Saturday, 22 November 2008

Survivors: The old and the new...

A couple of years ago, basking in the glory of his successful reinvention of Dr Who, Russell T Davies was asked which science-fiction classic he’d next like to resurrect. Russell wisely – and correctly – answered that there was nothing else he was interested in as he’d “done the best.” In passing, though, he did mention that, if pushed, he’d have a crack at reviving the 1975 Terry Nation drama Survivors, about life in the UK after a virulent pandemic has wiped out 99% of the world’s population. “Ah, if only…” I sighed at the time (that is, if only Russell or somebody would remake Survivors, not if only a virulent pandemic would wipe out 99% of the world’s population. Hmmm…saying that, though….) Survivors has long been one of the favourite TV shows; watching it back in 195, at the same time as I discovered John Wyndham’s astonishing ‘Day of the Triffids’ novel in the library of the polytechnic at which I’d just enrolled do take my A-levels (yes, yes, polytechnics….that’s how old I am, dear reader) instilled in me a fascination for post-apocalyptic stories which remains with me to this day (to the extent that I’m actually writing one of my own and, if I’m honest, have been writing it for so long that the world will actually have ended by the time I finish the damned thing).

Meanwhile, at the time of writing, we’re just over 24 hours away from the first of six brand new television episodes of Survivors, remade and reimagined for the 21st century courtesy of Adrian Hodges who, amongst other credits, has given us the agreeable ITV Saturday night adventure romp Primeval which launches its third series next year. So what can we expect from this new BBC series and what is it about the old series which made it so memorable to those of us who saw it at the time, what’s so special about its themes and its storylines and its characters?

The original series of Survivors (re-released in a big ol’ BBC DVD boxset next week) was first screened in 1975 at a time of great unrest in the UK. The series, arriving in the wake of a long winter of power-cuts, escalating unemployment, sky-rocketing cost of living, was created by writer Terry Nation (who invented the Daleks for Dr Who back in 1963 and who would go on to create the far cheesier Blake’s 7 for the BBC a couple of years later) who seemed to capture the popular pessimistic zeitgeist of the day when he took his own fascination with the idea of a civilisation with all the tools of technology at its disposal finding itself helpless when those tools are taken away and the ability to use them lost or forgotten, and fashioned it into a stark and bleak drama which took the human race to the edge of extinction and the human spirit to the limits of its own endurance. The first episode, ‘The Fourth Horseman’, remains a compelling and powerful piece of drama even now, over thirty years later and, frankly, tomorrow’s debut episode of the new series will have to pull out all the stops to even come close to the dramatic power of the original. In that first episode we meet a handful of characters who will go on to form the heart of the first series. Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour) is a well-off young mum living an opulent lifestyle in a big country house while her husband David (Peter Bowles) is Something Big in the city. Their son Peter is a boarder at a public school miles away. There’s talk of a new flu bug laying people low; some are even dying. In London secretary Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming) tries to find medical help for her sick flatmate. When the girl’s ex-boyfriend, a doctor at the local hospital, tells her candidly how bad the situation is – and how many people are dying with no reported survivors – Jenny is advised to leave London fast. At the same time grubby Welsh tramp Tom Price (Talfryn Thomas, TV’s go-to Welshman in the 1970s) is looking after his own interests and has wisely decided to put as much distance between himself and the rest of the human race. By the end of an episode full of quiet, creeping dread and a real sense of humanity slowing down – entirely off-camera – Abby’s husband and everyone in the village is dead and society has just ground to a halt. It’s a tour de force, economically-written, beautifully-played by its cast and sensitively- directed by Pennant Roberts. Watching it now – and I watch it frequently (although, oddly, I’ve not watched it since I became aware of the imminent new series because I really want to give it a chance) – you can’t help but be struck by the fact that it’s a product of its time. By modern standards it’s slow and stagey and much of it is shot on videotape at the BBC studios (ah, happy days…). But it’s still an extraordinary piece of work because of its subject matter and its slow pace works for it because it draws the viewer into the situation and into the lives of the characters. Survivors is often criticised because its stories are told from the perspective of rather well-off middle class people whose lives are a bit disrupted because of this infernal disease; no more big houses and nice cars, just grubbing about in the land with those smelly oiks – the working class generally being characterised as feckless tramps and no-gooders who just want to cheat and steal. But that’s just the way TV was back then and to criticise it now for now being politically-incorrect and full of really offensive yah stereotypes is a bit like criticising the Romans for being useless at finding their way around the Internet.

Series one moves on from this effective debut episode by introducing more characters, particularly surly Greg Preston (stony-faced Ian McCulloch) an engineer who returns home to find his wife dead and a new world in front of him. Eventually the core trio – Abby, Jenny, Greg – gravitate towards one another and Abby reluctantly assumes the mantle of ‘leader’ of the group. They fetch up at an impressive derelict country pile called The Grange (in reality the picturesque and long-since renovated Hampton Court near Leominster in Herefordshire, fact fans) and start to collect a disparate group of equally shell-shocked survivors about them as they begin to form a new community away from the cesspits of the cities. Series one is Survivors at its best. Terry Nation saw the show as an adventure series and the best scripts in the first series are his; exciting stories which expose the ugly underbelly of human nature as greed and starvation take control and the need to survive at all cost becomes more important than the mere fact of having survived in the first place. But the show wasn’t afraid to tackle extremely difficult moral issues; when Tom Price rapes and murders a young girl in the community and points the finger of suspicion at another member – a lad who would today be described as having ‘learning difficulties’ - the rest of the group have to decide what sort of justice they can dispense in a civilisation which no longer has any rule of law.

