Catherine The Great (Sky Atlantic 2019) & Rupaul’s Drag Race UK (BBC3 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Two series began this week which have attracted considerable pre-transmission publicity.  I watched them both and one was exactly what I was expecting and one certainly wasn’t.

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Sky seems to have been pushing Catherine The Great for ages.  With Dame Helen Mirren as its star and its executive producer this is no surprise.  This wasn’t quite enough to get me tuning in but add to that the presence of Gina McKee and Rory Kinnear in the cast and an interview with the Dame on Graham Norton’s TV show last week and I decided that this was probably going to be a must.  I admit to knowing very little about Catherine The Great, Mirren was keen to point out that most of what people have heard is false anyway, outrageous stories perpetrated by rivals.  These stories tended to have been based upon her reputed sexual voracity and tales of her being crushed to death whilst attempting to have sex with a horse!  I had prepared myself for a very different telling of her tale from Sky Atlantic – this was not “The Borgias” after all!

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Towards the end of the first episode I was aware that there was something not quite right with it but couldn’t exactly put me finger on what it was but I was surprisingly a little bored.  This means that I am probably not going to watch the other three episodes.  It is big budget but it doesn’t look it and that might be part of the problem.  Much of it seemed to be filmed in a kind of greasy half-light which created a kind of soft-focus on the main actors and, true, that type of lighting may have been authentic for a Russian palace, but as we’ve all been pressurised into purchasing TVs with high quality picture definition it all looked somewhat flat.  It was if that flatness rubbed off on other aspects of it.  It certainly did not give me the costume drama lift that I’m getting on a Sunday night with “Sanditon”.  It may be redressing the balance on stories about Catherine The Great but I fear I might not be sticking around to find out.

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There were also royal frocks in the much anticipated “Rupaul’s Drag Race UK” A multi Emmy award-winning institution in the US this show has not to date being served terribly well by UK mainstream TV.  The first series were tucked away on a channel I don’t even now remember.  Most of us have caught up to date binge-watching on Netflix (I don’t think there are as many past series on here as there were) and catching the All-Stars spin-off version when it snuck out here on Comedy Central.  It has a strong cult following over here who are very loyal to the show which has led to events like Season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio bringing her one-woman show over to Wembley and Australian drag queen runner Courtney Act from the same season winning “Celebrity Big Brother”.  Rupaul has been around to do publicity (including a stint on the sofa with Graham Norton alongside Dame Helen Mirren) and the show’s main judge Michelle Visage is currently wowing millions each week on “Strictly Come Dancing“.  So far, so good, but why is the show being aired on BBC3, the internet and I-Player platform probably depriving itself o the big mainstream audience it gets in the US?

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Michelle Visage and Rupaul

Drag has a very strong culture in the UK, but that culture is different from the US.  Over here we have had a tradition of drag acts who have become part of the mainstream- Lily Savage, Dame Edna, Hinge and Brackett for example, but these were primarily character-based.  Only with Danny La Rue did we have a household name where the image and dresses were more important than what the act did.  In the US there is a strong tradition of the Pageant Queen where the look is everything.  This has now evolved into boys on Instagram gaining big followings putting together various looks with the emphasis switching away from the character and comedy of drag which has existed since over here since Music Hall days and more loosely back to Shakespeare and further to creating looks and putting together costumes.

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Now in the US comedy will often win out with previous winners having a strong established act like Bianco Del Rio and Bob The Drag Queen and one of my favourites not to win, Ben De La Crème.  When Drag Race was announced for the UK I thought it would be a chance to provide a platform for those performing flat out nightly entertaining in bars and clubs across the country often working tirelessly for raising funds for charities to be given a nudge into the mainstream.  (Years ago Anne Robinson did helm a Weakest Link Drag Queen Special which did celebrate these) but that hasn’t really happened here with this selection of participants.

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Still, we’ve got weeks to get to know them (episodes are being dropped onto the I-Player weekly) and the format, as expected, works perfectly well with a UK twist.  The big prizes of the American version have gone (it is the BBC after all) and there’s still the hit and miss aspect of the challenges (being photographed on green screen as a beheaded queen – MISS, dressing up for the runway in looks inspired by our present actual Queen – HIT) and this show is likely to be a talking point throughout its run.  Much of the heart of the US version comes away from the contest, when we find out about the lives of the participants facing challenges from families, religion and the geographical location.  How this will translate to the British version remains to be seen but I suspect it will not be such a strong feature of the show.

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Such was the attention this premiere got that I found myself doing something I never do if I’m intending to write my own review and read a couple on the morning after transmission from The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian who awarded it 3 and 4 stars respectively.  The Telegraph felt it overly crude but The Guardian reviewer was certainly along for the ride and lapped it all up.  I’m going along with The Guardian, it’s not the five star review I gave to the opener of Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 3 but I’m confident it will continue to win me over and bring a big blast of glam and glitter into this autumn/winter.

Ratings – Catherine The Great –   threestars

Rupaul’s Drag Race UK – 4*fourstars

Catherine The Great is on Sky Atlantic on Thursdays at 9pm.  The first episode can be found on Sky catch-up services.  Rupaul’s Drag Race UK can be found on the I-Player where new episodes will appear on Thursdays at 8pm.

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Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Do we need “Strictly Come Dancing” more than ever in the UK this year?  The whole country is bewildered every time they pick up a newspaper or watch the news, it’s a disorientating time,  nobody is trusting anyone in charge and even the weather seems to have abandoned the seasons.  Perhaps we really need the unchanging format of “Strictly” starting in the late summer and occupying our Saturday nights up until Christmas.  With the first episode coming in last night at 140 minutes maybe it is just opiate for the masses, that is if an opiate can be delivered with such sparkle and razzmatazz!

It is a largely unchanging format, with just a few tweaks here and there which amps up the ante so slightly that we don’t really notice it until we see a clip of an episode from some years ago.  It’s revved up to fever-pitch level now, yet unlike the too brash X Factor, it still feels welcoming and homely.  The launch night of Strictly is probably the biggest night for entertainment in UK TV and whereas in the past I might have felt not too bothered if I watched it (although I always have) I found that yesterday I had an air of anticipation about me all day, almost counting down the hours to the first spin of the glitterball.

