True Blood – S3

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When True Blood landed on our screens in 2009, it took no prisoners and hit you right between the eyes with more bloody violence, raucous sex and outrageous swearing than we’ve ever seen in a television series before – or pretty much any movie, come to that. It was an extraordinary, intoxicating, heady, trashy brew and I for one loved it.

The trouble is how to proceed when you start at such a crescendo. You either have to push further and further to keep topping yourself, or else find a completely different way to go instead. Season 2 duly went for the “topping itself” route – and against expectation it pulled it off brilliantly, by introducing a Big Bad nemesis whose very weapon was to incite more sex, violence and swearing in people in order to feed off the ensuing frenzy (Michelle Forbes as Marianne was a triumph as a delightfully vivid goddess.) It worked particularly well because there was a contrast with the expanded darker, more sobre vampire world.

But now we get to Season 3 and the show still tries to top itself … And it’s run out of space. Now the only room left on top is deeply into completely over the top high camp. So we have actors having to play love scenes to (and writhing in) a mess of bloody, gory entrails; the King of New Orleans giving such a high camp appearance on network TV that he wouldn’t go amiss as one of Batman and Robin‘s villains in Joel Schumacher’s laughably disastrous franchise-wrecking 90s film. Meanwhile, other parts of the show are getting rather tired and familiar: the central Sookie/Bill romance now goes through a break-up/make-up/break-up cycle in less than the time of a single episode so that frankly no one really cares anymore and both characters just seem rather pathetic.

Where the show does try to do something different, it falters. Where once the show was about how red neck America reacted to the emergence of vampires, now it’s awash with so many different supernaturals (werewolves, were-panthers, shapeshifters and more) that there are virtually no “ordinary” humans left. Even Sookie, our main audience point of identification, has been revealed to be the most rare of supernatural beings on the planet. Meanwhile Sam’s side story of looking for his family left him with a loathsome bunch of relatives including a brat of a half-brother, and for some reason has sent the former Mr Nice Guy into a spiral of heavy drinking and abusing everyone – as though discovering his genetic past has suddenly involuntarily activated those same genes in him. Jason’s dalliance with a love interest from another red neck family is equally as annoying. The once-sparking character of Lafayette has been given a love interest which is touchingly written and portrayed but feels rather a distracting sideline – except that it appears to be leading to an outbreak of magic ability, which would mean another ‘real’ character lost to the supernatural.

One character who continues to shine in all this is that of Nordic vampire prince Eric Northman, with Alexander Skarsgård really stealing any scene he’s in with his brooding presence and his ability to switch from light to dark, playful to lethal, trustworthy to deceitful in an instant. His relationship with his ‘progeny’ Pam has been one of the most interesting developments of the series, and it’s also given us the introduction of a shadowy Authority and a proper role/appearance for vampire PR woman Nan Flanagan (as well as a sadly final appearance from the ever-wonderful Zeljko Ivanek as the Magister.)

Alas, though, much of the vampire storyline is either getting bogged down in increasingly complex vampire politics plotting or else is now leading the charge of the show Over The Top via characters like the King, his concubine Talbot and a whole bevvy of werewolves. These characters are so rich that while they initially delight, it’s very easy to quickly become bloated and sick with a non-stop diet of it. It’s not that the show can’t do it right when it tries: the character of Franklin Mott (played by the ever-watchable James Frain) was both equally over the top and yet as black a psychopath as could possibly be, such an effective mix that it’s been one of the season’s worst mistakes to dispatch him so quickly.

The show certainly has its moments. I haven’t stopped watching. It’s just that I find I’m doing other things at the same time, and dipping in and out rather than sitting enraptured for the full hour. Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s me – and I’m just becoming weary and over-saturated by vampire shows at last.

Monroe – S1 E1-3

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If you watch ITV’s new medical drama Monroe without any knowledge of a certain American series starring Hugh Laurie, you might be forgiven for thinking this is an interesting, original and promising new show. Unfortunately, if you have watched the long-running House, M.D. then that series’ shadow falls heavily on this one and actually makes it almost impossible not to compare-and-contrast the two for the whole time you’re watching.

Both shows feature a brilliant, arrogant doctor with a case-of-the-week. Both doctors have a team of interns (Springer and Wilson in Monroe) that he likes to insult and play cruel mental mind games with. Both have a single nice, slightly wimpish “best friend” (Shepherd) as well as some unresolved sexual tension with a brilliant female doctor colleague (Bremmer). Oh, and both series are titled with their lead character’s last name.

There are differences in Monroe of course, but these differences seem to have been almost purposely introduced in reaction to House and give the show grounds to say “no, we’re different, honest we are.” So for example, Monroe is not anti-social, misanthropic, cruel and loathsome. Instead he’s rather warm, witty, sparkling and charming, as only James Nesbitt can be. Instead of avoiding patients at all costs like House, Monroe is actually the one who can connect with them and their families and heal their emotional damage at the same time as well as their brains. The simple and rather trite point made here is that it’s the brain surgeon who is good with his patients’ feelings while the heart surgeon Bremmer is cerebral and cold and entirely unable to connect with others. That actually makes Bremmer the more interesting, if far less likeable, character in the show. Unfortunately it means that Monroe is very likeable, which makes the line from Shepherd that he’s Monroe’s “only friend” rather perplexing – Monroe might be slightly arrogant and swaggering but no more so than many doctors, bankers or media execs with wide circles of friends.

Where House is in charge of a “department of diagnostic medicine” (a fictional conceit that allows the American show to range wherever it likes in the medical field), Monroe makes the title character a top neurosurgeon – which is far more realistic in how hospitals actually work, but rather limiting in terms of stories and patients. Inevitably it’s going to be head traumas and tumours, lots of MRIs and staring at computer screens before deciding how to operate. Admittedly that’s what modern medicine actually is at this level, but week after week it’s going to get very tedious. The story tries to give Monroe a morose side with the backstory of a young daughter who died of a brain tumour, the ultimate cruel twist of fate for a brain surgeon, but it’s a touch obvious and again just inclined to win us over to Monroe’s side and forgive him any trespasses. House was never so obvious, or so needy of winning affection.

If one can get away from the comparisons with House for a minute then the series is well made and very well acted by all concerned. In particular, Tom Riley as the low-key normal best friend has great charm and presence (Riley’s just coming off his breakthrough role in the Bouquet of Barbed Wire remake as the scenery-chewing Northern psycho Gavin.) We could do with slightly less tricksy/artistic director’s stylings: someone really needs to prise the “tiltshift” effect control out of the director’s hands once and for all – it’s effective and different when used now and again but not when used in almost every single scene.

Ultimately, though, you get the feeling that there was an interesting core idea here, and some very good talent both in front and behind the camera, but somewhere along the line the network executives got involved and needed to be won over before they would sign off on commissioning the series. The writers and producers ended up having to sell it as a “British House” and thereafter the show progressively got forced into a box that it didn’t really fit or believe in that made it into a sub-Houseian clone when it could have been something so much more, distinctly original and British. We really don’t need another House when we can watch Hugh Laurie being brilliant in the role already. Most disappointingly of all, Monroe completely misses the genius of House in making its central character totally unlikeable and unsavable: by contrast, Monroe simply doesn’t have that courage and it wants its central character to be loveable and only slightly flawed. That makes Monroe end up no more than a lightweight wannabe with all its nice visual tricks and promising cast.

Becoming Human – S1/Online

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This spin-off from Being Human was marketed as an “online-only exclusive”, and I confess that – having dutifully followed the bite-size instalments every week as released – I was a bit annoyed when the exclusivity went out the window and the whole thing – including the first showing of the final part – was suddenly scheduled for a BBC3 airing as a sort of post-Being Human care package for those viewers still traumatised by last week’s season finale. It felt like my “secret society” had suddenly thrown open its doors and become a tourist theme park. I’m still not sure whether the change is because the spin-off has been so successful and well-received that BBC bosses decided it needed a proper channel airing, or whether it was doing so badly that the only way to salvage anything from it was to seek the oxygen of broadcasting. I hope the former.

Still, enough about the production context; what about Becoming Human the show? Inevitably its original bite-size chunks (please excuse any vampire or werewolf unintended puns inherent in that phrase!) are evident when put together into one 55 minute program: despite the single through-story, the narrative clearly stops and starts every six or seven minutes by nature of the online format. It’s to the credit of the writers and the directors that this isn’t more annoying that it actually is, and the show more or less gets away with it – and even that some of the linking/segment start sequences are the nicest, most arty things in it.

