Watched #07
Lindsay Denton is a blank slate. One of those people you might work with who, if she ever is in conversation, and you ever do listen in, it’ll be about something disappointingly routine like her commute or Argos. She’s the perfect focal point for the second series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm) which returns minus its leading man, Lennie James. Whereas his DCI Tony Gates was luminous like a firework, DI Denton is a troubling kind of calm. A bleakness. It’s an excellent contrast.

That nonsense I extrapolated about the kind of things she might talk about comes because I believe in the character. From the off Mercurio’s script presents concise details; Denton responding to a crisis, zeroing in on protocol, a colleague sighing: “There she goes.” And in extremis she’s on an unheroic autopilot. Following the opening hijacking sequence, we see her in hospital (that neck brace a perfect metaphor for her constrained personality) sat impassively while out-of-focus chaos continues around her. When her boss asks who the protected witness is, she replies: “I’m not clear that’s something I should be divulging yet sir,” blandly quoting the rule book.

This is a career best performance from Keeley Hawes, who’s measured out the role meticulously. She rarely makes eye contact, continues to talk as if by rote (“Akers, or the individual identifying herself as Akers…”) and even assaults her noise-pollutant neighbour with a calm precision. There’s absolutely no release of tension here – when she does finally go up, it’ll be a far bigger bang than Tony Gates.

In many ways, Denton personifies what’s best about Line of Duty, that the explosions are ameliorated by bickering and politicking. Mutterings about chains of command, someone dropping someone else in it and “non-priority missing persons [who] are being down-processed”. It’s that stuff, plus the lived-in detail – Vicky McClure’s Kate arriving at her lover’s house and wordlessly hanging her bag up behind the door, like she always does – that buys our indulgence of this episode’s preposterously exciting final scene. I mean, that wig…

Suspects (Channel 5 Wednesday, 10pm) followed straight after. A police procedural of the most procedural fashion, its real point of difference is something the programme mostly attempts to obscure – that it’s shot at great pace (an episode every two days),with wholly improvised dialogue and camerawork. The effect on screen is a strong degree of verisimilitude, particularly in the op-doc direction. The effect off-screen is a huge saving in cash, making the project feasible in the first place.

Masterminded by Brookside and The Bill producer Paul Marquess, he’s said he thinks there’s a future in this approach, indeed, an ongoing soap could be made in exactly this fashion. It’s not the first time he’s implemented it. In 2012 his ITV daytime drama Crime Stories starred Ben Hull, real-life former detective Jane Antrobus and a lot of guesting ex Brookside and The Bill cast members all making it up as they went along. The end result felt a bit slack, sometimes a bit directionless. Suspects is far more purposeful, everyone minded they need to be serving the story. It means all the dialogue is functional – no-one daring to weave in a character quirk or some small eccentricity – but that keeps it focused. The three leads (Fay Ripley, Damien Moloney and Clare-Hope Ashitey) are clearly match-fit. Some of the guests less so, often paraphrasing back a feed line as they find their way in, but never so much to be distracting.

The only time the MO really gets in the way is when we have scenes of the police mobilising as a group, with fellow officers having to mouth silently lest they become a speaking, rather than non-speaking, background artiste and bump up their fee.

Woolworth’s! It still exists. In South Africa, anyway. My brother Jack has some weird remit to prove to me the other international versions of MasterChef are superior to the UK original. But he’s wrong. At his request I tried MasterChef South Africa (Watch Monday, 7pm). Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to start – this iteration goes with the ‘open audition’-style season debut which the British version sensibly scraped into the offal bin after one year. So it’s probably not indicative of future instalments, and certainly I didn’t get the feel for judges Andrew Atkinson, Benny Masekwameng and Pete Goffe-Wood, each of whom did that thing of making smouldering eye contact with the contestants while silently popping their wares into their mouth. I found those moments to be uncomfortably intimate. Afterwards, returned to their seats in “Shine Studios at the fashionable food distract of Braamfontein” (where there’s a Woolworth’s) they would then give judgement. “Beans: crunch. Mash: smooth. Chicken: moist. Sauce: tasty”. There were a lot of croquettes. 

It just didn’t feel like MasterChef to me, one successful chap running to report back to his family, “I’m going to boot camp baby!”, another providing her own commentary: “Here’s my big cheffy move.” Although, granted, in next week’s episode, someone will vow, “I’m here to change my life,” and there is indeed a lot of that too in the UK series. Enough, in fact, for me.

Airing, now, one day after its US debut, The Walking Dead (Fox Monday, 9pm) continues to be its own thing, and brilliantly so despite the fact its zombie scenario is one of the most played-out in recent fiction. You never know what shape an episode will take, this one focusing on Rick and Carl, and, in a separate strand, Michonne. It’s weird, but true, that for we regular viewers, undead beheadings are now just a punctuation point in the narrative, with fettered blood flying in between the moments of real import. Something the show continues to do well is the feeling of life having just departed, so when Carl goes hunting for food in an empty house we see boxes stacked on the stairs, as if a family were intending to pack up before fleeing. Another, a sign scrawled in an abandoned shop, is half a story on its own: “Please do what I couldn’t”.

Will Rick (Andrew Lincoln so absorbed into this role I finally no longer see him as ‘Egg’) and Carl find baby Judith? In this series – based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book which regularly and bravely hobbles its main characters – perhaps not. Things really could go anywhere.

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Watched #06
Emma Willis and Marvin Humes host The Voice UK (BBC1 Saturday, 7.10pm). I know this because I read the blurb. However, watching the programme – which just starts, no ground-rules – the duo disappear. If you know who to look for, you might spot them in the green room, contorting and cajoling along with the well-wishers. Impotently calling out to Kylie et al to slam that stopper. “Come on!” At this point in the show’s process (‘The Blind Auditions’), it makes for the weirdest presenting job on TV.

