Black Mirror: White Christmas

December 16, 2014 by  
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Black Mirror DSC3454--(None)


It’s an odd idea, a “Black Mirror” Christmas special – one starring Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall, no less – but Charlie Brooker’s Amicus-style, festive anthology revels in its incongruity. In the story’s first segment, Hamm is a dating guru, dispensing “The Game”-worthy advice to nervous would-be players. The role is pretty typical for him, but that seems deliberate. The character is your internal cool-guy fantasy, externalised and given the face of Don Draper. Because that’s how you always pictured him, right?

It’s the first example of a theme that runs through “White Christmas”: social media as a metaphor for relationships. The wingman on your mobile, couples ‘blocking’ each other out. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t replace social interaction: they make it almost constant. We live in public (and that will prove to have a tragic flipside later in the story).

In the second segment, we learn Hamm’s day job is duplicating the minds of rich customers and conditioning those copies to work as home hubs. Brooker acknowledged in the Q&A that followed last week’s preview screening that this could be read as a comment on Western consumers’ easy reliance on slave labour, but there’s also a fascinating question in there about ‘artificial’ intelligence.

If we make computers as smart as humans, can we still treat them like computers? To steal the words of science fiction author Lance Parkin, the mind isn’t what the brain does: it’s what electricity does while it’s in the brain. You don’t really even need the meat bit. Only last week, the OpenWorm project announced it had successfully simulated a worm’s brain and placed it into a Lego robot. Duplicate a music file and you’ve got two music files. Putting aside the comforting, obfuscatory hogwash of ‘a soul’, why should a duplicated human mind not be a human mind all the same?

In the concluding chapters of the story, we learn that, while Hamm and Spall might not actually be in the same situation, they do share a fate: social isolation. In our modern, constantly connected world, it is a cruel punishment. The pair exist in full view of others while divorced from them. Hamm’s character, a charismatic guy, constantly in control, meets that with confusion: a player isn’t much use if he can’t interact with the people he wants to play.

For Spall, it’s crueller still. He is, as Hamm’s character observes, a good man. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of doing bad things, but it does mean he understands with vicious pain how bad they are. The mental torture of the ill deeds done against him, jumbled up with the guilt of what he has done. His dreams, his pain, do not matter except to condemn him for what amounts to eternity. The cruellest sting of his isolation is the knowledge that he deserves it. Begin unpacking that final scene, and you’ll never sleep this Christmas night.

Black Mirror: White Christmas iss broadcast on 16 December at 9pm on Channel 4.

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Rik Mayall: Lord of Misrule

December 16, 2014 by  
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rik mayall

Rik Mayall’s comic persona was a pathetic, rubber faced loser fizzing with frenetic energy and drunk on his own arrogance. This character was alive, completely unbelievable and yet somehow credible. Others may have been influenced by Mayall’s blend of complete social inadequacy and self-indulgence but he was inimitable in performance. More than that, he was contextually significant. Along with the rest of the alternative comedy movement, Mayall marked the moment that British comedy evolved, grew legs and became culturally important.

Rik Mayall: Lord of Misrule is a retrospective of the legendary comedian who died on the 9th of June this year. The documentary makes great use of the volume of archive footage of Mayall from his stand up days, through the Young Ones and the Comic Strip, Kevin Turvey, The New Statesman and his scene stealing appearances in Blackadder. And with Mayall as its subject it simply couldn’t fail.

In capturing Mayall’s public comedic persona, the documentary doesn’t put a foot wrong. But whilst there are backstage contributions from the likes of Lenny Henry, Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle among others, any real insight into his private persona is thin on the ground. Conspicious by their absence are the comedians we associate him most closely with – Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Peter Richardson, Nigel Planer and, of course, his best friend and long-term collaborator, Adrian Edmondson.

Early in production, Edmondson spoke of his decision not to be involved in the project. He felt that the whole thing was too wacky and too flippant to do Mayall any justice. You can’t help but have sympathy for his stance and he isn’t wrong. This is a flippant documentary but it’s difficult to see how it could have gone any other way. If there’s a problem with Rik Mayall, it’s just that he was too damn funny. He is incapable of inspiring unhappiness or even poignancy. He just makes you want to laugh. And really, what better compliment for a comedian is that?

Rik Mayall: Lord of Misrule will be broadcast on the 20th December at 10.05pm on BBC2.