It’s a bit difficult to know where this show is being pitched: it feels like a rather odd hybrid, and rather too easy to lose the audience in the gap. If Being Human is for mid-20-somethings then I guess Becoming Human would be for mid-teens, which explains its school setting and the age of its principle cast; and yet the show is a little too smart and stylish and intelligent to be really aimed at the Hollyoaks audience. There might not be nearly as much blood, guts and top-grade swearing as its parent show, but there’s still too much horror and general cursing for its supposed main demographic. Some of the dialogue relies (very wittily) on 80s pop-culture references, which again will be over the heads of a teen audience. In the other hand, would a grown-up audience really be that taken with a show whose main story is about being a teenager, the pains of surviving school-life, dealing with teachers – and bullying? In any case, who would be watching this spin-off if they hadn’t already been of an age to be fans of Being Human? If anything, this feels like a relaunch of the core series concept of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost meeting up and becoming friends – a return to the original Being Human series which was fun and light and happy to be occasionally insubstantial, before it became all Dark and Angsty and Meaningful. If you liked that first series of Being Human and miss its lightness of touch then Becoming Human could be the show for you.

All that said – if you’re willing to go with it, and are a 20- or 30-something still happy to go back to school in TV land, this is a terrific little gem of a show. The writing is wonderful, the show looks and sounds terrific for an online-only venture (until its broadcast airing I hadn’t properly appreciated the great soundtrack), and it’s just terrifically witty throughout with some great dialogue brought to life by a top-grade young cast. In particular it stars Craig Roberts, playing the young vampire Adam who debuted in an eponymous episode of Being Human, who manages to steal every scene by little looks, gestures and quirks that make his character spring off the screen. I would at this point be predicting a brilliant future for this actor, if only the little blighter hadn’t beaten me to it and be currently starring in Richard Ayoade’s film Submarine at the cinema right now, with both the film and Roberts’ lead performance getting rave reviews. Not that the other leads – Josh Brown as XXL-sized ghost Matt and Leila Mimmack as werewolf Christa – aren’t also excellent. Christa gets some of the best put downs, usually directed at Adam: “Seriously, do you not have an off-switch?” she barks at him after his latest inappropriate quip as the two continue their love-hate (mostly hate) screwball relationship.

As for the through-story – about who made Matt a ghost in the first place, and where his body is – it’s inevitably underdeveloped given only 55 minutes and that the online format was to fashion each instalment around confronting a new red herring suspect, but the writing is successful enough that the whodunnit reveal when it comes is one of those gloriously “out of the blue”/”why didn’t I see that coming” moments that many a more “serious” show would kill for.

On the whole, then, well worth catching. I doubt it will get picked up and developed further, but that’s a shame – this has real potential and genuine class.

The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E17+18

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Over the course of the last nine weeks, The Killing has become one of my favourite TV shows – not just of the year but of all time. It’s as good as State of Play or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – but where those shows spun out perfection over six episodes, The Killing has managed to do it over an astonishing 20 hour-long instalments; and there hasn’t been an episode, a scene, a line that hasn’t been brilliantly done. It’s a quite astounding achievement, and I can’t remember the last time that I was so keen for a TV show to come around that I was literally counting down the hours till the next episode, and so emotionally involved while it was actually on that it hurt. While other shows can lose momentum and struggle to run to full length, this show hasn’t put a foot wrong and has sustained the mystery, intrigue and tension through a longer time than even most full length American TV seasons. The only disappointment is that it all comes to an end in a little under seven days, and Saturday nights are going to feel very odd and empty afterwards.

The show’s various individual strands – the anguished drama of a bereaved family, the political machinations of a campaign, the dark conspiracy arcs – are powerful in their own right and would fuel many a British TV series on their own, but here of course they’re all bound together by and in support of the whodunnit aspect which hones the series into a ruthlessly efficient and compelling mystery. If there were any justice in the world then “Who killed Nanna Birk Larsen” would be every bit as much a seminal television question as “Who shot JR?” and “Who killed Laura Palmer?”

Spoiler crime scene tape

The rest of this longer-than-usual post focuses on that question, as this penultimate week is my last chance to muse on some theories in public. Of course it can only do that by talking openly about the events to date right up to the end of episode 18, so if you’re not up to date with the series then look away now and read no further. (I have no spoilers from the final two episodes or any internet gossip to share, so you’re safe in that respect if you’re on the BBC4 schedule.)

Final chance! Look away now!

Right, still with us? Then let us begin.

Once again the series threw us some almighty curve-balls in these two episodes, which totally transformed the substance and nature of the investigation. The series has done it before (when car fuel logs suddenly focussed suspicion on city hall; then when a cold case and a belated video tape from Nanna transferred the focus back to Birk Larsen’s haulage company.) Now, as the series enters its end game, the producers seem determined to flip us into chaos once again – by making literally everything and everyone a suspect, and by resurrecting doubt in characters we long ago thought ‘cleared’. The key drivers in this final turn in the show have proved to be:

  1. Nanna’s passport was found in the basement of her family’s new home, putting suspicion back on the family. Since the passport was the object Nanna went to the principle crime scene to pick up, and because it has blood on it, this is the biggest piece of “first-degree” direct evidence that’s emerged. At the time of the murder, Nanna didn’t even know about the new house.
  2. Another body (from 15 years ago) has been found in the canal, seemingly confirming that Nanna’s murder is one of a series. Mette Hauge’s corpse was wrapped in a removal sheet from the defunct company Merkur, but is this purely circumstantial and a red herring? A search for the decedent’s possessions takes the police on a fatal visit to a derelict storage warehouse.
  3. A journalist has been asking some awfully good questions of politician Troels Hartmann: was the package containing a key piece of evidence sent from Hartmann’s office? If so, by whom? And why was his party’s flat – the main crime scene – not used for two weeks afterwards in a frantically busy pre-election period and able to stand untouched, soaked in blood? (I admit, I thought this “two weeks undiscovered” was the series script’s one poor lapse/oversight but instead it’s transformed into possibly the vital clue.)

What new light do these latest developments and other events from E17 and 18 shed on the suspects in the case? Many of them could be red herrings and are circumstantial at best, so we have to start with with the one incontrovertible bit of direct evidence – the passport. It could only have been put in the basement of the new house after Nanna’s death, and almost certainly by the killer.

That seems to cast suspicion back on the family, and it’s interesting how the father, Theis Birk Larsen, is now being filmed and acted in a markedly more sinister way in these episodes; the way his impassive face looms at the back of shot, the way his calm demeanour only grows agitated when he finds police inside the house (and moreover in the basement) for the first time, and demanded they leave; the way he shut the door on the basement at the end of E18 … Guilty signs, or just a man pushed beyond his limit? Even his wife Pernille Birk Larsen, whose anguish over her daughter’s death has been so strikingly portrayed, is suddenly unnaturally calm and distanced. The scene where she and Theis faced down their previously trusted live-in friend, employee and lodger Vagn was actually quite chilling and cold blooded. But can either of them really be suspects? We saw their reactions in the first episode when Nanna was missing and they seemed totally genuine – the mounting panic and grief as worst nightmares were confirmed. Theis’ search for Nanna, his rage and his bid for violent revenge against the then-prime suspect teacher are hard to reconcile with being guilty of his daughter’s murder; and surely both have alibis, being at a country cottage on the key weekend? That it’s one or both of them is not quite entirely impossible – the grief could have been guilt over a tragic situation that got out of hand, for example – but it feels a stretch.

A more likely family suspect is the aforementioned Vagn Skaerbaek. Right now he’s the prime suspect: he had access to the house, it’s unclear where he was or what he was doing at the weekend, the police did a lengthy job of demolishing his alibi and proving he had opportunity, and he worked for the old Merkur company. As an employee of Birk Larsen’s haulage company he could also be the person Nanna’s boyfriend Amir thought had overheard them making their plans to elope, a critical aspect with regard to the opportunity to commit the crime (as well as a possible motive, if the killer had a sexual fixation on Nanna and was feeling betrayed by her plans to leave.) The smart money right now has to be on Vagn, and the fact that at the moment people are behaving as if Vagn’s been cleared with everyone apologising for ever unfairly suspecting him almost adds to the sense of sleight-of-hand and misdirection. Vagn’s no longer in the crosshairs only because the police have been distracted by the emergence of Leon Frevert, a co-worker of Vagn’s who also worked at Merkur and had the same access, opportunity and haziness of motive. Leon was also moonlighting as a taxi driver and had previously been questioned as the last known man to see Nanna alive; he has sold off his furniture, got tickets for a flight to Vietnam, and has a creepy serial killer-esque collection of press clippings of the murder case stuck to his wall. In real life this is exactly the sort of person who would be revealed as the killer. Short of a big neon arrow saying “I’m the killer” pointing at his head, he couldn’t be making it any more obvious for them – which is why he’s surely a red herring? Perhaps most significantly of all is why he phoned the detective (the wonderful Sarah Lund, played by the incomparable Sofie Gråbøl) and told her, when asked why he had kept his connection to Nanna a secret: “You have no idea”. That seems a tantalising link to an altogether different conspiracy mystery rather than an admission from a killer. He’s running to Vietnam because he’s scared.

