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William Russell is usually on quite good form in this series depicting the chivalric challenges facing the eponymous knight at the Camelot court of the legendary King Arthur (not always played by the same actor, which could have been a bit confusing were it not for his crown!). There are thirty of these enjoyable 30-minuters that allow us to sit back and enjoy some adventures for the round table knights as they face foes and woes from within and without. The production is adequate, as is the writing and although the stories have little jeopardy or menace, the actors are having good fun making this and there is plenty of horse-borne action to keep each episode agreeable to watch. There usually features a B-list "guest star" to keep an eye on, and there is always loads of plotting and scheming too. Worth watching in a binge if you can - they pass the time surprisingly easily.
Some inheritances might not be worth it....
To be honest, I wasn't the biggest fan of these stage-bound television dramas. All they usually did was to hide their thinly derivative plots behind the veneer of an highly paid, well established, presenter - in this case Boris Karloff. This episode, does, break that mould a bit. "Amos Wilder" kills himself, secure in the knowledge that his nephew beneficiary "Ellis" (John Newland) will keep his corpse protected from the vengeance of the evil necromancer "Bentley" who's got just a bit of an axe to grind with the late lamented magician. The magical elements feature tangentially - essentially this is quite an engaging thriller set in an old dark house, with some decent dialogue, characterisations and a score that all combine to create something just a bit more substantial. The acing is nothing to write home about, but perhaps because no-one is vying for top billing, the whole is successfully more enjoyable than the sum of it's parts. The plot is a little untidy - they've tried to cram quite a lot into this hour, but that doesn't detract too much from what is really quite an eery and atmospheric little mystery.
The Good Life (1975)
Great writing and a superb foursome in front of the camera - the BBC at it's best.
I wonder just how many people in the mid 1970s - anywhere in the world - would have realised just how visionary writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey were with this marvellous tale of a happily married suburban couple who decide to give up their daily grind and revert to a subsistence existence. Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall are great in the roles of the optimistic and naive "Tom" and his stoic and determined wife "Barbara" as they scrap, save, cannibalise, economise and basically do just about anything to avoid needing/earning/spending money - not an easy task. For me, the best parts come from their loyal and wealthy neighbours "Jerry" (Paul Eddington) and "Margo" (Penelope Keith). The former, the long suffering husband to the loving but terribly snobbish wife who looks down with a mix of disbelief and disdain on the newly self-sufficient folks next door. It features hilarious scenarios that take the most basic of themes - heating oil, vegetable patches, making your own clothes or cheese or wine and turns them into genuine laugh out loud comedy. It is simple and hugely effective, the humour working on many levels as the underpinning principles of love, loyalty and obstinacy marry well with sheer bloody mindedness and, on occasion, downright stupidity - but not just from the same side of their garden fence each time. It probably helps, as with the contemporaneous "Fawlty Towers" series that there was a very limited run. It clearly has an environmentalist aspect to the narrative, but it not delivered in the preachy, puritanical fashion that is so often the style used now - it successfully uses humour as a conduit for a message that is both potent and, frequently, laugh out loud. The writers don't flog the heart out of the joke, and the characters are given plenty of space to develop and shine. Great stuff well worth a watch.
Not a scythe to be seen....
Now I did quite enjoy this rather loose interpretation of the life of Leonardo Da Vinci, but somehow the thing seemed very uncertain as to whom it's audience is/was. It certainly lacks the creative punch of the first season of Tom Riley's "Da Vinci's Demons" (2013) or the familial charm of "Bridgerton" man of the moment Jonathan Bailey's 2011 television series. This seems just too gentile a reflection on the lives and loves of this creative genius. It dwells not on his presumed hedonistic lifestyle; it focuses little on his engineering and artistic prowess and his interesting relationships with the Medici are ignored almost entirely. To be fair, much of the "history" surrounding this man is glorified fable, we actually know a lot less than we assume about his life, but somehow this iteration is little better than an outing for Turner (and his ever changing beard) with little emphasis on his genius - indeed, little enough emphasis on anything substantial, really. Eight parts tell us very little about what made this undoubtedly complex man tick and whilst I wasn't expecting a Showtime sex-fest; I was expecting something a little more interesting/educational/entertaining. Production standards are high but the writing and overall direction condemn it to mediocrity. Shame, it reminded me a little of "Reign" (2013) - the equally sterile depiction of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Adequate, but far too short to do justice to the story.
