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

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

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

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

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

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

strictly20183Something you won’t see in Week 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fivestars   (The Bodguard)

threestars (Vanity Fair)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

scandal3The real Jeremy Thorpe

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

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

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

scandal4Russell T. Davies

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Strictly Come Dancing – (BBC1 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I can’t believe that I haven’t written about this ratings dominating titan of Saturday night entertainment before. I’ve certainly been watching it since its arrival on our screens in May 2004.  (Have you seen any clips of that first episode with the judges squashed on a small table with the whole thing looking decidedly low budget compared to what we have become used to now?) When the TV channel Watch screened the US equivalent “Dancing With The Stars” I used to watch that too, despite knowing few of the contestants and it feeling tortuously long.  Because we no longer hear much about that show in the UK I just had a look and have discovered it has been re-commissioned for Season 26.  (It’s aired more often than over there) and that 286 celebrities have taken part so far and that the current cohort includes singer Debbie Gibson and ex child-actor from the lovely “Malcolm In The Middle” Frankie Muniz. There, Len Goodman is still on the judging panel (alongside Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba).  You will also find the new home for UK version ex-dancers Artem Chigvintsev, Gleb Savchenko and Mark Ballas, the son of our new head judge Shirley.  So, there you go, a bit of fact-finding for you!

And onto last night’s Strictly, which was the Movie special, the first of the “big” nights where the BBC pulls out the stops (the others being the Halloween Special and the trip to Blackpool).  We can expect film-themed dances and great things in the costume and make-up departments.  For me, the weak link in last night’s show were some of the costumes.  The Buzz Lightyear outfit didn’t really work and looked like something off the shelf of a backstreet fancy dress shop (not sure how you could do it otherwise, to be honest) and I was trying to work out how the fat mouse fits into “The Jungle Book” until I discovered Aljaz was supposed to be Baloo the Bear.  Nothing was quite right about the Revd. Richard Coles’ Flash Gordon, costume, make-up nor performance.

strictly2But I’m being niggly because I do love Strictly.  The format is great.  It is just incredibly long at the moment.  The first episode seemed to go on forever and was just a conveyor belt of people you either vaguely knew or hadn’t heard of.  I much preferred the second episode last week as you had something to compare the celebrities with and the shortening of the time available to learn the dance for the second week throws an interesting spanner in the works which can shake things up.  I wasn’t that happy over the celebrity who went home, but I didn’t vote so I can’t complain.  At this stage of the series by the time I’ve got through the show the time allocated for voting has long gone.  There’s a too liberal use of the pause button in our house- it was about 10.00 pm by the time we finished it yesterday.

What I do like about Strictly is how many of us customise the show.  I’ve known people who press the fast forward button through all the judges’ comments (well actually it was all the judges apart from Craig), or through all of the training,  or all through all of the links (particularly when dear old Sir Bruce was in charge), or through the professionals’ group dance.  Probably more than any other show we use  our remote controls to turn it into the ideal package for ourselves.  I actually watch the whole thing but on the Sunday night results show I often fast forward the special guest performance and the bit when they’re sat on the sofa after having been saved by the public. 

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Is it possible to pick a winner this early on? Not really.  We need to see the celebrities grow and begin to settle into their dance journey.  The audience often tires of those who are really good early on (so beware Debbie McGee and Aston Merrygold), will support the no-hopers only for a while (although too long in the case of Anne Widdicombe, Judy Murray and Ed Balls) and will eventually favour those who we can see blossoming as the season progresses (as evidenced by the last three winners Ore Oduba, Jay McGuinness and Caroline Flack).  The “biggest names” tend to do well but are unlikely to win.  People who present early-morning television often do better than they should.

They got to hold the glitterball- winner of the last three seasons

It’s Series 15 and surely by now we’ve seen pretty much everything that we would expect to see (we haven’t seen anyone pass actually out at the judge’s bench due to stress and exertion but US viewers will no doubt recall the fainting of Marie Osmond!).  There were some thrilling dances last night including Aston Merrygold’s “Trolls”-based Cha Cha Cha, Alexandra Burke’s American Smooth (not up to the amazing Paso Doble of the week before) and the most heartwarming was Susan Calman’s take on “Wonderwoman”.  I would imagine that Brendan Cole’s partner’s chances would be a bit diminished by him challenging head judge Shirley Ballas (I like her) and getting told off by Bruno, but then Charlotte Hawkins probably should have gone out last week.  TV chef Simon Rimmer, Revd. Richard Coles and Ruth Lansford should all be fearing the dance-off but it’s the early days of Strictly and you just can’t tell………………..

