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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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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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BBC New Broadcasting House image credit Luk MacGregor

BBC New Broadcasting House
image credit Luke MacGregor

In case you haven’t heard, the BBC’s Royal Charter is up for renewal next year. What is this charter, you may ask. According to the BBC’s own website, it ” is the document that allows the BBC to exist. It provides a framework for what the BBC does and how it is organised – it is the constitutional basis for the BBC. It is the document that spells out what the BBC needs to do to serve the public (its ‘public purposes’), guarantees the BBC’s independence, and outlines the duties of the people that run it – the Trust and the Executive Board.”

The charter renewal process appears to be a multi-step affair that consists of a public feedback phase, Government inquires and reports, responses to the inquires by the BBC with their own documentation and then, finally, a negotiation between the BBC and the sitting Government agreeing to a new charter.

Apparently in some circles there is a question if the UK even needs the BBC any longer. The always unpopular license fee assessed on any home with a television  whether they actually watch BBC channels or not is a perennial bone of contention of course. The perception that the Beeb is left leaning is also a problem for those with other political viewpoints. Add to the those already existing issues the new challenge posed by the huge shift in viewing habits thanks to growing satellite and streaming options and you can see why proponents of the BBC are worried about its survival.

And just in case you think all this fretting is alarmist, look what has happened to Sesame Street. The premium cable channel, HBO, will have exclusive rights to new episodes of the preeminent children’s educational program for nine months before PBS TV viewers have access to them. Ironic for a show that was created to prepare children in undeserved communities for school and was funded by public donations and ever decreasing government funds. My point here being, if the BBC is weakened financially or administratively to the point of not being able to fulfill their remit, it may create a situation where arguments to axe the institution altogether may become valid.

As an American, some may ask why I care what happens to the BBC. All I can say is I would not be the person, or the Anglophile, I am today without the Beeb. Therefore, I thought for this week’s Five for Friday, I’d share five BBC series that were influential in the development of my fascination with the British people and their culture. I’m not saying they are the best of all time or even my favorites though they surely were at one time. It’s a walk down memory lane of sorts to witness the path that formed my obsession.

1. Monty Python

Most Americans with a love of all things British will say that Monty Python’s Flying Circus had a huge impact upon them. I remember watching the sketch show on the black and white set in my bedroom when I was about twelve years old, in awe of what I was beholding.  Men dressed like ladies, speaking with squeaky voices; references to famous artists, playwrights and philosophers and historical events like the Spanish Inquisition; silly walks, fish slapping dances and bizarre animated sequences. I didn’t understand it all, but I knew it was funny. Mostly I remember thinking I wanted to go to England because they must have the best sense of humor in the world if shows like this were made there.

2. The Young Ones

The 1980’s represented my high school and college years. I was more into music than television at that point in my life, but my interests were British all the same. MTV was just getting started and many of the new bands they promoted were from the UK (Duran Duran, The Police, Culture Club, Madness). Besides music videos, the channel also broadcast a British sitcom about a mismatched group of roommates.

The Young Ones lived in student-y squalor, constantly arguing and engaging in violent slapstick. The musical performances (which I understand were required by the BBC in order for the show to be considered a variety program and thus receive a bigger budget) were novel as well. I was intrigued and thought it cool for its time since I was in a college student myself.

 3.  The Office

The Office came along when my children were a bit older and I had time to watch something that wasn’t The Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. I saw Ricky Gervais accept the Golden Globe for the show and when he said “I’m not from these parts. I’m from a little place called England. We used to rule the world before you, ” I knew I had to get my hands on this series. I reserved a copy from my library and my life has never been the same again. The Office reawakened my interest in UK comedy and television in general. I rooted for Tim and Dawn, I treasured every Gareth and Tim skirmish and, in the end,  I came to like David Brent despite his many, many faults.

