Category Archives: British television

Archangel (2005)

“You won’t understand Russia unless you understand its past.”

In Archangel, Professor Fluke Kelso (Daniel Craig) is in Moscow to deliver a lecture when an elderly man named Papu approaches him (Valery Chemyak) with some rather cryptic comments. Kelso is intrigued, but his interest surges when Papu explains he was a soldier in the Kremlin in his youth. Papu claims he was present at the time of Stalin’s death, and that he was ordered by Beria to bury a secret journal belonging to Stalin. Kelso, a Russian historian, can’t resist the opportunity to get his hands on an invaluable piece of buried history, and so he takes the bait and is soon up-to-his-neck in intrigue and danger.

This made-for-British television film is a fairly standard thriller based on the novel by Thomas Harris. This is not the typical sort of thing that leaps to mind when imagining the quality of imported British televisions programmes, so in other words, Archangel doesn’t have the usual ‘stamp’ of quality that British television often carries. The film stresses that there are old communists lurking in Putin’s New Russia who look back longingly to the old days and still make “gods out of monsters” like Stalin. And so in Kelso’s quest to discover the truth about the journal, he uncovers a host of loyal Stalin admirers–people who often misinterpret Kelso’s knowledge about Stalin as a form of worship.

The plot contains some holes, and as with many thrillers, the plot surges ahead while the audience is left asking questions. But Daniel Craig shows once again how very flexible he can be in various roles, so if you’re a Craig fan, you’ll want to catch this. From director Jon Jones.

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Futtock’s End (1970)

Futtock’s End is the name of General Futtock’s country estate, and the film’s plot revolves around what happens when a motley assortment of guests descend on the town of Pease Green to spend the weekend with the General. Written by the late great British comedian Ronnie Barker–who also stars as General Futtock–this approximately 47-minute film contains no dialogue. Instead there are brilliantly selected sound effects, music, and incoherent mumblings.

The guests include a slightly dotty deaf painter, Futtock’s aunt, who’s a crazed knitter, two young girls (one is Futtock’s niece), and an upper class twit (Julian Orchard). Somehow or another, a lost Japanese businessman becomes mixed in with the visitors, and he becomes an unwilling guest for the weekend in the rambling, decaying mansion.

The events of the country weekend are quite hilarious–thanks in part to the lascivious butler (Michael Hordern) who’s prepared to go to any lengths to sneak a peep at the mini-skirted guest. The fact that this film contains no dialogue accentuates the comic genius of the talented Ronnie Barker (of The Two Ronnies fame). And Barker fans will appreciate his role as the monocle-sporting, slightly befuddled, fusty General Futtock. This is very funny stuff–from the inebriated dinner guests, and late night hanky panky, to the Golden Retriever who retrieves all the wrong things.

Although the picture quality is not as sharp as newly released material, this DVD release of Futtock’s End is good news for Ronnie Barker fans. From director Bob Kellett

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Who’s Who (1978)

“You’re talking about royalty.”

Fans of British director Mike Leigh will appreciate the film Who’s Who–originally aired in the critically acclaimed BBC television series Play For Today in the 1970s. Who’s Who skewers the class system by taking glimpses into the lives of the characters who work in the offices of a London stock brokerage firm. Here the upper class characters rub shoulders reluctantly with their middle class counterparts under only the most stringent of circumstances.

The film follows three plot strands–upper crust Giles (Adam Norton), along with uptight flat mate Nigel (Simon Chandler) host a dinner party for some obnoxious friends–slimy Anthony (Graham Seed), the preposterous, preening Samantha (Catherine Hall) and the mousy Caroline (Samantha Dean). The stuffy evening is an unqualified failure for those who attend, but it’s great entertainment to watch the upper classes at play. There’s Samantha–who considers herself a wild, daring punk rocker–and only those in her own class would countenance this ludicrous description with a straight face. Then there’s Caroline who’s much more traditional and just as uninteresting. On the male side of things, Giles is in the beginning stages of florid despotism while Nigel is very traditional, and disapproving. These pretentious upper class twits agonize over place settings, decorum, seating arrangements, and holidays in Switzerland.