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Still, I’m sure that everyone watching will talk about the show to at least one other person so it recalls the magic of television past when we weren’t all going it alone with box sets, catch-up and things we’ve recorded “so don’t talk about it yet!”.  The juggernaut rumbles on and I love it!

strictly12I couldn’t not have a picture of Brucie. 

Sir Bruce Forsyth 1928-2017

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In case anyone doesn’t know “Strictly Come Dancing” is on Saturday evenings on BBC1.  It is available to watch on the BBC I-Player.

Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling (BBC1 2017)- A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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(To be read in the style of  a Craig Cash “Gogglebox”voiceover) “In a week where a Cookery Programme found its own soggy bottom and lost over four million viewers by switching to Channel 4 we watched lots of great telly”.  I was one of those missing four million as I decided not to tune in to the revamped “Great British Bakeoff”, the first time I have ever missed an episode.  Sometimes you have to take a stance!

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I did, however, watch BBC1’s Bank Holiday potential crowd-pleaser, “Strike- The Cuckoo’s Calling”, the first two episodes of a three parter based on the JK Rowling 2013 thriller written as Robert Galbraith.  I was a little late getting to the novel, having only read it earlier this year and my motivation for doing so was because I had heard about the tv adaptation and wanted to experience the book first.  I wanted my own pictures to form in my head.   I really enjoyed the book and in my review focused in on the warmth and humour in the relationship between down-on-his-luck private detective Cormoran Strike and temporary secretary, Robin.

Much hinged I felt on the casting of Strike, an undeniably larger-than-life character. I got the impression of a kind of man-mountain from the book and at six foot Tom Burke doesn’t quite have the bulk that was in my head.  Best known to me as Dolokhov in the BBC1 “War and Peace”extravaganza, he is perhaps generally best known as swashbuckling Athos in “The Three Musketeers” series.  The 36 year old son of noted thespians Anna Calder-Marshall and David Burke has scooped one of the most prestigious TV roles of the year with the other Galbraith novels already having been filmed for later transmission. 

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Within the first half-hour Burke had become Cormoran Strike as the book-derived image in my head faded and he became the perfect fit. Not quite as convinced by Holliday Granger as Robin, but that will come in time.  After her turn as Lucrezia Borgia in “The Borgias” I’m finding it hard to trust her wholesomeness.  In the first two episodes there was a little less Robin than I was expecting- we had less of her putting her mark onto the office than I remembered from the book and a little less of developing the relationship between the two characters although it took only the odd glance from Strike to make us realise how valuable she is making herself to his enterprise.

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Characters nicely established the plot followed along expected lines.  The presence of acting heavyweights, the great Sian Phillips and Martin Shaw in the cast gave the whole thing kudos and showed the BBC’s commitment to the project.  I was a little concerned after the TV adaptation of “SS-GB” which the BBC had sat upon after filming and put it out without a great deal of fanfare where it limped along somewhat in dark scenes and mumbled lines, but this was altogether a very different proposition.  Liked the music, liked the opening credits, which gave it a moodiness and recalled the opening of some of those great ITC Entertainment series like “Man In A Suitcase” and “Danger Man”.  In days of technological glossy thrillers this seemed pleasantly old-fashioned, making it perfect Bank Holiday viewing, when we don’t want anything too demanding.

There was always going to be an issue with Strike’s false leg and there was a “how did they do that?” moment as well as some obvious cut-aways.  The leg almost feels like a character in the novel so I was pleased it was given air-time here.  It was hard to forget that the television Strike had lost a leg, just as it is in the novel.  I wondered if three episodes would cause the plot to rattle along too quickly but it established a good, steady pace.  I wonder if the decision to film “The Silkworm” and “Career of Evil” as two-parters will impact on the overall pace.  I hope they are going to be hour-longs and not “feature length” as the hour long format seems most fitting for this.  I wasn’t as struck on the book of “The Silkworm” which will air on television straight after “Cuckoo’s Calling”- I felt it was overlong, so perhaps two episodes will suffice.  It is a much darker piece and it will be interesting to see how it translates to Sunday evening television.  I’ve yet to read “Career Of Evil” but I am pushing it up the To Be Read list so I can get to it before it is shown.

With two parts down of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” and one to go I’m looking forward to the conclusion of this.  To be honest, even though I only read the book six months or so ago some of the plot details have blurred in my mind so I’m getting plenty of enjoyment as the story unfolds. It does seem perfect for television, will push up sales further of the three novels and is likely to give the BBC another big worldwide hit.