The major change this year is the introduction of a new judge,  a decision which has caused controversy as Motsi Mabuse is sister of one of the professional dancers, Oti.  Let’s get this out of the way first.  Motsi is good, one episode in and she is an asset to the show.  I never totally warmed to Darcy Bussell’s confirmations of what other judges have said, “the boys are right”, her odd tangled sentences and obsession with a strong core.  Motsi gave some good advice throughout, looked as if she was loving the whole experience and I never actually noticed the bit when she was judging her sister.

 

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We now know that it doesn’t matter that we do not know who the celebrities are, or in the case of vlogger Saffron Barker what they do, other than her saying “I create so much content” in a way that made her sound as if she was saving lives in Africa.  We are going to get to know them very well over the next few months (especially if you watch daily sister programme “It Takes Two”, something I’ve never done consistently but I can feel myself wilting already).  Last year I livened  up the 140 minutes further by scoring the contestants myself and comparing them to the judges scores.  It wasn’t possible for me or the judges to pick the winner early on last year, I noticed from last year’s blog that I had the winner, Stacy Dooley, fairly in the middle of the table, as did the judges.  Looking back at those 2018 scores this was a stronger night, dance-wise, with some really surprising early performances and because it was so unpredictable it made it essential TV.  So, like last year here is my Strictly Scorecard in ascending order.

James Cracknell & Luba – In a night of the unpredictable you really could see this coming.  Olympic Gold medallist James looked almost rigid with fear each time you saw him and his tango looked really stilted with wrong posture and too much standing still.  Has any Week 1 Strictly Dancer looked like they enjoyed it less? (maybe Judy Murray).  Motsi gave him some very good advice, but you can’t help feeling like other tall sportsmen in the past (Mark Foster) springs to mind, he isn’t really going to get it.  The judges also had him at the bottom of the table.  My score – 2  Judges score -11.

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Anneke Rice & Kevin – Anneke claims never to even have had a go at dancing before, which seems a little surprising that she has got to the age of 60 with decades in the entertainment business without having to shake a tail feather but if that’s so she deserves some credit for her cha cha cha to the Laura Brannigan song “Gloria” with the name changed, rather cringily, to “Anneke”.  Kevin did his trick of doing a lot so it didn’t appear that Anneke was doing not so much.  My score – 3 Judges score- 14

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Mike Bushell & Katya – It’s a brave move to do a jive on the first week and I don’t think I am ever going to bond with Mike as a contestant.  He fits nicely into the “Breakfast Time” category of people who last longer on this show than they perhaps should, buoyed by the votes of Breakfast Time viewers up past their bedtimes.  They went for a comedy feel, which was all a little frantic, and I’m not sure that the comedy was necessary as some of the movements were really not too bad and there was a surprising amount of content for a week 1 jive, but I didn’t really like it that much.  My score – 4.  Judges score -22

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Saffron Barker & AJ – I think the judges saw something different to me here.  It wasn’t bad but they were very enthusiastic about Saffron’s tango.  Maybe I was distracted by her Ariana Grande style high ponytail which flicked around so much that it lost the sharp staccato which is the trademark of the tango.    My score -4. Judges score -27

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Chris Ramsey & Karen – Performed a cha cha cha which had arms thrown all around the place and was stilted, but there was some hip movement and he looked like he was really enjoying it.  I think Chris will score highly for likeability and hope he will be around for enough week to build on these early glimmers of potential.  My score – 5 . Judges score -13

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David James & Nadiya– Ex- England goalkeeper David did a foxtrot to football anthem “Three Lions” and is going to face the problems all of tall sportsmen.  He did, and I don’t think the judges picked up on this, present his partner very nicely throughout the dance.  My score- 5.  Judges score -17

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Viscountess Emma Weymouth & Aljaz– Loved the pre-dance clip of them feeding giraffes at Longleat and giving rhinos a mud bath, this celebrity who I had never heard of had won me over quite a bit before she started dancing her cha cha cha.  There was real evidence of being able to dance here but it was all a little uptight, which given that it was week 1 is really what we should expect.  You can tell that she is going to get better and that’s one thing that Strictly viewers like (don’t be too good in the first couple of weeks).  My score – 5.  Judges score- 19

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Will Bayley & Janette – Paralympian table tennis player really threw himself into his quickstep from the off.  Head judge Shirley said his musicality was “off the charts”, although according to Shirley there were quite a few things that were “off the charts” in this season opener.  My score- 5 Judges score- 26

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Emma Barton & Anton – People are already saying that EastEnders actress Emma is Anton’s best chance to win this competition for the first time, hopefully he will not overdo the “comedy” which has kept him in even when his dancers haven not been up to much.  There’s certainly potential although their jive looked a little sedate compared to some of the other dance routines tonight.  Was this Anton getting the jive over and done with on a week when it doesn’t count as much?  My score -6.  Judges score- 23

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Catherine Tyldesley & Johannes – Pro dancer Johannes’ first dance with a celebrity was a very solid Viennese Waltz to “I Got You Babe”.  It was a bit skippy in places and there was the odd moment of disorientation after all that twirling.  My score – 6.  Judges score -20

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Alex Scott & Neil – Ex Arsenal/England footballer and now TV pundit Alex had the job of opening the show with a  pacy quickstep to “I Get A Kick Out Of You” (see what they did there?) in a costume which was pretty stunning.  Loads of personality if a little light on content.  Partnered with Neil Jones who has also not mentored a celebrity before and until tonight was best known as one of the victims in last year’s headline-grabbing “love rat scandal” and who inexplicably responded to the media attention by posting pictures of himself naked and draped over rocks.  My score- 6.  Judges score -21

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Dev Griffin & Dianne – I was really pleasantly taken aback by Radio 1 DJ’s foxtrot to “Build Me Up Buttercup”.  A real easy style to the dance that they always say is the most technically difficult of the ballroom dances performed with a surprising amount of lightness and grace.  My score -6.  Judges score -30

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Karim Zeroual & Amy – Hyperactive CBBC presenter Karim was always going to sell his dance and his cha cha cha was very strong with elements of other street-based styles which made it edgier and very impressive.  My score -7 Judges score -31.

