The Past Christmas on TV

Continuing the spirit of publishing things about ten days late, here’s my Christmas TV review, about ten days after the season ended. (And if you’re thinking, “um, Christmas was 18 days ago,” well, the TV ‘Christmas’ season goes on until at least January 1st here, so there.)

Santa Goes Wrong
Here’s Santa to rekindle your festive spirit.
With alcohol.

This is now my fourth annual Christmas TV post, would you believe. I still feel like TV reviews are a fairly recent addition to this blog, but nope, it’s been four years. And this is, in a way, a vintage year, what with the Gavin & Stacey revival becoming the most-watched Christmas Day broadcast in something like 17 years; and, even more impressively, it was the only scripted programme to make the top ten TV broadcasts of the decade (the rest going to sporting events and one random episode of The X Factor).

As for whether it was any good, and what I thought of other stuff that was on… well, read on…

Doctor Who  Spyfall
Doctor Who: SpyfallFor the first time in 14 years, since the series returned, there was no Doctor Who Christmas/New Year special. Gasp! At least we got the first episodes of a new series, though — two slightly-longer-than-normal instalments (at 60 minutes each, which doesn’t feel that special when regular episodes are 50 minutes now). And a two-parter, too — the first of those since 2017. And a big two-parter at that, with big-name guest stars and big action sequences and big overseas locations.

Yep, this is Doctor Who with a bang — a marked contrast to last series, which mostly went for understated. Well, as understated as modern Doctor Who gets, anyway. But whereas series 11 had no two parters and no returning monsters and, as I say, a markedly calmer pace and tone, series 12 begins with the antithesis of all of that. In case you’ve not seen it I shan’t spoil the end-of-part-one reveal, which was a massive delight that I did not see coming (I guess someone learnt a lesson from last time that villain returned, when the production team basically spoiled it themselves before anyone else could). That was the highlight of an episode that moved at a mile a minute, not pausing to let you consider the logic of what was going on (which, yeah, was not faultless). But while it may not have been perfect, I’m glad to see a return for this fun, exciting version of the show. I didn’t find series 11 a total washout (I think my reviews as it was airing were mostly positive, even), but overall I felt like something wasn’t quite working.

Well, let’s be honest, what wasn’t working is showrunner Chris Chibnall. His episodes under previous showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat were never the very best (and I say that as someone who likes them more than most), but without their oversight to guide him, he seemed a bit lost. He’s a long-time fanboy of the show (somewhat famously, he appeared on a viewer feedback show in the ’80s to slag off the quality of the writing), and at times last series it felt like he was writing for the show as he’d loved it as a kid (that is to say, a bit slow-paced and old-fashioned). Now, possibly taking some of the criticism on board (or possibly just trying to mix it up), he’s attempting to emulate the whoosh-bang blockbuster-but-quirky style of RTD and Moffat. What he can’t grasp is their effortless-seeming slickness — when they rushed over something it was usually because “it makes sense if you think about it”, whereas Chibnall is trying to cover a logic gap; conversely, when there’s no gap to be hidden, he has characters mercilessly over-explain everything, I guess for the sake of anyone who’s just walked in.

So, not perfect, but I thought Part 1 was a blast nonetheless. Sadly, I was much less enamoured with Part 2 — a virtually nonsensical runaround through time, which didn’t seem to know what to do with everything that had been put in play, just throwing “more” at us until the Doctor basically said “time for the story to end now”, and so the baddies disappeared and that was that. Apart from an epilogue, which was quite intriguing — and dove head first into full-on mythology territory, something the series studiously avoided last year. Whether Chibnall’s got anywhere good to go with what he’s teasing, God only knows (I fear not, based on the evidence), but it’s a welcome bit of business that will hopefully jazz up the season to come.

Gavin & Stacey  A Special Christmas
Gavin & Stacey: A Special ChristmasI won’t recap Gavin & Stacey’s ratings success (what with already having mentioned it at the start), nor will I touch on the controversy around its use of Fairytale of New York (I kind of get why people complained, but also, the song is the song). As for the episode itself, well, I thought it was masterful. It may be nine years since the last episode, but it was like they hadn’t been away. Not that they tried to ignore the passage of time — clearly, the best part of a decade had passed in the characters’ lives, and naturally changes had come with that — but the characters and performances felt true to their old selves, as if they’d never stopped playing them, with the rhythms and comedic style of the show fully intact. Some decade-later revivals feel like new shows — the writers have forgotten how to write it properly; the cast have forgotten how to play it right — but not this one. This was bang on what it should be. Tidy.

Dracula
Dracula“From the makers of Sherlock”, declared the publicity for this new adaptation of the Victorian novel — so you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a present-day reimagining. But it wasn’t. Well, until it was.

This new Dracula is very much a tale of three parts, and not just because it was in three 90-minute episodes. While undoubtedly a serial, each episode was almost a standalone instalment, which was a structural trick I quite liked — it doesn’t feel like you’re watching one four-and-a-half-hour work broken into three by the necessities of the schedule, but rather three separate-but-connected works. And I really, really liked the first two.

The Rules of the Beast is what you most expect of Dracula: a spooky Transylvanian castle; “I don’t drink… wine”; mild little Englishman Jonathan Harker discovering terrible secrets… Of course, writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss didn’t shy away from bringing a few affectations and twists to the piece, but I thought they all worked well. Claes Bang makes for a fantastic Dracula (a comment that holds true throughout the series), the rest of the cast were very good as well, and there were some proper horror bits — this adaptation was not, ahem, toothless.

