Belated Happy New Year

BBC 1 adaptation of Birdsong

More than a month since my last post. Feels like a confession. Belated Happy New Year to you.

Great Expectations, Edwin Drood, Sherlock, Birdsong. BBC 2’s Stargazing Live. What haven’t I been watching of late? I’ve even found my box set of Mad Men and picked up where I left off in season two.

But what did we make of Birdsong last night? I found the book graphic enough and certainly shots in last night’s BBC 1 adaptation of a shelled soldier with literally all his innards hanging out were stomach turning. The sex was also quite explicit – my aunt and I (watching together) suddenly found cushions to plump and reasons to leave the room for a minute or so…

I shall be watching Birdsong again next week, not least because I can’t remember much at all of the story from the book. Except I remember a difficult scene in which our hero sits in a crater on no man’s land for some time with an expiring corpse. Or was that Pat Parker’s Regeneration trilogy? I confuse the two.


Downton Abbey

Behind the scenes at Downton

Lady Edith and the Dowager Countess

Let me be possibly the last person commenting on TV to say something about Downton Abbey. The truth is I didn’t watch first series because there was something better on the other side (BBC 1). There is again this autumn because Kudos Productions’ Spooks is showing on BBC 1 at 9pm on Sundays and Stephen Fry is doing a programme about language at exactly the same time on BBC 2 so I’m spending my time catching up with those things on the iPlayer.

But Downton Abbey suits me, as it does roughly 9 million other people, on a Sunday night when I’m in the mood for its sense of history and nostalgia, sweeping gowns and brocaded drawing rooms.

I do keep catching my shins on the language though, like so many commentators before me. In one of the first episodes of this second series I was moved to look up the use of “chuck it away” when lady Sybil was learning how to cook and ruined some kind of sauce. It just jarred, but our shorter Oxford English dictionary does say the word chuck was probably used by workmen to mean throw or toss as early as 1593. God, it’s hard being a pedant on a Sunday night. Last week I tripped up over someone, the Countess of Grantham or lady Mary, asking “So what?” in conversation. ‘Humpf’, I splutter into my hot chocolate. ‘They wouldn’t have said that in 1916.’

You only have to look at this Christmas speech by our present Queen, the first televised Christmas message shown in 1957, and compare it to last year’s delivery to see how speech patterns have changed, even among the very posh. What we’re getting in Downton isn’t a true reflection of how people spoke at the beginning of the 20th century.

But of course true authenticity has no place on TV and almost certainly none in Sunday night ITV drama. If the actors in Downton Abbey delivered dialogue as people in country houses actually spoke at the turn of the century no one would be watching. TV audiences want a reflection of how they see the past and certain people of the past more, in fact, than they want the reality. The reality would be a bunch of very dull black and white films. Downton Abbey is colourful, beautiful to look at, moves along at a decent pace and just very easy to watch on Sunday evenings.

Spooks, meanwhile, is another matter. Thank goodness for the iPlayer; if only I could watch it on my TV and not my  laptop.


BBC 1 drama Silk

Maxine Peake and Paul Hilton in Silk

I have been watching something else, besides Prof Brian Cox and Jamie’s Dream School, and that is Silk, the BBC 1 drama starring Maxine Peake as a barrister applying to become a QC or ‘silk’.

As I’ve said before, I enjoy watching Peake in just about any role and this was another good one. I haven’t got that much to say about the drama series which finished last night except that all the loose bits of pink legal ribbon tied up in the end. It was convenient that she lost the baby at the hands of her creepy stalker con (Paul Hilton) right at the end, before walking womanfully back into court for the climax of the biggest case of her career. But these things are hard to write and Peter Moffat, who I believe has legal experience of his own, did a good job of mixing the highs and the lows of a professional and personal life in what must be one of the highest octane environments there is: London’s criminal Bar.

A solicitor friend I talked to after the first episode of Silk had aired back in February found the drama too close to the truth for comfortable viewing. He’s a criminal lawyer whose cases have included a nasty serial murderer and a man found trafficking people into this country except that, when he arrived and his van was opened, 58 of them were dead. The two who survived did so because there were some tomatoes giving off a minute amount of oxygen in the otherwise sealed van.

I hope that solicitor’s view makes the writer, cast and crew of Silk extremely proud of their work.



Jamie Oliver in New York. Channel 4

Had I but world enough, and time, I might have written about the following in the past few weeks.

Heston Blumenthal‘s return to Little Chef on Channel 4 to see if his new menu and the new-look restaurant, trialled at the A303’s very own Popham services, was a success. Clearly, this allowed for plenty of footage from the original series to be repeated. But we gathered that yes, new things are working for Little Chef and they’re rolling out Heston’s menu and the modern decor across the chain’s main sites. But that stuffed shirt of a Little Chef chief executive is still as painful to watch as he ever was. That’s enough now, please.

Then there was Jamie Oliver road-tripping around America. I particuarly enjoyed his take on New York which included very few actual Americans (whoever they are) and lots of first and second generation immigrants. As a result we saw a side of New York that didn’t feature in Friends and, as Jamie himself said, we might have been inspired to find out where our own local Egyptian or Chilean restaurant is. I have a short answer to that. Not in these parts.

