Martin Amis’s England

March 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Reviews

AMIS

Martin Amis’s fictions paint a bleak portrait of England. Under the influence of J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, and to some extent his father, he depicts it as a hostile, culturally baron country, occupied by feckless idiots, drunks and hedonists. His characters are frequently working-class, hold thoroughly untenable opinions and almost invariably they are obsessed with money, both spending and obtaining it.

Amis’s last novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, an unabashed and misdirected sendup of chav culture, was perhaps his most disparaging depiction of England to date. Yet he insists that he’s a patriot, and in Martin Amis’s England sets about trying articulate his true feelings on the place, free from the comical exaggeration of his novels. At first it’s hard to grasp the concept of the programme: the title and synopsis might suggest that this is a documentary in which Amis addresses the camera directly, reciting pre-written monologues about what it means to be English.

But instead the programme takes the form of a long interview, ostensibly recorded at Amis’s home, and is inter-spliced with footage from the BFI’s National Archive. The subject of the sexual revolution is illustrated by shots of groovy girls in mini skirts, while black and white footage of grim looking streets is shown to demonstrate how bleak life in England was after World War II. At times this footage does Amis the disservice of being more interesting than he is. Mostly, though, as is true of his writing, he manages to be entertaining even when his point seems morally questionable.

Over the course of 55 minutes, Amis speaks of a variety of things that he believes define England: the weather, the fall of imperialism, football, multiculturalism and what he calls England’s obsession with pleasure — that is, our supposed propensity for booze, which in turn, he says, leads us to sex. In spite of perhaps this last point, it is hard to imagine that many people would disagree with much of what he says, which is surprising given Amis’s reputation as controversial writer.

Even on the subject of class he’s surprisingly non-contentious. He’s always been obsessed with it, he admits. When he was just a boy he remembers taking a “How Posh Are You” test in The Daily Mail. He was very pleased with himself, convinced that he was scoring well, until he arrived at the last question: What would you name your child? In the upper-class category were names like “George” and “Edward”, he says, and in the lower-class category, next to “Keith”, that hallmark of commonness, was his name. That’s when he threw the newspaper and pen to the floor.

Amis describes his own upbringing as lower middle class, but says he’s never felt sure of his standing in society. On the one hand, he seems to appreciate the culture of the upper classes, but on the other likes to make it known that he’s not above enjoying a lager beer or partaking in a bit of weasel fighting down the old pub. For a man who has written so damningly about members of the working class, he seems strangely envious of low-culture, as though such things are part of an exclusive club for labourers and members of the residuum.

Perhaps the most discrediting thing about Amis is that, although he admits that he has little connection to the working class, he still speaks with complete certainty on the subject, even when it becomes plainly clear that he’s out of his depth. He has a similar air of self-assurance when discussing other things, too, but is at least able to speak somewhat convincingly about post-war England, imperialism and national identity.

Only occasionally is he able to seem mildly self-deprecating, such as when he recalls the first time he ever saw a black person. He was a Rhodesian academic, Amis says. His father, Kinglsey, was meeting him in town, and beforehand schooled his young son on what he was about to see. “He’s going to have black skin,” he explained, and Martin replied confidently that he knew what to expect. Yet when he met the Rhodesian academic in person, he became overcome with shock, and with his finger pointed yelled, “You’ve got a black face!”

Amis seems more than a little embarrassed to admit this. He feels strongly that multiculturalism has been a good thing for England; without it the country might not have gotten over the fall of the British Empire. It helped solidify in people’s minds that imperialism was not a good thing, and it progressed the country at a much faster rate than any of its neighbours. We might have been in decline for the past 70 years, but he believes that our poetry is still the best in the world, and our sexual revolution happened long before it did elsewhere in Europe.

And then, as if to prove both these points, he quotes Larkin: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) / – Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.”

But though he has seldom before spoken so positively about the place, Amis goes on to say that he isn’t entirely fond of England. He hates our bizarre tradition of football violence, and loathes of our conflicting relationship with alcohol, as footage of drunk, slack-jawed lads in V-neck tops illustrates.

Of course no doubt anybody who is at all averse to Martin Amis will wonder, well, who cares what he thinks of England anyway? And indeed this is a perfectly fair question to ask. But anybody who has ever found Amis remotely interesting, in his fiction or in his journalism, should find his thoughts here at least entertaining, even if they disagree fervently with almost everything he has to say.