It’s not snobbery that prompts me to say this, just context; but I haven’t followed a Saturday night talent show since the second series of The X Factor. But I was challenged to review The Voice UK by Ian Jones (and, yes, I do take requests). I’m a little off the pace – there’s some chat about how many acts each ‘coach’ has acquired, but I’ve no idea how big their final roster needs to be, or, indeed, the deadline for that. As a result, this episode felt a bit formless, it didn’t really resolve itself into anything, other than some stuff that happened. Not that I have a problem with the programme. A lot of things I recognised and enjoyed, such as the montage heroics with all sorts of different simulated film grades and loads of lens flare. Likewise the musical stings that round off each auditionee’s segment, laser-targeted for pathos. Other elements surprised me. Pleasantly. The unusual feeling of loneliness as singers find their way through seemingly deserted backstage corridors before stepping out onto a silent stage – save for some throat-clearing and microphone rustles – was interesting and quite at odds with the usual bombast of these things. Similarly, the loose chat of the coaches, deemed so important, so jewel-like, it is punched up onto the screen in subtitles. “Great”. “There’s two”. “What about Tom?” I was also taken with the audience’s arbitrary support for Kylie, or Sir Tom, or will.i.am, or Ricky at various points when someone has a choice of all four. There seemed no wisdom behind who was winning the swell, like The Price is Right studio suddenly fixating on the correct value of a microwave oven.

In one of those weird past-tense segments on bleached-out video, will.i.am talked to somebody stood to the side of the camera about how the show was about all music, the blues, opera, folk; at which point a stream of contestants representing each failed to win any sponsorship. But still, everyone leaves The Voice UK happy, and that’s the best thing about it. It’s a build ’em-up sort of show. “You were made for the stage,” enthuses Ricky to Leanne Jones whose performance of Skyfall has turned no heads or buttocks.

Now clocking up its 21st series of – as Noel Edmonds would say – its ‘modern era’, Top Gear (BBC2 Sunday, 8pm) returns doing what it does. The sheer confidence remains impressive, the programme never looking for a cute rationale to do what it wants to. Tonight, there’s an item on “hot hatches” which straddles the whole episode. The usual hi-jinks and explosions result and a smashing sequence of Jeremy Clarkson trashing a supermarket – the show, as ever, exploiting TV’s profligacy. These things are possible simply because it’s telly. It’s true the banter between Clarkson, Hammond and May can pall, the news segment often resulting in three mediocre wits attempting to upstage the other, and so many of the show’s ticks rely on age-old references (Clarkson’s: “Run away!” is a mildewy lift from The Holy Grail), but it is what it is and it does what it does. “Back in your box, Hammond!” roars guest Hugh Bonneville, tapping correctly into the abrasive, clubby ethos – to the point of even wearing an appalling sweater.

Ho ho! The final episode of The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads (BBC2 Sunday, 10pm) finally showed up, seven months behind its preceding instalment. This, presumably, was for legal reasons, as this reliably terrific hour was devoted to ‘Fighting Crime’ and criminal cases that perhaps weren’t resolved last July. Twinkly piano music and beautiful, dusky aerial shots of London ceded into astonishing CCTV footage of violence on board the buses. A man being kicked out of a top deck window alongside Finsbury Park was the most horrific scene. The rich seam, however, remained the staff connected to the transport system. Sgt Darren Birmingham, with glasses camply resting upon his forehead, policed Brixton streets with humour and good sense. “Be lucky, son!” he bellowed, having stopped and searched a group of teens. “Stay safe!” Later on, he showed us how to spot a junkie simply by the way they walked, before invading a drug den, jumping upon his quarry and declaring, “Alright son, nice to meet you!” Elsewhere, softly spoken Scot Lyle talked us through a pickpocket steaming pensioners on a bus. “Quite brilliant”, he whispered.

I wasn’t being willfully obscure in watching Diary of Britain (BBC Alba Friday, 9pm). Honest. I saw it on the iPlayer and thought it sounded good. This was a slightly repackaged repeat of an episode from the 1978 series, which followed a week in the life of various UK towns. So here we were in the Highland town of Newtonmore in a September, 36 years ago. The commentary by Finlay J MacDonald is sparse. “One of [the town’s] preoccupations is a kind of warfare – a team game called shinty”. In an inversion of our assumptions, we discover – thanks to a 2014 update appended to the start – that back in those days, the high volume of cars and lorries were a massive burden on the town, something that has since been alleviated by the building of a by-pass. Despite the dedication to arcane sports and poaching, this isn’t a bucolic, now-vanished paradise. “The traffic noises on the main street dominates the village. Everyone lives within the sound of it”.

So many of the sequences are functional. A Leyland lorry delivering Mother’s Pride, or sport try-outs on the hill. “An old cottage is demolished” says Finlay J MacDonald, and so it is. No one actually speaks on camera for 10 minutes, and when they do, it’s in a series of manufactured encounters. Billy, who’s Shell petrol station is nine days from closing, chats to a barman (in a blue overall, of course, fag on the go) about his situation. Bob, the owner of another garage, is worrying about being left in the lurch now one of the contractors working on the new A9 has gone out of business. “On Monday morning. I had a Laird in…” he confides in another staged chat to one of the local governors. The Laird has told him he’ll be taken care of.

This is a programme that feels clear-headed with acres of space, room for traffic noise and these conspired conversations. It ends with the “needle match” between Newtonmore and Kingussie, which is brutal. The goalie steals an opposing player’s shinty stick and they brawl. We’re told the match ends in a draw, but Newtonmore would go on to win the league and the Scottish Cup for the 24th time.

Watched #05
My flat is quite small. Nonetheless, I was able to run the vacuum cleaner all around it during the third episode of The Jump (C4 Sunday, onwards) in between two skeleton time trials. And that included me unsheathing the nozzle and getting in at some corner bits. This is a show with a strong premise – celebrities undertake Alpine sports – but, unlike the events themselves, there’s not a huge amount of momentum. That’s because, due to logistics, all the racing bits have to happen in the past tense, robbing them of any immediacy. A hunching-from-the-cold Davina McCall links into the clips, and even Barry Davies’ perfectly compiled commentary has a slight shopworn tinge to it. In the show’s opening episode there was a lot said about the importance of aggression on the slopes, but there was not so much in the production. At the end, Ritchie from 5ive was left facing the jump. Which of the three would he select? “I’m only signed off for the small jump”, he said.

