Television

Babylon Berlin S1-2 (2017) [DVD]

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One part of history that has always held a particular fascination for me is that of Weimar Germany/. It’s the period following the country’s defeat in the Great War, through the twenties and into the Depression, setting the scene for the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party. It’s a society modern enough to be recognisably like our own, but twisted and bent out of shape by Germany’s humiliation of losing the war, the economic collapse caused by the excessively punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and the consequent societal degeneration leading to the rise of organised crime. And yet despite all these hardship, Berlin streets and nightlife were fizzing with an almost manic energy, while the country’s embryonic motion picture industry was producing some of the greatest expressionist movies of the silent era with the likes of Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Dr Mabuse masterpieces.

It’s within this world that Babylon Berlin is set – a dangerous, delicate time for the fledgling Republic which is under siege from violent anarchist groups of all political persuasions. The lead character of police Inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) is very much of the centre of it all, determined to do his duty without fear or favour to anything other than justice and the sense of what’s right. But Germany in April 1929 is not the place for a man of principles to stand on one’s own, and Rath soon finds himself stained by and implicated in crimes no matter his best intentions. Read the rest of this entry »

A house call on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple

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We’ve had quite a few articles about Agatha Christie on Taking The Short View, from the Hercule Poirot films featuring Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov and a new version of Murder on the Orient Express starring Kenneth Branagh, to the more recent (and divisive) BBC adaptation of The Secret Adversary plus stand-along stories such as And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution.

But with a solitary exception, the other major Agatha Christie character of Miss Marple has been somewhat overlooked here, and I thought it was time to set that right – not least because the stories that featured her were my earliest Christie loves. To a seven year old boy growing up in the seventies, the idea that Nanny might be some sort of supersleuth in disguise solving crimes from the comfort of her armchair in the corner of the living room was just too wonderful.

The character had already made it onto the screen as long ago as the 1960s with Margaret Rutherford in the key role. Her portrayal of Miss Marple is about as accurate to the books as Roger Moore’s James Bond is to Ian Fleming’s novels, which is to say not even close. And yet I have a deep affection for the four Rutherford films made by MGM, just as I love some of the Moore 007 outings out of all proportion for their actual merits. Read the rest of this entry »

Vienna Blood S1 (2019) [BBC Two]

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Vienna Blood is a three-part period crime drama that slipped into the BBC Two schedules last autumn while Taking The Short View was treating itself to an impromptu six-month nap. Not having heard of the original series of novels by Frank Tallis I didn’t have particularly high expectations, and the first 15 or 20 minutes led me to the snap conclusion that this was just another Sherlock wannabee – perhaps not surprising as the showrunner and lead writer is Steve Thompson, who worked on that show along with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and who also contributed a number of Doctor Who scripts during Moffat’s tenure on that show.

Something kept me watching through that first 90 minute episode, however, and I found myself being slowly won over. So much so that I made a point of watching the next two stories as well, and ultimately my only regret was that I hadn’t given the series my full attention from the start. I ended up buying the original novel, and resolved to give the series a proper second full chance on BBC’s iPlayer at some point in the future. And as luck would have it, the BBC has now handed me the perfect opportunity by selecting Vienna Blood for a rapid rerun to the screen, presumably as a stopgap to bolster its lockdown-hit schedules.

The series principally revolves around the character of Dr Max Liebermann (a stand out performance from Matthew Beard), a brilliant young medical student in 1900s Vienna who is a particular devotee of the controversial work of Sigmund Freud in the fields of psychoanalysis and neurology. While his views are frowned upon by the stuffy and staid hospital establishment, they make him an ideal pioneer in the field of forensic psychology and criminal profiling – and consequently an asset to the work of senior police detective Oskar Reinhardt (played by Jürgen Maurer, a familiar face on Austrian television) who is immersed in some particularly complex and baffling murder cases. Read the rest of this entry »