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Michelle Visage & Giovanni – I love Michelle Visage.  I love her as a judge of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” I loved her on “Celebrity Big Brother” and I love her campaigning on behalf of gay rights over the years.  A 51 year old American mother of two needs to get round the voters early on as there is history of Americans and older women going out earlier than perhaps they should have done on this show and boy did she do it with a sassy cha cha cha full of attitude and great body movements.  I know that my heart is going to be willing Michelle and Chris Ramsey on week after week and that I’ll feel a little despondent when they both leave the show.  My score – 7 . Judges score -30

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Kelvin Fletcher & Oti– This is the big story of launch night.  Kelvin stood in after biscuit heir Jamie Laing injured his foot on the pairing up show.  So with less time to rehearse maybe we weren’t expecting that much from this ex-Emmerdale actor other than he looked good in his tight fitting costume.  But wow!  He and Oti pulled out a samba (a dance which so often goes belly up, especially for male celebrities) out of the bag which was the best dance we have ever seen on Week 1 in Strictly.  This took everyone by surprise and would have instantly silenced anyone saying that Oti stands an unfair advantage with her sister on the judging panel.  This made for terrific TV, and because he stood in at the last minute and because he seemed equally astounded by his performance the public are really going to get behind Kelvin who will not suffer from the “too good too soon” fate of some past celebrities.  On this showing and with this little rehearsal they might as well hand him the glitterball now and we can all find something else to do on Saturday nights before Christmas.  My score – 8 Judges score -32.

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My score for the first night show:

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(it didn’t even feel as long as usual)

Strictly Come Dancing began on Saturday 21st September at 7.00.  It is currently available on the BBC I-Player.

 

Brassic (Sky 1 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

 

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I rarely watch Sky 1. There was a point sometime this year when I realised I was never going to get round to watching the almost 30 episodes of the series-recorded now past-its-prime reboot of “Hawaii 5-0” that I had stacked up in my Sky Planner and deleted them. The only things that have tempted me over to Sky 1 in recent years (apart from the one episode of “Jamestown” I watched) has been comedy, specifically the early series of the supermarket set “Trollied” and the one series of under-rated football club comedy “Rovers”.

In the last half decade or so I feel that television and film comedy and me have moved further apart. I’m far more likely to laugh out loud at “Coronation Street”, “Gogglebox” (and strangely I’m finding Season 2 of “Dynasty” on Netflix funny and not just because of the ludicrous plot-lines but because of sharp script and assured performances) than at most productions designed specifically for laughs. I’ve tried quite a few series (and not fancied watching considerably more) which really haven’t done it for me. I struggle with the comedy of embarrassment, the self-deprecating bitter edge of comedies such as the critically acclaimed “Fleabag” leave me cold.

Maybe the tide is turning again. There was real warmth and genuine laughs in Channel 4’s “Derry Girls” and it could very well be that Sky 1 have come up trumps with “Brassic”.

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On first glance it looks like a programme for those who miss “Shameless” (like me), a sweary, raucous tale of scoundrels living on the edge and finding crime an alternative option to getting by but this time with Michelle Keegan in it. Written and executively produced by lead actor Joe Gilgun who those with long memories may recall as a child actor in “Coronation Street” when he played 10 year old Jamie Armstrong but adult credits include a stint as a Dingle on “Emmerdale”, “Misfits” and “This Is England”. Whilst working on the movie “Pride” (excellent) Gilgun would regale big name co-star Dominic West with tales of growing up in Lancashire and was told by West that if he ever wrote it and filmed it he would appear in it and West is as good as his word and appears here, relishing every moment of screen time as an indifferent doctor.

 

Joe Gilgun and with Dominic West

Gilgun plays Vinnie, who lives in a shack in the woods, is bipolar (like Gilgun himself) and finds himself dragged into situations with his hapless group of friends including Damien Moloney as cardsharp Dylan and Michelle Keegan as Dylan’s girlfriend Erin determined to make life better for her young son; sex dungeon entrepreneur Tommo (Ryan Sampson) and inept junk food obsessive Cardi (Tom Hanson) who is usually in the frame when grand schemes go wrong. And they do. Two episodes in and there’s been attempts to kidnap a Shetland pony and an incident in the sewers with a fatberg that have caused prolonged laughter in our house. Comedy needs more than situations to be memorable and these first two episodes have built up character to an extent that this should go the distance and is a real breath of fresh air in Sky’s schedules.

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Joe Gilgun, Michelle Keegan and Damien Moloney

But talking about schedules….I’m not a fan of this getting a series over as soon as possible. Isn’t anticipation a great aspect of television watching? Surely we can all recall what it feels like to to realise during a day that a show we love is on that evening. That anticipation for me is what makes a 5 star show -something I’m really looking forward to seeing. Sky 1’s approach was to start off with two hour long episodes back to back and dump the rest of the series onto On Demand as soon as the first two were aired. For me, and I know I’m out of step here with my views on how we all now watch TV, this is not treating this with the respect it deserves. Some people will have already watched the whole series whereas I see good TV as something to be savoured. However you watch it I think you probably should make the effort (perhaps not if swearing offends). It is going to be the making of Joe Gilgun, both for his character Vinnie, for his script work in conjunction with Danny Brocklehurst (“Shameless”, “Clocking Off”) and in putting together this new series as an obvious labour of love which has attracted such a vibrant and talented cast and which has high entertainment value and so much potential for the future.

fourstars (although I suspect after a few more episodes this score could go up)

Brassic is shown on Thursday nights at 10.00 on Sky 1. The whole series is available from Sky On-Demand.

Madame Tussaud: A Legend In Wax (BBC4 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I can’t say that, up until recently, I’ve given much thought to Madame Tussaud. I knew she was a real person with obviously a savvy business brain in giving people what they wanted as she established a brand which has lasted for over 150 years. Her Baker Street attraction I associate with long queues of people waiting to get in, my only visit was when I was about 15 which I remember loving although I’ve never been back. What changed things for me was Edward Carey’s excellent 2018 novel about her which I finished a few weeks ago, “Little”, which has got me thinking about her quite a bit recently and so seeing this one hour BBC4 documentary on the schedules seemed a bit of good timing.

