Archive for the ‘Reviews and Recommendations’ 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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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).


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.


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.


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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.

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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.


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.


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.

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The Boomers cast     (image credit Hat Trick Productions)

Late one evening as I surfed around my streaming sites hoping something new would strike my fancy, I noticed that series one of the BBC sitcom Boomers had been added to the browsing menu on Acorn TV. I had been watching mostly dramas of late and was looking for some levity, short and sweet. From a brief look at the cast list it was obvious Gavin and Stacey‘s Alison Steadman was the marquee name and hey, I liked Pam Shipman and her Fat Friends character as well. So Boomers it was! Little did I know how quickly I would be hooked.

Set in the fictional Norfolk-based town of Thurnemouth, Boomers is an ensemble piece about three couples of retirement age who apparently spend most of their free time together. The mood is established with a peppy (and expensive to license, I would expect) soundtrack of 60’s and 70’s Motown and rock favorites. I get it, the older I get the more I just want to listen to music of my youth.

But don’t think for a moment that this is a comedy about mature adults living in the past and resistant to the future. They have a fair grasp of technology (laptops, tablets, smart phones) not to mention the myriad of problems that accompany our modern lives.

For Joyce (Alison Steadman) and Alan (Philip Jackson), retirement isn’t turning out to be a smooth transition. Part of it is about temperament – Alan wants to slow down, Joyce wants to speed up. But an even bigger issue has to do with finances.


Financial planner Trevor (James Smith) and his wife Carol (Paula Wilcox) are comfortably set for the next stage in their life. It’s forty years of marriage, an empty nest and a disintegrating state of communication that plagues this couple. But they’re making an honest attempt to rectify the problem, though personally, I feel Trevor is more committed to the process than Carol.


John (Russ Abbot) and Maureen (Stephanie Beacham) are the most social and adventurous couple of the three. For them 60 is the new 40. However, they are dealing with a very common challenge among this generation, caring for an elderly parent – in this case Maureen’s mum, Joan (June Whitfield) who is transitioning to a care home.


Whether they are celebrating an anniversary or retirement, mourning the death of a friend or taking the obligatory summer holiday trip together, it’s the relationships that are the touchstone of the show. The marriages, friendships and even the complicated parent/child bonds portrayed in Boomers feel authentic because they are constant, dependable and, in many instances, awash with ambivalence. I particularly enjoy the friendship between the three amigos, as Trevor likes to call them.

So despite the fact that I am almost two decades removed from the experiences of these characters and firmly established as a Generation X’er, I can relate because I understand where they started. I too had a close-knit circle of couples for friends that were a second family of sorts. If relocation and a very sad premature death hadn’t occurred, I could see us being much like this group to this day -certainly not perfect, but a reliable and caring support system all the same.

I’m also not so far removed from their situation that I don’t connect to the issues that loom ahead. How better to cope with the inevitability of aging than with humor and friendship no matter how smothering it can become at times?

Programming note: If you are an Acorn TV subscriber, series 2 of Boomers will premiere on Monday, October 10th.

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Agatha Raisin Series 1, Episode 5: Vicious Vet Sky 1 Ashley Jenson as Agatha Raisin

Agatha Raisin
Series 1, Episode 5: Vicious Vet
Sky 1

Fans of British murder mysteries will be chuffed to hear that streaming service Acorn TV has yet another exclusive U.S. premiere on the way. Hailed by The Times as a fun cross between Bridget Jones and Midsomer Murders  Agatha Raisin is a PR ace turned consulting detective who becomes entangled in mischief, mayhem, and murder when she decides to leave the rat race for early retirement in a small village in the Cotswolds. The pilot movie, the Quiche of Death, premieres on Monday, August 1, 2016, and the eight-episode Series 1 premieres the following week on Monday, August 8, 2016.

You might be wondering whether yet another amateur sleuth series is worth watching so let me introduce you to the force of nature that is Agatha Raisin.

First, Agatha Raisin is the creation of Scottish mystery writer M.C. Beaton. She debuted in the 1992 novel Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death and has appeared in at least one novel every year since. You may also be familiar with another of Beaton’s characters who got his own TV series – Hamish Macbeth.

Agatha is played by Scottish actress Ashley Jensen well known for her sitcom work in Catastrophe, Extras, Ugly Betty and her voice-overs in animated features such as Arthur Christmas, Gnomeo & Juliet and How to Train Your Dragon. Always stylish, Agatha traipses around her adopted village of Carsley in stiletto heels, colorful frocks and meticulously coiffed hair. She doesn’t hold back nor waits to be accepted, but forges ahead full-steam in pursuit of her goals. For one who so desperately wants to fit in, Ms. Raisin apparently can’t disguise her true self to save her life.

