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Fun and Games: Taskmaster

According to the internet, this week marked National Relaxation Day (Aug 15) and National Tell A Joke Day (Aug 16). The juxtaposition of these days is rather fitting since I find a laugh is what’s needed when I want to relax. Whether I’m immersed in the intensity of gritty British TV dramas or just trying to survive the pressure of being a library worker in the midst of solar eclipse glasses mania, in my experience making the conscious decision to laugh is always the right one. And my genre of choice in these situations is usually a comedy panel show.

This week I happened upon series four a show called Taskmaster so I thought it the perfect time to share my feelings about this entertaining and stress-busting program with you. Heaven knows we’ve all got anxieties now more than ever.

Greg Davies, extremely tall stand-up comedian and star of Man Down, Cuckoo and The Inbetweeners, performs the titular role of the Taskmaster. His purpose is to issue simple, if not a bit bizarre, tasks to five comedians who are asked to complete them in the most efficient and out-of-the-box manner possible. His assistant (and also creator of the show) Alex Horne umpires the challenges and plays the part of Davies’ willing minion for laughs. At the end of each task, Davies ranks the performances of the competitors according to his whims and his penchant for mockery and assigns points accordingly.

Joining Greg and Alex on the show this season were Outnumbered dad Hugh Dennis; former GBBO presenter Mel Giedroyc; Mighty Boosh troupester and new GBBO presenter Noel Fielding and two young comedians previously unknown to me Lolly Adefope and Joe Lycett.

What kind of assignments must the comedians complete? Well, each episode starts with the Prize Task, in which Davies sets a theme and each contestant donates a prize to offer up. The motifs have included most unusual autograph on the most unusual vegetable, the most surprising picture of themselves and in this clip their best membership/subscription. At the end of episode, all the prizes are awarded to the comedian who earned the most points in that week’s show.

Other nefarious tasks set over the course of the eight week run of Taskmaster involved:

Identifying the objects in a sleeping bag without taking the objects out of the bag.

Hugh Dennis sleeping bag

Hugh Dennis feeling up a sleeping bag

 

Destroy a cake. Most beautiful destruction wins.

Destroy cake

Mel Giedroyc decides how to best obliterate a cake

 

And my favorite task of the series – as a team, get a wheelie bin across an obstacle course, while one person is in the bin, the rest of team move the bin blindfolded, and everyone cannot speak English.

Wheelie bin race

Lolly Adefope, Noel Fielding and Joe Lycett prepare for the foreign language wheelie bin navigation task

At the end of the final episode, the comedians’ points are totaled and the one who has accumulated the most over the course of the series wins this:

Greg's head

Gold Noggin

Indeed I think it’s rather fortuitous that (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Mr. Fielding was the victor because no one else would want these spoils, right? Noel really had the right set of skills for this type of competition. With his keen sense of the surreal and an art school background, he had the proper mix of creativity and reckless abandon. He also ended up being more athletic than some might expect from a self-professed goth. Sometimes his devil may care attitude missed the mark as when he was disqualified for putting a wet suit atop his head instead of on his body during the small talk with Fred the Swede challenge, but overall his risks and unique perspective paid off. Perhaps Noel can use this big gold replica of Greg Davies’ head in one of his future art installations or stand-up routines. I’ve seen his live show so I know whereof I speak.

That being said (and those who know anything about me know I’m an avid Fielding fanatic), my favorite contestant had to be Mel Giedroyc. She was so genuine, enthusiastic and supportive during the course of the show that they compiled a montage of her all her authentic positiveness that is guaranteed to make you grin. Then in true Taskmaster style turned around and presented poor Mel with a super frustrating special task that involved hiding a gigantic beach ball from Alex in a wide-open football stadium. (Apparently her favorite swear word is bollocks.)

So if you find yourself in need of a tension-relieving chortle, may I suggest an episode or two of  Taskmaster?  In the US I found series four on Daily Motion. I apologize in advance for the all the repetitive advert breaks. In addition, series five is on its way to UK audiences very soon – September 13th to be exact.

