Catch Me Guest Posting on SquareEyed.tv!

August 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

The wonderful chaps at SquareEyed.tv have let me loose and have given me the chance to wiffle on about the sixth series of The Great British Bake Off! Hurrah!

Find the week two recap here, and remember, I’ll be posting weekly, so do feel free to add your thoughts and whimsies!

In the meantime, on with the summer….

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Fake or Fortune? Shows Why the BBC’s Great Pedigree Will Outlast the Tory Onslaught

July 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

Poor old Aunty Beeb. Recent years haven’t been kind to her, from DGs lasting about five minutes to the whole awful moving up to Salford thing. Then there was Savile…

Now the Tories are gunning for the broadcasting institution, prompting luvvies across the land to plead with British PM and shafter-in-chief David Cameron not to do anything to hurt poor old Aunty Beeb.

But what this grande dame needs isn’t Dame Judi Dench or Lord Hall wringing their hands and wailing. What the BBC needs is Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould.

These two unlikely bedfellows – she a prickly-looking newsreader, he a plummy-toned art dealer – are the presenters of my latest televisual drug of choice: Fake or Fortune?

For the uninitiated, it follows Bruce and Mould as they track down the hidden histories of paintings, using a combination of good old-fashioned detective work and cutting-edge science to determine whether their latest ‘client’ is holding onto something that’s worth a mint or is just worthless.

Now you might wonder how Bruce and Mould could possibly be of any use to the under-siege BBC (other than by providing some of the most gripping telly I’ve seen in ages), but bear with me.

The emotional investment these two pour into each of their cases is astonishing. Bruce, for a start, is a revelation. She speaks French and Italian, gets arsey with authorities and isn’t afraid to wear her disappointment on her sleeve when it all goes pear-shaped.

Mould on the other hand, while urbane, charming and clearly a master of his oeuvre, veers perilously close to the top end of the Jilly Goolden scale of pompous arsedness, especially when he comes across a painting that really gets his juices flowing.

I’m predisposed to curl a lip when I hear phrases such as “the brushstrokes are as delicate as a nun’s tears, falling during a sunset in Venice”, but when Mould talks, I listen, usually because he’s got something to say that’ worth hearing.

This Sunday, the duo (along with researcher Bendor Grosvenor, who always looks like he’s on the brink of ripping open his shirt and sweeping Bruce off her feet – but that could be me)  are on the trail of what could be a lost Old Master, after they’re called to see a massive, grubby painting in a church. As well as a raft of scientific experiments and the usual shoe leather expended on telling this massive picture’s story, there’s the mother of all cleaning jobs to be done to boot.

But that’s not all. Bruce and Mould’s rare combination of sensitivity, intelligence and sheer bloody-minded determination has seen them come up against the fearsome Wildenstein Institute – an extreeeemely snooty set of art appreciators (or connoisseurs) based in Paris – whose opinion on a painting’s authenticity can be the making or undoing of many.

They have gone on quietly epic, shatteringly emotional journeys to find the truth about some amazing paintings and emerged the other side, battered, bruised – and more determined than ever to do it again.

I’d argue that, if they can take that particular brand of heat, they are the ideal defenders of the BBC, because anything the Tory front bench can chuck at them is going to be small fry in comparison.

THE WHO, WHAT, WHEN OF IT

WHAT’S IT CALLED?

Fake or Fortune?

WHEN IS IT ON?

Sunday 19 July, 8pm

WHAT CHANNEL?

BBC1

WHO IS IN IT?

Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould.

WHO SHOULD WATCH IT?

Antiques Roadshow enthusiasts and anyone who loves a good mystery.

WHO SHOULDN’T WATCH IT?

Anyone expecting Tom Hanks to pop up. Though The Da Vinci Code music is used….

A Song for Jenny Makes the 7/7 Anniversary a Dignified, Yet Emotional One

July 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

I spent most of the day at home with our small people yesterday, as happens from time to time. The morning was a hit-and-miss affair, boasting a trip to the garage which included my now-normal “hang on a minute, I think I’ve gone the wrong way” routine, and the eldest doing a temporary vanishing act in the middle of a bloody enormous park.