How, you may ask, does one who works in the field of shaping public perceptions about celebrities and corporations become a talented crime solver? Agatha has many transferable skills actually including her keen awareness of human nature. She also uses a common PR tool called a mood board to organize her thoughts and look for connections.

Working the Mood Board image credit Sky 1

Working the Mood Board      image credit Sky 1

While Agatha doesn’t make a great first impression on most of her fellow villagers, she’s not without a few allies. Detective Constable Bill Wong (Matt McCooey) is a great help with his police connections and puppy dog crush on Agatha. Ms. Raisin poached cleaner Gemma Simpson (Katy Wix) from a neighbor and they soon become fast friends. Gemma, sometimes reluctantly but always loyally, joins in on Agatha’s unorthodox investigations and is usually the voice of reason. Last but not least is Agatha’s former assistant Roy (Mathew Horne) who does much of the background research and helps her with her brainstorming sessions.

I leave you with this final factoid. Apparently before Agatha moved to Carsley, no one (in living memory anyway) had been murdered in this area of the Cotswolds. Much like Midsomer Murders, one wonders how so many violent crimes can take place in such an idyllic area without seriously depleting the local population. Is Agatha the most potent jinx in England? Or perhaps people had been victims of foul play before but the clueless police (a la Hot Fuzz) thought they were just unfortunate accidents and it took an outsider to see the truth.

Whatever the case, I found Agatha Raisin entertaining. Untimely ends come mostly to unpleasant residents. Agatha’s persistence and inquisitive nature make her a natural investigator; however, what makes her likable is her desire to make a new life, to escape loneliness and to strive to learn the truth whatever the danger. Ashley Jensen described Agatha as a “strong forthright, independent, driven, successful woman, who is both funny and flawed, a real woman of our time” and I’d agree with that.


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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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image credit Channel X North and Chris Harris

image credit Channel X North and Chris Harris

You may recall that last summer I wrote a glowing post about the debut series of the BBC sitcom Detectorists. I touted this mature, gentle BAFTA-award winning show for its appealing characters and smart writing. Triple threat (writer, director and actor) Mackenzie Crook and his co-star Toby Jones brilliantly portray Andy and Lance, two ordinary guys who share their love of metal detecting and quiz shows and, on occasion, provide advice and emotional support to one another. This is quite probably as close to a bromance as two English blokes can ever get.

I was thrilled to hear another series had been ordered and was set to be broadcast in the UK in the autumn of 2015. Finally this week, Acorn TV  made the entire second series available to its streaming service subscribers here in the US. And let me tell you, if you loved the series one you will not be disappointed as you reacquaint yourself with the members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club.

Without giving too much away, I can tell you Andy’s life has changed quite a bit. He and his girlfriend Becky (Rachel Stirling) have gotten married and now have a three month old cherubic son named Stanley. Becky has continued to work as a teacher while Andy, who has finally earned his archaeology qualifications, has become a default stay-at-home dad. However, Becky is itching to leave her boring job and petty co-workers behind and take her young family on an long planned adventure. Unfortunately, Andy seems to have settled into their comfortable domestic life a bit too well.


In other news, Andy and the other detectorists are concerned about Lance as he has been quite solitary and secretive since his ex-wife Maggie left town. Lance’s friends suggest he try out some on-line dating sites, but he has something much more pressing going on in his personal life that he obviously wants to keep to himself.

The DMDC also gains a new member named Peter (Daniel Donskoy). The young German man enlists their expertise in finding his grandfather’s final resting place – a WWII warplane crash site – with special help and attention from ancient history student Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards).

The Antiquitsearchers aka Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Casar and Simon Farnby) are back with a new name and are up to no good as usual. Russell (Pearce Quigley) and Hugh (Divian Ladwa) have started up a jewelry retrieval service while club president Terry (Gerard Horan) balances his two passions – metal detecting and his eccentric but sweet wife Sheila (Sophie Thompson).

I found that plenty of amusing situations, human stories and just the right amount of heartfelt moments make this follow-up series a delight. However, I have to admit my favorite part of the show is when Andy and Lance are out alone in the fields searching for important artifacts when they inevitably come upon modern litter instead – ring pulls, combine harvester parts and can slaw (mangled aluminum cans).

I loot I live for though is the British pop culture trinkets the pair tends to find every few episodes. It’s getting more and more difficult for me to come across references I don’t know on telly these days. I virtually squeal with delight as  I Google away, trying to find out why Lance and Andy’s discoveries are funny.

