Thriller (1973-1976): Possession, Someone at the Top of the Stairs, An Echo of Theresa, The Colour of Blood

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thriller-titleEvery now and again I post a new batch of thoughts on the 1970s suspense anthology series Thriller created by one of the great writers of British television, Brian Clemens. It’s been a while since the last one in 2015 and I only have four more episodes under my belt to write about. However, I figure it’s better to post them now rather than continue to wait until I’ve had a chance to watch some more to feel that I have ‘enough’ to collect together!

So here goes with the latest set of reviews. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bridge S3 E1-2 (BBC4)

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Contains spoilers for the first two episodes

bridge-0It’s been two long years since the second season of The Bridge was first broadcast, and while BBC4 had kept its Nordic Noir slot warm with some very decent propositions in the meantime – ranging from the ambitious sweeping historical epic 1864 to the perfectly professional if slightly pedestrian police procedural Beck – there’s still been nothing to compare with The Bridge, which might just prove be the high water mark of Scandinavian crime drama.

Or is it?

The trouble is that after so long away there’s always the risk that a series’ actual qualities might have grown in the mind out of all proportion to reality, an unhealthy dose of rose-tinted memories take over resulting in unachievable expectations for when the show does finally return. Certainly for me there was a degree of nervousness as the opening titles began, just in case this new season wasn’t going to be up to the sort of standards that I’d built up for it in my own mind in the meantime. Read the rest of this entry »

The Girl With All the Gifts, by MR Carey

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MR Carey’s novel The Girl With All The Gifts is currently making quite a few waves at the moment, and not without good reason. Featuring a small cast of well-drawn characters, it’s an original and fast-paced horror thriller as you’re very likely to read, and even manages to put an entirely fresh spin on what’s fast becoming the hoary old cliché of zombies and the walking dead.

The main character of the title is Melanie, a young girl who spends her days in a classroom located deep inside a military bunker where she is learning alongside other children. However Melanie is the brightest of them all, and she soon sees the disconnect between the world she is learning about from her teachers and the clues she picks up about what actually lies outside the concrete walls and barbed wire fences.

It’s a post-apocalyptic scenario set 20 years after the world was ravaged by a plague that kills everyone it infects and then turns them into mindless flesh-eating feeding machines called ‘hungries’. Circumstances conspire to violently eject Melanie and a small group out from their protective cocoon in southern Britain into the reality of this ravaged world. It’s not only Melanie who has some shocks coming at what they find: her favourite teacher Helen Justineau, scientist Caroline Caldwell, battle-hardened Sergeant Parks and raw recruit Private Gallagher will all find their preconceptions overturned – about the world, the hungries, each other and even themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Mammon S1 E1-2 (More 4)

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Mammon, the latest slice of Nordic Noir, finds a new home on UK television airing not on BBC4 but on the commercial equivalent More 4. It’s also not from one of the traditional sources of the genre, but is instead a production of Norwegian television – although the overall Scandinavian flavour remains broadly familiar all the same.

The story starts with journalist Peter Verås (Jon Øigarden) investigating a case of corporate embezzlement at one of the country’s biggest companies; the twist is that the culprit turns out to be Peter’s own brother Daniel, who subsequently kills himself leaving Peter devastated. Five years later and Peter remains obsessed with the case, when a belated bequest from Daniel leads Peter to a remote waterside spot which suddenly becomes the scene of a second suicide by a man whose last word is “Abraham!” That sets Peter back on the trail of what happened to his brother, and it’s soon clear that a lot of people are involved in a previously unsuspected far-reaching conspiracy which extends even to the country’s Minister of Justice. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bridge S2 E1-6 (BBC4)

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I’ve become uncomfortably aware that I haven’t written anything about the latest series of The Bridge, which started its run on January 4 and has just passed the halfway point this weekend.

