Nature Boy – Simply Media DVD Review

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David Witton (Lee Ingleby) is a troubled seventeen year old.  Along with several other youngsters he lives with foster parents (he barely remembers his father who left home when he was a young child, his mother refuses to speak to him) and he’s been placed in the remedial class at school.

He’s not a troublemaker though, which is made clear during a particularly rowdy lesson.  The other pupils are enjoying themselves by baiting the teacher whilst David remains totally absorbed in a world of his own.  To make this point plain, the background noise is gently faded down until there’s total quiet as David continues to look out of the window at a pair of nesting birds.  When the teacher asks him what he’s looking at, he replies “great tits” which she naturally takes the wrong way (as do the rest of the class).

Even this early on, we can see that David is disconnected from virtually everyone around him.  The only constants in his life are his love of nature plus the companionship of Fred (Mark Benton) who lives on the nature reserve.  But whilst the beauty of the local landscape offers some respite from reality it can only be a temporary refuge.

The opening episode is bleak on so many levels.  David meets Anne-Marie (Vicky Binns) who’s come to stay with his foster parents.  She’s about his age, although she seems much older – telling him that her previous foster father regularly abused her.  This isn’t a major plot point, simply some incidental colour as it’s taken as read that such things happen.  A familiar television face, thanks to long stints on both Emmerdale and Coronation Street, Binns offers a haunting portrait of a doomed, disaffected youth.

The serial makes an interesting choice when it’s revealed that Fred was a paedophile  The details aren’t revealed but David remains non judgmental (telling him that’s what he was, not who he is now) although that doesn’t prevent a group of youths (who were looking for David) from burning his hut down.  It’s no surprise that Mark Benton is excellent as Fred.  Not an easy role to play (nor is it a particularly large one) but it’s another performance that lingers in the memory.

It can’t be a coincidence that David reacts in the same way after he finds a stricken deer (which he’s forced to kill in front of his horrified classmates) and when he sees Anne-Marie’s lifeless body washed up on the shore.  Both times he mourns for a life lost, and it seems that both were equally important to him.

There’s nothing left for him at home now, so he sets off to find his father, Steve (Paul McGann).  His father is a constant presence in the narrative – regularly glimpsed briefly in flashback sequences as David slowly begins to remember more about him.  But with only a single photograph it seems unlikely he’ll be able to track him down.

As episode two opens, David is far from home and living off the land.  If this open-air existence could been seen as idyllic (the acoustic, guitar based incidental music reinforces this) there’s also the sense that – as with his trips to the nature reserve in the first episode – these moments of pleasure can only be fleeting ones. As his small boat sails into port he’s greeted by an ugly, industrial landscape and the incidental music changes accordingly.

David, nursing an injured fox, is found by a young boy Miles (Samuel Sackville) hiding in his parent’s shed. Miles is withdrawn and barely speaks, thanks to his domineering father Tom (Andrew Woodall) but David’s empathy not only exists with animals – he’s able, with the aid of the fox, to bring the previously taciturn Miles out of his shell. He can obviously see something of himself in Miles (who has to endure violent rows between his parents). The pair share several lovely scenes and their final one (soundtracked by Paul Weller’s Brand New Start) stands out.

David’s winsome, vulnerable persona claims another convert as he’s befriended by Jenny (Joanne Froggatt). Downtown Abbey is one of her most recent high-profile roles, but here she was right at the start of her career. Immediately prior to this she’d played the gormless work experience girl Sigourney in the series two opener of dinnerladies and a few years later would have an impressive dual role in the first episode of The Last Detective.

Tom (a local MP) is presented as such an obnoxious individual that it’s just about credible that his wife Martha (Lesley Sharp) would be so attracted to David that she’d want to sleep with him. Just about. Although since Martha and Tom have no sex-life to speak of, it’s maybe not surprising that she grabs the nearest available man she can find (even if it’s a seventeen year old living in her shed). Clearly you’ve got to watch the quiet ones …..

It’s a slight plot contrivance that Jenny is campaigning against the local industrial company Blexco whilst Martha is handling PR for them. It’s Martha’s job to spin the message that they’re not damaging the environment – instead they’ve helping the community by bringing employment into the area as well as sponsoring local projects. No surprise that Jenny isn’t convinced (cement dust killed her brother) although she’s something of a lone voice to begin with.

Blexco are exposed, but things don’t end well for David and he’s forced to move on. The third installment begins with Jenny’s involvement with a group of protesters who are attempting to stop the felling of a forest. As with the previous episode, we see the sharp contrast between nature and business (here it’s the Keyways construction site). There’s an undeniable sense of polemic to begin with (business = bad) but when David arrives he’s able to provide another point of view.