All throughout the first series runs the sub-plot (it’d be a story arc today) of Abby and her quest to find her missing son Peter. A visit to his school at the end of the first episode reveals to Abby that Peter, a teacher and some other boys fled the place before the worst of the disease hit (as well as providing both Abby and the audience with a handy lecture on the show’s themes and ethos from a deaf teacher who stayed behind at the school) and while she appears to busy herself with setting up the new community and providing some stability for the survivors, Abby never gives up hope that he son is alive, out there in the wild somewhere. Series one ends with Abby finding hope in the news that a boy who may be her son has been spotted and that her community is establishing trading links with others nearby. As the credits roll there’s some hope, some flickering flame of optimism that maybe the human race can survive even this catastrophe.

Behind the scenes on the series, though, all was not well. Terry Nation clashed vocally with series producer Terence Dudley who had an entirely different vision for both the show and its cast. Nation walked, Seymour was sacked (and remember this was a show made at a time when it was extremely rare for a woman to take a leading dominant role in a TV series) and Dudley recreated the series in its second year as a gentler, more measured piece with less emphasis on men with guns and more focus on the trials and tribulations of running a farm. The second series was more character and issue-led, with episodes exploring whether women can have the right to chose to be pregnant in an under-populated world, the place of faith in a world ripped apart by plague and how a new society deals with even the most unsavoury of outsiders at a time when every life is precious. New characters appeared too; with most of the show’s first series cast killed off by a fire which destroyed the Grange (a format requirement forced on the show by the unavailability of the Hampton Court location which was beginning its renovation even as series one was filming there) in came a slew of new faces as the survivors of the survivors – Greg, Jenny, Arthur the businessman(Michael Gover) and Paul (Chris Tranchell) the hippy agricultural whizz-kid – joined up with a community at Whitecross run by beardy Charles Vaughn (Denis Lill), a fanatical ‘let’s-repopulate-the-world’ character they’d encountered early in the first series. Part of the narrative through-line of the second series was the power struggle between Greg and Charles, two alpha males quietly circling one another and jostling for position as ‘leader’ of the growing community. This tension becomes even more evident once you’re aware that there were professional tensions between McCulloch and Lill too. But, aside from a thrilling sojourn to a diseased and deserted London in the two-parter ‘Lights of London’, series two was a soggy and slightly uninvolving series which ended with Greg journeying off in a hot air balloon to find some survivors in Norway.

The third and final series, screening in 1977, saw the programme at least attempting to return to its roots. With McCulloch refusing to commit to the entire third series due to his dissatisfaction with the storylines for the second series (he wrote and appeared in only a couple of stories for the third year) the show took to the road again, moving away from the comfy security of the farm and sending those characters it brought back for the third year off on quests across the country , firstly to try and unify the disconnected settlements, then to try and find Greg, legendarily back from Norway and travelling the country as some sort of unofficial Messiah-figure and finally, in an unfortunate turn of events in the tail end of the series, a narratively ill-advised quest to restore electricity to the country. Series three is a grimier, tougher series than the second and in ‘Mad Dog’, where Charles, the only regular cast member to appear, encounters a man with rabies and then goes on the run from a gang who want to kill him in case he’s diseased, presents perhaps the finest, most exciting episode of the entire series. But by the time the last of the twelve season three episodes rumbles along, the show has moved so far from Terry Nation’s vision – the gang have discovered that there have been thousands of survivors in Scotland all along – that the dramatic impact of the whole idea has been lost. In the last episode, ‘Power’,a hydro-electric plant is reactivated and the lights come back on. There’s very much the sense here that the story’s told, there’s nowhere else to go.

The 1970s Survivors series, despite its faults, its longeurs, its implausibilities, remains a fascinating and disturbing piece of TV. The pace and style of its storytelling may take a bit of getting used to by an audience more attuned to contemporary story-telling styles but the central conceit remains as strong and as compelling now as it did then. With its evocative theme tune by Anthony Isaacs and possibly the most striking title sequence in TV history – a masked scientist drops a flask, a pool of red liquid (blood?) drenches the screen, a man in an airport is taken ill, a passport is franked with wordwide destinations – Survivors is a show which seared itself into the psyche of its audience and stayed with them long after its final episode had faded from the screen.

