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.

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God’s Own Country (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With the wind howling around the house in full throes of a storm the other night I fancied watching something which would match the bleakness going on outside.  I have seen this film before and it left a great impression.  I bought it on DVD just before Christmas but with a cat ensconced on my lap it was easier to watch it on Netflix.  It is also on the BFI Player where I viewed it the first time and where it was one of the most streamed films of 2018.

Set during an early springtime lambing season in a farm on the Yorkshire Moors, main character John Saxby (an outstanding Josh O’Connor most recently seen as Marius in the BBC adaptation of “Les Miserables”) is getting by through getting drunk each night and spending the day hung over and uncommunicative towards grandmother played by Gemma Jones and his ailing father, played by Ian Hart, who himself is reluctant to give up the running of the farm and vents this frustration onto his son. A young Romanian is brought in to help out with the lambing and sparks ignite between him and John.

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Josh O’Connor and Alex Secareanu

This is a love story but one carried out in the bleak harshness of the environment.  The two camp out on the Fells to be near to the sheep in a section reminiscent of “Brokeback Mountain” but this is a more stronger, more convincing film.  It also feels more grounded in reality, certainly for British audiences,  than a film that  tended to overshadow it in 2017, “Call Me By Your Name“.  The reason this works so well is largely through the dynamics between the two men, John, barely able to express himself or feelings other than lust and anger yet crippled by loneliness and Gheorghe thrust into this brittle set-up and accepting of everything because it is better than he had experienced at home.  You can certainly appreciate the appeal of the migrant worker played by Alec Secareanu and the hope that he brings with him.  It’s understandable how he can enrich the lot of those around him.

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It’s pretty much a four-hander and the performances are all excellent.  As John’s father’s health deteriorates Ian Hart’s performance becomes almost painful to watch and if asked to choose a career best performance from the ex-Duchess of Duke Street Gemma Jones between this and her excellent work on BBC TV’s “Spooks” I’d have to opt for the sublime, understated portrayal here.

 

Co-stars Ian Hart and Gemma Jones

True, this film might not be for everyone.  Some of the everyday scenes of life on the farm are brutal and challenging and there’s a couple of steamy sex scenes which may shock but are well within the context of the piece as shown by its 15 Rating (if they felt in anyway gratuitous I’m sure the rating would have been upped to 18).  It’s moving, satisfying and believably scripted.  It was written and directed by Francis Lee, whose sheer belief in his debut film is evident in every shot.  However, it is the performances that will stay with me, which definitely makes this a five star film for me.

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The stars with writer/director Francis Lee

God’s Own Country won the world crime directing award at the American Sundance Festival and garned a host of nominations worldwide.  Although Josh O’ Connor was singled out most often for acting awards, each of the four performances were up for awards.  In 2018 it was nominated for 7 Baftas of which it won Best British Independent Film with Josh O’Connor beating fellow nominee Alex Secareanu as Best Actor.  It also picked up gongs at the British Independent Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Empire Awards, Evening Standard Awards (where it won Best Film and Best Supporting Actress for Gemma Jones) amongst others including awards which highlighted the film’s LGBT+ issues.

godsown5Critical reaction to the film

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God’s Own Country was released in 2017 and is currently available on DVD.  It is also   available on Netflix as part of the subscription and can be rented on the BFI player

 

 

 

Dynasty (Netflix 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The latest series to get a revamp is 80’s classic glossy soap “Dynasty” which is currently being added one episode a week in the UK on Netflix.  We already have had the 21st Century version of “Dallas” which combined the next generation with the original stars, with some success, if not always gripping storylines, but found it was unable to survive the death of Larry Hagman.

Dynasty’s reboot is a different affair as it has been completely recast, using the original’s names and family relationships.  Starting with a clean slate means that Krystle Carrington (now Cristal) can be Hispanic, Jeff Colby is African-American and the role of Sammy-Jo (memorably Heather Locklear in the original) has been re-written as a gay man.

