Call Me By Your Name (2017) – What I’ve Been Watching Review



Since I read the first review of this film following its limited UK release I have been itching to watch it.  It didn’t come over to the Isle Of Wight where I live and my only option seemed to be to go over on the ferry to Portsmouth for a 9.30 Sunday morning showing, so that didn’t happen.  To pass the time before the DVD release I read the book  by Andre Aciman which has been given a new lease of life following its original 2007 publication.  I was surprised by its introspection yet its brilliant, convincing portrayal of the all-encompassing nature of a first love that hovers towards obsession.  It wasn’t an unqualified success, however, I did say I often felt like bashing the two main characters’ heads together.  I was fascinated how this style above characterisation would translate as a film.

callme4Aged 89 James Ivory has become the oldest ever Oscar winner

Expectations were cranked up even higher by the Guardian Film Critic proclaiming it as the best film of 2017 and Oscar and Bafta nominations being spread amongst the acting, writing, music and best picture categories.  Both a Bafta and an Oscar were picked up by veteran James Ivory for his screenplay adaptation which made me confident that it was going to be really special in terms of the story it had to tell and the way in which it was going to be told.  When I saw it, at last, on the DVD shelves in Tesco I wasted no time in putting it into the trolley.


Quite simply, I think it had built it up too much in my mind.  All of its elements are strong but did not blow me away.  Location-wise it is often stunning and as I look out of the window at a snow blizzard this morning a return visit to the film’s Italian summer of 1983 seems tempting.  Acting wise, the portrayal of 24 year old American academic Oliver (Armie Hammer) and 17 year old Elio (the Oscar nominated Timothee Chalamet) were both strong but what I found less convincing in the film compared to the book was the sense of attraction and chemistry between them.  I have seen this done recently so much better in a 2017 British film “God’s Own Country” where an angry, repressed young Yorkshire farmer meets up with a migrant Romanian farm worker in the bleak environment of a sheep farm around lambing time in a film which was almost brutal in its honesty and totally convincing.  Without this belief in the central relationship of “Call Me By Your Name” it felt less of a positive experience.


Screenplay-wise, James Ivory inserts a symbolic (perhaps?) interlude at Lake Garda and wisely plays down the least successful part of the book when the pair mix with others on a stay in Rome.  I’m not sure what the Garda segment really adds, other than more scenery to feel awed by. 



There are those who are calling “Call Me By Your Name” the best gay-themed film of all time.  It isn’t (“Beautiful Thing”, “Moonlight”, “Pride”, “Milk”, “The Way He Looks” as well as the aforementioned “God’s Own Country” immediately spring to mind as more fulfilling cinematic experiences) but it is significant and certainly worth watching and if those that are heralding are using it to replace the dour “Brokeback Mountain” in their pole position then I’m all for them.    If I had caught that Sunday morning ferry and seen it early on its release I might have very well been astounded by it but after all the recommendations, praise and awards it led me feeling unexpectedly underwhelmed.


Call Me By Your Name is now available on DVD in the UK.


Strike: Career Of Evil (BBC1 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review


strike1Having just got around to reading the novel, which I consider to be the best of the three JK Rowling- as- Robert Galbraith works I was looking forward to catching up with this two-parter shown over the last couple of Sunday nights.

I read “The Cuckoo’s Calling” a few months before the TV adaptation which was early enough to get my own visual impressions of one-legged man mountain Private Investigator Cormoran Strike and of his assistant Robin Ellacott and to initially feel that neither Tom Burke nor Holliday Grainger seemed right.  It took about 20 minutes to revise my opinion of Burke as Strike and admittedly a little longer to see Holliday as Robin but I’m there totally now with both portrayals.


 Career Of Evil” is pushing 500 pages in the hardback edition and I did wonder how this could be compressed into two hour long episodes and how some of the darker fare on offer in the novel would be translated onto the screen for Sunday evening viewing.  That job went to writer Tom Edge, who also had some considerable condensing to do when “The Silkworm” was adapted into two hours.  The first episode seemed to rattle along, and was good quality story-telling and television.  I did have reservations about the second part as  in the rush to get things to the conclusion it inevitably became confusing.  “So who did it then?” my partner (who had not read the book) asked as the end credits came up- not the best result for a crime drama.


 In my review of the book I mentioned my difficulty in distinguishing between two of the suspects.  Here I felt that they were introduced with more distance between them so thought they would get around this but there wasn’t the time to devote to them so it became equally confusing.  There was some too obvious sign-posting of one of the main twists in the book and an implausible touch about identity towards the end which would not have been out of place in an episode of “Scooby Doo”.

 I quite like it when Rowling gets dark.  It’s like seeing Holly Willoughby swearing on “Celebrity Juice”, it feels so unexpected and naughtier.  Here the serial killer elements which darkened the novel considerably were very underplayed and the whole theme of Body Integrity Identity Disorder (a feeling that a limb does not belong by an otherwise healthy person and needs to be amputated) which was disturbingly explored in the novel was very much left on the shelf here with Cormoran’s appeal to the murdered girl being teen adulation rather than for his missing leg.  Strike was also made more of a suspect here when the plans to undermine his business came across more subtly in the book. Some characters had their parts bumped up (Matthew) and some reduced (Alyssa).  The Blue Oyster Cult, whose role I felt the author had overplayed in the book also moved more into the background.