But, to business: Dragons’ Den (BBC2 Sunday, 9pm) and TV’s most preposterous title sequence is back. Five middle-aged superheroes (“Telecoms expert, Peter Jones!”), assembling on green-screened rooftops to survey a composited-in later cityscape. Meanwhile somewhere below street level lurks Evan Davis, ready to lean into the pro forma script he’s been delivering since 2005. “Cash-hungry entrepreneurs,” he says. Actually, I paint the picture as though Evan’s in situ on the same day as Peter, Duncan and the rest. There’s  no evidence of that whatsoever. He now has no interaction with any other person in the programme. For him it must simply be a weird day at the BBC studios in Salford, talking about stuff he wasn’t there for, then jumping into the voiceover booth to deliver a script that presumably doubles-up for whomever is signing for the deaf.

Despite the disconnection in the Den, the programme is fun. The Dragons themselves aren’t especially witty, more frumpishly fussy (“I’m irritated! Yes, I’m blinking irritated!” rails Deborah) and even relative youngster Piers seems like a fogey when he tries to celebrate with his new, twentysomething business partners. “Party on!” But the whole conceit of who will win, and how well they negotiate, will work forever. Plus, and I might be going out on a limb here, there always seems to be fastidious chat about poo. Perhaps I’ve just zeroed in on that since, some series ago, Peter shared the info that when he does one he calls it “big toilet”. Tonight, Deborah drilled down into the details of dog mess. “Often the consistency is not as tidy as you had down there,” says the leisure and marketing expert referring to some shit a cash-hungry entrepreneur had just pooper-scooped up from the Den floor.

The Restaurant Man (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm) is another winner. Reminiscent of C4’s excellent but generically named Risking It All from about 10 years ago, this sees restaurateur Russell Norman advising folk who are attempting to open their own eateries. This week that was the pleasant duo of Rich and Matt who were launching an upmarket burger restaurant – 7Bone – in Southampton. “If we get the concept right,” reckoned Rich, “I personally think we can open up 10 units within five years”. But before that, there was the concern of whether or not the people of the Solent were ready for a place with stripped back walls.

Part of the strength of the programme was the way it presented a thoroughly unromantic view of the industry. When moustachioed Matt was taken for a stint at the grill in Byron Burger, London, head chef Fred revealed his secret to managing multiple beef patties: “You’ve got to be like a robot”. There was also a fascinatingly detailed discussion about the kind of ‘grind’ Rich and Matt were using on their mincer (10mm, in case you need that detail). In  Norman, the show has a winning focal point. Tanned, wiry, permanently adorned with a satchel, he felt like a TV natural – someone expert and efficient, who just happened to have ended up in front of the camera.

On 7Bone’s opening night, all was fraught. By this point Matt was looking physically frail, his Dali ‘tache even losing its loopiness. To see him and Rich clashing over the inevitable mistakes that come on such an evening was a little harrowing. But it looks like the business is going to do well for them, and further ‘units’ will surely  stalk the south coast.

Here’s a programme title that leaves no room for ambiguity: Hidden Histories: Britain’s Oldest Family Businesses (BBC4 Wednesday, 9pm). Like The Jump, it’s got a great premise, but in practice it’s… well, it’s a bit dull. The final episode in this three-part series traced the lineage of the Durtnell family of builders, who first got into the game in the 16th century.

But it’s full of horrible TV contrivances to try and manufacture some sort of through-line. We meet Alex Durtnell, who’s recently become the company’s chairman and chief executive and now – according to Margaret Mountford’s commentary (in which, slightly irritatingly, she delivers every sentence with a primary school teacher intonation) – “As he tries to come to terms in his new role as head of the business, Alex now wants to find out about its past.” Bet he doesn’t. I bet he’s just been approached by the production company and thought it would be a good thing to do. It gets worse. “Alex wants to find out how his grandfather Geoffrey got the business through the Second World War.” Maybe. “So he’s arranged to talk to Battle of Britain historian Robin Brooks…” He did? “…Who has told Alex to meet him at a wartime aerodrome called Detling.” Seriously?

There are some fascinating details within – the Durtnells failing to get into brick and mortar following the Great Fire of London, or the plight of Richard Durntell (the second) who nearly killed the business in the 18th century – and Alex himself is a likeable chap, albeit one who seems underwhelmed by every revelation. But, oh, still the tacking-together continues. “To get to know his grandfather better, Alex has found an interview Geoffrey made for the BBC 40 years ago. Alex has never listened to it before.”

Actually, I undersold Alex’s enthusiasm. There was a great bit where he found a manhole cover with the Durtnell name on it. He took a snap on his phone. It’s going to become his wallpaper.

Ends

Watched #04

The sets for The Musketeers (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm) have been built in a former monastery 30 miles north-west of Prague, and the hope is they’ll stand for at least three years. They probably will. There’s a feeling of prudence behind this 10-part drama series, a kind of show that’s been built – maybe even focus-grouped – specifically to prosper. This means, as ever, a ‘bromance’ underpins the narrative, there are bad baddies, sexy heroes and those women who aren’t lucky enough to be a fusion of both – a sexy baddy – are just ballast; things to be conquered or fought over. Poor Constance first has to submit to D’Artagnan’s overtures, then the boys have her dress up as a prostitute to distract some other boys. I liked the theme music a lot.

Mr Selfridge  (ITV, Sunday 9pm) is quite different in its take on gender politics. Although Jeremy Piven’s orthodontically impressive shopkeeper is the marquee name, characters such as Aisling Loftus’ Agnes and Polly Walker’s Delphine are allowed to be far more interesting. The arrival of Aidan McArdle, all but reprising that nasty piece of work he played in Garrow’s Law as the formerly errant Lord Loxley, curbs the autonomy of Lady Mae, but that feels like a temporary dramatic barrier, something that will prompt her to exercise her considerable powers.

I hadn’t watched the show before – it’s one of the ways  this weekly review affects my habits. I have to notch up things to write about. Maybe, then, it was all nuance for the knowing, but there seemed to be little or no incident. Lots of portentous lines: “These are uncertain times…” and: “Trouble’s brewing, all this talk of war”. A very wise-after-the-affair remark too: “The power has shifted to the captains of commerce.” And then a newspaper headline: “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Assassinated”. What could this all be leading to?

