Picnic At Hanging Rock (BBC 2 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I’m still not totally sure what to make of this Australian six parter which began this week on BBC2. Based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay “Picnic At Hanging Rock” found more fame in the UK via the 1971 film version directed by Peter Weir with its out-of-kilter slightly trippy feel which is considered a significant moment in the development of Australian cinema.

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Lindsay’s book has grown in reputation especially in her homeland where it has become pretty much a standard text in the school curriculum. On its publication the author was keen to fudge the lines between fiction and fact implying it was based upon a real-life incident. This has added to the reputation and mystique of the work. I saw the film many years ago on television, probably when I was about the age of the schoolgirls in the tale. I remember it being odder than I was expecting it to be and that I enjoyed it. I’ve never read the book and am not sure whether Lindsay herself incorporated this almost hallucinogenic feel into her writing (published in 1967 so possible as this would fit into the feel of the times, although the author herself was 71 by then so maybe not). The trippy feel is certainly incorporated into the TV adaptation.

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The reason I chose to watch this was for its lead, Natalie Dormer, who has excelled in the past in history-based series. I will always remember her as Anne Boleyn in the delightfully demented “The Tudors” but she was also very strong as Lady Worsley in the BBC one-off “The Scandalous Lady W” (2015). She made her mark world-wide in “Game Of Thrones” as Margaery Tyrell who had a memorably short-lived marriage to the noxious young King Joffrey and she’s also been very good in contemporary pieces such as “Elementary” and “Silks”. There’s always great strength in her characters who often do not suffer fools gladly and there’s sometimes an ambiguous darker edge so she is a perfect choice to play the enigmatic British headmistress Hester Appleyard.

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The plot hinges on an event on February 14th 1900 when a number of schoolgirls from Appleyard’s school disappear on a picnic at Mount Diogenes. School trip risk assessments did not exist in turn of the century Australia as evidenced by the choice of location for a day out amongst venomous snakes, poisonous ants and a brooding, precarious rock formation. On this opener we begin with Natalie Dormer’s character viewing the property she intends to convert into the school in a scene which clearly indicates she is not who she is attempting to convey. We move in time to the school which has been set up, in Hester’s words, in “the arse end of the world” and onto preparations for the picnic culminating in this episode with the disappearance. It actually all moved faster than I was expecting it to in this first episode. The oddness of the piece was perpetuated by some jerky filming, tilted angles and odd viewpoints which took a few seconds to right themselves. This gave it, at best a slightly feverish feel but there were occasions when it felt like an 80’s pop promo.

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What was effective was the soundtrack composed by Cezary Skubiszewski which was anachronistic for turn of the twentieth century but atmospheric particularly in a scene when Miss Appleyard is handed some evidence of her hidden past by one of the girls amidst a pulsing, tense rhythm track.

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There’s undoubtedly going to be a significant focus on the development of the girl’s sexuality. We saw this is in a scene where one of the girls (and the headmistress) got the better of a lusty young chap; a naïve girl unaware of the changes of puberty and a frenzied exchange of Valentine cards amongst the pupils and staff members which showed the school to be a hotbed of emotions on the morn of the picnic, a scene whose change of pace felt unusual amongst the distanced, cool feel of the piece which largely emanates from Natalie Dormer’s performance. Miss Appleyard tells one of the girls; “The dark gets in you. You can’t just say I’ve had enough now. It gets everywhere”. I think this darkness will continue to infiltrate over the next five episodes. She also said “Infection spreads” which might very well be a theme for the piece.

Produced by the Australian Fremantle company using a mainly female team led by director Larysa Kondracki it feels like a piece with high production values which certainly looks good but I’m not sure whether the source material will have enough to sustain me in this six hour treatment. I’m going to stick with it for the time being though.

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The Picnic At Hanging Rock is shown on Wednesday nights at 9.00pm on BBC2. The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player.

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

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

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

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

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

topoftheshop2Who will buy our runner bean chutney?

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

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The cheesemakers with the judges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ryan Murphy

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

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Inside The Versace mansion

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

Edgar Ramirez and as Versace

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

Darren Criss – From Blaine to Cunanan

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

Ricky Martin and Penelope Cruz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Billie Piper and John Simm

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

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Sir David Hare

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

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

London Spy – BBC2 (2015) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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BBC2 launched their new five part drama series this week. Starring Ben Whishaw (From “The Hour” and the current Q in the Bond Franchise) and Jim Broadbent (of too much to mention) this was an intriguing little opener. I don’t know how many times during the hour I thought to myself – “this is wasn’t what I thought it was going to be” when there would be a subtle shift and something else seemed to be happening and then it all ended with what I thought it was going to be after all.

Danny (Whishaw), on his way home from a nightclub, tense and wired, meets jogger Joe (Edward Holcroft) on a bridge probably around the Vauxhall area of London. Danny has just dispensed with his phone and appears troubled and that begins an exchange of what could be coded messages or what could be two men trying to establish whether the other might be a) gay and b) interested. When asked if he is okay Danny tells Joe,

“You don’t know me but if you did you’d know I’m always fine.”

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That’s not the way things look . Is this some kind of planned rendezvous or is it the result of an unsuccessful night’s cruising in a night club? Is this some kind of espionage or a test of sexual parameters? The relationship continues along this strange route – Danny jogs in the hope of bumping into Joe, they meet up again, there’s a restrained dinner date, an awkward scene in Joe’s swishy apartment and it looks like all might be over until Joe turns up at Danny’s more down- at- heel flat. Is this the way relationships go in this day and age or is someone not putting all their cards on the table? That’s a lot of questions but then this is called “London Spy” – it should be provoking questions. Joe reveals he is actually called Alex and a sexual innocent. There’s a scene which invokes Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and a lot of odd, disconcerting camera angles as the guys try to establish their relationship. Alex claims to work in an investment bank;

“The people I work with are inscrutable”

Doesn’t sound like too many bankers I’ve ever met. He has an odd numerical screensaver and one of the two appears to be under surveillance – or is the viewer reading too much into this based on the title? Perhaps it’s going to be a series about two guys getting it on after all.

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Edward Holcroft and Ben Whishaw – London Spy

Jim Broadbent further confuses the issue. Is he a besotted pal of Danny’s looking out for him, or is he and Danny up to something ? Does he seem more familiar towards Alex (formerly Joe) than their first meeting would suggest? Even a drag act is performing an incongruous, enigmatic Japanese song in the venue where this meeting takes place. This is well-written stuff. The man to take the credit for this is novelist Tom Rob Smith, whose prize-winning and popular “Child 44” is on the shelf behind the television set in my house waiting for its turn to be read. I think on the basis of this it might have moved up a few places on the waiting list. Subtexts seem to be running under every line. Smith has pulled a blinder on establishing the closeness between the types of language used in the early days of a relationship and espionage.

It had an ending I had to watch twice to work out what was going on, so far removed was it from my expectations, that I,  like some of the characters, ending up feeling confused and manipulated but totally intrigued where this is going next. It would not surprise me if it switches more to a police procedural as the last few minutes introduced Samantha Spiro (outstanding as Barbara Windsor in “Cor Blimey!” and also excellent as Vivien Friend in the much-underrated cop series “M.I.T- Murder Investigation Team”) or perhaps it is taking its inspiration from some high profile real-life recent British spy cases. But, basically, I have no idea where this one is going but after this opener I’m going to be along for the ride.

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Samantha Spiro co-stars in “London Spy”

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The second episode of “London Spy” is on BBC 2 on Monday 9th November at 9.00. The first episode can be found on BBC I-Player.