In another strand of the plot, a senior partner of the brokerage firm is called into to help the financial dilemma of Lord and Lady Crouchurst. The Crouchursts compare social calendars and drool over their polo dates with various members of the aristocracy before discussing such boring topics as the necessity of making ‘economies’ in the budget.

The funniest parts of Who’s Who concern the royalty-obsessed middle-class Alan (Richard Kane) who collects the autographs of the rich and famous–and proudly displays a wall of rejection slips from various royals. To Alan, criticism of the royals, or any member of the upper classes is tantamount to blasphemy. His toadying, sycophantic behaviour whenever he’s around the upper classes is incredibly funny, and his obsession is set off when an upper class woman arrives at his home to purchase a Chinchilla cat from his dotty cat breeder wife, April (Joolia Cappleman). Poor Alan worships the upper classes without a clue that those he apes despise his pretensions. While not quite following a traditional film format, Who’s Who is instead various slices of life designed to skewer the British class system, and the film does this quite brilliantly–depicting the foibles of the classes pitilessly and with great dollops of good humour. With Who’s Who director Mike Leigh shows yet again that no other British director can bash the British class system with the same merciless, humourous and naked accuracy.

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Portrait of a Marriage (1990)

“I’m sure the secret of any relationship is to treat disasters like incidents.”

Based on the book by Vita Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicholson, the BBC film Portrait of a Marriage is an intimate look at the unusual relationship Vita shared with her husband, Harold Nicholson. The film begins in WWII and then goes back in time to 1913 when Harold (David Haig) courted young Vita (Janet McTeer). There are some awkward moments of physical contact, the marriage occurs, and within a few years Vita and Harold have two sons. Harold’s work in the foreign office keeps him in London a great deal of the time and Vita occupies herself with her sons, gardening and writing. Troubles appear in the Nicholsons’ marriage, however, when Harold returns home and confesses he has a case of venereal disease–and Vita is shocked to learn that this was contracted through Harold’s sexual relationships with other men.

On the surface of things, the Nicholsons’ marriage seems to continue as before, but Vita turns to her childhood friend, Violet Keppel (Cathryn Harrison). The two women begin an explosive tempestuous affair that confounds Vita’s family, and the main problem both Vita’s mother (Diana Fairfax) and Harold have with the affair seems to be Vita’s total lack of discretion. But Vita refuses to temper her relationship with Violet, and together they escape and continue their affair on the continent.

Just how Harold and later Violet’s husband Denys Trebusis (Peter Birch) cope with the affair is the focus of this film. All those involved pass blame around, and Vita’s relationship with Violet is alternately seen as a result of Harold’s neglect, Harold’s ineffectualness, and also as Violet’s bad influence. At several key points, both husbands even attempt to assimilate themselves into the women’s relationship, but this too fails abysmally. The film emphasizes the strong bond enjoyed between Harold and Vita–although there a few scenes that question whether this bond is, in reality, a social comfort zone for the Nicholsons.

Portrait of a Marriage is high drama–many of the scenes are explosive and echo the passionate, melodramatic affair. The film shows the seeds of the affair that occurred in Vita and Violet’s childhood, and also shows how those closest to Vita remain at a loss to understand her actions. To Harold, who had numerous discreet relationships of his own, Vita’s relationship with Violet is a sort of madness–an extended “schoolgirl fantasy.” This is a time when marriage was seen as the only way a woman could achieve any sort of freedom in society, but as Vita’s mother points out, “it’s as well to make sure you have a sympathetic husband.” And both Harold and Denys were sympathetic–but only to a point….

