Catastrophe

January 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

Rob-Delaney-and-Sharon-Horgan Catastrophe

The best way to describe Catastrophe would be as a ‘coming of middle age’ story. Two people forced together and compelled to make real adult life decisions. The show is also realistically rude, often walking the line between what we’re used to hearing on TV and what you colloquially say with your mates. It’s quite refreshing to see.

Watching Catastrophe‘s debut reminded me of this quote from Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, in which she talks about pilots.

“Pilot scripts are particularly difficult to write because you have to introduce all the characters without it feeling like a series of introductions. You have to tell a story that’s not only funny and compelling but also dramatizes your main characters’ points of views and what the series would be about thematically.”

Catastrophe made it look easy.

Human hashtag Rob Delaney (widely known as one of the funniest people on Twitter) plays Rob, an American businessman visiting London. While Sharon Horgan (co-creator of the BAFTA winning Pulling), plays Sharon, a teacher. Their one night stand turns into a week of crazy sex until he flies home, she finds out she’s pregnant, he flies back and they decide to give it a go… and that’s all within the first five or so minutes.

Catastrophe moves with pace, it’s a narrative neatly built around its characters with a constant flurry of gags that are subtle and well delivered. The first episode gives a lot more than some shows do in a season.

After an unnerving trip to the doctor, where the word ‘cancer’ provides a few laughs, we meet Sharon’s ‘friend’ Fran (who Sharon actually hates), played by Ashley Jensen. Fran invites Rob and Sharon to dinner with her husband. This uncomfortable dinner helps us uncover even more about the true nature of these characters and their intersecting lives.

The first episode has done a solid job of setting the tone for the whole series, makes me wonder why the BBC turned the script down (they had initially commissioned a script from Rob, who invited Sharon to write it with him). It’s not only well written, but it also shows just how good an actor Sharon Horgan is, switching from comedy to drama with rare Thespian bipolarity. Sharon and Rob have great on-screen chemistry and that’s an important part of its charm. It’s not that much of a catastrophe at all really.

Catastrophe is available to watch on 4OD now

The Good Wife – Season 6

January 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

The-Good-Wife1 - Copy

The Good Wife continues to defy expectations. A structurally rigid courtroom drama made by CBS and now entering its sixth season ought to be looking more than a bit tired and drab around the edges. Instead, The Good Wife hit its creative, dramatic and intellectual peak in season five and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.

The season launches with the arrest of Cary Agos, who finds himself swiftly charged with drug charges due to legal advice given to his client, Lemond Bishop. This turn of events is an interesting one. For all of the idealistic ambitions of Diane and Will, our lawyers have thus far been living a parasitic existence, taking sustenance and wealth from complicity with the dregs of humanity. Throughout the series, they have always maintained a level of detachment with their professional responsibilities to their clients providing a convenient buffer to prevent anything but entirely superficial moral self-examination. But now the two worlds have collided and it doesn’t take long before Cary and his colleagues are finding themselves vulnerable in unfamiliar murky waters.

As for the good wife of the title, season six starts with Alicia under fire from all sides. Her partner in prison, a start-up law firm to commandeer, clients to coerce and the nagging pressure from Eli Gold (Alan Cummings in Malcolm Tucker-lite mode) to run for political office. Alicia Florrick is a complex and interesting television creation. Florrick batters off her competitors through fair means or foul, represents the worst criminals in Chicago, indulges in an affair with her boss, grudgingly accepts a marriage of pure convenience and yet brandishes her self-proclaimed morality like a weapon. She is referred to as ‘Saint Alicia’, a moniker she publicly rejects and privately relishes. She acts disingenuously in the moment and justifies herself later. She lives in a morally ambivalent world and she is a morally ambivalent character.

Her flaws aren’t gaping or signposted. She is a truly human portrait. This sophisticated and intuitive character drawing is the true strength of The Good Wife and makes it one of the most humane and intelligent dramas on television, as well as one of the most culturally and technological savvy.

With Netflix and HBO redefining the way we watch television, The Good Wife is a dying breed. Watch it while you can, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

The Good Wife will be broadcast at 9.00pm on Thursday 29th January on More 4.

