Monday, 28 December 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 13th December 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 13th December 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) The X Factor (ITV1).....................14.81 *
2) I Dreamed A Dream: The Susan Boyle Story
3) Coronation Street (ITV1).................9.46 *
4) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1).............8.71 *
5) EastEnders (BBC1)........................8.65 *
6) I'm A Celebrity...Coming Out (ITV1)......7.53
7) Emmerdale (ITV1).........................7.03 *
8) Gavin and Stacey (BBC1)..................6.53
9) Merlin (BBC1)............................6.01
10) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)..........5.53
11) Holby City (BBC1)........................5.43
12) Cheryl Cole's Night In (ITV1)............5.37
13) Waterloo Road (BBC1).....................5.21
14) Spooks (BBC1)............................5.11
15) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)...........5.10
16) British Comedy Awards (ITV1).............5.02
17) QI (BBC1)................................4.86
18) Casualty (BBC1)..........................4.84
19) Live At The Apollo (BBC1)................4.82
20) BBC Sports Personality Of the Year

BBC: 12 ITV: 8

UK TV Chart - w/e 6th December 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 6th December 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) The X Factor (ITV1)......................13.47 *
2) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1)..............9.43
3) Coronation Street (ITV1)..................9.32 *
4) I'm A Celebrity...Get me Out Of Here!
(ITV1).................9.23 *
5) EastEnders (BBC1).........................8.91 *
6) Emmerdale (ITV1)..........................7.21 *
7) Harry Hill's Best Of TV Burp (ITV1).......6.67
8) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)..................6.26
9) Top Gear (BBC2)...........................6.09
10) Gavin and Stacey (BBC1)...................6.04
11) Merlin (BBC1).............................6.01
12) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)...........5.95
13) Rod Stewart:One Night Only ITV1)..........5.84
14) Countryfile (BBC1)........................5.68
15) Casualty (BBC1)...........................5.04
16) New You've Been Framed (ITV1).............4.96
17) Small Island (BBC1).......................4.90
18) The One Show (BBC1).......................4.89 *
19) Film: Batman Begins (ITV1)................4.87
20) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)............4.72

BBC: 11 ITV: 9

Sunday, 27 December 2009

DVD Review: District 9

Tired of turkey left-overs and reheated TV repeats? Then hurry ye down to your local DVD emporium for, in the midst of the post-Christmas lull, one of the better SF blockbuster movies of the year is making its debut on shiny disc tomorrow (28th December) and if you’re bored with the noisy emptiness of the likes of Transformers and yearning for something a bit more adult in the genre you need to catch up with ‘District 9’ Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature film if you missed its cinema release because, like Duncan Jones’ ‘Moon’ a few weeks back, it’s an SF movie with a heart and a soul and a real sense of imagination.

28 years ago a great big rusty-looking spaceship parked itself above the city of Johannesburg and just...sat there. Months passed. Nothing stirred. Eventually the authorities broke through the hull and found the ship full of filthy, starving refugee alien creatures quickly dubbed ‘prawns’ because...well, they looked a bit like walking prawns. The aliens were quickly repatriated to the city below and found themselves grubbing about in thesqualor of a rancid shanty town known as District 9. The years rolled by and with their spaceship still suspended above the city, the prawns are becoming a nuisance. They’re preyed on by local gangsters who bribe the prawns with cat food (they’re obsessed with it) in turn for alien weapons technology which won’t work for humans. The prawns are becoming a nuisance generally, killing and robbing indiscriminately. Time they moved on. The Government sets up a new purpose-built compound away from the heart of the city; but how to peaceably evict a million jabbering , jittery alien life-forms? Wiry Wikus Van De Merwe is the hapless civil servant drafted in to oversee the mass alien eviction; but when he’s infected by prawn DNA he starts to undergo a grisly metamorphosis. Realising his mutating DNA will allow him – and thus humanity – to access the previously stubbornly inoperable alien weaponry, the authorities quickly lock Wikus up and start experimenting on him. But Wikus escapes and rushes back to District 9 in search of a cure for his terrible new affliction...

‘District 9’ is a frustratingly-schizophrenic movie. Apparently taking its lead from the likes of ‘Cloverfield’ (a lead still being followed in the recent ‘Paranormal Activity’) ‘District 9’ starts out in documentary-style, with grainy at-the-time photography, comments by on-screen cultural observers and sociologists, what purports to be filmed footage of the unfortunate and nervy Wikus preparing to take on a job he’s clearly been over-promoted into. So far, so real. But the trouble is that, to tell its full story, ‘District 9’ has to abandon its documentary pretensions and become a more rousing sci-fi thriller with everything that goes with it – special effects, incidental music, a proper narrative, actors acting. Given the nature of the story and the detail required to get that story across it’s clear it was always going to be thus; the documentary ‘gimmick’ is a good one but it’s one only worth utilising if your story can fully support it. So it is that, twenty minutes or so into ‘District 9’ all the social comment and contemporary recollections are gone and we find ourselves flung into a more traditional action story. It’s no big deal because the film remains hugely entertaining but the stylistic jump is jarring and it’s noticeable and, especially as the film tries to return to its roots in the last reel (against jolting the audience out of the story), it disrupts the flow of the movie and it’s hard not to wonder if Blomkamp might have been better off abandoning the documentary trapping and saving them for a story better able to support them.

What we’re left with then, when the reality stuff becomes impractical, is a gripping and visceral story of one man against humanity, fighting for his life. Newcomer Sharlto Copley plays the bewildered and terrified Wikus and it’s a rousing performance (another strength of the movie lies in the fact that there are, obviously, no star names here) as not only does his body begin to transform but his entire personality as he battles to stay alive and stay human whatever the cost. As bits of his body fall off and crumble before our eyes Wikus resorts to desperate measures and in the end he literally becomes a blood-crazed killing machine, using a prawn fighting suit and blowing his human enemies to pieces with the alien weaponry his new biology gives him access to.

In many ways there’s not much here we haven’t seen before. The last reel, particularly, sees the film become a fairly typical SF actioner with a protracted gun battle as Wikus goes on his killing spree. Maybe here the film loses its novelty value and some of its originality but it’s no less entertaining just because it appears to have Gone Hollywood. The film looks achingly grimy, Blomkamp capturing the filth and decay of District 9, the feral existence of the refugees who are really little better off on earth than they were in their stinking spacecraft and, despite its low budget, the film never looks cheap and nasty. The spaceship looms large in most sequences, hanging over the city like a metal cloud, the prawns themselves are superbly realised (even though we rarely see them together in any great number) and the Terminator-like gun battle towards the end of the movie is breathtakingly energised stuff. Tender sensibilities may not be able to stomach the effects of the prawn weaponry – targets literally blow up, spraying blood in all directions. Nice!

What's most exciting about ‘District 9’ is the fact that this is Blomkamp’s first feature film and that he’s been able to craft something as richly-accomplished and exciting as this first time out of the blocks promises much for his future efforts. ‘District 9’ seems to be crying out for a ‘two years later’ sequel but I really hope Blomkamp can resist the temptation and move on to something new. But remember how well this movie did at the Box office, especially in America. With franchise movies under-performing alarmingly recently, it’s unlikely that Hollywood will be able to resist the allure of ‘more of the same’ (hopefully not an American remake, please). Whether it gets a sequel or not, ‘District 9’ is a breath of fresh air in the rather stuffy and moribund world of modern sci-fi cinema, an action film with an element of social commentary in amongst the hardware and the explosions. Despite its one or two minor shortcomings, it’s a terrific little film which you’ll remember far longer than the latest battle between the Decepticons and the Mogadons or whatever they’re called...

