Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups (BBC4 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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It has been Man Booker announcement week. After the last couple of years of reading the shortlist, beginning as soon as the long-listed titles were chosen so I got some chance of fitting them in time before the winner’s announcement, I decided this year not to read any of them.

There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, last year’s winner “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders proved what a lottery the whole thing is (Julian Barnes has referred to the award as “Posh Bingo”). Secondly, despite reading a good chunk of eligible literary fiction during the year I hadn’t even read one title on the longlist and when the shortlist was announced I wasn’t motivated enough by the choices to put this right. I did think that after the last couple of last summer/autumns getting through the titles that it was going to become a bit of an obsessive feature in my reading year, but I haven’t missed it in the slightest this year.

That is in many ways a shame because it this Literary Prize’s 50th Anniversary and I don’t know whether the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the award, Anna Burns for “Milkman” was the most deserving winner. (I’d read one previous novel by Richard Powers but not his latest, all the rest of the authors were new to me). I didn’t even watch the announcement on TV.

I did, however, tune in to this BBC4 documentary which was shown to mark the Booker’s 50th and which concentrated more upon the Prize night and the intrigue and controversy which has dogged or (more probably) enriched its history. Apparently, “the Booker has always been a magnet for scandal “ and this hour long documentary was prepared to spill the beans.

It was a mildly diverting hour which saw such anecdotes as John Banville recalling how one short-listed year he had got so drunk that had he won the award he wouldn’t have been able to collect it (he didn’t win), Anne Enright not being able to visit the loo, judges falling out over their choices and Selina Scott floundering on a live TV presentation by not recognising the judges. More shocking than all of this was the amount of cigarette smoke wafting in the air in clips from award ceremonies of just a few years back and also the number of times we saw the same bits of footage (Yann Martel jumping to his feet in triumph on quite a few occasions, for example).

Despite it being one of the literary world’s most prestigious prizes it can be a bit of a rod for the winners’ backs. 2103 winner Eleanor Catton, the youngest recipient, confided it has taken her years to get back on track and Dotti Irving, PR for the prize, said; “Quite often writers are in the middle of their next book. They want peace and quiet for that, well, they’re not going to get peace and quiet in the wake of the Man Booker.”

Nevertheless, this is the one that everyone, whether they admit it or not, wants to win. Kingsley Amis famously claimed he didn’t until he did, then it was a different story. Some of the older clips illustrated how media-savvy the modern writer has to be compared to the intellectual ramblings of literary titans of the 70’s and 80’s a time when everything seemed very beige.

I really want the Man Booker to feel more relevant. You can find the odd gem on the shortlist but they do need to ensure that they are getting the balance between quality and readability right and I do think that the Costas, for one, are currently doing this better. However, I certainly would not turn down the opportunity to be a Man Booker judge. This year there was a different feel to the longlist with both a graphic novel and more commercial crime fiction (Belinda Bauer’s “Snap”), which could have shaken things up had it appeared on the shortlist. With Val McDermid on the judging panel I had high hopes but it was not to be.

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Judging from the title BBC4 gave this there was an emphasis on the in-fighting in an attempt to make it all seem a little more sexy and watchable than it turned out to be. It did get me looking up how many Booker winners I have read from the last 50 years and I make it 15, which is probably more than the average reader. Will this year’s winner bring my total up to 16…..? You’ll have to watch this space…..

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Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups was shown at 9pm on BBC4 on Monday 15th October. It is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

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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.

The 500th Post – What You’ve Been Reading

5002It’s the big 500th Post!  This gives me a chance to sit back, eat cake and sip sparkling wine and to say thank you to all of you who have kept me posting by reading and commenting and suggesting.  On these big occasions I like to take a little look back and see just what it is you have been finding to read here on reviewsrevues.com.  According to my Stats page this is a total of 374,652 words.  Huge thanks if you have managed to read them all!!

I reset the clocks at the start of the year and so this is the Top 10 of those 500 posts which you have been  reading since January.

