Hinterland (BBC4)

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At the risk of being a little cheeky, I’m reposting a tweaked review from January. Originally published as just one part of an article about three new series that week, now that Hinterland is finally getting a national broadcast this week on BBC4 it seemed only right that it gets a fresh airing in a post all of its own.

Technically Hinterland is not a new show: the Welsh language version Y Gwyll was originally broadcast in October and November on the the S4C channel, while the alternate English/Welsh version made at the same time began its run on BBC One Wales on January 4. Although it’s possible to get both Welsh channels on satellite and cable platforms, it was actually via the BBC iPlayer that I saw the latter version back in January. Read the rest of this entry »

Murder on the Home Front (ITV)

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Something of a peculiar beast this one, which is billed as a crime drama following the pioneering early forensic work of a pathologist working in London during the Blitz in 1940.

homefrontI say ‘billed as a crime drama’ because to be honest it feels more like a comedy pastiche at times, right from the opening titles which are impressively and stylishly done but which play exactly like a modern video game. Then there’s the fact that everyone’s so ruddy jolly and perky, busy having illicit sex in blacked-out rooms at the height of air raids, chuckling to their favourite radio show, heading off to dance houses and generally having a whale of a time of it.

The aim is presumably to make the programme full of dark, black humour but if so then it misses the mark because the first half is just too frilly: it ends up making the dark days of World War 2 look infinitely more cheery than living in today’s stressful austerity era, even when there’s a brutal murder or a bombed-out house to investigate. Read the rest of this entry »

Arne Dahl: The Blinded Man Part 1 (BBC4)

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One day, BBC4 is going to stretch its Nordic Noir cloth too thin and the whole thing will unravel on them in an alarming threadbare mess. The channel keeps going back to the same well, going deeper and deeper in the hope of coming up with still-more hidden treasures. So far they’ve actually managed to pull it off with the likes of Wallander, Forbrydelsen, Sebastian Bergman, The Bridge and Borgen, but it can’t last. I approached the latest Scandinavian gambit with some wariness, half expecting this to be the moment when the spell by which Swedish and Danish TV has us in thrall of late would finally be broken.

Well, not this week it turns out. “The Blinded Man”, part one of a crime thriller in two 90 minute parts, was pretty impressive and certainly enjoyable, and I’ll certainly be tuning in again for part two next week. Moreover, it wasn’t just ‘more of the same’ but was a definite evolution of the Nordic Noir brand with some genuinely interesting potential.

This one is based on the Intercrime novels by Arne Dahl, the pen name of respected Swedish novelist and literary critic Jan Arnald. Unlike most crime series there’s no central lone maverick detective like Wallander, Martin Beck, Sebastian Bergman, Taggart, Rebus or Sherlock and so the makers of the TV adaptations have chosen to name the series after the author’s nom de plume rather than any of his characters, which is a little odd but does no harm.

Instead of one lone maverick, there are seven: senior officer Jenny Hultin (Irene Lindh) is given leave to create a specialist team of six officers of her choosing to tackle the most serious crimes, starting with the high-profile serial killings of a number of wealthy financiers. She chooses a bunch of misfits who individually are quite deficient – Paul Hjelm (Shanti Roney) is on the verge of being thrown out of the force for racism after shooting an immigrant in a botched hostage rescue situation – but which when combined make for a potent investigative force.

The expanded cast is a welcome change after years of series with a claustrophobic focus on one troubled detective, and you’ll soon have your favourite: whether it’s over-the-hill Viggo Norlander (Claes Ljungmark) going to absurd lengths to prove he’s still got it, or know-all intelectual Aarto Söderstedt (Niklas Åkerfelt), second-generation Chilean Jorge Chavez (Matias Varela), man-mountain chorister Gunnar Nyberg (Magnus Samuelsson) or the only other woman on the team, Kerstin Holm (Malin Arvidsson).

Watching the seven circle each other warily as they get to know each other in the first outing, adapted from Dahl’s Swedish-language novel “Misterioso”, is at least half the fun of the opening instalment. As for the mystery, the sheer lack of clues and leads is an interesting twist sending them down many blind alleys in the hope of hitting upon the right one sooner or later, giving all the cast something to get their teeth into. So far we’ve touched on secret societies, local sex crimes and organised crime gangs in Estonia, and who’s to say that any of them will figure in the actual denouement? Again, this breadth is quite different and refreshing from the other Nordic Noir shows we’ve seen, which have been laser-focused in their intended direction almost from the very first scene, recently almost to the point of cliché.

Arne Dahl feels more recognisably mainstream and less distinctively Swedish than some of the other shows we’ve seen, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – no country’s artistic output should stay in any one box too long and outstay its welcome. Visually, too, things are different: instead of the dark, gloomy monochrome Sweden we’ve seen in previous series, here is a colourful, bright and vibrant modern country, gleaming and modern as if waiting to be used as the location for a Bourne movie.

Some Nordic Noir fans might not like this change, and could see it as a case of the TV production company making too many concessions to the international market in light of the success of Forbrydelsen. But for me at least, the show retains enough distinctive Scandinavian DNA in it to work while providing something new, fresh and distinct from the shows we’ve become familiar with. As one mark of the show’s modernity, it was a lovely surprise to see the author himself take to Twitter last night to interact with BBC4 viewers during and after the show.

