Christmas TV… and Beyond

You may or may not have seen my Christmas Radio Times scans with my helpful annotations, but what did I actually watch over the period?

Oddly, one of the most captivating programmes was All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride!. This was the BBC’s latest example of “Slow TV” and remarkably our family sat down and watched all two hours of it non-stop. Originating on Norwegian TV, the idea is that something is broadcast at great length and with minimal interruption. Earlier last year, BBC Four broadcast a two hour canal trip through the West Country. This time it was a two hour sledge ride, with two Sami women transporting three reindeer and their sleighs through the wintry taiga and tundra. Precisely how the programme was made was unclear, but essentially there were cameras attached all over one of the sleighs, with long takes from each of the cameras. There is no voiceover or music, just the rhythmic sound of the hooves on snow, the bells the reindeer wear, and the occasional shouts to get the animals to behave. Along the way, we came across other tribes-people, a solo cross-country skier, and an ice fisherman. The short Arctic days meant that over the course of the two hours, we went from twilight to twilight, the sun never rising much above the horizon. I genuinely love this stuff.

As an interesting corollary there was an excellent Natural World documentary from 2007, Reindeer Girls, which followed across a year, a pair of teenaged Sami girls, Elle and Inga, who are following the traditional Sami life as reindeer herders. Their family has a herd of several hundred reindeer (precisely how many is not stated since to Sami folk, asking for a precise count would be like me asking you how much you have in your current account) who they have to move between summer and winter grazing grounds. The documentary showed that there is a modern slant on Sami life in the 21st century with snowmobiles and the hiring of a ferry to transport the herd with their young calves across the open water.

And Then There Were None was one of the BBC’s big shows for the season, with an all-star cast arriving on the island for one of Agatha Christie’s less plausible settings. However the set-up is so deliciously good – ten people on an island, getting bumped off one by one, that it deserves the production it got. I could only vaguely remember an earlier film version which played around with the setting, so I actually read the original novel just ahead of the TV adaption. You can’t not note the original name of the novel, based on a racial slur, and the way it was linked to an actual song performed since the end of the 19th century. It seems to have only been since the mid-eighties that the books other pejorative title was also finally dropped and it became And Then There Were None.

I thought that the cast was really decent in this version, with the story being very truthful to the original Christie plot – not something that all of her adaptors have felt the need to do. The strong cast helps since you’re getting to grips with ten characters at the start and you do need to stay on top of them. There are definitely hints of horror films, with so many featuring casts being whittled down one by one. Indeed the “Final Girl” is now a horror trope. The 2009 series, Harper’s Island, mixed this source and the horror format very explicitly.

There were a few changes here and there, and Aidan Turner seems to be contractually obliged to get shirtless in every series he makes. Yes, it’s all a bit too perfectly wrapped up, but it’s a chocolate box confection and shouldn’t be seen as any more or less.

I’ve enjoyed Not Going Out since the start, and the Christmas one-off – the first since they married off the two main characters – was very silly, set in a department store on Christmas Eve. To be honest, it did feel as though it was a bit of a stop-gap with the BBC commissioning it, and an uncertainty of where the series is going. That all said, I hope that they do come back with some more, resetting the overall premise.

We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story is curiously timed, coming a couple of months ahead of a new feature film. In essence that means that we have two separate sets of actors recreating characters we know and love within the space of a couple of months! This production was much more about the actual background to the series being made, with Jimmy Perry originally creating the series to give himself a part before David Croft stepped in with him to co-write it, and “persuade” him to step away from featuring in it.

Like An Adventure in Time and Space which similarly told the story of the origin of Doctor Who, this production took delight in recreating a late sixties/early seventies BBC production. Much of the story comes from the relationships between the various cast members, all of whom did an excellent job of recreating their characters. Paul Ritter and especially the ever-excellent Richard Dormer were great in the lead roles, but I also enjoyed John Sessions’ Arthur Lowe, Julian Sands’ (!) John Le Mesurier and Keith Allen’s Paul Fox.