10. Collateral –  (BBC2 2018- posted in Feb 2018)

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Much anticipated four part Crime drama series by Sir David Hare had mixed reviews with some finding the writing at times a little clunky.  I did stick with it and there was a great performance from Carey Mulligan but it is unlikely to be the best police drama I will watch this year.

9. Top Of The Shop With Tom Kerridge (BBC2 2018- posted in April 2018)

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I liked this series as it brimmed with feel-good factor and feels to me like the BBC’s natural successor to the gap in the schedules caused by “Bake Off” moving to Channel 4.  It worked because of the passion of the contestants- people prepared to give up on their 9-5s to produce food, often during their evenings and weekends, often in places like their sheds or domestic kitchens, food which they really believein with a passion and wanting to spread the word.   I also loved the farm-shop setting in Malhamdale, Yorkshire.

8. The Real Full Monty (ITV 2017- posted in June 2017)

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This has received a surge in readers this year as ITV decided to do it all over again with two one-offs over consecutive nights, one with celebrity men and one with women.  My review was for the original 2017 one-off.  Even though I couldn’t really see it working a second time it actually did.  I know there was criticism in some quarters of the press about the amount of money actually raised for charity by these shows but it certainly raised awareness on prime-time television of testicular and breast cancer and that has got to be a good thing.

7. Let’s Groove – The Best Of Earth Wind and Fire (Columbia 1996- posted in October 2015)

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Continues to be the most read CD review I have ever posted, still leading the way two and a half years on.

6. Dynasty (Netflix 2017- posted in October 2017)

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I’m still working my way through the first series of this on reboot of a TV classic on  Netflix and I am enjoying it.  The writing of this review made me go all dewy-eyed with nostalgia for the days of John Forsythe, Linda Evans and of course, Dame Joan Collins and ended up with me buying the complete box set of the original series off Amazon.  Haven’t got round to watching any of it yet- it’s still in its plastic shrink wrap.  Maybe one day I’ll have 165 hours to spare!!

5. The Diary Of Two Nobodies – Giles Wood and Mary Killen (2017- posted in January 2018)

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Despite all the literary treasures I try to put your way the most read of my book reviews this year has been dear old Giles and Mary from “Gogglebox”.  It is actually very readable, laugh out loud funny and quite a long way from most tv cash-in publications.

4. Make! Craft Britain (BBC4- 2016) (Posted in June 2016)

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It seems like I have been urging the BBC for ages to make more of this idea as this one off programme has always attracted a lot of attention on here.  At last, this year BBC4 went with a three parter which explored a range of crafts and has sparked many people who watched it into different artistic directions.  (I have unearthed the knitting needles again after watching beginners produce a hat).  This review was for the original episode- I hope the BBC will make more of these surprisingly relaxing and inspirational hours.

3. The Level (ITV 2016- Posted in October 2016)

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This six part Brighton set series remains the most read review on the site, clearly dominating the statistics in 2016 and 2017.  Although it has slipped off the top spot in this first part of the year it seems people have far from forgotten about it and still want to know what it was all about.

2. Jamestown ( Sky 1 2017- Posted in May 2017)

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Here’s one I feel guilty about.  Sky has aired a second series which has meant good traffic on the site for this review and yet I only ever watched the first episode of the first series.  I gave up with it at this point.  It seems as if I was in a minority……………

The most read review on this site so far this year is…………… (drum roll needed or at least a showbizzy fanfare -there’s a clue….)

Last Laugh In Vegas (ITV 2018 – Posted in April 2018)

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A clear winner here stats-wise for this five part series which started off with car-crash tv potential but actually turned out to be a really quite charming tale of dogged determination in keeping your name up in lights.  Celebrities better known in the 60s and 70’s took on Las Vegas for a night and you ended up willing them to succeed.  Certainly not without its faults, I’m still questioning the motives behind the whole idea but it has obviously attracted attention worldwide.

