Sleepers – Simply Media DVD Review

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Back in the mid 1960’s, Russian spymaster Andrei Zorin (Michael Gough) sent two Soviet moles to Britain.  As “sleeper” agents, their mission was to assimilate themselves into British society and await further orders.  But those orders never came ….

Fast-forward twenty five years and the two agents, Sergei Rublev (Nigel Havers) and Vladimir Zelenski (Warren Clarke), have gone native so successfully that they’re now indistinguishable from the real thing.  Both have flourished in the capitalist West  – Rublev, today known as Jeremy Coward, is a successful investment banker whilst Zelenski, now going under the name of Albert Robinson, is a happily married man with three children, holding down a job in a Manchester brewery.

The last thing they want to be reminded of is their murky Soviet past, but when Albert’s secret Soviet radio suddenly starts transmitting it seems to spell the end of their British adventure.  Albert contacts Jeremy (the pair hadn’t met since parting shortly after their arrival in the UK) and together they ponder their next move.  But the arrival of the hardline Major Nina Grishina (Joanna Kanska) spells further trouble for our two hapless heroes …

Broadcast across four episodes during April and May 1991, Sleepers is a fondly remembered comedy drama by John Flanagan and Andrew McCullough.  Flanagan and McCullough continue today to hold down dual jobs as actors and writers (both took the opportunity to act in Sleepers).  Their first joint writing credit was the 1980 Doctor Who story Meglos and they would go on to contribute to a number of popular series such as Robin of Sherwood, Boon, Pie in the Sky and Peak Practice..

Much of the appeal of Sleepers rests upon the performances of Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke.  Havers (b. 1949) had built up a solid list of credits throughout the 1970’s, but it would be during the 1980’s – with films such as Chariots of Fire and diverse television series like Don’t Wait Up and The Charmer – that he’d really become established as a leading actor.

Clarke (1947 – 2014) was incredibly busy during the 1970’s and 1980’s, racking up an impressive list of appearances in both films and television series (A Clockwork Orange,  The Sweeney, The Onedin Line, Minder, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Reilly: Ace of Spies, The Jewel in the Crown, etc etc) without ever really becoming a leading man – that would come later with Dalziel and Pascoe (1996 – 2007).

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It’s the contrast between Rublev/Coward and Zelenski/Robinson which really appeals.  One was sent up North and the other established himself in the South.  There’s the lovely possibility that if Jeremy had gone to Manchester then he’d be speaking like Albert now and vice-versa.  That might have been interesting to hear, but it was probably safer that both actors played to type!

Back in 1991, the Cold War was definitely thawing, which meant that many spy stories began to look backwards to the good old days of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  This sense of past glories is touched upon in the opening episode, The Awakening, after a secret room beneath the Kremlin is found to contain a replica of an English town. Covered in cobwebs, it’s a perfect time capsule of the mid sixties. As the power is restored, a record player springs back into life with She Loves You by The Beatles playing, whilst Adam Adamant Lives! flickers into life on a tiny black and white television.

Such a construction may seem far-fetched, but there’s evidence to suggest that such places existed and were invaluable in training agents (plenty of examples can be found in fiction, from the Danger Man episode Colony Three to the Jack Higgins novel Confessional).

Quite how this ghost town was suddenly discovered or why Nina and Oleg PetrovskI (Christopher Rozycki) are so interested in it is a bit of a mystery. If it was a training ground for an operation decades ago, why should it be important now? Nina visits Zorin, but he’s nothing more than the shell of a man – babbling about 1960’s popular culture (quoting from A Hard Day’s Night and the Billy Cotton Band Show).

The gorgeous Joanna Kanska is suitably intimidating as the ice-cold KGB Major Nina Grishina . Arriving in Britain, she heads off to speak to Victor Chekhov (David Calder), their man in London. Calder essays a fairly broad performance as possibly not the most convincing Russian ever. For some reason he seems to have more of an American accent than a Russian one.

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Nina and Victor couldn’t be more different. Victor considers that the Cold War is well and truly over and so asks both the CIA and MI5 for their assistance. Nina is horrified (to her, both are still the enemy) but involving both the Americans and British helps to ramp up the comedy. This is particularly evident with the cash-strapped MI5, where even fairly low-key expenses (a meal at Burger King) are examined very closely. In future the agent is advised to “stick to coffee. I want a bit less of these flame-grilled Whoppers.”

Once Albert and Jeremy meet up, the story can really start. Albert doesn’t want to return to Russia since he can’t bear the thought of being parted from his wife and children. Jeremy might not be married but he’s got plenty of good reasons to want to stay as well. “I’m on 300 grand a year. I’ve got a flat in town, a cottage in the country, a string of girlfriends and half a bloody racehorse. Think I’m going to give it all up for a bowl of red cabbage and a bedsit in Vladivostok?”

It’s undeniable that the plot is a little contrived in places, this is never more evident than when Albert and Jeremy decide to chuck the radio transmitter in the river and then do a Cossack dance to celebrate. After they’re arrested by the police, Jeremy tells the constable that they’re the Moscow State Circus (!). It’s difficult to believe that two trained (albiet very rusty) agents would behave so rashly, especially by mentioning Russia.

Sleepers sets up various mysteries, such as why Albert and Jeremy were in the crowd at the 1966 World Cup final. It’s amusing that the Russian archive film shows the disputed England goal at quite a different angle, something which Chekhov decides he can turn to his advantage. But British Intelligence, who are monitoring him, get quite the wrong end of the stick and decide that it’s all part of a Moscow plan to destabilise British society with the help of football hooligans!

As might be expected with a spy story, not everything in Sleepers is quite as it first appears, something which becomes very apparent in the closing episodes, whilst various running gags – such as Boris, a toy monkey owned by Albert’s daughter – also help to enliven proceedings. And whilst the serial may have a comic feel, there’s also various dramatic beats scattered throughout the four episodes – these are used to break down the facades that Albert and Jeremy have built around themselves.

Ironically, Albert’s not good at keeping secrets. His wife instantly senses that something is wrong, although she jumps to the conclusion that he’s having an affair. Clarke is excellent as the conflicted Albert, as is Havers as the apparently more confident Jeremy. But Jeremy too is racked by doubts as his past returns to haunt him.

Sleepers is a confident comedy thriller which features British, American and Russian intelligence agents all chasing different agendas, some of which are completly illusionary. With the luxury of four episodes it has the time to develop character and incident at a leisurely pace, although it never feels drawn out.

Sleepers is released by Simply Media on the 24th of October 2016. RRP £19.99.

