Tag Archives: British television

Criminal Justice II (2009)

Well it had to happen. After getting some great entertainment from Criminal Justice I, I decided to watch Criminal Justice II even though some of the reviews weren’t quite as glowing. This is a 5-episode made-for-British television series released on a 2-DVD set.

Criminal Justice II begins with a prominent barrister Joe Miller (Matthew Macfadyen) nailing a murder conviction in court. With the case over, he meticulously stores his wig and gown, goes for a stress-releasing jog and then returns home to his family–wife Juliet (Maxine Peake) and 13-year-old daughter Ella (Alice Sykes). The film does an excellent job of setting up ambiguity through these initial scenes. Joe attempts to call his wife several times on his cell phone and then a very harried, flustered Juliet dashes in the house only to miss the call. She takes a speedy shower and then cleans up (or tries to) all evidence of this. Does Joe call to tell Juliet of his success or is something else sinister afoot? What is Juliet afraid of? What is she trying to cover up?

And then there’s the Miller house. It’s immaculate–blacks and whites like some sort of designer home from a magazine, but there’s also a sterility to it. This could be a lab for all the lifeless within these walls.

The evening ends with Joe stabbed and rushed off to the hospital while a bloodstained Juliet wanders the streets, eventually ending up at the emergency room too. She’s arrested and taken off for questioning. It looks like an easy conviction with no real doubt that Juliet was responsible for stabbing her husband. The big question is why?

Criminal Justice II is strongest in its depiction of the relationships between the characters involved in the case. There’s Anna Klein (Zoe Telford), the defending barrister who is backed up by Juliet’s intelligent, sympathetic, savvy, solicitor, Jackie Woolf (Sophie Okonedo). Detective Chief Inspector Faber (Denis Lawson) finds himself troubled about the case–in spite of the overwhelming evidence against Juliet, and married detectives Chris and Flo Sexton (Steven MacKintosh and Kate Hardie) find themselves on opposite sides of the moral divide as the case stretches out. Then there’s Ella who is left with no parents, but she does have a godfather Saul (Eddie Marsan) whose idolisation of Joe is a bit unhealthy. Dedicated social worker, Norma (Nadine Marshall) frequently oversteps her bounds and is accused of being “too involved,” as she becomes bound up in Ella’s fate.

Criminal Justice II, while ostensibly a police case, is much more about the muddy morality surrounding the crime, and it’s an emotional issue that ripples out to everyone involved and creates strong feelings on all sides of the fence. Juliet used to be an outgoing, happy person, but now she’s a neurotic, pill-popping mess. Was Joe a devoted, caring husband, or was he a control freak who robbed Juliet of her identity?

Criminal Justice II is at its weakest in the case itself. As the court date approaches, no one has asked Juliet WHY she did what she did, and then it seems to suddenly occur to Klein and Woolf that there’s no “story” for the courtroom. At that point, the pressure builds, but it seems a little forced when the story eventually trickles out as part of the courtroom drama. It’s all so well-acted and well-cast, however, that it’s still very entertaining in spite of its flaws. Some moments carry a  powerful resonance. Juliet, at one point, for example, expresses the opinion that she wishes that Joe had hit her as physical violence would have been irrefutable proof that he was an abuser while mental abuse is so much more elusive, difficult to prove, and hard to understand.


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Criminal Justice (2008)

“They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which story they like the best. The best story wins.”

It was with the introduction of Ralph Stone (Con O’ Neill) that I knew I was going to really enjoy Criminal Justice, a 2008 BBC mini-series. Up to that point, Criminal Justice seemed to heading into fairly familiar crime territory, but Stone’s appearance got my attention and kept me focused. This is not a tale of a crime and its solution (although that does happen along the way)–rather this is a story of how the criminal justice system works, and how those wheels grind on when someone becomes caught up in a web of crime.

 The story begins with a young, thin asthmatic man called Ben Coulter (Ben Whishaw) playing football and scoring a goal. Hyped up and feeling good, Ben goes out for the night to meet a friend. When his car doesn’t start, he doesn’t hesitate to ‘borrow’ his dad’s taxi. Ben finds it funny that he can’t disable the taxi’s “for hire” sign, but then when he stops, a young girl, Melanie Lloyd (Ruth Negga) jumps into the back seat of the taxi.

With Ben’s friend cancelling their plans, Ben has nowhere to go, but Melanie, who’s so obviously the stronger, more dominant character of the two, suggests they go to the seaside. They enjoy each other’s company and end up spending the night together. The next day Melanie is dead. Given the weight of the forensic evidence, it looks like an open and-shut case with Ben, who couldn’t possibly look any guiltier, rather pathetically trying to clean up the crime scene and then even fleeing the scene.