We move into borderline telefantasy territory as Jenny stands in the middle of the forest and says “come on.” Miles away, David is visited by another vision of his father, who’s brought somebody with him – Jenny. She repeats the same words that she spoke in the forest, seemingly guiding David towards her.

The protesters are a colourful group, no doubt inspired by the exploits of Swampy a few years earlier. As they all sit around, somewhat depressed by the encroaching security, Jenny is encouraged to sing to them. Joanne Froggatt’s acapella song is yet another stand out moment, made all the more interesting as it’s partly overlaid with scenes of David’s travels. As he stops for a moment, it seems as if he’s following her singing – a striking use of non-diegetic sound.

When David turns up he rescues Jenny from drowning – except she wasn’t drowning at all (David was having a flashback to Anne-Marie’s death). As with his visions of his father, it’s another indication that his grasp on reality is somewhat skewed.

Although Jenny tells David that she can’t leave with him – as she has to stay and protect the trees, flowers and animals – he’s far from impressed with the way they’ve created a series of tunnels in order to try and halt the developers. “You’re digging under trees and pouring concrete and bits of metal down there! There’s no animals here. There’s no foxes or badgers, ‘cos you’ve driven them all away.” It’s a fascinating moment.

Richard Ridings as Ted, the sheriff charged with clearing out the protesters, is another excellent performer. Ted isn’t a cackling, evil monster – he loves the forest as much as anybody, but tells David that the runway development will go ahead because “people like to go on holiday. They want to fly their planes here, there and everywhere. They don’t want to sit by the lake.” He’s more of a rounded character than many of the protesters, who tend to be defined by their sloganeering and little else.

David, Jenny, Wack (Ged Hunter) and Donny (Stephen Taylor) take refuge in the tunnels once the contractors arrive in force. Donny, previously the figurehead of the protesters (and David’s rival for Jenny’s affections) is a different character once the claustrophobia of the tunnels begins to take hold. He’s revealed as something of a dilettante whilst Jenny’s passion burns just as bright. This isn’t a good thing though, as she’s prepared to risk her life in what appears to be a meaningless gesture. David agrees to go further undergeound with her, but not because he believes in what she’s doing – he just wants to be with her.

The final scenes of the third episode, as David and Jenny are entombed deep underground, are striking. Both Ingleby and Frogatt are mesmerising as the characters enjoy moments of solitude and intimacy, which contrasts sharply with the frantic efforts above ground as the contractors attempt to rescue them. David’s naked, mud-covered body is pulled out, but Jenny is still down there and he frantically pleads with them to go back for her …..

I’m not going to discuss the final episode in any detail, so that first-time viewers can discover Jenny’s fate (and also whether David finds his father) for themselves.  Although if you want to remain spoiler free I’d also recommend skipping the coming next montages on the first three episodes.  Coming next trailers are something of a curse of modern television and it’s interesting to ponder whether the ones on Nature Boy (lest we forget, made some sixteen years ago) are simply a very clumsy, early example of this trend or whether the clips were chosen deliberately as part of the overall story-telling experience.

The trailers for the first two episodes not only preview events from the next installment, but also look ahead to later episodes – which means that we always remain several steps ahead of the characters (especially David).  What leads me to suppose that there’s some thought been given to the choice of these clips is that some of them (especially the ones with Paul McGann) are rather misdirecting, especially the ones seen directly episode one.

If a slight weakness of Nature Boy is its episodic nature, then then sharpness of the scripting and performances more than compensates.  Lee Ingleby has a difficult role to play, as David is withdrawn and self-contained, but he manages to bring considerable light and shade to the troubled teenager.  Joanne Frogatt is equally as strong and all four episodes also boast numerous compelling one-off appearances from a host of quality actors.

That it won the 2001 Royal Television Society award for Best Drama is entirely merited and as it seems to have made a strong impression on many who watched it on its original broadcast, it’s very pleasing that it’s now available on DVD.  Simply’s release contains the four episodes (each approx 58 minutes) across two discs.  There are no issues with either the picture or sound.

Nature Boy is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £24.99.

The Ginger Tree – Simply Media DVD Review

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Apart from its inherent qualities, The Ginger Tree is of interest because it was the first drama anywhere in the world to be recorded in HD.  The BBC had been running HD trials since the mid 1980’s, but this four-part 1989 serial was the first production designed for broadcast.

