The House Across The Lake

August 12, 2014 by  
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The House Across The Lake is a Hammer Film; you may recognize Hammer as purveyor of all those wonderful horror films from the 50s, 60s and 70s. You know the ones I mean, most of them starred either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing (often both), with many directed by the criminally underappreciated Terence Fisher. Hammer weren’t just a horror studio though. They made all types of films including comedies, dramas and many a straight up thriller.

This leads me to ‘House Across the Lake’. Back in them there olden days, film studios from the UK would often approach production houses from across the pond to help increase the budget and market of their visual wares. These films would often be dressed up to appear as American films and would be littered with American almost/has been stars.

‘House Across the Lake’ is a great example of this, aping Hollywood B movie noir so much that for the first half of the film it is only the appearance of a certain Sidney James in a rare dramatic role that gives you an inkling the film is British.

Starring Alex Nicol (who incidentally directed the woefully bad horror ‘The Screaming skull’) as Mark Kendricks, washed up pulp novelist, booze hound and incorrigible womaniser who has slunk off to Lake Windermere to get away from the bottle and the bitches to finish his novel.

Unfortunately for him, on the other side of the lake are Beverly and Carol Forest a millionaire husband and his (apparently) beautiful wife, he makes the money and drinks the booze. She spends the money, sleeps around and also drinks the booze. Before long Kendrick finds himself drinking booze with them and is slowly drawn into their twisted marriage and ‘House Across the Lake’ becomes a of tale of sex, murder jealously and…booze.

That sounds pretty cool when I write it down but unfortunately ‘House Across the Lake’ falls a little flat, its characters and premise a hodge-podge of classic films like Double Indemnity’, ‘The Third Man’ and ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ but it fails to build any of the suspense and excitement that ooze from every pore of those awesome bastards, choosing instead to dwell in the dark shadows of cliché and mediocrity. Much of this is down to the script which drips with ‘on the nose’ dialogue as the characters rush to tell you exactly what they are feeling without any subtlety or hint of a subtext, sucking all life out of the movie and leaving the viewer bored stiff.

Amusingly this lack of decent writing is actually mirrored in two scenes, first Kendrick regrettably sends of some work he knows to be substandard and a second where he is fired from his publisher for being rubbish. I’d like to think this is an admission of guilt by writer/director Ken Hughes, who did do some good stuff in his day including ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’.

Personally I am glad to have seen this film but if you’re not a completest follower of film noir and black and white thrillers or even fervent Sid James fan (who for the record is pretty good in a straight role) I would give this one a miss and watch the classics.

The House Across The Lake is released on DVD on August 18

The Speakmans

July 29, 2014 by  
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**

Since returning to the UK after eight months or so in the lunatic asylum of a country the world calls China, I have been reacquainting myself with this eccentric little island. Which, for all intents and purposes means hanging around pubs, clubs and any seedy little dive that will allow a shabby gentleman like myself through the doors.

It’s been great meeting friends and drinking, snorting and whiffing my way across Wales, the West Country and London, but as the Chinese like to think if it’s bad it’s got to come out.

Today is the day my body has decided to wave a little white flag and expel all the bad shit as well as come down with rather unpleasant cold, on top of hay fever and crackling cough.

I have turned into a living factory whose only product is human waste matter. I am so weak I can barely type let alone control the smorgasbord of excretia that flows out of me. A sneeze blasts through the strongest man size Kleenex, splattering my bedroom in cobweb of snot and bacteria. My eyes and ears weep a thick semen like substance and the haemorrhoids in my arse leaks blood like sodium pentothal dosed Julian Assange leaks political secrets

And every couple of hours I vomit. I vomit hard. I vomit a murky rainbow of greens, oranges, yellows and browns. Fortunately no black or red the tell-tale give away of blood but that’s probably cos it’s all coming out of my butt.

I have thrown up more in one day than Becky the subject of Channel… The Speakmans. Becky is 26 and due to a mishap at the age of three which meant a hospital had to induce sickness. Becky has been left with emetophobia a rare condition which means the sufferer lives in fear of being sick and hasn’t done so since then.

Becky suffers so acutely from this problem that it has affected her relationships with friends and family, missing her sister’s wedding, her grandfather’s funeral and is fast becoming a hermit relying upon her (wonderfully sweet and kind) mother to do everything for her.