The afternoon went only slightly better, with a trip to the lake ending in me dragging the youngest kicking and screaming out of the water when he wouldn’t believe that at 19 months old, he really can’t swim in water deeper than he is tall.

Children do fucked-up things to you, as a parent. They can hurt you in ways you never believed possible, yet at the same time make you love them so much you think every vital organ in your body will burst.

In spite of my aforementioned struggles, I would happily walk through fire for my brood and would do anything, literally anything to keep them from harm.

So you can imagine the state A Song for Jenny left me in… This achingly sad, delicately drawn story was based on Julie Nicholson’s book, and detailed how her daughter Jenny was among the victims of the 7/7 bombings in London.

It began shortly before the dreadful day when terrorists attacked the capital, offering us a glimpse of a loving, close family headed by mum Julie. She then drove the narrative as she first clung to the notion her daughter had somehow survived, before hearing and eventually accepting the gut-wrenching truth – Jenny was among the dead of the Edgware Road tube station bombing.

Arguably one of the most distressing moments was when Julie was shown photographs of her daughter’s body in the carriage after the attack. We were spared them, seeing only Julie’s reaction, but as a mum, I’m not sure I’d have the courage to face that sort of horror.

It needed a strong, powerful actress to pull off this emotional and complex role and my god, did Emily Watson do it justice. She’s long been one of my very favourite performers, bringing a quiet intensity and integrity to everything she does. Here, she was quite simply magnificent.

It would have been easy for A Song for Jenny to dissolve into schmaltz and thankfully it didn’t – though it did come across as a little one-sided. I’m sure Jenny’s father was every bit as heartbroken as Julie, but he was little more than a bit-part player in this story.

That minor niggle aside, as many of us turn our thoughts to another sad anniversary (has it really been 10 years?) A Song for Jenny is a fitting tribute, and one that will stay with you for quite some time after.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and hug my children once more and just that little bit tighter…

THE WHO, WHAT, WHEN OF IT

WHAT’S IT CALLED?

A Song for Jenny

WHEN IS IT ON?

Sunday 5 July, 9pm

WHAT CHANNEL?

BBC1

WHO IS IN IT?

Emily Watson and Steven Mackintosh are arguably the biggest names, but this is no celebrity piece.

WHO SHOULD WATCH IT?

Anyone who has ever lost a child.

WHO SHOULDN’T WATCH IT?

People who think the answer to the world’s ills is violence.

Robert, Benedict or Jonny? Which Sherlock Is the Best?

July 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

The past few days have seen me glued to Netflix (quelle surprise) and season one of Elementary. I originally watched it when it first aired ages ago, enjoying it in a sniffy, slightly dismissive kinda way.

I was of course, like everybody else at the time, waiting for series three of the BBC series Sherlock, sucking on anything even remotely Holmesian that came my way to keep me going – like a heroin addict gobbling down methadone.

For the longest time I regarded Elementary as inferior to Sherlock in every way. The setting was wrong, the crimes weren’t clever enough, Aidan Quinn didn’t have the right name and don’t get me started on Lucy Liu (who dresses that poor woman?)…

But I may well be wrong.

Three of the finest actors of our time have inhabited the shell of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Downey Jr (come on now… you didn’t seriously think I was going to add Martin Clunes..?). Each brings a different something to the role. Each has their flaws. But which of them makes the best Sherlock Holmes?

Let’s find out, shall we?

Robert Downey Jr IOTTS_DowneyJr

I love this man. I love the fact he’s sent himself to hell and back in full view of the world’s media and has lived to rise again and kick Hollywood’s ass. He can be light and witty or dark and downright scary but as Sherlock? He’s a disappointment.