The post-apocalypse story has always held a huge and morbid fascination, especially in Britain where writers like Wyndham, Sam Youd (aka John Christopher) and Simon Clarke have destroyed the world on numerous occasions. Nation’s idea – so simple and yet so strong – was, in hindsight, always going to be one that some bright TV spark would want to revisit in the 21st century where good ideas on TV are few and far between…

Which brings us, neatly enough, to tomorrow night’s debut of the new series. Early word is good and those fortunate enough to have seen previews have given an enthusiastic thumbs-up; reality TV-obsessed newspaper types have been more ambivalent. Possibly it required more of them than watching zombie audiences clapping along to the music and then screeching with excitement when some faded micro-celeb is ‘voted off’ by a general public with more money than sense. Ahem. Anyway, inspired more by Nation’s novelisation of the series (which itself moved in different directions to the TV episodes) than the original episodes, the main characters have been revisited. Abby Grant is now played by Julie Graham (who is, despite the evidence of the shockingly-appalling Bonekickers earlier this year, a very fine actress) and Patterson Joseph (the man who, rumour has it, would be the next Dr Who) is the new Greg and the Jenny Richards of the original has become teacher Jenny Collins (Dr Who/Torchwood star Freema Agyeman) and, in the most significant reboot of all, stinky Tom Price has been reinvented as a charismatic psychopathic escaped convict played by Max Beesley. The first few episodes appear to revisit themes and stories of the first series – in a new version of series one’s ‘Garland’s War’ Abby meets Jimmy Garland (now played by Sarah Jane Adventures’ Joseph Milsom – Maria’s Dad!) whose country home has been taken over by gun-toting thugs and there’s even a conspiracy theory storyline with government survivors skulking about in an underground bunker.

I’m optimistic and pessimistic. I want to approach the series and enjoy it on its own merits; I adore the original show so much it’ll be hard – maybe impossible – to watch it without comparing and contrasting with the original. But I’ll try. It looks good; the trailers running on BBC1 are concentrating on the human drama of the situation rather than the drama of the stories so could be said to look a bit low-key and under-whelming. But the show’s got a decent pedigree, it’s clearly a quality production and let’s remember that, five years ago, a show like this would never have made its way onto British TV because nervy executives would have argued that there’s no appetite out there for stuff like this. But as well know, our perceptions of what TV can and can’t do changed radically in March 2005 when a certain Police Box reappeared on our screens and opened everyone’s eyes to a world of TV drama beyond the four walls of the hospital and the police station. My concern for Survivors in purely in the fact that it’s been scheduled directly opposite the inexplicably-popular ITV mind-rot I’m A Celebrity which has already seen off all BBC opposition this week – including the excellent Apparitions which has been pretty much annihilated in the latest ratings. It would be a shame – no, make that a tragedy – if Survivors, an exciting, intelligent, thought-provoking drama, is flattened in the ratings by Esther Rantzen and some bloke out of EastEnders eating a kangaroo’s knackers live on ITV.

But’s a funny old world, innit?

World of Stuff will be reviewing the first episodes of Survivors...any day now!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

DVD Preview: Hancock

Imagine you’re a superhero. You can go anywhere, do anything. You can fly, you have super strength, you can control the weather. Cool. But you’re alone. You have no idea who you really are, where you came from and, worst of all, you’re immortal. Everyone else ages and dies but you stay exactly the same forever. Not so cool. What if you find yourself living in LA at the beginning of the twenty-first century, righting wrongs and beating up the bad guys? And what if the people of LA (and the world) don’t appreciate your efforts because you end up causing chaos and carnage wherever you go? You’d probably turn to drink…

This is the premise of Hancock, a neat twist on the indestructible superhero genre which has, let’s face it, swamped our cinema screens in the last few years. John Hancock (Will Smith) is the eponymous hero; he saves the world in sloppy sweat-shirts and shorts, generally swigging from a bottle of whiskey, forgetting to shave and swearing at the people whose lives he’s saving. Forget the angst of Batman and the growing pains of Spider-Man, Hancock is probably closer to the truth of what it would be like to be the last and only super-powered person on the planet. Hancock is on a downward spiral and it’s only when he inadvertently saves the life of struggling PR guru Ray Embrey (the superb Jason Bateman from TV’s Arrested Development) who persuades him that its about time he started rehabilitating himself in the eyes of the public that he’s able to start to face himself and come to terms with who he is and what he can do. On Ray’s advice – and extremely reluctantly – Hancock hands himself in to the law to answer for the trail of destruction he’s left in his wake and he finds himself in prison. Hancock and Ray decide to play the long game as the crime rate in LA soars in his absence, until the right crisis comes along and the city realises that maybe it needs its hero more than it thought. As Hancock becomes closer to Ray’s family it seems that Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron) may have her own very special reasons for being uncomfortable around the rehabilitating superhero.

Hancock is a great little film and really just a whisker away from being a terrific one. It’s an odd beast and it wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say it’s a bit of a paranoid one. Despite his potty mouth (Will Smith cussing and swigging booze takes some getting used to) and his dishevelled appearance, it’s hard not to like Hancock. He’s dismissive of everyone around him, despite the fact he spends his life saving their lives (probably because he’s literally got nothing better to do with his time) and his wariness around other people, used to living his life in splendid isolation, is quite touching. For its first hour Hancock just crackles along; the set FX sequences are as impressive as we’ve come to expect in these CG-heavy days, and Smith sparks wonderfully off the excitable Bateman. Hancock himself is smart-mouthed and irreverent, resistant to all Ray’s efforts to change him until slowly, ever so slowly, he starts to take his advice on board to the extent he even finds himself poured into a tight-fitting leather superhero costume as the LA police call him out of incarceration to foil a spectacularly-vicious bank robbery (masterminded by, of all people, pint-sized UK actor Eddie Marsan, currently on screen in the UK in Little Dorrit).