The DVD: Available as a single-disc edition with a commentary, some deleted scenes and a fairly-detailed multi-part documentary, or a two-disc edition which, like the Blu Ray, has a few more behind-the-scenes bits and pieces.

District 9 is available to buy in the UK on Monday 28th December 2009

Saturday, 26 December 2009

TV review: Dr Who - The End of Time: Part One

It's never really a good idea to review the first episode of a 'Dr Who' story - or, for that matter, part of anything, whether it's a book or a film or, although I've been known to do it myself, to judge a multi-episode series on the basis of the first two episodes. But with 'Dr Who' it's really notoriously difficult to make a judgment call on half of a story. Part ones do what they say on the tin; they set up the story, establish the scenario, introduce the characters and move everybody into the positions they need to be to power the narrative towards, hopefully, a satisfying conclusion in the second episode. Two-part stories really should be judged as a whole, taking both instalments together to give a balanced view of the story as a whole. But what the Hell, this is 'The End Of Time', possibly one of the most important 'Dr Who' tales ever told, a story which, if only because it writes out the most popular actor to play the character in the show's 46 year history; the story is going to be scrutinised and analysed for months and maybe even years to come. There's quite a lot riding on this and it's asking to much of anyone to bite their lip and/or keep it buttoned until part two rolls around.

'The End of Time', Christmas Day at 6pm on BBC1, is a very odd one ideeed, first part or not. Since the revived series has established the 'Christmas Day' episode tradition, Russell T Davies, who pens the festive episodes, has always made a great play about how these big holiday episodes need to be something very different from the TV series itself. They need to be bright, bold, loud, unsubtle, high (and usually quite simple) concept, full of Christmas cheer and light and exciting enough to entertain an audience usually guaranteed to be much larger than that of the usual run of episodes, an audience likely to include several million people who don't usually watched the show but will give it a spin as they veg out in front of the TV on the laziest, slobbiest night of the year.

How typical, then, of Davies to tear up his own personal rule book this year. Faced with the need to craft a story which will, most likely, conclude with the death of the Doctor, Christmas 2009 was never really going to be a light and frothy affair. But how perverse to create a story which requires a not-inconsiderable knowledge of the recent history of the series in a story which flashes back to the end of season three, 'Last of the Time Lords', reintroduces a supporting character from that story for a brief (and really pointless and easily-avoidable) cameo, harkens back to 'classic' Dr Who by resurrecting the Doctor's oldest foe The Master, brings back Wilf Mott and his grandaughter, former companion Donna Noble and, at its climax, brings back (spoiler ahead for those who've not yet seen the episode!), the entire Time Lord race, big collars and all, the one story element from the old series Davies was quite keen to jettison before writing one word of his new series because they typified the continuity baggage which dragged down the old series and chased away its casual viewers back in the 1980s. Maybe it's something in the show's genes; it's hard to resist its history and clearly the show's burgeoning popularity and the audience's apparent happy acceptance of old Who lore into the new series has persuaded Davies that the time is ripe to bring back the ancient Gallifreyans, even at the risk of opening up all those old cans of continuity worms which did so much damage in the past. Maybe it's the work of a writer who knows, deep down, he can get away with almost anything with an actor as popular as David Tennant in the lead role. Whatever the reason, it's clear that Davies felt confident enough to throw caution to the wind and bombard his Christmas night crowd with something dark, deep and, ultimately, quite barking mad. It seems to have worked, too; overnight figures of over 10.3 million may be down on the last two years but the numbers for everything else are down this year too. It seems that TV wasn't on the menu for quite as many people this year and it seems that Dr Who remained one of the few shows the audience really made an effort to sit down and watch. I wonder how much of an effort they found it to make head or tail of this rattling, random story of an insane flying Time Lord, conker-headed aliens, a morose Time Lord spiralling towards his doom, an old man in a red bobble hat and a machine which turns everyone in the world into John Simm!

'The End of Time' is Davies with the gloves off. In his last storyline for the series he plays to all his strengths (sometimes seen as weaknesses by his detractors who just can't come to terms with the hugeness of some of his ideas). A moody intro - narrated by Timothy Dalton (who becomes a more forbidding presence as the episode rolls on) - sees the Earth in trouble again as everyone is having bad dreams. Wilf Mott (the brilliant Bernard Cribbins), is Christmas shopping and receives an ominous warning from a mysterious old woman and it's clear that the Doctor is on his way back to Earth. The Doctor, meanwhile, has taken a circuitous route back to the Ood-Sphere where he's informed that not only has his old nemesis the Master survived their last encounter but something even bigger is moving in the darkness. Yikes! Back on Earth, the Master (John Simm) is revived in a hugely-improbable bit of gobbledegook and the rest of the episode concerns itself not so much with moving the story forward but getting the Doctor and the Master to confront one another before allowing the Master to use a remarkable piece of technology to create a new human race in his own image - the Master Race. This done, the Time Lords march en masse out of the darkness - they've survived the Time War after all! - and the pieces are all in place for the tenth Doctor's endgame.

'Voage of the Damned' this ain't. And in all honesty, two viewings in, I'm still not sure what it was. It's big and bold and brash and in places it's quite ridiculous - for once I can understand some of the hand-wringing angsty whining of the fan hardcore (only some of it, mind). The Master gorging on turkeys, firing bolts of fire from his hands and bounding around the place like The Incredible Hulk looks wonderful but it doesn't yet make a whole lot of sense. The new alien race - the Vinvocci - are clearly introduced for a bit of comic light relief and, as a result, aren't even especially comic or much of a relief. Much better comedy value from 'the Silver Cloak', Wilf's coach-load of feisty pensioners enlisted to seek out any sign of the returning Doctor. June Whitfield is on twinkling form as cheeky Minnie Hooper who can't resist a photo opportunity and a saucy grope of the Doc's bot. The problem is that these moments of humour don't sit well in a storyline as dark and portentous as this one; we know, broadly speaking, where 'The End of Time' is going. No big happy ending here, no laughs and smiles and the Doctor wandering off for Christmas dinner. Next week the Doctor dies; we all know it, there's no escaping it, it seeps from every frame of this episode. Just this once those trademark flashes of humour seem a bit inappropriate and forced.

This is an episode which just rages off the screen. John Simm is absolutely electric (literally) as a Master who's been resurrected as insatiable and insane - I've rarely seen a performance of such mesmerising and utterly impacable insanity on screen and it's really quite unsettling. Tennant and Cribbins are the perfect combination, the most unusual TARDIS travelling team in the show's long history. But admist all the bang and flash and all the cackling, the very best scene of the episode is a simple one where the Doctor and Wilf, reunited, sit in a cafe and just chat. They chat about life and the Doctor's death, which he can see staring him in the face. Here's the Doctor stripped bare, terrified and dejected, a man facing his own destiny and yet determined to do all he can to avoid it. Fascinating too the way this scene makes the audience think about the process of regeneration; whereas before we've just seen it as the sloughing off of a damaged or exhausted old body and the assuming of a new one, now it's clear that the process is a very real 'death' and the anguish of facing his own alien mortality is written right across Tennant's features in one of his best ever performances in the series. For just a moment or two the Doctor is alone and afraid, facing the mystery of death in a way we've never thought the Doctor has had to before.

