Sunday, 31 May 2009

Exclusive filming report and videos: The Sarah Jane Adventures

Following the official BBC announcement last week confirming that David Tennant will be featuring in a substantial guest role in two episodes of the forthcoming ie September) third series of the breezy children's Dr Who spin-off 'The Sarah Jane Adventures', filming on the series has been continuing in and around Cardiff.

Today (Sunday) saw a crew set up in the High Street, Llandaff village (literally a cough and a spit from Stuff Towers) so your trusty reporter (ie that's me!) trundled up to have a look at the action. Around 2pm the three young cast members who play Luke, Sarah Jane's surrogate son, his best mate Clyde and Rani, their neighbour, were gathered to rehearse and record a scene where they conspiratorially approach a restaurant (Mulberry's in Llandaff), gaze through the window and then dodge out of sight. Stuff caught the rehearsal on video; when the director realised that the assembled throng (well, there were a few people gathered opposite) could be seen reflected in the glass of the restaurant window, he very politely - extremely politely, in fact - asked us to move further up the road so we wouldn't be in shot. The scene was then recorded and you'll see my videoclip (below) taken from a slightly different angle. Note SJ's little green roadster parked at the kerb.

Your fearless Stuff reporter (ie that's still me!) couldn't hang about; it was a beautiful day, places to go, people to meet, new Colin Bateman novel to get stuck into. Apparently - here be the spoilers! - Lis Sladen and guest star Nigel Havers were seen at the location later in the afternoon. Anyway, here's those videoclips - hope they're of interest...

Please feel free to link these clips to your own site/blog...just give the World of Stuff a quick mention if you do! Cheers!!

Cult TV DVD review: 'Escape Into Night'

The one with the stones...the stones with eyes...

It’s more or less a given that, when forty-somethings get together and the chat turns to “Ah, they don’t make kid’s TV like that any more, do you remember...?’ someone is eventually going to mention that one with the stones. The stones with the eyes. Something to do with a girl in a bed. And the stones. The stones with the eyes... Rarely can anyone remember the show’s name and the conversation soon changes to more readily-shared Tv memories like Thunderbirds, The Tomorrow People and Dr Who.

The show they’ll have been vaguely remembering was called ‘Escape Into Night.’ Based on Catherine Storr’s novel ‘Marianne Dreams’ (and later filmed as ‘Paperhouse’), ‘Escape Into Night’ was screened as a six-part ATV kid’s drama in 1972. Despite being screened only once and then consigned to the Archives, the show had a massive impact on its audience and while the detail of the story may have faded, those images of the stones – the stones with the eyes – lingered and remain imbedded deep in the psyche of the kids who watched ‘Escape into Night’. And frankly, having just seen the serial again courtesy of a superb new DVD from Network (not available to buy in the shops, available only through ) I’m really not surprised the show struck a chord or two with its young viewers. I saw the show too and whilst my memory has clearly cheated in some respect, I’m really rather surprised the show didn’t utterly traumatise a whole generation, turn their hair white and send them off screaming to bed, too terrified to ever fall asleep again. Unlike much ‘classic’ TV from the 1960s and 1970s which doesn’t always stand the test of time, ‘Escape Into Night’, although a bit of a period piece in terms of its production, still presents as a dark, disturbing and extremely disorientating and unsettling piece of TV. Maybe the fact that the only print available of the series is in black-and-white adds to its sense of disquieting mystery.

Marianne Austen (Vikki Chambers)is confined to bed following a horse-riding accident. Her anxious Mum (Sonia Graham) fusses over her and tries to keep her entertained but, in these pre-ipod, pre-mobile phone, pre-daytime TV days, Marianne soon gets bored and spends her time doodling in a sketch-pad. She draws a house with a figure in the first floor window. Suddenly, in her dreams, she’s there, outside the house, looking up at a fresh-faced blonde-haired boy gazing down at her. Inside the house she finds Mark (Steven Jones), the pyjama-clad boy, unable to walk, sitting in a bare, featureless room. Back in the waking world Marianne realises she can influences what happens in her ‘dreamworld’ by sketching in her pad; when the boy annoys her she makes sure he can never leave the house by drawing little blobby shapes with eyes to surround the house. When she returns to the house she finds it watched by man-sized stones with one blinking eye. She uses her ‘powers’ to give the stranded boy food and entertainment and, eventually, a bike for him to exercise on. In the real world Marianne is visited by Miss Chesterfield (Patricia Maynard), a teacher who keeps up Marianne’s education and tells her about the other children she visits – including one boy with polio who is seriously ill and can’t walk. Eventually, in the dreamworld, Marianne and Mark have to escape the house before the stones can break in and kill them...

The stuff of young nightmares, then, ‘Escape Into Night’ is a strange, almost-ethereal little series. With its tiny cast and handful of sets (and some impressive location filming around the purpose-built house where dream-Mark is trapped) it feels stifling and claustrophobic and Marianne’s dreamworld, in particular, seems distant and unearthly. In some ways it’s hard, at the end of it all, to work out quite what the story has been telling us. Is it a story about growing pains, tolerance, the power of the imagination of a child? ‘Escape Into Night’ offers no answers – we just have to assume that Marianne has this ‘ability’ to enter her own dreamworld and, by the use of a ‘special’ pencil, she’s able to adjust her dreamworld as she sees fit. In some ways this sense of unexplained mystery makes the series even more unusual; it has none of the laboured exposition and neat loose-end tying we’re used to in our fiction. It’s up to the viewer to interpret the story their own way and to make of it what they will.

Technically ‘Escape Into Night’ is very definitely of its time. The sets look stagey and the acting is terribly RP; Marianne and her mother, despite their rather modest home (or at least the bedroom and hallway we see of it) are clearly presented as upper middle class, all posh vowels and ‘Thank you, mummy’. But the performances of the small cast are uniformly impressive. After a dodgy first episode Vikki Chambers as Marianne settles into her role and handles the wordy demands of a part which sometimes veers dangerously into the ‘shrill juvenile lead’ territory of much 1970s children’s television. Better is Steven Jones as Mark; strong and confident, initially ambivalent about his predicament but later as desperate to escape the house as Marianne as the ‘living stones’ guarding the house start to become more hostile and threatening. The cast is rounded off by Edmund Pegge as a very obliging doctor (housecalls day and night, those were the days!) and a young Patricia Maynard as the likable Miss Chesterfield. Oh, and then there’s the stones...

Those damned stones are etched on so many memories, mine included. And yet over the years they’ve created their own memories of the series. For example, I watched every episode of ‘Escape Into Night’ awaiting the sequence where the stones somehow crowd around outside the bedroom window of Mariann’es home in the ‘real’ world. This never happens and yet I can see it as clearly as I can see the keyboard I’m writing this review on. No, the stones are just there, in the darkness outside the dreamworld house, their one eye blinking, their numbers increasing. In time they become more and more determined to get into the house – although they don’t seem to move very fast, if at all – and their modulated voices, a strange cross between extremely camp and extremely angry Daleks, have a surprisingly chilling quality about them as they cry “Not the light! We are coming!” over and over again as the series moves towards its climax. To modern eyes accustomed to 21st century prosthetics and flashy CGI, the stones might look like bits of fibreglass with an eye in them but there’s no denying the fact they still look creepy and threatening and just...wrong.

‘Escape Into Night’ has more in common with heavier children’s fare like ‘The Owl Service’ and ‘King of the Castle’ than the more routine contemporary adventure serials like ‘The Tomorrow People’ and ‘Freewheelers’. If you’ve not seen it before you’ll be struck by its sheer oddness and if you saw it at the time you’ll find it will surprise you and it may not be quite what you were expecting.
And if your memory of the series is the stones...the stones with the eyes... I can assure you they’ll creep you out now just as they did over 35 years ago. ‘Escape Into Night’ is a bold and remarkable television series and comes highly recommended.

Escape Into Night is not available in shops and can only be purchased by visiting Tell 'em Stuff sent you!

DVD Review: 'Changeling'

I really think it’s time I changed my movie-going habits. Seduced by the hype and the promise of a few explosions, I’ll happily trot off to my local multiplex (over £6 for a large hot dog and a coke....I’d rather starve!) to see the latest superhero shenanigan, disaster movie or sci-fi opus. But all those highly-regarded, well-reviewed proper little films – the intimate human stories, the real-life dramas – well, I always mean to pop down and take a look but...there always seems to be something else to do. Ahem. I was caught out by ‘Frost/Nixon’ which sounded brilliant, had the thumbs-up from the critics – and yet it came and went and I never quite got there. The same is true of ‘Changeling’, director Clint Eastwood’s most recent effort, a thriller/drama set in Los Angeles in 1928 and starring Angelina Jolie as a single mother whose life is thrown into turmoil when her young son goes missing. Sounded great, if a bit TV-movie-of-the-week. Once again, I never quite got there...

Curse me for a fool. I’ve just caught up with ‘Changeling’ on DVD and I’m finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that this wonderful film has existed for six months or so without me actually seeing it. I’ve just spent a captivating two and a half hours soaking up this stunning and extraordinary film, this masterpiece, a film so good it puts all the bang-and-flash stuff back in the toybox and reminds you what great cinema really should be all about.
Angelina Jolie (a far, far better actress than she’s ever given credit for) plays Christine Collins, a hard-working single mum in 1920s Los Angeles, struggling to bring up her young son Walter whilst holding down a job as a telephone switchboard supervisor. Called in to do an extra shift to cover for a sick colleague Christine is forced to leave her son at home alone. When she gets back there’s no sign of him. Eventually the corrupt LA Police, whose reputation is at rock bottom and whose authority and honesty is constantly being challenged by a fervent local priestthe Reverand Brieglab (John Malkovich), take an interest and a few months later it appears that they find Walter, who has been in the company of a drifter wandering aimlessly halfway across the country. Christine prepares for a tearful reunion at the railway station....but instantly realises the boy isn’t her son. The Police, desperate for some good publicity, brush her protests under the carpet and eventually try to discredit her by throwing her into a corrective institute for the mentally-unstable where electro-convulsive therapy is the order of the day. The only way out for Christine is to sign an affidavit confirming that the recovered boy is her son and that she’s been labouring under a terrible misapprehension. But Christine is nothing if not determined and single-minded and she refuses to compromise. Meanwhile a young boy named Clarkwood Smith tells the Police about his experiences with a psychopathic child-kidnapper who, he says, has brutally slain over twenty young boys... The Police still try to effect a cover-up but eventually the killer is brought to justice and Christine moves closer to finding out the truth about her missing, presumed dead, son...