Martin Amis’s England is on BBC Four on Sunday 23 March at 9.00pm

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

March 10, 2014 by  
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Like David Attenborough, Carl Sagan’s success as a presenter came from a sincere and unrivalled passion for his subject. As he proved with his BBC lectures in the 1970s, he didn’t need props or special effects to be interesting; he spoke as well interacting with a group of school children as he did strolling along a beach, or standing next to a cardboard cut-out of what was supposed to be a spaceship.

Yet even when these devices were employed, such as in his landmark series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the project upon which Sagan’s legacy still rests, he himself always remained effortlessly fascinating.

When he died of pneumonia in 1996, it seemed extremely unlikely that there would ever be a follow-up to the series, or whether a worthy successor to carry on in Sagan’s place would ever be found. But now, thirty-four years after the original aired, it returns, this time hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, presenter of PBS’s Nova ScienceNow and one of Sagan’s close friends during his lifetime.

Gone this time around are the cardboard cut-outs and what Tyson calls “mutton chops” — i.e. scenes in which historical events are acted out by actors in tights and wigs; in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey such stories are told through graphic novel-style animation and narrated by Tyson, who sits aboard an expensive-looking CGI spaceship, his face illuminated by flickering buttons and the kindly light of distant galaxies.

In episode one Tyson describes just how incomprehensibly old our universe is. He explains that if all time were to be represented as a calendar of the month, our history—that is, every war and battle there has ever been, every king and every queen, every person from Pytheas to Eric Pickles — would appear as a single tiny dot in the very corner of the 31st day.

He then takes us back into what is comparatively the very near past to tell the story of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian philosopher who correctly proposed that the Sun was just another star moving in space and not the centre of our universe. Bruno’s epiphany, Tyson says, was not accepted in his time, and as he had no way of proving his theory, he was shunned and later burnt at the stake for blasphemy and heresy.

Some viewers — particularly those who know Tyson as one of the unofficially elected faces of internet atheism — may believe that this sad and gruesome story is Tyson’s way of suggesting that religion is detrimental to furthering our understanding of the universe. But in fact Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is by no means explicitly anti-religious. The series instead encourages viewers to be sceptical of all that is unproved and seeks to open minds to what is unarguably a vast and wonderful universe.

More accurately, if it is against anything at all, it is against ignorance. Both Tyson and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and one of the creators of the original Cosmos, have expressed their disappointment at a supposed trend towards anti-intellectualism, which they say is prevalent throughout the United States. A Spacetime Odyssey is thus their attempt to change all this by inspiring a generation of young people the same way Sagan and the original Cosmos did over three decades ago.

Whether this can be achieved remains to be seen. Yet judging from this first episode, full of dozens of humbling facts about the world in which we live and the stars and planets that surround us, it doesn’t seem improbable to hope that hundreds of astrophysicists will be created because of it.

That’s not to say that it’s entirely beyond reproach. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said of the new series, which is more a matter of preference than an overt criticism, is that it looks a little too slick. Robert Hughes proved with The New Shock of the New that a follow-up to a classic documentary series doesn’t need glossy production values; and though the Cosmos has much more need for elaborate visual aids, it does tend to overuse CGI to the point at which it becomes a distraction rather than a useful tool.

Nevertheless it is hard to be especially critical given that the original series, too, had its fair share of cheesy special effects—most of which were created using string and cardboard. Even for its time these effects were not great, though ultimately it didn’t matter: viewers tuned in for Carl Sagan, for his charisma and his ability of explaining the seemingly unexplainable.

With A Spacetime Odyssey, the same seems true of Tyson. Very few people could have convincingly stepped into this role, but he manages to pull it off by showcasing his own disparate talent as a presenter, as well as the boundless charisma he possesses. Though it contains far more distractions than its predecessor — particularly those of the CGI variety — Tyson ensures that A Spacetime Odyssey is as equally thrilling and concerned with celebrating the natural beauty of the universe as the original series was.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey starts on Sunday 16 March at 7PM on National Geographic

POIROT: The Films

January 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Reviews

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David Suchet’s portrayal of the Agatha Christie character Hercule Poirot has so firmly been established in our minds that it now seems impossible to imagine another actor in the role. Yet back in 1989, just before he made his debut as the great Belgian detective, Suchet must have known that he was stepping into some very well-worn shoes: he was, of course, by no means the first actor to play Poirot.