Then there's Donna, mind-wiped and blissfully unaware of her past with the Doctor. Wonderful to see Catherine Tate back in the series (and catch up with her Nan Christmas Special too, if you can, it's a hoot!) even if she's yet to spend any time with the Doctor and she remains the bolshy, aggressive woman we met in 'The Runaway Bride' in 2006 rather than the more thoughtful and mature women she became after travelling with the Doctor. Poignant too, when Wilf hints that, despite her apparent happiness with her new fiance she sometimes looks sad although she doesn't know why. This is really what Davies does so achingly well, brilliant moments of real humanity, moments that touch your heart just before he lurches off into some wild flight of eyebrow-raising fantasy.

So there we have it - part one of a two part story judged on its own merits. It's hard to compare it with previous Who Christmas episodes because it's nothing like any of them, paying lip service to Christmas as it does. Obviously the story which writes out the tenth Doctor was always going to be epic - and it looks as if part two is going to be sutiably enormous - but part of me's wondering if it might not have been wiser to have scheduled something a little more traditional - last month's 'Waters of Mars' could have fitted the bill with just a little tinkering - and then shown Tennant the door early in 2010 in two episodes unencumbered with the need to crowbar in a bit of glitter and a few Christmas trees just because of a quirk of scheduling. 'The End of Time' isn't the best of modern Dr Who but it's quite unlike anything we've had since the series came back. Its very much defined by the glittering, dynamic performances of its three leads and its pervading sense of foreboding and it may well be that part two will force many of us to reappraise part one. As it stands it's an episode almost wilfully designed to infuriate old-series die-hards and simultaneously entertain and frustrate those who have embraced the new series. It's big, spectacular, lunatic stuff and it does nothing to damage Dr Who's reputation, all these years down the line, as the most extraordinary series on television. I'm both looking forward to and dreading episode two...but bring it on.

Coming next week....the beginning of the end for the tenth Doctor...

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

DVD Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Arsed Film

Six films in and it's time to face the grisly, unpalatable truth. I really don't care much for Harry Potter or his movies. Yes, a couple of the early ones were fun - lots of ogres, giant spiders, snakes, whizzy bits of magic and a real sense of awe and wonder. But the kids - Harry, Ron, Hermione and all the others - are growing up fast and the films are growing up with them - or at least they're trying to. But growing up often leads to a loss of innocence and so it is with Harry's cinematic exploits, nevermore apparent than in this overlong, drab and largely action-free sixth movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This is Harry Potter for the Twilight/High School Musical generation, more concerned with teenage crushes, snogging, fancying one another and saying 'bloody' more than is really necessary in a film series aimed predominently at kids.

Now I'll readily admit that I've always been a bit ambivalent about the whole Potter phenomenon. I'm happy to see kids reading books rather than sit drooling in front of The X Factor but I remain utterly baffled as to what adults get out of these stories apart from the vicarious pleasure of seeing their kids enjoying something a bit more intelligent than your average soap opera or TV talent show. But I share comedian Stewart Lee's amusement and frustration (if not his abject cynicism) at the sight of grown adults sitting on buses and trains enraptured Rowling's latest doorstop - "Have you read the latest one...Harry Potter and the Tree of Nothing?" as Lee pointedly put it). And I'm not writing out of pure ignorance of the text; I tried to read the first two books, I ploughed through a few chapters of the last one. I just find Rowling's writing flat and uninvolving with no sense of adventure or scale, just words on a page going nowhere and saying nothing very interesting in any really interesting way. The Potter books just seem to me like adequately-written books for children (Phillip Pullman they're not), populated by people with childish names like Slughorn, Dumbledore and Snape, roll-around-your-tongue playground character names. Precious little meat in the Potter series for discerning adults, surely.

The films have tended to work better - but still as kid's films - by boiling down the stories into their set pieces with just the characters and incident which drive the series forward and all the flab excised. Until now, that is. 'The Half-Blood Prince' is clearly a scene-scetter for the final epic showdown between Harry and the Dark Lord Voldemort in the next two films (the final novel split into two movies....sounds ominous) but it has no story of its own to tell, no conflict to depict and precious little of interest to hold the attention. Despite one of the Blu Ray special features getting all worked up about the film's location filming, the majority of the movie is set - again - in the shadowy halls and cloisters of Hogwarts (another silly name) with just one brief and refreshing scene set in London and a few others set in a world so removed from the real one as to be pretty much totally unindentifiable. This is part of the problem I have with the series; it's so unconnected with humanity, with real people, it doesn't really seem to matter what happens in Harry's parallel world becauswe it never seems to impact on us mere 'muggles' (another silly name) who remain blissfully unaware of all these dark supernatural doings. So once again the audience has to endure -and so little happens here it really is an endurance test - a bunch of kids in silly wizarding robes wandering around Gloucester Cathedral (doubling as Hogwarts) and making gooey-eyes at each other as they discover their burgeoning sexuality. After the intitial aforementioned Death Eater attack on the Millennium Bridge a good hour passes before anything remotely exciting happens as the film tells us that Harry fancies Ron's sister, Hermione fancies Ron, Ron fancies some other girl (they can't stop snogging!) and Ron's sister gets groped by the school jock. Who cares? Meanwhile an old Hogwarts teacher called Horace Slughorn (another silly...oh, you get the idea), who taught Voldemort before he became evil, returns to the school and Dumbledore encourages Harry to befriend him to find out whatever secrets he passed on to junior V. Meanwhile slimy Draco Malfoy works in secret with Severus Snape (Alan Rickman given a bit more to do than usual) for reasons which seemed too dreary to commit to memory save the fact that they led to the Shock Death of a major character (whose identity you'll know if you've persevered to the end of the sixth book).

In between all the kissing and cuddling (and God there's a lot of it) there's the odd bit of magic but it's all so low-key and underplayed as to be barely noticable. Even the one obligatory Quidditch scene seems crowbarred into the story just to brighten things up a bit. There's really nothing especially magical about the film and I remain confused as to quite why Voldemort is supposed to be such a threat when Harry's kicked his ass in every film so far. If V is so powerful why can't he just wipe Hogwart's and all its loved-up teens off the face of the Earth and save us all the torture of the last two films in the series?

Ultimately it really all boils down into how much you've bought into the Potter myth. Fans may thrill at seeing Harry growing up and kissing and Ron frothing at the mouth and Hermione reduced to tears when Ron gets off with someone else. Me? Well, I couldn't honestly give a damn and That Death left me as cold-hearted and unmoved as a very cold-hearted not-moved person. Technically David Yates has crafted a big, atmospheric film packed with performances which are better than the material (Broadbent is great as Slughorn but the likes of Mark Williams, Julie Walters, David Bradley and Tim Spall are wasted in cough and spit cameos) but it's cold, soulless and pretty much bereft of a coherent, interesting narrative line. I found it a real drag to get through and I suspect that if I'd ventured into the cinema to see it I'd have either fallen asleep or left halfway through. I've found the previous movies reasonably enjoyable but this one just misses the mark almost entirely and is about as unessential as a franchise movie as one could really ever imagine. Terribly disappointing.