Because of the prohibitive cost of working with the new technology, a co-production deal with other broadcasters had to be arranged.  The choice of NHK Japan as one of the production partners no doubt influenced the novel chosen for adaptation, but that turned out to be one the strengths of the serial.  Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, if you needed a Japanese-looking actor then you’d get Burt Kwouk if you were lucky and if you were unlucky you’d have a British actor doing his best to look Oriental.  The Ginger Tree, despite being shot on (albeit HD) VT has a filmic sweep and the lavish period setting, location filming and authentic Japanese actors all help to give the serial a rich, immersive feel that the BBC by itself would never have been able to afford.

One irony is that back in 1989 there was no way for British viewers to enjoy the high definition picture.  Compatible televisions didn’t exist and the HDVS recorder used to make the program was essentially an NTSC system  – so the programme had to be converted back into the PAL format for screening on the BBC, meaning that it looked somewhat washed out.  This DVD release is therefore able to present the programme in better quality, although it’s a pity that a BD release isn’t available as that should have been better still (although to be honest, it doesn’t look any sharper or better in SD than a typical VT production of the era).

The Ginger Tree was a novel by Oswald Wynd, originally published in 1977.  Wynd was born in Japan in 1913 to Scottish parents who had come to the country to run a mission. Wynn spent his formative years immersed in what must have been a very alien culture (which obviously helped to inform the writing of The Ginger Tree).  After WW2, where he spent several years as a Japanese prisoner of war, he returned to his native Scotland and pursued a writing career, penning thrillers under the pseudonym of Gavin Black as well as several books under his own name.  The Ginger Tree, helped in part by this adaptation, remains his most popular work.

The book was written as a series of diary entries and letters penned by Mary Mackenzie.  This literary device naturally presents some problems for the adaptor, but Christopher Hampton (who had won an Oscar in 1989 for Dangerous Liaisons) was able to capture the essence of Wynd’s novel.

The year is 1903.  Mary MacKenzie (Samantha Bond) has travelled to Manchuria to marry her fiance, Captain Richard Collingsworth (Adrian Rawlings).  Because they barely know each other it’s clear that their marriage is doomed from the start.  But Mary’s affair with Count Kentaro Kurihama (Daisuke Ryû), a Japanese soldier, plunges her into a scandal from which there seems no escape.  After bearing his child, she finds herself facing an uphill battle as she attempts to find herself a place in the extremely rigid and formal Japanese society.

It’s possible to believe that Mary is something of an innocent. She’s never journeyed out of Britain before and now finds herself setting out on the long trek to Manchuria to marry Richard. Is she in love with him? He seems personable enough and she certainly seems keen to reach him as quickly as possible, so maybe. But they’ve only met a handful of times before their marriage was arranged, which casts obvious doubt that their union will endure.

Their wedding night is a key moment. He doesn’t turn instantly cruel, instead he becomes indifferent, which is possibly worse. He shows Mary her bedroom and then mentions he’ll be sleeping elsewhere. But he is prepared to do his duty as a dutiful husband and make love to her – although in the most perfunctory way. There’s no passion or tenderness and Bond’s silent, frozen face speaks volumes.

Samantha Bond had racked up some decent credits prior to this (Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, Mansfield Park, Rumpole of the Bailey) but The Ginger Tree was her first major starring role and it required a subtle and nuanced performance, which she delivers.

Bond plays Mary in a very internalised way. This isn’t a surprise, given that ladies of her class and era weren’t encouraged to express their feelings. But given how inarticulate (emotionally) she is, it seems initially unlikely that she’ll ever form a relationship with the sensative Kentaro. Which makes the chain of events towards the end of the first episode – they take tea, they become lovers, she finds herself bearing his child – something of a whirlwind. Due to the languid pace of the episode up to this point it all seems to happen very suddenly.

Daisuke Ryû has tended to work mainly in Japanese language films, which could be the reason why Kurihama seems slightly stilted at times. But it could also be a performance choice and either way it helps to differentiate Kurihama from Collingsworth (Kurihama’s slight vulnerability constants sharply with the indifference of Collingsworth).

The sight of a heavily pregnant Mary quickly wipes the smile off the face of her returning husband. He immediately decides to pack her off back to Scotland, although he doesn’t intend to give her a divorce – for purely monetary reasons. It’s a remarkable revelation that Mary’s mother has pledged half her yearly income (some three hundred pounds) to Collingsworth for as long as the pair stay married.

Ar the station she’s faced with another option, a train ticket to Tokyo, provided by Kurihama. She accepts it and is accompanied by Baroness Aiko Onnodera (Fumi Dan). Dan gives a sparkling performance, which contrasts well with Bond’s more withdrawn persona. Aiko is an ardent campaigner for women’s rights, which has recently earned her a spell in prison, but she remains unrepentant. She’s able to explain exactly what Mary’s life in Tokyo will be like.

