Saturday, 25 October 2008

Happiness...is a play called Hamlet



What a difference a week makes. It’s a week since I travelled up to Stratford to see the best –ever Doctor Who starring at the Courtyard Theatre in the RSC’s latest production of Hamlet (and apologies for taking so long with my promised update on the performance – it’s a me thing, I suppose!). As my friends and I wandered out of the theatre, slightly gob-smacked by the stunning production we’d just witnessed, I remarked to one of them (hi, Janet!) that, much as I enjoyed David Tennant in Dr Who, it’s becoming clear that he’s such an accomplished, multi-facetted actor, that in some ways he’s being a bit held back by his commitment to TV’s Time Lord and that, if I’m honest, I’m quite looking forward to him leaving Dr Who just so we can see what he’ll do next. Because, believe me, this man can do almost anything, I reckon.

Lo and behold, just a handful of days later, in the middle of a diabolical National Tv Awards show, Tennant arrives on a videoscreen to thanks his fans for voting for him in the Best Dramatic Performance category and to announce – to much anguished shrieking from the audience – that next year’s four Dr Who specials will be his last and he won’t be back for season five in 2010. Incidentally, I had wind of this just before 8pm on Wednesday – an official BBC Press release, embargoed until 10pm, was ‘accidentally’ leaked on the website of the Guardian newspaper – and hastily removed again. But the cat was out of the bag in the Dr Who fan community so Tennant’s announcement wasn’t as much of a gut-wrench as it might have been.

And yes, it is a gut-wrench. Following Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor – giving both the character and the series the respect it hadn’t had for over 20 years – was always going to be a tough call. And it took a man of David Tennant’s verve, wit, energy, enthusiasm – and, above all, love of Dr Who – to do it and to take the series to the next level, to really fulfil the potential it had shown in that first run in 2005. As the Doctor Tennant had/has a lightness, a likeability which wasn’t always evident in Eccleston’s slightly distant portrayal. Tennant, gawky and geeky and sloppy in his stripey suit and long coat, his big grin and gormless charm, reaches out and connects with the audience in a way that no other act has since Tom Baker and, in appealing enormously to a female audience, perhaps even moreso. Tennant has been an ‘everyman’ Doctor, combining a wonderful vulnerability with that slightly aloof alien quality; he’s become a romantic hero (through his understated love affair with Rose, his unrequited relationship with Martha and the “don’t-touch-me-spaceboy” comic relationship with Donna) and this alone has effortlessly lifted Dr Who, to the frustration of some of its more earnest devotees, away from the realm of the men-only sci-fi show and into the area of the real relationship drama but with added monsters and the occasional spaceship. This is down to the writing and, more especially, David Tennant himself who has been able to open up the show and make it much more accessible to a much more diverse audience. But Dr Who thrives on change – some say it’s never better than when it’s changing, when there’s a new face aboard the TARDIS and the audience has to get used to the new boy. But Tennant leaving will be the new show’s real test and I remain as fascinated and excited as you probably as to how new show-runner Steven Moffat will rise to the challenge of reinventing the series after Tennant.


All of which has somewhat led me away from talking about Tennant as Hamlet. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, until a few weeks ago, I didn’t really know much about the play. Prince of Denmark – check. To be or not to be – check. Alas poor Yorick – check. But that was pretty much it. A crash course on the narrative – if not the whole play – had me psyched up for the live production. And I’m so pleased to say I wasn’t at all disappointed. This was my first experience of Shakespeare ‘live on stage’ and at times I was on the edge of my seat.

This new RSC production dispenses with the idea of Hamlet-as-period-piece. Here the characters are almost exclusively in modern day costumes – dinner suits, evening gowns, T-shirts, trainers, anoraks and even a bobble hat. This might seem a bit disconcerting at first, set against the theatricality of the dialogue, but after a while you really scarcely notice. The point is that the play’s the thing and not the trappings; Hamlet’s a timeless story and its themes and its story work as well in the 21st century as they do in the 15th. And here, performed in the intimate environment of the Courtyard Theatre, Hamlet is never less than mesmerising. The slick production uses a number of clever visual tricks and stirring bursts of music and off-stage sound effects, sparse but effective sets and props and, of course, its actors. The RSC are blessed to have secured the talents of the redoubtable Patrick Stewart as Claudius and The Ghost, TV character actor John Woodvine as the Player King, Penny Downie as Gertrude, Peter de Jersey as Horatio and, of course, Tennant as Hamlet himself.

Tennant plays Hamlet with a real modern edge. Once again the actor displays the raw energy he’s become famous for on TV; there’s not an inch of stage he doesn’t use, bounding, running, leaping, skidding, spinning…his crackling vitality seems to take the roof off the place. He wrings all the humour from the piece (such as it is – Hamlet’s not exactly a laff riot) and there are moments – “To be or not to be” obviously being one – where the back-of-the-neck hair does its obligatory rising up bit. It’s a beautiful moment, stunningly, starkly realised. There’s even a well-considered cliff-hanger to bring the first half to a close, as Tennant looms over Stewart, dagger in hand, ready to dispatch the man who had usurped his father. And yes, there are some moments which evoke the spirit of the Doctor – especially when Hamlet, bound to an office-styled wheelchair, is brought to Claudius whom he then taunts in a style not unreminiscent of a certain Time Lord in ‘captured-by-the-enemy’ mode. The play rushes to its conclusion in a thrillingly-staged, manic swordfight and when the lights go down and the cast take their curtain call, there’s no doubt that Tennant is the star of the show, such is the rapturous reception he receives from a delighted full house audience.