I look forward to seeing how the series develops and getting to know the new characters over time. Whether they prove to be equal to Wallander, Lund, Norén and Rodhe et al remains to be seen, but I’m along for the ride to find out.

The Arne Dahl TV movies air on BBC4 on Saturdays for ten weeks from April 6 at 9pm, with a midweek repeat. They will also be available on BBC iPlayer for seven days after airing. The complete first season will be released on DVD on June 17 2013.

Lewis S7 – Down Among the Fearful

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There’s not much to say about the first story in the new series of Lewis – it’s very much the same old fare, with a languid mystery loosely weaving themes of religious faith involving suspects played by famous actors being played out against the beautiful backdrop of Oxford all set to the seductive lush score by composer Barrington Phelong.

Lewis (Kevin Whately) himself appears to have perked up somewhat since last we saw him, but Hathaway (Laurence Fox) is even more sour than usual, mainly because he’s lumbered with a neck brace from a car accident early on – which seems to have been done purely as a visual gag, and for a final scene pay-off where it comes in handy while making an arrest. Sadly there’s little time for the other two regulars, Dr Hobson (Clare Holman) and DCS Innocent (Rebecca Front) in this one.

All should be well in the premier-class of British TV detective mystery then, right? Well unfortunately, no. The programme itself might be business as usual, but someone at ITV central command has decided to shake things up scheduling wise: instead of showing the story in one two-hour block (as Lewis and its predecessor Inspector Morse have always been ever since 1987), with this series the airing is split into two hour-long chunks separate by a week.

Its possible that I’m just getting to be a grumpy old git who doesn’t like change, but for me at least this completely kills the show. The first part was fine and felt relatively normal, but by the time seven days had gone past I’d largely forgotten the events of the first hour and couldn’t remember who was who or what they were supposed to be up to. Within ten minutes I was so alienated from it that I pretty much stopped watching or caring, and just held on for the scenery and for the performances of Whately and Fox. As for the rest if it, it was a write-off.

The problem is that the pacing and writing of the show just isn’t meant to support a two one-hour episode format: the programme has always worked by a gentle build-up of atmosphere, an accretion of facts and information that slowly forms itself into a solution. It’s simply not a high-impact show with action scenes and tense moments of gripping suspense that you’ll remember in detail a week later. Characters that are introduced early in part one are then largely dropped until they’re required to pop up again for the denouement at the end of part two, which is frustrating rather than satisfying.

I tried to give this new two-part formatting a go, honestly I did; and all I can say is that the experiment was an abject failure as far as I was concerned. If I want to continue watching the show, then since the schedulers now seem to be actively working against me and the programme clearly I’ll have to record the two instalments and watch them later, back-to-back, as a two-hour special.

Or you know what, maybe I just won’t bother. If the channel doesn’t think much of its once-flagship show anymore, maybe I’m just better off following suit.

Lewis is on ITV on Mondays at 9pm. In lamentable one-hour instalments, in case I hadn’t made that entirely clear, so maybe you might prefer to wait for the DVD which is out on February 18, 2013.

Line of Duty E1-3 / Blackout E1-2 (BBC)

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The BBC has chosen July to air two new drama shows that feel like they’re reasonably direct offspring from last year’s The Shadow Line, even though they themselves are quite different from one another. Normally too such dark shows would feel out of place in the middle of summer, but nature had taken care of that and left us with a distinctly cold, dark and wet noir-ish feel to the weather that makes these two shows feel perfectly scheduled after all.

Blackout – the story of an alcoholic, corrupt councillor – is set in some unidentified big city, probably but not necessarily northern, where it rains even more than it does in a typical David Fincher movie, making it an ideal reflection of the 2012 British summer. Of the two shows on offer, Blackout is the one to inherit The Shadow Line’s style genes, with every frame beautifully designed and shot and the whole feel like a shining modern film noir complete with blonde femme fatale and a detectives’ office straight out of a 1940s LA-set crime flick.

The characters are similarly larger than life and overblown, sometimes too much so despite a top notch cast led by Christopher Eccleston and including Dervla Kirwan, Ewen Bremmer, a cameo from David Hayman and a strange role for man of the moment Andrew Scott (recently Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock.) As the noir genre requires, the characters are all deeply flawed but they also aren’t particularly subtle – and neither is the plot. It also doesn’t go in much for realism along the way, with Eccleston’s character apparently able to recover from a shooting, decide to run for major, get on the ballot, run a campaign, win and set up an administration in less time than it takes another character to organise a funeral and bury their father.

Realism is very much the watch word for Line of Duty, however. Written by Jed Mercurio (who created the scathing Cardiac Arrest back when he himself worked in the NHS) the main driving force behind this drama is to show the disastrous bureaucratic shackles that the police have to hack through to do their job. To follow one set of rules invariably means running foul of another set; to do what a superior officer tells you to do one day will earn you a rebuke the next. Finding a way to play the system with optimal effect gives rise to instant suspicion and an investigation. The last thing anyone has the time, inclination or freedom to do in such circumstances is worry about fighting crime.

