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Noel Clarke, Alex Kingston and Reece Shearsmith crack missing persons' cases in Chasing Shadows image credit ITV Studios

Noel Clarke, Alex Kingston and Reece Shearsmith crack missing persons’ cases in Chasing Shadows
image credit ITV Studios

 

The best thing I watched this past week is an ITV-produced crime drama called Chasing Shadows.  You and I both know shows of this genre are a dime a dozen. A good and proper mystery must have compelling cases, a red herring or two and the resolution must be surprising, but not entirely out of the blue either.

For me Chasing Shadows hit all those marks very well. But what makes this type of series really stand out are unique characters who solve the crimes and/or the relationships between crime solving partners.

Which brings me to the very quirky DS Sean Stone played by Reece Shearsmith. Those of you with a sharp memory will recall that Reece also starred in my previous pick of the week, Inside No. 9. In Chasing Shadows, Shearsmith calls on the slightly creepy, outsider qualities he’s perfected in past roles in order to portray a brilliant but socially inept detective. Stone has been demoted from the murder squad for embarrassing his superiors at a police press conference for very simply and bluntly telling the truth.

Once installed in his new position, we learn why CS Drayton (Don Warrington) might have been so eager to be shot of DS Stone. With his new Missing Persons Bureau liaison partner Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston) and their frequent police contact DCI Pryor (Noel Clarke), we see first hand how dysfunctional Sean truly is.

He is candid to the point of being rude with witnesses, suspects and co-workers alike. He quickly loses patience with those who aren’t honest with him. A problem when a major part of your job includes interrogating people. Sean is prone to walking out of rooms when people are still speaking to him. Finally, one of Stone’s most unusual habits is making his co-workers take separate cars even though they’re all driving to the same location. Bad for the environment and communication.

On the other hand, DS Stone has phenomenal focus which allows him to see patterns no one else seems to detect. Despite his impaired inability to function in social situations, he is acutely observant of his surroundings. Only his housekeeper Adele (Myriam Acharki) seems supportive of his situation and accepts Sean for who he is. She also offers him advice on how to interact with people which unfortunately has a tendency to backfire when put into practice.

Neither the autism spectrum nor Asperger’s is ever mentioned, but it’s implied. DS Stone is basically a less charismatic Sherlock and far less funny than Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper. Perhaps you’re asking why should we care about this character. It’s the moments when Sean does make the effort to connect that tug at your heart just a bit. They make you hope he can improve for his own sake even though we know that will never happen.

As for the rest of the cast, it’s a veritable Doctor Who reunion. River Song, Mickey Smith, Martha Jones’ mother Francine and the President from the Rise of the Cybermen episode all sitting around one table discussing a missing persons’ case! In all seriousness, Alex Kingston is always a pleasure to watch, but don’t expect the brassy Melody Pond.  She’s very sympathetic as a single mom trying to help families whose loved ones have disappeared.

The series features two 2-part mysteries – one about a group of missing teens who have apparently committed suicide and the other concerning a string of murders all tied to one schizophrenic mental hospital inmate. Chasing Shadows was broadcast in the UK back in September of 2014, but it is coming to the States on Acorn TV. The first episode airs starting tomorrow (July 27) and a new installment will be added each Monday through August 17th.

If you’ve already seen it, how did it go over in the UK? If not, does Chasing Shadows strike you as intriguing or just like all the others?

Alas I couldn’t find many YouTube clips, but here’s the briefest of sneak peeks…

 

I’ve never been much of a joiner, truth be told. I didn’t pledge a sorority in college, nor did I join a Women’s Circle at church or a service organization like the Rotary Club. I got wrangled into a local mother’s group only because the mom of one of my daughter’s very best friends invited me and I couldn’t think of an excuse not to. And I was the vice-president of the PTA for one year when my kids were in elementary school – I was there all the time so I figured why not dive into the deep end. Alas my political aspirations were non-existent so I didn’t return for a second term.