 Still, there were only two hours to play with and as much as for the crime most of us were tuning in to see the relationship and interplay between the two main characters, especially with Robin approaching her nuptials (no Royal Wedding element here as in the novel with its more specific time frame) and here we were certainly not disappointed.  I do like these adaptations but feel here an extra hour was required to bring out the richness there is in the novel, both in terms of plot-line and character.  The book is better than the TV adaptation but I still felt highly involved.


Strike: Career Of Evil was shown in the UK on Sunday 25th Feb and 4th March 2018.  It is currently available on the BBC I Player . 


The Assassination of Gianni Versace (BBC2 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review




Back in 1997 I had two holidays in Miami Beach, staying on Ocean Drive.  The first holiday felt magical.  The place was bustling, yet felt very safe, there was a relaxed atmosphere and I remember seeing Tom Jones sat at a streetside bar with no-one taking much notice.  It seemed a place where celebrities could just blend in, there was a real live and let live atmosphere which welcomed all.  Halfway along Ocean Drive there was the house of world famous fashion designer Gianni Versace, an impressive palace of a building which amazingly opened up onto the street and where he could be spotted coming out to enjoy the atmosphere on Ocean Drive, being a regular at the shops and cafes.  I loved the place so much another holiday was booked for later on that summer.


In the meantime, on July 15th to be exact, Gianni Versace was gunned down as he was entering his property from Ocean Drive after having been to the News Café (which did great breakfasts) to buy magazines.  When we went back to Miami just a few weeks after this terrible event it felt different.  It was if some of the sparkle had gone from Ocean Drive.  It was no longer the safe, accepting place it was just a few months earlier.  BBC2 this week began showing a nine part series which examines exactly what happened a little over twenty years ago.


Ryan Murphy

I would be watching this even if I had not had this connection with Ocean Drive and the reason for this is director and executive producer Ryan Murphy.  I watched every episode of his “Glee” and his recent adaptation of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford was quality television and brought back to mind one of my all-time favourite books – “Bette And Joan: The Divine Feud” by Shaun Considine.  I am also a big fan of “American Horror Story” (although I did give up on “My Roanoke Nightmare“the series I chose to review a while back, however  I did stick with the follow-up season “Cult”).  “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is the second instalment of Murphy’s “American Crime Story” thread.  I didn’t watch the first series on the trial of O J Simpson as it didn’t really appeal.  When it started to pick up awards I did think that perhaps I had made a mistake in rejecting it.


Inside The Versace mansion

The first episode was lusciously filmed with the bright vibrant colours I remember so well from Miami Beach and glimpses inside the recreation of the glamorous Versace mansion.  Where this is obviously going to be different from the trial-based O J Simpson story is that here there would be no trial as the perpetrator ends his killing spree by suicide so, with nine episodes to fill, what we are going to have here is going to be mainly back story.

Edgar Ramirez and as Versace

Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez as Versace is the only one of the main performers that I was not familiar with.  I could see from his pictures that excellent work has been done to make him look so much like Versace.  Darren Criss was probably the main reason I stuck with “Glee” for his effervescent portrayal of Blaine Anderson, an exceptionally positive gay character.  Criss at the time said  “As an actor you play different parts and this one happens to be a gay character- and a strong one, so really I lucked out.”   Once again Criss is playing a gay character but there is little positive to say about killer Andrew Cunanan – a fantasist and compulsive liar who had wormed his way to a night at the opera with Versace seven years earlier. Criss’ portrayal is already quite chilling, the pretty boy and nerd who appeared on the Most Wanted List due to a number of slayings before he met up again with Versace at the steps of the fashion designer’s mansion.

Darren Criss – From Blaine to Cunanan

The scale of this production can be seen by the use of two household names in supporting roles.  Ricky Martin plays Versace’s boyfriend Antonio D’Amico and chosen to play the difficult to cast Donatella Versace is Penelope Cruz.  Appearance wise Cruz offers a softer Hollywood edge to Donatella but there is no doubt that she means business.  Maintaining the reputation of her brother and his brand is shown right from her first entry into the mansion after her Gianni’s death when she castigates D’Amico for speaking to the police.  I suppose that the business had to go on and what initially seems as her being heartless is perhaps put into context as she describes how the empire had developed from a small stall in Milan with one rack of clothes to the global multi-million dollar brand . One of the surprising elements, however, and, surely this must have been in the dramatization of the piece were the number of police who did not seem to know who Versace was.

Ricky Martin and Penelope Cruz

I’m very interested to see how this series develops over nine episodes.   There is a temptation for the whole thing to fall into tackiness but I really do not believe this would be the case under Murphy’s guidance.  Perhaps in different hands we would get a kind of real life “Dynasty” playing out but I think Murphy is too much of a story-teller to put style over substance.  He also has a strong story-teller at the helm of this adaptation from the book by Maureen Orth (“Vulgar Favours”).  The screenplay is written by Tom Rob Smith, a British writer who made a huge impression from his debut best-selling novel “Child 44” as a purveyor of gripping crime yarns.