My discomfort arises in case the lack of a review here in any way suggests that I’m no longer interested in the series or am somehow disapproving of it, or that it’s implying that season two is perhaps not adequately meeting some notion of a quality threshold for inclusion in Taking The Short View. So let me make my position on this quite clear: The Bridge is probably the single best thing on television at the moment. In fact I’m probably enjoying it too much to want to sit down and start deconstructing it in detail afterwards; I simply know that it is fascinating, gripping and engrossing and has some of the most compelling characters currently to be found in modern drama in any language. Read the rest of this entry »

What I’ve been watching (May 3-9)

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Sometimes I’m asked how I decide what to review on this blog, and the answer’s pretty simple – it’s whatever I happen to have watched, read, seen or listened to that week. I never choose to watch something purely to review it, which at least means that everything I review here is something that I actually wanted to see and why a negative post is usually a function of genuine disappointment rather than because it’s not my sort of thing in the first place.

But I don’t review everything I see/hear/watch in a week – I do have a life, strange as that seems to me as well I’m sure as to you. I cherry-pick the things I have something (new) to say rather than just churning out the same comments on an ongoing series for the sake of it. However, I thought as a one-off experiment, what I’d do here in this Very Special Post is run through the disturbingly long list of things that I have watched on the screen in the last seven days just to put a little context around the posts that did make it to the big time so far in May … 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.

The Last Weekend (ITV)

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You wait for months for a psychological thriller, and then two come along in the same week and and on the same TV channel. Go figure.

Blake Morrison’s novel on which this three-part adaptation is based describes itself by that term – psychological thriller, the same as Ruth Rendell’s Thirteen Steps Down reviewed here yesterday – but for some reason the TV trailers seemed desperate to avoid applying that label to The Last Weekend and instead made it seem like some soapy melodrama. As a result I skipped it when it aired on ITV, and only a recommendation from a friend on Twitter made me reconsider and go back to the ITV Player “On Demand” service to catch it after all – and I’m hugely glad I did.

The basic premise appears simple: two university friends (rich barrister Ollie, working class primary school teacher Ian) get together over a summer Bank Holiday for their annual reunion, together with their respective partners Daisy and Em. But right from the moment that Ian steps out of his car at a ramshackle holiday cottage in the countryside and is greeted by his old friend, there’s a strange atmosphere – an odd way to the manner with which they greet each other and embrace. There’s an over-the-top, passive-aggressive sporting bet made. We learn that Daisy was originally in a relationship with Ian rather than Ollie. The sense of unease and discomfort that something is out of place under the surface keeps getting stronger. Is someone up to something?

Then comes the bombshell when Ollie confides in Ian that he has an inoperable brain tumour and is dying. Or is he? There’s something about this that doesn’t feel right. Nothing else seems to support Ollie’s declaration. A crucial piece of dialogue is obscured and lost to us (and apparently also to Ian) by a blast of car engine noise. Is Ollie lying? Why would he? The longer the first episode goes on, the more everyone seems to be keeping crucial secrets from everyone else, and the stranger and more unnerving the situation feels; even the music starts to evoke the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie.

Then there’s the realisation that our one rock of presumed normality – Ian, our down-to-earth ordinary bloke and main point of identification – is also behaving increasingly oddly. First he abuses dinners at a classy restaurant over a trivial misunderstanding; then he starts to grow suspicious over the interaction between his wife Em and his best friend Ollie on the drive home. Perhaps he’s transferring a sense of guilt from his own clearly surging inappropriate feelings toward Daisy. The final scene of part one sees Ian reacting very oddly altogether as Daisy greets the unexpected arrival of a male friend of hers; is Ian starting to grow psychologically unstable, or are we reading too much into this? Then we realise that the way the scenes are being shot are also growing increasingly off-kilter: if Ian really is sliding into some sort of obsessive paranoia over things, then it seems he’s dragging us right in with him. We can’t trust what we’re seeing and hearing any more than the character can.

The whole thing conjures up a powerfully effective air of doubt and tension. While there’s been hints that the later episodes might end up in violence and murder, there’s been nothing anything as overt in the first episode – and yet it’s been utterly gripping. This is one of the rare shows that not only makes the multi-part format work for it (unlike Thirteen Steps Down which really suffered with the week-long break between halves) but even provides a miniature study in how to create brilliant little cliffhangers leading into advert breaks to ensure that you’re not going to stray far with the remote control.

