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Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

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.

 

 

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PrisonersWives_CompleteSome months back my friends at Acorn TV sent me a DVD copy of a BBC drama series called Prisoners’ Wives. With only a passing glance at the cover, I dismissed it almost immediately. Face it, any show with “Wives” in the title is either a reality show about polygamy (Sister Wives), a diva fest (The Real Housewives of…) or a poorly done melodrama (Footballers’ Wives). Putting “Prisoners'” in front of the telltale “Wives” didn’t make it any more appealing.

Then one day as I was sorting through my growing stack of screeners and I gave this series a another look. First I saw there was some pretty fair talent involved including Polly Walker, Iain Glen, Nicola Walker, Anne Reid, Jason Watkins and David Bradley for a start. I also noticed that the series takes place in the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield. Give me a Northern setting and those lovely accents and that’s reason enough to watch in my book. Anyhow, I popped in the first disc and my mind was very quickly changed.

Prisoners’ Wives explores what happens to women – spouses, girlfriends, mothers and daughters – who are dealing with the incarceration of a significant other. This isn’t just about criminals and the bimbo wives who love them. From the first shock of the daunting visiting procedure to the normalization that comes with a long-term sentence, these ladies form an unlikely sorority and reach out to help one another when they can.

Polly Walker plays Francesca Miller, the wife of Paul (Iain Glen) a drug lord and longstanding inmate at the prison. She is a matriarch of sorts for the prisoners’ wives, but when we pick up her story, Frannie’s life is taking quite a drastic turn. Accustomed to the pampered lifestyle of a gangster’s wife, for the first time Mrs. Miller must get a job, try to reconcile with her dad (David Bradley) and take a more critical look at what her husband does for a living even while behind bars.

Polly Walker plays gangster wife Francesca  (image BBC)

Polly Walker plays gangster wife Francesca (image BBC)

 

Pippa Haywood plays a drab, timid and apprehensive widow, Harriet Allison. Her son Gavin (Adam Gillen) whom she grassed up by telling the police he was hiding a gun for a friend is impressionable and angry and Harriet is rather naive about the world he has just entered. Over the course of this hardship, Harriet finds new love and an inner strength she’d lacked since she lost her husband some years ago.

Pippa Haywood plays distraught mother Harriet Allison (image BBC)

Pippa Haywood plays distraught mother Harriet Allison (image BBC)

I must add Pippa’s performance was a revelation to me since I didn’t even recognize her until about three episodes in. Up until this time I knew her only as Joanna Clore, the bitter, abusive and rather slutty HR director on Green Wing. Harriet is Joanna’s polar opposite in every way.

While Francesca and Harriet carry over from the first to the second series, other characters come and go. They are women who love accused murderers and child molesters, convicted drug dealers and petty repeat offenders. Even when their stories are resolved, you understand that these women have journeyed through a very lonely and stressful time in their lives and will be forever changed.

I think the most satisfying part of the show is how each character, those behind bars and those left to pick up the pieces,  eventually take responsibility for the situation in which they find themselves. Choices are made and consequences must be paid. Some turned a blind eye to suspicious activity, others are bound up in co-dependency and a few let others take the blame for their own crimes. We could use more self-awareness and acceptance of reality in this world. In Prisoners’ Wives, it’s a ray of hope after so much chaos and pain.

 

In the end I found this drama to be much more substantial and engaging than I first thought. You come to care about the characters; cursing their misguided mistakes, cheering their progress and sadly nodding in sympathy for the things they can’t change. The complete series is currently available on Acorn TV in the US so give these wives a chance. I think you’ll find them both “real” and “desperate” but not in a soapy, reality way.

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I’m back once more with a pair of offerings from the American online streaming service with (almost exclusively) British content, Acorn TV. Both are cop dramas. In one, the dialogue was improvised and was shot in documentary style; the other starred the mini-series biopic queen, Sheridan Smith. I found one much more enjoyable than the other. Let’s see if you can guess which is which!

