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Whenever the BAFTA television nominations come out, I’m always quite interested. I’m curious to see if what I like has been nominated, of course, but also I use them to identify shows from the past year that may have missed my notice. I’ve compiled a must-watch list and most of them are dramas so I decided to focus on that genre for this series of posts. I’m not nearly done watching and already I have gleaned some important lessons about the UK from the programmes I’ve seen so far.

My first choice to discuss is a mini-series called Southcliffe. With nominations for best supporting actor (Rory Kinnear), best supporting actress (Shirley Henderson), best actor (Sean Harris) and best mini-series, it ties with Broadchurch and The IT Crowd for most nominations this year. This four-part drama about a loner who goes on a shooting spree and how the victims’ families cope with the aftermath is a powerful reminder of the randomness and fragility of life.

These are some of my impressions and things I learned about the UK from Southcliffe. 

(Beware! From this point on facts are revealed that some might consider to be spoilers.)

1. Mass shootings occur in the UK

I know that it may sound ignorant or naive to say I didn’t realize acts of violence on this scale were a problem in the UK. Sadly these type of events happen just about everywhere these days. And after a bit of research, I found mention of several mass shooting incidents across the UK that have taken place in the past 30 years or so – Cumbria, Hungerford, Monkseaton and, of course, of the Dunblane school massacre.

But before I watched Southcliffe, Britain was not a place that came to mind when I thought of gun violence. Mainly because I had always heard that, unlike in the States, gun ownership was more carefully regulated. In fact I understood many police officers don’t carry firearms. That may be an out-of-date misconception, but I just hadn’t seen many portrayals of the stereotypical “gun nut” you often see depicted in the US. To be honest, I’m sad to have that illusion shattered.

 

2. Kent equals gloomy

No offense to any readers from Kent. I’m certain your region of South East England is actually quite charming and picturesque. But whomever ordered the weather during the shoot of Southcliffe (particularly in the Faversham area) I’ve never seen more oppressive skies. It was always either foggy or slate grey. Very appropriate to the mood of the piece, but let’s just say it’s the perfect place to settle if want to see what seasonal affective disorder feels like. Could be the filters they used on the cameras I suppose… Also all those towering, crackling electricity pylons are plenty foreboding as well.

Stephen Morton (Sean Harris) emerges from the Southcliffe fog Image Credit Channel 4

Stephen Morton (Sean Harris) emerges from the Southcliffe fog
Image Credit Channel 4

 

3. I was surprised at the strange variety of mechanisms for coping with grief

Grief is a universal human emotion and the strength of its hold on people can be devastating. In this mini-series, characters lost children, spouses, and parents in the bloodshed and the survivors manifested their torment is some quite unique ways. One father took pictures of his teenage daughter on the morgue slab while the mother of the same girl tried to infiltrate a brothel in an attempt to rescue a prostitute her daughter had asked her to save before her death. A man who lost his entire family tried to take his own life and that of his niece by lying down in front of an on-coming train. The same man had the wedding march played at his wife’s funeral while he stood at the front of the church in a suit of wedding clothes waiting for his bride to arrive in her casket.

Some family members played the British stiff upper lip card one might expect, but most acted out in unexpected ways that only a person in terrible emotional pain could comprehend.

 

4. British journalists are as manipulative as they say

From the bosses who assign the stories to the men and women reporting on the ground, news is a very competitive business. When David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear) is forced to return to his childhood home to bring his network a horrific story with a personal touch, he is none too pleased about it. But he knows the tricks to get people talking and how to shape a sensationalized story.

 

Unfortunately, David becomes the story when he hits roadblock after roadblock with people claiming there were no signs that the shooter, Stephen Morton, was a threat to the community. Whitehead’s anger with the town goes back to his youth when they turned a blind eye after his father was killed in an industrial accident and was falsely blamed for the deaths of several others in the same incident. He goes on a rant on live television saying the Southcliffe deserved what happened because they refused to see what’s in front of them.

Southcliffe was a promising series with some great performances particularly Shirley Henderson’s portrayal of a mother of one of the victims. Her non-stop calls to her daughter’s mobile was painfully familiar to witness, frantically refusing to acknowledge what she already knows in her heart to be true.