The second instalment, Blood Vessel, dealt with Dracula’s voyage to England aboard the Demeter — a part usually more or less glossed over in other adaptations, as far as I know. But here Moffat and Gatiss spin it out into a full 90-minutes, kind of like a slasher movie set in a confined location, albeit we know whodunnit — so, naturally, there are other twists to be found. Again, I liked this a lot — the way it felt respectful to the source while also expanding and refreshing it; the interesting supporting cast; some very impressive production work (they built the entire ship on a soundstage!)

Then we get to episode three, The Dark Compass. There’s no way to talk about what happens here without spoiling it, so if you haven’t watched the series yet and are intending to, look away now. If you have watched it, you’ll know this episode jumps the action forward 123 years to 2020. And you also probably hated it, because it seems almost everyone did. My feelings were slightly more nuanced. In my opinion, its biggest mistake is that it’s a completely different show. Sure, we still have Claes Bang playing Dracula (and he’s still excellent), and we still have Moffat and Gatiss’s recognisable stylings in the dialogue and whatnot, but the entire setup has shifted. Judged in isolation, as a present-day-set reworking of the Dracula story as told in the novel, I don’t think it’s that bad. Maybe it’s a tad too cheesy (the scenes in nightclubs and whatnot do have a feel of “how do you do, fellow kids”), but it’s workable as a modern-day adaptation of the character and plot. The problem, as I say, comes from placing it as part of a whole alongside the reenvisioned-but-fundamentally-faithful adaptation we got in the first two episodes. In doing so, Moffat and Gatiss undermine the whole enterprise — it robs the first two-thirds of a fitting finale; and, by being so radically different to the style we’ve spent three hours getting used to, it doesn’t give itself a fair shake either.

And so many have judged the overall result to be a failure. Personally, I enjoyed enough of it that I was still entertained, but if they’d given us a ‘proper’ third episode to round it out then I think I may’ve loved it.

The Goes Wrong Show  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
The Goes Wrong Show - The Pilot (Not the Pilot)Oh my, what a treat! Regular readers will remember how much I loved Peter Pan Goes Wrong at Christmas 2016 (“the best thing that was on TV during the festive season”) and its 2017 followup, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. When the gang missed Christmas 2018 I feared we wouldn’t be getting any more, possibly thanks to the negative-nelly reception in some quarters. But oh no, for 2019 they’re back with a vengeance: not a one-off hour, but a whole series of half-hour Plays Gone Wrong. Reader, I am cock-a-hoop with delight!

The first episode was another Christmas special; the second a historically-inaccurate WW2 thriller (set in 1961); the third aired on Friday but I’m currently saving it. It’s a half-hour parade of utter silliness — slapstick, wordplay, entirely predictable tomfoolery… but sometimes the total predictability of what’s about to go wrong is part of the fun (episode one begins with a blatant setup for a joke that isn’t paid off until the very end of the episode). And it’s exactly the kind of thing the whole family can watch and enjoy, whether you’re 6 or 66. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I was driven to tears of laughter. Actually, I can — it was Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Long live the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society!

Also watched…

A mix of Christmas scheduling and non-Christmas stuff we just happened to catch up on.

  • Criminal: United Kingdom Season 1 — Netflix’s high-concept cop show wasn’t quite as classy as the publicity would have you believe (it still indulged in the old staples of office politics, breaking from the tension of the interrogation to faff around with romance subplots and whatnot), but the guest stars still gave it their all — I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hayley Atwell like that before, and David Tennant was superb as always. Good enough that I’ll check out some of the international versions.
  • In Search of Dracula with Mark Gatiss — This felt like it was planned as a promo for the BBC’s new Dracula, but aired after it. Weird. Anyway, Gatiss has fronted several great documentaries on horror before, and while this wasn’t quite in their league (the others are exceptionally good) it was still a solid and interesting look at the history of the Count. And it made me want to see a load of previous Dracula films, which I always think is the mark of a good movie documentary.
  • Miranda My Such Fun Celebration — I know the sitcom Miranda wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it, as did lots of others, hence this one-off special to mark its tenth anniversary. It’s a bit of an oddity — a mix of cast reunions, sketches, clip montages, and song and dance. Yes, song and dance. It was well-meaning but, well, I found it a little strange. But for those people whose lives have been positively impacted by the series (and, genuinely, hurrah to it and them for that), I’m sure it was a delight.
  • Vienna Blood Series 1 — A new crime series from “that other guy who wrote some episodes of Sherlock”, this adaptation of a series of novels set in Vienna c.1907 did feel a bit like Sherlock Lite, with its Freud-influenced genius consulting detective and some stylish visuals. But it lacked the innovation that marked out Sherlock, especially in its early days. You can tell this has half an eye on being an easy sell to international markets, able to sit comfortably alongside all the other 90-minute crime dramas the UK TV industry churns out. So, it was a bit predictable and formulaic, but decently done and reasonably entertaining. This Guardian article echoes my feelings on it pretty well.

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Christmas CarolThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. I know it went down with some degree of controversy, but its revisionist, horror-tinged style looked right up my alley. Unfortunately, it was stripped over three nights, and because I knew I was going to be away for the third evening I didn’t start it. By the point I had enough time to make room for it, it was so long enough after Christmas that I wasn’t sure it was appropriate. Now, it’s January 12th and it’s definitely too late. Guess I’ll have to try to remember to watch it next year, then.

    Next month… it’s a new year, so I’m sure there must be plenty of new TV. Although I kind of hope not, because I’ve still got tonnes and tonnes from last year to catch up on.

