Category Archives: British television

Death in Holy Orders: P.D. James (2003)

“I’m just a wretched and unrepentant sinner.”

In Death in Holy Orders, a made-for-British television mystery based on a P.D. James novel, Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard receives an anonymous note advising that he should investigate a death that occurred at St Anshelms College. The death of Ronald Treeves was ruled accidental, so Dalgliesh travels to St Anshelms to make a few inquiries and put any questions to rest. The trip to St Anshelms is nostalgic for Dalgliesh as he spent many years of his life there.

When Dalgleish arrives, the atmosphere at St Anshelms is somewhat strained. Archdeacon Crampton’s personal mission is to ensure the Church of England closes St Anshelms as he considers the college’s practices archaic and elitist. Naturally the people who live and work at St Anshelms resent the impending closure, and the fact that years earlier Crampton was suspected of murdering his wife, doesn’t exactly help matters. At first, Dalgliesh’s investigations bear little fruit, but it seems that his presence has stirred the murky depths of a murderer’s mind. The body count mounts and Dalgliesh is hot on the trail of a killer.

Martin Shaw plays Dalgliesh, replacing long-term actor Roy Marsden. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d feel about the change in the lead character, but Shaw played the character well and in his own fashion. Somehow it worked, and that may be due to the fact that Shaw didn’t seem to be a replacement for Marsden–rather Shaw seemed to be an entirely different character. The plot was extremely interesting, and the setting brings some bigger issues to the surface–this makes for a meatier mystery. Is St Anshelms the hot bed of corruption that Crampton claims, or is it an institution to be cherished? And lonely Commander Dalgliesh may finally find a love interest. Fans of British mysteries should enjoy the 180 minutes of entertainment the DVD offers. Extra features include actor bios, and a short documentary about P.D.James.

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The Woodlanders (1997)

“Bittersweet.”

“The Woodlanders” is a superficial but tasty version of the lesser-known Thomas Hardy novel. Grace Melbury (Emily Woof), the only child of timber merchant, George Melbury (Tony Haygarth) returns home to her village after finishing her education. Grace was the childhood sweetheart of woodcutter Giles Winterborne (Rufus Sewell), and Grace and Giles grew up with an ‘understanding’ that one day they would wed. Grace doesn’t quite fit into her rustic surroundings any longer, and she longs for the company and attention of Mrs. Charmond (Polly Walker)–a woman who seems fashionable and modern by the villagers’ standards. Giles, in the meantime, is eager to renew his courtship of Grace, and he invites the Melburys for what he considers a grand evening in his humble cottage. Unfortunately, this only serves to convince Mr. Melbury that his daughter can do better than Giles.

The local doctor, Fitzpiers (Cal Macaninch) takes a fancy to Grace, and thanks to his social standing, Mr. Melbury encourages the match between Fitzpiers and Grace.

Thomas Hardy considered “The Woodlanders” to be his favourite novel, but as the story doesn’t quite reach the grand epic and tragic themes as “Tess” and “Far From the Madding Crowd”, it’s frequently overlooked. While it’s thrilling to see “The Woodlanders” on DVD, the script boils the plot down to its bare bones, and ignores the nuances of the novel. The characters of Marty and Mrs. Charmond are sadly underdeveloped, and Grace and Fitzpiers are simplified. That said, this period piece film is well acted and quite enjoyable. Hardy fans won’t be able to resist, and the film’s authenticity compensates–although not entirely–for the simplification of the plot and the main characters.

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Jude the Obscure (1971)

“Gone to Australia with me dad to find a proper man.”

This BBC television version of “Jude the Obscure” was made in the early 70s. As a film adaptation of the novel, I seriously doubt that it will ever be surpassed. The two VHS tape set runs for just over 260 minutes, and it’s this sort of length that does justice to one of Thomas Hardy’s most complicated novels.

Jude Fawley (Robert Powell) grows up in the village of Marygreen. Jude is an orphan who is raised by his aunt Drusilla (Daphne Heard). She prophesizes doom and gloom for any of the Fawleys who are foolish enough to marry. According to Aunt Drusilla, the Fawleys are just not the marrying kind. Jude’s schoolmaster Mr. Phillotson (John Franklyn-Robbins) lodges at the Fawley house, and he heavily influences the boy to study hard. It’s Jude’s goal to attend university in Christchurch and eventually enter the church. For someone of Jude’s social standing, this is both a dangerous and impossible dream. But when Phillotson leaves to return to university with the intention of seeking a degree, Christchurch becomes a symbolic Mecca in Jude’s impressionable mind.