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The Justice Game – Simply Media DVD Review

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Dominic Rossi (Denis Lawson) is a Glasgow-based criminal lawyer with a thriving practice.  At present his attention is scattered in several different directions – the stabbing of an elderly man at a bus stop, an ex-soldier accused of multiple murders and the death of a private investigator whom he’d recently employed.  But he finds that all of these disparate crimes lead to Tim Forsythe (Michael Kitchen), a merchant banker who’s keen that Rossi should cease his investigations.  And since Forsythe has the intimidating Glen (James Cosmo) on his books, it seems that his silence will be rather permanent.

Airing on BBC1 during April 1989, The Justice Game is an efficient four-part thriller from the pen of John Brown (1944 – 2006).  The previous year Brown had written the well-remembered ITV serial The One Game, which featured Patrick Malahide as a manipulative games player.  Brown would go on to contribute scripts to a number of popular series such as Bergerac, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Inspector Morse and Taggart.

Denis Lawson (b. 1947) made his television debut in a 1969 episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook and during the 1970’s was busy working across film, television and theatre.  One of his early film roles, in the original Star Wars (and then its two sequels), would ensure he would always maintain a certain cult status but it would be two very different 1980’s television roles that would establish him more firmly with the British public.  Dead Head (1986) was a BBC serial which attracted a huge amount of newspaper notoriety at the time, although thirty years on it seems rather tame.  The Kit Curran Radio Show featured Lawson as the eponymous radio presenter and whilst not a huge ratings-winner, ran for two well-received seasons.

In addition to Lawson, Kitchen and Cosmo, there’s a host of other quality actors who appear across the four episodes (Diana Quick, Iain Cuthbertson, Russell Hunter, Joss Ackland, Michael Culver and Ceila Imrie).

The first episode quickly establishes Rossi’s character.  He’s a man of contradictions – after a session working out on a treadmill his first thought is to reach for a pack of cigarettes.  We also observe his skills as a lawyer (he manages to get two prominent footballers off an assault charge).  The Amnesty poster on his office wall and his desire to take low-profile cases connected to social justice issues are clear pointers to his values and mindset.  Rossi is in a relationship with Kate Fielding (Diana Quick).  Like him she’s a professional (Kate’s a doctor).

It’s a pity that an actor as good as Russell Hunter exits the story relatively quickly.  He played Sandy Sadowski, a man who had information for Rossi but was brutally stabbed multiple times before he could pass it over.  John Brown is in no hurry to connect all the pieces of the puzzles he sets up, as with four episodes to play with there’s plenty of time to establish these various plotlines.  The well-dressed Tim Forsythe is a man of few words, but several are directed in the direction of Glen who organised the gang that killed Sadowski.

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Throughout the serial Denis Lawson impresses.  Dominic Rossi’s clearly something of a renaissance man, he’s not only a hot-shot, fast-talking lawyer but he can also belt out a mean rock ‘n’ roll tune (as witnessed at his parents wedding anniversary party).  The choice of Glasgow as the battleground was a good one.  Although the Glasgow-based Taggart had been running for a number of years, the location still offers a less familiar milieu than London. The last episode also makes a quick trip to New York as Rossi trails the money men behind Forsythe. Lurking in New York is Sir James Crichton (Joss Ackland). Ackland is characteristically still and sinister as the spider in the middle of the web.

The late eighties setting, deep in the dying days of Thatcherism, helps to inform the tone of the serial.  At the time Glasgow, like many other cities, was undergoing considerable redevelopment and renovation.  The first episode opens with Rossi taking Kate on a tour of his old house, located in one of the most run-down areas of the city.  But since the house has been demolished, Rossi contents himself with pointing at the bare ground where the various rooms had been.  Displaying a tinge of romanticism shared by many self-made men and women, he regrets the loss.

It’s hoped that something better will take the place of these levelled slums, but the likes of Tim Forsythe seem more interested in generating the maximum amount of profit for the company he works for.  Despite the fact that Forsythe remains a fairly nebulous figure (henchmen such as Glen do all the strong-arm stuff, leaving him distanced from the action) there’s a clear delineation between Rossi and Forsythe.  Rossi is concerned with people and justice whilst Forsythe is concerned only with profit.  Certain reminders of the era – mobile phones as big as housebricks, Forsythe’s cocaine habit – help to make it the perfect story for the consumerist eighties.

Roger Limb’s score sometimes eschews the familiar radiophonic soundscape he was well-known for. But it’s still atmospheric and the more sinister cues help to create a vague sense of unease which compliments the sometimes bleak and violent world presented across the four episodes.

The Justice Game is probably an episode too long and rather wastes good actors such as Iain Cuthbertson in small roles, but it still chugs along nicely to its inevitably bloody conclusion. As might be expected from the cynical worldview it presents, we find that “justice” is in very short supply.

The following year, the three-part Justice Game 2 was broadcast on BBC1 during March 1990.  The serial opens with Rossi in Italy, enjoying a holiday romance with the lovely Francesca (Anita Zagaria).  Rossi’s considering a career change – from lawyer to advocate – and this holiday was supposed to help him make up his mind, although he remains noncommittal by the end of it. I like the way the first scene has a number of quick cuts, showing Rossi and Francesca enjoying themselves in various different ways (driving an open-top car, him rubbing suncream into her back, riding a pedalo, riding bikes, eating icecream). It’s slightly corny, but it works.

Rossi returns to Glasgow and Francesca quickly becomes a fading memory, so he’s surprised (but pleased) when she unexpedically turns up. She’s a woman with a secret though. Back in Italy several of her friends have met violent deaths and the killings don’t stop when she travels to Scotland – meaning that Rossi’s right in the firing line.

There have been a few changes since the first story. Rossi’s moved into an impressive, if crumbling house (complete with a leaky roof) and has gained a new colleague, Eleanor Goodchild (Barbara Flynn). Flynn, as ever, is wonderfully watchable as the powerful Eleanor. She may only be Rossi’s junior partner but is she part of the reason why he’s considering a career change? Some have dubbed her “a female Dominic Rossi” which amuses him. He certainly seems to be going through something of a mid-life crisis (he picks up a prostitute in a bar, although it appears he wasn’t charged for her services).

Even though this serial is an episode shorter than the first, it still takes its time to get started. There’s action in the first episode – several bloody deaths – but these take place in Italy whilst Rossi’s back in Glasgow and yet to connect to this main plot. But the death of a young man (a potential client for Rossi) in a suspicious hit-and-run accident adds another layer to the narrative and also reconnects Rossi to the seamier side of life (something rather alien to the upwardly mobile lifestyle he’s been recently enjoying).