The Twelve Days of Christmas Telly (Plus Two) - Part One

I did it last week. I bet you did too. If you didn't you're sure to find a few minutes to indulge yourself later this week. Go on, you know you want to. You know you need to. Yep, it's that time of year again when we sit down with our hernia-inducing big ol' bumper double festive edition of the Radio Times (other listings magazines are available...but they're all a bit crap frankly, and usually have Stacey Lacey and that red-faced kid off EastEnders on the cover so why would you bother?) with a coloured marker pen and dutifully circle all those TV shows and specials and films and odds and sods we really want, nay need to watch over the festive fortnight. Come on, it's as much of a tradition as Cadbury's creme eggs appearing in the sweet shop by December 4th. But, in the interests of saving you some time as you busy yourself stuffing the tree and wrapping the turkey or whatever it is people do at this time of the year, why not spend a moment or two perusing some of Stuff's own preferred viewing options this Christmas? You know you can trust my impeccable taste - I don't watch any old rubbish after all...

Christmas TV starts this year on December 20th because the Radio Times says so. That's good enough for me. It's a Saturday and I'm out for the evening (more of which later in the'll all end in tears unless it doesn't) but I'll be setting my Virginmedia Digibox thing to record the last episode in the much-improved but still faintly disposable second series of BBC1's fantasy adventure Merlin (also to be reviewed in more depth later this month). If you saw last week's twelfth episode you'll know that Merlin's released the dragon (voiced by John Hurt) which has been lurking for two series beneath Camelot and it don't sound 'appy. Much fire-breathing rampaging is promised. Over on ITV (heretoforth referred as "the sh**** side") there's really naff all on over the whole fortnight; ITV have shot their proverbial ratings bolt with their autumn splurge of horrible talent/reality shows and their cupboards are traditionally bare over Christmas as they don't make much of an effort as there's not much advertising revenue to be had. Saturday promises a 90-minute Take That concert (squee!) and a scintillating cheap old filler entitled Stars on the Street about some famous people who have appeared on Coronation Street. Wow. Over on 5 the morbidly-curious might want to tune into the terrestrial premier of the ill--fated (and now cancelled) remake of Knight Rider. Then again wiser heads might not. Slim pickings generally across what we might lazily call the 'non-terrestrial-channels' (ie not the big five...if I can be as generous as to call the feeble Channel 4 and cheapo 5 'big' in any way) but you really should find time this weekend to catch up with a repeat screening on BBC4 of the last part of Mark Gatiss' Crooked House portmanteau horror from last year and ITV3 are turning the larger part of their weekend schedule to the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes (is there a new movie on the way, by any chance??) which will feature numerous episodes of the classic Granda TV series starring the wonderful Jeremy Brett. ITV don't make 'em like that any more, sadly...

Sunday 20th is where some of the big Christmas guns are wheeled out. Let's get this straight; I don't do 'bonnet' dramas. Yer Persuasions and Emmas and Lark Rises...nope, not for me. But, like most of the country, I was caught up in the spell of Cranford on BBC1 a couple of years ago, five glorious and oddly-subversive hours based on books written by Elizabeth Gaskell. The BBC have done the decent thing and filmed two new ninety-minute episodes, the first of which screens tonight with the second the following Sunday. Over on ITV, in case anyone cares, there's the Christmas specials of long-past-its-sell-by-date quiz Who Wants To be A Millionaire; clapped out it may be but it's a celebrity special and since it features Togmeister Sir Terry Wogan and his (brilliant) upstart Radio 2 breakfast show replacement Chris Evans, it may be worth a look - which is more than can be said for Ad of the Decade which follows on ITV at 8pm which promises/threatens (delete as applicable) to go behind-the-scenes of some of the most popular TV adverts of the last ten years and...oh, I can't be bothered writing any more about such cheap twaddle. A better bet should be The Fattest Man In Britain a new comedy/drama from Caroline (Royle Family) Ahearne and Jeff Pope and starring the ever-reliable Timothy Spall as...well, the fattest man in Britain, presumably. Probably warm-hearted fun but you can't really go wrong with anything written by Ahearne.

December 21st!! Four days to go! What's on the box?? Er...pass. Pretty much your typical Monday night line-up of soaps and more soaps but BBC2 might be worth a look as it's screening a selection of Victoria Wood shows in preparation for her all-new Christmas Eve BBC1 special. Fools may be tempted to watch Nigella's Christmas Kitchen on BBC1 at 7pm or Come Dine With Me Christmas Special on Channel 4 at 8pm but such people aren't welcome here. Be off with you. 5 picks at the bones of Michael Jackson with a probably-sleazy cheap documentary about his last days but a 30th anniversary concert at 10pm might be worth a glance if only to remind us of the supreme talent we lost this year, dammit.

More MJ on Tuesday 22nd as BBC2 screens a Culture Show special at 1.45pm which promises to be rather less salacious than 5's effort the ight before, followed by a 2 hour concert from the star's Dangerous Tour in 1992. Over on BBC1 the frustratingly half-arsed sci-fi/Police drama Paradox fizzles to the end of its first (and, due to poor viewing figures, probably only) series at 9pm (shunted to 10.35pm in Wales) whilst viewers in Wales (including me, ha ha) will watch Ruth Jones's Christmas Cracker somewhere along the line to see what's occuring (geddit?) as the Gavin and Stacey star interviews celebrity chums James Corden, Katherine Jenkins, Michael Ball and Dr Who supremo Russell T Davies. ITV has Coastline Cops and Grimefighters so nothing to see there. Allow me to nudge you in the direction of BBC3 where the second of two unexpected special episodes of my sitcom guilty pleasure Two Pints Of Lager And a Packet of Crisps screens at 10.30pm. I wasn't expecting these new episodes (the first of which is a musical) and there's been no publicity for them so I suspect these will be episodes which will resolve the cliffhangar from series eight and tie up any loose ends for the series generally. It's been fun. Unmissable stuff on BBC4 at 10.30pm as the brilliant, coruscating Charlie Brooker will utterly dismantle the TV of 2009 in a special episode of Screenwipe. Over on BBC2 at 9.30pm there's a second chance to see the Dr Who-themed edition of Never Mind The Buzzcocks hosted by David Tennant and featuring his TV chums Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins. Ood have thought it? Eh? Oh, please yourselves...

Slim, of not positively anorexic, pickings on December 23rd. The slightly-unengaging latest series of Spooks rattles to an end on BBC1 at 9pm but like last year's finale of the first series of Survivors which also aired on 23rd December, it's likely to find most of its audience out carousing despite the fact we're promised an explosive end to the season. The very last episode of underachieving-but-funny BBC sitcom Not Going Out arrives on screen at 10.35pm, over a year after it was made, held back because it's a Christmas episode. Not sure why it didn't make the schedule last year but then who am I to question these things, eh?? During the writing of this piece it's been revealed that the BBC have just un-cancelled Not Going Out and a fourth series will be screened next year. Funny old world, TV. Meanwhile, ITV laughs at you and assumes you're an idiot at 9pm by throwing The Nolans In The Mood For Dancing in your face like a cold bucket of rat sick. Cheers. BBC2 offers a TOTP2 (that's Top Of the Pops Two to you) Christmas special which will undoubtedly regurgitate all those old studio performances of the classic tired Christmas pop hits and there's some other comedy stuff across the evening on the channel including the 1200th screening of the 1975 Porridge Christmas Special. Last episode of series one of the superb True Blood over on Channel 4 at 1pm - I've seen it, it's brilliant and it sets us up nicely for the soon-come second series. Full series review coming soon!