But it’s only at around the sixty-minute mark that Hancock does a bit of a narrative U-turn and starts to lose what made it so different, so special. I won’t divulge the ‘twist’ here (you may have already heard it and if you haven’t it’s not exactly difficult to work out what it is) but when it’s out in the opening the film suddenly loses its wit and its smarts and its self-deprecation and drifts inevitably down the run-of-the-mill superhero movie road with two super-powered beings beating seven bells out of one another as the citizens of LA run screaming and cars fly around the place.

Suddenly Hancock has become an entirely different film – and sadly a less compelling one. There are a few nice moral questions posed once Hancock discovers he’s not the last of his kind – it turns out that close proximity to another super-powered immortal robs each of their special powers (no wonder they died out!) – and a shoehorned-in battle against some escaped convicts in a hospital isn’t quite the denouement we might have been expecting (or deserving) in a film which appeared to have a bigger heart than this.

Despite its shortcomings and its disappointingly-mundane final act, Hancock is never less than an entertaining movie, one of the more thoughtful blockbusters in a summer packed with more traditional action fare.

The DVD: Available in three formats. The single disc edition boasts the film itself and its ‘unrated’ version – which amounts to a couple of deleted sequences edited back into the movie (including one slightly-bizarre romantic encounter for Hancock at the beginning of the movie) and the second disc of the 2-disc version contains an hour or so of interesting, if not hugely revealing behind-the-scenes stuff which has a whiff of the Electronic Press Kit about it. However, some of pre-visualisation compare-and-contrast stuff is fascinating and the short features on visual FX and set design are worth a look. There’s also a Blu-Ray version but Stuff’s not bought into all that yet.

Hancock is released on DVD in all formats on December 1st in the UK. Review copy supplied by Greenroom Digital.

Catching Up with Sarah Jane

Dr Who gets Simon Callow, Sir Derek Jacobi, Pauline Collins, Penelope Wilton, John Simm. Torchwood gets James Marsters, Richard Briers and even that bloke off Neighbours. The Sarah Jane Adventures gets Floella Benjamin, Bradley Walsh and Russ Abbott. All’s not fair in the guest-casting world of Dr Who’s cheeriest, kid-friendly spin-off but otherwise it’s business as usual for the redoubtable Miss Smith and her eager gang of young Scoobies.

Six episodes of series two have rattled by since Stuff cast its beady eye on the season’s opening romp ‘The Last Sontaran’ and while the show has the same zest and enthusiasm and eagerness-to-please that it ever did, the subsequent stories haven’t quite had the same sense of scale, the same visual pizzazz as they did in series one. In fact, with its notable lack of proper good-old fashioned rubber monsters since the first story, The Sarah Jane Adventures is looking a bit cut-price this year. Men with balloons and boggle-eyed astrologers may be good for the budget but I wouldn’t have thought they’re likely to cause many night-time tantrums or damp bedsheets amongst the show’s target audience.

‘Day of the Clown’, the second story, had a lot to do and did it with gusto. With Maria and her dad Alan having moved away to Washington (DC, not Tyne and Wear) at the end of the previous story (gone but not forgotten, as far as this series is concerned) this two-parter introduced the new young family moving in across the road from Sarah’s incongruous Gothic pile. Meet Rani Chandra (Anji Mohindra) and her Dad (the headmaster of Park Vale Comp where the kids hang out and have the odd adventure) and her mum (about whom we know very little apart from the fact she keeps calling Sarah Jane ‘Sarah’, much to the latter’s continual annoyance). The new crowd move in seamlessly courtesy of a fast-paced, witty script and before long Rani is privy to the secrets of Sarah’s attic and the gang are off investigating a mysterious clown who keeps popping up and luring kids to his museum of the curious. The story is predicated on the fact that a lot of people find clowns creepy and sinister; I just find them a bit dull and always have (but then I’m thirty-something years outside this show’s intended demographic so what do I know?) and in part two it turns out that the sinister clown is actually the real Pied Piper and he’s here to steal your kids. Bradley Walsh (for it is he) gives a surprisingly-effective performance as the white-faced clown/ringmaster and the story’s only disappointment – apart from the fact it all looks a bit bland and flat – is its denouement in which Clyde (Daniel Anthony, easily the best of the kids in the show now although I’m not sure he really qualifies by virtue of the fact that he’s really 21) tells the Piper a string of really bad jokes which make him disappear back where he came from. Enjoyable but not really up to the standards of the best of last year’s serials – and that was most of them.

In ‘Secrets of the Stars’ a fake astrologer has a moment of revelation when he’s zapped by an alien intelligence. Suddenly he really can control the stars and predict the future and…er…well, he uses his powers to take over the world’s kids and….er, well, it’s all a bit like the previous story in fact. Russ Abbott chews the scenery and everything else he can get his hands on as the possessed Martin Trueman , once again the story ups its stakes a bit too high by having his benign influence reaching right out across the world (what’s wrong with a few more localised threats every now and again, SJ?) and the whole thing peters out fairly unremarkably. The story is enlivened by some moody location filming at the New Theatre in Cardiff (despite the script’s protestations that it’s Acton) although once again the series strains credibility by asking its audience to accept that a trio of streetwise teens in the year 2008 would be seen dead anywhere near a cheesy astrological stage show, parental influence or not.