The whole thing is shot in a very ordinary, realistic fashion (although there are a few nice directorial flourishes here and there) and the performances are very reigned in, portrayed by small grimaces and ticks in extreme close-ups. Lennie James is superb as Gates, the senior officer under investigation; and Martin Compston equally amazing and every bit a match for James as Arnott, the young anti-corruption officer hunting Gates down. Both characters seem quite decent and honourable men in their own ways: Gates cares for his family and about doing his job well and catching the crooks; and Arnott is principled and unbending in standing by the truth only to find himself hated for it. But each man is trapped by his past missteps, and also now by the mutually destructive vendetta that breaks out between them as a misunderstanding and the action of others.

Of the two shows, it’s probably apparent from the preceding paragraphs that I much prefer Line of Duty. When it sets aside its unsubtle agenda forever referring to filling out risk assessment paperwork during a high speed car pursuit and by health and safety and adherence to targets, it’s also the show that delivers The Shadow Line’s inheritance of being a gripping and highly unpredictable conspiracy thriller about real, believable characters that you genuinely get involved in. With the latest turn of the storyline there’s a risk that the final two episodes will go over the top, but I have high hopes that it will be able to steer on the right side of histrionics to the end.

The more style-over-substance Blackout doesn’t match up to this, but it’s nonetheless a more than worthwhile watch that is very entertaining and absorbing in its own way. It’s rather a shame it comes along at the same time as Line of Duty and so soon after The Shadow Line making comparisons inevitable, because Blackout comes off second best in that company while actually being a very welcome piece of accomplished original drama in its own right.

Case Sensitive: The Other Half Lives E1 (ITV)

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Has it really been 16 months since the first two-part outing for Sophie Hannah’s detective duo Zailer (Olivia Williams) and Waterhouse (Darren Boyd)? It really doesn’t feel that ITV has much sense of expectation of or commitment to this series.

Williams is still great as the very believable and realistic lead detective, suffering from outrageously overt sexism from her boss DI Proust (Peter Wight) but at the same time no paragon of virtue herself, taking quite seriously against a new, attractive junior female officer (DC Williams, played by Christina Chong) in an spectacularly bitchy (sorry, but that’s the appropriate word) manner. It makes for a more interesting and nuanced backdrop against which to play the usual cops and robbers game.

But in fact the focus of this story seems to be the guest character of Ruth Blacksmith (Eva Birthistle) and her tangled relationships with her lover Aidan (Theo James) and her estranged husband Jason, whom we only meet post-bloody murder. The story seems more interested in Ruth’s investigation of a cryptic admission from Aidan than it is in homicide.

Perhaps it’s having been spoilt by a year of Nordic Noir since the first Case Sensitive, but I found this adaptation extraordinarily rushed and compressed to the point of near-incomprehensibility. Watching the show you’d think that Zailer pops over to the Blacksmith house just minutes after a key conversation with Ruth whereas the dialogue suggests either days or weeks have passed; in acting upon the private conversation and even running unauthorised police background checks against a third party on the basis of gossip, Zailer’s motivations are completely unestablished and her actions probably career-ending. Similarly, Aidan’s behaviour (his cryptic announcement, followed by “… but I don’t want to talk about it”) and Ruth’s jumping to the worst case scenario in ten seconds flat are all hallmarks of a show with about half the running time it requires to convincingly sell it. And I’m still puzzling over how something apparently filmed on location in Buckinghamshire manages to include Ruth jumping on to a South West Trains service to London Waterloo for a crucial sequence.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I absolutely adore Nordic productions like Forbrydelsen, Borgen and The Bridge. But I’m also someone who would really like British TV to learn the lessons of those serials’ appeal and quality, and apply them to the more promising material here at home. Instead, this production seems to have has been choked by a too-short commission, a bizarre gap between story transmissions, and finally left gasping for air by not having enough air time at the end of it all. The production and everyone involved deserves better treatment than it seems to have received.

Episode two was at 9pm, Friday 13 July. Both episodes have been available on ITV Player online.

Lewis – S6

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And so another series of the Inspector Morse spin-off has come to an end, slipping so smoothly down our gullet that we barely even noticed that it was there.

The programme never had much bite, to be honest. That wasn’t the point of it. It’s a feel-good blanket to wrap ourselves in during uncertain times, where even cold-blooded murder is still firmly of the safe, cosy 1930s golden era vintage.

There’s only so far you can stretch these sort of syrupy confection, and I fear that Lewis is fast approaching the end of the road. There’s a lack of conviction or even interest in this series now by those making it, where before everyone was at least trying to do something interesting if and when they could. Now the writers just seem content to mix up the same old ingredients, and the actors just look increasingly tired of it all. “Didn’t we do this one last year, Hathaway?” you can imagine Kevin Whately’s eponymous detective inspector sighing at his sidekick.

Even Lawrence Fox’s impish, shamelessly scene-stealing performance has lost its sparkle this year, with Hathaway looking increasingly narked and sour. Lewis tells him that he needs to find someone to share his life with, which sounds like the promising start of a character arc but one that the writers promptly forget to do anything with other than by making him moon inappropriately over any pretty guest star of the right age that comes along in the course of the four episodes per year.