When the ITV series first began, the character had already been appearing on the big screen since 1931. Austin Trevor played him originally in the film Alibi, a role he reprised twice, first with Black Coffee that same year and then again with Lord Edgware Dies in 1934. Decades later, Tony Randall assumed the part in The Alphabet Murders (1965), which was more of a straight-up satire of the Christie novels rather than a genuine adaptation.  

But perhaps much better remembered are Poirot’s later incarnations, especially Albert Finney’s performance in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), for which he received an Oscar nomination, and a series of Poirot films released shortly after starring Peter Ustinov. The final of these, Thirteen at Dinner (1985), is especially notable, for it featured a young David Suchet in the role of Inspector Japp—a performance he later described as possibly the worst of his career.

Included on this Blu-Ray release are three of the films mentioned above: Murder on the Orient Express and two of the Peter Ustinov films, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. Titled rather ambiguously as merely POIROT, this collection has presumably been complied to capitalise on the ITV series, which came to an end last year. But if the collection is to be judged fairly, then equivocal marketing shouldn’t spoil one’s appreciation of these perfectly decent films.

The premise of Murder on the Orient Express should be fairly obvious to even those unfamiliar with the ITV series, the Christie novel or even Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, which deals with much the same themes. Aboard the Orient Express train, Poirot is tasked with investigating the murder of an American business tycoon, Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark), a case in which almost every passenger could be a suspect.

The story is told brilliantly in the ITV series, due to the great moral dilemmas that arise as Poirot slowly comes closer to solving this mystery. Yet here Poirot doesn’t seem especially tormented at all; the tone of the film is instead quite comical, and many of the jokes feel unmistakably 1970s. Star power is really the film’s biggest asset: suspects are played by Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Jacqueline Bisset—five tremendous talents, who here seem disappointingly underused.

Albert Finney, on the other hand, receives plenty of screen time to demonstrate his take on his character. If David Suchet’s Poirot is eccentric and introverted, Finney’s portrayal is generally loud, brazenly dismissive and sometimes downright rude. If Suchet has taken his cues from either of these actors it is more likely to be Peter Ustinov; his Poirot is generally more likeable than Finney’s and chooses to solve his mysteries with an air of unconcerned nonchalance.

This is perhaps best exemplified in Death on the Nile when he advises one suspect not to let evil into her heart. “If love can’t live there,” she replies, “evil will do just as well.” And then solemnly Poiriot quips, in a way Finney’s character never could have, “How sad, mademoiselle.”

The Ustinov films in this collection are almost equally enjoyable, though Death on the Nile benefits considerably from a fine performance from Mia Farrow, whose character I quote above. The atmosphere of both films trumps Murder on the Orient Express, largely for the reason that so much of the Ustinov films have been filmed on location: they’re simply much more aesthetically interesting.

Of course, Finney is inimitably brilliant in almost any film he stars, and the same was more or less true of Ustinov; but by contrast, Suchet’s Poirot still remains the definitive portrayal. Only he it seems is able to truly bring out the subtle eccentrics of the detective’s character. Nevertheless, this collection shouldn’t be overlooked for this reason alone: it will no doubt appeal to fans of the ITV series, who will surely find these films intriguing, if not thoroughly enjoyable.

4/5

POIROT: The Films are available to own on DVD now

Wild Burma: Nature’s Lost Kingdom

November 26, 2013 by  
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Wild Burma Nature’s Lost Kingdom

In his 1952 travelogue Golden Earth, writer Norman Lewis describes Burma (as few writers have been able to do since) as a place of breath-taking natural beauty, and writes, in the book’s concluding pages, of his high hopes for the country’s future. Unfortunately, in the decades that followed the publication of Golden Earth, Burma instead suffered at the hands of a military junta, and consequently the astonishing wildlife that Lewis saw during his travels was closed to the world.

Now, for the first time in fifty years, Wild Burma: Nature’s Lost Kingdom introduces viewers a side of the country that camera crews have long been forbidden from filming—vast stretches of verdure that have been explored by very few travellers. In the first episode of this three part series, the focus is on the Asian elephant, a species known for its grumpy demeanour, which poachers are speedily hunting to the brink of extinction.