If not the family, and with the school friends and teachers not seen since episode 10, we have to look elsewhere for people who have been in that house. What about the police for example? Lund herself is beyond suspicion – the show wouldn’t work if there was any chance of it being her, or any doubt about her. I confess I was keeping an eye on her rude and arrogant partner Jan Meyer – the murder happened just days after he had arrived in town after all, and where was he 15 years ago? Being a cop is a great cover. But even paying close attention to him there seemed nothing untoward, and with his relationship with Lund developing as it did it seemed less and less likely that he was under any suspicion. Instead, I’d rather come to fear that he wouldn’t be getting out of the show alive – I just didn’t expect it to happen in episode 18 as it did.

Their superior, Lennart Brix, is an obvious dark and evil suspect – almost laughably so in a pantomime-villain way, which is why I tend not to think it’ll be him. He’s the front man for some conspiracy no doubt, just not murder – not least because he only came into the series midway through and has had no detail given to his character. He seems to be there mainly to be an obstacle for Lund’s work, this week by pulling her off a crucial raid that gives the prime suspect the chance to escape or, more likely, be inconveniently shot dead in the raid by Brix’s more trusted personnel. He is too obvious, too underdeveloped for it to be him as the killer, but he’s clearly playing a major role in some grand plot.

Which leaves us with the political strand, and here we’re overflowing with suspects – the problem is that none of them have a connection to the Birk Larsen basement. They do have access to the party flat/crime scene, however, and a major question right now is why that flat was untouched for two weeks. Mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann was a prime suspect for several episodes and even arrested and charged, having admitted being in the flat just minutes before Nanna was known to have arrived and been assaulted there. Charges against Troels were dropped when suspicion fell on one of Troels’ opposing party leaders, Jens Holck, who looked and acted incredibly guilty and ended up being shot dead by Meyer but who has been posthumously cleared by airport CCTV footage. Does that mean the investigation of Troels was distracted and derailed but that he’s still the guilty man? He had all the access he needed, and he’s been pressing the police very hard for updates about the investigation to allow him to stay one step ahead. His ‘alibi’, that he went to a country cottage and tried to kill himself, could well have been remorse at what he had done; and his loyal campaign manager Morten Weber could have been an accomplice, clearing up after him (and been the “shorter” man at the flat window that an eyewitness saw.) In fact, Morten could be the killer in his own right – he has the aura of being a man who has been exonerated from the investigation, but in actuality that was because he was reinstated after being briefly fired having been unjustly framed as a political “mole”. Despite the off-hand revelation that he has driven the car in which the body was found, and some increasingly suspicious snooping round the office and being busy casting doubt on others, Morten has oddly escaped any serious suspicion for the entire series …

Troels’ assistant and lover Rie Skovgaard has also not been suspected of the crime, although Morten’s suggestions in response to a journalist’s enquiries about who sent the key piece of evidence from the office and who cancelled a toilet repair at the flat that would have caused the crime scene to be discovered immediately, seem designed to make her emerge as a suspect now (while they could just as equally apply to Morten – or to Troels.) Rie appears cunning and opportunistic, her affair with Troels suddenly back on after a frosty couple of days while simultaneously suspicions fly around that she’s been getting her valuable secret intel by sleeping with the mayor’s top aide Phillip Dessau who was briefly presented as a possible suspect in the murder itself. And yet despite them being nasty, double-dealing, two-faced political operatives, it’s hard to really see either of them resorting to murder. Rie might kill Nanna if she mistook her for a rival for Troels’ affections or a threat to the campaign, but murder – and in the party flat – seem grossly ill judged and unsubtle, totally out of character for her, while in other ways she’s too obviously hard and nasty to give us the ‘jolt’ we need when the murderer is unmasked.

That’s just some of the suspects. With two hours of drama still to go, the show could still pull a suspect “out of plain sight” that we hadn’t considered before just as Leon the taxi driver was. What about Lund’s boyfriend Bengt? Seems unlikely as he was the one who triggered the police to seek out previous cold cases. Maybe her odious ex-husband? Surely too coincidental and contrived. One of the detectives who’ve been handing Lund and Meyer files – or in particular, the detective who ‘searched’ the Birk Larsen’s basement just before the bloody passport was discovered? Talk about opportunity. Hell, I’d even suspect the Birk Larsen’s little boys, one of which – Anton – found Nanna’s bloody passport and then oddly just threw it back where he found it and wandered off without a reaction. If only the boys were old and tall enough to drive a car! Very strange. Let’s put that one down to wooden juvenile acting and an attempt to generate more tension and false leads!

And finally …

But there comes a point where I have to present some idea, some theory about it all, and here it is. It’s not perfect and I’m really not sure about it, but what the hell, right?

From the above analysis I’d have to say that the leading suspects must surely be Vagn (if the political aspects can be explained away by other conspiracies) or Morten (if there’s a convincing reason why he would have ended up in the Birk Larsen basement.) These are the suspects that my head says are the most logical and rational.

But without a doubt, the character I’ve been most irrationally suspicious about since midway through the series has been the incumbent mayor, Poul Bremer – for no good reason, I have to say. Just a feeling. His purpose in the series – as Troel’s scheming political opponent – has been clear, and he’s been overtly lying and deceiving everyone in sight, most recently manufacturing a couple of witnesses to escape a charge of political malfeasance and obstructing the police by withholding evidence because it gave him an electoral advantage. But the closest he’s come to being suspected of involvement with the murder was when a civil servant, Olav Christensen, confronted Bremer and said he’d procured the party flat (the crime scene) for the mayor in the past. Bremer denied it, and minutes later Olav was dead after being run down by Jens Holck.

And while we’re on that: just what was Holck’s involvement in all of this? The investigation into him went cold when he was shot and assumed to be the killer; if he wasn’t, then why did he do what he did and practically confess all to Lund before dying? Holck was suspected because he was on a particular foreign junket some months ago – with Bremer, it was pointed out, although no one attached any significance to this; Holck was also Bremer’s lapdog, and you have to consider whether his apparent affair with Nanna wasn’t actually just him setting up meetings for Bremer all the time instead. Rather than Holck buying her gifts, were they in fact from an even bigger political fish?

Bremer’s certainly got all the information he needs to carry out the crimes – he frequently knows developments before anyone else, even the police: he knew who was paying Olav for access to the party flat months ago, despite his look of bafflement and denial when confronted by Olav. If he’d been having an affair with Nanna months ago and needed to hush it up, then how clever to use the flat to frame Troels and gain unbeatable political advantage out of a potential career-ending scandal over an affair with a schoolgirl?

Bremer being the guilty party would explain much, and would tie up the various strands into one tight cohesive whole in a dramatic context. And yet for all that, there are major problems with the theory of it being Bremer. Can we seriously see the elderly mayor managing to climb through a broken window into the storage warehouse? (Although the slow, deliberate way the killer stepped toward a prostrate Meyer could easily have been someone of Bremer’s age …) Or of outrunning Nanna in the woods by the airport in the opening scenes of the series? Like all those from the political side, how could he have ended up leaving Nanna’s passport in the basement of the Birk Larsen house? Moreover, the detectives seem very convinced that the killer is in his/her 30s-40s and that the link between the killer and his victims is through removal hauliers – are they simply wrong on both counts? The Merkur sheet could certainly be a red herring (it might have simply been to hand when the killer murdered Mette Hauge, who had just employed the company to move house 15 years ago) but the idea that the killer meets his victims and gets to know where they live through this ruse is a compelling one and simply can’t apply to Bremer.

The Killing‘s greatest trick is to present us with such a large cast of realistic, beautifully-drawn characters, all of whom we suspect and yet none of which ultimately make complete sense as the killer. It could well be that we’re talking about at least two different culprits in the end – Bremer perhaps is guilty of something (the mention of Vietnam put the idea of a child paedophile ring in my head from out of nowhere, for example) and his cover-up conspiracy may have massively affected the murder investigation because of some overlapping factor; but the killer might be someone else entirely, such as Vagn or Morten. Or even Troels after all …

Safe to say, I can’t wait till next Saturday to find out. And yet at the same time, I dread finding out because that means the end of this superb show. I suspect that when the end comes, I’ll want to go back and rewatch the series from the start and see whether I can get it right second time around and see all the small signs and clues that I’ve missed that would have made this article so much more accurate if only I’d been paying attention at the time …

If you do comment on this story – and please do! – then speculate to your heart’s content but please don’t put in any known spoilers from E19 and 20 until those stories have aired in the UK on BBC4 on March 26. Thanks!