  • The Past Month on TV #4

    It’s the moments we’ve all been waiting for, as David Tennant returns to Doctor Who and Game of Thrones returns to our screens. Spoiler-free reviews of both (and more) follow…

    Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Adventures Volume 1

    One of Doctor Who’s most popular eras is revived this week, as David Tennant returns to the headline role for the first time since 2013 for a debut series of Big Finish audio dramas. By his side is Catherine Tate’s Donna — what initially sounded like terrible casting but turned out to be a fantastic Doctor/companion pairing. (I know not everyone’s convinced by her even now, but you can’t win ’em all.) Given Tennant’s enduring popularity as the 10th Doctor, it’s no surprise his return to the role has brought Big Finish more attention than ever — their website even went down for a few hours on Monday, unable to cope with the rush of fans downloading the new stories. (And yes, I’m kinda bending the rules by reviewing audio drama in a TV column… but, a) these are designed to recreate a TV series in audio form, and b) it’s my column and I can review what I like.) So do they live up to expectations? Thankfully, yes. Setting out to emulate the era they’re from, they follow the model set out by the first three episodes of every Russell T Davies-helmed season of NuWho: a present day one, a future one, and a past one.

    The first is Technophobia by Matt Fitton, which is set in our recent past (and therefore Donna’s near-future) when the new M-Pad tablet computer seems to be causing the populace to forget how to use technology. Tennant and Tate hit the ground running — it’s a cliché, but it really does sound like they’ve never been away. Their sprightly performances contain little of the stilted “I’m reading this script aloud for the first time” acting that sometimes plagues audio drama. Fitton captures the style and tone of their single TV season to a tee — if they’d done a second year together, you can well believe this as its first episode. Even Howard Carter’s incidental music is a mostly-fitting substitute for Murray Gold’s iconic work.

    The middle tale is sci-fi adventure Time Reaver by Jenny T. Colgan, a best-selling romantic novelist who’s turned her hand to multiple Who projects (including a 10th Doctor and Donna novel published last week to tie-in with these dramas). For me, this was the weak link of the trilogy, though it’s by no means bad. There are some fantastic ideas, but at times their inspirations show through too clearly, and the execution is sometimes lacking. This was Colgan’s first audio drama, and dare I say it shows. Sequences like an action-packed barroom brawl are a little too ambitious to convey in an audio-only medium, and the dialogue is regularly forced to describe what’s going on. On the bright side, Mr Carter offers more magnificent sound design — the noises made by cephalopod villain Gully are immensely evocative.

    The final episode is the group’s historical outing, Death and the Queen by James Goss, and it may be the best of the lot. Our intrepid duo find themselves in the kingdom of Goritania in 1780, when it comes under siege from a destructive cloud that contains Death himself. Goss mixes comedy with peril in just the right quantities to create a story that is an entertaining romp but also manages to expose different facets of the Doctor and Donna’s relationship. If Fitton has bottled the essence of RTD, here Goss evokes Steven Moffat, with a time-jumping opening ten minutes that you can well imagine on TV, but which also work perfectly in audio. Things slow a bit later on, with the dialogue sometimes going in circles — a fault of all three of these plays, actually. They could’ve benefited from a trim to fit within the TV series’ 45-minute slot, rather than allowing the freedom of not having to conform to a schedule let them to slide to 55-ish.

    That’s only a niggle, though, and one that pales beside the excitement of having Tennant and Tate back in the TARDIS. This is a run of adventures that largely evoke the pair’s time on TV without being a needless carbon copy of it, meaning they work as both a marvellous hit of nostalgia and exciting new adventures in their own right.

    All three stories are currently available exclusively from the Big Finish website, going on general release from 1st September. They can be purchased individually (either as a CD+download or download-only), or as part of a limited edition box set (CD+download) that comes with a 78-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and an hour-long introduction to other Big Finish works, all encased in a book with exclusive photography and articles.

    Eurovision Song Contest: Stockholm 2016
    Ah, love a bit of Eurovision, even if the songs weren’t as good this year. Ok, you might say they never are, but there’s often one or two half-decent ones (I still listen to Conchita Wurst’s Rise Like a Phoenix sometimes, mainly because it’s the best Bond theme released in the last decade). Even then, the winner wasn’t the best of that middling bunch, though it probably had the best message. In fact, the best song of the night was the Swedish hosts’ half-time number, Eurovision-spoofing Love Love Peace Peace (watch it here). The much-heralded new voting system worked like a charm… at least for audience tension purposes. Poor Australia with that last-minute lose… though as they shouldn’t really have been there in the first place, it’s hard to feel too bad for them.

    Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 1-4)
    Good luck to you if you’re not watching Game of Thrones but still trying to avoid spoilers this year, with the huge and widely-covered news that [REDACTED] was [REDACTED], or that [REDACTED] killed [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] were [REDACTED] for the first time since [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] was [REDACTED] but [REDACTED] the [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] of [REDACTED] in the process — even if more people seemed interested in discussing her [REDACTED]s.

    Trying not to add to the tumult of spoilers (just in case), I thought that The Red Woman was the now-standard GoT season opener (a mix of recapping/establishing where everyone is, and just beginning to shuffle those players around the board for their next moves) done as well as it’s ever been. Home was where the season really kicked into gear, though — quicker than some other years have managed, that’s for sure. One particular moment was much discussed, understandably, but events elsewhere — both in Westeros and Essos — would’ve been enough to excite interest without it. Oathbreaker engaged more with its flashbacks than its ‘present day’ actions, though another episode-ending scene at Castle Black reiterated the series’ warts-and-all vision of the world. Finally, Book of the Stranger was an immensely satisfying hour — the kind of thing Thrones allows us all too rarely, considering how often its heroes are crushed. Apparently the writers have said this is the year the series’ female characters finally begin to really ‘fight back’, and it would seem this episode is where it begins.