Scouring an almost impenetrable strip of jungle are experts Justine Evans, Ross Piper and Gordon Buchanan, whose aim is to create a diverse species list with which they hope will persuade the country’s policy makers that Burmese wildlife is worth saving.

It seems miserably unlikely at first that the team will be able to ascertain such information: elephants, it is explained, are notoriously hard to track, especially in such thick forest. To therefore increase their chances of finding them, Gordon and Justine take to searching the valleys and ridges while Ross follows up rumours of a second elephant herd.

The team search with some urgency; they must find whole herds of elephants with young, not merely ones on their own. Only by finding groups of them do they have a chance of preserving these wonderful creatures for future generations. And to make matters much more difficult, they must also be careful not to spook the elephants, for Asian elephants in particular have a habit of charging when approached unexpectedly.

This alone makes for gripping television; but then there is also a strangely erotic element to it all, brought on by the programme’s effortlessly seductive narrator Paterson Joseph, who at times sounds as though he not only wishes to save the elephants, but also prepare them a fancy meal while wooing them gently with the smooth, ethereal sounds of Seal.

Once the connection has been made that Joseph is in fact Alan Johnson from Peep Show, it’s near impossible to focus on anything else — or at least this would be true, if the subject of the programme wasn’t so imperative. For anybody with even the faintest interest in wildlife, Wild Burma is essential viewing, offering a rare glimpse at a country that has long been closed to the world. Yet for the animals featured in the series, it could very well be a matter of life or death.

4/5

Wild Burma is on BBC Two on 29 November at 9.00pm

Talking Veep with Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche

October 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Features

Veep

An American version of The Thick of It had been in works as far back as 2006, six years before Veep finally came to fruition. But the show that its creator Armando Iannucci originally proposed to networks was very different to the one that eventually got made. According to him the pilot that was initially produced was terrible (“as useless as a marzipan dildo”), and featured none of the swearing and improvisation that made The Thick of It such an enormous success.

Fortunately the same couldn’t be said of the first season of Veep, which featured plenty of swearing and improvisation, as well as everything else that made its British counterpart so brilliant. Yet judging from the first few episodes of the second season, the series is just getting started.

“Season one was about getting into office: she’s just coming to terms with being vice president,” explains Armando. “Traditionally that’s where politicians make all of their mistakes. Whereas season one was very much, ‘Has the president called? I want something to do,’ season two was very much, ‘Okay, let’s see what happens when that wish is granted.’”

Having already aired in the US, season two of Veep has already received much critical acclaim, with two of its stars, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale, winning Emmys for their performances in the show.

“It was like being the popular kid at school, which I’ve never been before,” says writer and producer Tony Roche, speaking of his experiences at the Emmys.

“It was wonderful, because we really weren’t expecting it,” says Simon Blackwell. “And then [Julia and Tony] did a very good speech where they were Salina and Gary on stage. They came up with that. It was nice because you suddenly realised that people were watching it.”

In the midst of the government shutdown in the US, Armando speaks of one upcoming episode in which Salina’s government have to deal with the same situation.

“As with The Thick of It, we try and do an intelligent estimate of the things that are happening or the things that might happen,” he says. “We want it to resonate with what’s going on. In America they’ve come so close to a shut down before—it happens almost every year.”

There are usually some big ideas I want to cover in the general season, some specific moments that I would like to have happen to people, and then we meet and talk over them just to see what other little strands emerge.”

Simon explains the writing process further: “We will write a very quick draft and get it up on its feet as quickly as possible. We’ll see where it goes, and then there’s some improvisation involved, which will be incorporated into the script, and we do that as much as possible. The script goes around electronically; there’s not a writer’s room, in that American sense.”

“Eighty to ninety-five per cent of it is as written,” says Armando,“ just to shatter that myth that the entire thing is improvised, as some American press thought. It’s a very organic, very evolved process.”

Of all the characters introduced in season one, few were as hilarious and as memorable as Jonah, the White House liaison and self-proclaimed “go-to guy for all things White House”. How did that character come about?

“Jonah wasn’t going to be in the show,” says Simon,” and then we had lunch with this guy who just got into the White House with Obama and was so pleased to be in that position. So he was talking about how he’s only twenty-six and he can tell these forty-five-year-old guys what to do. Every other sentence he’d talk about the west wing. That’s why whenever Jonah answers his phone he says, “Hello, Jonah West Wing.”