The real stylistic coup de grâce, however, is the sudden shift away from the golden-hued summer days as we fast forward three months to a chilly, misty autumn – at which point Ian suddenly turns to camera and breaks the fourth wall to talk directly with us. Initially it’s jarring and shocking, but it’s done so well that soon it settles into an excellent way of explaining key character insights and plot details, as well as facilitating flashbacks to scenes from the friends’ university days. But soon that feeling shifts again and the whole thing starts to feel weird, as Ian wanders wraithlike through the scene of past crimes – whatever crime there may or may not have been in the interim. Has someone died? It feels like it; maybe Ollie wasn’t lying about the tumour after all. Or maybe someone else is lying and/or dying. Maybe everyone is lying. The more that the ghostly future Ian insists he doesn’t want to mislead us, the greater the feeling of dread that he’s doing just that.

The acting of the lead duo is first rate: as Ollie, Rupert Penry-Jones proves once again that he can take the posh, handsome golden boy template and deliver a truly nuanced and different dramatic portrayal every time. But it’s really Shaun Evans (virtually unrecognisable from his recent role as a young Inspector Morse in Endeavour) as Ian who dominates this, not least thanks to his impressively delivered pieces to camera – no easy thing to execute believably. He’s helped immensely by an incredibly polished script by Mick Ford, a very good actor in his own right whom I remember from many roles in the past. I swear I can really hear Ford’s cadence coming though the rhythm of Evan’s own delivery of the natural-sounding dialogue.

As I wrote yesterday, Thirteen Steps Down suffocated from being compressed into too small a slot, which forced it to be heavy handed in order to get everything in: it was clear that the lead character was a psycho going off the deep end the minute he stepped into frame. But The Last Weekend has been given more time to set out its skewed but believable characters and then slowly reach out and grip the audience with the creeping tension. It juggles the need to tantalise and intrigue with not making things so complicated that it puts viewers off. We know something is wrong even if don’t know what, yet we can’t look away. The psycho here could be anyone. Or all of them. Or none of them. Or maybe it’s us. Pass the medication, nurse.

There’s two episodes to go, and the remainder could yet fail to live up to the standards set in this first hour. I really hope not, because as it stands this is one of the most impressive pieces of original British drama I’ve seen in a long while – a match in quality to all that Scandi-Nordic-Noir fare we’ve been lauding so much over the last 18 months. That this is from ITV and so far removed from the standard cop/medical/period drama genres usually required to get a commission from any British TV broadcaster these days makes it even more astounding and welcome.

Currently showing on ITV on Sunday evenings at 9pm. Episode 1 is available on the ITV Player. The complete series is released on DVD on September 3 2012.

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.

Homeland S1 E12

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Contains spoilers – big ones – only read once you’ve seen all of season 1.

I reviewed the first three episodes of Homeland two months ago, and came to the conclusion that I was missing something: that I simply didn’t feel as wowed by the show as everyone else seemed to be.

I can’t say that I have really shifted from that position since then over the rest of its run. It was well made and certainly very well acted – again, let me just emphasis how terrific Damian Lewis, Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin were; and kudos also to Morena Baccarin and David Harewood. Story-wise it felt a little disjointed, uneven and inconsistent, moving through several different distinct phases in the course of a very short season. Some of the character progressions were just too jarring to go along with, even factoring in the mental instability of Danes’ character Carrie Mathison as she went from being ultra suspicious of Lewis’ ex-PoW marine Brody to falling in love with him in rather record time, while still believing him to be a terrorist. Other plot threads and supporting characters felt as though they were spun out to fill an episode before being dropped and never mentioned again; alternative plot opportunities went untried.

Any show has a fair measure of these rough edges, of course. A show can still be great even with them present. For example, I’m the first to admit that the Danish series Forbrydelsen – which I totally adore beyond reason – has all sorts of loose ends and contradictions. But somehow in the case of Homeland these flaws didn’t contribute to a richer experience so much as they just irritated.