Justice Game 2 is slightly less satisfying than the first serial. Barbara Flynn and Denis Lawson have a good combative relationship, but this could have been developed a little more. Anita Zagaria works well as the lady with a dark secret, it’s just a shame this part of the story is rather stretched out.

But although it’s slightly inferior when compared to The Justice Game, it’s still a stylish thriller, held together by Lawson’s central performance. Both serials have a nice period feel (late eighties, early nineties) and if there’s the odd lull from time to time, you can be sure that another shock or twist is just round the corner to spice things up.

The Justice Game (containing both series) is released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016.  The picture quality is a little grainy, which isn’t too surprising considering that the source materials are unrestored 16mm film prints which are nearly thirty years old, but there’s no particular issues.  RRP is £19.99.

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Little Sir Nicholas to be released by Simply Media – 10th October 2016

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Little Sir Nicholas will be released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016.  Review here.

Based on the classic children’s novel by Cecilia Anne Jones, Little Sir Nicholas is a gripping Victorian saga about blood rights, identity and family rivalries. This six-part BBC adaptation co-written by and featuring Oscar winner Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), arrives on DVD on 10 October 2016.

It has long been the destiny of the sons of the Tremaine family to serve as officers in the Royal Navy, but this tradition seems doomed when Sir Walter Tremaine, his wife and their four-year-old son Nicholas (Max Beazley – Maigret) are lost at sea in a wild storm. Five years on, Lady Tremaine (Rachel Gurney – Upstairs, Downstairs), still stricken by the loss of her son and grandson, advertises across the country for a distant heir to come forward.

Penniless Londoner Joanna Tremaine (Bernice Stegers – Undercover) is thrilled when her son Gerald (Jonathan Norris) is chosen to inherit the family title and fortune. But just as they settle into a life of luxury, Little Sir Nicholas is found alive and well in a small coastal French village.

 

Go Now – Simply Media DVD review

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Everything seems to be going Nick Cameron’s (Robert Carlyle) way, especially when his relationship with Karen Walker (Juliet Aubrey) begins to blossom.  But there are dark, dark clouds on the horizon.  He begins to experience feelings of numbness and double vision, and shortly afterwards he receives the bombshell that he has multiple sclerosis.

In a flash his whole world changes.  As his physical energy diminishes, Kevin angrily lashes out of those around him – especially Karen, who also has to make a dramatic adjustment (from girlfriend to carer).  She becomes unable to reach the man she fell in love with and so faces a dilemma – should she walk out and start a new life, or stand by this shell of a man?

Go Now eschews the sentimentality often to be found in dramas which tackle illness, instead it offers something much more direct and honest.  This may be partly due to the input of co-writer Jimmy McGovern (a man who has in the past contemptuously labelled other dramas dealing with similar topics ‘wheelchair plays’).  But the influence of the other writer, Paul Henry Powell, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Powell, a MS sufferer, had started writing the script based directly on his own experiences.  McGovern, who was running a writer’s workshop that Powell was attending, agreed to work with him to develop the story.

Although the basic synopsis makes it sound very depressing, the play is shot through with streaks of humour.  But what really impresses throughout the piece are the emotional ups and downs that both Nick and Karen go through.   Both Robert Carlyle and Juliet Aubrey offer outstanding performances.

Carlyle, who had already starred as the unstable killer Albie in McGovern’s Cracker serial To Be A Somebody, commands the screen.  And it’s when Nick’s physical abilities decline that his performance really comes into his own, as it requires him to express a host of emotions with am increasingly limited set of visual signals.

Aubrey is no less impressive.  That she turned down a big movie role (First Knight, opposite Richard Gere and Sean Connery) in order to appear in Go Now is an interesting revelation (no doubt a move that wouldn’t have pleased her agent).  Her commitment to the piece is obvious to see – especially in the scene towards the end when Karen, refusing to heed Nick’s pleas to leave him, waits patiently outside in the pouring rain for him to change his mind.

Whilst Carlyle and Aubrey are central, there are also impressive contributions from James Nesbitt (Tony) and Sophie Okenedo (Paula) and Michael Winterbottom’s direction is pretty much faultless.

A co-production between the BBC and PolyGram, it received a limited theatrical distribution and would go on to pick up a number of awards (it won the Prix Europa Television Programme of the Year 1995 whilst Powell and McGovern collected the Royal Television Society’s Best Writer award in 1996).

At times bleak and uncompromising, Go Now is best summed up by this comment from Juliet Aubrey.  “It’s a big love story with a huge heart, a lot of humour, a lot of passion and a lot of pain”.  Twenty years on it remains a powerful work which lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled.

Go Now is released by Simply Media on the 12th of September 2016 with an RRP of £19.99.  £1.00 from the sale of each DVD will donated to the MS Society.

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Casualty

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It’s slightly staggering to realise that Casualty has been running for thirty years (just exactly where have the last three decades gone?).  It’s longevity is quite an achievement, as is the fact that it still pulls in a regular audience of around five million, but it’s fair to say that whilst it’s become a British television institution, the series has ended up as television wallpaper (myself, I bailed out as a regular viewer some twenty years ago).

This wasn’t always the case though – when it started in 1986, Casualty was a show that burned with crusading zeal.  Jeremy Brock and Paul Unwin were inspired to create the series after they’d both been hospitalized.  Brock and Unwin were dismayed with what they found – doctors and nurses crushed under an unforgiving system, battling too much bureaucracy and having to work miracles with too little money.

This came over clearly in their series pitch and helped to reinforce just how polarised the 1980’s were.  For many people it was a simple choice, you were either for Margaret Thatcher and her policies or against.  Casualty was firmly against and politics would feature heavily in the first few series, thanks in part to the young firebrand Charlie Fairhead (Derek Thompson).

Just as Casualty’s rough edges have been smoothed off over the years, so have Charlie’s (which makes revisiting the first series something of an eye-opener).  Medical dramas had been a staple of television for decades (Emergency Ward 10, General Hospital, Angels) but the early Casualty episodes offered the audience a glimpse into a more visceral and politicised medical world.

This biting agenda couldn’t last and by the early 1990’s the show had already begun its transformation into a more conventional soap opera.  A sign of how comfortable Casualty had become by the time it celebrated it’s tenth anniversary is demonstrated by comparing its mid 1990’s output against Cardiac Arrest (1994 – 1996).  Written by Jed Mercurio, Cardiac Arrest is the blackest of black comedies – it has something of the feel of early Casualty, but Mercurio pushed further to create a nightmarish vision that uncomfortably might very well be true.  Mercurio’s status as a former doctor suggests that he knew exactly where the bodies were buried.

