TV Review: Sticks and Stones

Mike Bartlett adapts his play Bull for the TV in the form of Sticks and Stones, with mixed if enjoyable results

“Maybe it’s banter”

I had clocked that Sticks and Stones that a new TV drama written and created by Mike Bartlett, hence it appearing pretty high on my to-watch list. What I hadn’t realised was that it is an adaptation of his cracking 2013 play Bull, which I have seen a fair few times, dating back to a reading in 2010. Given that the play was less than an hour and this serial was three (ITV) hours, I was intrigued to see how an extended version of this workplace bullying drama would work and I was pleased to see Ken Nwosu leading the cast, which included an alumni of the Young Vic production in Susannah Fielding.

And in line with the way his TV writing has been skewing, the result is something far more melodramatically silly than you’d ever expect from Bartlett in a theatre. I don’t say it as a particularly negative thing, more a statement of fact. The tautness of the play’s running time meant that once teeth were bared, it was one vicious snarl through to the end, heart-racingly menacing in its cruelty. Here, there’s much more time to fill and so it is more of slow build, as nice guy Thomas is essentially gaslit by his cut-throat team of property mangers (“we’re now able to offer a bespoke office solution”). Continue reading “TV Review: Sticks and Stones”

TV Review: Dracula, Episode 1

I get through Dracula, mainly due to the #Heffklaxon but there’s some issues to address moving forward…

“I’ve been dying to meet you”

Eesh! The much-trumpeted return of Dracula to our TV screens wouldn’t have interested me quite so much if it hadn’t been John Heffernan’s central presence in the cast as Jonathan Harker. Any chance to sound the #Heffklaxon is much appreciated and with Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat at the helm, a certain measure of schlocky entertainment feels guaranteed.

And I think it gets there, just about. Wise-cracking nuns called Agatha, a highly self-aware script and a barnstorming lead performance from Claes Bang as an entirely seductive count go a long way to making this a success. But it is a long way, the pacing over the hour and a half running time felt perilously slow at times, Jonny Campbell’s direction could possibly use some tightening up although he nails many a scare very well. Continue reading “TV Review: Dracula, Episode 1”

TV Review: Doctor Who Series 12 Episode 1

Doctor Who returns for its twelfth series with a rollicking spy caper in Spyfall and a masterful twist at the end

“Don’t be ridiculous, the Doctor is a man
‘I’ve had an upgrade'”

Just a quickie as the latest series of Doctor Who starts with a real bang, neatly killing off Stephen Fry in short order before he got too annoying, making Lenny Henry a Zuckerberg-esque tech villain and introducing Sacha Dhawan into the cast where he looks set to be a genius addition.

Borrowing liberally from a range of spy capers, I enjoyed this widescreen take on the Doctor, splashing a fair bit of the budget on some strong location work, the effects team keeping the threat of the shadowy aliens ominously vague, and the returning team settling nicely into their established dynamic. Continue reading “TV Review: Doctor Who Series 12 Episode 1”

TV Review: Elizabeth is Missing

Glenda Jackson is brittle and brutal in the excellent Elizabeth is Missing

“How about some Vera Lynn?”

True story, I’ve read Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing and can’t remember anything about it, how’s that for dramatic irony… So Andrea Gibb’s adaptation for the television, directed by Aisling Walsh, held layers of mystery for me, as this murder mystery framed through the lens of dementia intersected with my own hazy recollections of what I thought was slowly coming back to me.

That murder mystery element is the driving narrative force across the two timelines of the drama. Grandmother Maud is trying to find out what has happened to her gardening pal Elizabeth who has vanished, but she’s haunted by memories of the disappearance of her sister Sukey 70 years ago and hampered by the onset of Alzheimer’s which is ravaging her life and her independence. Continue reading “TV Review: Elizabeth is Missing”

TV Review: His Dark Materials Series 1

Or to give it its true title, Ruth Wilson in His Dark Materials, the BBC scores big with Jack Thorne’s crafty and considered adaptation

“They speak of a child who is destined to bring the end of destiny”

There was never really any chance that I wouldn’t like His Dark Materials but as Series 1 draws to a close, I’m still amazed by how much I loved it. Given the complexity of Philip Pullman’s world-building as written, Jack Thorne’s adaptation of the first novel Northern Lights cleverly opted to tread its own path, moving revels and plot points here and there, plus weaving in elements of The Subtle Knife (the second) to wrongfoot and thrill anyone who thought they knew what they were expecting. With some stonking production design and top-notch VFX bringing the daemons (and more) to life, it has been simply fantastic (read my thoughts on episode 1 here).