Lewis is meant to be the melancholic one, and it doesn’t work when both men look dejected and world-weary. Lewis’ touches of undeveloped romance with the pathologist (Clare Holman’s Dr Laura Hobson) are very sweet and brighten the screen, but all together they constitute little more than a couple of minutes of running time a year. Even Rebecca Front’s Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent has lost her sparkle and just looks fed up this year, although she did get the line of the final show when she snapped at her detectives, “Why are you all sitting there like dogs waiting for me to do a card trick?”

As for a quick potted review of the four stories of the 2012 season: “The Soul of Genius” was a bit of a pretentious study on Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” (the pursuit of the undiscoverable) and went out of its way to do the tourism promo for Oxford (with its botanical gardens, punts and open days at local country estates) and then grafted on a modern gothic ending that felt peculiarly disjointed from that which had gone before.

“Generation of Vipers” was Lewis’s attempt to go all modern by having online dating sites, internet entrepreneurs and cyberbullying behind it all. Obviously all the new-fangled stuff was bad, and done by bad people. On the plus side there was an interesting B-plot structure to the story in which Lewis and Hathaway experience both the highs and lows of media stardom along the way.

“Fearful Symmetry” was bizarrely laughable, a hodgepodge of Daily Mail hot topics and hoary series clichés which felt like a lazy self-parody, with swinger parties, kinky ‘artistic’ photo portraits and hints of bondage as red herrings proving to have nothing to do with the slender story at the heart of it. The sense of déjà vu was intensified by the actor playing the murderer having previously been arrested in a far superior episode of Morse 20 years ago.

And “The Indelible Stain” was also rather thin and familiar, with almost everyone acting out rather clichéd roles from lecherous lecturer to hard-nosed careerist wife. The person giving the most natural, convincing and warm performance therefore had to be the murderer. And Lewis found a reason to be even more anti-intellectual than ever, ending the series by concluding that having books around is unequivocally bad for you.

At least Lewis has managed to keep the formula reasonably intact, unlike its close relation Midsommer Murders which seems to have had a self-destructive spasm after losing its original series star (John Nettles); and then its creator-producer Brian True-May in a row over alleged racism in the show. It’s an unwatchable show now, sadly; whereas Lewis might have its faults but it’s still as easy to imbibe and promptly forget as it ever was, for better or for worse.

“Lewis” season 6 is out on DVD on June 11, and in a boxset with previous seasons.

The Turin Shroud Secret, by Sam Christer

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Contains some spoilers.

Considering that just about every other historical and religious icon has been plundered by some post-Dan Brown conspiracy thriller in the last decade, it’s surprised me that seemingly no one has hitherto used the Turin Shroud as the basis for a book. Despite the 1988 carbon dating test that showed it originated from the Middle Ages, the shroud still seems like it should be fruitful conspiracy ground. So when I saw this latest book by the author of the successful The Stonehenge Legacy I was curious to know what he’d made of it.

The answer is: not a lot. The subject appears to have defeated him, and in truth only about a third of this book is in any way connected to the relic purported to be the burial shroud in which Christ was laid to rest in his tomb on Good Friday, and which was found – discarded, body no where in sight – just days later on Easter Sunday. The shroud relic stored today by the Catholic church in Turin carries a remarkably striking and authentic-looking life-size imprint of a crucified male, which to this date no one has quite been able to satisfactorily explain how it was achieved.

The book skims over this and some of the basic evidence of the shroud, but seems to quickly run out of material and not be interested in telling any of the deeper, more interesting historical side of the mythology. The Turin Shroud Secret also provides a new “controversial” explanation for the shroud’s existence, just not one that I’m sure holds much water and which will mean very little to the world in general not au fait with later religious history such as the Crusades. This new theory is also rather dryly delivered in the form of a screenplay literally handed over to the investigating officer, just one of many uninspired plotting disappointments to be found in this novel. (And the screenplay is a text book example of the sort of thing that would get laughed out of Hollywood if submitted by a real writer – it makes all sorts of classic mistakes about the form and format of such scripts.)

The majority of the book is divided into two ultimately unconnected cases: one is an LA serial killer who – coincidentally but entirely unrelated – wraps his victims tightly in a shroud after killing them. This is mostly told from the killer’s point of view, and meanders along until (spoiler!) he simply walks into the police station and gives himself up before they catch him. That’s it.

The second case is sparked by the Turin Shroud and revolves around some scientific test evidence that’s never properly developed beyond being a McGuffin, an excuse for a cross-Europe and ultimately transatlantic chase between a second LA cop protagonist and an implacable religion-motivated assassin. This is more successful, better paced, eventful and well told and has a better resolution, but still ultimately feels unsatisfying since the protagonist mostly fails on every count of his mission and the antagonist is left too blank.

A final storyline about domestic violence is also present – too hefty to be mere character development, but too short (and again, feeling unresolved – it just gets forgotten about halfway through) to be a full sub-plot in its own right. It’s a shame, because this is one of the better-told, involving and more original aspects of the novel.

In an attempt to make a coherent novel out of these strands, the author shreds them into tiny strips and then intertwines them via a fast-cutting format of micro-chapters that typically last only five or six pages on average before switching to another thread. It’s a Dan Brown trick to produce a page-turning sense of pace, and it once again works pretty well here in keeping you eager to know what happens next. This momentum sees you through to the end, although the ADHD shredding still never manages to bind the book into one whole entity.