4. Life on Mars

This sci-fi, cop drama infused with comedy is my all time favorite British show, BBC produced or otherwise. I can’t recall where I heard about it, but once again I borrowed a copy through my library and found what, in my opinion, is TV perfection in story, character and tone. I know it doesn’t make sense, but one thing that attracts me to this series is the nostalgic element of 1970’s England despite the fact I’m not from England nor did I live there in the ’70’s.

I don’t take time out to re-watch anything much these days, but every time I hear Sam Tyler’s mini-soliloquy about his predicament, I’m ready to pull my box set from the shelf and return to 1973 Manchester again.

5. Call the Midwife

My final pick is a period drama about midwives and nuns in the impoverished London neighborhood of Poplar. I chose it mainly for its heart, but don’t assume that means that Call the Midwife is sentimental drivel. Rather it’s a beautiful study in compassion and tolerance. While cast comings and goings have tampered with the original chemistry a bit, there are still few episodes that leave me dry eyed.

I’m a fan of gritty crime series, but there aren’t many quality dramas out there that can make you feel hopeful about humanity. The BBC has room for those types of programs too.

If you were to make a list of your own, which BBC series would make the cut? In your opinion, is the BBC worth saving or is it an out of date institution? I’m looking forward to your comments!

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If someone wishes you a Merry Christmas, they could be an English speaking individual from just about anywhere.  But when I hear Happy Christmas, I know I’m being addressed by a Brit.  Chances are very good it may be this lady since I understand she’s quite partial to the phrase.

Queen Elizabeth II wishing her subjects Happy Christmas

Queen Elizabeth II no doubt wishing her subjects a Happy Christmas 

More about Her Majesty’s involvement as a Christmas tradition in a later post…

Apparently at one time Merry Christmas was a most popular greeting on both sides of the pond.  In the UK it peaked in the 1860’s, curiously close to the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  However, according to dialect blogger Ben Trawick-Smith, the previously favored Merry Christmas has declined in popularity with the British public since the mid 1860’s and has never recovered whilst Happy Christmas has increased in usage since the mid-19th century and continues to rise.

I personally like the way Happy Christmas sounds.  It’s friendly, cheerful and greeting consistent. Happy Birthday, Happy New Year, Happy Easter…you get the idea.

Please enjoy this vintage collection of Christmas greetings from BBC luminaries of the early 1980’s.  I don’t know who a lot of the people are, but I do know more say Happy than Merry.

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My favorite show of 2011 has returned for a second series.  For those who haven’t had the pleasure, The Hour is about a team of BBC journalists who set out to transform tv news by producing the first weekly news magazine program – “The Hour that you can’t miss”.  Set in the late 1950’s, the show is visually stunning, the writing is smart and the cast is top-notch from its main trio of stars to its one-off supporting guest stars. But the thing that draws me in the most is the investigative element infused with a healthy splash of danger.  An All the President’s Men kind of vibe that sweeps you along to witness the story’s twists and turns right along with the journalists.

Yesterday afternoon BBC America ran a marathon session of the entire first series, all six hours shown back to back which led up to the debut of the brand new series.  Wanting to refresh my memory concerning the key characters and storylines, I did watch four full episodes at well over half my attention capacity. That’s two-thirds of a series times, let’s say, a 70 %  level of comprehension which comes out to .46667.  I’ll leave you to interpret that figure.  I have no idea what it represents.

Anyhow, eventually I had to take a break from the marathon and leave the house for a bit. Otherwise I might just give up and start dressing like this:

It’s a fashion statement and slipcover all in one. A step up from the Snuggie!

