Friday, 15 November 2013

Magic and adventure, coming to a screen near you

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the most beguiling and imaginative books I've read and not one that I ever expected to see converted onto the screen, so it's exciting to hear that the BBC is not only intending to transfer it to TV drama, but also has actually begun filming the story this month.

Set during the Napoleonic wars, this tale of two very different magicians harks back to a mythical past of English magic and had me pretty much entranced throughout. It's a big book so the story will need each of the seven episodes allocated to the serial which will star Eddie Marson (Southcliffe) and Bertie Carvel.

There's been a glut of recommissioned dramas announced lately too, including The Walking Dead, which will be back for a fifth series and Atlantis (that was out of the blue, etc). The latter was mere weeks into its debut run but the Saturday evening ratings must have given them the confidence to go ahead for series two.

Atlantis is an interesting one because it's one of a very few in its genre of family-friendly adventure. Maybe years of a misspent youth watching the likes of Indiana Jones, old ITC serials like Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) and the A-Team have coloured my opinion, but adventure/action serials just seem to be a bit thin on the ground nowadays.

Doctor Who is an example of a family-friendly adventure drama that is going from strength-to-strength, building to its 50th Anniversary crescendo. Over on Channel 4 on Friday nights, Marvel's Agent's of S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing a great job of putting the adventure and – dammit – fun into TV without having to veer into graphic violence, police drama or another bleedin' serial killer.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is, to my mind, an adventure too. It's not serious drama, but the stakes are high, the plot is gripping and the characters are fascinating, as is the odd magical world Susanna Clarke has so effectively created. 

Maybe TV land has just fallen out of the habit of producing adventure serials, but with S.H.I.E.L.D, Doctor Who, Atlantis and maybe even Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell hopefully lighting up the ratings there is hope for us adventure fans yet.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Dear TV land, there's more to John Wyndham than Triffids

It's hard to nail down why, but one of the UK's finest science fiction writers is severely underrepresented on screen. 

According to the world of TV and film, Wyndham was all about killer plants (Day of the Triffids) and spooky children (The Midwich Cuckoos - or Village of the Damned in the US), but there's so much more to his body of work and ideas that it's a mystery as to why Wyndham adaptations are just so thin on the ground. Maybe it's the '50s styling? Or the temptation to hark back to the Triffids? Whatever it is, there a wealth of material literally crying out to be brought to the screen...

The Kraken Wakes
You could argue that much of Wyndham's work is a bit talky and free of action, therefore meaning it's not, in the main, a natural for being converted for the screen. Maybe that's why the writer's work has been more often translated into radio plays.

But step forward The Kraken Wakes (Out of the Deeps in the US) – an action-packed thrill fest of an invasion story. Granted, the invasion takes a while to get cracking (or should that be Kraking) but eventually there's sinking ships, ocean-dwelling crafts that raid towns and villages, international tension, military action and destroyed landmarks (a flooded London, for instance) that would have the likes of Roland Emmerich rubbing his hands together. 

But not everyone's got a Hollywood blockbuster budget to spare on a Wyndham adaptation. Fear not, however, for the writer has a host of small scale stories to draw from, not least Chocky. Given the media's obsession with children in danger, represented in TV dramas like Broadchurch and more recently The Guilty, Chocky is a natural fit for modern times. A child's imaginary friend seems to be increasingly real and clever beyond the aptitude of the child in question, worrying the heck out of his parents, who are desperate to keep the secret from others. 

OK, it turns out that ITV had a bash at adapting Chocky for the screen in 1984, but that was ages ago and it's high time there was an update. And (thanks Wikipedia) none other than Steven Spielberg has acquired the film rights. Sadly he's a busy man and I wouldn't expect to see any Chocky-based action on the screen soon. 

The Chrysalids
The Chrysalids is ripe for translation to the screen. This post-apocalyptic tale features a strict fundamentalist society where humans with even small post-nuclear mutations are cruelly thrown out of society to fend for themselves as outcasts. There are thrills, secrets, violence, love, potential for metaphors a-plenty…did we mention mutants…what more could you ask of a show? 

Triffids trouble
Oh OK, the Day of the Triffids is surely John Wyndham's best known work and it's a cracking story. It's been a while since I saw it, but the '50s film was pretty awful and the more recent one-off TV drama was fairly poor too, sadly. However, the '80s BBC TV series was the exception and was bleak and brilliant, complete with its 'waking up in hospital to find the world has gone to hell' that surely inspired the start of The Walking Dead. It's never too early for a remake - it's good enough for Spider-Man and Batman - so why not? Without waving my Union flag too hard, Wyndham is one of our finest imaginative minds and deserves a more fitting tribute on screen than killer plants and badly couiferred children.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

What Remains is a good old-fashioned whodunnit

Let's face it, there are more serial killers and maverick cops on screen than you can shake a truncheon at.

From admittedly great cop series like Scott and Bailey, Broadchurch and Luther to spoof offerings like Touch of Cloth and the forthcoming Cops, it's a genuine wonder of the modern age that The Bill hasn't been revived for our screens.

Who's to blame for this glut of blood-soaked, evidence-faking police procedurals? Well us, mostly. If us crime-obsessed weirdos stopped watching them, then those makers of TV drama would stop making them. That's how it works, right?