My rule about sitcoms is no character should ever be considered funny within the fiction of the comedy. It’s why I could never take to Paul in Ever Decreasing Circles or Chandler in Friends. Andy Samberg as Detective Jake Peralta in Brooklyn Nine Nine (E4 Thursday, 9pm) considers himself a laugh riot. Every zinger dispatched with a wide grin. It’s not as annoying as I make it sound, though. Only on its second episode, the series has a loose confidence that makes it feel like it’s been around forever and now everyone’s up for messing about. In addition, Joe Lo Truglio, as Detective Charles Boyle, has been precision-built as a flat-faced comedy foil. True, there is a predilection for the current stand-by of characters setting up their own punchline by queuing a comic ‘flashback’ clip, but it’s an easy watch, which, mostly is enough for me. A handy show to fill in a gap.

It’s always fascinating when a TV show comes along that’s molded in the inverse shape to another programme. The Taste is an example of that, its UK producers having to continually ask the question, “What wouldn’t MasterChef do?” Now there’s The Great Interior Design Challenge (BBC2 Monday-Friday, 7pm) which continually looks over its shoulder – a long way back – to Changing Rooms. One way it steps out of the shadow is in employing Tom Dychkhoff as host. A former lieutenant to Kevin McCloud on whatever that More4 Grand Designs fanzine show was called (I know, the thought of that now seems incredible), he provides an essence of credibility, even though in the actual process of amateurs redecorating other folks’ homes, he’s a ghost who pops up only when no one else is around. Monday’s episode, set a couple of streets up from Dennis Nilsen’s old home in Muswell Hill, saw Tom materialise on stairwells and in doorways using fun words like “mullions” and “pargeting”. But when the action got busy, judges Daniel Hopwood and Sophie Robinson rather let the side down, using the language of Graham Wynne and Linda Barker before them, talking “on trend”, “pelmets” and “up-cycling”.

While would-be designer Helen offered up a hand-painted MDF headboard as “a little bit of me”, she did that standard generic designer-y thing of framing a piece of sheet music. Plus she unveiled her mood board for a new bedroom as “this is your ‘ta da’ moment”. James, though, proved more persuasive. The 38-year-old asset manager was interviewed in his own home, in front of a fireplace, adorned with logs wrapped in a bow-tie. Unlike his rivals, his ‘scheme’ (that’s what you call them) was presented on a paper board with the smallprint ‘James Gostelow Design’ and when he arrived to do the business, he was wearing a gilet with the collar turned up. Despite giving “edge” to a chandelier power cable by wrapping fabric around it, he – and Helen – lost out to Sarah, despite the fact she didn’t manage to get the seat cushions completed for her window seat. That, the judges said, was “tragic”.

Ends

Watched 03

So, yes, I was expecting Sherlock (BBC1 Sunday, 8.30pm) to revisit the fall at some point over the remaining two episodes. I liked the tease, but begging the question of how he survived did, it seemed to me, create an obligation to definitively answer it. Ah well. Not that I feel especially miffed. His Last Vow was a terrific final episode, all over the place and packed with invention. The final feint, of running, then not running the closing theme, felt Python-esque.

“I was the one who was responsible for making the mask of the Hound of the Baskervilles”. It’s at that point you lean in. Timeshift: How to be Sherlock Holmes: The Many Faces of a Master Detective (BBC4 Sunday, 10pm – and apologies for the double-colons) was a beautifully made documentary. I’m no Holmesologist, so it may be the case that props maker Margaret Robinson is a regular on the convention circuit with her Great Dane hood, but I thought it was thrilling that, during a discussion about the effectiveness (or lack of) of the eponymous canine’s realisation in Hammer’s 1959 film, she suddenly popped up to take the blame. This is someone who could reasonably be considered incidental to the story of the Great Detective on screen, and yet there she was. Evidence of the sheer love poured into the project.

In truth, I had my suspicions from the beginning; a lovely sequence featuring the giant faces of Christopher Lee, Benedict Cumberbatch and Douglas Wilmer addressing the camera with Conan Doyle’s description of his character. It’s that extra dab of colour, that extra touch of care. As were the multiple dissolves between old footage or illustrations and the documentary’s contributors, conspired into similar poses. Lee, in particular, was a glorious talker, versed and enthused – like a fan – in his subject. Mark Gatiss was there, despite a poorly eye, and shockingly generous in his declaration: “My version of Mycroft is entirely extrapolated from Christopher Lee’s version”.

And meanwhile, in the voiceover booth, Peter Wyngarde’s million-year-old tones added both an instant gravity and a slight eccentricity. He, like Churchill, speaks of the “Nazzis”.

The Taste (Channel 4 Tuesday, 9pm) again, because last week’s episode didn’t really count. Scored like Inception, rumbling along full of its own importance, I still like it. Although it is kind of stand-offish. Judges promenading out grandly (and by the way, what is a “maverick food writer” – someone who does it from the back of a motorbike?), the plebs expected to show due reverence. On top of that, extra-reverence – gasps, hands flap to self-ventilate – for guest extra-judge Richard Corrigan. I’m sure he’s good, but why venerate him above Nigella, Anthony and Ludo? Richard, like most chefs, references himself in his first two utterances; talk of “my classic food” and “my humble seafood cocktail”. But once we get going, everything loosens up and it’s fun. Nigella has a  catchphrase, “Please answer me!” Anthony wafts around like a fart for a bit, before turning on his heel: “We can drag this out, but I know what I’m gonna do. It’s on you dude”. Ludo freaks constantly.

The only moment where I felt it came undone was the final – and let’s not shy away from the language, here – elimination. The apparent purity of the blind tasting is betrayed by the judges then coming to a consensus on who’s leaving the competition, now in the knowledge of who cooked what. Nigella scolds departee Barry. “You abandoned the concept of taste and went for the concept full-stop.” But Nigella, you and your colleagues abandoned the concept.

This week I only watched shows about Sherlock Holmes or cooking. “It’s time to grease your muffin tray and grab your jugs”. Ah, The Great Sport Relief Bake Off (BBC2 Monday, 8.30pm). And then, in a less perky intonation: “And Olympic boxer Nicola Adams will be in South Africa exploring how the money raised is really making a difference.” These gear changes work absolutely fine, we’re now well used to light fun equaling famine relief on TV. Similarly, we accept celebrity versions of shows aren’t as good as the regular ones, but we love Bake Off so we’ll take the crumbs. Even if it means Johnny Vaughan in a hat he presumably brought from home desperately trying to provide value for money in terms of chat. “Yesterday, where I messed up was really all day.” After sandwich biscuits, tarte tatin and novelty cakes, it ended in sweet form, with the celebs taking phone photos of themselves posing with Mary Berry. As anyone would.