All photo images are courtesy of Dave UKTV except the one of Greg’s head which was posted on Twitter by Alex Horne.

 

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(C) BBC – Photographer: Des Willie

I’ve been aware of Sean Bean for a long time. He does action adventure-y, fantasy type things (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Equilibrium, Troy, Patriot Games, etc.) The fact that so many of the characters he plays die and quite violently is something of a cultural phenomenon. There are hashtags out there to prove it.

I also know he was an object of affection in the Vicar of Dibley…

That’s why I was so impressed to see Bean  in Broken, the Jimmy McGovern-penned BBC drama about a Catholic priest in a Northern English parish trying to serve his soul weary, poverty-stricken flock while wrestling with his own demons. If you’re not familiar with McGovern, he is the king of working class despair and I admire his ability to depict humanity and compassion in even the most desperate circumstances.

Sean was exquisite as Father Michael Kerrigan. Michael is a good man. He’s selfless, empathetic, fun-loving and approachable. He also notices when people are hurting and yearns to help them.

His dedication to God is strong and his desire to emulate Jesus is obvious in the rebellious incitement of his parishioners to smash up the local betting machines that have ruined so many lives.

And he is honest to a fault. When his mentor and friend Father Flaherty (Adrian Dunbar) advises him not to reveal a hurtful but irrelevant fact at an inquest, Michael feels compelled to admit to a brief slight of his duties to set the record straight.

But he’s not perfect. Sometimes he’s unsure what to say to make things better or how to ease his parishioners’ burdens. And no one is harder on Michael than he is on himself. He has flashbacks of his misdeeds and poor judgement. He also struggles to forgive the serious offenses committed against him in his youth.

While I watched Bean’s  performance I didn’t think of Ned Stark or Boromir or Richard Sharpe. I felt I was witnessing the authentic heart-felt efforts of a man of faith – to care for his dying mother, to comfort a mother who has lost her son, to counsel a police officer trying to do the right thing and to guide a desperate woman to take responsibility for a profane act.

Most compelling were his conversations with Roz (Paula Malcolmson), a woman shamed by what her gambling addiction led her to do and resigned to committing suicide over it.  She challenged Michael to show her a light at the end of the tunnel and also to confront the darkest episodes of his own past.

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We travel with Sean’s character through a wealth of emotions from impotence and grief to empowerment and grace. The end of that final episode made all the misery and striving worth every emotional second. I sat there with tears streaming down as the people who Michael thought he had disappointed, let him know otherwise. I’m not a religious person, but I think I would feel completely comfortable confiding in Father Kerrigan. Sean Bean’s portrayal combined an essence of benevolence and social justice tempered with very human self-doubt. It gave me a glimmer of hope in a time when people judge with haste and hate too easily.

I watched this six part series on the video sharing site, Dailymotion. Not ideal, but I hope Broken will eventually come to a reputable US streaming service or perhaps even PBS. More people should be aware of this inspiring journey and Bean’s must-see (and perhaps BAFTA-worthy) performance.

At lunchtime today I decided, after a bit of deliberation, to watch the debut episode of Harlots. I’d been bombarded by this raunchy stylized trailer on Hulu for weeks and it didn’t look promising…

 

The one thing about the preview that intrigued me though was that I caught glimpses of actresses with very respectable CVs.  I put a lot of faith in the cast when it comes to investing time or money in watching a film or TV series. In the case of Harlots we’re talking about Samantha Morton of In America, Sweet and Lowdown and Minority Report fame; Leslie Manville with appearances in just about every Mike Leigh film as well as North & South and River and finally Jessica Brown Findlay – she was Downton Abbey‘s Lady Sybil Crawley for heaven’s sake! If this period drama was just a hyped up piece of exploitative titillation, what were they doing in it?