Well, there might also be a tendency to stick with what is working too, which is understandable to a degree. Look at Frankie, or The Hour. Neither were set in a police station or featured white boards with victims photos stuck on...and both have been left without a new series, Frankie cruelly cut off after one series, The Hour after two. Ratings and audience appreciation figures doubtless led to those decisions, so had we watched said dramas in large enough numbers they would have run and run, potentially. 

All of which is an overlong preamble for me to bring up new drama What Remains, running on BBC One on Sunday nights. Writer Tony Basgallop said some interesting things skirting the topic of the n t of police drama on the telly. In case you hadn't caught it yet, What Remains does indeed feature the police and a murder. 

According to the press notes, Basgallop said: "I hadn’t written a whodunit before. In fact I’ve spent the majority of my career trying to avoid detective dramas and cops in general. I always said “No, thank you” when The Bill called. I’ve just never been a fan of the crime-solving genre."

It's interesting to hear a writer's take on the police/crime drama world. While Basgallop doesn't say he thinks there is too much crime drama on TV, he has been reluctant to be another writer working in that (perhaps over) familiar. Still more fascinating is that What Remains represents a bit of a U-turn on the writer's own policy. 

He goes on to expand on the topic, noting that boiling down a drama pitch to three or four sentences is vital, and - I'd surmise - something inevitably easier to get commissioned when you're talking about a crime drama format that we viewers and TV execs alike are so familiar with.

He expands on his reasoning for writing about police, murder and crime: "You can't have a whodunnit without an investigator" which is pretty irrefutable, but Basgallop has a pretty ingenious way around this to help move the drama away from the typical crime story: "The solution for me was to find a way to have DI Len Harper (the awesome “post Frank” David Threlfall) not really being a cop at all. Once I made the decision that he was retiring midway through the first episode, the victim’s character somehow fell into place with it."

So that was, I thought, interesting: that crime drama is simple to pitch and arguably easier to get commissioned, but also that anything approaching a whodunit really does need an investigator and naturally skirts perilously close to another cop drama.

Another interesting titbit was, I thought, the references to loneliness. Basgallop writes: "And I suppose what connects the suspects to one another is that - like our cop and our victim - they are either lonely or terrified of being alone. And that’s how we all go through life, isn’t it?"

That theme of being alone isn't hard to pick up, with Detective Len Harper's recently losing his wife and then retiring in the first episode, preoccupied with finding a hobby to fill his time (at least until the dead body occupies his attention). 

On that score it's possible to draw a comparison to another recent (also very good) drama - ostensibly based around a crime too but ably resisting any cop cliches - Southcliffe.

In Southcliffe we had a community that geographically felt lonely, an investigating journalist (not a cop) estranging himself from his own family and the killer himself, lonely as an odd-ball consumed with looking after his dementia suffering mother, endlessly mocked and reaching out to a soldier which helps result in his further estrangement.

Extrapolating that theme of loneliness in modern drama still further - and this might be a bit of a stretch - but it is a prime concern and driving force in as diverse dramas as The Walking Dead, where being on your own is a fundamental problem - who's going to watch your back for zombies? Michonne took forever to leave Woodbury because she didn't want to leave Andrea there, despite seeming more than capable of looking after herself. 

So, is loneliness a factor to be mined in future dramas, post-apocalyptic or not? If it's a theme used to cast new light on a tired genre like TV crime drama, then I'm all for it.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Southcliffe: grimly compelling, but you'd be mad to miss it

Moody, brooding, threatening... Southcliffe reminded me a bit of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, infusing menace throughout its location and many of its inhabitants.

Here was a very un-sensational four part story of how a put-upon loner went on a tabloid-baiting shooting spree, killing 15 locals, seemingly out of the blue. One Stephen Morton (Sean Harris) was gently ridiculed (if there is such a thing) by locals and caring for his dementia-suffering mother. After a bizarre encounter with a soldier returning from duty followed by a humiliating reprisal, something snaps within Morton, resulting in those shootings and leaving the community struggling to cope with the loss and aftermath. Speaking of which, one of the journalists descending on the town is one David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear), an ex local who stirs up old memories and creates a scandal of his own...

Looking over the four episodes, there was a lot of story crammed in and to Southcliffe's credit, it didn't go down any traditional storytelling routes – like slowly building up to the shootings, instead jumping around the awful events, before and after, several times in each episode. Having said that, some concessions were made to linearity (definitely a word) with the media circus descending in Southcliffe in episode 3 and the final episode taking the most significantly different tack, moving the action on one year with hardly a flash back to the tragic events.

Some critics have called Southcliffe gruelling, which is fair in places (but then any drama about shootings probably should be), but 'grimly compelling' might be more on the nose, for me. As is standard for this kind of British TV drama, the actors made for compulsive viewing. The Kent town looked interchangeably foreboding and/or beautiful and the writing was unpredictable, eschewing cliches and underplaying any heroics (there were some in episode 4), leaving you guessing what was coming next in spite of the fact the shootings were built into the story right from the very beginning.  

In short, you'd be mad to miss it. It's free to view on 4OD at the moment (UK only I'm afraid).

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Prom: review

Daleks, Cybermen, Doctors (two of them!), the full BBC National Orchestra of Wales...all on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who.