Christmas isn’t Christmas without a festive Doctor Who. Just now he’s on his own, so a familiar face in Alex Kingston’s River Song popped up for this one-off. I’m glad that they didn’t set this on earth for once, and to be honest, they could have safely dropped the Christmas setting altogether as it felt a bit bolted on. We had Matt Lucas and Greg Davies playing roles in this one, but it was really all about the relationship between the Doctor and Song. The 60 minutes sped by, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens next time around.

Harry Hill returned as Professor Branestawm, based on the Norman Hunter character who’s books were famously illustrated by W. Heath Robinson. I loved these books as a child (and hope that kids today are still reading these books), so I was happy when the BBC brought him back last year. This year, there’s another all-star cast including no less a figure than Diana Rigg at the very start. Hill is great as the absent minded prof, while Steve Pemberton was glorious as Professor Algebrain the evil inventor from a “non-specific European country.” The cast also included Vicki Pepperdine, Simon Day, David Mitchell and many more, all giving lovely, over-the-top comic turns.

War and Peace is a novel, that like me, you’ve probably not read. Last year, Radio 4 did a ten part dramatisation in a single day, then repeated over ten weeks, which was supposed to be very good. I’d decided that I’d read the book first, and because I didn’t, I failed to listen to the drama. I’ve got it saved up though, and this new TV version from Andrew Davies might just be what I need to get me to finally read the book.

But let’s talk about this new version. I thought it was excellent – really looking the part. I can’t say yet how well the novel has been broken down to fit into six hours, or whether that’s enough. But on screen it looks wonderful, and the multi-country shoot (Russia, Latvia and Lithuania) really pays dividends. The sets and costumes look exquisite and the dialogue feels real. Yes, it’s 21st century dialogue being spoken by 19th century characters, but that doesn’t actually matter. It’s better than than some cod ye-olde-English language. Especially as the source is Russian!

Casting is excellent all the way through, with a noticeable overlap between this and Dickensian being the only issue. Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton are all over our screens at the moment as Nicola Walker was at the end of last year.

Crucially the battle scenes felt real. This is incredibly hard to do without a cast of thousands and feature film budgets, but they felt visceral, and although there were CGI elements, they didn’t detract. I’ll be hooked over the next five Sundays on a very strong night for television.

Deutschland ’83 is the first drama to air under Channel 4’s new “Walter Presents” banner. I’m still curious about this conceit. “Walter” is Walter Iuzzolino and he’s watched a lot of TV. Perhaps he’s spent too long at places like Mipcom watching TV from around the world. It sounds like a good gig. Basically C4 has carved out a bit of their All 4 catch-up service and they’ll be putting lots of foreign language drama up there to watch boxset-style. Indeed there are already a number of series up there. Some of the bigger series will get outings on Channel 4 as Deutschland ’83 is getting – or More 4, as French drama Spin will be getting later this week. How audiences will get to know “Walter” is unclear, and whether the standard can be maintained across the board is not an easy question to answer. However I love the fact that so much non-English language TV is now available to us – ironically at a time when so much good English-language TV is also available.

But to Deutschland ’83 itself. It shares many traits with The Americans, being set in a similar time frame, and dealing with East German spies in West Germany, with us again seeing it from the perspective of the hero – or is he the anti-hero. In this instance, Martin is a young serviceman who is somewhat reluctantly pressed into espionage by his aunt. He quickly gets up to speed and we see him perform his first mission against a backdrop of 99 Luftballoons and New Order. Overall an impressive start, and I’ll be staying the course on Sunday nights when I’m not watching War and Peace (ITV’s Endeavour, which I’ll see on catch-up, is losing out thus far).

