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Saturday, 29 December 2007

Britain's Number One Soap Fan/Now That's What I Call Television/Keith Barry – The Escape Live, ITV1

Did we like this light entertainment triple whammie?
We knew we'd hate the cheapness, the naffness, the pathetic glitziness and the reliance on talent-lacking losers (ie "celebs"). Yet we hoped there would be some redeeming features – a bit of wit, a smidgeon of clever production, a worthy contributor accidentally turning up. We hoped in a bottomless pit of vain. Not a shred of merit appeared in any of the programmes.
What was good about the three-hour marathon?
• Are you taking the mickey? Even Five at its lowest ebb produces light entertainment better than this.

What was bad about it?
• Britain's Number One Soap Fan would have been ill-advised even in daytime. Bradley Walsh, looking like he'd slept in his car, is nowhere near good enough to present in primetime. Competing for a coveted trip to the Corrie and Emmerdale sets (where actual actors stand around saying words), the weird, unfortunate contestants were corralled through a series of boring games. And the "star guests" amounted to Sid Owen, that awful Fizz from Corrie and long-forgotten Malandra Burrows who, serving them so right, were forced into uncomfortable encounters with their adoring fans.
• Now That's What I Call Television with autocue-addict Des Lynam and Fern Bitton twittering away in between old TV clips, sucking up to the exhumed cast of Howards' Way, plus Linda Gray and Nigel Havers, cracking cringeworthy jokes and generally turning memory lane into a place best to be avoided even if your SatNav keeps insisting you turn into it.
• Keith Barry – The Escape Live starred an Irish magician, styled on Rhydian, who can't even conjure up a shred of charisma. Most of the show was occupied by mindless mindgames played on the lowest of the low (eg dim Dean Gaffney, desperate Denise Van Outen, brainless Brian Dowling, elephantine Eammon Holmes, a squealing Emmerdale trollop) before the hyped-up live conclusion when Keith was "tied up" in a rope and vowed he'd escape from a shed before it was blown to smithereens. Mark Durden-Smith got another undeserved cheque, appinted to crank up the tension (there was none) with some abysmal acting when the shed blew up before Barry emerged (Don't worry, he was alright. Actually, do worry, he might end up with another show in ITV's barren future).

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Holby City, BBC1

Holby City, BBC1
Did we like it?
This was supposed to be inspired by It's A Wonderful Life. It's a Chunderful Life, more like, full of sickening sweetness and horrible chunks that were hard to swallow.

What was good about it?
• National treasure Richard Briers as the angel, operating from a white limo driven by Gnarls Barkley, full of cruel-to-be-kind intentions.

What was bad about it?
• We haven't watched Holby since that Anton guy was around (fantastically firm but fair) and that bloke of EastEnders was in it. The one who swapped a car lot for an operating theatre. We quite liked it then, but got bored as the faces changed and it now seems to be full of shallow characters who are impossible to care about.
* We liked Paul Bradley as bumbling Nigel in EastEnders but just wanted to slap him now he's bumbling Elliot Hope in Holby, stumbling around in a pity of self pity just because his wife is dead, his son's in jail and his daughter has been crossbowed.
• Patsy Kensit is in it.
* It's A Wonderful Life director Frank Capra will be spinning in his grave after this toe-curling 'tribute'.

Holby City vs Bodies – a tale of two NHSs
The BBC is legendary for its balance, and that includes drama. It's currently running two hospital shows, Holby City (BBC1) and Bodies (BBC2/3), which show such radically different versions of the NHS that the scales must be bending in the middle. Here are some of the differences.
Dedication Holby's staff can get grumpy at times (especially when they've gambled away their houses or shagged the wrong colleague) but are totally committed to their patients' welfare. This week in Bodies, a nurse had a pregnant woman wrongly induced, with horrific consequences, in order to relieve the boredom of the night shift.
Pain Holby patients wince a bit sometimes as the chest drain goes in. In Bodies, they scream in unbearable agony as the doctors cut their vaginas open with pairs of scissors.
Survival Holby patients do die occasionally, but most go home happy after emergency heart-valve replacements that have led to reconciliations with their children/partners/parents. All Bodies' patients either die or are reduced to cabbages, always as a result of incompetence or NHS targets.
Staff morale Holby's lot fall out sometimes, but love each other really (and often), and spend most of of their off-duty hours partying at each others' flats (though never with the Casualty lot who are supposed to work three floors below). Bodies personnel can't wait to get away from each other, and carry spring-loaded scalpels to stab colleagues in the back with.
Politics NHS administrators have been largely written out of Holby (they never recovered from Susannah York's shocking hairstyle), leaving sultry superbitch-supersurgeon Connie to do the Machiavellian stuff. In Bodies, nothing whatsoever happens unless it's part of a plot by the nasty chief executive to protect an incompetent consultant, or by the competent consultant to fiddle his quarterly statistics.
Attractiveness From craggy consultant Owen to the ever-desirable Sister Chrissie, Holby's staff are all lookers, with the just the occasional minger thrown in for variety. In Bodies, you can't wait for them to put on their surgical masks, except for the ward sister who's so gorgeous it's ridiculous.
So which show portrays the true NHS? Probably neither, although we're afraid the truth may be nearer to one of them than the other.