Stone, the duty solicitor reeks of the ambulance chaser. His clothing is rumpled, his hair could do with a good wash, and to top it all off, one of his feet is wrapped in bandages, but we can still see the naked irritated skin which oozes with eczema.  If Stone showed up to defend me, my heart would sink, and it doesn’t help Stone’s image that he almost immediately tells Ben to “shut up” and that he doesn’t want to “be stuck with the truth.” Stone has a point. Yes he may be a nightmare when it comes to image and confidence-building, but and here’s one of the best points of this mini-series, he’s intelligent, cunning, and a brilliant strategist. Stone really can’t be bothered with the truth. It simply doesn’t matter. He understands that all he has to do is create a reasonable doubt in order for his client to walk, and that is Stone’s intention.

There are five episodes to this mini-series. The plot delves into alternate strategies tackled by Ben’s barristers, the snooty, autocratic  Alison Slaughter (Lindsay Duncan) and the inexperienced Frances Kapoor (Vineeta Rishi). While Ben’s case builds to the courtroom scenes, Ben’s life inside jail is a major part of the story. Ben becomes friendly with cellmate Hooch (Pete Postlethwaite) who offers advice on learning to live in the joint. Meanwhile, Ben racks up enemies. Freddy Graham (David Harewood), the con who runs the jail, owns a piece of everyone, and his attention settles on Ben.

When the story began, I expected the plot to become a police procedural, and that probably says quite a bit about the formatting of films. After all the murder is committed, the suspect is arrested, so now the hunt is supposed to begin for the person who is responsible. But Criminal Justice doesn’t immediately take that well-worn path. It’s a nice twist to Criminal Justice that Ben screams suspect so loudly that the police think they have their man. And perhaps they do. While some reviews state that Ben is appealing, I did not feel that way. Under Ben’s frailty, there’s something a little odd. But does that make him a murderer?

On the positive side, the script included good and bad prison guards (a nice mix) and then an entire range of those who work within the criminal justice system–those truly interested and concerned, those who just want to get the job done, and those who get too involved. The courtroom parts were excellent, and we see witnesses who can be led, those who can be bullied, and those who do not stand up well to cross-examination.

On the negative side, and I think this was the poorest part of the film, the plot went a tad overboard on the jail scenes. Hooch was well…not to spoil the plot, but a character who was developed in an unfortunate way…

On another note Criminal Justice has a nice underlying thread which reveals the class system at play. Stone feels the class barrier between him and the barristers, and there’s a great scene in which the investigating officer, “talented oppressor”  Box (Bill Paterson) and Slaughter assume that lowly PC Jeary (Sam Alexander) cannot speak French and patronise him accordingly.

At almost 4 hours, this was great entertainment except for part of episode 5 which went too sentimental in its Lone Ranger bent, but the final shots were a pleasant blend of what was lost tinged with a muted and stained optimism.

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Mosley (1998)

“Pardon me for asking, but what do you know about the working class?”

I never thought I’d find myself watching a film about Oswald Mosley–let alone that I’d really, really enjoy it. I recently came across Mosley, a  four-part made-for-British television biopic based on the life of the man who was a member of parliament, formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF), and later was interned during WWII. The film is based on two books written by Mosley’s son, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale. Part One: Young Man in a Hurry covers the years 1918-1920, Part Two: Rules of the Game covers the years 1924-1927. Part Three Breaking the Mold covers the years 1929-1933, and Part Four: Beyond the Pale covers the years 1933-1940.

Mosley very effectively shows the rot within the British upper classes through its depiction of Mosley’s life and political ambitions.  The film begins on Armistice Day when young Lt Mosley is in London watching the celebrations. Mosley (Jonathan Cake in a terrific performance), fresh out of WWI is determined to make a difference and believes that another war should never be fought. As an aristocrat (Mosley was the eldest son of the 5th Baronet of Ancoats), he very quickly finds a spot in British politics. Invited to the best houses and the best parties, he’s introduced to Lloyd George (Windsor Davies) and makes the older, married American Maxine Elliott his mistress. Mosley becomes the youngest member of parliament–not a bad start to a career that ended in infamy.

Mosley makes a beeline for “Cimmie” Lady Cynthia Curzon (Jemma Redgrave), the daughter of the wealthy and influential Curzon family, and he’s assisted in his courtship by Cynthia’s stepmother–yet another mistress. In real life both Cimmie’s older and younger sisters became Mosley’s mistresses too, and the film depicts Cimmie as rather naïve and severely out-of-touch with her husband’s true character. But these are all aspects of Mosley’s personal life, and he is established rather quickly as an unpleasant and rather cruel egoist with little or no thought of other people beyond his ability to use them to his advantage.

