DVD review: Inside No. 9 – Series Three

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Cert: 18. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Tamzin Outhwaite, Peter Kay

Continuing in the richly darkly comic vein of the previous two series, onetime League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith write and perform in six more one off stories, all linked by the fact that they involve the number nine.

For the 2016 Christmas special The Devil At Christmas, we join the Devonshire family (including Pemberton, plus his pregnant wife played by Jessica Raine and mother-in-law Rula Lenska) as they embark on an alpine holiday in 1970s Austria. Ingeniously, the episode is presented in the form of a 1970s film apparently being accompanied by a DVD audio commentary supplied by the production’s director (voiced by Derek Jacobi). There’s thus more than a shade of Acorn Antiques or perhaps Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace as continuity errors within the slightly shoddily made film within the film abound. But this not detract from an undeniably dark undercurrent. As local guide Klaus (Shearsmith) tells of the legend of Krampus (a sort of demonic anti-Santa), it becomes apparent something very sinister is going on both within the film but also behind the scenes. Ironically, this episode also comes with its own audio commentary on this actual DVD.

The second episode, The Bill deals with a perhaps more familiar setting as a group of businessmen including two played by Philip Glenister and Jason Watkins, meet for dinner. Matters escalate dramatically and alarmingly during negotiations over payment of the bill at the end of the night.

Series Two’s third episode The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith was the standout episode and the same may well be true of The Riddle of the Sphinx in Series Three. Both terrifically clever and ultimately quite horrific, the story sees Pemberton playing a legendary puzzle compiler known as “the Sphinx” tutoring a wayward student (Alexandra Roach) who has broken into his quarters in the ways of the cryptic crossword. Like most such crosswords, nothing is quite what it first appears to be.

Empty Orchestra is, of course, as cryptic crossword fans will know, the literal meaning of the Japanese word karaoke. Set at a somewhat turbulent office party situated in a karaoke bar, the increasingly acrimonious mood amongst the work mates, all under threat of redundancy, is cleverly matched by the selection of songs.

To say the penultimate episode of the series Diddle Diddle Dumpling dealing with a husband (Shearsmith’s) obsession with a stray number nine shoe which he has found, is the weakest of these six episodes is no insult. The standard is very high.

Finally, Private View set in a sinister art exhibition features the distinguished likes of Morgana Robinson and Felicity Kendall, plus a bizarre cameo from Peter Kay. It combines horror and comedy just as brilliantly as Series Two’s finale Séance Time did and satisfactorily brings to an end another superb series.

 

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DVD review: Upstart Crow

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You could feel the shockwaves reverberating around the British comedy world for days afterwards: Ben Elton had written a good sitcom.

It should not have been a shock, of course. Elton co-wrote two of the best British sitcoms of all time, The Young Ones and Blackadder, indeed, the three best series of Blackadder. The ghost of Blackadder II hangs over Upstart Crow which also has an Elizabethan setting. It is not as good as Blackadder II (few things are) but it’s a noble attempt.

David Mitchell plays William Shakespeare, a man torn between the demands of his rather lowbrow Stratford household and that of London and his pursuit of a career as a playwright and a poet. At home, he has a loving wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck), a permanently grumpy teenage daughter (the excellent Helen Monks of Raised By Wolves in an underwritten part) and his elderly parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox). Much to his frustration, all of Shakespeare’s family react to his work rather as many modern schoolchildren would. His father openly admits to finding his son’s plays dull while the others tire of his fondness for clever wordplay.

“It’s what I do!” Mitchell’s Bard defends himself, in what almost becomes a catchphrase. “If you do your research, my stuff is actually really funny.”

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Programme Name: Upstart Crow – TX: n/a – Episode: Upstart Crow – Generics (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: Greene (MARK HEAP) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Colin Hutton

His London life, meanwhile, involves Kate (Gemma Whelan) who longs to act  (a profession not then open to women), his manservant Bottom (Rob Rouse, a cleverer, cleaner version of Baldrick) and Marlowe (Tim Downie, excellent), Shakespeare’s doomed contemporary, here played an arrogant but charming womaniser (“a clever girl is an ugly girl, ” is his advice to Kate). There are elements of Blackadder in all of this: Kate has similarities to “Bob,” a reference later made explicit. Marlowe is also reminiscent of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashman and some of the scenarios and jokes involving potatoes and dungeons are reminiscent of the earlier series deliberately or not. Future sitcom scholars may also wish to compare the openings to episode 2 of this to the start of Blackadder II’s final episode Chains.