Being Human S3 Ep7/8 – Though the Heavens Fall/The Wolf-Shaped Bullet

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Toby Whithouse’s show started as a one-off pilot play about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost in a flatshare, but once it was picked up (and substantially recast) it took on a whole new life of its own. With a US spin-off/remake and three popular and successful series under its belt, it’s been one of the BBC’s few unequivocal genre successes outside of the venerable flagpole Doctor Who franchise (for which Whithouse has also written.)

I thought the first season was a triumph, a blend of genuine sitcom fun with serious drama and outright moments of horror. For my money it lost that ability to ‘balance’ so well in season 2 which was heavily weighted toward the darker and bleaker aspects, and there’s been a notable attempt in season 3 to set time aside for the lighter things in life which has been much to its strength, although sometimes it’s felt that those more fun moments have been wedged in somewhat awkwardly, such as a out-of-place “zombie” episode or werewolf George’s bottle show to visit his dead father’s grave. Perhaps the show’s increasingly complicated relationships and mythology gets in the way of the central part of the show reconnecting with that lighter elements. Of course, by the time of the big season finale two-parter there was no longer any time for the fun things and it was all-action and very, very heavy and dramatic.

For one thing we had the return of ‘evil’ version Herrick, after several episodes of the vampire being locked in the attic with his memory and sanity distant acquaintances. This sounds like a really interesting idea, but while well-written and excellently played by a superb Jason Watkins this somehow wasn’t as satisfying as it sounded on paper, and this was underlined by how wonderful it was to have the out-and-out monster Herrick return for the season finale. Also excellent in the supporting cast were Erin Richards as a dogged detective Nancy (I genuinely didn’t see the twist coming about her shouty boss) and ex-EastEnders star Lacey Turner as ghost Lia, plus Spooks star Nicola Walker hysterically funny in a one-episode cameo as a social worker and George Gently‘s Lee Ingleby as a late addition “Old One” stealing several scenes in the final 20 minutes. The biggest guest star name was undoubtedly Robson Green, and he was faultless as hardened werewolf McNair.

In the main cast, Sinead Keenan has really come into her own as George’s werewolf girlfriend Nina and finally made to be a strong addition to the core cast; meanwhile Lenora Crichlow’s ghostly Annie finally got some strong storylines that really drove the series rather than just end up being a comedy B-plot off to one side. If there was a character who had become slightly sidelined in this series it was George, played by the wonderful Russell Tovey, which might explain the need for that “dead dad” bottle story; but he certainly came back in strength for the final episode where the resolution revolved around his relationship with his vampire best friend Mitchell, played by Aidan Turner.

If there’s one person who has been made a star by this show, it’s Aidan Turner. Since the start of Being Human he’s already been the lead in Desperate Romantics and had a major role in BBC4’s Hattie, and now he’s been cast in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming The Hobbit films. His influence on the show is such that the US remake of the series even rechristened the Mitchell character ‘Aidan’. And he certainly dominates the season, with his downwardly-spiralling Mitchell consumed by guilt over dark deeds driving the series forward. His romantic scenes with Crichlow have been both touching and comic, while the look on his face as he arranged for detective Nancy to visit “Uncle Billy” in the attic was a shocking look of dark, evil cunning.

Look away now if you haven’t seen the end of the series and want to avoid spoilers

The problem with the season is that Mitchell’s downwards spiral had left him irredeemable and beyond the point of no return. His fate was inevitable from early on, and while the final scene is nicely played it still ends the only way it can given the season arc – with Mitchell staked and dead. It’s the right ending for the season, but it’s also the right ending for the show which has always been about his and George’s friendship more than anything else (and guess who gets to do the staking?) It’s where the show should finish, which makes the news that a fourth season has been commissioned all the more surprising.

Of course, being dead in a genre series does not need to be final, or even much of an obstacle. But Turner’s presumably now spending a year or more on Hobbit duty in New Zealand which is a bigger, more practical problem for the show: without Mitchell’s dark presence the series loses a lot of its dark core and narrative drive. Who really wants to see a show about a well-adjusted werewolf couple with their once-a-month problem and their ghost lodger, without the ever-present danger of the bloodsucker flatmate and the vampire clans? On a purely commercial level, these days a series that doesn’t have a ‘vampire’ on its cast roll loses a huge amount of marquee pulling power. Most of all, Being Human without Mitchell is just … wrong. It wouldn’t work, nor would pulling in some “Mitchell substitute” to fill the vampire-shaped hole in the dynamic (although Craig Robert’s teenage vampire Adam who appeared in one eponymous episode before being spun out to a digital-only mini-series could be a possibility.)

There have been times during this season where my attention has wandered and I’ve had to force myself to pay attention to it – not a good sign. That certainly doesn’t apply to the riveting two-part finale, and the season as a whole has had some impressive high points, but while the slaying of Mitchell is undoubtedly a dramatic coup per excellence to end the show with I’m not sure I’m minded to return for another series if he stays staked – or that willing to forgive them a “beyond the stake resurrection” either, come to that. Whithouse may just have written a cliffhanger from which Being Human can’t be saved.

JAG S8 E20/21 – Ice Queen/Meltdown

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I’m feeling under the weather this week, which might explain why I’m taking refuge in some old TV viewing while sniffling and sneezing my way through the day. Hot on the heels of yesterday’s review of the pilot episode of the ultimate comfort viewing series Murder, She Wrote comes another US pilot – that for NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service (as it is officially known), currently the top-rated drama series on American TV amazingly enough.

As opposed to a traditional stand-alone pilot project, this actually appeared as a two-part instalment in a different series called JAG: we’re more used to seeing this today, with the CSI franchise launching spin-offs with a story in the parent series used to set up the new series, and Criminal Minds has recently done the same – as has NCIS itself with its new LA-set offspring. JAG itself never really made much of an impact here in the UK (although it circulates through on cable channels such as Hallmark/Universal, so at least the episodes do air occasionally as part of the normal run of episodes as opposed to the rarely-aired Murder, She Wrote pilot) partly because it was always very militaristic and then after 9/11 cranked up the ultra right-wing patriotism to full-on bombast which played very poorly outside the American heartland. Fortunately NCIS reigned this sort of thing in, although in this pilot there’s still some whooping and hollering by the series regulars at a display of ‘extraordinary rendition’ in action and some interrogation involving keeping a prisoner naked and chained, which is uncomfortably fascist.

The two episodes are very strange indeed as instalments of JAG: despite being in the episode credits as usual, that series’ regulars barely appear in the first episode, which instead follows the NCIS investigation of the death of a pregnant naval lawyer. The first of the two parts is almost exactly how NCIS was formatted when it started to air in its own right, and most of the characters are present and correct from the start: David McCallum’s Ducky is a little creepier and more of a skirt-chaser than the amiable eccentric uncle he would become; Pauley Perrette’s Abby is toned down and less confident; Michael Weatherly’s DiNozzo is younger, more casual and less of a smart-ass. But Mark Harmon’s Gibbs arrives fully formed and lends credence to the idea that the series was always a vehicle specifically created for him after his popular turn as Secret Service agent Simon Donovan in the 2002 season of The West Wing the preceding year. The pilot also includes Alan Dale as the NCIS director, indicating that his role in the eventual series was expected to be rather larger than it proved to be.

The one character that really, really doesn’t work is Robyn Lively’s former FBI agent Vivian Blackadder, who is humourless and grates badly not to mention screwing up a vital mission. No wonder she wasn’t invited back and got replaced by Sasha Alexander’s much warmer Secret Service Agent Todd (until she too was replaced by Cote de Pablo as Ziva.) The other major change is that the “corpse-eye view” sequences depicted in a 60s psychedelic false colour – which are really odd and off-putting – are fortunately dropped before NCIS went to series.

After the first episode of the two-parter, Ice Queen, which ends in the arrest of JAG series lead character Harmon Rabb for the murder, the story then defocuses from the NCIS team and takes time to establish the lawyers for Rabb’s trial – the OCD defence attorney played by Alicia Coppola and the laid-back, disorganised prosecutor played by Michael Muhney. Its odd that these two get such screen time which is already bursting at the seams trying to fit in both JAG and NCIS cast and makes you think that maybe the original idea for NCIS had more of a “law/investigation” and “order/trial” format in mind. (Coppola’s character did indeed make three appearances in NCIS.) And even then, the trial is wrapped up with 10 minutes to spare to allow the NCIS team to retake centre stage for an overseas anti-terrorism raid in Tunisia which suggests that this sort of guns-blazing undercover strand was intended to be a big part of the NCIS series (instead of having to wait for the LA spin-off to pick this action thread up in any depth.)