1989, when the BBC cancelled the show, never seemed so long ago.

The Doctor Who Prom showcased music from the series before and after the 1989 to 2005 hiatus, with an understandable bias towards the modern era ensuring maximum appeal to the many younger members of the audience. But even the most cynical of old fans would have been chuffed to hear orchestrally blended versions of the mad and fantastic electronica score of Tomb of the Cybermen, the jaunty Parisian-flavoured City of Death and The Five Doctors (among others) performed alongside modern era companion themes, action cues and, of course, the theme tune finale. The Prom also debuted a special Anniversary track which had a harder time to engage as it lacked, by definition, familiarity, but overall this was one to sit back and enjoy the masterful performances of the musicians.

The celebration didn't just take the form of music. Long-term fans of the show were rewarded by stage appearances from Doctor number five Peter Davison ("from the 'classic' era," quipped Davison) and no less than the very first companion – Carole Ann Ford. Large as their cheers were (and they really were), the biggest audience response was reserved for current and outgoing Doctor 11, Matt Smith, and present day companion Clara, Jenna Coleman - both of whom appeared in the (SPOILER) orchestra after a pre-recorded piece filmed for the Prom.

And there were monsters too. Where would Doctor Who be without them? Daleks were saved 'till near the end of the Prom, but the aforementioned Cybermen sprang up among the audience in the aisles (and in the corridors during the interval) with an Ice Warrior, Silurians, the henchmen of the Great Intelligence, Vampires from Venice and a member of the Silence.

Which brings me to the atmosphere of the event. Half way through one performance I received a nudge from the stranger seated next to me, who pointed out a nearby Cyberman stalking the audience, simply to make sure I didn't miss out on the sight. For me, that willingness to make sure fellow fans were enjoying the day to the full summed up the celebratory, inclusive, fun nature of the Prom. The Royal Albert Hall, full of people united in sheer love for the long-running TV show, whether young, old or somewhere in between. Let's face it, if you were there and you weren't a fan, then you really were in the wrong place. Or attending with a loved one.

If you've got access to iPlayer you might still be able to hear the BBC Radio 3 broadcast, but if not then Doctor Who Prom will be broadcast on TV later in the year. In a rare first for Not The Chap In Dracula, here are some pictures:
Matt Smith takes the stage 
Monster action during the interval, courtesy of a Cyberman  
Since taking this photo, it occurs that this Angel is doing a mean Tommy Cooper impression. Without the fez. 
A Cyberman stomps down an aisle  
The chunky TARDIS-shaped programme was a mere £4. Bargain.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

3D TV has been giving broadcasters a headache

You can already hear the naysayers and sceptics rubbing their hands together at the news the BBC are quitting 3D TV. Of course they're ditching it. It was only a matter of time, right? In fact, the nation's own broadcaster isn't the first to part with 3D, US-based ESPN is also leaving the technology behind. Sky is remaining committed to the format, but with the BBC the latest to drop out of the stereoscopic picture, the format has been dealt a sizeable blow.

While the cold hearts of cynics who called 3D a gimmick will be cheered, the news won't be so well received in the sales departments of Currys and Argos, with 3D supposed to help shift new TVs. But in this economic climate is it any surprise that new tech has not been adopted quickly by the masses?

Perhaps confusingly, the lack of appetite for 3D seems to extend to those who actually already own 3D TVs, with half of those owning such televisions opting to watch the Olympics opening ceremony in 3D. Worse still, a mere 15% of those with 3D TVs watched Mr Stink and the Queen's Christmas Message in 3D, but then again, maybe that's the problem right there. The Queen's Speech in 3D? Unless Her Majesty (God bless her) was combatting errant corgis, throwing staff through windows or, er, jumping out of a helicopter, maybe 3D was just a touch wasted on such a broadcast? Maybe TV isn't inherently geared towards 3D?

I'm not anti 3D, and I haven't spent nearly enough time watching 3D to be the best judge of how much it enhances a film or show. Why? Because one half of my household has poor vision in one eye, rendering 3D pointless for them. 

In a way I feel sorry for the format. True, it is taking up valuable 2D screen time at the cinema, but it's got an uphill struggle, fighting off-puttingly poor early examples of the format on the big screen, a small user base, launching during a recession, the fact that 3D has already had a crack at the market decades ago... It hasn't had a lot of love. Add that to the low levels of enthusiasm of even those that already have 3D's not looking great. 

