Smallville: Series review

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A word, first, about potential bias in this review.  There are some TV shows you only discover, or which indeed are only created, once you’re well into adulthood.  Then there are some that have the good fortune to air during a viewer’s formative years, establishing themselves permanently in the memory as nostalgia.  The exquisite ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ did this during my childhood.  Anime titans ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Digimon’ during my early teens.  ‘Smallville’ landed (pardon the pun) during my mid-late teens, quite possibly the perfect viewing age for its often soapy romantic drama, and this, coming alongside my developing obsession with DC Comics, and Superman and Batman in particular, at that age, enabled the show to take on a sort of mythological status in my mind- a privilege it retains to this day.  So with that in mind, this review is more likely to be coloured by positive bias than many of the other pieces I’ve written, or will write in future.  On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I think the show is perfect- far from it, and I hope that will come across in the review.

Kansas teenager Clark Kent has grown up on his family’s farm while hiding an array of extraordinary abilities from the world.  Learning from his adopted parents, the Kents, that he was found by them in a field close to a crashed spaceship in the aftermath of a deadly meteor shower, Clark deals with the startling realisation that he is from another planet while attempting to grapple with the complications of high school.  His longtime crush, Lana Lang, is dating school jock and bully Whitney Fordman, while wearing a necklace formed from a piece of the green meteor rock that accompanied the shower, a substance deadly to Clark.  Although taking solace from best friends Pete Ross and Chloe Sullivan, Clark is unnerved by budding reporter Chloe’s investigations into the strange happenings around Smallville, primarily the meteor rock’s ability to infect local people and give them powers, almost always coupled with a descent into evil, obsessive behaviour.  Naturally, he worries what would occur if she ever got too close to his own secret.  Meanwhile, billionaire’s son Lex Luthor sets up home in Smallville, essentially banished there by his father in order to grow as his own man, and after being saved by Clark when his car plunges off a bridge after hitting him, the two become firm friends.  Their closeness, however, is gradually threatened by Lex’s secret determination to solve the mystery of how Clark managed to rescue him without being hurt.

The brainchild of Tollin/Robbins productions and executive producers Al Gough and Miles Millar, ‘Smallville’ was originally intended to be a series about a young Bruce Wayne, until Warner Bros decided to focus on developing an origin story for the big screen instead that would eventually see life as 2005’s ‘Batman Begins’ (although a Batman origin series has subsequently made its way to television in the shape of Fox’s ‘Gotham’).  Shades of this can be seen in the series’ premise.  The doomed Clark/Lex friendship could easily have been Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent.  Keen reporter Chloe could be a young Vicki Vale.  The ultimately tragic Clark/Lana romance could have been Bruce and Selina Kyle.  In any event, the show quickly establishes its own identity as an origin fable of the boy who will become Superman, and the opening scenes of meteors striking a midwestern small town promise much about the overall tone of the series.

The show’s embracing of the Superman mythology is both its greatest strength and weakness.  In the early seasons, there’s a delight in seeing the then-rare arrival of key staples of the comics into this generally high-school-set romantic drama, from the activation of Clark’s spaceship and his gradual developing of brand new powers, to the discovery of his Kryptonian origins courtesy of both the ethereal presence (technically an AI system, but coming across more as a spiritual entity) of his biological father Jor-El and (in one of the show’s best episodes, ‘Rosetta’), the imparting of information from brilliant scientist Virgil Swann, played by the late Christopher Reeve.  The closing scenes of ‘Rosetta’, set to the strains of John Williams’ ‘Superman’ theme, lend a sense of the epic to a series that has previously followed a fairly formulaic ‘villain of the week’ pattern in the shape of the local ‘meteor freaks’.  And make no mistake: it is the ‘Superman: The Movie’ mythology that ‘Smallville’ specifically follows, from the occasional use of the music, to design elements, to plot points- in many ways, the series is an expanded retelling of that original movie in its structure.  Across the first few seasons, this gradual integration of the mythos into the show raises the hairs in excitement.

Alas, this later becomes too much of a good thing.  By season 6, and certainly by season 8/9, the show begins to feel less like an origin story, and more like an actual Superman show- which would be fine, if it wasn’t trying to be both things simultaneously.  The tone suffers, and begins, at times, to feel all over the place.  Some episodes hark back to that early midwestern innocence.  Others feel like a remake of ‘Lois and Clark’- again, no bad thing, if that were what the show was purposefully going for.  The setting of many of the later episodes primarily in Metropolis contradicts, if nothing else, the very title of the show, and the reliance of many later episodes on SFX and limited sets over the gorgeous locations and exteriors of the Kent farm creates a certain ‘stilted’ quality.

The introduction of various characters from the mythology, meanwhile, becomes the very definition of hit and miss as the series goes on.  There are many triumphs.  The ‘Smallville’ version of Lois Lane, introduced in season 4, is one of the best incarnations of the character ever put to screen.  Early appearances from other DC heroes are well-handled; and great fun; The Flash, Aquaman.  The villains are, on the whole, excellently done; James Marsters’ Brainiac, Callum Blue’s Zod, Sam Witwer’s (though very different from the comics character) Doomsday.  But other nods to the source material backfire.  Justin Hartley’s Green Arrow, though a good character in and of himself, is not the Oliver Queen of the comics, clearly designed, instead, to be the show’s version of Bruce Wayne, except that the producers presumably couldn’t get the rights to him.  The arrival of some DC characters begins to feel like overkill by the last few seasons (anyone who can tell me what business Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, or the Suicide Squad have being in a Superman series, please do write).  And the less said about season 4’s ‘Mikhail Mxyzptlk’, the better.  The series’ interpretation of Jor-El, meanwhile, voiced by Terence Stamp, has to be one of the most continually maddening features of the series.  Written inconsistently and designed more as a plot device than a character, he ranges from stern, oppressive and borderline evil in the early seasons, to seemingly proud and loving by the finale, flip-flopping between the two multiple times in the interim.  Marlon Brando’s take on the character, this is not.

Back to the positives, however, and ‘Smallville’ is blessed with a fantastic cast.  Leading man Tom Welling remains my favourite interpretation of Superman to date, extraordinarily handsome (which lends credibility to virtually every young female character in the show falling over themselves for him), the right physique (to put it mildly) for the character, and with a ‘purity’ to his portrayal, simultaneously innocent and wise, that makes us believe he will grow into a superhero who is an inspiration for millions.  Not that he can’t play darker, of course.  One of the best aspects of such a sci-fi show is that it allows all of the cast the opportunity to play different characters across the series, and Welling really gets to show his stuff when these storylines come into play.  Whether an amoral Clark hooked on red Kryptonite, evil doppelgangers Bizarro and Ultraman, or, best of all, Clark’s bodyswitch with Lionel Luthor (his best performance in the entire series), Welling does evil so well you sometimes wish these were the primary characters he was playing.  He’s at his best in the first half of the series, peaking in season 5, but remains a strong, steadfast presence right to the end, and the moral core of the show.

Kristin Kreuk’s Lana is…complicated.  The actress herself (especially in the later seasons) is terrific, going from wide-eyed innocent to proxy Luthor by season 6, and looking and sounding almost like a completely different character by then.  We’re enchanted by her star-crossed romance with Clark early on, her parents having been killed by the very phenomenon that brought him to Earth, yet the arguable source of that pain becoming the love of her life, while her borderline descent into villainy later allows her to spar brilliantly with the likes of Lionel and Lex.  But the character, as written, dangerously undermines this.  Passive-aggressive to the point of infuriating by season 3, Lana becomes so self-righteous and hypocritical over Clark’s keeping of secrets from her as to be anathema to many scenes, with our hero only getting to stand up to her a small handful of times across the whole series.  At least in seasons 5-7, when the character is flirting with outright evil, this feels appropriate.  When we are later expected to buy her as the hometown first love again, it’s problematic, to say the least.

Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex is one of the show’s triumphs.  Empathetic (indeed almost to the point of making us root more for him than Clark), he lends a tragic pathos to the story as circumstance after circumstance grinds him down deeper towards villainy, despite his longing for genuine friendship and acceptance.  Rosenbaum brings a quiet honour to many of his early appearances, in some respects the most noble character in the show next to Clark and the Kents, before later allowing himself to be genuinely menacing as the Luthor of the comics comes to the fore.  His final regular involvement in the show, season 7, suffers from a sense of things being rushed to manoeuvre the character into position as the arch-foe of the mythology, but the journey towards that point remains compelling, even if the denouement is hurried.

Allison Mack’s Chloe is the breakout hit of the series.  Originally seeming destined for a tragic fate, given her absence from the comics, she takes on a whole new lease of life after discovering Clark’s powers in season 4, becoming his ‘superhero BFF’ in one of the best, most genuine character evolutions in the series.  We trust her implicitly as a custodian of Clark’s secret, as she settles into one of the warmest presences in the show, all the more remarkable for her flirtation with betrayal in the early seasons over her jealousy of the Clark/Lana romance, and Lionel’s manipulation of this angst.  She’s the antithesis to Lana’s defensive, confrontational attitude as the series goes on, and a particular highlight for this reviewer is her calm, subtle, faux-polite warning to her to stop dragging Clark down in Season 7’s ‘Wrath’.

Erica Durance’s Lois Lane is the best thing about the later seasons, when the show is threatening to drift completely away from its roots.  Her early rivalry with Clark is enjoyable enough, the mutual (surface-level) dislike between them all the more rewarding once it gives way to romance, but it’s once the pair are established in Metropolis at the Daily Planet that the character really comes into her own as one of the show’s best assets.  Consistent, moral, determined, strong yet with believable hints of vulnerability, and just downright fun, she’s everything Clark’s relationship with Lana isn’t.  Healthy, organic, mutually-respectful and loving, and relatively angst-free.  Welling and Kreuk may have the more intense romantic chemistry, but Welling and Durance have the warmer one.  Both wholly believable in different ways, but with the latter free of the angst that poisons the former, and when Clark declares to Lois in season 9’s ‘Salvation’ that she was the person he always needed in his life, it’s a line that feels well and truly earned.

Sam Jones III’s Pete Ross is perhaps the mythology character poorest-served by the series.  Not because of the actor, who brings a likeability and, for want of a better word in a show about superheroes, ‘normality’ to the show, but because of the writing, and the general arc.  Early on, Pete’s discovery of the secret at the start of season 3 provides one of the most novel changes to the series status quo, coming not in a premiere or finale, but tucked a few episodes in, therefore coming as more of a genuine surprise to the audience (although the relative ease with which Clark comes clean to him makes one wonder why he agonises for so long over being honest with other characters).  It brings a refreshing new dynamic to things, the prototype, in a sense, to how Chloe’s discovery alters the show later on.  It’s a shame Jones leaves after season 3, not because of the timing of the departure (it feels like the right time to shake up the cast a little), but because his only return, in season 7’s ‘Hero’, sees him become more of an antagonist.  This works fine for Jonathan Kent in season 10, given that we see plenty of the ‘real’ Jonathan both before and after, but here, for Pete, it leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth- one of the key moments the show falls short for this reviewer.

It would be no controversy to call John Glover the best actor on the show.  His Lionel Luthor is the most compelling character in the series, stealing virtually every scene he’s in, and bringing out the best in all the other actors.  It’s no coincidence that Welling and Kreuk shine brightest in their interactions with him (witness Clark’s spine-tingling confrontation with Lionel in season 5’s ‘Mercy’, a scene that arguably sees Welling at his most dangerous, despite playing Clark’s regular self), while the interplay between Glover and Rosenbaum is probably the best villainous double act in television, the power-play between the two characters genuinely gripping.  In one of the series’ best elements, Lionel shifts gears completely in season 4, evolving into a wholly different character, to the point where one of the key moments of Lex’s evolution that the audience longs for after his father’s cruelty in the early seasons becomes a tragic moment by the time it finally occurs in season 7- no mean feat.

Laura Vandervoort’s Kara, like Pete Ross, is another character whose development suffers due to her general arc.  A laudable shakeup to the cast when introduced in season 7, she unfortunately never quite gets the chance to come into her own in a season packed with so many other storylines that favour the existing, longterm characters.  Ideally, her introduction to the story, and Lex’s pursuit of her secret, a novel echo of his obsession with Clark in season one, would have been the predominant arc of that season, but instead it becomes lost among the others.  Vandervoort herself, however, comes perhaps second only to Welling in her portrayal of a noble, moral, still somewhat innocent heroine, fitting given the characters’ blood tie (although, like Welling, when given the opportunity to play dark, namely channelling James Marsters’ Brainiac when the latter impersonates her in the season finale, she seizes it with relish).

John Schenider and Annette O’Toole, meanwhile, are the beating heart of the show, a believable guiding light for Clark, and the sort of parents the audience would feel blessed to have in real life (with some occasional exceptions- Martha’s chastisement of Clark in season 4’s ‘Unsafe’ for getting married while under the influence of red Kryptonite is a misstep).  They’re the most grounded characters in a show teeming with the paranormal, and lend a sense of authenticity to its world.  We feel these extraordinary things are happening in a very real place when Jonathan and Martha are on screen, and the two are sorely missed in the series’ later seasons (although their return is one of the very best things about the finale).

Lastly, Cassidy Freeman as Tess Mercer.  Brought in only in season 8, she could so easily have been Lex-lite, a cipher designed solely to take his place as the show’s villain.  But thankfully, the writers take a less predictable route, and, especially in Freeman’s hands, she becomes one of the most poignant, nuanced characters of the whole series, genuinely longing to escape a dark destiny and step into the light of Clark, Lois, Chloe et al.  If this reviewer has one major criticism of the finale, it’s that Tess’s only final interactions in that story are with villains, wholly removed from the joy of the wedding being attended by the other characters, before meeting her final fate.  It feels unfair (though her final scene with Lex is certainly powerful, however dark).

Elsewhere, among a vast array of guest stars, some notable performances stand out.  Sarah Carter’s Alicia gives the show one of its most poignant arcs, that of a troubled woman trying to reintegrate into society after a crime and convince those around her she’s changed for the better.  Jane Seymour’s Genevieve Teague is one of the series’ more enjoyable guest villains, sparking nicely off the Luthors, bettered only by the obscenely good James Marsters as Milton Fine/Brainiac, a cunning and manipulative character if ever there was one.  Callum Blue’s Zod is not the one-dimensional stereotype the character has traditionally been in popular culture, managing to engage us for an entire season when it would have been so easy to write the character as one-note (watch his instant regret after murdering Faora in season 9’s ‘Sacrifice’- breathtaking).  Meanwhile, Alisen Down as Lex’s mother Lillian, appearing to him primarily in dreams, is superbly, creepily ambiguous as to whether she’s trying to pull him back from a dark path, or subtly push him towards it.