Van der Valk S1E1 “Love in Amsterdam” (2020) [ITV]

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Contains some mild spoilers for the aired episode

I was intrigued to see that ITV had decided to revive its hit 70s detective show Van der Valk for a limited three-part run of new 90 minute dramas starring Marc Warren as the titular character. Intrigued, but not particularly optimistic to be honest. That’s because I was never much of a fan of the original, which always seemed rather mediocre to my mind. I was too young to see it when it was first broadcast but I’ve caught up with early episodes on DVD and on the fantastic free-to-air Talking Pictures digital channel, and even by the standards of the day the pacing of the stories is positively glacial.

What the original series did have on its side were three key assets: the Amsterdam setting and location filming (hugely exotic back in those days before the advent of the ubiquitous city break); Barry Foster’s crisp and charismatic central performance as Commissaris Piet Van der Valk; and the iconic “Eye Level” theme tune that became a big chart hit for the Simon Park Orchestra on multiple occasions. The good news is that the new series returns to Amsterdam for the purposes of filming, and director Colin Teague makes the city look absolutely splendid including scenes filmed in the world-famous Rijksmuseum. Sadly Foster has passed away but I found Warren a perfectly fine replacement, bringing his own hard-to-like cynical edge to the character to maintain a reasonable amount of interest.

Unfortunately the “Eye Level” theme is almost entirely absent, although its echo can just about be heard as a light refrain under the main titles. It seems a weird decision to excise it; it’s like reviving Doctor Who without Ron Grainer’s music, or a James Bond film stripped of the instantly recognisable Berman/Barry 007 guitar riff. When American TV rebooted shows like Hawaii Five-O and Magnum PI, great care was taken in updating but fundamentally retaining their respective iconic theme music. However I think I can understand why the makers of the new Van der Valk change things here, at least to a degree: the “Eye Level” music is simply too distinctive and frankly rather dated, and was always anachronistically jaunty for the purposes of the show itself. Unfortunately the 2020 replacement music by Matthijs Kieboom is all low droning chords restlessly seeking but never stumbling across a memorable tune. Dull, boring, generic, unnecessary and entirely forgettable – the very same adjectives that could be used to describe most facets of the first episode of the new Van der Valk, which is solidly made but ultimately disappointing. Read the rest of this entry »

War of the Worlds (2020) [Fox]

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Contains some mild, general spoilers for the first season

In the run-up to Christmas, the BBC aired its prestige adaptation of HG Wells’ classic 1898 science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. There had been high hopes for it as the first screen version of the story to be set in the source work’s time and English home counties location, but alas the production proved to be deeply flawed and failed in just about every respect, either in its efforts to be a faithful version of Wells’ book or as a bold new reimagining. It was, to put it simply, rather a mess.

As it turns out, we didn’t have to wait for long for another War of the Worlds (note the removal of the definitive article this time around) to come along and sluice the bitter taste of the BBC adaptation’s failure from our mouths, with French production company Studio Canal in association with Fox Networks Group providing a brand new eight-part vision of the venerable tale. I’ll say upfront that Misfits writer Howard Overman’s show is a much stronger dramatic presentation than last year’s dead on arrival effort from the BBC, with some interesting and distinctive elements. However, it has to be said the trade-off for this medium level of success is that any resemblance to the contents of HG Wells’ novel is entirely coincidental.

For one thing, there’s a distinct lack of ‘war’ involved. The first episode depicts the arrival of the aliens in much the same way as Independence Day (with certain similarities to Contact) as the attack is heralded by a mysterious throbbing signal, followed soon after by fireballs falling from the skies which wipe out most of humanity on the spot in something resembling a deadly EMP blast, leaving just a few lucky survivors who happened to have taken sufficient cover in advance. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (1967) [DVD/Blu-ray]

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It’s not been all that long since the end of series 12 of Doctor Who and our last update here on Taking The Short View, yet in that short time it seems like the world has been turned upside down in every conceivable way.