As for his political life, Mosley had many ideas for England which involved a great deal of change. He’s portrayed as a young “man in a hurry,” in direct opposition to the establishment. At first Mosley is a member of the Conservative Party and is the MP for Harrow. The film depicts his impassioned speeches, “crossing the floor,” and his outrage at the Conservative government’s so-called Irish policy. The film tracks Mosley’s switch to Labour and his supposed interest in socialism and the ‘working classes.’ The use of the word ‘supposed‘ is intentional as the film includes many scenes of Lady Cynthia and Sir Oswald delivering speeches to the working classes. She’s wearing her fur coat and they’re ferried around by chauffeurs. In one scene the couple actually squabble about who is going to get the nicer car when they toddle off to lecture the masses. But while Lady Cynthia seems genuine (if a naïve Champagne Socialist), Mosley is depicted as much more calculating, ready to use women silly enough to fall in love with him and to exploit the working classes silly enough to vote for this wanker. ALL politicians do this sort of thing, of course, but Mosley was much more naked about it.

Mosley is highly entertaining and if it fails, it fails to show what is going on in Mosley’s head at crucial moments. At one point, for example, Mosley has formed the BUF and while his underlings labour to create a financial policy, they seem to go into one direction (heavy leanings towards Communism) with no idea that Mosley is headed towards fascism. We see Mosley’s eyes glinting with delight when he glimpses Mussolini for the first time, and there’s a giant hint that Mosley has gone off the deep end when he shows up in Italy wearing a black shirt. The film depicts Mosley’s political switch occurring largely in his head with those in his inner circle oblivious and rather shocked.

While the film spends a good amount of time on Mosley’s affairs, and his first marriage, a relatively small amount of the film is spent on his affair with Diane Guinness (nee MITFORD) one of those oh-so-famous Mitford sisters who mucked about in the politics of the time.  The film shows Mitford’s (Emma Davies) influence quite well, and before we know it this notorious pair are off to Berlin to be married at the home of Goebbels with Hitler as one of the guests. 

The film also depicts the Battle of Cable Street and one of Mosley’s explosive BUF rallies. Amazing really that he wasn’t locked up until 1940, but that’s one of the bennies of being an aristocrat–you can get away with more shit.  Unfortunately, the film does not explore Mosley’s life after internment, and that’s a shame. Still this was a highly entertaining look at Mosley, and he doesn’t come off well at all. While the film emphasises his personal relationships, the point is made that Mosley was a chameleon–ready to wear whichever political skin got him the votes, and more importantly, THE POWER. There seems to be a traceable line, in Mosley’s case, from aristocrat, adulterer, autocrat and fascist–his way or as the old saying goes–or the highway. Fascism seems to be the natural state for Mosley to devolve to as it bypassed any notion of humanity & equality and simply made it easier for him to pass off his ideas without modification from anyone else.

From director Robert Knights.

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The Spoils of Poynton (1970)

Henry James CollectionThis 1970 BBC version of the Henry James classic The Spoils of Poynton begins with houseguests Mrs Gereth (Pauline Jameson) and Fleda Vetch (Gemma Jones) meeting at Waterbath, the ostentatious home of Mrs Brigstock (June Ellis) and her daughter Mona (Diane Fletcher). The houseguests meet by accident as both women marvel at the bad taste of  the Brigstocks blatantly displayed through the various garish ornaments and stuffed birds that litter every corner of the house. Mrs Gereth tries to tease criticisms of the Brigstocks’ taste from Miss Vetch and confesses that she’s there to meet Mona, her son Owen’s (Ian Ogilvy) love interest.

Just as Mrs Gereth can’t stand the Brigstock’s decor, neither can she stand Mona, but the weak-willed Owen is too besotted with Mona to take any notice of his indomitable mother. The implication is that Owen would probably normally bend to his mother’s wishes, but in this instance he’s come under the spell of an equally formidable woman. Mrs Gereth is convinced that if Owen marries Mona, then Mona will ruin Poynton’s elegance by bringing her own appalling taste to the house.

Sensing that the delicate, introverted Miss Vetch has good taste, Mrs Gereth invites her to Poynton, one of two houses she owns, ostensibly to show her the house and its treasures. It’s soon clear that Miss Vetch loves Poynton and its contents with the same sort of reverence as Mrs Gereth–a woman who’s spent her lifetime collecting treasures for the house. But there’s another reason Mrs Gereth has invited Miss Vetch. Mrs Gereth acknowledges that when it comes to preserving Poynton she has a vicious streak, and her plan is to shove Miss Vetch  into Owen’s path and divert him from Mona.

The plan to sever Owen from Mona becomes an imperative after Mona’s visit to Poynton. Mona is there to visit before she gives Owen an answer to his recent marriage proposal, and this includes her assessment of Poynton as her possible future home.  While Mona makes suitable noises about Poynton’s grandeur she also lets slip plans for substantial change.