Pilots are always interesting to see “where it all began” and also what worked right away and what didn’t. Plenty about NCIS exists right from the first scenes but there’s enough distractions around the periphery to make you think that it could very easily have gone off in totally the wrong direction if they hadn’t been careful – or at least lucky.

Murder, She Wrote Pilot – “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes”

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I cheerfully admit a weakness for cosy whodunnit crime books, and this Angela Lansbury series was surely the cosiest and one of the longest running of the genre on television. It’s my idea of comfort viewing – the televisual equivalent of apple pie and custard, which works thanks to its familiarly formulaic structure and the warm presence of Lansbury at the centre. The series is endlessly repeated on BBC Daytime and on UK Alibi, but curiously the feature-length first/pilot episode is rarely aired these days so I was keen to go back and see “where it all began.”

In many ways this was Lansbury’s ‘retirement plan’ after a lifetime of film and stage success in much higher quality but less well paying roles. But she certainly works for it: for the vast majority of the series’ 12 years she’s the only recurring character and in virtually every scene. Compare that to the way modern stars complain about the work they have in an ensemble drama where the work load is shared by up to a dozen regulars and you’ll have some appreciation of Lansbury’s work ethic despite being almost 60 even when the series began. Her star power certainly gave the producers access to big Hollywood names they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and the pilot duly features Brian Keith, Arthur Hill, Anne Francis and Ned Beatty – and Anne Ramsey in a cameo as a bus bag lady on the eve of her late-life movie stardom in The Goonies and Throw Momma From The Train.

Created by William Link and Richard Levinson who had previously devised the Colombo series, the pilot hits the ground running with Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher suddenly finding her book published and a bestseller, throwing her into a trip to the Big City on a publicity junket, and so it’s very much the story of how she copes being out of her depth – by melting even hardened New Yorkers with her small town charm and homemade recipes for curing corns. As the series went on the character would become more assured (as her literary fame grew) but here Lansbury plays a good many scenes for laughs with a lot of scuttling around and gurning for the camera revealing her old fashioned stage roots at this point, making it interesting to see how much even an old pro has to learn in a new medium. At one point she seems to be intentionally channelling Magaret Rutherford’s version of Miss Marple (Lansbury had just ‘aged up’ to play Marple in a recent big screen version of The Mirror Crack’d before creating this original American version of Christie’s sleuth.)

As a result you catch her ‘acting’ more in this pilot than in most of the series where she became so natural and at ease many viewers felt she wasn’t even acting but just being herself (the curse of many a star of a long-running show.) The pilot actually gives her more to do than the typical series instalment, with a romantic interest touchingly played by her and Hill, and an outcome that is presented as truly heart-breaking for the character despite the preceding light comedy. The pilot doesn’t quite play fair with the whodunnit aspect, relying on a literary reference that only makes sense when some background facts are introduced right at the denouement; the series when it got underway would learn how to put all the facts in evidence during the show, rather as Agatha Christie was always scrupulously careful to do in her novels. It doesn’t hurt the pilot but it’s a little annoying and means it’s all but impossible to guess who the murderer is, with most of the running time given over to a red herring theft plot.

It’s not world-changing TV, it’s not edgy or different. But Murder, She Wrote is the ultimate in professional, well-put together and thoroughly enjoyable light drama entertainment which is easy to watch and to appreciate, and Angela Lansbury shines as one of the true stars of her generation.

Doctor Who S19 E9-12 – Kinda

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Kinda is one of the original Doctor Who serials to be very well regarded – indeed, its stock has risen considerably in the intervening years since its first airing in 1982. Coming at a point of a major renaissance of the show following the departure of Tom Baker and the arrival of Peter Davison in the title role, it mixes themes of colonialism with some very deep Buddhist teachings and is very unlike most Doctor Who serials of its age – although in another sense it was following on from a pattern laid down in the previous season of the series with Warrior’s Gate in having one surreal, abstract story in among the more normal alien invasion/science fiction/pseudo-historical fare.

Children who watched it at the time would have been fairly lost by the highly philosophical concepts and disappointed by the lack of any action, fights, guns or even a clear bad guy. The dominant figure is that of security officer Hindle, played by subsequent The Bill regular Simon Rouse, and I remember as a child being perplexed and rather put off by his erratic, hysterical behaviour. In fact, if truth be told, I found the way he was reduced to an infantile state as the serial progressed to be profoundly unsettling without really understanding why; instead, I dismissed it as “I don’t like it.” Being older and marginally wiser now, watching Rouse’s performance as the mentally disintegrating Hindle left me gob-smacked and deeply in awe as one of the more honest, accurate and raw portrayals of a man having a complete nervous breakdown that I can remember seeing on television – which makes it still as profoundly unsettling as it was when I was a kid, although at least now I understand why. How Rouse then ended up stuck in a police soap for 20 years is a mystery and a waste.

The strength of this serial is in the stunningly big name supporting cast: as well as Rouse, there’s also Richard Todd – yes, the star of Hollywood films and The Dam Busters; Nerys Hughes, who was one of the biggest TV stars around at the time; and also the brilliant Mary Morris as an old, blind wise woman. All of them are excellent and well suited to the characters, and by no means evidence of the “stunt casting” which became tiresomely routine in later years. The DVD also reveals another future star is in the show: one of the child extras brought in during the third episode is a seven-year-old Jonny Lee Miller.

Watching the story with the optional information subtitles, it was fascinating to read just how much at odds the writer (Christopher Bailey) and director (series stalwart Peter Grimwade) were in their vision for the story – Grimwade was trying to wrestle it into a more ‘normal’ Who structure while Bailey found this to be undermining and dumbing down the story’s point. Bailey shouldn’t take it personally, as Grimwade was apparently falling out with everyone – Davison describes the on-set atmosphere as somewhere between mutinous and homicidal toward the end. In fact this is one of the occasions when the friction probably proved a creative advantage and the eventual balance achieved is for the best, because in its ‘pure’ state Bailey’s script had some big problems, not least the fact that no one seemed to have told him that Tom Baker was no longer the Doctor, or that there were three companions to write for. One has to be parked back “asleep” in the Tardis for the whole story, another hardly appears for one episode, and only the oft-derided Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has a constant presence. Instead, the Doctor takes up with colonial scientist Todd (Hughes’ character) as his main companion figure, seemingly to allow for the chance of a spark of romantic interest. As a whole, it all feels very unlike a Who story with the Doctor almost shoe-horned in as an observer into a stand-alone tale, which may be a weakness for some viewers but it allows the story and the guest characters to really blossom into a full-realised, realistic and fascinating environment.

It’s not a perfect story: Adrian Mills (yes, him off of That’s Life) is weak in a key role; instead, series regular Janet Fielding is only allowed a couple of scenes as the “possessed” Tegan when her evil persona could and should have been the outright star of the show (her scenes in the surreal black “wherever” with another The Bill longtime regular Jeffrey Stewart are eerie and brilliant). The show is also totally studio-bound despite being set in a forest paradise with all the problems that implies; although actually I have a weakness for a good studio artificial forest set no matter how fake it looks, as I find the “unreality” works better for an alien world than going on location in a familiar English countryside, garden or the inevitable quarry setting.

But the biggest problem with the original serial was the FX of a giant snake at the climax, which looked like an inflatable bouncy castle and totally shattered any suspension of disbelief even for kids of the day. On the commentary track (which features Davison, Fielding, Waterhouse and Hughes) all four actors deride the bouncy snake and petition for the DVD creators to create new CGI FX for the sequence, which has subsequently been done. It’s one of the most effective bits of retro-FX work I’ve seen, and almost certainly the new CGI snake would have been too realistic and traumatic for the target audience at the time: it’s really quite startlingly chilling and a world away from bouncy castles. The commentary track as a whole is a delight and is the closest thing you’ll get to sitting down to watch a programme with a bunch of well-informed friends as you could hope to get, with all four participants getting on really well – even Matthew Waterhouse, who still sometimes comes over as being as potentially weird and sulky as his on-screen character Adric from 30 years ago. He takes the inevitable ribbing from the others good-naturedly when the old anecdote is trotted out about how he offered to ‘tutor” movie legend Richard Todd in the art of TV acting with all the benefit of his two years experience on the small screen.