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Upstart Crow goes wrong when it goes down the predictable route of showing how Shakespeare  finds inspiration for his plays in real life. This isn’t a bad idea in itself but it rarely works here. Other quibbles? The always brilliant Mark Heap (Spaced, Friday Night Dinner) although impressive is never given much chance to be funny as Shakespeare’s rival Greene and the scenes involving the rehearsal of the actual plays are less good, the exception being Spencer Jones’ spot on piss take of Ricky Gervais.

Twelve years ago, the idea of Ben Elton taking the piss out of then post-Office comedy supremo Gervais would have been unthinkable but his stock has fallen and Elton’s has risen since then. Upstart Crow is far from flawless but it provides David Mitchell with his best sitcom role since Peep Show, contains some laugh out loud funny one liners and marks a definite return to form for Ben Elton, one of Britain’s most unfairly maligned comedic talents.

p03vbsb4Released: BBC Worldwide. Out: now. Starring: David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck, Gemma Whelan, Rob Rouse, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox, Tim Downie, Helen Monks, Mark Heap

DVD review: This Life: The Complete Collection

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BBC Worldwide

Out now

Cast: Amita Dihri,  Jack Davenport, Jason Hughes, Andrew Lincoln, Daniela Nardini, Ramon Tikaram

It has now been twenty years since we were first introduced to the five twentysomething London lawyers who made up BBC drama This Life.

Who could forget them? Anna (Nardini): perhaps the most memorable character, sharp tongued feisty, yet ultimately vulnerable and fixated on university end of term one night stand Miles (Davenport), posh, misogynist, homophobic and snobbish, but one senses, as human as anyone else underneath. Then there’s Egg (Lincoln), perhaps the nicest character in the house  although clearly not cut out for a career in law as his sexy, ambitious girlfriend Milly (Dhiri) seems to be. Last but not least comes gay Welshman Warren (Hughes), inclined towards  regular visits to a therapist and occasional moments of madness. He is later joined by troubled bisexual Ferdy (Tikaram).

The show did not really catch fire during its first eleven part run in 1996, perhaps because many episodes were written by Amy Jenkins, who despite creating the series was never one of its strongest writers. But during its longer 20 episode second series in 1997, something magical started to happen. This Life  grew to be cult viewing: totally unmissable and was much mourned after its spectacular Series 2 finale.

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Has This Life dated? Yes, of course. It would be odd if it hadn’t. Everyone seems to smoke more than they do today (at least on TV) and the house enjoys a constant backdrop of music by the likes of Radiohead, Suede and the Sneaker Pimps. The internet is spoken of only as a distant futuristic thing as proven when Miles becomes one of the last people on Earth to post a dating ad in an actual magazine.

On the other hand, the “shaky” naturalistic camerawork much commented on at the time is barely noticeable now (though the camerawork remains interesting and occasionally prone to close ups). A young Martin Freeman crops up in one episode. But the show was ahead of it’s time in its attitude to gays and drug use and one suspects it has dated far less than a 1976 drama series would have had that been screened twenty years later in 1996.

Twenty years on (and ten years after the slightly underwhelming 2006 This Life +10 one off  also included in this DVD set). the saddest thing is that while the principal male cast are all still a regular presence on our screens  – particularly Andrew Lincoln who now stars in hit US drama the Walking Dead – Nardini and Dhiri have never become stars. Still, the smaller female parts such as Natasha Little (who plays the bane of Milly’s office existence, Rachel) and Luisa Bradhaw-White (sassy office temp Kira, but now an EastEnders regular) have all done well.

And the really good news is that This Life is either a) as good as you remember or b) very watchable if you’ve never seen it before.

As Warren would say: “Hysterical.”