As the film’s title implies–a battle ensues over the Spoils of Poynton, and Owen’s affections become the battleground for Poynton and its contents. Owen’s desires fade into the background as his mother battles for ‘what’s best for Owen’ and that of course is coincidentally what’s best for her and will ensure that Poynton remains intact. Owen is like a ball tossed around by these three equally steely women–Mrs Gereth, Mona and even Miss Vetch although her mettle isn’t obvious until the plot develops.

This is a marvellous and sensitive story brought to life by an incredible screenplay and superb acting. All the subtle nuances of character and human motivation remain intact and at times as the struggle for power sways one way and then another, sympathies too shift. At first, Mrs Gereth seems just to be a selfish snob who places too much emphasis on possessions, but then it becomes clear that Poynton is a physical embodiment of the past life she shared with her husband. And this certainly explains why Poynton is more like a musuem than a home. Similarly, at first Mona is seen as just a loud-mouthed bossy woman who happens to have bad taste, and yet in her struggle for power and control of Owen, Mona is prepared to go just as far as necessary to win. And then there’s Miss Vetch–a woman who falls in love with a house but then seems strangely reticent when it comes to physical passion. Finally there’s Owen–a weak willed pliable man who remains largely confused and used by the passions, jealousy, steely moral decisions and seething desires of ownership that define the women in his life.

The Spoils of Poynton is part of the Henry James Collection.

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A Rather English Marriage (1998)

“You are a prissy, tight-arsed bastard, aren’t you, Southgate?”

The made-for-British television film A Rather English Marriage is an enjoyable character study of two widowers thrown together by circumstance. Reggie Conyngham-Jervis (Albert Finney) and Roy Southgate (Tom Courtenay) have a great deal in common, and yet they are totally opposite. Reggie and Southgate, both WWII veterans are both widowed when their wives die just moments apart in the same hospital. While Southgate is devastated by the loss of his wife, on the other hand, Reggie–or Squadron Leader, as he prefers to be called, seems to be barely touched by the event. Southgate returns to his modest little house, with its shrine of photographs of his wife, Grace in her youth, and Reggie returns to The Cedars, the large country mansion he shared with his wife–the long-suffering Mary (Ursula Howells).

rather english marriageAs the two men adjust to life without their wives, a social worker comes up with the idea of bringing the two men together in their grief to help each other and share the household burden. This seems to be a great idea to Reggie who now seems to think he has an unpaid servant in Southgate. Reggie is very comfortable with maintaining the hierarchal role of Squadron Leader to Southgate’s servant/batman/sergeant. And what does Southgate get from the arrangement? Well Reggie overlooks the fact that Southgate has his own home and seems to imagine that Southgate should be grateful for the opportunity to live (for once in his life anyway) in a splendid country mansion.  There’s one great scene when Reggie is waxing on about the glory days on WWII and Southgate rather timidly marvels at the fact that he’s finally met ‘one of those’ people who looked at WWII–‘the best years of their lives.’ The impression is that Reggie’s WWII was a very different sort of experience for Southgate. 

The film draws its characters sharply within the first few scenes. Reggie is bombastic, selfish and insensitive, superficially and happily blustering his way through life as he tramples on the meek and mild-mannered. Southgate, on the other hand, is a bit of a dark horse, and flashbacks reveal slivers of both men’s pasts. While Southgate rather slavishly adored his wife, claiming they had sex every day of their married life, there are hints, mainly from Southgate’s incarcerated son, that things were not as Southgate says.

Within days of moving in together, the men basically establish a relationship with one another that replicates the relationship they had with their wives. Southgate becomes the housewife and Reggie stuffs himself at dinner and then goes off to the pub to get drunk at night. The roles these men play with each other undergoes a shift when golddigger Liz Franks (Joanna Lumley) arrives on the scene….

All three of the main characters give knock-out performances. Joanna Lumley as Liz Franks is a middle-aged woman who knows the years are slipping away and sees Reggie as the last opportunity to grab wealth. Hints of homosexuality in the relationship between Reggie and Southgate remain unexplored, and while the question hangs unanswered at the film’s conclusion, it’s an unimportant issue that’s transcended by devotion and friendship. From director Paul Seed and a marvelous screenplay from Andrew Davies. The story is based on the novel by Angela Lambert

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By the Sword Divided (1983-1985)

”So be it. We must act out our parts. But let us do it with honor and without any personal sense of animosity.”

If there is such a thing as a miniseries, then I’d argue that there is such a thing as a maxiseries, and this term is perhaps the much better way to describe By Sword Divided. With 20 episodes at 50 minutes each, it’s a commitment to begin and finish this series. It’s available as an entire boxed region 2 collection.