But let’s finish off with some words of praise: first for Peter Howell, who despite working with very dated synthesiser sounds for much of the background music, does come up with some stunning sound design for windchimes, the “shriek” of the Mara, and the disturbing soundscape of the black “wherever” which Howell himself feared could be too much for children to handle. (Naturally, we loved it). And the story contains one of the most iconic visual shots I remember from the show – a zoom into the eye of Fielding’s character Tegan and into her black subconscious in one ‘take’ thanks to the loan to the show of then-revolutionary Quantel video effects equipment. It’s still a brilliant moment, augmented with another great bit of sound design from Howell as well.

Kinda has just been released on DVD as part of the Mara Tales boxset with Snakedance, the sequel to this story which is not quite as good and has less originality, but the two make a perfect pairing and one of the series’ stronger boxset offerings and well worth purchasing, with some excellent-as-ever special features. The video restoration for Kinda is once again outstanding, with the first two episodes given a depth and vibrancy of colour and contrast that makes it look far better than I remember it from the original broadcast (although for some reason the picture goes softer and flater in episode three.)

The Alchemist’s Secret – by Scott Mariani

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If the novels of Dan Brown and Lee Child were laid out on an autopsy table and forensically dissected and analysed, then put back together again by a decent literary technician, this is pretty much what you would expect to get as the end result.

Hence an obvious Jack Reacher-inspired hero is parachuted into a story that seems cookie-cutter produced from Brown’s best known works: secretive millionaires, secret extremist religious group, a homicidal fanatic, and a trail of clues from history leading to one of the best known hidden secrets of all time – in this case, the alchemists’ Holy Grail of eternal life and how to change base metal into gold, rather than the Holy Grail itself. The book pads out the rest of its pages with plot and style drawn from films, so that the central relationship between the hero and a female scientist is inspired straight from those rom-coms where the pair hate each other on sight but predictably fall into each others’ arms in the final reel. The good guy is unequivocally heroic (he has a vague drink problem, but that’s forgiven by being the result of a childhood tragedy) and the bad guys blacker than black. Interestingly it seems the good guys drive Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots in the French-set story, while the bad guys all drive German cars – it’s not exactly subtle.

Its lack of ambition for any originality is really rather depressing: it’s the literary equivalent of popcorn, an impressive amount of volume but almost no calorific content, a meal that’s forgotten almost before you’ve finished eating it. At least the prose is an improvement of Dan Brown’s execrable tomes (although it simultaneously also shows up just deceptively well told and nuanced Lee Child’s best-sellers are.) It manages to be be perfectly readable, retaining Brown’s annoying readability strategy of continual “just one more chapter” cliffhangers and proceeding at a fair clip. The language is kept very simple, the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters are all very short – it’s writing for people who don’t generally read or have attention deficit problems, and has something of the air of a ‘young adult’ series (something that’s actually been planned by the publishers, apparently.)

Still it’s a perfectly fine holiday beach book – something that’ll be diverting enough while your brain is on auto-pilot. It’s also ideal to read on an e-reader like a Kindle or an iPad. The historical background of alchemy and its relationship with first the Catholic church and later the Nazis is interesting in its own right. However, the book’s smugness on its level of research is undermined by some mistakes in some of the incidental modern day background about cars, and later by some odd mishandling of timings that makes no sense and should have been picked up by the editors.

Overall, there’s enough untapped potential in both the lead character and the author to make me interested in revisiting later books in the series (there are now six – five of them in two and a half years). If the series can shake off its slavish adherence to pastiching existing best-sellers and find its own groove, language and direction then there’s certainly enough promise of talent to make it work.

Marchlands: S1 E1-5

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So ITV’s Marchlands time-hopping ghostly mini-series came to an end this week, and left me … Puzzled. Not because the story wasn’t clear – in fact, quite the reverse. (Some mild spoilers ahoy, for those who haven’t seen all the episodes yet.)

But let’s start with the positives: how nice and refreshing to see a prime time series that isn’t about cops or docs, and which tries to do something different and does it at least reasonably successfully (as opposed to, say, the BBC’s Outcasts sci-fi flop: and even that still mostly concentrated on the cops on an alien world.) It’s the latest in a strong run of drama from ITV, something I had once given up all hope for in these days of continuing Britain’s-Got-X-Factor-on-ice tedium. Instead ITV should be praised for putting a huge amount of investment in drama, from Downton Abbey to franchised efforts like Law and Order: UK and for really delivering some class work along the way.

Marchlands was incredibly well directed and designed – the three time periods of the 1960s, 1980s and current day were impeccably recreated and evoked so there was no question of which era we were in at any time. The writing skilfully twisted the narrative of the three strands so that they connected and sparked themes across the years. And the acting was top notch all round, with reliably excellent turns from the likes of top pros Denis Lawson, Alex Kingston and Anne Reid as well as from new faces such as Jodie Whittaker and Jamie Thomas King, with some consistently good juvenile turns from all the child actors as well. If I were to single anyone out, then I was particularly struck by Dean Andrews – someone I never took to in Life on Mars but who was terrifically warm and natural here – and also Tessa Peake-Jones, once Del Boy’s cheery wife in Only Fools and Horses … but here expertly transformed into the absolute chilly essence of everyone’s nightmare of a 1960s mother-in-law.

So there was a lot to admire in this series. It’s just that, when it came down to it, I wasn’t entirely sure what the final result was, or what the series was trying to do. It was initially promoted as a ghost story chiller, but as the series wound on it seemed that the ghost was almost a red herring and a bit of an irrelevance, a way of generating some suspense and a cliffhanger when needed, a plot contrivance to link the years together but never really contributing to the substance of the story (or rather, stories.) There was the potential murder-mystery of the 60s Alice’s death, but this too turned out to have less to it than had been hinted at, the solution easily guessed and finally confirmed to be just a dreadful but straightforward tragic accident. And the cross-time narrative was simply a way of spicing up what proved, ultimately, to be three separate-but-linked family relationship dramas. It never had any real clever use for the multiple-time set-up and failed to cross-fertilise the time strands in any inventive or imaginative way that a writer like Steven Moffat, for example, would have devised.

In the end it proved to be a solid piece of work exceptionally well made, but less than the sum of its parts and rather a disappointing anti-climax after so much expert foreplay. I never really worked out what it was trying to be; and I suspect that the series itself never really quite knew either, or had the self-confidence to make the choice.

Perry Mason S1 E23 – The Case of the One-Eyed Witness

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And now after that little Oscar frenzy, back to what this blog should be about – quick reviews of things. You’ll be getting used to the idea that I really like vintage 50s and 60s TV dramas, and here’s further evidence of that with the selection of a 1957 episode of the all-time classic crime/lawyer show Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr as the legendary defence attorney who never loses a case.

These days, such shows are sadly deemed too old to air on TV anymore (there’s an idea – if I were a millionaire I could set up a cable station to air round-the-clock vintage TV shows) so most people today will only know the character through the series of formulaic, bland 1980s TV movie revivals starring an ailing Burr just before he died. If that’s the case it’s a shock to see these 50 minute gems – sharply written, with Burr a man of action able to outwit the opposition in some incredibly complex, twisting plots. Although filmed 5 years before UK television did The Avengers, the production values are head and shoulders better: where the British were still grappling with just how to film theatrical rep plays for the screen, the Americans simply diverted their B-movie machine with decades of screen experience toward the television medium instead, and the professionalism shines through at all levels.

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness is a mid-first season instalment when the series was really finding its feet. It was adapting the original stories from Erle Stanley Gardner and so here you get a 240-page novella packed into a single episode and it moves at breathless pace, so much so that despite that fact the episode plays absolutely fair and leaves all the clues right there in plain sight, you still have to be going some to figure it out in time. It almost manages to sneak past one of those cardinal rule “don’t believe anything until you’ve seen the body” twists, and then audaciously parks the Big Reveal right there in public in the courtroom for a 10 minute scene that no one notices. Few modern shows would have that sort of patience or subtlety, or confidence that it could get away with it.

What makes the story so delicious is that absolutely everyone is lying, deceiving and plotting against everyone else – sometimes for good reasons, often not. Even Perry’s secretary Della Street (the classy Barbara Hale, one of the show’s real assets) is put in a situation where she had to hide facts from her boss, while meanwhile the DA and lead cop on the case are seen to commit what can only be described as blatant witness tampering. Even Perry’s hiding things from us: he seems to commit a blunder in court (asking a witness a question that leads to the direct implication of his client) before suddenly revealing that he was just laying a trap to which we were not privy in a bravura climax.

If you like 1930s and 1940s film noir films and B-movies then the Perry Mason series will be a little gold mine of treasures for you, and you could do a lot worse than start with this episode or the 4-5 that precede it. Or, to be honest, most of the episodes so far in season 1 – it really is great stuff.