This weekend’s thirtieth anniversary episode, Too Old for This Shift, had a stunning set-piece stunt although for impact it didn’t rival Boiling Point (original tx 27th February 1993).   Maybe it was a different era, but when a gang of disaffected youths decided to firebomb the A&E department for no good reason it touched a nerve amongst sections of the viewing public (the debate seemed to resonate for a while).

It might not be the series it once was, but the fact it remains as one of the fixed points in an ever-changing television age is reason enough to celebrate.  Happy Birthday Casualty.

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The Ambassador – Simply Media DVD Review

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Harriet Smith (Pauline Collins) is the newly appointed British ambassador to Northern Ireland.  Recently widowed, she has to juggle the demands of her family (Harriet has two teenage sons who don’t understand why her job has to take precedence over them) as well as numerous day-to-day diplomatic challenges.

Thrust into a world where truth is often a flexible commodity, Harriet is fortunate to have the staunch support of commercial attaché John Stone (Denis Lawson).  But Stone also serves another master (MI6) which means that he occasionally pursues his own agenda, something which becomes more pronounced in the second series ….

It’s hard to argue that The Ambassador is a terribly realistic series, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.  Harriet seems just a little bit too good to be true – whilst everybody else stumbles around, she’s sometimes able to sort out seemingly insoluble problems in a matter of minutes.  But if the plotting can feel a little contrived at times, there’s also a pleasing sense that the world she now lives in is painted in shades of grey.  So even when she turns out to be right we can’t always expect a “happy” ending.

In the first series she clashes with Steven Tyler (William Chubb) and Kevin Flaherty (Owen Roe). It may not be entirely surprising that although both Tyler and Flaherty start off as implacable rivals they later become staunch allies. More interesting is the relationship she shares with John Stone.  Stone, with his MI6 connections, is invaluable whenever Harriet needs to dip into murky waters, but he seems to undergo something of a change between series.  In series one he tends to act in Harriet’s best interests but that’s not the case during the second series.  This does add a little spice to the stories though, and Lawson is an actor who’s always worth watching.

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Since she’s at the centre of most of the action, Pauline Collins is the glue that holds the series together, although it’s possible to argue that she has a little more to work with in the second series.  This is partly because Peter Egan is introduced as Michael Cochrane, who becomes Harriet’s love interest.  Her relationship with Michael helps to humanize her a little, as well as generating a rather unsurprising plot-twist when it turns out that he has a dramatic impact on her professional life ….

Out of the twelve episodes, the following were of particular interest.  A Cluster of Betrayals sees a hostage crisis take place at the embassy, as a distraught father (whose son died from radiation poisoning) brandishes a canister of nuclear waste in an attempt to draw attention to the pollution he claims has been created by leakages from British power plants.  Things aren’t going well until Harriet steps in to handle negotiations.  This is one of those episodes where it seems just a little too pat that Harriet is able to diffuse the situation when everybody else has failed.

Cost Price sees Harriet’s personal and professional lives collide as Michael is kidnapped.  Unable to negotiate directly for his release, she’s forced to watch proceedings from the sidelines.  Although both series were an excellent vehicle for Pauline Collins, the personal angle for Harriet in this episode helped to ramp up the tension a little more.

The final episode of series two, Getting Away From Murder, ensured that The Ambassador ended on a high.  After Tyler’s wife is found dead from an overdose, he’s accused by the Garda of murder.  He pleads diplomatic immunity (in order to not to derail some sensitive negotiations) leaving Harriet to wonder whether one of her key allies could really be a cold-blooded murderer.  With the truth not disclosed until just before the end, this is a very effective mystery story.

Thanks to strong central performances from Pauline Collins and Denis Lawson and quality support from the likes of Owen Roe, William Chubb, Peter Egan and Eve Matheson, The Ambassador is certainly a series that’s worth a look.  Guest appearances from the likes of Michael Angelis, Philip Jackson, T.P. McKenna, Frederick Treves, Geoffrey Whitehead, Michael Cochrane, Jack Dee and Tenniel Evans don’t hurt either.  Although Harriet may be rather too perfect, if you can suspend your disbelief then there’s plenty to hold your attention across both series

The Ambassador – Complete Collection is released by Simply Media on the 15th of August 2016.  RRP £34.99.

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The Missing Postman – Simply Media DVD Review

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Clive Peacock (James Bolam) has been a postman for thirty five years.  He loves his job and is shattered to be forced into early retirement by the heartless personnel manager Peter Robson (Robert Daws).  So on his final day he decides to take all the post he’s collected and, rather than drop it off at the sorting office, sets off around the country to deliver each letter by hand.  But stealing the Royal Mail is a criminal offence and he soon finds himself pursued by DS Lawrence Pitman (Jim Carter) as well as a pack of hungry journalists, led by Sarah Seymour (Rebecca Front).

The Missing Postman is, at heart, a simple story.  It features one man (Clive) who appears to take a stand against the new, faceless technological systems that will allegedly make all our lives easier.  Peter Robson is keen to tell Clive all about OCR. “Optical character recognition. A sorting machine that actually reads the addresses. I mean can you believe that? Doing the work of eight people?”  This is clearly meant to be a bad thing – the machine lacks the human touch of Clive and, worse, it’s maintained by a surly computer expert who spends most of his time with his feet up, reading the paper.  Just to hammer the point home, this “progress” is flawed anyway, as OCR doesn’t like letters with paperclips or stamps affixed the wrong way round, etc.

There doesn’t seem to be any place for Clive in this technological new world.  He’s the last remaining postie to ride a bike and Robson is adamant that bikes are old hat – they just don’t fit into the new, upmarket Royal Mail.  It’s undeniably implausible that they couldn’t have just reassigned Clive to be a walking postman (he’s told that they’ve got all the walkers they need) but you have to accept this, otherwise there’d be no story.

Clive’s friend Ralph (Stephen Moore) suggests he comes and works with him at the local burger bar.  They’d have to work in the back of course – only young people are allowed to serve out front – and this gives us another fairly broad dollop of satire.  The kitchens are manned by old people who complain about their fungal infections whilst impossibly young managers boss them around.

The unsubtle nature of these early scenes (and the jaunty music which is clearly designed to be quirky and charming) does mean that the opening fifteen minutes or so do feel rather forced.  The humour and drama needs to come from the characters, rather than the viewers being bludgeoned by the script, but things then settle down and the first-rate cast can begin to enjoy themselves.

