Saturday, 28 February 2015

Arthur & George, ITV, Martin Clunes, Arsher Ali PREVIEW

Rating: ★★★½

ITV: starts Monday, 2 March, 9pm

Story: Set in 1906 in Staffordshire, Hampshire and London, the drama follows Sir Arthur and his trusted secretary, Alfred ‘Woodie’ Wood, as they investigate the case of George Edalji, a young Anglo-Indian solicitor who was imprisoned for allegedly mutilating animals and writing obscene letters.

ARTHUR & GEORGE, based on Julian Barnes's 2005 novel, is inspired by the story of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle's reinvention of himself as a real-life investigator.

George Edalji was a half-Indian solicitor who was convicted of the rather revolting Great Wyrley Outrages, in which horses were mutilated in the countryside – crimes that the judge called 'depraved and bazarre'. Edalji was sentenced to seven years, read Holmes's adventures while incarcerated, and on his release appealed to the world-renowned author for assistance in clearing his name.

And what an extraordinary tale it is. Like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – also filmed by ITV – it is an intriguing window into the Victorian mindset and attitudes.

Martin Clunes as Conan Doyle

While this production – with Martin Clunes playing Conan Doyle and Arsher Ali as Edalji – is pretty
Conan Doyle (Martin Clunes) and Jean Leckie (Hattie Morahan)
standard frock coat and carriages fare, the tale itself can't fail to chill and fascinate.

It is replete with full moons, foggy nights, spectral figures and a sinister hate campaign against Edalji and his multiracial family. Conan Doyle himself would have been hard-pushed to concoct such a yarn.

The drama, like the novel, also touches on Conan Doyles' seemingly sexless relationship with Jean Leckie following the death of his wife, Louisa.

Martin Clunes is fine as the writer rejuvenated by his investigation, though the Scottish accent wobbles a bit. While he appears to bumble along, wondering whether he should don disguises as his fictional consulting detective would do, Conan Doyle does see through police prejudice and uncover some very unpleasant goings-on.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Better Call Saul – slick follow-up to Breaking Bad

SURELY, after his scene-stealing in one of the most talked-about TV series of recent times, Breaking Bad, the only way was down for Bob Odenkirk.

Expectations for his headlining the spin-off prequel Better Call Saul were muted, but most BB devotees would expect at least a dignified effort seeing as the Netflix 10-parter is written by Vince Gilligan, BB's showrunner.

But delight of delights, from its opening episode BCS has been assured, grimly amusing and very promising indeed.

It is, of course, the early adventures of scamster and shyster lawyer Saul Goodman - whom we meet under his real moniker of Jimmy McGill. Gilligan, in cahoots with co-writer Peter Gould, has fashioned another delicious piece of twisted Americana.

The action kicks off in 2002, six years before the events of Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse are BCS to develop it own identity. Jim/Saul is a struggling public defender, working from a disused storeroom at a beauty parlour, driving a jalopy.
nowhere to be seen, which allows

The writing and production are superb, subtly conjuring a set of pressures that start to shift our anti-hero into the realms of dishonesty. Again set in Albuquerque, it has BB's eye for alienating car parks and grubby civic spaces.

And Gilligan's genius for torturous moral dilemmas still has us squirming, such as the desert scene in episode 2 where Jim/Saul and his two skateboarding partners in a scam face a horribly grim end.

Do yourself a favour - get legalled up with Saul.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Broadchurch 2 verdict – guilty of being a letdown

AFTER the hoo-hah it attracted during its second outing, Broadchurch finished with the announcement that there will be a third series.

The papers had a field day slamming the drama this time round, loudly blowing raspberries as the ratings drooped – Telegraph: 'Loses two-million viewers'; Independent: 'Lowest ratings'; Daily Mail: 'Boredchurch'.

I felt the first episode was a good jump-start to the second series. But after that, it became implausible and dull. I quickly caught up by watching several episodes last week in time for Monday night's finale, but still felt it was a shadow of the first, multi-award-winning season.

