The Real Full Monty (ITV 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

watching

fullmonty4

It’s been 20 years since film-goers were captivated by a depiction of unemployed Sheffield steel workers who became a male strip troupe to the sounds of Hot Chocolate, Tom Jones and Donna Summer.  “The Full Monty” was a massive hit and even had Prince Charles alarmingly joining in on the action.  The film had much to say about men, about what unemployment does to a community, about thinking outside of the box, about friendship and featured a group of men discussing issues and coming to terms with things that Sheffield steel workers might find difficult.

The popularity of the film even had royals joining in (I’ve spared you the video of this!)

One of the things us men still feel difficult to talk about is prostate and testicular cancer.  This one-off documentary showed an attempt at linking a celebration of the film’s China anniversary with raising awareness.

Alexander Armstrong & Ashley Banjo

The man at the centre of this was “Pointless” host and possessor of a surprising yet profitable singing voice, Alexander Armstrong.  He enlisted the help of Dance legends Diversity’s inspiration Ashley Banjo to put together a routine for a group of male celebrities who were expected to eventually bare all in front of a packed crowd at the London Palladium.  Male celebrities willing to do this were a bit harder to find, 600 were apparently asked and of those who agreed some had been directly affected by prostate cancer themselves, Wayne Sleep, Dom Littlewood who had endured cancer diagnoses and Elliot Wright, brother of the more famous Essex boy Mark, whose father was about to undergo radiotherapy for the condition.  They were joined by a couple of ex-Strictly alumni, McFly’s Harry Judd and swimmer Mark Foster and also Stuart Wolfenden from “Emmerdale”.  A representative from the Afro-Caribbean community was welcomed in Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules, who also had dancing experience.  This was a particularly appropriate move as we found out in the programme that those from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds are disproportionately more likely to be affected by prostate cancer.  A visit to a garage mechanic who was working hard to promote awareness provided sobering moments.

From rehearsal to performance

ITV produced a good documentary here .  It certainly had the potential to be cheap and cheesy.  The process followed by Ashley Banjo to teach the dance would have been familiar to those of us who have watched his various Sky 1 series.  I always made a point of watching these because of the sheer passion for dance from the Diversity crew and how this infectiousness spread during the course of every episode towards group of often inactive workmates keen to astound loved ones with a professional standard street dance routine.  But here on ITV there were other issues to contend with, mainly getting naked in front of a packed London theatre.

The first unveiling down to underwear saw two surprising objectors (Sleep and Wolfenden) and added tension came along the way when Danny John-Jules had to pull out over work commitments and Ashley (whose body, let’s face it, is highly impressive) had to wrestle with his conscience to see if he could bring himself to bare all alongside the other celebrities.  Along the way there was a visit to Sheffield to see landmarks from the film and a trip to meet the stage cast of “Calendar Girls” who are also stripping off for our entertainment.  The message that ran through was that men should be checking for lumps and getting tested for the often symptomless early stages of prostate cancer.  To do this in what was actually a fairly family-friendly show in which there was a chance to see celebrities get naked (!) was really quite a canny idea.  Okay, so it was not especially original but it did have an original slant, it was well-paced over its 90 minute length and it was heart-warming.  Overall, it recalled audience responses of 20 years ago when we willed on those original Sheffield steel-workers in the movie.  I found myself doing the same for this equally unlikely group of strippers.

fullmonty5

I did feel, however, that at the end of the programme the ITV announcer could have been a bit more pro-active at pointing viewers in the right direction to get help rather than just talking about up and coming shows.

fourstars

The Real Full Monty was shown on Thursday 15th June at 8.30 pm on ITV.  It is currently available on ITV catch-up services.

More information on the issues raised by this programme can be found on:

Yourprivates.co.uk

Macmillan info on Prostate Cancer

Count Arthur Strong (BBC1 2017) & Count Arthur Strong- The Sound Of Mucus (Nationwide Tour) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

 

count1

This week at my local theatre in Shanklin on the Isle Of Wight I had the great pleasure to see live for the very first time Count Arthur Strong who brought his three man show “The Sound Of Mucus” over to the island.

Despite three series of his half-hour comedy shows on BBC television there were still a number of people who were asking locally “Who is Count Arthur Strong?”  It does seem that this comic creation by Steve Delaney whose inspiration stems from some of the comedy greats of the past is still under-rated.

count2

For the uninitiated the Count began his broadcasting life with in 2005 with “Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!” which first brought to attention the  everyday life of this bewildered ex-Variety star.  The TV series is written by Steve Delaney with Graham Lineham and has been nominated for both Comedy Awards and for Best Sitcom at the BAFTAs.  The third series is currently on BBC1 on Friday evenings at 8.30pm.  This is an earlier transmission time which should bring in a younger audience as the Count is perfect Friday night family entertainment.  So far two episodes of Series 3 have been shown. This week’s gave way to Question Time but should be back with us when the General Election has been and gone.

count3

Predicting the election result?

