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At lunchtime today I decided, after a bit of deliberation, to watch the debut episode of Harlots. I’d been bombarded by this raunchy stylized trailer on Hulu for weeks and it didn’t look promising…

 

The one thing about the preview that intrigued me though was that I caught glimpses of actresses with very respectable CVs.  I put a lot of faith in the cast when it comes to investing time or money in watching a film or TV series. In the case of Harlots we’re talking about Samantha Morton of In America, Sweet and Lowdown and Minority Report fame; Leslie Manville with appearances in just about every Mike Leigh film as well as North & South and River and finally Jessica Brown Findlay – she was Downton Abbey‘s Lady Sybil Crawley for heaven’s sake! If this period drama was just a hyped up piece of exploitative titillation, what were they doing in it?

Consequently when I noticed Harlots mentioned yesterday in The Radio Times, the British magazine for radio and telly listings as well as entertainment news, I realized this must be one of those rare occasions when a UK series airs simultaneously in the US. I figured I had 45 minutes of my life to spare to see what this was all about.

Set in 1763 London and inspired by stories of real women involved in one of the few commercial activities available to them, I give you without further ado my impressions of Harlots.

First, who knew there was such a thing as a concise guide to prostitutes for hire, namely “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies”? A must-read for London men of all stations, from nobility to your average hard working pleb.

Samantha Morton didn’t disappoint as Margaret Wells, a Covent Garden brothel madame (or bawd) who aspires to run a more prestigious establishment. Still she visibly struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and entrepreneur as it requires her to pimp out her daughters Charlotte (Brown Findlay) and Lucy (Eloise Smyth) to rich men whom she hopes will take them on as mistresses. (You gotta dream the dream, I suppose.) Slightly reminiscent of Peaky Blinders with the criminal family enterprise element, but not nearly so violent.

Class distinctions are definitely a focus of this series. The wealthy men who put in monetary bids to take young Lucy’s virginity are, quite frankly, pigs. Most are married and make no attempt to hide their extra-marital escapades. It is sport for the affluent and connected who cruelly use or blithely ignore the poor.

I’m looking forward to the  reveal of how Morton’s character and the ruthless Lydia Quigley, played by Leslie Manville, became such bitter rivals considering Margaret was once one of Lydia’s girls. And yeah, I’m already tired of hearing how Margaret’s mother sold her to Lydia for a pair of shoes when she was ten.

Finally, there are quite a few pale men’s arses and rather large bosoms on display and the some of the language is fairly crude. Nevertheless, at its heart, Harlots seems to be about family, rivalry and, in an an against all odds sort of way, female empowerment. The fact that both the writers and the team of three directors are all women should come as no surprise.

I plan to continue tuning in as long as the story has substance and the quality of the acting holds. You can judge Harlots for yourself – in the US on Hulu or in the UK on ITV Encore.

 

 

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This post has been in the back of mind for literally years, ever since I found out there was a sequel to my favorite British TV series of all time, Life on Mars. For those who haven’t seen LOM, first of all, shame on you. Here’s the premise in a nutshell.

 

What held up the writing was that I couldn’t find a way to watch Ashes to Ashes for the longest time. It wasn’t available on Region 1 DVD as Life on Mars was and no one had put it on YouTube. Those facts alone made me suspect that Ashes to Ashes wasn’t nearly as good as LOM. However, my on-line friends kept telling me that to completely understand Life On Mars and what happened to Sam Tyler you had to watch Ashes to Ashes where all would finally be revealed.

And then early this year, Hulu Plus added Ashes to Ashes to its growing stable of British programming. I deliberated for quite some time before I decided to shell out the $8 a month. Time got away from me for a bit but I finally freed up my schedule and delved into two dozen one hour episodes, the same amount of time necessary for the earth to rotate on its own axis. It may not sound daunting, but despite what I lead you all to believe, I do have a life outside of watching telly and it took a good few months to get through it all.

But once I got a few episodes under my belt, I became well invested in the story of the critically wounded police officer Alex Drake and her attempts to get back to her daughter Molly.

 

After watching Ashes to Ashes, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Once Alex got over her “you’re all imaginary constructs” phase, I really liked her character. I appreciated the significant development of LOM supporting characters Ray Carling and Chris Skelton. And if I’m not mistaken Gene Hunt was noticeably kinder and gentler, perhaps due to having and attractive female DI by his side.