    Upstart Crow (Series 1 Episodes 1-2)
    I can’t remember the last time I saw a new multi-camera sitcom that wasn’t either, a) a bit meta (like Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys), or b) a revival (like Red Dwarf X). I don’t know if that says more about the current TV landscape or the kind of things I watch, but either way it surprised me when that was the form Upstart Crow took. It’s just one element that gives it the feel of Blackadder, which I don’t mean as a criticism. Even if it feels a little dated in its execution, there are plenty of laughs — some easy, some clever — and, really, what more do you want from a comedy than to laugh? It may not be up to Blackadder’s highest highs (yet — there’s still time; you never know), but I’d wager it stands fair comparison to the classic’s comparatively-lesser instalments… which I mean to be a less critical assessment than it sounds.

    Also watched…
  • The British Academy Television Awards 2016Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky’s barnstorming defence-of-the-BBC acceptance speech set the tone for the evening, which consequently was one of the best BAFTA ceremonies ever. The BBC broadcast had to cut some of his speech, no doubt out of fear of the government, but the full text can be read here.
  • The Flash Season 2 Episodes 15-19 / Arrow Season 4 Episodes 15-18 / DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Season 1 Episodes 6-9 — this is all getting a bit much now… and next year they’re probably adding Supergirl to the mix, as it’s moving to The CW too. I may have to give up on one or two of them at that point, I think.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 6 Episode 10-Season 7 Episode 7 — the much-maligned seventh season really is not good. I just want it to be over so I can switch to being excited for the Netflix revival.
  • Person of Interest Season 4 Episodes 16-22 — with the cancelled-after-filming final season underway in the US now, one of the showrunners was talking about how the series will nonetheless come to an ending, because they’ve tried to conclude every season with a suitable stopping point. I really, really hope they’ve done something different with season five, though, because the cliffhanger endings of seasons three and four would actually have been terrible places to end forever.

    Things to Catch Up On
    This month, I have mostly been missing the second run of The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s all-star adaptation of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays… though as I still haven’t got round to watching the first run from 2012, that’s no real surprise. In fact, Upstart Crow aside, I’ve not yet watched any of their still-running Shakespeare Festival, other highlights (so I’ve heard) of which have included the Shakespeare Live from the RSC celebration and spoof documentary Cunk on Shakespeare. There’s also Russell T Davies’ new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is on Monday 30th.

    Next month… as was just announced yesterday, AMC’s Preacher adaptation comes to the UK via Amazon.

  • Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)

    aka MI-5

    2015 #139
    Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    The BBC’s long-running spy thriller series Spooks (aka MI-5 in the US) came to a close a few years ago, and instantly sparked rumours of a big-screen continuation. Unlike most such rumours, that one actually came to fruition: this result hit UK cinemas in the summer, and is now making its way across the pond — under that Mission: Impossible-esque title, of course.

    The TV series is probably best remembered for the way it regularly killed off its leading characters in shocking fashion, thanks to the most infamous of them all: the “deep fat fryer incident” from the second-ever episode. It was about a lot more than that, though. Beginning in 2002 in the wake of 9/11, a series about the security service defending the country from terrorism couldn’t avoid being ultra-relevant, and it ran for a decade during which such issues never ceased to be pertinent (and haven’t since). That other famous British spy institution, James Bond, was at the tail-end of the Brosnan era when Spooks began, and the lower-key TV series was — like Tinker Tailor and others before it — pitched as a “real world” version of what the security services got up to. Storylines were “ripped from the headlines”, often with eerie prescience: after one early episode, the series’ lack of end credits led some viewers to believe the real BBC News bulletin that followed was still part of the drama.

    Early seasons focused at least as much on things like the mundanity of spycraft, or how one went about having a personal life while also being a sometimes-undercover agent, as they did on the exciting action of counterespionage — as evoked in the memorable tagline “MI5 not 9 to 5”, of course. As the years rolled on, things got increasingly outlandish and grandiose, just as almost every spy series that starts out “grounded” is wont to do. In season three, an entire episode was spent on the moral dilemma of whether it was acceptable to assassinate someone; a couple of years later, assassinations would just be a halfway-through-an-episode plot development. The one constant through all this was section chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), the M figure to a rotating roster of “James Bond”s, including Matthew “Ripper Street” Macfadyen and Rupert “Whitechapel” Penry-Jones, as well as other actors who didn’t go on to lead Jack the Ripper-derived crime series, like Richard “The Hobbit” Armitage.

    Now, a couple of years since the TV series wrapped up its ten-year run, Spooks has attempted to make the leap to the big screen. Although they’ve roped in the fella who directed the first-ever episodes, the screenwriters are the final two seasons’ showrunners, so the movie follows on from where the series ended up rather than re-establishing itself in where it all began. What does that mean in practice? Sub-Bourne action in a film that often appears more like a well-budgeted TV movie than a proper feature film.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins with Harry running an op that goes wrong, during which terrorist Adam Qasim (Elyes Gabel) is sprung from custody just before being handed over to the CIA. Cue international incident. Naturally the blame is pinned on Harry, who consequently throws himself off a bridge. Except no one buys that, so they drag in Will Holloway (Kit Harington), a disenchanted one-time protégé of Harry’s (i.e. the series’ latest “younger man who can do the running around”). He knows nothing about it (obviously), but they want him to track Harry down nonetheless. Turns out Harry suspects there’s a mole in MI5 (because it’s a spy thriller — there’s always a mole) and it might be one of the very people who brought Will in (who include David Harewood, Tim McInnerny, and Jennifer Ehle). Harry and Will must work together to, a) find the mole, and b) stop whatever atrocity Qasim has planned next.