Cinemas were among the first business to have to shut down because of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, followed soon after by ‘non-essential’ retailers including shops selling both new and used books, CDs and DVDs/Blu-rays. Even television has been hit, with long-running dramas having to shut down production for the duration. Streaming and download services have picked up some of the slack of course, while those of us of a more old-fashioned disposition have rediscovered the value of having extensive home media archives crammed onto groaning shelves around the house.

One new release that did just squeeze under the wire before the general shutdown was the latest addition to the BBC’s Doctor Who home media range, “The Faceless Ones. I’d pre-ordered it weeks before the release date, when coronavirus was completely unknown, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned up on my doorstep just when everything was going to hell in the proverbial handbasket. It’s been a welcome distraction, and the viewing of the episodes strictly rationed to eke out the pleasure of watching a ‘new’ Doctor Who tale for the very first time. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E10 “The Timeless Children” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains major spoilers and scattershot speculation

So, that happened. Now the only questions that remain are exactly what did happen, where did it all came from, and what it means for the future. And does the final outcome live up to the pre-broadcast hype that ‘everything changes’?

Certainly you could hardly get more night and day than this year’s run of episodes compared with its season 11 predecessor. When Chris Chibnall took over the reins of the show, the declared intention was to make Doctor Who open and accessible to all once again. It planned to do so by doing away with the disconcertingly convoluted timey-wimey plots spanning one or more seasons, dispensing with recurring characters, adversaries and monsters, and cutting out the relentless deep-dives into the series history that had hallmarked Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. While well-intentioned, the end result was somewhat divisive with many fans unhappy with season 11’s sudden change of direction, leaving them feeling that the approach had resulted in a run of disconnected and fragmented episodes that lacked dramatic heft. Whether they were right in this verdict or not, the question today is whether this adverse fan response to season 11 resulted in a major rethink in approach by Chibnall and his production team, or whether it was always the plan all along to go down this entirely different road in 2020. I suspect it’ll be a long time before we know the truth of the matter either way.

What’s beyond doubt is that this series has gone all-in on bringing back familiar characters and monsters and complex plotting, and most of all using the series’ own continuity to a degree that even Moffat would likely have baulked at. The season finale leaned heavily for inspiration on three seminal stories from the 1970s, and on the never-realised plans for the show that were cut off by the series being cancelled (or: never actually renewed) at the end of 1989. Let’s take each of these influences in turn. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E9 “Ascension of the Cybermen” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers and speculation

Last week (and indeed the week before that, too) I commented that Doctor Who is at its best when it’s at its most scary. I totally stand by that assessment, but should add a coda: that the show’s greatest strength is its sheer diversity, in how it is continually able to flip from one genre and style one week to a completely different one the next. Hence last episode we had a precision-crafted chamber piece, a sublime 19th century gothic haunted house mystery; and without skipping a beat, this time out we have a full blown galaxy-spanning epic space opera set in a far future dystopia following a disastrous war that has all-but wiped out humanity. You really couldn’t get much more of a completely contrasting tonal shift than that, surely?

Better yet, it pulls off this sudden change of direction even though “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a direct narrative continuation of the ending of last week’s episode. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is determined to deal with the consequences of her decision to surrender the Cyberium to the Lone Cyberman – otherwise known as Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) – and to defend the last seven known human beings alive in the galaxy. Unfortunately even by the Doctor’s eccentric standards, this proves to be terribly ramshackle effort that’s quickly overcome by Ashad and his guards, putting everyone in mortal danger. Considering how much the Doctor talked up the severity of the situation at the end of last week, you’d have thought she’d have known to come up with a plan just a little more robust than a few second hand bits and pieces from the far future equivalent of eBay. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E8 “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

It seems like only last week I was suggesting that Doctor Who is best when it’s at its most scary. Oh, wait a minute, it was only last week. There you go, you see: you wait for ages for an effective, chilling episode to come along and then inevitably two turn up in quick succession, in what can’t help but look like a bit of an awkward hiccup in scheduling.