James Bolam is The Missing Postman‘s trump card.  It’s not the easiest role to play, since Clive is a rather diffident and undemonstrative character, but Bolam is gradually able to winkle out some genuine moments of pathos as his odyssey around Britain continues.  Alison Steadman, as Clive’s wife Christine, also gives a very decent performance, managing to rise above the cliche of the woman waiting tearfully at home for news.

It seems rather strange that Clive only makes a cursory attempt to contact Christine. He does call her again later, but by then she’s decided to move on with her own life. She’ll have him back, if and when he returns, but she won’t spend her time pining for him. At this point in the story Bolam cuts a very folorn figure, as we see Clive wrapped in a sleeping blanket and stuck a phone box somewhere in the the Scottish countryside, miles from anywhere.

Jim Carter as DS Lawrence Pitman and Gwyneth Strong as WPC McMahon make an amusing double act.  Carter spends his time with a permanent long suffering, hangdog expression on his face whilst Strong has a teasing, playful nature which obviously makes her superior officer feel somewhat uncomfortable.

One of The Missing Postman‘s strengths is that it features a series of character vignettes, as Clive moves from place to place delivering his letters.  Roger Lloyd-Pack (as Ken Thompson) is a good example.  Clive stops off for a few minutes to repair his bike and falls into conversation with Ken.  Ken asks Clive who he’d like to play him in a film, Clive suggests Dustin Hoffman(!) but Ken has other ideas.  He tells Clive that Ronnie Corbett or Michael Fish would be perfect casting.  Bolam’s expression is priceless!

Considering his job, you’d assume that Clive would be an experienced bike rider, but he does seem to spend a great deal of time falling off it, gradually becoming more and more battered. This leads to a moment where he exchanges his broken glasses for a new pair that belonged to a man who’s recently died. True, he won’t need them anymore but it does feel a little off that he’d take them from the man’s still warm body.

A meeting with Linda Taylor (Barbara Dickson) offers Clive a chance to stop and reflect. Her husband was a Scottish trawlerman who was lost at sea two years ago. Clive and Linda are drawn together and he quickly makes himself at home in her guest house. Romance blossoms (pity poor Christine) although Clive remains unrepentant. He tells Linda the story of Christine’s miscarriage, which he offers as the justification for his unfaithfulness. Bolam’s never better than during this monologue and Dickson, although she has little to do except react, also commands the screen.

The conclusion is interesting.  Clive returns home to find himself accosted by a barrage of reporters – his travels were widely reported and he’s become something of a celebrity.  But he finds it impossible to articulate the reasons for his flight, denying that it was any strike against the system, and then seems more than a little hurt when the press quickly lose interest in him.  They’re much more intrigued with Christine’s skills as an interior designer, which suggests that although Clive’s trip might have been a somewhat selfish one, it’s allowed her the space to express herself and begin a new and more fulfilling career

Transmitted in two parts (72 minutes for episode one, 80 minutes for episode two) The Missing Postman provides the viewer with an entertaining travelogue around the British Isles as well as some decently observed character comedy/drama.  It may sometimes overdose on its own charm and quirkiness, but the cast always ensure that it’s worth watching.

The Missing Postman is released by Simply Media on the 28th of March 2016.  RRP £19.99.

Ghostwatch (BBC 1992)

A good evening for a rewatch of this, I think,

Archive Television Musings

ghostwatch

Althogh Ghostwatch was only screened once on British television (exactly twenty two years ago) it’s certainly a programme that remains lodged in the public imagination.  It was a drama, made for the BBC Screen One strand, but was recorded to look like a live, factual piece and this blurring between reality and fiction proved to be highly controversial.

Whilst there was a Screen One caption and a writers credit (for Stephen Volk) at the start, anybody who missed this and tuned in a few minutes later could easily have been forgiven for thinking this was a live broadcast.  It employed the narrative of a typical show of this type – Michael Parkinson is ensconced in the studio with an expert on the paranormal whilst Craig Charles and Sarah Greene are on location and reporting back events as they happen.

There are numerous examples of the television grammar that’s been employed…

View original post 675 more words

House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode Four

house 04

The first ballot for the Conservative leadership election is six days away and Francis Urquhart has finally thrown his hat into the ring.  Patrick Woolton and Michael Samuels are formidable opponents, but Urquhart and his faithful shadow, Tim Stamper, can certainly deal with some of the others, such as McKenzie and Earl.

Ian Richardson and Colin Jeavons make a deliciously entertaining team.  Both have immaculate timing and obviously relish the lines they’re given.  Urquhart begins by mentioning Samuels, the health minister and wonders if they can work something at his next public appearance.  Stamper acidly tells him that he “doesn’t go to hospitals anymore. Kept getting beaten up by the nurses  I think he has trouble getting insured now.”  But a visit to Cybertech (a wheelchair maker) serves just as well and a demonstration is engineered which culminates with Samuels mowing down a demonstrator in a wheelchair.  One down …..

Next up is Harold Earle.  He was tangled up with a rent-boy on a train some years ago (although it was all hushed up).  Urquhart wryly observes that it would be very bad form to bring it all up again but Stamper counters that “getting sucked off for sixpence in a second class compartment is hardly prime ministerial behaviour.”  A few pictures sent to Earle is enough to convince him that he should step down from the race.

After the first ballot, neither Urquhart, Woolton and Samuels have a clear majority – so a second ballot is called.  The sex tape from Brighton (with Penny and an enthusiastic Woolton) is now pressed into service and this is enough to force Woolton out of the running,  He proclaims his support for Urquhart (which should be enough to guarantee his victory).  Patrick Woolton later tells his wife the reason why he decided to support Urquhart  – and it wasn’t out of friendship.  He believes that Samuels and Lord Billsborough engineered his downfall, so whilst he may dislike Urquhart he detests Samuels.  Another small detail that feels very true to life is when he tells her that it’s also worth supporting Urquhart because he’s the older man.  Old men die sooner and the sooner Urquhart dies, the quicker Patrick Woolton will be back.

With the house of cards beginning to wobble, Urquhart has to go to even greater lengths to protect himself.  Roger O’Neill is clearly a liability, so Urquhart invites him down to his country house, gets him drunk and then laces his cocaine with rat poison.  Whilst he’s doing this, he makes the following speech to camera.  His soft, matter-of-fact delivery is truly chilling.  “This is an act of mercy. Truly. You know the man now. You can see he has nowhere to go. He’s begging to be set free. He’s had enough. And when he’s finally at rest, then we’ll be free to remember the real Roger. The burning boy in the green jersey. With that legendary, fabulous sidestep and the brave, terrified smile.”