Kurihama has provided her with a house and servants, but as a women, a foreigner and essentially a concubine, her movements will be very restricted. Mary’s fleeting hopes that Kurihama will marry her are dashed when she learns he’s a married man with four children.

Although the general theme of The Ginger Tree is quite downbeat, there’s also a feeling of optimism. Mary might be portrayed initially as something of a naive, downtrodden figure but over time she gains strength and becomes less of a victim. Samantha Bond is very watchable, although her soft Scottish accent seems to come and go a little. Daisuke Ryû is equally impressive, as are the rest of the Japanese cast. The co-production budget allowed for a generous number of extras and set dressings, plus filming in Japan was obviously another major plus. The story unfolds over some forty years, ending during WW2, necessitating ageing makeup to be applied to the main cast, which is done very effectively.

Oswald Wynd’s tale of love and loss is effectively brought to life in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation and it’s sure to strike a chord with many.

The Ginger Tree is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016. RRP £19.99.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection. Simply Media DVD Review.

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Roobarb, which first aired in 1974, was one of a number of children’s series (The Magic Roundabout was another) which aired on BBC1 just before the six o’clock news, thus ensuring that it attracted a large adult viewership in addition to its intended target audience.  This is probably the one of the reasons why it’s maintained a certain cult status ever since, although there are several others.

Firstly, Grange Calveley’s scripts are funny.  Although they lack the layered humour that Eric Thompson brought to the Magic Roundabout, there’s still plenty of decent puns and weird flights of fancy to enjoy.  For example, in When Roobarb Found Sauce, Roobarb is concerned to find that the pond has dried up and sets out to find its source.  This leads him to the centre of the Earth where a strange creature provides him with the pond’s sauce, which turned out to be chocolate (his favourite!)

Richard Briers’ narration is a major plus point as well.  Briers was a master storyteller, and each five minute episode benefits enormously from his spot on comic timing.  As good as the scripts are, Briers makes them just that little bit better.

And lastly, Bob Godfrey’s unmistakable animation gave the series a look and feel unlike any other on television at that time.  Although Godfrey wasn’t the only animator to work on the original (he tended to lead a core group of around four or five animators) every episode has the same hand-drawn feel which makes it seem as if it was the work of an individual.  The animation style chosen, known as “boiling”, gave Roobarb a deliberately rough feel – as colour was crudely added with marker pens and varied from frame to frame.

The minimalist style (despite the fact that most of the action took place in the garden, there was little attempt made to colour in the backgrounds – instead they remained a plain white) also helped to create a certain atmosphere.  Of course this was no doubt borne out of necessity – the cruder the animation, the quicker it could be done – but thanks to the quality of Calveley’s scripting and Briers’ narration you can forgive the rough-and-ready nature of the visuals.

As for the main character, Roobarb is terribly appealing.  He’s an eternal optimist, always ready with an invention or a plan to make everyone’s life a little better.  Things don’t always work out quite the way he intends though, and when disaster strikes he finds Custard the cat and the birds forming up to mock his efforts.  But no matter, Roobarb always bounces back to hatch another scheme next time.

Roobarb ran for thirty episodes which were repeated on numerous occasions.  As with several other classic children’s shows it received a twenty-first century makeover and returned for another series, this time entitled Roobarb and Custard Too.

Roobarb and Custard Too ran for thirty nine episodes, which were broadcast on C5 during 2005.  As with the original, Grange Calveley provided the scripts and Richard Briers the narration, although this time the visuals were generated via computer animation (the “boiling” look of the original was kept).  The opening episode, When There Was a Surprise, provides us with a clear example that this is a 21st Century Roobarb as it concerns Roobarb’s efforts to build his own computer (out of wood and other scraps) and how he’s able to get it working, courtesy of Mouse.

Although the increased cast of characters in Roobarb and Custard Too slightly diluted the enclosed charm of the original, it was still a witty and entertaining series and whilst it’ll probably never surpass the original in many peoples affections it certainly has its moments.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection contains, as its title implies, all thirty episodes of Roobarb  (on the first DVD) and all thirty nine episodes of Roobarb and Custard Too (on DVDs two and three).  Given that Roobarb and Custard Too was made in 2005, it’s slightly surprising that the picture format for all these episodes is 4:3.  I don’t have a copy of the original broadcasts to hand, but I strongly suspect they would have been made in widescreen.  It’s also a little disappointing that none of the discs are subtitled.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection is released by Simply Media on the 16th of May 2016.  RRP £34.99.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers – Simply Media DVD Review

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Broadcast between May and September 1967, The Further Adventures of the Musketeers (based on Dumas’ novel Twenty Years After) was a sixteen-part serial which followed on from the previous years adaptation of The Three Musketeers.