But in fact, despite sharing some basic horror elements, this week’s story is very different from last week’s “Can You Hear Me?”. That started with a ‘big monster on the rampage’ sequence, segued to a creepy guy lucking in the shadows in people’s bedrooms, went on to the very stuff of modern nightmares, only to veer off into an earnest and well-executed drama about mental health which unfortunately came at the cost of pretty much losing the plot in the process. In contrast, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” starts with a classic haunted house tale, and despite adding a science fiction element to the heart of (almost) all the ghostly incidents and even very effectively connecting it up to the overall series arc, the script by Maxine Alderton manages to never lose focus or cohesion and as a result delivers an episode right up there with the classic entries in the history of the long-running series.

The story has its own message – about how “words matter” and can change lives – but it does so very nimbly and as part of building up the stakes for a no-win decision facing the Doctor, rather than as some major declarative statement as has been the case at other times in the Chris Chibnall era of the show. The episode also continues Chibnall’s interest in foregrounding real historic events and people as seen previously in “Rosa” and “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”, but again a light touch means that this time it feels much like a natural scenario and interesting line-up of guest characters appropriate for the drama on hand rather than another public service historical infodump. Read the rest of this entry »

Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators S3 [2020] (BBC One)

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Just as January is synonymous with the latest run of Father Brown episodes on daytime BBC, so February is becoming associated with the return of Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators, which is now in its third season. Somewhat more light-hearted and comedic than its clerical stable mate (which itself hardly takes things too seriously, even when it comes to murder) it certainly seems that the show co-created by Father Brown writing alumni Jude Tindall and Paul Matthew Thompson has managed to develop its own faithful following meaning that it has been renewed for not just this latest run, but also at least one more to follow in 2021.

That’s largely thanks to a likeable cast, headed by Mark Benton as Frank Hathaway. Looking noticeably more kempt this time than in past seasons (where he often looked as though he’d spent the previous night sleeping under a railway bridge), he’s a former senior police officer in Stratford-upon-Avan who now runs a private detective agency with his sleuthing partner Luella Shakespeare, a former hairdresser played by Jo Joyner. Also returning for the latest run is Patrick Walshe McBride (recently glimpsed in the BBC’s new Dracula adaptation) as their office manager and perennially out-of-work actor Sebastian Brudenell, who gets to put his RADA training to good use anytime a touch of undercover surveillance is required.

Sadly it seems that Frank’s former police colleague Detective Inspector Christina Marlowe (Amber Aga) has moved on after being seconded on an indefinite basis to a special task force. That promotes the obstructive Detective Sergeant Keeler (Tomos Eames) to the full-time position of the show’s main police presence, after recurring as Marlowe’s sulky sidekick in seasons 1 and 2. In her place, Yasmin Kaur Barn joins the cast as junior PC Viola Deacon who is rather more amenable and helpful towards Frank and the team (and Sebastian in particular) than Keeler. There’s also a one-off return appearance from Roberta Taylor as Sebastian’s landlady Gloria Fonteyn, who runs a useful theatrical costumiers. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E7 “Can You Hear Me?” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

I always tend to think that Doctor Who is best when it’s at its most scary, and on that basis alone there’s no denying that the first act of the latest episode of season 12 goes all out to deliver the chills. After a strong pre-titles sequence set in Aleppo in 1380, we’re rapidly plunged into a series of nightmares which seem to centre on a strange tattooed man called Zellin (Ian Gelder), who is to be found lurking disturbingly in the shadows in impossible places.

