Archives for posts with tag: Anna Maxwell Martin

Firstly, an apology for missing a week. Real life got in the way. And by real life, I mean a Christmas Afternoon High Tea with prosecco. But I am back now, so let’s crack on.

Last year the BBC launched a number of sitcom pilots to see if any could generate enough interest to succeed as a series. Most failed to even raise an eyebrow, but one – Motherland – generated both critical and public acclaim. This perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider the calibre of people working on it. Two of the four writers are Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan, both of whom have a pedigree in making excellent comedies.

Motherland is, as the title obviously suggests, about parenting. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Julia, who is trying to ‘have it all’ and ending up often with having nothing but stress thanks to a feckless husband. Diane Morgan is the more slatternly (and presumably unemployed) single mum Liz, Lucy Punch as queen of the ‘Tiger Mums’ Amanda and Paul Ready is stay-at-home dad Kevin.

It has to be said the strongest character is Liz, full of brutal honesty and realism with also a touch vulnerability. A particular highlight came in episode one when Julia’s entertainer for her child’s birthday party was exposed as a racist and Liz had also used and refused to pay him. When Julia queried if it was the racism, Liz responded with: “No, because he was shit! If I didn’t pay people because they were racist I would have never got my satellite dish fitted. Or my wedding catered for”.

This more down-to-earth humour balances the more manic energies brought by Julia and Kevin. The latter in particular is annoying, a mixture of weird obsessiveness with a desperation to please normally only seen in puppies. It is the fact this portrayal veers in the cartoony that is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody else you feel is somewhat believable, regardless of their faults.

Putting Kevin aside, this is an excellent comedy. It actually makes you laugh as the strands of the episode build to a climax. There isn’t any of the absurdism of Linehan’s other sitcoms, but then, that wouldn’t work here. This is about wry observations of modern parenting and the social rules that come with it.

I hope this show achieves continued success. Female-dominated comedies often get plenty of well-meaning comments but nothing to show for it. This deserves more. At the very least, a BAFTA for Morgan, who seems to be constantly just bubbling under the surface as a breakout talent. Maybe this could be her chance to join those at comedy’s top table. She has earnt it.

 

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Sometimes, I must confess, I am late to the party. I was three years behind everyone else in watching Broadchurch. It took a year of buzz to finally sit down and watch Orange Is the New Black. I am only just starting season 3 of The Good Wife. And now, a fair few months after being extolled the virtues of it, I am currently working my way through Midwinter of the Spirit.

I say working may way through, there are only three episodes, but feeling sapped of energy last night I settled down to watch part 1 of the repeat run and recorded 2 and 3 to watch at some point soon. I may even choose to deliberately break it up into weekly parts, mirroring how the original viewers saw it.

I normally hesitate to pronounce my views on anything after just one episode, but I feel hooked already on this supernatural crime thriller. For those unaware of the premise, a vicar gets trained in ‘deliverance’ (exorcism under a modern cloak) and finds herself assisting the police in a satanic murder whilst simultaneously dealing with the evil spirit of another recently deceased man, all the while trying to bring up her daughter and deal with the death of her husband. It does make you wonder how they fit all this in to just three episodes. I might have to get back to you on that one.

Part of the allure of the show is Anna Maxwell Martin as the lead. She does a fine line in strong, placid women who have a whirligig of emotions underneath that occasionally break through. She is one of those actresses that, despite being showered with praise, is still not quite the household name she should be.

The pace bowls along nicely as well, which is vital in such a short series. All the plots are bubbling away nicely, even if you are not quite sure where they all fit yet. I am particularly intrigued by tarot reader Siobhan Finneran, who is incidentally another actress who plays characters so well yet is often second fiddle on the cast list (Downton Abbey hasn’t been the same since her role as the scheming maid O’Brien came to an end).

Amazingly, after just one episode, I not only want to watch the other two, but also want to see another series. It is so hard to get creepy thrillers right that when we do, we should treasure it. And I promise to watch series 2 straight away.

The biggest problem with any series that is set in the recent past is the tendency for the lifestyle of whichever era is being recreated to be viewed through rose-tinted spectacles and, in some extreme cases, to be fetishized. Downton Abbey falls into this trap, with viewers believing the early 1920’s was all picnic’s and jazz bands. Of course, in this case such romanticism is deliberate, as the creator Julian Fellowes seems to treat the past not just as ‘another country’ but a better one. There may be political turmoil around the world which is only just clambering out of a devastating war, but at least everyone dressed properly for dinner.

