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"She's in Llandudno. As you no doubt did know".
A laugh-out-loud parody of overwraught and serious historical drama, a carbon copy of daytime soap, BRASS is full of laughs, wordplay, one-liners and silliness. Totally straightfaced and never letting its mask slip, it destroys the pompous self-importance of DH Lawrence and so many other classics.
Timothy West and Caroline Blakiston as the Hardacres, Barbara Ewing and Geoffrey Hinsliff and the Fairchilds: all perfectly cast. These four lead from the front, with perfect characterisation and totally deadpan delivery of ludicrous dialogue and wildly overblown plots. Red Agnes Fairchild, so proud that she irons her clothes before washing them, sits at her kitchen table with bosom heaving as she sombrely inflates balloons and puts peas into pods for a few pennies a day. Lady Patience Hardacre, confined to her wheelchair since that horrible tambourine accident, genteelly applies spoons of gin to her breakfast, with her hair immaculately coiffeured on one side and totally flat on the other. Humble, cap-wringing George Fairchild worships the ground that hardhearted Bradley Hardacre tramples him into.
Silent But Deadly explosives; plots to destroy the cottage hospital (the former village workhouse, as well you know); a horse called Brass Beauty; patented Truss Flanges; Matt the beautiful-but-dim poet; Isobel with her raging libido; Morris with his teddybear and varsity friends ... every cliché is grabbed, turned around and recycled. It's all so wildly over the top, and played with utter straightness. Agnes's hysterical outbursts of Biblical melodrama never fail to amuse.
There was no need for a third series, though. Returning after more than five years and appearing on a different TV station, with a couple of changes in the cast (Geoffrey Hutchings is a poor replacement for Geoffrey Hinsliff and is actually quite badly miscast), series three is a let down. It feels as if the producers really didn't know what to do with the characters. The spontaneity and oomph has gone, and there are several scenes that have no laughs at all. The joke is beginning to wear a little thin towards the end of series two: series three is quite poor, and there isn't even a proper ending.
BRASS is so gloriously daft, it still remains fresh after thirty years. Definitely worth getting the DVDs.
... as you well know.
C.A.T.S. Eyes (1985)
Not very good, and surprisingly violent
A weird series on so many levels, CATS Eyes changes its format frequently and never seems to know what it wants to do.
Jill Gascoine is wasted and is capable of so much better than this. While it's a fantastic idea to bring back Maggie Forbes from the superb police series The Gentle Touch, Jill Gascoine is forced to do the best she can with some very weak and ordinary material.
Series one sees impossibly posh Pru (Rosalyn Landor) and gobby Cockernee Fred (Leslie Ash) joined by Maggie in the Eyes Agency, an undercover detective agency. Some good stuff in series one, with a tense relationship between Maggie and Fred, and Pru taking charge. Standard detective stories, and it's quite watchable. There's a spooky episode where Fred gets her drink spiked and hallucinates while trapped in the office, and there's a really good episode about people smuggling. The Kent locations look bleak, miserable and cold; there is frequently snow on the ground; the car chases look especially dangerous, with all that black ice on the roads.
It goes a bit wrong with series two. Pru, Eyes Agency and their office are never mentioned again. I like to think Pru is still doing detectiving from that little office. In comes Tessa, a character written in invisible ink. Tracy Louise Ward has very little to do in the role, and it is notable that Fred and Tessa utterly fail the Bechdel Test on every level: whenever they are alone together, they talk about boyfriends. While the series has now been retooled as an action adventure show, with everyone carrying guns and there being KGB double agents all over the place, so Fred and Tessa are now just standard dollybirds. Maggie is in charge and her awkward relationship with Fred is forgotten. Each episode ends on a not-funny laugh.
Series two is surprisingly violent. Barely five minutes goes past without the rattle of machine gun fire. Doors are regularly boobytrapped to explode. It all feels very ordinary and same-old-same-old. People are held hostage in large country houses and get terrorised by people in balaclavas. There's a really nasty episode where Maggie is locked in a cellar and the baddies produce a bag of scapels etc and threaten to carry out surgery on her. I am amazed that the recording I watched came from the Family Channel, as some of the material included is not family-friendly. It feels vicious and unpleasant. It's a bit dull and ordinary, stuffed with KGB spies and double-agents.
The high point of series two is one about white South Africans attempting to assassinate a black African leader: an episode so completely ludicrous that its final conclusion with Maggie coming to the rescue is the most laughable thing I have seen for some time.
Series three tones down the violence and has a notably shorter run of just seven episodes, as if the producers felt enough was enough. Other than that, series three is as ordinary as series two: Russian spies; Fred and Tessa talking about blokes; people being held hostage in mansions.
I think the biggest failing of the show is that it pretends to be different by having three female leads, but having all-male producers, writers and directors means we just get a standard action adventure series that thinks it needs to water itself down to become a bit girly, but actually doesn't know what it wants to do.
Jill Gascoine is totally wasted and, on the whole, it's a load of rubbish. The Gentle Touch is much better.
The Grand (1997)
Series One GREAT. Series Two LESS SO.
Nothing particularly unique, fresh or new happens in The Grand, but it succeeds because it constantly surprises and turns expectations on their heads. Russell T Davies, that genius writer, is always good at catching the viewer out, and the show's greatest successes are delivered by deft overturning of what we think is going to happen next.
Casting Susan Hampshire as a prostitute? Straightaway, that's brilliant. I expected the whole series to involve Miss Harkness at risk of being caught out, struggling to keep one step ahead of propriety ... but in Russell T Davies's hands, all of that is blown away. By episode three, her trade is an open secret. This is why RTD is one of Britain's most successful TV writers, and I am not.
Series One thrives on the aspiring, go-getting maid Monica. Several gobsmacking twists on the trot lead Monica's story to an appalling conclusion: gang rape, murder in self defence, execution. Well done, Mr Davies.