It’s a perfectly fine, readable book; one that you’ll get through quickly and then put aside and never really think of again. There’s a lot worse out there, and Christer is certainly a good writer when it comes to the prose itself. But on the evidence of The Turin Shroud Secret, he really needs to brush up on his plotting and structure and have a story worth telling as a whole before sitting down at the keyboard next time around.

Unforgettable S1 E1-9

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It would be delightful if it were possible to do a one word review of Unforgettable as being “Forgettable”, but that would be both glib and unfair. Instead, it’s a perfectly proficient police procedural just like dozens of others, okay to spend an hour with if there’s nothing better on TV but not anything you’re going to get particularly attached to.

Its USP (unique selling point) is that the main character Carrie Wells (played by Without a Trace alum Poppy Montgomery) has perfect memory recall. As a basic premise that’s fine (it also provided the initial seed for the rather good legal comedy-drama Suits for example), although when they stretch this into the ability to remember anything and everything that Carrie might ever have had in her field of vision – even subliminally – the ability seems less credible than comic book superhero, and an excuse to do memory ‘walkthroughs’ akin to the now-clichéd CSI flashback sequences. Carrie also has some predictable private tragedies to contend with: her sister was murdered when they were kids; her mother is – irony of obvious ironies – suffering from Alzheimers and hardly remembers her anymore.

The series has two main problems, the first being what to do with this total recall ability once you’ve gone through the two or three obvious ‘memory’-inspired plot lines. The second is what to do with the rest of the cast while they sit around waiting for Carrie’s supermemory to kick in. This last problem is exacerbated by the fact that Carrie is also supercop – the one who knows best how to deal with the witnesses, who seizes upon the vital clue, who has the correct hunch. It leaves the rest of the team sitting around looking thoroughly superfluous, there merely to feed Carrie lines and evidence so the plot can move on. That’s a shame and waste of a potentially good line up that includes Kevin Rankin, Michael Gaston and Daya Vaidya; Dylan Walsh fares slightly better as her boss and former boyfriend, but not by much.

Ultimately there’s nothing here that fatally wounds the program, except the cases themselves – which are frankly rather dull, being of little intrinsic interest and having no great ‘twist’ to them to make them worth thinking too hard over. That means that when it comes down to it, the correct one-word glib review for Unforgettable turns out to be simply “unremarkable.”

Currently airing on Sky Living on Tuesdays at 9pm.

Rizzoli & Isles S1

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Do we really need yet another crime/police show? Not really, but at least this series revolves around two strong and interesting female characters for a welcome change. Angie Harmon is a revelation as a tough blue collar Boston detective very far removed from her glossy Law and Order days, while it’s nice to see Sasha Alexander (an NCIS regular for the first two seasons) back in business as a quirky Medical Examiner. The show gives a nice, everyday representation of two woman who happen to be genuine friends, with a nice touch making the young ‘hunky’ male stars the ones to throw up in autopsy or else be the tied-up ‘damsels’ in distress. This short first season has perhaps felt under too much pressure to delve into the two leads’ backstories with cases that personally impact them and reveal hidden secrets or buried terrors, and hopefully this will be remedied in later runs. It’s been at its best with some out-of-the-norm scenarios such as a murder during the Boston Marathon leading to an improvised investigation on the run so to speak, or a siege in police headquarters that provided the season one finale, that’s just finished airing on Alibi.

Part of a week of one-para reviews, designed to (a) put the “Short” back into Taking the Short View; (b) catch up on some past programmes I should have reviewed ages ago; and (c) get my post count back up!

The Tales of Max Carrados (BBC Radio 4 Extra/Ladbroke Radio Production)

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I like to think of myself as a fan of detective/crime fiction, and of classic crime fiction in particular, so I was rather startled and a little irked to find out about early 20th century character Max Carrados. He appeared in The Strand magazine alongside Sherlock Holmes and indeed at the time outranked the inhabitant of Baker Street in terms of popularity, but I’d never heard of him before. Clearly, I had to correct this oversight in advance of a new run of radio adaptations.

The character, created by Ernest Bramah in a number of short stories from 1914 onwards, has the particular unique selling point of being blind, which one would think would prove to be quite a problem in the art of detection; and it is the stories’ main focus to demonstrate how Carrados overcomes any problems and indeed develops his other senses to compensate (somewhat like the Marvel Comics superhero Daredevil – no radar superpower, though.)

Carrados’ (and Bramah’s) fame hasn’t endured like that of Sherlock Holmes (and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and to be honest it’s not hard to see why. Bramah’s writing is perfectly fine, but has none of the richness of Doyle’s work. Where Doyle brought even minor supporting characters vividly to life, Bramah seems to have no such interest in anyone outside Carrados himself. Similarly, where Bramah is fascinated by the ways that Carrados might overcome his disability with various techniques and describes his investigations in detail, he seems to have little comparable interest in the story’s main instigating mystery. In “The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem”, for example, the central question of what caused a train crash is ultimately never explicitly explained, although much is implied and generally sketched in as we follow Carrados’ enquiries, leaving irritating gaps for anyone not au fait with early 20th century train signalling equipment. Nor is there much of a ‘whodunnit’ element – the villain is generally summoned up at the end because of Carrado’s pre-existing knowledge of the criminal underworld and not shared with us in advance.