Beowulf – Return to Shieldlands was a real disappointment. This is one of ITV’s big new shows that has been in the works for sometime and looks like it was quite expensive. Except at times it also looked quite cheap. First of all, I should say that I’m a fan of Beowulf, and although many of the previous dramatisations of it have left something to be desired, I was really keen to watch this. They’ve filmed it in Northumberland which has some beautiful scenery and wide open wind-swept landscapes, and yet on the evidence of the first episode it’s just missed the target completely.

The opening titles would suggest to you that it wants to be Game of Thrones, but it’s also trying to be Doctor Who. It’s on pre-watershed, so it has to be careful in how much blood and gore it can show, yet the story and script are not pitched at a high enough level. And it’s chock-full of some pretty average CGI monsters that inhabit this world. My heart sunk a little when just about the first thing we saw was a chase across a beach with said CGI creatures. The problem is that CGI is incredibly hard to do realistically, and on a TV budget, no matter how big. I had the same problem with ITV’s recent Jekyll and Hyde from which I also bailed out of. I’ve no doubt these things will do well to an extent internationally, but it’s a shame that ITV has not aimed an awful lot higher with this.

Longmire is a series that I suspect few in the UK are watching. It’s broadcast on TCM, having been picked up in the US by Netflix when original network A&E dropped it. We’re currently on the fourth season and I really enjoy this modern take on the Western. Australian Robert Taylor plays Walt Longmire, the grizzled sheriff of Absaroka County, Montana, alongside Katee Sackoff’s Vic Moretti and Lou Diamond Philips’ Henry. I think as much as anything, and like quasi-western Justified before it, it’s the non-coastal America that we so rarely get to see in US TV shows that appeals. Even the landscapes are different, although the show is actually filmed in New Mexico, I suspect largely for tax incentive reasons. The pace of the show is different too – and although there are crimes of the week, there are also longer arcs that play out sometimes over several seasons.

My only slight negative is that like much of US television, there do seem to be some overly negative depictions of Native Americans. Yes one of the key characters is Cheyenne, but the bad guys are clearly those on the “res” who run the new casino and are involved in various criminal enterprises. Then there are the tribal police who of course don’t get on with the local sheriff’s office and make life difficult for one another when chasing suspects. The same was true of many of the characters in the last series of Cinemax’s Banshee. By no means are all the Native American characters depicted thus, but it sometimes feels a little lazy – a bit like those cop shows that always show internal affairs as the bad guys. It is an issue because you see little enough US TV reflecting these lives.

None of this should put you off however. The cast is good and it’s a weekly escape to somewhere familiar but a bit different.

Flesh and Bone is a Starz mini-series that has found a UK home Amazon Prime. It’s set in the world of ballet in New York, and to be honest, is full of the kind of sterotypes you might expect. To some extent, you’ve seen this series if you’ve seen the 2010 film Black Swan. Claire (Sarah Hay) runs away from her home and troubled past to New York City where she manages to win a place at the American Ballet Company in one of their open auditions. Artistic Director Paul (Ben Daniels) spots something in her and thinks he has his new prima ballerina. But it’s not as simple as that. Meanwhile Claire is garreted with Mia (Emily Bialy) who doesn’t really like her. And so we get a series full of dancing, back-biting, medical and psychological disorders of varying degrees, money, sex (this is a Starz series after all), and so on. It may be a little hackneyed, but I’m still working my way through the series as although you’ve seen some of the characters a thousand times before, I’m still interested to find out what happens to them. What’s clear is that nobody is happy, and that’s probably the biggest issue I have with the series.

This does mean that I’ve yet to watch series two of Mozart in the Jungle, which is set in a similar environment, in a New York Orchestra and also starts with a female outsider working her way in. But I enjoyed the first series immensely and it’s not nearly as dark, with many more laughs along the way.