Brian Blessed and Jeremy Young returned as Porthos and Athos, but there were also two important changes.  Joss Ackland took over the role of d’Artagnan from Jeremy Brett whilst John Woodvine replaced Gary Watson as Aramis.

I have to confess at not being terribly impressed with Brett’s performance as d’Artagnan, so I wasn’t too sorry he didn’t return – although it would have been intriguing to see how he would have handled the older, more cynical character seen in this story.  In The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan is young, keen and filled with dreams of heroism.  It’s therefore more than a little jarring when Ackland’s d’Artagnan is introduced at the start of the first episode.

Others may continue to call him a hero, but he’s not convinced.  Although he still holds a commission in the Musketeers, it now appears to be a hollow honour – especially since his three former steadfast friends (Porthos, Aramis and Athos) have all left and gone their separate ways.  When he recalls their old battle cry (“one for all, and all for one”) it’s done so ironically and whilst he bursts onto the screen with an impressive bout of swordplay, it was only to subdue a drunk in a tavern.  Brawling in taverns seems to be something of a comedown for the brave d’Artagnan, as he himself admits.

He’s therefore keen to grasp any opportunity to rekindle the glory days of old and when Queen Anne (Carole Potter) asks for his help, how can he refuse?  Potter was something of a weak link during The Three Musketeers and her rather grating performance continues here. This may be a deliberate acting choice though, as we see over the course of the serial that the Queen is a far from admirable character – instead she’s capricious, vain and frequently misguided.

d’Artagnan pledges his allegiance to the Queen, her young son, King Louis XIV (Louis Selwyn) and Cardinal Mazarin (William Dexter).  They are the orthodox ruling establishment, but the majority of the people seem to side with the imprisoned Prince de Beaufort (John Quentin).

The question of personal morality is key, especially when understanding which side the four Musketeers support.  As we’ve seen, d’Artagnan supports the Cardinal and Queen, but is this because he believes they are the right choice for France or is it just that they’ve offered him a chance to redeem his tarnished honour?

When d’Artagnan meets up with Porthos, his former colleague quickly joins him.  Blessed, a joy to watch throughout the serial, is never better than in his first scene.  He’s the lonely lord of a manor, complaining that his neighbours consider him to be something of a peasant and won’t talk to him, even after he’s killed several of them!  So he agrees to join d’Artagnan, mainly it seems because he’s always keen for a scrap.

But Aramis and Athos are both on the Prince’s side.  They believe their cause is just and Athos regards d’Artagnan’s allegiance to the Cardinal with extreme disfavour.  Athos supports the King, but in his opinion the Cardinal is manipulating both the King and the Queen to serve his own ends. It’s telling that d’Artagnan doesn’t deny this.

Joss Ackland, from his first appearance, is totally commanding as d’Artagnan.  If Brett’s take on the role tended to see him play the character at a hysterical pitch then Ackland is much more restrained and therefore much better. As I’ve said, Brian Blessed is tremendous fun – he gets to shout a lot and has some great comic lines.  John Woodvine, a favourite actor of mine, is excellent as Aramis whilst Jeremy Young once again impresses hugely as Athos.

Although there wasn’t a great deal of evidence of this in The Three Musketeers, at the start of this serial d’Artagnan tells us that Athos was always his mentor and closest friend (essentially a second father to him) so the fact they are on opposing sides means there’s some dramatic scenes between them.

Young, a rather underrated actor I feel, is compelling across the duration of the serial. Athos’ monologue in episode five, after d’Artagnan bitterly rounds on his old friends, is one performance highlight amongst many. “We lived together. Loved, hated, shared and mingled our blood. Yet there is an even greater bond between us, that of crime. We four, all of us, judged, condemned and executed a human being whom we had no right to remove from this world. What can Mazarin be to us? We are brothers. Brothers, in life and death.”

Athos is referring to the murder of his former wife, Milady de Winter. As we’ve seen, her death still preys heavily on his mind – but he’s not the only one. She had a son, Mordaunt, who spends the early episodes vowing vengeance on the men who murdered his mother. As the serial progresses we see that his thirst for revenge makes him a formidable foe. A variety of other plot threads also run at the same time – such as the kidnapping of the boy King, Athos and Aramis’ secret mission to England to rescue King Charles I (d’Artagnan and Porthos are also in England and change sides to fight for the King) and the continuing conflict between Queen Anne and Prince de Beaufort – all of which helps to ensure that the story, even though it lasts sixteen episodes, never feels repetitious.