Ends

Watched 02
I didn’t really enjoy Sherlock (BBC1 Sunday, 8.30pm) it’s plot mostly pertaining to John and Mary’s marriage. This was a story that meant a great deal to the characters (and probably the writers) but not to me. I don’t feel sufficiently invested in any of them to care as much as I needed to. That’s okay, though, I’m not saying either I or the show  committed a crime. Although I do wish more scenes would just end gracefully, rather than flouncing off the screen yelling, “BYEEEE!” with a look-at-me wipe.

There isn’t a lot that’s pretty in The Bridge (BBC4 Saturday, 9pm), one reason why this most preposterous of Scandinavian imports also works out as the most satisfying. With everything tinged in slate grey or, at best, a mossy green, there’s a kind of industrial estate lack-of-allure that works very well contrasted with a plot wherein “someone’s trying to cause an outbreak of pneumonic plague,” and the baddies leave a calling card. This house style, unlike Sherlock‘s, contains the excesses of the story. But that’s not to say it has to mollify the writing. The opening double-bill superbly portrayed Martin’s continuing grief following the death of his son. He’s a man who’s been calcified by the trauma, almost physically: he’s gone shockingly white.

It also helps that in Kim Bodnia the show has a true acting great who has created an unusual character for TV – someone who radiates both actual ordinariness and kindness. So many of his lines are delivered through laughs as he responds to the antics of the birdlike, almost sociopathic Saga (Sofia Helin, who’s also terrific, once you realise where she’s going). Meanwhile, it looks like this year’s story will play out as some kind of weird parable about shopping local, or, as someone says, “pathos-driven eco-terrorism” and I think that will be the least interesting aspect in all of this. But Martin and Saga and the lovely audacious turns in the tale will keep me happy.

Two of the shows I watched this week sported the P-within-a-P symbol, meaning I’ve been subjected to covert selling, although of what I’m still not quite sure. Dancing on Ice (ITV Sunday, 6.15pm) was one, but it was more plagued by another small on-screen graphic, namely that revolving inverted-comma that’s waving-in the commercial break. It felt like the whole programme was under the yoke of this angry punctuation point, Christine Bleakley forever telling us what’s “coming up” before it brought down the curtain. In fact, the production was so geared towards selling the future it began with a routine put to The Best is Yet to Come.

Despite that, there was also a lot of looking back. Plenty of noise was made about this being the last ever series – although why that should be was never explained – with old contestants returning and their various histories elucidated. I like all that sort of stuff, programmes getting into their own mythology. The result being, I felt more engaged by the potential last dances of Bonnie Langford and Joe Pasquale than Mr and Mrs Watson’s first waltz back on BBC1.

Another constant joy of Dancing on Ice – Christopher Dean’s continual drive to sound excitable. He deployed the phrase “tearing it up” twice over the evening. Much racier was Simon Reed in the commentary booth describing the moment Andrei Lipanov elevated Bonnie by means of a hand on her gusset as “something we’re calling ‘Too Hot To Mention’.”

Second sighting of that PP was The Taste (Channel 4 Tuesday, 9pm). Every food competition on TV, for me, is tested against MasterChef, as I run all the decisions the production team have made on a notional MC logic diagram. A kind of ‘what would John and Gregg do?’ One year, they opened their contest with an ‘auditions’ round, as if it was a requirement to show their working. Few people seemed to like it. The Taste‘s debut felt a bit like that, as if – again – the best was yet to come. I still quite enjoyed it though and in particular the tension between judges Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain and Ludo Lefebvre which – in as much as these things aren’t real – felt real, specifically the bits of grumbling that crept in after the obvious edit points. I’ll watch again next week, but I do reckon this is programme that’s been polluted by the aphorisms of other similar endeavours: the bit where the camera whips around then slows up as our trio are introduced, contestants pledging their “heart and soul”, a Dragons’ Den-style montage of those contributors who weren’t interesting enough to merit their own three minutes, plus talk of ‘mentors’, ‘auditions’ and ‘locking in’ decisions. This fidelity to those cliches meant the coining of the phrase “final 12” to describe next week’s participants. The rules actually state it must only be the final five or four who are celebrated. Because of the alliteration.

The same rules dictate any review should now exit on some kind of wordplay about the sort of flavour this show left us with. Can’t think of something, so instead here’s Richard Osman’s terrific pun from Pointless Celebrities (BBC1 Saturday, 7pm) about the “sequels” to erbium (erbium on a Saturday night!): Erbium Rides Again and Erbium Goes Bananas.

Ends

Watched 01

Here is something to hopefully keep OTT fuelled throughout 2014. A folly, maybe, but every Friday, I intend to publish a review of some of the TV I’ve been watching over the last seven days.

Sadly, the immediate effect of a project like this is I become self-conscious about my choice of viewing. I’ll grow out of that, but in the meantime I thought I should try The Thirteenth Tale (BBC2, Monday 9.30pm). Adapted by Christopher Hampton from the novel by Diane Setterfield, it’s not something I would normally pick. Weirdly, the apparent worthiness of a drama – its gleam of quality, its very artfulness – makes me feel as though I can’t get started. I’m not excited by something that demands reverence. But having my new remit gave me reason enough to push on, and in fact I found this ghost story rather satisfying.

Directed by James Kent, although it deploys some of the more gauche cliches of the genre (creepy twins, children’s laughter on the air – later Ring a Ring o’ Roses) the production is all about formality. The dialogue is measured – “Shall I leave you to rest awhile?” – and the camerawork stately. We slowly approach empty scenes and retreat at moments of resolution. Olivia Coleman and Vanessa Redgrave are deliberate in their playing, to equal effect. Their faces are often impassive, but that just makes things all the more fearful.

I wonder, though, how the drama would work if it was staged with more looseness in both direction and dialogue? Perhaps the ghostliness would escape through the gaps.

I also watched Sherlock (BBC1, Wednesday 9pm) – but I’m not sure the internet needs more words on that. The first episode contrasted with The Thirteenth Tale in that it was happy to unfasten more than a few buttons. I, for one, enjoyed and bought the cheeky manner in which the ‘how did Sherlock live?’ mystery was dispensed. Albeit I do demand real resolution before the series’ end.