Well that was post number 500!  Thanks for reading.  Thanks especially if you read something on April 25th 2018 as that was the day I received the highest number of visits ever which spurs me on thinking there’s still life in the old dog yet! Here’s to the next 500 posts!

 

 

 

 

 

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 . 

 

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.

collateral2Carey Mulligan in “Collateral”

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.

Britannia – Sky Atlantic (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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So, how to describe “Britannia” the first episode of which appeared on Sky Atlantic this week?  It’s aimed towards the “Game Of Thrones” fans (which reminds me I still have the last series unwatched on my Sky Planner – for some reason I can’t get round to start watching it) and the box set binge viewers (Sky have taken the now increasingly more common tactic of releasing the whole series on catch-up to lure in the Netflix crowd).  This is no swords and sorcery epic however, being rooted in early British history (or at least with a slight nod towards it).

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It starts in 43AD with the Romans return to the British Isles after Julius Caesar’s previous attempt to conquer some ninety years before.  This time the Celtic residents are largely caught unawares.  The first Romans we see are four unfortunate individuals hanging by their arms who have decided Britannia was not for them and have made a run for it only to be interrogated by David Morrissey’s General Aulus Plautius.  One gives as his excuse for desertion “Britannia is a cursed land, ruled by the dead”. First pause for “not much has changed laughter”.  Over the intervening years legends have sprung up around giant squids and demons residing in the forests feasting on human flesh.  In reality it’s the challenging weather and the Celtic tribes that will be causing all the problems.  David Morrissey plays a good baddie, even if I did give up on “The Walking Dead” not long after he joined the cast.  The flesh eating zombies and dystopian nightmare of everyday survival was one thing but Morrissey’s “Governor” proved a little too much for this viewer.  Here he’s soon coming up with a plan where one deserter will cut the throats of the others in order to survive.

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Over on Britannia we’ve already met the drug-raddled The Outcast (Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas) running amok in a frenzy of portents and omens and have seen the preparations for a female initiation Solstice ceremony to womanhood in the Cantii Tribe, which is destined to go horribly wrong.  Right from the off we are seeing society portrayed with women as equals, strong fighting women, which makes this feel different from ancient history tales we’ve seen before and will satisfy Game Of Thrones fan used to strong women in Arya, Cersei, Daenerys and the excellent Brienne Of Tarth will see echoes in characters such as Kerra (Kelly Reilly) and young Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) whose entry into womanhood was so abruptly disrupted.

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Kelly Reilly as Kerra

Filmed largely in Prague and Wales, the scenery was often breath-taking which added much to this ninety-minute opener.  High production values are evident throughout. Violent and resplendently unapologetic in its bad language, the flesh-creeping aspects were upped by some particularly unappealing Druids of which Mackenzie Crook is largely unrecognisable as the leader, Veren.  I’m not sure where it’s all going but I’m going to be happy enough to go along with the ride over the next 8 episodes of series 1.

Britannia, SkyEleanor Worthington Cox with Nikolaj Lie Kaas

Britannia is created by notable playwright and screen play writer Jez Butterworth who has credits ranging from his first Royal Court Theatre award-winner “Mojo” to the latest in the James Bond Franchise “Spectre”.  He often writes with family members and here script and production honours are shared with brother Tom and James Richardson.  Someone’s been doing the research effectively.  In our household we took to Google after a scene involving a cat as we didn’t think they were in Britain at that time only to discover that Julius Caesar had introduced them to the country on his first trip over.  Viewers don’t always expect historical accuracy when there’ s action-packed over the top drama so it’s nice we’re getting a bit of both here.

The one thing it seems to be missing at this stage is a great piece of music to kick things off.  “Game Of Thrones” is blessed with a great opening score which really gets under your skin.  Here, for some reason we have Donovan’s trippy “Hurdy Gurdy Man” but with the Brits indulging in natural highs and the Smoke Spirit turning the solstice into an acid rave until disrupted by the brutal arrival of the Romans, perhaps it’s not such an inappropriate choice after all.

