Les Misérables (BBC, 1967) – Simply Media DVD Review

There have been countless film, stage and televison adaptations of Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel (indeed, a lavish BBC1 adaption has just finished its run on Sunday nights). This 1967 BBC Classic Serial might have been mounted on a fairly modest scale, but where it scores – as these serials so often did – is in the quality of the actors, their performances and the fidelity of the adaption to its source material.

Frank Finlay is mesmerising as Jean Valjean. A former convict, Valjean has forged a successful new existence as a pillar of society – a mayor and magistrate – but remains haunted by his past experiences.

It’s such a shame that the original film inserts are long gone, as the opening episode has some remarkable film work (courtesy of director Alan Bridges).  The somewhat grubby telerecordings are obviously preferable to nothing (a fate which has sadly befallen so many 1960’s television programmes) but to have seen these impressionistic sequences in a pristine state would have been fascinating.

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At first, Finlay is barely recognisable (the haunted Valjean when released from fifteen years hard labour is a bedraggled and violent soul)  but by the second episode he’s undergone a remarkable transformation into a cultured man who dispenses charity and understanding to all.

Anthony Bate, as Inspector Javert, is a fine match for Finlay. Javert is the direct opposite of Valjean (Valjean dispenses compassion, Javert cold justice). This sort of role – icy, detached – was one that Bate played time and again, so as you might expect he’s incredibly good value. The clashes between the two are a key part of the story (initially uneasy allies, in the fourth episode Valjean admits his true identity in open court and flees, with Javert dogging his footsteps thereafter).

Excellent performances abound. Michele Dotrice, for example, as the increasingly wretched Fantine. A rapid downward spiral sees her forced to sell everything she has – hair, teeth – in order to provide for her daughter.  Dotrice throws herself wholeheartedly into the role and makes an indelible impression across these early episodes.

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Clifford Rose’s monologue in episode four – Buried Treasure – is another early highlight (he plays Champmathieu, a man accused of being the notorious Jean Valjean). It’s a role far removed from the later ones for which he’s best remembered for (Callan, Secret Army).

Coincidence tends to play a part in many novels from the nineteenth century and Les Mis is no exception. Having been unable to save Fantine, Valjean (now an outcast once more) just happens to run into Cosette (Lesley Roach), Fantine’s young daughter.

Left in the cruel care of an innkeeper called Thenardier and his wife (splendidly evil turns from Alan Rowe and Judy Parfitt), Cosette becomes the latest waif to be taken under Valjean’s wing. Finlay’s cool self-control as Valjean faces down the grasping Thenardier is expertly played. Yet another coincidence sees them run into each other years later, when it appears that Thenardier has gained the upper hand.

At the start of episode seven, Cosette has suddenly grown up into a beautiful young woman (like Fantine, played by Michele Dotrice). It seems odd that Valjean seems not to have aged compared to his adopted daughter, but this isn’t uncommon in serials of this type.

The last batch of episodes relocates the action to Paris and introduces some key new characters – like Marius (Vivian MacKerral) – as various plots and counter-plots come to fruition. Revolutionary Paris might only be glimpsed in snatches, but this isn’t a disappointment. On the contrary, the serial’s low budget ensures that character drama remains at the forefront right until the conclusion.

As previously discussed, the picture quality is somewhat variable. It looks pretty much like you’d expect an unrestored telerecording from the late 1960’s to look – there’s intermittent film damage, dirt and tramlining. But anybody familiar with archive television of this era should know what to expect and the occasional picture issues didn’t impair my enjoyment.

Running for ten 25 minute episodes (five each across two discs), this version of Les Misérables boasts a series of excellent performances and comes warmly recommended.

Les Misérables is available now from Simply Media. It has a RRP of £24.99 and can be ordered directly here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Lorna Doone – Simply Media DVD Review

John Ridd (John Sommerville) was just a boy when his father, a good and honest man, was brutally murdered by Carver Doone (John Turner). Despite an outward display of respectability, the wealthy Doone family delight in creating havoc and mischief.

As John grows up, he vows to avenge his father’s death. But matters are complicated when he falls deeply in love with the young Lorna Doone (Emily Richard) whose hand in marriage has been promised to her cousin, Carver ….

Subtitled A Romance of Exmoor, Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore was originally published in 1869. An instant success, it has spawned numerous television and film adaptations over the last hundred years or more. It’s easy to see why, since it’s a heady mixture of action, adventure, revenge and romance.

This 1976 BBC Classic Serial version is a faithful adaptation (always a hallmark of the Classic Serials) although it does take a short time to tune in to the style of production. Even for those well used to the delights of archive television, some of the 1970’s Classic Serials initially appear to be rather earnest and mannered (the numerous very fake-looking beards are also a hindrance). But it doesn’t take long before the story starts to engross and the small niggles fade away.

Richard Beaumont, as the young John, carries most of the first episode. Although still a teenager, he’d already enjoyed a decent career stretching back to the late 1960’s (including a brief recording contract with Decca records). His John is a pleasing mixture of youthful impatience and innocence and such is the impression he makes that it’s almost a shame when John suddenly turns into the much older John Sommerville.

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It’s slightly odd that none of the other characters seem to age though (which makes John’s transformation from scrawny youth to strapping young man all the more jarring). Possibly it would have been better to have staged this transformation at the start of the second episode, rather than at the end of the first.