Steph and Dom Meet Nigel Farage

December 14, 2014 by  
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Steph and Dom Meet Nigel Farage

Steph and Dom Meet Nigel Farage is exactly what it sounds like. The concept of this programme is a married couple, who were on Gogglebox, inviting a famous person to their hotel, arguing with each other and getting drunk. It’s being touted as a totally new form of television interviewing and it is, in the sense that it’s not actually an interview but three posh people sitting around slurring their words for half an hour.

This week’s special guest is Nigel Farage. It starts off with promise as Steph and Dom ply him with alcohol as soon as he enters the lobby. He has a beer because he fucking would. Then he goes to the pub and has a couple more. He brags about the strength of his cigarettes as though that’s directly proportional to the size of his dick and waffles on in a boring, self-righteous way about not being able to smoke indoors.

Man of the people image confirmed, he gets back to the guesthouse and stuck into the pink champagne. Sufficiently lubricated, Steph and Dom begin to question him. Steph and Dom are naturally hilarious and their questions are as astute as any political journalist, since political journalists don’t ask Farage a lot anyway. But they don’t ask him anything he hasn’t been questioned on before and he doesn’t offer anything new either and they’re both far too polite to push him.

Farage throughout is palpably nervous about getting wrecked and sticking his foot in his mouth and that’s a fate he manages to avoid. That being said, at one point he announces with bizarre conviction; “I don’t find Hitler very funny.” He then pauses and, lest he be thought humourless, he reassures his hosts that he does find other things funny. “Mussollini can be quite funny.” For me that raised more questions than it answered but Steph and Dom didn’t take the bait. Instead, they just looked at him like he was a drunken guest rambling on about nothing of significance. Which, in fairness, is what he was for the entire duration of the programme.

And that’s the lot. Steph and Dom are watchable enough and they manage to carry the show but it was all a bit pointless and bland. Hopefully, next time they’ll get someone properly plastered and embarrassing. Presumably that’s what’s supposed to happen.

Steph and Dom Meet Nigel Farage will be broadcast on the 15th December at 10.00pm on Channel 4.

Citizen Khan Christmas Special

December 14, 2014 by  
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There’s a bit in the Citizen Khan Christmas Special where Mr Khan splays his legs in a birthing pool, makes high-pitched, moaning noises and thrusts his crotch into his son-in-law’s face. It’s as dignified as it sounds. It’s odd, contrived and not actually even slightly funny.

It’s the best bit in the whole show.

It’s a Christmas special, so there’s a vague attempt to float a nativity theme to give the aimless blundering from one inane scene to the next some appearance of structure. The main storyline is that Shazia’s having a baby and she wants a homebirth. Then she has one. For the uninitiated, homebirths are disgusting. They’re all blood and meconium on suede upholstery and exploding placentas. Have you ever tried to wash placenta out of your hair? There are bits of gristly membrane that cling to the follicles and start smelling like a dead animal if you miss any. Anyway, that didn’t happen in this episode, which is a shame, because it probably would have improved things.

Instead, there are acres of forced, tiresome dialogue building up to one awful punchline that you could have already picked out ten minutes before its delivered and brief moments of shoehorned slapstick. On the plus side, the canned laughter people are having a brilliant time.

At one point, there’s an attempt at establishing that this is a family comedy and therefore there is real affection between these characters. This could be a saving grace if it had worked, but the characters are so thinly drawn that it’s impossible to feel any attachment to any of them. Alia, in particular, is a hijabi who actually isn’t very devout and likes looking at her smartphone and that’s it. She has no other personality traits whatsoever.

In the past, Citizen Khan has been accused of being offensive and perpetuating stereotypes. It does perpetuate stereotypes and not particularly pleasant ones either. Misogyny, chauvinism, bitter, deep-rooted ethnic tensions. That being said, it manages pull off the trick of not being offensive. The ham delivery and predictable punchlines of all of these jokes are so crass and juvenile that it’s impossible to be insulted. That’s an achievement of sorts.

The Citizen Khan Christmas Special will be broadcast on 19 December at 8.30pm on BBC1.

Bear’s Wild Weekend with Ben Stiller

December 12, 2014 by  
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Bears Wild Weekend with Ben Stiller

Beloved of Gareth Keenan types everywhere, Bear Grylls represents the last true bastion of manliness in this soft, feminised age. Where men get their beards waxed, wear designer clothes and never come closer to nature than lounging in London Fields with the squirrels and the pigeons. Or something like that.

Continuing with his tradition of taking celebrities and thrusting them into his world of pain and hardship, Bear has brought along comedy legend Ben Stiller for a two day adventure on the Isle of Skye. Why Ben Stiller?