And finally Spooks has returned to BBC 1. Better than it was after the quality dip that came after the first two brilliant series. But still chock full of corny dialogue which just stops short of Nanoboy-esque “only five minutes to save the world”. Good fun though. Last night’s episode about potential black-outs as British gas supplies dry up made me doubly appreciative of my open fire. Happy Autumn.

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Qvestion Times

Nick Griffin. BNP

Was the BBC right to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin onto Question Time on Thursday? Once there, was he a victim, barracked by the panel and audience alike as they reacted to his inability to explain his denial of the Holocaust?

Views differ. But one thing is for sure. The lid has ricocheted off a simmering debate about race and immigration in this country. Some people are now unafraid to be openly racist.

I, somewhat deliberately, live a quiet, small kind of life most of the time. In the two days since BBC 1’s Question Time aired on Thursday night I have come into contact with precisely six adults. One of them is my partner. Of those six people, five – all but my partner – have initiated conversations about that edition of Question Time and then voiced racist, deeply questionable views about immigration, the “state of the nation”, foreigners taking “our” jobs and abusing “our” NHS, about why we should be “policitically correct” about Muslims and a lot more besides.

All five, a group of three and a group of two, used the programme as a vehicle to rehearse tired old arguments about issues which do not in any way affect their own lives. All are white, British living in the largely mono-cultural environs of South West England.

I live in the sticks, so what do I or anyone I come across down here know about multiculturalism? Maybe that’s the point. What a can of worms. Worthy of 8m viewers on a Thursday night?

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Life and other misadventures

Komodo dragon. BBC 1's Life

Time to go on record and say that, however much I usually love natural history programmes – especially if they are narrated by David Attenborough, I do not really like watching reptiles very much. Or spiders.

Monday’s edition of Life, BBC 1’s ambitious 10-part series which took three years to film and is indeed narrated by Attenborough, contained a scene with both a spider and a toad (an amphibian, not a reptile – I know). There was a scene from a horror movie: the tarantula stalking the toad silently, creeping up one side of a sheer face of rock in one of the most inhospitable looking parts of the planet, with the toad guilelessly waddling up the other side. Then – miracle of miracles – the “pebble” toad (you’ll see why in a minute) went completely rigid and threw itself off the rock to tumble presumably hundreds of feet to a watery safe haven below. Thus escaping the spider. Like a pebble falling off a cliff, do you see?

So all very interesting. As were the Komodo dragons, the largest venmous animal on the planet and surely one of the most gruesome-looking. We’ve only just visited these pre-historic beasts courtesy of Stephen Fry and last chance to see. I really didn’t want another encounter, even though the tireless film crew managed to film the dragons slaying a buffalo several times their size by biting and poisoning it and then waiting several weeks (WEEKS!) for the venom to work.

No, even with Attenborough as my guide, I do not like to watch reptiles on TV. As for the morass of red garter snakes waking from a winter slumber to mate with scarce females, it was a Raiders of the Lost Ark nightmare.

Next week: fluffy bunnies (mammals).

Post-post: The irony of posting something about reptiles the day after Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, appeared on Question Time is not lost on me.

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Faint heart

Maxine Peake in Criminal Justice. BBC

As yesterday was officially the start of a new era (at least in my mind because my youngest daughter started school full-time), I will let you into a little secret.

I’m going to write a novel.

Of course, this isn’t nearly as momentous as it sounds. There is, as just about everyone will tell you, a world of difference between saying you’re going to write a novel and actually writing one. I have been doing the former since I was about 10 and have never done the latter. Then there’s the tricky, even impossible, business of finding an agent and a publisher. Then there’s selling more than two copies and tyring to ensure your publisher doesn’t go bust immediately after condescending to print your jottings. Not to mention the difficulty of what to wear at the Booker prize-winner’s dinner.

Hey ho, as Shakespeare never wrote. Faint ‘eart ne’er fucked a pig, as they don’t say up north.

You can follow my progress or otherwise here or on Twitter.

And to the question, which I’ll obviously get asked a lot over the next couple of years, of what it’s all about, it’s about a woman who kills her baby. Or possibly doesn’t. But anyway the baby dies.

And, no, it’s not in any way autobiographical nor is it an expression of my darkest urges or fears. It’s fiction, as in completely made up. I may plough into the book some of the frustration I felt as a newbie mum and even a seasoned mother of two. But I’ll also throw in some of the sheer joy and wonder that only children can inspire.

The book isn’t about me. If anything it’s inspired by cases like this one. These stories interest me. Read the initial news stories and you think Sally Clark was a drunk, unfit to breed dogs let alone children. Then, when she was acquitted, she became a wronged woman to whom everyone had been nice, even in prison. After she died accidentally of acute alcohol intoxication she was again a drunk who had been reviled in prison and failed to recover from the trauma of losing two children and being jailed for doing so.

