Friday, 30 July 2010

The proudest man in British telly???

Steven Moffat (centre) with the two leading men from the two series he's currently showrunning. Oh, they're the two best shows on British TV too, by the way. Frankly, photos like this make the fact that the likes of Jordan, Kerry Katona and Cheryl Cole are still walking upright slightly more bearable...

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Dr Who At The Proms 2010

Back in 2008 the BBC put together the very first Dr Who Prom, a live selection of the very best Murray Gold incidental music from the series, with stage introductions by Freema Agyeman, Catherine Tate, Camille Coduri and Noel Clarke. Then-Doctor David Tennant wasn't in attendance due to stage commitments but he recorded a special min-episode which was broadcast on video screens in the Royal Albert Hall. But times change and two years later there's another Dr Who Prom, this time hosted by Karen Gillan, featuring more of Gold's music, much of it this time from the recent fifth season. The Doctor put in an appearance too, in more ways than one; here's some footage...

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

TV Review: Sherlock (BBC1)

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert or a devotee or an aficionado of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary and, it seems, indestructible Victorian detective – the Great Detective. I admit I’ve seen more versions of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ than may be considered healthy (but then who hasn’t?) and back in the 1980s Jeremy Brett’s Granada TV adaptations of the Holmes canon were pretty much required viewing to the extent that I’ve now got the DVD boxset and, indeed, a boxset of the less respectful but oddly-enjoyable Basil Rathbone movies of the 1930s and 1940s which quickly dispensed with the Victoriana in favour of a more contemporary wartime narrative. Good grief, I even recently watched the cheapo Asylum Studios effort starring Torchwood set dressing Gareth David Lloyd as Watson alongside Ben Snyder as the Worst Holmes Ever in an adventure involving robots, dinosaurs and dragons. Honestly. I haven’t, in passing, yet found time for Guy Richie’s action hero version starring Robert Downey Jnr but it’s on my to-watch list. So yes, in restrospect, I suppose I am a bit of a devotee, albeit more of a casual one. News of yet another BBC Holmes series could well have been met with the usual sighs of ‘Not again’ and ‘can’t they think of anything new??’ and reports that this was going be a contemporary spin on the Holmes myth only raised eyebrows even further as we imagined something arch and knowing, shot through with a bit of ‘look how clever we are.’ I suppose I should have known better. Steven Moffat, current architect of ‘Dr Who’, has teamed up with ‘League Of Gentlemen’ (amongst others) star Mark Gatiss to reinvent Holmes for and in the 21st century and, on the evidence of the just-screened first ninety minute episode, it looks as if they’ve created something very special indeed, a show which looks set to be the drama event of 2010. ‘Sherlock’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, is brilliant.

There’s so much to admire in this stylish, witty and imaginative retelling of the exploits of a character we all feel we know inside out that it’s actually difficult to know where to start. Moffat’s slick, tight script sets the scene with Martin Freeman’s Dr John Watson invalided out of the war in Afghanistan (just as the original Watson was) and battling to come to terms with his new life as an invalid and as a civilian. Via a mutual friend – and in search of somewhere to live – he meets up with a very curious man. This is Sherlock Holmes, a freelance (not amateur!) detective and in Benedict Cumberbatch we have as fine an example of perfect TV casting as we’re ever likely to encounter. Cumberbatch just is Holmes, embodying all the fierce intellect and near-supernatural deductive prowess so fundamental to the character and yet creating a contemporary version of the Detective which is at home with mobile phones and computers and forensics as the Victorian version was with hansom cabs and London smogs. Cumberbatch powers his way through the episode the way Matt Smith does in ‘Dr Who’ and, with Moffat instrumental in the casting of both men, the lines between the Doctor and Holmes are more blurred than ever. Both have little time for silly social niceties, both ride pretty much roughshod over those they see as lesser intellects and both burn with a ferocious nervous energy, especially when in confrontation with their enemies. Moffat’s Holmes is a modern man and yet, cleverly, he’s also a man out of time – he’s married to his work, he has no time for relationships, he’s driven by his need for justice and his passion for mystery. Dr Watson, so often wrongly depicted as a bumbling old duffer, is portrayed here as a man looking for direction, looking for a purpose – and he finds both as he inadvertently strikes up a grudging relationship with Holmes. This gives Martin Freeman ample opportunity to demonstrate the bewildered everyman look he perfected back in ‘The Office’ and which he’s been trading on ever since. But here it works and Freeman’s never been better or more perfectly-cast. There’s a subtle and underplayed story arc for Watson, too; depicted as a traumatised war victim who can only walk with the aid of a stick, his own personal confidence grows as he becomes more embroiled in Sherlock’s world and, almost unnoticed, suddenly he doesn’t need his stick and he’s racing along the rooftops and rushing through the streets with a new purpose, his old world forgotten as he embraces a new and much more exciting one.