Maybe not the best "Sherlock Holmes" story, this one: young girls are being found murdered with a thistle being left by their bodies. A bamboozled Scotland Yard seeks the assistance of "Holmes" (Ronald Howard) and "Dr. Watson" (H. Marion Crawford) to help flailing "Insp. Lestrade" (Archie Duncan) solve the mystery. I suppose my problems with this are the pretty wooden Howard and the shortness of the film not really allowing for any sense of suspense to build - indeed we know from the outset how the murders are being committed, and when the denouement arrives, it's all just a bit too sudden. The production - early British television was certainly technically competent - is just a bit too stage bound for me, and the (probably censorially necessary) efforts taken by director Steve Previn to photograph the more macabre scenes, or, indeed, to avoid photographing them, robs the production of any menace at all. Would have been great on the telly in 1955, no doubt, but is definitely no Rathbone/Bruce...
The Tudors (2007)
Oh, for Richard Burton, Charles Laughton or even Keith Michell....!
When you consider the richness of the dramatic storylines provided by the Medici and the Borgia - everything from megalomania, incest, war, debauchery, torture - even the odd, honest loving relationship - then the Tudors, a family of upstart Welsh "pantrymen" (as Errol Flynn referred to them in "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939)), ought to be up there. Well, sadly, this doesn't really deliver at all. Henry VII - the first Tudor who reigned for almost a quarter of a century doesn't feature at all; therefore we are deprived of any backstory to the real focus character of these 38 episodes. Still, though - Henry VIII had a reputation at a brute, a violent headstrong man with a penchant for women, power and coupled with his arguably even more ambitious Chancellor Wolsey we ought to have had a belter of a drama with just about nothing off limits! Nope, no chance - we have in the two lead characters the Tudor equivalent of "Peter Pan" and "Wendy". Jonathan Rhys Meyers is dreadful, and Sam Neill has all the menace of a wet sponge as the scheming Cardinal with designs on the papacy... Regrettably, this sets the tone for the remainder of this really lacking drama. The storylines give the faintest of nods to this lively period of English history, but even the Anne Boleyn (the frankly awful Natalie Dormer) scenarios - which are the stuff of novels and dissertations the world over become little more than a fancy dress farce. We rarely see anything of substance emerge - the establishment of the Church of Engand is but a scant moment amongst the pantomime this has quickly become. Henry Cavill provides some eye candy as his best mate "Suffolk"; Kris Holden Reid as the sexually ambitious "Compton" (he of the famous London St, presumably?) - hell, even Peter O'Toole gets in on the act picking up Sir John Gielgud's mantle as the go-to actor for the role of a Pope (Paul III). None of the wives, including the aforementioned Dormer, exude anything by way of chemistry or personality, with Joss Stone far too attractive to be the convincing turn off "Anne of Cleves" depicted here. To be fair, a great deal of attention has been paid to the look of the series. The costumes are top drawer and the CGI complimentary rather than intrusive. That said, the whole thing is an hugely disappointing exercise in big budget drama with little focus on the quality of the writing. The casting assumes we would rather have pretty things to look at than actors who could immerse us in this exciting and turbulent period of history - and aside from Ray Winstone's terrible effort with the same character (from 2003) this is easily the worst portrayal of Henry VIII I have ever witnessed. Mercifully, the whole thing runs out of steam before the accession of his daughter (another Tudor with an enthusiasm for depriving Queen's of their heads) saving us from being subjected to another 45 years worth of this sappy Showtime saga.
To the Manor Born (1979)
A stylish upper-class culture clash...