Consequently when I noticed Harlots mentioned yesterday in The Radio Times, the British magazine for radio and telly listings as well as entertainment news, I realized this must be one of those rare occasions when a UK series airs simultaneously in the US. I figured I had 45 minutes of my life to spare to see what this was all about.

Set in 1763 London and inspired by stories of real women involved in one of the few commercial activities available to them, I give you without further ado my impressions of Harlots.

First, who knew there was such a thing as a concise guide to prostitutes for hire, namely “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies”? A must-read for London men of all stations, from nobility to your average hard working pleb.

Samantha Morton didn’t disappoint as Margaret Wells, a Covent Garden brothel madame (or bawd) who aspires to run a more prestigious establishment. Still she visibly struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and entrepreneur as it requires her to pimp out her daughters Charlotte (Brown Findlay) and Lucy (Eloise Smyth) to rich men whom she hopes will take them on as mistresses. (You gotta dream the dream, I suppose.) Slightly reminiscent of Peaky Blinders with the criminal family enterprise element, but not nearly so violent.

Class distinctions are definitely a focus of this series. The wealthy men who put in monetary bids to take young Lucy’s virginity are, quite frankly, pigs. Most are married and make no attempt to hide their extra-marital escapades. It is sport for the affluent and connected who cruelly use or blithely ignore the poor.

I’m looking forward to the  reveal of how Morton’s character and the ruthless Lydia Quigley, played by Leslie Manville, became such bitter rivals considering Margaret was once one of Lydia’s girls. And yeah, I’m already tired of hearing how Margaret’s mother sold her to Lydia for a pair of shoes when she was ten.

Finally, there are quite a few pale men’s arses and rather large bosoms on display and the some of the language is fairly crude. Nevertheless, at its heart, Harlots seems to be about family, rivalry and, in an an against all odds sort of way, female empowerment. The fact that both the writers and the team of three directors are all women should come as no surprise.

I plan to continue tuning in as long as the story has substance and the quality of the acting holds. You can judge Harlots for yourself – in the US on Hulu or in the UK on ITV Encore.

 

 

From the archives, here are my thoughts on Pancake Day.

Everything I Know about the UK... I Learned from the BBC

Today is Shrove Tuesday. It’s the day before the day when those who are so inclined give up things they enjoy such as sweets, caffeine and alcohol for a period of forty days. Though I’ve never been a practitioner of self-denial, one year I decided to see for myself why my Catholic friends were always moaning about Lent. I gave up watching soap operas. I suppose I missed the point since not giving a toss about the thing you are foregoing really doesn’t generate much suffering or self-reflection. Weaning myself off pop would have been a much more worthy test of my will; however, those close to me would have endured great hardship and I couldn’t put them through such horrors.

So today is the day when people around the world indulge in rich food and drink or just let their hair down for one last hurrah before they subject themselves…

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David Brent and Foregone Conclusion image credit BBC Films and Entertainment One

David Brent and Foregone Conclusion              image credit BBC Films and Entertainment One

As soon as I saw that the David Brent movie was coming to Netflix, I knew we had to review it. My son and I have been fans of The Office for years so the prospect of discussing this film was never in question despite the concerns a spin-off brought up. How would David Brent fare as a protagonist without his familiar and counter balancing Wernham Hogg co-workers? And beyond missing old characters, would an all-Brent-all-the-time project be a bit much to bear?  So it was with a mix of anticipation and trepidation that we set about watching and contemplating all the various aspects David Brent: Life on the Road. 

When we meet up with David, twelve years have passed since the Christmas specials. Now working as a rep selling cleaning and feminine hygiene products, Brent is no longer in charge but rather a worker bee mocked and scorned by a significant percentage of his colleagues. Perhaps this is why David has held so tightly to his dream of becoming a rock star.

Brent enlists a group of opportunistic session musicians and a skeptical sound engineer for the resurrection of his old band, Forgone Conclusion.  So with the old Office documentary crew in tow, they embark upon a foolishly expensive and pointless regional tour of pubs, colleges and battle of the band contests that everyone but David can see is an unmitigated disaster.