As much as I like the grittiness of British drama (and they do it very well) Southcliffe had no levity to counter the grit. No sun to hold back the gloom for awhile. What made the show unsatisfying is also probably what made it true to life. It didn’t tie up very many of the loose ends left hanging. No inspirational or feel-good Hollywood ending awaits the viewer. This story was less about answering why and more about showing us the reality of sudden, violent loss.

I’m not saying isn’t worth watching, just make sure you have a comedy on hand to counteract any hopeless malaise you may experience after viewing Southcliffe. 

 

 

 

 

It is pure coincidence that while Easter approaches and the theaters are full of religious themed films from Noah to Heaven Is for Real to God’s Not Dead I have chosen to discuss a film about the debate that took place back in 1979 concerning whether or not Monty Python’s Life of Brian was a blasphemous movie that should be banned.

You know the one. Blessed are the cheesemakers, the crucifixion toe-tapper “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and a major case of messianic mistaken identity are prime examples of the things which angered religious leaders around the Christian world. The 2011 biopic Holy Flying Circus which, according to the BBC Press Office, is a “fantastical re-imagining of the controversy surrounding the release of Life Of Brian” tells this riveting story while taking you on a hilariously nostalgic journey back to the days when the Pythons ruled comedy.

What is true about this story is that upon the release of Life of Brian in America, theaters were picketed by religious figures of the Christian and Jewish faiths. In the UK, numerous local councils banned the film from being shown, some without having seen the movie themselves. They relied instead on the opinion of the evangelical group, Festival of Light (renamed the Popular Peoples’ Church of St. Sophia in the dramatization) who fueled the fear that Life of Brian would offend Christians in their constituencies.

The Pythons were then given the opportunity to appear on BBC talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning to debate the blasphemy charges waged against the film. John Cleese and Michael Palin represented the film makers while satirist and religious campaigner Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark represented the Christian Establishment. The actual discussion can be found on YouTube if you’re interested in comparing the real thing to the biopic.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool Monty Python fanatic, you’ve probably already watched Holy Flying Circus since it is not a new film; however, if you need some convincing , let me present you with some arguments for watching it.

 

1. Eerily accurate casting

Holy Flying Circus Cast  Image Credit Hillbilly Films

Holy Flying Circus Cast
Image Credit Hillbilly Films

 

The front row of this photo features from left to right Steve Punt as Eric Idle, Charles Edwards as Michael Palin, Darren Boyd as John Cleese and Rufus Jones as Terry Jones. The casting department did quite a good job of finding actors who resemble, sound like and mirror the facial expressions and mannerisms of their corresponding Python. In the back row we find Phil Nicol as Terry Gilliam and Tom Fisher as Graham Chapman. Not as spot-on in appearance but neither actor’s part was as significant as Palin or Cleese anyhow. To be fair, when it comes to Terry Gilliam,the only American expat member of the troupe, it’s got to be a tall order to find someone as unique looking who’s able to pull off that strange hybrid accent.

 

2. Further proof Michael Palin is the nicest man in Britain

A running joke through the whole movie, Palin is depicted by his colleagues as an exceedingly pleasant guy and, in a way, the conscience of the group. Maybe it’s all that travelling he’s done in recent years, but he does strike you as an intelligent, tolerant person who doesn’t belittle others for their differing opinions. Even when faced with a petitioner stubbornly trying to solicit his signature to ban Life of Brian from the theaters, Palin’s patience approaches saintly.

 

3. Inside look at Python dynamic

A few years back I read a rather long book called Michael Palin Diaries, 1969 – 1979: The Python Years. I learned that Michael Palin had a rather difficult time with his teeth and required a lot of dental work; that he nurtured a happy and ordinary family life despite the fame; and that relations between the he and the other Pythons were not always smooth sailing.

If you are already aware of the group dynamic you can see it mirrored in Holy Flying Circus. Chapman, Cleese and Idle met at Cambridge while Palin and Jones first became acquainted at Oxford. According to Palin’s diaries, they often broke off into these comfortable groupings to write sketches. However, it seemed Cleese wanted the chance to collaborate with Palin more often and may have resented Jones for being Michael’s closer friend. There’s a scene with a bit of this Jones/Cleese squabbling in HFC and if you saw the guys on Graham Norton last winter, Cleese still seems to have no patience for Terry Jones.

