BBC’s PC Bodyguard

body1At the risk of sounding like some kind of dinosaur, what was going on with the BBC’s opener of its new drama Bodyguard? I only caught up with the first two episodes yesterday, and yes, its a well-crafted, tense thriller with some intriguing plot-lines going on, but crikey, its like it was written by a committee on a Political Correctness vendetta. It threatened to derail the whole thing for me, spoiling what could have been an absolute classic.

Our hero, special protection officer David Budd (Richard Madden) is on a train back to London with his two children when his sharp senses deduce trouble afoot. He is soon embroiled in a tense stand-off with a terrorist bomber threatening civilian casualties, but my word, the show gets awfully odd awfully quickly. The guard on the train (I think they are called ‘train managers’ now but that may have slipped by) is a woman, no problems there. The firearms officer leading the anti-terrorist unit waiting for the train is a woman, okay, wee bit unusual, but no problems there, its nice to portray women in positions of  authority/power. But then credibility starts to waver when we cut to a sniper preparing to take out the bomber and… its a woman. Yeah, another one. Okay. I’ll go with it. Our hero confounds the anti-terrorist bunch by ensuring the sniper can’t get a clean shot and so they will have to defuse the bomb and take the bomber alive (a woman coerced/forced to be a suicide bomber by her husband, because men are bastards and cowards). So the bomb defusal expert boards the train and credibility finally snaps- its another woman. FFS.

It doesn’t stop there. Budd is the hero of the hour and is summoned to his superior, and yes, his chief superintendent is a woman. Her boss is the Metropolitan Police head of Counter Terrorism Command, who, is, you guessed it, another woman. I’m beginning to wonder why David Budd wasn’t written as a Diane Budd and be done with it. At least then it could have had some LGBT credentials with a lesbian affair between Diane Budd and the Home Secretary (yes another woman), Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) when Budd is rewarded by being put onto the Home Secretary’s security detail and the inevitable sexual tension ensues.

I don’t know. Perhaps it should be construed as very bold and forward-thinking, but it all seems distracting to me and spoiled it somewhat. We’ll see where the drama goes as it unearths a theme of corruption in the corridors of power (the Home Secretary is described as a sociopath intent on the PM’s job and is clearly in cahoots with a shady Intelligence Chief), but I do hope it tones down some of its progressive agenda. Sometimes it can be taken just a bit too far, and people tell me Star Wars is far-fetched….

Collateral (2018)

CollateralCollateral is a BBC four-part crime thriller which has a fine cast and solid production values, but for me it was ruined by the preposterous plot and a political agenda, intended or otherwise, that left me with the same bad taste it did in The Last Jedi. You might well be wondering what Star Wars and a BBC drama set in modern-day London have in common.

I’m all for inclusiveness and giving female actors major roles etc, but sometimes dear old Auntie Beeb tries too hard (it was an element in its recent series Requiem, too, but to a much lesser extent). Collateral throws the following at us: a female priest, who is a lesbian, and in love with an illegal immigrant- that ticks several boxes just by itself. The lead detective is a woman, six-months pregnant, which is immaterial to the plot but just hangs there (career girl, high-flyer, and an imminently brilliant mother too, obviously), she does very little wrong, is famous for having been in a past Olympics, and outwits all her male junior officers, who are generally portrayed as subservient and dumb. Two of the bad guys are men who are foreigners who are very stupid and mess up a murder, leaving traces and get caught by our lead detective. They are in league with an MI5 intelligence operative who is, yes, a man, and yes, a complete utter arsehole.  The ‘clever’ assassin who very nearly gets away with carrying a flawless murder is a woman from the military who is suffering sexual harassment from a superior officer and is actually raped by him. She later reveals this to the superiors wife who throws the bastard out of her home. A male politician running amok in interviews is frustrated and pulled into line by the leader of the Labour party who is (you guessed it) female. I think this message was carried in The Last Jedi– women are smart and intelligent and right, and men are dumb and wrong most of the time.

Throw in some fairly heavy-handed anti-Brexit sentiments/comments/political posturing and I think this drama has covered every liberal agenda we could possibly want and more besides. Funny, I thought it was so supposed to be crime drama. Guess I was wrong.

Hard Sun – Series One (2018)

hard1.jpegPre-apocalypse crime drama Hard Sun is so much of its time its quite fascinating. To manage budget etc the series is a co-production between the BBC and Hulu in the United States, and while it is being aired weekly as tradition, when the first episode aired the full series was put up on iplayer so that viewers could binge-watch it if they wished- not the first nod by the BBC towards how people seem to be accessing content theses days.

So while I’ve just watched the full six episodes I’m also fully aware that some may be waiting for the weekly episodes to air, so will keep this review spoiler-free. Suffice to say after a rocky start the series found its footing with episode three and to my surprise actually delivered a really good ending, leaving me hopeful that we’ll see series two. Writer/producer Neil Cross has stated he hopes the show will run for five series (a number that will seem obvious/fitting for those that watch the show) so with a little luck, who knows?