Here are some the of the thoughts Ross and I had about Gervais’ newest David Brent adventure.

Favorite new character

Mum: I was looking for the person who would be stepping into the shoes of my favorite character from The Office, Tim Canterbury. At first I thought David’s talented but underutilized rapper friend Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith) was going to take on that role of the normal guy who is the voice of reason when Brent starts spiraling out of control.

But in the end it was sound engineer Dan Harvey played by Tom Basden who took David aside and set him straight on his foolhardy spending and the insecurity behind it. He also did a kind thing for Brent, against his better judgement, which is what Tim would have done for sure.

 

 

Ross: My fave new character was Karen, the receptionist (Mandeep Dhillon), who says David brightens her day and that, though many others in the office don’t, she finds him funny. I especially liked when she stood up for David’s friend Nigel (Tom Bennett) against the office bully. Nigel provided for Brent what Mackenzie Crook as Gareth Keenan never could. He was a co-worker (on equal footing) that saw Brent as a friend of similar spirit, and not someone who, as the milk monitor, had to suck up to whoever would show him favor because of the negativity that came with being the boss’ dog. David Brent had to become what he was always good at (a salesman) in order to realize there are friends out there for everyone, and they will like you for who you are. (Props to Ben Bailey Smith as Dom for that as well).

karen-life-on-the-road

image credit BBC Films and Entertainment One

 

Most Cringe-Worthy Moment

Mum: One of the most awkward situations in the film is just the fact that a man my age is trying to impress and pal around people who are closer to my son’s age. That rarely works, unless you’re a pop icon. It’s embarrassing that his band mates blank him so often and, though it visibly affects him, he doesn’t get it. In fact, it’s frustrating that in all this time David still hasn’t learned that he should be himself and not try so hard to make people like him. It always backfires anyway.

That being said, the scene where David shoots a woman in the face with a t-shirt gun is pretty mortifying and therefore classic Brent.

Ross: Any sexual reference David makes, particularly at the beginning about his rock n roll sex song.

I can’t begin to imagine the amount of flak that David had to take over the 12 years between documentaries over his personality and behavior. In what he thought may be a portal to stardom or notoriety, office manager Brent took a beating to his ego and his overall being as a human. Like many TV series and movies that I enjoy, it’s the perceived despicable characters at their truest moments of vulnerability that make the entire journey worthwhile.

So, in that vein, David’s visit to his psychiatrist before his tour is such a telling scene in his personality that my heart reached out to him in a moment where he felt everything he did was wrong, but that’s the art of being human, living by trial and error. Sometimes, many errors at that.

 

Most Touching Moment

Mum: I used to be under the impression that in The Office and other Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant projects, Merchant must be the compassionate one, the writer who found humanity in the most flawed of characters. Then Gervais went solo and made Derek. It was then I discovered he was the softy of the pair.

Therefore, I knew to expect moments of human kindness from Life on the Road. Besides Dan paying for the snow which I referenced earlier, I think Pauline (Jo Hartley) from accounts embodies that spirit as well. When she talks about how reviving the documentary is bad for David, Pauline truly grasps the situation and worries for his well-being.

Gervais obviously wants to hit home the point that since the original Office documentary, the world is meaner, more selfish. We see this demonstrated in most of the people David encounters on tour from a taunting radio DJ to the mercenary PR representative David hires to the woman he picks up at the ATM looking for a free room and a mini-bar feast on him. Pauline’s concern is warranted and poignant considering David has hardly ever taken notice of her.

pauline-life-on-the-road

image credit BBC Films and Entertainment One

 

Ross: I’m going to have to echo everything my mom said in this part. A meaner world full of harsher, more anonymous social media is what has been created. Walls are built up by others before anyone can show how they truly are, leading to more mixed signals, brunt, up-front shutdowns, and overall distrust. Ricky Gervais puts a mirror up to a society that doesn’t even want to glance, and that shines through in every interaction David Brent has on camera with everyone in the documentary. Pauline and Nigel are the two shining examples in a world of negativity that everyone has a chance.