Extras, BBC1

Did we like it?
A mostly awful morass of indulgence, hypocrisy and spite with only one or two bolts of inspiration screwed ineptly into the script.

What was good about it?
• Ashley Jensen as Maggie, as, despite her character being liquidised to the state of gurgling cipher to play off against the demise of Andy’s career, she still managed to make Maggie fun and likeable. As she and Andy drove off to the airport at the end, you were glad that she had found happiness whereas you didn’t give a damn about him.
• The Smiths’ Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.
• Shaun Pye as the sinister Greg, Andy’s nemesis, who was as creepy and made the skin crawl as much as Peter Lorre in M.

What was bad about it?
• The non-capitalised opening credits which is often a harbinger of preening pomposity, though still way below the irritation of the Will & Grace credits.
• The most indulgent cameo in the history Extras was George Michael’s. Andy had recently bought a new flat which just happened to overlook a cruising hotspot. On a walk he inadvertently sat on the ‘waiting bench’, only for a little while later for Michael to cruise by on his lunch break from community service with a joint and a kebab. It wasn’t funny, it had absolutely no relation to the rest of the plot and seemed to be a cynical insert best suited to the ‘DVD box set’ (which currently stands at number three in the Most Loathsome Phrase in the English Language chart), but was in the final edit as Michael was cynically inserted into the promo posters.
• The appeal of Extras was always going to pall when you allow the big stars the indulgence of sending themselves up by adopting the persona of a vile grotesque. While it worked with some – Patrick Stewart, Kate Winslet – Clive Owen ‘revealed’ himself to be a nasty, haughty prig (like just about everyone else who has appeared in the series) refusing to go along with the script that had him sleeping with Maggie who was in the role of a prostitute – “I wouldn’t pay for that…”
• The most spiteful element of Extras had at its root the assessment of Andy by his new agent Tre. As Andy bleated about being typecast in whacky cheap comedy roles, Tre warned: “There are only a few people in the world who have both fame and fortune and integrity and respect – and you will never be one of them.”
• That statement intruded on reality because it almost appeared that it was a conscious eulogy to Gervais’ own perceived genius. He has fame and fortune and perhaps still integrity and respect. And so this sentiment about being famous but facile or respected but poor appeared to be an arrogant pot shot at ‘lesser mortals’ who strive to straddle the same divide as Gervais.
• Yes, Jade Jagger and Sadie Frost are deserving of sneers and derision (as does anyone involved in the vacuous bastion of the fashion industry), but these sneers must evolve from wearied disgust at seeing the worthless blindly lauded not from the puerile insecurity of a slightly-fading star who wishes to kick away the ladder to fame and fortune and respect and a monthly booking on Tonight With Jonathan Ross to prevent others usurping his throne. Not surprisingly, the bitterness of Andy towards his drowning fame rang most truthful amid the rest of the snide set ups.
• And this avalanche of arrogance dispelled the notion that Gervais might actually be parodying himself. Tre to Andy: “Someone says ‘You’re a wanker’. You say, ‘Look at my sports car’.” Only Gervais would refer to his Emmys instead.
• The way once Maggie quit as an extra, she immediately plummeted to, at least what we instructed to think, was the nadir of employment as a cleaner. Despite Jensen’s laudable performance, Maggie, like all the characters, is just too flimsily drawn and it was contrived in order to elicit the sympathy of the viewer that she slipped so far down the wire so quickly. On the other hand, Darren and Shaun Williamson’s descent to working in a branch of The Carphone Warehouse was paradoxically more believable because they are unbelievable caricatures.
• The set up of The Ivy restaurant as some blessed kingdom of Heaven into which only the favoured are admitted. Our impression is that it is London’s largest cesspit inhabited by brain-damaged slugs and simpering cardboard cut outs who wouldn’t burn if you set about them with a flame thrower but would stand in a frigid pose of unsated desperation for all eternity.
• Gordon Ramsay can’t act, and his argument with Andy was the least convincing conflict since the nauseatingly faux machismo displayed by Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather to induce millions of slack-jawed human crowbars to fork out to watch their recent bout.
• The Celebrity Big Brother chapter (it was far too close to the truth to be a spoof) was no more horrifying or clawing as the real thing. The celebrities who appeared perversely now seem more desperate than if they had appeared on CBB because they are knowingly on a comedy show vilifying a show that they typically would be asked to appear on (and indeed some of them already have).
• Andy’s rant about celebrity culture contained not one original thought that hasn’t been expressed a thousand times before. And the way in which his furious speech catapulted him back to stardom when all he had done was enunciate a few trite observations was another dreary facsimile of celebrity culture seen far too often for it to make an acerbic punchline.
• The casually racist estate agent was pointless other than to allow conceitedly left-wing wine tasters to chuckle at their ideological superiority.
• At times, the first two series of Extras became too excruciating to watch. This was one of its most attractive features, but here so sense of embarrassment on Andy’s behalf remained for you no longer cared one way or the other if he was humiliated by his agent as you were dumped headfirst into a tar pit of apathy.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

