Travel Man: 48 Hours in … – Series One and Series Two. Simply Media DVD Review

Now on its eighth series (an impressive feat for a programme which only launched in 2015) the format of Travel Man is a simple one. Take a highly acerbic host with a penchant for laconic flights of fancy (Richard Ayoade) and mix with a familiar comedian or LE face (Kathy Burke, Adam Hills, Jessica Hynes and Stephen Mangan in the first series alone). Drop the pair of them into a popular tourist destination for forty eight hours and mix well ….

Although each edition is short (filling a thirty minute slot, this leaves a running time of around twenty two minutes after the adverts are excised) this actually works in the series’ favour.  The way that Ayoade and his guest zip from attraction to attraction does replicate the feel of a hectic weekend break (and it also helps to keep the pace up).

Although primarily a vehicle for the comic observations of Richard Ayoade and his guests, Travel Man also functions as a travel series. Information concerning the costs of flights, accommodation, food, etc is briefly displayed, which allows the viewer to gauge the sort of budget required for each trip.

But although the series briefly touches upon the budget end of the market, it usually breaks these rules – Ayoade and his guest tend to stay in the best accommodation or might charter an expensive mode of transport (a hot air balloon or a luxury yacht). The best editions are those where Ayoade clicks with his fellow traveller and there’s the sense of a shared journey of discovery. Given the highly edited nature of the programme this isn’t always possible, but there’s certainly more hits than misses.

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“Too Turkish”

The first series, despite being only four editions long, worked well. It set up some running themes (the local cuisine will always be sampled – but often with fairly disastrous results).  Kathy Burke resorted to spitting it out whilst Adam Hills glumly decided that his soup was “too Turkish”. Meanwhile, Stephen Mangan bravely attempted the Marrakech delicacy of steamed sheep’s head, although most of it remained uneaten …

Food remains on the agenda during the second series, but there are plenty of other bizarre diversions (Greg Davies’ reaction to the Moscow cat circus, for example). Noel Fielding’s delight in sampling all the beers Copenhagen has to offer and Rob Delaney’s walking tour of Seville are just a few of the highlights.

Travel Man does what it does very well. It’s not an exhaustive or probing travel show, it’s there to entertain and thanks to Richard Ayoade’s delightfully deadpan persona it always delivers.

Series one and series two of Travel Man are released on the 29th of October 2018 by Simply Media. They can be ordered directly from Simply here and here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Behaving Badly – Simply Media DVD Review

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When Bridget’s husband (Mark) leaves her for a younger woman after twenty years of marriage, her life initially seems to be all but over. For a while she falls into a defensive pattern – attending church, taking pottery lessons and generally behaving as a respectable middle-aged woman – but eventually she decides that enough is enough. For the first time in her life she’s going to put her own needs first and have some fun, even if it means disrupting the lives of everybody around her ….

Originally broadcast in 1989, Behaving Badly is a quiet gem which boasts an impressive cast, headed by Judi Dench as Bridget. Adapted by Catherine Heath and Moria Williams from Heath’s novel, there’s certainly plenty of material for Dench to get her teeth into. To begin with, Bridget’s conventional programming is so ingrained that when Mark (Ronald Pickup) breaks the news that he’s leaving her, all she can think about is when they last had turbot (hence the title of the first episode – The Tale of the Turbot).

There are strong supporting performances – Gwen Watford as Mark’s smothering mother Frieda – but it’s Dench who holds most of the interest across the four episodes.  As we proceed through the serial, Bridget shakes up the settled lives of her ex-husband Mark and his new wife Rebecca (Frances Barber) before moving on to her grown-up daughter Phyllida (Francesca Folan).

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What makes the serial especially interesting is the fact that in part it was something of an autobiographical study. Catherine Heath did admit that she felt a twinge of disquiet when Dench came onto set as the dowdy Bridget (she was dressed in an almost identical raincoat to her!) Although Heath at the time stated that she’d be interested in writing more for television, this remained her sole credit.

If Catherine Heath was something of a newcomer to the world of television, she was bolstered by some experienced production hands. Producer Humphrey Barclay started his career in the 1960’s working on several pre-Python shows (Do Not Adjust Your Set, Complete and Utter History of Britain) whilst his most recent production is the John Cleese sitcom Hold The Sunset. Director David Tucker had previously helmed A Very Peculiar Practice amongst others.

Behaving Badly mixes humour and pathos (many of the funniest lines come from Frieda)  and whilst it’s fairly low-key, the cast are a pleasure to watch. In addition to those already mentioned, the likes of Douglas Hodge, Joley Richardson, Hugh Quarshie and Maurice Denham are all excellent value. An entertaining character piece, it’s certainly worth your time.