So yes, David Tennant is leaving Dr Who and maybe the series will be that little bit poorer without him. But let’s rejoice in the fact that his leaving will free him up from its nine-month filming commitment and allow us to see him in any number of thrilling, exciting roles and I’m genuinely keen to see where this most magnetic and enthralling of actors will find himself once he leaves the TARDIS behind. If you get the chance to see Hamlet, either at Straford or at its limited forthcoming run in London, please don’t miss out because it’s a wonderful production in its own right and you really won’t regret seeing David Tennant at the height of his powers and the height of his current popular acclaim.

Who's On Children In Need?


If you're craving your fix of new Dr Who exploits now it's been over three months since series four ended, you'll doubtless be pleased - and, maybe, a bit surprised - to hear that the BBC have just announced that the first two minutes of the forthcoming sixty-minute Dr Who Christmas Special 'The Next Doctor', which guest stars David Tennant's old Blackpool sparring partner David Morrissey and Ballykissangel star Dervla Kirwan, during its jumbo Friday night charity telethon Children in Need next month.

Dr Who has traditionally had very strong links to the Children in Need appeal (although I won't mention 1993's 'Dimensions In Time' if you won't) especially since the series reappeared in 2005. A specialcharity 'Galactic Dinner' black tie event was held in 2005 in a top Cardiff hotel with then new Doctor David Tennant and his companion Billie Piper appearing in person and in 2006 the Millennium Centre in Cardiff was host to a wonderful gala concert of Murray Gold's extraordinary musical compositions for the show (this was the event, by the way, at which it really and finally struck home to me how popular Dr Who had suddenly become and how ridiculously broad its appeal was) whilst in 2007 fifth Doctor Peter Davison returned to the TARDIS in a brief and charming special sequence writeen by new showrunner Stephen Moffat. With Dr Who currently out of production until January it appears there's been no time to put together something special for this year's Children in Need (despite hilarious recent press reports that a special episode featuring 'all tne incarnations of the Doctor' was on the cards!) so this mouth-watering (undoubtedly) clip from the next broadcast episode will be premiered exclusively during the telethon.

How many TV shows could do this? How many Tv shows could broadcast two minutes of footage six weeks beforew broadcast and find the fact it's happening worthy of a Press release all its own? Crazy, crazy days indeed for old-time Dr Who fans like me. Whilst it may be a bit of a shame there's nothing a bit more substantial on the cards this year, I'm already counting the days until Children in Need...

Check out the link in the post-title above to read the BBC press release...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

It's the Wolf (Man) !! It's the Wolf (Man) !!

I've been spending some time watching lovely old black-and-white DVDs these last few months. I've been slowly working my way through the old Johnny Weismuller Tarzan flicks (what a hoot! That Cheeta!!) and am currently giving serious time to Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in a lovely boxset of all his movies which can now be yours Dead Cheap if you cast around online.

I've also been rooting around my (not-inconsiderable) DVD collection and realised that I've managed to pick up quite a few of the classic Universal monster movies on the two-disc sets which were released just prior to the release of Stephen Somer's best-forgotten Van Helsing a few years back. Dracula, Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon...they're all there. So's The Wolf Man...

And it's The Wolf Man - I call him Woolfie (but not to his...er...face) which I've just finished watching. It's a cheap but hugely atmospheric 1941 effort starring Lon Chaney Jnr as the doomed Larry Talbot who becomes infected with the werewolf curse after a tussle with a gypsy werewolf out on one of those unlikely misty moors only ever found in black-and-white horror films. Of course by today's standards it's not really horror; we're back in the early days of the talkies here, in essence, and the era of CGI and super-convincing prosthetics is decades in the future. But Universal made a good fist of these movies by populating them with good actors playing characters the audience can actually care about and root for and, yes, even feel a bit sorry for. Nice stuff. Here's Wolfie as he was depicted on screen in the 1940s...



No laughing at the back please!!! Anyway, it appears that Wolfie's on his way back to a cineplex near you. Director Joe Johnston (best known for the rather good - if short - Jurassic Park 3 - is currently, I'd imagine, putting the finishing touches to a 21st century reboot of the old Wolf Man franchise, with the talented Benicio del Toro on board as the titular hirsute one. And to show how times - and FX - have changed - here's a sneak early peak at how my mate Wolfie is going to look when the film arrives on cinema screens in February 2009...



Ulp. Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving also star in this new movie which, I sincerely hope, is going to take a slightly more artistic and interesting look at one of the horror greats than the tiresome CGI-fest which was the risible afore-mentioned Van Helsing. Don't have nightmares...

Coming soon: Stuff on the road!! I'm off to Stratford on Saturday to see the RSC's latest production of Hamlet (and, no, not just because David Tennant's in it, actually!!)...Back in Bondage: Stuff cuts open the new Bond bonanza Quantum of Solace...Survivors...Sarah Jane: Day of the Clown and the mad new one with Russ Abbott...