She has tried everything to get over this problem including hypnotherapy, hypo-analysis and some other acronyms I didn’t quite make out. None of it has worked, so apparently it was time to call in a The Speakmans; a husband and wife team of professional northerners, clarted in fake tan, make up and bleached hair and an exquisite mullet depending on which one you happen to be looking at. I love this look, it seems to be a symptom of many a successful northerner, eschewing taste and style entirely to relying solely on the how much a thing costs as an indicator of whether it looks good.

Carol Vordeman does it; the Holllyoaks cast do it, and obviously Geordie Shore do it. It’s not limited to the north of England, Essex rocks it, as do the supposedly elegant Milanese in Italy, the affluent New York Jews and the moneyed classes of Hong Kong, Dubai and Moscow (I might as well just insult everyone, in case I am accused of being racist… I am not, I am a misanthrope, I hate all of you equally).

The Speakmans are apparently a phenomenon, without any formal training in medicine or counselling the two have managed to build up a successful empire as life coaches, appearing on This Morning and other middle of the road productions being adopted as self-help gurus by a number of celebrities along the way.

They seem to help Becky as well, I am not sure how as the show didn’t really give anything away, there was segment where they presented the patient with a couple of boxes, one contained trinkets of her life imagined in a negative manner and another in a more positive light. They then blamed everything on the mother for indulging her daughter’s mental issue. Becky had a little cry and then suddenly she was better.

They seem to have some miraculous way with people, it’s a bit like cognitive therapy where you look at a problem logically and objectively do help dispel any irrational fear or problem but all the Speaksmans seem to do is say “who said life had to be hard, life is easy so stop making it difficult ”

It’s a sweet notion right up there with Kantian philosophy of the Universal good as being a good reason for human beings to be nice to each other. Just as fucking stupid but with pronounced with much less eloquence

The whole thing seemed so ridiculous that I would say it was entirely faked. Becky did not seem in the least bit troubled, in fact she was a bubbly and healthy looking woman that did not present the greasy, green tinged pallor of people who don’t leave the house for days on end and the accents of Becky and her mother differed so much that it called into doubt that they lived in each other’s pockets for 23 years.

However I have to say I rather enjoyed the show. I like the Speaksmans not as people or personalities but as figures of fun. And the show which lasts a whole television hour flew by. So watch, mock watch and laugh at the idiots. Which as we all know fuels so much of what we watch these days

The Speakmans is on ITV on 28/07/2014

Mr Sloane

May 24, 2014 by  
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Mr Sloane review

It’s safe to say that when we first meet Jeremy Sloane, the eponymous hero of Sky Atlantic’s new tragicomedy, he’s at just about his lowest ebb. It’s safe to say this because the first time we meet him he’s securing a noose around his neck, stepping up onto a chair and kicking it out from under his feet. As shocking an opening gambit as that may sound, it actually becomes one of the show’s best gags and indication of its knack for mining the humorous from the most horrific.

Of course there’s no need to issue a spoiler alert (but if you really want one: spoiler alert!) – Sloane’s suicide bid ends in spectacular failure. He is, after all, played by much-loved funnyman Nick Frost, and no show would ever recover from the image of Frost’s lifeless corpse swinging from a rope. Fortunately, as his very much living body comes crashing down from its temporary suspension, the only way for the rest of the episode to go is up. Albeit up on a mildly uneven gradient.

Mr. Sloane is the creation of Robert Weide, the man who, along with best friend Larry David, brought us the scabrous cult comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. Where the latter is set in contemporary Los Angeles and features the everyday confrontations on an uncensored, unrepentant David, so the former is its polar opposite: set in Watford in 1969, with the mildly repressed company man Sloane at its heart. It is very English and very period.

As we quickly learn, Sloane has recently suffered two tragedies in his life – being abandoned by his wife (played by newly-crowned BAFTA queen Olivia Colman) and losing his job to a former protégé. The ‘comedy’ in ‘tragicomedy’ comes from Sloane’s attempts to pick up the pieces and get his life back on track, starting with a spectacularly misjudged attempt at supply teaching. Although this induces more gentle ‘hah’s than outright LOLz, more often than not there is a comfortable amount of mirth over the course of the hour.