It all falls apart in series two. Head transplants are always tricky to pull off in ongoing TV series, but The Grand fails in giving two key characters head AND personality transplants. The impossibly handsome, tormented Stephen becomes ten years younger and infinitely wetter. Outspoken, bitter Ruth becomes a shivering, febrile mess. These two changes are a huge failing and, with the Bannerman family granny forgotten between series, and with John and Sarah Bannerman (the irreplaceable Julia St John) written out after a couple of episodes, major driving forces are lost. Series two is very different from series one, and much weaker. Sure, there are still great episodes (Monica's revenge, Clive's dilemma), but these individual story lines are divorced from the main ongoing stories.
As is the way of these things, the Below Stairs characters are always the most interesting. While the Above Stairs characters worry about business deals and all of that old nonsense, there is a real sense that life below stairs is tough, cruel, bitter and horrible.
The Grand, at its best, really is "grand". Cliché-busting, surprising, and full of memorable characters and situations. The problem with the majority of series two is that those memorable characters aren't quite as memorable as they used to be, which handicaps the story from the very beginning.
The Lotus Eaters (1972)
Weird and, sometimes, wonderful
All kinds of people pass through Ann and Erik Shepherd's bar, in the first series, and all bring their stories with them. A real "Tales of the Unexepected" atmosphere kept me on my toes through the first series. Weird hints to Ann's secret identity; sinister suggestions that Erik may be capable of terrible things; people coming to the island with personal problems that soon catch up with them.
The problem is that some of it is very long winded and waffly, and a couple of the first series' episodes are very missable. When it's at its best (the episode A Touch of Home), The Lotus Eaters is top-quality British drama. There are some episodes that just don't bother to bring tension, excitement and drama to the situation, and are plain boring.
The final couple of scenes of A Touch of Home are unbeatable, and completely blew me away. The Present Mrs Clive and A Tiger in Bristol Street all have twists in the tail, and are thoroughly rewarding for that. The Climbing Wave, ending series one, brings everything together nicely and is full of surprises.
Series two is not nearly as good. All that waffle about spies and double agents goes on far too long, and the mysteries and shocks of series one are not replicated. Some episodes (notably Beside A Crooked Stile) are too preoccupied with intrusively flashy direction and editing, which becomes annoying after a while. Ann's dream sequence utterly defies understanding and just serves to annoy.
Wanda Ventham gives as strong a performance as you would expect from her, while Ian Hendry is cursed with a horrible cardigan and strange motivation. There are some scenes when Erik's behaviour seems totally unfathomable and illogical. Some great guest performances (Maurice Denham is fun, and Sylvia Coleridge will make your hair stand on end), but some stodgy scripts and an occasionally pretentious approach to storytelling. Very hit-and-miss, but the "hits" are certainly worth it.
Howards' Way (1985)
Utterly ludicrous in every way, Howards Way feels like it has been beamed in from another planet, not from twenty years in the past. It's always held up as the ultimate example of British aspiration in the 80s: powerdressing, shoulderpads, big hair, big cars, mobile phones, powerboats, money money money. The world seen in Howards Way is completely unlike anything of my experience that it seems alien.
"Find out who's behind that Guernsey holding company. I'm worried we're vulnerable to a takeover bid". "Who's fronting that nominee company?". "You're a paper millionaire now you've gone public". "We must have a majority holding in the Placenta Corporation". "I'll put it to the board of Diagonal Holdings". Utterly meaningless and baffling. Every character tries to take over everyone else's company, and the business dealings are totally opaque and difficult to follow. I have no idea who owned which company at any given time, and all the obvious drama inherent in the boardroom discussions might have been in another language. Maybe this is how life really was in the 80s.
With everyone commissioning everyone else to build them a world-class boat, before going out for a luncheon appointment with The Bank, Howards Way repeats the same series of story lines over and over again. Every year, every character has business dealings in some exotic clime or other, and half the cast decamp for a sunnier location. The Bermuda stuff in the last series is very strange. Malta, Gibraltar, France and Guernsey poke their heads up from time to time.
The characters have a real life to them, though, and his is where the show really succeeds. Old fashioned Jack Rolfe (It's my bloody yard!) and staunch Tom Howard (We need to move into the 1980s, Jack!) lead the drama to begin with.
Jan Howard becomes a businesswoman overnight, then a world-class dress designer overnight. The younger generation have standard-issue sexual crises, but the one to keep an eye on is Abby. Mousy little tie-dyed teenager she may be to begin with, but the change that happens as the series moves along, leading to gobsmacking changes in series six, are very memorable. Boo-hiss Charles Frere turns out to have a heart of gold (though you'll have to wait a while to see). His battles with his dad, boggle-eyed old bounder Sir Edward, are enormous fun. Then there's Sir John, who is everyone's bank manager and blabs everyone's details to Sir Edward before beetling off to patronise awful shiny-suited Ken Masters by calling him "Kenneth". Avril is a vision of commonsense and rises above all of the double dealings around her (at least, I assume she does, as I understand very little of what anyone is talking about in those boardroom scenes).
No-one is madder than Polly. A bored trophy wife, she's rather sympathetic from time to time. She fails to understand why Jan is upset when Polly sets up another company using Jan's name, and then starts trying to expand to America. The writers must have had a brainstorm that day. Actually, there may be someone madder than Polly. Sarah Foster is utterly barking.
Also, keep an eye open for wooden Kate Harvey. At the very end of the series, she's seen shuffling some papers and explains she is planning her campaign to be elected to the local council. An episode later, someone asks if she'll be late for her committee meeting. Utterly preposterous.
Look out for some wonderful guest stars and guest characters: Catherine Schell, Pamela Salem, Michael Cochrane, a young Anthony Head, boo-hiss Francesca Gonshaw, a gozzy-eyed animal rights baddie, Stephen Grief as his standard-issue "oily foreigner" character. So much of Howards Way is familiar, it fits like a glove.
It's the characters with integrity that stand out. The only working class person allowed dialogue is Bill From The Mermaid Yard, who steals every scene he is in just by not having to talk about share prices. Gerald Urquhart's old school tie hoves into view every now and then; he is utterly competent, likable and honest. The fact that he is gay is conveniently forgotten after some quite strong and dramatic scenes in which AIDS is skirted around and then finally mentioned, and he cops off with Kate O'Mara.
"Hello Ken / How did you know I was there? Have you got eyes in the back of your head? / No, I'm standing downwind of your aftershave". Oh, Kate O'Mara.