The Bletchley Circle almost falls into the same trap. Again, we find Britain picking itself up from the hammer-blows of international conflict, although this time in the 1950’s as opposed to the 1920’s. Yet it also neatly avoids many of them, and certainly denies many viewers the opportunity to wish themselves there. This largely down to the premise and genre. Four former Bletchley Park code breakers reunite to rescue a friend from being wrongfully convicted of murder. This is a sequel to the original series where one of the group (Anna Maxwell Martin, who seems to be currently living in period costumes) spotted the pattern of a serial killer far faster than the police did. With crime and the behaviour of bad people at the forefront there is naturally less of a desire to wish yourself in a time machine to join them.

Likewise, the social environment appears far more cruel than we find in Downton. It is telling that of the three women who are all still in work, all are single, and mainly in menial roles. The fourth, Martin herself, is married with children and is therefore obligated to be a housewife. There is a telling scene when she is visiting boarding schools for her daughter where she is brusquely informed by the headmistress that girls in general are not to be encouraged to study maths, as the arts and languages are much more appropriate, with Martin using every fibre of her soul to not tell the teacher exactly where to stick her education. And with it being the 1950’s her husband doesn’t understand this frustration, after all his daughter’s future husband is the one who needs skills to succeed in the workplace. Ditto his breezy comment about being promoted to a post abroad, with the subtext that his wife can say no, but they will go anyway so she can go with a smile on her face or sulking, either way the boat leaves soon.

In fact, underneath the grisly crimes and the jolly hockey-sticks banter, what appears to be most at the centre of Bletchley is what does a society do with woman when their skills beyond producing babies and running a home are surplus to requirements? As terrifying as World War Two was, it gave women social and economic freedoms. A whole generation of bright, young girls found doors opening and a ‘purpose’ only for 6 years later to be gently eased or shoved back out of them again when the men came home.

Yet as Martin’s character demonstrates, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. A generation of ‘pushy’ mothers who found there talents going to waste ensured their daughters got a better education and could compete with men. They literally gave birth to the second-wave of women’s lib activists. It was a slow path, and still is, but we should all be thankful it is one that was started.

As an avid reader, I always get nervous when a book is being adapted as a film or TV programme. Often the joy of books is found in the little details which rarely get transferred to screen, as condensing a 400-page novel to two hours of viewing means only the broadest of sweeps are included. I have been left disappointed on several occasions as a result of this, in particular with Sky’s adaptations of the Discworld novels a few years ago.

Death Comes to Pemberley does not come with this baggage though, as I have not managed to read the book. On the plus side, this meant no expectations or disruption to how I imagined things. On the downside however, I also had nothing to measure it against, so I have no way of knowing if the tone and atmosphere of the show matches the writing of P. D. James. All I could go on was my experience of the characters in Pride and Prejudice, to which Pemberley is the sequel. Even then, the failure of these characters to transfer could have been as much the fault of James’ as it was of the screenwriter.

Thankfully, on that point Pemberley did not disappoint. Lizzie Darcy is as strong-headed as before, her mother as neurotic, Lydia as childish and Wickham as wicked. The only transformation of character is in Mr Darcy, who has become softer-edged (although still commanding), which is one that Austen had suggested at the close of the original novel anyway. Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys play the couple brilliantly, with a love that is open, tactile and (shockingly for the puritans) erotic. Mr Darcy’s reversal to his pre-marriage self as the stress of the events mounts is moving, as you watch him distance himself from his wife emotionally, and most heartlessly, physically, refusing the touch of her hands.

Another joy were the flashbacks, not only to scenes in the novel but those that occurred before and in between the two stories. A particularly telling one was one from the Darcy’s wedding celebrations, where Lizzie overhears local gossips mocking her lack of fortune and chastising Darcy for allowing his heart to rule his head. It is clear that the marriage is not fairy tale, and the snobbery that echoes in Austen’s book did not end when the story did.

The plot, I have to say, was a little like wading through treacle at times. There seemed to be a lot of sub-characters who didn’t have a purpose until the final episode of the three. Of course, such is the way with some mysteries is that you have to persevere and hope for the payoff. Although the revelation of the murderer was an anti-climax it satisfied, and everything was tied up neatly. This was never going to be as bizarre or bloody as something like Luther. Although there was the horror of the gallows and a bit of blood, it was essentially no more distressing than a sedate Miss Marple. Even if the plot never seemed to reach a top gear, the characterisation kept you watching. It was a nice little Christmas treat, and that was all it ever intended to be.