Christmas Eve dawns deep and crisp and even and, unless you're some kind of crazy person and have done all your Christmas shopping, you won't be settling down to watch the box until after the shops have shut. If you're well-organised though, enjoy a sip of mulled wine (I had my first taste a few weeks ago, quite the revelation!) and maybe a mince pie or two and put your feet up in front of any one of a number of happy family films dotted around the schedule all day from the first Narnia movie, Shrek 2,South Pacific, Three Men and a Baby (not sure about that one, actually). The good stuff (such as it is) starts after dark and BBC1 get the first strike in with a comedy triple whammy. At 8pm there's an hour-long My Family (if you like that sort of thing) which sees the Harper family still together and celebrating Christmas in 2039 - with hilarious consequences! 9pm sees Victoria Wood's Midlife Crisis; her first Christmas special in nearly ten years and when Victoria's on top form she's brilliant. Here's hoping. There's a QI special at 10pm with David Tennant guesting; he's on a couple more times over Christmas in case you didn't know. Ignore ITV unless you can't resist grainy footage of old men and cats falling over in a You've Been Framed Christmas Special at 7pm and I have reason to believe there'll be a murrrrder in the 100th edition of reliable old Police warhorse Taggart at 9pm.

Christmas Day dawns deep and crisp and even and with a schedule which suggest you need never stray far from Channel 1 (BBc1) all day. As we cool our heels and wait for the first part of the Davbiod Tennant Doctor Who finale at 6pm, there's a welcome chance to see the man himself in his recent guest role in kid's spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures as BBc1 screens a compialtion repeat of 'The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith' at 11.15am. The Christmas Day edition of the long-defunct Top of the Pops has lost its cachet since the parent show was killed off and with the execrable Fearne "wow, that was amazing" Cotton and Reggie "I was in Dr Who" Yates still co-presenting, this rundown of reality show chart toppers and incomprehensible r'n'b artists miming their big hits from 2009 doesn't quite have the appeal it might once have had but it's nice to have on in the background while the turkey's being sliced up. Post Queen's Speech the afternoon is, as usual, given over to family movies and this year BBC1 screen the terrestrial premier of Pixar's The Incredibles followed by the third screening of the short Shrek The Halls and over on ITV1 it's Robert Zemeckis' slightly creepy The Polar Express followed by all-singin', all-dancin' penguins in Happy Feet. I'll most likely be snoozin'...

5.30pm sees BBc1 screen a specially-comissioned short animation called The Gruffallo featuring the vocal talents of James Corden and Robbie Coltrane. BBC1's must-see schedule launches into full effect at 6pm with part one of 'The End of Time' starring David Tennant in the first chunk of his farewell adventure. Unmissable, obviously, and surely a candidate for the highest rated show of the least until part two screens on New Year's Day. Inevitably both BBC1 and ITV1 feel obliged to bless us hour-long servings of misery in the Big Three soaps and, hilariously, ITV1 honestly think that Vernon "*********" Kay in All-Star Mr and Mrs is acceptable on Chrisatams night. Memo to ITV - it ain't. BBC1 offer us a Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special which will be strictly off-limits as far as Stuff is concerned but there's a comedy triple whammy with a brand new hour-long episode of The Royle Family starring all the usual gang, this time off on their holidays. I can't help thinking the Royles have lost a little bit of their appeal since they started going out and about and away from the couch but this is surely to be a comedy highlight for the season. The penultimate episode of series three of Gavin and Stacey screens at 10pm wityh the multi-talented Catherine Tate delivering Nan's Christmas Special featuring That Man Tennant again in a pastiche of A Christmas Carol. ITV1 offer us a new two-hour Poirot starring David Suchet at 9pm; theres a time and a place for shows like this and Christmas Day isn't it, sadly.

So there we go - the first seven days of Christmas (or soemthing). Enjoy what you do and watch. Join Stuff for a look at the best TV in that dead period between Christmas and the new Year and, of course, January 1st itself. Wonder if there'll be anything interesting on New Year's Day?

UK TV Chart - w/e 29th November 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 29th November 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) The X Factor (ITV1).....................13.90 *
2) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1).............9.73
3) Coronation Street (ITV1).................9.43 *
4) I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!
(ITV1).................9.09 *
5) EastEnders (BBC1)........................8.45 *
6) Harry Hill's TV Burp (ITV, Sat)..........7.04
7) Emmerdale (ITV1).........................7.03 *
8) Gavin and Stacey (BBC1)..................6.41
9) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)..........6.25
10) Countryfile (BBC1).......................6.11
11) Top Gear (BBC2)..........................6.10
12) Merlin (BBC1)............................6.02
13) Jimmy's Food Factory (BBC1)..............5.77
14) Holby City (BBC1)........................5.76
15) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1).................5.74
16) Waterloo Road (BBC1).....................5.40
17) Spooks (BBC1)............................5.18
18) Casualty (BBC1)..........................5.14
19) All New You've Been Framed! (ITV1).......5.10
20) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)...........5.08

BBC: 13 ITV: 7

Monday, 14 December 2009

Another chance to read....a Torchwood Christmas story...

'Tis (nearly) the season to be jolly and in the spirit of much TV over Christmas (ie loads of repeats) I decided to dust this one down and drag it out of the Archives. Written and posted here last Christmas and deleted early in the New Year, here, for the delectation of those who may not have read it, is Stuff's take on a very Torchwood Christmas. The events of this little yarn are set before this year's 'Children of Earth' mini-series, natch...

Torchwood: O Christmas Tree

by Paul Mount

'A what? You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Captain Jack Harkness stared incredulously at Gwen Cooper, standing on the opposite side of his cluttered desk in his office in the cavernous Torchwood Hub deep beneath Roald Dahl Plasse in Cardiff Bay. Gwen realised that she’d instinctively put her hands behind her back and suddenly she was back at school, facing that formidable old harridan Mrs Sandford, her head mistress, as she took the rap for some juvenile misdemeanour or other. Pushing Mary Craig’s stupid curly head down the toilet, ah, that was the best one… Gwen shook herself; this is silly, I'm a grown woman now - a grown married woman - and it’s a perfectly reasonable request in the circumstances.

'Just a tree, Jack. Just a Christmas tree.’ She paused, considered. ‘And maybe some tinsel. And some lights. A fairy too, if you like…’

Jack stretched back in his chair and Gwen was sure there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. ‘If I like? Gwen, Torchwood is a top secret security organisation…’ Gwen raised an eyebrow. ‘…a secret security organisation…’ Both Gwen’s eyebrows were raised and her eyes were wide almonds. Jack sighed. '…an organisation. We don’t celebrate Christmas or any other pagan festival you care to mention.’

‘Maybe you don’t but I do,’ said Gwen. ‘And Ianto – probably. Look, I’m not suggesting tearing the place down and rebuilding it like Santa’s Grotto…just a bit of colour. For Christmas. I thought that after everything that’s happened…’ Gwen knew she’d touched a nerve and she knew that, despite his sometimes off-hand exterior, Jack was still as raw as her and Ianto. It had been less than a year since their team-mates had died and although life was going on, it was going on with difficulty and sometimes things weren’t said which should be. ‘Just to raise our spirits…’ Gwen sensed she might be fighting a battle already lost. But then Jack’s smooth, chiselled features split into a broad grin.

‘I’m surprised you don’t want to run a radio phone-in competition and invite the local orphans in for a look around,’ he said.

Gwen nodded. ‘Well, I’ve got a friend at Red Dragon who owes me a favour…’ she said.