Perhaps I’m just taking it personally that they went ahead and made Brody into a terrorism convert after all. In my earlier review I’d concluded that they wouldn’t, at least not clearly or overtly, because this would paint the picture that anyone who adheres to Islamic faith must de facto be a clear and present threat. In 24 you’d expect that; but surely they wouldn’t do that sort of knee-jerk jingoism in a high-brow serious drama like Homeland? Well, it turns out that they would, and indeed did (it was obvious it was going to happen the minute Brody’s fellow ex-PoW Tom Walker popped up to deflect suspicion.) Even if the story did successfully nuance the issue with Brody’s reasons for his actions and make it clear that the targets of his revenge were essentially outright war criminals, it’s still a distinction that will be lost on the majority of viewers who will be far more influenced and shaken by the sight of Brody in full US army uniform wearing a suicide bomber’s vest: the ultimate traitor.

Despite all my reservations about the show, the final episode – the double-length season finale – almost converted me. The whole first hour as the assassination started to play out was staggeringly well executed on screen. It was as good a piece of nerve-wracking suspense as I think I’ve seen done on television in a very long time indeed: Hitchcockian, indeed (the ultimate praise in my book.) It also saw a credible, intelligent assassination plot which brought together various strands and hints from earlier episodes and made sense of it all as it played out. At that moment – with Brody in the bunker with the Vice President, Estes, the defence secretary and the rest of those he knows to be responsible for a war atrocity – the series was poised on the edge of greatness. And then it fluffed it.

Dramatically speaking, the correct play at that point was for the bomb to be detonated. Everything had led up to it. While obviously we don’t support, condone or cheer on terrorist actions either in fiction let alone in the real world, for the bomb not to go off at that point leaves the series climax without any climax at all: just a meek sort of “Oh … okay then, let’s just tidy up and reset everything.” If you’ve had the courage to take the audience on this painstaking two-month journey, then at least have the episode end on a cliffhanger: will he or won’t he? Don’t answer it anticlimactically well before the end of the episode.

But this is where commercial television priorities trump the dramatic requirements. The broadcaster (US premium cable channel Showtime) has a hit on its hands – one that even has President Obama watching and inviting the stars over for dinner as a consequence – and so the thought of it ending there and then is simply unpalatable to the executives. The show must go on, regardless of how it’s achieved. And since Damian Lewis is a big star as a result of the show, they certainly can’t have him exit the series by being vaporised in a ball of flame. Hence the whole thing has to be backed down and reset so that we can go through a second season next year.

Yet where exactly does it go from here? Carrie is no longer in the CIA, which is a problem (unless she’s magically welcomed back after all despite everyone saying it can’t happen.) We the audience now know Brody’s true intentions and motivations: although he’ll likely try to back away from Abu Nazir and rehabilitate himself in season 2, he’ll doubtless get blackmailed back in by the existence of the video recording of his suicide statement. Walker is dead. Do we really care enough about whether Abu Nazir is captured? Or whether the Vice President’s dark secret comes to light? Not really: we now know the secrets that were buried in the show at the start, and a fresh load of plots will just feel like pale imitation by comparison, as would a new assassination attempt.

At least if the bomb had exploded it would have projected the show into genuinely new and bold territory and asked fresh questions. Would Brody’s recording have been aired or would everyone be left wondering what had gone on in that sealed bunker? Having been proved right about the imminent danger to the Vice President, Carrie would have been rushed back into the CIA fold as soon as she was treated, regardless: or worse, she could publicly reveal that the CIA bungled and that the plot was preventable. What would happen to Brody’s family – would they know the truth or would daughter Dana be left in agonising uncertainty? What would the reaction have been to the revelation of Vice President’s drone strike secret – would it turn people against the government, perhaps even inspire sympathy for the terrorists? What would the CIA do about Nazir? Was there a next step to his plan that involved someone other than Brody and Walker that we didn’t get to see?

There’s a rich vein of untapped dramatic potential here, but none of this will happen now because the show must go on and it couldn’t afford to lose its star. I sympathise in a way as Damian Lewis together with Claire Danes were and are definitely the main reasons to watch the show. But sometimes broadcasters should realise that the perfect length for a program is precisely one series, and that not everything needs to be spun out over several years until the things that made it work in the first place are threadbare and worn out, and the shine has well and truly gone off the whole venture.