Not everything works. Weide has yet to master the art of conveying ‘pub banter’ in a way that doesn’t come across as cringeworthy as Richard Curtis’s attempts to do ‘working class’, while a lengthy gag involving a self-improvement tape (or rather eight-track tape, as the period detail demands), falls falteringly flat. And it will be interesting to see if Ophelia Lovibond’s American love interest develops beyond the stock fantasy ingénue, introduced as she is in a psychedelic-patterned dress that screams “LOOK AT HOW DIFFERENT I AM FROM EVERY OTHER STAID CHARACTER IN THIS SHOW!” Curb fans looking for its English equivalent will certainly come away disappointed.

The real asset here is Frost, a performer with such a natural propensity for comedy he could probably make castration seem funny. His range extends well beyond funny too, helping flesh Sloane out as a man out of time, content to listen to Gilbert and Sullivan and chase safe domesticity while the revolutions of the 1960s completely pass him by. If Weide can keep things a little less Curtis and fully utilise Colman (who only appears briefly in flashback in this first episode) and Lovibond, enthusiasm for a regular Friday night date with Mr Sloane may become ever less curbed.

Mr Sloane is on Sky Atlantic, Fridays at 9pm

Follow Nick Norton on Twitter @OnlyForKoolKids

Derek: Season 2

April 24, 2014 by  
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Taking place a full year after the first series’ happenings, Derek returns with its eponymous 49 year old character, and the rest of the workers at Broad Hill retirement home, in relatively similar standing. Vicky is now a full time employee, Hannah and Tom are together and (thanks to Derek) publicly trying for a baby, whist Kev is still sipping from a Special Brew can and Dougie is moaning about something in his traditional Pilkington ways.

Although a little too coincidental that so many things happen in one day, the first episode of series two acts as a strong re-cap of what life is like in the nursing home, and the beautiful things that have and haven’t changed about the characters. Following from the last episode of season one, we see Derek’s traveling dad move into the nursing home and make an impression on the numerous female residents.

New character Geoff, a strongly opinionated and smarmy fellow, works a few days in the nursing home doing various small tasks. His attitude begins to wind up Dougie and in a comical confrontation we see Dougie leave the nursing home as he can’t take it any more. Something which unfortunately marks the departure of Karl Pilkington from the series.

To replace Karl’s comical relief, drunkard Kev suddenly has a lot more time on screen, yet admittedly he has become much more humorous. As Derek has always tied comedy and drama together through a blend of realistic and larger than life characters, the comical options are limited, which thus forces Kev into the limelight. His humour is akin to the last series, smutty, outspoken and drunk, whilst irony oozes from every utterance; overall it’s effective at stirring up the genteel nursing home pot and providing some adult humour. For example, a drunken song he sings out loud, to the nursing homes silence, ends with the expertly delivered line ‘and a butt plug’.

Yet as in the first season, it’s not all fun and games. Derek, a character who some media outlets have labelled autistic despite Gervais’ contrary claims, has limits in his ability to amuse but this is in exchange for his simplistic yet heart-warming observations. His selflessness, kindness and relentless ability to care permeates throughout the characters in the nursing home, through the warm aesthetic of the show, and into the lives of its audience.

The oddball characters that compose Broad Hill’s staff continue to be endearing and thus overwhelm outside visitors through their sense of respect and community, or as in the case of Vicky and Tom, turn them into members of the clan. There is an underlying sweet message to the show that asks us to reconsider what we deem important in our own lives, and with Derek unwittingly uprooting a well-paid, overly stressed professional in episode two, the outsiders that enter the home are not far removed from the shows audience members.

Overall Derek has come back on the strengths with which it first succeeded and continues to be a highly entertaining show that treads between genre boundaries. Personally, the removal of Dougie takes an edge off of the show for me as he was by far my favourite character, yet admittedly I am a huge Karl Pilkington fan. Multiple people I have spoken to share a similar view on the first series, although Kev is funnier than ever in attempts to replace Dougie and thus far is proving to be a worthy replacement, it could be enough to put some people off the second series.

Perhaps American audiences won’t miss a character with such localised comedy but for UK audiences the dismissal of Dougie will undoubtedly be a sore point; perhaps the unique blend between comedy and drama will continue to hold the show together. I just hope Karl Pilkington shows up for a cameo later in the series.

Derek will be shown on the 23rd of April on Channel 4 at 10pm

Monkey Planet

April 10, 2014 by  
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‘Monkey Planet’ is soon to be airing its second installment of a three part series. The clue is in the name. This is a series about all the different monkeys (and apes, awkwardly) on our planet. Primate planet seems like it should have been the obvious choice; a nice dose of alliterative accuracy.  The series is a bit like ‘who do you think you are’ but hairier, we’re all involved, and the soundtrack includes the Spice Girls, rather than watching a washed­-up celebrity find out they had a sheep­stealer as a great grandfather.