Plenty of quality actors drift in and out.  Edward Brayshaw (once again resplendent in a blonde wig and complete with a wicked-looking dueling scar) returns as Rochefort, Michael Gothard is suitably villainous as Mordaunt, Geoffrey Palmer is memorable during his fairly brief appearance as Oliver Cromwell, David Garth is remote and aloof as King Charles I, whilst the devotee of this era of television can have fun picking out other familiar faces such as Nigel Lambert, Anna Barry, Morris Perry, Vernon Dobtcheff, David Garfield and Wendy Williams.

The budget was obviously quite decent, as there’s a generous helping of location filming and several notable set-pieces – such as the Prince’s escape from his prison fortress, which sees him absail to safety from the castle ramparts (although the use of illustrations as establishing shots for various locations is never convincing). Generally though, Stuart Walker’s production design is impressive – for example, his studio reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral includes various architectural features from the original. Few would have missed them had they not been there, but it’s a nice example of the trouble taken to be as accurate as possible.

With a number of interconnecting plotlines, there’s certainly a great deal to enjoy in Alexander Barron’s dramatisation.  The episodes set in England may lack a little tension (as we know Charles is doomed to die) but his execution is still a powerful moment.  Athos is under the scaffold, frantically attempting to rescue the King, and is crushed when he realises that all his efforts have come to nothing.  A macabre note is created when Charles’ blood drips through the floorboards onto the numb Athos. Christopher Barry and Hugh David share the directorial duties and although there’s (possibly thankfully) few of the directorial flourishes that made The Three Musketeers notable, they manage to keep things ticking along nicely.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers looks and sounds exactly how you’d expect an unrestored telerecording of this period to look and sound.  It’s perfectly watchable, although the picture is a little grainy and indistinct at times (and the soundtrack can also be somewhat hissy).  A full restoration would have been possible, but as always it’s a question of cost.  Niche titles like this don’t sell in huge numbers, so it’s no surprise that this DVD was a straight transfer of the available materials.

But although the picture quality is a little variable, the story and the performances of the four leads more than makes up for it.  With many classic BBC black and white serials still languishing in the vaults, hopefully sales of this title will encourage more to be licenced in the future.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers runs for sixteen 25 minute episodes across three DVDs.  It’s released on the 23rd of May 2016 by Simply Media with an RRP of £29.99.

Fred – Simply Media DVD Review

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In 1978 Fred Dibnah was commissioned to repair  the clock tower at Bolton’s Town Hall.  His casual attitude, even when suspended from a rickety bosun’s chair high above the ground, caught the attention of the BBC’s local news programme, Look North West.  Dibnah’s down-to-earth attitude meant that he was an excellent subject for a one-off documentary broadcast in 1979, Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack.   This then led to the seven part series Fred, broadcast in 1982.  Both are included on this DVD.

Easily the most famous part of Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack is the moment when he has to run fairly sharpish to avoid being crushed by a chimney which he’d just detonated.   His immediate response of “d’you like that?” was a classic television moment and it’s no surprise that it was later used on the opening credits of every episode of Fred.

Both the one-off documentary (which won a BAFTA in 1979) and the series follow a similar path.  They show Fred both at work and off-duty (where he’s often to be found tinkering in his shed). Wherever he’s working – up chimneys, church steeples, etc – the pictures are enlivened by Fred’s pre-recorded musings on a variety of topics.  Nobody could ever have called him profound, but his thoughts on life and religion have a rugged honesty about them.  Fred might have already been something of a celebrity by the time Fred was made (the third episode sees him as a guest of honour at a shop opening) but he still seems to take everything in his stride.

Fred’s all-consuming passion for his steam engine (which he spent more than a decade restoring) is gently suggested as putting something of a strain on his marriage.  After all, he seemed to spend more time in the shed with it than he did with his wife and children.  There’s also a later scene, which could possibly have been staged for the cameras, showing Fred merrily driving the steam engine very slowly down the road, whilst his wife and children stoically sit on the back!  But when you know that Alison, his first wife, let him in 1985 because she felt neglected, it does tend to make you view certain moments in a different way.

With series like these, it’s always interesting to ponder just how much we see is truthful and how much is the way it is just because there were cameras rolling.  Certain moments, such as when Fred decides to buy a new engine, do seem a little forced – mainly because the other person in the frame with Fred doesn’t seem as comfortable in front of the camera as he is.

But the public Fred probably wasn’t terribly different from the private Fred and this could be the reason why he was such a hit with the public.  Although he made many later series, for me this one is the most compelling.  With Deryck Guyler’s unmistakable tones as narrator, Fred is a pleasure from beginning to end.  Whether he’s musing about how he feels undressed without his cap or hoping that heaven will be stocked with steam engines, there’s plenty to enjoy.  And if Fred’s rough-hewn philosopy doesn’t entertain, then you can simply sit back and enjoy some of the remarkable photograpy as he scales some incredibly high constructions with a highly casual air.