Recently I found a WWII-era drama series called Home Fires that made me start to wonder if I would ever consider joining one of the most enduring and established women’s clubs in the UK. In it we become acquainted with the residents of a rural Cheshire village, and in particular, the members of its Women’s Institute group. The chapter is threatened with closure by its own president due to the impending war. Nonetheless, another faction of determined ladies within the group keep the chapter going through a coup of sorts in order to provide vital services and leadership to the village.

The Great Paxford WI Chapter big wigs  image credit ITV Studios

The Great Paxford WI Chapter big wigs
image credit ITV Studios

 

For those who think they aren’t familiar with the WI, if you’ve seen the 2003 film Calendar Girls, you have been exposed. You know, that movie where Helen Mirren and her middle-aged friends got their kit off in order to raise money to buy a memorial gift for a local hospital.

 

Awkward posing among and around baked goods, flower arrangements and cider presses aside, what you may not remember is the way the ladies ridiculed and disagreed with the dated and less than enlightening way their chapter’s leader was running things. In fact, Mirren and company had to plead their case to the national congress of the WI when their president Marie  (Geraldine James) initially refused to sanction their slightly titillating calendar.

Another source of cultural context for me regarding the Women’s Institute was a series called Jam and Jerusalem. Note that the series title was changed to the name of the village, Clatterford, for its US DVD release. I can only think that distributors figured since Americans aren’t familiar with the WI they wouldn’t understand the J&J reference and assume it was some sort of religious cooking program? I’ll touch on the sources of the alliterative title shortly.

Although the show’s creators, Jennifer Saunders and Abigail Wilson, called their organization the Women’s Guild, it was obviously a thinly veiled alias for the WI. This series depicted a newly widowed Sal Vine (Sue Johnston) forced into retirement by her own son and looking for something to fill her days. Self-proclaimed Guild chairwoman Eileen Pike (Maggie Steed) pounces on the opportunity to recruit Sal as a new member. So along with her best friend Tippi (Pauline McLynn), Sal  agrees to give it a go, but with no serious intentions of sticking with it because, in her view, the club is for lonely old ladies or women of leisure.

The ladies of Clatterford participate in a wide variety of activities; from cake baking and flower arranging to net ball tournaments , rambling  and charity fashion shows. Always under the watchful eye and rigorous planning of Eileen, no doubt.

 

So that was my impression. The WI was a social club for wealthy country ladies with time on their hands. Its main goal was the preservation of homemaking and hostessing skills. Like a roomful of Martha Stewarts, but with less superior attitudes.

However after watching Home Fires, I learned a bit more about the origins and on-going purpose of the WI. According to their own website, “The Women’s Institute Movement in Britain started in 1915. During the First World War it was formed to encourage countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to the war-torn nation. Once the war was over the newly formed WIs began to concentrate on planning programmes of activities to suit their members. This new organisation attracted members from the Lady of the Manor, to her housemaid and cook; from the local shop keeper to the wife of the farm labourer: working together in the WI helped to break down the social barriers between countrywomen who had rarely met in the past.”

Sure there were still tensions and even rivalries among certain members with leadership aspirations, but during WWII, the Women’s Institute was committed to the Home Front effort. Among their many undertakings, members sheltered evacuees, wrote to “friendless” soldiers and, probably their most remembered accomplishment, preserved over 5000 tons of fruit into jam to boost the domestic food supply.

The Women’s Institute is currently celebrating its centenary year. Members recently held their annual meeting at the Royal Albert Hall where the traditional hymn “Jerusalem” was sung.  Adopted by many during the women’s suffrage movement, members of the WI felt the song was in accordance with their goals for women as well.

Apparently the Queen doesn’t sing in public or perhaps she forgot the words.

So the question is, would I join the WI if I had the opportunity? I’m not that into crafts or cooking. I might get annoyed with political in-fighting and I’d definitely roll my eyes at strict adherence to meeting rules and procedures. However, if you could guarantee me a diverse and supportive group of friends like this, I’d be more than happy to sign up.