Can it get any better? Illogical, insensible, pompous, baffling, contradictory, naff, glam, witty, addictive, dated ... I cannot recommend Howards Way highly enough.
Mapp & Lucia (1985)
The camp, outrageous, over-the-top stories of two women whose hatred of each other is so all-consuming that their friends and neighbours become spectators and pawns in a never-ending game of jealousy and oneupmanship. Absolute bliss, with guaranteed huge laughs throughout.
Plummy-voiced, with marching, over-confident body language, Prunella Scales is a hoot as Miss Mapp, determined to protect her role as Queen of the village. Her rival, regal and sly Lucia, constantly pulls the rug from beneath her feet; Geraldine McEwan, with her swooping voice and glorious wardrobe, gives such an arch performance that she can almost be forgiven her association with Miss Marple. Almost.
Denis Lill steals every scene as the drunken, lascivious Major. Constantly in a rage, stashing whisky out of sight of the servants and shouting his orders in Hindustani, he gives a brilliant performance. Nigel Hawthorne, as Lucia's partner-in-crime Georgie, brings a wonderfully camp and fey quality, completing his embroidery and ensuring his toupee is on straight. The atmosphere of fun is helped by dialogue such as "I have always said fingerbowls are entitled to doilies". Glorious.
This is one of those series in which every character brings their own quality of fun: the twitchy Mr Wyse; the Padre whose accent changes dependent on where he has been holidaying; Quaint Irene whose love for Lucia borders on the sexual; Diva's frustration with Mapp bubbling over into peevish sniping; Mrs Wyse ensuring that everyone knows she has an MBE ("the servants leave it lying around, you know"); the level-headed and professional servants, struggling to deal with the whims of their employers ...
Almost cartoonish in its portrayal of ridiculous and childish schemes, this has many comparisons with Fry and Laurie's Jeeves & Wooster series. Whether washed out to sea using a table as a boat, arranging a séance for a pet budgie or feigning illness in order to avoid being found out as a non-Italian speaker, Mapp & Lucia's boastful schemes are sharp, witty and wonderfully played. Such a treat.
The House of Eliott (1991)
Addictive, but deeply silly
Required family viewing, back in the early 90s, the DVDs of this classic series are utterly addictive; however, watching the episodes back-to-back reveals whacking great plot holes, and plenty of story lines that are dropped, forgotten and never mentioned again.
Bea and Evie Eliott are magnificently played by Stella Gonet and Louise Lombard, with a sterling cast around them. The costumes are glorious, as you;d expect; however, there are some occasions when it would have been great to have seen a little more of them. The 1920s atmos is very believable and evocative.
As the series wore on, I found Miss Evie to be rather unsympathetic. Falling in love with every unsuitable, rake, cad, bounder and married man who would even cast a glance at her, Miss Evie somehow ends up proposing marriage to someone who seems little more than a professional freeloader. Worse, the proposal comes just minutes after he has drunkenly torn her dress. Far from being a series full of empowering roles for women, The House of Eliott shows Miss Evie to be in dire need of a man in her life, and frequently ignoring her professional responsibilities in order to achieve this.
Miss Bea's relationship with Jack goes through endless ups-and-downs, and there are some episodes where I found myself timing their scenes together to work out an average of how long they could be on screen without shouting. Miss Bea is more likable than Miss Evie, but prone to being a bit controlling.
In the workroom, characters such as Joseph, Tilly, Madge, Agnes and Betty provide plenty of Chirpy Cockernee Fun. Interestingly, the third and final series concentrates on the personal lives of the staff far more than the first two series had done. The story of Tilly and Norman's baby is quite absorbing, along with Madge's domestic problems and Agnes's urge to sing in music hall. All of this is rather more interesting than the same-old-same-old that the Eliotts seem to be going through: more marital strife to Miss Bea, and more random copping off for Miss Evie. There is so much going on in the third series that too much is left unresolved. To be honest, I would much rather have done without some of the dreary romantic stuff with Miss Evie and Daniel, in order to explore Madge and Charles's relationship, or see a bit more of Katya.
All along the way, there are plenty of moustache-twirling baddies desperate to derail the plucky heroines' attempts at business. From series one's is-he or isn't-he step brother, through boo-hiss Mr Saroyan in series two, and Grace Keeble in series three (not a baddie, really, just driven to frustration and resentment by Miss Evie's appalling behaviour), it's all enormous fun to watch.
Endless Countesses, Duchesses and the like; plenty of comedy French designers; lots of scandal; terrible employment practices ... The House of Eliott has it all. Everything feels rushed and hurried, nothing has long-lasting repercussions, stories and characters are cast aside and forgotten as if they never existed.
This series left me yelling at the TV in frustration and annoyance from time to time, but is never less than enjoyable. It's all so daft that French and Saunders really didn't need to put much effort into their legendary, priceless parody, The House of Idiot.
By the Sword Divided (1983)
The story of the English Civil War told through the eyes of one family.
The Parliamanetarians (aka Roundheads), led by General Oliver Cromwell, overthrow the Royalists (aka Cavaliers), led by King Charles I. Charles is executed, and England becomes a Puritan state until Cromwell's death. With no strong leadership, the Royalists are able to reassert themselves, leading to Charles's son (King Chalres II) assuming the throne.
The Royalist Lacey family, in their castle at Arnescote, is divided when eldest daughter Anne marries a leading Parliamentarian. Before long, Sir Martin Lacey (Julian Glover) is dead; the family's slow self-destruction mirrors that of the country as a whole.
Glorious scripts and dialogue. Beautiful locations, sets and costumes. Some outstanding performances and some memorable characters among the family and the servants. The great Peter Jeffrey makes Cromwell rather sympathetic, when he eventually appears. King Charles I's trial is taken from the original transcripts, and is utterly powerful and gripping. There are memorable scenes and characters galore: the siege of Arnescote at the end of the first series; the spiteful priest of the second series; John Fletcher's bluff, confident father; duplicitous cousin Susan. Battles, spying, swordfights, seedy London backstreets ... this is the stuff of great British telly.
A special mention is reserved for one of the best character actresses of all time, Eileen Way, who plays the kitchen crone-in-residence, Minty, and for Rosalie Crutchley as the tower of strength housekeeper Goodwife Margaret.
