Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Dr Who finale trailer...The End Of Time...

As if the official new trailer for the next Dr Who special 'Waters of Mars' wasn't exciting enough (and it was exciting), at the San Diego Comic Con last weekend an even more exclusive trailer of the forthcoming very last (sob) David Tennant episode was aired for the first time. Tennant's finale is a two-parter, due to be screened in the UK at Christmas/New Year and fortunately a kind, if naughty, attendee or two at the Comi Con captured the trailer on their mobile phone or other video device. Here's the trailer; resolution isn't great, audio's dodgy (but this version has subtitles) and my spine has automatically gone into the default shivering mode it assumes when big Dr Who stuff happens. Narration is by guest star Timothy Dalton. Come on, isn't it Christmas yet???

Those crazy Americans seemed to like it...

Monday, 27 July 2009

Dr Who: The Waters of Mars...coming soon: new trailer...

The second of the four David Tennant Dr Who 'gap year' specials, 'The Waters of Mars', is on its way (due in the UK around October/November) and a new trailer has just been debuted at the San Diego Comic Con and, now, posted at the BBC's Dr Who site. Here it is in all its watery glory...

Sunday, 26 July 2009

DVD Review: Dr Who: The War Games

It’s been a pretty decent year so far for the 2 Entertain releases of the so-called ‘classic’ Dr Who TV serials. A couple of bona fide classics have been released with the now-traditional smorgesborg of tasty extra features – ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and ‘Image of the Fendahl’ – and the usual handful of real duffers from the fag end of the show in the late mid to late 1980s – ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ and ‘Delta and The Bannermen’- but in ‘The War Games’ we see the range take one of its too-occasional forays back into the hazy black-and-white days of the 1960s and deliver what is quite probably the very best classic Dr Who DVD release to date. For once not only do we get a damned fine serial which more than stands the test of time but we get a pretty breath-taking range of special features on a bonus third disc given over entirely to behind-the-scenes stuff and associated ephemera. Lovely.

‘The War Games’ is an important Dr Who serial for two well-documented reasons. Firstly, of course, it’s the end of several eras – it’s the show’s last fling in the 1960s, it’s the last of the black-and-white serials and, of course, it’s the last hurrah for second Doctor Patrick Troughton and his classic companion line-up of Jamie (Fraser Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury). It’s also the serial which blows the gaff on who the titular Doctor actually is. Until now he was a man of mystery, an alien traveller in Time and Space who, it appeared, had somehow managed to create a machine which could traverse all four Dimensions and had decided to dedicate all his time and energies to fighting the evils of the cosmos and generally righting wrongs. There’d been the odd hint of something more here and there; as early as the very first episode back in 1963 the first Doctor (William Hartnell) had hinted that he and his grand-daughter were “wanderers in the fourth dimension...exiles” and that they were cut off from their own people. But the series never found it necessary to build on this; it was enough that the Doctor could do the things he did and, when one body wore itself out, had the extraordinary ability to change his physical appearance and his personality. In TV terms then, when Patrick Troughton decided that three series was enough and that it was time to move on, the BBC faced the difficult decision of whether to axe the series once and for all or to try and pull the ‘new Doctor’ trick a second time and relaunch the show in colour with a third leading man. By virtue of a supreme bit of serendipity which saw two in-progress scripts collapse, script editor Terrance Dicks found himself with ten twenty-five minute episodes going begging and no final second Doctor story or stories to fill it with. Thus he drafted in his old writing colleague Malcolm Hulke and between them began to fashion an epic, a big, bold story which would finish the second Doctor’s tenure in style and finally – finally – cast a bit of light on the secret origins of the Doctor.

‘The War Games’ has developed a bit of a bad reputation over the years, much of it, it has to be said, courtesy of Mr Dicks himself who, in the intervening years (and even on this particular disc where he disparages the story frequently during his commentary contributions) has bemoaned its repetitive story-telling and episodes of going-nowhere padding. But, viewing the serial now in these ridiculously cleaned-up ‘I can’t believe this wasn’t made last week’ prints, it’s clear that Mr Dicks is being at best disingenuous, at worst downright rude and silly. I’ve not seen ‘The War Games’ since it was transmitted on UK Gold years and year ago and yes, I’d found it a bit heavy-going. But time can be a great healer and, in its new brushed-up version, it now comes across as the big, sprawling, imaginative epic it was always intended to be. Maybe because the current incarnation of the series is big and bold too it’s easier to recognise a similar sense of scale and ambition in the show’s older episodes. So whilst, at ten episodes, ‘The War Games’ goes on a bit, if it’s viewed the right way – two episodes at a time worked best for me – it really comes across as an exciting, big scale adventure with a nicely-seeded sense of foreboding as it moves towards its conclusion and the end of the second Doctor, with so much action and so much going on, it’s rarely boring and never less than thoroughly watchable.

You know the score. The TARDIS materialises amidst the mud and grime of the battlefields of the First World War. Within minutes the Doctor and his chums have fallen in with the local British hospital transport and been delivered to a nearby chateau where the British military are planning their strategy. Here a very strange court martial takes place and the Doctor is sentenced to be executed by firing squad... Whilst ‘The War Games’ looks as if it’s destined to be a gritty little historical war story, the very first episode subverts expectations by introducing the monocled General Smythe (Noel Coleman) who has some severely-impressive alien kit hidden behind a painting on his wall. Before long the Doctor and his friends find themselves travelling between war zones where soldiers from all across Earth’s history – first World War Tommies versus the Hun, raging Roman centurions, American confederates – are fighting an endless war in a hostile environment for the benefit of aggressive humanoid aliens working to create their own perfect army. Ultimately it’s an implausible and impractical story yet it’s hard not to be swept along by the scale of it and the breadth of the ideas it contains, especially when the Doctor moves closer to the truth and realises the enormity of the threat he’s facing and, ultimately, the risk it poses to his own future. There’s really never a dull moment because the narrative is always on the go and although many of the episodes involve little more than running around, fighting, hiding and escaping the whole thing rattles along powered by a typically charismatic performance by Troughton who carries everyone else along in his wake. But even if the storyline has run out of steam by episode nine – and there’s enough going on to ensure that it hasn’t – then there’s always episode ten where we finally find out the truth about where the Doctor has come from. With the machinations of the War Lords proving too huge even for the Doctor to cope with, he has to summon help from the one source he’d never have wanted to turn to – his own people. Episode ten sees our heroes rushing back to the TARDIS only to find themselves caught in a powerful force field and all their attempts to escape the oncoming storm from his own race come to nothing as the TARDIS is dragged back to the planet of the Time Lords.