Jack wagged a finger in her direction. He was still smiling good-naturedly. ‘Don’t push it, PC Cooper. Okay, you’ve caught me in a good mood. Things are quiet, the Rift seems to have shut up shop for Christmas so…yeah. Why not? But don’t go crazy. Just a tree and some…balls. And no spray-on snow, it never comes off.’

Gwen squealed, jumped up and down and clapped her hands together. She felt like reaching across the desk and giving Jack a wet kiss but thought it best not to give him any ideas he didn’t already have. ‘Thanks, Jack, thanks so much. It’ll be discreet and under-stated, you know that. I’ve got boxes of stuff at home I can bring in; Rhys got a bit over-excited – you know, our first married Christmas…’

Jack waved her way. ‘Okay, okay, whatever…’ he said. ‘You’ll be wanting time off over Christmas next.’ Gwen, beaming from ear to ear, made for the door out of the office. ‘Oh, and Gwen…none of those long, stretchy balloons. Ianto gets ideas…’

‘Jack..!” said Gwen, mock-scandalised. No sooner had she opened the door to Jack’s office than Ianto, immaculate as ever in sharp suit and tie, hurried in, a worried look on his face.

‘Jack, Gwen, you’d better take a look at this.’ Ianto hurried over to a small TV monitor on a free-standing table nearby. He turned it on and a picture swam into view.

Jack and Gwen exchanged puzzled glances. ‘Jane McDonald?’ said Jack. ‘Feisty girl but I don't see what...’

‘No, not that…’ said Ianto irritably. He grabbed the remote from Jack’s desk and jabbed at it until a much more vivid picture appeared on the screen. It was a local news broadcast although for a moment Gwen thought she was looking at deleted scenes from ‘Cloverfield’. The camera was shaking, sweeping back and forth across a confused street scene of fleeing, screaming people. A red banner across the bottom of the screen read ‘Jason Rhys, BBC Wales News, Live from Cardiff.’ The reporter’s face, flushed and panic-stricken, suddenly appeared on the screen. He was on the move and the cameraman was clearly struggling to keep up with him. ‘

'What’s going on?’ said Gwen. Ianto jabbed at the remote again and the TV’s volume increased although it was hard to hear what the reporter was saying above the background soundtrack of screaming and banging and crashing.

‘…the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed, even here in Cardiff where the incredible's fairly commonplace. The Police are trying to evacuate the area and cordon the city centre off but their efforts are being hindered by the sheer numbers of Christmas shoppers on the streets and the absolute pandemonium being caused as they run for their lives. It’s really the most amazing spectacle and…we’ll try and bring you some shots of the scene before we’re…’ A Police officer appeared in view, trying to block the camera as it swept away from the reporter. A gruff, thick Welsh voice cut in. ‘Put that bloody thing down and get out of here before I confiscate it and run you in…’

But the cameraman was nothing if not a professional. He turned the camera in a quick arc and suddenly it was pointing directly along a busy, cluttered city centre street lined on either side with shops and storefronts…and in the middle of the pedestrianised street something huge and green was moving and swaying and all around its base were racing, panicking human beings scurrying in all directions…

Jack craned to look at the screen. The picture suddenly cut off and returned to the studio where a visibly-ruffled presenter was confirming that no-one had any idea what was going on in Cardiff city centre. ‘What the Hell’s that about?’ said Jack.

Ianto stood back from the television and gazed at Jack and Gwen. ‘It’s the Christmas tree,’ he said. 'The one at the bottom of Churchill Way. It’s come to life and it’s rampaging down Queen Street.’

Gwen’s mouth fell open. Jack was already shrugging on his greatcoat and checking that his Webley pistol was fully loaded. ‘This is more like it,’ he said with gusto. ‘Time for Torchwood to get festive.’ He clapped a hand on the disbelieving Gwen’s shoulder. ‘Come on, Gwen. Let's go rockin’ around the Christmas tree.’ And he was off, haring out of his office and racing down the steps towards the clanking circular entrance hatch to the Hub.

Ianto stared at Gwen for a second. ‘We ought to…you know…go with him?’ said Ianto quietly.

Gwen shook herself. ‘Yes. Yes, right…’ At the door Gwen turned and looked at him. ‘Did you say…Christmas tree?’ she said.

Ianto nodded solemnly. ‘I suppose that, strictly speaking, some sort of pun’s called for,’ he said. His brow furrowed. ‘I can’t actually think of anything at the moment…’

‘Ianto! Gwen! Get your asses moving!’ came the voice of Captain Jack Harkness from not far away.

They hurried out of Jack’s office. ‘This is all a bit crackers,’ said Gwen with a nervous smile.

Ianto winced. ‘Poor quality,’ he said. ‘Best leave it to me in future, don’t you think?’

‘I think you’re right,’ said Gwen. As they rushed out of the Hub, bristling with pistols and rifles and anything else they could grab from the Armoury which might possibly give them some advantage against a living Christmas tree, Gwen had, perhaps not surprisingly, forgotten about her plans to deck Torchwood’s halls…

Churchill Way was closed off but a quick flash of Gwen’s Torchwood pass got the SUV waved through the Police ‘do not cross’ line and seconds later Jack was pulling the vehicle up, with a theatrical squeal of tires, at the end of the road and alongside the Zavvi store. Jack, Gwen and Ianto tumbled out of the SUV. Dozens of yellow-jacketted Police officers were milling around and, somewhere around the corner of the Nat West building they could hear a chaos of confusing sounds – screams, crashing, crunching…an odd guttural roaring sound.

Torchwood surveyed the situation. Gwen yanked down the hem of her leather jacket and saw a familiar wiry, curly haired Police figure loping over to them, shaking his head. He jabbed a finger at Gwen. ‘I knew it,’ he said. ‘I knew this was one of your spooky-dos,’ he said.

‘This is nothing to do with us, Andy. You know it never is,’ said Gwen. She and PC Andy went back a long way; it often seemed that whenever Torchwood came calling, anywhere in Cardiff, PC Andy was there to accuse them of being responsible for whatever had brought them to the scene. Jack was gazing intently at PC Andy. ‘PC Davison, isn’t it? Bring us up to speed.’

‘Well,’ said Andy slowly, savouring his moment of superiority. ‘Apparently it was just after lunchtime. Chaos, it was, bloody chaos. The thing just sort of…uprooted itself. Demolished Santa’s grotto.’ He nodded towards the flattened collection of wooden struts and planks piled up nearby. A dazed looking man in a Santa outfit was sitting on a bench, shaking his head in despair. Garishly-decorated presents were scattered all over the damp pavement. ‘It’s halfway up Queen Street, on its way to the Castle.’

‘Is anybody hurt?’ asked Jack.

‘Lumps and bumps, I think,’ said PC Andy. ‘Most of it caused by people going crazy with panic.’

‘That I can understand,’ said Ianto sagely.

A stout red-faced middle-aged Police Officer ambled over and stood in front of Jack, hands on his hips. ‘And you are?’ he said accusingly.

Jack grinned. ‘Out of your league, I’m afraid,’ he said.

Gwen smiled nervously and stepped in front of Jack. ‘We’re Torchwood,’ she said. ‘This is probably more our sort of thing than yours, er…’

‘Llewellyn,’ said the officer. ‘Inspector Llewellyn. Yes, Torchwood; I’ve heard of you lot. You’ve got a lot to answer for, I understand.’

Jack bristled. ‘Now wait a minute, if it wasn’t for…’

Gwen put a hand to Jack’s chest. ‘Leave it, Jack, this isn’t the time or the place.’ She turned back to the Inspector and smiled. ‘Is the area cleared?’