The standout episode, for me, is the witchfinder episode from series two. Utterly harrowing, as poor kitchengirl Rachel finds herself the victim of circumstance and gossip. Debbie Goodman's performance stayed with me for days afterwards, and it's a real shame that IMDb suggests she didn't do anything more. If you read this, Debbie, thanks for a startling piece of TV.
The only disappointment in the whole of By the Sword Divided is that the music composers were obviously working on the BBC's Miss Marple at the same time as this!
Genius ... or Tedious?
An amazing, sprawling epic, touching on some of the most powerful issues that mankind can ever face ... or ... lots of people standing around talking about crop rotation.
Survivors is the most variable TV show I have ever seen. It is either gripping, or tiresome. Its three seasons seem to have little in common with each other, and the series gradually runs out of steam (ironic, as it ends with the re-invention of the steam engine!).
The first series is the best. Beginning with the shock of The Death, and society falling apart, it moves on to deal with scavenging, trading, disease, and how to cope without electricity or medicine. Some brilliant images of deserted streets. Memorable characters, such as Emma Cohen and Tom Price, will not be bettered as the series moves on. Some stand-out episodes, including the capital punishment story everyone always remembers, make up for some of the more ordinary tales which seem to involve two groups of people waving guns at each other for 45 minutes.
With series two, Abby Grant has moved on, and nearly all the likable characters are killed off in a fire. Now in a new, less tight-knit community, the stories are more varied in quality and some quite unsympathetic.
Mina is very likable, but is thought to be a witch. It's this kind of story that reminds us how easy it is to become primitive all over again. The community gains a doctor, and the London-based two parter breaks the series' mould effectively.
It all falls apart at the end of series two when leader Greg heads off to Norway in a hot air balloon. This is the first nail in the coffin of the series.
Series three is very hard going. Having spent so long building up the new community in series two, this is barely seen and all but forgotten. The doctor is never even mentioned again. Jenny moans a lot about missing either (a) home, (b) kids, or (c) Greg. In some scenes, she moans about all three, becoming an unlikeable whining machine. Charlie rants on about forming communities and rebuilding society to anyone who will listen, almost prompting me to reach for the mute button. Hubert gets drunk and falls over (he occasionally proves himself useful by shooting people).
Charlie, Jenny and Hubert trot from one place to the next, avoiding wild dogs, trying to find Greg. It all seems a bit aimless. There's a brilliant and terrifying episode about rabies, but the third series is mostly very yawn-making. Greg seems to be setting up some kind of military rule towards the end of the series, though Heaven only knows how Norweigian Anna is involved.
The final episodes, aiming to switch on hydro-electric power-stations, makes interesting viewing, if only because they're talking about valves instead of crops, for a change. Moving from one location to the next, occasionally picking up and dropping off new faces, gives the third series far less emotional involvement than that in earlier episodes. It's a real effort to sit through some of it.
At its worst, Survivors bored me and frustrated me as characters behaved illogically and provoked arguments for no reason. At its best, it's shocking, thought-provoking and terrifying. In the first two years, the best far outweighs the worst. Towards the end, I was losing patience and sympathy. Worth a watch for the scale of its ideas if nothing else.
Endless Night (1972)
British Lion made some great films: Don't Look Now and The Wicker Man leap to mind immediately. Great cult films that pack a real punch, dealing with weird subject matter and huge twisting plots.
Endless Night was made by British Lion at around the same time as these better-known films; accordingly, it's the least Agatha Christie-ish Agatha Christie you'll ever see.
A definite tinge of Hitchcock in some sequences, and Bernard Hermann's weird, eerie music helps. There are some nice, eerie, disjointed flashbacks and some strange and sinister dreamy sequences.
Hayley Mills gives life to a bland character, lumbered with an iffy accent and someone else's singing voice. Britt Ekland is luminous and lusty as ever. Hywel Bennett is really rather suave, in his own way. The house, Gypsy's Acre, is a real Bond Villain's Lair: a monstrosity of hidden swimming pools and groovy furniture. The foul creation of a seedy Swedish architect. Despite this, Hywel and Hayley seem happy ... until Britt moves in with them.
The storytelling gets a bit unclear at the end, where it is clearly stated that one character did not exist and is merely specifically employed to scare and unsettle people. Poison is the cause of death of a character, but not mentioned by the coroner. As a result of this, I found the last ten minutes of the film rather baffling. It seemed that the film's desperation to be strange and creepy led it to contradict itself. Or maybe I missed the point?
Guaranteed 100% Miss Marple Free, there's glamour and sinister overtones, taking the film into totally new territory for Agatha Christie.
Miss Marie Lloyd (2007)
A great performance from Jessie Wallace. Convincingly ageing from teens to fifties, and convincingly descending into desperation, loneliness and booze. I'm note sure whether or not she was really singing, but that's not a major quibble.
Whenever I watch a film about a real person, I wonder which bits were real, which made up, and which are dramatic licence. Clearly, Marie's best friend and dresser is a fictional character, existing just to give her someone to talk to. The narrator was totally unnecessary, contrived and, after a while, annoying.
Intriguing period detail, and plenty of excitement in the hustle-and-bustle backstage in the music halls. The idea of Marie as a "pop diva" is an intriguing one, and there are real parallels between her and some of today's female celebs. Her politicism, leading a strike, made an interesting counterpoint to the standard relationship-trauma that films like this will always emphasise.
Having researched Marie (ie: looked her up on Wikipedia), I find that she actually married Bernard (not made clear in the film); they caused a scandal in America when trying to visit the country as an unmarried couple.
The film had the inevitable focus on tragic lovelife and abuse menfolk, but the strength of Marie Lloyd's personality, and her trailblazing role in the public eye, are never forgotten. Sometimes overlooked, but never forgotten.
How Do You Want Me? (1998)
Warm. Spiky. Lovely.
COnstantly surprising, this is one of the BBC's unsung gems.
