Written by TV

Some Christmas Television

Overall I thought that there was some pretty good stuff on at Christmas. I can’t claim to have watched all of it; just a little here and there. But here, in no particular order, are the things that have stood out for me over the period:
The Magicians. I love magic on the television, and there simply isn’t enough of it. Idly flicking through the international section of Sky’s EPG, I stumbled across a trailer for what is France 2’s big New Year’s Eve show – Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde presented by a chap called Patrick Sébastien. TV5 Monde was simulcasting this. The show opened with a big number from the dancers of the Moulin Rouge (topless at 8pm – not a problem with me, although the fact that they stood behind Sébastien during his opening piece, meant that my eyes weren’t necessarily on the host). Most of the show is taken up with acts either live in the studio, or seemingly from previous editions of the show. The acts are in the main, acrobats, and of particular interest to me, magicians. In between the acts Sébastien talked to a number of French celebratories in the studio there to plug various books, CDs and films. My lack of French meant that I largely fast-forwarded these sequences. That, and the fact that I didn’t recognise any of them. Magic, of course, is one of those things that can be appreciated largely without dialogue.
Incidentally, like all French studio productions, fitting clip-on microphones is a big no-no. If you watch Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton, when guests come on, a technician has already fitted a microphone and wireless pack to them before we see them. Nobody aside from sound engineers need worry about their microphone technique. But the French love something to hold. So everybody has a hand-held microphone, including the host. Sometimes they forget to use them, and other times they put them too close to their mouths, but it’s something to hold.
Anyway, the magic was largely of a high quality, and some of the tricks had me thinking. Yes – I’m one of those people who have to work out what’s going on and how the trick is done. It infuriates me if I can’t work it out. The advent of PVRs and slow-motion does mean that I go back and forwards trying to catch things. And I did.
But back to The Magicians. This was the first primetime magic I can remember on UK TV for many a year – David Blaine “stunts” notwithstanding. Yes we have Derren Brown – and I see Channel 4 has a Derren Brown day lined up next Saturday – but he’s on in late evening. This was the first big early evening magic show since perhaps Paul Daniels. Sadly I was a bit underwhelmed. I’m not sure why we need to make magic competitive. Why does there have to be a gimic? Lenny Henry is fine as a presenter, but he was a bit too over-enthusiastic. And I’m not quite sure about the need for celebrities. Getting them involved in tricks is fine, but as no more than guests. Having them learn tricks and inserting some kind of false jeopardy seems a bit pointless. I’ll carry on recording the series, if only for the tricks. But this isn’t quite the winning series I thought it might be. Oh, and is Saint-Saëns’ Dance Macabre now the only music we can use for magic since it was used as the Jonathan Creek theme? Perhaps ITV’s one-off featuring the awesome Penn & Teller will be a bit better later this week?
Whistle and I’ll Come To You. I was looking forward to this, as in the last couple of years, BBC Four has been doing a sterling job of reintroducing us to the Christmas ghost story, including some new productions of MR James stories as this was. But I’ve got to say that I wasn’t totally taken with this version of the classic story. It was famously made previously in 1968 and starred Michael Hordern as a scholarly professor who takes an off-season break in a bleak Norfolk holiday resort. That version was splendid and stuck pretty tightly with the original story.
In the new update, John Hurt is excellent, but lots of other elements are wrong. The story has been updated, and Hurt now has a wife who he’s just placed in a home. He goes to the coast, but it’s a southern coast with towering cliffs, not an eastern one with dunes. The setting just isn’t as bleak. And the story has been filled out to an hour which means that it does drag a bit. I liked it, but it was nowhere near as good as the 1968 version, and it needed to be tighter. Oh – and it could have done with a whistle rather than a ring. It’s in the title after all…
Upstairs Downstairs. The prevailing wisdom about this programme was that it was all a bit pointless after Downton Abbey. Upstairs Downstairs might be the original tale of upper class folk and their serving staff, but that was a long time ago. I certainly don’t remember the series at all, although it’s famous theme tune I certainly do know. That’s probably, as much as anything, down to the fact that one of the relatively few LPs we had when I was young was a TV Times Hit Television Themes LP which featured such classics as Black Beauty, Van Der Valk and of course, Upstairs Downstairs. In this updating, with the original series’ tenants having moved on and Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes moving in, only series co-creator Jean Marsh’s Rose Buck character has remained.