But it does sound like Sky has the right idea, tying 3D in with big events, sporting occasions, spectacular nature documentaries and the like. And Sky has form when it comes to changing the nation's viewing habits. So, it's far from a KO. There's too much riding on 3D (not least for film studios and distributors) for it to slope away quietly. If broadcasters can get a handle on how best to use it, which has arguably been one of the biggest obstacles to success for the formet so far, then 3D will be back. Again.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Frankie: Cut off in its prime

How about a drama with strong female lead characters, written by a woman and not based around crime? You know, one set in contemporary Britain with no corsets in sight?
Sounds good, eh? Well it was. It was Frankie.
Starring Eve Myles and written by Lucy Gannon, Frankie dealt with a larger than life district nurse who got so involved with her work she frequently bent the rules and incurred the wrath of local GP Dr Evans, brilliantly played by Jemma Redgrave. There was a complicated (increasingly so) private life, memorable colleagues and stories that dealt with things that average everyday viewers could easily face in their lives, like dementure, ill health...and absolutely no serial killers.
Trouble is, there will be no series 2. Lucy Gannon tweeted one evening to confirm the news and I for one was surprised and a bit gutted. But maybe I'm a naive fool. Why naive? We've seen it all before – TV shows cancelled before they should have been. There have been tons of them, in fact I could write a list...
The Tripods
I'm delving way into the past here – the 1980s! – but this trilogy of books by John Christopher - covering a human race dominated by aliens – got to series two, but then they cancelled it before they filmed the final, concluding (final *and* concluding) series. I used to have dreams about hiding in houses from these three-legged swines and upon news of the cancellation I harped on to the BBC about it as a child to such a degree that they sent one of the producers to my school to chat about the series. That did sweeten the pill I must admit and now makes me wonder whether they do this for every complaint about a cancelled show? There's only one way to find out.
Star Cops
Sticking with the '80s and sci-fi this series may have been let down by shoddy effects, but Star Cops lived up to its 'what it says on the tin' premise, essentially transplanting a police procedural into space. Created by Blakes 7 and Dr Who scribe Chris Boucher, the lead was played by one David Calder. The scripts were funny, the plots were intriguing...and it was canned after one series. Rude.
The Hour
I've banged on about The Hour being cancelled after two series on this blog post here. If you enjoy rambling complaints, randomly linking great white sharks with the aforementioned show, then you really should click here.

Friday, 5 July 2013

New drama: The Wipers Times, Burton and Taylor and Top Of The Lake

It's summer so the TV schedules aren't exactly heaving with new drama right now, but thankfully there are some hints about what we can expect to find in the warm glow of our TV/laptop/tablet screens in the near future.

So, here are three drama offerings coming up from the BBC...

This week saw the announcement of The Wipers Times, arriving on BBC Two soon. I'd never heard of The Wipers Times before, but have since found it on Wikipedia so it *must* be true. To save you clicking around the 'net, The Wipers Times was a satirical newspaper printed virtually on the front lines during World War One after a printing press was discovered in the bombed ruins of Ypres.

An eye-catching cast has been drafted in for this one-off drama including Michael Palin, Emilia Fox, Ben Chaplin, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Steve Oram. It's written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman and as far as I'm aware it's the first time that Hislop has written a drama, but as the editor of the satirical news magazine Private Eye it's perhaps not a massive surprise to see his name attached. Bletchley Circle fans may be interested to hear the director of that series – Andy de Emmony – is in the chair for The Wipers Times.

Sticking with one-off dramas, BBC Four has Burton and Taylor, which concerns – you guessed it –  the lives of one Elizabeth Taylor (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and Dominic West (as Burton). Taylor and Burton's tempestuous relationship is well documented, to say the least. This drama, however, wisely focuses on one period in the early '80s when the two starred together in the West End in 'Private Lives' a play with a few parallels in the lives of the actors. Safe to say there will some comment on the nature of celebrity and privacy in that one, I expect.

Top Of The Lake is a bit of a coup, co-written by non other than Oscar-winning Jane Campion (The Piano, Portrait Of A Lady) and Gerard Lee. Campion also co-directs the 'haunting mystery' with Garth Davis. Set in the remote mountains of New Zealand, currently housing Hobbits and Dwarves, Top Of The Lake sees a 12-year old girl walk into a freezing cold lake before disappearing. The daughter of a local drug lord, the girl is discovered to be five months pregnant. A detective is brought in to investigate the disappearance and as the case progresses, the detective finds echoes of her own life.

Other programmes heading for your collective screens include Paul Abbot's new cop comedy drama, another outing for The Bletchley Circle, a new version of Poldark, 'Dickensian' and 'Our Zoo'. Better get some new blank videos in. Ah, those were the days.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The dangers of approaching actors in real life (or how I pestered Ben Wishaw)

Mere days after watching the final episode of The Hour and posting a blog banging on about how there should have been a third series, I came across none other than Freddie – Ben Wishaw – himself at my local train station.

Struck by the coincidence – so far I've not bumped into any actors I've mentioned in a blog, let alone a few days afterwards – coupled with the shock of seeing such a familiar face from the small and big screen (he's been in a Bond film!) in the decidedly humdrum surroundings of my local non-London train station, combined to provide me with an inescapable urge to go over and say hello.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation then I'd advise you take a few moments to stop and think about what you're actually going over for. Just to say hello? To gain acknowledgement of your existence from Skyfall's Q? Sadly, I hadn't the vaguest notion, but still I found my shoes and legs conspiring to walk me over to the man.

"Hi. Are you Ben Wishaw?"

"Yes I am," replied Wishaw.

"Oh, cool...erm, are you from around here then?"

"Yes actually, I'm going to see my parents."

It was round about this point that I realised I genuinely had no idea what I wanted to tell this actor whom I admire. While rattling off a couple of 'ums' and 'ers' while my brain frantically tried to settle upon a sentence or two that made sense, a creeping realisation that I had barged over to the chap for no good reason dawned upon me. 