As you’ll discover if you’ve the gumption to stick with these weekly reviews, I have a huge affection for a lot of plain, undistinguished programming. Perhaps the hardest-working of these is Pointless. The fame-flavoured, archly-named Saturday night version Pointless Celebrities (BBC1, Saturday 6pm) is pretty much everything that’s great about this show in microcosm. Again, in part that comes down to a certain bagginess. Sometimes it takes the form of slightly faltering one-liners (“This guy’s a batch,” ventures Richard Osman, referring to someone and something that now escapes me) and the pleasing pauses when Alexander Armstrong is working out how to get the thing back on the rails. Other times it’s good old fashioned messing around; here that results in the duo adopting  Jeff Lynne-esque wigs and rolling up their sleeves, plus the title music getting an amusing Depeche Mode-style remix – all in celebration of the episode’s 1980s theme.

At the heart is a brilliantly simple quiz premise that nonetheless offers up a lot of cunning complexities. Like the round on coded Beatles titles: 1,4,2,4,4,4 1. And I love the fact that for regular viewers, the programme has become a soap opera of trivia. One of the places the Queen visited in her jubilee year? Tuvalu! Hooray!

I’m not going to try and draw a line between Pointless and Blankety Blank (Challenge, Sunday 8.30pm) but they’re not a million miles apart. Thanks to this year’s Challenge Christmas initiative, it was one of a handful of first-ever episodes we got to enjoy over the festive fortnight. Despite Terry Wogan’s early labouring upon the phrase “our new quiz game”, everything was very much up to speed. From the off, he was acting the slightly besieged host, flashing his stick mic away from its resting place on the nape of his chin, and, in admonishment of his celebrity guests (BACK ROW, L-R: George Baker, Wendy Craig, Bill Tidy;  FRONT ROW, L-R: Judy Cornwell, Lennie Bennet, Lorraine Chase) booming: “You’ve already met our creatures from the Black Lagoon… back, lest you feel the sting of cold steel!” He always had a nice, baroque turn of phrase did Tel. “Part, the second! Round two!” And, to greet the rotating contestants’ pod: “As if on wings of song, around it comes again”. It’s ripe stuff, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place in The Thirteenth Tale

“I rhymed ‘above’ with ‘love’, yes.” It’s one of the few real admissions made by the Kinks frontman in Ray Davies Talks Music (Sky Arts 1, Monday 9pm). He’s referring to the first song he ever wrote, when he was just 10 – Rocky Skies Above. Davies (it feels better to refer to him by his surname) has always been an evasive interviewee, and so is the case for most of this encounter with TV music producer Malcolm Gerrie. He’s an effusive and amiable host, but too many of his questions take the form, instead, of prompts. “You said you used to try your songs out on your dad.” Or: “You said you wrote [You Really Got Me] as a blues song.” Davies, to use his own phrase, finds it easy to “slip around the grid”. A Q&A section at the end with the studio audience does prompt a nice anecdote about The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones et al regularly meeting up at the Blue Boar cafe – now Watford Gap services – to compare notes on recent bookings.

When I sat back at the end of an episode of Come Dine With Me feeling quite pleased all of the participants had actually had a thoroughly pleasant week, I realised that I was no longer watching for the right reasons. So I never came back. But I do still like the similarly-themed Dinner Date (repeats showing ITV, weekdays, 11.35am), in which the raison d’etre is actually to see people getting on. My favourite thing about it is it forces these ‘ordinary’ folk to carry the narrative weight, and thus we have Nicki in one episode – presumably at the prompting of an off-camera researcher – desperately trying to extemporise as she opens a can in her kitchen. “A nice, lovely tin of tomatoes,” she says meaninglessly, but leaving no gaps for any ghosts to get in.

Ends

  1. I Want to Hold Your Hand

sherlock
With trailers now airing for the third series of Sherlock, here’s something to shamelessly cash in. But something old.

This is from a set visit in June 2011, before the start of the second series, so nothing spoilery or embargo-baiting here. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss took journalists around the interior of 221B Baker Street in Cardiff (including one funny old boy who, later on when interviewing the cast, referred to the leads as ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Watson’) and chatted about… Well, here are some bits.

On the show’s immediate success

Moffat: We joined Twitter to try and popularize it. That it was a hit was a big relief.

Gatiss: Really, within the space of the first episode we seemed to develop an enormous fan base.

Consolidating on the strengths and weakness of series one

Moffat: I don’t know how to put this well, but I’m not sure what didn’t work. It did seem completely successful and charming and lovely. There was a point at which I thought this was our vanity project. Our special little world. But when you’ve done something so nakedly ‘fan fiction’ as this and everyone loves it too…

Gatiss: One thing we discovered, to our surprise, was how much people love the relationship between Sherlock and John. We shouldn’t be surprised, that was the idea – to get back to that central friendship. There’s no formula to Sherlock. The approach has always been to rethink it. Not just modernize it, but look back at what Doyle did and think, “That’s why it always worked” and get excited about that again. A lot is to do with the pace of the storytelling, and the thing that makes it exciting is to be very cheeky with it. So there’s a lot of cheek. Probably even more than last year, in terms of accepted things about the characters we all think we know.

Moffat: One of the big differences from last year is that I no longer even think about the updating thing. Last year we thought about it all the time – now everyone’s bought it, we just think about it as working on Sherlock Holmes. I go for days without thinking this is different from any other Sherlock Holmes.

On nearly doing a Victorian Holmes

Moffat: It was at the very last minute when we were having lunch, I remember thinking, “Is this just a thought experiment? Should we just pitch it as a Victorian version?” Was it just a useful exercise in clearing away the debris? And then we thought, “No, let’s do it modern, ‘cos that’s cooler…” In a weird way, stepping away from the originals allows you to be more like them. The Rathbone versions have more of the original stories than the rather arid, two earlier adaptations. My favourite movie in the world is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which is a comedy. It’s the best Holmes film ever made. By being a comedy, by stepping away from what the original was like, it almost finds more of it… Something we’ve noticed – and a lot of people don’t – is that the original Sherlock Holmes stories are also very funny. A lot of Holmes films haven’t been. The recent one, the Downey Junior one is – and a lot of those jokes are taken from the books.