Up the Women

January 22, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

up-the-women

‘Millicent Fawcett who?’, mouths the women’s suffrage campaigner, Gwen. Yes, poor Margaret, played by Jessica Hynes, is still struggling to lead her team in the struggle for equal rights. Of course, this is made harder by her barmy Banbury-based suffragettes still struggling to understand what they’re campaigning for.

This is part of the charm of this studio sitcom which is set in 1910 and follows a group of women’s suffrage campaigners. Although the ditzy, and often clueless, women are fully behind Margaret’s campaign, they’re still women of their time, and some of them struggle to see the real benefits of women’s rights.

Everyone is a real send-up of archetypal characters from 19th and early 20th century literature, and although stereotyped to the nth degree, it works well with Jessica Hynes’s style of writing.

The show is rather ridiculous, and it’s certainly leans more towards the writing of Graham Linehan, than the surreal satires of Chris Morris. Jessica Hynes performs excellently, as do the rest of the cast. However at times the jokes can seem straight out of a sitcom from the 1990s, and although there were some real gems back then, their lines just don’t seem appropriate for the modern day, nor the 1910 setting of the sitcom. Thankfully this is fairly sporadic, but it really stops the show from reaching its peak.

After nearly a two year break, not much has really changed, although there appears to be no sign of Adrian Scarborough as of yet. The wonderful Rebecca Front will be returning as the grumpy antagonist, a woman who is so against the women’s suffrage that she proclaims to have ‘married for everything but love’.

A nice addition to Series 2, even if only for a single episode, is Tom Stourton, who is most recognisable from various BBC3 comedy ventures, and being one half of comedy duo Totally Tom. Ryan Sampson is also back as Thomas, the only male member of the team, who often proves to also be the only truly committed person to the cause.

Overall the offers some some good fun, with silly characters that all bounce off each other well. Jessica Hynes has done a fine job of satirising such a serious part of history, and it offers a nice change from the mob of chat show and stand-up based comedy of recent BBC times.

Up The Women will be on BBC Two at 10:15pm, on Wednesday 21st January.

Cucumber | Banana

January 22, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

Freddie Fox as Freddie

Cucumber, a spiritual sequel to Russell T. Davies’s seminal 90s comedy-drama Queer as Folk, explodes onto the screen in a flurry of vivid colours. This is the way to celebrate a subculture on television – loudly and proudly, with bold visuals, frenetic editing and a thumping soundtrack. It is so exuberant and unapologetically in-your-face that it instantly makes most contemporary films and TV shows about gay characters seem quaint, insipid and mealy-mouthed by comparison (Matthew Warchus’s critically-acclaimed Pride looks particularly tame next to Cucumber). Welcome back Russell, adult British drama has sorely missed you.

One of a trio of interconnected series focusing on sex and love in 21st Century Britain (with E4′s spin-off anthology drama Banana and web documentary Tofu), Cucumber follows 40-something frump Henry (Vincent Franklin) as he navigates his way through a mid-life crisis and sexual reawakening following the breakdown of his long-term relationship. As Henry leaves the safety and comfort of his domestic “fortress” and begins to take risks, he rediscovers his joie de vivre with hilarious and heart-warming consequences.

So far, so American Beauty. What differentiates Cucumber from other coming-of-middle-age stories though is not only its focus on gay characters, but a mischievous sense of humour and a willingness to laugh at itself while exploring serious issues. For example, Henry’s isolation within the gay community is illustrated by having his junior colleague Dean (Fisayo Akinade) inform him that “No-one says ‘hashtag’ out loud anymore, it’s a bit BBC3”, and the validity of gay marriage, a bone of contention in Henry’s relationship, is questioned with the line “We don’t need to get married…we’ll lose weight, we’ll both be sexy and we’ll be fine”. As a result, material that could feel po-faced and pretentious in the hands of a lesser writer instead feels fresh, relevant and, above all, hugely entertaining.