Fresh from her success in the BBC sitcom "The Good Life", Penelope Keith ("Audrey") is the lady of "Grantleigh" - a Gloucestershire stately pile she shares with husband "Martin". The first of the 22 episodes informs us that he has died, and that her world is about to be turned upside down. He squandered all the "fforbes-Hamilton" family money and she is going to have to sell up! The auction ensues and this estate, which they have managed for 400-odd years, ends up in the hands of a self-made millionaire Czech immigrant "Richard de Vere" who made his money in supermarkets. Imagine - it's almost sacrilegious to her! Anyway, the remainder of the series' depict their constant sparring; she the superior, broke, aristocrat; he the nouveau riche upstart. Essentially a two hander, there are a couple of fun foils: "Marjorie" (Angela Thorne) her down-trodden best friend; her stoic butler "Brabinger" (John Rudling) and his mother, the wonderful Daphne Heard ("Mrs. Polouvicka") who has an old Czechoslovakian saying for every situation, and they all keep the well written comedy flowing well. It's a very British thing, this - I doubt if the humour will travel particularly well, but at the time up to 24 million of us watched their drama unfold. The combination of snobbery, pomposity and witty repartee from the pen of Peter Spence really clicks. The characters, gently stereoptyped as they are, work really well with a sophistication that endures still.
Open All Hours (1976)
A comic swipe at times gone by - on many a street corner...
It took the BBC a couple of years after the end of "Porridge" to find another suitable sitcom for the considerable talents of Ronnie Barker, and so in 1976 they reunited him with producer Sydney Lotterby and "Last of the Summer Wine" creator Roy Clarke to portray "Arkwright", the stammering Yorkshire store keeper whose miserliness could give "Scrooge" a run for his money. He is enamoured of the well-endowed local nurse "Gladys" (Lynda Baron) whilst trying to keep his live in nephew/dogsbody "Granville" (a wonderfully skilful series of performances from David Jason) from succumbing to the evil - and extravagant - ways of the world. With a few additional contributions from Barbara Flynn as the lady who delivers the milk - and sends "Granville" into spasms of sexual apoplexy at the same time; the equally frugal Stephanie Cole ("Mrs. Feathestone") and Kathy Staff ("Mrs. Blewett") the tightly cast team play well off each other, with strong, amiable, characterisations that thrive off the back of the Northern (English) stereotypes upon which the stories are based. Nowadays, the humour falls a little bit foul of changed attitudes, but Clarke never wrote from any perspective other than one that ridicules sexism, racism and agism in a thought-provoking fashion, whist still allowing both Barker and Jason to do what they do best - elicit a laugh. This was must watch television for almost ten years, and is still great today.
Ten hours of scintillating entrainment...
It's hard to believe that there were only ever twenty episodes of this classic British comedy ever made. Ronnie Barker ("Fletch") is fantastic as the habitual criminal sent to Her Majesty's Prison "Slade" - perched in the northern reaches of England - for five years. His cellmate is the honest, but supremely naive "Godber" (Richard Becksinsale) and the series depicts their antics surviving the authoritarian regime of "Mr. Mackay" (the outstanding Fulton Mackay) in his uniform, and "Grouty" (the comically menacing Peter Vaughan) on the inside. Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais have created a wonderfully pithy, cynical and enjoyable observation of their determined struggle not to be ground down by the system. A superb ensemble cast led by the wonderfully hapless prison officer Brian Wilde ("Mr. Barrowclough") introduce us to different themes for each of the editions ranging from pinching a tin of (much sought after) pineapple chunks; their own kangaroo court with the thief amongst thieves "Warren" (Sam Kelly) and an almost constant battle to keep control of the supply of toilet rolls! The humour is dark and potent, flighty and flimsy - but there is always a wonderful spirit about the characters, an integrity, that keeps these half hour comedic adventures as funny now as they were when penned almost 50 years ago. A bit like Croft and Perry's contemporary "Dad's Army", this is another inspired example of a BBC sitcom that you can watch over and over again...
Dad's Army (1968)
'They don't like it up' em..."