The most shocking moment in this first episode was not Cunanan’s shooting of the fashion designer at point blank range (also taking down a dove at the same time) but was when a middle-aged female tourist broke the police cordon and soaked a ripped out page advertising Versace into the fresh blood on the steps in her aim to get a souvenir.  Following what “celebrity” does to people would provide a fascinating sub-plot and will be essential if we are going to begin to understand what made this particular killer stalk his prey.



The Assassination Of Gianni Versace is on BBC2 on Wednesday’s at 9.00.  The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player.


Collateral (BBC2 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



Award-winning playwright David Hare’s first foray into a television drama series began this week with an impressive cast.  Sir David was knighted in 1998 for services to the theatre, namely a string of West End and Broadway successes.  He has received Oscar nominations for his work in films (including his adaptation for the excellent 2002 movie “The Hours”) and enjoyed a lengthy career in television  with films and plays which began back in 1978.  His “breakthrough” play “Slag” was first performed at The Royal Court in 1970.  What we have here is a heavyweight, influential writer but would these skills transfer to a modern-day police drama shown over a period of four weeks?  I think those members of the audience who knew of Hare’s work would have viewed this with extremely high expectations.  Those who knew he is married to French fashion designer might have expected something rather stylish along the lines of “The Night Manager” or “McMafia” but probably the majority who found themselves watching at 9pm on Monday evening were just after their dose of police procedural drama.  I’m not sure who would have ended up at the end of the first episode the most satisfied.

collateral2Carey Mulligan in “Collateral”

Central character DI Kip Glaspie is played by Carey Mulligan, who I recently watched doing impressive work in “Mudbound” (2017) and whose 2015 turn in “Suffragette” is currently languishing on my Sky Planner.  We find out that Glaspie was once a champion pole vaulter for reasons which are not clear but any potential vaulting through a suspect’s open window seems unlikely as she is also pregnant.  (I don’t think it’s that kind of production anyway, but it did suggest some thrilling action sequences in my head when another character mentioned it!)

A pizza delivery man is gunned down on the streets of London just after delivering a pizza to harassed mum (Billie Piper) who, inexplicably, ends up throwing the uneaten pizza into a corner of a room.  Piper’s character is edgy and distracted and is the ex-wife of local MP played by John Simm (who was also in equally high profile ITV drama “Trauma” this week, which I chose not to watch).  Simm’s character was fleshed out in a bedroom scene with recent girlfriend played by Kim Medcalf (a former Sam Mitchell on “Eastenders”) in  a scene which oddly seemed to suffer from some really heavy-handed dialogue in what I believe had the intention of illustrating him as a man who puts politics above people.  Also in the mix is the always value for money, Nicola Walker, fast becoming a staple of all television drama, who is playing a lesbian vicar with a secret which suggest Simm’s character is not as exactly above board as he would like to make out.


Billie Piper and John Simm

The dead pizza delivery man turns out to be an illegal immigrant living with family members in a lock-up garage which instantly adds political weight to the drama.  By the end of the episode the killer but not the motive is revealed.  With Ben Miles and Saskia Reeves also in the cast I don’t doubt that we will be seeing strong performances but on the evidence of this first episode I’m not sure if the writing feels natural enough for this kind of production.  I found the superbly written “Happy Valley” and “Scott and Bailey” coming to mind.  Here there were a few times I felt the lines jarring on me.  It might be Hare’s deliberate intention to unsettle us as this is obviously going to be much more than a tale of a killing on a South London street but it is not clear exactly where it is going yet.


Sir David Hare

I suspect that like BBC 1’s “McMafia” which shed a lot of viewers (although I stuck with it without being totally sure why) a number who watched the first episode may not be back for more despite the cast and obviously high production values.  I’ll give Episode 2 a go but most confess there was nothing in this episode which really lodged in my mind.  Often when I sit down to write a review I can get writing with what has stayed with me.  Here I had to flick through the programme again just to remind me what had gone on – and I’m not sure if that is a positive sign.


Collateral is on BBC2 on Monday’s at 9.00.  The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player.  Internationally, it has been picked up for inclusion on Netflix.


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



Times have changed. Nowadays you don’t even have to go to the cinema to see a film just nominated for this year’s Oscars. On the day that “Mudbound” got a UK theatrical release it also appeared for streaming on Netflix and even in I watch nothing else this February then this will be worth the monthly subscription.

mudbound5Mary J Blige

“Mudbound” has been nominated in four categories: Best Adapted Screenplay (it is based on a novel by Hillary Jordan which I have not read), Best Supporting Actress for Mary J Blige, Best Original Song (performed during the end credits by Mary J Blige) and Best Cinematography for Rachel Morrison. Of the four the last was the one I was unsure about. It all starts off very dark, a storm is brewing at dusk and a hole needs to be dug. For the first five or ten minutes it is not always easy to see what is going on. Personally, that drives me more nuts than mumbled dialogue, as usually if you can’t hear there’s a subtitle option. I wasn’t happy about not being able to see, but I do recognise that this, on this occasion, is largely for dramatic value, rather than someone not paying the electricity bill, and the general air of gloom does lift.