It’s an important message to convey, a reminder that we humans are not so supremely distinct; we belong firmly within the primate family. During the series we meet a whole host of relatives, some are better looking than others, some are more hygienic, some are remarkably randy, and others will prove capable of organising a highly sophisticated plan to hunt you down and eat you. Fairly typical familial relationships­ every family is a dysfunctional one. We witness the ‘human­like’ behaviour of primates across the globe with teeth flossing, cannon­balling, marshmallow toasting, and abstract ­art­ creating. None of this behaviour should be surprising ­ researchers have amassed evidence for years demonstrating the highly developed cognition of many of our primate counterparts; it’s a reflection of our own arrogance that it remains surprising, but nevertheless, it is ­ delightfully so. The footage captured across eleven countries featuring Borneo, Ethiopia and Japan is quite breathtaking, and the corresponding soundtrack is well­thought and engaging.

It is a series that celebrates the family: its diversity  (the proboscis monkey finally gets a look in as a legitimate primate, rather than a play­thing of buzzfeed), and its integral nurturing role; another attribute humans too readily claim as their own. It highlights other parallels too, such as an apparent class system in the Japanese macaques, or the ‘hugging wins friends in high
places’ approach taken by the spider monkeys. There are legitimate objections to nature programmes indulging in anthropomorphic explanations of animal behaviour; it can however, have value if the overriding messages reach a wider audience. At least, in the case of Monkey Planet, objections on these grounds must surely be minimal. It is no giant leap to describe primate behaviour in ‘human’ terms.

Bonobos too were granted the attention they are due. It is explained that they, along with the chimpanzees, are most closely related to humans. Their unchaste sex­fuelled lives were dealt
with in a delicate and understanding manner. This is usually all too easy turf for sensationalising within our own terms of sexual reference; instead it was aptly presented as a daily occurrence for Bonobos with important de­stressing benefits. It’s just a shame he didn’t talk more about lesbian sex though. No, really. The sexual pursuits of Bonobos are not limited to heterosexual possibilities; they frequently engage in all manner of combinations.

George McGavin (identifiable as the clothed primate) can not be faulted for his presentation of the series. His own personal interest in the subject matter allows the marvel of things to be clearly explained, whilst avoiding any possibility of being patronising. He is endearing, and clearly enjoying himself; he knows he’s got the best job in the world, to quote: “I’ve got a macaque on my shoulder flossing his teeth­, you couldn’t make it up.” He has a charismatic, if understated delivery. Beautifully exemplified standing atop one of the tallest trees in the rainforest, lookingdown and describing it as ‘alarming’; or when he exclaimed:  ‘I’ve never seen so much mess in my life. It’s like a teenage sleepover’.

This series is not about lowering humans to their animal ancestry, rather it’s about raising non­human primates to the platform they are entitled to. As George reveals to us the beautiful array, and the extraordinary capabilities, of the primate family, he rightfully suggests that we should be ‘proud to be a primate’.

Watch Monkey Planet here

Monkey Planet is on BBC 1 on Wednesday April 9

Game of Thrones: Season 4

April 7, 2014 by  
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Given just how phenomenally popular it has become, it’s hard to imagine that the Game of Thrones almost never made it to our television screens at all. But according to star Sophie Turner, the pilot episode was so substandard that US broadcaster HBO was ready to pull the plug. They didn’t, of course – the pilot was re-shot, three epic seasons followed and Game of Thrones went on to become the world’s most popular (and pirated) television series ever.

So here we are on the verge of a fourth season (unless you’re part of the scarily committed brigade that stayed up to watch Sky Atlantic’s US simulcast at 2am this morning, you bleary-eyed thing you). With the Lannister’s betrayal putting marital bliss to the sword in the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ episode and the ascent of Daenerys Targaryen and her brood of dragons combining to send fans into hysterics by the end of season three, the global clamour for revenge and retribution ensured #GOT, #GameOfThrones and a myriad other related hashtags littered the Twittersphere for hours on end yesterday.