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I’ve watched two episodes so far.  The first was largely introductory as we had to get to know these characters all over again and the target audience was probably not born when the original series aired (1981-89).  The centrepiece (and Dynasty often had a centrepiece )was the wedding between Blake and Cristal, seen by Blake’s children Fallon and Steven as a gold-digger.  There was a nice nod to the original when Steven, (still gay), as a child in a flashback was seen playing the original theme tune on the piano.

dynasty6Blake marries Cristal – again!

There’s the first thing I missed – that glorious sweep of theme music composed by Bill Conti over the opening credits.  The rebooted “Dallas” went with the old tune, as has “Hawaii 5-0”.  “Dynasty” had a better theme tune than “Dallas” and it’s a shame not to have used it.

If things took a while to get going in the first episode that’s not too far from the original whose initial reception was very muted and it looked like this expensive series may be cancelled.  All that changed with the introduction of Joan Collins as the fabulous Alexis Colby and from her arrival onwards it became a huge ratings hit, influenced fashion (shoulder pads, anyone?) and summed up the glossy selfishness of the 80s.  On the reboot there have already been several mentions of Fallon’s and Steven’s mother but the role has not yet been cast.  I can’t actually think who could fill those shoulder-pads and take on Joan’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the super-bitch, but one name that keeps crossing my mind, and to maintain the British connection is Catherine Zeta-Jones.

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Dynasty was always bigger and blowsier than “Dallas” which centred on the machinations of JR and the stories were more outlandish (not counting Bobby’s dream which was used to write off a whole series when it went off in an odd direction).  In “Dynasty”, most memorably you had the kidnapping of Krystle by Psycho star Anthony Perkins, replacing her with a Krystle-lookalike in the Carrington home and Fallon got abducted by aliens (although now I’m not sure whether that was in the spin-off “The Colbys.”)  It also featured, probably from mid-way through the run, one of the most beautiful women ever to appear on television in Diahann Carroll as Dominique Devereaux (rebooted version, think of casting Rupaul in this role).

Future casting ideas for “Dynasty” producers – no charge.

It’s hard to say in the new version how far they will go in the over-exaggerated melodrama stakes.  We have had catfights (have you seen how ropey that famous fight between Alexis and Krystle in the lily pond looks to our modern eyes).  There was a fabulous moment in a cemetery at a funeral between Krystle and Fallon, which suggests that these slapstick-as-drama moments may be used freely in the new version.

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Fallon herself, played by   Elizabeth Gillies seems far more of a bitch than the Emma Samms/Pamela Sue Martin original but that just might keep us watching until Alexis turns up.  One of my favourite characters from the original, Sammy-Jo, has a lot of potential in this new incarnation played by the very easy-on-the-eye Rafael de la Fuente.  Anders the butler, or major-domo, as his role is explained here has had his role beefed up and is probably the most recognisable face in the cast played by New Zealander Allan Dale, who has turned out great work in at least three continents in major roles in “Young Doctors”  “Neighbours”, “The OC”,  and in the London West End production of “Spamalot”.

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The characters names aside, the show it reminded me most of was not the original “Dynasty” but “Dirty, Sexy Money” (2007-9) which was headed by Donald Sutherland and was always a lot of fun with a scheming rich family, the Darlings.  The characters of the two Carrington siblings seem here quite close to Seth Gabel (Jeremy) and Natalie Zea (Karen) (especially with her relationship with father’s business rival Jeff echoing Karen’s obsession with Blair Underwood as Simon Elder).

dynasty4Steven and Fallon Carrington

Do we need a new version of “Dynasty”?  I’m still not convinced.  If it was going for a reboot I’d liked to have seen it done like “Dallas” was, moving the Carrington empire into the 21st century with some of the originals (those still with us, that is) taking their old parts.  (There were a number of “reunions” after the series ended in 1989).