Disc one contains the first four episodes of Fred, whilst disc two has the final three, plus the 1979 Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack.  Some sources say that Fred was an eight part series, although since the eighth episode listed by the likes of IMDB (A Disappearing World – not included in this set) was broadcast some six months after the rest of Fred, it’s actually a one-off and not part of the series, hence its non-inclusion here.

Fred is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of May 2016.  RRP £24.99.

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Long Shadow: The Great War – Simply Media DVD Review

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With the centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme still fresh in the memory, it feels like the ideal time for Long Shadow: The Great War to be released on DVD in the UK for the first time.  Although as we’ll discover, David Reynolds (the writer and presenter) has concerns about how certain events – most notably the Somme – have come to dominate our understanding of the war.

Long Shadow was one of a raft of BBC Great War programmes announced in late 2013.  It’s an ambitious (and still ongoing) project – more than 2,500 hours of programming across television, radio and online to appear between 2014 and 2018.

This breadth of programming, covering both drama and factual, allows for a range of approaches to be taken when discussing the events of 1914 – 1918.  Long Shadow, broadcast in September 2014, asks us to both remember and reassess what we know (or what we think we know) about the Great War and how the conflict shaped the rest of the twentieth century.

Speaking to History Extra, Reynolds makes the point that the Somme, terrible though it was, has clouded our understanding of both the war and its legacy.  “Our view of the war has become focused almost on one day. We need to get out of the trenches and take a broader view of the conflict.  That’s what I mean by becoming a caricature – it’s become simplified down. A caricature is not necessarily untrue, it’s just a sharp oversimplification of what is going on.”

Reynolds, a Cambridge academic, follows in the footsteps of many illustrious predecessors.  Needless to say, presenter-led documentaries stand or fall on the quality of the man or woman in front of the camera.  Thankfully for Long Shadow, Reynolds is an engaging presence – he’s capable of deftly describing the bigger picture, but can also change gears to illuminate smaller-scale, individual stories. Reynolds rarely seems to stand still – he’s often seen walking to his next location – but this hyperactivity (and his sometimes highly dramatic intonations) doesn’t detract from the story he has to tell.

Over the decades, a certain perspective of WW1 has become solidified (“lions led by donkeys”) and this has been reflected in popular satire (Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth).  Long Shadow attempts to peel away this familiar (and, he argues, inaccurate) viewpoint in order to make sense not only of the war, but of the very different world that both the victors and vanquished returned home to.

Post 1918, the British were keen to honour their dead (Reynolds has some interesting points to make about Edwin Lutweyn’s Cenotaph) but since the public at large found it hard to visualise exactly what had happened on the battlefields between 1914 and 1918, the war slowly faded from the public’s consciousness. But a play, Journey’s End by R.C. Sheriff (which debuted in 1928), would help to reignite interest in the conflict. Reynolds argues that for many, Journey’s End helped to illustrate the futility of war – “never again”.

In Germany there was a very different sentiment in the air. If the British were saying “never again”, then some Germans were of the opinion that the war had never ended. It was simply that they had been betrayed by a spineless ruling elite who had forced the country into signing a humiliating armistice. So the seeds for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power were already in place.

But if, as Reynolds argues, WW2 came to be seen as a just war – fought against an evil and corrupt regime – this would have consequences for the Great War. Post WW2, the Great War would be known instead as WW1. It was no longer “The War To End All Wars”, instead it was seen as a failed attempt to end global war (if it had been successful there would have been no need for a Second World War). Reynolds admits this renaming could seem to be a trivial matter, but it was a factor that helped to shape the modern viewpoint that the Great War achieved nothing, except mass slaughter.

Reynolds also examines the unfamiliar British landscape that emerged following the 1918 armistice.  Democracy had come to Britain for the first time with both the working classes and women eligible to vote.  Also discussed is the way that the Great War strengthened a section of the United Kingdom – as both Wales and Scotland took pride in joining with their English counterparts to defeat a common foe.  Had this not happened it’s tempting to wonder whether the union between the three nations would have fractured.  But if the war was a unifying force for England, Scotland and Wales then it was a very different picture in Ireland.  The Easter Rising in 1916 was a watershed moment for Catholics, just as the Battle of the Somme in 1918 was for their Protestant counterparts.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a documentary solely focused on the military conflict between 1914 and 1918 then this possibly isn’t the programme for you.  Long Shadow concerns itself with documenting the aftershock WW1 inflicted on the world at large, with Reynolds demonstrating how this brutal conflict helped to shape the modern world.

