Archives for posts with tag: period drama

As I have mentioned before, I very rarely give up on something after one episode. The merest hint that it could get better or be worth investing in and I’m there. Often I am proven right. Sometimes though I am tested. The first episode does enough to put me off entirely and I never go back or get close to.

The Alienist very much pushed me to the limit of what I was willing to go back to. It had several off putting elements, including open misogyny and extreme violence. Yes, both were central to the plot, but it was still a very comfortable watch.

What challenged me the most was the gore. I don’t handle gore well and find subtle hints at it serve a much better function and make a more interesting narrative then serving it up on a plate. The desecrated corpse of a child was bad enough, but for me it was the man banging is head against the wall, blood pouring down his face and syphilis marks all over him that was the hardest watch. It was making me, in northern English parlance, ‘gip’.

I didn’t find any of the characters, even the good guys, likeable either. So the omens were not good for me carrying on.

Yet I did, because part of me, despite my disgust, wanted to see the crime solved. And the second episode was significantly better. Firstly, the gore, although still present, was in smaller doses. Also, I began to warm to Dakota Fanning’s secretary character and even warmed a little to Luke Evans, although Daniel Bruhl is still annoying me. The Jewish brothers are also getting more of a role, and like Fanning, are providing a bit of warmth to an otherwise cold story.

The plot of police corruption and male prostitutes is also serving a proper function now rather than just acting to shock. All in all, it has turned a corner. Of course, it can no doubt turn back again, but let’s hope it doesn’t.

Even so, this isn’t for the faint hearted. There is no attempt at humour, even dark humour, bar the odd aside. It is uncompromising in what it does and can border on the unpleasant.

My advice – have something sunny and happy in your back pocket for when you are done. I have season 2 of Nailed It! ready to go as soon as I am done with it, and also watching the last season of The Middle. After The Alienist, you need that dose of loveliness. It probably wasn’t what the writers intended, but it is the result.

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I avoid adaptations as a rule. If it is a book I have no interest in reading, why would I want to see a TV version? If I do want to read it, why would I spoil the pleasures of it? And if I have read it, why would I want someone else’s interpretation ruining mine? I can’t help but thinking if everybody followed this logic, then there would be a lot more space for some original programmes to me made.

Yet every so often one suckers me in. It helps if I’m nostalgic about the book, the reading of it conjuring up a time in my life. Plus there are surely some books that they can’t mess around with that much.

Such is the case with The Woman in White. I read this at university and loved it. Victorians knew how to do Gothic sensationalism. Menacing aristocrats, creepy buildings, women who would kill you as quick as kiss you, it’s all there. And there is nothing like sinking your teeth into a good mystery. It transfers to TV so easily that it seems silly to faff about with it.

Yet there has been faff. First, an artsy narrative structure has been imposed of characters giving statements to a solicitor dealing with a case, but not necessarily the case at the centre of the story. Then there’s the feminist speech my Marian Halcombe. I have no objection to feminist speeches, but a good adapter would have found a way of showing us that men are wicked towards women rather than telling us. It’s all there in the plot anyway, so why club us over the head at the start

Having said that, I don’t totally object to this adaptation. Jessie Buckley is very good as Marian, playing the less-than-typical Victorian lady as was intended, opening speech besides. In fact, the casting all round works so far. I have a shaky memory of the finer details of the book, which will help the adapters get away with some things, but Walter Hartright is largely an ineffectual hero until the end, and Ben Hardy, without being rude, has that look about him.

What will make this adaptation live or die is the performance of Count Fosco, who makes his first appearance in the second episode. He needs to be charming yet threatening, and if memory serves me correctly, attractive despite (or because of) him carrying a bit of extra weight. If that doesn’t work, the book’s most alluring character is dead in the water and the rest of the plot with it.

I still come back to that jarring note though I understand that if a story has been told before then it needs a new way. But credit the viewers with being modern enough to see the misogyny played before them. Don’t make characters utter statements that render the plot impotent. And don’t think you know better than the classics. They became so for a reason.

Such is the power of Netflix, seasons may change their name to some of its biggest hits new release dates. Spring will become House of Cards, although quite how that will pan out following recent events we can only guess. Summer will be Orange is the New Black. Autumn so obviously is Stranger Things. And winter can only possible be named The Crown.

The Crown lends itself to the headlong rush to the festive season in the same way Downton Abbey did. No matter if the setting is high summer, there is something about the sumptuousness of the clothes, the stodginess of the food and the innate cosy feeling mixed with a dash of grimness of the architecture that it is always winter psychologically – both in positive ways and negative.