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My enjoyment of this kind of heightened over-the-top drama is fuelled anyway by the splendid “Empire”, the story of a family run R&B/hip-hop label which is, to all intents of purposes “Black Dynasty”.  Their outlandish plots are kept bubbling by excellent casting and a battle of the titans in Cookie and Lucious Lyon (played magnificently by Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard.  So, I can’t help feeling that the success, or otherwise, of this new “Dynasty” will depend on, as the original did, the arrival of Alexis Carrington.  For the time being I’m going to continue to watch.

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Dynasty is currently available on Netflix in the UK.  For those of us old enough to remember the original here are the opening credits at their finest.

 

What I’ve Been Watching – Riverdale – Season 1 (Netflix 2017)

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I recently took out a free trial of Netflix and I was soon drawn in to paying the monthly subscription.  Apart from a couple of films it has been three series which have caught my attention- the sumptuous  royal drama “The Crown”, the absolutely addictive drag-queen competition “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and this teen mystery series which I was absolutely delighted to see on the Netflix schedules.

I had heard a lot about “Riverdale” and it taps into a little obsession I’ve had since I was a very young child.  One year on holiday in Cornwall on a visit to the newsagent’s at the end of the road where we were staying I discovered a set of American comics I had never seen before.  In those days my reading habit was fuelled by comics- I would buy, borrow, swap many during the course of the week, “Beano”, “Dandy” “Sparky”, “Cor!” “Whizzer and Chips”, “Beezer”, “Buster” “Topper “, “TV Comic”, “Look In” – I loved them all.  I wasn’t so keen on the football or war ones, they had to be funny, although I did used to read my sister’s “Bunty” and “Mandy”.  Occasionally I would pick up an American comic from the Harvey publishers “Caspar The Friendly Ghost” “Richie Rich”, but these were harder to come by because they were imported.  I loved the adverts in these as much as the stories but by the time I was in that newsagents in Cornwall I would have deemed these as a little young for me, but in a rack in front of me was something that would certainly fit the bill.

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The history of Archie Comics was unknown to me.  I didn’t know that the character on the cover that I was trying to get my Dad to buy alongside the “Daily Mirror” had been around since 1941 when he appeared in a strip in “Pep Comics”.  The success of Super-powered Comic Book heroes had led the publishers to deduce that the market was ripe for a teenage “Everyman” to appeal to all readers and thus Archie and his group of friends living in Riverdale were developed.  By 1943 he had his own national radio programme which ran for over 10 years and by 1946 (71 years ago! ) the publishers changed their name to Archie Comics and the seal was set.  There were lots of spin-off publications from the range of characters (many still going to this day), there were Cartoon series (don’t think we ever had those in the UK) and most famously as the 60’s moved into the 70’s a massive US and UK#1 single “Sugar Sugar”.  Recorded (obviously) by a session group led by Ron Dante, Toni Wine and Andy Kim this was not the only #1 single by an animated group but it remains the first and the best.  It was the biggest selling single around the world in 1969.

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Archie and his friends have lurked around in the background to my life since then.  Every visit I have made to the United States has found me bringing back a small pile of the latest publications.  I have an Archie comics app on my tablet, a much-followed Pinterest board and I even named my cat after the character.  And now, on my TV, there is a real-life adaptation where the characters have been re-imagined and developed into a series – I’m going to watch it, aren’t I?

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I’m now one episode away from the Series Finale (with Season 2 due on Netflix in the UK in October) and I do really like it.  Certainly darker than the comic-book world of Riverdale this has a death at its centre of Jason Blossom, a character who was introduced to the comics in the 1980’s as twin brother of Cheryl, a more prominent character who has had a whole comic book series dedicated to her.  Although these perennial teenagers have been “reimagined” it’s important to the legions of fans over the decades that this reimagining does not take anything away from the original creations.  I think, on the whole, the makers of “Riverdale” have got this right.

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Where they have certainly got it right is in the difficult to cast lead character.  Archie Andrews (who in real terms must be knocking on 90) is played beautifully by 20 year old New Zealand actor K J Apa.  It must have been a brave bit of casting to choose to play one of the ultimate All-American boys a Kiwi whose father is a Samoan chief, but he looks the part and he has become the part.  I’m totally convinced by his performance.