Danny Baker had a couple of one-off TV shows on over the period. His Sky Arts special was on some of the less-familiar Christmas songs. To be honest, I found myself fast forward through the songs, and concentrating on the links. Much better was Danny Baker’s Player Lounge on BT Sport, and while I’d tweak the format a bit, I reckon there’s a series in this. Essentially three ex-pros and three football-loving comedians sat on a pair of sofas with the latter asking the former less-usual questions. For example, what do you say to the trainer when you’re faking an injury? Or can you hear what the crowd is saying to you? The latter had a brilliant answer from Harry Redkmapp who said he’d once got a loudmouth out of the crowd and onto the pitch in a pre-season friendly. The loudmouth actually scored! Baker has a great interview technique and gets a lot of out his guests as anyone who’s listened to the interview slot on his Saturday morning show might know. We probably didn’t need the phone messages from some of his mates like Peter Kaye and Chris Evans – for the most part because I’m not convinced that they’re massive football fans. But I reckon there’s enough material in this to sustain more episodes if BT Sport wanted them, and as long as the quality of guests can be kept up. (I suspect that many of these hoary old tales do form parts of the guests’ respective after-dinner circuit routines however!)

A Sky 1 comedy series that completely passed me by was After Hours, which I watched largely because of its radio setting. Willow has been dumped and he finds solace in an internet radio station broadcast locally from a houseboat. He gets involved with Lauren and Ollie who run the station, and over six episodes their story plays out as they put on local concerts and love is found, lost, and so on. I binge watched the whole thing in a couple of days and it was lovely.

Sky has been trying hard at comedy, but it struggles to maintain a strong foothold because it still doesn’t sit naturally on channels like Sky One. It has dutifully recommissioned series like Trollied, Stella and Moone Boy, but you sometimes think that it’s because of the credibility it has working with big stars rather than from a commercial standpoint. In some ways that’s to be admired, but it does mean that it’s incredibly hard getting these series to break through.

I finished watching Sky Atlantic’s big drama series of the autumn, The Last Panthers, and overall I was a little non-plussed. It started out strongly with the diamond robbery in Marseilles and somehow drifted away. I think my main problem was the story was actually too ambitious and we ended up with completely disconnected elements. So while the cast was excellent with Samatha Morton, John Hurt, Tahar Rahim and Goran Bogdan all on good form, it felt both drawn out and in the end a bit unsatisfactory. I must admit that it wasn’t quite the series that I was expecting on the way in either.

Not remotely new, but Drama has been sneaking a few interesting morsals hidden away at the outer reaches of its service. One night before Christmas I couldn’t sleep, and channel hopping ended up watching a very early episode of Rumpole of the Bailey. Those repeats have stopped, but they have just embarked on another run of the Dorothy L Sayers Mysteries. These date from 1987, which is probably when I last saw them and star Edward Petherbridge of Lord Peter Wimsey, and Harriet Walters as Harriet Vane. There were only ten episodes, adapting three of the novels, but they’re well staged and Petherbridge is terrific as Wimsey. The scheduling is a bit random however, with the first three going out on consecutive nights in the small hours, whilst the next four episodes go out one after another next Saturday afternoon. A PVR is essential then. I note that they’re also on DVD – although as the releases are from 2002, they’re very expensive. No sign of them at the BBC Store (although its search engine is so poor who really knows).

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride was an utter delight. When news broke that this episode was to be set in 1895, it was unclear how it would work. Mark Lawson in The Guardian, managed to pen a long, and at times completely inacccurate, piece about how it was probably “non-canon” because that was the sort of thing that TV liked to do occassionally. Well, as we now know, it most certainly was “canon” and led on directly from the last regular episode.

There were some complaints I saw, particularly in social media, about the series being either too complicated or the writers being overly silly. Yes, there were elements of Inception in there, but the story certainly wasn’t complicated. What I would reiterate is that if you spend your time trying to be clever on Twitter while you’re watching something like Sherlock, then you’re going to miss stuff. You can’t do it. Multi-tasking is a myth – we do one thing at a time – so you’re not giving the series proper attention if you’re tweeting your way through it, or checking Facebook updates as you go. I think we do need to put down our phones, tablets and laptops a little more if we’re going to properly enjoy good drama or documentaries on TV. “Second screen” is fine for Strictly, X-Factor or The Apprentice, but that’s because these are essentially undemanding shows from a viewer’s perspective.