The film’s main setting is a farm in Marietta on the Mississippi Delta, an area, unsurprisingly, given the title, with more than its fair share of mud. It is the tale of a black and white family who both have men who have gone to fight in the Second World War. In the Jackson family it is Ronsel, who becomes a sergeant and drives a tank for the 761st Battalion. Jamie McAllan is a fighter pilot. A tough farming life continues for those left at home but when the soldiers return the racial inequalities of thee American South seem more ludicrous.

mudbound3Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund

The narrative is framed by the characters’ words. At one point Laura, wife of Jamie’s brother and mother of two uprooted from a very different life in Memphis to this mud-drenched rural environment says;
“Violence is part and parcel of country life. You’re forever being assailed by dead things.”
We know that the plot is building up, there’s a tragic inevitability about the whole thing because of what we learn in the first few minutes of the film but this does not make it any less suspenseful or appalling when things do begin to play out.


There are some great performances. Mary J Blige is getting the recognition for her excellent world-weary portrayal of Ronsel’s mother, Florence, but there are a number of other strong contenders, namely Garret Hedlund and Jason Mitchell as Jamie and Ronsel, British actress Carey Mulligan as Laura and Rob Morgan as Ronsel’s father who had me really wincing when he tries to speed up the healing of an injury so that his family do not suffer for him being out of action on the farm.


Rob Morgan with Jason Mitchell

I think that films that deal with issues of race are still very important, especially with the current US administration and this film tells a history lesson which is always worth repeating. The fact that it is getting official praise in the form of healthy Oscar nominations and is easily available in our own homes should ensure a sizeable audience. It deserves this as it is impressive in all areas and hopefully this will turn into some awards on Oscar night.


Mudbound is available to view on Netflix in the UK.



Britannia – Sky Atlantic (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



So, how to describe “Britannia” the first episode of which appeared on Sky Atlantic this week?  It’s aimed towards the “Game Of Thrones” fans (which reminds me I still have the last series unwatched on my Sky Planner – for some reason I can’t get round to start watching it) and the box set binge viewers (Sky have taken the now increasingly more common tactic of releasing the whole series on catch-up to lure in the Netflix crowd).  This is no swords and sorcery epic however, being rooted in early British history (or at least with a slight nod towards it).


It starts in 43AD with the Romans return to the British Isles after Julius Caesar’s previous attempt to conquer some ninety years before.  This time the Celtic residents are largely caught unawares.  The first Romans we see are four unfortunate individuals hanging by their arms who have decided Britannia was not for them and have made a run for it only to be interrogated by David Morrissey’s General Aulus Plautius.  One gives as his excuse for desertion “Britannia is a cursed land, ruled by the dead”. First pause for “not much has changed laughter”.  Over the intervening years legends have sprung up around giant squids and demons residing in the forests feasting on human flesh.  In reality it’s the challenging weather and the Celtic tribes that will be causing all the problems.  David Morrissey plays a good baddie, even if I did give up on “The Walking Dead” not long after he joined the cast.  The flesh eating zombies and dystopian nightmare of everyday survival was one thing but Morrissey’s “Governor” proved a little too much for this viewer.  Here he’s soon coming up with a plan where one deserter will cut the throats of the others in order to survive.


Over on Britannia we’ve already met the drug-raddled The Outcast (Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas) running amok in a frenzy of portents and omens and have seen the preparations for a female initiation Solstice ceremony to womanhood in the Cantii Tribe, which is destined to go horribly wrong.  Right from the off we are seeing society portrayed with women as equals, strong fighting women, which makes this feel different from ancient history tales we’ve seen before and will satisfy Game Of Thrones fan used to strong women in Arya, Cersei, Daenerys and the excellent Brienne Of Tarth will see echoes in characters such as Kerra (Kelly Reilly) and young Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) whose entry into womanhood was so abruptly disrupted.


Kelly Reilly as Kerra

Filmed largely in Prague and Wales, the scenery was often breath-taking which added much to this ninety-minute opener.  High production values are evident throughout. Violent and resplendently unapologetic in its bad language, the flesh-creeping aspects were upped by some particularly unappealing Druids of which Mackenzie Crook is largely unrecognisable as the leader, Veren.  I’m not sure where it’s all going but I’m going to be happy enough to go along with the ride over the next 8 episodes of series 1.

Britannia, SkyEleanor Worthington Cox with Nikolaj Lie Kaas

Britannia is created by notable playwright and screen play writer Jez Butterworth who has credits ranging from his first Royal Court Theatre award-winner “Mojo” to the latest in the James Bond Franchise “Spectre”.  He often writes with family members and here script and production honours are shared with brother Tom and James Richardson.  Someone’s been doing the research effectively.  In our household we took to Google after a scene involving a cat as we didn’t think they were in Britain at that time only to discover that Julius Caesar had introduced them to the country on his first trip over.  Viewers don’t always expect historical accuracy when there’ s action-packed over the top drama so it’s nice we’re getting a bit of both here.

The one thing it seems to be missing at this stage is a great piece of music to kick things off.  “Game Of Thrones” is blessed with a great opening score which really gets under your skin.  Here, for some reason we have Donovan’s trippy “Hurdy Gurdy Man” but with the Brits indulging in natural highs and the Smoke Spirit turning the solstice into an acid rave until disrupted by the brutal arrival of the Romans, perhaps it’s not such an inappropriate choice after all.