The Crown is possibly my favourite of all Netflix productions because, in its own slightly stodgy way, it tells us how the personal and political will always intertwine, yet appear to lead separate lives. A personal foible of a politician setting a train of events from which there becomes no escape. How those events can speed up or instigate social change, or at times try and be a last defence against it.

The first two episodes of the new season demonstrate this. Episode one may begin with a royal marriage on the rocks and be threaded throughout with suspicions of adultery, but it is the Suez Crisis that is a focal point and the vanity of those who instigated it. Already the Queen is faced with the challenging of being a stable fulcrum around which the men who serve her in government flail, grasping for power and a legacy.

Episode two sheds more light on the relationship between the Queen and Prince Philip, as the latter constantly battles to form his own identity. He is a navy man, happier in the company of men and physical pursuits, revelling in what one character calls ‘a six-month stag night’. Along the way, we see what formed him into an unemotional man who perhaps struggles with the idea of being part of a family. It takes the rumour of a private secretary’s own adulteries to remind him of his duty to his wife and children, and even then we still have not returned to the crescendo of emotions that opened the season.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith embody the slowly changing personalities wonderfully. She, slowly gaining in confidence to question the men in power; him, relinquishing his need to control. And then there is the cast who surrounds them – Vanessa Kirby still steals the show as Princess Margaret, giving us this seasons must-have GIF for all party goers over the festivities.

There are no doubt faults, but quite frankly I don’t want to dig for them. For all the harsh realities that this show portrays – the limited status of women and the decline of Britain to name two – it is still a warm blanket that envelops you. This is why it is perfect winter viewing, it wraps you up and brings you comfort. Which is exactly what we need.

One of the signs you are getting old is the fact that the decade you were born in can be classed as ‘period drama’. How you define this genre is debatable – I personally would argue that anything sans bonnet and breaches is modern – but it appears that the 80’s are now a valid historical setting.

Perhaps there is a need for a string whiff of nostalgia for a past time that qualifies an era for that term. It is certainly nostalgia that drives Stranger Things 2. The detail it employs is beautiful if a little clichéd. The mullets, the double denim, the perms, the knitwear – all mockable yet slightly revered. And then there’s the pop culture references, with the excitement of electronic music and a new wave of sci-fi.

Anybody over 35 could spend the show simply ticking off things from their childhood and not pay any attention to the plot. Which is possibly a good thing as, let’s be honest, it feels very slow. Bar a few hallucinations it has taken four episodes to give us anything approaching chills, and that came from breaking the golden rule of ‘Don’t Kill the Cat’.

If anything, it is proving its strength as a coming of age story meets social drama. The introduction of Max as someone mixing up the fraternity of teenage boys is a good example of this. She also comes with her own mini-mystery, which I find more enthralling than the ones that are supposed to be taking centre stage. Ditto, the pseudo father-daughter relationship between Hopper and El is more honest when it isn’t enthralled to El’s telekinesis.

The comedy also appears to be stronger this time round and is very much appreciated. It comes as a relief to what would otherwise be a very bleak landscape of decaying pumpkins, small-town claustrophobia and paranoia.

Which brings me back to the central problem I have – I don’t know if I care too much about the mysteries being solved or the tension/horror heightened. What are the vines that the scientists are killing about? Why are the pumpkins decaying? Who is number 008 and are there others? None of these matter to me personally as a viewer, bar maybe the last puzzle.

It’s a sign the Duffer Brothers were relying on our binge watch habits to put 008 in at the start of the season and not mention her again for at least four episodes. As a non-binge watcher I have spotted this flaw. Not all of us want to digest all nine episodes in one go and we deserve a reward for our more episodic viewing habits.

Yet, despite these many issues, I am compelled to watch on, not least because this is the show everyone is talking about, be it good or bad. Next month it will be The Crown. Perhaps that is the secret of Netflix’s success – it doesn’t matter how good the show actually is, so long as it gets enough mentions on social media to draw more moths to the flame. You can only hope that quality is going to be a second thought.

Adapting a novel for the screen, big or small, must be one of the most challenging projects on TV. It’s all very well having the plot nicely written for you, but this becomes a hindrance. Do you stick to it rigidly, digressions and all? Do you focus on just the main strands but axe some minor characters, who could actually be the most interesting of them all? Do change the ending to suit your ‘vision’?

However you answer these, you are bound to ruffle feathers. Be too close to the book and you risk making something pointless – after all, people may as well just read the story and get the full flavour unless you do something original. Lose a minor character and you remove potentially some of the best moments or give them to someone entirely unsuited. Change the ending or a major plot point and people will howl at the moon if you even put the slightest foot wrong with the change.