Coronation Street's Rover's Return Inn image credit Granada Television

Coronation Street’s Rover’s Return Inn
image credit Granada Television

Not that I need to be adding yet another helping of British telly to my already heaping plate; however, lately I’ve been wondering if I’m missing out on the full British TV experience by shunning the soap opera ouvre

I actually used to watch American soaps in my teenage years. The women in my family went with the straight CBS ticket from The Young and the Restless and its spin-off The Bold and the Beautiful in the lunchtime slot to As the World Turns and Guiding Light rounding out the afternoon.

During college and the beginning of my adult work life, there was no time (nor DVR) to facilitate a soap habit. When I stayed home with my infant son, I started up with them again. Having the TV on kept me company during the sometimes fussy afternoons. But I soon realized that nothing much actually happened. You could come back  after a long vacation still be entirely in the loop.

Also the acting was never anything to get too excited about. With the exception of those actors who used soaps as a stepping stone (Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Bacon to name a few) there’s a requisite melodramatic style of acting that long-term daytime serial actors tend to employ.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that soaps are a whole different entertainment animal. It’s bound to be a case of quantity over quality. In the US at least, each production is cranking out five shows a week, fifty-two weeks a year.

Or at least they did. Of the programs I listed above, half of them are off the air. Game shows and entertainment and self-help talk shows have taken over the afternoon market leaving little room for the “stories” (as my mother called them) that American housewives tuned into for so many decades.

This is why I’m quite curious about British soap operas since, from what I read online, they seem to be as popular as ever. The only exposure I’ve had has been a 2010 TV movie called The Road to Coronation Street which dramatized the creation of the world’s longest running soap opera still in production. I enjoyed learning the history behind Corrie but also about the beginnings of Granada and ITV and their focus on the North of England.

So here’s the part where you get to have your say. The following poll allows you to advise me as to which program would be best for my indoctrination to UK soaps. You have the choice of four popular series as well as the opportunity to say “other” and provide another title. You can also tell me not to waste my time with soaps at all. Whichever choice wins the poll, I will commit to giving it a proper go.

 

Besides voting in the poll, please feel free to use the comment section as well to lobby for your choice or just to explain why you believe the genre has survived and thrived in an age of streaming video and very competitive drama.

I eagerly await your verdict on my next telly adventure!

This is a new feature I hope to be continuing, as the name suggests, on a weekly basis. It will give me the opportunity to write about my personal pleasure viewing rather than about the hot show of the moment on PBS, Netflix or the BBC. Over the past five years since I started this little enterprise, I’ve been given the opportunity to write for other blogs as well; some for pay and some for the exposure. I’ve tried to position myself as an American who is knowledgeable about British TV. But mostly, I’m just a fan – of dramas, mysteries, comedy of all descriptions and even the occasional documentary. So please join me as I share my favorite finds of the week.

This week I watched a series that has everything I look for in a British TV show; innovation, an element of the unexpected and something that is just plain well written. That is  Inside No. 9 in a nutshell.

If you’ve never heard of the show’s writing/acting duo Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, you’ve definitely been missing out. They are one half of the dark comedy sketch troupe, The League of Gentlemen, and the creators of and performers in the horror sitcom called Psychoville.  They never fail to surprise and entertain me with their off-center, sometimes abhorrent, characters and comic misdirection.

So what is Inside No. 9 then? It is a series of vignettes that all take place in a number 9 of some description – a house, a flat, a cubicle, etc. The address is all these episodes have in common, that and the brilliant storytelling of Pemberton and Shearsmith. Like The Twilight Zone, or more recently Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, each episode is a stand alone narrative, but unlike the aforementioned shows the time frame is shortened from an hour to thirty minutes. Also most of the No. 9 episodes have comic moments, but that doesn’t preclude the random violent act or tragedy. It’s as if an idea for a sketch has been drawn out to a fuller more satisfying story without being a sketch that goes on too long, if you know what I mean. Saturday Night Live, anyone?