‘Changeling’ is a gorgeous, glorious and yet unsettling film. Based on a true story casually brought to writer Straczynski’s attention, it’s not just about Christine’s plight – Jolie takes a back seat for a while when she’s incarcerated – but it’s a no-holds-barred expose of the corruption and mendacity at the heart of the LAPD at the tail end of the 1920s and how, maybe thanks to Christine’s story, things began to change. It’s an unshowy, modest film, too, despite some opulent visuals which evoke 1920s Los Angeles with sumptuous costumes and set dressings and subtle bits of computer tomfoolery. Straczynski’s script is unshowy, too, and Eastwood’s unfussy direction allows the script’s story to unravel at its own pace and in its own way, with short, punchy and pithy dialogue and, despite its generous running time, with no narrative flab and nothing extraneous to the demands of the plot. The movie gives us a new psychopath to boo and hiss at; Jason Butler Hamer’s Gordon Stewart Northcott is as deranged as they come, all the more terrifying because the story’s ultimately not about him so we learn nothing of his motives for his slayings, what led him to become a monster imprisoning and slaughtering innocent young children for no apparent reason. We hate him and yet we feel a strange sympathy for him as he is led, destroyed, towards his ultimate, if deserved, fate.

In some ways ‘Changeling’ isn’t easy viewing; there are no neat answers and it determinedly is not a ‘feelgood’ movie. But it’s a superb achievement, a film which hooks you from the outset and draws you into its world, its characters, its situation and doesn’t let you go. So don’t make the mistake I made and leave this one of the shelf too long – as we gear up for the big Box Office summer heavyweights, it’s worth reminding yourself of how powerful quiet, restrained human stories can be in a multiplex world dominated by big robots and men in tights.

The DVD; Eighteen minutes of extras in the form of a couple of "It was a wonderful experience, Clint is a wonderful director" featurettes which manage to squeeze in a little bit about the screenwriter, the costumes and the locations. Thin stuff but interesting. There'll undoubtedly be a 2-disc edition along at some point but the film's the thing so don't sit there waiting.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Film Review: Sam Raimi's idea of Heaven...Drag Me To Hell

Licking his wounds from the sadly-deserved critical drubbing given to his bloated third Spider-Man movie in 2007, director Sam Raimi scuttled back to the horror genre which made his name (via the Evil Dead series), exhumed an old script he’d written with his brother Ivan and turned it into ‘Drag Me To Hell’, the slickest/sickest, grossest and funniest horror movie I’ve seen in ages. It’s packed with nasty stuff – projectile blood-spewing, fly-eating, embalming-fluid devouring, kitten-killing and all manner of general unpleasantness – and yet it’s bagged itself a 15 certificate in the UK. But this is because, despite the shrieks and he scares and the jumps, it’s actually a sort of good-natured horror film, tongue firmly in both cheeks, with none of the brutality and downright nastiness of your ‘Saw’s ad your ‘My Bloody Valentine’s. ‘Drag Me To Hell’ doesn’t take itself too seriously; it doesn’t really want to gross you out (although it manages it in places) it just wants to make you scream a bit, usually just after you’ve been laughing out loud.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohmann) is an ambitious loan arranger who seriously annoys a repellent and frankly disgusting old Hungarian gypsy Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) when she refuses to allow her more time to make her mortgage repayments. The old crone goes ballistic and puts a curse on Alison – a curse which involves her being tormented by a demon called Lamia for three nights. Unless Alison can somehow break the curse the Lamia will take her soul and literally drag her to Hell. Alison’s kindly boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) is sympathetic but sceptical and after a terrifyingly nail-biting encounter with the old biddy in a car park,Alison decides to visit a medium to help remove the curse. But nothing he suggests makes a difference; Alison is tormented in her own home, thrown about the place, attacked and brutalised. She eventually pays $10,000 to psychic Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza) to try and banish the Lamia back to the otherworldly dimension it’s come from – but it takes more than a determined psychic to see off a Lamia.

‘Drag Me To Hell’ reminded me of one of better Hammer horror movies of the 1960s; even though it’s gruesome and graphic there’s an odd sort of purity in its horror, a horror that’s so extreme it can’t help but raise a smile – and the audience I saw it with (when they weren’t checking their mobile phones – more of which later) were in hysterics (but in a good way). It also reminded me of one of those old portmanteau movies with titles like ‘Dr Terror’s House of Horrors’ which consisted of three of four short, sharp horror stories with stings in their tails. ‘Drag Me To Hell’ has of a sting in its tail too in an ending which you can sort of see coming but still shocks when it happens.
Sam Raimi is clearly having the time of his life with this one; he’s back in his element in the world of low-budget shlock horror and his direction, evoking much of his earlier work, is lively and dynamic. The movie works because it never does quite what you expect; you’re waiting to be shocked and he pulls back, only to spring something worse out at you moments later. The visuals are wonderfully imaginative and sometimes hilarious – who won’t laugh at the scene where one of San Dena’s assistants, possessed by the Lamia, spews out the kitten Alison has earlier killed in an attempt to appease the demon? Or the absolutely magnificently-ludicrous scene in Alison’s shed where she flattens a representation of the rampaging demon by releasing an anvil she has suspended on a rope from the rafters. As you do. ‘Drag Me To Hell’ works so well because it treads that fine line between humour and real horror; it knows it’s silly, it knows it’s nonsense but it seems to be winking at you all the way through even as does its best to get you leaping out of your seat and squealing like a girl.

I’m no huge fan of modern horror because much of it is just concerned with cruelty and unpleasantness and mutilation and gore which just gets a bit wearing after a while. ‘Drag Me To Hell’ redresses the balance a bit and puts the fun back into the genre. And it’s about time too.

On a personal note though, I saw the film in the company of the most appallingly-behaved and restless crowd I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit in the cinema with. Throughout the film the cinema was lit by the firefly glow of mobile phones being feverishly checked for messages, people jumping up and down and walking out of the auditorium jabbing feverishly at their phone keypads, the swaggering gang who came in ten minutes late, proceeded to shout incomprehensibly and for no apparent reason and then have a loud conversation with a gang of youths sprawled in one of the front rows. Now we all know that standards of public behaviour have plummeted in the last few years and most people now act like brain-dead Neanderthals with no interest in or concern for anyone else, but surely the whole point in going to a cinema is know...sit and watch a film? So take some advice from someone who loves going to the cinema but would really rather arrange private viewings....leave your bl**dy mobile phones at home (you can actually survive for more than five minutes without them), sit down, shut up and watch the film you’ve paid £6 to see. Thank you and good night!

Stuff coming soon: DVD reviews - Escape Into Night, Sky, The Rivals of Sherlock Dear Father (?)....Reality TV: Enough's enough...

TV Review: One in the Eye For Harold...or not. 1066: the Battle For Middle Earth

It goes without saying – surely? – that Channel 4 in the UK is the TV equivalent of a tide of effluent. Gok this, Jamie that, see this house, buy that house, go on this holiday, Gordon F*****g Ramsay and, the biggest slurry of excrement on a Channel 4 drowning in it – Big Brother. Brrrr... But sometimes C4 retains a tiny vestige of the broadcasting ethos which led to its birth back in the early 1980s. Sometimes, even now, C4 wants to do more than fill its prime time schedule with cheap lifetime shows and swearing chefs. It doesn’t show a lot of drama these days (Brookside, I still miss you) but when it does it does it in an imaginative, if low key and intentionally not-chasing-ratings fashion. Returning dramas are few and far between on C4 – think ‘Shameless’ (and I’d really rather not) and that’s your lot. But in the last year alone C4 has broadcast drama ‘events’ like ‘City of Vice’, ‘The Devil’s Whore’ and ‘Red Riding’ (the latter two of which are on my ‘to watch’ list – and that’s one seriously long list). Now add to that list of C4 dramas something quite extraordinary which I’ve just devoured into two sittings, reminding me of how good British drama can be and how compelling and terrifying drama can be when it’s based on a true story. And C4’s recent ‘1066: The Battle For Middle Earth’, two seventy-five minute episodes screened over two nights on C4 last week, is based on one of the most celebrated and famous true stories of all – a story which we all know from our schooldays as a story of battles and bloodshed and armies rushing up and down the country and Vikings and Normans. It’s a big, heroic story, glamorised and romanticised across hundreds of years to the point that it now seems like some Hollywood film we’ve never seen rather than a terrible, eviscerating time in British history. And in dramatising it, C4 have produced a modern TV masterpiece, a brilliantly-epic and yet ruthlessly-brutal piece of work which will live long in this memory and really should be required viewing in schools all over the UK.

What do you know about the Battle of Hastings? Ah, 1066 and all that... Something about Normans and Stamford Bridge and King Harold getting something in his eye. Something to do with Vikings too, probably, but not sure how they got in was all such a long time ago and I was staring out of the classroom window at the time... ‘1066: Battle For Middle Earth’ strips away the myth and tells it like it was – or as much as we think we know it was courtesy of contemporary written record, Norse mythology, interpretations of the illustrations on the Bayeux Tapestry and much more. The film presents the story much as we know it to be true; untrained British farmers recruited to join the British ‘army’ as weapons-men, press-ganged into defending their own country against the Normans, rumoured to be planning to swarm into Britain from the South coast. Crudely trained up by the warrior Oldnar this ragtag army eventually ‘stand down’ as the ‘warring season’ ends and the Normans never show. Meanwhile, up North, the Vikings have arrived, cutting a swathe across the country. The British warriors make their way – on foot – to the North of England to engage the powerful, strong, wily Vikings in combat. It seems to be a lost cause until at Stamford Bridge – literally a wooden footbridge crossing the river – British ingenuity wins the day and the Vikings are routed. Meanwhile down South the Normans have arrived to find the country undefended, its warriors fighting in the North. Tired and battle-weary, the remains of King Harold’s army trudge back down south for a confrontation with the ruthless, determined Normans – and a bloody confrontation at Hastings.