‘Ben’s a comedy legend but I think behind that talent is a man who really yearns for adventure’

Says Bear. Although I’m not sure where he’s getting that idea from.

Anyway, Ben’s at a whisky distillery, sampling the produce and waiting for Bear to turn up. When he does, he’s on a helicopter, and the two of them climb aboard. But, not inside the chopper, oh no! They’re standing on the undercarriage for no reason in particular, other than that it looks so god-damn cool (although he pulled the same stunt with Stephen Fry last year, who didn’t quite manage it with such style).

The chopper drops them off in the mountains and Bear waves off the pilot like a man who’s just stumbled out of a taxi after a Saturday night bender. Doesn’t give him a tip though, the stingy git.

As they slip and slide their way up and down the mountains, Bear calls out more encouragement and praise for his teammate. “You’re tough,” “you’re a fighter,” “you’re a survivor!’”

Ben, it turns out, is equally confused as we are as to how Bear has formed this impression. Or why he’s plagiarising the empowering lyrics of Destiny’s Child.

Their next challenge is to rappel down into a narrow gully. They have ‘no idea what they’ll find down there’, although luckily there happens to be a film crew waiting to film their descent, which really is a fortunate coincidence. I don’t wish to sound snide, but the constant ramping up of the danger quotient and ominous pronouncements of doom do wear a little thin after a while.

They spend the night in a cave, drinking naturally filtered water and eating flame cooked limpets with wild garlic which Bear invitingly describes as ‘absolutely disgusting’. They swap stories of their families, and it is a genuinely heart-warming scene as they find common ground discussing the challenges of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Next morning, they have to Jumar back up the cliff they rappelled down before – a technique involving a pair of metal clamps that can only slide up. Ben is flapping all over the place and really struggling, but to his great credit he makes it all the way up. All that’s left now is a tricky walk along a rocky shoreline, and a leap into the ocean before swimming to the seaplane to complete their adventure.

On the whole, Ben Stiller comes across as an all-round first-class chap. He doesn’t spend the whole trip moaning and whinging and he tackles the challenges head-on, keeping up a cheery demeanour and a good sense of humour throughout. Bear is equally impressed and awards Ben an honorary kilt for his troubles.

It’s easy to laugh at this show, with its OTT set-pieces and concise, 45 minute personal development message, but its heart is in the right place. With a bit more restraint and less pre-orchestrated stunts, it could be a real winner.

Actually, that sounds really boring. I say more extremes, more attitude, more peril! Next week, Bruce Forsyth joins Bear and the French Foreign Legion on a 300 mile hike through the Namib Desert. I hope.

Bear’s Wild Weekend with Ben Stiller is available to watch now online

Life of Rock

December 7, 2014 by  
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Brian Pern returns for a second series with even more confessions about the milestones he helped achieve in the history of rock music. This time he reunites with his former band-mates from the progressive rock band Thotch in order to create a stage musical based on their greatest hits. The latent drama that exists within the different members of the former band is unveiled. And while they struggle to finalise their showcase, they confide into the camera regarding their true feelings about their time in Thotch, and Brian Pern.

Rhys Thomas and Simon Day continue their irreverent spoof about Peter Gabriel’s alter ego – Brian Pern. This time they centre the episode on the story of Thotch. This downplayed version of Genesis observes the eccentricities of progressive rock bands of that era and how burlesque and comical their protagonists were. If the first series set up the story of the fake life and musical achievements of our characters, this series is about their future and how they manage a flailing career when what producers only want to hear of them is a re-enactment of their better years. Subtle mise en abyme of the current music business.

The second series succeeds in keeping its amusingly detached stance even while walking a more clichéd and easy path of the conflictual relationships between members of a famous music band. Brian Pern, as a character, remains interestingly funny but the situational comedy with his former band-mates is the real energy of the “mockumentary”.

For a newcomer to the show, it might be a little confusing at first. In other words, you will probably end up on Wikipedia, searching for information about Thotch or Brian Pern. This is due to the good use of fake footage and interviews with existing rock celebrities talking about Pern and Thotch. It really solidifies the work of the writers and directors who managed to capture the craziness of progressive rock stars such as Peter Gabriel in its heyday. Lets acknowledge the actor performance consisting of one of the strongest elements of the show, being as stereotypical as their real life counterparts.

A Life in Rock is a charming programme to watch with snacks, for a good laugh or a sarcastic grin, at least. I recommend it if you are a fan of the previous series, if you enjoy British humour and mirroring “mockumentary”, or simply, if you are curious to see what a musical about Genesis might look like in real life.