The overall story structure of the series, minus a few missteps, is highly enjoyable.  Season 1’s slice of midwestern Americana is a beautiful fable of a seemingly ordinary boy discovering he’s someone extraordinary.  Season 2 introduces the Superman mythology as it would be seen through Clark’s eyes- familiar to us, yet strange, alien and scary from his perspective.  Season 3 descends into darkness, shattering the innocence of Clark and Lana’s early romance and showing us Lionel at his most evil.  Season 4 brings a fantasy feel to the show, with mysterious stones and evil witches, something some viewers who prefer Superman to be more sci-fi took issue with, but something this reviewer felt wonderfully complemented and deepened the existing mythology.  Season 5 takes the characters to college and the city, breathing new life into the series in a way no other season quite matches- it’s early episodes are among the most exciting and unpredictable in tone.  Season 6 establishes the characters as part of a wider DC mythology.  Season 7 sees, in a sense, the end of the show as originally envisaged, with Kreuk and Rosenbaum’s departure as regular characters.  Season 8 finally leaves behind the last vestiges of the early show (Lana) and starts manoeuvring the pieces into place to match the comics. Season 9 takes an unexpected last turn into darker territory, before Season 10 proves to be a season-long final celebration of the series’ 10 years, bringing back practically every significant character across the episodes as Clark finally approaches his destiny.

An extra mention, meanwhile, must go to the series’ soundtrack.  Aside from its excellent use of songs, often for end-of-episode reflections or montages, Mark Snow and Louis Febre provide a gorgeous score across the show’s ten seasons, Snow’s more gentle and introspective across the early seasons, Febre’s more bombastic and heroic as Clark heads towards finally putting on the suit.

Many have criticised ‘Smallville’ for lasting well after its time, the idea of a character taking ten years to come of age not ringing true.  To an extent, I can agree with them.  The show does begin to feel padded out by the later seasons, and suffers several times from a sense of not knowing quite where to go.  On the other hand, in today’s world more than ever, it doesn’t feel inherently unrealistic to suggest that it can take a decade for a person to find their feet as an adult, and in this respect, this reviewer as much as anyone can relate to Clark Kent’s journey.  Even if it feels overdue by the time it arrives, his moment of destiny is still a rewarding, uplifting moment that goes out of its way to thank longterm fans of the character (the last few moments of the finale play like the opening of a Superman movie, complete with background score).  Much like Clark’s journey within the story, there are moments of the show’s ten years where the viewer undoubtedly wonders, ‘is this worth it?  Are things ever going to get to where I want them to be?’  But they do.  In the end, they do.  And that, flawed and meandering though the journey may have been, resonates with me.

****

‘Smallville’ is not a masterpiece.  No objective critic could argue it is.  But it is made up of many moments that are, and that, for this reviewer, lends a sheen to the overall show that makes it feel like one.  It contributed hugely to my love of comics, and for that reason as much as anything else, will always be a show I look back on with love.

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

The Living and the Dead review

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Much has been made recently of how far the BBC is, or should try to be ‘distinctive’ in this current era of endless commercial channels and online platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Along with Anthony Horowitz’s current cop show ‘New Blood’, ‘The Living and the Dead’ represents a new and interesting experiment by the corporation to try the Netflix model for itself, releasing content as a complete boxset weeks prior to it airing in the traditional weekly format on TV, to allow for so-called ‘binge viewing’.  As far as this reviewer is concerned, they couldn’t have chosen a better series for the project.  Because ‘The Living and the Dead’ is pure class from start to finish, wholly deserving of being devoured all at once (or in this reviewer’s case, 2 episodes a night over 3 days).

In the late 1800s, psychologist Nathan Appleby is drawn home to the family farm after the death of his mother.  Together with his devoted wife Charlotte, he sets about making the farm a truly successful enterprise, planning to have a railway built over the land to enable the village’s access to greater markets.  But there is something at work in the local area, something dark and unknowable, and soon Nathan, already haunted by the drowning of his young son Gabriel, finds himself confronted by eerie visions and apparitions, most troublingly of all a mysterious woman carrying a ‘book of light’.

‘The Living and the Dead’ is a fine English ghost story, evoking the best classic horror fiction, and having been marketed very much as one in all of the trailers and promotional material beforehand.  But coming from the mind of ‘Life on Mars’ co-creator Ashley Pharoah, who also pens the first two episodes, the series pleasingly subverts expectations beyond this already-compelling premise, and a fantastic twist at the conclusion of episode 1 sets the story off in a whole other direction, allowing the modern audience to be simultaneously more aware than, and yet just as confused as the 1890s characters.  The series is beautifully constructed, falling neatly into neither an episodic or serial category.  Although carrying a definite ‘story of the week’ component, events, even from these standalone stories, carry through into subsequent episodes, with the guest protagonists of episode 1 in particular happily remaining significant through the rest of the series, the village and local residents far too connected for a ‘Midsomer Murders’-style disappearance once their stories are concluded.  All of the guest tales are engaging fables in their own right, while also tying together and forming part of a greater whole as the underlying mystery of the series unfolds over six hours.

The writing team complement each other excellently, Pharoah launching the series with an opener that manages to capture the perfect balance between action and contemplation, setting the show up as a thinking man’s ghost story.  But it’s eclipsed by his magnificent episode 2, which proves to be arguably the most emotional of the series, and, in this reviewer’s opinion, boasts the best of the standalone stories.  Its denouement in particular is both brave and heart-wrenching.

Simon Tyrrell picks up the baton admirably with episode 3, another well-constructed standalone, but it’s his work on the finale that truly stands out, a low-key, sparse hour of television, especially coming hot on the heels of the dynamic episode 5, but one that works a treat in its noticeable change of pace, bringing to mind the similarly low-key finale of the BBC’s ‘Merlin’ in its concentration on the central characters and their relationship, to the exclusion of almost all else.

Robert Murphy’s episode 4 is perhaps the nearest the series has to a weak link, though in a series this high-quality, that’s hardly damning.  If the pace and structure sometimes feels a little off or repetitive here, it’s more than made up for by the premise, which culminates in possibly the best (and again, brave) standalone denouement of the 6 episodes.  Peter McKenna, meanwhile, contributes something truly raw and exciting in episode 5, in many ways the most blood-curdling of the six, and one which provides some of the very best individual moments of the series.

The direction, too, is top-class, Alice Troughton crafting a rich, philosophical, believable world with the first three episodes, full of beautiful, atmospheric shots of the village and farmland, and genuinely spine-tingling moments with the various apparitions that haunt Nathan (episode 2 especially raises some definite goosebumps).  The directorial switchover to Sam Donovan from episode 4 onwards, however, is noticeable.  This is both a good and bad thing.  On one hand, it injects a fresh energy and momentum into the series as it builds towards its climax, paying off most spectacularly in the brilliant episode 5.  On the other hand, there’s a subtle but definite sense of continuity loss for this reviewer, as the world of the village, the farm, even the house, feels visually just that bit different from what was previously established.  For many viewers, it’s doubtful this would prove a problem.  For me, though, bothered as I was by the sense of a lost visual continuity in, for example, the ‘Harry Potter’ films, it grated a little.  But only a little.

What a cast.  Again, the word ‘class’ immediately springs to mind, as the actors here have to be among the finest working in British television, rivalling even the terrific ensemble put together for the BBC’s ‘Dickensian’.  This reviewer cannot praise highly enough fellow Northern Irishman Colin Morgan.  Long overdue a leading role following the conclusion of ‘Merlin’, he is extraordinary here, by turns a loving husband and benevolent employer, while barely restraining deep-rooted grief for his dead son, and grappling with a genuine struggle over what to believe about the phenomena haunting his village.  There is an edge to Morgan’s performance here, something this reviewer hasn’t quite seen in any of his previous roles, and by episode 6, this culminates in a superb character study of a man driven to the very brink.  Morgan has expressed in promotional interviews his pleasure at getting to take the character almost to the point of villainy by the end, and his relish is clear to see throughout the final episode.  His confrontation with Charlotte in the kitchen towards the end, as she contemplates joining him forever in his desolation, is the Armagh-born actor at his very best.