Of course, there is no doubting that Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey are similar in theme, although they are separated by about twenty years. Downton Abbey concluded at the outbreak of the First World War, whereas we’re dealing with Oswald Mosley and his fascists in 1936 London in Upstairs Downstairs. I loved Downton Abbey a lot, even if at times it was essentially a very glossy soap, but I was more intrigued by the political ramifications of Upstairs Downstairs and the time that it was set in. The involvement of real-world characters such as Wallis Simpson (also recently portrayed in Any Human Heart, and coming very soon in The King’s Speech), von Ribbentrop, Eden and the aforementioned Mosely made it quite fascinating. I should also mention that I watched a great old Newsnight report from Robert Harris dug out by Adam Curtis on his wonderful BBC blog about American spies and others trying to keep the US out of the war.
I hope we’ll get another series.
Entertainingly, I note that both series are PBS Masterpiece co-productions – and Downton is about to start airing this week in the US (no, Daily Mail, it’s not been substantially cut).
Zen. I’ve been a long time lover of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series – we miss you Michael. And now, in the absence for the time being, of a new series of Wallander (while Kenneth Brannagh directs Thor), we get another non-English detective in the Venetian Zen. The first thing to say is that this isn’t the most accurate adaptation I’ve ever seen, and quite knowingly so. The marvellous Rufus Sewell plays Zen, and he’s too young and somewhat more swathe than Dibdin’s detective. But the plot is reasonably close to the novel (although it’s been a while since I read it), and his honesty come over pretty well in a society that’s depicted as being generally corrupt on every level. Indeed some of Dibdin’s earlier books do have complicated plots that aren’t easily distilled down to 90 minutes. So you do lose something along the way and the ending was a little too perfunctory.
With any series where the protagonists are foreign, but the series is made for the UK eyes, there comes the knotty problem of what to with the accents. Like Wallander, they’ve plumped to give everyone British accents – the cast is largely British after all, with the exception of his love interest, Caterina Murino. I think this is fine, and will seem natural soon enough. It’s better than giving everyone faux Italian accents. I still have memories of what I believe was a pilot for a British TV series called The Marshall starring Alfred Molina. You just don’t get taken seriously doing cod accents.
The series, which is co-produced Italian broadcaster RTI (itself part of Mediaset, and therefore part of the Berlusconi empire) as well as German public service broadcaster ZDF, is filmed entirely in Italy and looks beautiful. You just want to book your 2011 holiday to the hills surrounding Rome immediately. And I definitely feel the need for a sharp Italian suit – it was criminal what Sewell did to his suit jumping down caves and into streams in his.
All said and done, I did enjoy it. Although I also enjoyed watching, for the first time, a couple of Inspector Montalbano films from RAI which BBC Four first broadcast a year or two ago. While these are a little dated (in one episode a stolen DVD player looks like a desktop PC), they’re still good fun and decently made. I’d be happy to see more of these. And aside from Spiral, I’m sure that there are a few decent French “flic” series that’d be quite watchable by UK audiences. Come to that, I’m pretty certain that German TV has a decent track record in this area.
Eric and Ernie. I must admit that much as I love the channel, I wish that it’d sometimes do one-off dramas that weren’t just about dead comedians. We’ve had an awful lot of them, and I see from trailers that Ruth Jones’ is soon to be Hattie Jacques. So I was a little uncertain about whether or not to watch Eric and Ernie, but I’m happy that I did. It was a really nicely delivered piece, and I hadn’t quite realised the age that the pair of them had first got together. Victoria Wood was great as Ernie’s mum (and I believe largely an instigator of the film, which probably explains why it aired on BBC 2 rather than BBC Four), while Vic Reeves (or Jim Moir as he was billed here) had a finely judged performance as his dad. The horrors of a tour called “Youth Takes a Bow” which was filled with junior performers, and is the sort of thing I’d have stabbed my eyes out to avoid watching, and their career-threatening first TV series were all fascinating. Yes, there was the odd clunky bit such as when Eric’s mum gets inspiration to change his name from Bartholomew to Morecombe (she was reading the local paper), but those aside, it was nicely done.
