TV Review: Doctor Who Series 11 Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Jodie Whittaker more than lives up to expectations as Doctor Who in Series 11 Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth – plus Bradley Walsh may well make you cry

“Half an hour ago I was a white haired Scotsman”

“Change my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon”. From the mouth of the Sixth Doctor himself, the very nature of Doctor Who (both the programme and the Time Lord) has always been its infinite variety. So it’s about bloody time that we now have the first female in the role – the excellent Jodie Whittaker – as new show-runner Chris Chibnall makes his definitive mark on the BBC serial.

And on the evidence of this first episode (and, let’s face it, to anyone with common sense), the Doctor’s gender is of little consequence. The ability to act as if you have two hearts knows no bounds, who knew, and the hints of Whittaker’s Doctor that were allowed to peek through the regenerative funk suggest we’re in for something of a real treat with an effervescent sense of personality shining through. Continue reading “TV Review: Doctor Who Series 11 Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth”

TV Review: Cuffs Episodes 5-8

“Are you one of those? They’re everywhere in Brighton aren’t they.
‘Yeah, not so many in Halifax though, cos of the weather’”

I really enjoyed the opening half of new BBC police drama Cuffs and so whacked up a review of those four episodes whilst they were still watchable on the iPlayer. The show has now finished its run, 8 episodes being the default setting for a ‘long’ series here in the UK, and whilst it may have lost a little of the fast-paced energy that characterised its arrival, its bevy of boisterous characters ensured I was fully engaged right through to the end of the last episode.

With such a large ensemble making up the South Sussex team, Cuffs did sometimes struggle in giving each of them a fair crack of the whip. For me, it was Amanda Abbington’s Jo who got the shortest end of the stick, too much of her screen-time, especially early on, being taken up with the fallout of her illicit affair instead of showing her as the more than capable police officer we finally saw in the latter episodes. Continue reading “TV Review: Cuffs Episodes 5-8”

TV Review: Cuffs Episodes 1-4

“All we can do is hang on”

Rather incredibly, given the number of crime dramas there are, Cuffs is actually the BBC’s first police procedural since 2007’s Holby Blue (according to Wikipedia at least), but a rather good one it is too. Creator Julie Gearey has set the show in Brighton and its environs, the territory of the South Sussex Police service, and the first four episodes (which entertained me on a train journey back from Amsterdam) started Cuffs off so strongly that I wanted to recommend it now whilst you can still catch them all on the iPlayer.

The opening episodes are jam-packed with incident, the first part alone crammed child abduction, stolen JCBs, stabbings and a racist released from prison to give a strong sense of the relentless pace of life in the force but the writing has been particularly strong in demonstrating the peculiar demands of modern policing. Traditional boundaries of respect have been torn down so we see the police punched, spat on, and kicked in the face and also having to deal with rubberneckers filming accident scenes on their phone, and members of the public chancing their arm with harassment claims. Continue reading “TV Review: Cuffs Episodes 1-4”

Review: Dinner With Friends, Park

“The key to civilization is to fight the impulse to just chuck it all”

For so long Michael Spence in Holby City, Hari Dhillon’s ventures onto the stage have been sparse indeed but it’s clear that he has high standards – Pulitzer Prize-winning plays about middle-class dinner parties. 2013 saw him take on Ayad Akthar’s Disgraced (2013 winner) for the Bush and then Broadway and now he stars in Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends (2000 winner) for the Park for director Tom Attenborough.

It’s a tale of marriage and mid-life crises – Gabe and Karen are happily, well smugly, married but their satisfied outlook is shaken when the relationship of their friends Tom and Beth crumbles in front of them. Interestingly, Margulies explores what happens to the people in the middle of break-ups, especially when they’re mates with both parties. Beth has got there first, announcing the split at a dinner at Gabe and Karen’s, but Tom soon turns up to get his side across.

Shaun Dooley and Sara Stewart are very good as the slightly nauseating pair, even as their certainties are somewhat rocked and their innate insensitivities appallingly exposed. Dhillon and Finty Williams have a tougher job as the riven Tom and Beth, the validation he craves in pursuing a newer younger lover coming frustratingly late, the drip-drip feed of information scarcely credible and too forcedly shaping our perception of their characters.

The second act moves from New York apartments to the Martha’s Vineyard party (well designed by David Woodhead) 12 years earlier where Gabe and Karen first introduced Tom and Beth to each other but again the artificial construction works against real emotional involvement. The self-satisfaction of pretty much everyone concerned wore me down early on and so I struggled to connect with Dinner With Friends, even when it intermittently came up with something interesting to say. 

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 28th November

Short Film Review #25

Small Dark Places

The genius of Susie Watson’s Small Dark Places is mainly to make the already unique look of Tom Brooke extraordinarily special as it puts him in a frankly hilarious fancy dress costume. The party is celebrating the wedding anniversary of Tim and Christine Welling but he’s been suffering badly from a debilitating condition which includes memory loss and agoraphobia. The party is an attempt to get back to normality but proves more difficult than that and Tim has to really fight to hold onto what’s real. It’s an excellent piece of story-telling, intermingling fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, past and present, as Tim reaches for the thing just out of his grasp that he knows isn’t right. Brooke is brilliant in the part and Joanna Christie and Zoë Tapper as the women in his life with completely different agendas are also good.