Britannia’s first episode has given Sky it’s best viewing figures for an original programme for three years.  The last time as many tuned in was for “Fortitude”, (I was one of those but I didn’t last too many episodes on that occasion).  Hopefully, here I will stay the course.  It seems that in this dark germ-ridden January we want to see Ancient Brits go the distance with Roman armies, a bit of magic and strong warrior women.  Bring it on!

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Britannia is shown on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Thursdays at 9.00.  In the US it has been purchased to be shown on Amazon.

Liar- ITV (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Someone is telling big fat lies in ITV’s six part drama and, two episodes in, it is not clear who that is going to be. I’ve been fairly resistant to ITV dramas recently (with really only the second series of “Victoria” getting a look-in) but there was something about this one that piqued my fancy. I think it was probably the casting combination of Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd. Joanne may always be associated with being the beleaguered Mrs Bates in “Downton Abbey”, the maid whose road to happiness seemed to be one step forward and three steps back but I also hold her very dearly for having to tell neighbour Joe that his wife’s ashes had gone up the Christmas present Dyson in the best Royle Family Christmas special “Joe’s Crackers” when she joined the family for a Christmas dinner as son Anthony’s girlfriend. Last year ITV kept her in the long frocks for miniseries “Dark Angel” but I gave up on that after the first episode as it was just too depressing. She’s back in the modern-day for “Liar” – a very modern tale.

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Co-starring with Joanne is Ioan Gruffudd whose Hollywood star burned brightly in films such as “The Fantastic Four” and George Bush bio-pic “W” where he played Tony Blair, but who I probably like most in US TV series “Forever” where he played immortal medical examiner Henry Morgan, shown here on Sky 1, a man who couldn’t help dying on a regular basis and each time emerging naked from the Hudson River to pick up again on his life. Here Gruffudd is keeping with the medical profession and has been tempted back from the US to play surgeon Andrew Earlham.

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When teacher Laura (Froggatt) breaks up with her live-in boyfriend her anaesthetist sister persuades her to go on a date with Earlham, whose teenage son Laura teaches. The date appears to go well but when Laura wakes the next morning she believes she has been raped. Having Earlham’s son as a pupil adds another level to the tension as does having her sister work with the accused. Laura’s ex is a policeman who gets dragged into the investigation and it’s not long before we perceive that he is secretly getting on rather well with Laura’s married sister. The lies begin to come thick and fast, nobody is exactly trustworthy and are those seeking revenge right to do so or just adding insult to injury? I’m finding the issues thought-provoking, I’m not sure how it will pan out over another four hours, there certainly will be more lies to come.

liar7liar8Co-Stars Warren Brown and Zoe  Tapper

There’s some good value for money faces in the supporting cast. I’ve always liked Warren Brown who is often at home in a policeman’s outfit (we wondered when watching it whether he just brings his own to his acting job) as we have seen him as part of the force in “Good Cop” “Luther” and “Criminal Justice”. Zoe Tapper playing Laura’s sister has a wealth of quality dramatic roles behind her including the TV adaptation of Sarah Waters’ “Affinity”, the BBC reboot of “Survivors”, “Mr Selfridge” and likeable ITV Saturday night vampire drama “Demons”. Seeing these four lead actors in trailers made me want to watch “Liar” and from the closing moments of the second episode we see that more lies may be embroiled within a character played by ex-Dr Who Peter Davison.

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There’s something else which is lifting this above most one series dramas and that is the stunning location. Just as Brighton looked so good in “The Level”, the makers of “Liar” have employed what I think of as the “Broadchurch” factor to bring beauty into a dark story via the location. Minutes into the first episode I was googling “Where is “Liar” filmed?” alongside, undoubtedly, many others as it was certainly quick to appear in the Google results. We first meet Laura kayaking in an amazing network of marshes which is actually Tollesbury on the Essex Coast. The fictional town where the characters live is a bit of a scissors and paste location with filming also in the town of Deal and along the Kent Coast. Laura’s school is actually situated in Ealing. The date takes part in a swish restaurant on Deal pier, which is actually apparently a bit of a greasy-spoon café tarted up for the assignation.

