Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 8

“You are the chief executive officer of the human race”

It was quite interesting to rewatch Series 8 of Doctor Who, one which I hadn’t revisited at all since it originally aired, as my memories thereof were not at all positive. And whilst disappointments remained – Robin Hood, 2D cartoons, the treeees! – there was also much to enjoy that I’d forgotten about. The smash-and-grab of Time Heist, the simplicity of ghost story Listen, and the ominous darkness of the finale.

I’m still in two minds about Peter Capaldi’s Twelve though, I want to like him so much more than I do, and I think you do get the sense of him feeling his way into his irascible take on the role. Jenna Coleman’s Clara benefits from being released from the yoke of impossibility to move to the forefront of several episodes and if she’s still a little hard to warm to, that finale really is superbly done. And then there’s Michelle Gomez, stealing the whole damn thing magnificently! Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 8”

DVD Review: Henry V (1989)

”Customs curtsy to great kings”

It is instructive to watch performances from Kenneth Branagh such as these, to counteract the ones he is currently giving as part of his company’s year-long residency at the Garrick. They have their fans to be sure but for me, there’s something much more powerful about the subtlety on display as a younger actor as opposed to the broader, louder turns he’s given thus far. Sacrilegious as it may be to admit it, I have no real love for Henry V as a play but there is no denying this excellent piece of film-making, directed by Branagh in his debut in the chair.

Taking a grittier, more ‘realistic’ take on this history pays dividends, not least in minimising the slapstick for which I care little but also emphasising an emotional truthfulness that doesn’t always come across on stage. Only the stoniest of hearts could remain unmoved by Judi Dench’s achingly poignant farewell to Falstaff, or be swept up in the playful flirtiness between the King and Emma Thompson’s Princess Katherine, or be chilled by the declaration at Harfleur, Branagh showing us the young monarch taking the brutal responsibility of a warrior.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Henry V (1989)”

DVD Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

“A part of love as dreams, sighs, wishes, and tears”

Perhaps taking influence from the roaring success of Kenneth Branagh’s sun-soaked Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Hoffman saw Hollywood’s return to Shakespeare transplant A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a luscious nineteenth century Tuscan setting. So Athens becomes the town of Monte Athena and the soundtrack is suffused with the strains of Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini but in many other respects, it’s a fairly traditional interpretation – a plethora of bicycles aside.

And though it might not seem that big of a deal, it is indicative of Hoffman’s initial approach to tinker where tinkering is not needed. So the heart sinks as the lovers’ comic business is rough-handled onto two wheels and Nick Bottom gains a (mute) wife, but spirits soon rise again as the film begins to trust the text and just enjoy itself. Calista Flockhart proves a revelation as a genuinely emotionally bruised Helena, chasing Christian Bale’s disinterested Demetrius and fending off Dominic West’s magically enhanced interest, much to Anna Friel’s Hermia’s chagrin. Continue reading “DVD Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)”

DVD Review: A Midwinter’s Tale (1995)

“I’m clean, I’m conscientious and I travel with my own tits”

Where else would you get to see Adrian Scarborough’s Richard III but in passing in a random Kenneth Branagh backstage movie. His movie as a director in which he does not star, A Midwinter’s Tale (or In The Bleak Midwinter as it appears to be known in some places) is a rather sweet comedy that makes for a light-hearted take on the often-time serious Shakespeare for which he was getting increasingly known.

Though fun, it is an acutely observed look at the itinerant life of an actor and the different ways in which people deal with its stresses. Unemployed for a year, Michael Maloney’s Joe offers to help out his sister’s local church by mounting a Christmas production of Hamlet, gathering a cast of similar odds and sods who are also available at the last minute. And together, even with the copious issues this motley crew bring with them, theatrical magic somehow begins to bloom.  Continue reading “DVD Review: A Midwinter’s Tale (1995)”

DVD Review: Legend

“It took a lot of love to hate him”

On the one hand, Legend has a pair of cracking performances from Tom Hardy, who plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, that makes it an instantly interesting proposition. On the other, it’s a rather shallow, even sanitised version of events that delves into zero psychological depth and smacks of a irresponsibly glamourised take on violence that plays up to the enduring roll-call of British crime flicks that just keep on coming.

Writer and director Brian Helgeland begins with the Krays already established as East End hoodlums and tracks their rise to power as they seek to control more and more and have all of the capital under their thumb. This is seen through the prism of Reggie’s relationship and eventual marriage to Frances Shea, the teenage sister of his driver, a sprightly turn from Emily Browning when she’s allowed to act but too often she’s forced to deliver syrupy voiceover.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Legend”

TV Review: The Rack Pack, BBC iPlayer

“Think of it as mental snooker”

For somebody whose exposure to snooker was mainly limited to BBC1’s Saturday night show Big Break (and how I loved the trick shots), you might not have expected a drama about snooker to be high on my list of things to watch. But I’m nothing if not tricksy and the announcement of a play about snooker in Sheffield, The Nap featuring a rare foray into theatre for Jack O’Connell, has left me wondering if indeed I really want to schlep up to South Yorkshire to sit through a play about a sport of which I know very little.