Episode ten is brilliant, compelling stuff. Only now do we finally realise that this really is it for our hero and that, despite the best efforts of Jamie and Zoe and his own spirited defence at his trial – one which is only marginally fairer than the kangaroo court martial from the first episode – the Doctor has to face up to his indiscretions. But even now it’s not all over for the Doctor as the Time Lords, depicted here as omnipotent, flowing-robed Demi-Gods (the preferred depiction for many hard-core fans), realise that during his time on the run he’s fought the good fight and that he has a place in the scheme of things, even in their own non-interventionist Universe. So they banish him to his favourite planet (ours) and force him to change his appearance again. Troughton disappears into a spatial whirlpool, gurning and grizzling about the unfairness of it all, and an era comes to an end.

One of the great pleasures of DVD is the way it allows us to reappraise films and Tv shows we’ve long forgotten or never really appreciated. ‘The War Games’, stunningly-restored and presented with real care and devotion, is no longer a long, aimless time-filler but a bona fide Dr Who classic which closes the door on the show’s black-and-white era with style and gusto. Surprisingly brilliant.

The DVD Extras: Disc three is where the magic happens. As well as a commentary on every episode from the likes of Hines, Padbury, guest artists Philip Madoc (The War Lord), and Jane Sherwin (Lady Jane) as well as writer Terrance Dicks and producer Derrick Sherwin across the first two discs where the episodes live, the third disc boasts around three hours of bonus material which covers not only the serial itself but associated material connected with the show and TV of the 1960s. ‘War Zone’ is a detailed account of the making of the serial, ‘Now and Then’ is another in the series of short featurettes revisiting locations used in the serial (many of which are startlingly-unchanged), features on black-and-white TV in the 1960s, musician Dudley Simpson, costume designer Sylvia James, the 1960s Dr Who comic strips, script-writer Malcolm Hulke and a witty feature looking at the history of the Doctor’s regenerations throughout the series. Most intriguing – and bizarre – of all is an extract from ‘Devious’, an ambitious fan video production from the 1990s intending to bridge the gap between the end of ‘The War Games’ and Jon Pertwee’s debut in ‘Spearhead From Space’ in 1970. The USP of this rather...unusual...drama is that the production managed to coax a then elderly Jon Pertwee back into his frills to reprise his characterisation of the Doctor in a short sequence set aboard the TARDIS and segueing into the first shots of ‘Spearhead’. It’s an exhaustive, generous package and, along with the serial itself, makes ‘The War Games’ just about the best ‘classic’ Dr Who DVD release to date and an essential purchase for fans and casual newbies alike.

Friday, 24 July 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 12th July 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 12th July 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) Coronation Street (ITV1)................8.87 *
2) EastEnders (BBC1).......................7.35 *
3) Top Gear (BBC2).........................6.80
4) Torchwood: Children of Earth (BBC1).....6.47 *
5) Casualty (BBC1).........................6.32
6) Emmerdale (ITV1)........................5.98 *
7) Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow (BBC1)..5.37
8) Katie Price Exclusive - with P**rs M*rg*n
9) Kingdom (ITV1)..........................5.14
10) The Bill (ITV1).........................5.12 *
11) (National Lottery Guesstimation (BBC1)...5.05
11) (Total Wipeout (BBC1)....................5.05
13) Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1).............5.03 *
14) Holby City (BBC1).......................4.94
15) The Royal (ITV1)........................4.53
16) Real Crime (ITV1).......................4.32
17) Secret Caribbean with Trevor McDonald
18) Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (ITV1)....4.20
19) Formula 1:German Grand Prix (BBC1)......4.17
20) Michael Jackson Memorial Live (BBC2)....4.05

Chart commentary: The big chart news this week, of course, is the huge and entirely unexpected cross-over success of BBC1's week of Torchwood broadcasts. Across five nightly episodes the Dr Who spin-off finally came of age in a story wich was not only heart-stoppingly gripping but also compulsive viewing for an average of nearly 6.50 million viewers (with the highest-rated episode reaching nearly 6.8 million) as well as huge numbers on the BBC3 repeats and HD and the iPlayer which bring the mini-series total 'reach' audience to around 8 million. Quite remarkable for a series often written-off as a silly, brash, adolescent 'adult' sci-fi romp. 'Children of Earth' was big, important event TV and it bucked the usual trend of the BBC's five-nighter shows (5 Days, Criminal Justice) by maintaining and even increasing its audience. Hopefully Torchwood's success will not only lead to more from the series itself but more intelligent imaginative drama of this sort on prime time BBC1 - those were the stakes Torchwood was playing with this time, the future of prime time sci-fi pretty much depended on it doing well and it clearly surpassed all expectations. Well done Captain Jack.

Not such a 'well done' for the odious P**rs M*rg*n whose much-lauded 'world exclusive' hour-long chat with the ghasty Jordan could only interest around 5 million viewers. Hardly surprising; the British public have better things to do of a Sunday night than watch a slimeball interviewing a genuine 21st century grotesque.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

UK TV Charts - w/e 5th July 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 5th July 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. Wimbledon figures are shown individually this week and not averaged as each featured edition relates to a different match.

1) Wimbledon (BBC1, Mon).......................8.54
2) Coronation Street (ITV1)....................7.71 *
3) Wimbledon (BBC1, Sun).......................7.17
4) EastEnders (BBC1)...........................6.81 *
5) Top Gear (BBC2).............................6.38
6) Wimbledon (BBC1, Fri).......................6.31
7) Casualty (BBC1).............................5.84
8) Emmerdale (ITV1)............................5.54 *
9) Holby City (BBC1)...........................5.46
10) Countryfile (BBC1)..........................5.25
11) Kingdom (ITV1)..............................4.94
12) (The Royal (ITV1)............................4.62
12) (The Bill (ITV1).............................4.62
14) Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow (BBC1)...4.60
15) National Lottery Draws (BBC1, Sat)..........4.49
16) Total Wipeout (BBC1)........................4.34
17) Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1).................4.15 *
18) Secret Caribbean with Trevor McDonald (ITV1).4.03
19) Doc Martin (ITV1)............................3.93
20) Hotel Babylon (BBC1).........................3.79

Monday, 20 July 2009

Look who's started filming!: Matt Smith in costume as the Doctor...

Here we go again...

