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

watching

southbankshow2

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

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

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

southbankshowMelvyn Bragg and Jed Mercurio

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

line of duty

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

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

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

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

fourstars

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

Advertisements

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

watchingQuestion_mark

 

 

 

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

sixnations

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

game of thrones

 

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

elementary

 

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

tomrobsmithTom Rob Smith

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

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

teddyTeddy Pendergrass

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

dynasty1

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

Who says there’s nothing on television nowadays?

 

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

watching

barneys

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.

barneys22018 judges with the shortlisted titles

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…..

threestars

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.

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

watching

picnic1

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.

picnic2

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.

picnic3

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.

picnic4

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.

picnic6

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.

picnic5

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.

threestars

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)

collateral

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)

topoftheshop4

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)

fullmonty4

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)

img017

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)

dynasty1

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)

gilesandmary

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)

craftbritain

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)

thelevel1

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)

jamestown

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)

vegas8

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

watching

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.

strike2

 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.

galbraith

 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.

strike3

 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.

 fourstars

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

watching

collateral

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.

collateral4

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.

collateral3

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.

threestars

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

watching

britannia2

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).

britannia3

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.

Britannia4

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.

Britannia5

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!

fourstars

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

watching

liar1

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.

liar5
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.

liar6
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.

liar9

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.

liar3

“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!

liar4
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.

liar2
fourstars
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

watching

(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!

strike

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. 

strike2

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.

strike3

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.

fourstars

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.