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.

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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

 

 

 

Top Of The Shop With Tom Kerridge (BBC2 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I have a limited idea as to who Tom Kerridge is.  Initially, I did think he was on the last series of “Strictly Come Dancing” but that turned out to be another follically-challenged chef, Simon Rimmer. I did watch one episode of his “Lose Weight For Good” which has spawned one of the biggest selling books so far this year but decided as a television format it didn’t have much originality  and there is a limit to the number of new year-new start-new you programmes you can watch whilst dealing with January blues.  I preferred to stick with the diet-testing Channel 4 Show “How To Lose Weight Well” probably because I like Dr Xand Van Tulleken.

 I don’t often watch tv featuring chefs (other than Mary Berry who is more a national institution than chef) but Tom Kerridge is obviously an important enough figure in the world of TV cooking to put his name in the title in this new format which had two of its eight episodes shown on consecutive nights on BBC2 this week.

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 It wasn’t the named presenter but the format which drew me in.  It is only indirectly a cooking show as the food preparation has largely been all done by the time we meet the contestants but it is about passion.  Artisan food producers (of which there are a growing number) bring their products to a farm shop in the Yorkshire Dales to compete against three others to entice shoppers into buying their products and being in with the chance of being judged the best in terms of sales, taste and business viability by judges artisan expert Alison Swan Parente  and  entrepreneur and founder of Mowgli Street Food restaurants  Nisha Katona (no relation to Kerry).      

topoftheshop3Tom Kerridge with judges

 What I like about this format is that being judged here are people who have already put their lives on the line and are so committed to their project that they are selling on some scale, either locally or on-line and are ready to spread their belief to a much wider audience.  In the first episode we had preserves and the competitors were members of a family who made a runner bean chutney from the beans in their garden, an apple and chilli jelly made from the by-products of cider-making, a handmade peanut butter and a passed down the generations recipe from the Philippines of a papaya pickle.  My mouth was watering throughout.

topoftheshop2Who will buy our runner bean chutney?

 It watered even more in the second episode where the focus was on cheese and there were a couple of goats cheeses (including one from a man who had just one goat with obvious issues of business viability there- a local environment officer who produced the spiced cheese in his shed) an apple-smoked cheddar produced at the weekend initially as a hobby and a Welsh cheddar.  The competitors set up their stalls in the shop and midway through use their produce in a recipe which is sold in the tearoom of the farm shop.  These people are dedicated and so enthusiastic about their product that is hard not to be drawn in and there wasn’t one of the competitors in the first two episodes that didn’t deserve to do well.

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The cheesemakers with the judges

 The star of the show for me, however, is the farm shop itself.  It looks a lovely place and I would love to have such a venue walking distance from my home.  The people in that Yorkshire Dales village are extremely lucky and I hope they are doing everything they can to ensure that a place like that continues to thrive.  I live in an area which attracts tourists and has a strong farming pedigree but there is nothing anywhere near as good as the farm shop/tea room with its real community feel shown on the programme. 

topoftheshop6Inside the farm shop

 There’s a lot of elements to be considered which makes the programme more fascinating than watching an episode of “Masterchef” (which I have never done).  Pricing for one (there was some very expensive peanut butter which could have potentially restricted sales) and as the winners from each category meet up in a final I’m sure the business elements will become even more of a focus.  In fact, I might have liked a little more idea as to how the judges came to their decisions about the winners, I’m not arguing about the decisions they have made thus far but wonder how much they have taken all their criteria into consideration.

 There’s one thing I’m not happy about.  Why do we have to see scenes from both the episode we about to watch and the rest of the series before the opening credits?  This drives me absolutely nuts, as does the “Next Episode” preview at the end.  Do any viewers actually like these?     I know anyone watching TV with me is likely to become exasperated by me reversing and forwarding to get to the moment where the episode I have chosen to watch actually starts.  I might like the odd reminder as to what happened in the last episode if I am watching a Drama series but I don’t need to know what is coming up.  I think I should make a note about the programme-makers who don’t do this and praise them to the skies rather than continually grumble about the majority that do.

 Anyway, with this series we have a likeable format with devoted competitors with a proven commitment other than just wanting to be on telly.  I’m certainly going to be sticking with it and, even though it’s been pretty unheralded this far (and on consecutive nights – grr!) this actually could be the “Bake Off” replacement hit that the BBC are looking for.

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 The first two episodes of Top Of The Shop With Tom Kerridge were shown on Tues and Weds 17/18 April on BBC 2 at 8.00pm.  They are currently available to watch on the BBC I-Player.