Plus The Rack Pack also has a Treadaway (Luke) in it, which always ranks highly in my book, and so I sat down to watch it, hoping that John Virgo might at least have a tiny cameo in it. Written by Mark Chappell, Alan Connor and Shaun Pye, the comedy drama focuses on the rivalry between Alex Higgins and Steve Davis during the 70s and 80s when televised snooker was becoming increasingly popular and so the game became more professional but also more commercialised, each man having their own role to play in this. Continue reading “TV Review: The Rack Pack, BBC iPlayer”

DVD Review: Nativity

“As if Hollywood would come to Coventry”

For whatever reason, I hadn’t ever gotten round to watching festive film Nativity since its release in 2009 but its broadcast on BBC1 meant I finally got the opportunity to be thoroughly won over by its lo-fi festive spirit. Written by Debbie Isitt but also partially improvised by the cast, it nails that typical (successful) Brit-flick style with all its deprecatory charm and underdog spirit, along with an unexpectedly effective original musical score.

Nativity centres on an inter-school rivalry in Coventry, where private primary school Oakmoor consistently produce the best-received nativity show. This year, the headteacher of St Bernadette’s has something to say about that and so puts curmudgeonly Christmas-hater Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) in charge of their show, aware that his old drama school friend and rival Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) is the one succeeding at Oakmoor, Continue reading “DVD Review: Nativity”

DVD Review: Made In Dagenham

“All over the country, women are getting less because they’re women”

I thought this would make an appropriate film review for International Women’s Day, it being a celebration of the sewing machinists whose ground-breaking 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham plant laid the basis for the Equal Pay Act of 1970, enshrining the right of equal pay for equal work. Nigel Cole’s 2010 film, written by William Ivory around the real life events, has been turned into a musical which will be opening at the end of the year, Gemma Arterton taking the lead role under Rupert Goold’s direction, but she has a lot to live up against the glorious Sally Hawkins and what is a rather lovely film.

Made in Dagenham very much fits into the well-established working class Brit flick template – think The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Calendar Girls… – in that it is never particularly challenging, it revels in period cliché and can definitely be described as heart-warming. But also like those films, it does have a little grit at its base, realism (of sorts) is allowed to temper the optimism that drives this huge moment of social change, the individual struggles of these women co-existing with the collective battle to great effect and backed by a super cast, it is frequently moving. Continue reading “DVD Review: Made In Dagenham”

Review: Longing, Hampstead Theatre

“Is there no room for love in your philosophy of life?”

One of the reasons Fawlty Towers remains so highly respected is because it managed that rare feat of going out on a high after making just 12 episodes. And though the reasons for the relatively limited dramatic output of Anton Chekhov may be more to do with his untimely demise, the ethos seems to me to remain similar – the handful of plays that he left behind should be celebrated as such. But he was also a prolific writer of short stories and spotting an opportunity to enrich the canon, novelist William Boyd has fashioned a new play – Longing – from two of them, directed by Nina Raine (her of the astounding Tribes) at the Hampstead Theatre.   

Boyd has used one of Chekhov’s longest stories My Life and “taken its core and impacted it on” one of his most obscure A Visit to Friends and what results is a story of distinctly Chekhovian flavour but one calls to mind numerous of his other plays rather equalling them in their depth and richness. Kolia is invited the summer estate of some old friends but what he thinks will be a relaxing break turns into something much more complex as long-buried emotions come up against current dramas in typically tragicomic fashion. And there’s much to recognise: an ageing woman laments the summer estate she is no longer in possession of, another dares to dream of the love she has sacrificed for a working life, somebody longs to get back to Moscow…these are all highly familiar themes and though they are skilfully woven together by Boyd, there is rarely a sense of dramatic impetus compelling this particular story to be told or ultimately justifying the exercise at large. Continue reading “Review: Longing, Hampstead Theatre”

DVD Review: Breaking the Mould – The Story of Penicillin

“Dirt is the enemy”

Breaking the Mould was a 2009 TV movie for BBC4, starring Denis Lawson and Dominic West, about the development of penicillin for use as a medicine. It occupies that strange ground of fictionalised reality, in that it is based on real people and events but contains invented scenes “for the purposes of the narrative”. Added to that is a rather tight timeframe of 80 minutes in which the story is told, which results in a rather lightweight affair, which is nonetheless intermittently entertaining.

Starting in 1938, after beginning with one of those annoying flash-forwards to the end of the story, the film focuses on a group of scientists at the Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford, led by Australian Howard Florey. Aided by the German Ernst Chain and the English Norman Heatley, he was preoccupied creation of a stable form of penicillin that could be developed for medical use, following Fleming’s initial discovery of its antibacterial properties. Against the antipathy of the scientific community and the hardship imposed by the declaration of WWII, their determination to succeed eventually led to one of the most significant discoveries of the century, although it doesn’t always necessarily feel like it here. Continue reading “DVD Review: Breaking the Mould – The Story of Penicillin”