Guy Ritchie’s steampunk version of the Victorian sleuth oozes class and gave Jude Law his best role for years as Watson – but Downey’s boho detective doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Oh sure, he’s got the moves and can play the twitchy genius to the hilt, but as a performance it doesn’t feel right. He’s too nervy, too desperate.

On top of that, RDJ’s breathless delivery and not-quite-on-the-money accent really bloody grates after a while.

Downey Jr IS Iron Man, and that’s great. He’s perfect for the part: smart, sexy and funny as hell. Sherlock Holmes, however, he is not. I refer any honourable members seeking further proof to the sequel, Game of Shadows. There’s 129 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

No, this battle comes down to two contenders: the actors who played opposite each other in the 2011 stage play Frankenstein, alternating their roles. These men probably know each other inside out – and yet their performances of this singular character couldn’t be more different.

Jonny Lee Miller IOTTS Elementary

There was a time when London-born lad looked set to conquer the world. His stunning turn in the pretty bloody amazing Trainspotting made everybody sit up and take notice. Marrying Angelina Jolie didn’t do his profile any harm either.

Since then, Miller’s career has cut an eclectic path through TV movies, big-budget offerings and telly work (not to mention treading those boards).

Elementary was a bit of a gamble – it was broadcast hot on the heels of the BBC’s smash-hit version and as a result attracted more than its fair share of criticism.

However, as I have pleasantly discovered, there is so much more to Miller’s Sherlock than at first meets the eye.

Over the course of the first series, his Holmes slowly opens up to sober companion Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) and reveals the demons driving him. There’s no breathless craziness a la Downey Jr. Just moments of utter desperation, depravity and sometimes despair.

Whether that despair comes from Holmes’ frustration at being the cleverest person in the room or an inability to make his particular set of gifts work to solve a case, that depends on whatever episode you’re watching.

But watch you do. In fact, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off Miller. The slightest flicker, merest tremor of his face and a new emotion, a new layer is revealed, before it’s whipped off again and the Holmes mask of indifference slips smoothly back into place.

Watching Miller’s Sherlock is just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Benedict Cumberbatch IOTTS_Sherlock

His old mucker Ben is a completely different kettle of crawdads. He’s kinda funny lookin’. All angular cheekbones and hypnotic, almond eyes. There are Byronic curls and a now-iconic greatcoat. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is not just a modern version of a classic character.

He is a pin-up, a poster boy. Someone teenage girls can pin to their walls and smear with lipgloss every night…

I doubt very much that was the intention of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss when they dreamed up this incarnation. Jeremy Brett was dishy in a consumptive sort of way, but Holmes has always had gravitas, and lots of it.

Cumberbatch’s version isn’t grave so much as borderline autistic, such is his crippling inability to deal with ‘ordinary’ people.

Luckily his Watson (the extraordinarily ordinary Martin Freeman) helps negotiate those tricky social waters, allowing Sherlock to immerse himself completely in ‘the game’.

Yet take away all the on-screen gimmickry and the polished editing, and what remains is Cumberbatch’s presence. His Holmes may look slight but he can more than hold his own in a fight, whether it’s fisticuffs or fencing.  He uses his towering intellect to both make sense of the world and at the same time keep it at bay, fearing its confusion and ennui.

To bring all that to the screen with such poise, such precision demonstrates Cumberbatch’s astonishing talent as an actor.

But whose Sherlock is the best?

Some could argue that the snappy script of Sherlock gives Cumberbatch the edge, with all that wonderful rolling dialogue, while Miller’s contained, decidedly Englishman in New York, is compelling too.

For me, right now, I’d have to go with Miller. His Holmes is more nuanced, more vulnerable, less flashy. And he has fucking GREAT tattoos. The chances are though, that by the time Sherlock series four comes around, I’ll change my mind and say Cumby is the one to watch.

What I can say for certain is that for years to come, audiences who love great drama, performed by two truly brilliant actors, will have plenty to keep them entertained in Elementary and Sherlock.