Nonetheless, this post is about who did it best so in determining which series is superior, I thought it might be interesting to devise some head to head match-ups of varying elements of each show and see how they fare. It’s the best way I could think of to evaluate the merits of each in as objective a manner as possible.

 

Hallucinatory characters who show up to scare the bejesus out of us

Ashes to Ashes creepy Bowie clown image credit Kudos Film and Television

Ashes to Ashes’ creepy Bowie clown
image credit Kudos Film and Television

 

Life on Mars' creepy test card girl image credit Kudos Film and Television

Life on Mars’ creepy test card girl
image credit Kudos Film and Television

 

I think we can agree that clowns are universally considered frightening and the object of many a childhood nightmare. One of the most disturbing dreams I can recall in my whole life  involved clowns. Ashes to Ashes‘ Pierrot-style clown doesn’t fit the traditional stereotype as a fool, but instead a rather menacing character who at one point actually chases Alex Drake through the London streets.

Upon initial observation the test card girl, on the other hand, is just a lass with an ominous-looking clown doll. But we all know kids can be creepy as well; that’s why they cast so many in horror movies after all. There she’ll be, playing naughts and crosses on the TV screen with her companion when the broadcast day is done. (Yes, youngsters! There was a time when there was nothing shown on television in the middle of the night.) Then all of sudden she’s standing over a sleeping Sam Tyler saying something spooky.

The test card girl made appearances in both series of Life on Mars notably showing up at the end of the finale as well. The Ashes to Ashes clown faded out after the first series leaving Alex to be haunted by other less obvious but more nefarious demons. It’s a close call but I reckon the peculiar girl with the frightening rag doll wins this one.

 

David Bowie Song 

 Both series are named after David Bowie songs so this match-up is merely a matter of personal preference. Which do you like better, Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes?

 

 

My vote goes to Life on Mars since I’ve always liked the tune even before I saw the show. It’s also used to very good effect it in the climax of the last episode of the series.

 

Cortina vs Quattro

The guv in both series is DCI Gene Hunt and the possession he treasures more than anything else in the world is his car. In Life on Mars, Hunt speeds through the streets of 1970’s Manchester in his mint condition Ford Cortina.

 

In the 80’s, Gene has moved on to an Audi Quattro and seems even more enamored of this motor. So much so that the car becomes part of his vocabulary. Hunt is often heard to say “Fire up the Quattro!” and has even been known to use the make of his car as a verb.

 

On this one, I’m going to come down on the side of Ashes to Ashes. The Quattro is a character in and of itself and serves its master well. Besides I prefer the red of the Audi to the orangy-gold of the Cortina.

 

The Railway Arms vs Luigi’s

 After a hard day nicking villains, coppers need a place to unwind. For the  Life on Mars officers that place is the Railway Arms, a traditional pub for hardworking men. The barman at this establishment is Nelson, a native of Manchester, who puts on a Jamaican accent for the pleasure of his patrons. Nelson is something of a guide to Sam Tyler giving him advice that can apply to his 1970’s life as well of his struggle to get back to is own time.

Nelson and Sam at the Railway Arms image credit Kudos Film and Television

Nelson and Sam at the Railway Arms
image credit Kudos Film and Television

 

The Ashes to Ashes ‘ CID meet at Luigi’s, an Italian bar and restaurant across the street from the station. They maintain a substantial tab and wake Luigi up at all hours to serve them as if his place is their own private watering hole. Luigi has a soft spot for Alex and has been known to play matchmaker between her and Gene by placing the couple in the dark and romantic corners of his restaurant. He isn’t mystical like Nelson, but he’s a good friend to his local coppers.

Proprietor Luigi caters to the Gene Hunt's squad image credit Kudos Film and Television

Proprietor Luigi caters to the Gene Hunt’s squad
image credit Kudos Film and Television

 

I’m actually going to go with Luigi’s on this one for two reasons. Number one – Luigi’s does proper food not just crisps. Number two – he has an awesomely tacky mural covering one wall, an array of mediocre portraits of famous Italians from John Travolta and Frank Sinatra to Al Pacino and Sofia Loren.

And now for the tie breaker…

 Bromance or Romance?

DCI Hunt has very complicated relationships with his DIs on both series. Sam Tyler is smart, professional modern police officer plopped down in early 70’s Sweeny-land. Gene is accustomed to being the king of his castle and doesn’t care for Tyler’s newfangled methods or politically correct attitudes. Understandably there’s a bit of a clash when these two lawmen meet.