Davies is a master at constructing scenes which hide great emotional complexity behind a veneer of cartoonish farce, vulgar jokes and full-frontal nudity. Halfway through the pilot episode, Henry makes a lengthy speech about Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds that is simultaneously a statement-of-intent for the show, a defiant two-fingered gesture to homophobes everywhere, and a revealing insight into the character’s emotional life (and the lack of excitement, passion and sexual fulfilment in his relationship). That Davies manages to accomplish all of this with one of the silliest and most foul-mouthed monologues ever broadcast is extremely impressive and only adds to Cucumber’s camp charm.

Leading a talented cast, Vincent Franklin excels as Henry, playing him as part David Brent, part Freddie Mercury. He’s ridiculous, infuriating and loveable in equal measure and, if Cucumber were less explicit, one could easily see him becoming an iconic British character in the mould of Basil Fawlty or Del Boy. Cyril Nri brings great warmth and humanity to the role of Henry’s loving but frustrated boyfriend Lance, while Con O’Neill adds sardonic grit as Henry’s drunken best friend Cliff. Other notable supporting characters, including Henry’s co-worker Dean, carry over into E4 spin-off Banana.

Perhaps inspired by the success of his Doctor Who franchises Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Russell T. Davies has created Banana as an anthology-style companion series to Cucumber which fleshes out minor characters from its parent show and tells self-contained short stories. If the episodes of Cucumber form a visual novel, then the episodes of Banana are its colourful, hyperactive appendices.

Banana shares so many similarities with Cucumber, including its cast and writer, that it’s initially hard to view as a separate series in its own right. However, there are definite differences: it’s shorter (each episode clocks in at roughly half the length of a Cucumber episode), faster-paced, and focuses more directly on issues affecting “the Grindr generation”.

The first episode centres on Dean as he engages in a series of casual hook-ups organised through social media, battles premature ejaculation, and tries to survive in Manchester on a shoestring budget. In a funny reversal of cliché, Dean’s real struggle is not to be accepted, but to be an outsider. His parents are so tolerant that they annoy him and his efforts to define himself as someone who has overcome adversity are mocked by his friends, who see him as a fantasist trying to be interesting. He has difficulty connecting with others not because he is gay, but because he is human. It’s clever stuff, again showcasing Davies’ ability to delve beneath the surface of stereotypes to reveal deeper, hidden truths.

Much has changed for gay people since Queer as Folk first aired in 1999 and Britain has become a far more inclusive society. It is therefore unsurprising that Cucumber and Banana lack the anger and aggressive polemic of that show. However, what Davies’ new series may lack in edge, they more than make up for with style, wit and sense of fun. Being gay hasn’t looked this cool since Vince and Stuart rode off into the sunset fifteen years ago.

Cucumber begins on Thursday 22nd January at 9pm on Channel 4. Banana begins on Thursday 22nd January at 10pm on E4.

The Real Housewives of Cheshire

January 9, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

The Real Housewives of Cheshire

If you’re looking for insight into the lives of the ostentatiously rich and peripherally famous, and you find the cast of Made in Chelsea too intellectually stimulating, then you might like to try The Real Housewives of Cheshire. It features a whole host of nearly identical women who share an interest in ‘looking good’ and buying costume jewellery.

The obvious breakout star is Lauren whose observational aphorisms on bourgeois life could have been written by Luis Buñuel on heavy-duty pain medication. She doesn’t speak so much as make barely coherent pronouncements in a tone of voice that suggests that what she’s saying is not only hugely significant but also incredibly profound. For instance, her take on her succubus-like relationship with her husband’s bank account; “our marriage is a game and I have to play the game correctly to get…the diamonds.” On Cheshire itself she says; “I’d put Cheshire on par with Camilla, Prince Charles and…the Queen.” That sounds to me like gibberish, but then maybe I just don’t get Lauren. I don’t understand why she strode down the high street, scowling and clutching a gigantic live bunny rabbit or why she thought flapping around in liquid nitrogen in her pants was a good idea either. Presumably she knows what she’s doing. She went to private school, apparently.