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“Liar” is directed by James Strong, who also directed “Broadchurch” who said of his new venture that he actually wanted to do something very different with this but then found himself once again looking at small English seaside towns. Some enterprising people could turn Deal into the next TV location to visit, just as West Bay in Dorset has become a significant tourist attraction following Strong’s previous hit. Maybe he should get some sort of commission from the English tourist board. I live in a pretty seaside town which would certainly benefit from such exposure even if it does mean incorporating murderers, liars and rapists within its streets for a short time!

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The six part series written by Harry and Jack Williams was perhaps commissioned as a result of the success of BBC revenge drama and Suranne Jones acting masterclass “Dr Foster”, which coincidentally is mid-way through its second series over on BBC1. Although this also feels like quality it was so good as a stand-alone that I don’t think it needed a subsequent series and I have gone on from egging Dr Foster on in the first series to despairing of her in this. I do have every confidence that the BBC will once again have our jaws dropping and the acting, writing and production will be exemplary but I’m not convinced it was necessary to put these characters through more drama.
“Liar” certainly feels like a stand-alone series, let’s agree that however successful it become that we do not get “Liar 2” please ITV. It certainly has the makings to be a big international hit, especially in the US with its highly recognisable leads and stunning locations.

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Liar is shown on Mondays at 9pm on ITV1. The first two episodes are available on ITV catch-up services.

 

 

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.

 

My 400th Blog Post – A What You’ve Been Reading Special

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Today reviewsrevues hits the big 400 (thank you wordpress for letting me know, I wasn’t keeping count!).  Since my 300th celebration I’ve moved house and changed jobs but thankfully I’ve still been able to find the time for the reading and reviewing.  I am probably increasingly reading more new books, certainly far more than I was when I started the site.  Thank you to the publishers that have supported me and please keep those book parcels coming! I like to celebrate these big milestones by having a look at what you have been reading.  I did my last retrospective at the end of 2016  and then set the dials back to zero. So, what has been attracting the most attention in the last six months? 400 posts so top 3’s in 4 sections –  Books- Recent publications ;  Books-Back catalogue; CDs and TV. Here goes … (clink on the titles for the full reviews)

Books- Recent Publications

3. Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (2016)

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Posted in my 100 Essential Books thread at the end of January, I am delighted to see people want to read about this book as it is still going to be one of the strong challengers for my Book Of The Year.  I’ve been recommending it like mad at the libraries where I work and the feedback from those who have followed my advice has all been positive, both from Jodi Picoult fans and those, like me, who have chosen to start their Picoult experience with this book.  Just yesterday a lady told me it would be a book she would “remember for a long, long time”.  Great praise.

2. When We Rise – Cleve Jones (2017)

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American gay activist’s account of life in San Francisco in the 1970’s/80’s. I posted this review in March.  I was told that Cleve appeared on “Newsnight” this week and had been surprised that his book was attracting a good general readership.  The six part TV series made of this book written by Dustin Lance Black has not yet appeared in the UK.  (I took out a Netflix subscription thinking it was on there but it isn’t.  There are rumours that Channel 4 have bought it).  When that is shown sales of this book will continue to soar.

1.A Life Discarded – Alexander Masters (2016)

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Posted in April.  Masters’ non-fiction work is about a discovery of a large number of diaries found dumped in a skip.  Part biography, part detective work, I am going to continue to say nothing about the subject of this book and urge you to read it- a lot of you seem to want to know about it, making it the most read review in the recent publications category.