 

This scene is a good example of how working together for a decade can lead to a bit of brotherly ribbing.

 

4. Absurdly funny sketches thrown in

Just as you would expect in a Monty Python sketch, a dramatization of an event in their life wouldn’t be complete without some surreal sequences. And I’m not just talking about when the actor who plays Terry Jones dons a wig to transform into Michael Palin’s wife.

Correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t believe the Flying Circus series ever featured a puppeteering segment, Star Wars or otherwise, so we’re covering new ground here.

 

5. Stephen Fry plays God

I realize having this item on the list may qualify as a spoiler, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Pythons would  eschew this whole spoiler phenomenon as very silly indeed.  Stephen Fry is ideal for this character – he’s wise beyond our understanding and looks dashing in gleaming white robes. Besides knowing about Fry’s role doesn’t really take away the enjoyment of seeing a devout atheist take on the part of the Creator.

 

What I believe I liked best about this whole loony project is the opportunity to suspend belief for a while and imagine that all the Pythons are still with us, young and and in their prime. At this point in their careers, they were, in fact, trying to send a message and it wasn’t that God is not real or people of faith are laughable. Rather by employing satire, they were encouraging people to work out what they believe for themselves and not just accept what they’ve been fed by organized religious institutions.

As I’m sure I’ve convinced you to give Holy Flying Circus a try, I have to tell you that in the States finding this film wasn’t easy to do. It is currently streaming on Acorn TV so you can check out that service. Or if you’re a mega Monty P. fan, it’s available on Blu-Ray to purchase.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to re-watch Life of Brian. The Holy Grail has always been my favorite, but I’m open to some persuasion.

As Sirs Stewart and McKellan prepare to take their leave of the Big Apple, they have apparently tweeted out over a dozen photos that will save the NYC Tourist Board a fortune in advertising.  They’ve traveled from Wall Street to Coney Island, enjoying the total out-of-towner experience, corny poses and all.

 

And while I’m glad everything has gone so smoothly for these acting legends during their run on Broadway, there are some notable exceptions that should make British buddies think twice about traveling to the island of Manhattan.

Who remembers when the ladies of Ab Fab went to New York for Fashion Week?

 

If I recall correctly, Eddie and Patsy were accidentally joined in marriage by Whoopi Goldberg and, when sufficiently under the influence, the pair proceeded to set a bar on fire. This resulted in the obligatory arrest of the best friends and, one would assume, their deportation back to Britain.

But when has there ever been anything subtle or sober about Patsy Stone and Edina Monsoon?

Then of course, this trio of companions decided to take an uncomplicated mini-break to relax in Central Park…

 

And unfortunately two-thirds of them didn’t make it back to Old Blighty.

The beginning of the Weeping Angel invasion of New York image credit BBC

The beginning of the Weeping Angel invasion of New York
image credit BBC

 

If you ask me, the Doctor’s not been the same man since he came back from that trip.

What lesson should my British readers take from this? If you plan on traveling to New York with your BFF, drink in moderation, skip the illegal substances and for God’s sake, don’t blink!

 

 

Threec:

I posted this back in October, but after noticing that Michael Socha was trending on Facebook today, I figured I needed to bring my objections up again…

Originally posted on Everything I Know about the UK... I Learned from the BBC:

While channel surfing the other evening, I saw something that made me stop mid-click.

ABC’s Once Upon a Time in Wonderland was not on my radar as must-see TV… and after this scene was over I didn’t watch much further. However what caught my attention was the bad boy Knave of Hearts played by Michael Socha.

Michael Socha

Michael Socha

Best known for his role as the sweetly naive werewolf from the final three seasons of the UK version of Being Human, Tom McNair became my favorite character of the entire series.

While his new job might be part of a flashy American fantasy/adventure saga, Socha’s performances on Being Human were consistently funny, brave and touching. The werewolf transformations, gory vampire attacks and poltergeist effects were just supernatural window dressing in which very human situations could occur.  I suspect OUATIW is yet another trendy fairy tale derivative and while some might find that kind…

View original 177 more words

In honor of April Fool’s Day, I wanted to introduce you to my latest comedy find. Not exactly a fool perhaps, this gentleman is more of a delightfully deluded OAP.