Aside from Lauren’s surrealistic input, the main entertainment comes from Dawn and Magali who have fallen out over matters too tedious to describe involving a boring party in a tent. Magali describes herself as “A bubbly person, very straightforward – but there’s another side to me. You cross me…you don’t want to cross me.” Immediately, Dawn sends her a disproportionately abusive text message about nothing of importance – thereby crossing her and prompting Magali to let loose the hounds of hell. As in she does nothing apart from whine about it for a hundred years and compares sitting at a table with a bunch of other inane housewives to the Romans’ persecution of the early Christians. She’s a tough cookie, that one. MILF on MILF action has never been so pathetic.

Boiled down to the bones; The Real Housewives of Chelsea is an hour long recording of a bunch of women talking about nothing and wandering in and out of shops. It’s brilliant.

The Real Housewives Of Cheshire will be airing on ITVBe on Monday 12th January at 10pm.

Count Arthur Strong

January 7, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

587253696 count arthur strong

When making a second series of a television comedy show, there is always a chance of having ‘difficult second album’ issues. With Count Arthur Strong, which is due to return to our screens in January, I am pleased to say that doesn’t appear to be an issue, much to my delight as a big fan of the first series.

Count Arthur Strong began its life on Radio 4, featuring Steve Delaney as Count Arthur Strong, a variety performer who, although thinks he is very talented, is not actually very good at performing. The character was created by Steve Delaney, based on people he has known from his childhood, and ran successfully on the radio from 2005 until 2012.

Count Arthur Strong moved away from radio to the realms of television, with a comedy genius picked up along the way, in the form of Graham Linehan. The television version of Count Arthur Strong has the mark of Graham Linehan all over it, from the visual gags, the strong plots in each episode, and the live audience. There are hints of his former work in Father Ted and The IT Crowd, and also hints of Fawlty Towers in Count Arthur Strong, noticeably in series two.

Steve Delaney has created a wonderful character, whilst Graham Linehan has helped build upon with the new setting and the variety of secondary characters, making the transition from radio to television work very well. As both Delaney and Linehan write the script, with Linehan directing and Delaney performing as Arthur, this is certainly a successful 50/50 collaboration.

Although the character has been around for years and the radio show was an established hit, it was still a gamble bringing Count Arthur Strong to the screen. Some of the radio fans appear to have been unhappy with the transition. I have never heard any Count Arthur Strong on the radio, so I don’t know how different the radio show is to television series, but I know that seeing Count Arthur Strong has made me want to seek out the radio episodes. I am sure it has had the same effect on other fans of the television series.

Although the show certainly has Count Arthur Strong at the centre of it all, the character of Michael Baker, the son of Arthur’s former showbiz partner Max Baker, cannot be overlooked as a mere secondary character. Played brilliantly by Rory Kinnear (son of Roy), a Shakespearian actor who we often see it dramatic roles. Who can forget the brilliant and terrifying first episode of Black Mirror? This is a great role for Kinnear to show his comedic abilities, and gives us a great platform for a character to interact with Arthur. Both characters bounce off each other, as does Arthur with the other regular characters in the show, which brings out the humour and makes the series laugh out loud funny.

Having a regular haunt, in the form of Bulent’s Cafe, is another staple of Linehan comedies. This gives Arthur free reign for his unintentional chaos, with the characters surrounding him, and also gives the show a slight retro feel to it. Count Arthur Strong in some ways looks as if it could be a sitcom from the 1970s.

Series two does not disappoint, and fans of the first series will enjoy this as much, if not more, than what they have already seen. With seven episodes, the plots are still as tight and still as funny as what we have already seen. Episodes two and four are particularly strong, with Arthur interacting with characters who are not regulars, putting his comic abilities at the centre of the episode.

Certain critiques of the show have said that the humour is too simple, but I don’t think this is the case. It is clear that Delaney and Linehan have put a lot of work into their writing, to make the scripts work well in showcasing Arthur in a variety of situations, in making the episodes flow smoothly and in adding a great amount of sadness in addition to humour. The final episode is certainly the most moving of series two, proving that a comedy can have just as much heart as humour within in. The ability to make your audience feel great sadness and suddenly jump to humour very quickly is not an easy one to do.

With big laughs and old-school humour, the transition of Count Arthur Strong from radio to television appears to have been a success. I hope series two will introduce many new fans to Count Arthur Strong. BBC, series three please!