The Old Curiosity Shop, ITV1

The Old Curiosity Shop, ITV1
Did we like it?
While not as good as the recent adaptation of Oliver Twist, this Dickens classic was given a glistening cast and lavish scenery and was only marred by the directionless nature of Mr Quilp’s pursuit of the fleeing grandfather and Nell.

What was good about it?
• Toby Jones as the malevolent, menacing Daniel Quilp. He mercilessly extorts money from Nell and her grandfather before pursuing them both across England to acquire the pound of flesh he believes he is owed. Jones made him so intimidating that the word “nincompoop” sounded like the most wounding insult known to mankind.
• And when his wife shows the merest intimation of insubordination to his grim tyranny he threatens “I’ll bite you!”; which is a threat that carries as much potency in the victim imagining where they will be bitten as the assault itself.
• Derek Jacobi as Nell’s doddering grandfather who, when in the vicinity of playing cards, conducted a transformation as complete as when Jacobi morphed from the genial Professor Yana to the Master in Doctor Who. He would steal into Nell’s bedroom at night to purloin the money she had sewn into the hem of her skirt, and then coerce her to beg in the pouring rain after he had frittered away the last of their money by furiously beseeching her, “If you loved me you’d find us money!”
• Also impressive were Sophie Vavasseur as the doomed Nell and George McKay as the defiant Kit Nubbles. As was Geoff Breton as the dandyish Dick Swiveller, the character who went from casual accomplice of the avaricious Brass siblings and Mr Quilp to noble defender of truth and justice when he helped uncover their nefarious misdeeds.
• After his evil plot was uncovered, Quilp tried to escape by creeping along the frozen riverbank to his boat. But the ice gave way under his weight and he slipped to a watery doom. However, the most touching part of this scene was the way his abused wife Betsey (Anna Madeley) first warned him of the approaching mob and then collapsed with grief upon his demise, as she was still optimistic “there is love in you somewhere, I know there is!”

What was bad about it?
• The staccato nature of Quilp’s hunt for Nell and her grandfather. He would set off to where he thought they had fled, only to return to London a few days later. He would then head off again after a few days giving his quarry more chance to lose themselves in the English countryside. His apparently resolute quest to track down the pair didn’t really tally with his apathetic approach to their flight.
• While Nell and her grandfather’s encounters with Punch and Judy men (Martin Freeman and Steve Pemberton) and the Victorian equivalent of Madame Tussaud (ZoĆ« Wanamaker) were entertaining, they had the air of acting as sideshow distractions as all that happened during that time was for Nell’s grandfather to inevitably succumb to the temptation of the gambling table.
• We never really got to drink in the delights of the Old Curiosity Shop, as Nell and her grandfather took flight almost before the first ad break, but this is one of the pitfalls of trimming down a novel to an hour-and-a-half.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Doctor Who - Voyage of the Damned, BBC1

Did we like it?
Far superior and more consistent than the previous first-half brilliant/ second-half awful Christmas specials, but it did suffer from the resurrected Doctor’s enduring bane of trying to squeeze a two-hour plotline into little more than half the time.