Despite the fact that this, being British TV, must of necessity be low budget stuff, there’s an epic quality to the production and a verisimilitude which drags the viewer right into the middle of the drama (or the reality of the drama) and immerses you in the grime and blood and savagery of the 11th century. Subtle CGI gives some depth to the Viking fleet sailing out of the Norweigan fjords, the British beach encampments, the Norman hordes facing off against a determined British rabble at Hastings, specifically at Senlac Hill. This is history as-if-you-were-there, real life cleverly made real by the simple device of life by the addition of fictional characters – fictional but most likely pretty typical of the sort of frightened, normal rural people drawn into events they have no control of - who we follow throughout the narrative. So we meet Leofric, a cowardly, waggish farmer and reluctant hero who comes good in the end, baby-faced newlywed Tofi, torn from his bride on their wedding day to fight in a war he’s totally unequipped for in every way imaginable. They’re our guides throughout one of the most momentous periods of British history and while they may never have existed as we see them here, they represent the people who did exist, the people who fought and suffered and died and did remarkable things in the name of their King.

We all know how this story ends. We marvel at the way the ragtag British army rushes to confront the Vikings who have sealed their own fate by dividing their forces allowing the British to route them at Stamford bridge. And what a battle Stamford Bridge is, like something torn from some far-fetched Hollywood movie as one champion Viking lines up on the bridge and hacks away at the British as they advance one-by one. It’s an extraordinary sequence, made all the more amazing by the way the wily British turn the tables and finally chase the Vikings (or Vikingr as they were historically known) back to their long-ships, tails between their legs.

Meanwhile the Normans are stormin’ across the South of England, swaggering across the country pillaging and devastating everything in their path. Leofric and Tofi find their home village Crowhurst is levelled and Tofi’s wife, amongst other women in their village,. Has been abducted by randy Norman soldiers. Here the story veers a bit too far into action movie territory as Leofric and Tofi rescue the women from the clutches of the Normans (but not for long as is turns out) and soon enough the two men rejoin the massed ranks at Hastings, ready to launch themselves at the French invaders. The battle – and it’s long and tiring and bloody – is brutal, hard, vicious, superbly-realised. The British even seem to be gaining the upper hand and for a moment the viewer forgets what the history books have told us and we’re cheering for the army of farmers even though we know the outcome. The sly French spread a rumour that their leader, Duke William, has been slain; the British fall for the rouse and allow themselves to be caught in a Norman pincer movement. They don’t stand a chance and they’re annihilated. But you knew that anyway...

‘1066: Battle For Middle Earth’ is a brave and impressive piece of TV. What makes it work is that the cast are pretty much unknowns (the only face you may recognise is Peter McGuiness as a Norman with a bit of a conscience – he’s the husband of Roberta Taylor, ex-The Bill) so there’s no ‘Oh, look, it’s him out of Emmerdale’ to tear you out of the drama. Like the best historical dramas it’s hugely educational, too – who knew that Tolkein drew so much inspiration for ‘Lord of the Rings’ from 1066? Britain at the time was known as ‘Middle Earth’ and’Orcs’ (devils) was a common nickname for the evil Normans. Beyond this we’re told that the legend of King Harold – the old arrow in the eye legend – is probably a load of old baloney and his ultimate fate – disembowelling, gelding and eventual beheading – was a lot more eye-watering.

This is history told with more reality and style than I’ve ever seen it told before. If you missed its transmission the other week it’s out on DVD on 1st June and I’d urge you to get hold of a copy if you’ve even the remotest interest in history brought to life and, more than that, great British drama. Brilliant.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Torchwood series three trundles closer...

Broadcast of rhe new five-part Torchwood mini-series 'Children of Earth' draws nearer - except nobody knows exactly when yet. The rumoured June airing date (across five nights on BBC1) has been pushed back to July and, possibly now, pushed back to August. It looks like the series will be debutting more or less simultaneously with BBC America where the show has been a substantial hit. So whilst BBC in the UK remains a Torchwood-trailer free zone,. BBC America have just released this rather tasty little two-minute plus extract... Bring it on, says Stuff!

New Who girl announced...!

Here she is! The BBC have just announced the identity of the actress who will be accompanying Matt Smith on his travels in the TARDIS in the next series of Dr Who, due to start filming in the next few weeks to air from next Easter. Her name's Karen Gillen, she's 21, she's Scottish, I've never heard of her but she appeared as a Soothsayer in last year's 'Fires Of Pompeii' episode. No word yet on her character's name and background but it's exciting to see the season five news starting to filter through after the bombardments of bits and pieces about the end of David Tennant's era. Here's Karen...

Thursday, 28 May 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 17th May 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 17th May 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) Britain's Got Talent (ITV1)..................11.09
2) Coronation Street (ITV1)......................9.10 *
3) The Apprenctice (BBC1)........................8.50
4) Eurovision Song Contest (BBC1)................7.91
5) EastEnders (BBC1).............................7.84 *
6) Emmerdale (ITV1)..............................6.48 *
7) Ashes To Ashes (BBC1).........................6.18
8) Inspector George Gently (BBC1)................6.02
9) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)................5.84
10) Countryfile (BBC1)............................5.67
11) Island of Britain (ITV1)......................5.48
12) Heartbeat (ITV1)..............................5.36
13) Holby City (BBC1).............................5.28
14) British Soap Awards (ITV1)....................5.25
15) Primeval (ITV1)...............................5.13
16) National Lottery draws (Saturday) (BBC1)......4.96
17) All Star Mr and Mrs (ITV1)....................4.95
18) The Bill (ITV1)...............................4.93
19) My Family (BBC1)..............................4.91
20) Waterloo Road (BBC1)..........................4.54

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Look Who's Joining Sarah Jane...

Word up!! (?) Here's a Press Release from t'BBC, issued on Tuesday the somethingth of May. Yippee, says I.

Doctor Who fans are in for a treat this Autumn as David Tennant makes a special appearance as The Doctor in CBBC's hit drama series The Sarah Jane Adventures with a starring role across two episodes.

Investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith, one-time companion to that strange wanderer in time and space known as The Doctor, is reunited with her old friend as The Sarah Jane Adventures is back for a third series of alien-busting adventures on CBBC this September.

Elisabeth Sladen, who plays Sarah Jane, says: "When I heard the news that David was going to be joining us I was absolutely over the moon. Not only has it made my day but it will also make the viewers' day.

"It's fantastic news that Sarah Jane is going to spend some time working with The Doctor again and is testament to just how successful this CBBC series is."

Russell T Davies, Executive Producer of The Sarah Jane Adventures, adds: "Viewers thought they may have to wait until November for the next full episode of Doctor Who, but this is an extra special treat.

"And it's not just a cameo from David – this is a full-on appearance for The Doctor as he and Sarah Jane face their biggest threat ever."

The series includes 12 weeks of brand new adventures featuring a new alien race, the reptilian Veil and their enemies the Judoon, alongside an extraterrestrial girl that can make people play games against their will.

There will also be a living painting, the inhabitants of a supposedly haunted house, monsters who want to infect Earth with a strangely aggressive weed and a chance for Sarah Jane to find personal happiness with someone who could be the perfect person to complete her family.

Alongside adopted son Luke, Sarah Jane's team is made up of Luke's streetwise pal Clyde Langer, their schoolmate Rani, who lives opposite and has aspirations to become a journalist like Sarah Jane, and Mr Smith, their Xylok supercomputer up in the attic, plus Sarah Jane's robot dog, K-9.

Here's Russell T talking about it all...


Putting on my fanorak for a moment, my own personal hope for this story - which I suspect may be the last SJA in what I believe, for various reasons all to do with the relaunch of Dr Who in 2010 unencumbered by the baggage of various previous era spin-offs will be the final series - is that our Sarah Jane finally finds some sort of happiness, her old friend the Doctor wishes her well after a ripping final adventure together and tells her that her work is done, that the Earth is well-placed to protect itself now and it's time she found a life of her own. Sarah Jane can close down Mr Smith, give K9 the punt up the posterior he's long deserved, and walk off into the sunset with the new man in her life and her alien son Luke by her side. Awww. Let's hope Sarah's old chum Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who has already featured in The Sarah Jane Adventures, is down to be a guest in this wedding episode too....I'm sure a meeting between the tenth Doctor and the Brig will be the final 'check' box on David Tennant's Dr Who fanboy 'to do' list.

Incidentally, it's also now confirmed that there's yet more David Tennant as the Doctor for 2009 in the form of a new animated adventure, similar to 'The Infinite Quest' a couple of years ago. This one sees Tennant team up with his own current squeeze Georgia Moffatt (she played Jenny in 'The Doctor's Daughter' last year, you'll remember) with a guest cast which includes David Warner.

Monday, 25 May 2009

My Pod - Music and Stuff: 10cc Live 2009

Back in 1975, when the Universe was less than half its present size, I discovered proper pop music. Not, I must point out, the rather disposable, bubblegum 7 inch variety I’d previously been preoccupied with. No, in 1975 - or thereabouts – I started to discover and investigate the medium of the long-player. Crazy modern youngsters are already contemptuous of the physical CD and would rather download albums (or, more likely, cherry-pick tracks which take their fancy) and store them of their I-Pods or I-Phones or I-Don’t-Know- What- The –Hell- It- Is. But back in 1975 the long-player was Undiscovered Country to me and I was taking gentle steps into the format with the likes of ‘Band On The Run’ by Wings. And then came 10cc.

