TV review: Spooks Series 1 (2002)

Chris Hallam's World View

Spooks first appeared amidst a blaze of publicity on BBC One in April 2002. Promoted with the catchy slogan, “It’s M-I5, not 9 to 5,” the show was an instant success and with it’s exciting, edgy story-lines and watchable performances, it’s not hard to see why. Eighteen years on, it’s three original stars, Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo are all still a regular presence on our screens . Macfadyen, who married his co-star Keeley Hawes in 2004, was indeed, briefly seen as the favourite to succeed Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, before Daniel Craig got the part instead.

Spooks introduces us to the world of spies. In the US, where the word ‘Spooks’ is sometimes used as a racial insult, the show was simply called ‘M-I5.’ Although nobody ever actually says, “it’s M-15, not 9 to 5″ in the show, this phrase aptly sums up the central dilemma…

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DVD/Blu-Ray review: The Green Man (1956)

Chris Hallam's World View

The 1950s was undoubtedly a classic period in the career of character actor, Alastair Sim. This film sees him playing Hawkins, a watchmaker who also operates as an assassin. Early scenes demonstrate how Hawkins has often adopted a variety of ingenious disguises before successfully blowing up his victims. His main target here is an adulterous politician Sir Gregory Upshott (Raymond Huntley) who he tracks to a hotel, The Green Man of the title.

It isn’t long before things take a farcical turn as a vacuum cleaner salesman curiously called William Blake (a young George Cole) and a local beauty (Jill Adams) get drawn into proceedings. With Terry-Thomas playing a philandering cad called Charles Boughtflower and a trio of elderly female musicians also becoming involved, Hawkins’ carefully laid out plans soon descend into chaos.

Although hardly groundbreaking, The Green Man is pleasantly enjoyable fare, packed with familiar faces recognisable to anyone…

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TV review: Normal People

Chris Hallam's World View

As the nation has grown accustomed to lockdown in the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have naturally turned more frequently to their TVs for entertainment, with some series inevitably faring better than others during this highly unusual period.

One notable success story in the last two weeks has been the new adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed 2018 novel, Normal People. Although only half way through its 12 episode terrestrial TV run (episodes 5 and 6 will be screened tonight – that is, Monday May 11th 2020 on BBC One from 9pm), the series which is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, has been a huge success on the BBC iPlayer. It has, in fact, become the most requested ever show on the BBC streaming service, beating a record set by the first series of action-packed international drama, Killing Eve in 2018.

NORMAL PEOPLE

Normal People is essentially…

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The Man in the High Castle

Chris Hallam's World View

Reproduced, with thanks, from Bingebox magazine (2016):

It seems like a familiar sight. A lone sultry and very famous singer delivers a seductive performance of “happy birthday” to the birthday boy, actually her secret lover, who also happens to be her leader. But as she reaches the third line, something jars. The words change and things take a chilling turn. “Happy birthday…Mein Fuhrer,” are the star’s next words. For while this is Marilyn Monroe, she is not singing to President Kennedy, the charismatic young American president but to … someone else entirely.

So, begins the trailer for the second season of Amazon Prime’s, The Man In The High Castle. And as if we didn’t know already, this is a world in which history has taken a very different turn from our own. And not for the better.

THE REICH STUFF

The premise
of The Man In The High Castle stems…

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TV review: Spooks Series 1 (2002)

Spooks first appeared amidst a blaze of publicity on BBC One in April 2002. Promoted with the catchy slogan, “It’s M-I5, not 9 to 5,” the show was an instant success and with it’s exciting, edgy story-lines and watchable performances, it’s not hard to see why. Eighteen years on, it’s three original stars, Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo are all still a regular presence on our screens . Macfadyen, who married his co-star Keeley Hawes in 2004, was indeed, briefly seen as the favourite to succeed Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, before Daniel Craig got the part instead.

Spooks introduces us to the world of spies. In the US, where the word ‘Spooks’ is sometimes used as a racial insult, the show was simply called ‘M-I5.’ Although nobody ever actually says, “it’s M-15, not 9 to 5″ in the show, this phrase aptly sums up the central dilemma experienced by Tom Quinn (Macfadyen) as he tries to juggle his demanding but secret career with his developing relationship with single mother Ellie (Esther Hall) and her young daughter. Quinn is initially known to the family as ‘Matthew,” of course, the actor’s actual first name.