If you're visiting this blog you'll be aware that a new era of Dr Who has finally begun today as the new actor to play the redoubtable Doctor, Matt Smith, has begun his first stint filming tfor the upcoming fifth series, due in screen in March 2010. After much speculation over his costume, with many fans fearing some sort of urban, street rig-out of hoodie, T-shirt and jeans, the actual ensemble has turned out to be something of a chic and rather stylish throwback to the earlier days of the Doctor. The new Time Lord will be togged out in a tweed jacket complete with leather elbow pads, blue-black trousers slightly rolled up, black boots and blue shirt all topped off with a bow tie. The show's costume designers seem to have done it again and although Stuff's not too sure about the bowtie, the new look combines a fashionable retro look with a dash of a young Indiana Jones and a very definite and essential helping of 'old man in young man's body' which was pretty much vital with the part now being played by a visibly much younger actor than we've had before. Also on set today (the location, curiously, being Southerndown Bay outside Cardiff, previously used to create 'Bad Wolf Bay' where the Doctor has now bid two fond farewells to Rose Tyler) is actress Karen Gillan as Amy Bond, the new Doctor's new travelling companion. Even more intriguingly, actress Alex Kingston (who played the Doctor's future paramour in season four's 'Silence in the Library') has also been seen at the location today as the show trundles into production for another batch of thirteen episodes due on screen next Spring.

So here's the new man, his new girl and, it appears, his new TARDIS...

So what do we think?? Impressed by the new Time Lord gear for Dr Who? Is it what you expected? Is it what you want? Would you be seen dead looking like Dr Who? Tell Stuff what you think about the series as it moves towards its fifth full series. What do you think of the new chunky TARDIS? How's Karen Gillen looking for you? Share your hopes and fears and idle thoughts about the eleventh Doctor and leave a comment or two! Let's talk!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 28th June 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 28th June 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) Coronation Street (ITV1)..................8.39 *
2) (EastEnders (BBC1).........................7.17 *
2) (Top Gear (BBC2)...........................7.17
4) Casualty (BBC1)...........................6.06
5) Wimbledon 2009 (BBC1, Sat)................5.85
6) Emmerdale (ITV1)..........................5.55 *
7) National Lottery Draws (BBC1).............5.23
8) Holby City (BBC1).........................5.13
9) Kingdom (ITV1)............................5.10
10) Farmous, Rich and Homeless (BBC1).........5.07 *
11) Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow (BBC1).4.92
12) The Michael Jackson Story (ITV1)..........4.82
13) The Bill (ITV1)...........................4.80 *
14) Real Crime (ITV1).........................4.35
15) All Star Mr & Mrs (ITV1)..................4.21`
16) Countryfile (BBC1)........................4.15
17) Secret Caribbean With Trevor McDonald
18) Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1)...............3.91 *
19) Hotel Babylon (BBC1)......................3.88
20) Spain: Paradise Lost (ITV1)...............3.82

Friday, 10 July 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth - Day Five...

At three points in tonight's 'Day Five' episode of the latest (and surely last?) series of 'Torchwood' I was so close to switching off. Honestly. if you watched it you'll know the moments. Devastated politician John Frobisher, informed by a callous Prime Minister that his children are on the list of those to be sacrificed to the alien 456 and there's nothing he can do about it, requisitions a handgun and goes home to the bosom of his family - his wife and his two kids. They all go upstairs. He joins them in the bedroom. He shuts the door. Three shots ring out. There's a pause. A fourth shot. I could scarcely bear it. The most harrowing thing I have ever sene on television. My hand is on the remote - I'll have to watch this later, this is too much...

No. No, pull yourself toghether, you're a grown man. This is fiction. This is television. This is British television??? Carry on.... Wait...now what? Schoolkids being rounded up and bundled, terrified and screaming, into Army transport as their hysterical mothers watch helplessly? No, don't like this....this ain't right. But I'll carry on....this is tough...

What's this? Captain Jack to the recsue! Hooray! He's feeding the 456 kill frequency back to them, clever man! But he needs to channel it...uh oh...through a kid. The nearest kid available...Jack's grandson Steven. Oh, look...the kid's shaking. there's blood pouring out of his mouth and nose and ears....this is just not right...

And it wasn't right. In finishing off Torchwood (and this is what he's done, make no mistake about it) Russell T Davies has crossed every line in the TV rule book. He's gone too far. But he's done it in a series - in an episode - which is as bleak as television should ever get and probably more brilliant than it's ever been before or can ever be again. I've never seen anything like this episode - I loved it and I hated it. I cheered at it and I had something in my eye now and again. Davies set out to destroy his bastard offspring of Dr Who and, in doing so, he pretty much destroyed the Captain Jack character too. Because let's face it, in a series where your hero hasn't actually done anything terribly heroic (Jack's been either absent or on the backfoot pretty much throughout the entire five episodes) putting him in a situation where he has to countenance the death of a child - his own flesh and blood - is pretty much making your audience loathe the character. You can't come back from that. But then it's all open to debate, isn't it? That's what it was written for; in a series full of moot points this was ther mootest of all. Put yourself in Jack's place. You're seconds away from anarchy and lawlessness and the end of the world, seconds away from addicted aliens absconding millions of innocent kids for their own narcotic needs - and you can stop it all by sacrificing one child. What would you do? It's a snap decision, you've no time to weigh up the pros and cons, no time to sleep on it - it may already be too late. It's a dreadful, horrific dilemma and Jack's decision, greater good or no, turns him instantly into one of the most grotesque and hateful characters on television. You can't come back from that. There's no redemption.

6 million people have been watching 'Children of Earth' this week and I'm pretty sure that 6 million people wouldn't have expected that ending, that level of despair and grief and....just...raw naked drama. I've no intention of debating the finer points of this episode because this time minute critique just can't do it justice, there's just no point. In the end I loved this series because it finally made Torchwood the thing I always hoped it would be - proper adult science-fiction full of all the moral complexities and ambiguities and intrigue that comes with the very best in its genre. I loved 'Day Five' too even though it really was just too much to bear. I may return to this review and amend it when my fried mind allows what I've watched to settle into place...for now I adored this complex, compelling, dark and challenging piece of downbeat TV. And I sort of hated it too... Go figure...