The Inspector looked over at PC Davison, hovering nearby. ‘More or less,’ said the younger officer. ‘Those who aren’t out of the area are hiding in Next or HMV. There’s a sale on…’

Gwen turned to Jack. ‘So we can go in. Any idea what’s happened, Jack?’

Jack’s pistol was already in his hand, his eyes were gleaming in anticipation. ‘Something weird, Gwen. And weird’s what we do. Excuse me Sergeant…’

Jack brushed past the huffing Inspector and strode off towards Queen Street. Ianto was unloading unwieldly pulse rifles from the back of the SUV and he tossed one over to Gwen who caught it expertly. Gwen smiled demurely at Inspector Llewellyn.

‘The Army boys are on their way from St Athan,’ said the Inspector. ‘I don’t know what you think you can do that they can’t.’

‘Oh you’d be surprised,’ said Ianto as he set off after Gwen and Jack.

‘I’m sorry but that’s just…bizarre,’ said Gwen. Torchwood were standing at the junction of Queen Street and Churchill Way and the three of them were staring up through the shopping precinct where, a couple of hundreds yards away, swaying and listing and lurching drunkenly, a fifty-foot Christmas tree, trailing tinsel and baubles, was moving steadily between the high-walled Victorian buildings of the city centre and heading in the direction of Cardiff Castle and St. Mary St. ‘It’s…ridiculous,’ she said.

‘The Universe is a pretty ridiculous place Gwen, don’t let anybody ever tell you otherwise,’ said Jack, looking across from WH Smith, Game, Clinton Cards and Next, behind the firmly-sealed doors of which dozens of terrified staff and shoppers were craning to get a better view.

‘But a Christmas tree coming to life?’ persisted Gwen. ‘That’s just beyond, isn’t it?’

Jack pulled a face. ‘I’m told something similar’s happened before,’ he said. ‘So let’s see if we can put a stop to it.’

‘All guns blazing? Are we going to shoot down a tree?’ said Ianto, stepping forward and locking and loading a huge chunky pulse rifle.

‘Wait a minute,’ said Gwen. ‘Look, Jack, look…up at the top of the tree…I think it’s on fire already…’

Jack produced a small pair of binoculars from inside his greatcoat. ‘That’s not fire…’ he said. Through the binoculars he could see an odd haze, a strange, shifting mist, gathering at the peak of the tree where once had perched an ornate plastic fairy. ‘It’s proof…’

‘Of what?’ said Ianto. Jack pocketed the binoculars.

‘Possession,’ said Jack. ‘Something’s animated the tree, something that’s come through the Rift.’

‘A possessed Christmas tree?’ said Ianto. ‘What’s the point in that?’

‘Probably none,’ said Jack. ‘The thing…consciousness, life-essence, whatever it is…must have just blundered through the Rift and animated the nearest, biggest thing in its path. The tree’s alive itself in a sense, that’s probably what attracted it.’

Gwen turned away from Jack and looked back towards the tree, dragging its stumpy roots along the street and sending waste bins and benches hurtling in every direction. ‘So an alien has come to Earth and taken over a Christmas tree,’ she said. ‘Rhys was right. He said Torchwood would drive me mad.’

‘Time for nervous breakdowns later on,’ said Jack. ‘We need to get whatever’s in there out before it can do any serious damage.’

‘And how do we do that?’ queried Gwen.

Jack grinned at her. ‘Don’t you believe in talking to plants, Gwen?’ He set off up Queen Street towards the base of the tree.

Jack pulled up short a good ten feet away from the tree. Looming high above it was swaying and rolling as it moved slowly forward, its roots crunching across the tarmac, its branches rustling as if caught in an unseasonal breeze. The ethereal mist at its top seemed more distinct from this distance and the tree itself seemed to be uttering, from somewhere or other, perhaps from within every fibre of its being, a strange throaty growl… Jack decided on the direct approach. He cupped his hands to his mouth.

‘Hey, you up there, hey you…’ The tree carried on its ungainly way. ‘Hey, I’m talking to you…’ The tree seemed to pause. ‘Thank you. Politeness costs nothing, even on Earth.’ The tree shivered and roared. Jack tried to remember those negotiation skills classes from his days at the Time Agency; dammit, if only he’d paid more attention instead of playing footsie with John…

‘Now look, I understand that you’re a long way from home – probably – wherever home is. And I understand that you don’t realise what you’re doing, what you’ve done. But you’re just causing trouble where there doesn’t need to be any. You see, here on Earth, trees – like the thing you’re inhabiting – don’t get up and move around. It’s not the way things are here. So here’s the deal; my friends and I have got guns; really, very big guns. We don’t want to use them but we will if we have to because it’s our job to protect this city and its people. So I’m giving you the chance, right here and right now, to…get out of your tree and go back where you came from. No-one needs to get hurt, least of all you…’

The tree continued to quiver and undulate. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Jack saw one of its branches suddenly twist and move and snake out from the body of the tree and hurtle towards him like a fist. ‘Woah…’ Jack threw himself to one side, rolling and turning, as the tree-tentacle swept down and smashed into the tarmac where Jack had been standing. Concrete and earth were tossed up into the air. Jack, crouching nearby alongside a three-sided metal refuse bin, glowered up at the tree. The mist at its peak was whirling agitatedly.

'You really didn’t want to do that,’ growled Jack. Another branch of the tree suddenly flashed into view, arching out from the rear of the tree. Jack moved again and the branch caught the refuse bin and hurled it into the display window of Boots which shattered in a rain of glass. People inside the store were screaming.

Jack was on his feet and rushing back the way he’d come. Gwen and Ianto, both carrying pulse rifles, were running towards him. Jack glanced back and saw that the tree was thrashing from side to side, still somehow emitting that inhuman roar, its branches flailing like living things, smashing windows, upending benches and street displays.

‘You’ve maddened it,’ shouted Gwen above the hubbub, dropping to one knee and fixing the body of the tree in her sights as Jack, breathless, stumbled back towards them.

‘No, Gwen…’ he called out but it was too late.

The rifle throbbed in Gwen’s hands and a bolt of concentrated light exploded from its barrel and sizzled through the air, detonating in a shower of fireworks somewhere in the middle of the body of the tree. The tree roared its fury and began thrashing and lashing out with even more violence than before. The whole tree was moving, turning, its roots crunching on gravel as the lumbering body turned its attention back to the Torchwood trio crouched down below.

‘Now that’s maddened it,’ snapped Jack, tearing the pulse rifle out of Gwen’s grasp. ‘We can’t just blaze away at it, not in a confined space like this. It’s mad, powerful - maybe even scared; it could bring the whole city down.’

‘So what do we do?’ shrieked Gwen ‘Reasoning with it obviously doesn’t work…’

Jack was fumbling with the dial settings on the side of the pulse rifle. ‘We can be subtle…for a change. All-right…’ Jack turned, dropped to one knee, hefted the rifle. ‘We go sonic,’ he said. ‘Sonic is good. I’ve got a friend who swears by sonic.’

‘What are you doing, Jack?’ said Ianto.

‘I’m going to try and evict our friend up there,’ said Jack. He pulled the rifle’s trigger and the device began to emit a low whoop-whoop sound. Gwen and Ianto clapped their hands to their ears and stepped back as the sound crept into their brains; deep, low, monotonous, a steady sonic pulse… The tree was still raging high above them, its branches now supernaturally-animated, as if they had a life of their own, whipping and lashing and smashing windows in both directions. One tentacle swept perilously near Jack who neatly side-stepped, always keeping the pulse rifle trained on the tree’s body.