Rachael
Rankin is probably best known as a photographer but he has also dipped his toes into many other creative pools, including short film, as evidenced by this 2012 clip Rachael. Penned by Irvine Welsh, it’s a snippet of 1940s British life, a family go about their usual morning business but no-one can get into the bathroom because youngest daughter Rachael is in there. Quite what she’s doing only becomes slowly clear to us as the rest of the family get increasingly frustrated with her. The film naturally looks gorgeous, a professional cinematic feel is employed with hints of artiness elevating it beyond the everyday rituals it portrays – recommended.


HeavenScent

A film mainly notable for its excellent utilisation of Miranda Raison’s alluringly breathy giggle, Frederic Casella’s HeavenScent is a slightly different, comic take on an office romance, over and done with in three minutes and perfectly serviceable.


Mr John

Sometimes, it’s the smallest things that are most affecting and Julian Kerridge’s 2005 film debut Mr Short is full of gorgeous, intimate details that make it a most charming prospect. Benedict Wong’s Mr John is an agoraphobic television critic but the arrival of a pretty upstairs neighbour, in the form of Nicola Stephenson’s Carol, forces him to look at the limits of his world anew. Their burgeoning relationship is a delight to behold – the gift of a casserole, a love for volcano documentaries, the re-organisation of a video collection – the quirky aspects of what makes her utterly adorable is perfectly played by Stephenson, the wry smile as she walks down the steps at the end enough to melt any heart. And Wong is appealingly nerdish as Mr John, initially disgruntled at the intrusion into his hermit-like existence but soon won over and willing to confront his greatest fear. Just lovely.


The Maestro

A 3 minute bit of silly fun to round us off.

Review: Red Enters the Eye / Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear / Feather, Radio 4

“Come, I’ll make you some lamb cutlets”

A friend recommended Red Enters The Eye to me mainly because the too-long-absent-from-our-stages Siân Brooke was in it but she also knew it would be just my cup of tea, and she was right. Jane Rogers’ 2011 radio drama follows the story of Brooke’s idealistic Julie, a volunteer heading to a women’s refuge in Nigeria to teach sewing classes. From nervous beginnings as the strict manager Fran – Penny Downie donning an Aussie accent – outlines all the rules and regulations, Julie soon makes a huge success of the classes, revelling in their popularity, the way the women respond to her work and the potential opportunities that open up as they realise the marketability of these new-found skills.

But her untempered enthusiasm fails to take into account the gravity of the situation in which these women have found themselves, so that they were forced to seek refuge. Rogers carefully threads in a necessarily weighty level of detail about the various threats that women face in this part of the world, explaining also how the volatile socio-religious situation has a huge part to play in Nigeria. But it is never heavy-handed and instead emerges as a sensitive and thoughtful piece of drama which I’d heartily recommend. Brooke is excellent as the breathlessly naïve volunteer, Downie grimly pragmatic as Fran and there’s also great work from Adjoa Andoh as her partner and Demi Oyediran as Sarah, one of the women in the refuge.


Written by Alistair McGowan, Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear also sees him taking on the lead role of French composer Eric Satie. Probably best known for his Gymnopedies, Satie was actually one more innovative than one might have given him credit for, pushing creative boundaries and challenging the establishment. But he was an eccentric figure with it and McGowan has focused on the three most pivotal people in his life and how they were able to see through his peculiarities and peccadilloes to the man within, even if only for a brief while.

It’s an engaging, if somewhat slight, piece of writing, but one which is full of genuine affection and respect for its subject. From the seemingly ridiculous quirks – at one point, he will only eat purely white food – comes the beginnings of an artistic movement, from hopeless infatuation with a singer comes a fruitful creative partnership. McGowan bubbles gently as the composer and swirling around him Nathaniel Parker’s friendly rival Debussy, Imogen Stubbs’ Suzanne and Charlotte Page’s Paulette are all charming as the significant trio.

And last up was Rachel Joyce’s Feather, recommended to me as Claire Price formed part of the voice cast. A delicately beautiful tale narrated by Maisie Cowell’s Fern, it’s an acutely observed child’s-eye view of the separation of a couple and the tug of war that ensures over their daughter. It’s a disarmingly effective technique of probing human behaviour as each parent starts to bring a new partner into their life whilst sussing out what is going on with their ex, all the while Fern finds herself in the middle, collecting enough feathers so that she can make the biggest wish in her life.