So the future? Two days ago I'd have bet good money on Torchwood returning next year, even though it was clear from the tone of this series that it would have to be a slightly different beast. Now though, it's a tough call. This was as definitive an end to a 'format' as anything I've ever seen. Torchwood as an organisation no longer exists, Jack is a monster who can't live with himself and certainly can't live on Earth, Gwen has a family to raise. It seems sort of final, it seems neat. It seems the right place to stop. I'd go further...bringing Torchwood back after this (and dramatically it'd be easy enough....Jack returns to Earth and seeks out his friend Gwen who, two years later and with a kid at home, is fighting the fight in Cardiff alone with her husband. Not hard to reboot from there...) and to try and put the pieces back in the same position they were in before would devalue the drama of 'Children of Earth', of the devastating events of this series and the chocies Davies and his team made in rounding the show off. But then again did Davies pitch the show this way because he was so sure it was the end? Did the BBC say this was it? How will the show's incredible success and its amazing figures and audience response figures this week change things? Knowing the way Davies works, I daresay he has a contingency plan in place to bring the show back if asked...but then he's leaving the Dr Who stable and off to seek fame and fortune in the States. It's such a tough call. John Barrowman too (and kudos to him; he's so immersed in light entertainment jazz hands showbiz cheese it's easy to overlook the fact that he's a decent actor - and he was outstanding in 'Day Five'); he loves the character of Jack (although he's probably the only one right now) and has said again and again he wants to play Jack forever. So many imponderables...

If this series of Torchwood had come and gone largely unnoticed - as I rather thought it would - I could see this as a final hurrah, a show going out all guns blazing. And that's how I think it should be. But the BBC will be greedily eyeing the response the show's had and the numbers it's achieved so...at the end of the day, who knows what's in store? But I suspect we'll know one way or the other pretty quickly... Torchwood, this time you were wonderful. This has been one Hell of a ride and while it was sometimes very uncomfortable viewing, it's reminded me - in ways only Amercian shows and Dr Who usually do - just how great television drama can still be. Fantastic.

Torchwood: Children of Earth - Days Three and Four...

Torchwood’s ‘Children of Earth’ five-nighter has rattled along at such a pace and has become such a startling success – part four pulled in a record 6.24 million viewers, remarkable for the fourth episode of a five-part serial – that I barely had time to begin collating my thoughts on ‘Day Three’ than I was settling down to wallow in ‘Day Four’ But I think that’s probably been a good thing because it’s allowed the two episodes to soak in, and given me a chance to step back and look at the big, broad landscape of this outstanding new Torchwood mini-series and to rationalise it from the perspective of a show which has suddenly become a lot darker and a lot deeper than anyone ever really expected. At this stage I’ll just say that ‘Children of Earth’ has been a massive revelation, an absolute joy, providing a whole week of intelligent, shocking, thought-provoking TV. That’s just not something you can say too often about British television.

One of the greatest strengths of parent show Dr Who is that it can be anything. It can be a comedy, it can be a sci-fi romp, it can tell a horror story, it can do thrillers; it’s a blank canvas ready to be filled by the imagination of its writers who can take the Doctor anywhere in all Time and Space and do almost anything with him. One of Torchwood’s problems was that it didn’t have this format luxury; it was stuck resolutely in Cardiff and by its very nature it was a ‘nasty things come to us’ series and, by and large, Torchwood found themselves in Cardiff fighting...things which came to us. The show wriggled and squirmed to stretch its format by telling big sci-fi stories, horror stories, the odd comedy, deep emotional dramas...but the show always seemed a bit hidebound by its core format and it was never really comfortable in its TV skin. ‘Children of Earth’ seems to acknowledge this by punching the show right out of its format and heaving its audience – many of them new to the world of Torchwood – into something else entirely. This is why ‘Day Three’ in particular was such a jolt. Running directly after the more comic book ‘Day Two’ with its concrete coffins, shoot-outs and forklift truck rescues, ‘Day Three’ turned the show and its viewers on their heads by becoming virtually a Cold War sci-fi thriller full of political intrigue, conspiracy and, in its shocking finale, a stomach-churning revelation about its square-jawed leading man. More by luck than judgment Torchwood has managed to tap into the mood of the nation as far as those who lead us are concerned; after the mountain of revelations regarding Government expenses the British public are used to the duplicity and the self-serving nature of its politicians. ‘Day Three’, with sleazy PM Brian Green and his rabbit run civil servants scurrying about trying to cover up the past and deny the present, becomes more a contemporary document of our possible times rather a fanciful tale of space aliens threatening the human race.

‘Day Three’ kicks off with scenes which carry on the slightly larger-than-life style of ‘Day Two’ as Torchwood finds a new home in an old warehouse and the gang turn to petty theft and robbery to feed and fund themselves. In an unlikely twinkling of an eye they’ve booted up some impressive computer kit, bought some new clothes (Ianto finds Jack identical clothes to the ones he usually wears...well done, Ianto) and, despite the fact they’re on the run and hunted by gormless gunmen, set themselves the task of finding out what’s going on with the chanting children and who’s after their heads. Once these credibility-stretching sequences are done with, ‘Day Three’ goes a bit deeper. The 456 arrive in a pillar of fire and secrete themselves in a specially-prepared tank full of poison gas in a secure chamber at Thames House where the UK’s chosen representative, John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) falteringly welcomes them to the Earth and tries to find out exactly what they want. Like all the best SF monsters the 456 are best kept out of sight; what we see of them here is grim enough. A thrashing tentacle, something monstrous moving through the fog, green ichor spewed out across the protective glass....and that deep, measured, slightly-distorted voice. Gave me the creeps good and proper, I can tell you. I’ve seen the actual 456 creature now (courtesy of a BBC still up on the Torchwood gallery) and it’s a gruesome looking Hydra-like thing but, impressive as it is, things like this never really match up to what we think they might look like. Even so, ‘Torchwood’ has played the ‘Dalek’ card well here and ,just as Dr Who’s audience in 1963 was tantalised by a threateningly-wobbling sink plunger at the end of an episode,the audience here are kept waiting and wondering just what’s out there in the poison gas making veiled threats towards the human race.

Halfway through ‘Day Three’ several things occurred to me. I was watching a TV show which had suddenly slowed right down, becoming dialogue-heavy,with long, long talky scenes. The MP and his worried group, Gwen and Rhys meeting up with Lois, lots and lots of yak and not much action. But it really didn’t matter that Torchwood was not only sticking two fingers up at the ‘no long dialogue scenes’ unwritten rules of modern drama it was glorying in the fact it had the time to allow its dense plot to unfold slowly and languorously via word and not deed. It helped, of course, that Davies and co-writer James Moran pitched the thing beautifully via Davies’s trademark naturalistic, wry dialogue, not a word wasted, not a scene acting as padding. Also, in passing, how odd to be watching a prime time adult drama at around 9.30pm on a Wednesday where one of the main military characters is a member of a para-military organisation created in 1968 for one television story of a totally different series; it’s just odd to hear the name ‘UNIT’ tossed around so casually and a reminder of how discreetly Davies has recreated so many of Dr Who’s old tropes and somehow made them part of the national psyche, without people even realising it.