Broadcast only a few months after the 2001 September 11th attacks, these first six episodes appeared at a time of heightened tension with story-lines including a bomb attack in Britain by a Far Right US anti-abortion group, a siege at the Turkish consulate by Kurdish rebels, some shenanigans involving the late Tim Pigott-Smith as a Jonathan Aitken-like disgraced minister and Anthony Head playing a veteran M- I5 agent who goes rogue while attempting to infiltrate a group planning to disrupt a visit to Britain by unpopular US President George W. Bush.

Veteran actress Jenny Agutter (now also known for Call The Midwife) also appears as does Hugh Laurie in a role which bridges the gap between the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster comedy roles he was then best known for and the more serious parts in House MD and The Night Manager which lay ahead of him. Future celebrity chef Lisa Faulkner also makes a flash in the pan appearance as agent Helen Flynn.

Much of the technology in the early days of Spooks now seems almost laughably dated with the characters relying heavily on CD-ROM discs, old-fashioned looking mobile phones and very slow downloads in a number of scenes. Macfadyen recently starred in Quiz, a dramatisation of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire cheating scandal and ironically the title sequence and music to Spooks, while presumably seen as flashy and hi-tech at the time, now feel very much like that of a daytime quiz show.

That is not to say Spooks – Series One is only now entertaining for its unintentional comedy value. Far from it. With this and all nine subsequent series now available on the BBC iPlayer (the show ended in 2011, later spawning a moderately successful film version Spooks: The Greater Good in 2015), this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy or enjoy again the opening episodes of a long-running British spy series which essentially got off to an excellent start.

Begin your own surveillance campaign immediately.

DVD/Blu-Ray review: The Green Man (1956)

The 1950s was undoubtedly a classic period in the career of character actor, Alastair Sim. This film sees him playing Hawkins, a watchmaker who also operates as an assassin. Early scenes demonstrate how Hawkins has often adopted a variety of ingenious disguises before successfully blowing up his victims. His main target here is an adulterous politician Sir Gregory Upshott (Raymond Huntley) who he tracks to a hotel, The Green Man of the title.

It isn’t long before things take a farcical turn as a vacuum cleaner salesman curiously called William Blake (a young George Cole) and a local beauty (Jill Adams) get drawn into proceedings. With Terry-Thomas playing a philandering cad called Charles Boughtflower and a trio of elderly female musicians also becoming involved, Hawkins’ carefully laid out plans soon descend into chaos.

Although hardly groundbreaking, The Green Man is pleasantly enjoyable fare, packed with familiar faces recognisable to anyone who enjoys post-war British cinema. Can you spot Michael Ripper, Dora Bryan and Arthur Lowe?

And unlike Sim’s hapless assassin, this is a comedy which rarely misses its target.

Vintage Classics

Studio Canal

Directed by: Robert Day

Starring: Alastair Sim, George Cole, Terry-Thomas, Jill Adams, Raymond Huntley

TV review: Normal People

As the nation has grown accustomed to lockdown in the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have naturally turned more frequently to their TVs for entertainment, with some series inevitably faring better than others during this highly unusual period.

One notable success story in the last two weeks has been the new adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed 2018 novel, Normal People. Although only half way through its 12 episode terrestrial TV run (episodes 5 and 6 will be screened tonight – that is, Monday May 11th 2020 on BBC One from 9pm), the series which is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, has been a huge success on the BBC iPlayer. It has, in fact, become the most requested ever show on the BBC streaming service, beating a record set by the first series of action-packed international drama, Killing Eve in 2018.

NORMAL PEOPLE

Normal People is essentially the tale of the on-off love story over a number of years between a young couple, Marianne Sheldon and Connell Waldron, who begin a relationship initially while as teenagers nearing the end of their schooldays in County Sligo in the Irish Republic. Both are very bright and have much in common, although these things are not necessarily immediately obvious to those around them. At school, Connell (Paul Mescal) is sporty, amiable and popular. In the US, he would be described as a ‘jock’ and keeps his more sensitive literary side fairly well-hidden. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), in contrast, is clever and sensitive too but at school is spiky, rebellious and more socially intimidating. Although, she too, is attractive, she is so unpopular, the other pupils rarely acknowledge this, perhaps not even to themselves. Her relationship with Connell is conducted in the utmost secrecy, during their time at school.