For example, Lance unearths a promising piece of Roman jewelry or so he thinks…

Status Quo is a classic British boogie/psychedelic rock band that formed in the 60’s and still exists today. They had next to no presence on the American record charts; however, if you watched the Live Aid concert in 1985 you may remember Status Quo as the band that opened the epic sixteen hour televised event with their hit song, ‘Rockin’ All Over the World.’

And here is a selection of the band’s pins and brooches from a posting on eBay. Perhaps Lance found one of these!

I’m thinking Lance found the one that looked like a  gold coin…


Another example of Lance’s spoils from this series is a Blankety Blank chequebook (without it’s obligatory pen).

Blankety Blank chequebook

Blankety Blanket trophy – Les Dawson edition

Blankety Blank was a TV game show equivalent to our Match Game in the States. Celebrity panelists would be read a sentence by the host with a word or phrase left out. The panelists would fill in the blank and two contestants would compete to see how many of the celebrities answers they could match. The one with the most matches at the end of the show won and the loser apparently received the lovely consolation prize above.


Finally we come to Andy’s only significant find of the series – a Tufty Club Badge!

Tufty Club Badge

I take it that Tufty the squirrel was the mascot for a preschool traffic safety campaign. (Like we had Woodsy the Owl – “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”) At its peak, there were over 24,000 Tufty clubs sponsored by The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

Learning the story behind Tufty puts this scene from Life on Mars into context and makes it so much funnier.

Sam Tyler and Gene "Tufty" Hunt            image credit Kudos Film and Television and BBC

Sam Tyler and Gene “Tufty” Hunt image credit Kudos Film and Television and BBC


The point is Detectorists can be enjoyed on many levels. You don’t have to know who Jimmy Savile was or why Andy finding a “Jim Fixed It For Me” pendant in the last series made him throw it as far from himself as possible. (Google it and you’ll find out why that was an edgy gag.) You can just relax and enjoy the friendships, the quirkiness, and the Simon and Garfunkel banter and let the other stuff float past if you wish. And when you’re done, you can try out your own little gold dance right in the middle of your living room.

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Think the only path to getting a TV show produced is by slaving over scripts and suffering through countless re-writes and rejections? Perhaps all you need is a really clever Twitter feed. Such was the case for tech magazine editor Rob Temple. Back around Christmastime 2012, he started a Twitter account by the handle @SoVeryBritish. He basically crafted humorous observations (in 140 characters or less) about the British population’s constant state of embarrassment and social awkwardness. This is one of his more recent gems.


Within six months, Temple had a lot of followers (the feed currently has 1.27 million) and a book deal. I received my copy of Very British Problems: Making Life Awkward for Ourselves, One Rainy Day at a Time as a Christmas gift two years ago.



Besides the obvious compilation of archived tweets organized into chapters such as “Rules of the Road” and “Public Speaking”, there are also longer sections. Historical and future British problems are included as well as a test you can take to see if you in fact “suffer from severe undiagnosed Britishness”. I took the online quiz and this was my result!

Well done! You are very British!

You should feel proud and then immediately feel ashamed of that pride. While you are not at ‘National Treasure’ levels yet, like Mary Berry or Sue Pollard, you will get there eventually unless some ungodly scandal is unearthed. But you do need to be careful. Keep those non-British characteristics under control. Whatever you do, don’t spend your time at a music festival having fun and listening to music, but instead frown at the poor queueing abilities of the people around you.


So after the success of a novelty book and an on-line clothing store where is there to go but turning it into a Channel 4 TV program?

You may be wondering how a book of tweets could be adapted for television. It’s rather clever actually. The always entertaining Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley to the Harry Potter generation) is our guide/narrator through the many twists and turns of VBP’s (as she calls them). In that now familiar talking head style, a host of British comedians and other celebrities including James Cordon, Ruth Jones and Stephen Mangan share examples of how they have grappled with the peculiar mannerisms of their homeland. For example:

Being genetically incapable of saying what we mean


Very British Problems is comprised of three episodes which touch on the following areas. The almost impossible task of talking or interacting with other people. Difficulties encountered when Brits find themselves out and about (at work, shopping or on holiday). And finally how our friends across the pond deal with all those uncomfortable feelings and emotions. The third installment is probably the one that rung most true for me especially when they started expounding on the agony of singing or dancing in public; a very real issue for me. Just that whole concept of joining in rubs me, and apparently the British as well, the wrong way. And don’t get me started on being instructed by friendly but insincere store clerks to “have a nice day.”


Viewers in the US can soon watch this amusing sociological study on Acorn TV. All three episodes begin streaming on Monday, March 28.   Whether it makes you shake your head in disbelief or nod in agreement and recognition, it’s an entertaining piece of self-deprecating British humor that had it’s beginnings in a social media phenomenon.

