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Intriguing Episode Focusing on Exploitation of Guest Workers, 21 December 2014

As the series unfolds, it's noticeable that the episodes are running longer and longer, giving more time for director Alberto Sironi to focus on character-development. The earlier episodes ran only ninety minutes; this one runs 110 minutes, and contains a deliberately false ending, so as to keep the viewers interested.

The basic plot involves the mysterious death of a young woman who eventually turns out to be one of a group of four Russians working for a supposedly charitable organization. They have been forced into crime and/or prostitution on account of poverty; and hence are readily available for exploitation. This episode shows Montalbano (Luca Zingaretti) trying his best to discover the truth, but being frustrated at every tick and turn by an obdurate director of the charity (Maurizio Donadoni), as well as his own police chief. Doggedly he carries on, and manages to discover some uncomfortable truths that he gladly passes on to Inspector Graceffa (Giuseppe Caponnetto), who continues the investigation.

Perhaps more interesting is the way in which director Sironi focuses on Montalbano's turbulent relationship with girlfriend Livia. He is shown on his own talking on the telephone, trying to arrange a reconciliation, but being frustrated in his efforts by pressure of work. It seems that the course of true love will never run smooth. We learn something more about his character during a long dinner sequence with Ingrid Sjöström (Isabell Sollman); although she never falls in love with him, she is a sufficiently close friend to try and tell him how women think differently to men. Despite his proficiency as a police officer, his understanding of members of the opposite is rudimentary, to say the least.

The episode contains a fair share of knockabout fun involving Catarella (Angelo Russo) experiencing continual difficulties trying to open Montalbano's office door. Yet this is thematically insignificant: what matters more is for us to understand how the Inspector will manage - or not manage - to resurrect his personal life.

Clearly The Queen Was Someone Who Could Be Readily Amused, 21 December 2014

Presented by novelist A. N. Wilson with readings from Queen Victoria's journals by Anna Chancellor, this two-part miniseries presents a very different portrait of the monarch from the one that has been handed down through the years. We might know her catchphrase ("We are not amused!"(: it is Wilson's contention that she was quite ready to be amused, especially after the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

During her married life Victoria was quite willing to cede all authority to her husband; she consulted him on everything, even on which dresses she might wear. Her journals are full of love and longing for a man she thoroughly respected as well as loved. When he passed away, she was initially devastated; but as time elapsed, so she recovered and developed a new facet of her character - a capacity for free-thinking. Wilson argues with some justification that Victoria could be seen as an ancestor of Princess Diana in her refusal to bow to the strictures either of her family or her government. She repeatedly quarreled with her Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, and refused to adopt the demure exterior customarily expected of a monarch. She had a series of male companions, including her servant John Brown and future PM Benjamin Disraeli, as well as an Indian companion towards the end of her life who taught her to speak Hindu. Some of these associations caused a scandal during her lifetime - especially that with John Brown, who was suspected of being her lover - but the Queen had both the moral and physical strength to endure them.

In the end, however, the Establishment had its way, as some of the Queen's descendants systematically destroyed any of her letters that might have seemed incriminating. They were more concerned with sustaining the image of purity and dominance rather than giving future historians the chance to obtain an insight into her true character. Nonetheless there remains a sufficient body of material for us to understand just how radical a monarch Victoria was. She proved beyond doubt that, if one possessed sufficient strength, it was possible to assert oneself even in the most conservative of societies. In light of this discovery, it's a real pity that Princess Diana was denied the opportunity to pursue a similar course of action.

A Lyrical Film That Pulls its Political Punches, 20 December 2014

GELECEK UZUN SURER (THE FUTURE LASTS FOREVER) begins with a haunting image of a horse running across a deserted landscape and being shot down with a gun. This direct reference to Sydney Pollack's THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY (1969) sets the tone for a film that focuses on the sheer waste of life during the so-called Kurdish conflict that dominated Turkish history in the Nineties and beyond, and continues to this day. In light of recent events in Syria, the issues raised by this film have become even more significant.