Alex Drake is in a similar situation but she has the advantage of knowing about the Sam Tyler case and so doesn’t spend so much of her energy in a total state of bewilderment. She too has frequent squabbles and run-ins with her superior officer; however, their encounters are quite often exacerbated by sexual tension. It doesn’t help that the women’s movement is almost thirty years behind what she’s accustomed to. Just look at what she has to wear!

When it comes down to it, I have to choose the bromance of Sam and Gene.  I found the Hunt and Tyler interactions more entertaining and, to be quite honest, the will they/won’t dichotomy between Hunt and Drake has been played out a thousand times before. I believe Gene taught Sam how to really live which is ironic (but I’ll stop there to avoid spoiling the ending for those who haven’t seen it yet). And Sam taught Gene how to be a better officer and a better man which, after what you learn in Ashes, really starts to make sense.

So there you have it. In my opinion, Life on Mars is the better show. That being said, I found Ashes to Ashes to be well worth watching and would recommend it highly, especially as a companion to its predecessor. Now it’s your turn to tell me what you think and possibly to inform me that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’d love to have a chat about both series so please comment at will.

If you’ve not seen either show, both are available on Hulu Plus or Netflix DVD. I guarantee you’ll love them too.

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Awhile back I used to write posts now and then entitled “Getting to Know…” wherein I would introduce my readers to a British tv performer who may be unfamiliar to an American audience.  I stopped doing that mainly because I wanted to focus on the lessons I had learned about British society but recently fate and Hulu have conspired to present me with repeated exposure to an actor named Darren Boyd. So I decided to revive the format and share Mr. Boyd’s talents with you.

Darren Boyd with his first BAFTA

I watch ALOT of British television so to find an established actor who hasn’t been on my radar is quite unusual.  My first chance encounter was a guest spot on the sitcom Rev.  In one episode, Boyd portrayed popular charismatic evangelist, Darren Betts (eerily similar names always make me wonder if the actor in question has difficulty remembering their character’s moniker). He attempts to take over Rev. Smallbone’s St. Saviour’s Church with his much larger congregation and sizable donation cash flow.

Next, I stumbled upon a sitcom called Whites starring Alan Davies about an ambitious but uninspired hotel chef named Roland White.  Lo and behold, there was Darren Boyd co-starring as Roland’s dutiful friend and sous chef, Bib. Poor Bib has a lot on his plate, as it were, running the kitchen from which Roland often goes AWOL, attempting to gain the respect of  new trainee, Skoose, and meeting his husbandly obligations by attempting to get his wife pregnant.

In spending a few blissful moments on YouTube browsing through Monty Python clips, I found something called Holy Flying Circus. This appears to be a dramatic, yet surreal, portrayal of the controversy that surrounded the Python’s 1979 feature film, The Life of Brian.  I’m watching a few scenes, noting the great casting they have done for Michael Palin when I realize…it’s that guy again, that Darren Boyd playing a very convincing John Cleese. So far I haven’t been able to find the entire tv movie on-line and it’s only available in Region 2 dvd.

And finally, after all this I find that Darren Boyd won the BAFTA last month for Best Male Performance in a Comedy for the role of Tim in Spy.  Tim is trying to retain custody of his brilliant yet manipulative son, Marcus.  Fed-up with his dead-end job, Tim decides a new career could only help his chances on the legal front.  He applies for a civil service position, but on the day of the interview, gets lost and ends up taking the exam for MI-5 agent trainees. To his surprise, he actually does quite well.  Now he’s living a double life, trying to hold on to his son and his new job as a spy.

If you enjoyed these snippets, I’d recommend sampling more of this actor’s work. Except for the Python film, all these programs are available to view on Hulu.   Wait a minute…do you think it’s possible Darren Boyd might be a part of Hulu’s eviler plot to destroy the world?  If so, I’m already doomed, I’m afraid.

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The BAFTA awards for television (similar to our Emmy awards) were given out in London a couple of weeks ago and I’ve finally had the opportunity to study the list of winners.  Since I live in the US and don’t have access to the original broadcasts of these programs, I use it as a tool to plan my viewing for the coming year.  Creativity and perseverance are key to this exercise.