This Life

 

 

 

Blu-ray review: War & Peace

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Let me get the painful bit out of the way first: there was a mistake in this year’s acclaimed BBC adaptation of War & Peace. Hopefully, this won’t ruin your enjoyment of the series. “Abandon Moscow?” exclaims a general in the penultimate episode. “Abandon Russia’s sacred capital?” Well, no. For this is supposed to be 1812 (or thereabouts). Moscow had not been Russia’s capital for a century and would not be again for over a century more. So oops.

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But ignore that, for as you’ll know if you were gripped by it throughout the winter months, this is great stuff. Andrew Davies juggles most of the characters deftly throughout these six episodes helped by a superb cast.

James Morton, Lily James & Paul Dano in War And Peace.

American actor Paul Dano excels as Pierre, a bespectacled misfit at the start, prone to getting drunk and embarrassing himself at parties by expressing his enthusiasm for the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, an unfashionable view as the French leader is waging war with Russia. Pierre nurses a secret love for Natasha (Lily James) but things get a bit complicated for him when he suddenly comes into sudden and extraordinary wealth. He is soon confronting numerous challenges including duels, conflict and Freemasons. Others, such as his friend Andrei (James Norton) are bored by the banalities of domestic existence and pledge to take on Napoleon’s forces head on.

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With a stellar cast including Jim Broadbent, Brian Cox, Gillian Anderson, Greta Scacchi, Rebecca Front and Stephen Rea, it may be too soon to call this “the greatest costume drama of the decade” (as the Daily Telegraph did, apparently forgetting they’re supposed to hate the BBC). But this is undoubtedly a landmark in TV drama.

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DVD/Blu-ray review: Peter Kay’s Car Share

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DVD/Blu-ray review: Peter Kay’s Car Share

BBC Worldwide

Out now

Starring: Peter Kay, Sian Gibson

The year 2015 was, amongst other things, the year it became okay to like Peter Kay again. This was partly down to his recent winning turn as Danny Baker’s cockney father in the Seventies-set Cradle To Grave. But it was also undoubtedly achieved through this, his first ever BBC 1 sitcom, performed with his own accent and the less well known but no less excellent actress Sian Gibson.

Gibson (actually a long term Kay collaborator, appearing as one of Paddy’s conquests in Phoenix Nights) plays Kayleigh, a supermarket sales rep thrown together with assistant manager John (Kay) by the company’s car share scheme. The premise of each episode is simplicity itself. John drives them both to work in the first half, and then drives them home in the second. And everything occurs against the nostalgic sounds of the 80s and 90s provided by the authentically amateurish soundtrack of Forever FM (surely a more sophisticated version of Phoenix Nights’ Chorley FM?) billowing perpetually through the car radio.

Both John and Kayleigh are single and approaching the forty mark, yet otherwise seem like opposites. John relishes order and claims to like being on his own, after a series of bad break ups. Although pleasant, he is easily riled by pedantic issues such as adults using the lollypop man to cross. Kayleigh, in contrast, often seems to live in a state of chaos, insulting John on their first meeting by wrongly thinking him gay and by accidentally spilling a urine sample over him. A later episode where she goes to work drunk seems a little overdone and she is occasionally a bit too squeaky. But this odd couple work together brilliantly: this is ultimately Peter and Sian’s Car Share, not just Peter Kay’s.

But there is little to fault here. Even the occasional fantasy sequences, notably a Bedknobs and Broomsticks style underwater imaging set to the tune of Hanson’s MMMBop (which occurs when Kayleigh has a panic attack in a car wash) work even though they feel like they shouldn’t. These are marvellous comic creations (Kayleigh doesn’t believe dinosaurs ever existed and thinks doggIng is something different to what it actually is).

Belter. Roll on Series 2.

 

 

 

DVD review: The Moaning of Life 2 with Karl Pilkington

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Warning: Karl Pilkington does not moan like he used to.

Don’t worry: he hasn’t stopped completely and still retains his distinctive, unique and often hilarious world view. But, on this evidence, his reputation as a serial moaner is undeserved. Pilkington is often understandably bewildered by many of the strange people and bizarre practices he encounters here, but he embraces most of what he sees and confronts many challenges – night club dancing, ironing in a remote and precarious American location and even going on patrol as a superhero, head on.