Behaving Badly is available now from Simply Media, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Bodily Harm – Simply Media DVD Review

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Mitchel Greenfield’s mid-life crisis is a bit more extreme than most. After being fired from his job, learning that his father is dying and that his wife has been carrying on with a loathsome neighbour, Mitchel snaps in a major fashion – causing havoc to those closest to him ….

Like The Fragile Heart, this is another Channel 4 drama that’s slipped into obscurity, which is surprising given the cast.  Timothy Spall is perfect as the initially affable Mitchel who, following crushing blow after crushing blow, begins to devolve into an irrational and at times violent individual. Spall, due to his lengthy film and television career, already carried a residual groundswell of public affection, which helps to explain why we’re on Mitchel’s side right from the start.

Mitchel’s a middle-aged stockbroker with a fairly affluent lifestyle, although he seems curiously out of place amongst the younger and more thrusting wheeler-dealers.  So quite how he’s managed to hang onto his position for so long is something of a mystery.

Lesley Manville, as Mitchel’s wife Mandy, offers a contrasting but complimentary performance. Poles apart in temperament (Mitchel, at least to begin with, is self-contained whilst Mandy is outgoing to an extreme level) they seem to have little in common.  Mandy’s desire to throw a massive birthday party for him and their daughter Nic (Sadie Thompson) is a good example of their non-communication. Both Mitchel and Nic view the prospect of a party with little enthusiasm, but as ever Mandy gets her way.

It’s fascinating that Mitchel and Nic seem to enjoy a stronger bond than Mitchel and Mandy. When the teenage Nic expresses her desire to move away from home (to a place where, she says, she won’t be viewed as a misfit) Mitchel is bereft at the prospect.

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Bodily Harm is very dark indeed. There are a few moments of twisted humour though, and one which works well is the sequence when a drunken Mandy succumbs to the dubious charms of Tintin (Jay Simpson) in one of the upstairs rooms at the party. Dressed as an angel, as Mandy’s enthusiastic blow-job reaches its, um, climax, her wings flap with an ever increasing fury.

The quality casting continues with Mitchel’s parents Sidney and Sheila (George Cole and Annette Crosbie). Their story occupies the darker end of the narrative – an ailing Sidney locking himself into a suicide pact with a compliant Sheila. As with Spall, the familiarity of these two veteran actors ensures that we’re invested in their fates just that little bit more.

Tony Grounds’ script is sharp and punchy and features a few unexpected diversions along the way.  Originally broadcast in June 2002 across two episodes (the first running for fifty minutes, the second for eighty five minutes) it’s another Channel 4 drama that I’m glad has been brought back into circulation by Simply. Not something to watch if you’re feeling a bit down, Bodily Harm nevertheless crackles with an angry and uncomfortable intensity.

Bodily Harm is available now from Simply Media, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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The Fragile Heart – Simply Media DVD Review

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Edgar Pascoe (Nigel Hawthorne) is a leading Cardiac surgeon who finds himself embroiled in difficulties inside and out of the operating theatre. His wife Lileth (Dearbhla Molloy) is a GP who becomes increasingly distanced both professionally and personally from him whilst their daughter Nicola (Helen McCrory) causes friction due to her single-minded desire to follow in her father’s footsteps.

The death of a patient during a routine operation sows the first seed of doubt in Edgar’s mind. Later, during a trip to China as the head of a medical delegation, he finds himself confronted not only by an ethical dilemma but also by his own failing health.  Could traditional Chinese methods of healing possibly hold the key? The rational Edgar has always viewed such things with disdain, and yet ….

Written by Paula Milne and broadcast over three episodes during November 1996, The Fragile Heart has somewhat slipped into obscurity despite Nigel Hawthorne’s BAFTA-winning performance (this would be Hawthorne’s sixth and final BAFTA award).

Paula Milne’s writing career stretches back to the early seventies (beginning with an episode of Crossroads). Shortly afterwards she would develop the medical drama Angels before contributing to a number of established series including Z Cars, Coronation Street and Juliet Bravo.  Her first single drama – A Sudden Wrench – was aired in 1982 as part of the Play For Today strand, whilst later career highlights include Driving Ambition (1984), Chandler and Co. (1994-95) and The Politician’s Wife (1995).

The opening of episode one sees Edgar give a speech to a roomful of fellow professionals. This is a handy device, as it allows him to state his medical ethos quickly and succinctly. He believes whole-heartedly in the advancement of medical science – especially when connected to the development of new technology. The Fragile Heart is something of a time capsule of the period – it was a period when computer technology was becoming increasingly sophisticated (even if some of the examples look a little low-tech today).