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

NEW UK FANTASY SHOW - DEMONS (AKA THE LAST VAN HELSING)

The long-awaited renaissance of good quality UK fantasy TV continues apace with the arrival, early in 2009, of a new adventure drama from ITV (ITV!! Home of Trinny and Susannah!! Who'd have thunk it???). Known, during production as 'The Last Van Helsing' or 'Van Helsing Project' but now offically entitled 'Demons' (hmmmm....not so sure about that) this exciting-looking new show is about the modern day descendant of the legendary vampire hunter who finds himself battling monsters and creatures in contemporary UK. Forget the cheesy Hugh Jackman 'Van Helsing' movie from a few years back (and oh, how I've tried) this show looks looks like a powerful cross between 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (ah, how I miss her...) and....er...something else. Anyway, check out this preview I recently stumbled across... (Click on the title of this post to be taken directly to the link or cut and paste the link below....it's worth it, really!!)

http://www.itvmedia.co.uk/default.asp?section=106&page=5206&cfs=1755

Looks like it's got a good pedigree too with Philip Glenister, still hot from his iconic role as Gene Hunt in 'Life on Mars' and 'Ashes to Ashes' and Richard Wilson who, frankly, looks as if he's just wandered over from the set of 'Merlin' and not bothered to change his costume or wig. Playing the youthful VH is Christian Cooke, the young actor who played ill-fated UNIT soldier Ross Jenkins in the recent Dr Who two-parter featuring the spud-headed Sontarans. Yes, sometimes I'm quite ashamed of the trivia cluttering up my brain...


Anyway, bring it on. If nothing else it's a sign that there is a flickering of intelligent life at work at ITV network centre....

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Dr Who 2005 and Beyond - back at last!!!

The Long Game
‘The Long Game’ is often brushed aside by the Dr Who crowd as something inconsequential and dull, a cheap filler story written and constructed to give Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper a bit of downtime (in the way the so-called Doctor-lite episodes of later seasons are written to allow one or both of the main characters to spend time on another episode – done to best effect most recently in ‘Midnight’ and ‘Turn Left’ from series four). But this dismissal does ‘The Long Game’ as much of a disservice now as it did back in 2005 when Dr Who was still all shiny and new. Granted, it’s not the best episode of the new series but by the same token, in a series where the standard has remained impeccably high for nearly sixty episodes, it’s also not the worst (step forward ‘Fear Her’, from season two – not a bad story just an uninteresting, drab-looking episode). ‘The Long Game’ is just there, sitting self-consciously been the far more high profile ‘Dalek’ and ‘Father’s Day’ episodes and finding itself a bit lost in the reflected glory of those two landmarks.

In the scheme of the show’s developing new mythology ‘The Long Game’ is actually quite important. The episode serves tow main purposes; firstly, it reminds viewers of the importance of Rose to both the Doctor and the series. Despite the ‘you too could travel with the Doctor’ undercurrent of the series’ reimagining, ‘The Long Game’ seems be saying ‘Actually, perhaps you couldn’t…’ Because here we have young Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langley), rescued from Van Statten’s underground museum in 2012 and suddenly finding himself millions of years into humankind’s future on a satellite suspended high above the Earth. But it takes a very special person to step up alongside the Doctor and, as we (and Adam, to his cost) discover, it takes The Right Stuff – and Adam, being a greedy, self-obsessed little ape, just ain’t got it. That’s why he has to go. Secondly, ‘The Long Game’ sows some subtle seeds which will flower a few weeks later on, when the Doctor and Rose return to Satellite Five, the location for this episode, years in the future to find that the progress of the human race has been fatally retarded by the alien intelligence – a familiar one – which installed the Jagrafess aboard the satellite and used it to hold back the development of Mankind.

The core story of ‘The Long Game’ is traditional stuff indeed. The Doctor arrives at a location where humanity is being subjugated by an evil alien force and then sets out to stop it. Here humanity has been deadened and saturated by non-stop news broadcasts and when the Doctor and Rose left Adam wander off to investigate alone, they encounter journalists Cathica and Suki, only one of whom can win promotion to the mysterious 500th floor and an audience with the mysterious Editor and his own monstrous boss.

Visually ‘The Long Game’ is a striking piece of work. The interior of Satellite Five is as stark and grim as the story requires and the icy interior of the Editor’s ‘suite’ on Floor 500, operated by zombi-fied humans, is uninviting and claustrophobic. But there’s evidence of underfunding here, particularly in the functional, white-walled spike room and the cluttered, tightly-shot reception area where the TARDIS crew encounter the hustle and bustle of humanity. After a string of broad, wide-open adventures swollen with location filming, ‘The Long Game’ suffers by being all cramped interiors and unremarkable studio sets.

But it’s not all bad news. Russell T Davies’ script, as usual, races along full of snappy dialogue, brilliant characterisation and even a bit of the illogical plotting he’s so often pilloried for. The Doctor and Rose are subtly sidelined (they’re not even responsible for the resolution of the situation) as the story focuses on Adam and his inability to resist the lure of a biological augmentation (spiking!) which will give him a bit of a scientific advantage when he finally gets back to his own time. But the Doctor, quite rightly, won’t tolerate this sort of selfishness and he dumps Adam back on Earth at the end of a story, with an info-spike imbedded into his skull which will fly open at the snap of a finger. Looks like it’s a lifetime in baseball caps for young Adam.