Probably the main difference from his earlier series An Idiot Abroad, is the absence of the sometimes cruel presence of Pilkington’s old compadres Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Rather than being sent to random locations as to their whim, here Pilkington is able to travel to some marvellous locations to meet some often very odd people in the hope of gaining enlightenment on a range of topics including Art, Identity and How To Live Your Life. Through it all he remains, his usual self: both very ordinary and also unique, devoted to his girlfriend back in the UK and often and seemingly unintentionally, very very funny.

He meets some strange types here including as Utah man who has five wives, an Indian who offers an unconvincing argument on the merits of drinking urine, a 91 year old woman skydiver and a young lady who specialises in vomiting up her own works of art. If some of this sounds crude, well, it sometimes is. The worse thing about the show is that the director seems obsessed with showing someone vomiting at least once in every episode.

But Karl whether railing against solar power, defending Ebeneezer Scrooge or being totally astonished to find that he actually quite likes wearing a wig, is the key to the show’s success.

And despite what I said earlier: her does still moan a bit.

DVD: The Moaning of Life 2 with Karl Pilkington

Release date: November 23rd 2015

BBC Worldwide

DVD review: An Inspector Calls

BBC Worldwide release date: September 21st 2015

Starring:  David Thewlis, Miranda Richardson, Ken Stott, Sophie Rundle, Kyle Soller

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It’s 1912 and all is well with the world. The Titanic is about to set sail, there most definitely isn’t about to be a global World War in two years as the well to do Berling family settle down for a dinner to celebrate the engagement of their daughter. The only trouble is someone claiming to be a police inspector (Thewlis) is at the door with news of a dearth. He is about to blow the complacent world of the Burlings and their selfish “everyone for themselves” philosophy apart forever.

Screened earlier this month, this is an excellent BBC version of JB Priestley’s classic Attlee era socialist play. All the cast, particularly David Thewlis are superb and the introduction of flashbacks invigorates the play, bringing the action vividly to life.

Bonus features include one short introduction to the play and one longer one.

Downton Abbey this aint. It’s better.

Bonus features

An Inspector Calls – An Introduction

The Enduring Power of An Inspector Calls

DVD review: Episodes Series 4

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Episodes is a comedy series about people making comedy series.

Following their hellish experience adapting their own successful British sitcom into “Pucks” (a US remake, wrecked by producer interference) British husband and wife comedy writing team Bev and Sean (Greig and Mangan) find themselves back in Hollywood.  With Sean, at any rate, lured back by the prospect of cash, the duo escape the extramarital shenanigans that characterised the first three series of Episodes but otherwise find themselves enduring the same Hollywood nightmare. Again. And again. And again.

Pucks star Matt LeBlanc (playing an unflattering version of himself) finds himself facing multiple dilemmas after losing half of his multimillion fortune. Should he sell his private plane, remarry his ex to cut down on his alimony payments or agree to do a terrible new quiz show “Beat The Box” with his hated ex-boss Merc Lapidus (Pankow, great)? Or would recording a sex tape with one of his co-stars or attending the birthday party of a malevolent but wealthy foreign dictator offer a solution? Carol (Perkins), meanwhile, finds herself sleeping with her boss again, while Bev and Sean find themselves at the heart of a bidding war over their new script The Opposite Of Us.

Like the show within the show Pucks, some may be surprised that Episodes has made it to four series (indeed, a fifth, somewhat incredibly, is already on the way). It has its strong points: Matt LeBlanc is generally a hoot and there’s a good chemistry between Greig and Kathleen Rose Perkins, the latter’s character Carol somehow providing a link between the insincere corporate world represented by Merc and new boss Helen Basch (Andrea Savage) and the more human world of Sean and Bev.

But generally this is increasingly tired stuff. Episodes peaked during its second series. Now a whole scene is based around the fact that Bev and Sean inadvertently choose to wear similar shirts one morning. Ha ha. “A brilliant, laugh-out-loud comedy…and a hilarious romantic comedy” this is not. There is no genuine romance at all and little hilarity.

In fairness, it’s never actually terrible either and occasionally is still quite amusing. But Episodes has clearly had its day.  Presumably the fact that it is returning for a fifth series owes itself to the fact that it has been far better received in the US than it has in the UK.