The only question I have is if Brits, as a nation, are all such rule followers, who are they tutting at, eh?

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Should have taken this photo before the show when it was still light outside...

Should have taken this photo before the show when it was still light outside…

Before I get started with my story, I should probably make sure everyone knows who Noel Fielding is. After all, almost every time I mentioned I was going to see this show, most people had no face to go with the name. If the person I was talking to was a British TV comedy fan they might know Mr. Fielding played Richmond the Goth on The IT Crowd. Or if they were in my children’s age range, I could ask them if they know who Old Gregg is.

If not, I was pretty much at a loss to explain who this English celebrity is because if my American friends don’t know the Boosh or Richmond, they’re never going to have come into contact with him on Never Mind the Buzzcocks or the Big Fat Quizzes of the Year.

I can only describe Noel as a Renaissance man; stand-up comedian, actor, visual artist, frequent panelist on comedy quiz shows, and dabbler in music (particularly the crimp style). This talent, however, is beyond explanation. Channeler of Kate Bush perhaps?


Anyhow, you get the idea. So there I was, just arrived in Boston from Cleveland to experience Noel Fielding live with my son and co-conspirator in slightly deranged British comedy. We Ubered into the theater district on a rainy evening and pulled up in front of the Wilbur with a few hours to kill. We loitered across the street at the Rock Bottom brewery nursing our Roy Rodgers and lemonade until we could get in to the show.

Once inside we found our seats with the aid of a justifiably confused usher.  I ask you; post it notes on cheap restaurant chairs and seats from row 13 and 14 located right next to each other. Nevertheless, I was pleased at how close we were to the stage and was reassured that not everyone in attendance was dressed as a Noel Fielding creation though there were plenty of those as well. Including someone who looked a bit like this…

Incarnation of Noel in his sketch show Luxury Comedy (image credit E4)

Incarnation of Noel in his sketch show Luxury Comedy (image credit E4)

The point was we were all together, the flamboyant and the quiet Noel lovers, all eager to witness whatever hilarious weirdness he was about to throw at us.

And on that account Fielding didn’t disappoint. He made his entrance in this sparkly ensemble:

Noel Fielding at the Wilbur Theater Boston

Noel Fielding at the Wilbur Theater Boston


He quickly shed the cape and headdress and got down to business with a good forty-five minute stand-up set in which he bemoaned the descent into his 40’s, explained what “chavs”are and regaled the audience with a bizarre dream he had about being an herbal tea bag.


For those of us who arrived at the appointed time, we could delight in our host’s playful scolding of latecomers, giving one couple an in-depth recap of what they’d missed so far.

Being the first audience of this North American tour, we got to be Fielding’s guinea pig in some respects. Very considerately he had thought to translate certain terms and brands from British to American. Examples were the cheeses Dairylea and Laughing Cow and modelling clay brands Plasticine and Play-doh (which aren’t exactly the same but close enough).

The rest of the show featured Noel’s brother Michael as Hawkeye (a half bird half man creature that somehow has something to do with tennis umpiring) and Noel’s cheating wife. We got “treated” to a glimpse of his bum as well. American actor and frequent Mighty Boosh co-star Rich Fulcher played a multitude of characters including Antonio Banderas, a clueless harlequin and a triangle. That last one is just too convoluted to explain. For me Mr. Fulcher is fine in small doses but the crowd really seemed pleased every time he stepped on stage.

The cast interacted with Fielding’s famous animated moon and a menacing Plasticine Joey Ramone.

Joey Ramone as envisioned by Noel image credit E4

Joey Ramone as envisioned by Noel image credit E4


One of my favorite parts of the whole show was when Noel waded into the crowd followed by a camera (I can’t tell you why) and interviewed members of the audience. In fact, he stopped to talk to the couple seated in the row directly in front of us. Alas we didn’t get to tell him about our city of origin, interesting jobs in the library world, nor that we were in fact mother and son. For my dear boy it was a close call; for me a case of so close yet so far.

I have a new appreciation for Noel’s improv skills and rapport with the fans which you don’t get to see from his more structured TV appearances. He seemed surprised and chuffed that anyone in America knew who he was let alone a sold-out crowd in Boston. If he’s coming to a city near you and you’re game for some avante-garde comedy, I’d highly recommend taking in the show.

It was all that I could have hoped for and well worth the over 600 mile journey. In the end I didn’t even seek Noel out at the stage door to see if a selfie or autograph was possible (and as you may have gathered, I’m a shameless fan girl). Why ruin my perfect evening or mar the impression of a person I’ve found fascinating since early in my British comedy awakening? I was right about him all along. That’s all I need to know.




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