‘The Long Game’, in retrospect, is a nice little pause in the high drama and action of the season so far. It’s studded with lovely little moments and performances; Simon Pegg is superb as the oily Editor (although it’s hard not to wish he could gave been ‘kept back’ for a bigger and better role later on) and Anna Maxwell-Martin (who later went on to win a BAFTSA for her performance in ‘Bleak House’) already marked herself out as ‘one to watch’ from her intense performance as the doomed rebel Suki. Tamsin Greig appears in little more as a cameo in the detached sequences where Adam has his little ‘operation’ and if there’s a dodgy performance then we’re looking as Christine Adams who seems a bit underwhelming as Cathica.

There’s not much more to say about ‘The Long Game’. It’s a nice, marking-time episode and it does what it needs to do smartly and efficiently. It’s not one you’ll necessarily go back to time and again – my viewing for this column is probably only the third time I’ve sat through it from beginning to end, the last being three years ago – but it’s certainly a polished and slick production, in many ways the sort of run-of-the-mill story the old series used to churn out with regularity. But ultimately the episode will be remembered for its swift disposal of Adam and for laying the foundations for the return of the Daleks, en masse, a few weeks later…

Father's Day


The new series of Dr Who had already flashed its emotional credentials in sequences in episodes like ‘Aliens of London’, ‘World War Three’, ‘Dalek’ and ‘End of the World’ where I swear there was something in my eye in the final sequence where the Doctor tells Rose about the Time War and death of is people. But here, in episode eight, in ‘Father’s Day’, is where the series made quite clear that this was a very different and very real sort of Dr Who, a series which was going to tug at the heartstrings with some regularity. Even now, over three years later, ‘Father’s Day’ still packs one emotional mule punch. It’s astonishing.

It’s a simple premise. Rose asks the Doctor to take her back to the cold November day in 1987 when her father, the man she barely remembers, was killed in a road traffic accident. The Doctor duly obliges but Rose changes history by dashing into the road and saving her father Pete from being run over. But history is not changed without consequences…and before long monstrous creatures are circling, ready to cauterise the wound in Time caused by Rose’s interference.

‘Father’s Day’ is a scintillating character piece, with series-best performances from Billie Piper (if not career-best) and Chris Eccleston (who tends to look a bit glazed in the more straight-forward SF yarns but literally crackles here). Piper is extraordinary as a young girl ripped out of her own time and suddenly finding herself, nearly twenty years earlier, establishing a loving father-daughter relationship with a man who’s until now been dead to her. It’s done with humour (the scene where Rose realises that her ‘Dad’ is flirting with her) and enormous pathos (so many of the scenes in the church where Pete slowly realises who Rose is, even if he can’t understand how she comes to be there).

A bit like ‘The Long Game’, ‘Father’s Day’ handles consequences. Rose has got her own way – her sometimes-dead Dad’s alive and well – but at a terrible cost as the whole human race faces extinction as the wound in time is healed by savage, batlike Rippers (a CGI masterpiece courtesy of the Mill). Writer Paul Cornell excels in the beautiful moments between Rose and Peter (Shaun Dingwall, astonishingly real as the baffled and very ordinary Pete) and later Jackie and Rose (even BBC Wales’ best make-up bods can’t take twenty years off Camille Coduri so she has to make so with a curly wig and our imaginations). Director Joe A’Hearne creates some wonderful images, from the cold, bleak church-under-seige and some marvellous stuff in the church itself, especially one memorable scene where Rose is right up in the foreground and Pete emerges in the background and walks towards her. The episode is directed with genuine style and A’Hearne never lets the material tumble into mawkish sentimentality.

If there are any faults in ‘Father’s Day’ then they’re really in some creative elements of the script. I can’t help thinking the episode would have been even stronger without The Reapers, if the story had just been told of a girl who has changed Time and the paradoxes and consequences which would come with it. But I suppose that would have led to a fairly visually-uninteresting, thrill-free forty five minutes and if here’s one thing Dr Who thrives on, it’s a good monster. Perhaps the threat didn’t need to be quite so worldwide – talk of the whole world being consumed is a bit empty when all we can see is one street and four Reapers; the story wouldn’t have been done a disservice if the Reapers had just placed the church and its environs in a sterile ‘bubble of time’ and sealed the wound from within. And even now the narrative loses me a bit when the Doctor salvages the ‘hot’ TARDIS key and uses it to recreate the ship inside the church. I’m not sure what that was supposed to achieve or when. But it looked nice though…

‘Father’s Day’ is an episode defined by its performances and its script. It hits all the right emotional bases and, towards the end, when Pete realises what he has to do to put things right – and Rose realises it too – the episode just about pulls out your heart. The coda – Jackie recounting the slightly-altered version of Pete’s death to Rose the toddler, and the Doctor and Rose sadly walking back to the TARDIS – is really about as tragic as modern Dr Who really ought to get.

In the end ‘Father’s Day’ is just a beautiful and affecting piece of television. It’s powerful, involving, dramatic and utterly, utterly heart-breaking. Watching it now reminds me of how stunning it seemed at the time, when Dr Who had never told stories like this, had never presented people like this, raw and real and scared and confused. The show has moved onwards and upwards in the three series and years since ‘Father’s Day’ but when the book of 21st Century Dr Who is written, this is an episode which really deserves and demands to be recognised and acknowledged as right up there with the very best of the new series. If, like me, you’ve not seen the episode for some time…go and watch it right now. Go on. Make sure you’ve got at least a hanky handy...