As you can see I’m not having the easiest time explaining the concept, so let me share a few examples from each of the two series that have been produced so far:

In series one’s episode “Tom & Gerri”, Tom (Shearsmith) does a good turn for Migg, a homeless man played by Pemberton, who has selflessly returned his lost wallet. However, their blossoming friendship interferes with the domestic bliss Tom shares with his actress girlfriend Gerri, played by Gemma Arterton.

 

Also from series one is a brilliant dialogue-free installment called “A Quiet Night In” wherein Steve and Reece play inept burglars trying to steal a priceless painting while the owners are still in the house.

 

In series two, there are a pair of particularly outstanding stories. The first one is entitled “Cold Comfort” which is shown from the perspective of security cameras at a support line call center. New volunteer Andy (Pemberton) is settling in for his training, but nothing prepares him for what’s to come.

 

The other episode, one which literally brought me to tears, was “The 12 Days of Christine.” We follow the title character, played flawlessly by Sheridan Smith, in what appears to be a decade long fast-forward view of her life, seen in order from New Year’s to Christmas. But what is actually happening is something much more psychologically significant than a jaunt through time.

 

There’s something for everyone Inside No. 9 – a witch trial, a train journey, a children’s game at a country house and a back stage look at a Shakespeare production just to name a few. And if you’re like me you’ll love seeing all the familiar actors who make guest appearances. For British residents this series is not new and for Americans you may have to dig around YouTube or as I call them “cheat channels” to find it. But if you can, I recommend giving it a go, especially for fans of dark humor.

 

Brenda Blethyn as Vera  image credit Acorn TV

Brenda Blethyn as Vera
image credit Acorn TV

Last week I was given the incredible opportunity to interview BAFTA and Golden Globe winning actress Brenda Blethyn. There was some back and forth with the publicity department at Acorn TV to set up the details and before I knew it, I found myself actually speaking on the phone with an actress I have watched on the big and small screens in films like Little Voice, Secrets & Lies, and Pride and Prejudice  and, of course, her current popular TV mystery series, Vera.

I can honestly say I haven’t been this excited about a phone call since I was a teenager and a boy I had a crush on called me out of the blue. I was smiling and laughing the whole time (Brenda has quite an infectious laugh, in case you didn’t know) and I packed as much as I could into the fifteen minutes granted to me.

Let me tell you, after five series this lady knows her character. She cited information from Vera’s backstory, knew her work and life philosophies by heart, and even talked at length about DCI Stanhope’s appearance and wardrobe choices. And despite that fact that some of these episodes were made well over four years ago, Brenda remembered a minute detail from a scene to illustrate the point she was making about Vera’s rapport with children.

But what impressed me most about Ms. Blethyn was her generous praise for colleagues with which she has worked. From her Vera cast and crew to directors and co-stars on various films we discussed, she had nothing but the warmest admiration for her fellow collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera.

For example near the end of the interview I went a bit rogue and threw in another question when I was supposed to be bringing our session to a close. I left this out of the write up of my interview for WETA’s Telly Visions because it really was off the cuff and not related to Vera at all:

CC: What was it like to work with Nicolas Cage [who directed her in the film, Sonny], one word?

BB: Aw, it was great! What a lovely man, he was fantastic! He was so kind and generous. We all know he’s a terrific actor, but I liked working with him as a director too. Just gorgeous.

CC: Well, my son will be very happy to hear that.

BB: Oh really? Does he know Nic?

CC: No, he’s just a huge Nicolas Cage fan.

BB: Well, I loved working with him and he bought me a beautiful wristwatch when the job was over.

There you have it- the key to many a woman’s heart is a nice piece of jewelry and Brenda is no exception.

If you’d like to read my entire chat with Brenda Blethyn, click here.  If you’d like to check out Vera for yourself, you can find it on Acorn TV including new episodes each Monday in July. Some PBS channels are also airing series five this month so check your local listings.

Typecasting makes me sad. For example why must Liam Neeson always play an aging action hero bent on revenge or up against the clock to save a member of his family? He used to be Schindler, Rob Roy, Michael Collins and the widowed stepdad in Love Actually for God’s sake!