So I’d say there’s plenty of scope there for a nuanced look at the perils of being a woman, and a woman who’s had children, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Talking of wronged, or possibly wronged women, what did we think of Criminal Justice which aired every night last week on BBC 1? Personally, I’m not sure the BBC needed five hours to tell the story of a woman given a harsh sentence by a judge who knew her slaughtered husband. If the point was criminal justice we guessed at the beginning that Juliet was an abused woman, that she’d murdered her husband out of desperation and probably while out of her mind and that she wouldn’t get a particularly good ride from the police and judiciary. You tend not to if you’ve just buried a six-inch knife in someone’s chest.

It was beautifully shot as a piece of television and I love watching Maxine Peake in any role. But beyond that I saw it as the cynical ratings grab it probably was – a 90-minute drama spun out to occupy the 9pm slot every night of the week like its predecessor, now known as Criminal Justice 1 which the BBC kindly points out is now available on DVD.

Ultimately, in this latest Criminal Justice series, the writing wasn’t nearly dense enough to sustain five hours of TV drama. Now one or two episodes of The West Wing could easily be re-written to occupy five instead of one or two TV hours, but that’s a different matter. And all this new autumnal viewing on TV is playing havoc with my slavish addiction to the West Wing box set. More repeats, please, then I won’t feel so guilty watching an outdated US TV series every night.

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Who did you want to know about

Davina McCall in Who Do You Think You Are? BBC

The consensus from those I’ve spoken to is we wanted to know more about Davina McCall‘s mother, not her great-grandfathers who were featured in the first episode of the seventh series of Who Do You Think You Are on BBC 1 last night.

Davina’s mother, a frenchwoman, breakfasted on ‘un double Ricard’ and was said, by McCall, to have been a heavy drinker. They were estranged. She was fun to be around, except if you were her daughter, McCall said.

I reckon McCall only agreed to do the programme on the basis that they didn’t look into her immediate family tree but go further back, where whatever turned up (bastard royalty, as it happened) would do less harm to her celebrity status.

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Famous and homeless

Annabel Croft in Famous, Rich and Homeless. BBC

So I’ve been working in an office again recently, which is something I’ve done only twice, briefly in the last seven years. And today the nice ladies I’m working with were chatting about BBC 1’s Famous, Rich and Homeless. Which is on right about now, as I type this.

So I thought I’d tune in to see what the crack is, as it were. It’s all a bit depressing, from what I can gather. Famous people in tears at the horrid reality of life as a down and out. The architect of the TV experiment, himself an alcoholic (presumably recovering) and former homeless person, screaming blue murder at the good intentions of the few celebs who tried to help their homeless “buddies” to change their lives.

So, hmmm. Now our celebs have been sent off to live in hostels where the homeless make the transition from sleeping rough on the streets to life under a roof. It’s certainly well intentioned as a programme. So far we haven’t had a repeat of the Marquess of Blandford‘s major hissy fit last night, when he refused to continue sleeping rough and stormed off to a pre-booked hotel.

I must say of all the (semi-)famous faces involved in this, Bruce the former Coronation Street star looks most at home. But after an uncomfortable rant about killing off murderers rather than imprisoning them so there’s more money to help the homeless, Jones is coming up with the best lines to summarise the tragic, awful situations he sees. “This is a suicide hotel,” he says of a wet (drinking-allowed) hostel in Glasgow. “They’re here to die.”

And the final word goes, not to Rosie Boycott who ended the programme saying: “It’s our hidden shame.” But to Annabel Croft (above) who said it’s not about losing your home, it’s about losing your family.

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Five Minutes of Heaven and more

Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt in Five Minutes of Heaven. BBC

I would have posted this yesterday but I was rinsing vomit out of bedclothes. Not my own. Those days are (almost) over.

BBC 1’s Sunday night drama starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, Five Minutes of Heaven, was good in a ‘norr’n Ireland, we-all-know-about-the-Troubles’ way but with a new twist. Although fictional, it was inspired by real people living with “the legacy” of a sectarian murder.

Neeson and Nesbitt acted their respective woollen and towelling socks off and, apart from some stage grunting in the film’s one fight scene, both were utterly convincing as the troubled and remorseful murderer and equally troubled but less thoughtful brother of the victim.

Currently on screen as I write is Channel 4’s The Hospital giving a totally real insight into the A&E goings on with a load of pissed up teenagers. Without the freneticism of ER, it has all the drama, blood and gore you’d expect of an A&E ward. Oh, things have just got a bit frenetic with a painkiller overdose sending a patient into cardiac arrest. I think they said she was give ketamine aka horse tranquilliser. Ten times the required amount.

C4 head of documentaries Hamish Mykura says this three-part series is meant to show the pressure young people are putting on the NHS. That’s something we viewers may not be as aware of as, say, the demands the elderly put the NHS. What this does for the demonisation of teenagers, I don’t know. Perhaps they are all no-hoper binge drinkers. I brace myself for more vomit.

At least all this is more meaningful than Willy Harcourt-Cooze‘s quest to promote his brand of ‘real’ chocolate made with the finest Venezuelan cacao. Seriously. Chocolate. Who cares?

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