The story revolves around the Lacey family. They live in Arnescote Castle (Rockingham Castle)  and the family patriarch is widower Sir Martin Lacey (Julian Glover). When the story begins, Lacey is arranging a marriage–a love match–for his eldest daughter, Anne (Sharon Maughan) to John Fletcher (Rob Edwards) son of wealthy merchant Austin Fletcher (Bert Parnaby). There’s the implication that this match is a bit of step down for the Laceys, and Austin Fletcher, a man who knows the power of money, drives a hard bargain when it comes to the dowry. Meanwhile, Anne’s younger sister, Lucinda (Lucy Aston) is betrothed to Sir Edward Ferrar, and Anne’s twin, Tom (Tim Bentinck) is off fighting on the continent. This first episode hooked me into the story as it sets the stage for the various divisions that take place.

by the sword

As the rumblings of civil war begin, it’s clear where the divisions will be. Anne Fletcher’s loyalties, for example, will be tested between her husband and his parliamentary leanings, and her Royalist family. The civil war effectively divides the family, but it’s not that simple–there are complex cross loyalties that occur, and it’s these that make the series so interesting. For example, Lucinda–a very single minded passionate woman, throws herself into the Royalist cause so deeply that she refuses to speak to her sister Anne, yet as events unfold, her brother rescues both Anne and Lucinda at different points in the story from boisterous cavaliers. The series shows how complicated the situation was–it’s not just the roundheads vs the cavaliers. Both Lacey and Austin Fletcher, for example, disapprove of King Charles I’s attitude towards parliament and his staunch belief in the Divine Right of Kings, but what they do about it, and where the lines are drawn is the stuff of this meaty maxiseries.

While the series goes to great pains to create grey areas in which conflicting loyalties wrestle endlessly, there are a few purely bad characters–villains we loathe whose fortunes wax and wane as the series continues. But what’s so particularly good is the depiction of the servants too. Working classes are all too often ignored as they are not seen as the ‘movers and shakers’ of events. But in By the Sword Divided, it’s clear that the servants are also victims of the civil war. Should they remain loyal to their ‘masters’ the Laceys or–as one person states–do their loyalties belong to those who feed and shelter them? Relationships between the servants become strained and old friendships are forgotten as the country plunges into war. The wily Austin Fletcher is, to me, one of the interesting characters. While he possesses unflinching opinions, he also intends to ride out the storm, and just how he manages this makes for some riveting twists and turns of the plot.

Adultery, murder and treachery abound as the conflict deepens, and some of the characters develop or devolve in rather unexpected ways. John Fletcher begins the series as an idealistic young lawyer and then his morality is gradually eroded by ambition until he approves of religious fanaticism at its extremes and even endorses Cromwell (Peter Jeffrey) as the next king.

Now since ‘history is written by the winners’, the series certainly comes down on the side of the Royalists. Well they were a much more glamorous bunch–no argument there. But the roundheads are generally as seen as a surly, murderous horde, and if the series can be faulted it should be faulted on those points. The role of Charles I is played with grace and dignity while Cromwell is seen as rather a lout, pimply and unpleasant. Some additional information about the Parliament vs. Charles and his notion of the so-called Divine Right of kings could have been expanded, but our sympathies are supposed to be with the Laceys through their turmoils. One episode contained an aside about the Levellers–those who thought that the exchange of power that had taken place should have given them “natural rights” and equality. They found out the hard way that an exchange of power is not the same as a social revolution

The second series is weaker than the first and a couple of episodes were just silly. The episode involving Hugh bordered on soap territory and the episode with Cromwell at dinner at  Arnescote was ludicrous. But that said, overall, By The Sword Divided was well worth viewing, and by the time it concludes we see how war has divided everyone, and how everyone has been altered and diminished by their experiences as they are set morally adrift by the conflict. The quote at the top of the page is spoken at the very beginning of the divisions within the country, and you can reflect upon the naivete of the statement at the conclusion of the series:

”So be it. We must act out our parts. But let us do it with honor and without any personal sense of animosity”


If you like period pieces, then By The Sword Divided is well worth catching. The sets and the costumes are sumptuous, and the acting stellar. The episodes touch on the major battles and events in the entire Civil War (the First Civil War 1642-1646, the Second Civil War, 1648-1649 and the Third Civil War 1649-1651)  and there are brief appearances of Prince Rupert (Christopher Baines) and Charles II (Simon Treves).


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Brideshead Revisited (1981)

“But I was in search of love in those days” or Brideshead Regurgitated

bridesheadI had never watched the original television miniseries Brideshead Revisited and then recently watched the 2008 remake. I wasn’t crazy about the remake. The sets were gorgeous, the acting was splendid, but at times the plot veered dangerously close to soap opera territory. So much was covered and so many years crushed into the film format. But that said, I decided to take a look at the original Brideshead Revisited made back in 1981. After all a viewing was long past due, and since I love British television–especially the meaty miniseries, well, why not I thought, as I committed to watch all 659 minutes.