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Made by Nina Barbier and narrated by Ben Crystal this used a French cast and subtitles to dramatise important times in her long life. I’m not a huge fan of the dramatised documentary which was here interspersed by talking head experts such as author Kate Berridge, Professor Pamela Milburn from London University and Vanessa Toumlin from Sheffield. There was no involvement from Edward Carey which I was a little disappointed by.

This hour took as its basis Tussaud’s 1838 memoirs as dictated to her friend Francis Herve. In this account truth was twisted as a means of marketing her and her brand, an early and effective example of the “celebrity” biography where events are tweaked somewhat. Marie had altered her birthplace and background from a family of executioners probably because tradition dictated that she would only be able to marry the son of executioners. (Perhaps the most fascinating fact in the programme).
The novel “Little” makes much of her diminutive size, using it as her nickname and for the book’s title. This was not mentioned here.

The most important relationship in her life was the professional association between the young Marie Grosholtz and her mentor Philippe Curtius and it was explored here but  the family dynamics were different from the novel and the fascinating section of the young female waxworker joining the court of Versailles (where she slept in a cupboard) seems to have been total fabrication by Tussaud in her memoirs, but there were enough points of contact between Carey’s fiction, Tussaud’s reworking of her life story and what were the agreed events to make things intriguing.

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What should not be overlooked, and which comes largely after the events of the novel is the great business sense of a woman whose business model was unusually matriarchal, who knew how to use, manipulate and exploit publicity, who knew how important it was to both give people what they paid for and offer them a little bit more if they were prepared and able to pay more and who was able to so successfully and independently assimilate business strategies from other forms of entertainment. (Monsieur Tussaud himself had no significant role in the business, other than spend the proceeds, and was a fairly disastrous match who remained in France when his wife came over to Britain to make her fortune). Like many successful business ventures since she aimed to provide education and wholesome entertainment to those aspiring for improvement as well as recognising our more baser instincts (the “Chamber Of Horrors” set-up was a reason for the waxworks’ lasting success). All in all, Marie Tussaud was a woman who should be remembered for her extraordinary entrepreneurial talent perhaps more so than her abilities with wax.

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Tussauds, London

Truth be told, this drama documentary might have felt a little pedestrian in structure for the casual viewer but it was certainly informative and thought-provoking and because my interest had already been piqued by its subject I was involved throughout.

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Madame Tussaud: A Legend In Wax was first shown on BBC4 in February 2017 and has been transmitted a few times since then. I caught the showing at 8 pm on Saturday 27th July 2019 which means it is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

Wild Bill (ITV1-2019) and Tales Of The City (Netflix -2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Double Review

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We never used to expect that much of shows launched in the summertime, knowing that TV channels would wait to launch their big guns later in the year.  With more of us watching television in different ways nowadays it probably matters less when programmes are released.  These two very different drama series were launched to considerable publicity recently. One is a new British ITV prime-time cop show, the other an American “limited series” revisit to what was a landmark television adaptation.  I was interested to see if both lived up to the hype or whether they were, and I hoped not, summertime season filler.

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Firstly “Wild Bill” which was apparently based on a projected appointment of an American Bill Bratton, nicknamed “Wild Bill”, to run the Metropolitan Police Force.  That didn’t pan out but it sowed the seeds for this six- parter where an American cop becomes the Chief Constable of East Lincolnshire Police. Created by Dudi Appleton, Jim Keeble and David Griffiths,  I’m sure the idea really sprang to life when Hollywood star Rob Lowe agreed to play the central character in this fish- out- of- water tale.  It’s exciting to have Rob Lowe on our screens on a weekly basis over the summer.  It got me thinking about what I’d seen Rob Lowe in before and frankly I drew a blank (apart from the 2015 British/American co-production “You, Me & The Apocalypse” where he stole the show as an off-the-wall Vatican priest).  I kept thinking of films from the 80’s but then realised it was Matt Dillon, Brad Pitt or a Baldwin who had starred in them.  Google to the rescue then to discover Rob Lowe made his name in films such as “The Outsiders” and “St Elmo’s Fire” (remember the theme song not the film) and had his mainstream Hollywood career scuppered by a sex tape scandal.  He has worked fairly consistently in film and especially TV since but this is his first British work.

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I do like the premise behind this, relocating a go-getting American cop to Boston, Lincolnshire with the idea that he will make serious budget cuts while in post, not exactly endearing him to his new colleagues.  My main concern was that it might be a little too “ITV cosy crime”, a mash-up between “Midsummer Murders” and Martin Clunes’ star vehicle “Doc Martin”, neither of which do it for me but the opening sequence of Episode 1 with Lowe engaged in a rural car-chase saying “Shit!” continually put my mind at rest and certainly language wise at-least it seems more out there than much prime-time ITV1 fodder.  I really enjoyed the first episode with its emphasis of the American attempting to adjust to a very different life, although plot-wise it probably did throw too much into the mix for a series opener.  I was less keen on the second episode where alarm bells which were tinkling away subtly to begin with started to resonate more fully. 

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My main stumbling block is that the characters just aren’t very nice to one another.  I can’t work out the hierarchy yet but no-one is giving Bill a chance and I totally understand the reasons why.  The antipathy and aggression towards work colleagues might have worked in a 70’s set show like “The Sweeney” or “Life On Mars” yet here in its contemporary Lincolnshire setting it just doesn’t ring true.  “Wild Bill” has not found its identity yet.  I’d like to see the Rob Lowe character getting a little more wild and the rest of the force beginning to toe the line a little more.  The Channel 4 series “No Offence” shows how good a mix of police procedural, character led plots, dark comedy and drama and a clear dollop of camaraderie at its centre can be but here the elements are not as convincing.  The character who is really shining at this point is DC Muriel Yeardsley played by Bronwyn James who is grappling with diligence and thoroughness in her career whilst being obligated to a dodgy Russian moneylender who has bought the debt on her parents’ farm.  This, after two episodes,  looks like where the unexpected heart of this series will be.