Britannia’s first episode has given Sky it’s best viewing figures for an original programme for three years.  The last time as many tuned in was for “Fortitude”, (I was one of those but I didn’t last too many episodes on that occasion).  Hopefully, here I will stay the course.  It seems that in this dark germ-ridden January we want to see Ancient Brits go the distance with Roman armies, a bit of magic and strong warrior women.  Bring it on!


Britannia is shown on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Thursdays at 9.00.  In the US it has been purchased to be shown on Amazon.


Stronger (2017)- A What I’ve Been Watching Special




The good folks over at in conjunction with publicists Thinkjam contacted me regarding a book to film adaptation.  Due to unforeseen circumstances the book has not yet arrived but I have had the opportunity, thanks to Liongate to view the film which opens this week.

Stronger is the real-life story of Jeff Bauman who, in an attempt to win over his ex-girlfriend decided to stand at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 with a congratulatory poster praising her achievement.  This meant he was at the wrong place at the wrong time as a terrorist bomb explosion shattered his life and led to a double above-knee amputation.  “Stronger” is the tale of Jeff’s attempts to fight back and get his life back on track.


To be honest, this is not the sort of film I would normally seek out.  It makes for tough viewing and there is little in the way of light relief but it is undeniably very well done.  The film is directed by David Gordon Green, a screenwriter and producer, who has worked in different film genres and also in television since his critically acclaimed 2000 debut “George Washington” (not about the President) which he wrote, directed and produced.  It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Bauman and Miranda Richardson as his mother, Patti.  Both performances deserve to be given consideration at Oscar nomination time.

We first meet Jeff in the middle of a losing streak.  His relationship with Erin has ended, he is botching things up in his job as a chicken roaster for Cost Co, he’s living with his mother who has a drink problem and socialises with a group of boorish macho sports fans.  His relationship has ended because “he never shows up”, the irony being when he does show up to cheer Erin on he gets blown up. 


I do think that this is a film which will resonate more with an American audience.  There’s an entrenched Americanness which is inescapable.  It’s rooted in American working- class culture, depicting Jeff as an ordinary guy, which here comes across via sport, beer and macho male banter.  I did initially feel quite distanced.  There’s also the American sense of “Gung-ho” and flag-waving patriotism which we British viewers find a little strange.  In many ways the film does challenge this.  In a very unsettling scene Jeff has become a beacon of hope for the Boston community and the embodiment of the “Boston Stronger” campaign.  He is asked to come on to the rink with a flag at an ice-hockey game far too early in his rehabilitation and is unable to accept the title of “hero” which is bestowed upon him.  His family find this difficult to comprehend leading to a showdown with his mother when she invites Oprah Winfrey to interview him.


The whole thing is extremely sobering and powerfully brings home the long- lasting repercussions for Jeff and those around him.  A couple want their photo taken with him because they seem him as an example of “don’t let the terrorists win”.  Jeff’s response is that the terrorists have won- they have taken his legs from him.  It’s not possible to watch without sensing that taste of bitterness in the mouth.  A scene of reckless behaviour whilst drunk and high and the official response to it would have seemed too much if it was not obviously rooted in truth.  None of this makes for easy viewing.

We can tell from the title and the existence of an autobiography that at some point Jeff has to begin to put his life back together, but it does seem a long time coming.  A long-delayed meeting with the man who saved his life begins that process and we are left, inevitably and thankfully, with a feeling of hope for this extraordinary survivor.


Jake Gylennhaal is a fair chunk older than Bauman who was 28 at the time of the bombing but he gives the part the right sense of experience and gravitas to make the painful scenes plausible yet watchable as it is hard to keep your eyes off him.  Moments where I felt an urge to close my eyes (there’s removal of bandages) I found myself fixed on Gylennhaal’s reactions.  Tatiana Maslay as Erin is so often the voice of reason and Miranda Richardson as his mother plays a significant part in the success of the film.

DSCF7354_RJake Gylenhaal with Jeff Bauman

It’s not an easy film to watch and would certainly not be first choice for a festive night out but one man’s determination to succeed should entice audiences.  I did emerge from it feeling like I had been pulled through the wringer but Jeff Bauman’s fight-back deserves to be told and this production has done his real-life story justice.


Stronger is released in cinemas nationwide in the UK on December 8th.  View the trailer here. Many thanks to Nudge for the opportunity to do this.


Joe Orton Laid Bare (BBC2 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review


Joe Orton2

The summer I left school I discovered Joe Orton.  I was about to embark on a Drama course and was encouraged to read as many playwrights as possible.  I don’t remember if Joe Orton was actually on any recommended reading lists but it was his work that I became side-tracked by.

My eighteen year old self appreciated the rebel, the working class boy made good, his love at taking swipes at the establishment and most of all his use of language, rooted in what people actually say, which has always been for me one of the things I find most funny and has led to my love of Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood even right along to “Gogglebox” which just last the other night had me crying with laughter at an observation made by one of the regular viewers  (Izzi from Leeds actually).