The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. They’re back on the BBC after a journey off to Five for a couple of years, although they do seem to be a bit hidden away in the 8pm hour on BBC Four. These are for kids after all. Yes, I’m sure that every parent who persuades their youngsters that these would be good to watch, probably has BBC Four as their go-to channel, but I remember watching these, unbidden by parents, on BBC Two. Mark Miodownik was a great presenter this year talking about Material Sciences, and although sometimes the series works just a little too hard to shoehorn an experiment in, it’s still excellent.
Stargazing LIVE. I’m not quite sure why “LIVE” has to be in uppercase, but it is. One of the problems with living in London, in a flat, is that it’s basically not very sensible for me to get a telescope. I’d love one though, and at some point, I will – especially if I can take pictures with my DSLR (none from the partial solar eclipse today sadly – it was too cloudy outside Alexandra Palace at 0810 this morning). Prof. Brian Cox can do no wrong, with his excellent Wonder of the Solar System from last year, and he’s ably abetted by Dara O’Brien who’s better in this than the slightly long in the tooth Three Men format. Over Christmas, their Scottish exploits were aired, and while they replicated quite a bit of the Scottish journey I made last year, albeit with more boats and fewer bikes, it was still a bit too much like pantomine – Rory McGrath, I’m looking at you.
We’re due a follow up from Cox, and in the meantime this three parter could essentially be a sister programme to Springwatch and Autumnwatch, filling the same space in the schedule. Presented from Jodrell Bank, they were blessed with clear(ish) skies on the first night. But of course, although it is live, the programme is mostly filled with pre-recorded packages. Nonetheless, any bit of science pre-9pm is welcome these days. I did find it a tiny bit odd that Sunday night’s The Sky at Night didn’t reference the programme at all, although it was immediately followed by a trailer for Stargazing. I do wonder about the future of The Sky at Night when Sir Patrick is finally forced into stopping (hopefully no time soon). While there are a couple of obvious successors in Chris Lintott and Pete Lawrence, I do sometimes think that the programme is essentially allowed to continue purely because it’s been on-air since 1957, always presented by Sir Patrick. A monthly astronomy programme late night on BBC1 probably isn’t top of the channel controller’s considerations.
Murder on the Orient Express. I must admit that I’m only a very occasional viewer of ITV’s Agatha Christie series. The recent Marples simply don’t hold a candle to Joan Hickson’s versions with their re-arranged plotlines, and in the case of one episode over Christmas, simply dropping Marple into a story she never appeared in in book form. Poirot is different, and although the standard remains high, I’ve only really ever dipped in and out. In the early series, every Art Deco building in London and home counties must have at some time appeared, and I still miss Hastings. At this point I’d also mention Tommy and Tuppence which I enjoyed years ago – probably because I fancied Francesca Annis like mad. But back to Poirot – this was the big one. Murder on the Orient Express.
The problem is that we all know who did it. If you’ve seen the Albert Finney film featuring its glittering all-star cast, you’ll definitely remember. Indeed there’s probably not a more famous whodunnit in existance. ITV’s version also had a pretty decent cast, with Toby Jones being a miserable Samuel Ratchett who gets killed. The film was shot in Malta and made good use of its location. It also employed a certain amount of CGI to greater or lesser success; not great, but not terrible. In fact, this is quite a down at heel and dark story. Poirot is essentially miserable. The film couldn’t escape likenesses to the Finney film, but I still enjoyed it, and Suchet is the definitive screen version of the detective (although I will admit that I enjoyed Ustinov’s version in the same way that I like Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes despite Brett being the definitive version). There are only a handful more Poirots to film, and I trust that ITV will see them through.
Of the rest, Doctor Who had one of its better Christmas episodes, and The Royale Family had another vintage seasonal special. I didn’t catch the new Lucas/Walliams comedy Come Fly With Me because it’s going to take a lot to get me to watch them after Little Britain (hint: I wasn’t a fan), and Toast is still sitting on my PVR.
There are a few things starting this week: BBC1 and ITV1 seem to be determined to annoy procedural fans everywhere by running their two/three-parters at the same time on the same nights. Hustle is back for a seventh series on Friday, although it might be a little long in the tooth. Not Going Out is back from the dead on Thursday, and I’ve set the PVR for that. And there’s BBC2’s two parter The Sinking of the Laconia on Thursday and Friday which I shall certainly be watching.