The series uses very little archive footage, which is a good move.  Iconic and stirring though these pictures are, the scratchy black and white images also tend to automatically distance the viewer from the events portrayed.  Running for three 50 minute episodes (Remembering and Understanding, Ballots and Bullets, Us and Them), Long Shadow is an accessible and thought-provoking documentary.

Long Shadow: The Great War is released by Simply Media on the 4th of July 2016.  RRP £19.99.

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World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel – Simply Media DVD Review

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Originally broadcast in 2011 (the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Russia) 1941 and the Man of Steel is a two-part documentary written and presented by David Reynolds.

It’s fair to say that the battles on the Eastern Front have never attracted the same level of interest (especially in the UK) as the conflicts in the West have.  But Reynolds convincingly argues that the Battle for Russia was just as critical – possibly even more so – than the Battle for Britain in deciding the future not only of the United Kingdom, but the rest of Europe as well.

Reynolds, a pleasingly idiosyncratic academic, makes this point with an amusing introductory speech, clearly designed to wrong-foot the viewer.  “He was a little man, about five foot five. In his sixties. Rather tubby. Enjoyed his drinks and his smokes. An unlikely hero perhaps. But in the dark days of the twentieth century he helped save Britain. And he was one of the biggest mass-murderers in history. Stalin was his party name”.

He then deftly paints a striking picture of Stalin, from his young days as a bank robber (albeit in a good cause – or at least the cause, Bolshevism, which he believed in) through to his years of terror in the 1920’s and 1930’s, where he brutally suppressed any opposition via show trials, torture and mass executions.

But Reynolds is able to argue that it was his dominant personality which helped to bring Russia to the brink of defeat in 1941.  If you create a society that functions only if the man at the top performs effectively, what happens when he begins to make mistakes?  Stalin’s first major miscalculation saw him fail to believe that an attack from Germany was imminent.  He had accurate intelligence from Britain, but his mistrust of the West caused him to disregard it – a fatal mistake.

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The first few days of the German offensive saw them make substantial gains whilst Stalin seemed powerless to act.  The news was no better during the next couple of months and Reynolds suggests that this pressure brought the Man of Steel to the point of a nervous breakdown – in a rare moment of candour he bitterly admitted to his colleagues that “Lenin founded our state and we’ve screwed it up”.  This picture of Stalin – a broken man, alone in his dacha and unwilling to answer the phone – is a compelling one.  When the politburo trekked out to see him, Stalin feared the worst (a coup) but in fact they wanted him back.  And it was their faith (a bitter irony when you consider how ruthless he’d been with anyone who dared oppose him) which seemed to spark him back into life.

How he then managed to turn things around is the crux of the documentary and Reynolds, using official documents and telegrams, illuminates the key moments.  Stalin began by falling back on his old methods of terror, but he also had to learn the gentle art of diplomacy – which wasn’t easy for someone who’d risen to the top by not listening to anybody.  But listen he did – and to a most unexpected source, Winston Churchill.  The British Prime Minister had been a savage opponent of Stalin’s Russia in the past, but political expediency now meant that the Man of Steel was a vital ally for the beleaguered British.

Churchill’s trip to Moscow in 1942 is a fascinating part of the story. Stalin attempted to push Churchill into launching an early invasion of France and then angrily called the British people cowards after he failed to get his own way.  Churchill took great umbrage at this slight and considered returning to Britain there and then, but the next day Stalin suggested they retire to his apartment for the evening – where they consumed a great deal of alcohol, leaving Churchill with a severe hangover the next day!  This moment helps to paint both leaders in a very human light and is also a good example of the strange dichotomy of Stalin’s character.  On the one hand he was a brutal and utterly ruthless tyrant, but, as here, he could be approachable and amenable (and remember, it was Churchill who nicknamed him “Uncle Joe”).

Twenty eight million Soviet citizens lost their lives during WW2 – a picture of death and devastation that’s almost unimaginable.  Had Stalin not been so reckless during the first year of the war, says Reynolds, then the death toll would have been considerably less, but he did ultimately achieve a crushing victory over Germany and this victory would help to shape world politics for the next four decades.

Running for ninety minutes (two 45 minute episodes) 1941 and the Man of Steel provides the viewer with a compact overview that still manages to feel quite comprehensive.  Reynolds, who has helmed a number of documentaries (including Long Shadow), certainly knows his stuff, although he may be something of an acquired taste.  He likes the odd dramatic flourish and his quirky sense of humour bubbles to the surface occasionally.  But his arguments are cogent and well thought out and he’s a very affable guide through this complex theatre of war.

1941 and the Man of Steel is released by Simply Media on the 8th of August 2016. RRP £19.99.

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