The most recent/current adventure ‘Mark of the Berserker’ continues the lower-key approach of series two but in a story which is more effective and dramatic than the previous three. In fact, the key is so low here that the story verges on soap opera in places – albeit one with an alien pendant altering people’s personalities (storyline forthcoming in Emmerdale, probably). Said pendant is discovered in the grounds of Park Vale school and quickly recovered by Rani who secretes it in Sarah Jane’s attic while the journalist is off on some weekend frolic of her own (Lis Sladen has only one scene in episode one – boo!). Meanwhile Luke (Thomas Knight) is enjoying a sleepover at Clyde’s when Clyde’s estranged father Paul (Gary Cheadle) arrives out of the blue after years away and tries to rekindle his relationship with his son. At first Clyde’s not impressed – he can’t get his head around why his father would abandon his family to run off with his wife’s sister (you see what I mean by soap operatics?). But keen to win his father’s approval, Clyde takes his Dad to Sarah Jane’s attic where he (rather foolishly) reveals his secret life as an alien hunter and general saviour-of-the-world only for his Dad to snaffle the pendant and use it to influence the will of others - which includes wiping Clyde’s memory of his friends. Part two is a cracker. Luke and Rani discover, courtesy of a laptop video-link with Maria and her Dad, that the pendant is a relic from a savage alien civilisation and its ultimate aim will be to turn the wearer completely into a Berserker. Clyde and his Dad go on a free shopping spree which looks like ending in disaster when Dad tries to acquire a boat to take his son away forever.

‘Mark of the Berseker’, like the two preceding stories, isn’t big on spectacular visuals – but here it works because the story’s more interesting and character dynamics are centre-stage. We finally get to find out more about the background of Clyde and Daniel Anthony acquits himself superbly in a string of emotionally-heartfelt sequences, culminating in his little heart-to-heart with Sarah Jane at the end of the episode, setting up events for the following story. ‘Berserker’, like the best SJAs, presents difficult moral questions to its young audience and handles them sensibly and maturely. Once again there are no easy answers, no particularly happy endings (despite everything Clyde and his Dad remain estranged at episode’s end) and a reminder of the show’s great mission statements – there are wonderful things out there and there’s nothing you can’t do if you’ve got friends and family around you. Awwww.

We’re in the home straight now for this second series of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Elisabeth Sladen remains the show’s shining star, ageless and timeless and once again giving her all for the character she’s been playing for the greater part of her professional life. The next story ‘The Temptation of Sarah Jane’ is a sequel of sorts to last year’s ‘Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?’ and, from its trailer, it looks as if much of the show’s budget may have been kept aside for two lavish, atmospheric episodes set in the 1950s. The season will end with ‘Enemy of the Bane’ where Sarah and co meet some old enemies…and Sarah Jane meets up with a very old friend.

The Sarah Jane Adventures may not quite be touching all the bases it managed last year but it’s still a wonderful, imaginative little series which keeps the dying flames of quality kid’s TV in the UK burning and acts as a charming coda to the ever-evolving world of Dr Who itself.

EDIT: Having now seen the first episode of 'The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith' I'm happy to report that this story is where SJA season two really finds its feet. This is, so far a wonderful and poignant story which tells us more about SJ herself than we've ever known in the past. It's one of those lovely time paradox stories where Sarah Jane can't resist the opportunity to travel back to 1951 to meet her parents who died when she was a baby. But little does SJ realise that an old enemy has laid a very deadly trap for her... Smart, funny script by Gareth Roberts, lavish period production values (you can almost taste the ginger beer in the fayre sequence!) and a stunning performance by Lis Sladen, absolutely relishing the chance to put some more flesh on Sarah's bones after all these years.

Seen on TV…Apparitions…Lead Balloon

Amidst all the high profile soap opera tosh and reality effluence there are an increasing number of gems to be found out there on your TV if you’re just prepared to go and look for ‘em. Thursday nights have perked up no end this week with the arrival of two new shows (on the BBC of course – don’t go looking for anything other than brainrot if you venture over onto ITV); one being the return of an old comedy favourite and the other a new adult supernatural drama from the man who gave us Channel 4’s highly-regarded vampire drama ‘Ultraviolet’ a few years back as well as directing some of the best of the Christopher Eccleston-era ‘Dr Who’ yarns.

‘Apparitions’ (Thursdays, BBC1, 9pm) stars Martin Shaw as beardy Catholic exorcist Father Jacob who not only believes in demonic possession and the Devil – he actually knows for a fact that they’re real. And so does ‘Apparitions’. Where you might expect the series to be a bit ambiguous in its depiction of its subject matter – is he or isn’t he? Are they or aren’t they? – ‘Apparitions’ gets stuck right in and presents its supernatural phenomena as fact. In the very first episode the audience sees the results of a man ‘magically’ cured of leprosy, we both see and hear people possessed (one is shown bleeding through the eyes). ‘Apparitions’ is making no bones about it – there are demons out there the Devil is out to get dominion over the Earth. I’m not particularly religious but I’m wondering what sort of reception ‘Apparitions’ is likely to get from the pro and anti-religion lobbies. The pros are likely to regard it as dangerous propaganda, the antis will dismiss it as a load of silly old mumbo jumbo and wonder why there’s no phone-voting involved. Then again, as it currently appears that most of the country has decided Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand are both the spawn of Satan, maybe the whole series will go largely unnoticed in the scheme of things.