On the Jeremy Brett series

Moffat: Oddly enough they took a lot of liberties in that series. You have to. Some of the best ones they did are the ones where they took more liberties. Their thing was to fetishize fidelity. But what saves them is Jeremy Brett is, in a way, saying, “I’m just going to make this my star part”. So his Sherlock – as all the great Sherlocks are – is not quite the original. He’s a much madder more manic creature than the original. But it’s a great series. It sort of resurrected it, didn’t it, from it being something about to expire, and suddenly it’s back again.

Gatiss: It’s a wonderful series. One thing they did quite a lot of is give endings to stories that Conan Doyle couldn’t be bothered to finish. He used to write them at parties and quite often you’re waiting and waiting and then it’s: “But we were never destined to find out because the ship sank.” You go, “What?!”

Their respective visions of  Sherlock

Moffat: We sync like iPhones.

Gatiss: That’s how it started – on conversations on trains to Cardiff for Doctor Who. So it was that initial dance around admitting the modern Rathbones were our favourite – a slightly heretical thing to say. But once you sync on that…

Moffat: We might disagree a little bit. But only on a detail. But even on quite small things were pretty much in accord.

Gatiss: Also, Doyle contradicts himself a lot. Sherlock does – Lestrade changes a lot. So you can’t really be consistent in that way, except as a fan you want to have the details at your fingertips! So, it’s always a fun thing to play with and try to find a detail that someone might have missed or has never been done.

Moffat: We had one of our most traumatic conversations when we said, “They have to call each other John and Sherlock”. Because if they call each other Holmes and Watson that means they’re a particular kind of person in modern day terms, because you have to be public school boys to do that, and that’s not what they are. So we couldn’t do that.

Gatiss: We got used to that very quickly. It was a tough sell to the crew.

Moffat: And a tough sell to each other! I feel as though, with Benedict’s delivery, we’ve been able to be a little bit more like the original sometimes. I can almost imagine him saying, “Elementary” now. Not quite. But almost.

Did Mark feel self-conscious playing Mycroft?

Gatiss: Utterly! I was forced!

Moffat: He was actually more intent on playing all the parts.

Gatiss: It actually came about because I’d auditioned to play Peter Mandelson for something, and then we had a script meeting and Steve Thompson said, “You should play Mycroft”. And, actually, that was when we crystalised the idea that, what would be really good then would be that if we could try and convince people that – of course – the only person I’d ever play was Moriarty… and it absolutely worked. Which is why I wasn’t credited or anything – because we didn’t want it to leak out in advance. But it was lovely.

Moffat: It was a really good reveal, that. But it was the fact that you were demonstrating what made Peter Mandelson what he is – you were doing the body language and all that and Steve was saying, “You look a bit like Benedict, you should play Mycroft as Peter Mandelson”.

Ends

Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling... and the Yeti

Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling… and the Yeti

The Enemy of the World (1967) and The Web of Fear (1968) (with a reconstructed episode three) are now available to download from iTunes at www.iTunes.com/DoctorWho

Seems incredible, doesn’t it? Almost as unbelievable was the way this news was revealed to the press, a full-on PR launch at London’s Soho Hotel held on 10 October 2013 at midday. Hosted by Dan Phelan, Head of Communications for BBC Worldwide in the UK, we were repeatedly advised everything we were about to see and hear was embargoed until 12.01am on Friday.

Mark Gatiss was in attendance. “On Mark’s Twitter profile page he describes himself as actor, writer, strangler,” said Phelan. “But I’ve agreed with Mark that he’s come here today only in the first two capacities… as long as everyone agrees to stick to our midnight embargo.”

The event began with Roy Robinson, the archive coordinator at Television International Enterprises Archive Limited (TIEA) reading out a statement from Phillip Morris – the man who is responsible for the recovery of these episodes…

Phillip Morris’ statement

Welcome everybody to this historic occasion. Firstly I would like to thank everybody at BBC Worldwide and BBC Television for their mammoth support during this project. What you’re about to see has not been seen since its original transmission in 1968, which was 45 years ago. It is my greatest pleasure, in the 50th anniversary year of Doctor Who, in a joint project between my company TIEA and BBC Worldwide,  to unveil two classic adventures.

Sadly due to other archive commitments overseas, I am unable to be with you today. My work, as you appreciate, is endless, and as you know the search must continue.

I would like to dedicate these episodes to everyone who has ever worked on the show and to all Doctor Who fans around the world. I have the Doctor Who fans’ best interest at heart, believe you me. On behalf of myself and everyone at TIEA, thank you for your continued interest and I hope our paths will soon cross again.

Does that final sentence portend to further discoveries?

The statement was followed by a short video interview with Morris. Here’s the transcript…

Phillip Morris’ video interview

I’m the Director of Television International Enterprises Archive Limited, and we assist overseas stations with the storage and migration of their material, and on the outside of that, we recover lost British television programmes.

I wouldn’t describe myself in the manner that other people say. They normally describe me as “the Indiana Jones of the film world”.

Christmas seems to have come early for Doctor Who fans, in the 50th anniversary of the show. We’ve managed to recover two Doctor Who stories, The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World, starring Patrick Troughton, from the late 1960s. I think they’re pretty much classic adventures. Probably the largest haul of missing episodes recovered in the last 25, maybe 30, years. We’re very pleased to return them.

These episodes were discovered on a project we were working on in Nigeria. And they were found in a TV station in Jos, just sitting on the shelf. I remember, now, seeing a piece of masking tape, it said ‘Doctor Who‘ on it. And I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting”. I pulled the cans down. I read the story code. Instantly, of course, recognised what the stories were – The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World – and realised they were missing from the BBC’s archive. A lot of Doctor Who fans around the world are going to be very happy. So it was a very pleasing discovery, really.

I can remember when I was probably about six or seven years of age, my mum used to buy me the Target novels of the stories. They were something that one day I hoped I would see. And, guess what? Now I can.

These episodes come from Hong Kong and had been on what’s called a bicycle system, so they traveled from this country to the next country. And they came to be in Nigeria through this bicycle system. Not at the station in Nigeria they were actually sold to – they were at a relay station.