Charlotte Spencer, as loyal wife Charlotte, is a true discovery.  Managing to portray both an utterly devoted spouse and an independent spirit, she imbues the part with sheer charm, making her namesake a thoroughly engaging personality full of fun and a zest for life, while also keeping a practical head and knowing what needs to be done for the farm and her relationship’s health and survival.  Right from the opening moments of episode 1 post-credits, we are given a snapshot of a vibrant, devoted, fully-in-love couple, ensuring the viewer roots for them and their happiness as the series unfolds, and making her devastation in the finale as Nathan drifts into madness keenly felt by the audience.  One gets the sense throughout that Spencer hugely enjoyed the part, and this reviewer hopes to see her on screen again sooner rather than later.

Morgan and Spencer are leant wonderful support by a rich array of minor characters and guest stars.  Kerrie Hayes is a warm, likeable, often witty presence as housemaid Gwen, afforded some punch-the-air moments in her support of her employees, particularly in episode 4 (and, very refreshingly, the character gets to be a sexual being without any sense of judgment or punishment all too common in period drama).  Nicholas Woodeson as Denning is the local priest we would all like to have, the moral centre of the show, while also exhibiting compassion and understanding, and, in the end, an open mind to the phenomena plaguing the village.  Next to Morgan’s Nathan, he’s the second most compelling study of a character changed and altered by extraordinary events occurring around him, and Woodeson’s primal scream at the sight of one particular horror in episode 5 may very well be the best, rawest moment of the entire series.  Tallulah Haddon, as Denning’s daughter Harriet, gets to show the best of her talent as the victim of possession in episode 1, creating a sinister, gravelly-voiced villain not unlike Linda Blair in The Exorcist- no bad comparison.  David Oakes, meanwhile, as local landowner William Payne, pours on the charm as Charlotte’s admirer, portraying a convincing rival love interest as Nathan slips into insanity- though not without fascinating glimpses of a less honourable side in the finale.

Robert Emms, as Peter, brilliant earlier in the year in series 2 of ‘Happy Valley’, creates another engrossing portrait of a loner driven into darkness in episode 3, while the excellent Elizabeth Berrington (so chilling in her recent stint in ‘Doctors’), gets to shine as his mother Maud in both that story, and the terrifying episode 5 (even if, in a significant grievance for this reviewer that feels like a continuity error, Peter remains frustratingly absent in the wake of her final, startling fate).  Elsewhere, Malcolm Storry is another fine presence as farmhand Gideon, initially distrusting of Charlotte’s managerial position over the farm, but building up a touching, subtle respect for her as the series progresses.

To say too much about Chloe Pirrie’s character would be to spoil a major component of the series, but suffice to say Pirrie does fantastic work in episode 6 as a woman haunted by demons of her own, and driven to find a way to escape them, while Fiona O’Shaughnessy, as episode 4’s Martha, gives a quietly fascinating performance as a repressed schoolteacher, her final speech during the episode’s denouement making sense of what seemed like a somewhat off-kilter portrayal previously, and moving the audience as her particular burden becomes clear.

Rounding out the cast are some excellent younger actors too, not least Isaac Andrews as episode 2’s Charlie, and Arthur Bateman as Gabriel, responsible for some heart-in-mouth moments in the finale as he menaces Pirrie’s Lara and her young child.

‘The Living and the Dead’ would have worked as a one-off series, unfolding with all the beauty and patience of a classic ghost novel, particularly when viewed in short succession as its release on iPlayer allowed, but the final scene of episode 6 all but guarantees it will return, provided the BBC don’t make an unforgiveable decision to cancel it.  Morgan is the beating heart of the show, a worthy, fantastically-crafted drama for him to finally become a leading man in again, but the talents of Spencer, Troughton, Donovan and Pharoah, along with the supporting cast, would also be greatly missed by this reviewer if it doesn’t return.  It simply has to.  In the vein of all the best ghost stories, it’s a show that stays with you.

More please.

 

*****

 

Atmospheric and scary, but with a huge heart, ‘The Living and the Dead’ displays the best of its leading man’s talent, while nurturing a rich supporting cast, and fantastic writing and directing talent.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

Dickensian review

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‘Dickensian’ deserved a lot more than one series.

Admittedly, this reviewer wasn’t entirely convinced by the concept of the show prior to airing.  Although certainly an intriguing premise, the idea of putting together the characters of Dickens’ myriad novels into one singular setting had, it seemed to me, the potential to be very, very silly.  Possibly even cartoonish.  Happily, this vision was executed so brilliantly that the Red Planet Pictures series became one of the most absorbing and engaging TV drams of recent times, a programme that, above anything else, was sheer fun.

‘Dickensian’ is essentially a Victorian ‘EastEnders’.  Not surprising, given it was the brainchild of former scriptwriter for that show Tony Jordan, who also wrote the majority of episodes.  With the characters almost all concentrated on the same wintry street, complete with Queen Vic stand-in The Three Cripples on the corner, and with cliffhanger endings and a meticulously plotted whodunit driving the overarching story, it’s unashamedly soap by way of Charles Dickens.  And it works wonderfully.

Brought in to investigate the murder of ruthless moneylender Jacob Marley, Inspector Bucket, on whose success will be judged the merits and benefits of the new ‘Detective’, keeps a sharp eye on the various residents of Marley’s neighbourhood, from the loveable but struggling Cratchits, to the well-to-do but under-pressure Barbarys, to Marley’s business partner Ebenezer Scrooge and Bucket’s long-time nemesis Fagin.  Woven amongst this mystery is the financial plight of the Barbarys, and daughter Honoria’s dilemma between the interested, rich Sir Leicester Dedlock and true love Captain Hawdon, as well as the social-climbing aspirations of the Bumbles, and local heiress Amelia Havisham’s manipulation by jealous brother Arthur and his ruthlessly deceitful partner Meriwether Compeyson.

Jordan’s series structure is excellent (if rather abused by BBC scheduling decisions during its run), its 20 half-hour episodes allowing a wealth of time to get to know and care about the huge cast of characters, regardless of whether the viewer has ever read a page of Dickens (this reviewer was more familiar with some books than others), and building rewardingly to the revelation of the killer in episode 17, before concentrating on the climax of Compeyson’s more insidious plot for its finale.  Along the way, the show, understandably enough for a first (and sadly, as it turned out, only) run, focuses almost exclusively on the Dickens’ best-known work, namely ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’, with the success of the BBC’s ‘Bleak House’ adaptation in 2005 almost certainly a factor in the heavy concentration on that story too.  It’s regrettable that, as a consequence of the series’ cancellation, we don’t get to see what Jordan might have done with some of Dickens’ more obscure works, the promising inclusion of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ in episode 1, only to disappointingly disappear from the narrative afterwards proving to be one of the few jarring elements of the show’s storytelling.  It makes that initial episode feel, in retrospect, almost like an American pilot in its experimentalism, and not entirely for the better.