In episode one of ‘Apparitions’, Father Jacob is approached by Donna (Romy Irving) a eleven year-old girl who is convinced her father Liam(Shaun Dooley) is possessed because of his strange behaviour and the fact that she can hear him talking to himself all night. At the same time trainee priest Vimal (Elyes Gabel), miraculously cured of leprosy on the night Mother Theresa died in 199 , tortured by his sexuality, finds his faith coming under question. And who’s the mysterious, demonic stranger (Rick Warden) tormenting him, forcing him to make a choice between his true self and his new life? ‘Apparitions’ is powerful, gripping, demanding television. In many ways it’s the natural successor to BBC Scotland’s much-missed ‘Sea of Souls’ (at least in its first two series, before it went all-out supernatural-in-yer-face crazy in its third series) but its subject-matter is a bit more specific than the vague paranormal mysteries of the early ‘Sea of Souls’ episodes. Unusually for a modern TV drama where pace and visuals are king, ‘Apparitions’ unfolds slowly, unhurriedly and, certainly in the first episode, the story draws you in before you even realise it’s captivated you. ‘Apparitions’ seems to be aiming to unnerve and disarm its audience; there’s nothing hugely scary here so far (although the skin-peeling sequence at the end of the first episode made me wince a bit) but, because it’s about demonic possession and exorcism, it manages to chill in ways more traditional horror stories very often can’t because of their need to be a bit more explicit, a bit more graphic. I’ve never been a huge fan of Martin Shaw – the bed-hopping exploits of Judge John Deed have always struck me as spectacularly ludicrous – but he adds a surprising presence and gravitas to ‘Apparitions’ because there’s no doubt in Father Jacob; he’s not searching for answers. He’s not trying to prove the truth of what he does – he knows that demons are out there (not the big snarly Buffy style) and he’s quietly doing his bit to send them back where they came from. ‘Apparitions’ has made a promising start and, in this brave new post-Dr Who world of TV dramas which now dare to be different, I’ll be interesting to see where the talented Joe Ahearne takes us over the next five weeks.

Turning directly over to BBC2 after ‘Apparitions’ and we find that Jack Dee is back in the third series of his superb sitcom ‘Lead Balloon’. Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments – it’s Larry David’s sublime ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (back for a seventh series next year, hooray!!) in all but name but frankly I don’t give a damn. Dee and co-writer Pete Sinclair have cleverly taken the style and to an extent the format of ‘Curb’ – the comedy of embarrassment – had given it a distinctly British twist. If you’ve not seen ‘Lead Balloon’ (and I urge you to give it a go) it stars the lugubrious Dee as third rate comedian Rick Spleen who thinks he’s far more famous than he is. Idling away his days ostensibly creating comedy material with his American writing partner Marty (Sean Power), Rick has to contend with the frustrations of modern day life and his habit of saying and doing just the wrong thing and then finding himself in some awkward situation he has to struggle to find his way out of. Trailing along in the wake of Rick’s chaos are his long-suffering partner Mel (Raquel Cassidy), their sleepy daughter Sam (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), her dopey boyfriend Ben (Rasmus Hardiker) and Michael (Tony Gardener), the spaced-out owner of the local coffee shop frequented by Rick and Marty when inspiration escapes them. Best of all though, and stealer of every scene she appears in, is Magda, Rick and Mel’s surly and depressive East European home help (Anna Crilly). In the cracking first episode of the new seven-part series, Magda moves in with Mel and Rick when her flat is being renovated due to the boiler spewing out carbon monoxide; Magda’s brought her off-limits “special sausages” with her too. Meanwhile Michael’s moving up in the world trying to establish himself as a swanky restaurateur and his plans for a lavish, busy opening night looked doomed to failure when Sam gets a job for the night as a waitress, Ben eats the “special sausages”, Mel turns up drunk and Michael’s father and his “partner” Colin turn up – and Michael’s oblivious to their true relationship.

‘Lead Balloon’ is just terrific stuff, the scripts as cleverly structured and crafted as anything since’Fawlty Towers’ and with a cast of off-beat characters in the tradition of the very best British sitcoms. Dee is basically playing himself and he somehow makes the potentially-dislikable and eminently slappable Rick Sleen, so often the architect of his own misfortunes, somebody you’re rooting for as he scowls his way through the vicissitudes of modern life. Where Larry David in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ blithely wanders through his adventures blissfully unaware of what he’s saying and what he’s doing and utterly failing to understand how anyone can take offence, Rick creates his own problems by lying and cheating and taking other people’s credit and never owning up when he does the wrong thing. But, like Basil in ‘Fawlty Towers’ and David Brent in ‘The Office’ we can’t help liking Rick even as we slap out hands across our foreheads and despair of the scrapes he gets himself into. ‘Lead Balloon’, created for BBC4 and quickly ‘poached’ by BBC2, is just about the best British comedy on TV at the moment (a judgement I’m tempted to reserve as Channel 4’s brilliant ‘The IT Crowd’ is back for its own third series next week) and if you’ve given it a miss in the past or if it’s slipped under your radar, I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough. Series one is available on DVD (probably discounted heavily by now if you shop around online) and series two is released on 24th November. Great stuff.