Jude, the self-taught rustic scholar, eventually becomes a stonemason, and still nurses his ambition to attend university at Christminster. His plans go awry, however, when he meets Bella (Alex Downs), the coarse voluptuous daughter of a local pig-farmer. Later, Jude becomes romantically involved with his cousin, the self-focused Sue Bridehead (Fiona Walker)–a woman who professes to possess dangerously modern ideas. These ideas–free love, emancipation, and atheism, all mask Sue’s highly conventional and frigid personality.

“Jude The Obscure” is one of Thomas Hardy’s greatest novels, and it’s also one of his darkest and most complex. The film version is exquisitely faithful to the novel, and it also manages to translate some of Hardy’s major and difficult themes to the screen. One of Hardy’s favourite themes–the connection of the individual to the landscape is played to perfection in “Jude the Obscure.” Another major theme is the corruption of the institution of marriage. Both Jude and Sue Bridehead experience loveless marriages, and they also both experience social and ecclestaical pressure and censure to remain in these loveless marriages. A third theme is the battle between the physical and spiritual self experienced by Jude and Sue. Jude’s love for the confused and confusing semi-hysterical Sue Bridehead is in complete contrast to his relationship with Bella. Bella is pure animal–all instinct. She’s marvelously uncomplicated and has no moral qualms whatsoever when it comes to doing whatever is in her best self-interest. She never stops and questions her place in the universe, and she creates her own destiny. Jude and Sue, on the other hand, agonize, philosophize, and torture themselves at every opportunity. “Jude the Obscure”–Hardy’s most subversive novel outraged Victorian reviewers when it was published, and Hardy never wrote another novel again.

This is not a big budget production, and some of the indoor sets are simple but authentic. In spite of its production shortcomings, this version of “Jude the Obscure” far exceeds the 1996 big budget Eccleston/Winslet film version.

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Buddha of Suburbia (1993)

 “The 60s have been given notice tonight.”

Kareem–known as Kreemy (Naveen Williams) to his friends is just a teenager when the film Buddha of Suburbia begins. His father, Haroon (Roshan Seth) is Indian, and his mother, Margaret (Brenda Blethyn) is British. There are rather obvious troubles in the marriage when Haroon starts teaching yoga and his version of the ‘Meaning of Life’ to groups of bored socialites under the guiding influence of well-to-do and lonely divorcee, Eva (Susan Fleetwood). Kareem, is at first, an observer of his parents’ disintegrating marriage, but then the film’s focus shifts to Kareem as he struggles with an acting career.

buddha of suburbiaBuddha of Suburbia is a coming-of-age story set against the rapidly changing social trends of the 70s, so there’s a great deal here to satisfy the nostalgia crowd. With a soundtrack from T-Rex, Gary Glitter, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Pretenders, The Police, etc., the film covers pertinent social themes of the times–drug use, communes, racism (including the presence of The National Front), class wars, the Women’s Movement, and the seductive lures of Punk (fans of the Sex Pistols will recognize the scene involving Charlie Hero which exactly mirrors an infamous interview with the Sex Pistols that occurred in Dec 1976). Against the social backdrop of the troubled 70s, Kareem seeks fame and fortune through an acting career amidst a sea of moral hazards. This ambitious television series tackles the 70s in an epic fashion, and some of the characters here are great creations. Kareem’s cousin, for example, is forced to make an arranged marriage. Her Indian bridegroom is a pleasant enough fellow who adds a great deal of the film’s enjoyment. The marriage, once achieved by gleeful parents, serves as a testament of the trials endured by modern Indian youth whose parents insist on enforcing tradition. Kareem’s experiences in the theatre range from a wacky experimental director to an exploitive ‘serious’ director who uses his actors for more than just the stage. Eva is another great character–her ever-forward gaze pushes Kareem. She sees life as a never-ending journey, and she’s never content to stop in one spot for long.

The film, however, creates Kareem largely as a passive observer. It is as though the 70s roll in front of his eyes leaving marks on his soul, but without him being actively engaged. While I really enjoyed this 220-minute film based on the novel by Hanif Kureishi, it lands solidly in the realm of good-but-not-great films.

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Separate Lies (2005)

“Secrets and discontent lie beneath the smoothest surface.”

Directed by Julian Fellowes and based on a novel by Nigel Balchin, “Separate Lies”, explores the tense love triangle that forms around London-based solicitor, James Manning (Tom Wilkinson), his much younger wife, Anne (Emily Watson), and the divorced upper-crust wastrel William Bule (Rupert Everett). It’s quite possible that James considers himself happily married, but there’s tension between James and Anne that stems from the autocratic distance he maintains.