(On the one hand I enjoy these ‘long’ sagas but on the other, I’m a little contemptuous that I’m expected to wait several years to witness any ‘full’ story to its conclusion- JMS and his Babylon 5 have such a lot to answer for, sometimes).

Another aspect in which Hard Sun reflects the current time it is made in, and negatively in my eyes, is the current post-Game of Thrones trend for shock -for-shock’s sake and sudden twists in plot and character behaviour which is intended to keep viewers on their toes but which also can undermine credibility. In just the same way as foreign crime dramas like The Bridge or Cardinal have done, events and circumstances are just pushed too far into the sensationalist realm for real credibility, if only to keep viewers attention away from the remote. For instance, during the second episode our heroine is sitting in a car with a fairly minor character, chatting, when she suddenly jumps on him for casual sex. It’s so out of leftfield, and has no impact on anything that follows, that it’s surely just a sudden twist of spice to shock/entertain/wake up the viewer.

Restraint, in my eyes, should have been the order of the day. The basic premise -in which government intelligence agencies are murdering/disappearing/ruining whoever stumbles upon the shocking truth that the world is doomed- is fantastic and Orwellian enough without graphic violence/murders and complicated protagonists with bizarre life histories. But of course, that’s all so very 1970s and this is the wild 2010s and our tv is edgy and shocking and fast-paced.

So I may seem rather disparaging- it’s perfectly fine for what it is, but yes, the Game of Thrones dynamic seems to be infecting everything these days and I think it’s a pity. A calmer, more level-headed, down-to-Earth series may have seemed less exciting for today’s audiences but it would have been more effective, for me anyway. What’s wrong with normal characters, normal relationships, why spice it all up with bad cops/murderers/rape victims etc? Isn’t the End Of The World enough?

Still. I do hope we get another series.

Eric, Ernie and Me

eric1Another shade from Christmas immediately past. Eric, Ernie and Me is a BBC drama concerning the relationship between Morecambe and Wise (played here surprisingly well by Neil Maskell and Mark Bonnar) and writer Eddie Braben (Stephen Tompkinson), whose creative vision pretty much defined the duo during their BBC heyday. Another show I stumbled upon, it seemed rather timely as I had recently seen their spy spoof The Intelligence Men just a few weeks before, and watched a few of their Christmas specials on DVD in the run-up to Christmas (the things you do to try get the festive spirit going, eh?).

For several years, Morecambe and Wise were synonymous with Christmas, a national institution back when there were only three channels and families used to sit around the goggle-box together, with no distractions from videogames or smartphones or tablets or 200 other channels. Indeed, this time around looking through the Christmas Radio Times, an annual tradition I cannot shake off, it was obvious that Christmas television has completely changed. Films for children -usually Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks animations ad infinitum- were the order of this season, with original specials thin on the ground, mostly because the old comedy stalwarts that had seasonal specials simply don’t exist now. The time has long gone that 28 million people -over half the nation- shared a communal experience watching the same programme at the same time. I think the last such programme anything like that was the heyday of Only Fools and Horses and its Christmas specials, nd that program could never dream of approaching the numbers of that 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas special. Can you imagine 28 million people sitting down to watch the same programme on Christmas Night?

The trick of Morecambe and Wise is how effortless and unrehearsed much of their routines seemed- but of course this was far from the truth. Eric’s comedic adlibs enlivened much of the gags but the majority of the comic sketches were deliberately scripted and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed to perfection. And coming up with those scripts and jokes was never easy, as this drama shows. The relentless demands of such a popular national institution, and the desire by the duo to top themselves every series, took a terrible toll on Braben who was twice driven to nervous exhaustion. It was fascinating to see that the duos incredibly popular musical routines were a gambit to take up screen time and ease the strain on Braben.

A window on a time lost to us now, this programme was a lovely and heartfelt recreation of 1970s Britain, a land so distant from the one we now live in that it might as well be science fiction. Watching pieces of popular routines of old recreated here was a warm element of nostalgia that was made all the more poignant when seeing all the effort behind the scenes and the strains on everyone. A glimpse of Eric and Ernie at odds over their career path, and indeed the persistent spectre of Erics health hanging over everything,  are telling reminders of the real drama that was hidden behind the facade of their television image/personas.

Great stuff.  Hidden away on BBC4. Go figure.

 

Crooked House (2017)

A recording over the Christmas period that I’ve just caught up with. I’m not familiar at all with Agatha Christie’s work – I’ve not read any of her stories and not even seen any version of Murder on the Orient Express, for example-but I did see The Witness for the Prosecution which starred Toby Jones a few years ago (was that another Christmas special?) and And Then There Were None, which was a two-parter (or was it three?) on the BBC back in 2015 or 2016. I’m not sure if we are in some kind of revival or if she’s been an endlessly steady source of movie and television adaptations and I’ve just stumbled into watching them at last, but I am beginning to see some appeal.