 

The Music 

Mum: I found the music and musicianship surprisingly good. Of course all the lyrics were written for comic effect to show us how seriously David takes his songwriting and how badly he misreads the tone of issues featured in his music. I found ‘Slough’ to be interesting because unlike most of the other songs which were Brent’s obvious attempt at hard-drinking rock and roll or socially conscious anthems, this one was just a love song, a declaration of loyalty to an oft maligned place as our hometowns so frequently are. It also nods to The Office as “Europe’s biggest trading estate.”

 

Ross: The music, as far as Foregone Conclusion originals, was like a parody comedy troupe with no boundaries. So overall I laughed the hardest at the ‘Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds’ song.

 

Does it stand up to The Office?

Mum: No, because it lacks the strong ensemble from the TV series and I doubt that was Ricky Gervais’ ambition in the first place.

However, I do think it’s worth watching if you are interested in encountering an older, more fragile but foolishly optimistic Brent. One can only hope he gives up on fame as a life goal and listens instead to those who genuinely care about him.

Ross: Life on the Road is a poetic ending to a character that has become a dying star heading towards a black hole. But, despite it all, every time I see Ricky Gervais on camera, I leave feeling happy and hopeful that whatever comes next will be okay. 4/5 for movie fans, The Office fans may find it more of a down the middle 2.5/5. Worth showing to friends and family who love cringe-worthy humor with a pointedly deserved message.

 

Kindred Kriticz: Outcasts

Ashley Walters and Hermione Norris in Outcasts image courtesy Kudos Film and Television

Jack  and Dr. Stella explore Carpathia    image Kudos Film & Television

Welcome back for our second installment of this multi-generational experiment we call Kindred Kriticz. Just a mother and son watching the same shows and movies and weighing in on them.

This week Ross suggested we tackle a 2011 BBC series called Outcasts because he is a sci-fi enthusiast and a devotee of the reboot of Battlestar Galactica in particular. Seeing as it was only an eight episode commitment and it had a pretty strong cast, I agreed.

Before we go any further, let me lay out the premise of Outcasts since it’s unlikely many of you have seen this series. Set in the year 2060, a group of Earth’s best and brightest have fled their mortally endangered home to colonize a habitable (fictional) planet they’ve named Carpathia after the ship that came to the rescue of some the Titanic’s passengers.

In the first episode, we discover most of the population has been living within the limits of the pioneer town, Forthaven, for the past decade. With the arrival of probably the last transporter that will reach Carpathia from Earth, we witness a power struggle between the president of the settlement, Richard Tate, and an unwelcome new arrival. Tensions also are evident between members of the Protection and Security (PAS) team within the Forthaven perimeter and the Expeditionaries (XPs) who explore the planet and protect the city from outside threats.

Some of what follows could be considered slightly spoilery. If you’d like to watch Outcasts before reading on, it’s available through February on Netflix.

Favorite Character

Mum: Cass Cromwell played by Daniel Mays. Cass is a Protection and Security officer with a mysterious past. He can be a bit of a wisecracker at times but he takes his job seriously. He is completely loyal to President Tate who gave Cass a second chance when he brought him to Carpathia. Officer Cromwell also has a soft spot for his colleague Fleur Morgan (Amy Manson). Mays is an underrated actor who never fails to deliver in the emotion department.

Ross: President Richard Tate portrayed by Liam Cunningham. Originally trained as a geneticist, it’s not known if he was chosen to govern the colony before or after the founding of Forthaven. He is a selfless leader with his primary concern being the welfare and future of his people. But as he will readily admit, Tate has made grave mistakes along the way. Most of all he is a man of dignity and it’s Cunningham’s ability to convey this gravitas that I think got him the role of Davos in Game of Thrones.