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The original TV adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales Of The City” really did light up our screens when shown on Channel 4 in 1993 and was significant because it put gay characters centrally into the plot-line with a delicious portrayal of Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, initially by Marcus D’Amico.  This was almost unique at the time, six years before the game-changing “Queer As Folk”.  It also had a big-star presence in Olympia Dukakis who was wonderful as Barbary Lane matriarch Mrs Madrigal and introduced most of us to Laura Linney.

talescity3The originals : Marcus D’Amico, Laura Linney and Chloe Webb – Mouse, Mary Ann & Mona

Set in mid-70’s San Francisco this was a heart-warming adaptation of Maupin’s early books and a love-letter to San Francisco itself which would have been added to many “must visit” lists on the strength of this showing.  Its depiction of a bohemian, carefree 70’s lifestyle proved too much for Middle America who showed “edited versions” and led to its cancellation with further instalments being produced in Montreal with a recasting of some of the major roles.

 

Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis -then and now

Eighteen years on from the last visit cast originals Laura Linney and an 88 year old Olympia Dukakis are back in this present-day set revival. I’m having slight difficulties with the time-line here as how the characters fit in and also with how it all fits in with the books (which I’ve read over the years all apart from the most recent, the final instalment, “The Days Of Anna Madrigal”).  I wish that Netflix had made at least the first series available so that we could refresh ourselves with what had happened decades ago as a way into the new series, because I think if I had watched this without the background of the old shows and the books I wouldn’t really know what was going on.  This new re-boot is aiming to be very 21st Century with a range of characters from the LGBTQ+ spectrum very much fitting in with the heterosexual characters as before, which was always its great strength, but here it’s looking a little worthy and there’s something about this whole production and especially the dialogue (and I’m only two episodes in) that makes it all seem a little unreal.  We’ve had so much “realness” in the depiction of LGBTQ+ characters recently in excellent productions of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” and Russell T. Davies’ “Years and Years” that this revival of a trend-setting brand is looking a little middle-aged and bloated.  I’m even a little nervous that I won’t stick with the ten episodes to see if it redeems itself and that it might fall into that familiar Netflix trap of “watch a couple of episodes and nothing more”.  I hope not because the source material for this has been part of my entire adult life and I really want to see it being taken on board in a big way by a new generation.

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Wild Bill in shown on ITV 1 on Thursdays at 9pm with the first two episodes available on the ITV Hub.  The whole series of Tales Of The City is available on Netflix.

63 Up (ITV 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Has it really been seven years?  Director Michael Apted’s social experiment trundled back onto our screens this week in what must surely be one of the last updates before the project is laid to rest.  In 1964 twenty-three year old Granada TV researcher Apted had the job of selecting children for a project which would over time look at how their beliefs and circumstances aged 7 would affect them over subsequent years.  I’m not sure many would have predicted that he would still be filming those children 55 years later.

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Apted himself has since gone on to a glittering career in TV and film direction which has taken him to Hollywood and high profile movies such as “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the James Bond “The World Is Not Enough” and yet despite his impressive CV, the “Up” series is the one which keeps pulling him back, inevitably, as he has a virtual life-long association with the participants.

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Celebrating at 21

At the time it started it was a revolutionary idea to use TV in this way.  Nowadays we are well used to seeing ordinary lives depicted through a daily myriad of TV documentaries but this would have not been the case back in 1964 , the fly-on-the-wall documentary was non-existent and nobody would have had a clue what “scripted reality” would be all about (truth be told, I still don’t).  With the Aristotelian tenet “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” as its raison d’etre the first programme looked at children from a range of different backgrounds.  1964 was definitely a different place and Britain was a class-obsessed male-centric society.  This did affect the balance of some of the questions which would seem inappropriate today.  The trio of boys from a public school were encouraged to map out their future yet expectations were lowered for the three East End working-class girls and in subsequent catch-ups tended to focus on boys and finding a man to marry leading to the always sparky Jackie to snap at Alsted when aged 21 for gearing his questions to them at a lower level.  As much as the whole thing was an experiment in class differences the question remains did those who started off with the more advantaged backgrounds fare better?  The answer to that would seem to be financially and professionally yes but these individuals would be those we as viewers would be least likely to want to find out about.

63up3From 7 Up

I suppose I would have been with this series since 21 Up, although in the early days an update would be preceded by repeats of the earlier shows so I feel like I know 7 Up very well.  This would take far too long to do now although ITV did show an appetite-whetting talking heads hour “7 Up & Me” which I didn’t bother watching as we see enough of those shows (a mainstay of Channel 5)  where the “celebrities” featured talk about something they’ve just been shown ten minutes before as if they’d known about it all their lives.  I might be misjudging it but I didn’t want to risk it (and I knew it had Eammon Holmes in it!).

63up563 Up-pers Bruce, Sue and Tony with photos of their former selves!

I did watch all three episodes of 63 Up shown on consecutive nights.  Taking the group as a whole there’s not been as much change for them individually in the past seven years, they are more likely to be contemplating retirement, spending more time looking after grandchildren and have health issues (in farmer’s son turned physics professor Nick’s case very serious health issues).

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ITV could have done more to prepare us for the death of one of the participants Lynn “I want to work in Woolworths” who passed away suddenly at the age of 58.  The way in which this was handled made for effective television but built up the shock for those of us who feel like we’ve known these people for our whole lives.  One other participant, Suzy, has decided that 56 was as far down the line as she wanted to go and pulled out of the programme (as others have done along the way).  It was interesting to hear the 63 year olds talking about the emotional upheaval the show causes them every 7 years as the whole media spotlight and the need to reflect back on their pasts kicks in again, but many said how valuable to them the whole experience had been.