Moffat’s script cleverly balances its need to establish both Sherlock himself and his new partnership and its low-key, undemanding murder mystery story – here a serial killer on the streets of London apparently inducing suicides in completely random people. Sherlock thunders breathlessly through the mystery, gathering clues, making typically impossible deductions from the minutest of details, leaving the Police – including the inevitable Inspector Lestrade (a suitably exasperated turn by Rupert Graves) – trailing open-mouthed in his wake. And there’s more; Una Stubbs is a fussy and motherly Mrs Hudson, here distinctly not Holmes’ housekeeper but rather his landlady at 221B Baker Street – but best of all perhaps we have Mark Gatiss himself as a mysterious, urbane figure who briefly sidelines Watson for his own purposes and whilst the audience is encouraged to put two and two together to make Moriarty (Holmes’ traditional nemesis and a character who, incidentally, barely figures in Conan Doyle’s original Holmes canon) Moffat’s far too canny for something so obvious and the reveal of the real identity of Gatiss’ character is another clever reinvention breathing new life into an all-too familiar element of the Holmes mythos. And who didn’t feel a shiver of excitement as bad guy Jeff (Phil Davis) expired with the name ‘Moriarty’ on his lips?

‘Sherlock’ also benefits from an astonishing visual style; modern-day London (and even the bits of Cardiff which fill in for it now and again), all dark, damp streets and distant glittering lights, has rarely looked so magical and other-worldly and director Paul McGuigan, determined not to fill the screen with endless shots of people looking earnestly at text messages on mobile phone screens, struck paydirt by deciding to display texts as words floating on the screen; it’s odd and disconcerting at first but after thirty minutes or so you’ll be wondering why every other TV drama doesn’t utilise this simple and yet effective narrative shorthand. This week’s episode two (of only three, dammit!) is directed by Euros Lyn, veteran of many Dr Who episodes and last year’s brilliant Torchwood mini-series, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’ll adopt some of McGuigan’s tricks to create a consistent house style for the series.

‘Sherlock’ attracted an audience of nearly 8 million people last weekend; proof positive that, if you give the audience something good, something intelligent which doesn’t insult them, they will come. If there’s a downside – and I’m not convinced there is one – there may just be a bit of a niggle that ‘Sherlock’ is just a rehash of an old idea. But this is a show done with a real passion – Moffat clearly just gets what Holmes is all about perhaps even more clearly than he gets what the essence of Dr Who is – full of wit, warmth and a genuine sense of excitement. Far better than I dreamed it would be and far better than we could reasonably have expected, ‘Sherlock’ is an absolute triumph and I doubt we’ll see a better, more enjoyable British drama on our TV screens this year. Is it next Sunday yet??

Coming soon: The A Team, Splice, Cult TV - Freewheelers, Curb Your Enthusiasm season 7 and more...

Friday, 9 July 2010

Movie Review: Predators

For reasons I’ve never really fully understood the ‘Predator’ series is a movie SF franchise which seems peculiarly beloved and revered by its fans. In truth the Predator (basically a guttural, dread-locked killing machines with the ability to make itself invisible) hasn’t been hugely well-served by Hollywood. The original 1987 movie was an early-period Arnie classic, a decent if unexceptional action movie. The urban sequel starring Danny Glover has its supporters but is ultimately a bit of a misfire and it’s probably best to draw a discreet veil over the two more recent monster mash-ups between the Alien xenomorphs and the Predators (although they’re guilty pleasures round at Stuff Towers). But the fans really care about and cherish the Predator series and are curiously protective of its rather undistinguished cinematic legacy. With the Predator devalued and undermined by the AvP series, the fans are likely to be rather pleased by ‘Predators’, an unexpected revival for the beasts and casual cinemagoers and fans of SF action movies aren’t likely to be terribly disappointed either. Directed by Nimrod Antal from a script by Robert Rodriguez, ‘Predators’ strips things right back to the bone and dumps the Predators and their would-be human prey back in a jungle setting where it all began 23 years ago.