The performances were again terrific, but it was criticised for its legal inaccuracies and tortured plot. My own gripes were these:

• The storytelling was manipulative and the courtroom scenes irritating. Alex and Ellie performed like novices when questioned. Every time barrister Sharon Bishop made a wild accusation, we got reaction shots of the Latimers and the detectives looking distraught, ramming home the point that everything the defence asserted was on target with the jury. And the flashbacks showing Lee creeping about the woods and at the furnace were another attempt to steer viewers rather than let us work things out for ourselves.

• Even if it was possible, the idea that Joe would get off because the defence suggested a number of totally baseless fantasy scenarios – Ellie and Alec's affair, Danny spotting his dad in a tryst and dad Mark ending up killing him etc – was deeply unsatisfying.

Radio Times describes Joe Miller's acquittal as a 'shock verdict'. Surely this was the most predictable verdict since as early as episode two. The constant judicial decisions in favour of the defence were a flashing neon sign that Joe was going to get off. So was a guilty man declared innocent here? My guess is that writer Chris Chibnall's big series-three twist is going to be that it was Ellie and Joe's son Tom that really killed Danny and Joe was protecting him.

• After all the tedious red-herrings (he did it, she did it, Ricky did it, the stalker did it), the whole Claire-Lee-Ricky denouement was muddled and unbelievable. Threatened with being implicated by Ricky, Lee turns cold-blooded child killer? Hmm…

• Alex's one-man witness protection of Claire also stretched credibility to breaking point.

• And what is the point of Susan Wright and son Nige? In both series she's been lurking with intent but has not affected the final story at all.

• Alex and Ellie spent most of the series going round in circles. Their characters hardly developed at all. In the last scene, they parted awkwardly, still as alien to each other as they been from the start.

So, Broadchurch will return, ITV cheered by the way its ratings rallied to nearly 8million. The good news is that David Tennant and Olivia Colman should return with it. Maybe after this difficult second series, Chris Chibnall will find his mojo again and conjure another classic.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Better Call Saul – trailer for series 1 launch

Better Call Saul starts tonight on Netflix. The Breaking Bad prequel starring Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks has been getting good word-of-mouth from the media. The series is set six years before Saul Goodman (Odenkirk) meets Walter White. When we meet him, the man who will become Saul Goodman is known as Jimmy McGill. The series will track Jimmy's transformation into Saul Goodman, the man who puts 'criminal' in 'criminal lawyer'. Here's a taster…

Bosch, Amazon Prime Instant Video, with Titus Welliver PREVIEW

Titus Welliver in Bosch
Harry's place – Bosch at home with his troubles
Rating: ★★★★

Amazon Prime Instant Video: All 10 episodes from Friday, 13 February

AMAZON PRIME Instant Video – whichever marketing whiz thought up that snappy moniker should be buried in concrete – won its first two Golden Globes ever in January for its dark transgender comedy Transparent. 

The online vendor-turned-streaming service clearly needs to be taken seriously now as a producer of quality entertainment alongside Netflix.

So the launch this Friday of its new 10-parter based on Michael Connelly's multi-million-selling
Jamie Hector and Titus Welliver in Bosch
On the case – Jerry Edgar and Bosch
crime novels should make us sit up and pay attention.

And Bosch is a pretty good screen grab of those sharply written tales about the LAPD homicide detective. It was commissioned after Amazon Prime Instant Video (just trips off the tongue, doesn't it?) released a pilot of the show and asked customers to vote on whether they wanted it turned into a series.

Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch

I thought the pilot was a bit bland and unimpressive, but there are millions of Michael Connelly fans who are desperate to see Bosch on screen and Amazon got a big response in favour of making it.

The re-edited series pilot is far superior to the one that was knocked out for the vote. The production and look of it, a beautifully filmed noirish vision of modern Los Angeles, is really well done.

