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boomers

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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Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin image credit Acorn TV

Jensen as Agatha Raisin  (image credit Acorn TV)

It’s not often that I get to conduct an interview from the comfort of my living room, or for that matter, from anywhere at all. But thanks to my friends at Acorn TV, I was afforded the the wonderful opportunity to speak with Ashley Jensen last week. This Scottish actress is probably best known to American audiences for her work in sitcoms like Extras, Ugly Betty or Catastrophe. She’s also lent her voice to many an animated feature and now can add M.C. Beaton’s PR guru-turned-amateur detective, Agatha Raisin to her CV. We had a lively phone chat that touched on the many and varied stages of her career as a working actress.

We began by discussing how Ashley got her start in acting. While she didn’t get much exposure to drama in school, she joined the National Youth Theatre in London when she was a teenager attending over her summer holidays. After that she went to drama school for three years from ages 18 to 21. Once her training was over,  she “basically started at the bottom doing theater – the type of theater where you drive in a little van, put the set up, do the show, you take the set down, you put it in the van and go to the next gig. Like a bunch of traveling minstrels.”

Gradually Ashley moved on to playing tiny parts on television. “I kinda feel as if I’ve really served my acting apprenticeship. People are asking me how it is being at the helm of a show. To me it was far more terrifying going on and doing my one scene or four lines in a long standing show with a lead actor. That was far more scary than being the lead actor in a show.”

When I asked her if she had ever considered another career, she recalled a drawing she made as a young girl for her mother telling her it was a picture of when she would be an actress on television. Ms. Jensen said there was never any doubt in her mind about acting, but she felt she had to be very single-minded about her choice of career.

“I knew I had to make a living out of it because I didn’t have a trust fund somewhere that could subsidize me if I failed at this thing. I absolutely had to earn a living out of it. People talk about success and they kind of deem success as when you become a bit of a household name and, to be completely honest, I felt like I was a success way before that because I was able to pay my own rent in the chosen profession, in the job that I trained to do. I was like ‘I can’t believe that I’m working in theater which is what I always wanted to do and I was able to pay my way’ and so I figure I was a success years ago.”

Ashley’s breakout role was in the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant follow-up sitcom to The Office. In Extras, she played Ricky’s best friend and fellow TV and film extra, Maggie Jacobs. Many famous celebrities from both sides of the pond guest starred on the show as well. One of those A-list actors was Samuel L. Jackson and Ms. Jensen recalled the reaction to the American movie star as he first arrived on set.

“I’d never met anyone from the movies, from the silver screen- so I was already overwhelmed acting alongside Ricky and along walks Samuel L. Jackson and there was this silence on the set. I’ve never heard silence like I heard silence when Samuel L. Jackson walked on the set. And of course Ricky being Ricky just broke it when I think Samuel L. Jackson bent over and tied his shoelace or something and Ricky shouts “He ties his own shoelaces!” and then the atmosphere changed and everyone was fine.”

“I mean these guys all came on and they did such a great job at playing these heightened versions of themselves and they absolutely loved it. I think they loved coming on and almost slumming it on this BBC TV show where the budget isn’t what Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet and Samuel L. Jackson are used to.”

 

After her Emmy and BAFTA nominated role in Extras, Ashley took a vacation and found herself on the brink of her next big job playing Betty Suarez’s friend and co-worker Christina McKinney in the Golden Globe award winning sitcom, Ugly Betty.

Ashley-Jensen-in-Ugly-Betty

Jensen with America Ferrrera on Ugly Betty (image courtesy of Silent H, Ventanarosa and Reveille Productions)

 

“I came over literally for a holiday with my husband to do a California road trip and my agent said you may as well see a few people out there and one thing led to the other and before I knew it I was screen testing for various pilots, a couple of which I didn’t get.  Then all of a sudden in rode this little gem of a script and I went ‘This is the one I really want to do!’ This is a story I’d not seen before. It was heightened, it was fun, it was a bit camp and yet it was really honest and dealt with a lot of really human issues. And I thought this is the one I really want to get and, lo and behold, I got it. Of course I signed up for a few years and I moved to America and I lived there for six years.”