Although he has a happier home life, the Waldrons are much less well-off than the Sheldons, Connell’s mother in fact working as a cleaner in Marianne’s mother’s house. We soon learn Marianne’s domestic existence is deeply unhappy, however. The household is unloving, cold, sterile and ultimately abusive. As the couple’s relationship progresses to Trinity College, Dublin, the two see their roles effectively reversed with Marianne becoming much confident and at ease than the now more awkward Connell, having reinvented herself in her new largely middle-class environment.

Doubtless some of the series’ popularity stems from the potentially voyeuristic appeal of the show’s frequent sex scenes, though these are never pornographic or salacious in tone. Beautifully acted, particularly by its two leads who are surely now both destined for stardom, sensitive and intelligent in its portrayal of an evolving relationship, Normal People is a drama which deserves its success.

There is talk now of producing a TV version of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, or perhaps a TV sequel to Normal People (no literary sequel to the book yet exists).

But, in truth, Normal People is that rarest of things: a TV series which is actually better than the novel which inspired it.

The Best Sitcoms of the 21st century so far: Miranda (2009-15)

Some might balk at the inclusion of popular mainstream favourite Miranda on this list. But while Miranda the series, like the character of Miranda herself, may be less obviously ‘cool’ than some of its contemporaries, it is extremely likeable and often very funny.

Writing a self-titled sitcom can be a risky business. The sitcom ‘Josh’ for example, has never really fully demonstrated the excellence of its creator Jpsh Widdecombe while comedian Rhona Cameron never really recovered from the failure of her own vehicle, ‘Rhona.’ But the huge success of Miranda transformed Miranda Hart from supporting roles in Hyperdrive and Not Going Out into a household name who now occasionally appears in Hollywood films.

In the sitcom, Miranda is a tall, awkward thirty-something who runs a joke shop with her business-minded, Heather Smalls-loving friend Stevie (Sarah Hadland) and who pines after her old Uni friend, Gary (Tom Ellis), a good looking local chef. Miranda is hampered in her daily life by her intrusive overbearing mother, Penny (Patricia Hodge) who is obsessed with marrying Miranda off, her dippy posh old school chum Tilly (Sally Phillips) and her own tendency to frequently fall over, lose her clothes or occasionally nervously break into song in public. Hart is a master of physical comedy, frequently delivering mischievous asides or meaningful sidelong looks to the camera, rather as Phoebe Waller-Bridge later did in the much less cosy Fleabag.

Full of catchphrases, Miranda was as mainstream as sitcoms get. But before it was fatally overtaken by an over-obsession with a distracting ‘love triangle’ story-line in the disappointing final  episodes, it was genuinely excellent, uplifting, enjoyable, well performed and ultimately… such fun.

Top Ten Tigers From History


1. Tiger King: Netflix series. I’ve not seen this yet! But I must do soon as I hear about it everywhere I go (i,e. the kitchen, lounge and bathroom).

2. Tony the Tiger: Cartoon character used to advertise Frosties breakfast cereal (basically Corn Flakes with more sugar on). As Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) on Peep Show says: “Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.”


3. Tiger Tiger: Popular nightclub. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “Tyger tyger, burning bright. Get pissed, pull and have a fight…”

4. Tygra from Thundercats. The “boring one” of the Fab Four, a bit like George Harrison or Mike from The Young Ones.


5. Rod’s Tiger: Popular comic story about a boy and his pet tiger which ran in Buster comic between 1981 and 1983. A pun on the name of the actor, Rod Steiger. Not really! I made this one up.

6. Tigger: From Winnie the Pooh. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “The wonderful thing about Tiggers…” (I think?)

7. Battle Cat: From He-Man. Transformed from a very anxious green tiger called Cringer into a gruffer (he could speak) more aggressive feline when his master became He-Man. Technically, as he was an alien he might not have actually been a tiger in the same way that the Ewoks from Star Wars are not really bears.

8. Tiger Woods. A golfer. Clemenceau, the French leader at the time of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 nicknamed, “The Tiger.” Neither in fact shared many attributes with tigers. Tigers cannot play golf and no tiger has ever attempted to impose reparations on 1920s Germany.

9. Tiger used to sell oil in the 1980s. “Put a tiger in your tank.” I seem to remember the adverts being much duller than this slogan would suggest with some slow music, some oil running along the ground and a real tiger appearing (the only real tiger on this list). My research suggests some of the adverts were more fun, however.

