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.


Life’s too short

Neeson and Davis in Life's Too Short

Life certainly is too short to be uncomfortable. And I am uncomfortable watching the new BBC 2 sitcom by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

Life’s Too Short is a spoof documentary, in the style of Gervais’ first hit The Office, about a dwarf. Despite Gervais’ protestations to the contrary, it feels mean. Actor Warwick Davis plays a version of himself trying to get acting roles and running an agency for other people of short stature.

I liked the first episode of the series because it featured Liam Neeson imploring Gervais and Merchant in their spoof agency to get him into stand-up comedy. As with Extras, Gervais and Merchant are at their best when they get a major celebrity to send themselves up. Neeson kept drifting from the “comedy” into tales of death and despair. Very amusing.

But Warwick Davis sending himself up is another matter. Since the first two episodes, which also featured Johnny Depp, Davis’ futile self-aggrandising has been the basis of every scene. Gervais told the Guardian: “People confuse the subject of a joke with the target of a joke.” Yes they do. And it’s not a funny joke. Last night, I turned off.


Shadow Line

BBC 2 drama Shadow Line

There have now been three episodes of the drama Shadow Line on BBC 2 and I think I know what’s going on. It’s about a drugs cartel and one of their member was shot just after he was let out of prison. He was in the back of a car at the time and there was quite a bit of mess. The driver of the car did a runner and everyone – the police, the rest of the cartel, a sinister go-between called Gateway – was after him.

The driver turned up eventually but it wasn’t long before he got shot, along with his pregnant partner and his mother. Now we’re getting the back stories of all the other characters: the lead investigator who has a bullet lodged in his brain from an earlier ballistics incident. He seems to have two wives. Then there’s the guy who had to take over running the cartel when their main man was shot at the beginning. His wife has Alzheimer’s although she’s still apparently in her 40s.

Rafe Spall is fantastic as the cerebrally-challenged psycho nephew of the murdered drugs baron. His scenes are so fraught with tension and the threat of extreme violence I can hardly bear to watch them. Headliner Christopher Eccleston is all big ears and nose as he takes his role very seriously. He only did one series of Doctor Who, you know.

What I don’t get about this series is the scheduling. Shadow Line is on on BBC 2 every Thursday at 9pm. But after the week-long blitz of Criminal Justice or my tendency to splurge on a DVD box set every night of the week I’m not sure I can  be bothered to wait a whole seven days to get the next instalment of this passable drama. I wouldn’t wait a week to re-engage with whichever novel I’m currently reading. Quite quickly the once weekly instalment of a four or six-part drama has come to seem very old-fashioned indeed.


Lambing Live on BBC 2

Lambing Live presenters Adam Henson and Kate Humble

Last year, Lambing Live was a guilty pleasure. This year I’m being more open about the fact that I’m watching these hour-long live broadcasts from a farm in Cumbria where more than 1,200 new lambs are being born in a few short weeks.

I say watching but as anyone else who has also tried to tune in will know, the programme has been beset by technical problems as wet and windy weather have blighted transmission from the Marstons’ farm. Last night the programme was off air for almost as long as it was on air while a remarkably calm and presumably studio-based continuity announcer thanked us for remaining with BBC 2 while the problems were sorted. Transmission was restored and presenters Kate Humble and Adam Henson were back on air. Meanwhile farmer Andrew Marston said they’d just heard a dry stone wall “rush” down in the weather, giving the family yet another job to look at in the morning.

I like Lambing Live for lots of reasons. It’s a first-hand insight into the world of farming which doesn’t get much positive media attention but which is worth millions to the economy. This particular farm rears sheep for stock breeding, hoping to produce a prize ram, while the Welsh farm featured on last year’s Lambing Live series bred lambs for meat.

The prices for a prize ram or bull (the Marstons also farm cattle) are amazing. One ram or tup was bought for £26,000. A prize bull at their local cattle market has been known to sell for £101,000. No wonder they were sanguine when a tup sold for a mere £6,000 earlier this year. “It could have gone for less but it could have gone for a lot more,” said Donald, Marston senior. I’d like to know what it cost to feed and keep the animal before it sold and therefore what the profit was on the £6k but I’m not surprised if the Marstons don’t want to share that information.

Although dairy cows have a different breeding cycle and don’t all calf at once as sheep apparently do, I would like to see a primetime programme about dairy farming. Living in Somerset, the home of Yeo Valley yoghurt among other dairy products, I’d like to know what sort of a deal dairy farmers get out of their dairy livestock and whether there’s a future for cows bred on fresh air and natural pasture. Our local news recently featured a farm where the cows are inside all year round, sitting in pens like outsize battery hens. That cannot be good, can it?