Episodes:  Series 4 DVD

Starring: Matt LeBlanc, Tamsin Greig, Stephen Mangan, Kathleen Rose Perkins, John Pankow

Extras: Blooper Reel

9 episodes

Release date: July 13th 2015

RRP: £20.42

BBC Worldwide

Matt LeBlanc as himself, Tamsin Greig as Beverly Lincoln and Stephen Mangan as Sean Lincoln in EPISODES (Season 3, episode 3) - Photo: Des Willie/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: episodes_303_B5012

DVD review: Inside No 9 Series 2

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The premise behind Inside No. 9 is so thin that it barely amounts to a premise at all. Every story occurs inside a different “No.9” usually a house number although sometimes something else, for example, as in the first of this series, a railway carriage. That’s it. But from this, writers and performers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have found the perfect vehicle for their brilliantly judged macabre humour.

Anyone who has ever fancied travelling on a sleeper carriage may well be put off the idea forever by “La Couchette”. This first episode sees Shearsmith’s doctor increasingly disturbed by first, a flatulent drunk (Pemberton), then a noisy middle aged couple before finally a pair of randy young backpackers (Jack Whitehall and Jessica Gunning) discover something which changes the nature of the journey for everyone.

The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith is a more sober but hugely effective piece. As we see Christine’s life pass before her rapidly before our eyes  from  the night of her first meeting her future husband, through to marriage, motherhood and then divorce, an element of horror seems to be threatening to creep in. But the end when it comes, packs a huge emotional punch.

The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge is much funnier, sending up the real life insanity of the 17th century witch trials. Having taken minor performing roles in The 12 Days of Christine, Shearsmith and Pemberton return to the fore in this, the most League of Gentleman-esque episode with veteran actor David Warner (The Exorcist/Time Bandits/Tron) also taking a role.

None of the episodes are weak although the quality perhaps decline very slightly with Cold Comfort set in the offices of a busy phone helpline and Nana’s Party which suffers slightly from barely any normal characters in it at all. Yet even these contain moments of excellence.

The series finale Séance Time (broadcast on BBC 2 just last night) is brilliant, however. With some vaguely insightful behind the scenes featurettes for each episode, this is ultimately a superb series of comic anthologies. Let us hope there will be more.

Release date: May 4th 2015

Bonus features: Behind the Scenes Featurettes on Each Episode

Certificate: 15

Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Jack Whitehall, Sheridan Smith, Claire Skinner, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Alison Steadman, Jane Horrocks, David Warner

BBC Worldwide

DVD review: Cucumber & Banana

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Henry (Vincent Franklin) is forty six, gay and happy in a relationship with Lance, his boyfriend of nine years (Cyril Nri). Or so it would seem. For after a date which culminates in an an attempted threesome ends very badly indeed, Vincent soon finds himself out on his ear: homeless, jobless and strongly drawn to a much younger man, the beautiful but arrogant Freddie (Freddie Fox). But with Lance increasingly drawn to the unpredictable and volatile Daniel, can the two men survive in the heady atmosphere o.f the gay scene of 21st century Manchester.

With a huge cast of characters, none better than veteran actor Franklin who excels as the increasingly troubled Henry, Cucumber in many ways feels like a return home to Queer As Folk territory for creator Russell T. Davies after his many successful years resurrecting Doctor Who. At times, yes, it might seem silly: the titles of this Cucumber and its two spin off series Banana (which is included here having originally been screened straight after Cucumber’s Channel 4 broadcast on E4) and the internet based Tofu, all apparently refer to different stages of the male erection. At times, Henry’s obsessions with perving over young men’s bums in supermarkets might seem unbecoming for a man in middle age. The final episode also ends very abruptly, surprisingly so after all we’ve been through with the characters.

But don’t be fooled. Episode 6 of this eight part series is a masterpiece, as good as anything on British TV this decade so far. Cleverly linked with the series is Banana, a series of one offs looking more closely at the minor characters from Cucumber. With a range of writers (Including Sue Perkins) these are less consistent in quality than Cucumber is but are all definitely worth a look (Tofu isn’t included at all, for some reason). But, all in all, this is a superb package, well worth taking time to cast your eyes over.

Cucumber & Banana

Release: March 16th 2105

RRP: £16.99

BBC Worldwide

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