I have a theory that some of the popularity of imported Scandi-noir series like The Bridge and The Killing is that as viewers we have to concentrate. Unless we speak Swedish or Danish we have to actually look at the screen or we simply won’t know what’s going on.

As someone said they were going to do on Twitter, I’m going to make a real effort not to interact with my devices during “proper” television this year.

Incidentally, I see that iPlayer is now running trailers for programmes, and this popped up in my player a couple of times. However I confess that I mostly watch up catch-up TV via my Sky box, because I can fast-forward ads and don’t suffer any buffering (a problem even with fibre on occasion).

Luther was really over before Christmas and was as bonkers as ever, with a criminal who went around eating parts of his victims beyond just killing them. Sadly Alice is now dead – yeah, right – but she was still at the centre of things. I do hope we get more of Luther as it’s now Idris Elba’s defining role in my view. Nothing beats seeing him take out a couple of assassins on a motorbike with a bin! There is talk of a US TV version which Elba wouldn’t star in, and then rumours of a movie. We’ll have to see.

Dickensian was a real delight. I wasn’t sure how I was going to find this, but the scripts are top-notch, and the casting is sublime with no expense spared seemingly. I was worried that this could be something of a pudding of a programme – mixing and matching characters at a whim, but it has proved to be very smart, potentially introducing many people into the world(s) of Dickens.

The only thing I’d say is that its scheduling really has been all over the place. The first two episodes were broadcast on Boxing Day in the run-up to the first episode of And Then There Were None, but not back to back, but with a gap in the middle for Eastenders and Still Open All Hours. Then there were another two episodes the following day, this time broken up by a single episode of Still Open All Hours. The next outing was a single half-hour on New Year’s Day, followed by two more episodes on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

In other words, it’s all over the place. Unless you series link I’m not at all sure how viewers can be expected to follow all twenty parts!

Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe is always unmissable, and makes you wish that we had a more regular slot for satire beyond perhaps six half-hours of these a year, and Have I Got News For You.

I previously enjoyed Levison Wood’s series on Walking the Nile, so his ambitious sounding Walking the Himalayas was a must-see for me. One of things I do like about how this programme is made is that it does acknowledge the presence or absence of a crew. Walking for miles in and of itself does not make great television, but there is some arduous country to be covered here with the first episodes including stretches in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including travelling through the middle of Kashmir and attempting to cross the Line of Control that divides the region. My only real criticism is the constant need to keep us on the edge of our seats about what’s coming next!

On a more leisurely basis, The Adventure Show is a regional BBC Scotland series presented by Cameron McNeish, that I check in from time to time. Over Christmas, a two-parter explored some of the west coast of Scotland, with walking, cycling and canoeing. This includes some of my favourite parts of the world, and I came away really wanting to get hold of a packraft (essentially an ultra-light inflatable canoe) at some point as it looks like a splendid way of exploring some of the water around Britain.

I continue to generally avoid the New Year including Jools Holland, although I did watch the fireworks on BBC1. Instead I tend to catch the bizarre but strangely addictive Le Plus Grand Cabaret Du Monde Bonne Annee 2016 with French crooner Patrick Sébastian on France 2. It gets rebroadcast on TV5 internationally, and as ever features lots of variety acts that you can enjoy regardless of your level of spoken French, alongside interviews with lots of French stars that you don’t know all plugging various books, films and albums, alongside dancers the Moulin Rouge!

Finally, there was of course the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna, without which, the New Year hasn’t really arrived.

PS And yes, of course I’m watching Making a Murderer on Netflix. It’s simply superb and it reminds me of both The Jinx and Death on the Staircase.