Madagascar on BBC 2

A lemur galloping

A lemur galloping. BBC

I was really meaning to blog about BBC 2’s Madagascar as narrated by David Attenborough. I caught most of the first epsiode on Wednesday this week. Attenborough’s dusky tones and the lemurs had me well soothed and almost fully engaged. Then, or perhaps before the lemurs, we saw tortoises. One tortoise lived for 188 years. These particular tortoises typically reproduce aged 20. Imagine being a parent for 168 years. And I thought I was tired that night. There were also spiders doing something in shells hanging by filaments of gossamer. One got it wrong and started, in Attenborough’s words, spinning out of control. It was quite funny.

It’s not just Attenborough’s delivery that makes this worth watching, although that delivery is as good as ever. The script for the programme, and the brilliant foley artistry plus of course the filming, make it another joy to watch.


Louis Theroux and the extreme zionists

Louis Theroux meets committed Jewish settlers

Theroux meets Daniel Luria who helps Jews buy property in East Jerusalem. BBC

What did we think about Louis Theroux‘s film on the extreme or ultra Zionists shown on BBC 2 last week? I am reluctant to say anything about it because I can’t comment on the programme without commenting on its content and that content, human relations in Gaza and East Jerusalem, is so politically loaded and complex that I’m tempted to start giggling about something inane instead. It’s a defence mechanism. My problem, not the world’s.

There were points in the programme when I felt I understood some of the history of that part of the world, so for me the programme was a success. Theroux is still a joy to watch, especially as he has been graciously absent from our screens for some time. I enjoy the contrast between heavy global issues and Theroux’s expression of slight bemusement and passing concern (the Yiddish word which Wikipedia says means comic theme or gimmick feels inappropriate here).

Fortunately, as I struggle both to understand international issues and remember the details and various punchlines, I am helped by an oracle who occasionally stumbles into the room from another room where there’s another screen. We like to check each other’s breathing from time to time.

The oracle says things haven’t been right in that part of the world for centuries and while there have been certain punctuation marks in history (if memory serves some things happened after one of the world wars and again in 1967) it’s really quite difficult to judge who has the better claim to any disputed land. Theroux and his fantastic crew observed some of the side effects of all this. Summed up, for me, by scenes of a family travelling to and from their heavily protected house in a well bashed up, paint-covered Land Rover. People in different tribes throw things at each other, you see.


BBC 2’s Episodes

Episodes. BBC Press Office

Stephen Mangan & Tamsin Greig in Episodes

Putting aside any fears I may have that I look a bit like Stephen Mangan with straighter hair, I actually quite like Episodes. I like the Britishness of the whole production, even though it’s set in LA and co-written by one of the writers of Friends. I liked Sean (Mangan) taking a leak while talking to his on-screen wife Beverley (Tamsin Greig); I liked Matt LeBlanc being sick on Beverley’s shoulder just after a briefly endearing moment.

The series is all a bit washed out to look at, by which I mean beige, and it’s terribly LA scriptwriter in tone. But that is what the series is all about – British writers Sean and Beverley Lincoln are temporarily living in LA while they attempt to recreate their hit UK TV show for a US audience.

And it’s because of the basic premise that I suspect Episodes will never be a ratings winner. I like Episodes just as I would have liked to have seen more of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which was billed as a behind-the-scenes look at a TV comedy sketch show featuring Matthew Perry (Friends) and Bradley Whitford (West Wing). But I am among a select number of people who find the making of TV shows interesting. Most people watch TV shows about other ordinary people (Coronation Street, EastEnders) or about things that they fear (Holby City, Silent Witness or series starring Trevor Eve). Most people do not, by and large, think about how television is made and will not relate to an English couple zooming around greater Los Angeles in a convertible, constantly having to reintroduce themselves to the star-gazy security man on the gate of their sham-glitz residential compound. Still, like I said, Matt LeBlanc is in it and he was sick on Tamsin Greig’s shoulder. Plus there are some very funny lines. It’s getting a 7 to 8% share of the viewing in its timeslot. Surely there’s enough here for a second series?


Last Chance to See

Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry in Last Chance to See. BBC

Whoa! We skiied a little off piste with that last post. Please to forgive. It’s just that I’ve been doing more campaigning than blogging in recent weeks and wanted somewhere to put the results. God knows if we’ll make the local media.