Series 2 of Count Arthur Strong will begin on Tuesday 6th January at 10.35pm on BBC1.

Sex Party Secrets

January 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

Il_Ballo_del_Doge_Arlecchino

What is a sex party? “Well,” says Sandy – first time orgyist and Sloane extraordinaire, “It’s a party where everyone has sex.” Is there a little more to it than that? Not really. Sex Party Secrets focusses on the apparently new phenomeon of turning up at a stately home, having a complimentary drink, flopping out your genitals and offering them up to whoever wants a grope. It’s swinging with a fine emphasis on posh furniture.

Lots of the participants are sexually enlightened; clearly at ease with their desires, bodies, and boundaries. Some of them are even managing to uphold the whitest unicorn of all sexual relationships – the happy and functioning open marriage. Then there’s Sandy and Poppy. God only knows why they decided to go to a sex party because even they seem confused. The only thing they apparently learned from their experience is that if you give oral sex to a woman your mouth will taste like pussy afterwards – a shock, apparently.

The other party goers are much less irritating when probed on their reasons for going to sex parties. But all of their answers can be summarised as; “There was a point in my life where I wasn’t having that much sex, and it was rubbish because I really like sex, but now I have lots of sex with lots of different people and I like that.” Some of them really string out this answer, often with bizarre consequences. John, a sex party host who constantly appears on the verge of tears, is definitely worth a look. In between gushing about how human beings shouldn’t be embarrassed about their sexuality, he also goes into strange tangents about his previous job (mating fish) and how establishing ambience and playing Barry White is important for both species.

If John has built a successful business model on making fish horny, Chris has a different ethos. Chris filters the people allowed to attend his sex parties so that only the ‘elite’ can attend. The ‘elite’ means ‘people Chris and/or his girlfriend want to have sex with’. Essentially, he’s getting women he wants to have sex with to pay him so that he has sex with them; which is basically genius. At one party he says that he had sex with fourteen of his elite girls so it’s hard to deny he’s getting job satisfaction.

Louise, another sex party host, has a much more egalitarian attitude and people of all ages, shapes and sizes are encouraged to pile in, leading one of her guests to have a mindblowing relevation of his own. “The human race is all kinds of ages. You’re born young, then you get older. That’s life.” I, for one, am glad he had the opportunity to share such a valuable lesson.

On a totally unrelated note, the planet may be overpopulated.

Sex Party Secrets will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 10pm on Thursday 8th of January 2015

 

Alan Davies As Yet Untitled – Season 2

January 5, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

Alan Davies As Yet Untitled

“We don’t have any questions, or even an intro…”, chuckles Alan Davies, shortly before his guests join him for the second series of As Yet Untitled. It’s the show that brings together some of Britain’s favourite comics for a few pints and directionless chit-chat. If you’re lucky you’ll hear them spill some juicy secrets from the past. If not, you’re still in for an hour of unscripted comedy gold.

Don’t worry if you failed to catch the first series, it’s a pretty easy concept to get your head around. An ensemble of comedians are gathered around an old table, plied with alcohol, and left to talk about pretty much anything and everything.

Although Davies is now more commonly known as the Yin to Stephen Fry’s Yang, the show is a great reminder of his natural ability for comedy, providing a throw-back to his earlier stand-up career. His role as guide, as opposed to presenter, means that he can surpass the usual question-answer routine, while also allowing for his usual moments of forgetfulness and confusion.

The first guests of series 2 are panel show favourites Jimmy Carr and Holly Walsh, Edinburgh fledgling Seann Walsh, and comedy veteran Tommy Tiernan. The usual mix of comedians old and new, Oxbridge and non-Oxbridge, and of various ages, always creates a great combination. It’s surprising to see how well they all bounce off each other in an unscripted environment, and this is part of the magic of the show.

Overall it’s the individual stories about how each comedian made their way into stand-up that really proves to be the gem of episode 1, giving you a unique insight into their lives that you often don’t get within the time restraints and promotional requirements of prime-time chat shows. Expect a mixture of university comedy troupes, an escape route from the mundanities of corporate life, and long-twisting tales of mishaps and marriages.