I’d been aware of 10cc from the string of hits singles they’d enjoyed from 1972 onwards. Their first single, 1972’s superb 1950s pastiche ‘Donna’ is still a piece of pop perfection and ‘Rubber Bullets’, their first no. 1 (from 1973) remains a masterpiece of pop production. So it was that, in 1975, the hairs on the back of my young neck were standing on end thanks to exposure to their second number one, the still-sublime (and still hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck) ‘I’m Not In Love’and I decided to dig a little deeper into their oeuvre and purchased myself a copy of their third album ‘The Original Soundtrack’. And so was cemented a musical loyalty which, with a few bumps and bruises along the way, has endured ever since, thirty four years in old money. I’m pleased to say that I’m still around –a little greyer and a bit more corpulent – and so, in a very different form, are 10cc. Only one member of the original group – guitarist/songwriter Graham Gouldman – remains and they’ve long since ceased to be a recording unit; 10cc operate the nostalgia circuit these days, touring the UK (and, in fact, the world) with Gouldman and a crack team of musicians, some of whom have been involved with the band since its earliest days. The songs remain the same – a slew of witty, musically-brilliant songs which capture a very special time – five years in the 1970s when 10cc were the dog’s bits’n’pieces – and which, more importantly, are still fresh, vibrant and exciting today. That’s the mark of truly great pop music and it’s a mark that Simon Cowell and his fathead karaoke singers could only dream of if they were interested in anything other than making loads of money from gullible TV viewers as quickly as possible. But don’t set me off...

I wouldn’t say I’d ‘forgotten’ 10cc as the nineties rolled in the noughties; they and their songs were sitting quietly in the back of my subconscious, waiting for the call to arms. It came about two years ago when I discovered that 10cc - or ‘10cc featuring Graham Gouldman and Friends’ as they were billed at the time – were on the road again. The memories and the melodies came flooding back as I joined a group of friends and a theatre-full of ageing children of the 70s at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall and relived my musical youth (no, not that Musical Youth, pay attention) and I don’t think my spine stopped shivering for the whole ninety minutes or so of music. 10cc 2006 were a revelation; Gouldman flying the flag for the original line-up with old faces Rick Fenn (guitar) and Paul Burgess (drums) augmented by Mick Wilson on keyboards and vocals and doing a sterling job of filling in for Eric Stewart and a pretty astonishing job of apeing Lol Creme’s fa;lsette vocals on ‘Donna’. Fortunately it was at that very Cardiff show that original drummer Kevin Godley made one of his two guest appearances on the tour, singing the ‘Sheet Music’ album track ‘Old Wild Men’ as well as a bizarre more recent composition called ‘beautifuloserdotcom’ and finally joining the band for a massive jam session on ‘Rubber Bullets’ during the encore. It was a Hell of a night out, possibly one of the best concerts I’ve ever been too – if only because of the historical personal significance which came with seeing that band live again performing those songs. Resisting the imploring of one particularly-voerenthusiastic friend who wanted to chase the band all over the country I considered myself fortunate to have had one more chance (not last – never last!) to reacquaint myself with songs of such a significant personal importance.

But hey and ho! Now they’re back on the road again – billed this time as just 10cc. Their latest tour kicked off in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago and the same group of friends trotted along to get another fix of the smart-ass art school 1970s pop. Wouldn’t you know it, this time it wasn’t quite the same. Maybe it was because it was the first gig of the tour, maybe the band are a bit knackered after a tour of Japan or, more likely, it’s just a simple case that last time round I hadn’t heard these songs or given them much thoughts for years. Seeing them played live – and powerfully – on stage was a hugely emotional experience. Seeing them performed again, less than two years later, couldn’t hope to have the same sort of impact. The balance of the show seemed a bit off too; last time out Kiki Dee provided an entertaining that’s-long-enough-thanks-where’s-Amoreuse-ah-there-it-is acoustic set. This time there’s no support turn, just Graham Gouldman on stage alone for the most part playing acoustic versions of the songs he wrote for bands like The Yardbirds and Herman’s Hermits and which made his name in the 1960s. But the set doesn’t really work; there’s no energy, Gouldman trots out familiar anecdotes about the songs and there’s a real sense of ‘flatness’ in the audience as they shuffle off to the Bar for an ice cream and a rethink after half-an-hour of Gouldman strumming away.

10cc themselves, of course, are as good as ever. No, check that – they’re good but they don’t, to these ears, seem as tight and as up for it as they did in 2006. There’s almost a sense that they’re going through the motions and the show, for some reason, never really takes flight the way it did back in 2006. The set list has changed slightly – album tracks like ‘The Second Sitting For The Last Supper’ and ‘From Rochdale to Ocho Rios’ have sneaked in but to the detrement of the classic ‘Life Is A Minestrone’ which has gone. The concert proper ends, as ever, with ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ and creaking joints and bones drag ancient carcases (I’m exaggerating) to the front of the stages for a bit of mildly-embarrassing dancing (I was in the Gods so wasn’t tempted to join in). The concert’s igniting now, ready to boil over in the inevitable encore. The band trail back in and kill the night stone dead with ‘Ready To Go Home’, the last song ever recorded under the name of 10cc. It’s a pleasant enough ballad but we really need ‘Rubber Bullets’ to keep the buzz going. We get it but the moment’s gone and the enthusiasm of ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ can’t be recaptured so quickly.

10cc are currently slogging round the UK. If you’re a fan or if you just remember one of their infernally-clever 1970s pop hits, you could do a lot worse than trot down to have a look. You’ll be surprised at how many memories these songs hold and how much they’ll remind you of a time when pop music still had a shred of integrity. As a fan – not in the fanatic sense – the 2006 show had the edge because it was something new and exciting pulled out of my past and brought to life in the twenty-first century. That’s a trick which is hard to pull off twice and any criticisms are, in reality, rooted in the fact that the band worked its magic again for me in 2006 and this latest show is really just a rerun with some bits shaved off. Despite all this, if they come my way again I’ll be there in the queue for tickets because ninety minutes in the company of a songbook as strong as this is never, ever time better spent doing anything else. Oh no...

Here's a taste of 10cc live in 2009, recorded in Europe earlier this year...

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Stuff TV Update: Primeval, Ashes To Ashes, Dexter, 24, Dollhouse...

Not much in the way of rich pickings at the moment as British TV drifts towards the summertime televisual draught and the schedules continue to be clogged up with various tedious Apprentices and Britain’s Got Talents which, as you may have gathered, are most definitely not the stuff of Stuff. But there’s some decent viewing to be had out there if you wade through the tabloid trivia of this week’s celebrity break-ups and five-minute singing sensations. I’ll be revisiting a few shows I’ve already touched upon to see how things are progressing as their latest seasons trundle on, and pointing out one or two other treats which might be worth your while seeking out with your remote or other channel-surfing device.

Primeval is rushing towards the end of its third Saturday night ITV series and whilst there are conflicting reports as to its future even in the short-term – ratings are down but it’s stabilised at around 5.5 million per week – the show’s find a new spring in its step in its latest ten-week run and, whilst the show is never going to break any new ground or win any awards, it’s settled into a nice routine as it provides literally non-stop bang for your buck and some real thrills as you dread the arrival of the far more monstrous C*w*ll and his band of weirdos. Primeval began its upturn in its second episode when Jason Flemyng added some much-needed sparkle when he made his first appearance as DC Danny Quinn, a police officer haunted by a tragedy from his past and curious about the activities of this bunch of scientists wandering around with fancy gadgets and behaving mysteriously, usually trailing peculiar creature sin their wake. Episode two, by Dr Who/Torchwood scribe James Moran, evoked memories of Dr Who's ‘Blink’ with its tale of a desolate riverside house ‘haunted’ by an unearthly predator which has been slinking through one of the show’s favoured anomalies. Episode three saw series lead Douglas Henshell, as Professor Nick Cutter, bumped off by his scheming duplicitous wife Helen (Juliet Aubrey). Not a moment too soon, frankly; Henshell was never the right leading man for this sort of action series and in series three particularly he looked bored out of his skull, a man who couldn’t wait to be off doing something more respectable. Flemyng quickly stepped into his shoes and the show’s energy levels instantly went through the roof. The storylines are the same as ever – monster comes through anomaly, the ARC team chase it back amidst much carnage and loud music – but the whole pace and speed of the thing has been ramped up a notch, largely due to the fact that the presence of the hugely-physical Flemyng has allowed the writers to up the show’s jeopardy factor with more chases, fights and stunts. There have been a couple of seriously-impressive episodes this year (damn Primeval for having no episodes titles!) including the giant ‘terror-bird’ yarn which saw the group trapped in a forest terrorised by giant ostrich-type beasties and in recent episode, the best yet, the group travelled into a desolate, post-apocalyptic future to rescue Abby’s irritating and rather pointless brother who wandered through an anomaly after being attacked by a giant spider-creature, the creation of a young Primeval fan who won an online competition. This was a superb instalment with the show’s production team working wonders on a probably-not-enormous budget, creating a nightmare vision of a desolate future world ravaged by spider-monsters and the show’s signature future predators. What really made the episode work was the edgy, disorientating camera-work and the stark bleached-out look of the future-world sequences and - tell your friends – a really quite nice performance from the usually-bland Hannah Spearitt as the show’s other slow-burning storyline – the coy relationship between between Spearitt’s Abby and Andrew Lee-Potts’ Connor – finally started moving. Only one real duffer of an episode so far where the series blew the long-awaited ‘man from the past’ plot device in a silly, unbelievable story about a medieval knight and a dragon. The penultimate episode's just screened and a rather routine but jaunty run-around with some prehistoric rhinos quickly became something a bit more interestin as a face from the past (or should that be the future?) returned to wreak havoc, bump off another regular, and set things up nicely for the season (series?) finale which, due to C*w*ll and his money-grubbing antics, we have to wait ane xtra week to see. Grrr...