Clearly Christie’s work is the murder mystery genre, in which there has been a murder with plenty of suspects for the reader and the chief protagonist to examine and deduct a likely culprit with an eventual reveal that has some element of surprise. I may likely be doing Christie a disservice with such a simple summary, but that’s my take anyway.  And they do seem to be kind of fun, while its a genre that’s not held much interest for me in the past. Perhaps these most recent adaptations that have turned up around Christmas time are the simplest entry point, as they seem to be very well made with taut scripts, direction amd very good casts.

Crooked House was on Channel Five and seems to be one of that breed of independent movies that are released theatrically in some territories and on television (or Netflix/Amazon) in others. So while it was a Channel Five premiere here in the UK  and may seem to be a Christmas tv movie it’s really got a bigger scale than that, certainly on the evidence of its rather remarkable cast. Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks and Stefanie Martini supply the glam and the bitchiness whilst Julian Sands, Terence Stamp and Max Irons headline the male side of the ensemble. Inevitably with such a cast its easy to say the material doesn’t really do them justice- I suppose only Glenn Close and Terence Stamp really leave any lasting impression, more’s the pity. Watching it, I had the persistent feeling that the whole thing was beneath them.

Its hard not to complain that the whole thing felt rather formulaic, but I suppose that’s inherent in the source material/Christies works in general. It seemed well-intentioned and made with some effort but it didn’t really surprise me or really made me care much about anybody. That was most likely intentional of course, as I don’t think any of the characters were really likeable and by the nature of the genre they had to have motive enough to be a suspect. I think I would have preferred more focus on an individual with a chance to empathise with their singular perspective (like Toby Jones’ character in the much superior The Witness For The Prosecution) but that’s probably just indicating my limitations for this genre.

So as a way to spend a few hours over the festive season Crooked House was harmless enough but I doubt it will linger in any viewers thoughts now that Christmas has passed. I suspect the original book has a far more lasting effect.

Black Sails on Amazon

Black-Sails-Title-Sequence-by-Imaginary-ForcesI’ve been looking forward to Pirate mini-series Black Sails for awhile now, mostly, I have to admit, due to the involvement of Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, DaVinci’s Demons etc)on the show’s scoring duties.  McCreary set up his own label last year and has used it to distribute fairly definitive soundtracks of his tv work even when the shows are still on-air, and his Black Sails album was released in January soon after the series launched in America. The Black Sails score is primal, rough, almost chaotic- in melody it reminds me of the great Battlestar Galactica (across its five seasons and soundtrack albums the most sophisticated, complex and rewarding television score I’ve ever heard) but with its simplistic orchestrations (historically quite accurate) it manages to sound fresh and spontaneous and would appear to fit the show like a glove.

Well, appears to, as I haven’t seen the show yet. I’ve been waiting for a channel to be announced with UK airdates and the silence has been deafening, but now Amazon has announced that it has bought the series and will have it available for subscribers to its Lovefilm/Amazon Prime services on April 4th. That’s all eight episodes too. I won’t have the time, but if I did, I would be able to watch the entire series next weekend.  Its like being gifted a boxset. Whereas DaVinci’s Demons season 2 starts April 4th on Fox with me having to watch it on a traditional weekly schedule.

Things certainly seem to be changing with how people watch television content, and players like Amazon and Netflix are making strong moves. How successful this is, or how it even pays, is something for debate. I already have my doubts on how Sky do things and how it effects its content, never mind the even lower subscriber base that Amazon and Netflix enjoy. The BBC famously cancelled Ripper Street a few months ago (eventually renewed in a deal with Amazon, funnily enough) due to perceived low audience figures of a few million, while Sky’s top-rated show at the time, Arrow, had just 400,000 viewers and was deemed a success.  My concern is that although Sky are happy, what does it do for the mainstream audience perception of shows like Arrow here in the UK when so few people actually get to watch it or perhaps have even heard of it? Or are people just turning to DVD/Blu-ray boxset releases now?

I recall back when the big networks here, BBC and ITV regularly showed American hit shows and they had huge audience figures/media attention (remember Twin Peaks, or JR getting shot in Dallas? Doesn’t happen anymore).  The producers of the content are happy, they get their money (and Sky for instance pays handsomely, easily outbidding the BBC etc), but while Game of Thrones is huge, imagine how even bigger it would be if it was appearing on BBC 1 at 9pm? Television is so fragmented these days. So many programmes lost on so many obscure channels. One of my favourite shows of the last several years was Chuck; it was a funny adventure show with great characters, it was a family show, almost retro in its approach. Would have been a perfect fit on something like BBC 2 primetime, but I guess most people here in the UK never even heard of it. I don’t think the last season has ever even been aired over here; I had to import the Blu-ray to find out how it all ended.

How does such diluted availability of so much content effect the financial viability of that content? How many shows failed that never had a chance, how many great shows do we miss simply because we don’t know if/where/when the show is on? Is this the future of television? Its a bit bewildering.

So anyway, I have to wonder how many people will be watching Black Sails this weekend… but I’ll certainly be giving it a shot.