Then, finally, after about 30 painful seconds (which felt like 30 minutes) had passed, my flummoxed mind came up with something. Yes!

I provided Mr Wishaw with a concise summary of my last blog: "I've just been watching the second series of The Hour. I loved it and am gutted there's not going to be another one."

At which point his concerned/worried frown disappeared and he discussed that it was indeed a shame. This might be breaking news, but he added that there was talk of doing a special episode of The Hour, now that the third series had been canned by the BBC. Overall though, Wishaw was philosophical about the series. "What would be the point of just doing a special?" he mused.

While Wishaw had seemingly started to warm to the topic my common sense returned ('where the hell have you been?' I wondered at the time) and I took my leave, thanking the man and leaving him to his book and the limited pleasures of my local train station.

Walking away from the scene I reflected that at least it hadn't gone *that* badly – he hadn't called the cops – and I had managed to impress that I liked The Hour. Did I provide a few words of encouragement that would sustain him through the rest of his acting career? Or did I leave him perplexed and maybe slightly concerned about my mental welfare?

Either way, let this be a warning to others. If you do happen to come across an actor or actress that you admire, maybe in a familiar setting that takes you by surprise, and you do feel an inescapable urge to introduce yourself then at the very least have something nice in mind to ask them. Or better yet, turn in the opposite direction and get yourself away. Quickly.

Friday, 21 June 2013

I wish the BBC hadn't called time on The Hour

There's no justice. Not in the world of commissioning sequels. Don't believe me? Let's look at the evidence.

Jaws 3 was followed by Jaws 4: The Revenge. If you've ever watched Jaws 3 it is, I'd argue, incredibly unlikely that you were left with an urge to see a follow up, wondering about a range of new hugely unlikely and not-remotely-scary scenarios where you might be able to find a great white shark attacking humans.

Likewise it's pretty unlikely you will be having sleepless nights wondering what happened to the surviving characters: Would the Brody family escape their great white curse? Did they abandon the underwater sea park in the end or give it a brush up and reopen as an underwater coffee shop?

But if you watched the second series of The Hour there's a far greater chance, I'd wager, that you were left wondering what happens next to producer Bel, newshound Freddie and news presenter and resident charmer Hector. What other news scandals will The Hour team uncover? Will Bel and Freddie's relationship ever get going? More pressingly, will Freddie survive after being left in a bloody mess outside the news studio?

All these questions will remain unanswered as there will be no series three for The Hour.

There'll be no return for the achingly cool soundtracked series, with enough on-screen smoking to leave you developing a hacking cough by proxy. It even had strong lead female characters (gasp), a premise that didn't centre around crime (although, admittedly, crime was central to the plot of series two), a palpable sense of danger and a roster of characters that you actually gave a monkeys about. The Hour wasn't perfect, but you could sit though it enthralled, excited and eager to see what happened next.
So while the world got to see what happened next to another seemingly indestructible killer great white shark (it tried to eat Michael Caine, in case you were wondering), the viewing public didn't get to find out what happened next in The Hour, how it progressed or tied up those loose ends, which are destined to be left dangling in the wind.

See? No justice in the world of commissioning sequels.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Dear ITV, can we have more Murder on the Home Front please?

Snappy dialogue, humour, intrigue, fine acting, a moral dilemma, period setting… Murder on the Home Front delivered a heady combination of all those, but above the lot, for me, was the humour, often provided in varying degrees of black.

If you were in any doubt, the last shot was of our heroes dancing in the morgue, while in the foreground of the shot was a corpse. Not the usual heart warming or thought provoking finale you come to expect from a crime drama.

When I started watching the sadly-only-two-episodes-long drama I was expecting something far more generic, being a cynical idiot that I am. A crime drama in a period setting might be the kind of show that sounds like a ratings winner on paper, firing up the excitement level of TV execs, but it hardly raises this viewer's expectation levels. But in practice, the show was thoroughly entertaining, a quality maybe sometimes underrated in drama, with writers sometimes sidetracked into wrong-footing the audience with twists or gore if it's a crime drama.

Admittedly, the setting - a Home Office forensic department in a heavily bombed London during the Second World War - did provide a high body count, with corpses strewn everywhere. The leads - Dr Lennox Collins and his new assistant and ex-journalist Molly Cooper - were backed with some equally well drawn and, yes, fun characters. Even the police escaped a 'dull, plodding' style characterisation, grudgingly accepting the methods of Dr Collins and providing comic relief without resorting to buffoonery. And it'd be remiss of me to omit a mention of the highly amusing crime photographer Issy Quennell.

Another sign that we were in safe hands was the drama getting under the skin of the period setting. While characters often pooh-poohed the air raid sirens to gather vital evidence to save the condemned man, there was still a palpable sense of peril from the air raids. Speaking of peril, despite (or because) of the laughs, we were left with five minutes of the final episode without being sure of the fate of the falsely condemned man and that's fairly uncommon.

It even managed to subvert (SPOILERS) a cliche or two, with Molly not requiring saving in the final confrontation after all, delivering the blow that knocked out the murderer.

But dammit, it was the snappy dialogue and humour that really set the drama apart. It'd be a crime (ho ho) if Murder on the Home Front doesn't return. In the paraphrased words of the mortuary assistant, trying to dissuade the two heroes from going on a dangerous expedition onto the streets of London: "Don't get yourselves killed, I'm become rather fond of you."