Apologies for the digression – I blame the internet.  Back to the topic at hand.  Nine months have passed since the revelation of secrets and staff shake-ups at The Hour and right at the outset of series 2 the thing that struck me most was that the characters I’ve come to know have actually become a more concentrated version of what they already were.  I will attempt to explain this assertion while trying my best not to reveal any spoilers.  Wish me luck…

Hector Madden, perennial bad boy and anchor of The Hour

Hector (Dominic West), the presenter of the program, came from a privileged background and then married into an even more wealthy family. You got the feeling that while he was accustomed to his social status, Hector admired his co-workers and realized the foolishness of his entitled existence. However, just as it seemed he was on the brink of becoming a better journalist and a more decent man, the success of The Hour has apparently gone to his head.  Hector has reverted to a much worse version of who he was when we first met him.  Womanizing, drinking too much and relying almost entirely on his charm to get by, our anchor seems to believe his own hype and newfound celebrity. And if the previews are anything to go by, things are about to get much worse for Hector in the very near future.

Bel Rowley, pioneering female news producer

Bel (Romola Garai) is the boss lady at The Hour, quite a unique situation for a woman at that point in history.  She’s the producer, but that doesn’t mean her word is law.  There are people above her at the BBC and in government who dictate what she can get away with on air and people below, namely her best friend Freddie, who often ignore her orders. The fact is that even while being at the helm of a successful program for almost a year, Bel still feels the same intense pressure to prove herself as she did on her very first day .  In addition, alas Bel is still not lucky in love.  She has a penchant for married men and in series 2, this proves to be true even when she believes she is pursuing an available one.

Freddie Lyon, dogged seeker of the truth

In my opinion, Freddie (Ben Whishaw) is the heart of The Hour.  Sure, he can be annoying and childishly obstinate, but as an investigative journalist he is fearless, intuitive and a brilliant communicator.  He’s the type of person who should be a politician, but never would be because he’s too committed to rooting out corruption to work within its very breeding ground.  He’s a champion for the average citizen and the oppressed.  He tells the truth, whether it’s about political corruption or his more than friendly feelings for his best friend Bel.  We’re told Freddie went away for a while to find himself.  He worked abroad, including America, and though he’s come back to The Hour as dedicated as ever, he’s got an inner calm that wasn’t there before.   I think he picked up that particular attribute in France.

In the weeks ahead, we will discover secrets about London organized crime rings, the government’s cold war fear mongering, and we’ll witness the rise of celebrity culture. (You know, that thing that spawned Paris Hilton and the Kardashians.)  I look forward to the red herrings, the gut instincts and the pieces of the puzzle all coming together in the end.

But as you have probably guessed, I have to own up to where my true interests lie when it comes to The Hour. I will be watching to see how far Hector falls from grace before he can redeem himself; if Bel will be able to hold on to control of her team and The Hour itself; and most importantly, to find out if Freddie is really done pining over Bel.  I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned pining!

Now I’m off to find a poncho…it gets a bit chilly here on the couch.

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If you were a child growing up in 1970’s America, I guarantee you will have memories of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethons that took place every Labor Day.

It meant an entire weekend of top-notch entertainment, the tense excitement of the tote board (Will they beat last year’s amount?) and the inevitable let down on Monday night when you realized that the end of the telethon meant the first day of school was happening tomorrow.  As the years went on, Jerry Lewis got very puffy, the show lost its ability to draw any notable celebrities and, to be honest, I can’t be sure it exists anymore, not even in a truncated format.

In retrospect, I wonder if there was a single family who actually put on one of those MDA carnivals in their backyard.  And more importantly, why did no one think that if you’re going to go to the trouble of putting on a three-day telethon shouldn’t it benefit children who suffer a whole range of diseases and disadvantages, not just the ones with muscular dystrophy?

Pudsey Bear, the Children in Need mascot

Well the Brits have been doing just that for over three decades and tomorrow night the BBC will be putting on the 32nd annual Appeal Night to benefit its corporate charity, Children In Need.  Since 1980, CIN has been raising money for organizations that support children with all sorts of issues up and down the UK.  These young people may have physical or developmental disabilities, psychological disorders, live in poverty conditions or be victims of abuse or neglect.In the days and weeks leading up to Appeal Night, people get sponsored to do unusual things to raise money for the charity.  In just a preliminary Google Image search, I saw a zombie bungee jump and a guy getting his legs waxed in aid of Children in Need.  One of the most popular stunts is sitting in a tub full of baked beans like this brave teacher pictured below.