Series three of ‘Primeval’ has been the best so far (bearing in mind that, if the rumours are true – and ITV seems to be changing its mind over its commissioning decisions the way most people change their pants – there may not be a fourth series for some time if at all). The show not only seems more comfortable in its skin now, especially with Flemyng aboard adding a bit of comedy as well as the derring-do, it’s also at peace with the limitations and restrictions of it’s the-same-story-every-week format. With ITV’s ‘Demons’ having been still-born, BBC1’s ‘Robin Hood’ fading fast and ‘Merlin’ not really catching fire, ‘Primeval’s become the best of the post-‘Dr Who’ Saturday night family dramas and it’d be pretty tragic if senseless ITV budget cuts rob the Network of the one decent adventure drama it’s produced in years.

Over on BBC1 ‘Ashes to Ashes’ increasingly-enjoyable second series is bouncing along nicely. Much tighter and tauter than the hurried, flabby first series, this is a show which has really found its place in the TV landscape. The stories are much stronger, performances more confident (although Gene Hunt, inevitably, is becoming a bit more of a caricature as the weeks roll by) and the mystery of Alex Drake’s predicament stuck in 1982 whilst, we assume, fighting for her life in 2008, has become much more intriguing with suggestions that there’s a connection between what’s happened to her and what happened to Sam Tyler in ‘Life on Mars’. If the show has much of a problem it’s that the 1980s are just a bit more anonymous, visually, than the 1970s of the earlier series. The series struggles to evoke the era by the use of some heavy-handed cultural references (Roland Rat, Fame, Skeletor, Bananarama) and year-specific (and sometimes not so year-specific) musical references. Without them this could just be another cop show as the episodes don’t give us a real sense of 1980s London and culture but that’s not really the point; we know Alex is supposed to be stranded in the 1980s and that’s really enough to carry the audience into and through the story. ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is good, solid stuff this year and I look forward to series three next year where, we’re promised, there’ll be a resolution which viewers will remember for years. Big talk; let’s hope they can deliver.

Elsewhere, over on the FX Channel, my favourite US import ‘Dexter’ is now well into its third series. This, you’ll recall, is the show about the blood-spatter analyst employed by the Police working out of Miami who, in his spare time, dispatches his own special justice to the bad guys who slip through the cracks. Dexter Morgan (the brilliant Michael C Hall) is a psycopath with a conscience, killing the bad guys whilst struggling to fit into a world he's really not designed for. Season three is ticking voer nicely; there's none of the pulsing urgency of the first two series but there's not dorp in quality either. Where season one saw Dexter battling the 'ice-truck killer', the one serial killer who seemed to keep one step ahead of the master and season two saw Dexter struggling to keep his secret from a fewllow officer hot on his trail, sereis three kicks off with dextrer doing the unthinkable - he murders an innocent. or so it seems. Said 'innocent' is, in fact, the brother of the local DA (Jimmy Smits) and he's determined that his brother's killer - assumed to be hideous sleazy slimeball drug-dealer Freedo - will not go unpunished. Dexter gets sloppy; he dispatches Freedo himself in the middle of the night but the DA catches him in the act. Dexter weaves another of his webs of lies as he tries to protect his own interests and meanwhile his own fractured personal life takes a turn for the perverse as his long-time girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) falls pregnant and Dex has to put his own independence on the line as he decides to try to live a normal life. but nothing's ever normal for Dexter. Dexter remains compelling television, its main strength being its talented and charismatic cast and its beautifully observed and characterised scripts. Then there's the backdrop of Miami too, practically a character in itself. The city's hot and muggy, a pressure cooker of cultures and moralties which, you sense, could boil over at any moment. We're five episodes into season three now - at least tow more seasons to go! - and there's a real sense that anything could happen here and that Dexter's approaching a crossroads or two in his life. Watch Dexter and weep for the fact that little else on TV even approaches its consistent quality.

I'd intended to devote an entire column to the latest (seventh!) season of 24, Fox's extraordinary ongoing real-time drama starring Keifer Sutherland as the desperately-unlucky ex-FBI agent Jack Bauer. But we're at the eve of the two-part series finale and, to be honest, this year has been so full of twists and turns and shoot-outs and explosions and bio-weapons and terrorists and Jon Voigt and car-chases and fist-fights and betrayal that I really don't think I'd know where to start.Iit's been a great year for the show, though, a step up from the patchy sixth series which sort of fizzled out halfway through a couple of years ago (there was no series last year to the American writer's strike). Sutherland's Bauer is one of the most remarkable action heroes in TV history; he appears to be indestructible despite the fact that, at the time of writing, he's been infected by a lethal incurable toxin and it looks like his bumber's finally up. But Jack has raced through this series like a man possessed; virtually beyond and above the law now he's killed, maimed, tortured and generally brutalised just about anyone who's got in his way and he's lost good friends too. 24's casual attitude to death can sometimes be a bit blunt and shocking but many, many episodes of this season have ended with me at the edge of my seat - really! - and cursing that damned timer as it clicks away towards the end of the hour. I'm looking forward to the series finale and to season eight next year with a new dynamic as 24 relocates to new York for what may be its final year. Go, Jack!

Finally to the new Joss Whedon series Dollhouse which made its UK debut this week on the FX Channel. I pretty much worship at the feet of Whedon - Buffy! Angel! Firefly! I mean, come on - and despite the fact that Stateside reviews of this first episode (screened in February in the US) warned me not to expect too much - I couldn't help but be disappointed. This first episode, written and directed by Whedon, had none of the flair - visual or verbal - we've come to expect from The Man. Where was the sly, witty dialogue? Where were the sharp and sassy characters? Where were the kick-ass fight scenes? Episode one was a dull trudge of a thing as we meet 'Echo' (Eliza Dushku, best known as Faith in both Buffy and Angel) who has for some reason enrolled into a covert organisation which has the technology to erase minds and memories and replace them with entirely new personalities. It uses this technology on a gang of misfit girls - the Dolls - and sends them off on espionage missions. Yep, it's Joe:90 but with Eliza Dushki in a min-skirt (fair enough) instead of a firbeglass nine-year old with magic specs. There was really nothing to see here in this first episode (well, apart from Eliza Dushku in a mini-skirt but I may have mentioned that) but word from the States is that the series finds it feet after about six episodes so, if I can wait that long, I'll stick with it to see what's in store. I mean, I owe Joss that much at least...

Friday, 22 May 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e May 10th 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 10th May 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) Britain's Got Talent (ITV1)................11.98
2) Coronaiton Street (ITV1)....................9.32 *
3) The Apprentice (BBC1).......................8.45
4) EastEnders (BBC1)...........................8.41 *
5) UEFA Champions League Football (ITV1).......7.84
6) Emmerdale (ITV1)............................6.51 *
7) Ashes To ASshes (BBC1)......................6.32
8) Casualty (BBC1).............................6.00
9) Inspector George Gently (BBC1)..............5.81
10) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)..............5.49
11) Primeval (ITV1).............................5.34
12) My Family (BBC1)............................5.24
13) Countryfile (BBC1)..........................5.23
14) Compulsion (ITV1)...........................5.15
15) Heartbeat (ITV1)............................4.96
16) Holby City (BBC1)...........................4.88
17) The Bill (ITV1).............................4.82
18) Waterloo Road (BBC1)........................4.76
19) Taggart (ITV1)..............................4.73
20) Islands of Britain (ITV1)...................4.72

Thursday, 21 May 2009

DVD Review: 'Frost/Nixon'

If you're a regular visitor to the World of Stuff (and if you are, hi, say hello some time!) you could be forgiven for thinking it's primarily a blog written and created by someone who likes a bit of sci-fi. I can't deny the evidence; Dr Who, Torchwood, Star Trek, Primeval, Watchmen...all these and more in a similar vein have been visited (and sometimes visited over and over again)in the last six months or so. And yes, it's true that I am a bit partial to drama with a bit of imagination, a bit of vision, something that's escapist in the most literal sense of the word... something that just takes you somewhere you've never been and are very unlikely to go. That's one of the reasons I don't do reality TV; if I wanted to be embarrassed by real people making arses of themselves over and over again I'd...well, in all honesty, I really wouldn't want to see real people making arses of themselves at all because it's not big and it's not clever - it's just cheap. That's why British Tv does it. Whoops, wandering onto my soap box again there...

I just like Stuff that's good - and obviously what's classified as good is an entirely subjective test. But hey, my blog, my rules. It's not all wormholes and Police Boxes and CGI monsters round at Stuff Towers. I go deep too, y'know. So here I am, stunned and satisfied by one of the best movies I've seen this year, one I foolishly ignored at the cinema because I didn't think it was my type of thing. Ha. Stereotyping myself there. I've just finished watching the DVD of Ron Howard's frankly magnificent 'Frost/Nixon' and I'm quite sure I've seen one of the best movies of the year containing career-best performances from two actors at the peak of their powers.

I've only a passing interest in politics (politicians fiddle their expenses!?? Big wow!) but even I'm familiar with the Watergate scandal which brought down President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. I'm a bit fuzzy about what it all entailed and I'm not all that au fait with the fallout which rained down for years afterwards. To my shame I was also blissfully unaware of the Frost/Nixon interviews from 1977 where David Frost, one of the UK's most innovative broadcasters (who now,sadly, slurs his way through a tacky celebrity homes show) faced off against the stubborn, defiant and shamed Richard Nixon. I was unaware of the furore, I was unaware of the sensation, I was unaware of the phenomenon. I was probably watching Tom Baker in 'Doctor Who' at the time.