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The series is narrated by Archie’s pal, Jughead, who is more intense and less goofy than we would remember from the comics and he brings in the air of darkness which permeates the series and which works very well, making it something more than just another set of teens doing their thing.  This curiously named character was there in the very first 1941 strip and has always been a little bit of an outsider.  They’ve taken away the food obsession which fuelled the animated character and have developed a dysfunctional family background for him.  The character and performance has developed throughout the series. He is played by one half of child acting twins Cole Mitchell Sprouse, who with his brother was one of the wealthiest children alive in 2007, from franchised products and TV shows.  Thankfully, we were largely spared the Sprouse Twins in the UK.  It is interesting casting which makes his portrayal of the intense, disadvantaged teen even stronger.

At the heart of the comic’s success is the eternal (70 years and counting anyway) love triangle between Archie and the two girls he cannot choose between, Betty and Veronica.

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I’ve always been a Veronica man myself, with her bitchy edge compared to the sugar-sweetness of wholesome Betty.  The real-life portrayals are less stereotypical and more rounded and in “Riverdale” it may be Betty who has the edge.  (Incidentally,  in 2009 the publishers launched two story lines of a post High-School Archie, in one “Archie Marries Betty” in the other “Archie Marries Veronica” showing that really that lack of decision which has been going on for so many years is entrenched).

Also featured in the cast are Archie spin-offs Josie & The Pussycats (who we did have as a cartoon in the UK in the 70’s– great theme tune, as well as a fairly awful 2001 movie).  These have been part of Archie’s gang since 1962 and featured Valerie, the first non-stereotypical African-American regular in a cartoon series. The Riverdale version takes this further by recreating the Pussycats as an R&B trio.

The Archie comics also pushed boundaries by having the first out-gay teenage character with Kevin Keller -an important step.  Kevin looks somewhat different in his TV version- but I am glad they have included the character.  In fact actor Casey Cott is a closer match for the traditional representation of another member of Archie’s gang, Reggie, who is somewhat sidelined in the first season of the TV adaptation.  Having Kevin as an accepted character whose sexuality is not an issue either with his friends, family or Riverdale marks a significant movement in TV’s representation of gay characters.

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Casey Cott as Kevin Keller, masquerading as Reggie?

There has been some drastic reimaging in some of the minor characters.  Take a look at Archie’s teacher Miss Grundy who at the start of Riverdale Archie is conducting some extra-curricular romance with……

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And the TV adaptation version……..

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Fits the plot better, I suppose………..

The older generation characters are interesting in that some are played by actors who a decade or two before were themselves teen heart-throbs, notably Beverly Hills 90210 dreamboat Luke Perry who now plays Archie’s Dad, Brat-packer and ex-number 1 VH1 Teen Star Molly Ringwald who plays Archie’s Mum, Twin Peaks star Madchen Amick as Betty’s Mum and teen horror classic “Scream” star Skeet Ulrich as Jughead’s Dad.  This gives the show an interesting dimension and lifts it further above run-of-the mill teen fare.

Does this programme really want to make me feel old ? Presenting the parents of Riverdale

It is the darker edge that lays underneath the comic book sunniness of Riverdale which is the most potent aspect of the series.  A couple of episodes in the first series forgot this and veered towards teen soap, but it got back on track and the later episodes were very satisfying .  I have one more episode to watch and ends seemed to be quite nicely  tied up by episode twelve, which might suggest a slightly new direction for the remaining episode as a prelude to the new series.  All in all I think this has been a bold television venture which no way detracted from the source material (as so many re-imaginings do) .  The Archie heritage is preserved by the TV show being developed by the company’s chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and along with the other shows I mentioned more than justifies my monthly Netflix subscription.

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Season 1 of Riverdale can be found on Netflix in the UK.  Season 2 is due in October