 itself.  Feeling just a little duped a visit to All-4 revealed 6 online episodes.  I’m not too sure why C4 would shunt this over onto the online platform, other than suggesting that it’s not the social-experiment-for-our-times I’d anticipated but something more along the lines of summer-time filler.

yeartofall2Freddy has a year to fall in love

The most fascinating aspects of this programme were the statistics. Nearly 40% of people now meet their partners online which has changed the whole rationale of the way in which people select and relate to a partner.  Online the choice can be overwhelming bringing the user into contact with people that they would never meet in their everyday social and professional life but this selection process does bring about anxiety, inability to make a decision and commit to it and a fear of being “ghosted”- a term I’d never heard before watching this.  The pitfalls of choosing online were clearly brought home in this.  The most important way to make an impression is therefore the profile photo.  Also, apparently the average relationship lasts for three months so for most it’s not too long before the whole process has to begin again.

yeartofall3Nick has a year to fall in love

On this first episode we met performance artist (?) Freddy who asked out a girl who had known as a friend for some time; husband-hunting Sophie who was on the look-out for a wealthy man who wears a big watch (?!); Nick who was struggling with the etiquette of online dating: Niki, who was keeping her girl/boy options open whose first weeks of recording her quest seemed to show progressively dodgy choices to the point where she was scared to answer her phone and Brighton resident Xander negotiating gay dating apps.  There were considerable ups and downs for all proving once again the road to love is far from smooth.

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Niki has a year to fall in love

However, the format of the programme was such that I found myself not too bothered as to whether their searches would be successful and whereas I might watch further episodes to find out more if it had a weekly time-spot on Channel 4 going onto All-4 for box-set viewing is probably something I will not bother with.  Most of us still have that mind-set that online viewing shows cannot be as good as main channel picks and because this means I am questioning C4’s commitment to this project maybe it’s not for me.  I’ll stick with “Love Island” (and I couldn’t imagine me writing that a couple of months ago!)

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The first episode of “A Year To Fall in Love” was shown at 10pm on Tuesday 19th June and is available like the rest of the series on All-4 catch-up/online service.

Love Island (ITV2-2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I have resisted this so far.  Now on its 4th season on ITV2 this became a particularly big talking-point last summer, gained a lot of popularity through word of mouth and won awards including a TV Bafta for best Reality Show.  On second thoughts, I haven’t totally resisted it as the idea behind this programme had a previous lease of life in a celebrity version back in 2005 on the main ITV channel.  I did watch a couple of episodes of this and can recall Brendan Cole and one third of Atomic Kitten participating but it was fairly ghastly.  So this is a programme which bucks the trend with beginning with a celebrity version and evolving into a non-celebrity rather than the industry standard of the other way round.

loveisland2Caroline Flack

This series relaunched in 2015 in a bright, brash non-celebrity format, helmed by Caroline Flack (who isn’t in it much).  Before this series started it was getting headlines due to the involvement of daughter of EastEnders lead and distant descendant of royalty, “hard man” Danny Dyer.  I thought on Monday I’d just watch the first episode to see what the fuss was all about and I have stuck with it each night since.  It is very much a tweaking of the Big Brother format and really after one week of this I cannot see the point in tuning into the non-celebrity Big Brother ever again.  Here the participants seem less in your face and show-offy, there’s considerable more sunshine in the Majorcan villa than on a studio lot in Elstree to brighten up our duller summer days and the focus of this programme is to fall in love rather than just survive the machinations of the Big Brother producers.

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We’ve certainly seen a quest for love umpteen times before from “Blind Date”, “First Dates” to substandard fare like “The Bachelor” (anyone else remember rugby star Gavin Henson having to work his way through a bevy of girls in a similar villa to find out who he fancied most in a TV show that veered from misjudged to completely unwatchable).  The minor TV stations have schedules full of (mainly) imported find-love formats of questionable quality.  So why has this one won awards and become a hit to the extent where it is now a major focus in Summer TV programming and for which, so I’ve been told, more young people applied to compete than applied for Oxford/Cambridge university entrance this year.  Is this the end of civilisation as we know it?

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Largely, I’d say no and I think because these characters need to stay on very good terms with at least one other member of the opposite sex to be in with a stab at the prize and as the aim is to “find love” they are presenting a more likeable face than we see on “Big Brother” and its ilk.  There has been the odd meltdown (he fancies me/I don’t know if he fancies me/ he’s told me he’s no longer interested/I fancy him) but it’s all been a lot less tawdry than I was expecting.  It almost feels like secondary school again (admittedly with more flesh showing) where witnessing a couple kissing could be a major conversation topic for days.  And I was at secondary school in the 1970’s- a far more innocent time!

loveisland5Line ’em up.  Who fancies this one?