    In case it isn’t clear, you don’t need to have seen the TV series to follow the plot, which is standalone in every aspect that seriously matters (there are certainly nods to the show, especially to its final season, and one fan-pleasing cameo. More would’ve been nicer.) However, a familiarity might help manage your expectations: The Greater Good feels like a wider-screen, (slightly-)bigger-budgeted version of the show, for good or ill. “Good” because, well, it should really, otherwise why call it Spooks? “Ill” because anyone expecting an action-packed thriller to rival Bond, Bourne, or Mission: Impossible will come away disappointed.

    The trailers attempt to promise some of that kind of action, but they’re a bit of a cheat: what adrenaline the film has is mostly released in tiny bursts, scattered throughout. That strategy is fine if you’ve got the money to make each little burst a solid sequence, but when the entirety of some sequences is “jumping through a window” or “climbing a wall to get into a flat”, well… Sure, it looks good in the trailer — it promises lots of action in different places at different times — but that’s also a promise the movie can’t fulfil. The Greater Good certainly isn’t just a low-rent action movie — it’s driven by its plot — but if they’d saved up the filmmaking time, effort, and expense afforded to those single-dose action moments and poured it all into one sequence (in addition to the two or three fully-realised action sequences that the film does have), it might’ve paid dividends.

    So what of that plot? As mentioned, the exciting contemporaneousness of Spooks’ storylines went increasingly AWOL as the series wore on, trading real-world issues for ludicrous government conspiracies or revived Cold War rivalries. Unsurprisingly, given the writers involved, the movie continues in that latter tradition. That’s a shame, because Spooks’ ability to engage with real-world issues in a thriller context was one of its best elements. It’s not as if we’re lacking in spy-related storyline-fodder in the real world — something Edward Snowden-y or about radicalised nationals would’ve been a good starting point. (Based on his accent, I guess Qasim is supposed to be an American who was converted, but that facet of his character isn’t explored.) At least they try to sub in some thematic relevance, raising questions related to doing what’s right versus doing what’s expected. Sadly that dichotomy isn’t explored as fully as it could have been either, but it’s definitely a constant and repeated factor.

    You might not believe it from this picky review but, fundamentally, I did enjoy the Spooks movie. It largely retains the feel of the TV series (albeit without the moderately-memorable theme music — honestly, it’s like someone forgot to compose anything for the title credits. What were they thinking?!), and if they manage to produce a sequel then I’ll be sure to see it; but in this outing I can’t help spotting ways I thought it could’ve been even better. Consequently, as a film in its own right it comes across as a Bourne wannabe. On the bright side, it’s still better than The Bourne Legacy.

    3 out of 5

    Spooks: The Greater Good MI-5 is available in the US through DirecTV from today, and in theaters and on demand from December 4th.

    Cruise of the Gods (2002)

    2011 #92
    Declan Lowney | 90 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | 12

    Cruise of the GodsI’ve debated in the past where the line between what counts as a film and what counts as a TV production falls in this day and age, when a one-off feature-length event programme on a major network could easily outstrip a small theatrical film in both filmic spectacle and budget. So it really comes down to intention and/or place of release: if it’s made for TV, it’s TV; if it’s made for cinema or direct-to-DVD, it’s a film; if it’s made for the cinema but doesn’t really get released and goes straight to TV, God alone knows.

    Cruise of the Gods is a clear cut case: it was made for TV, it was shown on TV, it’s a one-off TV programme. But I’m going to say screw that and bend my rules a little, just this once*, because I’ve definitely seen ‘proper films’ that aren’t as good as this (naturally, that could be said of a lot of TV) and, well, because I really liked it and wanted to share.

    Rob Brydon stars as the lead actor from a cheap ’80s BBC sci-fi show who’s now working as a hotel porter, while his co-star (Steve Coogan) is off in America starring in popular TV series Sherlock Holmes in Miami. (A modern-day TV series update of Sherlock Holmes? What a horrid idea only the Americas would do!) When he’s invited on a fan cruise (like a convention, but on a cruise ship — these things do exist), an initially reluctant Brydon accepts because he needs some money. There he meets fans of the long-dead show, played by the likes of a pre-Little Britain David Walliams and a pre-Gavin & Stacey James Corden. Events, as they say, unfold.

    Happy familiesThough the film pokes fun (fairly good-naturedly) at sci-fi obsessives, the underlying story here is about a man overshadowed by his past. In this Brydon gives a strong performance — I think he’s a better actor than he’s normally given credit for — and he’s ably supported by Corden in particular, though to say what gives his role such quality might spoil a twist. He’s another one who’s actually a very good actor, but it gets hidden beneath a public persona that led to such dross as that sketch show with Mathew Horne.

    The biggest twist, however, is that Coogan plays a nice character. There’s no surprise sting in the tail there, he’s just nice throughout. It’s weird.