A mercenary named Royce (Adrien Brody) finds himself parachuting through the atmosphere of a jungle planet where he meets up with a similarly-baffled disparate group who have no idea where they are, why they’re there and what’s out in the jungle determined to pick them off one by one. An attack by vicious hog-like ground-creatures is just the first terror to face them before the Predators themselves, stealthy and invisible (when it suits them) close in for the kill. What starts off looking like a low-budget straight-to-DVD sci-fi cash-in (hello, The Asylum!) develops eventually – it drags for the first half-an-hour – into a desperate battle for survival and a tense cat-and-mouse game as Royce and his reluctant companions realise they’re on a game reserve planet and that they’re the game. The Predators, with their hi-tech heat-seeking vision and laser-guided weaponry, are hot on their heels and, in time-honoured tradition, they start to pick off Royce’s group one by one.

‘Predators’ is a movie which really picks up momentum as it goes along. At first Royce’s group seem like a bland, faceless bunch but the script cleverly and quickly gives them light and shade and one or two characters - one in particular – are revealed to be not quite what they seem. I still can’t quite buy into the peculiar-looking Brody as the action hero (although he’s clearly spent some time at the gym for this one - witness the caked-in-mud sequence, a nod towards Arnie in the first movie) and his Christian Bale gravel-voice is a revelation to say the least. After a series of impressive, yet not ostentatious, set pieces the movie risks losing momentum by the introduction of Laurence Fishburne’s barmy survivalist character but the last act picks up the pace again as the group’s numbers are depleted further and Royce puts into action his audacious plan to use a tortured Predator to pilot the creatures’ invisible spaceship off the planet whilst risking the lives of those still left. If you found the level of gore in ‘A v P: Requiem’ a little over-the-top (and let’s face it, it was), you’ll be pleased to hear they’ve dialled it back a bit in ‘Predators’. Yes, people are blown up, eviscerated and, memorably, one has his spinal column ripped out, but otherwise it’s just the fantasy violence of Predators being beheaded, their green ichor spraying through the air. It’s violent and a bit grisly but it’s comic book stuff, its context and the film’s setting distancing it from reality.

It’s actually refreshing to watch an SF film which isn’t defined by its visual effects and/or swamped by state-of-the-art CGI. It’s not in 3D too, which is a relief. Most of the FX seem to be practical; the Predators are men in suits, of course, and the prosthetics of their mandibled heads are excellent but otherwise there’s just a bit of understated CGI for a couple of spaceship establishing scenes and the usual pyrotechnics which go hand-in-hand with any action movie. Much as I enjoyed and admired the sheer artistry of the brilliant ‘Avatar’ it’s really quite refreshing to watch a genre film which, against all expectations, manages to focus as much on its characters as its visuals and ‘Predators’ is so much better than it could have been by easing up on the special effects and creating mood through creeping horror and claustrophobia and the unease which tends to go hand-in-hand with hot, sticky, clammy jungle settings.

It’s been a rather drab summer blockbuster season this year and there have been no real stand-out movies yet and a few disappointments – that’d include you, Iron Man 2, by the way. ‘Predators’ is a very pleasant surprise from a film which could have been just dismissed as the last gasp of a tired franchise and further evidence of Hollywood’s paucity of new ideas. But Antal has crafted a taut and gripping SF adventure which should more than satisfy the Predator fanbase as well as providing a decent and exciting cinema experience for an audience who just want a good night out with a fast and unpretentious action movie.

Stuff coming soon...Curb Your Enthusiasm season 7 on DVD...Stuff gathers its thoughts on the Dr Who finale...

The Listening Post: New on Stuff's iPod....