The more I read by and about Joe Orton the more obsessed I became.  His violent end appealed to my sense of the macabre and I devoured his diaries, probably not the most suitable reading material for an impressionable teenager.  When I eventually went to college I spent a good chunk of my first term producing an essay on, if I remember rightly, a quote of his about his work being from “the gutter”.  I don’t think I ever researched anything with such enthusiasm and it was probably my academic peak as I remember the assignment being awarded with an “A”.


His work has never entirely left me. I read his plays, the diaries, and John Lahr’s masterful biography regularly and all three would appear on my lists of my favourite books.  The 1987 film, based on Lahr’s work, “Prick Up Your Eyes” with its screenplay by the perfect choice, Alan Bennett, is one of my all time favourite films and features career best performances from Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina.  Over the years I’ve seen a number of productions of his plays.  They are not always easy to get right.  Probably the best I’ve seen live was a touring version of “Loot” with Letitia Dean.  That was certainly better than the 1970 film version starring Richard Attenborough and Lee Remick in the part of the nurse played by Letitia Dean.  I do, however, rate the film version of “Entertaining Mr Sloane, also from 1970, mainly because of the delightfully grotesque performance by Beryl Reid.


Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina from “Prick Up Your Ears”

Joe Orton Laid Bare was an 80 minute documentary on BBC2 which marked 50 years since the death of the playwright at the hands of his partner Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and then took his own life.  It featured a range of talking heads and extracts of Orton’s work- none of which fully conveyed the full flavour his work.   Orton specialised in farcical comedy which needs layers to be built as the play proceeds so to see a section out of context is probably not the best way of viewing his work.  The repertory company including Antony Sher, Jaime Winstone, Ben Miles and Freddie Fox who portrayed these segments with great gusto but they were perhaps the least successful aspect of the programme.  Orton was a writer who was perhaps just finding his peak at the time of his death, his last play “What The Butler Saw” is acclaimed his best.  There was a dramatization that I hadn’t seen before of a piece submitted for “Oh Calcutta!” which was embarrassing in its crass crudity which I think if I was producing this documentary I would have cut.


There were sections taken from the diaries brought to life by actors portraying a young and older Joe Orton which worked well.  There’s a recognition generally that the British Prison Service made Orton the playwright.  It took him away from the influence of the older Halliwell whose belief in his own literary skills was stultifying Orton’s writing and gave him the chance to find his own voice.  Both Orton and Halliwell were imprisoned (and this sounds incredible now) for defacing library books.  As someone who works within libraries I would have to take a dim view of this but there is something about the enthusiasm and care over the period of time that they did this and the outrageousness in what they came up with that always makes me laugh (against my better nature of course!)

joeorton6One of the many defaced library books which ended up in a prison sentence

There was a shining light in this programme which made it memorable to me who wasn’t expecting to find out a great deal of new things about Orton and that was the participation of his sister, Leonie as consultant and talking head.  Leonie, I believe manages the Orton Estate and is memorably portrayed in “Prick Up Your Eyes” by the fabulous Frances Barber.  Leonie in real life was more Julie Walters, (who played Orton’s mother in the film and who had the immortal line, and I may be paraphrasing a little, “I bet Dirk Bogarde never distempered his mother’s tablecloth!”) and her contributions to this programme were an absolute joy.  

joeorton7Joe’s sister, Leonie

For fifty years she has lived with the memories of her brother, from a working class Leicestershire background, who absorbed his parents into his characters (the weak men were his father, the surreally outrageous often coming from his mother).  She told a story about Joe returning home and hiding a microphone behind a loaf of bread to record his mother’s utterances which were then used in his work.  There were the few months of the golden era when Joe became the feted star of the West End – a radical new voice who won awards, appeared on the telly, was asked to write a screenplay for the Beatles and began to aspire to an existence completely baffling to the family.  And then, all of a sudden it was all over.  Leonie had to live with the repercussions of such a violent, horrible death, the discovery of the diaries and her inheritance of the whole of the Orton output, including unpublished works which she says pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, and yet, she says with a twinkle in her eye, are still funny. Fifty years may have gone past but you can tell from Leonie that the presence of that naughty older brother, 11 years her senior, is still very much with her and a very real love for him shone through. 


Other talking heads included biographer John Lahr and those that appeared in the original productions of his plays including Kenneth Cranham, Patricia Routledge and Dudley Sutton and those who knew him and Kenneth Halliwell in their professional capacity and even a casual pick-up of Joe’s .  I felt Kenneth was moved further back than usual, certainly more so than in the film, which focuses on his mental deterioration to the point of murder of suicide and which elicits a fair amount of sympathy in Alfred Molina’s portrayal.  There was less sympathy in this documentary, nobody really had anything good to say about Halliwell.  What was interesting was the willingness to apportion some blame into a direction I had not heard before.  Peter Wills was the head of Rediffusion Television Drama who seemed to be guilty of continually undermining Kenneth publicly when he was obviously suffering from serious mental health issues, he interfered with treatment and seems to have exacerbated Halliwell’s paranoia.  Kenneth Cranham said “Almost certainly I think that Peter Wills brought about the murder…I think there was something Machiavellian going on….I think Peter Wills is a nasty piece of work.”  This view was echoed by other talking heads.  There was a tape-recording from the doctor who treated Hallilwell who showed how far we have thankfully come in the treatment of mental health patients.


