DVD review: A Very English Scandal

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Forty or so years ago, an extraordinary thing happened. One of the leading political figures of the day, was arrested, charged and tried for conspiracy to murder. The recent BBC drama A Very English Scandal based on the recent non-fiction book by John Preston, brings the story of Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott vividly to life on screen. Russell T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk and architect of the 21st century revival of Doctor Who, presents the story with clarity, humour but also the appropriate level of drama.

He is helped immeasurably by a near perfect cast. Hugh Grant, for so long the victim of a bullying press, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, his credentials as an actor of both depth and maturity. He captures perfectly the upper-class charm of the dynamic, hat-wearing old Etonian, Thorpe, who between 1967 and 1976 was amongst the most appealing leaders the Liberal Party ever had. Privately, however, Thorpe (who appeared for a short while in 1974 to be close to achieving a position of influence in a coalition government) was a deeply flawed individual, drawn to extreme solutions when he fears his personal life is erupting into scandal. Grant captures this dark side of Thorpe too.

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Ben Whishaw is also great Norman Scott, the troubled young man who came perilously close to becoming the victim in the farcical dog shooting incident on Dartmoor. The real Scott was grossly mistreated by both Thorpe and a legal process skewed against him by the unscrupulous but brilliant George Carman QC (played here by the excellent Adrian Scarborough) and the absurdly biased and pro-establishment judgement of presiding judge, Sir Joseph Cantley. In a notorious eccentric summing up, Cantley argued, “He is a crook, a fraud, a sponger, a whiner and a parasite…But, of course, he could still be telling the truth.”

Scott deserved better. This breezy, watchable and highly compelling drama directed by Stephen Frears and packed with star turns from a cast which includes Alex Jennings, Patricia Hodge, Michelle Dotrice, Monica Dolan and Jason Watkins at least goes some way towards redressing the balance. It is one of the best of the year so far.

DVD: A Very English Scandal

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release: July 2nd 2018

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DVD review: Inside No.9 – Series Four

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Cert: 15. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Rory Kinnear, Monica Dolan, Kevin Eldon, Emilia Fox, Bill Paterson, Sian Gibson, Noel Clarke, Nicola Walker, Nigel Planer, Helen Monks

Four years after the series launched with the hilarious but increasingly sinister wardrobe-based adventure, Sardines, former League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith continue to astound with six more often funny, frequently sinister half hour comedy dramas. As before, all are linked by the fact they involve the number 9 in some way.

Despite the fact its story-line incorporates murder, adultery and suicide, the first episode Zanzibar is positively cheery by Inside No. 9 standards, a breathtaking, star-studded hotel-based farce with strong Shakespearean overtones. The whole thing is written entirely in iambic pentameter and is quite, quite brilliant.

Even so, the series highlight might actually be the second episode, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. Detailing a heartbreaking and seemingly ill-advised reunion between two Eighties comedians, it manages to be both funny and desperately moving.

Like the early Christopher Nolan film Memento, the third episode, Once Removed gradually unravels its clever homicidal story-line by showing its scenes in reverse order. To Have And To Hold, meanwhile (an episode which, it must be said, rarely even tries to be funny) presents an uncomfortable portrait of an unhappy marriage. As usual, there is more going on than meets the eye.

Finally, And The Winner Is… takes a look behind the scenes at the judging process of a major TV award while Tempting Fate focuses on a clear-out following the death of a local hoarder.

These last two episodes are probably the weakest. But this is not a major criticism. Inside No.9 remains head and shoulders above virtually everything else on TV.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 2

Upstart Crow s2Familiarity, as someone once said, can breed contempt.

Happily, this is certainly isn’t the case with the second outing for Ben Elton’s Tudor sitcom, which aims to tell the story behind the creation of Shakespeare’s plays.

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It’s not a dramatically original idea (the films Shakespeare In Love and Bill have all had a pop at it) but aided by a strong cast, this generally works well. As the Bard himself, David Mitchell does an excellent job of humanising a figure who can sometimes seem like some sort of 16th century superhero. Mitchell essentially portrays him as a likeable clever dick torn between the demands of his work, the acting ambitions of his friend Kate (Gemma Whelan), the roguish charms of contemporary Kit Marlow (Tim Downie), the rivalry of his nemesis Robert Greene who coined the term “upstart crow” to describe Shakespeare in the first place (Mark Heap) and the attentions of his more common but loving Stratford family (Liza Tarbuck, Helen Monks, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox). Noel Fielding also crops up in one episode of this series as another real life figure, composer Thomas Morley.

The 2017 Christmas special is not included here although if you’ve seen it, you will probably agree this is no bad thing.

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A modern comedy classic then? Perhaps not quite, at least, not yet. But this is certainly enjoyable, clever fun with a top notch cast and a welcome return to form for the generally unfairly reviled talent that is Ben Elton.

And, no. The “familiarity breeds contempt” quote is not by Shakespeare. Although on this evidence, the man himself might have claimed it was.

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DVD review: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power

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It’s often tempting to speculate what might have happened had Al Gore won the 2000 presidential elections instead of George W. Bush. Until we remember: he actually did.

Cheated out of the presidency by voting irregularities in Florida and a conservative supreme court, Gore (a politician with long standing environmental interests) then addressed the issue of climate change in the 2006 documentary hit An Inconvenient Truth.

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Eleven years on, this follow-up perhaps inevitably has slightly less of the impact of the first film. But it’s still a good message to be getting out there, partly because the most convincing counter-argument the Right have thus far come up with seems to be little better than “how can global warming exist when it’s occasionally slightly cold in parts of my house?”

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And partly because the Trump administration’s blinkered attitude to climate chain makes Bush look like Captain Planet  in comparison.