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Paul Abbott brings cop comedy drama to Channel 4

Hot on the heels of BBC One's announcement last week, Channel 4 has thrown its hat into the drama series ring with a new commission from the 'Utopia' broadcaster, announced yesterday (Tuesday 14th May) by chief creative office Jay Hunt.

The BAFTA winning Paul Abbott is heading up an eight part comedy drama, 'No Offence'. Centring on a police station on 'the wrong side of Manchester', it promises to be sharp, shocking, funny and a fresh take on the police procedural. If he manages that then hats off, but looking at Abbott's CV - Shameless, State of Play, Clocking Off - then it seems a fair bet he'll do just that.

According to The Independent, Abbott's recently concluded 'Shameless' - also on Channel 4 - spawned a US remake and C4 is hoping for similar overseas success with 'No Offence'. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

Confession time: I've never even seen a single episode of 'Shameless', but I was a big fan of 'State of Play' - which too led to a overseas remake, only in film form. While 'No Offence' clearly will be closer in tone to Shameless than SOP, that's enough for me to rub my TV watching hands with expectation. Or something like that. 'TV watching hands'? You don't get word combinations like that on other blogs. And yes that is a selling point for this blog. Honest guv. 

Monday, 13 May 2013

Bletchley sleuths returning to ITV

Ever wondered what happened to all the brilliant minds breaking codes at Bletchley Park during the Second World War? They turned to crime solving and now they've got a second series.

The series - The Bletchley Circle - is not quite as daft as I've made it sound and it's an intriguing premise. Bound by the Official Secrets Act to stay silent about what they did 'during the war', even keeping the secret from husbands and family, a group of women found themselves, often unwillingly, solving a series of murders for the original short series.

This time around we have four new episodes, split between two stories, set one year on in 1953. Hattie Morahan joins the core cast of Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle and Julie Graham.

And what has compelled the team to reunite in their crime solving spare time? A former Bletchley Park colleague is accused of murder and set to hang for her crime. But did she shoot a distinguished scientist through the heart, despite being found holding a smoking gun over his body?

According to ITV The Bletchley Circle received a high audience share of 23 per cent in 2012 - running second to Endeavour amongst new drama titles. Ratings hit an average of 5.6m and it was reviewed well in the US too, we're told - PBS broadcast it in the Sunday night slot alongside Call The Midwife and Mr Selfridge. Looks like British TV really is aiming to wrap up the whole costume drama sector.

Friday, 10 May 2013

BBC One looks to the past for new drama line-up

With the consensus saying that ITV has upped its game in the world of TV drama, what does the BBC have up its ample sleeve in response?

Yesterday (Thursday 9th May) BBC One revealed four new drama commissions, made by outgoing BBC One Controller Danny Cohen. All four are set in the past, which is frankly only going to encourage those pundits saying viewers need some nostalgia to get us through these tough economic times.

First up, the channel has got nostalgia and costume drama safely covered with Poldark. Poldark has already been adapted for TV back in the '70s - before the time of Not The Chap in Dracula, of course - so no preconceptions here. Six hour long episodes will cover the romantic saga set in the late 18th century Cornwall. If, like us, you don't know the story it covers Ross Poldark returning from war expecting a loving reunion with his family, but instead finding his home has gone to rack and ruin, his fiancee has got engaged to his cousin thinking him dead… I hate it when that happens.

The works of Dickens have been successfully mined in the worlds of TV and film, but the next project - 'Dickensian' - comes from the pen/quill/keyboard of TV genius Tony Jordan, behind the ITV Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach experiment, co-creator of Life on Mars and the man behind Hustle. Typically, Dickensian won't be a simple adaptation but a multi-part series told over half-hour instalments. Characters from Dickens books will meet one another 'in the most surprising of ways', says the BBC press release. Meta.

Next up we move back to the present, almost. Three 60 minute episodes of 'From There to Here' will cover the aftermath of the Arndale bombing in Manchester in the '90s. Pitched as a family saga and covering the aforementioned IRA bombing, the blurb says it will be funny and moving, so we're guessing it will be light on the crime procedural side. Sounds good already, to be honest.

Finally there's 'Our Zoo', covering the true story of the man who created Chester Zoo in the 1930s and the impact it had on his family. That's another six episode series and combining a period setting with animals, a la All Creatures Great and Small. A damn sensible move.

So, there you have it. What do make of that?

Monday, 15 April 2013

ITV's Broadchurch is boldly taking its own sweet time

By jiminy we're up to the penultimate episode of Broadchurch - ITV's crime drama centring on the murder of a child in a small seaside community.

It has been an entertaining watch but most of all I admire the sheer nerve of the creators (and of ITV) to dedicate a whopping eight episodes - about six hours of TV without the ads - to a single murder. It's the kind of leisurely pace you might more reasonably expect to find in a novel, than in a TV crime drama.

The small town is a deliberately unlikely setting for a murder and this isn't the kind of crime drama where the body count rises exponentially with each episode. The detectives aren't particularly maverick (gasp) and we're not confronted with gore and corpses at every turn - it seems to be a deliberate break with the likes of Silent Witness and Waking the Dead on that point. Broadchurch deals with how a murder affects a small town and the people within it, exposing secrets, affairs, hidden pasts and even medical conditions.