Of course, every thing is manipulated to test the bonds of coupledom.  Forced to pair up in a fairly excruciating cattle market type sequence in the first episode, most seemed  happy with their initial choices (a link-up between West End performer Samira and A&E doctor Alex who has looked like a rabbit caught in headlights throughout and who seems so out of his element it is as if he took a wrong turning from Operating Theatre 2 and has gone through some Space and Time portal which has transported him to a sun-soaked villa forced to wear a microphone lead wrapped too high around his midriff seemed questionable) but the show was quick to throw an early spanner into the works and it was this which had me hooked. An extra man was introduced  and in 24 hours had to steal a girl from any other of the couples.

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The fact that this man was Adam, a Geordie physical trainer, so handsome and buffed that the other men complained “he did not even look real” and that every girl seemed willing to ditch their first pairing for him was the first indication that this show (is it scripted? Don’t know, don’t really care)  had something deep psychologically going on which would sustain us for the summer.

loveisland6Is this man even real?

By the end of the first week we’d lost one girl, banished from the island due to a sneaky mid-week introduction of two girls which rapidly changed dynamics and it looks like there will be enough twists in the plot to keep this multiple boys meet multiple girls format fresh.  It’s all far less sordid than I was expecting and I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or not.  I think civilisation is safe once again, for the time being and hopefully the participants will not be saddling themselves with the same level of debt as if they’d gone the Oxbridge route.  Here comes Summer!

I’m just torn between threestars and   fourstarsI’ll have to update this after a couple of weeks.

Update:  It’s two weeks on and I’m still watching.  I’m upping the star rating to fourstars

“Love Island” is shown nightly on ITV 2 at 9pm.  Previous episodes are available on ITV catch-up services and for those for whom this is not enough I have noticed that Netflix has recently added earlier series to their output.

A Very English Scandal (BBC1 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Last Sunday BBC1 unveiled what may be its most entertaining and surprising Drama series of the year.  Surprising for a number of reasons, one being that I would imagine (I haven’t done a great deal of research on the background because I do not want to find out too much about what will happen) that a number of the key players in this distinctly squalid tale will still be alive.  Surprising also because it features a tour de force performance from an actor who we might have believed had his best performances behind him.

scandal3The real Jeremy Thorpe

In this truly English tale Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe went to trial in the 1970’s over his involvement in a plot to murder a younger man he had a sexual relationship with some years earlier.  I can remember the trial because my parents would look forward to the News At Ten reports as the salacious events unfolded around this leading MP and a man I remember was referred to as “male model” Norman Scott.  I was not quite of the age to fully understand what was going on but tried to piece it all together from the news reports.  I remember being surprised that someone could earn a living as a “male model” and also that one of the phrases which emerged from the trial “Bite the pillow, Bunny” was used as an insult in the school playground for a while, even if not fully understood.  It all felt a little grubby even then and in the intervening years it feels like something too implausible to be true for those too young to remember and largely forgotten by many people who were around at the time.

Scandal 2Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw with Mrs Tish the dog

But here it is all on BBC1, starring a career-revitalised Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw (last appearance on this site following his role in “London Spy“).  There’s great credentials here.  The source material is a book with the same title by John Preston and has been adapted by the screen by one of our modern great television writers, Russell T. Davies, a man with challenging, great and highly influential work to his name (“Queer As Folk”, “Cucumber”, “Torchwood”- all of which had a role in changing perceptions away from the repressed closeted world depicted here), although he is probably best known for the reboot of “Dr Who”.  It is directed by Stephen Frears, responsible for some great movies, two of which (“My Beautiful Launderette” and “Prick Up Your Ears”) were also landmark films in representing the lives of gay men on screen.  Here Davies and Frears tackle an earlier era of illegal acts and blackmail and public ruin and they are a perfect choice for the material.

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You might need to get “Paddington 2” out of your mind first as that movie’s baddie Grant here reunites with the voice of the Peruvian bear, Ben Whishaw, in a completely different way!  Both actors are attacking their role with relish, especially Grant, better looking than Thorpe, who is absolutely mesmerising in most scenes he is in.  I’ve never really seen him as a particularly good physical actor before but the moment he virtually skips down staircases in the House Of Commons he gives an excellent example of sheer anticipation of meeting again the young man he’d leered at and given his card to in a barn at a friend’s house over a year before.

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Later, when Thorpe had Norman ensconced in a bedroom at his mother’s house we had a ghastly seduction scene in which Grant was marvellous.  This scene became a central focus of the court case and was perfectly nuanced and fully deserved its revisit on this week’s “Gogglebox” when we saw the viewers open-mouthed at Thorpe’s behaviour. Giles said of Hugh Grant “I think he’s loving being outrageous…..He’s morphed into Jeremy Thorpe“, the always perceptive Basset said “This is how every British politician would be in this situation!”

The first episode built up to Thorpe’s declaration that Norman needed to be bumped off (over a £30 blackmail bid), a jaw-dropping moment for those viewers not familiar with the case and a perfect moment to end this first hour of high quality TV drama.  I would imagine that the tone will shift over the next two episodes as we focus on the conspiracy and the subsequent court case but I am confident that these are likely to contain some of the best writing, acting and direction we will see on our TV screens this year.

fivestarsA Very English Scandal is shown on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1.  The first episode is currently available on the BBC I- Player