This early monologue is a fine showcase for Hawthorne, who – as you might expect – doesn’t disappoint. And as we proceed, further layers are added to Edgar’s character.   Existing in the rarefied upper echelons of the medical profession, he conducts his professional business with efficiency but little personal empathy.

This is exemplified when an anxious patient, Peter Sedgley (Sebastian Abineri), expresses doubt about the operation Edgar has arranged for him. Politely but firmly disagreeing with Sedgley that herbal alternatives may be beneficial, the routine operation goes ahead but tragedy strikes as Sedgley dies on the operating table.  Hawthorne again impresses during these scenes, especially during the moment when Edgar is confronted by Sedgley’s grieving widow, Margaret (Marian McLoughlin).  That he chose to delegate a junior to break the bad news to her is a telling character moment.

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Whilst Edgar maintains a dispassionate profile, Lileth is quite different. The contrast between their working environments is immediately obvious – his patients are wealthy and private whilst hers are poor and public.  Lileth’s tactile interaction with her patients makes the point that technology is only part of the medical solution – personal contact is also important.  Further to this, witness her reaction when confronted with a demonstration of a long-distance diagnosis (with a doctor at the end of a computer screen). This theme of science versus nature is one which occurs multiple times across the serial.

As for the rest of the family, Nicola’s naked ambition quickly comes to the surface.  Happily plagiarising the work of others, she’s unrepentant when confronted by her colleague, Dilip Satsu (Ian Aspinall). This was an early role for Helen McCrory who immediately catches the eye.  Nicola’s twin, Daniel (Dominic Mafham), is the one non-medical member of the family and there’s the sense that this is something of a disappointment to Edgar.

The return of a vengeful Dilip – threatening to expose Nicola as a fraud – is a key part of the second episode. They don’t confront each other directly (she, along with Daniel, are both in China with Edgar) but the fall-out is very interesting anyway.  Nicola’s casual admission of guilt to her father, followed by a suggestion that he should fake the records to support her story, is a dramatic moment which triggers another of Edgar’s attacks (which have been increasing in frequency).

The aftermath – Edgar is treated in his hotel-room by a Chinese doctor – begins the process of chipping away at Edgar’s belief that science is always right. This is developed across the third and final episode, which sees Edgar continue his journey of self-discovery.

Running for three episodes each of approximately sixty six minutes duration (an unusual format) The Fragile Heart is a somewhat leisurely watch, but it’s held together by Nigel Hawthorne’s magnetic central performance. There’s something undeniably poignant about watching him act the part of a man whose powers were waning (just five years later he would die of a heart attack). Easy to see why he won a BAFTA for this role and two decades on his playing has lost none of its power. This one is well worth checking out.

The Fragile Heart is available now from Simply Media, RRP £11.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Mr White Goes To Westminster – Simply Media DVD Review

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Ben White (Bill Paterson) decides to quit his job as a foreign correspondent in order to stand as an independent candidate against the disgraced Conservative politician Paul Madison (Robert Duncan). Catching the mood of a public disgusted with political sleaze, Ben finds himself Westminster-bound and keen to curb the excesses of the gutter press. But Ben has a skeleton in his closet – one which the editor of the Daily Comet wastes no time in exposing …..

Guy Jenkin’s 1997 satire has lost none of its topicality. Delighting in taking broad side-swipes at both the media and politicians, most of the piece still seems as depressingly relevant today as it was back then.  Given Jenkin’s background (he was the co-creator of Drop The Dead Donkey) it’s maybe not surprising that the opening shot of Ben reporting from a warzone has more than a feel of Damien Day’s reportage about it.  But there’s nothing faked about Ben’s piece to camera – although the mood of his heartfelt speech is somewhat spoiled by the ostentatious appearance of that week’s lottery numbers.

The broad satire continues when Ben, handed an award for this report, receives a trophy shaped like a golden McDonalds hamburger.  Various familiar faces appearing as themselves – John Humphrys, Keith Chegwin, Edwina Currie – is another Dead Donkey touch, whilst his Dead Donkey co-writer – Andy Hamilton – seems to be enjoying himself tremendously as the Comet’s low-life editor. At one point he expresses genuine puzzlement as to how they could possibly produce a newspaper if they were restricted to only telling the truth ….

At the time this first aired New Labour had just swept to power. But their honeymoon period – in Jenkin’s eyes anyway – seems to have been extremely brief.  Behind the glossy PR-speak, their political operatives are just as ruthless as the opposition.  Helen Nash (Samantha Bond) is a Labour politician earmarked for big things, but this has little to do with her abilities (although she’s presented to us in a very sympathetic light) and more because she’s a very photogenic sort of person.