She believes in magic you see, and that feathers can grant you wishes, but Joyce’s drama is rooted entirely in the messiness of real life, the pain of broken homes and broken relationships and the difficulties in starting over again. It’s beautifully acted by Cowell, heart-breakingly so at times, and Claire Price and Jot Davies as the warring exes, trying not to manipulate their daughter ‘too’ much are both strong, along with Shaun Dooley as the kindly Finn, who offers hope to both mother and child. 

DVD Review: The Road to Coronation Street

“I don’t care what they do in St Helens but in Salford, no-one puts soap next to bacon”

Despite being relevant to my interests on a number of levels (David Dawson, I’m northern, and the rest of that cast!), The Road to Coronation Street managed to slip by me when it was first broadcast on BBC4 in 2010. Though a long term fixture on ITV (this drama celebrated the 50th anniversary of the soap opera), it was the BBC that took up the reins of creating this origin story for the show, a journey that partly reflects that of its writer Daran Little, who worked on Coronation Street for many years as an archivist but is now a screenwriter for Eastenders, long its traditional rival. But oddities aside, it was a frenetic, energetic romp that I found highly engaging and found it to be over far too soon with its scant 75 minutes-long running time.

The programme tells the true life story of how Tony Warren, a young screenwriter struggling to make his name in the business at Granada Studios, who hit on the idea of creating a television programme that related directly to its audience by presenting a version of everyday working class life on a terraced street in Manchester. We see the genesis of Warren’s idea, conceived from so many details of his own upbringing; his fight to convince his Canadian-born boss to take a chance on it; their battle to persuade the Bernsteins, the studio owners, to put it on the air; and once agreed, the trials of casting it perfectly so that it met both the exacting standards of Warren’s ideal and the new realities of acting on television.   Continue reading “DVD Review: The Road to Coronation Street”

Review: The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Almeida

(With huge apologies to all concerned, especially to Alfred Lord Tennyson, this is to be read in the style of The Lady of Shalott)

“It doesn’t look like a poem, but it is”

Tonight I went to Islington,
For theatre and lots of fun,
But this play it was not the one
(The) Dark Earth and the Light Sky

‘Tis written by the man Nick Dear,
The thought it did fill me with fear,
For Frankenstein made me feel queer,
With dialogue so dry.

This play’s ‘bout a poet called Ed
Edward Thomas his name ‘tis said,
Who went to war and came back dead,
And here we find out why.

He wrote poems like Adlestrop,
But longed to serve though he was Pop,
The thought of going o’er the top,
Appealed though he might die.


Played with some skill by Pip Carter,
His handsome voice filled th’Almeida,
But sympathy did not appear,
Ed’s not a likeable guy.

‘Tis oft the way with great artists,
Their gifts so praised, their faults permissed,
And Ed’s quite the misogynist,
Which makes you wonder why.

His friends love him as do women,
Including Hattie Morahan,
As his tolerant wife Helen,
Who d’serves a better guy.

Design is good which pleasèd me,
Narration’s split annoyingly,
The fourth wall breaks repeatedly,
It made me want to cry.

I did not like this play as such,
I found it lacked a human touch,
Without illuminating much,
To answer why, Ed, why.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 12th January

DVD Review: The Woman in Black

“So many…so many children”

For his first major post-Harry Potter film outing, Daniel Radcliffe went for this adaptation of Susan Hill’s bestseller The Woman In Black, directed by James Watkins. An Edwardian ghost story, widowed father Arthur Kipps’ is tasked with closing up the account of Eel Marsh House, an isolated manor in the fens, but on his arrival he finds the locals unwilling to help, strange goings-on all around him and a haunted house to shake even the most resolute of sceptics.

Skewed angles nod back to Hitchcock, the psychological horror suggests more recent exponents like Amenábar and del Toro, James Watkins is clearly skilled in the art of making people jump but what really works successfully here is the genuine sense of creepiness that imbues much of the film. This is of course most effective in the earlier two-thirds of the film when we’re still hunting for explanations – the long wordless scenes and non-explicit moments of threats have a genuinely disturbing quality – and has there ever been a more unsettling collection of wind-up figures in the world, particularly that rabbit toy.  Continue reading “DVD Review: The Woman in Black”

DVD Review: The Awakening

“This is a time for ghosts”

Released at the end of last year, The Awakening seemed to sink without trace a little. I’m not the best judge of things given how little time I end up with to see films, but I would have thought a film that starred Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton would be a surefire hit. In any case, its general spookiness and delving into the realm of the supernatural makes it a good fit for inclusion here.

Nick Murphy’s film is set in 1921, a shell-shocked England still learning how to recover from the devastating impact of the Great War. Rebecca Hall plays a rather witty anti-Yvette Fielding figure named Florence Cathcart, a very modern sceptic who is a published author on the debunking of supernatural hoaxes. After a great opening sequence in which a séance is exposed for the nonsense it really is, she is visited by Dominic West’s Robert Mallory, a schoolteacher who wants her to come and investigate some spooky goings-on at his isolated boarding school. Yet in finding trying to a rational answer, she uncovers a deeper, more personal mystery which is far from easily explained. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Awakening”