Incoming.... Hancock on DVD reviewed....Sarah Jane update....The 1970s Survivors and what we can expect from the new series...

Friday, 7 November 2008

A little bit of Bondage: Quantum of Solace

A new Bond, James Bond movie is always a cause of some excitement - not to mention quite a bit of publicity. Back on track as a series after the longeurs of the late 1980s when the miscast Timothy Dalton met a wall of indifference from fans (especially in the all-important US market) and contract difficulties kept Bond off our screens for far longer than he should have been, a run of entertaining but increasingly-salty Pierce Brosnan romps were followed in 2006 by a new Mr Bond. Ac-tor Daniel Craig stepped into the tux, vodka martini in hand, amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Bond cogniscenti and some bemusement from everyone else. His first movie, Casino Royale was a revelation; Craig was a brittle, edgy new Bond for the 21st century, the film was punchy and dark and, in a post-Bourne Identity world, it redefined Bond and veered him away from his old image as the camp, tongue-in-cheek survivor from a cheesier, gadget-strewn time. I'll admit that Casino Royale didn't really do a lot for me; at the end of the day I like Bond to be a bit of fun too and Casino Royale, with its clumpy plot and interminable poker sequences (I only play Happy Families, me) didn't float my Bond boat, much as I could admire its craft as a piece of cinema.

Now Bond's back with Mr Craig's second outing - and I rather liked it. This doesn't seem to be the popular view; the film's taken a bit of a drubbing from the critics (the official James Bond Magazine's review utterly dismantled the film, giving it a miserly 1/10 rating. Boo!) but even so it's coining it in at the Box office. Quantum of Solace continues Bond's rehabilitation as a proper dramatic character in a move which is, in some ways, as inpenetrable as its predecessor and yet it's a bit more action-packed and a little less hard to love.

The movie picks up directly from the ending of the last movie. A kinetic car chase sequence ends with Bond opening the boot of his battered motor to find Mr White, who he'd shot at the end of the last film, skulking inside. This is the first indication we receive that it really would have been a good idea to rewatch Casino Royale before watching this one because they really do complement each other, in many ways the two mfilms telling one complete story. It's hard not to feel a bit of a spine-shiver as the title sequence - an update of Maurice Binder's old girl-silhouette design - rolls in with Jack White and Alicia Keye' theme tune crashing away on top of it. As Bond songs go this isn't one of the best; hear it on the radio and you've forgotten it before it's finished. But played where it's supposed to be played - over the titles of a Bond movie - the song sort of works, a stripped-down version of the old overblown Bond tunes of yore but with enough pomp and bombast to convince as the theme to a modern action movie.

And there's the thing. Quantum of Solace is very much a modern action movie. Gone are the arching eyebrows and ludicrous gadgets of the old days; this is a fairly deadpan Bond, a real Cold War spy using his fists and his gun and taking no prisoners. The only like with the Bond of old is Dame Judi Dench as M. I'm getting a bit sick of Dame Judi Dench as M, bless her. All she seems to do these days is prowl about, scowling and muttering about decommissioning Bond and then secretly supporting him because, let's face it, he's all she's got. She's at it again here, trying to reign Bond in as he tries to avenge the death of Vesper, the (frankly unlikely) love of his life in the last film. Bond's hunger for vengeance takes him - at speed - all over the world. The narrative wanders and rushes about and is in no particular hurry to make itself clear to its audience. Fortunately when the film sags under thw weight of Bond's scowling or loads of dreary expositionary dialogue, there's soon another action scene to perk you up. Bond's now become Captain Scarlet, it seems, as he rushes across roofs, throws himself through the air, smashes through glass and always emerges unscathed or with a tell-tale drop of blood on his chin. His punch-ups are brutaller too, albeit a bit truncated nowadays, such is their viciousness. A couple of savage punches or kicks and the bad guy's down; none of the elongated fisticuffs which mr Connery and Mr Moore were so fond of. Oh, and would it kill them to have Bond hit someone who doesn't feel anything, Bond then looking puzzled by this before being hit by the baddie as an introduction to a long and unlikely roll-about fight? Come on, that's always fun...

A Bond film can often be defined by its villains. The Bond series has had some great ones. Goldfinger. Scaramanga. Blofeld. Dr No. Here we have...Dominic Greene. Okay. Sounds like an estate agent to me. But what the Hell, this is Bond 2008 style and big supervillains in caves or volcanoes with loads of machine-gun toting henchman and alarm bells going off all over the place are no longer the order of the day. Mr Greene (Mathieu Amalric) wears a white shirt and wants to take over the world's water supply...or soemthing. Yes, he's nasty and he's ruthless but he really needs to be stroking sort sort of feline and threatening Bond with piranhas. As it is he does the default new-Bond thing; he scowls and threatens and he's much more urbane than really Big And Evil. His secret base in the desert - some sort of odd hotel-cum-damn - has about two easily-outwitted guards and at the end of the obligatory fight with Bond he finds himself abandoned in the desert by our hero with only a bottle of oil to drink when he gets thirsty. Poor old Greene doesn't even get a spectacular villain's demise; M casually tells Bond, at the end of the movie, that Green's body has been found in the desert. It's a bit of a shame; there's a lot of potential in Greene and Amalric does his best with the thin material he has to work with but it's really hard not to yearn for a larger-than-life bad guy who just wants to blow something up or take something voer because he wants to.