At first I was pleasantly surprised by the original Brideshead Revisited. The miniseries format had the time to flesh out and explain all the details that the film version squashed together. If you don’t know anything about the story, it’s narrated, via flashback by Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons), who meets fellow undergraduate Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) at Oxford. Flyte is the younger son of the deeply troubled, Catholic family, and there’s more than a bit of scandal attached to the Flyte family name. Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier), the family patriarch, is a Catholic convert who now lives in Venice with his sagacious mistress Cara (Stephane Audran). Meanwhile the very Catholic, very pious Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom) holds sway over the family palace, Brideshead. Sebastian has three siblings, the stuffy Brideshead (Simon Jones), Julia (Diana Quick) and the charming Cordelia (Phoebe Nicholls). Although Sebastian and Charles come from entirely different backgrounds, the two form what seems to be a solid relationship, but as time goes on, Sebastian and Charles drift apart and go their separate ways.

Brideshead Revisited started to go down hill after Sebastian left the stage and departed for the despotic pleasures of the east. This left us with Charles who morphed into an artist along the way–along with the obligatory beard. The portrayal of his artist career was unbelievable and seemed based on him traveling off to distant places and then idling around a London exhibition. The character of Charles is too hollow to carry the story, and when the story relies on Charles, there’s a vacuum created by his nothingness. On the other hand, when there’s a strong character sharing the screen–Sebastian, Charles’s father, Mr. Ryder, or Anthony Blanche, let’s say–the screen comes to life. Left with Charles (sans Sebastian) the story goes downhill, and all the charm of the early parts of the miniseries morph into the stinking rich, and the artsy fartsy idle, beating their collective breasts in hours of self-focused navel gazing.

Brideshead Revisited is a testament to the passing of an age, and part of that is seen through Sebastian’s decadence and the Flyte ‘family line’–all of the Flyte children are damaged in some way. But that’s the Flyte side of things; there’s also the maintenance side of things–the logistical problems of maintaining a palace such as Brideshead (the real-life Castle Howard) in the 20th century. Gone are the days of roping in serfs, but Brideshead has servants a-plenty–mainly treated like robots in human form, they are scattered throughout the house ensuring that the Flytes have just to tinkle a bell and have all their wants and needs supplied. When Sebastian starts demanding booze from the servants who’ve been given strict orders not to deliver, I couldn’t help but wonder what they were saying ‘below stairs.’

I suppose the absolute most sickening moment of the film depicts the snotty upper classes fighting against the working classes during the 1926 Strike. The miners somehow got the insane idea into their heads that they deserved a living wage! The cheek! And there we see the upper classes who’ve never worked a day in their lives enforcing the hierarchy. There’s no reflective moment–no pause to note the utter irony of this–just action taken by the rich against the poor in what is posited as a necessary social decree.

So I move on … Brideshead Revisited (the miniseries) makes more sense in some ways than the film version. The film version cast Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) as a sneaky villainess, while in the miniseries, although Sebastian hates his mother, she’s depicted as more meddling and misguided, and out-of-her depth–quite believable with her derelict son. The relationship between Charles and Julia is portrayed in a far more interesting (and tortured) light in the miniseries, and that’s precisely what makes the pretentious conclusion–which is little more than a veiled advert for Catholicism–that much more absurd.

Anyway, pretentious, and ponderous, Brideshead Revisited takes itself far too seriously. Towards the end, it became so smug and self-satisfied that I was actually rolling on the floor laughing at some of the portrayals. There’s one scene when Charles and Lydia walk through the grounds at a snail’s pace as they enjoy a navel-gazing moment together. But for me, the most ludicrous scenes involve Nanny Hawkins (Mona Washbourne). This character is periodically revealed throughout the miniseries, at various points over an almost 30 year period, and it doesn’t matter what the hell is going on in the rest of the house or in the world for that matter, but there’s Nanny Hawkins PLANTED upstairs in the now defunct nursery in what passes for some sort of decaying continuity.

Anyway, a terrific disappointment considering all the wonderful reviews and glowing praise. The first half was excellent, and the scenes between Charles and his dotty father (John Gielgud) were priceless. But the series landed in the toilet with Sebastian’s departure and the focus shifted on Charles and the relationships the women in his life–the nasty wife, Celia (Jane Asher) and the bored Julia. To me, the very best part of the miniseries was the character of Anthony Blanche (Nickolas Grace), Sebastian’s stylish and most peculiar friend. He stole the show, and in contrast his character had some zest to it. The second half of the story was just hours cataloging the woes of a bunch of boring, wealthy, smug characters who lead stuffy, claustrophobic lives and wonder why they aren’t happy.

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Therese Raquin (1980)

“Everything…as always.”