Only the British, quite possibly only the BBC, could ever try to produce a television sitcom based on a bunch of old codgers, with barely a functioning limb between them, up for defending their little bit of the country from the opposing Nazis just a few miles across the channel - armed only with one gun and some broom handles. David Croft and Jimmy Perry are, not for the first time, divinely inspired with this charming comedy that puts Arthur Lowe "Capt. Mainwaring" (pronounced Mannering), the town's pompous bank manager in charge of a platoon that features his clerk, the rather weedy but intelligent "Sgt. Wilson" (John Le Mesurier); "Cpl. Jones" who fought in the last war (Clive Dunn); poor hen-pecked "Pte. Pike" - the youngster of the squad who is about as hapless as it possible to get, and the butt of most of the jokes (Ian Lavender) and, of course, for me the star of the series: the old, dour, Scots undertaker - the veteran John ("we're dooooomed") Laurie as "Pte. Frazer". The series' see a whole range of gently amusing, faintly ridiculous, scenarios played out as the squad of Home Guard have to deal with everything from a visit from the King to the capture of some enemy paratroopers - all of which give "Mainwaring" the opportunity to demonstrate his complete lack of leadership skills and judgement whilst the rest of the cast do all the heavy lifting... The scrips are poignant and witty, swiping not just at their foe, but at the last vestiges of a supercilious class system that was very much on it's last legs, whilst also swinging at the aspiring middle classes who were all too keen take their place. The casting is superb, and only gets better as the cast become more comfortable in the roles - and bounce off one another expertly. With people like this on our side - it's no real wonder they won the war!
The West Wing (1999)
Clever, witty, characterful and interesting - and that's just episode one!
The first edition, indeed season, of this political drama is as good as it gets. Aaron Sorkin has created a monster - in just about every sense - and the cast led by Martin Sheen ("President Bartlet") consistently deliver well as the senior advisors in his administration - alongside some sadly infrequent appearances from his no-nonsense wife (Stockard Channing) - guide us through the daily trials and tribulations accompanying American government. For the most part, the pace is hectic, controlled (sometimes) by the calming, sagacious influence of his Chief of Staff "Leo" (John Spencer) and deals with just about every sort of scenario - domestic, foreign, familial and collegiate that comes across the paths of the Director of Communications (Richard Schiff), his deputy (Rob Lowe), the Press Secretary (Allison Janney) as well "Josh Lyman" (Bradley Whitford) - the passionate but occasional liability that is the deputy Chief of Staff. Sorkin and the cast manage, effortlessly, to create a series of scenarios that reminded me of both "Yes, Minister" and the original (British) "House of Cards" - comedy and humour expertly mixed with politicking on a grand, yet personal, scale. Nothing is off limits insofar as the subjects covered and it presents as authentic a depiction of government as we are ever likely to see. Personally, I though Stockard Channing added loads to this as the First Lady and Janney and Spencer's characters gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, someone in there knew what the hell was going on. Of course it takes an hugely American perspective on things, which as a non-American grated a bit on occasion with an intermingling of fact and fiction that sometimes compromised the integrity of the stories; but in the main it is one hell of a watch. Unfortunately, around about the start of series four, the writing starts to slide and the cast - fresh and vibrant at the beginning of the run - begin to take too great a role behind the camera; the plots become too personal (even romantic) and far-fetched. The original stars feature a bit less and it loses much of it's potency and it's plausibility. Certainly, the last two series which focus on presidential succession and sidelined many of the cast we had followed since day one left me cold and disinterested. By the conclusion I felt there had been maybe two series too many... At it's best, it is great, thought-provoking, entertainment though and well worth binging on.
The Cleopatras (1983)
An opportunity missed - by leagues...
Written by Philip Mackie, who also penned "The Caesars" (1968), I recall the furore at the time here in the UK when the BBC started showing "The Cleopatras". This eight-parter was accused of being a seedy, tawdry - and just about everything else pejorative - depiction of the Ptolomeic court in Alexandria that saw a multitude of women called Cleopatra rule Egypt. What those criticisms failed to acknowledge is that this is pretty much exactly how these depraved, incestuous individuals did behave. Mothers married sons, fathers their daughters - indeed it would have been quite possible for your mum, your brother and your camel all to have been the same person... What is bad about this, though, is the casting - Richard Griffiths as "Pot Belly" and Graham Crowden as narrator "Theodotus" are dreadfully miscast from the outset, and along the line we find similarly misfiring contributions from Robert Hardy ("Caesar") and a dreadfully dry Patrick Troughton ("Sextus"). The visual effects - sliding/mixing VT and virtually no outdoor photography make the staging look cheap and static; and the plethora of indistinguishable actresses portraying the title role give us very little by way of a glimpse into their devious, despotic and debauched existence. Sadly, the thing just hasn't aged at all well - and for such a fascinatingly rich seam of stories and characters, this series falls well short of competent.