Howard's scintillating movie is based on a long-running stage production and casts the talented British actor Michael Sheen as Frost; not a huge leap for him as he's done a long stint in the stage show. Don't worry about the physical resemblance (or lack thereof), 'Frost/Nixon' is about the drama and the history of it, not about impressions. Sheen inhabits Frost like a second skin; he's got the voice and the nuances and more than that, he's got the fears and insecurities too. Frost put his whole career on the line by chasing these four interview slots; at one point he loses his Australian TV show, his financial backers gettcold feet and the first three interviews fail to take off when the wilier Nixon outwits him, tying him up in a sea of meandering, pointless anecdotes. But that fourth and final interview, where Frost nails Nixon with his ferocious interrogation - with the help of some previously-unpublished and hugely damning interview transcripts - turns the whole experience around and Frost demolishes his opponent and forces him to face his truth. Good as Sheen is this is Frank Langella's movie really. His performance as Nixon is the stuff of cinema legend; his Nixon is a bitter, racist, sexist dinosaur, yet he retains his oratory skills, his political savvy and a very peculiar sense of pride which just won't let him he admit he ever did anything wrong until Frost finally puts a mirror up before him and stops him dead in his tracks.

Really this is what 'Frost/Nixon' is all about. Its whole raison d'etre is that final confrontation, with Nixon admitting that if the President does something illegal it is, by definition, no longer illegal. It's an astonishing, powerful moment and the close-up on Langella's face shows a dozen emotions. Elsewhere the film surprisingly briefly rattles through the build-up to the interviews, his researcher's misgivings about a "talk show host" taking on such a formidable adversary and the reactions to those in Frost's corner - including future BBC DG John Birt (Matthew McFadyen) - as Nixon runs rings around Frost in the first three interviews and the whole enterprise stares failure and disaster in the face.

'Frost/Nixon' is pretty much unmissable, a real revelation of a movie. It's a tight, low-key film made with real passion and with the wit to leave the viewers to make their own minds up about this battle of wills. Nixon is pretty much a crushed man when he emerges from his tussle with Frost who, in turn, finds the world at his feet in its wake. Langella makes us sympathise with Nixon where we were earlier appalled by him and Howard doesn't shy from depicting the truth of a man who made stupid mistakes and made some appalling errors of judgment. 'Frost/Nixon' is just out on DVD in the UK and you need to see it as soon as possible.

The DVD itself is a textbook example of 'just enough' as far as extras are concerned. A smattering of deleted scenes, a decent 'making of', a brief but illuminating feature on the 'real' interview and a director's commentary.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Movie trailer: Ideal Holmes? Coming this Christmas...

I wouldn't exactly say I'm a Sherlock Holmes buff but I'm very definately a fan. I dip into my Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett DVD boxsets every now again and I've read the odd book/short story. I'm always up for a new take on the adventures of the Great Detective and I'm looking forward to the new BBC TV version, crafted by Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss and starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, due on our screens this Autumn. I'm also intrigued by the new Guy Richie feature starring Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law (eek) coming to a Mulitplex near you this Christmas. If nothing else it's likely to ruffle a few feathers amongst the Holmes afficionados. The first trailer's out there and here it is...forget everything you thin k you know about Sherlock Holmes...

O. M. G. This may be the best film in, like...ever...

Some things have to be seen to be believed. And I've seen this trailer and I still don't believe it. Coming soon from Asylum Films, the ultra-cheapo blockbuster rip-off movie merchants who have given us such wonderful straight-to-DVD entertainment as "The Invasion Begins...", "Monster", "I Am Legion" and countless others too terrible and too low-budget to remember, comes this...this....this masterpiece. Take a look at this trailer - the film stars former pop puppet Debbie (now Deborah) Gibson and some bloke called Lorenzo Lomas who I've heard of from something better...and, like me, you will want to see this film right away, if not sooner...


Friday, 15 May 2009

Matt Smith talks Time Lords at Cannes...

"Travelling through universes in the TARDIS??" Whaaa?? It's getting closer, fans.... After a few months of quiet as we adjust to the fact that David Tennant's on his way out, new Doctor Matt Smith is raising his head above the parapet again and starting to talk about his forthcoming role in the next series of Dr Who, due on screen in March 2010. He's currently at Cannes, promoting a short film being premiered at the Festival. Some BBC bod or other caught up with Matt and he spoke of his career and the new role which will change his life. Here's the interveiw as broadcast on the BBC news Thursday night... And keep your eyes peeled for set reports, pics and videoclips here on Stuff when Matt takes the streets of glorious Cardiff filming his first episodes! My eyes is peeled!

Film preview: The Road....coming this Winter...

The summer blockbuster season is well and truly kicking in now with the new 'Star Trek' cutting a swathe through the Box office, X Men Origins: Wolverine doing well despite negative Press (and it's actually damned good, trust coming soon) and the follow-up to 'The Da Vinci Code', 'Angels And Demons' out this weekend. There's still a new Harry Potter, the rebooted Terminator (review of the new Blu-Ray of the underrated Terminator 3 coming soon too!), 'Night at the Museum 2' and plenty more still to come.

But I'm waiting patiently, twiddling my end-of-the-world thumbs, for 'The Road'. Based on Cormac ('No Country For Old Men') McCarthy's brilliant, gloomy-yet-inspiring post-apocalypse novel (and you know I can't resist a post-apocalypse!), the movie version, starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize "my mother couldn't spell Charlie" Theron, was due out last winter but was pushed back to winter 2010. The official trailer's now been released and whilst concessions have obviously been made for the Multiplex generation, it looks as if the spirit and style of the book has been recreated with some gusto. So when the wizards and the cyborgs have come and gone, this is the one I'll be waiting in line for. Here's that trailer in full...

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Stuff's guilty secret - in praise of 'Two Pints...'

I have a guilty secret. I can’t keep it in any longer, it’s tearing me up inside. I have to let it out. You see…wow, this is so difficult…I…I have an addiction. I can’t shake it. I know it’s wrong, I know it’s not really meant for me, I know it’s for the kids but… Well, I thought I could shake it off just by looking away. I thought I could handle it…but I can’t. I’m hooked. I’m line and sinkered too… You see…gulp…and I hope you don’t lose your respect for me and walk away from Stuff forever…but…

I’m a fan of ‘Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.’ There. It’s said. I feel better now. The Sitcom That Dare Not Speak Its Name is must-see TV round Stuff Towers and whilst I wouldn’t wander the streets with a ‘Gaz Wilkinson Forever’ T-shirt I feel it’s time to stand up and be counted and say a word or two in support of one of the BBC’s longest-running comedies, a show tucked away on BBC3, a series almost always vilified as puerile, filthy, lewd, crude and loud. Yep, it’s all of these things and more – but that’s why we ‘Pinters’ (as I like to think ‘Two Pints’ fans might call themselves) love it so much. ‘Two Pints’ has no pretensions to being anything other than what it is and what it was always intended to be – a raucous, shocking comedy for the late teens and the early twenties who still snigger at the word ‘t*ts’; I’m…well, considerably outside the show’s intended viewer age range but I enjoy ‘Two Pints’, crudity and all, because it’s funny. It’s actually really very very funny. Sometimes even laugh-out loud funny. And I’d dare you to say that about ‘After You’ve Gone’ or ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. Or even ‘Parents of the Band’ (remember that stinker?).

A little bit about the show for those of you who don’t watch it or who’d rather not go there. Conceived by young writer Susan Nickson in 2002 ‘Two Pints…’ a comedy set in the North of England for kids obsessed with booze, going out, sex and shallow relationships, The series debuted on BBC2 and was almost immediately ripped to shreds by the critics. The song’s remained the same ever since – although these days the critics don’t even bother with it and when it does get any publicity it’s usually in conjunction with the words “dreadful” and “unfunny.” I say ‘pah’ to all that. If you can get into its gutter-level mindset ‘Two Pints’ can be hysterically funny with some genuinely sharp wordplay and some beautifully-judged comic dialogue, albeit most of it punctuated with the sort of extreme language, imagery and innuendo we’ve not really seen anywhere on TV before. Sometimes even I’m shocked by some of the stuff the characters come out with on ‘Two Pints’ – but I’m not sad enough to be so shocked that I’m offended by it or feel the need to fire off an ‘Angry of Cardiff’ letter to the BBC or Ofcom or any other busy-body TV watchdog set-up. I know by now what to expect of ‘Two Pints’ and I sit there and I brace myself; I’m rarely disappointed.

Anyway, the show’s about the lives and loves of a gang of pretty hopeless ‘kids’ (although most of the cast are rushing towards thirty now and Will Mellor’s about 33!) in glamorous Runcorn. Inititally there were five core characters. Feckless layabout Jonny (Ralf Little) was obsessed with lounging around, drinking down the pub with his mate Gaz, his live-in girlfriend Janet and jammy dodgers – in no particular order of preference. Chavvy Janet (Sheridan Smith) sat about in shellsuits smoking for Britain and occasionally working in a bakery. Feisty, fiery Donna (Natalie Casey) worked in a factory but yearned for more than the bright lights of Runcorn – her dream was to live and work in That London, so far away it might as well be another planet. Then there was Louise (Kathryn Drysdale), shrill, neurotic, self-obsessed and…well, just plain odd. Gaz (Will Mellor) was the cocky, single-minded, sex-mad car mechanic, Jonny’s best friend. As the series kicked off all those years ago Jonny introduced his best mate Gaz to Janet’s friend Donna…and a saga began which has run an astonishing eight years across eight series (the longest series clocking in at an amazing sixteen episodes).