But even this isn’t enough to stop Mattie’s investigations.  Thanks to a replay of her various audio tapes (and it’s remarkable how each tape she puts into her recorder plays at exactly the right point!) she begins to piece everything together and starts to believe the unbelievable.

She finds Urquhart at the House of Commons roof-garden and their final meeting (a complete reversal from Dobbs’ novel) is a justly memorable one.  And with an unseen hand picking up Mattie’s tape-recorder (which contains Urquhart’s confession) it’s clear that the story is far from over.

As I’ve previously said, this is a thoroughly modern drama that really doesn’t seem to be twenty-five years old (only the slightly clunky computers date it).  Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker, either together or apart, are incredibly watchable.  Richardson imbues Francis Urquhart with a mocking, attractive persona (except on the odd occasion when real anger shows through).  Harker’s Mattie Storin is, at different times, both manipulated and a manipulator.

It’s a memorable production and easily the strongest of the House of Cards trilogy.

House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode Three

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Henry Collingridge calls an emergency cabinet meeting and announces his immediate resignation.  He thanks all of his colleagues for their friendship and loyalty – at least those who feel that the words apply to them.  Later, he visits his brother in the private nursing home where he’s drying out and emotionally tells him that he’s glad it’s all over and he won’t have to fight the “bastards” anymore.  This is another scenario that has an eerie ring of truth (John Major, after shortly surviving a vote of confidence in 1993, was equally scathing about some of his cabinet colleagues).

Afterwards, Urquhart once again addresses the watching audience.  “Not feeling guilty, I hope. If you have pangs of pity, crush them now. Grind them under your heel like old cigar butts. I’ve done the country a favour. He didn’t have the brain or the heart or the stomach to rule a country like Great Britain. A nice enough man, but there was no bottom to him. His deepest need was that people should like him. An admirable trait, that. In a spaniel or a whore.  Not, I think in a Prime Minster.”  It’s even more impressive that he delivers this speech whilst standing at a urinal!

Urquhart is content to let others announce their desire to stand first, he’ll enter the race later in the day.  He can count on powerful friends when he does though, as he has the support of Ben Landless and his media empire.  Landless tells him that he’ll do everything he can to get him elected – and he’ll expect Urquhart to be grateful for evermore.  It’s another moment that feels horrifyingly like real life.

But there’s a subtle shift in this episode.  It’s less about Urquhart’s scheming and more about Mattie’s dogged investigations.  As the title suggests, a House of Cards may be a substantial structure, but it only takes one small movement to bring the whole edifice crashing down.  And the first stirrings happen when Mattie refuses to drop the investigation into the share scandal (even though she’s been moved off the political section of the Chronicle and onto Women’s Features).

It seems clear that Henry Collingridge couldn’t have bought the shares, since he convinces her that he’s not got a great deal in the old brain box.  So did somebody set him and his brother up?  Urquhart tries to warn Mattie off by sending Roger O’Neill round to her house (to throw a brick through the window and daub her car in paint).  This backfires when Penny confesses to Mattie that Roger was responsible, although she pleads with her not to go the police – in Roger’s current state he could easily commit suicide.

O’Neill is another link to Urquhart, but he convinces Mattie that he’s the best person to speak to O’Neill and find out exactly what he knows.  Poor, easily manipulated Roger O’Neill isn’t long for this world you’d fear ….

At present, there’s no doubt that Mattie believes everything that Francis Urquhart says.  But the problem is that she won’t stop digging.  He takes her to bed, which may be a way of earning her loyalty, but even here there’s the sense that Mattie is subtly (if unconsciously) maneuvering herself into a position of power.

Their meeting in the study is another spellbinding scene, played so well by both Richardson and Harker.  The scene alternates between tight one shots of both actors until Urquhart agrees to her request and they move into the frame together.  But what can she call him?  She doesn’t want to call him Francis and he says that calling him Chief Whip hardly seems appropriate.  After a few beats she says “I want to call you daddy.”  She has to repeat this to the (shocked?) Urquhart, but although he says nothing, the kiss seems to seal the agreement.

So can Francis Urquhart count on Mattie’s loyalty?  At present it seems so, but he isn’t aware that she’s been secretly tape-recording all of their meetings …..

House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode Two

house 02

The beleaguered prime minster and his colleagues have decamped to Brighton for the party conference.  Urquhart acidly rates the performances of his colleagues, all of whom are subtly auditioning for the PM’s job.

Michel Samuels (“Intelligent, sensitive, caring – all in the same sentence, I bet you”). Peter McKenzie (“God, what an idiot that man is”). Harold Earle is dismissed with a shake of the head, which leaves Patrick Woolton (“The man’s a lout, of course. A lout. A lecher. An anti-Semite. A racist. And a bully. He is however more intelligent than he seems.”)

Woolton is a clear and present danger, so Urquhart once again seeks the help of Roger O’Neill or more specifically, O’Neill’s assistant Penny Guy (Alphonsia Emmanuel). Ian Richardson displays the steel that lies just below Urquhart’s surface when he requests her services, although not for himself. “Shut up. Did you really think I wanted her?”  Instead, Urquhart requests she resume her relationship with Woolton (for reasons which will become clearer later om).

Alphonsia Emmanuel seems to have dropped off the radar in recent years (only one film/television credit post 1998) which is a pity, as she was always a very watchable presence. And every time I see her, it reminds me that Rockliffe’s Babies still remains unavailable on DVD. Maybe one day ….

When Roger suggests that she might like to join Woolton for dinner, there’s a real spark of anger.  “Pimping now, is it? Don’t you care about me at all? Don’t you care what I do?”  The anger quickly fades though and she agrees – which means her energetic love-making with Woolton is recorded by Urquhart (in a lovely scene, where he’s sitting upright in his bed, wearing a pair of headphones).  It’s another piece of insurance, to be used at the appropriate time.

Urquhart’s schemes continue apace.  He convinces Woolton that should Henry Collingridge stand down, he’d be the best man for the job.  Later, he also convinces the boorish newspaper magnate Ben Landless (Kenny Ireland) that Collingridge is yesterday’s man – and the power of the press is a powerful weapon.  Like so much of the story, it’s possible to find real-life parallels (how often has the press been gulity of creating, rather than shaping, public opinion?)  Landless is a rather unsubtle amalgam of the two most famous newspaper and media magnates of the time, Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell.  I’m not quite sure exactly what accent Ireland was attempting, but he impresses nonetheless.