Brian Kern : A Life in Rock airs on BBC Two, December 9, 2014

After The Wave

December 7, 2014 by  
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after the wave

The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 engulfed 12 countries and killed an estimated 230,000 people. Although the worst hit were contained within the Indian Ocean, it resonated as a global catastrophe. Thousands of unidentified bodies from as many as 32 different nations were victims of pure chance.

After The Wave looks at the events after that fateful day, focusing on the mass forensic operation employed to identify victims and return them to their families. As one of the hardest hit countries Thailand sought outside help from the Australian Disaster Victim Identification team, who also played an instrumental role in disaster recovery after the 2002 Bali bombings.

Interweaving expert accounts with those of the survivors, After The Wave explores the painstaking attempts to identify the victims’ badly decomposed remains. The forensic team also had the additional challenge of negotiating the inevitable cultural clash involved in a large-scale international operation. As east met west and primitive resources conflicted with more sophisticated techniques, religious and ethical concerns fuelled tensions between the nations. Religious rituals influenced Thailand’s approach and its request to separate victims by nationality was deemed futile by the West, who adopted a more scientific method of identification. Aware that decomposition renders all bodies identical in rigor mortis made national identification impossible and also gave rise to the grave possibility of victim misidentification.

Unimaginable grief and shock is underpinned by overwhelming guilt at having survived while loved ones perished. Detailed biographical accounts and moving holiday video footage give a coherent identity to some of the thousands of victims taken by one of the world’s worst natural disasters.

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami was the fourth largest earthquake the world has seen since 1900. Thailand was the only country to undertake an operation to return the 4,000 victims to their families. After The Wave is a poignant and powerful account by those who bore witness to the overwhelming scale of human and geographical devastation. It takes an exhaustive look at the scientific tactics and humanistic impact on both rescuers and survivors in Thailand and illustrates how ten years on, the effects of that fateful day will haunt them forever.

After The Wave will be broadcast on Discovery on 19 December

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

December 7, 2014 by  
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Christopher Jefferies

When the dead body of Joanna Yeates was discovered lying in a ditch on Christmas Day 2010, suspicion immediately fell on her landlord, Christopher Jefferies. Jefferies was arrested and held for 96 hours by the police before being released without charge. In his absence he had been the subject of a vitriolic trial by tabloid newspaper and when he emerged from custody, he had one of the most recognisable faces in the country. Now a new drama, The Lost of Christopher Jefferies, puts him centre stage again.

The murder is subordinated to Jefferies story. Joe Sims is subtly sinister as Vincent Tabak but he is afforded little screentime. Sims is joined by a host of talented actors in the supporting cast including Ben Caplan and Anna Maxwell Martin. There’s even a slightly forced meta-cameo by Steve Coogan as Steve Coogan, giving him a chance to look sombre and wax lyrical about press regulation but nothing distracts from the central performance given by Jason Watkins. The rest of the cast are his window dressing and handy props for sometimes clumsy plot extrapolation.

Luckily, Watkins in the titular role doesn’t need a lot of support. His affection for his character is obvious and his performance is sensitive and intelligent. He is let down by a clunky script and early character establishment borders on caricature. We are supposed to realise that Jefferies is odd as he is educated, cultured, well-mannered and pedantic about language to the point of being a dick about it. The last point is affirmed and reaffirmed to the point tedium. After several exchanges in the police station that would stretch the patience of even the most ardent grammar Nazi, his solicitor is forced to step in and ask him to ‘ease off the schoolteacheriness’. Thankfully, that advice is heeded and the character is allowed room to breathe from that point. The moments of true excellence in this drama are the understated ones, when Jefferies struggles in quiet desperate to maintain his dignity under stomach-churning pressure.

There are times where the narrative swears dangerously into Richard Curtis territory with middle class people doing some shocking swearing and making melodramatic speeches about demure heroism but Watkins almost ubiquitous presence raises this drama from a worthy biopic into a gentle and sensitive character study.

The first episode of The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies will be broadcast the 10th December at 9.00pm on ITV and concludes the following night.

America’s Fugitive Family

December 7, 2014 by  
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America's Fugitive Family

In January 2000, John Joe Grey was pulled over by the police who found him in possession of illegal firearms and plans to blow up a bridge. He resented the interest of the police and responded as anyone would. He bit the arresting officer. Grey was arrested and released on bail. One of the bail conditions was that neither he nor a member of his family could possess firearms. They did what any reasonable family could do when confronted with such unreasonable circumstances – they armed themselves to the teeth and took refuge inside a fortified compound preparing for a confrontation with the police.