Emily Hooper, nursery school teacher, surrounded by her pajama-clad students sits in a baked bean bath for nine hours. Obviously the students didn’t stay that long. They were already dressed for bed.

In addition to community involvement, national level campaigns are planned as well.  This year’s big fundraising challenge involves six young people (all have been helped by a Children in Need supported organization) and a rickshaw bicycle journey from Wales to London.

On tap for tomorrow evening’s actual tv broadcast, perennial host Terry Wogan will welcome plenty of poppy music performers, particularly girl group, Girls Aloud singing the official single of this campaign, “Something New”.  It’ll probably be very much like their previous appearances.  Don’t worry.  You don’t have to watch it all.  I didn’t…

More interesting should be the Children in Need editions of Strictly Come Dancing, Top Gear and Doctor Who. Many of Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic athletes are scheduled to appear as is Pudsey the dog, winner of rival network ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent.  He was named for the CIN mascot after all.  I don’t know that for a fact, I’m just spit-balling now.

Pudsey is probably named after the market town in Yorkshire, but it makes a nice story either way.

This year may be a bit rocky considering all the current upheaval at the BBC, but I reckon it’s just what people need – the sweet, comfortable tradition of watching a night of slightly old-fashioned entertainment.  So grab your Pudsey bear, sit back in your baked bean bath and, if you’re like me, wait for everything to show up on YouTube.

Here’s the link to the Children in Need website if you’d like to learn more.

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I’m not an investigative journalist so forgive me if I don’t get this exactly right. (Maybe Newsnight should hire me, eh?) Anyhow, it all started with this unusual person – DJ, children’s television presenter and philanthropist, Jimmy Savile.

Why he was allowed around children I can’t imagine.

He worked at the BBC, beginning in the early 60’s hosting among other things the music chart show, Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It, a program that granted wishes, mostly to children.  He was well-known for raising millions of pounds for charity, and particularly for hospitals. He was knighted and by all appearances was well-loved despite his eccentricities.  In the final years of his life, questions arose about possible inappropriate behavior with young girls, but he always denied or deflected the questions.  Since his death in 2011, hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse have been levelled against Savile and the investigations are ongoing.

So what does this have to do with the Beeb and their headlong acceleration into crisis mode?  As I understand it, they’re in hot water for digressions, old and new.

1.  Apparently during the sexually permissive 60’s and 70’s, there were plenty of people at the BBC who knew that Savile (and some others) had a thing for underaged girls but looked the other way.  Can anyone say Penn State?

2.  Within the past year, a BBC Newsnight investigation into the allegations against Savile was tabled for “journalistic reasons”.  Instead, tributes to Savile were aired on the BBC over the Christmas holiday period.

3.  After dropping a story that actually had legs, the Newsnight journalists went on to broadcast a story just this month wherein a sexual abuse victim from north Wales mistakenly identified a highly influential Thatcher-era politician as his molester.

4.  Several BBC officials have already taken leaves of absence or resigned.  There’s even a scandalette about the severance payout of 450,000 pounds offered to BBC Director General, George Entwistle, after spending just 54 days on the job.

This is, of course, an extremely simplistic account of the events.  If this post whets your appetite for more details, a complete crisis timeline can be found by clicking here.  Mind you, I found this link on the BBC News website so beware.

It saddens me to see an institution with such a venerable reputation around the world tripping all over itself.  Did the news division compromise its journalistic ideals by dropping a valid story in order to cover up the past sins of the parent corporation?  And what about the sloppy reporting on the north Wales abuse bombshell?  Full-on stupid mistake or their desperation to demonstrate that the BBC is tough on reporting child abuse scandals?  How can this trust issue be repaired?  I’m sure this guy is just waiting for a phone call…

Malcolm Tucker, spin master extraordinaire

For all our sakes, I hope the Beeb can get its house in order all on its own.

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