Have there been any politicians who have asked to be in the show?

“Yes, but I’m always dubious of getting too close,” says Armando. “Occasionally we get requests from high-profile politicians asking whether they can be in it, and my answer is always no, because it’s a parallel world. We’re not saying who the parties are. It would look too cosy.”

After letting slip that there will be an episode in season three in which Salina and her team go to London, I’m curious to know whether the characters from Veep will be meeting up with their British counter-parts from The Thick of It.

“I think the world of the Thick of It has been put in a box,” says Armando. “But there is an episode set in London. If the first two seasons are about D.C. season three is very much about America outside D.C.. There’s also a visit to silicone valley in episode three. So it’s all about being away from D.C.”

With the recent Anthony Weiner scandal are Armando, Simon and Tony worried that politics are becoming too broad to send up?

“Anthony Weiner texting his junk, as they say,” says Armando, “and calling himself Carlos Danger — it’s such madcap comedy.”

“Yeah, it’s not really our show,” says Simon.

Tony nods. “I think if one of us suggested a character called Anthony Weiner we might be asked to leave the room.”

Armando speaks lastly of what he believes are contentious issues, and how he chooses to address such issues on the show. “We’ve just done an episode on abortion, which is a very heated debate. I just wanted to make it clear in our writing that it wasn’t about a particular view it was about how that debate was conducted in such a feverish atmosphere in America that even if you just mention a word fifty per cent of the room are going to be hostile to you and fifty per cent are going to think of you as a super hero.

“We haven’t yet done the gun control debate, but for me the thing is how there can be such an overwhelming urge for change and yet at the last moment because of pressure on one of two people there is no change and nothing is done. I find that intriguing, but I also think there is potential for comedy there.”

From the 16th October Season Two of Veep will air on Wednesdays at 10.35pm on Sky Atlantic.

The Face

October 1, 2013 by  
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Recently more and more TV talent shows are pretending to judge their contestants on their merits, rather than by sob stories or looks. This trend was likely started in response to criticisms directed at the X-Factor, which has always been horribly unfair, and also horribly popular largely because of this. Yet to give the general public the illusion of fairness, programmes like The Voice have sprung up, which still feature plenty of nasty dream crushing and ridicule, but also pretend to be about real talent.

Despite sounding like another Voice-type show, Sky Living’s new model reality show The Face is not one of these programmes. Far from giving viewers the illusion of fairness, it is about the ruthless process of getting to the top in the modelling industry. Indeed, it’s not really even about “the face” at all, but rather what sort of petty one-upmanship that the owner of the face is capable of.

Appropriately, the ever-feisty Naomi Campbell is at the core of the show, which focuses around three teams of hopefuls, all of which are competing against each other to sign a deal with Max Factor. Naomi coaches her team with an iron fist, as does the fair-haired Caroline Winberg, while the tall and salient Erin O’Connor assumes the role of the nice coach; she’s the encouraging one, the model who is more likely to make her girls giggle than cry.

To begin with, it might not seem especially original, and that’s because really it isn’t: it’s more or less the same as America’s Next Top Model, which has been going for years now. But The Face is nevertheless strangely compelling, and should be deemed watchable by even the sort of person who fundamentally dislikes fashion — like myself. The reason for this is that The Face, more than any other show like it, has managed to bring together three quite striking personalities, who are entertaining to watch, but not simply because they berate the contestants.

The competition between the three coaches is where much of the show’s tension comes from, and often their fights with one another rival even those between the girls that they’re supposed to be mentoring. During one particularly heated moment in episode 2, Caroline unashamedly admits that she is tactically voting out girls that aren’t on her team, and overhearing this, Naomi explodes with anger, and starts vowing that she will get vengeance on Caroline.

Of course, the absurdity of it all is what makes The Face so amusing, and once you’re suckered into its madness, it’s worth taking a moment to sit back to remember that all this vitriol is happening because of modelling. It’s entirely ridiculous, although embarrassingly entertaining. When all the models stare inertly in awe at Naomi’s ability to put her hands on her hips and look stern, it’s impossible not to at least smirk. But then it’s impossible to believe that such moments weren’t intended to be funny.

