Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 1

I had already started a rewatch of Spooks earlier this year as part of a planned Nicola Walker retrospective but as it turns out, I’ll have to use that Britbox subscription for something else!

“When will you tell her that your real name is Tom Quinn and that you are a spy”

It is interesting to look at back at much-loved shows and be reminded of how not everything is always how you remember. So much of Spooks has aged remarkably well – not least its choice of subjects that have remained terrifyingly evergreen – that it is easy to forget that this opening season of 6 episodes sees them still searching for that house style. 

It is undoubtedly a bit shonky in look and feel, the slick Thames House set isn’t yet in place and the focus on the lead team at the expense of too many nameless supporting bods gives the personal dynamics a somewhat off-balance feel as we delve into too much of the personal lives of Tom, Zoe and Danny.

But airing in May 2002 in the immediate post 9/11 climate gives its geopolitics real currency. And the threats they face – homegrown far-right movements, fears over immigration, the push for Kurdish self-government, US abortion rights, Russian spies being murdered on British soil… – are compelling throughout. And any show that has Jenny Agutter and Nicholas Farrell dry-humping in a corridor has to be a winner right?!   

Nicola Walker-ometer
To be honest, I’d forgotten Ruth wasn’t a member of the team from the start, so these six episodes pass by with an outrageous lack of Nicola Walker. Continue reading “Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 1”

TV Review: Doctor Who Series 12

Series 12 of Doctor Who goes hard on what we think we know about the Time Lord and finishes in a blaze of glory

“You can be a pacifist tomorrow. Today you just need to survive”

I don’t think I have ever minded anything that happened in Doctor Who so much that I have declared it cancelled, even at the point where all the magnificent character development by Catherine Tate’s Donna was undone in a plot point of real cruelty. So it is hard to take so-called fans of the show seriously when torrents of complaints are unleashed about the sanctity of a world of science fiction that has long enjoyed challenging and expanding what we know about characters we love. (See my Episode 1 review here.)

So it should come as little surprise that I really rather enjoyed series 12 of Doctor Who. Across the season as a whole, I felt that Jodie Whittaker has settled more into the role, especially as the writers feel more confident in finding her voice. And the balancing act of having three companions in the TARDIS has been more assured now that the business of introducing them is over, allowing the group to splinter off for large chunks of episodes has allowed much more of their characters to shine through, particularly for Mandip Gill’s Yaz (who I am mightily glad survived that final episode – I thought she was doomed after her chat with Graham). Continue reading “TV Review: Doctor Who Series 12”

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: Brexit: The Uncivil War

Despite some considerable talent involved, I vote to leave Brexit: The Uncivil War

“It says here you basically ran the Leave campaign and yet I doubt most people have ever heard of you”

It is difficult to watch Brexit: The Uncivil War because it is hard to locate a raison d’être for telling this story as a drama rather than a documentary. Given how close it is to the present day and the way in which so much has still yet to unfold in the way the UK eventually disentangles from the EU, making the choice to start creating art around it feels an odd choice.

I’ve long been a fan of James Graham, like any rational person, and the way he has been able to dig deep and really explore so many of the issues afflicting contemporary society has been brilliantly in evidence. But it is hard not to feel that Brexit is a mis-step in the way that it seeks to reinterpret the roles of the key dramatis personae in this whole sorry shebang. Continue reading “TV Review: Brexit: The Uncivil War”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4

“Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved”

And here we are, my favourite series of Doctor Who. So much huge wonderfulness and even its less good moments are still more than halfway decent. Key to the series’ success is Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble – gobby and one-dimensional in her introductory episode the Christmas special The Runaway Bride, her character journey throughout this season is magisterially constructed, a true awakening of self (with thankfully no romantic inclinations towards our Time Lord) and one given unbearable poignancy due to its frustratingly tragic end.

It’s also one of the best constructed series in terms of its over-arching season arc, its warnings and clues layered meaningfully into several stories and building into a momentous and properly climactic finale, which lands just about the right level of grandiosity. There’s also the first companion-lite episode (the superbly creepy Midnight) to go with the Doctor-lite one (the achingly beautiful dystopian Turn Left); a typically brilliant Moffat double-header in  Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead with gorgeous work from Alex Kingston as the soon-to-be-hugely-significant River Song; and if the return of Rose undoes some of the emotional impact of the Series 2 finale, Billie Piper’s work is spikily powerful. These are episodes I can, and have, watched over and over again.

Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4”

TV Review: Ripper Street Series 4

“Edmund Reid did this”

As I might have predicted after the soaring heights of Series 3, the fourth season of Ripper Street didn’t quite live up to its forerunner. Then again, how could it after the epic sweep of the storytelling had so much of the finale about it in terms of where it left its key characters – Matthew Macfadyen’s Reid, Jerome Flynn’s Drake, Adam Rothenberg’s Jackson and MyAnna Buring’s Susan – picking up the pieces to carry on was always going to be difficult.

To recap, Reid had given up the police force after being reunited with his previously-thought-dead daughter Mathilda, and Susan’s momentous struggle against the patriarchal strictures of society (and also the nefarious entanglements of her actual father) saw her and Jackson end up behind bars, having also drawn Reid and the promoted Drake into the exacting of an individual kind of justice.  Continue reading “TV Review: Ripper Street Series 4”

Review: The Audience, Apollo

“A good Labour woman…”

Not content with becoming a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier this year, Kristin Scott Thomas was also awarded an upgraded Légion d’honneur (from chevalier to officer to be precise) in what has become something of a banner year for her. She’s also completing the not-inconsiderable feat of stepping into Helen Mirren’s award-winning shoes as Her Royal Highness Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, whilst Dame Helen reprises the role and the award-winning on Broadway.

Morgan’s revival has updated the play a little from its first outing – Tony Blair is in, Jim Callaghan is out, the recent election gets its mention with a barbed Miliband joke, but essentially it remains the same non-confrontational easy-Sunday-evening –television style viewing. The parade of PMs mostly play off a sole predictable character note, the Queen gets an easy ride of it with a strange intimation of where her personal politics might lie, there’s not a dramatic surprise to be had in here nor anything truly arresting through all its luxuriousness. Continue reading “Review: The Audience, Apollo”

TV Review: Coalition, Channel 4

“No Lib Dem leader has ever had this kind of exposure and opportunity”

James Graham definitely seems to be having a moment – the noted playwright has been branching out into film and TV and with some serendipitous timing, is showcasing his talent in all three avenues. The Vote will soon be hitting the Donmar, X&Y is in cinemas as we speak, and his television film Coalition aired on Channel 4 last night. I’ve yet to catch X&Y but if Coalition is anything to go by, then there’s absolutely no fear that he is overstretching himself as it was a cracking bit of telly.

One of the reasons it worked so well for me was its basis in more-or-less contemporary events. His play This House was a sterling piece of political theatre but for someone who had no knowledge of the 1970s politicking it portrayed, there was always a sense of catch-up whereas the more august members of the audience could enjoy the nuances of Graham’s skilful writing and observations without the niggle of also trying to work out just what was going on.  Continue reading “TV Review: Coalition, Channel 4”

TV Review: Ripper Street Series 1

“Whitechapel calls you back”

Victorian crime procedural Ripper Street burst onto our screens at the beginning of this year with a blood-spattered élan and a perhaps more violent streak than many were expecting, but it grew to be a most successful series with audiences (and me) and has since been renewed for a second series. Set in Whitechapel, the first episode had a Jack the Ripper focus, which with the title of the show, proved a bit of misdirection in terms of the series as a whole as the crimes that H Division ended up investigating were of a hugely wide-ranging nature and not just focused on the notorious serial killer (although the Ripper’s exploits did form a backdrop to part of the series-long arc).

It’s a period of history, and particularly social history, that I have long found interesting (I studied it as part of my degree) as notions of crime and punishment were rapidly changing and the nature of policing was also changing with the introduction of a more scientific approach to solving crimes. So Matthew Macfadyen’s DI Reid and Jerome Flynn’s DS Flynn are joined by US army surgeon Captain Jackson, played by Adam Rothenburg, as they work their way through the serious crimes, civil unrest, and personal vendettas that crop up on a weekly basis. Continue reading “TV Review: Ripper Street Series 1”

DVD Review: Nicholas Nickleby

“You must bear up against sorrow my dear”

Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby manages the not-unimpressive feat of condensing Dickens’ weighty novel into a two hour film, and whilst much must have been jettisoned (I’ve never read the book so I couldn’t tell you what) it still hangs together as a cohesive story with much to recommend it. McGrath also directs and remains very much faithful to the spirit of Dickens with a straightforward aesthetic that takes a few artistic liberties but whose heart is very much in the right place.

After the death of Nickleby senior, Nickleby junior is thrust into the role of head of the family but with the dastardly deeds of their unscrupulous Uncle Ralph, Nicholas has to work extremely hard and keep his wits about him in order to protect his friends and family from the misfortune around them. Those misfortunes are many and varied but entertainingly portrayed here as there’s a good deal of humour and pathos mixed in with the grimness. Continue reading “DVD Review: Nicholas Nickleby”