The Shadow of the Tower (1972)
A bit all over the place, but what a great story to tell!
James Maxwell was probably far more accomplished as a theatre director than an actor, and his casting here as the first English Tudor monarch, King Henry VII, is probably the source of this drama's struggles. That king had a reputation for deviousness and ruthlessness that this performance seems to overly sanitise; indeed the whole thing lacks the potency and vibrancy of it's chronological successor "Henry VIII and his Six Wives" (1970). It is spread across 13 fifty minute episodes - some based on fact: his defeat of Richard III; accession; marriage to Edward IV's daughter - Elizabeth of York; Perkin Warbeck and his rebellions etc. and some based on potential scenarios that he may have faced during his reign - the best probably being an encounter with Peter Jeffrey as "The Prisoner", a man accused of heretical behaviour because he happens to believe that Jesus is not best represented to the people by a corrupt and venal Church. There is a decent cast drawn from English theatre circles with Norma West appearing, sparingly, as his wife, but the dialogue is overly verbose; the studio scenery implies some of the dinginess of their actual existence but at the same time leaves us looking at something over staged and really pretty unrealistic (and poorly lit) most of the time. The fact that many of the episodes were directed by different people also doesn't help the continuing, pretty tame, narrative of this fascinatingly shrewd individual from history. Maybe had it just condensed the reign into six episodes under the hand of one director then it would have improved significantly? Rarely available nowadays - probably far too expensive to repeat, but it is still very much worth watching despite it's flaws.
Gallus Gorbals' Diehards
I recall watching this as a ten year old and loving it. Now (quite a few) years later I found it just as engaging and exciting. From back in the day when the BBC would create a tea-time drama for younger viewers, this is a cracking adaptation of John Buchan's story of the mysterious occupants of "Huntingtower' and of how a retired Glasgow grocer "Dickson McCunn" (Paul Curran), poet "John Heritage" (Peter Settelen) and a gang of wonderfully charismatic Glaswegian street urchins all work together to try to get to the bottom of the puzzle. Aside from some lovely outdoor photography, it's also memorable for not Anglicising the local dialect - it features folks with a "guid Scots tongue in their heid" as our adventure gathers steam - with wit and charm - over 6 half hour episodes. It's rarely seen nowadays, and to be honest the quality of the film has suffered from it's fair share of wear and tear, but it's a classic dramatisation of a superb story, with an ear- worm of a theme tune (Shostakovich) if ever were was one, that you ought to watch if you get an opporchancity!
Sir Francis Drake (1961)
A series of 26 x half hour adventures imagining (mostly) the swashbuckling adventures of one of England's greatest sea-farers as he works to save his country and his Queen from the evil machinations of the Spaniards. Terence Morgan, in the title role, has some charisma and some skill at the swordplay; Jean Kent as the Queen looks regal enough, though her part is hardly taxing; and a regular supporting cast including Michael Crawford and Roger Delgado as the scheming Spanish Ambassador make for a fun historical romp with little regard to history but lots to action, costumes and, of course, romance! Like the "Adventures of Robin Hood" or "William Tell" etc.; these are good fun family tea-time dramas well worth a watch.
Mary, Queen of Soap....
This is a terribly sterile, unsexy and over-scripted series rescued - at times - by Megan Follows as the manipulative Catherine de Medici but otherwise having little to recommend it to anyone. Based, very loosely, on the early life of Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) at the court of King Henry II, where she has been betrothed since an infant to the Dauphin (Toby Regbo). The series uses a considerable degree of cinematic licence as we follow her well documented trials and tribulations as she navigates the conspiracies of the French court; but it does it without any soul - or passion. It needn't have been an HBO romp-along; but there are just way too many 'pretty' actors delivering pedestrian scripts; set-piece plots and mysteries and even when things do get a touch romantic (they never get raunchy) we take comfort in a folk-style soundtrack and some lovely shots of what are, admittedly, some fine locations. Follows makes sure that there are plenty of conspiracies to keep up her end of the bargain, but Regbo and the gorgeous, but totally pointless character of "Bash" (Torrance Coombs) seem there to add looks but little else to this really mediocre telling of what must have been an extremely eventful few years in peril and love for the Queen.