At which point, doubtless Sky would step in and buy up UK rights to the show and shunt it off to some channel where we can’t see it without paying subscriptions, like they have with everything else of late. In the meantime, expect series 2 at least of Homeland back on Channel 4 either in the late autumn or in the New Year. You’ll have to wait almost as long for the DVD of the first season to come out on October 1, I’m afraid.

Sky Arts is to show the original Israeli mini-series “Prisoners of War” from which Homeland was adapted, starting on Thursday May 10 at 9.30pm.

Thriller (1973-76): Screamer, Killer With Two Faces, A Killer In Every Corner, Where The Action Is, If It’s A Man – Hang Up, The Double Kill, Won’t Write Home Mom – I’m Dead, The Crazy Kill

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Regular readers of this blog will have noticed a strangely under-active April in terms of new reviews. Partly that was because most of the things that I was watching tended to be the tail end of series that I’ve already written about previously and that therefore didn’t need to be covered again any time soon. And another factor was that most of my DVD viewing seemed to be spent consuming additional episodes of the 1970s anthology series Thriller, which I had also already written about previously.

However, since each of the Thriller stories is entirely stand-alone and completely different in tone and content, it’s almost like each one is a separate short film and therefore worth a quick review in its own right. Here, then, are eight more reviews of entries from the Thriller canon: please note, while I don’t go all-out to detail the plot in each case, inevitably it’s necessary to say some things about the episode that give away some spoilers even when done semi-obliquely. If you’re going to watch the series any time soon, I recommend you avert your eyes … Read the rest of this entry »

Thriller (1973-76): Lady Killer, Night Is The Time For Killing, Nurse Will Make It Better

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One of the very best writers working in UK TV in the 60s and 70s in my view was Brian Clemens (recently awarded an OBE for services to drama, it turns out.) Even as a young kid I grew to recognise his name on the credits of TV shows like The Avengers and its reboot The New Avengers and ‘proper grown up drama’ The Professionals which he created. He’s done a writing stint on just about every ITC crime show from the period that I can remember, and his presence was always the hallmark of rock-solid writing and the best of plot ideas.

Somehow I’d missed the fact that he was behind a drama anthology show called Thriller that ran from 1973 until 1976, which is a bit odd since it’s probably the thing that most people will now remember him for. I can only assume that I was too young for it, and that my parents didn’t watch it either, so it never entered my consciousness like many programmes of that era managed to do. Hence I’d never come across it until a writer I follow on Twitter started tweeting about watching the boxset recently. After a few weeks, I was hooked and had to get the DVDs for myself – 43 hour-plus episodes over 16 discs.

I watched the first episode first (that might sound like an oxymoron, but since I skip ahead to two later stories after this, it’s still a point worth making.) That’s an episode called “Lady Killer” in the UK but revised to the rather obvious “The Death Policy” in the US – the entire show was made with a view for resale to American TV and as a result an American actor or at least character is included in every episode, even if the series as a whole is set firmly in the cosy southern counties of England. Outside of the week’s token American(s), the cast is routinely filled with the type of actor who was a familiar sight from just about every show being made, even if (especially if) they weren’t quite so much star names at the time or since.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Homeland S1 E1-3

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I feel I’m missing something about Homeland, the new US drama series from the Showtime cable channel now airing in the UK. The story of a US marine who comes home after eight years as an Al-Qaeda captive, this remake of the Israeli series Hatufim comes lavished with praise from Barack Obama on down, and yet it’s just not quite clicking for me.

That’s certainly not fault of the acting, with is first rate. I’d expected Britain’s Damian Lewis to be the star of the show as the returning POW, Nicholas Brody – and his performance is certainly excellent – but in fact it’s Claire Danes as weirdly over-intense CIA operations officer Carrie Mathison who provides the most fascinating and compelling character in the show, grappling with her own psychological demons (that appear to be either paranoia or manic depression at this point.) Another Brit, David Harewood, is flawless as her antagonistic boss, and it’s great to see V’s arch-lizard Morena Baccarin get a chance to play a more nuanced and rounded role as Brody’s wife struggling to come to terms with her husband’s return after nearly a decade. There’s also Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s mentor, doing much the same sort of turn that he always does (although older and more serious); but given his troubled history with TV series in the past, every time he’s on screen I half expect him to stand up mid-scene and walk off the set, never to return.