Most Hated Character

Mum: Julius Berger played by Eric Maibus, the only American in the cast. On Earth, Julius was the vice president of the evacuation program. He is a manipulative worm whom I disliked from the very beginning. He underhandedly gained passage onto the final transporter. His false piety annoys me to no end. His plot to unseat President Tate is no secret least of all to the man himself. In short, Julius really bugged me!

Ross: I have to agree. I usually love the despicable characters, as I do in G.o.T., but in this particular case, it was obvious he was a rat. (Why is it though that on British shows, Americans still come off as pretentious asses?) A close second is Ashley Walters as XP leader Jack Holt. It was more his scratchy voice than anything that grated on my nerves. He wasn’t necessarily coming from a bad place, but his character couldn’t be any more the cliched military-type bursting with cocky bravado.

Best guest star/character

Mum: I liked Gary Lewis as Patrick Baxter (aka Pak) in episode five. He was a flight pioneer and part of the advanced landing party on Carpathia. He’s been living as a hermit of sorts for the past ten years but makes a flashy appearance in Forthaven as a final farewell and warning to its inhabitants. Also moving was Nonso Anozie as Elijah, one of a clan of genetically enhanced humans, created by Richard Tate, who were then banished from Forthaven. In episode four, Elijah stumbles into town disoriented and fearful. His story was touchingly tragic because we learn he was experimented on which makes him uncontrollably violent and his life unbearable.

Ross: Being a Battlestar Galactica fan, my favorite guest appearance had to be Jamie Bamber as Mitchell Hoban in episode one. (Nonso was a close second.) The original leader of the XPs, Mitchell has a secret about the president that may or may not be contributing to his erratic and violent behavior. This madness leads him to a deadly showdown with PAS forces. Actually watching and loving Bamber as Apollo on Battlestar, it was so interesting to hear him speak in his own native accent.

Special Effects and Technology

Mum: I found the Forthaven compound to be not overly futuristic in appearance or gadgetry. The transports were about the only outer space element. There were a few unique advances like the Deep Brain Visualization machine that helps one relive memories. Used mainly as a crime solving tool, it could also offer solace as most colonists had to leave loved ones behind on Earth.  The most troublesome scientific endeavor, ethics-wise, was the creation of the ACs or Advanced Cultivars like Elijah who we mentioned earlier. Of course, after they were discarded for apparently infecting the settlers with a deadly virus, the ACs could not be controlled.

Ross:I sort of like those down and dirty sci-fi films on a budget that utilize realistic technology to take the place of advanced CGI budgets they don’t have. This, to me, honestly felt like a Battlestar series that utterly fell short for the BBC.

World Building

Mum: I found it interesting that considering Carpathia is supposed to be a second chance for humanity, all the best and brightest from Earth chosen to repopulate this new society appear to be British… except Julius, of course who we’ve already mentioned is a devious, conniving American.

This adopted planet looks very much like Earth with common physical features like oceans, plateaus and some vegetation though it appears all the food is produced within Forthaven’s perimeter. Carpathia experiences dangerous weather systems called white-outs. And as far as native life forms, PAS director Dr. Stella Isen (Hermoine Norris) confirmed the planet was home to an extinct hominid species. Meanwhile President Tate discovers an invisible alien intelligence that can sicken settlers and manifest copies of given individuals at will.

Ross: This comes around again to the idea that out of the trillions of planets out there, 0.000000001% are inhabitable by humans and possibly within reach by space flight in our lifetimes. Not to sound like a broken record, but it’s the same basic plot as Battlestar Galactica. So it kind of detracted enjoyment from the series because anything that isn’t B.G. just isn’t as good.

Most surprising twist (Lots of Spoilers!!!)

Mum: Cass’ secret past as a murdering thug was alluded to, but I didn’t see the revelation that Fleur was an AC coming at all! She is bright, brave, compassionate, and selfless – truly the best person on Carpathia because she was engineered to be that way.

Ross: Fleur’s twist is worth the whole build up of the show, but that’s about it.

If the series hadn’t been cancelled after series 1, what would like to have learned?

