Monthly Archives: January 2014

This term I get to ramble about television fortnightly in the form of a TV column for Varsity. Here are the first two. The first is the latest, and the second is now about two weeks out of date. So soz about that.

Less of the novel, more of the novels

From issue no. 776, published 31/01/14. Here’s the link.

Mr Selfridge

Last week the ebullient Mr Selfridge flounced back onto our screens. If you missed the relatively mediocre first season, Mr Selfridge is essentially what Downton Abbey would look like if Mary Portas were the producer. Strangely, the man behind the screenplay, Andrew Davies, is responsible for some of the best costume dramas to grace our screens: Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and the famous BBC Colin-Firth-in-wet-shirt adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Mr Selfridge may look as sumptuous, but when it comes to substance it pales in comparison. Perhaps Davies should stick to what he does best – adapting novels, rather than attempting to be novel. Adaptations trump vapid original representations of history (Mr Selfridge, Downton Abbey) for several reasons:

They actually have plots – not surprising, given they’re the work of storytelling greats such as Austen, Dickens and the Brontës.

They force you to read the original. I feel guilty about watching adaptations of novels I haven’t read, so I usually attempt to do so before they hit our screens. Who says TV doesn’t make you cultured?

You can pretend you’ve read the original. Obviously my well-meaning enthusiasm doesn’t always translate to action. But hey, no one need know, right?

They’re not all obsessed with ‘The War’. According to Julian Fellowes’ recent projects, history consists of WWI and the sinking of the Titanic. Unfortunately, at the end of episode one of Mr Selfridge, poor old Franz Ferdinand was shot again, which means we’re no doubt in for more sanitised depictions of trenches and wholesome representations of Home Front life.

They inspire debate. When dearly loved characters and plots are reconstructed on our screens, it gets people talking about the original text and why this new interpretation is completely unfounded/wonderfully understated.

Adaptations of classic novels have been thin on the ground lately. Perhaps these things come in waves – ITV had an Austen Binge a few years ago, around the time that the BBC were particularly enamoured by Dickens. Even so, there are plenty of lesser-known titles that have inspired some brilliant dramas in the last few years, primarily the BBC’s Parade’s End, based on the works of Ford Madox Ford, which saw Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch give sensational performances. Yes, ok, it was partially set in the war, but unlike dear old Downton, 85 per cent of the script didn’t consist of references to this fact.

There’s good news for adaptation fans though – Davies has a six-part version of War and Peace in the works for 2015. I’d better get reading.

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The Rise of the TV Detective

From issue no. 775, published 17/01/14. Not online.


Maybe someone’s laced our tea, infiltrated the TV scheduling, or employed Derren Brown to hypnotise us on a street corner, but currently we are all infatuated with detectives. Investigateur extraordinaire Hercule Poirot may have said his final farewells last year, but there are a million more surreptitious sleuths lining up to take the place of the much-loved Belgian eccentric, sneaking stealthily into every available timeslot. There are, it seems, plenty more where Poirot came from (I’m talking figuratively here – they’re not all Belgian).

Subtle as they may be on screen, the plentiful presence of private eyes has not gone unnoticed. Quite the opposite – we can’t get enough of them. It’s not just the smooth Sherlock-types, but the complex Luthers and the whimsical Lewises too, not to mention the maternal, empathetic ones and the surly ones with heart conditions, à la Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman and David Tennant respectively. So smitten are we that the brains behind this year’s National Television Awards have created an entirely new accolade to accommodate them. Among those lurking in the ‘TV Detective’ category are Colman and Tennant, Luther’s Idris Elba and Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch. To quote the latter, the game is (very much) on.

It seems a shame, however, to have to compare characters similar by occupation and yet so different in every other respect. Will they be judged on crime-solving prowess or performance? If the award is ‘best detective’ then I’m going with Cumberbatch. If it’s on best performance, then I’d pick Colman (although it’s a close call). Yet pitting Colman and Tennant against each other is a shame too. Their characters’ dynamic was an important part of Broadchurch. It seems wrong to compare their performances when each complemented the other so well.

Subsequently, the drama performance category is looking a bit empty, even after clubbing male and female performances together. We’re left with the usual suspects: Smiths Matt and Maggie, and previous winner Miranda Hart. Perhaps the re-categorisation is understandable. Given our obsession, any of these nominees would surely be robbed of a win – and this time the crime-solvers would be the culprits.