 

Tony  and Neil at 7

The highlights?  The long-lasting bond between children’s home pals Symon and Paul here shown in a Christmas holiday together with their wives in Paul’s long-time home Australia and the updates on the two characters we most remember; Neil, who went from a delightfully confident 7 year old to homelessness, mental health issues and a resurgence through politics and religion in what has traditionally become the most traumatic sequences in the updates (and proof that Aristotle wasn’t always right) and East-Ender Tony who the programme makers chose to lead 63 Up, who was incidentally always my Dad’s favourite and who would talk about him as if he was one of our family as Tony progressed from a mischievous 7 year old who wanted to be a jockey or a cab driver to becoming a trainee jockey and then cab driver.  I think the pull of the “Up” series is that it encourages us to take stock and look back on our lives, our pasts, presents and futures alongside the participants.  (I’ve actually been thinking about life beyond retirement this week which I don’t think I’ve ever done before!) and this is why it is such consistently fascinating and important television.
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63 Up was first shown on ITV on Tuesday 4th- Thursday 6th June inclusive at 9pm.  It is currently available on the ITV Hub catch-up services

The South Bank Show- Jed Mercurio (Sky Arts 2019) A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With fortuitous timing, later on the same evening that BBC1 scored the largest television audience this year when 9.1 million tuned into the Series 5 “Line Of Duty” finale, Sky Arts opened its new series of “The South Bank Show” with a profile of writer Jed Mercurio in conversation with Melvyn Bragg.

I haven’t watched “The South Bank Show” for years, certainly not since it was revitalised on the Sky Arts Channel seven years ago.  Most of us will remember it from its original run from 1978 until it was axed by ITV in 2010.  I tuned in because I wanted to know more about this man who has had us on the edge of our seats with “Line Of Duty” and “Bodyguard“.  I was both heartened and a little depressed that the opening music taken from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Variations” was still intact, even if in a slightly different version from the one I remember and depressed because it brought me back to Sunday nights of my teenage years when it signified bed-time and the end of the weekend and back to school on Monday.

Even though I have been avidly glued to every episode of “Line Of Duty” and to “Bodyguard” I realised I did not know much about the man who has put pen to paper and given us these examples of very high standard writing for television.  I do have an unread copy of one of his novels “American Adultery” (2009), which I recently obtained, sat on my shelves but that was really about it.

southbankshowMelvyn Bragg and Jed Mercurio

We began with a montage of clips from the shows that have elevated him up to the highest category of TV writing and was told by Melvyn Bragg that Mercurio’s work is known for exploring the “dark side of institutions and the morally questionable characters that hold them up.”  This certainly holds true for his two most famous productions as well as two hospital dramas, his debut work for television “Cardiac Arrest” which I don’t remember and “Bodies” which began in 2004, which I do.  What Mercurio wishes to challenge is the “drama of reassurance” which is what most TV  police drama has traditionally been.  Cleverly, with “Line Of Duty” he has achieved this by focusing on the arm of the organisation which is exploring the corruption, if he had shown just the corruption he feels so strongly about there would have been outcry from the police and politicians.  By having AC-12 as the investigating body he certainly does not have to water down any message he wishes to get over about the state of our institutions.

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The hospital dramas which came first were written from an insider’s point of view.  Mercurio was brought up in the West Midlands, the youngest son of Italian immigrants and went into medicine after being inspired by a contestant on TV’s “Blockbusters”(!)  He went to medical school in Birmingham as well as joining the RAF and training as a pilot.   He experienced the difficulties of life in an NHS hospital, which all of us who have read Adam Kay’s “This Is Going To Hurt” will certainly know about and responded to an advert in the British Medical Journal from a TV production company looking for a different story from the one we were used to in hospital soaps (which is largely that “drama of reassurance” again).  The success and recommissioning of “Cardiac Arrest” led him to drop medicine and to come out of the Air Force to be a full time writer.

We were told this was not an easy move “The Grimleys” was a 1970’s West Midlands set comedy which lasted a couple of series and using the name John MacUre he penned the six part BBC science fiction series “Invasion Earth”.  He hit big again by returning to the hospital wards in an examination of negligent practises, “Cardiac Arrest”, which was a success and from what I remember a pretty difficult watch.  “Line Of Duty”, the series which has certainly kept his name to the forefront and generated so many column inches and workplace discussions began its run in 2012 and between this and “Bodyguard” there has been a TV hospital drama for Sky “Critical” which was a little too much for me and a  TV adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.

There were interviews with cast members (was I the only person not to know that Martin Compston who plays Steve Arnott speaks naturally in a Scottish accent? It took me completely by surprise as it did by how young he looked in the first series) who spoke highly of Mercurios’ total involvement in bringing his dramas to the screen, which he himself acknowledges many writers do not get the same opportunity for this level of on-set participation. It fell into place for him when he became Medical Advisor for “Cardiac Arrest” thus giving him a hands-on role which most writers who don’t know what has been done to their work until the production is finished can only dream of.

This was a very interesting hour in the company of Jed Mercurio and Melvyn Bragg shows why he has been at the top of his own personal game for decades by asking the questions that viewers want answered.  I certainly wouldn’t add “The South Bank Show” as a Series Record on the Sky Planner but I am very pleased that it is still going strong and if the subject matter appeals as much as this one did I will certainly watch.

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The South Bank Show: Jed Mercurio was first shown on Sky Arts on Sunday 5th May.  It is available to watch on Sky Catch-up services.

Line Of Duty – BBC1 (2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I was a bit late to the party with this, which I can now acknowledge as one of the best ever police dramas on British TV. I don’t know how the first few series passed me by and it was really only when the fourth series starring Thandie Newton started gripping the viewers of “Gogglebox” and picking up awards that I realised I had missed out on something special. Thanks to Netflix which has had all the series available to view I have caught up, bingeing on episodes (unusual for me) because I couldn’t wait to find out what had happened.

I’m glad I watched this first episode of Series 5 before Friday’s “Gogglebox” as this was heavily featured with the sofa-sitters open-mouthed at the twists, even on occasions when even I’d rumbled what was going on, they were shouting at their TVs in amazement at the proceedings.

Since the last series which first aired in March 2017 writer Jed Mercurio’s profile has really ascended due to his gripping of the nation over 6 successive weeks in the late summer with “Bodyguard”, a huge ratings hit, but this is very much his bread and butter work, a less showy, superbly plotted and scripted tense hour which is a great antidote to the general cosy feel of Sunday night TV.