After a pair of frankly underwhelming albums over the last few years – the cold electronica of ‘Body Language’ and the bitty ‘X’ – it was pretty important for Kylie Minogue to reclaim her pop crown – and fast – with her eleventh studio album. In a chart climate where pure pop music has been pretty much consumed by endless r’n’b, rap, grime and countless derivative variations, an album full know, actual songs, might have struggled to find an appreciative audience if it hadn’t been a blistering return to form for the woman who, ten years ago, delivered a modern pop classic in ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ and has, let’s face it, struggled to find a decent follow-up. Fortunately Kylie has risen to the challenge and, in ‘Aphrodite’, released a blissfully exuberant album which evokes both ‘Light Years’ the ‘Fever’ (her best work) and erases the painful memory of guff like ‘Speakerphone’ ‘Nu-Di-Ty’ and even the frothy but vacuous ‘Wow’ from the last album. ‘Aphrodite’ doesn’t really put much of a foot wrong for its forty-odd minute running time – it’s a glorious love letter to Kylie’s greatest obsessions ; dancing and having fun - and teaming up with Madonna’s former producer Stuart Price (as well as pulling in writing contributions from the likes of Calvin Harris, Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters and Tom Oxley-Price from Keane) has refocused Kylie’s music and given it back its heart and soul.

‘’s all I really wanna so, so dance’ sings Kylie on the album’s debut single ‘All the Lovers’, apparently a direct descendant of ‘I Believe In You’ from the ‘Ultimate Kylie’ collection and while it’s easy to mutter ‘Grow up, Kylie, you’re in your forties, there’s more to life than dancing’ I think it’s time to accept that for Kylie as an artist ‘getting down’ onto the dance floor and having a damned good bop is about as deep as it gets. So ‘Aphrodite’ aims itself at the feet – apart from the lilting, mid-tempo ‘Everything is Beautiful’ – and pretty much every track here has the potential to fill the less pretentious dance floor . Next single ‘Get Outta My Way’ has got Top Five stamped all over it and, like the rousing ‘Put Your Hands Up’ it’s pretty much as anthemic as Kylie’s ever been. ‘Closer’ has a sophisticated, sultry groove and the clattering percussions of the title track gives the album a well-placed mid-point kick. The pace just doesn’t let up across the rest of the album from the itchy and insistant ‘Illusion’, ‘Cupid Boy’ which sails close to the Rock Kylie of ‘Some Kind of Bliss’ years ago and ‘Can’t Beat The Feeling’ is a big, powerful, rousing and life-affirming album closer courtesy of Calvin Harris. ‘Aphrodite’ is an astonishing and compelling return to form from an artist who’s not had it easy over the last few years and whose personal struggles seemed to have taken the edge off her music. ‘Aphrodite’ deserves to be the sound of the summer, a genuinely uplifting and joyous pop album – and we just don’t get enough of those these days. Brilliantly simple – and simply brilliant.


The Scissor Sisters pretty much conquered the world three long years ago with their instant classic ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancing’ and their second album ‘Ta-Dah.’ The idiocity of download culture kept their following three ‘single’ releases out of the UK charts and the Sisters eventually slunk away to start crafting their all-important often-difficult third album. So here’s ‘Night Work’. After a false start which included a whole abandoned not-up-to-the-mark album and lead singer Jake Shears upping sticks to Europe to rediscover his musical mojo the band have come up with a big, bouncy album which is hugely out-of-step with current musical tastes in the UK (which have, let’s face it, reached pretty much rock bottom) and yet it’s full of urgent dance floor stompers coupled with the usual slightly risqué lyrics and OTT performances. Lead single ‘Fire With Fire’ sounded like a huge disappointment at first blush but repeated listens reveal its powerful, hypnotic charms as it builds from a slow, acoustic start into a big, lusty, demanding monster which lodges itself in your brain without you even realising it. Like Kylie, the Scissor Sisters have aimed their new album directly at the dancers amongst us and there are no concessions to drippy ballads here. ‘Any Which Way’ the song they so brilliantly debuted at Glastonbury with a guest appearance by Kylie herself is the most compelling disco tune here but the album’s full of good stuff –‘Night Work’ and ‘Whole New Way’ kick the CD off in upbeat style and the pace never flags throughouout ‘Skin This Cat’, ‘Running Out’, ‘Harder You Get’ right the way through to ‘Invisible Light’ featuring Ian McKellen. The songs have the urgent pumping insistence of the best Europop coupled with that slightly seedy,camp theatricality which has always characterised the Scissor Sisters. ‘Night Work’ is an album you’ll be listening to for a few months before filing it away as the nights turn darker and probably never listening to it again. But it’s a belting pop album in its own right albeit one which might not find the audience it deserves to because the kids just don’t seem to go for this sort of stuff at the moment.