What was good about it?
• We had lazily assumed that because it was cruise liner disaster that it would resemble The Poseidon Adventure. But this was futile conjecture as there were only a couple of similar impediments – and neither is exclusive to cruise liners, ocean- or space-faring.
• The centrepiece was the thrilling part when the Doctor and the survivors had to clamber across a slender piece of wreckage spanning a chasm within which the nuclear engine furnace raged. As they scrambled across they were attacked by the Host, the robotic psychopaths under the control of deranged shipping magnate Max Capricorn who had staged the whole catastrophe for insurance compensation.
• The Host were an effective mirror for the cold villainy of Capricorn, assassinating the crew and passengers who survived the initial asteroid bombardment while also managing to win first prize in a Robots of Death (adversaries of Tom Baker’s Doctor) look-alike contest, and first prize in an Ood sound-alike contest.
• Kylie Minogue was good as the starry-eyed Astrid Peth, who longed to be whisked away from her life of drudgery on board the Titanic but who ended up being fried in a nuclear furnace.
• Clive Swift as the wretched Mr Copper, who despite a rubbish backstory invested his character with sympathy and pathos.
• While it was quite corny, the bit where the Queen emerges from Buckingham Palace after the Doctor has steered the Titanic away from colliding with Earth, and then waving the vessel on its way with a “Merry Christmas” was pretty funny.
• Rickston Slade (Gray O’Brien) at least provided a resident hate-figure upon whom the viewers could focus their abhorrence.

What was bad about it?

• Four characters committed suicide. Admittedly, they sacrificed themselves for what they saw as a noble cause – even Captain Hardaker (Geoffrey Palmer) caused the atrocity to ensure his family was looked after as he was suffering from a fatal illness anyhow (which, given this civilisation could fly across space, seems unlikely) – but even so this was an interstellar spacecraft orbiting the Earth not Lithuania.
• In order to economically coerce the viewers into feeling sympathy for the characters who would almost all soon be deceased most were given a facile sob-story making this episode of Doctor Who resemble an early episode of The X-Factor; all we were missing was the insincerity of Dermot O’Leary. The likeable “walking conker” Bannakaffalatta was really a cyborg, Mr Copper had a qualification with less credibility than ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith, while Foon had spent a fortune entering the contest that won her and husband Morven the voyage on the Titanic in the first place without telling her husband.
• Once again, the Doctor’s febrile libido gets the better of him. That he gets instantly attracted to his companions, acerbic humanoid trees, heaving, historical French concubines and now unhappy waitresses means his unkempt, gruesomely Kafkaesque metamorphosis from inquisitive David Attenborough-type icon marvelling at the wonder of life across the universe to a grimy, licentious, priapic intergalactic version of Calum Best is complete. It’s also very, very dull.
• Max Capricorn’s dull capitalist motivation for crashing the Titanic into the Earth in order to fund his retirement with the insurance pay out. Now we’re not expecting Professor Moriarty or Raskolnikov, but an adversary with a pinprick of deviousness would be appreciated, but in about three minutes (which was all the screen time he got) what else can be done?

To The Manor Born, BBC1

Did we like it?
We were excited about welcoming the TV equivalent of an elderly aunt back into our home, but she turned out to be a pale shadow of her former self, cracking jokes that would shame a cracker maker and losing her thread like a badly made scarf.

What was good about it?
• The theme tune was good. The manor still looked nice. And some vague vapour trails of the sitcom's legendary power struggles remained.
• The put-upon butler, played well by Alan David.