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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.

 

DVD review: Sing Street

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Dublin, 1985 and teenager Conor is having a tough time. His home life is hell as he and his older brother and sister are forced to support each other as their parents are totally distracted by an ugly break-up. What’s more, Conor is forced to attend a tough new school where he faces a daily battle to avoid being beaten up by the other pupils as well as by the priests who are supposed to be running it. As if all that wasn’t enough, the Irish Republic is in the doldrums with many young people pinning all their hopes on escape to the UK, itself experiencing record breaking levels of unemployment under Margaret Thatcher at this time.

Thankfully, Conor has two great comforts: firstly, his love of music, encouraged by his brother (US actor Reynor), who though only slightly older seems to have otherwise already given up on life and secondly, his passion for attractive local girl Raphina (Boynton). He attempts to fuse these two interests together by forming a band in a bid to win his girl over.

It may seem bizarre to describe Sing Street as a feelgood film, given this review’s first paragraph, but though it has a harder edge to it than John Carney’s Once and Begin Again (the last of these is reviewed here http://bit.ly/2abGb3M), this is still generally uplifting stuff. The generally young cast is great, particularly Walsh-Peelo as Conor/Cosmo. Particularly amusing is the band’s tendency to instantly transform their image according to the fashions of the day: New Romantic one minute, Goth the next.

Criminally overlooked at the cinemas, this is one of the most charming, enjoyable films of 2016.

And the soundtrack is awesome.

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Director:John Carney

Special Features:

Go Now by Adam Levine

The Making of Go Now Featurette

A Beautiful Sea Live Performance

Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jack Reynor, Kelly Thornton, Ian Kenny, Ben Carolan

Lionsgate. Release date: August 8th 2016

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Blu-ray review: High-Rise

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Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, Elisabeth Moss, Reece Shearsmith. Director: Ben Wheatley. Released: June 18th 2016.Studio Canal

Anarchy has often made material for some surprisingly dull films.

As exciting (or depending on your viewpoint) terrifying as a good riot may be, its difficult to maintain the sustained energy of a genuine rumpus for long on screen. It’s true Quadrophenia was enlivened by a memorable battle between Mods and Rockers while Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was essentially all a big build up to an urban riot. But JG Ballard’s celebrated 1975 dystopian drama High-Rise is all about a riot: essentially a sky rise building’s not so gradual descent into violence and barbarism. How long can a film continue to shock, titillate and surprise you over a two hour period?

Quite a lot as it happens. Hot British director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers) is in many ways a perfect fit for this sort of thing and ably assisted by a cast of beautiful and not so beautiful people, this just about works while never quite scaling the heights of a novel which has influenced everything from the Blockmania of Judge Dredd to David Cronenberg’s early tower block based horror Shivers.

Indeed, as the accompanying featurette on author JG Ballard reminds us, Cronenberg is one of a number of directors (along with Spielberg) to tackle the late author’s books before. Set in a futuristic version of the Britain of the 1970s and featuring audio commentaries and interviews with cast and crew, High-Rise probably won’t be your favourite film of this year. But it will probably be one of the more interesting.

 

 

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.”

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DVD review: The Story of 2000AD

Future-ShockImagine it’s March 1977, you have 8p and you want a comic. Let’s assume you want a boy’s comic: it was a sexist world back then. There are lots to choose from. Perhaps you want a funny one like The Beano, The Dandy, The Beezer, The Topper, Whoopee!, Buster or Whizzer and Chips? Or something harder edged? Tiger, Battle or a new science fiction comic with a free “space spinner” on the front?

2000AD emerged from the ashes of Action comic, which was withdrawn due to its violent content in the mid-1970s. Did anyone present at 2000AD’s creation, imagine it would still be going in the then far flung futuristic year of 2000AD? A year by which time most of the children who had bought Prog 1 would be in their thirties, many with children of their own? It seems unlikely. It is now 39 years on from that first issue. Those same readers of Prog 1 would now be in their fifties, at least. None of the comics mentioned above are now going with the exceptions of The Beano which began in 1938 and 2000AD.

This documentary tells the story of the galaxy’s greatest comic which despite Action’s fate (or perhaps because of it) has always been pretty violent. After an exciting animated opening sequence in which many of the comic’s monochrome heroes – Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock, Zenith – move very slightly against a thumping rock soundtrack, it’s perhaps disappointing that most of the film is spent in the company of a group of ageing, sometimes not very articulate men. Some are enthusiastic. Some are quite bitter.

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Pat Mills is the star. Passionate and profane about the early days, angry about the 1990s days of decline, he is still with the comic. Others left during the 1980 s comics “brain drain”. Neil Gaiman seems genuinely emotional about Alan Moore’s failure to complete his brilliant Ballad of Halo Jones a full thirty years later. Some rage at the appalling way some artists’ work was treated. Others praise 2000AD for crediting its writers and artists properly (in a special “credit card” box) something few British comics did up until then. One fan, Ex Machina director and author of The Beach, Alex Garland wrote the screenplay to Dredd, a huge improvement on the disastrous 1990s attempt to film the 22nd century fascistic lawman starring Sylvester Stallone. Other films seem to have liberally stolen from the comic.

None of the writers seem to have liked Tharg the Mighty, the comic’s fictional alien editor very much, presumably because most have presumably endured a stint answering letters on his behalf (including, no doubt, two from a teenage “C Hallam, Peterborough” in about 1993). Tharg also introduced the occasional Twilight Zone-style Futureshock stories, often used as a testing ground for upcoming writers and artists.

A fine tribute anyway to a fine comic. Until next time: Splundig Vur Thrigg Earthlets!

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