Let me take you through an example.  In the category of Situation Comedy, the nominees were Mrs. Brown’s BoysFresh MeatFriday Night Dinner and Rev.   I hadn’t seen any of these series yet, so I sat down at my laptop and opened five, yes, five tabs to accommodate the five essential sites – IMDb, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and my local library catalog.  I usually start with the Internet Movie Database to research the show – the premise, who’s in it, etc. in order to determine whether I can be bothered to investigate further.

If it sounds worthwhile, I move on to each of the other sites listed to see if the program is available to order or view.  I used to always look at the library catalog first as a matter of course. Sadly, I’ve been seduced by the idea of getting it fast instead of waiting for the physical dvd to arrive and watching it on my more luxurious television screen.  So many shows, so little time.  That is truly my motto.

In this case I was fairly lucky. Hulu has just begun to add episodes from series one of Rev.  It stars Tom Hollander and Olivia Colman as The Reverend Adam Smallbone and his wife Alex who have recently moved from a country parish to a struggling urban church in London.  Everyone seems to want something from the poor vicar – money, a school placement, surrender of his chapel, sex…that last one would be from his wife’s honey-do list. I’ve seen the first two episodes so far and have enjoyed it.  It’s an urban Vicar of Dibley minus the chocolate cravings and the big bosooms.

Rev. Smallbone with his committed, albeit sparse, congregation/staff.

I was able to find both Friday Night Dinner and Mrs. Brown’s Boys on YouTube.  After watching the first episodes of each series, it’s a draw.

I wasn’t very impressed with Mrs. Brown; however, I can see the more unique aspects that might attract viewers.  Irish widow, Mrs. Brown (played by Brendan O’Carroll) speaks directly to the audience, walks among the sets exposing the cameras and crew, and even makes reference to the fact that “she” is actually a “he”. It appears to be an homage/parody of classic British sitcoms, but the broad humor and glut of sexual innuendos aren’t really my cup of tea. That being said, my rule of thumb is to watch two or three episodes before making a judgement, especially since the first episode must carry the burden of setting up the circumstances and characters. Besides I haven’t even met all of Mrs. Brown’s boys yet.

Despite winning the sitcom BAFTA, this jury’s still out on Mrs. Brown.

On the other hand, Friday Night Dinner, seems to be a more promising program for me.  Starring Tamsin Greig and Simon Bird, this show centers around an empty nest couple and their two grown sons.  In the first episode at least, all the action plays out during a Friday night dinner gathering – the parents’ constant bickering, the boys’ sibling rivalry and childish pranking, and the creepy neighbor (Mark Heap) constantly hanging about. When it comes to settling into a new series, I find that being familiar with a number of the actors in the cast jump starts the whole process for me since I already have a reason to watch.

Friday Night Dysfunction might be a more apt title and that’s just fine by me.

Fresh Meat, a show about first year students at university sharing a house, was the only one I had no luck finding. So I will add it to my list of non-available titles and eventually it will show up somewhere.  I know there are other streaming websites out there , but I’m hesitant to venture into some of those more questionable URLs. It’s not about legality as much as a fear of contracting some virus, worm or spyware that will bring my already antiquated equipment to a literal standstill. In the meantime, there’s usually a stack of dvds and an ever-present queue of on-line material to watch.  And if there’s something I absolutely must see, my multi-region dvd player and Amazon.co.uk stand at the ready.

Other BAFTA nominees and winners on my future to-watch list are:

Appropriate Adult – winner of three acting awards in the drama category

Call the Midwife– to be shown this September on Masterpiece Theater with Miranda Hart (yea!) nominated for a dramatic supporting actress role.

Stella – a dramedy starring and co-written by Ruth Jones, another of those performers who makes everything they’re in worth watching.

Spy– a comedy starring comedy BAFTA winner, Darren Boyd and currently available on Hulu.

Admittedly, it is a convoluted system which may soon become even more intricate if I add BBC America to the arsenal.  Some might say it’s a sickness but this font of knowledge actually comes in handy at times. For example, the other day a library member asked me the name of the heavy-set character on Doctor Who with  a son who wants to to be an IT computer guy instead of  working with his father. I was able to answer without hesitation, “That’s  Bert Large, the plumber from Doc Martinwho by the way played Churchill on Doctor Who.  See how useful my addiction is?

Besides, if I do have Britishtellyitis, I don’t want to be cured as I’m convinced this condition will be responsible for making my fortune one day.

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