James and Anne own a house in the country, and it’s here that Anne meets William at a cricket match. William and Anne begin an affair under her husband’s nose. When the husband of the Manning’s housekeeper is killed in a hit-and-run accident, James discovers his wife’s affair, and he also discovers some rather unpleasant truths about his own morality.

“Separate Lies” explores the complications that arise in the triangular relationship between James, Anne, and William. James is a predictable responsible sort, and he seems to stand in complete contrast to the snide William whose amorality is a blank space on his upper class horizon. Class is definitely scrutinized here–after all, the housekeeper’s husband is one of the dispensable plebs, and William isn’t about to even pretend to shed a tear. William is a truly marvelous character, for while James tuts over William’s abysmal morals, ultimately James really isn’t much better. This intense film examines James and Anne’s moral value system and then juxtaposes those ideas with their reactions to the tragedy. With a stellar cast, and great photography, this intense film focuses in on the fine details, and we understand the characters as they shed careless words and reveal their innermost thoughts and true natures when stripped of social conventions. If you enjoyed “In the Bedroom” then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy “Separate Lies.”

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Road Rage (1998)

“I was quite justified in what I did.”

In the film adaptation of the Ruth Rendell novel Road Rage hordes of protestors descend on the town of Kingsmarkham to stop the construction of a planned bypass. It’s a delicate situation. Detective Chief Inspector Wexford (George Baker) feels that his department is undermanned and that he needs extra forces in the likely event of violence taking place. There’s pressure from the Home Office to construct the bypass with little media attention, and meanwhile 100s of protestors are living in tree-dwellings daring construction workers to continue chopping down trees. If this isn’t bad enough, the body of a young German tourist is found in the forest near Kingsmarkham. There’s a murder to solve, a riot to contain, and a bypass to build.

Road Rage is 197 minutes long, divided into three chapters, and it contains an impressive cast of characters. On the police side of things, there’s Chief Inspector Wexford and his pleasant wife, Dora (Louie Ramsay) who both share certain sympathy with the protestors. Detective Inspector Mike Burden (Christopher Ravenscroft) is never as tolerant as Wexford, and he has little patience for the protestors’ cause. There’s also DS Daman Slesar (James Allen) who has a long history of working deep undercover, and friend DS Malahyde (Isobel Middleton).

Wexford’s investigation of the murder of the German tourist is complicated by the threat of eco-terrorism. The film explores how a righteous cause becomes clouded with violence when a militant eco-terrorist group called “The Sacred Globe” emerges on the scene in Kingsmarkham. With surprisingly sophisticated treatment, the story illustrates the dangers of believing that violence is justified in order to further an actvist movement. The father of the murdered German tourist has as much grief and as many unanswered questions as those who survive an eco-terrorist event. The film asks is there really any difference between these situations? Violent crimes–whether brutally random or those engineered to herald social change–always result in victims. In contrast, the film’s portrayal of the upper-class involvement in the eco-terrorist movement was disappointingly naive, and heavy-handed. The entire eco-terrorist thread was to me, a bit cheesy and pandered to general misconceptions and general ignorance. Nonetheless, in spite of this one criticism, Road Rage is great entertainment, and Rendell fans should be delighted by another riveting Inspector Wexford mystery.

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Simisola (1996)

“You’re well known for your great ideas about women.”

In Simisola Inspector Wexford is investigating the disappearance of a young black girl of Nigerian descent. She was last seen at an appointment at the local job centre. While investigating her disappearance, a counselor from the job centre is found murdered. Are the two cases related?

This highly entertaining television mystery based on a Ruth Rendall novel will keep you interested from beginning to end. Like all decent mysteries, the story deals with issues that are bigger than just the case under investigation. In Simisola, the issues under examination are discrimination–racial, class and gender. In the story, there are two sorts of people–the haves and the have-nots. The extremely wealthy dwell in huge mansions, and in one garden party scene, Inspector Wexford expresses his opinion that somehow, this ostentatious display of wealth is wrong. He is uncomfortable around the rich, and it shows. The have-nots in the film can be sorted into two groups–the violent criminal element, and the disenfranchised poor. For this investigation, Inspector Wexford has to enter both worlds–the world of the rich, and they often resent questions, and the world of the poor–the people who often seem anonymous and unimportant. Wexford is a great character. He’s an ‘old-style’ policeman. He never loses his cool, never appears flustered, and clearly his brain works overtime when solving the case. He’s a very solid character, and somehow we get the feeling that the case will be solved by his calm tenacity. There are many other great characters here–the flighty and flirty Ingrid, Kim the resentful, unsuitable mother, and the sweet crossing guard whose character shines through adversity. The conclusion of Simisola left questions, but overall, the production was satisfying for fans of British television mysteries.

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