Despite Being Made to Wait, It’s Finally Time to Say Goodbye to My Friends Strange and Norrell…

June 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

There are many things I wish for, every day. That my children and my husband are healthy and happy. That someone, somewhere, reads this and says “Wow! Give that girl a regular column!”, that my waist was just a foot smaller…

But inching its way to the top of this collection of wants and desires is this: I wish the BBC would stop making me wait for the next instalment of a great series.

Netflix, which allows me to gorge myself stupid on TV, has made me greedy – hence the waistline request. I don’t have the time or patience to hang around, even for something as exquisite as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which reaches is suitably grand finale this week.

So, I have a request for the BBC. Stop titting about with Top Gear and start giving us access to shows like this in their ENTIRETY.

For the past few weeks, I have perched, immobile and rapt, as Susanna Clark’s glorious tale unfolded around me. I gasped when Arabella was snatched by Marc Warren’s bouffant but deliciously wicked Faerie from under Jonathan’s nose.

My eyes were wide with horror as Strange, a gentle man if ever there was one, became an increasingly powerful wizard, demonstrating his ability to snuff out life during the war with France.

I wept as the sublime Eddie Marsan’s Mr Norrell saw his carefully constructed world – and his beloved books – crumble around him, as the reputation of English magic was forever tarnished.

All the while Childermass, Steven, Lady Pole and Vinculus had their parts to play in a fantasy drama that, like all the best books, once you’ve finished it, you just want to go back to the beginning and start again.

So I come to the final episode, and it feels like I’m losing a friend. There may even be tears when all’s said and done.

Everything is hanging in the balance, from Norrell’s standing as a magician to Strange’s delicate mental state. The two men must join forces and combine their skills to win back Lady Pole and Bella from the Castle of Lost Hope.

The last, tantalising episode leaves me with so many questions… will the Raven King put a spanner in the works? Will the Faerie defeat both England’s finest magicians, and will his sinister dance finally come to an end?

There have been few programmes as beautiful to watch and as elegantly played out as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. You bet your ass I’m buying the book as soon as the credits on the finale roll, because I suspect there’s more to enjoy on the page. And, unlike the BBC series, I can sit in a chair and read and read and read until I’ve had enough – or I’m forced to stop.

A little bit like watching Netflix… Go on Aunty Beeb. Make the leap and feed the greedy girls!

THE WHO, WHAT, WHEN OF IT

WHAT’S IT CALLED?

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

WHEN IS IT ON?

Sunday 28 May, 9pm

WHAT CHANNEL?

BBC1

WHO IS IN IT?

Eddie Marsan, Bertie Carvel, Samuel West, Enzo Cilenti, Charlotte Riley, Marc Warren, Paul Kaye.

WHO SHOULD WATCH IT?

Me. Over and over again.

WHO SHOULDN’T WATCH IT?

Anyone who doesn’t believe in magic…

Scottish Drama Stonemouth Proves Me Wrong About Iain Banks

June 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Aside from our children, each other and cake, I reckon it’s fair to say the thing James and I love most is books. Our little house has more than its fair share scattered about the place, and I’m pleased to say our children seem to be picking up our passion too.

It was with undisguised glee just the other day that I gathered together on one shelf all our Terry Pratchett paperbacks, so our eldest daughter – who doesn’t so much read as devour books – can find them easily.

But that’s not to say James and I share the same taste. Yes, we both love Sir Terry, but I’m a fan of Austen and Barker, while he’s a Rankin and Adams aficionado. I’m known to hoover up the odd Dan Brown, while he wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole.

He has, however, waved many an Iain Banks under my nose, insisting on their greatness. I dutifully read a couple and have to say, I wasn’t convinced. I tried The Wasp Factory and was left cold, while The Business bored me.

James, needless to say, was unimpressed but Banks and I may yet form a bond – thanks to the telly.

I settled in to watch the first instalment of Stonemouth, a two-part BBC drama based on the Banks novel, with as open a mind as I could manage, given I was genuinely saddened by the author’s death in 2013 (and yet George W Bush still lives), but was not a fan of his work.