Oscars night 2011 – in the rear view mirror

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So the Oscars came, and the Oscars went, and the most surprising thing was perhaps how efficient but airless it was: it got the job done, but it was a mainly joyless affair with the two young actor hosts notable only by their near-invisibility in proceedings. Things only really picked up when former host Billy Crystal made a cameo appearance and showed how to fill the room with some energy; and while Kevin Spacey and Robert Downey Jr auditioned for the gig next year.

Looking back, I think I did reasonably well with my list of predictions, although to be honest they were all pretty obvious selections for the most part. What really came across was just how ‘safe’ the Academy were playing it this year: faced with a selection of good and some really interesting films, they seemed to make a reflexive grasp for something cosy and familiar. How else how to explain the Best Director award going to a young British TV director only just starting to get a sense of his cinematic style and vision, than as a sign that the Academy panicked, didn’t know who else to vote for, and went for the security blanket of a classy, old-fashioned British drama that reminded them of cinema’s undoubted glory days? Or that the two Best Supporting acting awards went to the most clichéd Oscar-baiting displays of ostentatious acting of the year? It seems you only stand a chance of winning an acting Oscar if the audience is allowed to clearly see you acting your socks off – which is not how it’s meant to be. At least Natalie Portman won despite the divisive Marmite feel of the film she starred in, Black Swan, which was clearly too way out for the Academy’s overwhelmingly ageing demographic.

It’s a shame that the “safety first” decisions got in the way: frankly, The Social Network still deserved far better than it got but it was simply too fresh, too new and too stylised for the Academy or else Jesse Eisenberg’s mesmerising central performance in a unique part would have beaten Colin Firth’s obligatory “Oscar for playing a Member of the Royal Family.” Don’t get me wrong, as a Brit I’m absolutely delighted for Firth (and indeed for Christian Bale as Best Supporting Actor) and they both gave two terrific acceptance speeches – I just think the Academy went for the ‘safe’ or ‘obvious’ Oscar route in both cases.

It is interesting, though, how the awards were rather shared out this year and no film really dominated. Sure, The King’s Speech won the headline awards of Film, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay, but that was only 4 out of the 12 nominations it went into the evening with; Inception, despite thought-provoking science fiction clearly not generally being to the Academy’s taste, won 4 as well (out of 8 nominations – does that make it “more” successful?) although it was getting its love from the technical Academicians – Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and of course Effects. The Social Network slumped to just three (Adapted Screenplay, Score and Editing) as if the Academy really wanted to stamp home the message “yes – well written, well made, but not a Fincher film.” Heck, even the much-derided Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland came away with two Oscars (Art Direction and Costume Design) as did The Fighter with its two supporting actor/actress nods, while The Wolfman(!) ended up with one for Makeup – although really that should be seen as a well-deserved lifetime achievement award for the great Rick Baker.

If there is a real loser this year – and a real surprise at that – it’s True Grit. It came in with ten nominations, second only to The King’s Speech, and went away with nothing at all. The shutout meant that two nominees that I really felt deserved an Oscar – Hailee Steinfeld and Roger Deakins – were cruelly robbed. The Coen Brothers have been Oscar darlings in the past (Best Film, Best Director for 2007’s No Country for Old Men) so what have they done to hack off the Academy in the meantime? Or maybe it’s just the genre that the Academy have no love for any more? Personally I wonder whether the Academy didn’t pick up on the underlying feeling to the film that the Coen Brothers just simply didn’t understand the Western nearly as well as they thought they did and needed to, and accidentally ended up making a bit of a superficial pastiche in the process.

And there are some mysteries about the Oscars I’ll never understand: how did The King’s Speech win Best Original Screenplay when it’s based on the diaries of speech therapist Lionel Logue and any number of historical documents and memoirs, when the wholly original Inception goes unrecognised? How can Toy Story 3 be in contention for Best Adapted Screenplay for a totally new story, just because it’s a sequel? Yeesh.

Ahh well, that’s enough. The Oscars are done and we can forget about them all for another 12 months. It won’t be hard to put them out of mind; I can barely remember the specifics already, the morning after the night before.

Oscars night 2011 – roll on up, place your bets

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So it’s Oscar night over in Hollywood, and I think that makes it mandatory for every review-inclined blog to troop out at least one post on the subject of who will win, no matter how ill-informed. Since I haven’t seen most of the pictures that have nominations, my opinion is even more ill-informed than usual – but what the heck, let’s roll into the spirit of the thing and trot out a few guesses and groundless preferences.

Best Actor seems a lock for Colin Firth. It’s one of those ‘perfect alignment’ moments, where an actor is playing the perfect role for an Oscar but also at the moment when everyone’s thinking “y’know, really he should have got it last year for A Single Man” so there’s a sense of obligation to put the situation right. It’s rather like that moment in Just a Minute where Nicholas Parsons redresses an earlier benefit of the doubt, so it would be truly shocking if Firth didn’t win for his role as King George VI in The King’s Speech. Arguably James Franco (the Oscar night co-host with Anne Hathaway) should get it for being the only man on screen in 127 Hours but then if screen time was a decisive factor then where is Ryan Reynolds for Buried, arguably a much more effective film and indeed solo performance? I rather wish Jesse Eisenberg had a shot at the award for his incredibly strong performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, but he doesn’t – he’s too new and young, which makes the Academy feel uncomfortably old, so he’ll have to wait a few years and pay his dues. And having actually seen Jeff Bridges in True Grit, all I can say is that it was a decent performance no doubt, but if that’s the Oscar-winning role of the year then Hollywood really isn’t paying attention and certainly not at the level of his Crazy Heart performance that won him the Best Actor Oscar just last year.

Best Actress seems a lock right now for Natalie Portman for Black Swan, which in itself is a bit of a “Marmite” movie (love it or hate it) but at least everyone seems to agree that her performance itself is stand-out memorable and fantastic. Her closest rival is probably Annette Benning for The Kids Are All Right, but Benning seems to have slipped up with her “I don’t care about any of this” early refusal to take part in the Oscar beauty parade and may have left it too late to repair the damage, which is a shame because her performance – rather like Eisenberg as Zuckerberg – takes a hard-edged, initially unsympathetic character and makes it work against expectations. The best performance of all is probably Michelle Williams, but the way that Blue Valentine has been treated in other categories looks like the Academy isn’t particularly well disposed toward it.

I haven’t heard much chatter about Best Supporting Actor which probably means it will default to The King’s Speech nominee Geoffrey Rush, although Christian Bale’s flashy performance in The Fighter stands a chance because the Academy can’t resist an ostentatious display of overacting and some good old fashioned method weight loss. Over in Best Supporting Actress the scandal of the year has been Melissa Leo’s over-zealous self-promotion for her role in The Fighter against co-star and fellow category nominee Amy Adams. The controversy and film duplication will probably knock them both out, leaving it to Helena Bonham Carter – admittedly fabulous as the Queen Mother (to be) in The King’s Speech and frankly long overdue an Oscar; and Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit who absolutely deserves it – and at 14, she is under that age that makes Academy members jealous and instead makes them go “awww, isn’t she terrific for a kid?”, so she may pull it off. I certainly hope so, but I have to confess Bonham Carter wouldn’t be a bad choice either.

In other categories, hard to believe Toy Story 3 won’t win Best Animated Picture rather like The Return of the King got the best picture nod for The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a whole; I’ll be cheering Roger Deakins for his brilliant work on True Grit in Best Cinematography; I’ll be hoping the provoking, controversial and important Inside Job wins Best Documentary, and I’ll be speechless if Inception doesn’t at least win Best Visual Effects for its brilliant, fascinating dreamscapes.

Talking of Inception, the Academy has already blighted this year’s nominee list by the omission of Christopher Nolan for Best Director which is just shocking given that one of the year’s biggest and best films was such a personal project and vision and which would never have been made without him. I hope at the very least they’re embarrassed into giving him Best Original Screenplay for the film – and as for Best Adapted Screenplay, as far as I’m concerned that just has to be Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network, no question.

As for the the director award, I’d say that it’s a three-way fight between Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan, David Fincher for The Social Network and the Coen Brothers for True Grit – I’d be surprised if British director Tom Hooper stood a chance for The King’s Speech, and David O. Russell will only win if we’re in the middle of a landslide evening for The Fighter. Oddly, Fincher doesn’t seem to be particularly keen on winning the Oscar for his film: as a renowned control freak he probably isn’t wild about the amount of control and attention writer Aaron Sorkin’s been getting for the film, and given that The Social Network has become a “tale of two auteurs” it’s probably not right that he should win for this and not for, say, Zodiac which was much more of an authentic “Fincher” film. I would be happy to see the Oscar go to the Coens for True Grit, but as my review a couple of days ago said, I tend to have “issues” with Coen Brothers films and so I’m not entirely sold. Instead, I have a sneaking feeling that this category is Aronofsky’s to lose.