‘Day Three’ continues at its own pace, a fascinating and coruscating condemnation of modern behind-closed-doors politics where the man in the street is the last to know what’s really going on and the politicians themselves will do whatever they can to save their own necks. This is a theme the series returns to to devastating, eye-opening effect in ‘Day Four’. As the episode rattles towards its conclusion the strands of the plot start to come together; we start to see that there’s a very real connection between the 456 and the children beyond the fact they sue them for communication and the final reveal of Jack’s part in the 1965 abduction tears the rug out from under us in terms of what we know and what we thought we knew about Captain Jack Harkness.
‘Day Four’, similarly-paced but with a real ‘24’ vibe in its last arc, ramps up the tension and the drama to a degree which is honestly almost unbearable. We finally discover that the 456 have been here before and that, with the collusion of Jack Harkness, they abducted – for purposes of their own – twelve British children in exchange for a cure to a virus which would otherwise cause chaos and panic all over the world. Now they’re back and this time it’s a bald ultimatum; 10% of the children of the Earth or the world is destroyed. This is the real drama at the heart of this episode in particular as we watch, appalled, as the Government conspires to yet again hide the truth from those who elected it by battling to find a way to sacrifice the nation’s children without the public noticing or being aware of the atrocity they’ve committed. It’s a surreal, impossible dilemma but over the years – and especially more recently – we’ve come to realise that there seem to be no lows our elected representatives won’t stoop to. The dilemma facing the UK Government here is a very real and awful one and it’s really not so difficult to image their real-world counterparts doing something very similar and very underhand if and when faced with an impacable threat whose power they can't even begin to imagine. Watching all this from the new secret base are Gwen, Ianto and Rhys courtesy of super sci-fi contact lenses worn by their new best friend Lois (no convenient gadget this, Martha Jones used the same device back in series two). It’s impossible to convey in words the raw drama of the scenes on the Fifth Floor at Thames House as Frobisher struggles to negotiate with the restless 456 whilst Torchwood watch from afar, impotent and helpless and with all their guns and toys long gone. Eventually though the tables start to turn and it looks as if our heroes have started to get the upper hand on the Government at least, threatening to expose and destroy them by releasing their video recordings of their discussions to the wider world. Meanwhile Jack and Ianto infiltrate Thames House and confront the 456...who, in a devastating display of terrifying alien power, demonstrate just why they are such a terrible threat. They lock down Thames House and unleash a deadly airborne virus which kills every living being in the building.


So Torchwood suffers its latest casualty as Ianto Jones succumbs to the virus and dies in the arms of Captain Jack. Once again Davies (through episode writer John Fay) reminds us that Torchwood isn’t the sort of organisation that hands out long service medals and, whilst Ianto was never the strongest or most interesting of the team (although at least this series has fleshed him out a bit) his death scene is as heart-rending and evocative as the deaths of his colleagues Tosh and Owen at the end of series two. A touching coda too as Gwen grimly visits the makeshift morgue where the dead of the attack are laid out; Jack, being Jack, returns to life. Ianto enjoys no such miracle. As ‘Day Four’ fades we’re left exhausted, drained and probably a little bit depressed.

Under Russell T Davies’s stewardship Dr Who has, despite all the death and destruction, very clearly and very determinedly championed the triumph of the human spirit and the joy of just being alive. In the gravest of situations there’s always been hope, there’s always been humanity. Torchwood now has none of this. ‘Children of Earth’ is as bleak as TV gets. The human race, Davies seems to be saying here, is utterly contemptable and beyond redemption. We deserve all we get. It’s bizarre indeed that, given its moral judgements on us all, Torchwood has found favour with such a huge audience at such an audience-unfriendly time of the year. Put it down to good writing, good acting and the very simple fact that Torchwood is good, original, thoughtful drama. Yes, it’s about an omni-sexual immortal time-traveller,yes it’s about grisly aliens and mind control, it’s got guns and explosions and all the stuff we tend not to get in our dramas over here in the UK. But all this is the dressing around a compelling, enthralling, genuinely frightening and oddly-believable story about what Man will become when he finally faces up to the fact that he’s not alone in the Universe – and if and when it turns out that the aliens are just about as hostile as we could ever have imagined. On top of all this, says Torchwood, we ourselves are, in our own way, just as monstrous as the aliens. That’s the real story here, I think, that’s the drama that has enthralled over 6 million people this week.

On the strength of the first four episodes ‘Torchwood: Children of Earth’ is easily – easily – the best thing we’ve seen on British Tv this year. Easily. This is a show that’s earned its spurs, found its feet and, where once it might have been a “Do you remember that silly Dr Who spin-off they did...?” footnote in the history of British TV and British sci-fi, it now deserves a chapter of its very own. Torchwood is walking with the giants now – it’s become one of the finest television series ever made.

There. Said it.

Coming soon: Day Five...and what next – if anything – for Torchwood?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth - Day Two

With the powerful and confident 'Day One' having proved a notable ratings success for BBC1 - remarkably growing its audience from 5.7 million at the start to 6.1 million for the last quarter - 'Day Two' has the trickier task of holding on to the audience who may have tuned in to the first episode out of curiosity (although the steady numbers for episode one - and my own empirical experiences during the day - suggest the audience was intrigued enough to stick with it) and persuading them to stay on board for the rest of the ride. 'Day Two', written by John Fay (best known for his work on 'Coronation Street' and ITV's thriller mini-series 'Mobile' a few years back), like its predecessor, is a restlessly-dramatic episode but with a few added big bangs and chases, a few cracking gags and...well, because this is Torchwood at the end of the day - enough eyebrow-raising silliness to require its audience to suspend its disbelief a bit more than it might have done during the rather straighter first episode.

We pick up where the thrilling cliffhanger from 'Day one' left off. Torchwood's subterranean Hub has been devastated by a bomb placed in Jack Harnkness' guts. Gwen and Ianto are clear of the debris but running for their lives as sinister snipers try to pick them off. Like most TV snipers in action thrillers they're a pretty lousy shot and miss their targets by several miles and before long the pair are regrouping. Gwen rushes home to rouse sleeping lummox husband Rhys before going on the run and Ianto turns to his sister and her family for help. Meanwhile the Government - particularly scapegoat policitian Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) are increasingly-edgy about the forthcoming arrival of the alien species designated The 456, who have been communicating their intent to the peoples of the world by taking over every child on the planet and forcing them to intone "We are coming" in spooky voices. Hopeless killsquad agent Johnson (Liz May Brice) and her goons have retrieved the blown-apart bits of Captain Jack's corpse from the rubble of the Hub and shipped it off for observation in a top secert facility in a quarry somewhere. Before long Johnson and her oafs are watching as something very strange appears to be going on in Jack's body bag...