Vita Sackville-West’s other relationships with women–including her long-term relationship with Virginia Woolf–are not examined in the film. Instead the film’s focus is strictly on Vita’s tumultuous–sometimes violent–relationship with Violet. Included in the film are shots of Knoles–Sackville-West’s ancestral home. Directed by Stephen Whittaker.

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Like Father Like Son (2005)

“Do you ever feel like you don’t fit?”

In spite of the fact that the drama Like Father Like Son is flawed, this British made-for-television film is so well done, the result is gripping. When the film begins, life for Dee Stanton (Jemma Redgrave) looks good. Her legal career is just about to take off, and she has a good relationship with widower Dominic Milne (Robson Green) who also happens to be her son Jamie’s (Somerset Prew) teacher. But there are some nasty problems just underneath the surface. Jamie sees Dominic as an intruder in his relationship with his mother, and then he discovers that the story he’s been told that his father is dead, is a complete lie. In reality, his father is infamous serial killer Paul Barker (Philip Davis) who’s in prison for murdering 4 young girls.

Jamie discovers the truth about his father at a crucial point in his life. Attracted to young, blonde, popular Morag Tait (Georgia Moffet) at school, he’s begun following her around. Known at school as “weirdo”, he’s the object of her derision. Rejected by Morag, picked on by school bullies, and discovering that the story that his father is a dead Gulf War hero is a myth, Jamie turns to his deranged incarcerated father. It doesn’t help that the boy is at his weakest point emotionally–or that they share some common interests. And when Morag turns up dead, Jamie is the prime suspect.

As the plot thickens, morality becomes clouded by emotion and divided loyalties. Dee’s plight is particularly difficult. On one hand, she loves her son, but when the police investigation points to Jamie, she’s also haunted by the thought that he is, perhaps, a “chip off the old block.” The scenes when she visits Jamie’s father are excruciatingly painful as she is forced to relive the humiliations and the scattered blame from her past. Can anyone ever truly forget such experiences? The film has its weak points–the scenes in the classroom when Morag confronts Dominic and argues about Desdemona’s death (Othello) are a bit far-fetched, and the solution to the crime is a bit unrealistic. But that said, the film, directed by Nicholas Laughland, is above average entertainment thanks mainly to the great performances from a solid cast.

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Love on a Branch Line (1994)

“Let this be the first gesture of revolt.”

In the British made-for-television mini-series set in the 50s Love on a Branch Line, mild-mannered civil servant Jasper Pye (Michael Maloney) is ordered to visit the Output Statistics Department located in Arkady Hall–the splendid country home of Lord Flamborough (Leslie Phillips), his wife (Maria Aitken) and three daughters Chloe (Cathryn Harrison), Belinda (Abigail Cruttenden) and Matilda (Charlotte Williams). Jasper is told in no uncertain terms that his future at the Ministry of Information depends on his negative report of the Output Statistics department. The Ministry wants this archaic department closed, and Jasper is the hatchet man to set the bureaucratic wheels in motion.

Jasper travels to Arkady and sets up residence in the Hall. Although he tries valiantly to be very business like and bureaucratic, this facade melts away quickly under the peculiar atmosphere at the Hall. Here the outside world and its pressures simply don’t exist. The Output Statistics department is composed of three employees–Professor Pollux (Graham Crowden), Quirk (Stephen Moore) and Miss Mounsey (Amanda Root)–none of whom appear to do any work whatsoever, and on the contrary, seem very involved with local life, the completely potty Lord Flamborough (who lives on a train) and the upcoming annual Arkady fete. Jasper is at first astounded by his surroundings, and at a loss to know how to proceed. Soon, however, he too is swept up with the idyllic life at the Hall, and he very quickly forgets his unpleasant mission. He learns to shed responsibility and simply enjoy himself.