Last Laugh In Vegas (ITV 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Reality shows provide work for past-their-best celebrities.  Fact.  There’s a whole posse of them (including Debbie McGee, Christopher Biggins, Wayne Sleep etc etc), well known names from 30+ years ago who are happy to go into jungles, sit on boats, travel to retirement places, learn to dance etc etc etc to boost their pensions.  But ITV’s “Last Laugh In Vegas” a five parter which started this week has a slightly different premise.  Here, the celebrities are, for the most part, from an even earlier era of heyday, from 40-50 years ago and they will not be attempting to learn new skills but will be doing what they did then but this time for a new audience.  It’s bringing British variety to a Las Vegas crowd used to megastars and state- of -the- art dazzling technology.  How can it possibly work?

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Well….even though I can find car-crash television as compulsive as the next person I’m hoping here that ITV haven’t set up this group of long-ago-more-famous-than-they-are-now celebrities for a fall.  To prevent this, they have brought in someone who is going to help them with their acts which would be more at home on old re-runs of  “The Good Old Days” than working amongst the razzle dazzle of Vegas.  And at this stage, I’m not convinced by this help.  I was vaguely disturbed that the person chosen looked like a white Michael Jackson tribute act, a Vegas performer by the name of Frank Marino.  We were told that Marino is a top comedian which just in itself reinforces the differences between live US and UK comedy and brings home the vast gulf between him and Bernie Clifton, the man who has pretending to ride an ostrich for his laughs for over half a century.  In fact, a modicum of research reveals Marino is best known as a drag act, something ITV is obviously keeping up their sleeves for a later episode.

vegas3Frank Marino – (I think this was a few years ago………)

 Much obviously depends on the people chosen for this Vegas show.  The obvious headliners would seem to be Cannon and Ball, but their brand of Northern humour and rapid wordplay seems more likely to bemuse an international audience.  There’s Su Pollard (was “Hi Di Hi” as well known worldwide as “Are You Being Served which turned its cast into household names in America?) who has chosen to sing, which wasn’t actually the best idea even in 1986 when she had an inexplicably big British hit (the #2 “Starting Over”).  Also attempting to revitalise their music careers are a frail looking Kenny Lynch (7 Top 40 hits 1960-65), a vulnerable Anita Harris (3 Top 40 hits 1967-68) and the supremely confident Jess Conrad (just 1 Top 40 hit back in 1961).  Admittedly, all three of these were British film and TV regulars throughout the 60’s and 70’s- old troopers who just kept going after their hits dried up.  The baby of this musical bunch is 64 year old Bobby Crush, thrust into stardom as a teenager by Hughie Green’s “Opportunity Knocks” for his piano-playing and his David Cassidy-on-a-budget looks.  Comedy is represented by the aforementioned Messrs. Clifton, Cannon and Ball together with “star of TV’s “The Comedians”” Mick Miller whose “trademark” long hair of his bald patch Marino is keen to cut.

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 Bernie Clifton and ostrich

The whole thing was tinged with sadness as their big opportunity became shadowed by squabbles over bedrooms, over billing and dawning realisation that they may be getting in over their depth.  There is probably a reason why most of them never played American in their glory days.  And yet, I am willing them to shine.

vegas5This is how I will always remember Anita Harris – from “Carry On Doctor” with Sid James

 Towards the end of this first offering they watched  a show-reel of their acts in their younger days in what was an affecting few minutes of television.  Thus Su Pollard watched herself impersonate Gracie Fields on a Royal Variety Show (how lost this would be on a Vegas audience), Anita Harris performed in her slinky, sophisticated style, the comics were shown being funny and Mr Conrad and Lynch looked dapper and Bernie Clifton rode around faster on his ostrich.  The passage of time and the trials of being in the public eye, to some extent, for decades, showed on their faces but none more than on a tearful Bobby Crush, who was watching once again the unhappy young man, struggling to cope with sudden fame and sexuality, grinning at the camera as the show went on regardless.

 Bobby Crush – then and now

And this show will go on regardless over the next five week and I suspect ITV will be providing us with more tears through the laughter as well as quite a few more moments I’ll be peering through my fingers to watch. 

The whole idea might seem somewhat cruel and heartless but I’d like these unlikely Vegas stars to hit the jackpot so I’m going to continue to watch.

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Last Laugh In Vegas is being shown on Tuesdays at 9.00 pm on ITV1.  The first episode is available on the ITV Player

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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. 

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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