Still, it’s pointless criticising work for something that it makes no claims to be or to do, and on its own terms Bramah’s tales are perfectly engrossing in its stories and descriptions of Carrados’ investigations – especially when benefiting from a quality radio adaptation such as this, which is by the same team that produced the recent “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” HP Lovecraft adaptations that have also aired on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

Once again it’s an abridged reading that feels so effortless and uncut that it makes you think that the abridger (Paul Kent) has had an easy time of it with a compliant original story leaving him little to do. It’s only when comparing against the source text that you realise just how much has needed to be done to seamlessly reduce the text down to fit. I even spotted one rare actual change to the source material, where a mention of a ‘developer’ in the Bramah text is substituted by the possibly slightly anachronistic ‘weights machine’ in the adaptation, but it’s with good cause as the original word means nothing (or worse, something wholly different) to modern audiences than it used to.

I was interested in whether or not the team could produce the same effective ‘soundscape’ that it managed with the earlier Lovecraft adaptations: conjuring an unnerving, sinister background for a horror story is one thing, but what can you do with the story of a detective who spends most of his time sitting in pleasant rooms chatting with people? Not a problem for producer Neil Gardner and for composer Jon Nicholls, who create an unobtrusive but effective soundtrack that manages to blend a general level of intellectual playfulness appropriate for the character that also allows subtle transitions where needed into a more tense, dangerous or even action-driven feel when needed. Rather like the abridgement, it’s so skilfully realised that you barely even notice how important and effective it is to the whole.

The one difference between this production and the earlier Lovecraft tales is in the selection of narrator, which here is actor Arthur Darvill better known as Rory Williams-Pond from Doctor Who. Where Richard Coyle was the perfect fit for dark horror tales, Darvill is a better choice for this lighter series of stories, and he certainly has a good range of voices played with conviction that soon overcome the dreaded “flat reading from a book” feeling that too many other productions can be saddled with.

Darvill may actually have been a little too over-ambitious with the vocal performance at points, however. He doesn’t use his ‘regular’ voice (i.e. the one we know from his playing of Rory) at all, even for the non-character narration which instead is pitched as a more cut-glass English accent. That is admittedly more accurate for the 1910s, and yet its over-clear, crystal-cut enunciation don’t give us the ‘rest’ we need between character voices and can be distracting; it may also contribute to some of the character voices themselves wavering and being a little less than perfectly consistent, and sometimes running one into another in an occasionally confusing manner.

Then there is the vocalisation of Max Carrados. Presumably this is driven by descriptions in the Bramah source text, but the end result is of a light, superior, rather fey voice that is certainly distinctive and evocative of a particular character, but not necessarily a likeable one. It’s hard to shake the unfair feeling that this is a smug, supercilious personality who is not easy to love, and it left me with an indelible mental picture of Carrados looking as well as sounding like Mark Gatiss in one of his more grotesque League of Gentleman or Crooked House roles.

Actually, come to think of it, if the BBC are inspired by the success of this radio adaptation and want to move to a TV version, they should get Gatiss on speed dial right away. After all, he’s not doing much these days, just that 21st century updating of another vintage detective, Carrados-wannabe Sherlock

Ernest Bramah’s “The Tales of Max Carrados” is a BBC Radio 4 Extra première of five episodes. It is available to purchase from the SpokenWorld Audio store.

Body of Proof S1 E1

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As a big fan of crime shows, Alibi is the television channel for me. Usually it just gets the cast-offs and reruns (back-to-back Murder, She Wrote episodes for example) but just sometimes it strikes lucky by snapping up an American import everyone else has overlooked, such as the wonderful little gem that is Castle now getting slightly wider exposure by airing reruns on the terrestrial Channel 5.

Clearly they hope to reproduce that success with this latest recruit to their scheduled ranks; trouble is, Body of Proof is very … Plain. It’s not bad, indeed its perfectly proficient and solidly made. It’s just really very familiar and we’ve seen it done a lot more and a lot better elsewhere: it’s beige and vanilla in a world full of primary greens and pistachio.

The basic premise is that a brilliant but highly unlikable medical examiner annoys her colleagues and the detectives as she shows them all how it’s done. It’s sort of like House but with dead bodies instead of dying patients. The thing is, the main character Megan Hunt played by Dana Delany isn’t really all that unlikable, not when we’ve seen the truly anti-social (and sociopathic) Gregory House in all his utterly irremediable glory; she doesn’t even come close to being as unlikable even as Temperance Brennan is in Bones, and Tempe is really actually quite nice once you get under the autistic surface tendencies.

In this opening pilot episode, everyone tells Megan that she has to thaw out and get some friends. This, after we’ve already seen her emotionally reaching out to her estranged daughter and spilling out her backstory (conveniently for us) to her assistant/partner and evident future “unresolved sexual tension” object Peter; really if she was any more open, approachable and emotive she would be a walking, talking, emoting tearjerker cable movie-of-the-week, which is evidently what the producers of this show think should be “normal” for a woman. Well, maybe in the 50s … If they really want a “anti-social” and “difficult” brilliant ME-type then they should look at DVDs of the early Silent Witness shows with Amanda Burton’s Sam Ryan.