Laden with eccentrics, Love on a Branch Line is a bit of whimsy in the tradition of–but not as good as–Cold Comfort Farm. Jasper, who left London with the uncomfortable knowledge that he’s boring, suddenly becomes the love object of the Flamborough daughters, including Matilda who “spends all her time reading old fashioned thrillers and waiting to be seduced by a sinister monk.” Avidly pursued, Jasper is content to shed his civil servant exterior and indulge in romantic peccadilloes. He becomes–at least for a time–a Lotus Eater–seduced by the idyllic life at Arkady. There’s nothing too serious here–all pleasant, amusing whimsy and eccentricity.

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Cousin Bette (1971)

“Learn to profit from your miseries.”

Set in 19th century France, the BBC miniseries Cousin Bette is the tale of a bitter spinster, the poor relation of the wealthy and powerful Hulot family. Based on the novel by Balzac, the film follows the novel fairly faithfully, and the result is an intense study of corruption, deceit, revenge and human greed.

When the film begins, plain spinster, Cousin Bette (Margaret Tyzack) is dependent on the charity of her wealthy relations. Consequently, she makes herself ‘useful’ to them but secretly she despises them all. She particularly loathes her cousin, the elegant attractive Adeline Hulot (Ursula Howells). Bette and Adeline grew up together, but whereas Adeline made an important match and moves in the best parts of society, Betty is relegated to the questionable position of poor relation. She’s not quite a servant, but she’s certainly not an equal. Receiving handouts and cast-off clothing, the Hulots imagine that Bette is grateful, but in reality, she’s resentful.

Bette’s resentment of the Hulot family turns to hatred and a thirst for revenge through her relationship with impoverished Polish exile Count Wenceslas Steinbock (Colin Baker). Bette saves Steinbock from a suicide attempt, and furnishes him with the necessary money to fund his budding career as a sculptor. Although ostensibly there is no romantic relationship between Bette and Steinbock, she nurses some rather twisted feelings for him. Controlling and domineering, Bette doesn’t hesitate to remind Steinbock how much he owes her. There’s an irony to this. While Bette secretly desires more from the relationship, fundamentally, all she can express is the sum of Steinbock’s debt in francs and sous. And so that’s exactly how he treats her–as a debtor he wants off his back.

While Bette keeps Steinbock as a sort of pet, she can’t help bragging about her new friend to the Hulots. Suddenly her life is interesting and she has something to capture the interest of an audience. But unbeknownst to Bette, Hortense (Harriet Harper) Adeline’s daughter seeks out Steinbock, and falls in love. A marriage is arranged–all behind Bette’s back but with the full participation of the entire Hulot family.

It is this act–Steinbock’s engagement to Hortense–that turns Bette from simmering resentment of the Hulots to a full-fledged plan of revenge. To her, the Hulots have deprived her of the one thing she cared for, and now they must pay.

Exactly how Bette carries out her vicious revenge is the meat of this riveting mini-series. By understanding human nature and possessing a ready ability to exploit weaknesses, Bette creates a trap that the Hulot family falls into. A key element of the revenge is the Baron Hulot’s uncontrollable appetite for extravagant young mistresses. Bette exploits Baron Hulot’s vice in close partnership with the avaricious wife of a petty government official, Madame Marneffe (played by a young Helen Mirren).

The film is at its very best when portraying the symbiotic relationship between Madame Marneffe and Bette. These women each have their own separate ambitions, but when they team up to loot the Hulots, they form a powerful, malicious alliance. The camera catches each subtle nuance, each facial expression as this delicious drama ensues. This 2-disc DVD set is composed of five parts, and while the conclusion was a little disappointing, overall it did not detract from this fine adaptation. Margaret Tyzack delivers a fine performance as the plain spinster whose loveless existence covers a morass of vindictive hatred. Helen Mirren is also excellent as the perfectly amoral Madame Marneffe–a woman who juggles lovers quite superbly. This adaptation directed by Gareth Davies conveys the hypocrisy and corruption of the times, and while the Hulots and their upper class friends move in a society which hands out favours, titles, and commissions, the second tier of society–the Marneffes and the Cousin Bettes of this Balzacian world–attempt to manipulate a way in which to carve themselves a bigger piece of the pie. DVD extras: a bio of Balzac and cast filmographies. Excellent!