Mum: The obvious question comes from the cliffhanger ending of episode eight. I would have liked to find out who was aboard the clandestine transporter about to land on Carpathia. Would Julius’ coup have succeeded?

Ross: I would’ve liked to learn about those weird troll-like beings that pulled Fleur’s legs out of the tent. Also, I think a few episodes dedicated to the ACs and their leader Rudi (Langley Kirkwood) would be beneficial. The backstory on the creation of the ACs was so weak I didn’t really bother putting any emotional investment in any of the characters. Finally, I would have appreciated more natural exposition about how Earth basically devolved into chaos and WWIII broke out.

Overall Rating

Mum: I would give Outcasts a 3 out of 5. Pluses were the cast, the idealism and dedication of the colony to build a peaceful society and the mystery elements of the story. However, I wonder if there weren’t too many subplots going on to resolve all of them satisfactorily. We’ll never know since the show wasn’t commissioned for a second series.

Ross: I gave Outcasts 2 out of 5 stars on Netflix. For me it all comes back to a comparison with Battlestar and the superiority of a versatile and eclectic cast that really hit the nail on the head. Ironically Gaius Baltar, the villain of B.G., was a British actor (James Callis) who got to keep his own accent.

Join us next time as we discuss the return of England’s best known paper salesman in David Brent: Life on the Road.

Please bear with me as I work out how to structure this, the first of our  promised dual commentator posts. You may remember my recent proposal that my son, Ross, and I would form a long-distance blogging partnership based on our shared love of TV, movies and storytelling in general (which means, we like books too).

While we are both life-long consumers of these visual mediums, my son has a bit more gravitas than I do. He was a film major in college before switching to English and creative writing. He may sometimes pontificate about camera angles, lighting, production values and plot devices whereas I am more likely to get caught up in the characters, dialogue and cultural references.

So here’s the way this is supposed to work. Ross and I agree on a TV series or film that we can both access and then share our observations and opinions about the piece. I expect our selections will range across many genres including science fiction; dramas – crime, domestic and period; absurd comedy and horror just to name a few.

But topic of our maiden post, if you will,  is the 2004 BBC adaption of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South. According to Wikipedia (and some other sources), this mini-series “follows the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman from southern England who has to move to the North after her father decides to leave the clergy. The family struggles to adjust itself to the industrial town’s customs, especially after meeting the Thorntons, a proud family of cotton mill owners who seem to despise their social inferiors. The story explores the issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers clashes with her growing attraction to John Thornton.”

Ross actually picked this one because he was interested to see Richard Armitage in something other than The Hobbit, whose portrayal of Thorin Oakenshield he did not particularly appreciate. For my part, I had been meaning to watch North & South for some time since I was acquainted with a few members of the Armitage Army who gushed quite profusely about it. So after a quick binge – the serial is only four hours long- these are our impressions.

Cast

Let’s start with Richard Armitage, shall we? It’s my understanding that it was this role of cotton mill owner John Thornton that put Armitage on the map. In fact, I read that the BBC, thinking the series wouldn’t draw well, did little to promote it. Viewers found it anyway and flooded the network’s message boards, comparing his portrayal to Colin Firth’s Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Ross changed his mind about Mr. Armitage after this performance feeling he really held the cast together in a leading role that only saw him on screen about a third of the time. I found the reveal of Thornton’s truly kind and noble nature convincing so by the time he pleaded that Miss Hale would “look back at him”, how could you not be on his side?

Daniela Denby-Ashe played Margaret Hale, our compassionate, open-minded protagonist who through her unique position as an outsider could empathize with both sides of the mill workers strike. I only knew Daniela from her stint as Janey Harper on the long running sitcom, My Family though I read she had an extensive run on the soap EastEnders as a teenager. In North & South she played a strong, principled young woman who was unique in her honesty and sensibility, not swooning at a suitor’s first declarations of love. In fact, the romance of John and Margaret in North & South is a refreshing tale of a mutual attraction based on intellect/personality rather than fashion or various social appearances.