In the lead is Titus Welliver, who will be familiar to fans of the brilliant The Good Wife, Lost, Sons of
Annie Wersching and Titus Welliver in Bosch
Julia and Bosch 
and Deadwood. Again, he wasn't my personal vision of Harry Bosch when I watched the first pilot, but he is a very good actor and he grows on you as the show hits it stride.

The story's a gripper, too. It fuses three of Connelly's novels into a series-long narrative – City of Bones (2002), The Concrete Blonde (1994) and Echo Park (2006).

In the books Bosch is a man of few words, internalising most of his thoughts and feelings. That would obviously be dull on TV, so Michael Connelly and his team of scriptwriters cleverly begin the series with Bosch in crisis, having shot a suspected serial killer in an alleyway.


Thursday, 29 January 2015

Midsomer Murders series 17, ITV, with Neil Dudgeon, Gwilym Lee PREVIEW

Killing in Midsomer may be more ingenious than a medieval torture chamber, but the drama is still as twee and genteel as a tea cosy

Neil Dudgeon as DCI Barnaby and Gwilym Lee as DS Nelson
Don't be deceived by the mean looks – Midsomer Murders is a bit of a giggle. Pics: ITV
Rating: ★★★

ITV: starts Thursday, 28 January, 8pm

Story: The unveiling of a newly discovered novel by deceased Midsomer crime-writer George Summersbee at the Luxton Deeping Crime Festival is jeopardised when the manuscript is stolen and a woman is fatally electrocuted by a booby-trapped roulette wheel.

HAVING SLAIN AROUND 300 villagers since 1996 with candlesticks, arrows, toxic fungi, liquid nicotine, hemlock, Neptune's trident, a poisonous frog and a slide projector, among other bizarre weapons, you'd think Midsomer Murders would have reached a dead end by now.

FIONA DOLMAN as Sarah in Midsomer Murders
Sarah and Barnaby's new edition
But no, it is one of those series that staggers on long after its stars have given up the will to act in it, simply drafting in new faces to read out the lines, like Last of the Summer Wine or New Tricks or CSI.

However, when you realise that not only have UK audiences got an unquenchable liking for this mild-mannered hokum, but – holy moly! – it's lapped up in just about every bloody country in the world, you can see why ITV keep churning out episodes. What they make of it in places such as Estonia, Iran and South Korea would be interesting to know.

The Dagger Club

And of course the Danes like it so much that the 100th episode was actually set in the country. Move over, Sarah Lund.

Anyway, DCI John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) and DS Charlie Nelson (Gwilym Lee) return this week. As is the custom, the murders seem to have been inspired by Heath Robinson, so we kick off in The Dagger Club with electrocution by roulette wheel. Crushing and drowning are line up for future episodes. Midsomer devotees just adore these Larky murder routines.

This opener also cleverly uses the backdrop of a crime fiction festival in Luxton Deeping, which is clearly right in tune with the demographic of its core viewership.

A stolen manuscript

The McGuffin here is a newly discovered manuscript by deceased Midsomer crime author George
GEORGIA TAYLOR as Bella Summersbee in Midsomer Murders
Georgia Taylor guest stars as Bella
Summersbee, which is supposed to be launched lucratively at the festival, but has been stolen. The fun begins when book-cover designer Suzie Colebrook plays with that booby-trapped roulette wheel…

It's all terribly genteel, pretty postcard stuff. In addition to its blackish humour, Midsomer Murders specialises in portraying an imaginary land free of litter, urban decay and swearing. It even avoided multiculturalism until that unfortunate business in 2011 when a producer said the show was a bastion of Englishness.

These days there is a little racial diversity among the characters, but it's all still as comfy as an old cardie and tea at the village hall. And there are some lovely old faces popping by through the series – Una Stubbs, Amanda Burton, Jack Shepherd, Claire Bloom.

It always has a soothing effect on me, so much so that during the second hour of every mystery I always fall into a deep sleep.

Long may it shuffle on.