Coming soon to Stuff: Sarah Jane and the Day of the Clown....Survivors: A look at the old series as we prepare for the new...

Friday, 17 October 2008

Merlin - wizard stuff or just a load of warlocks?



Okay, so we're five episodes in to 'Merlin', the BBC's latest Saturday night early evening family drama series - a strand we're now fortunate enough, thanks to the success of Dr Who, to be able to enjoy as a respite from all the singing and dancing and general "Me!Me!Me" Saturday night shouting - and I think it's time the World of Stuff gave its verdict. And, as I've just finished watching my recording of the fourth episode, 'The Poisoned Chalice' I think I can probably safely say I'm satisfied I can give a thumbs-up to this fun new series; it's a cautious thumbs-up, mind.

After two weeks the thumb would probably have been quivering somewhere in the middle and wavering towards pointing downwards. Three weeks in and this series wasn't really getting out of first gear for me; maybe it was the slightly derivative strories, the irritatingly-anachronistic dialogue (a big bugbear of mine in these sorts of shows) or just the slighty cynical nature of the series, recreating classic British myths in the style of a teenage soap opera. It takes a few weeks to get used to the show's rhythm, its wilful disregard for anything even approaching historical accuracy and, of course, to get used to a new cast of actors playing a new cast of characters in a potentially long-running series. And, with ratings on the climb and recently at around 6.5 million (against the tiresomely unstoppable juggernaut of the Demon Cowell's X Factor) I think we're probably looking at a fairly long-running show here. Episode four seems to be about the place the series has 'settled' and grown into itself and I've started to get used to its style. And, you know, I think I'm rather liking it...

The BBC - particularly in the form of the ever-gushing drama bigwig and Dr Who executive Producer Julie Gardener - have made much of the fact that 'Merlin' draws its inspiration from American TV genre shows, particularly 'Smallville' - and if they hadn't told us quite so readily I'm sure we could have worked it our for ourselves. Where 'Smallville' reinvents the more recent American mythology of Superman by stripping the character and all his baggage back to basics and taking the audience through the angst and anguish of young Clark kent before he dons the blue and green, so 'Merlin' takes us back to a pre-Round Table Camelot where a fresh-faced and naive young magician called Merlin (Colin Morgan) is dispatched to be trained by the wise physician Gaius (Richard Wilson in a nice white wig) and, because magic and sorcery has been outlawed in Caemlot by stoney-faced King Uther (Anthony Head), Merlin has to keep his gifts under wraps. "Keep the magic secret" is the show's tagline and I don't think it's too cynical to suggest they could have bunged "to keep the CGI costs down" to round it off. Yes, Merlin, as we know, becomes an important figure in the chronicles ofg King Arthur and Camelot and all that gubbins but at this point in the story - right back at the beginning - Merlin has to keep his magical light under a bushel and all we get to see him do are discreet sleight of hand things - moving furniture and, in one thrilling episode, covering something up with a cloth so it won't be found!

First episodes of any new series can be desperately clunky as new characters and situations and relationships are introduced and the template for the rest of the series laid down. 'The Dragon's Call', Merlin's first episode, makes a fair stab at setting out some ground rules. Merlin arrives, gets on the wrong side of Uther's show-off son Arthur (Bradley James) and eventually saves his life, thus becoming his lackey. We meet Guinevere (retooled for the young audience as Gwen) and, because any adventure show needs a baddie, we get Torchwood's Eve Myles as Mary Collins, witchy vengeful mother out to wreak havoc to make amends for the death of her son at the command of Uther.


'Merlin' sets out it stall - and its style - in its very first episode. Here's a series which purports to be set in - what, the 10th century? - yet the characters all walk and talk with the swagger of the 21st century. There are precious few concessions to anything even remotely approaching contemporary (for the time) dialogue. the kids - and, let's face it, the heroes of this show are kids - speak in a very slick and recognisable 21st century patois. Dialogue gems so far include "Could Arthur be
any more irritating?" and "Creep!" and, as the weeks roll by, I'm starting to find it less irritating than I did in the first two episodes. Obviously certain concessions had to be made to make a series set in the 10th century accessible and of interest to a 'young' streetwise modern audience - and I suppose I can live with it. But the show's desperation to find favour with 'ver kids' might have been less blatant if the modern dialogue had been pulled back just a bit because, even now, I find myself dragged right out of the drama of the series when painfully-anachronistic dialogue is flung into my face by a man in an ermine robe with a crown on his head.

Part of Merlin's problem is that Dr Who has set the bar for this sort of Saturday night Tv so supernaturally high that anything else is, by definition, going to be found wanting. It's commendable that shows like Merlin, Robin Hood, ITV's Primeval and the forthcoming Demons exist at all (and it's all purely down to the success of Dr Who) but, probably because of Dr Who's long legacy and its place in the British public's collective consciousness, the new shows have to struggle to earn their audience's rspect (despite the fact that the BBC have 'reinvented' two other British mythologies, presumably hoping to ignite the same fervour of recognition amongst the audience). So 'Merlin' rerally needs to be judged on its own merits, by its own production values, its cast and its stories. And it's doing okay. It has none of the subtleties and nuances and sense of spectacle of Dr Who - what has, let's face it? - but on its own merits, four or five weeks in, it's growing into itself and finding its feet and its place in the schedule.