'Day Two' is a bit of a marking-time episode, in many ways the Torchwood equivalent of the escape-capture-run-around-escape-capture third episode of old four-part Dr Who yarns. There's loads going on here and the pace never lets up and yet by the end of the episode the plot hasn't really advanced much; yes, they are coming (back) and Torchwood are in the thick of it, but we're inching forward where, perhaps, we should have been getting a bit more of a move on. As the episode progresses it becomes obvious that Torchwood is drifting back to its default 'hang about, this is a bit silly...' mode as plot contrivances thraten to twist the narrative right out of shape as it struggles to reunite the Torchwood team. It's a bold move for Torchwood to keep its main selling point - John Barrowman - off screen for forty minutes and then bury him in concrete for most of the rest of the episode the moment he appears but maybe JB was off recording a cheesy pop album and touring Nicaragua in a production of 'Mamma Mia' or something... But where Torchwood's inherent silliness used to scupper the series because it was coupled with truly clunky dialogue and uneven characterisation, 'Children of Earth' gets away with it because the scripts are much more confident, the characters far better defined and better performed and the whole production oozes a style and breadth of vision the show's not enjoyed before. So while we're watching as Gwen and Rhys infiltrate the least top secret top secret security facility ever seen on TV (under the watchful eye of a dumb security guard observing them in plain sight on a CCTV screen having already seen them in even plainer sight on CCTV in Cardiff and still not making the connection) and indulge in a gun battle with Johnson and her crackpot crack shots, Ianto rolls up in a forklift truck which he uses to demolish the wall and drag free the concrete cell into which Jack has been imbedded. We watch gobsmacked as Gwen, Rhys and Ianto easily outwit a particularly witless and hopeless bunch of gunmen and Ianto drops Jack's concrete block over the edge of a quarry so it can break into bits and Jack can re-emerge, blinking and dusty and with his bum out. It's monstrously ridiculous, it shatters the carefully-crafted sense of realism the show established in 'Day One' and yet, because the show's style is so massively improved, it's easy to forgive the slide into archness and just go with the flow.

The viewing figures for 'Day Two' are probably pretty vital in deciding Torchwood's future beyond 'Children of Earth' and I'd be surprised if they fall away much from the high start of 'Day One'. But considering all the other BBC dramas of recent months which have struggled to reach 4 million - high profile shows like Occupation, Casualty 1909, Hope Springs and even returning favourite Hotel Babylon - it's hard to imagine that the BBC would bring the axe down on a big show like Torchwood which can pull in so many more viewers at, apparently, the same cost. Beyond any considerations about the series' future, 'Children of Earth' remains big, adrenalised TV. 'Day Two' has so much to recommend it to distract from the sense that it's all really just 60 minutes of padding - a lovely performance from Kai Owen as Gwen's dumbo husband and some wonderful scenes between him and Gwen (the always-impressive Eve MNyles), a nice quick appearance from old favourite PC Andy, another nervy and understated turn from Peter Capaldi, Katy Wix (Daisy from 'Not Going Out') as Ianto's likeable sister and a very promsing debut from the wonderfully-named Cush Jumbo as new Government intern Lois Habiba who's having a very unusual first week in her new job. 'Day Two' is fun, fast and furious but I'm hoping 'Day Three' will see the show regain the more studied and considered slightly-creepy style of the first episode rather than the 'big pictures' comic strip of 'Day Two'. But 'Children of Earth' remains blisteringly-good stuff and is pretty much as essential as British TV gets right now.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth - Day One - first impressions...

Sitting down to watch episode one (or Day One) of the new all-week third series of Torchwood, 'Children of Earth' is a bit like, Stuff imagines, sending your child off to school for the very first time. You're proud of him, obviously, he looks smart in his nice school uniform and polished shoes and you really hope he gets on well, fits in, doesn't make a fool of himself and is as bright and clever as you think he is. So it is with 'Torchwood', playing with the big boys now. Hidden away in the shadows of first BBC3 and then BBC2, and despite scoring good viewing figures at both its previous homes, the show seemed a bit more exposed now, in the cold harsh light of BBC1 with all the expectations a spotlight slot on the Corporation's most popular channel brings. Screened across 5 consecutive nights at 5pm this is proper adult TV now and where fans/viewers could make allowances for the wild swings in narrative tone of the first two series, the adolescent schoolboy nudge-nudge stuff which rolled so many eyebrows, the sci-fi trappings which marked the show out as "cult TV sci-fi", a prime time BBC1 audience is unlikely to be so forgiving. In short, 'Children of Earth' was where Torchwood had to really grow up, to put away its childish things and tell an imaginative story for mature adults who long ago stopped sniggering at the 'f' word. Yes, that one... Could Torchwood do it? Was its inherent cheesiness always going to be a bar to it crossing over into the mainstream, something few science-ficiton shows are really ever able to do? It's now or never...

On the evidence of 'Day One', screened on Monday 6th July 2009, this is the best shot the show has of reaching out beyond the geeks and the anoraks (sorry, geeks and anoraks). And if it doesn't and this mini-series turns out to be, as rumoured, the show's last hurrah, then it's going out in some style. This is the Torchwood I wanted to see four years ago when the show was first announced. This is Torchwood with proper long trousers on, telling a fascinating and thrilling story with wit and dynamism, its characters finally fully-developed and not just cliche-spouting cyphers. This, as I'd hoped, is Torchwood cloned with Quatermass cloned with State of Play, albeit with a heightened sense of (melo)drama and a genuine and palpable sense of scale.

Russell T Davies (you may have heard of him) scripted this first episode and his agenda is clear. Introduce the show and its core characters and raison d'etre to an audience who may have heard of it but never seen it, dump the camp sci-fi trappings (the Torchwood SUV, the underground Batcave - the "great big sci-fi superbase"), give Jack Harkness, Gwen and Ianto some depth as characters and give them, and the world, an extra-terrestrial threat which isn't (yet) some mass of wobbling rubber or vaguely-unconvincing CGI. Throw in a dash of Government cover-up and conspiracy, stir in a dash of paranoia, Village of the Damned style weird kids and lots and lots of soldiers with guns. Then rip Torchwood itself out of its comfort zone and see what happens next...