However, even Broadchurch's staunchest defenders will have to admit that the long running time can also work against it. Six episodes in and we're still none the wiser as to the culprit, despite some vague hints casting aspersions on virtually all of the town's population. Plenty has happened, or has seemed to, but sometimes the central resolution feels frustratingly out of reach. And fingers crossed the resolution won't feel rushed.

Overall though, it might have the kind of runtime that Peter Jackson would baulk at, but for having the sheer guts to keep the audience waiting for eight weeks - while the story unfolds, the actors have chance to get their teeth into it and we get to absorb the atmosphere of the show - is to be applauded.

I'd go so far as to say Broadchurch is a bit of an anomaly in an age of watching series by DVD box set where the viewer gets to choose how fast or slow they reach the conclusion of a story or series. Heck, Netflix released the entirety of House of Cards in one day. Will we see any other dramas follow the lead of Broadchurch (and, say, Dancing on the Edge) lead by going against the flow and taking its time with a story? Watch this space. Or rather, the telly.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Village: Too glum for Sunday night TV?

Apparently, because we're so used to feel good Sunday night dramas like er, Call the Midwife (you know, the one dealing with abject poverty, racism, backstreet abortions and other similar feel good topics) and er, Mr Selfridges (adultery, paternal beatings, etc) it turns out that BBC One's new Sunday night drama The Village was too downbeat to provide classic Sunday night feel good (that term again) drama.

The Village, recounting life in a (you're ahead of me here) village, is set in 1914 and deals with the outbreak of war, a terrifying father figure, crop failure, sexism, alcoholism…OK, there aren't too many chuckles to be had from the episode.

But how do some dramas manage to tackle undoubtedly tough subjects and still be called feel good dramas when the likes of The Village do not?

You'd have to put it down to the oft not mentioned considerable style that a drama like Call the Midwife shows in pulling off discussing awful subjects but still leaving you feeling all warm inside - or Sunday night drama-y, if you will.

That is not to say The Village is charmless or lacks panache, far from it.  It is another well acted and put together bit of drama. Compelling and intriguing but, admittedly, lacking a feel good factor.

But when did this become a bad thing? Is whether a drama leaves us feeling warm and cuddly really a standard which we use to measure drama by now? Was State of Play, to use another John Simm starring drama, not feel good enough? No. It was widely liked. And it was originally broadcast on Sundays…

So what's changed? Why do we now need Sunday night drama that will leave us warm and fuzzy inside? Are we now an inconsolable nation that can't face going back to work on Monday? Has the grim economic reality of the nation changed our TV viewing need?

The Village has yet to show all its cards. We've only had episode one to judge it by. But I wouldn't expect it to all of a sudden come over all cuddly. That's what I'm hoping, anyway.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Selfridges is a retail Paradise for our TV screens

Selfridges, the Paradise…it’s good to see some retailers doing well on the high street for once.
It’s a shame they’re fictional (only Selfridges isn’t…but you know what I mean). Watching the hugely successful ITV and BBC series respectively, both primarily concerned with driven men building up a retailempire from nothing (apart from a cash-rich backer or two) and inspiring their staff in the process, you could be forgiven for wishing to hark back to thetime before the internet came and ruined it all and made us buy stuff online instead of shops.
The penultimate episode of Mr Selfridge had Mr Woolworths in it for goodness sakes. Talk about hammering the point home. If only we could have warned him.’ It’s all going to go wrong in the early 21stCentury, invest in the internet as soon as they invent it. And maybe cut back on the pick and mix too’.
Mr Selfridge, in case you missed it, just completed its first series run on ITV 1 telling the story of the how the US entrepreneur came over to the UK to create (you’re ahead of me here) Selfridges, with all the scandals, mistresses, ups and downs that entailed (plus what the writers made up). It’s been a ratings hit and there’s a second series commissioned, due largely to the fact it’s very good, fun and – I’d venture – hankering back to the time that shopping really came into its own, with us punters buying stuff we never knew we wanted.

Meanwhile, The Paradise ran on BBC1 at the end of last year, concerning one Mr John Moray creating a department store in the North East, with all the ups and downs that entailed (have we been here before?) and it has been also commissioned for a second series. That’s due, largely, to the fact it is also very good, fun and – yes – hankering after the days when retail was first putting on its uniform. In the Paradise in particular, the all-conquering department store sits facing a parade of independent shops, clearly with things to say about a dominant retailer (or even the internet) killing off less powerful rivals.
On the face of it the two series sound incredibly similar, but having watched both I can vouch for them actually not mirroring each other very much at all. It helps that the Paradise is entirely fictional and set earlier in history than Selfridges, but the Paradise hints at wider social changes, while Selfridges is altogether more about the relationships and scandals of the time, despite, I’d argue paying lip service to the likes of female suffrage.
So why have these two become ratings hits? Well aside from good writing, acting and other trifling matters, there is this whole retail angle. It’s almost like they’ve set up a tragedy because we all know how it’s going to end. Much has been written about nostalgia-fuelled TV easing our worries while the economy threatens to collapse around our en-debted ears. The nostalgia here, in the case of the Paradise and Mr Selfridge, is more targeted and all the more poignant because it focuses on the birth of retail as we know it.
While the world of shopping isn’t quite falling down around our ears, it is, nonetheless, a savvy choice bringing these two series to our screens at a time like this. Charting how our love affair with shopping and spending began at a time when it’s got us into a fair old bit of debt-laden trouble is perhaps a genius move.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Utopia: Episode 5
Once you've made it past the warnings of graphic violence and scenes of an adult nature, you'll find that Utopia is a pleasingly twisty-turny conspiracy thriller starring a mostly unfamiliar young cast and, early on, keeps the audience guessing about who will make it to the next episode - and who will manage it with all their body parts intact.