‘God, Jack, the noise…’ called Gwen, her face contorting with pain. ‘Nothing’s happening…’

‘Give it time!’ shouted Jack. ‘Just a few…more…seconds…’ Even Jack’s face was starting to twist in agony as the steady, low, throbbing pulse of sound reverberated deep into the very core of his being. Just a few more seconds…

At the top of the tree the shimmer of mist became thicker, more viscous, more solid…the tree itself began to quiver, not with its usual frantic thrashing but with a strange sub-molecular vibration…the tree seemed to be enveloped in a new haze, as if it was being slowly, subtly, pulled apart…

‘Ha ha, that’s it baby, come on, do your stuff…’ shouted Jack as he saw the first signs of the fruits of his labour. Windows nearby were shattering of their own accord and he could hear more people nearby screaming. Just a few more seconds…just a few more…

Then there came another scream – a low, unearthy roar like some terrible wind. Tears streaming down his face, veins bulging in his forehead, Jack looked up and saw that the mist at the top of the tree had turned into a funnel of smoke, like a tornado, whirling out from the top of the tree and shooting up into the grey afternoon sky. ‘Come on, come on…’

Suddenly a whistling sound, like a kettle, and a great rush of wind…and it was over. The mist has spread across the sky like a deep dark cloud – and then it had gone. Jack wrenched at the controls of the red hot pulse rifle and the painful throbbing sound was cut off in an instant. The tree, standing there as if was about to fall apart, suddenly righted itself and quietly, without fuss, slumped to one side and came to rest against the Queen Street entrance to the Queens Arcade, its branches rustling peacefully in a low breeze.

Jack, gasping, dropped the pulse rifle and fell to his knees. His head was buzzing and somewhere in the middle of the sound of his brain vibrating he could hear sirens and voices… Gwen and Ianto were at his side, helping him to his feet. He could see their mouths moving, the anxiety written on their faces, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying… That damned buzzing…

By the time they’d led him back towards Churchill Way his hearing and his equilibrium were returning. People were emerging warily from the shops and the Police were already swarming up Queen Street. Inspector Llewellyn hurried by, scowling, and muttered something which, in the fug in Jack’s brain, sounded like “-king Torchwood lunatics” but he really couldn’t swear to it.

Ianto sat Jack on one of the few un-upended benches and gave him a bottle of water proferred by someone who emerged from WH Smith’s. Gwen was talking to PC Davison. ‘Are you all right, Jack?’ Ianto said through the buzzing.

Jack swigged back the water and mopped his brow. It was surprising how quickly his constitution was able to get him back to normal. He grinned at Ianto and ruffled his hand through the younger man’s hair.

Gwen came up and crouched in front of him. ‘What the Hell did you do, Jack?’

‘Like I said, shooting at it would have probably have gotten us nowhere,’ said Jack.

‘So you went sonic, yes, we gathered that,’ said Ianto. ‘But what does that mean in the real world?’

‘It means,’ grinned Jack, ‘that I used the sonic settings on the rifle. I vibrated the molecules of the tree to the point of displacement – I vibrated it apart. Whatever that thing was inside the tree, there was nothing for it to be inside. The tree ceased to exist as a tree, just for a few seconds – it was just the sum of its parts. Without a physical entity, the thing inside found itself homeless.’

‘That sounds ominous,’ said Gwen, staring up at the glowering sky. ‘So you may have made things worse? Who knows where that thing will turn up next?’

Jack got to his feet. ‘No, really, don’t thank me,’ he said wryly. ‘I’m hoping it was so disorientated by being thrown out so quickly that it went straight back through the Rift. I’m hoping…’

‘And if it didn’t?’ said Gwen.

‘Then we’ve got an intelligence which can bring inanimate objects to life loose in Cardiff.’ Jack touched Gwen’s chin. ‘My gift to the city.’

The street was now becoming thronged with people again and there was an excited buzz of chatter in the air. ‘Ianto, get a cover story out there – something about an animatronic tree going haywire, you know the score…’

‘I’m on it,’ said Ianto, touching his earpod communicator which he had already patched in to the Hub’s computer communications network.

Jack put an arm around Gwen’s shoulder and allowed her to escort him back to the SUV. ‘Come on, lighten up, we beat the tree. What’s the worst that could happen next?’

Gwen rolled her eyes. ‘I can’t even begin to try and imagine it…’

‘Let’s go home, you’ve got work to do.’

‘I have?’

‘Oh yes. Christmas decorations, remember?’

As they turned the corner back into Churchill Way, Gwen glanced over her shoulder along Queen Street to where the Christmas tree was sprawled across the street, intrigued shoppers prodding it and wandering around it.

‘Yes…well…maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all,’ said Gwen. ‘Maybe I’ll just stick a sprig of mistletoe somewhere instead…’

Jack laughed. ‘Now that’s my kind of Christmas…’

Copyright Paul Mount 2008

Monday, 7 December 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 22nd November 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 22nd November 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. 'Rpt' denotes repeated broadcast or film

1) The X Factor (ITV1).....................14.27 *
2) Children In Need (BBC1).................10.18
3) Coronation Street (ITV1).................9.68 *
4) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1).............9.59
5) I'm A Celebrity...Get me Out Of Here!
(ITV1).................9.51 *
6) EastEnders (BBC1)........................9.18 *
7) Emmerdale (ITV1).........................7.30 *
8) Harry Hill's TV Burp (ITV1, Sat).........7.25
9) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)..........6.65
10) Children in Need Rocks The Albert Hall
11) Merlin (BBC1)............................6.30
12) Top Gear (BBC2)..........................6.19
13) Countryfile (BBC1).......................6.15
14) Celebrating The Carpenters (ITV1)........6.04
15) Holby City (BBC1)........................5.78
16) Casualty (BBC1)..........................5.69
17) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1).................5.57
18) Spooks (BBC1)............................5.26
19) Waterloo Road (BBC1).....................5.10
20) Jimmy's Food Factory (BBC1)..............5.00

BBC: 13 ITV: 7

Chart chat: A convincing win for the BBC in this week's chart with the lion's share of entries and whilst ITV supporters (there are some) would point to the huge numbers posted by ITV's flagship talent/reality shows (and Coronation Street), the worry for ITV is that most of these shows will be over with by Christmas (and their winners forgotten by the New Year!) and there's not much left in ITV's cupboard to maintain their autumn momentum. Whilst I question the wisdom of BBC1 holding off some of their big guns for the New Year - the early part of 2010 will see the return of Hustle, Survivors, Outnumbered, Ashes To Ashes amongst others - ITV seem to throw all their 'big guns' across September to December leaving them looking bare throughout the rest of the year. ITV will fizzle out around mid-December (their Christmas schedule is atrocious, frankly - All Star Mr and Mrs on Christmas night???) giving BBC1 a clear run at mopping up the audience over the festive season and it seems likely the Corporation will carry that momentum into 2010.

Stuff coming soon: The return of 'Discovering Classic Movies' with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paradox, Spooks, True Blood, Misfits and other current TV dramas, Dr Who; Dreamland animation reviewed, Paranormal Activity reviewed, Avatar reviewed and a look at some of the highlights (and lowlights) of Christmas telly.