As Yet Untitled isn’t just a journey through the lives of Britain’s best comics. It’s an insight into the magic of old formats, long before Ross and Norton dominated the celebrity-sphere, and proof that they can still work.

As Yet Untitled will air on Dave, Thursday 6th January 2015.

The Last Leg of the Year

January 5, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

The Last Leg 1

This the best sort of yearly review: one which takes place after the whole year has taken place, because you never know what sort of events are going to take place on the last few days of the year… and indeed something did happen which caused a bit of conflict between host Adam Hills and the viewers.

The Last Leg, described as the show in which, “three guys with four legs talking about the week” has rolled along impressively since it began, when it was covering the 2012 London Paralympics. Hills, along with Josh Widdicombe, Alex Brooker, and the wide range of guests that have appeared recently (in this edition it was Richard Ayoade), have made this probably the most entertaining chat show around.

This being a review of the year, there was not only the #isitok questions tweeted in by the viewers, but there was also the bigger issue of this year’s “Dick of the Year”. Last year it went to Vladimir Putin, and now it was up to the viewers and the guests to make their choices. These ranged from the Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood who were nominated by Widdicombe; Ayoade’s choice of Max Clifford – partly for his sex offences and partly for his terrible autobiography which he wrote entirely in the third person; while Hills had originally wanted to name Rolf Harris because Hills’s favourite childhood song, “Jake the Peg”, has now been ruined.

However, in one of his trademark rants, Hills turned his attention to Katie Hopkins because of her remarks about Ebola and Glasgow as well as all the other things she has said over the year. The problem was however that Hills did not want people to vote for Hopkins on the grounds that she is such an internet troll that she would enjoy being named the “Dick of the Year”. In the end, the viewers did vote for Hopkins, but an executive decision was made to not give her the prize and instead give it to second-place Nigel Farage (in case you are wondering, I voted for Darren Wilson, the Caucasian police officer who shot African-American Michael Brown dead in Ferguson, Missouri and thus started a wave of rioting and racial tension across the USA).

Voting was another subject that came up in the show, as The Last Leg looked forward to this year’s General Election, and the fact that Brooker, like so many people in Britain, is so apathetic that he probably won’t vote because all the major party leaders are so unappealing. Thus a #pollalex hashtag has begun to try and get politicians on the programme to try and get Brooker to vote – and if anyone can make Brooker vote they probably deserve to win.

The original focus on this show is the subject of disability, but I feel that The Last Leg is somewhat biased in covering some disabilities over others, and I say this as someone who has a disability. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and I feel that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and indeed people with mental and learning disabilities in general are overlooked by TV. Without wishing to sound crass, I feel that I’m not represented because I don’t “look” disabled. I think TV – and I’m worried that The Last Leg is sadly guilty of this too – are only willing to show people who are missing a limb, are vertically challenged or have some sort of “hardware”, whether that be a white cane, a hearing aid, a wheelchair etc. because TV executives think that the public are only going to judge someone by their looks. People need to discover what is going on inside people’s heads, their bodies and their souls to make a full opinion of someone.

I believe this extends into sport and sports coverage too. In the Paralympics people with ASDs are rarely included because the effects of it are so wide ranging, but the rules are so rigged that only a small number of people meet the requirements to enter, such as having an IQ below 75. Some autistic people do make it however, one being gold medal winning swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate (congratulations to her), but the numbers are still very small. Also, while Channel 4 is happy to show the Paralympics, no-one in the UK is televising this year’s Special Olympics, which does feature people with learning disabilities.

To help address this, I would like to ask an #isitok question of my own right now. It probably won’t get read out on the show and it probably won’t be read by any of the presenters, but I want to ask it anyway: #isitok to apply to be a mental and learning disability correspondent for The Last Leg or Channel 4 News in general? I want to help address the problem by working alongside you: mental disability, learning disability and physical disability, working hand-in-hand-in-artificial-hand to promote greater understanding amongst all.