It's way more than a trail for flowery coats...
I'm rather a big fan of both Baz Luhrmann and Years & Years so was pretty well predisposed to this from the outset.... It was made to support the launch of Canadian designer Erdem Moralioglu's season of floral pattern designs in 2017 and looks great. The premiss is that two young men arrive at a partially ruined English country house owned by the enigmatic Dame Harriet Walter and once there the younger, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin is enchanted not only by the glamour and beauty of his hostess, but also of the girls and boys - including his friend Tom Rhys Harries - that she has invited to dinner. The "Hypnotise" soundtrack from the delightful falsetto tones of Olly Alexander adds an almost magical quality to this Aladdin's cave of temptation and sexual ambiguity... Not sure it actually made me want to buy a floral shirt, though....
Yes, Prime Minister (1986)
Superb political satire...
This, rather logical extension of the BBC "Yes, Minister" series is every bit as good. The hapless but, by now, far more politically savvy "Jim Hacker" (Paul Eddington) with the help of his civil service advisor "Sir Humphrey" (Nigel Hawthorne) and long-suffering aide 'Bernard" (Andrew Fowlds) has managed to wheedle his way to the job of Prime Minister. Our topics (i.e. his responsibilities) are now upscaled from the earlier series' as he deals with everything from arts funding to the defence of the Realm; he has to appoint a bishop and defend a tiny island from impending communist invasion - and most importantly of all; he mustn't upset relations with "The Palace"... Each episode tends to have a visiting guest to heighten the topic and exacerbate his invariably vacillating response to whatever needs to be done. "The Key" is probably my particular favourite as in this, "Sir Humphrey" is very much forced from his comfort zone... It's still a fantastic critique of the machinations at the very top of the British political establishment and frequently laugh out loud. It could probably be true of most international administrations (perhaps not in Paris!).
Yes Minister (1980)
Outstanding writing; acting & concept....
Jonathan Lynn & Antony Jay have created what has to be one of the sharpest, wittiest comedies ever written. The hugely entertaining characterisations alongside the masterly manipulation of the English language make for a terrifyingly worrying observation on the true nature of "democratic" government and of the chronic ineptitude and incompetence of some/many of our elected representatives. Paul Eddington is superb as the politically naive Minister ("Jim Hacker MP") in the fictional, but perfectly plausible, Ministry of Administrative Affairs - an unimaginably pointless government department that seems to be a filter for all the junk that the more serious officers of state wouldn't touch with a flagpole. The power behind the throne is the Machiavellian "Sir Humphrey" (Nigel Hawthorne) as the permanent secretary; the senior civil servant who has every intention of following his ministerial instructions, but only insofar as they suit the needs of his red-tape brigade. Treading the wavy line between both is his private secretary "Bernard Woolley" (Derek Fowlds) who is almost as naive as his boss, but more practically idealistic - and also a man with his foot in his mouth on a fairly regular basis. What is also great about these series, is that the characters evolve. The hapless "Hacker" learns how to play the game and soon - occasionally - starts to have his victories over "Sir Humphrey" and his system. This triumvirate deliver a fast-paced, considered evaluation of the intricacies of inadequacies of government that stands up almost 40 years later in an amusing and potent fashion. Progressed to "Yes, Prime Minister" which is superb too! Got to be seen by anyone remotely interested in political satire and/or great comedy.
The Caesars (1968)
A little too theatrical, but still a great historical drama serial.
I've just seen this on DVD and it is a superb telling of the early days of the Roman Empire. We arrive at the conclusion of the reign of Augustus and focus on the rules of Tiberius (André Morell) and of his insane megalomanic nephew Caligula (Ralph Bates). Sonia Dresdel is suitably imperious as Augustus' wife Livia and Freddie Jones stands out too, as the supposed halfwit "Claudius". I think it rather pointless comparing this series (6 hours & monochrome) with the later adaptation of Robert Graves' "I Claudius" books by the BBC (12 hours & colour) but this is certainly well worth watching in it's own right as a fascinating, intelligent, review of the glory and ignominy of life at the top.