A relic from the heyday of variety shows, septuagenarian Count Arthur Strong (Steve Delaney) is something of a legend in his own mind. Always on the lookout for a comeback or just a captive audience, he has a hilariously eccentric way of looking at everyday things like foot spas for example.

 

He tends to go off on tangents both bizarre and unappetizing.

 

And you just have to see the man in action to realize what a unique and charismatic performer he must have been in his prime.

 

If you didn’t get to witness the adventures of Count Arthur and his reluctant associate, Michael Baker (Rory Kinnear) when it aired in the UK last summer, it’s available to stream on Hulu in the States.

And the April Fool joke to go with this post? The actor who plays Arthur is considerably younger than the character he portrays.

 

Gotcha, right?

 

 

 

 

Medical staff from Getting On                                 Image credit BBC

                     Medical staff from Getting On                    Image credit BBC

Lately I’ve discovered a few shows which examine the daily lives of those in the nursing profession, namely Casualty 1907/1909 and Getting On. Though the former is a drama set in the actual Royal London Hospital and the latter a sitcom based in two fictional establishments (King Edward VIII and St Jude’s), these programs have been quite enlightening in what I believe to be relatively realistic depictions of  those who nurse patients in British hospitals.

In the credits of Casualty 1900′s, there is a disclaimer that the stories portrayed are from “hospital records, private papers and newspaper reports.” As for Getting On, one of the show’s co-writers, Jo Brand, was a psychiatric nurse before becoming a comic so I trust she has a fair amount of insight into working in an NHS hospital.

Despite the amazing advances in science and medicine, nursing is still about the vital but often menial work of caring for the ill and dying. Therefore, as you might imagine, some things never really change that much.

For example, both series had a scenario where one of the wards was contaminated by a MERSA-like bacterial infection. Whether you live in the 20th or 21st century, such conditions require the stripping of beds and burning of its linen, the disinfection of all bed frames and other common surfaces, and re-sterilization of all medical equipment in the ward.

It’s also interesting to note that the steps taken to prepare an expired patient’s body are still basically the same – remove the pillow from beneath their head, straighten out their limbs and inventory any personal belongings.

 

Nurse Wilde (Jo Brand) and Sister Flixter (Joanna Scanlan) processing a recently deceased patient.  Image credit BBC

Nurse Wilde (Jo Brand) and Sister Flixter (Joanna Scanlan) processing a recently deceased patient.
Image credit BBC

 

Fortunately for modern day nurses, they aren’t required to sew shrouds for the deceased anymore.

Another reality of hospital operations is the constant quest for funding. In the old days, administrators apparently spent most of their time pleading with rich patrons for money to keep the hospital afloat. The London even staged a royal visit from Queen Alexandra to attract publicity and draw financial backing from wealthy benefactors.

Queen Alexandra is welcomed on her royal visit to the London Hospital  image credit Stone City Films /BBC

Queen Alexandra is welcomed on her official visit to the London Hospital
Image credit Stone City Films /BBC

 

At King Edward’s, much needed funding for the coffers is more likely to come from ground-breaking staff research…

 

Most fascinating to me and one of those cultural lessons I love to happen upon is the hierarchy of nursing staff in the UK.  From the foot soldier nurses to their superiors, the sisters and matrons, I assume this chain of command was established when the Church was more intricately involved with the profession.

The probationers (nurses in training) were the bottom of the ladder with the worst grunt jobs delegated to them. After graduating to a full-fledged nurse you still must report to the ward sister (who may or may not be a nun) and finally, at the top of the food chain, the strict and uncompromising matron who oversees all nursing staff. Make no mistake, the matron’s disapproval was all that was required for a nurse’s dismissal.

 

While I was surprised to find the same designations remain, the modern British hospital has many administrative hoops to jump through and a labyrinth of  organizational jargon to navigate. Your matron is not only a disciplinary figure but a source of job support as well.

