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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.

 

image credit Catholic Herald

image credit Catholic Herald

As I write this the people of the UK are voting on a referendum to remain in or leave the European Union. You may have heard it referred to as the British Exit or Brexit. If you aren’t familiar with the term or were not aware that this momentous decision was nigh, here’s an a look at the arguments on both sides.

 

 

The Scottish referendum to leave or remain in the UK grabbed my interest in 2014 and I’ve kept an eye on UK politics ever since. For the Scottish vote and the 2015 general election I tried to inform myself and even stayed up to watch the streamed results live from my computer.

There was also a very helpful sitcom satire about the general election called Ballot Monkeys which put the party manifestos and public gaffes of the politicians on display in as close to real time as a scripted show could possibly do. This time around the same creators have given us Power Monkeys which attempts to parody the Leave and Remain camps.

I find the show’s decision to include speculation on what Vladimir Putin’s interest in Brexit  might be and a look at Trump’s failed pursuit of the female vote to be unnecessary and unsatisfying. However, I must admit there has been a degree of distraction and fatigue on my part fueled by the bizarreness that dominates the political climate in my own country.  In fact, I find the decision before the British people today to be eerily familiar to the tone of the US’ current divisive presidential race.

Campaign strategies for today’s referendum have included a crowd sourced documentary named simply Brexit: The Movie. It was produced to communicate the filmmaker’s view that the EU is an overly bureaucratic and corrupt institution which doesn’t work in Britain’s best interest.

 

On the other hand, several hundred British celebrities have signed an open letter stating their belief that it is better for Britain to work inside the EU framework than to stand apart and isolated from it.

 

And here is a situation where the two sides clashed in a very public confrontation.  This exchange involved a group of fishermen and, more flagrantly,  two very rich white men – United Kingdom Independence Party kingpin Nigel Farage and Remain advocate and musician Bob Geldof. Not as outrageous as what comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth on a daily basis, but peculiar (and probably staged) all the same.

 

In an extreme and tragically related incident, Labour MP and Remain supporter Jo Cox was murdered last week. Thomas Mair who was arrested for the crime reportedly shouted “Put Britain first” while carrying out his attack. He also identified himself as”death to traitors, freedom for Britain” when appearing at his first court hearing. While there is no indication anyone in the Leave camp would ever encourage such an act, it’s obvious the toxic nature of this debate has spilled over into uncharacteristic violence by some agitated/emotionally unstable individuals.

Slain MP Jo Cox

 

i know it’s not my place to persuade anyone how to vote, especially someone in another country. But I do hope that in the privacy of the voting booth, the people of the UK will make their decisions with a clear head and realistic expectations. Be a good example to your cousins across the pond and remember that you can still, in the words of John Oliver, “relentlessly insult Europe, and quietly acknowledge how lost we’d be without it.”

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.

Forget the Queen’s birthday. It’s National Tea Day, an occasion to celebrate a hot beverage that inspires very strong feelings across the United Kingdom!

Twitter UK logo

Twitter UK logo

It’s been five years and a few months since I started my Twitter account.   A slow and frustrating process, I’ve learned by trial and error what and how to tweet. I like to think I’ve got a handle on this social media medium by now despite the fact I’ve only amassed 328 followers thus far. It’s definitely a two steps forward one step back sort of proposition.  I don’t know if being on Twitter has driven previously unreachable readers to my blogs, but I have found it to be rewarding as means of communication with all sorts of people.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to published authors about their books. I found @LissaKEvans to be particularly gracious and approachable.

I was sent movie stills for a library screening of Tell Them of Us (@ww1Film) though Twitter contact.

I have voted to rescue talented young people from being eliminated from TV singing competitions. (#VoiceSaveOwen)

Mostly I can discuss British telly and culture in instantaneous and verbally economical exchanges with a subset of people who know who and what I’m talking about. They’re my witty, supportive virtual friends and they include bloggers such as @FrivolousMonsta and @LukeCustardtv.