Sumru (Gaye Gursel) is a doctoral student from Istanbul traveling to the east of Turkey to do research on elegies. At the film's beginning, she sees her work as divorced from politics; it is simply a means to obtaining an academic end. She gradually becomes involved with local resident Ahmet (Durukan Ordu), and together they visit various places where the conflict - and its consequences - has been most keenly felt. Along the way they interview various family members who have lost loved ones: most of these interviews are shot with a single camera pointing at the interviewee, interspersed with reaction shots of Sumru and her colleagues.

Director Ozcan Alper has constructed a leisurely narrative, with long shots of the rolling eastern Turkish landscape interspersed with close-ups of the main protagonists. This is a low-key film in terms of tone - a strategy that only served to underline the horror of the events discussed. Many families in the region have experienced the pain of torture, familial loss, and unwarranted intrusion by troops; but their stories are often excluded from the 'official' narratives of recent history. Alper's film serves to bring them to light once more. The allusion to Pollack's film underlines the cheapness of human life - especially for the generals (and other leaders) involved in the conflict. Someone has to get killed in order to fulfill one's ends. Yet Alper suggests that no one - not least the local residents - has any real clue what the conflict is (or was) about any more.

The film's narrative closes with Sumru's mysterious disappearance, and a return of the horse galloping across the screen once more. The image serves to remind us that individuals count for nothing in this conflict - not even the so-called protagonist of Alper's film.

So-Called 'Quirky' Documentary That Rapidly Palls, 19 December 2014

This look at the historical sites along the A303, a road stretching from the south-east to the south-west of Britain, connecting right through to Exeter in Devon, had fascinating potential: ancient and modern sites compete for attention on both sides of the road, that befit close attention.

Unfortunately John Holdsworth's documentary was ruined by the decision to use Tom Fort, a self-styled 'eccentric' as presenter. Traveling down the road in an ancient Mini Traveller car from the Sixties, he came across as someone prone to mugging in front of the camera for no apparent reason: what mattered was not so much the sites, but his reaction to them. The experts assumed an inferior position; Fort either interrupted them or responded to their observations with gales of forced laughter.

Perhaps the BBC should consider that in historical documentaries, the material assumes more importance than the presenter.

Profile of a Modern Artists with some Unnecessary Longueurs, 19 December 2014

German artist Anselm Kiefer began his career in the late Sixties, and made a name for himself by producing controversial works that deliberately referenced Germany's Nazi past. In a culture which - in his view - was trying its best to either minimize or even forget its past, Kiefer tried his best to use art to encourage viewers to come to terms with it. Alan Yentob's documentary commends him for the sincerity of his task, yet refrains from making judgment on his work; we do not really know whether the consciousness-raising efforts of the artists had any profound effect on the ways in which German people viewed their worlds.

Instead the documentary chooses to focus on Kiefer's later work, which certainly does not want for ambition. He has shifted studios on numerous occasions; at present he has taken over a large space just outside Paris once used as a department store warehouse. He tends to be highly ambitious in his creations, regularly employing assistants to carry out his wishes. The theme of World War II keeps resurfacing in his work, as he builds installations using replica models of destroyed airplanes. There is not supposed to be any clearly defined "meaning" in what he does: as he says to interviewer Yentob, his responsibility as an artist is to find connections between apparently disparate images and objects, letting viewers understand and evaluate such connections for themselves.

Kiefer comes across in this documentary as a highly intelligent artist, with a multlingual talent for communication in German, English and French. Yet perhaps the program might have benefited from some judicial editorial pruning; there are too many longueurs in which the camera passes lovingly over Kiefer's work without giving viewers sufficient time to explore it in detail.

Engaging Exercise, but Rather Pointless, 19 December 2014

In this documentary, first aired at Christmas 2011, former Royal Ballet dancer Darcey Bussell comes out of retirement to try and dance some of the wonderful routines pioneered by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.