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The Firm/Elephant (1988/1989)

“We’re going to Europe to do the Europeans.”

The Vandals would have been proud to own the collection of homemade weapons used by obsessed football fan Bex Bissell (Gary Oldman) in The Firm–a British television film directed by Alan Clarke. Bissell, a married man with a small child, sells homes for a living, but his real life is football. Bissell heads the ICC–a “firm” or a club of violent football fans, and when the British team is scheduled to head to Europe for the 1988 world cup championship, Bissell decides that his firm and a rival firm should join forces and go to Europe presenting a united front. Naturally Bissell elects himself as the head of the combined team, but the rival Buccaneers challenge Bissell’s idea, and a brutal feud begins.

This is an incredible role for Gary Oldman–an actor who seems to slip his own skin with every new role. Here, he’s unrecognizable as the violent, explosive, obsessed Bissell. He intimidates his men into carrying out his commands–even when some of those plans are insanely destructive. And when those men–some of whom have nice, respectable middle-class lives–show a glimpse of a qualm, Bissell turns on his own men with rapid violence until all dissent is squashed. Sue (Lesley Manville), Bissell’s wife, is ready to turn a blind eye to a certain amount of Firm activity, but she draws the line when the feud with the Buccaneers spirals out of control and violence enters their home. Bissell tells his wife that he can’t give up the ICC and explains, “I need the buzz.” Sue’s stand just sends Bissell back to his parents’ home. Bissell’s father is an avid supporter and cheerleader of Bissell’s activities and Bissell’s childhood bedroom is a shrine to his football heroes.

In many ways, The Firm could be seen as an allegory of dictatorship–although the film was not designed with that purpose in mind. Bissell, however, is a dictator when it comes to the ICC whose motto is “We come in peace, we leave you in pieces.” Bissell’s activities have escalated beyond the normal fan and his hobby–to seriously obsessed, pathological violence. Director Alan Clarke does not show either the ICC or the Buccaneers in action as football fans (there’s a glimpse of an amateur match and one packed stadium). Instead the emphasis is on the aggression, the obsession, and the bizarre cult these two clubs establish around male relationships. Some of the best scenes occur when Bissell confronts the other firm, and a verbal insult match takes place (“with your track record, you need an A-Z to find a bog”).

The second film on the disc Elephant is a let-down. The film recreates 18 real-life assassinations that took place in Northern Ireland. There’s a message here, but the endless slaughter gets to the viewer (me) rapidly. But if you’re a fan of Oldman, or if you’ve heard about the legendary violence of British football fans and are curious to know more, then The Firm is recommended.

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Hard Labour (1973)

“Every house is just that little bit different.”

Hard Labour from British director Mike Leigh originally aired in 1973 on BBC’s critically acclaimed Play For Today series. Hard Labour focuses on the emotionally sterile life of the working class long-suffering Mrs. Thornley (Liz Smith). Married to Jim (Clifford Kershaw), a petty-minded night watchman, Mrs. Thornley spends most of her unappreciated life cleaning up after others. In her modest council house, Mrs. T is subjected to constant complaints and belittling comments from her husband. She also works as a cleaning lady for a snobby middle class couple–the Stones. Mrs. T patiently, painstakingly and without a shadow of a complaint scrubs Mrs. Stone’s (Vanessa Harris) house while her employer stuffs her face with chocolates, nags about the silver and complains about Mr. Stone.