Also on Stuff’s iPod...


Until they went all stadium-rock in the mid-to-late 1980s, Glasgow’s Simple Minds were one of my favourite bands and the brilliant ‘New Gold Dream’ is still capable of sending a shiver. The band have had a minor renaissance lately with a Top 10 album last year and the decent single ‘Rockets’ (despite lead singer Jim Kerr’s embarrassing lumbering Dad-dancing in the promo video). But Kerr’s got some solo stuff to get off his chest now in the guide of Lost Boy! and this first album (there’s another on the way) harks right back to the early days of Simple Minds with big, rousing choruses, chiming guitars and dense bass-lines. This is, simply put, Kerr’s best work in over two decades and probably my favourite album of the year. ‘Refugee’ is a big, crashing album opener, ‘She Fell In Love With Silence’ rattles along and the first single ‘Shadowland’ could, in all honesty, have been lifted from any Golden Era Minds album. ‘Remember Asia’ pulsates urgently and ‘Bulletproof Heart’ showcases the strangely lilting purity of Kerr’s vocals with its soaring chorus. It’s not all good news though; ‘Return of the King’ is a bit forgettable and the album fizzles out with the crashing ‘Soloman Solohead’ and ‘The Wait parts one and two’ which seems a bit tuneless and meandering. But there’s more than enough meat here to satisfy any fans of classic Simple Minds and I await the next delivery from Lost Boy! with more anticipation than I might for any new works from the band itself. Bit of a result.


Weller’s been around for so long now – over thirty years – that he’s pretty much part of the British musical landscape and it’s not easy for him to be noticed these days. This latest CD is an attempt to not only ‘wake up the nation’ but to remind his audience of the ‘angry young man’ persona which characterised his early days in the Jam. The CD is full of short, sharp punchy songs – some of them often sounding like little more than short fragments of songs, in all honesty – but when it’s on a roll it’s as good as Weller’s ever been on stuff like ‘No Tears To Cry’, the title track, ‘Fast Car/Slow Traffic’, ‘Find the Torch/Burn the Plans’, ‘In Amsterdam’ and a handful of others. Powerful, urgent stuff which demands and deserves to be heard.


Recorded on the road during their world tour last year to support the ‘Perfect Symmetry’ album this eight-track mini-album continues and develops the band’s sunnier disposition with a clutch of upbeat, 1980s-influenced pop songs including ‘Back In Time’, ‘Clear Skies’, the rather beautiful closing ballad ‘My Shadow’ as well as ‘Stop For a Minute’ which, despite the dreary rap by K’Naan (which, hilariously, rhymes ‘beautiful’ with ‘cuticle’...come on, get a grip!), really should have been a Top Five single and ‘Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got To Help Yourself)’ which, despite the fact only the chorus is in English,is one of the catchiest things I’ve heard all year. ‘Night Train’ is a welcome treat and bodes well for the band’s next full-length opus.


Hardly a household name, singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt has built up a loyal fanbase over the years and remains best known for his 1990s album ‘Here Be Monsters’. He’s been an acquired taste because he’s never really courted the mainstream but ‘Lustre’ sees him drift perilously – and hugely successfully, creatively at least – towards the populist on an album of beautifully-crafted pop songs which are sometimes lilting and atmospheric but occasionally – in the title track and the stunningly-catchy ‘Heart of a Wolf’ and ‘Do As I Say Not As I Do’ – pretty much perfectly-formed nuggets of pure pop. ‘Lustre’ is worthy of your time if you’re looking for something which combines the popular and the left-field.


The Radio 2 listeners amongst you may have heard the station’s support of Reed’s recent single, the retro title track, and the album is pretty much more of the same. It’s an album full of gutsy, authentic classic 1960s/70s soul numbers characterised by Reed’s powerful, heartfelt vocals and whilst the tunes are solid and catchy – ‘Young Girl’, ‘Name Calling’ and ‘Pick a Number’ and the brilliant final track ‘Explosion’ are stand-outs – it does get a bit wearing and samey. But Reed’s a real talent and it’s an album worth dipping in and out of if you want some good, snappy soul songs sung well and with a real passion.