10. The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Popular children’s book by the late Judith Kerr.

11 (still ten overall as 5 was a cheat!) Tiger Tim: Very old comic character. The UK tennis player Tim Henman is sometimes nicknamed ‘Tiger Tim’ too. I remember nothing about Tiger Tim other than that he wore a blazer, as indeed does Tim Henman sometimes. Was the choice of a ‘blazer’ intended as some sort of clever pun on Blake’s ‘burning bright’ poem? Answer: probably not.

Book review: The Human Factor

Thirty years ago, the Cold War came to a peaceful end. Germany was reunified. A wave of mostly peaceful uprisings occurred across the so-called Eastern Bloc in 1989 before finally in 1991, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated completely.

Such developments would have seemed unthinkable only a few years earlier. Russian communism had dominated Eastern Europe since 1917 with the intense rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States threatening to destroy humanity following the superpower arms build-up which escalated soon after the end of the Second World War.

As Archie Brown demonstrates in this book the fact that this amazing development was able to occur at all owes itself almost entirely to ‘the human factor,’ namely the unique personalities of three world leaders during the second half of the 1980s. The personality of one of these leaders in fact, was especially critical.

Many in the west were alarmed when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in November 1980. A onetime Hollywood actor who had been a liberal Democrat until his early fifties, Reagan had strong enough conservative credentials by 1980, that he was able to preside over a thaw in East-West relations without stoking fears that he might be appeasing the Soviets. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meanwhile was not as slavish in her support for Reagan and the US as is sometimes made out. She and Reagan were friends and shared the same ideological free market perspective, but there were occasional fallings out. Crucially, on the major issue of East-West relations, however, she and the 40th US president always stood shoulder to shoulder.

However, it was the third actor, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who was utterly indispensable to the whole process. Make no mistake: without Mikhail Gorbachev there would have been no end to the Cold War. The Berlin Wall would not have fallen. The USSR would not have collapsed. Remarkable leaders though they in many ways were, the same cannot be said of Reagan or the so-called ‘Iron Lady.’

Gorbachev’s attitude and politics were utterly unique within Soviet politics at the time. Nor is it true that he (or anyone) was browbeaten into submission by the United States’ continued hard line. There is no evidence to support this whatsoever.

As the only one of these three figures still alive in May 2020, the world really owes the elderly Mr. Gorbachev a huge debt of thanks. As Archie Brown notes, it was he who made all the difference.

Gorbachev, not Reagan and certainly not Thatcher, ended the Cold War.

The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher and the End of the Cold War, by Archie Brown. Out Now. Published by Oxford University.

Exeter and the Black Death

Nobody would deny that 2020 has been a very challenging year for many people as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt throughout the world. However, it is worth remembering that hard as things are now, there have often been much darker times in the past, as this extract from my book, A-Z of Exeter – Places, People, History (Amberley, 2019) reminds us:

“Although historical detail on the outbreaks is perhaps mercifully rather lacking, the several outbreaks of plague to hit the city in medieval times were probably the worst things to ever happen in Exeter.

Just as the disastrous 1918-19 influenza pandemic was contributed to by the return of servicemen from the First World War, the return of warriors from the Sixth Crusade probably helped facilitate the spread the plague to many areas including Exeter in 1234. It is thought more than two thirds of the city’s population died. Life for the remaining 30% (or so) during this dark period could not have been very pleasant either.

In 1349-1351, the survivors’ great-grandchildren went through much the same thing when The Black Death hit the city with particular severity. This time, half of the city was wiped out. A further third were killed when the plague returned eleven years’ later. Amongst other things, the outbreaks led to a delay in the competition of the construction of Exeter Cathedral.

In general, it is believed the global population fell from 450 million to 375 million as a result of the Black Death with the population not returning to its previous level for around 200 years.

The plague returned again in 1479-80 and again (now after the medieval era) in 1542, claiming the life of the father of Tudro historian John Hooker amongst many others.

Later, the city braced itself for the arrival of the Great Plague in 1665. Preparations were made. Fear was widespread. Mercifully, this time, Exeter was spared.

Exeter has also been subject to other periodic outbreaks of disease. Just over 400 people were killed by a cholera outbreak in Exeter and St Thomas in 1832.”

A-Z of Exeter – Places, People, History (2019) is available now from Amberley books. https://amzn.to/2WpWHFH