Meanwhile, back on TV, can I just say how much I’m enjoying The Last Chance to See at 8pm on BBC 2 on Sundays? Of course, it features the sweet, the lovely, the langorous and cuddly Stephen Fry. Although even he is a bit much, as he coos over every furry, rapidly disappearing species on the planet including some with shells. Baby turtles. I mean, yes, sweet – just. But, basically, little terrapin things stuggling through the sand. Much more interesting was how they swapped from alternating flipper action on sand to auto-swim mode the minute they were weightless in water.

Anyway. Last Chance to See. Apart from being on a tad early at 8pm it’s really very good. And it continues that toast n slippers tradition of ever-so slightly washed up comedians presenting comfy Sunday night series on unthreatening subjects such as rivers, boats, the Abroad. More please. Dawn French on the history of farming? I’d watch.

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Poor but happy

Freefall. BBC

Ooh. Ow. That was painful. Watching Dominic Savage’s Freefall on BBC 2 last night. Because we knew from the write-ups beforehand and from the way the drama was set up that the mustachioed schmuck, who wasn’t really a schmuck at all, would get done over by the wanker in the sharp suit who sold him a duff mortgage and material dreams he couldn’t afford. And so it was all a nerve-wracking, fraught experience for the viewer.

We really didn’t need Aiden Gillen as the City tosser, although it was nice to see and hear him again after Queer As Folk, however many decades ago that was on TV (I’ve never watched The Wire, which is his latest credit apparently). I guess his story completed the dodgy triangular pyramid of the City, the high street and home which has landed us all in the shit this year and last.

At the end of the 90-minute film, normality was restored: the have-nots were back with not much, poor but happy; the have-nothing-except-his-work City tosser was dead, blood trickling from his coke-lined features; the wideboy salesman played to a tee by Dominic Cooper was still spinning stories for different types of schmuck with a nice dig at the enviro bandwagon as a parting shot.

All in all, Freefall was superbly well-written, avoided sentimentality (no shot of the wideboy mortgage man breaking down after being physically attacked by his “old school mate” who’d he’d sold the bad mortgage to) and it was well-acted although the improv, steadycam shooting style felt a bit too quickfire and forced at times. But you had to admire Joseph Mawle‘s mustache. And Anna Maxwell Martin, who has come a long way from her costume finery of Bleak House, gives a good doorway scene. There she was, smiling lovingly at her poor but happy husband on the roundabout with the kids in front of the bleak but cheap garages. And there she was again, towards the end of the film, standing in the kitchen doorway of their £154,000 mock Tudor home, looking with despair at her sacked husband sitting at the HP pine table.

Oh dear. Uncomfortable because we all, every single person with a loan to their name, have participated in the false dream of material wealth we can’t afford.

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What’s the trouble with working women?

Sophie Raworth and Justin Rowlatt. BBC

“Diverting but pointless,” said the Guardian Guide preview. And after watching two hours of BBC 2‘s The Trouble With Working Women last night and on Monday, I’d have to agree.

The programme, fronted by the always smiley Sophie Raworth and the unwittingly sexist Justin Rowlatt, reached some very soft conclusions which our old friend Basil Fawlty would have dismissed as “the bleedin’ obvious”. Namely, that women’s working lives change radically if and when they become mothers; that the world of work isn’t geared up to dealing with people with strong commitments outside of the world of work; and that women may have “richer” lives than men, even though they earn around £369,000 less than men over the course of a working lifetime.

Key moments were Rowlatt surveying an open plan office full of women at Accenture (I think that’s Arthur Andersen to you and me) and assuming it was a secretarial department. And Rowlatt, father of three, saying as another aside to Raworth: “Yes, I only have girls.” As if he really wants a boy. But I guess that’s for him and his partner to work out, not for us viewers to worry about.

Also key, but not given much airtime, was Spare Rib founder Rosie Boycott admitting that the pioneers in the second (or was it third?) wave of feminism in the 1970s hadn’t had children at the time. Had they done so, she suggested, their thoughts about how women can conquer the world might have been slightly different. More family-friendly, perhaps; more insistent on equality within the home as well as outside it. Another woman celebrated for founding the first women’s refuge in the UK was filmed shockingly recanting everything she presumably held dear as a younger person, suggesting women should stay at home and raise families for the good of society and for their own personal fulfilment. And we thought biology wasn’t destiny.

All in all: it was two hours of television that rehearsed the same old arguments and failed to put the working world to rights. But at least it’s airing the issues again. We women can go away with the promise of emotional riches from our lives of child-bearing and rearing. Those that want material riches instead are advised to remain child-free.

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