Asked to reflect on the differences between working in television in the UK and LA, Ashley cited two main factors.

“LA is an industry based on film making and TV program making so there’s not so much of a struggle with the money aspect of it. So if we need to do overtime to get the shots, we’ll do it. Because occasionally sometimes here (UK) we can be a little compromised because they can’t afford to pay overtime.  And we also have this thing called the weather which can affect our filming. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve done with a hot water bottle strapped to my waist, heat pads sewn into my vest and, of course in LA, you don’t have that plus your food is better over there. The craft services are so much better than ours.”

It’s been said an actor’s voice is his/her instrument and Ms. Jensen has made good use of hers, namely as a narrator and voice-over artist. Some of her animated credits include Arthur Christmas, How to Train Your Dragon and Gnomeo & Juliet. I asked how she liked doing this sort of work and she had a very enthusiastic response.

“I love it! You know you think you’re just standing there saying lines but after a four hour session I’m sweating. I kind of get physically involved in it and you’ve got to really think on your feet and think of different ways of saying the line again and again. Yeah, I really like it. It’s almost like you kind of leave your dignity on the doorstep and you’ve gotta just go for it and think no one’s looking at me, apart from the fact that they are actually filming you so they can see how your face moves. It’s fun. It’s kind of like being a child again doing animated films, just doing silly voices and jumping about and being incredibly uninhibited because there’s no space for being inhibited in any way.”

Ms. Jensen also filled me in that she has begun work on Sherlock Gnomes which is the sequel to Gnomeo & Juliet. I assume she will reprise her role as Nanette the Frog.

 

Next we discussed her stint as narrator of Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, a UK reality medical television program which tries to make common medical issues, especially those that are “embarrassing” understood and to debunk myths surrounding them. I wondered if there had been any conditions that Ashley had come across on the show that stood out as being particularly upsetting, perhaps like this one:

“I did watch the VG and sometimes go ‘Oh, no sorry. I totally missed my cue just watching that there’ but I remember when I was pregnant, I could barely get through an episode without crying. It was just like,  ‘Oh that poor man!'”

But aside from the shock value, Ms. Jensen remarked on the show’s impact on its participants and the larger TV audience as well.

“Viewers emailing in and Twittering in, and doing all that twittery thing that I don’t really do, saying that because of your program I went to the doctor and I found out I have this and my life is so much different, in fact my life has been saved. I mean it was a bit ridiculous sometimes with a nice mix of daft problems but then there were some real conditions where you went ‘Wow, that person’s life has been literally changed because of this program’ and that was great.”

Eventually I got around to the Agatha Raisin portion of the conversation. As with any adaptation of a popular book series, there are always going to be adjustments from page to screen.  First we addressed to obvious physical differences between Ashley and Agatha.

Agatha stands out in appearance if not in cookery (image credit Acorn TV)

Agatha makes an impression in Carsely  (image credit Acorn TV)

“I think I’d read one book before the interview and was thinking – this woman’s older than me, she’s got brown hair, she’s chunkier than me, she’s from Birmingham. Why me? I spoke to the author M.C. Beaton and got her seal of approval (despite) the fact that I look different to what she’d originally envisioned. There’s always going to be somebody that’s not going to be comfortable with how we’ve done it and that’s okay. I thought I can’t let this worry me too much, but the author’s good with it and she’s wonderful. And I’ll tell you there’s more than a little bit of Agatha in there, M.C. Beaton. She has her bright pink lipstick and her flamboyant clothes and she also is Scottish. She’s such a character and she’s such a wonderful woman.”

As for how Ashley approached playing Agatha, she admitted it was more about the essence of the woman than the package.

“She wears her makeup, her structured clothes and her perfect hair almost like her armor against the world. And yet underneath, and we got to see that in the show, behind closed doors she’s had a disastrous love life and a very close relationship with a bottle of wine and she’s a terrible cook and she has a wee cat that she just loves and was actually, in a lot of ways, quite lonely and looking for a bit of warmth. And that was quite nice to play. I think it came across on screen quite well in that you got to see little moments of vulnerability that made the character a wee bit more of a three dimensional character rather than she’s just a bitch.”