'Merlin' is a smart and slick series, boasting gorgeous production design. Camelot itself may not look anything like the architectural style of the real place but it looks like a castle and that's really the point. Sumptuous sets, lavish costumes, decent FX (by Dr Who's The Mill) and an impressive cast. Colin Morgan (last seen in the season four Dr Who story 'Midnight') plays Merlin with a wide-eyed, innocent charm, and Bradley James has a pleasant grumbly malevolence as Arthur. Lesser young cast members haven't made much impression yet; considering her importance to the myth Gwen (Angel Coulby) is little more than willowy eye candy and Morgana (Katie McGrath) has a powereful presence but not much to do. The stories are simplistic romps too, linear stories with a beginning, a middle and end and with no noticable sub-plots or story arcs (beyond the inherent ones involving the steady progression of the character relationships) and, since the feeble second episode 'Valiant' (where Will Mellor is desperately miscast as a knight with a snake-infested shield who tries top best Arthur at medeival duelling), have been slowly improving. Even the deadening presence of the vacant Michelle Ryan couldn't suck all the life out of 'The Mark of Nimueh' and 'The Poisoned Chalice' and Lancelot made his inevitable, if unexpectedly early, first appearance in the fifth episode.



Sometimes it's easy - too easy - to find in fault in a new series and to criticise it for being something it was never really intended to be. 'Merlin' was commissioned and created to provide a fun, entertaining fantasy romp for a Saturday night audience which, over the last few years, has found its appetite for this sort of stuff again. 'Merlin' does what it does efficiently and with some style. It's better than the somewhat samey 'Robin Hood' (itself enough of a success to run to three years with a possible fourth on the cards despite the fact that star Jonas Armstrong is handing in his bow and arrow at the end of the forthcoming third series) but i wish the show hadn't followed the 'no tights, no flights' rule of 'Smallville' quite so rigidly. I'm hoping Merlin himself will get the chance to show of a few more of his magical skills as the series wears on and that the stories will start to get a bit darker and a bit subtler, with more attempts made to generate the atmosphere of the original legends rather than just transplanting sexy 21st century kids into a 10th century setting with no real feel for the myths which inspired the series in the first place.

So, all in all, it's a useful addition to the current crop of fantasy TV shows (although, in passing, I'd like to mention I'd quite like the BBC to try something for the Saturday night slot which doesn't involve swords and castles, thanks!) and, if nothing else, it's a merciful alternative to the monotony of flat-headed Simon Cowell and his unending quest to make another quick buck by exploiting gullible kids who "want this more than anything". But that's for another rant altogether...

So what do you think? Is Merlin a worthy addition to the Saturday night TV rota or doesn't it float your TV boat? Agree or disagree with Stuff's verdict? Post a comment, let me know what YOU think!!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The Listening Post 5: Keane: Perfect Symmetry


When Keane released their second album 'Under The Iron Sea' three years ago, few would have bet good money that they'd would be around to release a third. Cherry-faced lead singer Tom Chaplin's surprising revelations about his drugs addiction shattered the band's clean-living image and the album itself was muddy and downbeat, with none of the charm of their first set 'Hopes and Fears' and, in 'Is It Any Wonder?' and 'Crystal Ball', with only two really memorable tunes worthy of the band.

What a surprise then, to be able to announce that Keane's third album - with Chaplin well and truly having kicked the habit - is a wonderful revelation. 'Perfect Symmetry' is pretty much perfect pop; it's the sound of a clear-thinking band with its pop hat on, moving away from the art school jangle of the first two albums and discovering that it's quite possible to have some fun. It sounds as if Keane actually enjoy being Keane again. Most of these punchy songs are sharp and jaunty and even the handful that evoke the old Keane are far more focussed and typical of a band who have found their direction and, let's hope, intend to stick to it.

If there's been a more uplifting pop single this year than the album's opener 'Spiralling' I'd quite like to know what it's been. Sounding as if it's tumbled through a timewarp from the 1980s this is all tight synths, raging choruses and potentially-chessy "whooo!" backing vocals. The album version is slightly longer than the single/download and the fact this track didn't lodge itself at number one for weeks on end this year makes me even more frustrated at the state of the Top 40 chart these days. But Keane don't let the joy of this track put them off. New single 'The Lovers Are Losing' is more typical of Keane but no less memorable for that and tracks like 'Better Than This' and 'You Haven't Told Me Anything' are just irresistible with their combination of handclaps and gorgeous pop hooks and quirky instrumentation which suggests that the spirit of the 1980s in 'Spiralling' is a bit of a theme throughout many of these tunes. Title track 'Perfect Symmetry' is brooding and melancholic but then we're back in the new Keane groove with the insistent 'Playing Along' and the frankly lovely 'You Don't See Me.'

This short, punchy album wraps up with the powerful 'Black Burning Heart' and the lilting and effervescent 'Love is the End'. Keane may well be one of those bands you're aware of but, the odd single apart, may never have taken very seriously or paid much interest to. Barely putting a foot wrong, 'Perfect Symmetry' reaffirms Keane's musical mission statement and sounds like a band who are back on track and have absolutely redisovered the joy in what they do. It's an album which demands and rewards repeat plays and sets a very high benchmark for Big Name albums yet to come this year...and next week we've got the third album by the Kaiser Chiefs.