Obviously, due to the nature of a public vote, the awards favour performances from actors in popular programmes – meaning standout performances in more niche offerings are likely to miss out. Consequently, my investigator-of-choice didn’t even make the longlist. Top Of The Lake was an exquisitely shot and scripted six-part drama that saw Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) investigating the disappearance of a pregnant schoolgirl. Moss tracked Robin’s increasing fragility beautifully throughout, giving a devastatingly well-pitched portrayal of her subsequent emotional breakdown as her past caught up with her. It was a performance worlds apart from the frenzied brilliance of Cumberbatch, but every bit as captivating in its own right.

Picture: Radio Times

Sherlock – BBC1. Read the review on Varsity here.

That’s it then. Sherlock has gone as quickly as it came. Quicker, maybe – it got off to a bit of a shaky start. But this third and final instalment of series 3 was right back on form. The much sought-after ‘actual plot’ that many lamented the absence of in previous episodes finally materialised. And there was a fabulous cliff-hanger to boot.

We finally got to meet the man belonging to the pair of icy blue eyes that stared out at us on New Year’s Day as Watson sautéed on the bonfire: Charles Augustus Magnusson (a thrillingly evil Lars Mikkelsen), sole retainer of a gigantic amount of incriminating information on everyone he’d ever come across, and also a massive creep. When he wasn’t licking people’s faces, he was busy blackmailing the entire country. But not for much longer. Enter Sherlock.

A slightly squalid Sherlock, actually, hiding out in a drug den – supposedly for a case. ‘Stay out of my bedroom!’ he ordered once he’d been dragged home and scolded by everyone (not to mention slapped a few times by the wonderful Molly, who hasn’t had nearly enough to do this series). Sherlock was clean, it turned out. So what was he hiding in the bedroom? Only the flirty Irish bridesmaid from last week! Watson’s incredulous response to this ‘relationship’ was priceless – Martin Freeman is the king of reaction shots. But Sherlock had morphine pumping through his veins soon enough, this time in hospital: he’d been shot. The culprit? None other than Mrs Watson.

Oh, Mary! What a dark horse, stringing us along in your jovial manner! We saw the word ‘liar’ on the screen alongside ‘bakes own bread’ when Sherlock first met Mary, but we chose to ignore it because she was just so nice. Yet suddenly here she was, putting a bullet through him. It was a clever twist, and credit to Amanda Abbington for making us invest so much in her character in just a few episodes that the big reveal, when it came, was a genuine shock.

A series of confrontations followed, amusingly interspersed with Christmas at the Cumberbatches (with Benedict’s parents reprising their roles as Mr and Mrs Holmes). It was thrilling, but perhaps not to the extent of previous finales. Two years ago, Sherlock was the sharpest thing on TV. This year it knew it, and veered dangerously towards self-indulgence a few too many times. But you can’t fault its intelligence. There were lines in this episode that wouldn’t have been out of place in a sitcom, but as always they were woven around a much darker story – in this case one that played to very current fears of surveillance and exposure. Beneath all the panache, Sherlock remains a beautifully crafted drama.

After a final rendezvous with Magnusson (in what appeared to be the Tellytubby house crossed with Kew Gardens), Sherlock was on a jet headed for certain death in Eastern Europe. Not again. But oh, how they toy with us! Just as the credits began to roll, a voice piped up: ‘Did you miss me?’ And there he was in all his mad glory: Jim Moriarty. As quickly as it had taken off, Sherlock’s jet was landing. Yes, Moriarty! We did miss you! Come back and engineer some real crimes! Blackmail and face-licking are one thing, but not a patch on the havoc you used to cause! Let’s just hope your mayhem isn’t another two years in the making.

Picture: Guardian

Death Comes To Pemberley, BBC1 – read review on Varsity here

If Sherlock, Downton Abbey (last year) and Eastenders (most years) are anything to go by, we love a bit of dramatised death during the festive season. And we love a period drama any time of year. So take the cast of the mother of all period dramas, Pride and Prejudice, add a murder mystery, and set them against a backdrop of stately home porn in the form of the Chatsworth Estate, and you’re onto a winner.