Never less than brash and in-yer-face, ‘Two Pints’ eventually migrated from BBC2 and found its spiritual home on BBC3, the ‘yoof’ channel, where repeats of its old episodes seem to bulk up much of the channel’s schedule and each new series ticks over with a steady, committed audience. But over the years ‘Two Pints’ has become much more than its critics – most of whom probably watched one episode before dismissing it out of hand – have ever given it credit for. In the middle of all the vulgarity and filth ‘Two Pints’ has a very real heart and placed its characters in fraught, emotional situations which have been as heart-wrenching and potentially tear-jerking as any more melodramatic soap opera. Across eight series ‘Two Pints’ has done it all; birth, marriage, affairs, two-timing, double-crossing, traffic accidents and even, at the end of series six when Ralf Little decided it was time to grow up professionally, death, when his character Jonny was written out in a tragic shark-jumping escapade gone wrong (a post-modern plot twist not lost on those familiar with contemporary TV shorthand). Losing a cast member – especially from a cast so clearly well-knit as this one – can sometimes be catastrophic and upend the creative karma but, two series on, ‘Two Pints’ is as big and boisterous as ever with new cast members effortlessly stepping in to fill the Jonny-shaped void such as Tim (Luke Gell), the stocky, camp new manager of the Arches pub where the characters spend at least half of their waking hours, and Wesley Presley (Thomas Nelstrop) , Donna’s cockney boyfriend from her in-between-series time spent carving out a short-lived new life in That London.

‘Two Pints’ is also unafraid of experimenting and innovating with the sitcom form. Over the years the show has broken most sitcom conventions with Susan Nickson, long since joined by other writers, keen to make her cast earn their pennies and flex their thespian muscles. Over the years ‘Two Pints’ has delivered a musical episode (recalling how Janet and Jonny first met), a very impressive live episode (where Nickson really put the cast through their paces with stunts, song and dance routines, tongue-twisting dialogue), a Comic Relief special, a gore-filled horror special, a two-hander between Janet and Gaz and a couple of ‘you decide the outcome’ phone vote episodes where viewers effectively dictate the future direction of the series, most recently in the last episode of this most just-finished series where Gaz, having taken up with Janet in the wake of Jonny’s ‘death’ (and I’m still expecting Ralf Little to wander back into the show at any moment, to be honest), finally had to make his mind up whether he wanted to stay with Janet or resume his relationship with his ex-wife Donna.

So there’s more to ‘Two Pints’ than just young people shouting and swearing at each other. Beneath all the creative cursing and vulgarity it’s got heart, emotion and, most importantly of all, characters you can’t help liking, caring about and rooting for. Britain never really managed to create a comedy series evoking the spirit of ‘Friends’ – ‘Cold Feet’ was often touted as the British answer – but in reality ‘Two Pints’ comes a bit closer with its wilful mix of farce, slapstick, coarseness (not really the domain of the Central Perk crowd) and some real ‘stop you in your tracks’ emotional beats.

Ultimately ‘Two Pints’ just isn’t to everyone’s taste; it’s probably too abrasive for a big mainstream audience but it’s honest, it’s unpretentious and its lively and attractive cast just make it fun to watch if you can cope with the earthiness.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

UK TV Charts - w/e May 3rd, 2009

Bright'n'early this week!! Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 3rd May 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) Britain's Got Talent (ITV1)..................11.30
2) Coronation Street (ITV1)......................8.96 *
3) The Apprentice (BBC1).........................8.29
4) EastEnders (BBC1).............................8.12 *
5) UEFA Champions League Football (ITV)..........6.78
6) Ashes To Ashes (BBC1).........................6.59
7) Emmerdale (ITV1)..............................6.57 *
8) Inspector George Gently (BBC1)................6.47
9) Casualty (BBC1)...............................5.90
10) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)................5.39
11) Primeval (ITV1)...............................5.27
12) My Family (BBC1)..............................5.14
13) Holby City (BBC1).............................5.11
14) Countryfile (BBC1)............................5.09
15) Islands of Britain (ITV1).....................4.89
16) Watchdog (BBC1)...............................4.75
17) The Bill (ITV1)...............................4.74
18) Heartbeat (ITV1)..............................4.67
19) Taggart (ITV1)................................4.63
20) Waterloo Road (BBC1)..........................4.62

Chart commentary: No change at the top with C*w*ll's grubby freak show still fascinating a depressingly-high number of viewers who really ought to get out more. The soaps are trailing, all of them a bit moribund at the moment. Good to see the much-improved second series of Ashes To Ashes holding on to a Top Ten slot, a rose amidst thorns. Its figures are down over a million on the first episode of series two (and continuue to fall slowly) but the show will undoubtedly remain a strong presence throughout its eight-week run. Shame the same can't be said for the BBC's accomplished Reggie Perrin reboot which made a strong start last week but disappears from the Top 20 for this second week. It seems people don't have the ability to stick with dramas and comedies week after week any more, so absorbed are they with talent show wannabes. It's all so sad. Robin Hood well and truly out of the chart now but ITV rival Primeval, although its numbers are down, is still making a decent showing and surely deserves a recommissioning. Martin Shaw's latest vehicle, the retitled Inspector George Gently, scores well for a Sunday night on BBC1 and old ITV warhorse Taggart sneaks udner the wire to nab a rare top 20 slot. Elsewhere not much to report; ITV have a middling hit with their Martin Clunes travelogue Islands of Britain and BBC1's faith in Countryfile as a prime time Sunday night show continues to be rewarded with good figures for a very cheap series.

Next chart, w/e May 10th, next Wednesay.

UK TV Chart - w/e 26th April 2009

Late again....sorry!! Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 26th April 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) Britain's Got Talent (ITV1)...................13.21
2) Coronation Street (ITV1).......................8.73 *
3) The Apprentice (BBC1)..........................8.32
4) EastEnders (BBC1)..............................7.99 *
5) Ashes To Ashes (BBC1)..........................7.91
6) Emmerdale (ITv1)...............................6.26 *
7) Have I Got News For You (BBC1).................6.02
8) Heartbeat (ITV1)...............................5.95
9) Casualty (BBC1)................................5.82
10) Countryfile (BBC1).............................5.49
11) Reggie Perrin (BBC1)...........................5.39
12) Primeval (ITV1)................................5.20
13) (Holby City (BBC1)..............................5.14
13) (My Family (BBC1)...............................5.14
15) The Bill (ITV1)................................5.04 *
16) Waterloo Road (BBC1)...........................4.93
17) All The Small Things (BBC1)....................4.46
18) BAFTA TV Awards (BBC1).........................4.42
19) Formula One (BBC1).............................4.39
20) Hell's Kitchen (ITV1)..........................4.28 *

Monday, 11 May 2009

Book Review: 'One' by Conrad's the end of the world...again!

Now I’m as big a fan of the post-apocalypse as the last man and, as a bit of an afficionado of the end of the world I feel I’ve never had it so good. ‘I Am Legend’ did the business at the cinema a couple of years ago (to the extent that there’s talk of a sequel/prequel), the rebooted ‘Survivors’ was a ratings and creative hit for the BBC last year (and returns for a second series later this year or early next year) and there’s a new version of ‘The Day of The Triffids’ coming to a TV near you this Autumn. lovely jubbly. But sometimes, just occasionally, the end of civilisation as we know it is just a bit too bleak, even for me.

So it is with ‘One’, a new novel by British writer Conrad Williams, which I’ve been ploughing through the last couple of weeks in between doing something – anything – else to raise my spirits. Blimey, this is grim stuff. Richard Jane is a civil engineer working on the oil rigs in the North Sea. During a particularly-hairy underwater operation something goes horribly awry and he and his colleagues battle their way to the surface as what appears to be a violent storm rages overhead. But it’s far more than just a storm. The rig itself is devastated, the bodies of everyone on board horribly burned and melted. Jane manages to reach an escape capsule and, the only survivor, reaches the mainland. There he finds a devastated, scorched landscape, the grisly remains of a roasted or vaporised population and a country – possibly even a world – battered by the cold and the dark of a nuclear winter. Convinced that his five year-old son Stanley, living with Jane’s ex-wife in London, will have somehow survived the holocaust, Jane determines to make his way down to the capital in the hope of being re-united with his child. On his way he discovers the true horror of the new world, the tragic desperation of the few other survivors he encounters and the prospect of staying alive in a world with precious little food and a potentially-poisonous atmosphere. Nice.

One of the reasons I am drawn to post-apocalyptic stuff is primarily the old ‘ordinary people in extraordinary situations’ cliché and the fact that I am genuinely drawn to the imagery of the modern world brought to its knees, of society and all its toys rendered useless, of cold, deserted cities and, yes, lots of decaying bodies lying around the place. But behind and beyond all that these stories work for me when they have an inherent optimism, when their characters battle through the most extreme of adversity and where, during the story itself and most especially when the tale is told and it’s over and done, there’s some glimmer of hope, some chance that humanity will survive and, maybe, even thrive. Conrad Williams isn’t interested in this; there’s precious little hope in ‘One’, no real sign of humanity doing anything other than clinging on to the wreckage as it slides towards oblivion. Our hero Jane, our eyes and ears, is a man possessed and obsessed – he sees his son at every turn and his mind wanders back to happier days – and it’s only his overwhelming devotion to Stanley and his touching, if naïve, belief that he’ll find him alive in London when almost everyone else has fried which keeps his going. Jane’s not concerned with how Mankind will survive, how it can feed, clothe and shelter itself. He trudges the length of Britain, avoiding savage aggressors, reluctantly befriending others, grubbing for food and hiding from the cold. And when he finally reaches London…

When he finally reaches London the book pulls off an extraordinary – and initially quite disorientating – narrative leap which throws the reader ten years into the future. ‘One’, already a cold and depressing if fascinating read, suddenly plunges into even darker sci-fi territory. Ten years on it transpires that London is still alive, a couple of thousand human scavengers picking through the remains and grubbing about in the ruins. But now the dead don’t stay dead either; it’s not hugely clear from the text but it seems that some alien life essence – Williams obliquely refers at one point to some consciousness drifting through space and feeding off planets which have been devastated – is reanimating corpses and turning them into blood-hungry zombies. Yes, zombies. The locals call them Skinners (becauss they inhabit the skins of the deceased, presumably) and they prey on the ragged survivors – particularly female ones – for their own rather unpleasant purposes.