Midsomer Murders on ITV Player

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Hitchcock's obsessions still haunt us

Author and Alfred Hitchcock devotee Tony Lee Moral has written several books inspired by the Master of Suspense. In this guest post, he talks about how Hitchcock's obsession with ordinary people trapped in frightening situations featured in so many of the director's TV series and films, and still resurface today…

IN A CAREER spanning six decades, Alfred Hitchcock directed 57 feature films and 18 episodes of his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He introduced a total of 361 television episodes and in the first season, 1955-1956, and he directed four memorable episodes – Revenge starring Vera Miles, Breakdown with Joseph Cotton, The Case of Mr Pelham with Tom Ewell, and Back for Christmas with John Williams.


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Accused — Killer TV No.33

BBC1, 2010-2012 

'You're the bitch. Right? Till you prove yourself in battle, till you return fire when under fire, you're the bitch.' Corporal Buckley (Frankie's Story)

Anne-Marie Duff, Olivia Colman, Joe Dempsie, John Bishop, Warren Brown, Peter Capaldi, Mackenzie Crook, Juliet Stevenson, Christopher Eccleston, Marc Warren, Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sean Bean, Stephen Graham

Identikit: As each week's main character climbs into the dock, the events leading to their being accused and tried for a crime are revealed.


'No police procedure, thanks very much, no coppers striding along corridors with coats flapping. Just crime and punishment – the two things that matter most in any crime drama' – that's how writer Jimmy McGovern described his anthology series. Each story features an ordinary person who ends up in the dock. How did they get there, and do they deserve to walk free or be locked up? The hook for McGovern is the 'There but for the grace of God go I' aspect to the lives of many working class people, the fine line between trying to do the right thing and ending up on the wrong side of the law. Such are McGovern's credentials as the writer of powerful UK television dramas such as Cracker, Hillsborough and The Street that Accused pulled in the cream of British screen talent. There were two seasons of the drama and the stories are all gnawing dilemmas about ordinary people, some who make mistakes, some who are desperate while others are the victims of circumstance. Helen's Story stars Juliet Stevenson as a mother driven by the death of her son in a factory accident to break into his workplace and plead with the manager to accept liability for it. When he refuses she later sets fire to the factory. Marc Warren stars in Kenny's Story, as a guy who, with some friends, goes looking for a man who attacked his daughter in a park, only to beat up and kill an innocent man. This was, apparently, one of the hardest scripts to write, as it was 'almost autobiographical' for McGovern, whose daughter was attacked and who went looking for the culprit – 'Thank god we didn't find that man…' And season two opens with Tracie's Story. Perhaps only McGovern's involvement could have convinced screen hardman Sean Bean (Game of Thrones, Sharpe) to step out of his comfort zone to portray a transvestite, who falls in love with Tony, played by Stephen Graham, another star
Stephen Graham and Sean Bean – Tracie's Story
who usually plays alpha nutters (Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire, for instance). The dramas could be heartrending or tragic with characters of spirit and humour – and were always involving for the viewer. McGovern and his co-writers (including Alice Nutter and Danny Brocklehurst) didn't judge characters such as Tracie and Tony – who become implicated in a murder – but simply portray normal people in extraordinary situations. Told with great economy, the stories are occasionally stark and once or twice follow an issue (army bullying in Frankie's Story) a little more than the characters, but each one is compelling and brought alive by electric performances. Accused was not a ratings success, finishing on BBC1 with 3.19 million viewers, but in terms of quality and artistry it was a blockbuster. 

Classic episode: Tender and sad, Tracie's Story is a tale full of human frailty and spirit. Issues of loneliness and identity are explored through Tracie, the bored English teacher who defies the world as a transvestite by night, and Tony, the married man he has an uneasy relationship with. A murder throws a lurid light on these characters, but the drama is gripping all the way. Sean Bean won the Royal Television Society award for best actor.

Watercooler fact: Writer Jimmy McGovern acknowledges that he's sometimes totally wrong about casting. When MacKenzie Crook, whom McGovern had admired in The Office, was cast in Frankie's Story, the writer said he would 'show my bum' if Crook could convincingly portray a psychotic British Army corporal. 'I was thoroughly wrong,' McGovern admitted. 'It is an absolutely outstanding performance.'