As for other supporting cast, I put a spotlight on Pauline Quirk who played Mrs. Hale’s devoted maid, Dixon. I recognized her immediately as the devoted housekeeper Peggotty from the 1999 mini-series David Copperfield (the one with Daniel Radcliffe). On the other hand, I was flabbergasted to discover she was also the mysterious, threatening Susan Wright from Broadchurch. How’s that for range?

Brendan Coyle, known to many as Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey, was also notable as Nicholas Higgins. I thought his portrayal of a dutiful father and passionate union leader was memorable though his conspicuous and ubiquitous display of chest hair was a bit disconcerting to be honest.

Ross gave special mention to Tim Pigott-Smith who he remembered from films such as V for Vendetta, Quantum of Solace and Gangs of New York. In a bit of circle-of-life casting, Piggott-Smith played Frederick Hale, Margaret’s brother on the run, in the 1975 version of North & South. Three decades later he returned as Richard Hale, father of Margaret and Frederick, a man so righteous he sacrificed the comfort of his family for his beliefs.

And speaking of Frederick, my son was also delighted to see Rupert Evans show up as Margaret’s wayward brother. His love of Hellboy knows no bounds and he recently discovered Evans in the Ken Follet mini-series World Without End which he highly recommends as well.

Talented cast of N&S Coyle, Armitage, Denby-Ashe and Pigott-Smith

Talented cast of N&S: Coyle, Armitage, Denby-Ashe and Pigott-Smith     credit BBC

Representation of the period

When watching period productions, one expects to discover something about history we didn’t know before. Be they very grand like Wolf Hall which dramatizes the reign of Henry VIII or even a sitcom like Up the Women about the British suffragette movement, some basic level of accuracy must be depicted if we’re to understand the context of the times.

Dramatic retelling is a very interesting plot device, in this case using the North & South as a microcosm for regional distinctions in mid-1800’s England. Two very different ways of life collide when southerner Margaret meets northerner Mr. Thornton. The South of England was primarily agricultural and the base for landed gentry and the aristocracy. On the other hand, the North was the center of the industrial revolution populated with self-made masters and their exploited workers on the verge of unionization. This grimy, cold, harsh region is a stark contrast to the bucolic, temperate South.

So we learned that deadly pneumoconiosis was contracted by workers like Bessy from exposure to the cotton fibers in the mills; that it’s perfectly acceptable for men and women shake hands in the North; and that when poor children were orphaned they were at the mercy of kind neighbors to take them in since there  apparently wasn’t a Children’s Services department to place them in foster care. North & South is like a Jane Austen romance with an enhanced social conscience. In fact, acclaimed author Charles Dickens who was famous for criticizing the Victorian society he wrote about was Elizabeth Gaskell’s editor.

Style

Period dramas should transport us back in time and many elements play a part in that journey. I thought the score, written by Martin Phipps, not only achieved its intended task of making us feel the appropriate emotions, but it was also just lovely to listen to. Ross praised the screenwriting and dialogue of Sandy Welch, who adapted Gaskell’s novel for the small screen.  Here’s a brilliant example of words, music and haunting images coming together to make a considerable and lasting impression on the viewer.

 

Cultural elements

The concept of “otherness” is part of the human condition. Regional suspicions and general dislike fuel the conflict between northern and southern ways of life in the series. When Margaret first met the townspeople in her new home of Milton, she judged them to be rough and too concerned with money and trade. Meanwhile, most Miltonians found the Southern intellectualism and manners of the Hales to be arrogant, insincere and useless.

Today social, economic and political conditions still tend to diverge along North/South lines in the UK and other parts of the world as well. But we’ll let the Map Men explain the whole North-South Divide issue with humor and visual aids.

 

Join us next time as we discuss the 2011 BBC sci-fi series Outcasts which stars Hermione Norris, Liam Cunningham and Daniel Mays and can be streamed on Netflix…at least for the time being.