Under the weight of such expectation, does Season Four opener ‘Two Swords’ live up to the hype? The answer is a categorical ‘Yes!’… and then some. Most impressive is the deftness with which it reintroduces us to what must be the largest cast a drama series has ever seen – and throws in a few new faces to boot. In lesser hands it could have been a mere televisual rogues’ gallery, but under the direction of showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss the episode not only reacquaints us but sets in motion the narrative strands that will wind their wicked ways across Game of Thrones’ geographically vast backdrop and wrap around the rest of the season.

In the North there’s Jon Snow, fully recovered from the three not-so-Cupid’s arrows fired into his torso by spurned lover Ygritte and ready to rally the Night’s Watch against the horde of Wildling invaders en route to Castle Black. Down in skullduggery central that is Kings Landing, Tyrion Lannister (as deliciously droll as ever thanks to the masterful Peter Dinklage) is struggling to play diplomat with a Dornish Prince who holds more than just a grudge against his family, whilst caught between the duty of an unwanted marriage to poor Sansa Stark and the need to keep his affair with lover Shae from prying eyes.

Across the water to the south Daenerys’ three dragons have hit the troublesome teens, adding to their mother’s burdens as she marches her army onwards to recapture the Iron Throne. And somewhere in between are the odd couple that is Arya Stark and The Hound, who get to bring proceedings to an end with a suitably bloody bang. All with an infusion of the blackest humour that keeps proceedings zipping along, without ever threatening to veer into self-parody. A supremely satisfying scene-setter, Two Swords comes out swinging and connects with every strike.

Game of Thrones Season Four begins tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic

Endeavour: Trove

April 6, 2014 by  
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An unexplained suicide, a missing girl, and a stolen Trove – all are mysteries left for Endeavour Morse to solve in the return of the ‘Endeavour’ series.

“Trove”, the first of four films in the second series, reintroduces Inspector Morse, now mentally scarred but with an unchanged desire to solve crimes in his hometown of Oxford. The traumatic ending for Morse in Series One has left him with the challenge of recovering from his past experiences while bringing his life back to normality.

Inspector Morse with his partner Detective Inspector Fred Thursday is immediately called upon to solve a chain of events that follow a chaotic scene during a Broad Street parade. After two students instigate the town scare, an unsuspecting policewoman ends up witnessing a man falling from a building to his death. Shortly after, a beauty pageant participant is reported missing by her distressed father.

While Morse is eager to recommence work again, his return causes difficulties in the office, and more importantly his relationship with Inspector Thursday. When Morse suggests the crimes are all connected by loose evidence, his colleagues, including Thursday, claim he is idealising the situations, and hypothesis that his illness may be affecting his competence. Although a friend and close partner, Thursday is more sceptical than supportive.

Despite Thursday’s lack of trust in Morse’s decisions, the pair act convincingly in their respective roles. Roger Allam, portraying Thursday, exudes the stern exterior of a proper police detective while still expressing concern for Morse’s wellbeing. Facing different circumstances, Shawn Evans, portraying Morse, conveys his insecurity as a result of his past but still uses his intuition to piece the crimes together.

The quality of characters has a large impact on the film’s overall production in addition to the structure of the story. The complex variety of crimes in the first film would seem to obscure the typical conflict-resolution aspect of this detective film but are instead neatly and subtly organized to create a suspenseful storyline, also seamlessly leading to the next film in the series, “Nocturne”. Avoiding the generic format of crime dramas, writer and producer Russell Lewis reinvigorates the genre by developing a lead character with internal struggles along with a multi-dimensional and unpredictable plot.

Endeavour: Trove is available to watch on ITV Player now

Martin Amis’s England

March 24, 2014 by  
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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

The Widower

March 18, 2014 by  
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Malcolm Webster is currently serving a life sentence.

At his sentencing in 2011, Lord Bannatyne explained that his “was a murder of a wholly exceptional kind, and of a type rarely seen in these courts. This was a murder which could properly be described as cold-blooded, brutal and callous”.

This three-part ITV drama follows the true story of a dangerous psychopath; a man who murdered his first wife, attempted the murder of his second, and ensnared a subsequent fiancé. In each case, his motive was a desire to amass money.

Webster’s trail of deceit and calculation covers a wide breadth of time and space; during the thirteen years after the murder of his first wife (Claire Morris, played by Sheridan Smith) in Scotland, he made a similar attempt on a second wife’s life (Felicity Drumm, played by Kate Fleetwood) in New Zealand, and subsequently returned to Scotland where he pursued a similar scheme with Simone Banajee (played by Archie Panjabi).