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It’s Ben’s decade-old affair with Helen (that occurred when he was still a married man) which is the trigger for him to be the recipient of a deluge of unwelcome press attention (other allegations follow).  Paterson and Bond handle the dramatic scenes with aplomb, although both are equally adept at mining the script for its considerable reserves of humour.

Casting-wise, there’s impressive strength in depth here.  Robert Duncan (another Dead Donkey old boy) is hugely entertaining as Paul Madison, the weak-willed Tory politician who loves to impersonate Adolf Hitler in private.  He’s matched all the way by Ceila Imrie as Madison’s wife – the long-suffering Victoria. The clear power behind the throne (they always appear together in press conferences, where she barely lets him get a word in edgeways) Imrie is perfect as a steely puppet-master.

Matilda Ziegler as a dead-eyed Labour fixer and Dervla Kirwin as the Daily Comet’s top reporter, the Ferret (who apparently casts no shadow), also both catch the eye.

Mr White Goes To Westminster is loosely based on the exploits of Martin Bell, the foreign correspondent who resigned from the BBC in order to oppose one of the safest Conservative seats in the country – that of Neil Hamilton.  Bell won by a landslide (helped by the fact that Labour and the Liberal Democrats withdrew their candidates) and was sometimes referred to as the man in the white suit. Mr White, ah I see.

Running for 75 minutes, Mr White Goes To Westminster is a sharp satire, featuring a fine central performance from Bill Paterson. There may be plenty of gags but it also takes the time to touch upon concerns which still strike chords today.  This is a DVD that is well worth checking out.

Mr White Goes To Westminster is released by Simply Media on the 8th of October 2018, RRP £11.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Play For Today – The Imitation Game. Simply Media DVD Review

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The year is 1940. Having previously worked at a wireless listening station dealing with coded Enigma transmissions, Cathy Raine (Harriet Walter) arrives at Bletchley Park – the home of the Enigma machine and the nerve centre of Britain’s code-breaking efforts.

Disappointingly, she finds her duties are very mundane – making coffee and cleaning – but there are compensations. She becomes friendly with a Cambridge mathematics don called John Turner (Nicholas Le Prevost) and the pair go to bed.  But their love-making ends badly with Turner blaming Cathy for the debacle.  Shortly afterwards, Cathy is discovered in Turner’s room reading top secret documents and this act leads to her imprisonment ….

Originally broadcast on the 24th of April 1980, there’s a very modern feel to this Play for Today. Cathy is determined to break free from her stifling home life and domineering father (Bernard Gallagher).  Most girls have “done their bit” by going to work in the local munitions factory, but Cathy has set her sights a little higher and so joins the ATS.

During her initial training she befriends Mary (Brenda Blethyn – making her television debut) and the pair become close.  That they and the other ATS girls are encroaching into male territory is demonstrated after the pair dare to pop down to the local pub by themselves for a drink. This invasion of a male dominated province doesn’t go down well and the landlord’s attempt to move them on ends in an ugly scuffle.  Following a severe reprimand she’s moved to Bletchley Park – an ignominious reason for her transfer.

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If Cathy was – apart from Mary – isolated before, then this feeling only increases when she takes up her duties at Bletchley.  So it’s possibly not surprising that she responds so eagerly to the handful of kind words flung her way by Turner.  Based loosely on Alan Turning, Turner is unable to perform when the pair go to bed and he quickly decides that she’s the guilty party.  “You wanted to humiliate me and you’ve succeeded. You hated your own job and you’re jealous of me for mine”.

Ian McEwan had originally wanted to write a play about Alan Turing and the Enigma machine but found information on both was rather scarce, so instead he turned his attention to life at Bletchley Park. Despite the fact that women formed around 75% of the workforce, he learnt that they were very underrepresented in key positions (although research undertaken during the last few decades has somewhat revised this viewpoint).

Cathy’s downfall begins at the listening station after she becomes frustrated that she doesn’t understand why the coded messages she’s working on are important. “All of the women know nothing, some of the men know everything”.  Although it’s easy in one way to understand her point of view, does she “need to know” in order to do her job? She doesn’t, but it’s her desire to see the bigger picture which eventually leads her to Turner’s Enigma notes.

The Imitation Game was only Harriet Walter’s second television credit, but she belied this lack of screen experience with a beautifully judged performance (Cathy’s closing monologue is a particular highlight).  A fair few familiar faces make appearances, some more fleeting than others. Patricia Routledge is perfectly cast as a hearty ATS officer whilst Geoffrey Chater, always at home when tackling authority figures, plays to type as the interrogating Colonel.