The format is highly reminiscent of STRICTLY COME DANCING, with Bussell shown taking advice from experts in musical theater, and going through the often painful process of retraining herself from classical ballet into tap. The fact that Len Goodman is wheeled in, his grinning features recalling Hollywood's so-called "Golden Age" of musicals, pushes the parallel still further.

In truth Bussell makes a highly creditable stab at some memorable routines, notably "Puttin' on the Ritz," and "Good Morning," from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. But when we see the clips with the original artistes performing these routines, we understand just how great they were. The program seems strangely pointless, although there are some moments to be enjoyed for their own sake, notably an interview with the aging Stanley Donen, co-director of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, who recalls just how painful the rehearsals for the film were, with Kelly doing much of his famous routine in the midst of a Californian summer and suffering from a heavy cold to boot.

Familiar Tale of the Decline and Fall of a Major Sporting Star, 18 December 2014

Alex ('Hurricane') Higgins was one of the major stars of the televised snooker age. Although he only won the World Championship twice, in 1972 and 1982, his colorful style of play and extravagant behavior inside and outside various arenas ensured that he remained in the forefront of spectators' minds.

Brought up in a tough area of Belfast, Higgins was a self-made player who spent most of his younger days in snooker halls. Possessed of immense natural talent, he shot to fame in the early Seventies when he beat his one-time mentor John Spencer to win the world crown. When television started to become interested in the sport, initially through the series POT BLACK, Higgins was catapulted to stardom; his 1982 victory over Ray Reardon at the World Championships had a memorable denouement, when his wife and young daughter came out of the audience to embrace him; Higgins himself broke down in tears.

Sadly this success was not to last. Jason Bernard's documentary suggests that Higgins spent too much time carousing and not enough on practice; to snooker barons such as Barry Hearn - who founded the all-conquering Matchroom team - Higgins was a liability, someone who could prove unmanageable. Despite occasional flashes of his one- time brilliance, Higgins gradually slid down the rankings ladder, and was eventually reduced to the qualifying rounds of the World Championships.

Above all he was a stubborn man - even when he contracted throat cancer he refused to change his lifestyle. He continued to play, even though he was little more than a physical wreck, his once- attractive countenance ravaged by illness and alcohol. He died young; and although the stars turned out in force for his funeral, there was a lingering sense that the player himself was solely responsible for his demise.

While the documentary recognized the fact that he might have been 'The People's Champion' in his prime, by the end of his career he was a sad person.

Arrows (1977)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Fascinating Record of 'The Crafty Cockney' at the Outset of his Darts Career, 18 December 2014

Recorded in a series of clubs countryside, as well as at the News of the World Darts Championship, ARROWS offers a filmed record of Eric Bristow (aka "The Crafty Cockney") at the beginning of his professional career, as he took the darts world by storm. He comes across as a brash, self-confident personality, enjoying the trappings of fame - a chauffeur-driven car, a large income (by 1977 standards), and regular appearances on television and radio. Confronted by a truculent local radio DJ, who berates him for his louche lifestyle, Bristow answers the questions calmly, while never losing his sang-froid; here is a man who knew himself and what he could do.

As a sociological document, John Samson's documentary is fascinating, evoking a long-lost world of workingmen's clubs, whose patrons spent most of their evenings swilling bear and puffing happily away on their cigarettes. In this smoke-filled atmosphere darts acquired its reputation as a not-quite-respectable sport that nonetheless attracted huge audiences. Bristow went from club to club, challenging all comers, and offering them big cash prizes if they could beat him. No one succeeded, of course, but the main attraction lay in the prospect of seeing 'The Crafty Cockney' defeated, especially in the north of England.