Zola is one of my all-time favourite authors, so when I saw this British television production of Therese Raquin from 1980, I had high expectations. The 60s-70s saw some of the very best BBC adaptations of classic novels–Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Zola’s Nana, Casanova (from his memoirs), and now I’ll add Therese Raquin to the extended list. This is a superb adaptation, and if you are into Zola, period drama, or British television, do yourself a favour, grab this 2-disc set, and prepare yourself for some fabulous viewing.

thereseWhen the film begins, Therese Raquin (Kate Nelligan) is a young married woman, wed to her dull, child-like cousin, Camille (Kenneth Cranham). They live with his mother, the very solid, very reliable and steady Madame Raquin (Mona Washbourne)–a woman who tends to coddle her only child Camille so much that it’s impossible to tell if he’s really sickly or if he’s just been indoctrinated to think he’s a semi-invalid. Madame Raquin runs a small shop, with Therese helping, and Camille works elsewhere as a clerk. The three live above the shop, in modest but stable circumstances.

Life for the Raquins has an established routine, and it’s a routine that Madame Raquin and Camille enjoy. Each Thursday evening, is ‘domino night’ and old friends Olivier Michaud (Philip Bowen), his wife Suzanne (Jenny Galloway), Michaud’s father (Richard Pearson), and Grivet (Timothy Bateson) gather to play dominos for a few sous while they enjoy each other’s company. The predictability of these evenings plays out with the same script every week, and everyone except Therese enjoys the time spent with these old friends. She’s so bored, she’s stupefied.

And then one-time artist, now petty clerk Laurent Leclaire (Brian Cox) enters the picture. There are hints dropped that Laurent is a weak, dissolute character as he failed to finish his legal studies and instead pursued a career as an artist with the necessary accoutrement of naked models. But with little talent, he now works as a minor clerk. Laurent immediately recognizes and is fascinated by Therese’s latent sexuality, and to Therese, the debonair Laurent seems different and exciting. Therese’s sexual awakening stirs dark passions, and Laurent, who initially visits the Raquins for free meals, becomes obsessed with his best friend’s wife. Drawn to each other, they indulge in an addictive, passionate, and explosive adulterous affair but find their moments of passion severely crimped by Therese’s oppressive home life and Laurent’s penury. Soon they hatch a plot to murder Camille.

Therese cannily understands that the small social group that convenes every Thursday is interested in continuing the predictable social pattern above all else, and she schemes to turn this to her advantage. Unfortunately the tedium of Therese’s suffocating life is not alleviated by the exchange of men. The Thursday evenings, which take place with boring regularity, but are supposed to represent the highlight of the Raquins’ social life, are so intricately rendered that even boring takes on a fascinating aspect. It takes a great deal of skill to replicate boring and make it interesting but this is achieved in this splendid production. Similarly, the abject poverty of Laurent’s life is underscored in just a couple of scenes. While the Raquins have a very small modest, lifestyle, they seem positively rolling in money when we see the reality of Laurent’s horrible life in a frozen, filthy garret.

Each stage of this fascinating, painful and sometimes horribly cruel story is executed upon the stage with precision and perfection. There’s Therese and Laurent’s passionate explosive affair–a phase in which these two characters fuel each other’s impatience and sexual appetite, dragging everyone else into the inferno. And then there’s the aftermath, the recriminations, the guilt, the self-loathing and the latent cruelty that spills out onto poor Madame Raquin. And in the meantime the domino evenings become a hypocritical travesty, a painful pantomime.

This is an exquisite riveting production with top-notch acting blended with Zola’s understanding of human nature. From the highs and lows of passion to the abject cruelty and inhumanity that plays out in the Raquins’ household, this is a feast for Zola fans. Keep your eyes open for Alan Rickman in a fairly small role.

Now if someone would just release the 1968 BBC version of Nana on DVD….


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George Gently Series I (2007 & 2008)

George Gently Series I is a made-for-British television police set in Northumberland of the 1960s. Based on the novels by Alan Hunter, Series I includes three episodes.

Gently Go Man, the first episode in this series is the weakest. Following the murder of his wife by gangster Joe Webster (Philip Davis), Detective Gently (Martin Shaw) finds himself contemplating retirement. There seems little left to live for, except revenge, and then he learns that Webster has disappeared. Leads point to Northumberland, and so he travels north to investigate the murder of a young man who was part of a local motorcycle gang. His arrival upsets local Detective Sergeant Bacchus (Lee Ingleby). Although no longer in charge of the investigation, the ambitious Bacchus hopes to impress Gently and rope him in to helping him with a transfer to London. Gently decides to remain in Northumberland and keep Bacchus with him.

george gentlyThe second episode The Burning Man was more interesting, and begins with two men burning a body. Gently and Bacchus then investigate the crime which involves the IRA. A very unpleasant Special Branch detective arrives and Bacchus, who’s susceptible to flattery, thinks befriending the Special Branch detective may help him get that transfer to London. With his loyalties divided, Bacchus heads into trouble.