Suspects (Series 1 & 2 available on Acorn TV beginning Mon., Feb. 22)

image credit Acorn TV

image credit Acorn TV

Set in East London, the series follows the team of DS Jack Weston (Damien Molony), DC Charlie Steele (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and their guv, if you will, DI Martha Bellamy (Fay Ripley) as they investigate various serious crimes including murder, child abuse and sexual assault. The focus of this show is on the cases; we learn very little about the personal lives of our officers or about politics within the station.

I was interested in watching this because I read that the episodes were unscripted. I thought this a brave choice for a drama since you usually only find this level of improv in comedies…and Mike Leigh films. I had access to the first series and watched all five episodes with a bit of effort.

I have to say I was a rather disappointed in this experiment because I think the actors, Fay Ripley in particular, would have benefited from having actual lines to speak. Perhaps it’s because I know her more as a comedic actress, but all I could think when watching her scenes is “Hey, there’s Jenny from Cold Feet (or any number of other sitcom roles she’s played over the years) trying to convince us she’s a actual police officer. Damien Moloney lacked the very appealing charisma he displayed as Hal in Being Human and, as I am not as familiar with Ms. Ashitey, she could have been the most believable character had she not had this habit of repeating quite a lot of already stated facts almost verbatim. She was quite good in Doctor Foster though.

Truth be told, I found the people playing the witnesses, victims and suspects gave the most realistic performances probably due to the fact they had the most emotional parts to play.

Suspects has produced four series thus far (two a year) for Channel 5. The fact that I had never heard of this British network might have been a clue to the quality of the project. From their Wikipedia entry I would say this channel concentrates on reality/factual programs and American imports so good on them for trying something of this magnitude. To be fair, the show could conceivably have improved in subsequent seasons that I didn’t get the chance to see. It’s not the worst police procedural I’ve ever seen, but there are others that are far better.

 

Black Work (3 part mini-series already streaming on Acorn TV)

image credit Acorn TV

image credit Acorn TV

Now this ITV production was a much more engaging drama and is very intricately tied up in the personal lives of a number of Greater Yorkshire police officers. PC Jo Gillespie’s (Sheridan Smith) world is turned upside down when her husband, undercover officer Ryan (Kenny Doughty), is killed under suspicious circumstances. Thinking her husband had been away much of the time training new CID officers, Jo learns he was actually deep undercover. She does what she can to hold her family together but she’s obsessed with discovering who killed Ryan, if only to find out who he really was.

This story is apparently very loosely based on a real case of a detective going so covert that he took on a second, secret life. As I mentioned before, this genre is Ms. Smith’s milieu and she’s quite watchable as the bewildered yet determined wife trying to get to the root of the betrayal perpetrated upon her by her husband and her police family. The cast over all was strong especially Matthew McNulty as fellow police officer and “friend” Jack Clark, Geraldine James as the pragmatic Chief Constable Carolyn Jarecki and Phil Davis as the mysteriously threatening Tom Piper.

Black Work’s biggest strength is its seemingly unending series of twists. The tension mounts for the audience as each startling bit of evidence is revealed. Some may say the number of curves that are thrown Jo’s way is unrealistic, but I think it helps emphasize her sense of complete distrust and, quite frankly, justified paranoia.

Also the story is set in Leeds and I do favor a Northern accent.

 

Understandably those who make police dramas have to be on the lookout for new and interesting ways to build stories. In my estimation, Suspects creators (who happen to be primarily soap opera writers) took an admirable risk, but failed to deliver.  Black Work, penned by Bridge of Spies writer Matt Charman, may have gone the more traditional storytelling route but came out with a more compelling tale to tell. But as Reading Rainbow’s LaVar Burton says, “You don’t have to take my word for it…” Check both of these series out for yourself on Acorn TV.