Its main quality is its sheer unpredictability which over the five series has seen astounding plot developments no-one could possibly see coming, major characters bumped off and the best scripted police interviews ever. AC-12 is the department set out to investigate police corruption and its three leading lights prove a tight ensemble which is another hallmark of the show.

 

Neither Vicky McLure as Kate nor Martin Compston as Steve are especially familiar to viewers in other roles and so fit in perfectly as the young guns in the AC-12 department overseen by Adrian Dunbar as Hastings.  Compston is particularly excellent as the tenacious but increasingly world-weary Steve whose position in the Department we’ve invested in since the very beginning.

The opening twenty minutes or so are always essential in a Mercurio plot (remember the bomb  on the train in “Bodyguard”?).  It’s often a big set piece out from which ramifications continue to rumble for the whole series.  Here there is a hijacking of a lorry stuffed with drugs under police guard and one of the perpetrator’s actions towards an injured officer causes questions to be asked.  There is a leak somewhere and AC-12 are out to plug it.

Plot threads from previous series are picked up efficiently.  Member of the team and series regular Maneet was seen in a couple of compromising situations in the last series before taking early maternity leave.  Now back at work suspicions have not gone away with astounding consequences.  Almost everyone would have been caught out by at least one of the three or four major twists in this opener and it is this which is likely to keep the 7.8 million (making it the most watched TV show of the year so far and registering its highest ever viewing figures) who tuned in for the first episode on the edge of our seats on a Sunday night to find out what this superior television event has in store for us.

fivestarsLine of Duty Series 5 is shown on BBC1 on Sunday evenings at 9.00pm. The first episode was transmitted on 31st March and is currently available on the BBC I-Player.

 

The To Be Watched List 2 – A What I Will Be Watching Review

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Yesterday the Rugby Six Nations drew to a close with Wales victorious.  One of only two annual sporting fixtures I watch (the other being Wimbledon) this has dominated my viewing over the last few weekends meaning that the time on Saturday and Sunday I normally spend catching up with what I haven’t watched during the week has not happened and my Sky Box is beginning to groan under the weight of unwatched shows (well, it’s got up to 60% full and things start to get stressful when it creeps up more than that).  So either I’ve got to start deleting or settle down and get that percentage down.

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 So for today’s blog I thought I’d do something I did way back in  July 2017 and explore what I will be watching in order to reduce the Sky Box’s waistline rather than focus on something I have already watched.  As preparation I looked back to that previous post of nearly 20 months ago and was surprised to see that not much had changed.  The focus of that post was me falling asleep in the first episode of Series 7 of “Game Of Thrones” which I had planned to review and with Series 8 imminent here is the confession, I haven’t watched any more.  I have the whole series sitting in the Planner, including the episode which caused such a deep slumber because I will have to revisit this again right from the start to have any chance of knowing what is going on.  Hopefully, the escalation of publicity for Season 8 will prompt me to watch the previous seven episodes.

game of thrones

 

Also, I note that I was working my way through two series I had on series link and here things haven’t improved.  I might have got through series 5 of the likeable enough Sherlock Holmes reboot “Elementary” starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu but I now have ten unwatched episodes of Season 6.   The situation regarding “Hawaii 5-0” shown on Sky on Sunday evenings is even worse.  It’s a show that’s not quite limping along but almost so I am now watching it in small doses, which is probably why eighteen episodes over two series have built up.  It’s still happily recording them each Sunday but perhaps at some point soon I will need to pull the plug on this.

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I’m a good one for watching first episodes as soon as they come out and then stalling with the rest of the series.  I haven’t yet made up my mind about W’s “Flack” a London set drama dealing with a PR company protecting the reputation of celebrities starring child Oscar winner and ex-Sookie Stackhouse from “True Blood”, Anna Paquin.  It’s one of those US/UK productions that end up seeming a little odd to viewers on both sides of the Atlantic, but I’m only a couple of episodes behind so I’ll stick with it.  I’m also not sure what to make about BBC 2’s “Motherfatherson”, surprisingly starring Richard Gere.  I’m really not sure where it is going and it wasn’t Gere who lit up the screen in the first episode  but Billy Howle as his tortured son.  The first episode ended up in a hospital scene with what looked like a brain tumour operation so I really can’t guess how the series is going to pan out.  It has the similar stylish feel of BBC1’s flawed “McMafia” but this is written by Tom Rob Smith, a British crime novelist of great repute who did excellent work penning “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” and the odd but fascinating “London Spy”, so I am certainly going to continue with this.

tomrobsmithTom Rob Smith

And then there’s “Finding Neverland: Michael Jackson And Me” which was spread out on subsequent nights into two parts by Channel 4.  I watched the first part and found it so disturbing and it gave me nightmares.  I know I should watch the second part but haven’t got round to it yet.  At this stage I really can’t put my impressions into words.  I can’t help but recall the cultural shift which happened in this country following the revelations about presenter and DJ Jimmy Savile which I struggled to sum up after reading the chilling exceptionally researched book about the man, “In Plain Sight” by  Dan Davies (2014) .  Here again, it feels like something we knew about and yet chose not to believe or ignore.  The impact of Michael Jackson on our popular culture is huge, the almost erasure of people like Savile, Gary Glitter and Rolf Harris from our cultural pasts was possible because they did not have celebrity to the magnitude of Jackson’s.  Sales of Michael Jackson’s records have grown in the UK since this programme was shown so this is a complex issue that I’m not going to be able to deal with in a paragraph, especially as I have only watched half of the television programme that has caused these developments.

 Hopefully, I will be less disturbed by two further music biographies.  “Mariah: The Diva, The Demons” was shown on Channel 5 on their Mariah Carey night before Christmas and promises to be a dramatised bio-pic focusing on 2000-20001 where Mariah bludgeoned her career to bits by performing in the movie “Glitter”, which I’ve seen and don’t think it’s as bad as it was made out to be.  It was gloriously tacky, and I’m hoping that this bio-pic will be too, but it’s also long which has put me off it up until now.

teddyTeddy Pendergrass

 I’ve been reading quite a bit about a documentary which had a limited cinema release a few week back which sounds right up my street, Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me” examines the life of the extraordinary vocalist from Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes and his subsequent solo career dogged by tragedy.  It was shown on Sky Arts last night.  I suspect here too there will be revelations I will find challenging.