Dylan Moran and Charlotte Coleman have such chemistry, there is no doubting the warmth of Ian and Lisa's love for each other. They're a perfect couple in many ways: she's level-headed and sensible, but sees their country life as bliss; he's sarcastic and thoughtless, seeing their life as a provincial nightmare. They are both right, and both wrong. The support they give each other, and the tenderness of some of their scenes, are quite touching and emotional; very unlike any other sitcom. Of course, knowing the series was cut short by Charlotte Coleman's terrible death makes it even more poignant.
Every attempt Ian makes to fit in, half-hearted though it may be, is destined to fail. Frank Finlay is frightening as Lisa's "lord of the manor" father, bringing real menace and threat to his scenes. With Lisa's icy mother and violent brother adding colour, the only normal one of the bunch is Lisa's sister, Helen, played with restraint and lack of cuteness by The Vicar of Dibley's Emma Chambers.
There are some huge laughs along the way: Marc Warren as a comedian Ian ships in for a village fundraiser, who ruins the night and trashes the stage; Ian's stint managing Helen's shop; Ian's "rural fire stations" calendar; the restrained anger of Clive Merrison's headmaster; Ian giving up booze.
At heart, this is a very dark, bleak series. The harmonica music enhances the isolated rural atmosphere, and there are some shots of the countryside that make the village seem totally alone. The shining light of this forgotten little outpost is the warmth of Ian and Lisa's love. Such a shame that this was cut short.
A Carry On for kids!
What enormous fun! Nannies, toffs with monocles, drunken Scots, loud Yanks, inscrutable Chinese ... every cliché under the sun chases around London in pursuit of a dinosaur skeleton on the back of a lorry.
Such energy, fun, and real "oomph" make this film utterly lovable. it's not subtle, but it's not meant to be. It's a kids' film. I love it as I love the Carry Ons: rip-roaring laughter, unsubtlety, old gags, and corking performances from a range of brilliant character actors.
Look at the cast list! How can anyone not love this film, just from the cast list alone?! Peter Ustinov and Helen Hayes lead the proceedings. Derek Nimmo has a key role. Carry On-ers Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Amanda Barrie and the supreme Joan Hickson give 100% to their roles.
People seem to be a bit sniffy about this film, but it's so good-natured, warm and funny that it's really rather rude to pick it to pieces for its stereotyping or its clichés. This film is glorious as it is.
TV Movie not as good as Mini Series
In British school playgrounds in the early 90s, Chimera was a hot topic of conversation. Absolutely terrifying as a mini-series, it then got repeated as an iffy TV movie. I have just got hold of a copy of the movie, and this review deals with the edited version.
Trimming three or four hours of telly into 100 minutes is not an easy job. The story rushes along, and there is plenty of excitement and a few real scares. The story does not have the chance to explore characters and build up the tension as it would have done in serial form. Also, there are a few moments that do not seem logical, as the explanatory material has been cut.
The impact of the first episode of the serial was enormous. Introducing a dozen characters in an isolated medical clinic, surrounded by fog, miles away from anywhere in the middle of the moors ...a great start. "Something" escapes. One by one, the characters are killed. There's a sequence I can visualise in my mind's eye as if it were yesterday: a woman is pulled backwards through a window. This remains in the film, as do some of the killings. A new nurse, with no idea of the secrets her employers are hiding, is the heroine. As the building goes up in smoke, she looks as if she is about to escape ... and the "something" gets her with a knife. Gobsmacking. All but two of the characters are dead, and the woman we thought would be the sympathetic heroine is lying among them. This was the cliffhanger ending to episode one, before the haunting theme music began. This is whizzed through in less than fifteen minutes in the movie version, and things are poorer for it.
Episode two began with the investigation into the incident, with the security forces overruling the police and hushing everything up. Two characters who made small appearances in the first episode live on, but everyone else is new. This was a completely jawdropping development, and was widely reported in the papers at the time.
The TV movie rushes through explanations. Characters come and go, as the journalist hero follows leads and moves from person to person, investigating. Some good performances and some interesting characters, but the story needs longer in order to be told properly.
The "monster", of course, is befriended by two children. Sadly, the boy's voice is very badly dubbed. The sequences of the children with Mister Scarecrow, in the barn and the farmhouse, are very goosepimple-making. In the time honoured tradition of British TV, the monster is kept offscreen for as long as possible. Eventually, Chad is revealed to be quite sympathetic. Aware that his creators were to experiment on him, released by a sympathetic scientist (all rushed through and glossed over, sadly), his lethal attacks were a combination of rage and hatred, along with loneliness and heartbreak. There's no denying, though, that the tension is raised brilliantly in the clinic attack scenes and in the farm scenes.
There is, of course, a government cover-up. All of this would have so much more impact and be much more powerful if the original mini series were available. While the movie does contain some good scares, it cannot do justice to the original work.
The Brittas Empire (1991)
Wonderful, bizarre sitcom
Almost surreal. Completely bonkers scripts. The series is often verging on farce, but has a very spiky, cynical edge to it.
The leisure centre would, of course, run smoothly if Gordon Brittas were not involved. Even in his absence, he is able to ruin things by sheer force of will. Whilst attending a job interview in Brussels, his orders are given by phone: this leads to his leisure centre becoming overrun with rats, and a fertiliser bomb exploding in the bins.
The glorious Harriet Thorpe as Carol, the frantic receptionist, steals every scene in which she appears. Her nervous energy, leading her to call Mr Brittas "Missbriss" throughout, is absolutely infectious. Slamming her babies in desk drawers, doing the ironing whilst on duty, she's a hoot. Likewise, Pippa Haywood stands out, as Helen Brittas: popping pills and flirting through her desperation.
A word also for Tim and Gavin, the gay couple who don't actually seem to like each other. While Gavin is keen for promotion, Tim is consumed with hatred for Brittas.
Plenty of laughs, as the scripts get weirder and weirded. A live broadcast of a religious TV show destroyed by a runaway emu? That'll be The Brittas Empire. The building's structure weakened by the receptionist excavating more space for her children to live, leading to a water tank dropping through four floors? That'll be The Brittas Empire. Quite unparalleled in its strangeness, this show guarantees more belly-laughs than most. Great fun.
Century Falls (1993)
I was well into my teens when Century Falls was first shown, and have long remembered it. The DVD is more of a treat than I can say.