But if Little Nell and Grandfather prove to be, pardon the pun, curious inclusions this early on, the storytelling of the show from the second instalment onwards is next to flawless.  The Marley investigation is genuinely one of the better whodunits ever committed to screen, the ten hours of television allowing it proper room to breathe as a mystery, more than a little indebted to the one-murder-per-series structure of long-form imports like ‘The Killing’.  The Havisham deception also benefits enormously from the length of time dedicated to it, allowing us to become so utterly invested in that story that, by the time the finale come around, we are all but screaming at the television for Amelia to see through Compeyson, and for the charlatan to receive his comeuppance.  The Bumbles, meanwhile, provide a rich thread of comic relief throughout, their own story culminating in a goosebumps-inspiring moments in episode 19 as the show interprets a major, classic moment from Dickens’ source work, while secondary scribe Sarah Phelps contributes one of the best half hours of television this reviewer has ever watched in episode 16, as Honoria Barbary’s plight comes to a head, bringing to mind, with its one-off focus on a single storyline, the best ‘EastEnders’ night-time two-handers.

The cast of Dickensian are, to a man, magnificent.  Peter Firth manages to create such an odious Jacob Marley, well-deserving of the classic punishment we see him enduring in ‘A Christmas Carol’, in the course of a single episode that we fully believe any number of characters would want him dead.  Ned Dennehy’s Scrooge, while not the sleaze his late business partner was, is still almost as fierce in his own quieter way, exhibiting the same menace towards Bob Cratchit that we know from the original tale, and displaying no mercy to Edward Barbary when he pleads for leniency.  It’s a strange experience to see a version of Scrooge who remains pitiless and cruel throughout, the series not taking us anywhere near as far as the point of his redemption.  It feels almost wrong somehow, and in a way makes this version of the character all the more chilling for the sense of something missing- the uplifting core and message of Dickens’ story still very far away for the character here.

Anton Lesser is superb as Fagin, a masterclass in acting amongst a universally great cast.  Compassionate and fatherly towards Nancy, understatedly sinister in his threats to would-be-usurper Bill Sikes, sardonic and almost bored in his old rivalry with Bucket, Lesser clearly relishes the part, creating, in the process, perhaps the definitive version of the character.  If there’s another small grievance this reviewer has with the series, it’s the lack of any follow-up to one intriguing, but sadly single scene between Fagin and Scrooge, Dennehy and Lesser both so dangerous in the parts in their respective ways that the absence of any further sparks flying between them feels like a criminally missed opportunity.  Bethany Muir as Nancy, meanwhile, is a refreshingly earnest, kind-hearted presence in the drama, her hope and optimism, in spite of her circumstances, endearing us to her (culminating in an enchanting musical number at the conclusion of episode 20), and lending a tragic poignancy to our knowledge of her future fate, while Mark Stanley manages the feat of making Sikes, in this particular incarnation, a guiltily likeable romantic lead, sweeping Nancy off her feet in a way that makes us believe she could fall for the character before realising what a brute he’ll eventually reveal himself to be.

At the driving heart of the story is the magnificent Stephen Rea as Inspector Bucket.  Kind but firm in his dealings with the residents, his rivalry with Fagin and double act with Omid Djalili’s Mr Venus amuses, his genuine dilemma throughout the course of episode 18 after discovering the identity of the killer touches, and his at-times obsessive determination to solve the case at all costs slightly unnerves.  With his trademark top hat and cane, the first silhouette glimpsed amidst the shadows of the characters in the excellently-designed opening credits, he’s this reviewer’s favourite fictional detective since Poirot, and, with more series and better scheduling in which to stamp his mark, would surely have become just as iconic.

Lending more light to the drama is the likeable Robert Wilfort as Bob Cratchit, and Jennifer Hennessy as wife Emily, their portrayal of a genuinely in-love couple who care deeply about each other and their children proving a heartening sight, lending the show real moments of happiness amidst some of the gloom.  Wilfort allows us to see just enough of his character’s hurt at Scrooge’s oppression to seem realistically human, while still allowing us to believe that he could stoically suffer his employer’s ill-treatment without open complaint.  And late in the series, Hennessy gets the best part of a whole episode in which to shine as a mother and wife who would do anything to protect her family, leaving us rooting for her entirely as she faces a huge question mark over her fate.  Also providing warmth is Imogen Faires in her few appearances as Nell, the talented young actress managing to leave an impression despite very limited screen time- it really is a shame she doesn’t get more to do.  Particularly frustrating is the lack of resolution to a teenage romance subplot with Brenock O’Connor’s Peter Cratchit.

These points of light are needed, for the villains of ‘Dickensian’, though brilliantly fleshed out and well-rounded, are truly despicable.  Tom Weston-Jones, in Meriwether Compeyson, manages to craft a character so infuriatingly wicked, for all his outward attractiveness, that we are ready to hurl something at the screen by episode 20, desperate for Amelia to wake up to her situation.  His silver-tongued charm and seeming ability to get away with each and every misdeed, thwarting the efforts of those who try to oppose him at every turn, are frighteningly believable, his single-minded purpose to con Amelia and break her heart for little more than sport proving, in its own way, to be the greater villainy of the series, rather than the open bitterness of Scrooge or the mischief of Fagin.  The fact that the viewer comes to despise Compeyson’s character so thoroughly is testament to Weston-Jones’ performance- a truly nasty piece of work from beginning to end.

Alexandra Moen, meanwhile, portrays possibly the most nuanced character of the series.  Although, in some respects, every bit as evil as Compeyson, Moen manages to make us empathise with envious Barbary sister Frances, despite an icy exterior that proves next to impossible for her family to melt.  This climaxes most spectacularly in the Phelps-scripted episode 16, which sees Moen’s performance shift the viewer’s feelings from hatred to sympathy and then back again in a roller-coaster of a half hour.  It’s wonderful to be made to feel so many different emotions about a character in such a short space of time, and one can only assume Moen found the part to be among the most stimulating of her career- it’s arguably the best in the whole series, in an extremely competitive field.

 

On the side of the angels, meanwhile (at least for now), Tuppence Middleton puts in a magnificently nuanced performance of her own as Amelia Havisham, her earnest, kind-hearted heiress a striking contrast to the amoral seductress she portrays in the BBC’s recent ‘War and Peace’, managing to convey a strong, capable, independently-minded woman while successfully convincing us (just about) that even someone as intelligent as her could be taken in by Compeyson.  It helps that she actually does get the measure of him at one point before the finale, and almost sees him off, before he manages to reel her back in by pulling out all the stops to bring the wool back down over her eyes.  It’s, as suggested before, deeply frustrating, but undoubtedly engages the viewer all the more with the drama, and we can understand her weakest link lying with her brother.  Because Joseph Quinn’s portrayal of Arthur is a beautifully heartbreaking one, a tortured soul throughout the whole series, ever-torn over his own plot to cheat his sister of her wealth, and enabling us to maintain some sympathy with the character even as we loathe his partner in crime.  Compeyson’s shameless manipulation of his fears over the exposure of his sexuality, ruthlessly bringing him back into the fold every time he wavers, keeps Arthur feeling more like a tragic figure than an outright crook.  Despite the original source of the series subject matter, his arc feels almost Shakespearean.

One of Dickens’ more fascinating, ambiguous characters, both in the original novel and in the various television adaptations, has always been shrewd lawyer Jaggers, and here John Heffernan makes the character almost as scary as the villains, albeit always towards those who deserve his ire, conveying, on the other hand, an almost paternal set of feelings towards Amelia.  Fierce in her own way, though tempered by a wealth of comical scenes, is Caroline Quentin’s brilliantly fun Mrs Bumble, ever keen to move up in the world, but more often than not undone by her own folly.  Richard Ridings is possibly the best hen-pecked husband ever put on screen, eternally sexually frustrated, always kept on just enough of a leash in order to do his wife’s bidding.  A rare moment of fury towards her late in the series (‘I meant on the napery, madam!’) is all the more rewarding for its unexpectedness, although he’s soon back in line.