In the third episode, Bomber’s Moon, Gunter Schmeikel (Wolf Kahler), a WWII German bomber, now an affluent businessman is murdered. While his nasty son, Wilhelm (Christian Oliver) is the prime suspect, Gently isn’t so sure that it’s a case of patricide, and he suspects one of the locals may be responsible. In this episode Bacchus makes an idiot out of himself and Gently ends up rescuing him.

I can’t recall a police procedural in which I’ve seen the shaping of a detective in quite the same way. Gently, who has seen too many policemen become sloppy or corrupted, tries to help make Bacchus a better policeman. Bacchus is impetuous, jumps to conclusions, takes shortcuts, and isn’t above copping a guilty party and then ‘finding’ the evidence to prove his conclusion. Gently’s methods are much more careful, methodical and he frequently uses Irishman, China to help him with the footwork.

One of the weaknesses of this series is that it takes a long time to warm up to its characters. All in all, not a wonderful series, but it became better as the episodes continued. It’s imperative with a series detective that we ‘care’ on some level about the character we are invited to return to watch. We should theoretically have some interest in the adventures (and lives) of the character(s)–otherwise boredom or general disinterest may discourage us from picking up the next book or DVD in the series. Typically with a series detective, the crime is a part of the story, but the other part of the story is the subject’s life (I’m thinking here about that marvelous British detective series Prime Suspect which featured Helen Mirren as Detective. Jane Tennison). Yes, she solved crimes, but she also fell into bed with men, had a drinking problem, and faced a bleak retirement. Sometimes her private struggles were more interesting than the crimes she was solving. And although The George Gently series improved with each episode, so far the series lacks this sort of audience involvement. There seems little chemistry between Gently and his sidekick Bacchus, and Bacchus is not a particularly interesting (or nice) character. In his efforts to impress Gently, the weasly Bacchus uses entrapment, for example, to gain information.

Women sense Gently’s loneliness and throw themselves at him, but he doesn’t succumb. And Bacchus’s home life remains a big blank. We know he married the boss’s daughter, and we know there is now a baby on the way, but his home life is off-screen with just the occasional hint dropped along the way. The way it stands, George could go back to London, or he could retire, and I don’t care too much either way. I’ll watch series II if and when it is released on DVD, and hope for these two characters to warm up a bit. I think the series has the potential to be better, and let’s hope the characters become a little more interesting.

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Take Me (2001)

 Take Me is a six part, made-for-British television thriller starring Robson Green as cutthroat businessman Jack. When the film begins Jack and his attractive wife, Kay (Beth Goddard) are house hunting and fall in love with a brand-new home in a swanky suburb. Waving their city friends goodbye, Jack, Kay and their two children move into their grand new home.

take-meIt’s not long before we realise that the new home is a feeble attempt to revive a troubled marriage. Kay, it seems has had an affair with Jack’s best friend and work colleague, and while Kay has promised to now behave, the new home is supposed to represent a fresh start.

But Jack and Kay picked the wrong neighbourhood….

The boxes are barely unpacked when Jack and Kay are invited to a neighbourhood party. Upon arrival, someone greets Jack with a container full of car keys, and Jack is asked if he’d like to make an offering. Jack may be a cutthroat businessman, but he’s a straight arrow, and it takes him a while to catch on to the fact that he and Kay have stumbled into a nest of wife swappers.

One of the biggest problems with the film is that it’s just too long. Things didn’t really get peculiar until episode three, and in the meantime there’s wife swapping galore. And some of this gets just plain silly. Kay’s sister and her hubbie, for example, are part of the wife swapping set. It doesn’t take Einstein to guess that these parties–based on opportunities for sex and games that involve sex will become awfully difficult if they involve your sister and brother-in-law. And that’s not even mentioning the neighbourhood psycho. Add sex tapes, a distinct lack of common sense, and a lack of contraceptives and you have a lurid Peyton Place sort of scenario complete with characters who can’t see trouble until it hits them upside the head.

Robson Green delivers a credible performance, but he’s still hampered by a script that makes little sense. The blame-game scenes between Jack and Kay were simply laughable. How can these two harp on about saving their marriage when they are ditching their kids and hopping into the sack with all and sundry? They certainly didn’t convince me that they wanted to ‘save’ their marriage, and personally I think they just stayed married so they could keep getting invited to those damn parties.

Take Me also includes some silly, meaningless subplots that could so easily been trimmed–Jack’s father and his silly letters, for example. This made for a painful 300 minutes, and while I kept expecting this to get better, it didn’t

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