Plunging a group of comic book fans into hiding right from the first episode, the series has had the kind of body count you'd expect from a series like the Walking Dead (OK, maybe not that high), but, lest we forget, it's not just about violence. Everyone went to town on the scene of eye watering (ho ho) torture in the first episode but, together with that high body count and willingness to put characters through the wringer, it early on set the standard for providing healthy doses of the unexpected. Even one of the bad guys seemingly set up to be cause grief throughout the serial didn't  make it past the end credits of episode one. The plot has been hard to predict - not another police procedural here - and the conspiracy has leisurely unfolded in surprising ways. 

Aside from that initial group of graphic novel fans - Wilson Wilson, Becky, Ian, et al  - there is a  shadowy organisation driving the story, a band with influence over seemingly every level of the establishment, police to parliament included. Believing the band of graphic novel fans know where the novel - Utopia part II - is, puts them firmly in the firing line. Good luck guys.
We've had conspiracy and cover ups before, usually in films. Here though, there's a real sense of something fresh, buoyed no doubt by the sense it is courting a younger audience that perhaps has been ill served with water cooler TV moments. The heavily stylised serial has been distinctive in look too, not least with those eye grabbing ads and black on yellow logos.

With every unfolding of the plot and characters drawn ever deeper into the conspiracy, suspicion over who is on the right side of the chase for the graphic novel gets ever more unclear. Now we're one episode away from the conclusion it's going to need a mighty wrap up indeed.

It'll be interesting watching the serial back once the final episode has aired to see if it is quite as gripping once you know how it all turns out - much of my enjoyment has been derived from not knowing what will happen next, who will turn out to betray who and which side they'll end up on, which is par for the course with a conspiracy. I suspect time will be kind to Utopia. Maybe it'll even set the benchmark or spark a few similar (but not too similar) serials from the UK.

In terms of the potential for another series I can't quite see it - maybe there's another graphic novel hidden out there revealing another dastardly scheme from the authorities. Much as I've enjoyed it, I can't help but hope they leave it with one series and don't try to drag the concept out. Having said that, I'm not sure why - I'm not a believer in the mantra that inferior sequels denigrate the original. Was Raiders of the Lost Ark any less of a film because Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls was inferior? Of course not. We may wish it had been as good, but its inferiority only means they weren't enjoying the same golden touch they had for the original Indiana Jones adventure. But I digress. Here's to a satisfactory wrapping up of Utopia in the final episode and a salute to dramas unafraid of trying something a bit daring and new, with a bit of panache to boot. Here's to Utopia.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Dancing on the Edge: Episode two
I caught up with Dancing on the Edge a couple of days after broadcast via one of the nation's marvellous catch up services and was amazed to find, after watching the first two episodes, that the nation's TV critics were calling it a clunker.
And it wasn't just one review, it was a whole hoard of them (whatever the collective term of reviews is). In fact, so one sided were they, that I felt an irresistible urge to write why I think they're nuts.
Firstly, Dancing on the Edge is written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff. Those familiar with his work will know the chap's dramas are in a world and style of their own and are a real break from the norm. On this basis, perhaps unsurprisingly, Dancing on the Edge delivers. Top acting? Unusual characters with motives and intentions you're not sure about? Both present and correct.
It takes its own sweet time to deliver the story (or plot?) and while we're more used to far shorter dramas from Poliakoff, this marked the serial out as new for me at least. So yes, there was more time to deliver the story, but when you've got unusual characters with an unusual plot then slow burn all the way. This is the bain of the beast for many of the aforementioned reviews and critics, bemoaning the slow development of the plot.
Arguably, dramas on TV really do have the opportunity to spin out their stories slowly, unlike films where everything has to be wrapped up within 120 minutes or (preferably) less, unless it is a series or franchise.
If the story is slow, but there's good actors and intrigue going spare then I'm all for it. Let's enjoy the view. There are good actors to enjoy.
Most puzzling of all for me is reading critical frustration with the serial in view of the fact it is such a break from the norm. Yes there's crime, but we're not even sure what the nature of it is yet. It's a triumph of mystery over cliche, so far at least. Reviewers are quick to complain about cliche, rightly, but Dancing on the Edge's approach has been anything but cliched, I'd argue. Unless Poliakoff's style counts as cliche.
Of course we're only in episode two, but the resistance against convention, even when ultimately it is all about a crime or two, is entertaining.
So, this has ended up as a bit of a rant against some reviews, rather than a review in itself, but suffice to say, it's worth a watch.