The documentary built up towards the grisly killing in the small claustrophobic flat they shared as Halliwell began to fear separation from Joe, because of both what he had read from the diaries and from what Joe and others had been saying.  An air of continuing mystery is maintained by the latter days of the diaries going missing, taken by Peggy Ramsay, Orton’s agent when she arrived to identify the bodies. 

These 80 minutes fed my continuing fascination with Joe Orton.  I think the balance of the programme was right.  I’m not sure how well Orton actually benefits from academic research on his output.  I’ve read some over the years and it doesn’t ever come off.  It was important to let those like John Lahr, who has spent decades examining the man and his work, those who worked with him and especially sister Leonie to have their say to commemorate this extraordinary individual who burnt brightly and whose influence on comic writing still can be felt today.

fourstarsJoe Orton Laid Bare was first shown on BBC2 on Saturday 25th November at 9pm.  It is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player


Snatch (2017 AMC) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



Before seeing this 10 part crime caper advertised I’d never even heard of the AMC channel let alone watched anything on it.  It’s a BT channel and I am a Sky Customer so never expected to find it but there it was well tucked away on Sky Channel 192. I was interested enough in the premise of this to add the double bill of the first two episodes to my planner.

Snatch is loosely based on the 2000 crime comedy directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Brad Pitt and Jason Statham. I’ve actually never seen that film but I think the association comes more in the setting and style of the piece than any actual characters or storylines.  It has the Guy Ritchie coolness which made “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” a hit.


The TV series provides the first dabbling in production for Rupert Grint, now 29, who spent a large chunk of his childhood as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter franchise and may very well be looking now for ways to invest his millions. He is also starring in “Snatch”.  I was interested by his presence but this was not enough to get me going further than I would normally go with the remote control and the Sky Guide.  It hasn’t for example been enough for me to record his Sky 1 comedy “Sick Note” which started this week.  It was actually the supporting cast that got me interested enough to press record.


I’ve also recently been watching the DVD box set of the BBC1 series “The Musketeers” which I’ve had recommended to me from a number of sources but which completely passed me by when it was on TV.  It’s been a lot of fun and of course features Tom Burke, who I highly praised for his turn as Cormoran Strike in another J R Rowling adaptation as well as Luke Pasqualino, who makes a dashing D’Artagnan.  Luke here plays Albert, whose father is in prison after a botched gold bullion robbery when Albert was a youngster.  He is big pals with Grint’s Charlie, a bow-tie bedecked posh boy whose family has fallen on hard times.  This dynamic duo become a trio with boxer Billy.  He is played by the fabulously named Lucien Laviscount who had a stint as a teenager on “Coronation Street”, went into the Celebrity Big Brother house a few years ago and flirted with Kerry Katona andwho I last saw in the one episode I watched of American TV series “Scream Queens”, a Ryan Murphy creation which slots directly in between teen series “Glee” and adult gore-fest “American Horror Story” by being a teen horror series.  It didn’t work for me and gave up early on, I was fully aware that I was the wrong audience for this but it was great to see Brit Laviscount in the cast which also featured Lea Michele from “Glee”, Jamie Lee Curtis and teen heartthrobs Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas.  Since then there’s been considerable hours in the gym as he has an extraordinarily toned torso with something looking like it amounts to a 23-pack.

 Luke Pasqualino and Lucien Laviscount

Interesting casting combination for a group of three lads who will in the weeks to come get themselves in deeper and deeper waters which will test the bonds of friendship.  It’s a young, slightly flashy stylish series.  By the end of the first episode the three who had indulged in small time crime suddenly found themselves in the big league when they unwittingly end up with a van of gold bullion.  In the support cast we get the fragile charms of Phoebe Dynevor (“Coronation Street” connection again, is the real-life daughter of Sally), and the always bankable Marc Warren as a beleaguered cop  and Dougray Scott as Albert’s jailbird dad.


Both of the two episodes I watched were good fun, well-paced, a little flashy but certainly I would not have given up on them at this point.  You can tell there is still a lot of mileage in the plot.  I recorded the third but when came to watch it was informed by Sky that this channel is not part of my package.  I could add it as a BT Sports package (don’t bother phoning me to try and persuade me to do this Sky, it’s not going to happen).  Obviously the first two episodes were being shown as part of a “Showcase” to lure me in, which it did, but I’ll get over it.  


The boys with Phoebe Dynevor

There is still the feeling, held over from the years of two/three/four channel television that anything that does not appear on the main listings is somehow inferior.  I think in the first years of multi-channel TV in the UK, this was often the case.  The first years I had Sky I mainly watched repeats of things I’d missed out when first shown on terrestrial as well as the odd off-the-wall series.  Things now have certainly changed, not only because of shows like “Game Of Thrones” which has probably more than any other show altered people’s perceptions of Sky’s programming but also Amazon Prime and, especially, Netflix, who seem to be making shows that are too ambitious and expensive for the main networks to produce (“The Crown, anyone?  I watched this open-mouthed at the sheer quality of this production).  Perhaps just as recent as a year ago I would have been sniffy about an original series appearing on a channel like “AMC” (what does that even stand for?) assuming that it couldn’t be good enough for “proper telly” I now know better and this is one of the reasons why searching the schedules for buried treasure has become another joy of TV watching.  Hopefully, another channel will pick this series up in the future (like Fox has done with the very likeable Amazon hit “Lucifer”) and I will be able to see it to its conclusion.