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Strike- The Cuckoo’s Calling is shown on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1.  The final episode is due to air on the 3rd September.  Previous episodes are available on the BBC I-Player.  “The Silkworm” is due to be transmitted from Sunday 10th.

 

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Not Peter Kay but it could have been!

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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.

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

Taboo (BBC1 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The new season of shows on BBC1 continues with what seems like a brave decision for peak time on Saturday night.  It is best described as brooding – which is traditionally not what we like to do on a Saturday, but this brave decision might just very well pay off.

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What has tempted BBC1 to make this ratings risk alongside its Saturday night family fare of light entertainment and medical drama? Answer- One Tom Hardy.  Oscar nominated for “The Revenant” Hardy has the power to burn up every thing he appears in.  On TV he has been unforgettable as Bill Sikes and as the lead character in the Martina Cole series “The Take”.  Filmwise, it was the otherwise forgettable 2006 low-budget comedy “Scenes Of A Sexual Nature” which had me sitting up taking notice with a full-on-sexual chemistry scene with Sophie Okenedo on Hampstead Heath.  Since then the superbly intense performances have kept coming – the title role in “Stuart: A Life Backwards”; martial arts contender in “Warrior”;violent criminal Charles Bronson; Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” and both the Kray twins in “Legend”.  This is a man who can turn out excellently high-octane performances – so perhaps the BBC are not taking too much of a risk.

Just because I can: (from top left) Tom Hardy, as Charles Bronson, in Scenes of A Sexual Nature, in The Take.  Bottom row – Oscar nominated in The Revenant, in Warrior

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Double Take! As the Kray Twins in Legend

When you look into it the lack of risk actually becomes apparent with this eight-parter.  It’s from an original idea by Hardy and his father who wanted to create a character for Hardy to play; an amalgamation of Bill Sikes, Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lecter, Heathcliff and Jack The Ripper and they believed they came up with the goods with Jack Delaney.  The whole thing has been a labour of love for Hardy father and son and it has taken years to get to Saturday night BBC1.  Their idea has been developed and written by Steven Knight.  Knight is also known as a film director.  In 2014 he received great acclaim for the innovative one hander “Locke” which starred Tom Hardy with just a car and a hands-free phone for company.  Hardy has enlisted Ridley Scott alongside him as Executive Producer and Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm- the man responsible for “The Killing” (a man who can certainly evoke dark and brooding) to direct the series.  On a night when BBC1 introduced light-entertainment-by-numbers show “Let It Shine” and ITV were relaunching previous BBC flagship “The Voice” (for no apparent good reason), “Taboo” felt thrillingly unpredictable.

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It’s London in 1814 and Jack Delaney (Hardy) has returned from Africa for the funeral of his father, a man with shipping interests at loggerheads with the East India Company, headed by Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce).  Delaney has long been believed dead and his return is a shock, especially to his half-sister, played by Oona Chaplin (excellent in BBC2’s “The Hour”).  Delaney’s return means that he will inherit his father’s assets, including a strip of land, Nootka Sound, where Hardy’s mother lived as part of a tribe and where she was reputedly  bought by his father.  His father’s solicitor, Thoyt,(Nicholas Woodeson) does his best not to make it sound like a good proposition;

“If America were a pig facing England.  It is right at the pig’s arse.”

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Chaplin, Hardy and Pryce

The interest of the East India Company suggests otherwise and political factors make it a highly desirable piece of land.  It is certainly not in Delaney’s nature to give in graciously.  His half-sister states, “He doesn’t belong in this world” and he himself says “I’m not a fit man to be around children”.  Hardy in interviews has been comparing this character to Saddam Hussein, so there is plenty of intrigue and wrong-doings left to enjoy.

And enjoy it I did.  Taboo’s London is the visceral, gritty London of nightmares.  There’s vats of chopped meat being stirred, there’s graverobbing, seedy brothels, mud and grime and the whole thing is probably too dark and too mumbled for the Daily Mail viewer but it was really quite fascinating.  “Peaky Blinders” might come to mind (also starring Hardy) in its approach, but that was never a Saturday night BBC1 show.  It also reminded me of last year’s rather splendid adaptation of “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” which was a weekend show (Sunday nights) 0n BBC1.  I think that this has a lot of potential and however much was paid from our licence fees to Mr Hardy the BBC are sure to get their money’s worth.

fourstarsTaboo is shown on BBC1 on Saturdays at 9.15pm.  The first episode is available on catch-up on the BBC I Player.