    As this is TV, the writer gets prominence over the director; indeed, the opening credits follow the title card with a just-as-big “by Tim Firth” credit, while Lowney’s name is relegated to the end credit scrawl. Such is the fate of many a TV director. Their careers have followed suit too: Firth went on to films like Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots and Confessions of a Shopaholic. (Before it he wrote, amongst other things, The Flint Street Nativity (which I probably last saw when it was on in 1999, but remember fondly) and Border Cafe, a forgotten mini-series which I’ve always vaguely remembered watching. I think this is the kind of thing that can happen with writers: they’re so often undervalued that you might end up seeing a lot of their stuff, almost to the point where it could be called following their career, Corden cruisingwithout ever realising all those disparate things were penned by the same human being. Poor writers.) Lowney, meanwhile, has stuck to TV, with episodes of Happiness, Little Britain and Married Single Other (amongst others) to his name, and most recently some bits of Glastonbury 2011. (Poorer directors.) None of this tells you much about Cruise of the Gods, I’d just observed it all.

    There was talk of this being remade as a film, again starring Brydon and Coogan. I don’t know if that’s still going ahead. Really, there’s no need: I think it’s an entertaining comedy and engrossing character drama as it is, easily on a par with similar-feeling British films (and easily exceeding others — Beyond the Pole, for instance). The only benefit would be wider exposure: people seem prepared to visit old films in a way that isn’t felt for most old TV, which is still seen as disposable and transitory by many. Their loss — they’re the ones missing stuff like this, while the more open-minded among us can find and enjoy it.

    4 out of 5

    * May happen again. ^

    Verity (2010)

    2010 #118a
    Stephen Cheung | 9 mins | streaming

    There’s probably a worthwhile biopic to be made about Verity Lambert. In 1963, she became not only the youngest-ever producer of a BBC television programme, but the first female one too; the programme she was charged with launching was Doctor Who, which she took from a short-commission no-hoper to a firm part of the national culture — and we all know what’s happened to it since she left in 1965. Her extensive career continued until her death in 2007, encompassing such televisual landmarks (for good or ill) as The Naked Civil Servant, Quatermass, Minder, G.B.H., Eldorado and Jonathan Creek.

    This nine-minute effort from student screenwriters Thomas Cowell and Joey Guy is, unsurprisingly, not that biopic. Wisely, it focuses on the start of Lambert’s producing career, dramatising the events around her being chosen by Sydney Newman (then the BBC’s Head of Drama) to shepherd his idea for an educational science-fiction children’s drama, its initial ratings failure and, shortly after, its ratings success. The film’s tagline — “men, bitches and Daleks” — sums up its thematic concerns: Lambert argues with the man who hired her, faces animosity from other female members of staff, and saves the day by forcing the Daleks into the series despite Newman’s forbiddance.

    Verity in VerityBefore I set off really critiquing the film, let’s just remember this: it’s a student effort. In that context, I’ve seen far worse — heck, I’ve been involved in the production of worse. Cowell and Guy have set themselves an almost Herculean task by choosing a period tale, which obviously necessitates all sorts of extra effort in terms of costumes, locations, dialogue… And to make it worse, they’ve chosen the ’60s, evoked so faultlessly in almost 40 hours (and counting) of Mad Men. Of course a low/no-budget student film can’t compete with an expensive, acclaimed US TV series; and actually, Verity does a fair job of recreating its era… visually.

    The comparison with Mad Men comes up in more than just the visuals though, because that also deals extensively with gender politics in the ’60s. Here, Verity can’t compete. Dialogue is too on the nose — some of the language they use freely is implausible for the era; the way they often bluntly state their point is implausible for any time. “I’m making history” is an unlikely thing for anyone to say ever.

    In terms of these specific events, it doesn’t fare much better. Accuracy to facts can occasionally be ignored if it makes for a good story, and Verity’s outright rebellion against Newman’s “no bug-eyed monsters” mandate might appear to be that, but its execution is left wanting. She storms into his office and informs him the Daleks will be in the series, Verity in Sydney's officewhich he accepts with merely a muttered “damn” when she leaves. Sorry, what? There’s nothing believable in that scene, never mind accurate.

    After the ratings success of the Daleks’ first appearance, Newman can’t help but think of the “merchandising opportunities”. Really? A lot of stuff was indeed produced during Dalekmania in the mid-’60s, but this is still the state-funded BBC and 14 years before Star Wars — not to mention that Verity brandishes a Dalek toy, which wouldn’t be produced until 1965. (If you really want it rubbed in, the prop she’s holding is clearly a new series toy.)

    Ten minutes isn’t much to play with, true, but I think it’s fine for a version of this story. Cowell and Guy have picked their scenes well, it’s just that the actions and words they’ve filled the scenes with don’t ring true. This is only partially the fault of the cast’s rampant overacting — though, in fairness, I think Rachel Watson is fighting against an affected southern/period accent as Verity, and Brian Clarke gives quite a good performance as Newman.

    Sydney Newman in VerityTechnically, the piece is just as much a mixed bag. Stephen Cheung’s direction picks out some decent angles, avoiding the flat point-and-shoot trap some student filmmakers are apt to fall into, while the sepia-ish wash helps the period tone and adds a small amount of welcome gloss. The editing is a little rough around the edges, particularly at scene changes and toward the end. YouTube claims it’s viewable in 1080p — whether something went wrong in shooting, editing or at YouTube’s end I don’t know, but it isn’t that high quality. (This last point doesn’t impact on my score at all, it’s just an observation.)

    I’d like to say Verity is a good effort, but though it has a few things going for it — and even allowing for the fact it’s a student film — it would clearly benefit from better research and greater subtlety in characters’ actions and dialogue. Must try harder.

    2 out of 5

    Verity is available on YouTube.

    Three years later, the BBC told the same story in Mark Gatiss’ TV movie An Adventure in Space and Time, which is properly brilliant.