Episode one also gives us a brief glimpse of the young Lorna, played by Jennifer Thanisch (best known for appearing as Anne in the Southern series of The Famous Five). John Somerville’s John Ridd is a stolid enough creation but it’s Emily Richard’s Lorna Doone who really catches the eye. Easily the more experienced actor of the two, Richard had just starred in The Glittering Prizes and would later appear in the well-remembered WW2 drama Enemy At The Door.

Plenty of familiar faces are on show. Patrick Troughton plays Councillor Doone, not a terribly large role but Troughton was always good value whatever part he played. Ian Hogg is very appealing as the roguish highwayman Tom Faggus whilst Lucinda Gane (later to play Miss Mooney in Grange Hill) appears as Lizzie, one of John’s sisters. David Garfield, Max Faulkner and Trevor Baxter are amongst those who contribute to a strong supporting cast.

The romance between John and Lorna is a key part of the narrative, with various other subplots – the infighting amongst the Doones, rumbles of unrest in London about the King ‘s conduct – also bubbling away nicely throughout the episodes.

Whilst it’s true that some of the rustic supporting characters err on the ripe side, Lorna Donne boasts some fine performances amongst the principals. If you love the 1970’s era of the BBC Classic Serials then this should certainly appeal.

Lorna Doone is available now from Simply Media, RRP £24.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Take Me Home – Simply Media DVD Review

Tom (Keith Barron) is eking out a living as a cab driver in the Midlands town of Woodsleigh Abbots.  It’s something of a comedown for a skilled man, but since all the traditional trades have disappeared he has little choice. Life with his wife Liz (Annette Crosbie) is settled but rather humdrum.

However, when he meets Kathy (Maggie O’Neill) everything changes. Kathy, half his age, is a newlywed who has recently moved to the area. Having had an argument with her husband, Martin (Reece Dinsdale), she scrambles into Tom’s cab in a highly distressed state. He initially treats her with fatherly concern, but over time this transforms into a dangerous passion which begins to eat away at him ….

Originally broadcast in 1989, Tony Marchant’s three part drama stands as a document of the dying days of the Thatcher era.  Previously an industrial town, the arrival of Chinese computer firm InfoCo has transformed Woodsleigh Abbots, bringing in an influx of upwardly mobile white collar workers like Martin.

Martin and his friends are the winners at present leaving Tom, having seen the industry he spent his life working in evaporate, very much on the debit side of the ledger. As for Liz, she’s embraced InfoCo and enjoys working in their canteen, even if the rank and file staff members – such as Martin – treat her with indifference or mild contempt.

The company offers nothing for Tom though, so armed with his favourite Dusty Springfield cassette he’s chosen the job of cabbie.  But the recent regeneration has transformed the town to such an extent that he sometimes struggles to find his way. The irony in this is quite clear.

The contrast between Martin and Kathy, with their badminton and dinner parties, and the humbler pleasures of Tom and Liz is marked.  Clearly Martin and Kathy are on their way up whilst Tom feels that he’s being left behind.  His bitterness at the way that technological progress has halted his career, allied to his suspicion about the ever-encroaching InfoCo, positions him as a skilled man who has come to realise that his skills are no longer needed.

Keith Barron was one of those actors who could convey a whole range of emotions with just a single look. There’s an excellent example at the beginning of the first episode as Tom drops a couple (older man, younger woman) off at a motel. The waves of disapproval emanating from Tom (the man’s old enough to be the girl’s father for goodness sake) is palpable. But that was before he’d met Kathy of course ..

The clash of opposites is one of the things which makes Take Me Home so compelling.  Tom and Kathy have little in common – the age gap is just one example whilst their divergent musical tastes (he favours Dusty whilst she loves Deacon Blue) is another. 

Reece Dinsdale has a difficult role to play since Martin, initially at least, is portrayed as a wholly unlikeable type. Forcing Kathy to have an abortion (telling her that he wouldn’t be able to love their child and would also end up hating her) sets the tone. As befits a computer operator (or at least the 1980’s vision of one) Martin is coldly logical. They can’t afford a baby at the moment, so the “mistake” has to be dealt with.

The relationship between Tom and Kathy is a slow burn. But once they do connect, everything happens in a rush. Subtitled “a love story” in the Radio Times, it’s probably best not to expect a happy ending – it’s plain that when the affair is revealed the fallout will be dramatic.

It’s hard to fault any of the main performers. Barron is perfect as the essentially decent, but utterly conflicted Tom (a man unable to tear himself away from Kathy, even though he’s well aware that he’s destroying his marriage). Crosbie’s slowly dawning comprehension that something is badly wrong is also skilfully played.

O’Neill has to tread a difficult path, but she ensures that Kathy is more than simply an attractive piece of totty (or a helpless victim of either of the men in her life). And although Martin is initially portrayed in a deeply unsympathetic light, as time goes on the script (and Dinsdale) teases out his damaged, fragile side.

By the final episode the truth is out and events spiral further and further out of control before some sort of compromise is reached (although it’s debatable who the winners and losers are).  Barron and Crosbie share several pulsating scenes early in the episode.  Crosbie is never better than here – displaying a mix of emotions (denial, anger, forgiveness) in quick succession. The sight of a glammed-up Liz (maybe partly done to genuinely tempt Tom, but mainly to taunt him) is a haunting and faintly disturbing one.

Uncompromising and skilfully acted, Take Me Home still has considerable impact, nearly thirty years down the line. Recommended.

Comprising three episodes each of approximately sixty minutes duration, Take Me Home comes on a single disc. There are no special features but – as per all BBC titles – it’s subtitled.  The picture quality is fine (albeit a little grainy) with no noticeable issues.

Take Me Home is available now from Simply Media. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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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