Rounding off the main cast, meanwhile, are Sophie Rundle and Ben Starr as star-crossed lovers Honoria Barbary and Captain James Hawdon, their passion and love for one another excitingly believable yet risky in this buttoned-up era.  Again, in episode 16, Rundle gives her performance of the series opposite Moen’s Frances, leaving us aching for her by the end of the half hour.  Elsewhere, however, it would have been nice to have Hawdon involved once Compeyson is exposed, given his deception of the captain too in order to win over the ladies- it would have been an interesting extra dynamic to see.  And on the third side of the Hawdon/Honoria/Sir Leicester love triangle, Richard Cordery brings a quality somewhere between amiable and creepy, clearly genuinely besotted by Honoria, and yet pushing that interest just a little too strongly, almost to the point of lecherous.  It’s a somewhat disquieting portrayal at times, something in it just that little bit distasteful, that little bit closer to inappropriate lust than love.

Finally, Pauline Collins enjoys herself thoroughly as gin-loving Mrs Gamp, ever on the periphery of the other characters’ stories, but always finding herself at the heart of the gossip, securing a drink at other’s expense on the flimsiest of pretexts.  She’s a true soap character for the Victorian world, and one of the highlights of the whole show.

With a cast this talented, and with such extraordinary writers and storytellers as Jordan and Phelps working on it, the cancellation of ‘Dickensian’ really is, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the more regrettable decisions in television drama in recent times.  Although, by series’ end, the show lines up well enough with the traditional Dickens novels, with ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ in particular  nicely ready to kick off, it would have been great to see the series tackle the familiar events of those novels with its own interpretation, as well as explore some of the author’s other works and characters in the same rich detail as his most famous ones receive here.  But it will certainly remain as a fantastic standalone series, with a well-plotted and executed series of story threads binding it together, simultaneously wrapping up neatly by the final episode, and yet leaving the viewer wanting much more, by virtue of its sheer quality and class.

 

*****

 

A refreshingly structured series with a superb cast and some award-worthy writing (episode 16), regrettably ill-treated in the end by scheduling and the powers that be.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

Merlin: Complete Series review

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‘Merlin’ is a contender for my favourite television series of all time.

Part of that may be down to my interest in mythology and magic, dating back to when I was a child.  Part of it may be my liking for Arthurian legend and the excitement of comparing numerous interpretations of it over the years, from Disney’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’, to the excellent 1998 Sam Neill ‘Merlin’ miniseries.  Part of it may be my love of genre and cult TV in general (no doubt I’ll wax lyrical about that other great contender for my favourite ever TV show, ‘Smallville’, in a future post).

But the main reason, hands down, is the chemistry between Colin Morgan and Bradley James.

Some might call it queer-baiting.  Some might call it an accident of casting.  Some might call it wishful thinking.  No doubt there are elements of all of these things there, but, for this reviewer, it doesn’t matter.  Because the tension, both written and acted, between Merlin Emrys and Arthur Pendragon in this BBC interpretation of the mythos from Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy is off the scale, unashamed, and glorious.  It isn’t so much subtext as text that leaps off the screen during any given episode and strikes the viewer around the face.  One can’t move on the internet for legions of ‘Merthur’ appreciation pages, fanart and edited YouTube videos, the level of fervour for the pairing matched only by a select few fandoms (Dean/Castiel in ‘Supernatural’, perhaps), but even the most ardent deniers, the viewers most uncomfortable with any sort of chemistry between two male leads, would have to admit that there’s something going on.  Even if just intensely platonic, the level of tension from episode to episode is palpable.  Utterly so.

The fact that nothing ever overtly happens between the characters, makes it all the more perfect.  With the producers having admitted in retrospect that they were approaching the relationship as a canon love story in all but name, the thoughtful viewer gets the satisfaction of watching a growing dynamic that builds and builds under the surface without ever getting the chance to spill over and, pardon the pun, break the spell.  At the time, it was frustrating.  In hindsight, it’s fantastic.  Like the best tragic or unfulfilled romances, the lack of admission, the lack of any sort of embrace, means that the ‘What if?’ question gets to hang over the series forever.  Like Merlin himself, the pairing becomes, in a sense, immortal.

But there are other, plentiful reasons to like this wonderful series.  Armagh-born Morgan is a magnificent actor, having only improved in everything he’s been in since (most notably ‘The Fall’ and ‘Humans’), his flawless English accent the least of his skills here, embodying the slow-burn, tragic pathos of his character beautifully.  He can do comic timing effortlessly, and several episodes make great use of this, but more often than not, he’s called upon to convey an ever-present conflict between quiet optimism and lurking dread, the world and future he wants to create always that little bit out of reach, tantalisingly dangled but never quite obtained.  Factor in the unrequited love for Arthur that this reviewer and 90% of the fandom read into the series, and you have a compelling, haunting, sometimes heartbreaking performance (his despairing scream during imprisonment as he faces the prospect of all his hopes completely slipping away in the penultimate episode ‘The Diamond of the Day Part 1’ must be among the most piercing couple of seconds of acting I’ve ever watched).

Bradley James may seem, at first, to portray an unfairly harsh, frankly brattish Arthur for the first couple of seasons, all too quick to belittle or mistreat his servant from episode to episode.  But eventually, a performance of quiet honour and nobility starts to emerge, fitting for a future king.  The fate of his father, Uther, his ascension to the throne, and his apparent betrayal by Gwen, all in series 4, bring the character firmly into his own, and the genuine bond and warmth that grows between them, even if it goes almost entirely unacknowledged, is a joy to watch.  James’ highlight of the series may very well be the loss of Uther in ‘The Wicked Day’, the death scene itself and Arthur’s reaction to now having lost both parents sending shivers down the spine.  For this reviewer, James more than deserves the leading role he’s now currently enjoying in A & E’s ‘Damien’.

Katie McGrath, as Morgana, is sublime.  Her transformation from vulnerable and fearful young woman to wicked aggressor is breathtaking to watch, her sense of fear over her powers being discovered in the early seasons such that we can’t help but root for her when she finally embraces them, even if it’s too late, and too much psychological damage has been done, for her to ever use them for good.  Her seasonal arc from banished outcast to successful conqueror of Camelot during the course of series 4 is guiltily satisfying, her inevitably temporary victory over the heroes feeling just that little bit deserved.  And the sense of danger and portentousness as she finally learns Merlin’s true identity at the conclusion of ‘The Drawing of the Dark’ leaves goosebumps on the skin.  McGrath also earns some further brownie points from this reviewer for being such a gleeful and mischievous supporter of the Merthur pairing in behind-the-scenes interviews.

In theory, Angel Coulby, as Gwen, should have a tough job in not being automatically disliked by the Merthur-supporting fanbase of the show.  The fact that she not only avoids this, but makes the character thoroughly likeable to this reviewer is a testament to the likeability of Coulby herself, imbuing the part with a grace and empathy that makes the character seem more than worthy of being Arthur’s queen.  The showdown between Gwen and Arthur in ‘Lancelot du Lac’ is one of the best-written pieces of drama in the whole series, while her unexpected brainwashing arc, allowing her to compete with Morgana in the evil-and-loving-it stakes, is one of the best things about the show’s final season.  It’s been a treat to see Coulby back in a major drama role recently as journalist Julia in BBC One’s ‘Undercover’.