    Culloden (1964)

    2009 #48
    Peter Watkins | 69 mins | TV | 12

    CullodenCulloden tells the story of the 1746 battle — famously, the last fought on British soil — and the events that followed it, as if it were covered by a modern TV news report (albeit a feature-length one).

    This adopted style — a first — makes for an effective presentation. As a form it obviously foreshadows the docudrama, a method of presenting history which is so popular today, though not quite in this way. Writer/director Peter Watkins gratifyingly refuses to break from his premise: the whole film is very much like an extended news piece, featuring interviews, facts, and the famous BBC objectivity — at no point does the narration inform us who is good and bad, right and wrong, yet leaves us with little doubt about Watkins’ opinions (which are pretty low of just about everyone).

    In fact, the film is fuelled by much youthful righteous indignation from Watkins, in his late 20s when Culloden was made. That said, his (perhaps unrealistic) idealism is still in evidence in every interview I’ve seen with him from decades later (though in those cases applied to what TV is and should be). But he allows it to dominate proceedings here, too often focusing on the awful conditions of the poor or the wrongs committed against them by Nasty Rich Folk. Should we be cross about this? It is 1746 after all — of course life was awful for common folk and the upper classes were rich twits who rode roughshod over them. That’s how things were in The Past, for thousands of years before it and hundreds of years after. With our modern developed sense of morality it all looks Nasty and Wrong, but we can’t go back and change it so why get so upset about it? Surely such vitriol is better directed at places where this is still the case?

    While Watkins’ righteousness is clearly present before and during the battle, it’s really let loose in the aftermath, as English soldiers commit all sorts of atrocities to the Highlanders. Perhaps this was genuinely shocking and deserved in ’64, and it’s still true that the actions taken were unforgivably horrid, but it’s no longer shocking — not because we’re desensitized to violence at this point, but because we’re now very aware that we have done horrendous things throughout our history even while painting ourselves as the good guys (as we still do today, of course). Early on he describes the workings of the clan system, ostensibly factually but with a clear undercurrent of its unfairness; yet at the end bemoans its destruction by the English. Maybe this is why Watkins struggles to find anyone likeable in the film: they’re all as bad as each other.

    Even if his overly moral stance falters, Watkins’ filmmaking techniques rarely do. The use of ordinary people as actors works fine most of the time, though occasional performances or scenes show off the cast’s unprofessional roots. Watkins’ theories about how TV should be run and the involvement of the public in the way he did here may be romanticised and impractical, but it’s hard to deny that his application of them worked wonders. Performances frequently aid the documentary effect by seeming just like those in genuine interviews or news footage, whereas even the best professional actors trying to emulate such reality are usually mannered enough for the viewer to realise they’re acting.

    Best of all, however, is the titular battle. These scenes are extraordinary, creating a believability even the largest Hollywood budget has often failed to challenge. It’s epic but also involving, disorientating but clearly told, brutal without needing expensive prosthetic effects or an 18 certificate. It’s a brilliant example of camerawork, sound design and editing combining under inspired direction to create a flawless extended sequence.

    Culloden was a bold experiment in filmmaking — indeed, the notion of a distant historical event being presented as if covered by news cameras still sounds innovative — and Watkins mostly pulls it off, with stunning battle sequences, effective performances and a high concept that is never betrayed. A few minor weak points aside, the only serious flaw is that Watkins lets his overdeveloped morality run unchecked. His application of a modern outrage to what seems a typical historical situation grates quite quickly but never abates, ultimately reclaiming a star from what is nonetheless an exemplary effort.

    4 out of 5

    Culloden placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

    Hamlet (2009)

    aka The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

    2009 #90
    Gregory Doran | 183 mins | TV | 12

    Hamlet (2009)It doesn’t seem like 18 months since the RSC brought Hamlet to the stage with British TV’s biggest star actor (probably) as the titular Dane, but it is (more or less). Thanks to sold-out performances and largely positive reviews (theatre critics seem even less keen to agree on anything than film ones), we’re now treated to this film adaptation, shown on BBC Two on Boxing Day and released on DVD (but not Blu-ray, boo*) earlier this week.

    Hamlet hangs primarily on its central performance — so we’re constantly told, anyway; this being only the second production I’ve seen I can’t confidently assert so for myself, but I can certainly see where the consensus comes from. Equally, I can’t accurately compare David Tennant’s performance to any other, which often seems to be a central consideration in any review of the play. In near-isolation, however, it’s a thoroughly convincing performance. He glides seamlessly from withdrawn and grief-stricken in his first appearance, to intrigued and excited by the ghost of his father, to clever and wily as he plots, and finally to an alternation between assumed madness and serious introspection as he enacts his plans.

    Any number of scenes show off Tennant’s abilities, particularly the way he treats other characters. He resolutely takes the piss out of both Polonius and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, but plays each in subtly different ways: the former is like someone intelligent teasing with someone who doesn’t get it, which sounds distasteful but is enjoyable because of Polonius’ plotting and influence; while the latter is like a cat toying with a pair of treacherous mice, who are aware they’ve been caught out but struggle on regardless. Hamlet’s pair of ‘friends’ can be seen as insignificant characters by some — it’s part of what led Tom Stoppard to pen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, after all — but with a few silent additions around Shakespeare’s dialogue and the way Tennant, Sam Alexander and Tom Davey choose to play the original lines, their roles seem to have increased importance.