Pretty soon the story spreads out, moving on from simple horror movie/ghost story jump scares and into the full spectrum of modern anxiety-inducing terrors, from adolescent worries about bullying to more adult concerns such as health and bereavement. It becomes apparent that Zellin is from an immortal race that feeds on the fears of others, giving him a God-like status similar to former classic adversaries the Doctor has encountered such as the Eternals (“Enlightenment”), the Guardians (the Key to Time season) and even the Celestial Toymaker, all of whom receive a brief name check that will tickle long-time fans – but which in the process accidentally promises more than the story goes on to deliver.

Alien beings feeding on fear is not exactly a new concept in horror and science fiction – most long-running shows have done a variant of this sort of thing in the past – but the twist that writers Charlene James and Chris Chibnall apply to “Can You Hear Me?” is the very welcome focus on real-life mental health issues. The input of the UK charity Mind is evident in how well the episode addresses how we are all likely to become nervous, upset, worried, despondent, depressed and afraid at some point in our lives, but that with the right support from friends, families, counsellors and therapists we’ll be able to get through any such crises, that tomorrow is another day, and how it’s worth hanging in there to see it through. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E6 “Praxeus” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains some spoilers

After last week’s blizzard of shocks and twists, it was always going to be hard for Doctor Who to ‘follow that’ this time round. Fortunately it doesn’t even try, but instead takes a deft step to one side and this time out drops the continuity-heavy season arc entirely in favour for a standalone story told with great gusto and intelligence.

The episode drops us right into the middle of things with the story already infolding, a decision that immediately lends pace and energy to the proceedings as we scramble to keep up with what’s happening. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is investigating a series of strange events around the world – a dead sailor washed up on the shores of Madagascar, a missing astronaut over the Indian Ocean, the strange behaviour of birds in Peru, and signs of alien technology being used in Hong Kong. All these locations are rather successfully conjured up by director Jamie Magnus Stone, once again filming in South Africa.

For once, the script makes a virtue of the large regular cast by splitting them up with their own assignments. It’s the same technique that writer Pete McTighe (here working in credited collaboration with showrunner Chris Chibnall) developed so successfully in S11’s “Kerblam!”, and his way of pairing up each companion with a new supporting character means we get to see new aspects of our regulars while also getting a proper introduction to each member of the guest line-up. Read the rest of this entry »

The War of the Worlds (2019) [BBC One]

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At the start of 2019, the BBC’s forthcoming new adaptation of HG Wells’ classic story The War of the World was one of the productions featured in the ‘coming soon’ preview showreel, tantalising fans with the promise of the first screen version of the tale to be set in the original time and location. But after that it seemed to disappear off the face of the earth; rather than popping up as expected in the spring schedules it disappeared into thin air leaving everyone wondering what had happened.

The BBC subsequently explained that the Visual FX work was taking longer than expected, but even when it started to be shown in overseas territories it was still striking that there wasn’t a peep about when it would receive its UK broadcast. When it was finally scheduled at the end of November it was set for Sunday nights at 9pm putting it opposite the ITV reality ratings powerhouse I’m a Celebrity… – making it look like the BBC had lost all confidence in the production and was trying to push it out the backdoor when no one was looking. Unfortunately we were looking, and what we saw only confirmed those worst fears.

The first of the three hour-long episodes is slow and stodgy as it tries to establish its lead characters, Eleanor Tomlinson as Amy and Rafe Spall as George. The big problem here is that the source novel doesn’t really do characters: written as a first person account, the narrator isn’t even named in the book. At one point the account switches to his brother who is fleeing in the Martian invasion on the other side of London, and who is similarly unnamed. Crucially there are few female characters at all in the story, with the narrator’s wife packed off to relatives in Leatherhead at the outset of the Martian invasion. Two other women are present, only there to be saved by the narrator’s brother. In the enlightened 21st century, a television production with no significant female leads with any sort of agency is simply not tenable.