Mattie has an encounter in the bar with the PM’s frequently drunken brother Charles Collingridge.  It’s only a short scene, but James Villiers makes it a memorable one.  “Lord, you are a pretty girl.  Oh, no offence. I’ve got a daughter your age. Lovely girl. Lovely face. Never, never see her. Own fault. Water under the thingy.”

The full revelations of the fake financial scandal engineered by Urquhart seem to spell the end of Henry Collingridge’s career and the episode closes on the developing relationship between Urquhart and Mattie.  Elizabeth Urquhart suggested that there was one way to ensure Mattie’s total loyalty and we see the first steps taken here.

Once again, we see Urquhart standing over the seated Mattie, reinforcing his dominance over her.  He pretends to be surprised at the way the conversation has gone and tells her he’s old enough to be her father.  When she responds that maybe that has something to do with it, after a beat he sits down and tells her that “oddly enough, I always wanted a daughter.”

House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode One

house 01-00

When the first episode of House of Cards was transmitted, on the 18th of November 1990, it was perfect timing since Margaret Thatcher had announced her resignation as Prime Minister earlier the same week.

Michael Dobbs’ novel House of Cards, published in 1989, tells the story of a completely unscrupulous politician, Francis Urquhart, who manages to lie, cheat and murder his way to the position of Prime Minister following Mrs Thatcher’s departure.

Dobbs had held a senior position in the Conservative Party, so there’s very much a ring of truth to his writing.  And although it was highly topical twenty-five years ago, it’s hardly dated at all – indeed, its theme of power-hungry and amoral politicians is probably just as relevant in 2015 as it was back then.

Andrew Davies adapted Dobbs novel and made several key changes.  One difference was the twisted relationship between Urquhart and Mattie (in the novel they only meet a few times and are never intimate).  Davies decided that “Mattie can have an affair with Urquhart, and let’s make it kinky, she can call him Daddy when they’re doing it.”

By far the greatest change was the ending.  In Dobbs’ novel, Urquhart commits suicide after being confronted with evidence of his crimes.  It’s a neat, moral ending but Davies decided to do something arguably more realistic, which led the way open for an intriguing sequel.

Dominating the four episodes was Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart.  Richardson had already many notable credits to his name (such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Porterhouse Blue) but the House of Cards trilogy would prove to be his signature role.  In another change from Dobbs’ novel, Davies chose to have Urquhart make numerous asides to the audience.  This breaking of the fourth wall (an unusual dramatic device in modern drama) was a masterstroke as it gave Richardson an incredible amount of scope to directly share his innermost thoughts and feelings.

Episode one opens with Urquhart mourning the departure of Mrs Thatcher (albeit with a faint ironical smile).  “Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, most glittering reign must come to an end some day.”

But who could replace her?  As Urquhart says, there’s plenty of contenders and he gives us a brief summation of each of them.  Lord Bilsborough (“Too old and too familiar. Tainted by a thousand shabby deals”).  Michael Samuels (“Too young. And too clever).  Patrick Woolton (“Bit of a lout. Bit of a bully-boy”).  Henry Collingridge (“The people’s favourite. A well-meaning fool. No background and no bottom”).

What’s absolutely clear is that, at this time, Urquhart has no thoughts about the job himself.  He’s content to serve and after Collingridge wins both the election as party leader and the General Election (although with a greatly reduced majority) he looks forward to the senior cabinet position he was promised.

But Collingridge (David Lyon) tells him that he’s much more valuable to the party if he remains as Chief Whip.  This snub is the motivating factor in convincing Urquhart that Collingridge should go and that he would make a much better PM.  But he still requires a push from his wife, Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), before he starts to scheme in earnest.

This is another change from the novel, as Mrs Urquhart is a much more central figure in Andrew Davies’ adaptation.  And just as Davies drew on Jacobean Theatre to craft Urquhart’s asides to the audience, it’s clear to see how Elizabeth acts as a Lady Macbeth figure, urging her initially unsure husband on the path to absolute power.

That same night, he’s visited by Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), a young journalist working for the Chronicle.  She’s desperate to know the thinking behind Collingridge’s lack of cabinet reappointments following the election and hopes that Urquhart will explain the reason why.  Harker is perfect as the ingenuous Mattie who Urquhart instantly realises can be manipulated to serve his own ends.

The pupil/master feeling is enhanced thanks to the way Paul Seed shot their initial meeting in Urquhart’s study.  For part of the scene, Richardson is standing whilst Harker remains seated.  This means that Mattie has to constantly look up to Urquhart, placing her in a subservient position (this simple staging helps to instantly establish his dominance over her).

After he’s fed Mattie some misinformation, Urquhart begins to manipulate all those around him who may be useful.  They include the charming, but unstable cocaine addict Roger O’Neill (a lovely, twitchy performance by Miles Anderson) as well as the Prime Minister’s drunken brother Charles (a typically fine turn from James Villiers).

Other key characters who will figure in the story later on are also introduced, such as Urquhart’s number two, Tim Stamper (Colin Jeavons).  He’s got little to do in this one, but Jeavons is always so watchable (observe the slight hurt on his face when Urquhart asks him to step out of the office when Roger O’Neill enters.  It’s the smallest of moments, but it helps, even this early on, to sell the idea that his loyalty may be called into question one day).

Before this, they both enjoy dressing down a rather pathetic MP called Stoat (Raymond Mason).  After Urquhart tells Stoat that he’s been able to persuade the police not to proceed, he goes on to say that “if you must use whores, for God’s sake go to a decent knocking-shop where they understand the meaning of discretion. Stamper will give you a list if you don’t know any yourself.”  After the unfortunate Stoat has left, Stamper says that “if I had a dog like that, I’d shoot it.”

Thanks to a system of embarrassing leaks engineered by Urquhart, Collingridge begins to feel the pressure.  And all the time Urquhart continues to pretend to be his most loyal supporter.  He reckons that one more scandal should finish him off – maybe a nice, juicy financial one which involves his brother?

Ghostwatch (BBC 1992)

ghostwatch

Althogh Ghostwatch was only screened once on British television (exactly twenty two years ago) it’s certainly a programme that remains lodged in the public imagination.  It was a drama, made for the BBC Screen One strand, but was recorded to look like a live, factual piece and this blurring between reality and fiction proved to be highly controversial.