Anthony Head, as Uther, could not be further away from his role of Giles in ‘Buffy’.  By turns menacing and tyrannical, yet sympathetic and relatable when allowed to be, Head brings true gravitas to the series, far from essential given the talent of the younger cast, but making the show all the richer for his presence in it.  Morgana’s planned assassination of him in penultimate season one episode ‘To Kill the King’, only to pull back from her plot at the last minute when he displays some regret and human remorse for his past sins, remains, for this reviewer, one of the best-constructed episodes of the whole series.

Also bringing gravitas to the show, this time on the side of the angels, is Richard Wilson as Merlin’s mentor and guardian Gaius, the antidote to Uther’s stern, domineering king, yet radiating a quiet authority of his own.  In one of the series’ subtler, more understated, and consequently most interesting beats, Gaius and Uther are presented as a what-might-have-been earlier generation take on Merlin and Arthur, with the king tolerating the unspoken secret that Gaius has magic, seemingly the one exception to his blanket ban on sorcery in his kingdom.  It’s refreshing as well to see Gaius survive to the end of the series, when it would surely have been all too tempting for the writers to kill him off to further Merlin’s character development.

An impressive addition to the show in its final series is Alexander Vlahos as the adult Mordred, offering a take on the legendary villain far removed from the outright antagonist that might be expected.  Renouncing the path of darkness for much of his time on the show, this Mordred is a fascinating study of a man trying valiantly against the pull of destiny and fate to take the better path, while constantly suffering the suspicion of the central hero- it’s one of the few times in the series where Merlin skirts close to becoming unlikeable, so reluctant is he to give Mordred the benefit of the doubt.  It lends his eventual trajectory, and the show’s alignment with traditional Arthurian myth, all the more pathos when it happens.

No summary of the key players across the show’s five series would be complete without a nod to John Hurt’s Great Dragon.  Beginning as an imprisoned mentor to Merlin, full of prophecies and riddles, and offerings of wisdom, Hurt gradually lends the beast just enough of a creeping, sinister side, so that by the time he tricks the young warlock into releasing him and wreaks revenge on Camelot, it’s a well-earned, subtly dreaded turn of events.  In Hurt, Wilson and Head, the show is lucky indeed to enjoy a trinity of elder actors lending the series their respective weight, and surely inspiring the younger cast to the heights they so successfully reach.

Not to be forgotten, of course, is the series’ rich array of supporting and guest stars, all of them lending the show more colour and depth by their presence.  Among the highlights are Eoin Macken’s playful Gwaine, easily the most interesting of the Knights of the Round Table (Macken having since gone on to break into novel-writing with Dublin-set debut ‘Kingdom of Scars’), and Santiago Cabrera’s noble but doomed Lancelot, his quiet strength and sweet early romance with Gwen ensuring we genuinely care once darker aspects of the mythos finally come into play.  John Lynch brings yet more gravitas, albeit only in a couple of appearances, as Merlin’s father and last dragonlord Balinor, while Sarah Parish has a whale of a time as Uther’s would-be queen, Lady Catrina, in series 2’s two-part ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

In the out-and-out villainy stakes, Katie McGrath is leant terrific support not just by Vlahos, but by both Emilia Fox as wicked sister Morgause, the Emperor Palpatine to Morgana’s Darth Vader, and Asa Butterfield as the quietly sinister younger Mordred.  Early on, Michelle Ryan impresses as series 1 archvillain Nimueh (a far cry indeed from the haunting romance between the character and Merlin in the Sam Neill version), while there are also enjoyable guest turns from the always-excellent Charles Dance as series 2’s Witchfinder, and Maureen Carr as the truly creepy Dochraid in the show’s later seasons.

If the acting in ‘Merlin’ can scarcely be faulted, its narrative shape, on the other hand, does sometimes give pause.  The tone of the later show is very different from the first couple of seasons, the shift owing more than a little to the then-rising popularity of ‘Game of Thrones’, if not quite in bleak brutality, then certainly in terms of more sombre mood, atmosphere, and a somewhat ‘slicker’ feel.  The move from the more episodic early seasons to darker, more serious ‘arcs’ is largely a welcome one, though some of the sheer fun of those earlier episodes is, for this reviewer, sadly lost in the process.

And then there’s the ending.  Given the extent to which the show radically reinterprets elements of Arthurian mythology early on (not least a rather genius way around the huge age discrepancy between this iteration of Merlin and more traditional takes), it seemed reasonable to assume that the series would find ways to avoid the ultimately downbeat direction of the mythos, and that the battle of Camlann wouldn’t necessarily end in predictable tragedy.  Alas, GOT’s influence is keenly felt in this regard in the show’s final season.  Originally airing on Christmas Eve 2012, the finale is, for this reviewer, a deeply problematic one, true enough to Arthurian legend, but in many ways so strikingly different from the tone and optimism of series 1 as to be alienating.  Character and plot development are all well and good, but ‘Merlin’ simply feels like a wholly different show by the end, and not altogether for the better.  For me, it was a less than satisfying conclusion to the five-year journey I’d embarked on as a viewer, and to the five years of a better world worked towards by Merlin himself.

Disappointing endings, however, can’t be the only consideration when judging a series’ overall quality, and ‘Merlin’ is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts in this respect.  The talent of the cast, the impressive roster of guest stars, Rob Lane’s stirring music (check out series 4’s ‘The Bond of Sacrifice’ for my personal favourite piece) and the sheer novelty of having a genre programme besides ‘Doctor Who’ airing on primetime BBC One all eclipse any misgivings about the story’s ultimate direction, and more than make up for any minor grievances as well (for example, Morgana’s all-too-sudden descent into hatred for Uther in series 2 after being so touchingly reconciled to him at the end of series 1).

And then of course, there’s that all-important chemistry between the two leads.  For all that the series technically follows the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle of traditional Arthurian myth, the real love story, essentially admitted by the producers and speculated about by everyone from James, McGrath, Vlahos and the media (see the ‘Independent’s’ review of the complete box set), is between Arthur and Merlin.  And it’s beautiful.

 

*****

 

An initially fun, though gradually darker, and always compelling update of Arthurian mythology, ‘Merlin’ is ultimately all about one thing: the fantastic chemistry between its two leads.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

And Then There Were None review

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‘And Then There Were None’ is unlike any other Agatha Christie novel.  Brilliantly bleak and lacking the comforting presence of a Poirot or Marple-esque detective figure to come and save the day, in many ways it’s a book that foreshadowed the current ‘Killing’-inspired Nordic Noir thrillers currently permeating British and European television.  Writer Sarah Phelps has taken this potential and transformed the story into a magnificently psychological three-part drama that, for this reviewer, was the highlight of the BBC’s Christmas 2015 schedules.

Following a group of ten strangers as they find themselves stranded on the fictional Soldier Island off the Devon Coast as part of a sinister deception, and gradually picked off by a killer in their midst inspired by the ‘Ten Little Soldier Boys’ nursery rhyme, the series, in plot terms, sticks faithfully to the book, including (mercifully) favouring the novel’s original ending over Christie’s own alteration to the subsequent stage version.  But Sarah Phelps has added so much atmosphere and character work to this minseries that it more than deserves to be judged on its own merits.

She is helped, though, by an utterly superb cast.  Intriguingly, Phelps makes the decision to centre the drama on this reviewer’s favourite character from the novel, Vera Claythorne, and, in the hands of both Phelps and actress Maeve Dermody, the character becomes mesmerising.  Reserved and  proper on the surface, but with eyes betraying by turns both a tortured conscience and an unsettling coldness, Dermody imbues the role with a quality that seduces and draws in the viewer as surely as Aidan Turner’s Philip Lombard finds himself hooked by her.