If the show had a tagline it would likely be this: “I’m not here to make friends.” It’s a mantra that Naomi says repeatedly throughout the first two episodes, and indeed, likely all the time in real life, wherever she goes, and with whomever she’s speaking. Again, it’s not an especially original line: Alan Sugar must have said it a thousand times this morning alone, and he speaks entirely in clichés. But Naomi Campbell is at least able to say it with true sincerity, which is both terrifying and hilarious, much like her show.

3.5/5

The Face is on Sky Living HD Mondays at 9:00pm

Law & Order: UK – Series 7

July 12, 2013 by  
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The police drama has become to ITV what the crime novel has long been to James Patterson: a commodity that can be churned out quickly and with the sole aim of pleasing the elderly and the easily impressed. Yet unlike James Patterson, whose novels are invariably awful, ITV occasionally get the police drama right—unsurprising really, considering just how many of them they make. And so for every couple of duds that the channel produces, there is generally at least one series that is immensely watchable, even if it is not especially original.

Law and Order: UK, now remarkably in its seventh series, is one of these programmes. Although it doesn’t completely manage to avoid the clichés so often found in procedural dramas (lines like “Sarge, you better come an ‘ave a look a this…” are still commonplace), even at its most derivative it is undeniably entertaining. It is also, much like the original US series of Law and Order, frequently rather grim.

The first episode of the new series, for instance, opens with a train crash in which 15 people, including a young boy, are killed. It’s up to the usual team of police offers to find out who or what is responsible for this enormous tragedy. Or at least it would be if not for the fact that there have been several changes to the cast this series. Fortunately, the formula of Law & Order: UK is such that cast members can come and go without really hindering the series too much.

Regular viewers may nevertheless be sorry to see top cop Clare (Harriet Walter) leave, although solace can surely be found in the arrival of Paterson Joseph, who is a fitting replacement and will be immediately recognisable to viewers as Alan Johnson from Peep Show. Freema Agyeman, meanwhile, gives way to Georgia Taylor (Casualty) in the opening titles, who plays the role of hardnosed prosecuting lawyer Kate Barker.

As the police begin their inquiry it seems inevitable that Michael Gennis is responsible for the train crash, an insufferable man whose unmaskable smugness alone should be grounds for conviction. “Blame Clarkson,” he says of his long list of driving offenses, before shrugging when it is mentioned how he used to beat his former girlfriend.

But just as it looks as if Gennis is their man, a new development occurs, and indeed a new suspect—a suicidal man who has battled with depression and alcoholism for many years. When the case is taken to court, the man insists that the accident was a suicide attempt gone wrong. His vulnerability thus becomes the linchpin in the case as it is decided whether he should be spared serving time due to his poor mental health.

In spite of its gruesome opening few minutes, it’s a relatively tame first episode, but one that will likely provide the set up for the second part of the story. It ends with much left unresolved, but it’s hard to feel disappointed, as the series proves itself once again to be one of the better—if not one of the best—police dramas ITV have aired in the last few years.

North America

May 31, 2013 by  
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North America

Thursdays at 9pm on Discovery

Rarely does a programme come along that is based on an idea so simple that one is surprised it hasn’t been made before. But the Discovery Channel’s latest documentary series, North America, is one of these programmes. Produced by Huw Cordey, whose credits include Planet Earth and South Pacific, the three-part series is the first natural history programme to focus entirely on the vast continent of North America.

If it seems perplexing to you that such a project hasn’t been attempted before, it’s perhaps worth remembering just how vast North America is, and indeed how much time is required to tackle a continent of such enormous variety. It is one of the few places on earth, after all, that features almost every type of habitat and climate, a rare place that despite human habitation also receives some of the most destructive weather on the earth.

Unfortunately for the crew that made North America, in the time that it took them to shoot the series — more than three years — National Geographic shot, edited and released their own series on the continent, titled Untamed Americas, which is unmistakably similar, and also worth tracking down.

Yet in spite of the similarities, North America is still an astonishing achievement—an enthralling series that takes viewers on a journey from the sub-zero Canadian tundra to the tropical rainforests of Panama, to the forests of Belize, and then to the snow-capped Rocky Mountains.

Highlights from along the trail include breathtaking footage of a pelican flying in front of the Golden Gate bridge, battling stallions and one disturbing scene in which a team of orcas are seen drowning a grey whale by forcing it under water.