It bears all the hallmarks of Russell T Davies's writing. Now more famous for the revamped Dr Who, and adult dramas like Queer As Folk, there's a strong thread running through CF that can be seen elsewhere. Strong family relationships, murky secrets, strong women, awkward youngsters, unexpected twists.
Chubby Tess Harker is a bit of isolated. Her mum brings her to Century Falls, the archetypal isolated village, and Tess is shocked to find there are only two other children resident. The Naismith twins seem to have strange, supernatural powers. The Harkness women, elderly spinsters and their ancient mother, run the village shop, and seem determined to convince Mrs Harker to leave the village. It seems that no children have survived in the village since something awful happened forty years ago. The telepathic villagers are being manipulated, history is to be repeated, and Tess and her mother are at the heart of it.
It's incredibly complex, mysterious and sinister, bearing in mind it was shown as part of children's TV at a weekday teatime. Esme Harkness's description of what will happen to Tess's mother, delivered in the middle of part six, is rather gruesome and graphic. There are plenty of supernatural images and mentions of death and evil.
A good performance from Catherine Sanderson as the excluded teenager: very lonely, a bit sensitive, conscious of her size. Her mother is very believable and well written. A magnificent performance from the late, lamented Mary Wimbush as Esme, with Dr Who stalwart Eileen Way grabbing attention as Alice Harkness ... she lost her mind forty years ago, when the Temple was broken.
The first couple of episodes build up mystery upon mystery. The temple, Mrs Harkness's silence, Robert Naismith's interest in the Harkers, the mystery figure in the Naismith attic, the supernatural Naismith twins, no children born for forty years, and the mystery of Century. Rising from flames in the middle of a waterfall, the image is very striking and startling.
The production is in no hurry to give answers. Viewers may find themselves frowning for three or four whole episodes. It requires a lot of thought and a lot of understanding ... completely unlike any kids telly nowadays! This harks back to the glory days of productions like Moondial, Narnia and the like. Century Falls was probably the last of these.
Century Falls is rather talky, with relatively little action. The action that does occur is very attention-grabbing as a result. It is probably better suited to adults now, rather than to children. A rather sophisticated story and plenty of confusion lead to a satisfying conclusion. It's very eerie, grey and windswept. Some brilliant images of séances, plenty of shadows and unanswered questions. Very watchable, and worthy of its reputation as a kids classic. For once, my teenage memories were not disappointed.
Green for Danger (1946)
This is one of those films that used to be on telly twice a week during the school holidays. Seeing it again after half a lifetime, I still love it.
There's great laugh-aloud humour in amongst some very dark and serious elements. Obviously, Alistair Sim's offhand and rather glib Inspector lightens proceedings, but the tangle of love affairs and family histories brings real depth to the characters. A problem I suffered is that it took a while to work out which nurse was which, as they all look traditionally beautiful and speak with identical RP accents. Another slight niggle is that it's very underlit at times! The exception to the problem of identical actresses is the ever-glorious Megs Jenkins. One of those people guaranteed to bring a smile to my face, normally playing harassed landladies or fussy housewives, she's perfect here as Nurse Woods.
I couldn't remember the killer from those ancient TV airings, but managed to solve it. It's a classic British whodunnit of the golden age, and anyone raised on a diet of Agatha Christie should be able to pick up a few clues.
Funny, occasionally creepy, and stuffed to the gills with fine actors of the old school, Green for Danger is perfect viewing for a rainy Sunday afternoon (which is how I ended up watching it today!).
Partners in Crime (1983)
As a lifelong Agatha Christie fan, and devotee of Joan Hickson's late 80s/early 90s Miss Marple adaptations, I had hoped that these early 80s curios would help fill my need for more Agatha. I can't imagine that these stagey productions would have met with the great lady's approval. Slow moving (especially when Tommy and Tuppence are on screen), and so lacking in dramatic tension that I am surprised more than a couple of episodes were ever screened.
Francesca Annis is dreadfully OTT and arch. Her stage make-up makes her look like a doll or a clown in some sequences. James Warwick is very wooden and emotionless. Reece Dinsdale's comedy cockney is even more annoying.
Tommy and Tuppence are totally unlikeable, and their laboured attempts at flirtation and humour fail at every attempt. Every witticism and remark in the script clunks to the floor under the deadly delivery of Annis and Warwick.
There's a nice range of guest appearances from some actors who went on to great things (Anita Dobson as a maid who bites the dust after two minutes on screen), but the supporting roles are obviously less significant to the two leads. As a result, anyone who tries to bring a bit of life to things (Liz Smith and Joan Sanderson, for example) are shot down as soon as they appear on the same set as Tommy and Tuppence.
The studio sets and studio lighting have aged very badly, and the whole production feels dated.
Occasionally brilliant, occasionally dreary
FOX has some standout moments. There's a brilliant atmosphere, and a great sense of the time and the place. Loads of smoky bars, Granadas and Cortinas. The idea of the community and the family being one and the same is very believable and well demonstrated.
Brother Ray Fox is the standout. A real stillness and calm, making him more than "just" a shady gangster. Brother Phil is occasionally a weakness: devotedly in love with his middle-class girl ... until he chucks her in favour of some woman we have never seen before and who is barely even named on screen. A real disappointment and a weakness to the story. Brother Joey's lovelife presents some fun, with mad Patricia Quinn, eccentric Maggie Steed, and sublime Mary Peach as the love interests.
Peter Vaughan provides a rock-solid centre to the series. After his death, the family begins to dissolve ... and the series loses focus a bit.
Ray Winstone, looking extremely young, is good as the soft-hearted boxer; vulnerable and heartbroken when he accidentally kills someone in the ring. However, the series dwells on this for a good three episodes, and all drama is stalled for the resulting wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Some great performances from some actors that are a pleasure to see! Trudie Goodwin, who seems to have been June Ackland in The Bill since the dawn of time, is a treat as Ray's put-upon girlfriend. There's a good role for a young Bill Nighy. Small roles also for Christopher Ellison, Dilys Laye, Christopher Ryan, John Rhys Davies, and loads of others. Some of these just pass through for a couple of scenes, adding extra depth to the story. Biggest surprise of all is Carry On floozie Margaret Nolan, giving a strong performance as Ray's despised ex-wife. She gets to slap her appalling daughter not once but twice, and raised a cheer both times. Elizabeth Spriggs as matriarch Connie and Rosemary Martin (so good in Tenko) as sharp-edged daughter-in-law Renie get some great scenes.