But if the fan girl in me is honest, I have to admit the possibility of celebrity contact is what brings me back to check my feed time and again. I follow mostly British comedians and other creative types because, above all, I want my Twitter life to be more sparkling and clever than my real one. While one can never be certain, it’s painfully obvious in some cases that the feed isn’t maintained by the actual celebrity. Some like the tweets of Noel Fielding (@noelfielding11) are obviously being generated by the man himself. Besides all the photos he’s sharing from his North American tour, who else would say something like this?

In a way, Twitter has become, for me, a sort of metaphysical autograph book if you will. What follows are examples of some of my close encounters with luminaries across the sea.

Chris O’Dowd aka @BigBoyler – Mr. O’Dowd follows me on Twitter which, in my universe anyhow, is a huge deal. I’m not sure how it happened, but my best explanation is that I was reading a tweet by Chris followed by the resulting replies when I came upon a spoiler for a movie O’Dowd was featured in called Calvary. I called the guy out for ruining the ending before people in the US had seen it and next thing I know, I get notified that Chris is following me! I like to think he liked my chutzpah, but he probably was trying to make up for the rogue tweeter’s faux pas. No matter, since then I’ve had no interactions with the lanky Irishman whatsoever, but at least he’s stayed around silently in the shadows, reading my tweets and smiling.

Chris O'Dowd twitter

 

Brenda Blethyn aka @BrendaBlethyn – More exciting than having this amazing actress follow me on Twitter (which she does) is the fact that I got to conduct a phone interview with her last year. When I tweeted about my experience, she kindly acknowledged our meeting. A classy lady and a judging by her tweets, an avid theater and arts supporter to boot.

Brenda Blethyn twitter

Count Arthur Strong aka @Arthur_Strong – I’ve had the great fortune to have several exchanges with Arthur (or the actor who created him, Steve Delaney). His tweets make and his sitcom make me laugh like nothing else. We’ve discussed trouser fires, show rankings and his  aversion to Game of Thrones. But my favorite was the very Arthurian answer he came up with below.

Count Arthur Strong twitter

Miranda Hart aka @mermhart- I never could have imagined I’d ever achieve Twitter communion with one of my British comedy idols, but it finally happened about a year ago. And just so you know, I kept my promise and went to see Spy in the theater. No lie, Miranda was in it quite a lot.

Miranda Hart twitter

 

Chetna Makan aka @chetnamakan- I have had likes and brief replies from several GBBO contestants including Richard Burr, Iain Watters and Luis Troyano. But I’ve found Chetna to be the most responsive of the former TV baking show contestants. She responds promptly and her appreciation of your interest and support feels so genuine.

Chetna Twitter

Reece Shearsmith aka @ReeceShearsmith- Now with Mr. Shearsmith I had to work a bit harder. I’d been tweeting complimentary remarks about his work in hopes of getting him to acknowledge my presence. Finally I pestered him for info about the upcoming series of Inside No. 9…and he took the bait!

Reece Shearsmith twitter

Others have retweeted and liked some of my input, most recently the two fine gentlemen you see pictured below. Each notification brings with it a little thrill that someone whose work I value has taken a moment to affirm my wish to connect with them.                                                        

Eddie Marsan @eddiemarsan

Eddie Marsan @eddiemarsan

     

Greg McHugh @gregjmchugh

 

In fact my very first celebrity “favorite” (now designated as “likes”) came from Russell Tovey aka @russelltovey. At that time I thanked him for his small but meaningful gesture which he then proceeded to “like” as well.

Russell Tovey twitter

 

I still have others in my sights including the aforementioned Noel Fielding, Richard Ayoade, David Mitchell and Sarah Millican to name a few. Just to clarify, I will not resort to the out and out plea for them to follow me because it’s my birthday or something. It’s annoying and requires no real thought. I will earn my tweets the hard way – with ingenuity, perseverance and maybe just a bit of old fashioned flattery. I can only imagine those hard earned tweets will be the sweetest of them all.

I’d really enjoy hearing who is in your Twitter “autograph book” or about your experiences in general. If you don’t follow me currently and would like to, you can remedy that by clicking the Follow button to your right under Telly Quotes and Other Tweetables!

 

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.

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.

VBP

 

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?