What the series does best — and, indeed, better than Untamed Americas — is the way in which it ties all of the various segments together. The editing is tight and fast paced, but the tone and the narration never cease to shift seamlessly along with the footage. Some scenes are little pieces of anthropomorphic comedy, whereas others have been compiled to startle, dazzle or excite viewers.

As was the case with Planet Earth, music is also a key part of the series—though here we’re more likely to hear a few bars of a pop song than a flurry of brass and strings.

For instance, during a scene in which a group of prairie dogs celebrate having avoided being eaten by a snake, something appropriately jovial is heard; whereas, to accompany a particularly powerful shot (perhaps footage of a roaring grizzly bear or a stallion rising on its hind legs) we might hear a popular rock-song, such as Born to be Wild or something insufferable by Bon Jovi — i.e. anything by Bon Jovi.

Needless to day, the music isn’t always used to great effect: some songs make North America seem like an extended advert for T-Mobile or HSBC. But it’s hard to fault what’s taking on place on screen. Many of these scenes are exclusive to the series. That is to say, they are unprecedented occurrences that have never been captured on film before. And while North America may suffer slightly from it’s extremely fast pace (presumably it has been cut this way to appeal to viewers who are used to a diet of Michael Bay and Mach Three commercials), it’s hard to deny that it captures the most magnificent shots of this vast continent of extremes.

Arrested Development: The Final Countdown

May 27, 2013 by  
Filed under Features

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This Sunday the much-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development will be made available on Netflix, ready for viewers to consume, episode after episode, in one enormous comedy binge. The season will consist of 15 episodes, each one focusing on one individual character, with the action taking place all at the same time.

Jason Bateman has explained: “If I’m driving down the street in my episode and Gob’s going down the sidewalk on his Segway, you could stop my episode, go into his episode, and follow him and see where he’s going.?

So far we’ve seen very little of the 15 new episodes, besides a short trailer, which doesn’t give much away (www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzVhPCMAxWQ). But the marketing surrounding the show’s release has been impressive to say the least, with Netflix teasing fans with various in-jokes from the show and content designed to get viewers excited about the return of the Bluths.

So without further ado, here are some of the best Arrested Development gems to have surfaced within the last last few weeks:

Tobias’ Reddit Account and “Insert Me Anywhere? Tobias, under the username BLUMN, posted an important announcement on the website Reddit last week concerning his ever-improving acting career.

“I’m hoping you can help me with a bit of a sticky mess,? he began. “I’ve been trying to reach Director James Cameron of The Avatar with my newest demo reel. Knowing he is a very technology-focused auteur, I went to the trouble of creating a series of green-screen audition videos that he can simply insert into any of his movies with little to no friction.?

He then linked to a website featuring several videos of him wearing various costumes, prompting savvy internet users to insert Tobias into everything from The Shining to various video games to this special “Insert Me Anywhere? musical: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCJoWE2e2ms

Further gems could be found by reading BLUMN’s previous Reddit posts in which the former ‘analrapist’ has dished out giant meaty man portions of thespian wisdom.

“I like character headshots myself,? he told one user in the /r/acting subreddit. “Think it helps show off the breadth of my talent. I also believe a knowing smile really warms up casting, along with a little note, decorative soaps and some glitter (if you’re feeling festive).?

He also posted relationship advice: “I find that when my wife relaxes a little bit about my various quirks (like how I hate having my y-front stretched out, my propensity for cutoffs, things like that), then I feel much more sexually attracted to her, physically as a woman. Hope this helps!?

Big Yellow Joint

As the cast were busy promoting the upcoming series, the Bluth’s frozen banana stand went on tour, first stopping in London, where it was spotted in Soho, then by Tower Bridge and finally in Leister Square. Afterwards, it made its way back to the US, where it was seen in Times Square (www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151619682378838&set=a.64124888837.70586.39875583837&type=1&relevant_count=1&ref=nf) and then L.A, along with a few very special Mr. Managers.

Recurring Developments

Recurring jokes are Part of what makes Arrested Development such an exceptional sitcom, and now thanks to the following websites, fans can see a comprehensive diagram of which jokes appear in which episodes. The first is from a website called Recurring Developments, and the second has been compiled by NPR.