Perhaps writer Peter Harness could have got away with simply making the narrator a woman. Instead he creates an unnecessarily complicated back story, based on Wells’ own domestic life at the time, in which timid journalist George is married and seeking a divorce from his wife while scandalously living with his lover Amy in Woking, making them social outcasts. Even George’s government official brother Frederick (Rupert Graves) vehemently disapproves, resulting in a family schism. It’s a way of criticising the uptight Edwardian conventions of the period, but the soapy story drags down the narrative – and once the Martians arrive this whole plot evaporates in subsequent episodes and is barely mentioned again. So what was the point of that, then? Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E5 “Fugitive of the Judoon” (2020) [BBC One]

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Well, that was rather unexpected.

When Chris Chibnall took over Doctor Who as showrunner, he had a clear vision to strip everything back and reinvent the show from the ground up. Gone were the recurring or returning characters from the past, or appearances from familiar monsters; no more complicated timey-wimey plot lines dipping into the show’s past continuity for story elements that only long time hardcore fans would understand. Start from first principles and work from there, seemed to be Chibnall’s new approach. But it proved divisive as well as daring, and while it reaped rewards in some areas it also alienated large sections of fans who grumpily declared that it was no longer the show they loved. When the Daleks returned for the 2019 New Years Day special it seemed like the show was throwing a bone to assuage these rabid packs of fans, as a reward for sticking in there.

To be honest, I thought that season 12 would see Chibnall return to his New Model Doctor, which is why the events of “Spyfall” – with the return of a very old adversary, together with a visit to the Doctor’s home world Gallifrey which has seen better times and needs a lick of paint and a truck load of new double glazing – proved such an unexpected shock. But since then the most recent episodes seem to have reverted to the S11 baseline with standalone stories featuring previously unseen characters, with an emphasis on real historical people where possible, and so it seemed that not much had changed after all. The advance publicity of the fifth story, “Fugitive of the Judoon”, seemed pretty much in the same vein with the one surprising aspect being that it’s the first time Chibnall has openly announced that he was bringing back an established character/monster from the past, rather than rolling it out as a hidden surprise.

I was puzzled by Chibnall’s choice of the Judoon for this purpose: they’re hardly from the top shelf of the pantheon of Doctor Who creations. First introduced in the season 3 opener “Smith and Jones”, the oafish and officious Judoon were always a one-note sight gag – Russell T Davies satirising lunk-headed private security guards and neanderthal nightclub bouncers by presenting them as trigger-happy space rhinos in leather skirts. They weren’t even the primary adversaries in their debut story, and more recent appearances have seen them limited to background extras in exotic alien crowd scenes. I suspect they’ve had more regular gainful employment scaring children by prowling around the auditorium at Doctor Who musical concerts and BBC Proms. I certainly hadn’t noticed many viewers clamouring for their return. Read the rest of this entry »

Father Brown S8 (BBC One) [2020]

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Father Brown continues to be one of the most reliable landmarks of the January TV scene, returning right on cue for a brand new season of ten episodes featuring Mark Williams as GK Chesterton’s eponymous country priest, Sorcha Cusack as parish housekeeper Mrs McCarthy and Emer Kenny as local socialite Bunty Windermere, together with Jack Deam as the irascible Inspector Mallory and John Burton as reliable, long-suffering Sergeant Goodfellow.

That’s the same regular cast as last year, and indeed this is now surely the most stable line-up that the series has enjoyed throughout its eight years of production. But for those pining over the loss of old favourites such as Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) and Sid Carter (played by Alex Price) then it’s still worth tuning in for some welcome cameo appearances. And stay tuned to the end of the run, because word has it that it’s getting unexpectedly crowded down at Kembleford Police Station, with an even more surprising returnee popping up.

With little else to add to last year’s observations (nothing ever really significantly changes in middle England in the 1950s, after all), it’s perhaps best just to get straight on with a look at the new episodes comprising the 2020 season. As ever, the accompanying notes do reveal some details of the episode in question that you may wish to avoid until after viewing, but you can be assured that we would never be so thoughtless as to give away the actual whodunnit! Read the rest of this entry »