We touched on Mrs. Raisin’s eensy weensy problem with assimilating fully to her newly adopted home of Carsley. Ashley shared that it was a conscious decision that there was to be lots of boldness and color in Agatha’s look to symbolize how she wasn’t conforming to English country life.

“This was who she was and she wasn’t apologizing for it, but I think ultimately she did want to sort of fit in and be part of what was her childhood dream of living in this lovely little cottage. I think she’d had herself a bit of a troubled background, not that we see too much of that because we just see her now, but I think that’s the backstory of who she was which kind of gives the character a wee bit more depth again.”

As for Agatha’s new hobby since moving to the Cotswolds, Ashley discussed what about her character’s personality and experience makes her a good detective.

“I think her PR skills obviously stand her in good stead and the fact, I think, that she just doesn’t take no for an answer. I think she has got this utter confidence in her own ability to get people to do what she wants whether that may be through manipulation or a little bit of fear and intimidation. She kind of manages to muscle her way into situations where I think maybe the policemen, particularly in our series Bill Wong, wouldn’t be able to get himself into. She can be charming when she wants to and flirty when she wants to. She just makes sure she gets her own way really.”

One of the silent characters of Agatha Raisin is the Cotswolds itself. Ms. Jensen confirmed that the show was shot in and around the region including Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset.

“It was all these shires that are all very close to one another – beautiful little villages that are all sort of nestled in hillsides around this area. It looks so glorious too with the stately homes of which there are many around this area. I mean, it’s so quintessentially English, isn’t it? Hopefully that’s something an American audience can enjoy the charm of. Just looking at that countryside is like a chocolate box. A chocolate box England.”

When it comes to her own retirement in the distant future, I wondered if Ashley would take Agatha’s path or choose another destination.

“Funnily enough I live not far from where we film. I live just outside of Bath in the rolling countryside with bulls and pigs for neighbors. It was a bit of joke really because it’s like ‘Hey I’m living Agatha’s dream!’ Except I have a family – I’ve got a husband and a dog and a child so I’m not quite like Agatha in that way. Yeah, I love it here. It’s just so glorious and it was such a wonderful job because a lot of the locations were very near to where I live and how often does that happen. Not very.”

To end the interview, I engaged Ashley in a conversation about another of her more recent works, the quirky, dystopian film The Lobster which also stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. The story is set in a society where single people are confined to a specially designated hotel and have forty-five days to find suitable mate, or else they are turned into the animal of their choice and released into the wild. I wondered if her character, Biscuit Woman, had an animal in mind when she came to the hotel.

“I think I had it in my head it was a bumblebee. I don’t know why but I think I thought she might want to be a bumblebee. Which would be a ridiculous one because they only last for a few days, don’t they? I don’t think she was the brightest of women, Biscuit Woman.”

After viewing the film, I was most impressed with Ashley’s chameleon-like appearance, and admitted it took me a few scenes to recognize her.

Ashley in all her self-described slump-shouldered, ill-fitting bra glory in The Lobster (image credit Film4)

“The director had said he wanted me to cut my hair for it and I was like ‘No listen, seriously, we don’t need to. I know a style that will be brilliant. I’ll just walk in and I’ll look just exactly what you’re asking for.’ I think he was a bit worried I was going to look too attractive. I said, ‘Yorgos (Lanthimos) believe me, I won’t. I won’t look too attractive.’  I got on the set and I had no makeup on and my hair like that and he quietly went up to the makeup woman and had a little word. She came up to me and said ‘Ashley, Yorgos wants you to put on a little makeup.’ And I looked over at Yorgos and said, ‘I told you, I told you.’ He went, ‘You did, you did.’

With that we had to end our call, but Ms. Jensen concluded by saying she was delighted that Agatha Raisin has reached American shores. If you want to check out her performance along with other cast members Katy Wix, Jamie Glover and Mathew Horne, the series is currently streaming on Acorn TV. The pilot movie, The Quiche of Death, premiered on Monday, August 1, 2016, and the eight-episode series 1 became available the following week.

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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.

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?

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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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