GOB on Sesame Street

GOB, of course, is no strange to puppetry: with his African American puppet, Franklin Delano, he tackled racial prejudice by releasing the though-provoking song “It Ain’t Easy Being White Or Brown” (“and a lot of people thought it was pretty cool?). But it was surprising nevertheless to see the world’s greatest illusionist interacting with puppets once again, this time on Sesame Street.

Cast Interviews

In preparation for the season 4 premier, cast members have been revealing bits and pieces about the upcoming episodes, on chat shows and in print interviews. Here are just a few of the best ones:

Will Arnett on Conan:

Jessica Walter on Kristen Wiig’s young Lucille

Jason Bateman on Letterman:

The cast speak to The Guardian

Portia de Rossi with a New Clip from Season 4:

Season 4 Pictures

Finally, for pictures from the upcoming series, head over to Screen Crush.

Nul Points: The Worst of Eurovision 2013

May 18, 2013 by  
Filed under Features

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If the noise of someone driving a tank down a street paved with cats sounds like music to your ears, be sure tune in to Eurovision this weekend, for what is sure to be a real treat for the senses. Witness the coming together of such artists as Alyona Lanskaya, Ivad Von Glooberchev and Roberto Bellarosa—singers who are able to make caterwauling to a backing track seem easy. Marvel at our own hopeful, Bonnie Tyler, who won’t win, not simply because the song is awful, but also because Europe hates us. Then have a drink and fall asleep before the winner has been announced.

But before all of this, here are some of the very best entries this year’s completion has to offer—by which I mean the very worst this year’s completion has to offer.

It looks as if it’s still the 1990s in Latvia, home of the androgynous pop trio PeR, whose music would likely have won the competition, if we were still living in the decade of Sugar Ray and Zig and Zag. “Here we go!? the band sing repeatedly throughout their energetic entry, never stopping for so much as a breath and looking incandescent in their glittery suits. But in spite of their enthusiasm, their cheery song soon begins to grate, until it becomes less “Here We Go? and more “Please, Just go?.

“I’m the man on the moon—call me Andy Kauffman!? raps the lead singer, as if driven to rap badly by an unmaskable disdain for all urban music. “Saga-ho! Saga-woo!? he continues, giving his faux-hawk-wearing band mate the special gesture to unleash PeR’s secret weapon: a blistering keytar lick with facial spasms to boot. Certainly, it’s a fair effort from the boys in PeR, but I doubt it’ll be enough to win the competition.

Our next hopeful may stand more of a chance. With his unashamedly suggestive eyebrow jolts, Andrius Pojavis of Lithuania apparently aims to win Eurovision by seducing music itself, courting it gently before defecating on its chest. At least this is what one can only deduce from his frankly terrifying rehearsal performance of his song Something—not to be confused with the Beatles song of the same name.

“I’m in your head! I’m in your heart!? he sings during the number, staring into the camera with all the psychotic intensity of a man who eats hearts for breakfast and heads for lunch. Still, you can’t argue that the passion isn’t there, as it quite clearly is. The problem is Andrius displays the wild passion of a drunk grasping his erect penis on the bus rather than the passion of a possible Eurovision winner.

Cezar of Romania is the most inspirational artist to appear on Eurovision this year: a man who has silenced his critics by actually finding a song that’s more ludicrous than his voice. In spite of his peanut-sized testicles and piercing vocal pitch, which is only audible to bats and certain breeds of dogs, he’s hoping to score big with It’s My Life: a song that regrettably shares its name with the song that it is so blatantly ripping off—i.e. the one by Dr. Alban rather than Bon Jovi or Talk Talk.

But you can’t accuse Cezar of plagiarism. Looking like a seal struggling to free itself from a bin bag, the man is obviously an original.

Cascada is likely the only Eurovision hopeful that most Brits will actually have heard of, largely due to her music being a staple of ringtone adverts and a sort of unofficial soundtrack to British drinking culture. It’s the sound of boob tube-wearing drunks puking into the gutter outside Oceana. It’s music that the producers of Hollyoaks might play if Tony were to gas himself with hose. It’s the sound of a headache in a clothes shop: a gaudy, overcompressed mess that makes ones ears feel as if they’re being operated on with a bit of rusty coat hanger.

All of which is why Cascada, with her inappropriately titled song Glorious, is unfortunately bound to win the competition. Still, on the bright side, at least it’s not this, which remains to this day the worst thing ever to happen to Israel:

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