Mr. Thornley guards a warehouse full of gigantic plastic ducks, and while it seems highly unlikely that anyone in their right minds would want to steal them, Thornley’s immediate supervisor–a much younger man–takes every opportunity to berate and humiliate Thornley about his performance. Thornley, in turn, abuses his wife in a similar fashion, and the pecking order in life seems thoroughly established. The Thornleys have a contentious daughter (Polly Hemingway) whose role in the family seems to be geared towards baiting her father. Somewhere underneath all this drudgery, nagging, and knee-jerk nastiness Mrs. Thornley has feelings, but they’re buried far from the eyes of her family.

Hard Labour is not my favourite Mike Leigh film, and if you’re new to Leigh, I recommend you start elsewhere (Who’s Who, Grown-Ups or High Hopes). Leigh fans will want to watch this film, but its unappealing characters, and drifting mundane plot (which mirrors Mrs. T’s life) may be difficult for anyone who is not a hard-boiled fan. Ben Kingsley appears in the role of Naseem.

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The Line of Beauty (2006)

 “Didn’t I promise to safeguard your morals or something?”

Based on the Alan Hollinghurst novel, the BBC television series The Line Of Beauty unfolds through the eyes of Nick Guest (Dan Stevens). Nick, a middle class student studying Henry James at Oxford, is invited by his friend Toby Fedden (Oliver Coleman) to stay at his family’s posh home in London’s Notting Hill. Nick is swept away by the Feddens’ prestige and affluence, and as he becomes enamored with the family, he’s seduced by money, power, and sex into the moral void that surrounds the Feddens. Ultimately this is a tale of the 80–Thatcher’s Britain, the corruption of the wealthy set, racism, homophobia, classism, and the sceptre of AIDS.

Gradually Nick is absorbed into the Fedden home and becomes a permanent fixture. Although the Feddens on the surface appear to be a glamourous family, their elegant lifestyle, antique stuffed home, and perfect manners shield a great deal of ugliness. While Nick is ostensibly treated as ‘one of the family,’ there’s always an implication that he has a social role to play. As a personable, unattached gay male, he makes up the difference at dinner parties by escorting single women, and he’s also expected to be a caretaker of hostile lithium-plied daughter, Cat (Hayley Atwell). Gerald Fedden (Tim McInnerny) is a prominent Tory M.P. who’s slated for a glittering career in the party. Pompous, hard, and ambitious, he hides these traits with a blustery joviality and a true talent to diffuse even the most explosive situation. Mrs. Fedden, Rachel (Alice Krige) is the perfect politician’s wife–elegant, poised, but also content to stay in the background, and if there’s anything ugly in her life, she copes by ignoring it.

While everyone knows Nick is gay, it’s a subject that’s largely ignored and never discussed. Nick has a relationship with a lower class, bicycle riding black man, Leo (Don Gilet), and also with Wani Ouradi (Alex Wyndam), the Lebanese heir to a gigantic fortune. Wani, like most of the gay men in the Fedden’s filthy rich set, is firmly in the closet, and he accepts the fact that he leads a risky double life. With Wani’s money and influence, Nick establishes a glossy magazine and even toys with a film script for The Spoils of Poynton.

Nick is an amazingly hollow character, and it’s no accident that he’s a Henry James scholar. Nick, as the outside observer of the wealthy set, is the perfect Jamesian character. As a hanger on of the smug, self-satisfied filthy rich, he’s half in love with the power and affluence of the upper crust, and he’s also an observer of their troubling, tainted and poisoned morality. One of James’s themes is that love is often in competition with power and aesthetic beauty. In The Line of Beauty power is the overriding element in all relationships, and this is something Nick–a class outsider–fails to realize until the very end.

Directed by Saul Dibb, with a spectacular cast, stellar acting, and marvelous sets, The Line of Beauty exceeded my expectations. While on one level, it explores Nick’s moral dilemma as he navigates life with the decadent, rich and powerful set, on another level, the plot is heavily influenced by the master, Henry James. It was delightful for this James fan to drink in the themes and the moral dilemma of Nick–a man who basically knows he should make a moral stand but subsumes his morality to the affluence and power of those who use him–and in some cases–even despise him.

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