To my delight, Stonemouth had me hooked within minutes.

It told the story of Stewart Gilmour – played by a flawless Christian Cooke – a young man returning to his eponymous hometown two years after he left under something of a cloud (to say the least).

Granted permission by the local crime lord (a magnificent Peter Mullan) to stay for a few days to attend the funeral of his best friend, who committed suicide, Stewart uses the chance to right a few wrongs – and find out exactly what happened to his pal.

I’m bouncing up and down as I write this, because Stonemouth was EVERYTHING I expect from a drama: gorgeously filmed, written like there’s electricity running through the script, backed by a belting soundtrack and boasting the likes of Brian Gleeson, Chris Fulton and the beautiful Charlotte Spencer in the cast.

God I LOVED it. Not only am I now counting the minutes until the concluding episode, but if you’ll forgive me, I’m also off to curl up on the sofa and get to grips with the original book.

I can’t think of a better tribute to Banks and his work – can you?

THE WHO, WHAT, WHEN OF IT

WHAT’S IT CALLED?

Stonemouth

WHEN IS IT ON?

Monday June 8, 9pm BBC1 Scotland,

Thursday, June 11, 9pm BBC Two, everywhere else.

WHAT CHANNEL?

See above

WHO IS IN IT?

Christian Cooke, Sharon Small, Brian Gleeson and the phenomenally amazing Peter Mullan.

WHO SHOULD WATCH IT?

People who have never picked up an Iain Banks novel.

WHO SHOULDN’T WATCH IT?

You’d have to be mad to miss this.

Napoleon: Spoonfuls of Style but No Passion Makes for a Disappointing Documentary

June 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Back in the days when writing about all things telly wasn’t just a way to fill in the time between job applications, it WAS my job, I had the pleasure of speaking to the people who were on TV.

Among them were many who I genuinely admired and – a near-miss with Clive Barker aside (curse that book tour of 2005) – some of the folk I spoke to were actual heroes.

One was Michael Wood, that slightly crumpled and handsomely windswept TV presenter of yesteryear. I not only got the chance to interview him about one of his shows, but used that opportunity to thank him from the bottom of my heart for being the person who ignited my love of history.

Unfortunately, he can’t present everything, which is a shame, because someone with his warmth and passion would have given just what the opener for new three-part BBC Two series Napoleon was missing.

I have no doubt that host Andrew Roberts is as into Old Boney as I am into cake, and while his documentary ticked all the appropriate boxes: pieces to camera from assorted locations intimately associated with Napoleon, interspersed with neatly edited bits, I spent much of the hour waiting patiently for the whole thing to burst into life.

That’s not to say Roberts hadn’t done his homework. Napoleon is, as he readily admits, a man who has held his fascination since he was a boy. This good looking, well-researched film, revealed how Bonaparte saved France from chaos after the Revolution by basically being a mean bastard and turning his cannons on ‘the people’.

It stripped away the romantic nonsense about his marriage to Josephine, and explored how he went on to beat the shit out of armies in Italy and Egypt, before coming to France’s rescue again and crowning himself as Emperor.

All properly interesting stuff, but where, I had to ask myself, was the passion?

Where once upon a time, Wood would have had me eating out of his hand within five minutes talking about someone who had long since turned to dust, a somewhat stiff Roberts left me wondering if this was an extended advert for his book…

There are two more episodes of Napoleon to soak up, and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see Roberts loosen up and really let us see why Boney gets his juices flowing.

Then this series stands a chance of being worthy of the man it’s trying to honour.

THE WHO, WHAT, WHEN OF IT

WHAT’S IT CALLED?

Napoleon

WHEN IS IT ON?

Wednesday June 10, 9.30pm

WHAT CHANNEL?

BBC2

WHO IS IN IT?

Napoleon Bonaparte – but only in portrait form…

WHO SHOULD WATCH IT?

Devotees of the mind-bogglingly self-centred Emper-Roi.

WHO SHOULDN’T WATCH IT?

People who have no idea France had a revolution.

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