It all starts off in Scotland in 1965 when a bunch of kids on a coach outing are lured into the open by a shining white light. Flash-forward to the modern day and kids all over the world are rooted to the spot, stock still. Torchwood's interest is piqued, the Government are concerned - something like this, it seems, has happened before. A few hours later the kids all stop again, this time letting out a worldwide unearthly scream before intoning in modulated voices "We Are Coming." Brrr... It's an intriguing mystery and if Day One has any fault it's that the mystery itself is sidelined for a while as Davies sets about layering some meat onto the bones of his three remaining Torchwood personnel. So we see Jack making contact with his daughter - now approaching middle-aged as Jack, immortal, never ages - and we see Ianto travel home to visit his sister on her grubby council estate and face a comical grilling about his 'secret' relationship with his boss. All this, and a bit of fluff between Gwen and her chunky husband Rhys, is good stuff, beautifully written by Davies displaying once again his razor-sharp ear for the nuances of human relaitonships and naturalistic dialogue but, dumped as it is twenty minutes into the episode, does tend to perilously slow down the pace of the drama and distract from the story most of the audience had tuned in for. It's not hard to imagine some zapper-happy viewers getting bored with all the chit-chat and flicking over to watch 'The Hotel Inspectors' on 5...or something. Whilst appreciating that it's necessary to flesh out your characters a bit, particularly when there's a chance a large part of your audience may never have met them before, it seems a bit risky to pile on the domestic stuff when the real drama of your plot is still only being hinted at.

But when the episode really kicks into gear it kicks in big style. Government minister Frobiser (the brilliant Peter Capaldi) is given no support by the Prime Minister and left to make his own decisions/mistakes...which leads to the issuing of a 'blank page' elimination order when the decree comes down that maybe it's time to rewrite history and erase the people who might be a threat to British security in the emerging situation. As we canter towards the end of the first episode, a potential new Torchwood member turns out to be the very worst sort of traitor, Jack is turned into a human bomb and, with Gwen and Ianto running for their lives, the Torchwood Hub is blown to smithereens and Jack Harkness is torn apart.

I can't imagine that anyone who sat through this entire first episode won't feel compelled to come back for more. With genuine big screen production values, stunning direction (from Who regular Euros Lyn who's really given Torchwood a slick new look here), some trademark Davies laugh-out-loud moments, powerful performances all around (but why does John Barrowman run like such a girl??) this is as big and flashy a TV production as we've seen on UK television for some time. I may have my misgivings about the wisdom of skewing this first episode towards the kitchen-sink stuff but I'm so happy to report that Torchwood, on the evidence of this episode, has finally - finally! - fulfilled the potential it always had back when it was first mooted. I think this is going to be one Hell of a week of must-see drama.

The kid's doing fine. I think he's going to be okay now he's playing with the bigger boys...

Torchwood: Children of Earth continues at 9pm on BBC1 in the UK all week. Further reviews will appear later in the week.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 21st June 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 21st June 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) Coronation Street (ITV1)..............8.76 *
2) Top Gear (BBC2).......................7.86
3) EastEnders (BBC1).....................7.67 *
4) Emmerdale (ITV1)......................6.12 *
5) Casualty (BBC1).......................5.90
6) Holby City (BBC1).....................5.26
7) The Bill (ITV1).......................5.22 *
8) All Star Mr & Mrs (ITV1)..............4.84
9) Kingdom (ITV1)........................4.76
10) Hotel Babylon (BBC1)..................4.72
11) Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow
12) National Lottery Draws(BBC1,Sat)......4.60
13) Spain: Paradise Lost (ITV1)...........4.50
14) Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1)...........4.36 *
15) (Doc Martin (ITV1).....................4.30
15) (The Royal (ITV1)......................4.30
17) Occupation (BBC1).....................4.29 *
18) New Tricks (BBC1).....................4.25
19) Forumula One: British Grand Prix
20) Countryfile (BBC1)....................4.12

Chart commentary: A fairly routine summer chart rundowm without much of interest with figures falling as the temperature rises. The petrolheads of Top Gear storm back with an extraordinary rating placing their BBC2 show at slot 2 in the chart and interesting to see The Bill continue its resurgence, climbing steadily up the chart and slowly increasing its numbers; it bodes well for its forthcoming 9pm once-a-week relaunch. Some of the positions in this week's chart are a bit misleading as multi-episode shows like Celebrity Mastechief and the BBC's brilliant Occuaption saw an episode or two outside the Top 20 so their average and position are based on the available figures for the episodes which made their networks's respective Top 30s. If figures for all episodes were available neither of these shows would be likely to feature in the Top 20 at all - particularly disappointing for a quality drama like Occupation and, possibly concerning for the forthcoming Torchwood five-nighter.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Network DVD Update: Magpie and co...

“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told, Maaaaaaagpie....” Ahem. Sorry. I’ve just been dragged back nearly forty years in time by Network’s surprisingly-enjoyable new 2 DVD release of random episodes from ITV’s long-running 1970s children’s magazine programme hosted by, across its run, Tony Bastable, Susan Stranks, Douglas Rae, Mick Roberston, Jenny Hanley and Tommy Boyd.

'Magpie’, which ran between 1968 and 1980, broadcasting live twice a week, prided itself on being hipper and more ‘with it’ (man) than its stuffier BBC rival ‘Blue Peter’. Where ‘Blue Peter’ presenters came across like slightly more approachable teachers, the ‘Magpie’ crew were yourtrendy brother and sister, wearing the same sorts of clothes you did (those flares and tank tops!) and they knew about music and fashion and the cool stuff. But watching the twelve episodes included on these discs is like gazing back into time and observing a long-defunct civilisation – youth culture has come a Hell of a long way – and whilst ‘Magpie’s style and tone is looser and more fun than ‘Blue Peter’, the remit to educate its young audience is evident in every edition. ITV has long since abandoned weekday children’s programming, of course (to its shame) and even ‘Blue Peter’, which survives to this day, has been forced to embrace the ‘trivia’ of pop music and young people’s fashions.

Trendier it may be, but ‘Magpie’, despite its more random and ramshackle format (there’s no standing studio set, the presenters are just sort of....there) tackles subjects which would leave today’s streetwise Facebook-obsessed two-second attention span youngsters hooting with derision. But these were simpler, much more innocent times and it’s oddly charming to watch Magpie’s ‘On the Canals’ special with Doug and Jenny struggling to steer a canal barge and sweating and straining over the opening and closing of canal locks. Then there’s Susan and Doug dressed in Puritan and Royalist costumes, Tommy Boyd introducing a group of leotard-clad tap dancers hoofing along to a plinky piano musical accompaniment, a Christmas 1976 episode which is all silly comedy skits and bad jokes (really bad jokes) and, most exciting of all, the 1974 team competing in a ploughing competition. Heady, cutting edge stuff. But that’s the point; in the 1970s the term ‘cutting edge’ didn’t even exist and ‘Magpie’ was all about presenting a wide variety of items for an audience that was happy to be young and wasn’t obsessed with passing fads and fashions and growing up too soon.