Whilst there was a Screen One caption and a writers credit (for Stephen Volk) at the start, anybody who missed this and tuned in a few minutes later could easily have been forgiven for thinking this was a live broadcast.  It employed the narrative of a typical show of this type – Michael Parkinson is ensconced in the studio with an expert on the paranormal whilst Craig Charles and Sarah Greene are on location and reporting back events as they happen.

There are numerous examples of the television grammar that’s been employed to help “sell” the illusion that everything is happening live (although it was all recorded beforehand – and the location scenes were shot some six weeks before the studio action).  The camerawork is frequently out of focus, there are technical break-downs as well as several brief delays between the studio and location as communication is lost.

And like many live programmes there are periods when nothing much seems to be happening.  Essentially the first sixty minutes are all about establishing what we might see and the last thirty minutes ramp up the tension as the strange events start to happen.  During the final half-hour there’s an increasingly unsettling atmosphere as everything spirals out of control – this works so well because the previous hour was (deliberately) relatively mundane.

Sarah Greene is on location at a house in North London, where poltergeist activity is plaguing the Early family (mother Pamela and her two daughters Suzanne and Kim).  Craig Charles is also on the spot, chatting to locals whilst Michael Parkinson is in the studio, linking events and talking to an expert on the paranormal, Dr Lyn Pascoe.  Also present in the studio is Sarah Greene’s husband, Mike Smith, helping to field calls that Parkinson invites from viewers.

I remember watching this back in 1992.  I can’t remember if I knew beforehand that it was a drama, but for me this was very obvious as soon as the Early family are introduced.  There’s a certain staginess about their performances which made it clear to me that this was drama and not real life.  However, some people treated it as very real indeed and the atmosphere created was certainly vivid enough to generate nightmares.  There were reports that somebody committed suicide shortly after Ghostwatch was transmitted and the British Medical Journal reported that several children showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after they watched it.

Writer Stephen Volk would later profess surprise that anybody was taken in by it.

One thing I can say categorically is that, in all our many discussions at the BBC, we never, ever used the words “hoax” or “spoof.” To us, Ghostwatch was a scripted drama that we decided to make in a certain form – that of a “live” TV show – in order to make it more effective. We thought that people might be puzzled for two, perhaps five minutes, but then they would surely “get” it, and enjoy it for what it was – a drama. The curious thing about Ghostwatch is that while one part of the audience didn’t buy it for a second, another part believed it was real from beginning to end.

It’s interesting to draw parallels between Ghostwatch and that other great controversial drama broadcast around Halloween time – namely Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.  Like Ghostwatch, it was made clear at the start that it was a drama, but some people who missed that announcement were clearly fooled into believing that aliens had landed in Trenton, New Jersey. Although it’s outside the scope of this blog, if you’ve never heard it before then I recommend you have a listen here.

Given that nothing scary is ever really seen (the ghost, nicknamed “Pipes” appears briefly a dozen or so times, but each manifestation is only a brief flash so you really need to pause and rewind to spot him) the power of Ghostwatch seems to be derived from the performances, visuals and sounds.

Key to selling the idea that something strange is really going on is Sarah Greene.  By this time, Greene had been a familiar face on British television for over ten years (Blue Peter, Saturday Superstore) and her increasing anxiety is communicated clearly to the audience.  She’s somebody that the viewers know and trust, so to see her rattled and uncertain helps to sell the illusion.

The ending, with strange events happening in the studio and Michael Parkinson taken over by the ghost, should have signified to most people that this was very much a drama but it’s still a rather unsettling end.  Twenty two years on, Ghostwatch retains the power to chill and it’s recommended viewing – on Halloween or indeed any other dark night.

Their name liveth for evermore – A Foreign Field (BBC Screen One – 1993)

Roy Clarke's A Foreign Field
Roy Clarke’s A Foreign Field

The recent centenary commemorations of the start of WW1 has inspired me to pull this Screen One production from September 1993 down from the shelf for a rewatch as although it’s concerned with the events of WW2, the themes of sacrifice and comradeship are universal and timeless.

Cyril (Leo McKern) and Amos (Alec Guinness) are two D-Day veterans who have returned to Normandy to visit the graves of their fallen comrades. Both of them have been scarred by those fateful days in 1944 – particularly Amos, who is virtually mute and seems to have the mind of a child.

foreignfield
Alec Guinness and Leo McKern

Cyril has another reason for the trip, as he is looking to track down his wartime sweetheart Angelique (Jeanne Moreau). The fact he hasn’t seen her for nearly fifty years doesn’t discourage him, nor does the fact that he has a rival for her affection – Waldo (John Randolph), an American veteran visiting the area with his son (Edward Herrmann) and daughter-in-law Beverly (Geraldine Chaplin).

John Randolph
John Randolph

After fighting for Angelique’s affections, Cyril and Waldo decide to join forces as they both treat her to a day out and then together with the mysterious Lisa (Lauren Bacall) the mismatched party eventually find their way to the graves to remember those they have lost.

A Screen One production from 1993, A Foreign Field was written by Roy Clarke. Although he has a varied CV, the record-breaking Last of the Summer Wine is undoubtedly the series he is best remembered for. That series’ longevity and the critical mauling and polite indifference that the later runs generated have tended to mask that Clarke is a very talented writer with a keen ear for dialogue. This is a hallmark of A Foreign Field, particularly as Cyril and Waldo give full vent to their simmering Anglo-American resentment.

Lauren Bacall and Jeanne Moreau
Lauren Bacall and Jeanne Moreau

As good as Clarke’s teleplay is, it clearly doesn’t hurt that the likes of McKern, Guinness, Randolph, Moreau and Bacall are cast members. Frankly, this is a dream lineup, with particularly fine performances from Guinness and McKern. Alec Guinness has probably the showiest part – lacking virtually any dialogue he is able to insert various bits of business in order to steal any scene that takes his fancy. The eye is automatically focused on him because, well, he’s Alec Guinness, but he still manages to instil a sense of dignity into the character of Amos.

Best of all is Leo McKern. Well known for his long run in Rumpole of the Bailey, McKern here is able to produce a moment of subtlety and pathos that is heart stopping. Outwardly bluff, his mask slips when discussing the beachhead landings in a wonderful monologue.

The conclusion, with the mystery of Lisa’s pilgrimage solved, brings the story to a satisfactory conclusion and the point made, whilst subtle, is clearly understood. Available on DVD from Acorn, this is a fine production that could have so easily tipped over into mawkish sentimentally. The fact it doesn’t is a tribute both to the writing and the acting choices of the principal cast. A production that is well worth tracking down and treasuring.