More of the Killer 50

Saturday, 24 January 2015

CSI series 15, Ted Danson, Elisabeth Shue, George Eads, Jorja Fox PREVIEW

It's gory and implausible, but why is CSI so popular? JG Ballard thought it was all about our innermost fears…

Ted Danson as DB Russell, Elisabeth Shue as Julie Finlay in CSI series 15
Ted Danson and Elisabeth Shue in CSI. Pics:C5
Rating: ★★★

Channel 5: starts Saturday, 24 January, 10.15pm

Story: Julie discovers an explosive device planted in her car and the bomb squad desperately tries to figure out how to get her to safety.

WHAT A WEIRD and unsettling series CSI is. A house of horrors for the TV age, delving into nightmares of mortality with detachment and a throbbing rock beat.

Watching the opening episode of the 15th series, I was reminded of a typically provocative feature that JG Ballard wrote about the series 10 years ago in The Guardian. He became hooked on it and stated: 'The series was original, slick and deeply disturbing, though I wasn't too keen to find out why.'

But then he goes right ahead and dissects the drama anyway (excuse the pun). As a former medical student with experience in the exploration of corpses before he went on to write unsettling masterpieces such as Crash, The Unlimited Dream Company and High-Rise, his insights were intriguing.

Ted Danson and Elisabeth Shue

He wrote about CSI taking place in a strangely interiorised world with emotionless protagonists, and his insights do still apply the latest series. While the cast has changed, with William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger giving way to Ted Danson and Elisabeth Shue, and there have been small changes to the series' focus, Ballard still gets right under the skin of CSI's world.
'Interiorised world' – Russell confronts Briscoe

'The crimes - they are all homicides - take place in anonymous hotel rooms and in the tract housing of the Vegas suburbs, almost never in a casino or drug lord's gaudy palace,' he wrote.

'A brutal realism prevails, the grimmest in any crime series. Suburban lounges and that modern station of the cross, the hotel bathroom, are the settings of horrific murders, which thankfully are over by the time each episode begins. Gloves donned, the cast dismantle u-bends and plunge up to their elbows in toilet bowls, retrieving condoms, diaphragms and bullet casings, syringes, phials and other signs of the contemporary zodiac.'

The Gig Harbor Killer

One difference from 2005 in the opening episode of series 15, The CSI Effect, is that although the serial murders are over as it begins, we get a helpful flashback of the Gig Harbor Killer butchering three women to a blast of rock 'n' roll. So, not only do we pick through the viscera of the victims, we get a gratuitous pop video of the violence and torment that ended their lives.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar in CSI
Fiendishly clever – Briscoe
Like Silent Witness, the BBC long-runner that preceded CSI by four years, all faith is placed in forensic science, as though studying the choreography of a killing along with trajectories and hair fibres will reduce all possibilities down to one finite suspect.

Again, Ballard touched on this lack of heart in the show: 'Every viewer knows that the only people who show emotion in CSI are about to be dead. This lack of emotion extends to the cast, who never display a flicker of anger or revulsion.'

CSI has little emotion or plausibility

More recent hits such as Broadchurch, The Killing or Happy Valley have explored different realms of crime drama by depicting the emotional impact of violent crime. CSI prefers the cold exploration of death without emotion or plausibility.

The CSI Effect is off-the-radar in its preposterousness, starting with Julie Finlay finding herself in a booby-trapped car, while the Gig Harbor killer, Jared Briscoe, seems to be operating again even though he is in prison on death row.

As is common in series such as The Following and Criminal Minds, serial killers are all geniuses who deploy ludicrous levels of ingenuity in staging their crimes. So, Briscoe delighted in doing the forensic work on his crimes before the CSI team arrived, dusting for prints and leaving horoscope patterns in blood splatter and bullet trajectories.