Much of the easy-going success of ‘Magpie’ is down to its presenters, all of whom are clearly having a whale of a time. The slightly severe Susan Stranks was replaced by the more accident-prone Jenny Hanley whilst Tony Bastable went on to become series producer, replaced by nervy, curly-haired Marc Bolan look-alike Mick Roberston (Stuff fact...I bought his two 1970s pop singles, ‘The Tango’s Over’ and ‘Then I Changed Hands’...just thought you ought to know) and the cheery, enthusiastic Doug Rae, now a respected TV producer himself. They bring a huge sense of fun and adventure to the show and it’s only when Tommy Boyd joins, towards the end of the show’s run, that we see the first signs of the ‘zany, wacky’ style of presenting which would bedevil so much 1980s and 90s kid’s TV.

‘Magpie’ on DVD is great fun, a reminder of more carefree days. I’m not sure how rewatchable it all is – it could be the sort of DVD brought out at parties when the conversation gets nostalgic – but it’s a fascinating historical document of a cultural sensibility long gone, a time capsule of less manic, simpler times. It’s lovely stuff.

Also on release from Network:

I wouldn’t describe myself as an expert or even a connoisseur of classic kid’s TV but I’ve a pretty good memory of most of the adventure/thriller series of the 1960s and 1970s. But ‘The Jensen Code’ must have passed me by completely. Available exclusively from www.networkdvd.co.uk this thirteen part thriller, written by Rex Harrison’s son Carey, has a grittier, edgier vibe than some of its contemporaries like ‘The Tomorrow People’ and ‘Timeslip’. Broadcast in 1973 it tells of a group of slightly wayward lads at an Outward Bounds centre. Sixteen year-old Terry O’Connor (Dai Bradley) is a bit of a loner and his adventure starts when he finds himself trapped underground during a pot-holing session. Hours later his instructor Alex comes to the rescue and has no recollection of the hours which have elapsed. Nearby there’s a mysterious Ministry of Defence compound and Terry soon finds himself embroiled in kidnapping, espionage and the top-secret Jensen Code itself. Made in colour the episodes exist now only in black-and-white (the only DVD extra is part of one colour episode) and the series, whilst not as compelling as some of its more fantastical contemporaries, is interesting because of its more adult story-telling and rather bleak and foreboding location filming.

In 1971 ITV broadcast ‘The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’ which, you may not be surprised to learn, recounted the exploits of a group of second-league Victorian detectives who lived (fictionally) in the shadow of the Great Detective himself. Dr Thorndyke? Max Carrados? Horace Dorrington? Simon Carne? Carnaki the occult detective? Dixon Bruce??? No, me neither... These thirteen episodes are slow, moody productions, presented almost like stage plays but the stories are generally interesting and evocative, beautifully realised and full of ‘oh, looks, it’s him...’ character actors like Paul Darrow, John Neville, Bernard Archard, Robert Stephens, Peter Vaughan,Roy Dotrice and even Donald Pleasence in a rare TV role. Good, intelligent drama and the sort of thing today’s celebrity-obsessed ITV would have no interest in making at all.

Finally to a bit of a guilty pleasure. ‘Father Dear Father’ was one of ITV’s better saucy 1970s sitcoms and its fifth six-part series is just out on DVD. If you don’t know the series – and there’s no reason you should, you’re so young – it starred Patrick Cargill as dotty but debonair thriller writer Patrick Glover living in a plush Chelsea home with his naughty permissive ‘dolly bird’ daughters Anna and Karen, his scatty Nanny and a big dog called HG. Drifting in and out of his life are his ex-wife Barbara,his sophisticated agent Georgie and his daffy old Mum who lives in glamourous Herne Bay. 'Father Dear Father’ is sitcom-as-farce, every episode revolving around some misunderstanding, some bit of clever wordplay or mistaken identity. It’s broad, it’s silly, it’s unsubtle and the acting is as arch as you might imagine. But it’s great fun in a nudge-nudge 1970s sort of way and the cast are clearly all having a great time. ITV churned out hit comedy after hit comedy back in the 1970s and while it looks positively prehistoric by today’s standards it’s a naughty-but-nice family comedy defined by its warm performances and, most importantly, its genuinely funny, if corny, scripts. Don’t tell anyone I recommended it...my street cred depends on your silence...

"Well, really..."

UK TV Chart - w/e 14th June 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 14th June 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) Coronation Street (ITV1)..................8.64 *
2) Football World Cup Qualifier (ITV1, Wed)..7.98
3) EastEnders (BBC1).........................7.52 *
4) Ashes To Ashes (BBC1).....................7.18
5) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)............5.83
6) Emmerdale (ITV1)..........................5.81 *
7) Holby City (BBC1).........................5.79
8) Casualty (BBC1)...........................5.28
9) Michael Mcintyre's Comedy Roadshow (BBC1).5.19
10) Kingdom (ITV1)............................4.70
11) The Bill (ITV1)...........................4.69
12) Traffic Cops (BBC1).......................4.52
13) Hope Springs (BBC1).......................4.40
14) Heartbeat (ITV1)..........................4.32
15) Celebrity Masterchef (BBc1)...............4.15
16) The One Show (BBC1).......................3.98 *
17) Nation Lottery Draws (BBC1, Sat)..........3.95
18) All Star Mr & Mrs (ITV1)..................3.92
19) Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (ITV1)......3.90
20) Robin Hood (BBC1).........................3.88

Chart commentary: Cosmic balance is returned and the natural roder of things is restored as, after a few weeks of reality gubbins hogging the top spot in the charts, the soaps regain their usual positions albeit with their numbers down as tends to be the norm during the summer when people have better thigns to do than watch fanciful soaps. Good to see a sizable audience stuck around for the excellent finale to the much-improved second series of 'Ashes To Ashes' and it's bye bye to 'Hope Springs' which plunges in its second week and is unlikely to appear for a third as its figures continue to fall. 'Robin Hood' sneaks back into the chart for the first time in weeks but it hardly covers itself with glory, slipping in only by virtue of everything else performing poorly. Stephen Fry's 'Kingdom' trundles along with about half the viewers who watched the first series a couple of years ago - it seems that the age of the sleepy Sunday night drama is well and truly gone.

Next chart will be published later today...