That’s what Hollywood will do to you I suppose. Which is why I’m happy to find that in the UK a fair number of actors seem to be given the opportunity to flex their acting muscles and explore human conditions of all sorts.

Case in point…

 

Could the besotted young man above possibly be the played by the same actor who portrays a nobleman’s bastard infamous for sadistic deeds such as hunting down a fair maiden for sport?

 

 

It’s not a doppelganger situation. Welsh actor Iwan Rheon’s repertoire ranges from timid, almost invisible characters such as Simon from Misfits…

Rheon plays Simon, a shy troubled young man who gains a superpower in a freak storm image credit Clerkenwell Films

Rheon plays Simon, a shy troubled young man who gains a superpower in a freak storm
image credit Clerkenwell Films

 

To a soldier with an excess of bravado but with his heart in the right place.

In Our Girl, Iwan plays Dylan "Smurf" Smith image credit BBC Drama

In Our Girl, Iwan plays Dylan “Smurf” Smith
image credit BBC Drama

 

Here’s hoping Iwan doesn’t start getting typecast as well.  We’ve already seen he can depict more than psychos. It’d be a shame if he were pinned down to recreating versions of the abhorrent Ramsey Bolton from here on out, no matter how frighteningly good he is at playing him.

Just an aside, who agrees there’s an unsettling similarity between Rheon and the young Marc Warren?

 

 

 

 

Bye Bye, BBC America!

BBC America logo

It’s official. I have cancelled my cable subscription to BBC America! No more Kitchen Nightmares, Top Gear or Star Trek: the Next Generation marathons. No longer must I roll my eyes when the featured movies have little or no connection to the UK. The Terminator, Weird Science, and Escape from New York, really?

I will not feel nostalgic about the abundance of commercials; blocks of adverts so long that by the time the show comes back you’ve already started to forget what just happened. I was bombarded so often during Broadchurch that I usually drifted off to sleep from the boredom.

The BBC original programming was rarely ever engaging for me. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to watch a Canadian sci-fi series or an American post Civil War police drama on any other cable network so I certainly wouldn’t seek it out on BBC America. Orphan Black held my attention for awhile, but Copper was never something I was going to get interested in. Even Intruders which starred John Simm, one of my favorite British TV actors, failed to impress. None of it was British enough for my expectations.

Cast of Intruders

Cast of Intruders image credit BBC America

 

When they did acquire actual British shows, BBC programmers rarely found anything in my genre wheelhouse. Fantasy like Merlin and Atlantis; paranormal tales such as In the Flesh and Bedlam; or espionage “thrillers” like Spies of Warsaw left me cold. I’m sort of ashamed to admit I’m not a fan of nature programs either so Earth Night Tuesdays were no good to me.

Reading this may make you wonder if I really like British television at all. (I really do by the way.)  For example, I will miss watching Doctor Who episodes only hours after they air in the UK which is the main reason I got the channel in the first place. But for $40 less a month on my cable bill I can live with the wait for Netflix or whatever streaming service has rights at the moment. Or perhaps I can find some “timey wimey” method of watching it sooner…

 

Some other fine dramas have made it to BBC America – The Hour, the aforementioned Broadchurch and currently they are airing Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But these series are few and far between.

I’m sure from time to time I will pine for The Graham Norton Show, but I’ll get over it, especially since the couch has about a three Americans to one Brit guest ratio these days. Graham grovels at the feet of stars like Meryl Streep and George Clooney and the obligatory British comedians are ignored until a joke is required. The fact that BBC America seemed to abandon any dedicated comedy programming (once called The Ministry of Laughs) and felt Graham Norton was enough was a very grave miscalculation in my opinion.

Besides, there’s barely time for classic Red Chair stories anymore!

 

I wish BBC America well and if you are a satisfied customer, more power to you! It just wasn’t a good fit for me. I am at peace with my decision to break-up with this channel. It didn’t fulfill my British TV needs and so it had to go. I look it as more money for my trip to the UK where the truly good telly is!!!

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