 

One sacrifice required of nurses that has changed with the times is the restriction that nurses couldn’t marry. At the London, nurses at all levels were forbidden from fraternizing with or marrying doctors at the same facility. If this happened, one of the couple would be forced to leave their job and you can guess which of the two that was going to be.

Nurse Russell and Dr. Walton - a couple torn apart by their devotion to career Image credit Stone City Films/BBC

Nurse Russell and Dr. Walton – a couple torn apart by their devotion to their careers
Image credit Stone City Films/BBC

 

Now of course, there’s no taboo on married nurses. In fact, Nurse Kim Wilde is married and has a whole brood of children she can’t wait to get away from. Of course, a hospital romance between a supervisor and one of his subordinates is still likely to be frowned upon and like most other workplaces, gossip and recriminations aren’t surprising.

 

Not everyone can follow in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale, of course, but it does take a special person to be a nurse. Preferably one with stamina, a strong stomach, and an abundance of patience.  If you’re a nurse in the UK, I’d love to hear how your reality differs from the telly versions of your job.  If you’ve been a patient (which is statistically more likely) what is the public perception of nursing as a profession?  I like to think the telly mirrors the culture it portrays, but it’s always a good idea to corroborate your facts, I suppose.

 

Seeing as I’m a fan of Ruth Jones’ Gavin and Stacey, when I discovered she’d penned another show set in her homeland of Wales I was eager to give it a go as well.  Jones plays the title character, Stella Morris, a single mum and the calm voice of reason amongst her eccentric friends and family. She tries to see the bright side of things and that’s saying quite a lot since her oldest child Luke is a recent ex-con, her high school daughter Emma is pregnant and her youngest, Ben, is a sweet boy who unintentionally delivers trouble from Stella’s past right onto her doorstep.

Stella with Emma, Ben and Luke image credit Sky1

Stella with Emma, Ben and Luke
image credit Sky1

 

While Stella’s dilemmas are quite universal, I believe there are some lessons to be learned about the Welsh from this show.

1. Set in the picturesque South Wales Valleys in a fictional village called Pontyberry, Jones has peopled her town with folks who are known and, to a large degree, accepted by their neighbors. One notable example is Stella’s son Luke who had a hard time fitting in when he first came home from prison.

From an elderly couple who keep a horse as an indoor pet to an unlikely trio of funeral directors – an alcoholic nymphomaniac, an elderly patriarch only Pontyberrians can understand and a camp, trendy assistant – the village is close knit and civic-minded. Certainly something I don’t see too often in my neck of the woods anyway.

Morticians Daddy and Bobby performing a Duran Duran song at Luke's birthday party Image credit Sky1

Morticians Daddy and Bobby performing a Duran Duran song at Luke’s birthday party
Image credit Sky1

 

2. Watching Stella you are also led to believe that Pontyberry must have a very low cost of living. How else could an adult earn enough to raise a family by doing other people’s ironing or working as a lollipop man?

 

3. I learned who Welsh politician Neil Kinnock is…

 

4. Finally, and most notably one must mention the language – and I don’t mean actual Welsh. Much as I love to learn the dialects, idioms, and slang of a region, Stella is a struggle at times. I stream it on Hulu which provides zero help in the subtitle area so until your ear gets used to the rolling accent, you can miss an awful lot.

But once you become accustomed to the cadence of the way the Welsh speak English you realize there are many unique words and phrases to be deciphered. For example, where I come from “twp” isn’t a word. It’s an abbreviation for “township.” Note the lack of vowels. However, in Wales “twp” is a full-blown word and, as far as I can tell, means stupid or silly. I’ve only watched one series so far but I expect there will be many more consonant heavy words in coming episodes.

Perhaps I’d better let Stella, her ex Karl (what was she thinking?) and his presh girlfriend Nadine explain what they call Pontyberryisms:

 

Though Stella is a gentler, more drama based series than Gavin and Stacey, it certainly has a spirit of individualism and self-acceptance that I’ve come to anticipate when meeting Welsh characters. Who can forget Nessa after all?

 

Jones as Nessa from Gavin and Stacey  image credit Wales Online

Jones as Nessa from Gavin and Stacey
image credit Wales Online

 

I expect Ruth Jones has something to do with that vibe, sharing her view of Wales with the world and making us laugh in the process.

 

 

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