And finally to Best Picture. The category’s been expanded to ten nominees to crank up the tension but really most of these don’t stand a chance – Inception in particular is a lame duck, unless everyone’s feeling very, very guilty about the Nolan omission indeed. Early on in 2010 this seemed like a shoe-in for The Social Network; then True Grit came along, and then the betting flirted with 127 Hours. Black Swan has rarely featured because of its divisive Marmite taste. Right now it seems like a lock for The King’s Speech. Personally I hope it defaults back to the first of those films and that Fincher/Sorkin’s collaboration walks away with the top prize, but I suspect the betting is right and that king trumps billionaire.

And now we can all sit back and see how completely wrong I am.

True Grit (2010) – a bleak sunset in the West

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I’m a relative newcomer to Westerns, having mainly scoffed at them until I was dragged along to a digital showing of a remastered The Searchers at the BFI by a friend five years ago. Since then I’ve got to know and like the genre rather better, and would even go so far as so class 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as my favourite film of that year. I was certainly very much looking forward to seeing this much-lauded Oscar-nominated new adaptation of True Grit. I come out of it, as so often the case when I watch Coen Brothers films, with mixed feelings.

It’s common these days in studies of the Western to talk about ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ examples of the genre, and the film seeks to have and balance both at the same time. For the latter, there is an unflinching look at the harsh reality and brutality of the life in the 1870s’ American West, from casual racism (the Indian denied his last words before being hanged) to every urine, sweat and vomit stain on Rooster Cogburn’s long johns as he sleeps fitfully in a cot at the back of the local butchers among the animal detritus – this film seeks an unflinching physical realism at all times. The big bad bogeyman, when finally tracked down, is as wretched and pathetic a wreck as you can imagine, rather than the evil devil Mattie Ross needs him to be if he’s to be worthy of slaying her father. And the land around them is also an emphatic character – cold, harsh, drained of colour. It’s beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins who also shot The Assassination of Jesse James … – but whereas that film has dazzling drop-dead gorgeous vistas, this film refuses anything remotely “pretty”. This scenery is plain and ordinary, or threatening and alien, an environment to be endured rather than admired; a hostile place where the land would much rather see you dead than suffer you to live off it.

But at the same time the underlying story on which it is based (the 1968 novel by Charles Portis) is a distinctly conventional story of Wild West revenge, with main characters and character arcs quaintly old fashioned. It’s clear from the start that Mattie Ross will overcome scorn and derision to prove her worth; that LaBoeuf will finally earn those dandy spurs; and that the irredeemable wreck of a man, Cogburn, will be redeemed by a pure love. And they’ll get their man too: but in true revisionist style, it will be at a cost. In fact the film’s strapline is “punishment comes one way or another”, and this is a film where any victory, no matter how small, invariably comes with a high physical or emotional cost to all parties.

Even so, I expect John Wayne would still be quite happy and at home starring in this film. And Wayne is in some ways the film’s biggest problem because of the huge shadow he casts: every scene featuring Jeff Bridges, you can help but remember (or imagine, if you haven’t seen the 1969 original film version) how Wayne would do it, and truth is that it’s not that far apart – Cogburn is still rather too larger than life, over the top and borderline cartoonish for the hard, realistic context of the rest of the film. By contrast, Matt Damon has infinitely more shading to work with when it comes to the role of LaBoeuf (and to be fair far less competition from his filmic predecessor: Glen Campbell is many things but actor was never one of them) and as for Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie – well, every bit of hyperbolic praise you’ve heard about her are true. Only, double them. (And it’s a crime that not only is she not nominated for Best Actress, her name isn’t even on the poster – while Josh Brolin’s cameo inexplicably warrants banner billing alongside Bridges and Damon. Absurd.)

Ultimately, the terms ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ simply don’t fit. The tag that does is ‘elegiac’ – in the sense of this being truly an elegy not for a lost time of place, but for a lost genre. It comes not to praise the Western, but to bury it once and for all. After all the physical reality of the West, the styling of the film is strangely more of a romanticised pastiche: from the opening Southern-drawl voice-over, to the nostalgic country guitar-picking soundtrack and final scenes set in a Wild West touring sideshow, this falls back into the familiar techniques and tropes of a Ken Burns documentary. We’re seeing a film of the West that no longer has any personal connection with its subject, not even memories of the Wayne films and classic 50s TV shows, just recent sepia-tinted reconstructions. We are so far removed now from the era depicted that it is irrevocably lost to us. Everyone who truly remembered any part of the West has passed on, and so have all those that knew them – we’re now on third- or fourth-hand memories. The West is no longer real – as it was to John Ford and Raoul Walsh when they started making films in the 1920s – but folklore, myth and fantasy fixed in amber.

Never has the Western felt more lost to us in the present day than True Grit makes it: this is no revival of the fortunes of the genre in Hollywood, rather the reverse. The final scenes of the film are set in a graveyard, and the epitaph on the headstone may as well read: “Here lies the Western. Beloved genre, finally laid to rest once and for all with the most tender and lyrical parting kiss.” But the evident sentiment of the filmakers can’t avoid the fact that as far as they are concerned the corpse is still dead, and the ground is now hard and cold.

At the Mountains of Madness – BBC Radio 4 Extra/ Spokenworld Audio

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I’d better start off with a potentially sacrilegious confession: I’m not a fan of HP Lovecraft’s writing. To me, it comes across as wildly overblown purple prose that has aged really badly since it was originally written in the 1930s, often as contributions to then-rather lurid pulp magazines such as Astounding Stories. That overheated style has been mocked and lampooned for so long that it’s impossible for me to take this deathly humourless high-horror style seriously these days. And yet I’m aware that Lovecraft has a huge fan following – including horror giant Stephen King who credits Lovecraft with sparking his own love of the genre and his entire subsequent career – and that his Cthulhu Mythos is a cult in its own right. The guy must be doing something right. Still, I rather suspected that this audio production of At the Mountains of Madness, one of his most famous novellas, would not be for me at all when I first heard it aired on BBC Radio 7 (now BBC Radio 4 Extra) spoken word digital station late last year. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found how much I loved this new adaptation and was totally drawn in.

In brief, the plot is about a scientific expedition to an Antarctican mountain range. One team discovers the deep-frozen remains of a previously unknown creature, and then contact with the team is lost. A follow-up team heads into the mountains and find the impossible: the ruins of the city of a long-dead Antarctic civilisation, pre-dating humankind…

The production’s first strength is the selection of Richard Coyle as the reader. He’s got one of those rich, deep rolling voices that earns a sincere “would listen to him reading the phone book” accolade from me. Strangely, Coyle is one of those actors who never seem to get star ‘name recognition’ despite appearing in hit shows such as Coupling, and he’s been wonderful even when the show or film itself has left much to be desired (hello, Prince of Persia!) He was actually my preferred choice for the Eleventh Doctor Who until Matt Smith popped up and stole the show.

But the real triumph of this adaptation is in Neil Gardner’s production and sound design: while this is an audiobook reading and not an original full-cast production, you’d be hard-pressed 10 minutes in not to think that this wasn’t a fully realised drama. The effect of a full cast is achieved part by the Coyle’s reading, of course, but crucially also by the skilful use of minimal sound effects and background ambience that make this light years away from listening to a man merely reading a book into a microphone. It’s very atmospheric, and totally pulls off selling some of the novella’s more creaky and clunky conceits. Quick mentions also for composer Jon Nicholls who supplies a simple but effective musical score that really adds to the feeling of dread; and also to Paul Kent who abridged Lovecraft’s text skilfully and who manages to cut away a lot of the sprawling verbosity that frankly makes reading the original rather like wading through treacle. (Again, I know this is just my reaction to Lovecraft and won’t be shared by everyone, but I can’t help how I feel.)

In fact, it’s the Lovecraft original story that is the production’s only weak point for me. It’s all build up and tease, and then at the last minute the protagonists scamper away and run and hide without resolving any of the questions, making for a strangely deflated climax. It’s not the production team’s fault, of course – they can’t rewrite the source material when making an audiobook adaptation without angering the fans. If you’ve already read Lovecraft’s original then you’ll know what to expect and undoubtedly be entirely happy with the plot and hence the production’s fidelity to it.

About the best recommendation I can make is to put my money where my mouth is, and sure enough after hearing the BBC Radio 7/4 Extra broadcast, I went off and bought the “director’s cut” audiobook (a version extended by an extra 30 minutes). And if even I can get this excited over Lovecraft and Cthulhu …