Score: 4 / 5 (but it will go up to 5 / 5 if you give me the job)

David Attenborough’s Conquest of the Skies 3D

December 29, 2014 by  
Filed under Reviews

david-attenborough-s-conquest-of-the-skies-announced

This New Year’s Day sees the beginning of Conquest of the Skies 3D, the latest instalment in Sky 3D’s seven part Attenborough marathon. The series, which Attenborough himself has described as his most complex and challenging to date, delivers a comprehensive overview of the evolutionary history of flight, mapping the progress from the very first insects that once dominated our planet, through to the early winged lizards pre- and eventually post-feathering, and onto the present day aerial-masters.

The cinematography is jaw-dropping, which probably goes without saying based on Attenborough’s track record. It’s a visual feast from start to finish. A bit of a cliché I know, but maybe that’s appropriate; the standard is so unflinchingly perfect, that we can use clichés safely without fear of insincerity. Show me something else that deserves the label more and I’ll find some more original language.

In spite of an insect hatred, I sat completely transfixed as creepy-crawlies glided and pirouetted around with the most oddly beautiful grace. From the delicate yet precise acrobatics of newly metamorphosed dragonflies (am I the only one who didn’t realise they did this?) and the blundering, clumsy flight of a giant beetle (suspended in motion before Attenborough as he explains its adaptations) to the common housefly, expertly outmanoeuvring Sir David’s attempts to swat it away from his steak dinner with effortless agility. I’m not a fan of 3D in general but maybe this is the kind of thing we should reserve it for. Combined with the HD and frequent use of slow motion, the result is startlingly immersive. It feels almost like an invasion of privacy, like we’re truly stepping into the domain of nature’s aeronauts.

It’s often joked that Attenborough does not feature an awful lot on location these days (pretty ungenerously considering he is getting on a bit), but these jibes are made a little redundant in this series which shows us, in one remarkable segment, the 88-year-old harnessed up and suspended 200ft high in the Gomantong caves in Borneo, as hundreds upon thousands of bats swarm around him in an astonishing dusk time exodus. Sir David did note that during the first 30 seconds the crew were very concerned for his welfare and comfort, before realising they’d been a bit trigger happy, and drifted into indifference. Left swinging around in lonely solitude for the next half an hour as they awaited the bats’ arrival, who knows if he will be quite so willing a volunteer in the next project.

Of course, the majority of the skies are dominated by one particular group; Birds. Sir David’s personal favourites, Birds of Paradise, are missing from the series, but many others from the vast array of bird species do feature, each with their own unique evolutionary features. The series takes us from Rome to Borneo, Scotland to China and introduces us, to pick just a few examples, to the method whereby vultures catch a ride on rising pillars of hot air with the most minimal of effort, how hummingbirds are able to hover both stationary and laterally to collect nectar from a moving source, and the aerial warfare between predatory peregrines and swarms of starlings in the air above Rome.

The series is not without some mild detractions, though. One sequence wherein a long-ago extinct pterosaur was brought to life with the help of CGI did cause some confusion in terms of realism. I’m not suggesting, of course, that anyone had too much trouble sussing out that the dinosaur was a fabrication, but problems did arise later with some of the more remarkable real life shots, one in particular seeing Attenborough streaking along in a speedboat inches beneath a swan in flight. Some viewers seemed to have difficulty deciding whether CGI had played a part in this shot too, but no, it’s very real and completely stunning. Perhaps this taps into concerns about the future of natural science broadcasting; are we heading down a more computer-animated path that could detract from the verisimilitude of documentaries? Will form eventually outweigh content? Or are the viewing public’s perceptions likely to place restrictions on the evolution of the documenting process?

Attenborough, who himself has always been quick to embrace and pioneer new technology and techniques for documenting the natural world (the move to 3D being just one example), seemed to understand these concerns when they were raised in the post-screening Q&A—“God forbid we let our enthusiasm for technology outweigh our love of the animals we’re documenting,” to paraphrase his response—but ultimately believed that the outsourcing of technological development to specialist partner companies did still allow for the documentarians’ focus to ultimately centre on the animal subjects.

No doubt the team are busy brainstorming for next Christmas—I personally can’t wait to see what’s next.

The first episode of Conquest of the Skies 3D will be broadcast New Years Day at 7pm on Sky 3D and Sky1

Next Page »