What was bad about it?
• Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles struggled to get much out of the weak script which was dominated by banal banter (eg the Meldrewish rant about on-hold music from Vivaldi), fuzzy attempts at being contemporary (although Ecstacy is so last decad and Arctic Monkeys are very last year) and silly misunderstandings.
• The nightclub scene could have been a classic but was just awkward and obvious.
• Alexander Armstrong also sunk beneath the waves, spending most the of the time reacting with undeserved chortles to Audrey and Richard's 'wit' or just hovering with his bald patch in shot.
• Angela Thorne struggled, too, as hapless Marjorie, although her coyness around Alexander's dashing character was one of the better aspects.
• The script could have got some sharp mileage out of the arrival of Eastern European labour into rural England, but it sank to Mind Your Language levels (eg "The crudit?s are on the sideboard").

Monday, 24 December 2007

Christmas At The Riviera, ITV1

Did we like it?
A pretty good festive comedy drama, which was sprinkled with slightly too much seasonal saccharine and was perhaps half-an-hour too long.

What was good about it?
• ITV1 seemed to have steadfastly resolved to pillage actors from classic BBC sitcoms from the past 30 years in the hope that they will congeal into a hilarious comedy drama through their own fertile talent.
• And despite our misgivings about the scattergun nature of this technique it did yield dividends as we enjoyed The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith as the hapless assistant hotel manager who is thrust into the role of manager after incumbent manager Barry’s (who played Julius in The Thick of It) father was taken ill.
• Shearsmith played Ashley as a more likeable version of the vindictive Ollie Plimsolls of LOG’s legendary Legs Akimbo Theatre Company, who evntully achieved some kind of spiritual redemption after he rescues Maurice from the burning hotel.
• Maurice was played by Warren Clarke who agreeably sleepwalked through his role as the bumptious, officious ex-copper (think Dalziel without the wit), but who ultimately gained some humility as he slowly realised than no one other than his long suffering wife Rita (Barbara Flynn) actually liked him.
• Sam Kelly (Porridge and ’Allo ’Allo) as Dennis and Darren Boyd (Saxondale) as Tim were the father and son who had come to Eastbourne to scatter the ashes of their wife/mother Muriel in the town where Dennis and she had first met. He had developed a debilitating obsession with Muriel’s ashes, such as when Tim was driving to the hotel with her urn strapped in the backseat like a child. “”Don’t drive so fast,” scolded Dennis, “you know your mother gets car sick!”
• Alexander Armstrong (Beast) was philandering clergyman Miles who spent his whole time at the hotel keeping his illicit dalliance with a younger member of the cloth ‘Melons’ (Katherine Jakeways – The IT Crowd) secret from his wife Diane (Anna Chancellor) while battling his angina ailment. They also provided the funniest gag after Diane had learnt of her husband’s infidelity, he timorously said: “It’s two minutes past midnight! It’s Christmas Day!” “Why don’t you open your present now?” she replied acidly, handing him a bent and twisted golf club covered with torn wrapping paper.
• Peter Vaughan (Porridge) was the grumpy hotel porter who acted as Ashley’s dissatisfied father figure whom he forever strove to impress, something he eventually accomplished after he saved Maurice.

What was bad about it?
• That familiar jarring effect of comedy crashing into drama. Alongside the comic potential of each character was an often tedious sub-story – Tim had just split up with his girlfriend after she got bored of him, hotel flirt Avril was suffering from cancer and Diane was an alcoholic. And when Maurice’s son Christopher told his father “I just can’t stand you”, we felt nothing more than a mental shrug of the shoulders.
• It quickly established that annoying sense of fatality about the situations of whatever can go wrong will go wrong, which is hilarious in the hands of say Laurel & Hardy but met with mixed results here. For every moment of mirth such as Muriel’s ashes ending up in the turkey stuffing and when Tim and Dennis subsequently try to scatter her ashes on the pond only to be set upon by “wild swans” there were two moments of predictability such as the carol congregation crashing through the frozen pond, Miles getting trapped in a sauna with a young woman in nothing more than a towel or the underused Rasmus Hardiker as incompetent kitchen worker Luke becoming concussed after falling down the chimney dressed as Santa Claus.
• It was doused in a voluble spray of nauseating festive cheer as it had a happy ending with Ashley earning his spurs as hotel manager, Tim and Dennis finding love in the arms of Diane and Avril respectively and Maurice evolving a conscience. We’re surprised they didn’t have an epilogue when they all turn up on LK Today to be fawned over by a beaming Lorraine.

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