Their plans sparked a flurry of media interest especially when Chuck Norris helicoptered himself in and offered his unique services. But not even Chuck Norris could shake the resolve of the Greys and they opted to stay put. The media lost quickly interest when it was evident there wasn’t going to be a siege, and the police decided that the dangers of entering the compound outweighed the benefits. Fourteen years later, the Greys are still there and now the subject of a documentary film – America’s Fugitive Family.

John Joe Grey and his family are the type of freakshow Channel 4 loves. Grey is a prophet in his own mind. At one point he compares himself to Noah and another time he claims that he and his family are a Christian army who are prepared to die for what they believe in. What that entails exactly is hard to pin down. It’s definitely something to do with Jesus and also the oppressive government. Obama is doing Satan’s will and the only thing you’re taught in the American public school system is sex education and how to be a homo. No wonder they’re falling behind in the PISA rankings.

The family’s paranoia is farcical. They believe themselves to be the subject of a major operation spanning not just the police, but the government and international bankers. The irony is that not even local law enforcement have any interest in what they’re doing. But given that this paranoia manifests itself in firearms and knife training, it’s no joke, and inevitably the filmmakers find themselves implicated in the imaginary witch hunt and find themselves expelled from the compound. Unfortunately, they don’t really get the chance to sink their teeth in to the subject matter before this point, but it doesn’t really matter. They got some gawkworthy shots of the family acting like weirdos and that’s all that counts.

America’s Fugitive Family will be broadcast on Channel 4 on the 10th December at 10.00pm.


December 2, 2014 by  
Filed under Reviews


Detective Vicar is an unusual character combination. But considering the amateur sleuths who have graced our screens, including authors (Jessica Fletcher), magicians (Jonathan Creek) and even chefs (Henry Crabbe), it’s really not that odd. And, flexibly interpreted, Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of pious PI, Cadfael the Monk, back in the nineties is a reasonable replica.

It’s a formula that ITV are revisiting in their adaptation of James Runcie’s popular novels ‘The Grantchester Mysteries’, starring James Norton as spiritual sleuth, Sidney Chambers. Who, in addition to God and murder is also a World War Two veteran, jazz lover and a reluctant sex god. With his good looks, intelligent caring personality and an ability to tear it up with the lowliest of thugs, he could almost be a candidate for world’s most perfect man. If it wasn’t for all the boozing, self-loathing and brooding introspection.

Based at his parish in Grantchester, Chambers is pulled into the orbit of the local constabulary’s DI Geordie Keating, played here by the increasingly charismatic (now that he’s not handling fish on Channel 5) Robson Greene. Together they investigate a series of murders against the familiar Sunday night backdrop of post-war Britain; where the imperial decline has been more than offset with snippets of National Trust arcadia and tasteful music.
The mysteries themselves are of the seedy variety: homosexual hate crime, revenge and a touch of bigamy but the case solving plays second fiddle to the personal life of Chambers himself.

This kind of television is never the most challenging and it’s not supposed to be. It needs to be reassuring and nostalgic like most costume drama and ‘Grantchester’ very much follows in this tradition.

Yet there is also something different about the drama, something which after the first two episodes really kicks in and makes ‘Grantchester’ very watchable. That something is a black cloud of melancholy; it hangs above the show with subtle menace, lurking in the minor chords of the soundtrack and the tragic murders. But mostly in the haunted, sad gaze of Sidney Chambers.

James Norton is terrific, he has an understated yet magnetic star quality that is ideal for the reflective Rev. Chambers. He muddles his way through a love life fraught with bad timing and regret as well as struggling to cope with the psychological damage he sustained during the war. Norton’s character depth is enough to convince that this wonderful person, who acts with honour and nobility will never find peace or happiness, due to the very traits that make him the good person he is. It’s heart breaking.

The show is not all doom and gloom. There are some lighter moments provided by Tessa Peale-Jones and Al Weaver as the Chambers’ house keeper and curate respectively and some great scenes of bonhomie and friendship between the vicar and the policeman. These relieve the tension and help make the innate sadness of the main character even more bitter sweet.

ITV has produced a traditional, unchallenging Sunday night drama that also manages to be philosophical, depressing but eminently watchable. Quite an achievement.

Grantchester is available on DVD or digital download now

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