The rest of the cast seem similarly by-the-book cookie-cutter supporting characters for this type of procedural, with Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch wasted playing a dull-witted cop doomed to be the Lestrade to Delaney’s Holmes. Oh, and there’s Jeri Ryan popping up as the tough boss to provide a little conflict into things in just the way she was supposed to in the James Woods legal show Shark – which come to think of it was another show with a clichéd brilliant-but-unlikable central character who was immediately watered down to be completely likeable in two seconds flat. Like Woods in Shark, Delany is clearly a very talented actor; but the basic premise of Body of Proof simply isn’t operating at anywhere near her level.

On the plus side, the murder mystery itself was interesting and inventive plotting may keep this afloat for a little while. It’s all certainly solidly made, as you’d expect for a US network show. But without the ensemble cast and compelling central characters of, say, Bones, The Mentalist, Castle, House et al this really doesn’t have any claim to hold our attention for an hour per week.

The whole thing is just flatly familiar and unoriginal and to be honest, in this day and age of cut-throat competition to get a show made and on air, I’m very surprised that this did anything eye-catching enough to merit its production in the first place.

The Shadow Line – Ep1

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Caution: contains spoilers

It’s been a very strange week for TV drama. After months of domestic drama drought we suddenly get overloaded with Exile, Vera, Case Sensitive – and now this conspiracy thriller boasting a staggering cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Tobias Menzies, Rafe Spall, Sir Antony Sher and Stephen Rea. Whoa.

I had high hopes for this because I do love a good conspiracy thriller – State of Play is one of my all time favourite BBC shows. How does this measure up by comparison?

In the BBC2 trailers leading up to the show’s first instalment, much play is made of this being a thriller by Hugo Blick: I guess we’re supposed to know the name but I confess it was totally new to me. Turns out he made the highly regarded comedy Marion and Geoff that launched Rob Brydon as a star, but I couldn’t see why that warranted him getting Hitchcockian above-the-title credit, even if he was the writer, director and producer of the darn thing.

Having seen the first episode, I am happy to reappraise those doubts: Blick has produced something rather special here and deserves every bit of the kudos in return. Often, we Brits lament how come we can’t produce television as good as The Wire from the US, or The Killing (Forbrydelsen) from Denmark. Well, The Shadow Line essentially shows that we can, and potentially have – right here, right now.

The visual style of the first episode is wonderful (although it will have to reign it in a little as the show goes on if it’s to avoid overdoing it.) It’s summed up by the first scene, a seven minute sequence of two policemen investigating a body found in a car in the woods. It’s virtually monochrome, all high contrast black and chrome with the two uniformed officers looking pale and blanched and only the victim’s blood adding colour; the first shot is from overhead, showing the flashlights of the policemen as they approach the car. Later on, when the forensic team arrive, the brilliantly-lit pure white tent they erect over the crime scene is more like a spaceship than anything earthly.

As well as the visual style, it’s also a programme that allows the script and moreover the actors time and space to breath and develop their characters, and the result is truly compelling and top-notch. The flashiest turn is from Rafe Spall as the murder victim’s nephew: he’s a damaged, deranged psychotic who looks like he wants to take on the world, who laughs and grins when he shouldn’t, and is utterly unpredictable and dangerous. Spall has a terrific time in this role and I found him compulsively watchable.

Christopher Eccleston gets the quieter role as a “business associate” of the murder victim, a quiet man who looks like he should be a mid-ranking civil servant but instead finds himself trying to control violent criminals, while also coping with the decline of his wife (the ever-brilliant Lesley Sharp) from early-onset Alzheimers – and how odd that both BBC drama series this week have had key characters with that terrible affliction? You can see every thought, every fear flash across Eccleston’s face as he tries to stay one twist ahead of everyone else, and it’s a role he suits far better than he ever did Doctor Who.

It’s great to have Chiwetel Ejiofor back on loan from Hollywood. You feel that there should be some big aspect to the story about the lead detective being black, but actually the colour of his skin is the least interesting thing to him: of more interest is the bullet in his brain, how it came to be there and what personality changes it has caused; and then of course the small matter of a briefcase of cash that he doesn’t know anything about.

What’s particularly outstanding about the first episode is how the “supporting” cast are also universally good and stand-out – anyone of them could carry a show of their own. In particular, all the characters are simply excellent at their jobs: too often we get plots driven by stupid people doing stupid things and making mistakes, but here you feel everyone is lethally efficient. There’s the superbly named Lia Honey (Kierston Wareing playing Ejiofor’s sergeant) who is way ahead of her boss; Maurice Crace (Malcolm Storry as Eccleston’s enforcer), able to improvise an ambush on some pursuing villains and then walk calmly over to their wrecked car to ask “What the f*** do you want?” as he brandishes a baton); Ross McGovern (Tobias Menzies) as a tenacious journalist; and Patterson (Richard Lintern as Ejiofor’s boss) who clearly has his own agenda). Add in the always wonderful David Schofield as the corrupt Sgt Foley who dominates that throat-grabbing first seven minute scene and you have as good an ensemble as you could hope to see in any TV programme.

We haven’t even been introduced to Stephen Rea’s character Gatehouse yet, or know who Anthony Sher will be. Maybe he will play the shadowy figure of Glickman, who has been much talked about but – like Harry Lime in The Third Man or Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects – is still legend and myth and has not yet been glimpsed in person.