The direction is unflashy and nothing special, but that’s surely intentional as they strive for a naturalistic tone to the story. There’s still some nice touches: the moment when Brody settles down in bed unaware that his every move is captured on surveillance cameras, intercut with Carrie settling down to sleep on her couch while watching the screens so that the two appear to be sharing a wordless moment of intimacy before turning out the lights, even though Brody has no idea that she’s there. It certainly contrasts with Brody and his wife’s later disastrous attempts at sexual intimacy, which are so painfully uncomfortable to watch that even Carrie swats the screen away so that she doesn’t have to carry on seeing it either.

So for the most part this is a slow-paced study of a life under a microscope (Brody’s in the show, but Carrie’s as well to the TV audience.) It’s full of little moments, half-spoken feelings, unfinished sentences and awkward, self-conscious actions, quirks and ticks. In the show the central question is surely “Has Brody been brainwashed by Al-Qaeda into a Manchurian Candidate turncoat?” but the audience is likely to be as interested in “What are Carrie Mathison’s demons?”

It’s just as well that there’s a backup, because the Brody question is as problematic to the show as it is central. It has a binary yes/no answer that must, sooner or later, be answered. And if it’s answered ‘yes’ then what it does is to affirm all the extremists, fascists and bigots who assume that anyone who speaks a few words of Arabic let alone observes Muslim prayers must inevitably be a sleeper cell terrorist plotting mass murder. It’s hard to believe that the show will go down that grotesquely stereotyped route, which is the preserve of the likes of the obsessively patriotic and militaristic 24 and JAG type of shows. Homeland seems more situated in the liberal view of shades of grey, which means that Brody is most likely innocent of having been turned – albeit highly damaged by the post-traumatic stress he’s endured. (And if the US Army really does dump returning heroes back on their home doorsteps in the full glare of the media, after perfunctory debriefs and with no practical or psychological help to help them readjust, then it’s really a damning indictment of the American military mindset.)

Oddly one of the most interesting ideas the show has is currently the preserve of the opening titles, which shows the history of terror attacks against the US over the last 30 decades through the eyes of the young Carrie Mathison growing up watching the news on TV. This appears to give the implication that the psychological demons with which the character is now afflicted have been triggered or exacerbated by the fear- and paranoia-promoting media and political rhetoric that Carrie has lived with all her life; that the War on Terror (rather than terrorism directly per se) has brutalised her psyche as she grew up and has left her deeply damaged. When she says that as a young CIA officer she must have missed vital clues leading up to 9/11, she’s not satisfied by her mentor saying “We all did” and insists that she cannot let it happen again, taking upon herself a full and personal responsibility for all that happened on that tragic day. That obsessive compulsive paranoid tendency has warped her life for the next decade; just as, reading between the lines, it’s also done to the American national and political psyche.

That’s a really deep, profound and controversial suggestion to make in a TV show – not one you’d get in a mainstream network show, which would be far too scared to imply any such train of thought even buried as opening credit subtext. To even hint to the audience that they themsevles and their beloved country as a whole are psychologically clinically ill as a result of the politicians’, the media’s and their own reactions to the threat of terrorism is surely incendiary?

But if that’s really what’s simmering away underneath the surface of the show, it’s currently all too deeply buried for the time being. At the moment this show is just too self-consciously and pretentiously slow-moving for me. It’s not that I need or even like the ADHD-style of TV entertainment that serves up car chases and explosions every five minutes, but this just isn’t serving up enough on the surface to keep me engrossed while it decides whether or not to do anything worthwhile with the controversial subtext. Look instead at something like The Killing, which is equally glacial in its pacing and obsessed with the slow accretion of small details to make the big picture, and yet made each and every minute of that process both tense and utterly absorbing, impossible to look away for even a single second.

Homeland just doesn’t do that for me in the first three episodes. I want it to get a move on, and at the same time suspect that they won’t be able to live up to the expectations of a destination remarkable enough to have made the investment in the journey worthwhile.

Currently airing on Sunday evenings on Channel 4.