4.5/5

Now the UK's NUMBER ONE album!! So what do YOU think of Keane's 'Perfect Symmetry'?? Do you like the band's new pop sensibility or do you prefer their earlier style of music? Post a comment, let Stuff know about any other good new music out there!!

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Listening Post 4 - Oasis: Dig Out Your Soul



1997 and Oasis are about to release their massively-anticipated third album 'Be Here Now'. The music industry is in meltdown - as the ultimate winners in the Oasis v Blur Britpop war the third album of swaggering rock from the Gallagher Brothers was the hottest CD of the year and when the frenzy had subsided and the million or so first week sales digested and the dust finally settled the ghastly truth was that 'Be Here Now' was a clumsy, bloated, pretentious thing - three minute jingles stretched out to seven minute epics, their tunes and their melodies swamped by stodgy over-production. Oasis have never really recovered the ground the album lost them - but they've carried on, releasing three further workmanlike albums which, whilst they haven't done any further damaged to the band's collective reputation, they haven't exactly kept them at the forefront of popular musical culture either. It seems, these days, that Oasis are just there, a band which now exists just because neither Noel or Liam really know what they'd do without it...

So here we are with 'Dig Out Your Soul', the seventh proper Oasis studio CD, slipping onto the shelves without much fanfare and with a mediocre first single, 'Shock of the Lightning', heralding its arrival and, for its sins, only managing to heave itself to number three in what passes for the singles chart these days. But, after a few listens to the album itself, it has to be said that whilst, in places it's very much just 'another Oasis album', it does actually demonstrate signs of a band at least attempting to kick-start itself, trying to find the mojo which made it work in the first place. 'Dig Out Your Soul' is...whisper it....probably the best Oasis album since'What's The Story (Morning Glory)' and there's much here that sees the group trying to sound a bit different.

Let me qualify that. As usual The Beatles are all over this album. I think we have to accept that The Beatles' influence on Noel Gallagher is always going to be evident in his writing and the band's production. There are places where the album just resonates with virtually every Beatles period - soaring harmonies, lush strings,a bit of psychedlia and even a bit of post-Beatles Lennon. But now we're used to it I think we're better placed to just accept it and move on and see what Gallagher manages to do with his influences. The signs actually aren't too good here at first. 'Dig Out Your Soul' kicks off with four generic rockers which seem to refuse to work their way into your brain no matter how many times you listen to them. They stomp, they rock, they're entirely acceptable pub rock fodder but they sound like filler and that's not good for the first four tracks on an album three years in the making (or at least in three years since the last one). But eventually 'Bag It Up', 'The Turning', 'Waiting For the Rapture' and the aforementioned single offer up their own simplistic pleasures and whilst they're far from the best the album has to offer they're inoffensive as a mission statement and at least they're good for the air guitarists out there.

Track five is where the CD starts to get interesting and your ears will prick up. Here starts a run of four tracks which are right up tyhere with the best of the Oasis canon. Liam Gallagher's 'I'm Outta Time' is a gently-rolling little number, the closest the album gets to a ballad and it's quite haunting and effective, a nice change of pace after the slam of the first four tracks. Better yet is '(Get Off Your) High Horse Lady' which virtually channels Lennon's 'Give Peace A Chance' with its clumping, choppy beat. 'Falling Down' is a curiously hypnotic mid-tempo number and then there's the psychedlia of 'To Be Where There's Life', written by guitarist/keyboardist Gem which has a chorus lesser bands might kill for. The band slip back into default 'rock' mode in 'Ain't Got Nothin'' before coming on all thoughtful with 'The Nature of Reality' and album closer 'Soldier On' which suggests this is exactly what Oasis will do because it's what they've always done.

Return to form for Oasis? Hard to say because it's quite hard now to quantify exactly what Oasis' form has ever really been. Certainly the band are hugely anachronistic nowadays and it'd be hard to argue against the suggestion that they're completely out-of-date and even out of touch. But 'Dig Out Your Soul' certainly suggests there's life in this old Mancunian dog yet and, if I was to suggest such a thing, I'd suggest that if you don't fancy taking a chance on the whole CD you'd do yourself a favour by downloading tracks 5,6,7 and 8 because they're really startlingly good.

4/5

Friday, 10 October 2008

Torchwood Filming 10th October - Gwen's Got A Gun!! EXCLUSIVE set report and videoclips!!!

Without wishing to give the impression that the New World of Stuff has suddenly become a rabid Torchwood fan site, my apologies to anyone visiting who's not remotely interested in the daring doings of Captain Jack and his depleted band of heroes. But the show's out and about big style around Cardiff at the moment and with tonight's shoot being a cough and a spit away from Mount Towers (my Gaff) - Pontcanna, just off Cathedral Road - I could hardly resist wandering down with my little video camera and recording the action for anyone who's interested. Normal blog business will resume shortly!!

Tonight's shoot, then, was pretty low key compared to some of the bang-flash stuff of the last few nights (including a major pyrotechnics display in the Bay last night - but I was just too exhausted/sniffy to haul myself down to have a look.) Tonight was a dialogue-free scene filmed at the bottom of Pentre Road and the corner of Talbot Street/Talbot Place. Gwen's husband Rhys's car (a grey something or other - I'm no petrol-head, sorry!!) is parked at the kerb. Rhys runs up, leaps in, throws a rucksack into the back seat, toots the horn, calls for Gwen. Gwen rushes up just as a Land Rover full of black-clad troopers (and Gwen's Police chum PC Andy) trundles down the road, blue lights flashing. Gwen pulls out her gun and fire at the Land Rover (the gun just clicks, sound FX to be added later) before leaping into the car and shouting "Just go!" to Rhys. The car roars off and squeals away around the corner...