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 And once I’ve exhausted the Sky Planner there’s always Netflix , where I am still working my way through “Dynasty” where I’m about to begin Series 2.  This is a show which has got better since my review of the first episodes probably because the character of Fallon Carrington is so sparklingly played by Elizabeth Gillies and has taken a more central role as the series has progressed and “Riverdale” which has lost any sense of fun it had and become increasingly dark, but still watchable.  Also Netflix is adding episodes weekly to the latest series of “Rupaul’s Drag Race”, which hasn’t yet had the magical spark of the last season of “All Stars” and I’m also one episode in to creepy stalker drama “You”, but I suspect here I might not last the distance.

Who says there’s nothing on television nowadays?

 

Flat Pack Pop: Sweden’s Music Miracle (BBC4 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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This week I learnt a new expression – “Jante Law”. It is a Swedish term for something which is deep within their psyche and may be something of an eye-opener to us more selfish nations. Jante Law is the putting ahead of society before the individual, which means that any boasting of achievements or jealousy of those of others risk social disapprobation. This actually explained a lot to me about Sweden’s role in popular culture- why some members of Abba at the height of their fame became reclusive, and why some still are decades later, why even the choosing of a Eurovision entrant is done so widely and methodically (rather than our pick any three songs and get the public to vote on them approach) and with reference to this documentary why we know so little of the huge role that Sweden has played in popular music history over the last 30 years, with one producer and songwriter, Max Martin, now only behind Lennon and McCartney as the most successful songwriter of all time.

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Max Martin

The suitably reticent Mr Martin did not want to be interviewed for this, he wanted just his music to tell a story for him but presenter and music journalist James Ballardie found others prepared to do so to put together this story of a musical phenomenon in a fascinating one hour documentary. It is the story of how Sweden became the biggest exporter of pop music per capita of anywhere in the world.

The history does not begin with Martin but with another even more significant figure who was equally happy to be seen as just a backroom boy. This was Dag Volle, a club DJ from 1980’s Swedish clubland mecca “The Ritz” who began remixing US club hits to appeal more to Scandinavian tastes. Volle’s love for this type of music led to the name change of Denniz PoP, who after successful remixing of tracks by others sought to achieve the perfect pop record himself.

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Denniz PoP

We learnt how serendipity played its part when a tape sent to him by an aspiring Swedish foursome, along the lines of Abba, got stuck in his car cassette player blasting out the same song every time he used the car. This group was Ace Of Base and the track was reworked eventually to become “All That She Wants” – a global hit which topped the UK charts and got to number 2 Stateside. Just before that PoP’s name was established on European and worldwide charts through his work with a Nigerian dentist and wannabe rapper living in Sweden, Dr Alban and his “It’s My Life” track which topped charts all over Europe and got to number 2 in the UK in 1992.

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From then on things moved quickly. PoP developed a clear musical doctrine, opened Cheiron studios and enlisted a group of writers “moulded in his image” to produce the perfect pop sound. I’d found myself researching these just a couple of posts ago when I was reviewing Will Young’s debut as part of my Essential CD Collection and they were fresh in my mind when I watched this. If there was one special protégé that was Max Martin, lifted from heavy metal group “It’s Alive” whose love for more melodic sounds than he was making led to PoP seeing him as a kindred spirit.

We met other member of the team who also produced hits by the bucket-load for the company- Andres Carlsson, Stonebridge, Herbie Crichelow and jingle writer Jorgen Elofsson amongst them who shared how this magical formula worked. The fascinating thing was that the blueprint was always Abba, showing the integral part the foursome of a generation before played in all subsequent developments in Swedish pop. At the root of all of it (and also of Abba) was Swedish folk music which was simplistic and melodic.

Like Motown three decades before one of the main Cheiron principles was that it should sound good on the radio. “Production control” at the Detroit studio is now famous for its weekly meetings, tracks recorded by different artists and competitiveness between artists and producers to get their songs released but here it was taken to another level with sometimes up to a hundred versions of the same tracks flooding the Swedish clubs,  All this work was to hear what sounded good over the DJ decks and what would sound better on the radio or in an open-topped American car (rather than in a Swedish Volvo in the depths of winter). Recognising the US teen as the biggest purchaser of music PoP’s team looked to reflect American lives from a Swedish perspective. We learnt that this repackaging of ideas to produce a more effective version of the best of what is out there is also part of the Swedish make-up evident in companies such as Ikea and H&M.

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The inspiration behind all Swedish Pop

But behind this global success “Jante Law” forced these writers and producers to remain as far under the radar as they could (Ace Of Base enjoyed their global success and were vilified in the Swedish press) and then tragedy intervened with another great leveller – as cancer claimed Denniz PoP at the age of 35 in 1998.

By this time globally successful artists wanted in on the act. The Backstreet Boys, N-Sync, 5ive, Westlife and Britney Spears owed much of their success to these writers. Max Martin adopted the central role and the team went from funeral to working on Backstreet Boy’s multi-million selling “Millennium” album but the central force had gone.

Eventually, the writers moved away from the studio set-up and took what they had learnt from Denniz and notched up hits, continuing to this day for the biggest artists of the world including Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, One Direction, Madonna, in fact virtually every global pop superstar. Martin has set up MXM Studios in the US and has for the past eighteen years being working with many Swedish producers as part of his team, still observing Denniz Pop’s principles and developing them into their unique formula they term “Melodic Math”.

At the end of this excellent hour we saw Max Martin being awarded the Polar Music Prize from the Swedish King, still concerned about the ramifications of Jante Law. I found the whole thing fascinating, more for what it told us about Swedes than the music which was on generous display throughout. Managing to achieve this level of success in this media-hungry day and age without many people even being aware of their existence just really grabbed my attention and got me thinking.

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