 

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Every so often the good folks at Acorn TV send me screeners for British TV shows that will soon be available on their streaming subscription service. The most recent DVD I found on my doorstep was a mini-series called Midwinter of the Spirit, a thriller based on a novel by supernatural mystery author Phil Rickman. On the cover I read review quotes from UK papers like “truly spine-tingling” from The Daily Telegraph and “An everyday tale of exorcism, with the ghostbusting turned all the way up to 11” from The Guardian. Everyday exorcism? That made me curious enough to pop the disc in my DVD player and this is what I found…

 

image credit ITV Studios

image credit ITV Studios

 

Set in the bucolic Hereford countryside, we meet vicar Merrily Watkins (Anna Maxwell Martin). To say her that her life is not idyllic is a huge understatement. We quickly learn that she has recently been widowed and rather than bereaved she just seems angry. She’s raising a teenage daughter Jane (Sally Messham) who is missing her dad and, well let’s face it, is sixteen years old. Enough said.

And if Merrily’s personal problems aren’t enough to deal with, she’s been tapped by her encouraging and slightly inappropriate boss, Bishop Mick Hunter (Nicholas Pinnock) to train to be a deliverance minister. A less loaded word than exorcist, but you get the idea. The current holder of this position is Canon Dobbs (David Sterne) and it has been decided that he’s losing his marbles. Or is he?

Unfortunately Merrily’s deliverance tutor Huw Owen (David Threlfall) senses she is fragile and now may not be the best time for her to undertake this type of job. Merrily takes his assessment of her readiness as sexist and shakily accepts the challenge.

On a side note: I still find myself surprised anytime I see Threlfall in something where I can actually understand what he’s saying. Guess all those years as Frank Gallagher on Shameless has conditioned me to expect slurred Mancunian incoherence.

Almost immediately two detectives (one who just so happens to be Kate Dickie aka crazy Lysa Arryn from Game of Thrones) show up on Merrily’s doorstep requesting her assistance in investigating a ritualistic, crucifixion-style murder. She’s literally just finished her exorcism seminar and they’re looking to her to be an expert in these matters?

On the heels of that upsetting discovery, Merrily is called to hospital to give the last rites to a dying man called Denzil Joy (Oengus MacNamara) – not because he requested it, but because the nurses felt a demonic presence penetrate them whenever they were in his room. I guess they thought Merrily could force all that unpleasantness to die with him. Needless to say, Denzil infects the vicar with his poisonous spirit and the stage is set for a clash of good and evil with Merrily’s faith as the battleground.

 

Merrily at Denzil Joy's death bed image credit ITV Studios

Merrily at Denzil Joy’s death bed
image credit ITV Studios

 

Other forces at work against Merrily are Angela Purefoy (Siobhan Finneran) a local medium and a dark mysterious new girl in town called Rowenna (Leila Mimmack). Both women befriend Jane with the intent of turning her against her mother for their own nefarious purposes.

 

Angela Purefoy-her name couldn't be further from her intentions image credit ITV Studios

Angela Purefoy-her name couldn’t be further from her intentions
image credit ITV Studios

 

My impressions of Midwinter of the Spirit are that it’s an absorbing story that is well acted, particularly by Maxwell Martin, Threlfall and Finneran; the first two for their portrayal of modern day people of faith who aspire to do their calling despite spiritually dangerous consequences and the latter for being a proper villainess you just want to hate. She did play the scheming O’Brien on Downton Abbey after all so she’s had plenty of practice.

Being only three episodes long, it’s not really a slow burning story of suspense. However, it still manages a respectable amount of chill and creepiness as we follow Merrily on her hellish journey of feverish delusions and desperation to protect her daughter.

I also learned some things about the Anglican Church including the story of St. Thomas Cantilupe of Hereford and that the fact that ordained C of E staff actually perform exorcisms. The movies always led me to believe that was the domain of the Catholic Church alone.

Anyhow, if this series sounds like your cup of tea and you’d like to check it out in the US, episode one will begin streaming on Acorn TV Mon., Jan. 11. The remaining two installments will be added on consecutive Mondays. If you already watched it when ITV aired it in the UK last autumn, please feel free to share your spoiler-free comments below.