Books – The Back Catalogue (Older publication dates)

3. The Noel Coward Diaries – Edited by Graham Payn & Sheridan Morley (1982)

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I posted this back in May 2015 and yet it is really only this year that it has been attracting this much attention, showing that perhaps Sir Noel is coming back into vogue.  This is one of my 100 Essential Reads and if you fancy spending close to thirty years in the company of this fascinating man this is a must-read.

2. Motown: The History – Sharon Davis (1988)

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I’d read Sharon Davis’ Motown based column in “Blues and Soul” magazine for years and this book is a thorough study of the label from a British point of view.  I posted this back in November 2015 and once again it has been a slow burner which has taken off this year.  I have Davis’ biography of disco pioneer Sylvester on my To Be Read list.  Seeing the popularity of this makes me think I should get that read.

1.SS-GB- Len Deighton (1978)

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Posted in February this year there has been significantly more interest in my review of this, the book, than the BBC 1 Sunday night adaptation.  To be honest, I wasn’t totally convinced by either.  I think the book has dated rather and doesn’t live up to the premise of an alternative history of  London just after the Nazis won the war,  but this is my most read review in the older books category.

CDs

3. Light Years- Kylie Minogue  (2000)

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Posted in May this is Kylie’s finest hour, a culmination of the pop princess, the disco queen and consummate entertainer.  Rated number 34 in my Essential CD list.

2. Very Best Of Kathy Kirby (1997)

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Posted in October 2016 is number 79 in my Essential CDs. I claimed in my review that this was one of my guilty pleasures, but now so many of you have read the review I don’t need to feel guilty about one of the great under-rated artists in 60’s pop.

1.Let’s Groove – The Best Of – Earth Wind & Fire (1996)

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Since it was posted in October 2015 this has consistently been the most read CD review and things have been no different this year.  It just shows how loved this group was around the world.  Number 30 in my 100 Essential CD list.

TV

3. Roots – BBC4 (2017)

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The high standard was maintained throughout this re-make of the classic TV series.  It feels valid to question why it was re-made but if it brought home the issues raised to a new generation then it was very important that it was.  It lacked the impact of the original which had everybody talking about it when it was first shown but it had good performances, high production values and was equally compulsive viewing. I posted this review in February.

2. Jamestown – Sky 1 (2017)

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I wasn’t sure what to make of the first episode of this (too) glossy historical drama “from the makers of Downton Abbey” when it appeared on Sky 1 in May.  The tale of “maids to make wives” in Seventeenth century Virginia wasn’t without promise.  Here’s a post-review confession, I only ever watched the first episode.  The rest were series-linked in my planner but when it came down to it I didn’t feel the need to watch any more.

1.The Level – ITV1 (2016)

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I posted this review in October after the first episode.  By the third episode this was my most read review ever, something which has continued ever since.  It actually kept me watching the series.  This Brighton-based series had finished before the start of 2017 and yet this year it is over 500 reads ahead of its nearest rival.  In 2016 it finished 1300 away from the number 2 read.  This seems to be the review that is bringing new visitors onto reviewsrevues.com.  Long may it last.

Just writing about these 12 most read out of the 400 reviews has got me recognising that you readers out there like a bit of variety.  There’s quite a range in these twelve reviews alone. It’s part of the fun that keeps me guessing as I’m never sure when I’m posting what will attract the biggest audiences and the continuing readership of “The Level” from countries around the globe has me a little bewildered as the series did not seem to make that much of an impression when it was on TV- but it’s clearly the reviewsrevues readers’ favourite.  Right, it’s heads down now and onwards to the 500.

Many thanks to all of you who take the time to read my ramblings and those of you who feel motivated enough to comment on what you read.  That’s a huge thank-you to my Big 5 commenters who have stimulated thought and conversation on here – that’s Kay Carter, Monika, Fiction Fan, Geoffrey Valentine and Cleopatra Loves Books.  Keep on reading……………..

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chrissy Metz and Sterling K Brown

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

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Mandy Moore with Milo Ventimiglia

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 Ron Cephas Jones

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

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

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