Bernard Gallagher is terrifically unbending as a martinet father who clearly wouldn’t be averse to a German invasion (at one point Cathy ironically suggests he should put on his black shirt). Simon Chandler is also very good value as the supremely irritating Tony, Cathy’s long-term boyfriend, who’s more than a little put out to learn that she’s decided to join the army (regarding the ATS as something of a den of iniquity).

Running for 92 minutes, The Imitation Game was one of a number of interesting Play For Today‘s directed by Richard Eyre during the late seventies and early eighties (hopefully over time they might all make it onto DVD). Thanks to Harriet Walter’s vulnerable but steely performance as Cathy (along with the strong supporting cast) this is an absorbing play.

The Imitation Game is released by Simply Media on the 1st of October 2018, RRP £9.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Play of the Week – Our Day Out. Simply Media DVD Review.

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Mrs Kay (Jean Haywood) runs a remedial class for illiterate children.  Along with the long-suffering Mr Briggs (Alun Armstrong) and two younger teachers – Susan (Elizabeth Estensen) and Colin (Lennox Greaves) – she escorts her unruly mob on a day trip from Liverpool to Conwy Castle in North Wales.  For Mr Briggs, it’s a day of considerable stress ….

Drawing on his own experiences of school trips (both as a teacher and a child) Our Day Out is a typically perceptive slice of drama from Willy Russell. Originally broadcast in December 1977 as part of the Play of the Week strand, it obviously struck an immediate chord with the audience as it was swiftly repeated just a few months later (this time as a Play For Today).

Although he wrote the play in just four days, it was a subject he’d been mulling over for some considerable time. Later turned into a musical, the original BBC play is one which Russell still regards with fondness today.  “The performances are exquisite. Shot on 16mm in just three weeks by a first time director working with a largely untrained cast it just seemed to be one of those charmed ventures in which everything just fell into place”.

Mrs Kay and Mr Briggs are two very different types of teacher – she’s the free and easy type whilst he’s stern and controlling. Which method works best? Mr Briggs maintains that you need discipline in order to make any headway in teaching these types of children but Mrs Kay – in a late set-piece monologue – is totally dismissive of this attitude.  Society at large, she maintains, doesn’t want them schooled – after all, if they were then where would the next generation of factory fodder come from?

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This is the most overtly political point in a play where the thorny topic of inner-city deprivation is never far from the surface. The difference between the streets of Liverpool (shown here in all their grimy 1970’s glory) and the countryside of Wales is marked, especially since it’s made plain than most of the children have never gone further than Birkenhead before. There’s a yearning melancholy on display from some of them which is heartbreaking – they want a better life, but there’s a sense that the system just won’t allow it.

The gulf in acting experience between the adult cast and the children is one of the most intriguing things about Our Day Out.  None of the children had acted before (and most wouldn’t again) which gives their performances a very natural and unaffected air.  To balance this, you have experienced actors such as Jean Haywood and Alun Armstrong in the central roles as well as decent cameos from the likes of George Malpas, Robert Gillespie and Peter Tilbury.

En route to the castle, they stop off twice – first at a motorway cafe and then at a zoo.  It does beggar belief that both times Mr Briggs would let them roam unsupervised – with the result that they pilfer all the sweets from the cafe and later attempt to steal half the zoo! This latter moment is high on comic value but low on credibility.  However it allows Armstrong (who is excellent throughout) a moment of high intensity as he roundly berates the children.

As you might expect, he eventually begins to relent and it’s his clifftop encounter with young Carol (Julie Jones) which is key. Jones tackles the substantial role of Carol with such gusto that it’s a real shame she didn’t continue acting.  Desperate to stay in Wales rather than return to her miserable existence in Liverpool, there follows a tense scene where Mr Briggs attempts to talk her back from the cliff edge.  This he does and the emotional connection he makes with her helps him to finally unbend.

A late visit to the funfair – his idea – ends the day on a happier note, but as the coach returns to Liverpool it’s easy to see Mr Briggs’ relaxed spirit slowly dissipating.  Will he modify his approach in future or simply revert to his stern ways once they’re back at school? This is left unresolved, but there’s one key moment which suggests that the latter course is the most likely.

Deftly juggling comedy with more serious themes, Our Day Out is a gem of a play which at 67 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome.  Alun Armstrong is outstanding, but none of the cast disappoint and it’s the sort of play which should have considerable replay value.

Our Day Out is released by Simply Media on the 1st of October 2018, RRP £9.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).