Dark, shifty, gloomy and dour, this is telly as it USED to be. because of that, I can almost forgive a few loose ends and un-completed plot lines, such as the Fox family's relationship with the "other" local heavies, which could have had plenty more screen time. I cannot, however, bring myself to forgive the truly horrible songs used to illustrate some of the character elements of some of the episodes.
Loads of characters tell a sprawling story that sometimes runs out of steam but is often ready with a new face and a new set of characters. A shame it only lasted one year.
SPOILERS As good as you remember SPOILERS
This is a full and frank review, with spoilers, discussing the story and the ending.
I am lucky to have seen Maelstrom recently, and it rekindled so many childhood memories. I remembered the sinister theme music and the dolls, but soon found that trying to sing along with the theme music would give me a sore throat.
Some reviews are very harsh on the lead actress, Tusse Silberg. I had no problem with her, and rather liked the Catherine character. Nicely intrepid and unwimpy. The only other place I have (knowingly) seen Tusse Silberg is in the late, lamented 90s soap Eldorado, where she plays a Swedish mother-in-law for a few episodes. She's quite good in Maelstrom, especially in comparison to hopeless blonde, Ingrid.
Ingrid is my biggest problem with Maelstrom, as Edita Brychta's performance is completely unconvincing and wooden. I spent the first two episodes thinking that Ingrid was obviously the culprit, and then realised I was only thinking this because of Ms Brychta's unnatural and bonkers performance. Saying "shall not" instead of "shan't" is writer's shorthand for madness, and Ingrid does this throughout. She was too obviously mad to be a real mad person, and I twigged on that it was going to be Anna Marie shortly before the real giveaway. The tension could have been ramped up much higher if there was not a shot of Anna Marie looking mad and wild-eyed in approx ep 3, as Catherine is walking away from her.
The scenery is gorgeous, but I believe all of Michael J Bird's writing deals with nice locations like this. Norway doesn't seem especially foreign, though. It could have been a pretty bit of Britain. Not much language barrier and not much cultural difference. In fact, in the scene where Catherine swims ashore after being shipwrecked, she flags down a car and much is made of her not being able to communicate with the driver. This is completely blown away when he tells her to "hop in"!
It's an odd choice to have a non-English actress playing Catherine, and Scandinavian Anna Marie played by an Englishwoman. I liked Susan Gilmore's Anna Marie a lot, and it's odd that the star of boat-soap Howard's Way is the only one never seen on a boat! David Beames is very much the square jawed hero, and there's nothing special about the character. Ann Todd as Miss Linderman is very convincing, completely caught up in the past. It was surely obvious that she would do herself in at the end of it.
The end was relatively clearly signposted. A few years ago, the BBC started a drama called Sea of Souls. I watched the first episode, but no more. The first episode was nicely eerie until the last twenty minutes, which turned into lead goodie and lead baddie chasing each other about with knives and burning the house down. It was as if the writer was happily writing away to himself, and then thought "bugger, I've got to finish this in ten pages time and I have no idea what to do". Maelstrom had a similar ending but without the desperation. As soon as people started talking about bonfires on Midsummer Eve, it was clear that the haunted house was going to go up in smoke. I saw it coming from about 3 episodes away. Nevertheless, it was very effective when it happened. Anna Marie's wonderful comment about "time to light bonfires", turning away from a pile of wood and moving towards the house, raised a chuckle. Also, her clouting Catherine over the head. A bit daft of Catherine to go to the house alone, though!
The fire was brilliantly done. Anna Marie's scorching and blackening before the roof came down, and the ghost of Freya and melting dolls, were all believably nasty. Typical of bonkers Ingrid to say her sister should be left in the burning building, though.
I occasionally found it a bit tricky to work out which house was which, and also got a bit confused by the geography of the island. Is there a jetty in front of the haunted house? It seemed so, in some shots, as people were able to drive a boat across the fjord and park in front. In other scenes, people seemed to approach the haunted house from behind and come down a slope to it, as if they had taken a boat all the way round the back of the house/island and then walked down to the front. Also, the two pictures next to Catherine's bed also confused me. One was her adoptive mother, and who was the other? Freya? It wasn't helped by Miss Linderman flicking though her photo albums and implying that the second photo was of one of her students. (Also, why did Miss L put her photo albums on such a high shelf when she has such obvious mobility problems?).
I enjoyed Maelstrom a lot. Very creepy. Great cliffhanger to episode five, with Catherine spotting someone behind the door. It didn't lose any pace of storytelling, and I was very surprised to find it was 6x45mins. Nowadays, it would probably be 3x60mins. It was nice to see so many old British actors in it, too. Shelagh Wilcocks is so good in Tenko. John Abineri, Paul Darrow and his Blake's 7 colleague Peter Tuddenham, Thomasine Heiner and Trevor Baxter.
All-in-all, wonderful stuff. Very atmospheric and moody; occasionally even scary. Some brilliant images that linger in the mind for a while, and a very doomy atmosphere. After all these years, I am delighted to find that the memory does not cheat, and that the series that was discussed in the school playground still lives up to 21st century scrutiny.
The Smoking Room (2004)
Wonderful, and completely original
The Smoking Room (TSM) is only ever compared with The Office because both are set in workplaces! Where TSM differs is that the daily grind of worklife does not drive the story.
In TSM, office discussions are banned. Our regular set of smokers skive off their working day and discuss biscuits, holidays, Eskimos, crosswords, and any number of other topics. Characters wander in and out of the room, and leave their day job outside.
It's part of the joy of the series to try to piece together what the characters do: Annie and Sally are graphic designers; it's clearly a major company with several different branches. Occasional glimpses of the outside world are provided: a vitally important Japanese client visits, and is in need of a cigarette. No lighter or matches can be found. The tension rises as the regulars try to keep their VIP happy, and she demonstrates her dislike of all things British (notably Penguin bars and Jim Bowen's gameshow Bullseye).