The reality is a chilling tale. A man, who proves himself capable of premeditated murder, similarly proves capable of building robust and trusting relationships with successive women and their respective families, whilst maintaining respectable employment. This is where the fascination lies and where, unfortunately, ITV’s dramatization is weakest. The story as told by Jeff Pope (ITV’s award-winning factual drama screenwriter and filmmaker) begins each chapter at the weddings, thereby affording little time to the development of the relationships.

When the actual story appeared in newspapers, the ubiquitous question was: how did this man so effectively deceive three women? That question remains after watching this drama. One would assume that to fulfil his grim quests Webster must have been, by all appearances, charismatic and affable. Whilst Reece Shearsmith’s portrayal is suitably disturbing, it also presents a man who is somewhat socially-awkward, rigid, and creepy; as such, it fails to provide an insight into how three intelligent and beautiful women were taken in by him.

The drama makes for unsettling viewing, but this may be largely because the viewer knows the events to be true, rather than any particular strength of the depiction. One has to question as well the purpose of dramatizing such events. If it serves as a cautionary tale to others; to ensure that Webster’s cold-bloodedness is not granted the relief of fading in our collective memory; or to offer an insight which allows the public to better understand the perspective of his victims – that it was no failure of theirs to be deceived, then it fulfils a worthy cause. If it serves as prime-time, post-dinner television entertainment, it risks being voyeuristic.

The Widower is on ITV at 9pm on Monday 17 March

Rocket City Rednecks

March 18, 2014 by  
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Rednecks are rarely an American stereotype associated with highly educated rocket scientists, and it’s exactly upon this crux that the new show Rocket City Rednecks draws its unique selling point. Having already completed two seasons in the states, the show has been picked up for a UK running by trusty channel Dave (and most-likely multiple multiple re-runnings).

One of the show’s first charms is Travis Taylor, a highly educated and charismatic ‘redneck’, who leads the events, clarifies the science for the audience and helps to bond his engineering friends together through banter – and the occasional beer. He’s a likeable character and as with all of his crew (either friends or family members) they’re clearly highly-educated professionals in their chosen fields of expertise. A quick glance at the screen or opening credits could see you mistaking this show for nothing more than a few Southern American simpletons playing around with machinery – but don’t let the Southern drawls fool you – there is a lot of method to the madness.

The opening episode sees the gang explore ways in which they could destroy a hypothetical comet set for a collision with earth, on a weekend away from the mass budgets and space age technology their NASA jobs may offer. They instead solve this problem with a simple trebuchet, a crate of watermelons and in-true-redneck-style a truck load of guns. Again this could be perceived as rednecks shooting watermelons in their back garden, which it ultimately is, but behind each model, construction or method there is a meticulous scientific grounding. This simple approach to science is exactly where Rocket City Rednecks draws its charm. Everything feels simple, down to earth and understandable yet at the same time the models that are created provide cheap and effective solutions to complex scientific problems.

This juxtaposition of Southern stereotyping and effective research method makes the science digestible and the overall show extremely fun and entertaining. It does feel like the Southern-ness is at times overplayed, with the opening credits springing to mind, but overall it provides an enjoyable framing device for a science show that enjoyably pokes holes in Southern stereotypes. At times the show falls into semi-reality TV territory with awkward editing and over-constructed delivery of lines, although these are sparse enough as to not take away from the overall experience. The 30 minute format keeps the pace exciting whilst still being easily consumed, and thankfully steers the programme away from the ‘45 minutes of build up for one final large experiment’ format of some other science magazine shows.

Rocket City Rednecks is a blend between serious science and Southern caricaturing that somehow works, not to mention fits perfectly into the Dave’s archive of shows. The reality TV elements are stomach-able but feel tacked on for the social media generation and although the redneck focus can be overplayed it ultimately provides comical relief and that time old treasure – Southern hospitality. Somehow this programme feels larger than life while also being rooted in reality, the constructions are modest and not built to hog the limelight, but the Southern accents, solutions and lifestyle give a surrealist tinge to the overall production.

It’s a simple but effective recipe, like deep fried chicken and potatoes: take one part Scrapheap Challenge and knead in a healthy scoop of Mythbusters, before seasoning with chunks of Duck Dynasty, fry for 30 minutes and you’ve got something close to Rocket City Rednecks.

Rocket City Rednecks will be broadcast at 7pm, on Monday 17th of March on Dave.

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