On the other hand ARROWS captures the tedium of the celebrity dart- player's life, as he travels nightly from place to place, charged with the responsibility of putting on a cheery face to please the patrons who came to see him. In truth Bristow preferred to practice on his own, refining his unique dart-throwing technique to such an extent that he would eventually become the major force in the sport during the Eighties. But, like the game trouper he was (and still is), he knew how to please audiences; to appear as 'one of the lads,' despite leading a lifestyle infinitely more affluent than those of his audiences. Despite his apparent cockiness, Bristow comes across as an attractive person; if he hadn't been, he would not have remained a celebrity for over three decades.

The Rise and Fall of a Popular Televised Sport, 18 December 2014

Professional wrestling really took off in the United Kingdom as a music-hall entertainment, with the impresario Charles B. Cochran presenting George Hackenschmidt in a series of exhibition bouts against specially selected opponents. In the Fifties the sport was taken over by a cartel - Joint Promotions - which virtually ran the entire show and obtained a long-running television contact with ITV that ran for thirty-three years until 1988. Wrestling still just about survives as a spectator sport, but it is now a niche interest, as opposed to the late Sixties, when televised bouts could attract audiences of 10-million plus viewers.

Linda Sands' documentary highlights the contribution made by some familiar wrestling faces - Mick McManus, Jackie (Mr. TV) Pallo, Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki among them - but ignores other well-known figures such as Les Kellett. All of them enjoyed long careers beginning in the Forties and continuing for two, even three decades. Although they expended a lot of energy by putting their bodies on the line in the ring, they were at the mercy of Joint Promotions, which actively fixed bouts in advance so as to secure maximum publicity. In the light of recent events in many sports, where spot-fixing has become commonplace, this doesn't seem a particularly heinous crime, but it was this kind of strategy that prevented wrestling from ever being accepted as a de facto sport, rather than a mix of sport and entertainment.

The program claims, wrongly in my opinion, that wrestling was an essentially working-class entertainment. It wasn't; on the contrary, its regular audience (for televised as well as live bouts) was cross-class, with people from all socio-economic backgrounds enjoying the chance to let their hair down by hissing, booing, or even assaulting the fighters on occasions. The atmosphere in most venues resembled that of a bull-fight, with audiences egging on their favorite matadors to chalk up yet another win. The fact that they didn't (with villains like McManus continually winning instead), only served to increase audience interest further.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this documentary is the equivocal way in which some of the interviewees - notably referee/ promoter Brian Crabtree (brother of Big Daddy aka Shirley Crabtree) - address the question of whether the sport was fixed or not. Perhaps it was; but it provided great entertainment for legions of viewers for many a long year.

Full-Blooded Melodrama set in the Late Nineteenth Century Deep South, 18 December 2014

MY FORBIDDEN PAST does not full its punches. It is a full-blooded melodrama set in a time and place where social distinctions matter. Barbara Beaurevel (Ava Gardner) and her cousin Paul (Melvyn Douglas) live in comfortable gentility with Aunt Eula (Lucile Watson). They believe in the kind of social niceties that dictate one's choice of marriage partner, as well as one's future life; those who fail to make the grade are abruptly rebuffed. Hence when Barbara falls in love with industrious yet self-made researcher Mark Lucas (Robert Mitchum), trouble is bound to occur. Robert Stevenson's film boils up to a satisfying courtroom climax in which an inevitable deus ex machina allows a happy ending to take place.

Despite the fact that the film remains relentlessly studio-bound (with only a few second unit shots denoting time and place), it makes a creditable effort of portraying a world riddled with hypocrisies, where Lucas is treated with as much disdain as the African American servant (Clarence Muse) working for the Beaurevel family. Douglas makes an eminently hissable villain with his thin pencil mustache and courtly manners, that do not prevent him from making a pass at Lucas' wife (Janis Carter) in a self-interested act of revenge for Lucas' falling in love with Barbara. Mitchum looks uncomfortable in the cloistered surroundings of a research laboratory, but becomes a formidable adversary for Douglas. Gardner doesn't have much to do, except proclaim her love for Lucas in a series of close-ups; this task she accomplishes competently. Given the constraints of her background, we cannot help but sympathize with her as she tries to escape through love.

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