There are plenty of asides regarding unseen characters (Lil's friend Tess Pownall is described as having a chest like "a pair of wizened yams"), plenty of huge laughs, scathing one-liners, running jokes, and some great ongoing stories. The story of Ben from the post room, hints about a past relationship for Sharon the non-smiling boss, Janet's desperation to be included leading her to a not-necessarily happy ending ... two series and a Christmas special have been made, and I can only hope for a third. The second series ends with a number of colossal cliffhangers: the characters are so believable and their situation so genuine that I can't wait to see them again.
Dear John (1986)
A forgotten gem!
Alongside the over-rated and welcome-outstaying Only Fools & Horses, John Sullivan wrote this little beauty. It only ran for two years, in my early teens, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. Rewatching it on VHS recently has been such a treat.
Pathos. Bittersweet. These are some of the best words to describe the rather cynical and negative look at love that is presented here. Poor old John: living in a vile flat, paying for his ex-wife's nice house and the ex-wife's boyfriend's new car. Unfulfilled at work. Desperate for excitement. The "One 2 One Club" is a club for divorcées, singles and lonely-hearts, and the complex personalities who attend, week-in week-out, become the stars of the show. Some very understated performances and some startlingly heart-rending moments give Dear John a real element of ordinariness that OF&H lacks.
Louise's catchphrase, "were there any sexual problems?", as she leans in for a bit of gossip. Ralph's bizarre Polish ex-wife and his curious mode of transport. The OTT Kirk, who hides a truly shocking secret. The Ice Maiden "Frigid Brigid" (wonderfully played by Belinda Lang), whose determination to remain single raises many questions about why she attends the club. Mrs Arnott, who rarely says anything. The terribly cackling woman whose nerves always get the better of her. These people, mostly, seen very real: again something lacking in OF&H.
Best moment? When John is offered the chance to spend Christmas with his ex-wife. Something he has been dreaming of for weeks. Until Mrs Lemenski, the angry next-door neighbour, gives him a better offer. Marvellous stuff. Truly believable, and very much worth tracking down on VHS (it's out there somewhere!).
Carry on Up the Jungle (1970)
The jokes keep coming, in true Carry On fashion, and most of them stand the test of time, even after all these years.
Loads of great moments. Joan Sims's performance as Lady Bagley is particularly memorable in the sequence where she gets a snake up her dress. Plenty of Carry On knob-gags, a wonderful mating ritual (Tonka! Tonka! Stick it up your honka!), and lots of lovely ladies.
Frankie Howerd is on fine form, camping it up like nobody's business. Sid guffaws his way through the proceedings and, more than halfway through, there's a whole new lease of life with the sudden and unexpected appearance of Charlie Hawtrey. Even Terry Scott's aggravating and not-particularly-funny Jungle Boy doesn't grate too much, as the whole film is full of such energy and fun that he barely even registers.
One of the very best of the Carry Ons. Some people may not feel this is a glowing compliment!
The Nightmare Man (1981)
A short, sharp shocker!
It really does feel like a Doctor Who story, this being helped by having one of the Doctor's best directors and writers on board. The lurking monster, isolated community, strange killings and impending doom are all textbook Doctor Who.
The Nightmare Man is more adult than Doctor Who. Not just because there's a mention of cannabis, a hint of blood and the sight of the ever-glorious Celia Imrie in a low-cut dress. There's a real claustrophobia to it. The fog rolls in, and the gloomy little island really is cut off. Actually, when the fog lifts (very abruptly, at the start of part four), the island doesn't look nearly as barren and miserable as we've been lead to believe. It's all very well constructed: lots of brief mentions of bogs, cliffs, isolated crofts. We feel like we are at the end of the world, and there's a genuine mystery about what might be impinging upon it.
Celia Imrie is, of course, magnificent. One of the strengths of the production is that her character is essential to the story. She's a cartographer, and raised on the island, so her knowledge of the area is vital to the investigation. She is not sidelined as could so easily have happened. Maurice Roeves and Jonathan Newth as The Inspector and The Colonel are perfectly decent, and James Cosmo utterly believable and likable as the occasionally Gaelic-speaking Sergeant.
Occasional glimpses of the monster are very carefully done, although the gasping growl and red point-of-view are a bit OTT. At the end, when we finally see the killer, it's maybe on screen for a bit too long. More could have been left to the imagination, but that's only a minor gripe.
The only significant grumble about the production is the final episode. I had expected it to be 6 episodes, not 4. Lots of time is spent standing around talking int he final episode. The production slows down enormously as we get caught up in info-dumping. When the monster makes its final attack, I couldn't help but feel it was all over a bit quickly, and there's a very rushed and perfunctory feel.
That said, the production keeps up the suspense nicely for quite a long time. The viewer is never really sure what the killer may be, and there's a wonderfully claustrophobic, foggy, damp sense of doom throughout. And Celia Imrie.
Please! No! Stop doing this!
On the bright side, this was the best of the initial four of Agatha Christie's Marple. However, as it is an outstanding book, and among the finest Miss Marple mysteries, even ITV would have had to put some effort into ruining it. But they still had a decent go at ruining it anyway!
Please watch the Joan Hickson version. It's glorious. Beautifully written, with every character entirely believable and Miss Marple on great form. Miss Marple, as seen here, is not as nature intended. On ITV, she's even "Marple" in the title! Disrespectful!
This attempts to get through too much in too little time. Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, as they are in the book (and the BBC Hickson Version) are indeed a lesbian couple. There's no need for kissing and holding hands, and comments about Miss Hinchcliffe "assuming a manly stance". This film really doesn't do subtlety. Elaine Paige is far too young to be Miss Bunner. Miss Marple's own sexual history is one step too far into sordidness. Geraldine McEwan is very good as a "version" of Miss Marple, but she can only be as good as her material. The material here is wasted. Zoe Wanamaker is as reliable as ever. (Ursula Howells was magnificent as Miss Blacklock in the Hickson Version).
Mitzi The Cook is as aggravating here as she was in the book. The Hickson Version diverges from the original text quite severely, by making Mitzi a "proper" character, and a Holocaust Survivor, not just a "comedy foreigner". In amongst all the other aggravations, she fits in perfectly.
The best of a bad bunch.