Ten years on life is even harder for Jane. he now has a surrogate family, two survivors he met en route to the city, and there are rumours abounding that a bunch of other survivors down on the Kent coast are fashioning a crude raft in order to flee Britain and head for France, in the belief that whatever conditions are like anywhere else they can’t possibly be worse than Britain. A metaphor for our times, methinks. But separated from his family, and with his new ‘partner’ Becky grabbed by the Skinners (ouch, painful!) Jane’s fragile grip on sanity becomes even more tenuous just as his failing body starts to literally fall apart…

As you can tell, ‘One’ isn’t a lot of fun. It’s remorsefully dirty, edgy and uncompromising. It’s uncomfortable. Perhaps it reflects what an end of the world situation would really be like; maybe in those circumstances we wouldn’t all be living in tight ethnically-balanced little groups in big, clean houses, wearing clean clothes every day and driving our 4x4s down to the local supermarket so we can forage for plentiful food supplies whilst rearing our own chickens for those tasty Sunday lunches. But ‘One’ isn’t easy reading. Maybe that’s the point. Williams clearly has a rather pessimistic view of human nature and its will and ability to survive. Moments of hope are born and suffocated almost immediately and there’s never a sense that the human race has got much of a future and is content to just pick on the bones of what’s gone before.

None of this is to suggest that ‘One’ is a bad book – far from it. It’s vivid and compelling but at times it’s difficult to read and wading through it isn’t exactly a pleasure even though, if you like this sort of stuff, it’s not a book you’re going to give up on. Williams’ writing is tough, brutal and never afraid to shock and sicken, piling on the misery as Jane wanders through his new life. Some of the flashback/fantasy sequences with Jane’s son Stanley tend to grate – Stanley is depicted as sickeningly twee but this may just be Jane’s way of conjuring up a comforting image of something as bit less repellent than the life he finds himself enduring after the ‘Event’. And the ‘apocalypse’ itself is never explained – solar flares? Some sort of nuclear holocaust? Something else?

Ultimately I’d recommend ‘One’ to lovers of the end of the world. Just be warned that this isn’t one of those “cosy catastrophe” novels of the type written by the likes of John Christopher and John Wyndham, generally regarded as the fathers of British apocalypse fiction (and it’s often agreed that British genre writers have a particular fixation with the end of the world). This is a modern book which puts an ugly, modern perspective, a realistic perspective on what is, in reality, the absolute worst case scenario for all of us. Read ‘One’ and then hope it never happens here…

Friday, 8 May 2009

Stuff at the Movies....Set Phasers to Stunning....Star Trek!

So how do you go about resurrecting a tired, worn-out forty year old TV science-fiction franchise? Well, if you’re Russell T Davies, tasked with breathing new life into the legendary ‘Dr Who’ TV series, you throw away most of the old convoluted mythology of the series – the stuff the more intense fans ponder and worry about and try to make sense of – and start from scratch, retaining the core elements which made the series work first time around. And, it appears, if you’re JJ Abrams, the genius behind ‘Lost’ and ‘Cloverfield’, taking on the responsibility of teasing 1960s TV classic ‘Star Trek’ back into the affections of a public bored by the years of the creative abuse which led shows like ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’ to fizzle out unwatched and unloved by all but the most determined, you...well, you do much the same as Mr Davies. You go right back to basics – and beyond – throw out all the arcane trivia and ephemera and invite everyone into a world they might previously never had any interest in. And, like Mr Davies, you get it right. You get it very right. Abrams’ new ‘Star Trek’ movie is utterly brilliant.

Now I’ve generally been a bit ambivalent about the whole ‘Star Trek’ experience. I can do a bit of the ‘classic’ series but the films and the subsequent TV shows – ‘The Next Generation’, ‘Deep Space Nine’ – nope, not for me. All those bumpy foreheads. I admit to snorting derisorily and rolling my eyes a bit when I saw the first promo pics from the new movie – same old tunics, same old ‘Star Trek’. But I should have learned to never judge a book by its covers or, indeed, a film by its stills...

JJ Abrams, not a self-confessed ‘Star Trek’ fanatic, clearly realised very quickly that the best chance he had of getting a big, sci-fi wary audience to embrace perhaps the geekiest of sci-fi shows, was to reinvent the whole damned thing. But he needed the most recognisable icons; just as Davies kept the TARDIS, the Daleks, the Cybermen, Abrams kept – or rather revisited – Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones, Sulu and, of course, the Starship Enterprise. But this is ‘Star Trek’ all shiny and new, pre-Shatner, pre-Nimoy, pre-everything from the 1960s. His film is about how it all began, why it all began and, in an absolute masterstoke of storytelling, how it changes everything that purports to come after it.
In simple terms, ‘Star Trek’ is a breath-taking experience. It fairly pulsates across the screen, just as Abrams’ underrated ‘Mission Impossible 3’ did a few years back. This is a fast, powerful, modern film, full of vibrant action, slick dialogue, razorsharp characterisation and it absolutely achieves everything it sets out to do. When it ends you will want more and you will want it immediately. This is ‘Star Trek’ as a genuinely exciting creative thing, not just the latest tired offshoot of an idea well overdue a nice long rest. This film is the product of people who have thought about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and what they need to do to make it work.

‘Star Trek’ starts as it means to go on – all guns blazing in a thundering space battle sequence. James T Kirk is born in the shadow of the death of his father, murdered by Nero (Eric Bana), leader of a ragtag group of renegade Romulans who have cosmic vengeance in mind. Years later, cocky and arrogant, Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) is challenged by Federation Officer Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to join the Federation, to make something of his life. We fast-forward three years and Kirk ingratiates himself aboard the newly-launched USS Enterprise as it and a fleet of other Starships warp across Space to offer assistance to the beleaguered planet Vulcan, under attack from the self-same Romulans and their planet-destroying energy weapon. But the Federation has been led into a trap, most of the Starships are destroyed, Pike is taken prisoner by the Romulans and, in conflict with the Enterprise’s default Vulcan Captain Spock (Zachary Quinto), Kirk finds himself shot out into space in a lifepod. He lands on the ice planet Delta Vega and is chased across its hostile terrain by a terrifying monster...until he’s saved by a familiar figure from a very different future...

‘Star Trek’ is pitch-perfect, it really is. The casting is spot-on; it’s fair to say that it’s tough to imagine Chris Pine developing into William Shatner but the new Kirk is smart-mouthed, out-spoken, wild, reckless and, like Kirk of old, oddly charismatic despite himself. But the real acting kudos go to Zachary Quinto who funnels his Spock directly from Leonard Nimoy himself (who also features in a pretty substantial and plot-significant cameo); Quinto looks like Nimoy, he sounds like all intents and purposes he is Nimoy. It’s an uncanny performance and while the love-hate relationship between Kirk and Spock is the very spine of the movie the snappy screenplay pays much more than lip service to the classic show’s supporting cast; everyone gets their moment to shine. Zoe Saldana plays communications officer Uhura and the film cleverly body-swerves the rather obvious Kirk/Uhura romantic angle it initially suggests is coming our way by having her mildly contemptuous of him and actually going on to enjoy a relationship with Spock. Didn’t see that coming! Elsewhere we have Karl Urban, stepping expertly into de Forrest Kelley’s shoes as Bones McCoy – who couldn’t smile as he utters the immortal “I’m a doctor not a physicist?” line? – the new Sulu gets to wield a sword in an edge-of-the-seat battle sequence on the platform of the Romulan’s killer drill and Chekhov amuses as a naive but enthusiastic seventeen year-old novice. Simon Pegg enters proceedings surprisingly late – in the last forty minutes or so – as Engineer Montgomery Scott,rescued from a forgotten Federation outpost on Delta Vega where he lives with a miniature alien with a face like a giant cornflake. Pegg brings a nice bit of comic relief to a film which already has a twinkle all its own but sometimes his performance threatens to topple into broad slapstick but I’m sure that’s something which the sequel (there must be one! Make it so!) will take care of.

Fans of the 'classic' 'Star Trek', who may find the relentlessness of the film and its sheer verve hard to come to terms with (they'll come round by the end of the movie) will love the nods to the past - old sounds FX and catchphrases abound - even I couldn't help feeling a little something at the first uttering of "Energise!" before the transporter is used and even "Live long and prosper" sounds like much more than just a glib turn of phrase when it's being spoken by the weather-beaten Leonard Nimoy. The film's production design is astonishing - the bridge of the Enterprise pulses and glows but there's no way the sequences in the engine room couldn't not look like what they were - scenes filmed in a clanking, hissing New York brewery but it's such a minor quibble as to be churlish. And really pretty much all criticism is pretty pointless. You might want to argue that the villains aren't all that; the Romulans are just snarling tattooed unshaven Anericans in brown robes but that's the point. Seeing Kirk and co battling leather-clad Klingons or some other TV creation with a bit of plasticine stuck unconvincingly to its forehead would have plunged the film spiralling back into the land of silly sci-fi and that's so clearly what's not required or attempted here. Besides, any alien threat is going to be undermined - to great comic effect - when its leader and spokesman appears on the Enterprise screen and says to Captain Pike "Hello Chris, it's Nero" with an off-handedness which belies the fact that the Romulans are on their way to turn the Earth into a black hole.

Really I could go on and on. I won't spoil the brilliant twist in the plot which frees Abrams from the shackles of the TV series and its clumsy history and I could rave for ages about the stunning score, the magnificent special effects and the sheer sense of joy in itself which permeates every frame - even the lens-flared ones Abrams is obviously so fond of. Reading this review is time better spent actually going to see 'Star Trek'. Just this once the fans and the critics have got it right and they seem to be pretty much of one voice; I've not read a bad word about this movie which, in this opinionated age, is pretty damnedh astonishing. Just like 'Star Trek'.

The summer blockbuster season is just beginning and there are lot of big budget extravaganzas out there ready at the starting blocks aiming for glory. I doubt we'll see one this year with the genius and effortless brilliance of 'Star Trek'. What are you waiting for? Boldly go and see it...