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Turner as The Hobbit's Kili image credit New Line Cinema

Turner as The Hobbit’s Kili
image credit New Line Cinema

Before you get the wrong idea from the somewhat misleading title of this post, let me clarify the nature of my rendezvous with the owner of the most talked about abs of 2015. Through no obsession or conscious planning of my own, I found myself, on and around January 1, binging on a lot of Irish actor Aidan Turner’s recent work.

Never mind the fact that my daughter and her boyfriend had been watching The Hobbit trilogy which featured Turner as Kili, the designated heartthrob in a pack of thirteen dwarves. I was already part the way through Poldark: Series 1 on DVD when I discovered the newly broadcast Agatha Christie mystery And Then There Were None was available to stream on Daily Motion. I was on Aidan overload, but there are worse things that can happen on New Year’s Day so I went with it.

If I’m honest, Poldark, a remake of the 1977 post-Revolutionary War period drama, had been a bit of a slog to get through. I’d watch an episode or two, then take a break of up to a week sometimes and then resume with a new sense of resolve. It wasn’t that the Cornish landscape wasn’t breathtaking or that the love story between Turner’s gentleman Ross Poldark and his wild servant girl turned devoted and pure of heart wife, Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), wasn’t engaging. There was just so much misfortune and so little joy in these characters’ lives, it got to be a chore to watch what would befall them next.

And not all of the bad stuff can be blamed on fate or various societal inequalities of the time period. Yes, Ross has many strengths, among them being a friend to those of lower station, his apparent incorruptibility and his loyalty to his family and all others who can earn his trust. However I couldn’t help thinking that if he had been a bit more amiable to George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) who was obviously eager to be sitting at the “cool table” with Ross and the other Poldarks, he might not have been arrested on a number of serious counts at the cliffhanger conclusion of the series.

In the end I endured the unfair imprisonment of Jim Carter (Alexander Arnold), the downfall of well-meaning but ineffectual Francis Poldark (Kyle Soller who is American by the way), the shunning of cousin Verity (Ruby Bentall) and of course the heartbreaking death of Ross’ baby Julia as a result of the putrid throat epidemic (which turns out is what we now call diphtheria.) And for what? For moments like this one…

 

On the other hand, the three part mini-series And Then There Were None was compelling and practically beckoned me to watch it. In this 2015 adaptation of the Agatha Christie tale about eight strangers and a pair of domestic staff summoned to a secluded island in Devon under false pretenses, Mr. Turner portrayed mercenary Phillip Lombard. When each house guest is accused of a murder, Lombard freely admits to his slaughter of twenty-one East African natives in order to gain access to a haul of diamonds. He is unapologetic, brutally honest and charming which, in the end, does him no good when he finds himself one of the last survivors on this island of revenge and terror.

There are several particularly notable moments for Turner in this series. One is obviously his provocative towel scene. In the story each guest is required to strip down to a robe or towel so the others may search their room for Lombard’s missing revolver. It worked very well for Aidan – for Toby Stephens, not so much.

Vera Claythorn (Maeve Dermody) and Turner in the OMG moment of And Then There Were None image credit BBC

Vera Claythorn (Maeve Dermody) and Turner’s Lombard in the OMG moment of And Then There Were None
image credit BBC

But I also felt he got the best line of the series. When Lombard tells the others he plans to kill their tormentor with a bullet between the eyes, Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson) is repulsed by his vulgarity and asks how he can say such horrible things. Lombard responds with a snear, ” I just open my mouth and it comes out.”

Aidan Turner is definitely on a hot streak and, based on the comments I get at the library from ladies of all ages looking for his work on DVD, he’s getting hotter as we speak. (To those who have discovered him through Poldark, may I recommend Being Human?)

And so there you have it, my first telly experiences of 2016. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead and, of course, to sharing my British TV observations with you. Happy New Year and happy viewing!!!

 

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