Dafne Keen has been a revelation as Lyra Belacqua, the girl on whom so much rests in a world not so different from our own. So adult in so many ways as she battles everything to save her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd – heartbreakingkly good), she’s also touchingly young in others (especially where Pan – voiced so well by Kit Connor- is concerned), as her understanding of the world can’t help but be coloured by her comparative inexperience, buffeted by devastating waves of parental ineptitude and cruelty. Revelations about those parents, about the mysterious substance Dust too, underline the sophistication of the writing here,never once looking down at its audience,no matter their age. Continue reading “TV Review: His Dark Materials Series 1”

TV Review: The Crown, Series 3 Episodes 1-3

The Crown returns with Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies at the helm, and Helena Bonham Carter stealing the show

“Everyone at the Post Office is delighted with the new profile”

Gotta get those hits…who knows how far behind I am, given I’m 9 hours ahead of the UK at the moment, but I thought I’d jot down my initial thoughts on the first three episodes of series 3 of The Crown (all written by Peter Morgan and directed by Benjamin Caron), as Netflix kindly offered them up as holiday entertainment. (And since I’m away, I’ve been a little insulated from all the Prince Andrew drama, which from over here almost feels like a random bit of guerilla marketing).

  • I wonder if I have a little hangover from just how good Claire Foy was, but I’m 100% feeling Olivia Colman in the role yet. She doesn’t seem quite as subsumed into the character, in the way that Foy’s every minutely detailed movement seemed to be. That said, there’s some scorching moments when Jason Watkins’ Harold Wilson dares to suggest her response to the Aberfan tragedy is lacking.
  • The excellent Tobias Menzies hasn’t really had enough screen time yet to have his Prince Philip make an impact, though I’ve every faith.
  • The casting of Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret is inspired, the extravagance of the character is perfectly suited to her but she’s bringing a real depth at the same time. 
  • And I have to say I miss Matthew Goode’s hugely erotic insouciance as Antony Armstrong-Jones, Ben Daniels’ much more wearied take hasn’t quite ticked my boxes yet.

Elsewhere, the headlong rush through the years means that we’re doomed to the smallest contributions from some excellent actors – Samuel West’s Anthony Blunt and Angus Wright’s MI5 bod were gone too soon, though I live in hope of more from Penny Downie’s Duchess of Gloucester, Aden Gillett as Richard Crossman and Sinéad Matthews as Marcia Williams (seriously, her accent is a thing of pure beauty).

And given the budget is allegedly in the many millions, it certainly looks a treat once again. From glistening palatial lushness to agonisingly destroyed villages, these are fully realised worlds no matter how short a space of time we end up spending in them. Caron’s direction also makes room for a more uncomplicated cinematic as well though, choosing iconic visual to close out each episode – the regal silhouette, juxtapositions of Margarets old and new, the children playing. This is a Crown that has lost none of its lustre.

Photo: Sophie Mutevelian

TV Review: His Dark Materials Episode 1

After what has felt like an interminable wait, the BBC’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials arrives onscreen in scintillating form

“In every child’s nightmare, there is an element of truth”

After what has felt like an interminable wait, the BBC’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials arrives onscreen in scintillating form. Written by Jack Thorne and directed by Tom Hooper, this first episode set the tone marvellously, balancing all the detail needed for world-building for newcomers and yet still maintaining enough magic to hook in those more seasoned fans of the work.

I definitely count myself in that latter category. The books were the first I ever hungered for in waiting for the publication of the second and third in the trilogy. The National Theatre production ranks as one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a theatre and I trekked to Bath and Salford to see subsequent revivals. I even don’t think the film adaptation of The Golden Compass is the worst thing in the world, honest… Continue reading “TV Review: His Dark Materials Episode 1”

TV Review: Treadstone, Episodes 1+ 2

What first attracted you to new TV show Treadstone you might ask? I couldn’t possibly say *eyes wander upwards…*

“You will be a great soldier for our cause”

I hadn’t intended to watch Treadstone but the realisation that Brian J Smith was in it made it somewhat more appealing… Throw in Jeremy Irvine too and suddenly it proves very much relevant to my interests. It’s a new TV series located in the Bourne film universe, full of international spy capers and also a bit of timeline trickery as it looks both at the beginnings of the Treadstone black ops programme in the 1970s and its present-day activities and their ramifications.

The neatest trick in Tim Kring’s series is to decentralise the narrative, so instead of a Bourne, or pseudo-Bourne figure at the heart of this story, we’re following a whole raft of sleeper agents across the globe as they’re ‘reactivated’ into killing machines. So there’s vigour and variety in the untold action sequences, and a real sense of stories to be told as all of these people struggle with the realisation of what they are responsible for, even as that responsibility has been robbed from them. So lots to look forward to, including a number of British faces such as Jamie Parker and Tom Mothersdale, alongside the pretty boys 😉

TV Review: Peaky Blinders Series 5

Series 5 of Peaky Blinders plots a particularly dark path for Tommy Shelby but leaves a little too much up in the air – spoilers abound

“It was a consequence of good intentions”

Getting Elliot Cowan into the new series of Peaky Blinders made my heart sing, getting him to play a closeted gay journalist was just gilding the lily, so naturally he didn’t make it past the end of the first episodes. Such are the ways that this show breaks your heart.

As the race through the years carries on apace, we’re now in the time of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the rise of fascism with the arrival of Oswald Mosley, and these two points are the main drivers of this fifth series. The recalibration of the family business to cover their losses, and Tommy’s burgeoning political career serving his increasingly varied ambition. Continue reading “TV Review: Peaky Blinders Series 5”