The kind of condition that those programmes were in when we found them, we were quite lucky considering the temperatures which can be the upper 30 degrees. Fortunately in this case they have been kept in the optimum condition.

I think the work the BBC does now with its archive and the restoration and recovery of these programmes is second-to-none. The quality they restore these programmes to for a new audience – as it were – is phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal.

I think the best thing about it, and the most fantastic thing is, these things that people thought were gone forever – no they’re not. They’re back, and you can enjoy them now. So, get watching…

And then an instalment from each was screened; episode one of Enemy and episode two (one already existed) of Web. There will be plenty of analysis of both out there – doubtlessly concentrating on Patrick Troughton’s hilarious dip in the sea in Enemy and his flirtation with Mary Peach’s Astrid. So let’s cut to the after-screening Q&A with Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling and Mark Gatiss.

Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling and Mark Gatiss face the press

Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling and Mark Gatiss face the press

A jolly affair – here are the edited highlights.

Deborah [on Pat rushing into the sea]: I remember the take. He said, “I’m not going to enjoy this”. But he did it. But, I remember, “Oh dear, it was freezing!”

Frazer: But I remember it was his idea to strip down to his long-johns. And that was it. It was cold and windy – you can see the wind was blowing our kilts and hair.

Deborah [on seeing the episodes again]: It’s not a foreign land to me, not at all. The music started, there was Pat’s face – and we went into the scene and I knew it. Extraordinary, after all these years. At one point, when Victoria was talking, I knew the next line she was going to say. Now that is eerie.

Frazer: You didn’t know it on the set, did you? It’s taken you 45 years to do the bloody line!

Deborah: Jack Watling – my father! He had a big part in that one. It was good. Saw my dad again on the screen – that’s brilliant. Lovely.

Deborah [on what made Troughton such a good Doctor]: Pat had a wonderful sense of humour and he always had a twinkle in the eye. And he was like – how can I describe it? – comic in a way. But he was a very, very good actor. He combined everything into that. And it came across on screen as you can see today. We all got on so well – we were like a family. And Pat was always to me like another dad or an uncle. We had a chemistry and I don’t think you can beat that. I think it showed today.

Frazer: He was that sort of an actor, he wasn’t, “I’m an ac-tor”. He never took himself seriously. We were always looking for a gag.  Looking at that today, Patrick, when he’s flirting with Mary Peach, which, you know, on the page it would just say, “The Doctor looks at her”, but Patrick would add that sort of thing. “I might be attracted to her”. So he would add little bits like that.

Mark: It’s worth saying how much you miss from reconstructions and stills and soundtracks. You think you’ve got the whole story until you see it on screen. With Patrick it’s the tiny nuances of his performance and the little flirtations. And the deathless, never celebrated line [from Enemy of the World  when Astrid is asking our hero if he’s a doctor of law or philosophy]: “Who’s law? Who’s philosophy?” That’s the Doctor, that’s it. No one’s ever talked about that before.

Deborah [on learning the episodes had been returned]: When I heard, I couldn’t quite believe it. There have been hoaxes before, let’s face it… But then after a few days it was sort of confirmed-ish. And I thought, “I’m still not going to believe it. I’m not going to raise my hopes thank you very much after all these years”. And then I got it from a higher authority and I thought, “My God – back on the screen again!” All these years later and I can see some of the work I did as a young 19-year-old. And it’s amazing. And I love watching it, and it brought back so much to me – and the people I worked with as well. I’m thrilled – that’s all I can say. I’m thrilled.

Frazer: Me too. Patrick was disappointed a lot of his stories were missing, but this gives me hope that more stories of Patrick’s will come out of the woodwork, so to speak… I found out – Debbie was at a convention. She said, “Have you heard the news?” I said, “What news?” “Oh, I can’t tell you”. So I gave her a Chinese burn. “Alright, I’ll tell you! We’re going to the Soho Hotel on Thursday to watch Doctor Who“.

Deborah: And he said, “I’m not booked! I’m going away, I’m going to Scotland!” I said, “No you’re not!”

Mark [on whether or not Doctor Who could do another story set on the underground]: We are due a return to the London Underground. In fact, the first episode of Sherlock – because I’m obsessed with the tube and I think it all comes from that story from when I was a kid – is explicitly about the London Underground for exactly that reason. Because I love The Web of Fear. But Doctor Who? Yes, I’m sure. Why not?

And here’s a thing. Leaving the screening we were presented with t-shirts – t-shirts! – with the following legends on front and back…

LOST FOUND

And finally, this is what you came to see, right?

The reel deal

The reel deal

Ends

Sam and Jacqui

Okay, so like I said, I’ve been rewatching The Restaurant.

I freely admit to being obsessed with the show. At the time, friends and I would merrily chat away about it in the office, or pub, or over dinner. Months later, we might still pass a little time by trying to list all the establishments across the three series (“The Treacle Well, Sorbet and Seasons … Nel’s”). Years on, though, I’m still devoted.

Why? Those first two runs were beautifully made, ambitiously staged productions. The third, less so.  Plus, there was something satisfying about the scheduling (a ‘regular’ episode followed the next day by ‘The Challenge’ – a real treat) and the fact the couples featured in the programme were mostly likeable.1 The drama didn’t lie in skewering people (although, see footnote). It was in the rigors of running an actual restaurant in a competition overseen with smiles and benevolence by Raymond Blanc.

And then there was the title sequence. Series one’s is replete with pleasing, resonant soundbites: “To start a business with someone you don’t bloody know – it’s a bit daunting!”… “They really, really have to sort that kitchen out”… “Where’s 6, guys? Come on!”… “If I feel I’m having to fight you as well!”/”You’re being so stubborn”.

I’m up to episode four at the moment. I’d say  to this point it’s all been about  Sam and Jacqui and their ambition to mash “hospitality and humour” at The Ostrich. I’d love to know where their story went after this. She, the likeable but wired American front-of-house, he, the pouting jazz drummer, forever going AWOL from the kitchen and messing about with those sodding drums.

I’ve condensed their time in the show into a little under three minutes. I think it gets all the salient points.

Love the “Woo” at 1 min 41 secs.

Ends

  1. Chris and Jade, excepted, perhaps – when their restaurant is closed in episode two, the show very deliberately and brutally makes time to point out that, as Laura says, there isn’t anything about them anyone will miss.