Turner is every bit Dermody’s male equal here, the two of them setting the screen alight whenever they share a scene, whether exchanging barbs, fighting mutual attraction, or trying to gauge each other’s guilt.  Capitalising on the popularity of Turner’s Poldark reboot, not least the infamous ‘scythe’ scene, the BBC, arguably rather shamelessly, give Turner an even greater water cooler moment here, emerging from his bedroom in Episode 2 in a towel so small as to be almost redundant (a cursory glance at Twitter following the episode revealed the move paid off handsomely).  The characters’ relationship is a dark, fascinating dance in this adaptation, a far cry from the sanitised Hollywood glamour of the stage and earlier screen versions.

Dermody and Turner, though, are only two highlights in a terrific ensemble.  Miranda Richardson is quietly terrifying as God-fearing Emily Brent, the character bestowed with startling undertones certainly not present in the novel.  Noah Taylor and Anna Maxwell Martin are suitably creepy as House staff Mr and Mrs Rogers (though Maxwell Martin does tug on the heart strings during a scene of subtle abuse from Richardson’s Brent), while Sam Neill lends a nobility to his General MacArthur that goes some way to making us empathise with the character, despite his past sins.  Charles Dance is his usual charismatic self as Justice Lawrence Wargrave, quietly calming the hysterics of the other guests for most of the series, until finally coming into his own with a chilling flashback to the execution tormenting his own conscience, that of depraved murderer Edward Seaton.  Burn Gorman manages the impressive feat of making us feel sorry for his corrupt policeman William Blore as the tension escalates, despite the appalling nature of his own crime, while Douglas Booth appears to enjoy every second of playing callous playboy Anthony Marston, ridiculing the other guests at dinner, firing off a succession of one-liners, and, in an early scene whose subtext this reviewer only picked up on upon a second viewing, subtly making a play for Turner’s Philip Lombard, only to get the most effortless and disinterested of knockbacks.

If there is one misstep with the cast, it’s arguably Toby Stephens as Dr Edward Armstrong.  Not that Stephens isn’t a great actor in general, but there’s something jarring about his interpretation of a role that, in the book, comes across as much more timid than it does here.  Stephens makes the part startlingly aggressive at times, from a furious argument with Booth’s Marston at dinner, to pulling rank on Dermody’s Vera primarily because of her status as a woman, a scene that, for this reviewer, and despite the period setting, left a sour taste in the mouth (his burst of hysterical laughter, on the other hand, during a rare comical moment involving Blore, almost redeems everything else).

On a side note, Catherine Bailey and Rob Heaps do good work in the smaller roles of Olivia Ogilvie Hamilton and brother Hugo, Bailey lending poignancy to Olivia’s anguish at the death of her son, while Heaps provides one of the true ‘Hurrah’ moments of the series, with his instant realisation of one character’s guilt, conveyed through furious, horrified eyes.

It’s always a risk to stretch a novel out over three hours of drama, but Phelps makes sure every moment of ATTWN is engrossing, her episode cliffhangers, particularly MacArthur’s ominous, doom-laden speech at the close of Episode 1, uniformly well-judged, while the undertones leant to Richardson, Gorman and Booth’s characters make for much richer material than we are given in the book, however ingenious its plot.  If I have one misgiving, it’s, ironically and somewhat frustratingly, with the ending.  Although the cheese of the stage version is jettisoned, this adaptation still doesn’t quite manage to capture the sheer eeriness of the novel’s ending, resorting to a confession scene that feels a bit mundane by comparison.  But if the last few minutes fall a little flat, the preceding near-three hours of drama more than make up for it, with the adaptation lingering in the mind as a rich, compelling, atmospheric mystery, soaked in dread and boasting some excellent character study, with Maeve Dermody in particular an actress this reviewer will be watching out for in the future.

On the technical side, the series is leant some incredible atmosphere by Stuart Earl’s score, not so much in the more obvious ‘ominous’ cues throughout much of the episodes, but in the quieter, more haunting music of such scenes as the flashback to the first meeting with Hugo on the beach, or Emily in the field with her young ward Beatrice.  And Craig Viveiros’ direction is a work of art in itself, the overhead shot revealing the gaping chasm at the centre of the island at the beginning of Episode 1 a particular early highlight, along with, for this reviewer, one of the best opening scenes of a drama ever, in the shape of Episode 3’s opening minute of close-up shots of the remaining five suspects, seen as though through distorted glass, and set to rain and thunder outside, again accompanied by Earl’s rich soundtrack.

‘And Then There Were None’ is top quality British drama.  If the BBC can keep hold of Phelps, Earl, and call again on any of the acting talents involved here, particularly Turner and Dermody, for future Christmas programmes, I, for one, will be there as an avidly interested viewer.

 

*****

 

Dark, brilliantly-written and compelling drama, with a superb, well-utilised cast.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

Introduction

Welcome to Sleepy Sheep, a writing blog by a Northern Irish literature graduate and recent TV screenwriting student, currently working on a novel and coming to the end of a year studying in Glasgow.

To start with, the title of this blog is taken from an in-joke with a good friend of mine (as good a way of finding an original title as any), so it’s not just something I plucked from the ether.  This will, however, be as far as I ever explain it…  Probably.

The blog is an amalgamation of what had previously been four different sites, streamlined into one for simplicity’s sake.  ‘Sleepy Sheep’ had previously been the home to Film and TV reviews, but will now also host my short stories, book reviews, travel and appreciation pieces, the occasional theatre review, and general reflections.

I love fiction-writing with a passion, and the creativity it draws out and nurtures.  I’ve done courses and degrees in novel-writing, stage-writing and screenwriting, and have a genuine love for all three mediums, as well as trying my hand from time to time at short stories and flash fiction.  This blog is intended as somewhere to showcase some of my shorter pieces of work, prose being my original, and still very powerful, love when it comes to writing.

As a recent MATV Fiction Writing student at Glasgow Caledonian University, however, screenwriting is also something that has really grabbed my imagination, and so I’ll be using this blog as a space to share my thoughts on current (and occasionally older) films and television dramas.

Having loved books since I was a child, and having greatly enjoyed studying literature for my undergrad at Queen’s University Belfast, I also want to use ‘Sleepy Sheep’ as a place to reflect on books I enjoy, both current and classic, of any genre.

Meanwhile, having travelled a lot these last few years between Northern Ireland and Scotland, and occasionally further afield, I want to take the chance to write some pieces on my impressions of various places I’ve spent time in, and convey my affection for both my home and adopted home.

Finally, having completed the Fireworks Young Writers programme for Tinderbox theatre company in Belfast during 2014, I’ve developed a love of theatre and the excitement, immediacy and raw quality of that medium, and while I already review Northern Irish theatre for the blog Scene Docs (https://scenedocs.wordpress.com), I’ll include any reviews of theatre I happen to see outside the province here.

At this point, I’d like to give a shout out to a few different groups of people who have supported me on my writing journey and provided invaluable feedback.  Firstly, the 2013 Curtis Brown Creative three-month novel-writing course alumni, many of whom I still exchange feedback with on a regular basis.  Secondly, Writers’ Block, the creative writing group at Ballymena Central Library, who have been a great source of local support at home.  And thirdly, the Glad Writers Circle in Glasgow Southside, who have been a fun, dynamic group to write with during my time studying in Scotland.  You’ve all been great friends and a huge source of encouragement.

I hope everyone who visits the site, whatever their area of interest, will find something to enjoy in my writing, and please feel free to leave comments or thoughts on any of the pieces.

Happy reading, viewing and writing, and safe travels 🙂

 

Christopher Moore 

@Moore_27Chris