What about the Bond girls? Well, Craig's no serial seducer in the old style. Still raging over the detah of Vesper (or is he? it's so hard to tell) he doesn't really have eyes (or anything else) for any other ladies - although he does find time to bed Fields (Gemma Arteron), the agent sent to try and keep Bond under control and out of trouble. In a nice if unnecessary nod to Goldfinger (if they're trying to distance new Bond from old Bond, why reference the past so blatantly?) Fields end up covered in oil on a bed. Bond's bits with Fields are the only time the film shows any real spark of humour (save the odd very deadpan observation by Bond) and it's the only time the film even remotely resembles Bond of old. The other lady in Bond's life this time around (apart from M and she doesn't count) is Camille (Olga Kurylenko) whose relationship with Greene appears to be entirely based on one physical encounter before she keeps falling in and out of Bond's orbit. But not his bed.

Having said the film only evokes the spirit of Bond in his escapades with Fields, I'm going to backtrack and correct myself because there's one scene which, in all honesty, might as well have featured Roger Moore grimacing in front of some dodgy back projection. I'm talking about the aircraft sequence before Bond and Camille arrive at Greene's desert base. it's another pulsating action sequence, relaistic enough to make you wince as planes explode and people plunge through the air - but the sight of Bond free-falling, hanging on to Camille as she opens her parachuite about ten feet above the ground, is really as daft as any invisible cars or alligator submarines from the old days. It's insane, impossible and it's also hugely exhilirating - and, if I'm being honest, it - and the various other action sequences - in a nice respite from trying to follow the plot and work out who the Hell who is and what they're doing to whoever that it.

And that's where Quantum of Solace lets itself down.It doesn't really make much sense and it doesn't seem to care. It seems to be so pleased with his gritty realism and its continuation and development of the new Bond from the last film, it's not really bothered about drawing the audience in with an interesting story, however far-fetched and improbable. Bond was never really about the stories, they were all pretty interchangeable; supervillain wants to spark World War 3/take over the world/rob Fort Knox. How he was going to do it was simplicity itself. Bond had to stop him. That was generally pretty much it. QOS (I'm sick of typing Quantum of Solace now....doh!!) seems determined to baffle its audience with its story as it impresses us with its cold new Bond.

Despite my resevations about QOS I did enjoy it. Sort of. Once I realsied I wasn't really going to be able to hang on to the story - and I realised it pretty quickly - I could relax and just enjoy the view and the action scenes. Diretcor Marc Forster has made a good fist of making a good action film - I just can't shake off the lingering feeling he hasn't really made a Bond film. Which sort of defeats the object of the exercise...

Where next, then, for 007? The 'Vesper' storyline is done now, Bond has closure. I hope that, when crafting the next movie, the producers and writers will step back and look at both these films and decide that there's room for a bit of the old Bond spirit to resurface, for the character and the audience to have a bit of fun again. I suppose no-one wants a return to the days of Jaws and Moonraker and Bond dressed as a clown...but I'm not sure I can really stomach another grainy, dour Cold War Bond thriller with an anonymous villain doing something I can't understand and don't really care about. Daniel Craig's a fine actor and a decent let's open him up, loosen him up, let's see what he can
really bring to the character beyond the icy scowl and the two fists.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Dr Who Exhibition re-opens in Cardiff...

The last time I visited the popular Dr Who Up Close Exhibition at the Red Dragon Centre in Cardiff was back in May and whilst it was fun - the Weeping Angel from 'Blink' was particularly well-presented and creepy - the whole thing looked a bit tired and dusty and need of an overhaul and some updating.

Which is exactly what's happened. The Exhibition reopened last Thursday (I wasn't actually aware it had been closed) and, considering the fairly limited space available, organiser Martin Wilkie (son of Bernard, FX designer for Dr Who back in the 1960s) and his team have worked wonders by making the exhibition zingier, spookier and altogether a far more professional looking proposition. The most recent series is now well-represented byu superb displays from the Dalek episodes at the end of the series - even the Red Dalek is present in full rant mode, there's a curious-looking Sontaran and some costumesa and props from last year's Christmas special 'Voyage of the Damned' amongst others. There's more interactivity, better lighting and overall presentation. It's really worth a look even if the gift shop's shrunk a bit and its range of goodies isn't exactly comprehensive.

The opening ceremony itself was fun. A large crowd gathered around the sealed entrance as Wilkie himself made a heartfelt if rambling introduction before Russell T Davies whipped the crowd up with a few warm, witty and well-chosen words before two Cybermen burst out through the styrofoam doors in a style reminiscent of 1980s Dr Who episodes ands then clumped about terrifying small children and amusing some adults.

Stuff recorded the ceremony on video and hopes to post the clip here shortly (it's a loooong clip) and is also endeavouring to get some photos of the exhibits loaded up shortly.