The first episode of Series 3 saw Arthur roped into carrying out an exorcism and it was amusing but not classic Arthur.  I laughed more at the second episode where Michael (Rory Kinnear) ,whose association with Arthur began whilst researching a biography on Michael’s father (and Arthur’s ex-comedy partner) and who has been stuck with him ever since, was called for jury service and Arthur and odd-ball pals from the local cafe went along to support him.  There have been quite a few classic comedy moments in the previous two series.  Anyone wanting to dip into the world of the Count might want to seek out “The Radio Play” and “Arthur’s Big Moment” from the first series.  In “The Radio Play”, Arthur believes his acting career is due for a revival when he gets a small part in a radio play and “Arthur’s Big Moment” sees him, in a hilariously surreal sequence performing his variety act for a captive audience.  From Series 2 I won’t forget in a hurry “The Days The Clock Went Back” which builds misunderstanding upon misunderstanding and sees Arthur mistaken for a flying instructor in a sequence worthy of the best of “Some Mother’s Do Ave Em”.  Also seek out “Still Life” where Arthur attempts a new career as a living statue – all these have had me laughing until it hurts and so was delighted when he was making a stage appearance just down the road.

count4

Count Arthur with Michael (Rory Kinnear)

Something I heard somebody say as we left the theatre was “I don’t know why it’s funny, it just is” and that’s actually the joy of Count Arthur Strong.  I think it’s very British humour and seems to be in direct descendant to comedians of the past such as Harry Worth (where there are physical similarities in the hat and coat and from what I remember of Harry through misunderstandings), Hylda Baker (in malapropisms and bungled sentences), a touch of Frank Spencer (in ineptness to function), Tommy Cooper (in his ability to get laughs just standing on stage) and in his pompousness there’s even a touch of  both Captain Mainwaring and  Hyacinth Bouquets  There’s also in its joyful humour and playing with words a childishness which evokes memories of the golden age of children’s television and those people that you either dimly remember or were told about such as Mr Pastry, “Crackerjack” and Peter Glaze, Jimmy Edwards and the humour of “Rentaghost” yet it is more than a nostalgic nod to comedy pasts as it seems rooted in real people.  Like the best of comedy writing and despite its surrealness and occasional flight of fancy it seems authentic  and based upon real  (admittedly eccentric) people.

count6

Harry Worth most remembered for his shop window routine

Steve Delaney is 63 years old and has been playing this lovable bumbling character for over thirty years from when he was a drama student, down from Leeds and studying at The Central School of Speech and Drama.  The Count was resurrected in the late 90’s where he became part of Delaney’s club act, got the radio show and became a success at Edinburgh Festivals.   It’s been a long process, rather like the whole Mrs Brown phenomenon, another perfect case where I find myself laughing without really knowing what’s funny.

count5

His stage show “The Sound Of Mucus” is Arthur’s attempt to bring to life that Rogers and Hammerstein musical classic only someone has made a mistake at the printers.  Julie Andrews is suddenly not available to take the stage with Arthur so we have to wait for his friend Renee to arrive on the coach and to do her shopping from Lidl.  It co-stars Dave Plimmer (Eggy from the TV series but here playing stage-hand Uncle Alan) & Terry Kilkelly, as the Count’s PA, Malcolm.  As the show progresses Arthur has a few snifters of his special “Scottish Lucozade” which both loosens and restricts, especially when he has to come to grips with his Sulky Monkey ventriloquist puppet when he aims to re-enact “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”.  The script is both clever and funny and yet I laughed just as much at the moments away from the script, at moments of stillness, even a bench being dragged along the stage..  So did the rest of the audience.  The Count is still a bit of a cult figure and there’s always a danger of the audience not really getting it but he had them eating out of the palm of his hand from the moment he walked on stage.  The response was warm throughout especially when Arthur turned his hand at singing (his version of Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day” was a treat) and when we eventually got to the songs from the “Sound Of Mucus”, “16 Going on 17” had me almost breathless with laughter.

count7

Steve Delaney taking time off from the Count

The show has quite a few more dates to run over the summer including Plymouth, Weston-Super-Mare, Crawley, Oxford, Derby, Weymouth, Bristol, Margate, Nottingham and finishing off at the Liverpool Empire.  For Tour Dates see http://www.countarthurstrong.com/events/.     If you are an Arthur novice I would suggest watching a few of his clips on “YouTube” to see if this quirky humour is for you.  I certainly had a highly enjoyable evening in his company.

fourstars

for both TV and stage show

 

The third series of “Count Arthur Strong” is being shown on Fridays at 8.30pm on BBC1.  Previous episodes are available on the BBC I-Player.  The DVD of Series 3 is released on 17 July.  The first two series are available on DVD.

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

watching

babs4

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

babs10

Carry On Camping – Look out for the string!

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

babs3

Cor Blimey! It’s Babs!

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

babs

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

Samantha Spiro – Born To Be Babs

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

babs7

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

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

babs6

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

babs8

The young Babs, happy with both parents

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

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

babs9

Dame Barbara Windsor

babs2

fourstars

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

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

watching

jamestown

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

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

jamestown2

The Women Of Jamestown – Jocelyn, Verity and Alice

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

jamestown3

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

jamestown4

Jamestown Colony

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

jamestown5

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

threestars

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

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

watching

carshare1

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

Peter Kay speechless at the BAFTAs

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

carshare4

Checking reviewsrevues for a good review?

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

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

carshare5

Get it on E-Bay quick!

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

carshare7

Not Peter Kay but it could have been!

carshare6

Elsie – 2017’s great new comic character

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

fivestars(On the strength of Episodes 2 and 3)

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

 

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

watching

empire1

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

empire2

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

empire9

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

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

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

empire7

Cookie and Lucious

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

Lucious’ women played by Taraj P Henson and Grace Gealey 

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

empire4

 

fivestars

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

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

watching

thissius

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

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

thisisus2

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

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

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

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

Chrissy Metz and Sterling K Brown

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

thisisus10

Mandy Moore with Milo Ventimiglia

thisisus12

 Ron Cephas Jones

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

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

thisisus13

fivestars

 

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

 

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

watching

ssgb3

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

ssgb1

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

ssgb2

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

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

ssgb5

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

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

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

threestars

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

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

watching

roots2

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

roots3

The original “Roots”

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

roots4

Time Magazine cover Feb 1977

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

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

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

roots5

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

roots6roots7roots8

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

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

roots1

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

fourstars

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

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

watching

lalaland

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

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

lalaland2

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

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

Undeniable chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

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

lalaland6

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

John Legend

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

fourstars