Dynasty (Netflix 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



The latest series to get a revamp is 80’s classic glossy soap “Dynasty” which is currently being added one episode a week in the UK on Netflix.  We already have had the 21st Century version of “Dallas” which combined the next generation with the original stars, with some success, if not always gripping storylines, but found it was unable to survive the death of Larry Hagman.

Dynasty’s reboot is a different affair as it has been completely recast, using the original’s names and family relationships.  Starting with a clean slate means that Krystle Carrington (now Cristal) can be Hispanic, Jeff Colby is African-American and the role of Sammy-Jo (memorably Heather Locklear in the original) has been re-written as a gay man.


I’ve watched two episodes so far.  The first was largely introductory as we had to get to know these characters all over again and the target audience was probably not born when the original series aired (1981-89).  The centrepiece (and Dynasty often had a centrepiece )was the wedding between Blake and Cristal, seen by Blake’s children Fallon and Steven as a gold-digger.  There was a nice nod to the original when Steven, (still gay), as a child in a flashback was seen playing the original theme tune on the piano.

dynasty6Blake marries Cristal – again!

There’s the first thing I missed – that glorious sweep of theme music composed by Bill Conti over the opening credits.  The rebooted “Dallas” went with the old tune, as has “Hawaii 5-0”.  “Dynasty” had a better theme tune than “Dallas” and it’s a shame not to have used it.

If things took a while to get going in the first episode that’s not too far from the original whose initial reception was very muted and it looked like this expensive series may be cancelled.  All that changed with the introduction of Joan Collins as the fabulous Alexis Colby and from her arrival onwards it became a huge ratings hit, influenced fashion (shoulder pads, anyone?) and summed up the glossy selfishness of the 80s.  On the reboot there have already been several mentions of Fallon’s and Steven’s mother but the role has not yet been cast.  I can’t actually think who could fill those shoulder-pads and take on Joan’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the super-bitch, but one name that keeps crossing my mind, and to maintain the British connection is Catherine Zeta-Jones.


Dynasty was always bigger and blowsier than “Dallas” which centred on the machinations of JR and the stories were more outlandish (not counting Bobby’s dream which was used to write off a whole series when it went off in an odd direction).  In “Dynasty”, most memorably you had the kidnapping of Krystle by Psycho star Anthony Perkins, replacing her with a Krystle-lookalike in the Carrington home and Fallon got abducted by aliens (although now I’m not sure whether that was in the spin-off “The Colbys.”)  It also featured, probably from mid-way through the run, one of the most beautiful women ever to appear on television in Diahann Carroll as Dominique Devereaux (rebooted version, think of casting Rupaul in this role).

Future casting ideas for “Dynasty” producers – no charge.

It’s hard to say in the new version how far they will go in the over-exaggerated melodrama stakes.  We have had catfights (have you seen how ropey that famous fight between Alexis and Krystle in the lily pond looks to our modern eyes).  There was a fabulous moment in a cemetery at a funeral between Krystle and Fallon, which suggests that these slapstick-as-drama moments may be used freely in the new version.


Fallon herself, played by   Elizabeth Gillies seems far more of a bitch than the Emma Samms/Pamela Sue Martin original but that just might keep us watching until Alexis turns up.  One of my favourite characters from the original, Sammy-Jo, has a lot of potential in this new incarnation played by the very easy-on-the-eye Rafael de la Fuente.  Anders the butler, or major-domo, as his role is explained here has had his role beefed up and is probably the most recognisable face in the cast played by New Zealander Allan Dale, who has turned out great work in at least three continents in major roles in “Young Doctors”  “Neighbours”, “The OC”,  and in the London West End production of “Spamalot”.


The characters names aside, the show it reminded me most of was not the original “Dynasty” but “Dirty, Sexy Money” (2007-9) which was headed by Donald Sutherland and was always a lot of fun with a scheming rich family, the Darlings.  The characters of the two Carrington siblings seem here quite close to Seth Gabel (Jeremy) and Natalie Zea (Karen) (especially with her relationship with father’s business rival Jeff echoing Karen’s obsession with Blair Underwood as Simon Elder).

dynasty4Steven and Fallon Carrington

Do we need a new version of “Dynasty”?  I’m still not convinced.  If it was going for a reboot I’d liked to have seen it done like “Dallas” was, moving the Carrington empire into the 21st century with some of the originals (those still with us, that is) taking their old parts.  (There were a number of “reunions” after the series ended in 1989).


My enjoyment of this kind of heightened over-the-top drama is fuelled anyway by the splendid “Empire”, the story of a family run R&B/hip-hop label which is, to all intents of purposes “Black Dynasty”.  Their outlandish plots are kept bubbling by excellent casting and a battle of the titans in Cookie and Lucious Lyon (played magnificently by Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard.  So, I can’t help feeling that the success, or otherwise, of this new “Dynasty” will depend on, as the original did, the arrival of Alexis Carrington.  For the time being I’m going to continue to watch.


Dynasty is currently available on Netflix in the UK.  For those of us old enough to remember the original here are the opening credits at their finest.