    The other notable facet of Tennant’s interpretation of the character is humour. Hamlet’s madness here is almost unrelentingly funny — even in deadly serious situations, like capture following a murder, Tennant’s Hamlet can’t resist taunting the other characters, keeping the viewer onside by keeping his apparent insanity entertaining rather than scary or darkly intense. If anything, however, this screen version fails to capture just how funny Tennant was on stage. Perhaps it’s the loss of a bigger audience, or the energy of performing on stage, or perhaps Tennant has reined in, switching from Stage Acting to Screen Acting. He’s still funny, certainly, but its not as striking as it was live. In fact, more laughs are earnt by Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. As his lines dither on like many a real forgetful old man, it’s difficult to imagine the part played any other way.

    The other stand-out is an award-winning Patrick Stewart in the dual role of Claudius and the Ghost, though the fact he plays both feels relatively insignificant. His cool politician of a King makes a perfect contrast to the crazed energy of the Prince, the latter constantly bounding around while the former remains still and collected. In my view it’s a shame Stewart has a beard in the filmed version (a necessity forced by his concurrent appearance in Waiting for Godot, I believe) — on stage he was clean-shaven and therefore somehow more reminiscent of numerous other political villains, both real and fictional, whereas his bearded visage is more reminiscent of a traditional Kingly role. Still, it’s a minor aesthetic point that doesn’t hamper his wonderful performance.

    Director of the original stage production, Greg Doran, also helms this version. It’s a convincing adaptation too, making good use of sets, locations and, vitally, camerawork, rather than employing static shots of the original theatrical blocking. A quick shoot (18 days for an over-three-hours film) and single location combine to reduce the number of on-screen locations, unfortunately, though the main set is fairly well rearranged to stand in for a number of rooms. It does branch out occasionally, but it’s a shame this couldn’t have been done more often, as consecutive scenes on the same slightly-redressed main set occasionally confuse whether we’ve changed location or not.

    Doran’s main screen gimmick, however, is security cameras. Every so often our viewpoint switches to a grainy black & white high angle as we survey the scene via CCTV. It’s a neat idea to convey the concept of Elsinore as a place where everyone is under constant scrutiny, and it’s occasionally used very well indeed — during the Ghost’s appearance to Hamlet, for example, or when he rips a camera down to declare “now I am alone”. Unfortunately, it’s not as consistently thought-out as one might like. When Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, they do so from behind a two-way mirror (as in Branagh’s film, incidentally) rather than, say, from a control room with a bank of security monitors, an idea which seems to naturally flow from the presence of CCTV. Following this, when Polonius talks to Hamlet he delivers several asides to camera — not the security camera, mind, just to the audience. It would have been more effective to have him offer them to a security camera, knowing Claudius to be viewing in another room. It’s moments like these that turn the omnipresent video surveillance from a clever idea to little more than a gimmick. And by the time it’s cut to during the climactic sword fight, you just want it to go away.

    It’s almost certain that this production will be remembered as “The Doctor Who Hamlet” thanks to its leading man. Whether that’s unfair or not is another debate, though it shouldn’t mean this version goes ignored. Tennant’s excellent performance reminds us that he was an accomplished performer with the RSC long before he gained televisual fame, and a strong supporting cast ensure this can’t just be dismissed as a popularity-seeking vanity venture by the RSC. Indeed, if there’s one good thing about the “Doctor Who Hamlet” label, it’s that the potential viewership is increased massively, bringing some to Shakespeare who never would have bothered otherwise. Surely no true theatre aficionado could argue with that.

    4 out of 5

    * A Blu-ray was eventually released in April 2010. ^

    Cathy Come Home (1966)

    2008 #59
    Ken Loach | 77 mins | DVD | PG

    Cathy Come HomeTechnically a one-off TV drama from the BBC’s Wednesday Play strand, Cathy Come Home more than deserves consideration as a film in its own right, due to it being an early work of director Ken Loach, the fact that it’s shot largely on film using relatively experimental storytelling techniques, and also considering the huge social impact it had.

    The piece tells the story of Cathy, a young woman who leaves behind a comfortable life for the excitement of the big city. There she falls in love with Reg, who she marries and has children with. But, through a series of incidents and accidents — most of them no fault of their own — Cathy, Reg and the children wind up without a house, and then gradually slide down the scale toward homelessness. In this respect the film can remind us of a facet of the ‘good old days’ that is often overlooked when our collective memory of the ’60s is made up of James Bond, the Beatles, and programmes like Mad Men. The drama also had a big impact at the time: 12 million watched, it boosted the newly-formed charity Shelter, led to debates in parliament, and, eventually, changes to the law.

    Loach structures the film cleverly: Cathy and Reg’s slide into poverty is all too believable, while at the same time allowing the viewer to see a cross section of the homeless experience. He employs a documentary style throughout, so effectively that it still fools some into believing the whole piece is factual. In fact there’s a mix of interviews with those really suffering such situations, and performed scenes that are shot and cut disjointedly, as if they were observed rather than written. While some of the performances give the game away, they’re never poor enough to really detract. The downside of this style is that the storyline isn’t always clear. I’m still not sure if it was Cathy’s children that died in the caravan fire or someone else’s, just one among a few such examples. While ambiguity is no bad thing — the cruelly unresolved ending being a case in point — it sometimes just seems like a hole in the narrative. However, these moments are relatively minor, and certainly don’t dint the film’s impact.

    Cathy Come Home is a powerful piece of work; an undoubted television classic that (bar a few technically-incongruous studio scenes shot on video) wouldn’t look out of place on a big screen. As an important and timely history lesson, a challenge to prejudices that some of us may hold, and a reminder of how close most of us are to such a fate — especially right now — it remains essential viewing. Sadly, I suspect it always will.

    5 out of 5