Death Comes To Pemberley was an adaptation of the P. D. James novel of the same name, in which Austen’s beloved creations find themselves embroiled in a murder case involving infamous Regency love-rat, George Wickham. Early on, Wickham is seen dragging the body of Captain Denny through the woods at Pemberley, and the rest of this three-part drama was concerned with piecing together the chain of events leading up to that moment.

Despite the whodunit aspect, Death Comes To Pemberley still made time to explore more personal dramas, primarily the fight for the affections of Georgiana Darcy (Eleanor Tomlinson) between young lawyer Henry Alveston (James Norton) and Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), now considerably more embittered since the events of P&P. We also saw some tension in the marriage of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, as the two had trouble seeing eye to eye where Georgiana was concerned.

Anna Maxwell Martin was a marvellous Lizzie, more mature than previous incarnations, but still possessing the same spark and wit, shown to best effect in her exchange with the interfering Lady Catherine de Bourgh (soon-to-be-Dame Penelope Keith). Also worth noting is Jenna Coleman, who softened the simpering, showy Lydia by adding a refreshing fragility to Austen’s rather one-dimensional character. Matthew Rhys was a sober Darcy, but the strain caused by the return of Wickham in such unfavourable circumstances became clear throughout his performance. However, given their history, and the damage that Wickham’s dilemma could have had on his reputation, Darcy was surprisingly patient with his childhood friend – almost polite – which was not easy to swallow.

All things considered, the acting was stronger than the plot. The murder mystery was well paced and intriguing, but my parents managed to predict the denouement before the big reveal. (Not me, though. I’m a bit slow.)

When all was well again, the writers couldn’t resist a bit of period-drama schmaltz. “I’m so happy!”, laughed Lizzie, as Darcy spun her around in front of Pemberley’s Olympic-sized water feature. I would be, too, if I lived in that house.

Picture: Guardian

Sherlock, BBC1. Read the review on Varsity here.

It was the question on everyone’s lips: why did Watson feel the need to grow that moustache? Oh and also, how did Sherlock manage the whole roof-jumping, death-faking thing in the second series finale two years ago? The Empty Hearse – the long-awaited and much-hyped opener to series three – promised to reveal all. And for the most part it did. But did it match the brilliance we became used to in the first couple of series? That’s up for debate.

At the beginning of the episode, Sherlock is ‘dead’. Watson is grieving, but also preparing to propose to his new(ish) girlfriend. Mrs Hudson is angry at his lack of contact, thrilled by the news of his upcoming nuptials, and once again surprised by his sexual orientation. Anderson has apparently turned into one of those people who make YouTube videos about how Sherlock threw himself off a building without dying. (All very meta, I know).

Ah yes, the roof-jumping. Finally, we were going to find out what actually occurred behind that lorry full of bin bags. But not, it seemed, until we’d sat through a couple of red herrings. It’s a shame that they were red herrings, because I quite enjoyed the plan that hinged on Derren Brown hypnotising an already-concussed Watson. In the end, though, Sherlock survived with a giant blue bouncy castle, a dead ringer (literally) and a couple of dozen homeless people. That’s what Sherlock tells a slightly deranged Anderson, anyway. As for the moustache? Still a mystery.

Back to the present, and Sherlock is being tortured in Serbia, until Mycroft casually steps in and summons his brother back to London. The reason is an imminent terrorist attack on the capital. But that can wait. First, we need a few emotional reunions. Except that Sherlock doesn’t do emotional. He prefers dressing up as a French waiter and crashing a marriage proposal: much more dramatic. As always, it was Sherlock’s endearing lack of social and emotional tact that made for the most entertaining moments of this episode. Where plot was concerned, though, it fell short.

The trouble was that this episode felt aimed towards diehard Sherlock fans, and less towards people who just like watching good TV. Time was spent poking fun at fangirls when it should have been used to move the story along. As a result, the Guy Fawkes-inspired plot to blow up Westminster using the Underground felt rushed and was resolved all too quickly and simply. I’m now wondering how many films and series of Homeland could have ended sooner with the knowledge that bombs have ‘off’ switches. Overall though, it was an enjoyable episode, with the usual razor-sharp script and top-notch acting we’ve come to expect. Now that Sherlock is firmly installed back in Baker Street, the upcoming episodes will hopefully be back to usual form.

Just one more niggle: I could have done without the edgy shots of the Underground. The Tube is not that cool. And it’s never that empty.