That's more or less it for tonight. The scene is rehearsed and recorded with all the exhausting and time-consuming attention to detail these shows seem to demand. Their (repetitive) job done, Gwen and Rhys (Eve Myles and Kai Owen) were whisked off into the night as the FX boys busied themselves preparing the Land Rover for shots of the vehicle belching smoke after Gwen's shot at it. The following clips should show several variations of the main scene being shot, the FX boys damping down the streets of Cardiff (oh, the irony...), Eve and Kai clowning around, PC Andy and more... Enjoy!!!
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And additional clips posted this morning (Saturday)...

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...and finally, a couple of snaps taken from unposted videoclips...




Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Torchwood Location Filming 8th October - Run, Ianto, Run!! - EXCLUSIVE set report and VIDEOCLIPS!!! ONLY on STUFF!!

Filming continues on Torchwood 3 with a block of low key sequences being filmed in the area around the Millennium Centre and the Welsh Assembly and then at the Wharf area where the Information centre Torchwood exterior is located. Hugely busy tonight - the crowds are out with a venegance and it's all pretty good natured with everyone keen to see John Barrowman (even if he appears just to film one very quickly dialogue-free sequence).

The action - such as it is - starts in the pedestrian area between the Millennium Centre and the Assembly Building. Here Gareth David-Lloyd, his suit dusty, runs down the street away from an armed guard who fires at him - the gunfire signfied by the actor portraying the guard shouting "Bang!" very loudly (see first videoclip). Small flash-charges in the street will show the bullets hitting the ground in the episode on screen and obviously the sound FX of the gun will be added in the dub! After much hanging around (videoclip two) the scene is recorded several times and then the crew move a few feet away to the Assembly Building itself (with Gareth telling his watching fans they must be mad for standing in the cold - see videoclip three). Outside the Assembly the Any Effects crew damp down the street for effect and Gareth is seen running along the side of the building, skulking around a corner and then rushing off up the steps (videoclip four). The unit ups sticks - and everything else (and I almost walk into Gareth David Lloyd who is now wearing a big anorak and is on his mobile and who I don't recognise as I trail after the unit!) - and moves a few hundreds yards to the Wharf-front area where the exterior Torchwood Information centre entrance is set at the water's edge. Much excitement from the crowd as John Barrowman appears, does a little dance, laughs and jokes and finally performs his one scene several times - strolling along the upper wharf area past two pedestrians (extras) and then down some steps to the waterfront itself. Then he's off for the night!! An actor's life, eh!! (videoclips five, six, seven).

John's away and the lovely Eve Myles (opinion's everyone - a security guard I speak to tell me she's the nicest woman he's ever met!) appears. I'm leaning over a rail trying to explain to a couple of women who Eve is - "She's in 'Belonging'!" - and Eve films a quick scene where she runs out from the Torchwood entrance along the wharf (final videoclip). It's getting colder and time is spent making Eve up for further sequences. I make my excuses (to no-one in particular - or, indeed, at all!) and slip away, my work done for the night. Enjoy!
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BANG! BANG! Run, Ianto, run!!
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Hanging around
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"You must be mad..." Quite probably...
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Ianto: He can run, he can skulk...
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Captain Jack is on the case
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Striding about
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John Barrowman gets touched up. Sorry.

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Gwen Cooper does a runner from Torchwood

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Torchwood filming 7th October - EXCLUSIVE report and videoclips!

BEWARE - THIS REPORT MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!!!! Back to the Bay tonight - brrr, it's gettin' cold - to watch some dramatic filming for an episode in the forthcoming third series (or mini-series) of Torchwood. Out in the Basin, in the shadow of the Millennium Centre, a carefully-constructed debris field - boudlers, girders, rubble - has been laid across the fenced-off pedestrian area. Just after 7pm strategically-placed jets of flame are ignited and thick smoke wafts across the area. Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper takes her place on the ground amidst the rubble, having apparently been thrown clear of an explosion which has destroyed the underground Torchwood Hub and hurled debris from the explosion out into the street. Gwen stumbles to her feet, coughing and spluttering, and runs back towards the flaming rubble. Two paramedics rush onto the scene and drag her, kicking and screaming, away from the danger zone. This scene has been filmed again and again these last few hours for reasons utterly beyond my comprehension as every take looked pretty goods to my layman's eye. During the entire increasingly-tedious procedure, spirits amongst the crew and Eve seemed to remain high as the temperature slowly got lower... Anyway, on to the videoclips (the real reason you're here at all, admit it!!)...an assortment of shots of the same scene from various angles as I moved around the location with my dinky little video camera! Enjoy...and come see me again now you've paid your first visit!! :)
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Stuff coming soon: Merlin - is it wizard?...Survivors old and new...more Dr Who (at last!)...Oasis v Keane v Snow Patrol - Who's best?? There's only one way to find out!! Stuff listens to their new albums!!...Plus more and more Stuff!!!