With seven parts in total, it’s too early to declare whether this will be a classic TV show – it could all go horribly pear-shaped at some point. But based on the quality, confidence and verve of the first episode I don’t think so. It’s in safe and exciting hands and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it develops.

Case Sensitive: Point of Rescue

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Having slagged off Vera and in particular attacked the central female character, I need to urgently reassert my “I’m not a sexist male reviewer really, honest guv” credentials – which brings me to this week’s other crime procedural drama début from ITV featuring a central female detective.

Olivia Williams (from The Sixth Sense, Dollhouse, The Ghost and Hanna) stars as DS Charlie Zailer investigating the apparent suicide of Geraldine Bretherick and her murder of her 5-year-old daughter Lucy. The setting for this disturbing crime is a house that I’m convinced was the subject of an episode of Grand Designs, which just goes to show that those sort of stylish masterpieces are obviously wanton breeding grounds for crime and murder.

Williams is great and believable in exactly the way the Brenda Blethyn in Vera isn’t. She’s still very much a woman in a man’s world (as opposed to, say, Sarah Lund in The Killing (Forbrydelsen) who is essentially a male character played by a female actress – which works extremely well, admittedly!) but she’s also a completely believable professional.

What’s interesting is that the show plays on our expectations that she will be in the receiving end of sexism from her male colleagues: certainly DS Sellers (Ralph Ineson) is blatantly disrespectful, but her boss Proust (Peter Wight) seems to be an equal opportunity shouter and just has a go at everyone. The most interesting (male) character in the line-up is DS Zailer’s new sidekick DC Waterhouse (Darren Boyd) who initially seems to be completely dismissive of her, which could be because the two may or may not have had a drunken one night stand prior to the start of the series but eventually turns out to be because Waterhouse is simply in a different world and hasn’t mastered many social niceties.

The plot (from the book The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah) has some nice touches, featuring mistaken (or faked) identities by multiple people, and some dark obsessions that emerge during the investigation. It’s a proper grown up crime tale, in other words.

Unfortunately it also feels like the pristine, perfectly crafted designer home in which the crime is set: rather chilly and distant. There’s something about the end result that doesn’t quite engage, even before the killer is shock-revealed as someone who has been involved in the investigation by a completely coincidental and unrelated plot strand, which is always the lamest and most clichéd of outcomes for a crime show these days.

Still, it has more potential than most shows, with substance and depth as well as an interesting and already well-developed lead duo in Zailer and Waterhouse. Alas this is isn’t the start of a series but a standalone two-parter, with a second commissioned for later in the year – but such lack of commitment to the network and gap between instalments is hardly likely to inspire confidence or loyalty among viewers.

Spiral (Engrenages) S3 E1/2

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When The Killing started, I really didn’t want to tie myself into watching 20 hours of subtitled drama on a Saturday night, but I felt obliged to at least give it a go. And damn the thing if it didn’t leave me gasping by the end of the first hour, deeply and permanently addicted to see it through to the end.

Now The Killing – or Forbrydelsen as we true fans like to call it, to prove our smart arse credentials – is finished and a gaping void awaits us on the Saturday night BBC4 schedules into which the network hopes to inject another lengthy subtitled European crime drama – the third series of French drama Spiral, a.k.a. Engrenages. Since my ‘taste’ of The Killing led to such delights, I figured at the very least that I had to extend the same courtesy to Spiral as well: watch the first week’s episodes and then take it from there.

There’s no doubting that Spiral is a very solidly made piece of high quality programme making, with impressive performances all around. And yet at the end of that first week’s episodes, I came away … completely indifferent. When the following Saturday came around, I still felt a sense of obligation that I should watch, but once I made the decision not to, my mood instantly lightened and I knew that it was the right call.

So why did Spiral not work for me? I think partly it was because it seemed very similar to the likes of familiar BBC fare Silent Witness and Waking the Dead in the sense of being dark and gritty, and everyone having issues and rows with/shouting at everyone else, and the whole spirit of the show being of things being crap and falling apart. Lord knows, The Killing was no music-and-dance joy-fest and had its moments of friction, but somehow it did it all so much beter, with more subtlety, intelligence and class.

Where The Killing compelled by concentrating on one case throughout, Spiral is structured with one over-arcing “Butcher of La Villette” serial killer (yawn) storyline but individual episodes seem like stand-alone instalments focussing on red herring or distraction cases and multiple unrelated sub-plots for the straggling cast all of which feels like an exercise in filling up an hour’s screen time instead of every single moment feeling like it’s absolutely vital to the storyline, as is the case with The Killing

And all of the above rather gives the game away with what’s really wrong with Spiral for me: it’s not The Killing. I’m comparing the two shows with each other all the time, and Spiral is coming out distinctly second best in every department. It’s not its fault, and I suspect that if the show had been aired maybe two months down the line when memories of The Killing had faded a little, then Spiral would leave a distinctly better impression. Simply put, I think BBC4 have made a mistake by bringing this show in so hard-on-the-heels of their Danish breakout super-hit – and that’s a shame.

Meanwhile I’m pleased to have my Saturday night’s freed up and not to have to commit to another subtitled programme straight off. It gives me time to build up my strength for the rigours of Forbrydelsen 2 in the autumn …