When it’s a book you love, you feel very protective of what is created. You have your vision and woe betide anyone who doesn’t go along with it. So I was nervous about the recent adaptation of Decline and Fall, a book I read as a precocious teenager. Or, at least I was nervous, until I realised I couldn’t remember most of it. I definitely recollect enjoying it and finding it funny though.

I suppose then, that this adaptation’s one and only test was to be funny. It stood a good chance with Jack Whitehall in the lead role of Paul Pennyfeather. Yet I was surprised by how lifeless he seemed to make the character. Of course, that is partially due to the nature of the story – the pitfalls that occur are caused by others’ actions on to him rather than his own agency. Even so, book Paul always seemed more robust than TV Paul. This could be partially due to a reader having more access to an inner monologue and the narration, where the satire is probably sharper. It could also be a faulty memory of mine.

Nevertheless, quietly politely rarely carries a story well, so it falls onto the supporting cast to give the story its life. They do this admirably, in particular Vincent Franklin as agnostic minister Prendergast and Douglas Hodge as Grimes, a man who is nearly always ‘in the soup’.

There are hints at the satire that Waugh was aiming for in his novel. The Bollinger Club and the government officials who manipulate their way to the top and stay there, largely by passing blame on to those underneath. The ‘trendy’ approach to maintaining discipline in prison. An education system that focuses on please parents over teaching children. All as true now as then. I can’t help feeling it couldn’t have been more savage though. This was satire with gloves on. What it needed was for a brick to be hidden in it.

The departure of Downton Abbey has left a hole in the schedules. It was an interesting proposition for a show – a period drama that was indented to soap operas whilst providing a, albeit shallow, social commentary. It was easy to watch but damn good as well, the odd duff note buried beneath the warmth of the whole.

ITV are trying to repeat this trick with The Halcyon, a WW2 set drama in a fictional London hotel. Like Downton, social history is played with slightly to stop the audience feeling uncomfortable. For example, Asian and black characters mix into the rest of the cast with barely a slither of racial tension. There’s also the key ingredients of ‘will they/won’t they’ romances, baddies getting their comeuppance and the idea that family isn’t defined by blood.

But is it as good as Downton? Well, no. There are some excellent touches. For example, the gay relationship between Toby and Adil, which at first looked like a desperate attempt to be another diversity box ticked, has been given some life by introducing a blackmail plot, reminding us how vulnerable the love that dare not speak its name was. The horrors of the Blitz are also well drawn, the fear palpable, the sense of loss devastating.

Where the show falls down is that the different bits don’t come together as a whole. So many of the plotlines are dependent on relationships (Betsy/Sonny, Emma/Freddie/Joe, Garland/Peggy etc.) that anyone wanting the broader sweeps of life will be disappointed. Characters cluster round each other and don’t interact much beyond their circle. The joy of Downton was watching a world change but in a controlled way. At The Halcyon, time is frozen in terms of class.

Also, it wouldn’t kill the show, in spite of its setting, to have a bit of humour. The odd waspish comment here and there isn’t enough. It’s isn’t like they haven’t got the talent. Mark Benton is a great comic actor stuck in a secondary role.

Finally, the biggest love story is, sadly, dull. Freddie and Emma are supposed to be star-crossed lovers. What we have instead is two insipid people who have been given ‘depth’ purely based on their love for each other that can never be announced. I can’t help but feel Emma comes alive more around suave and abrasive American journalist Joe. It almost makes you want Freddie’s plane to be shot down somewhere so she can get over him and move on.

With some fine tuning, this show could really work. There are so many of the base elements there that a bit of tinkering is all that is needed – higher stakes, better romances, greater variety of plots. None of this is beyond the scope of a talented team. If there is a second series, I hope some of the changes are made. It would be a shame for us to check out feeling we hadn’t had the best of stays.

A week of work has allowed me to plough through some shows that had been stacked up on my ‘to watch’ list. The chief one has been The Crown, Netflix’s royal drama epic that seems to be the most chatted about show of the moment. Determined not to be my usual three years behind the zeitgeist, I dived straight in.

Now I am three-quarters of the way through, my overall impression is this is a show where the priority is to give an atmosphere. There is a little drama in the bombastic sense. Instead, events slowly unfurl and characters slowly deepen, moving from being line drawings to full 3-d models. This isn’t a surprise for anyone who has watched creator Peter Morgan’s The Queen, where you were slowly enveloped in the unfolding events.

The risk is that it borders on the slow moving at times, and you do wonder if the subplots are really that consequential. Except they are. Take episode 7, where Elizabeth faced the duel challenge of Churchill and Eden concealing their declining health with her frustration at not being able to pick her own secretary. There was a background theme of her wanting a real education, but that was just to lay the foundations of her using the constitution as an excuse to give her a backbone. It was about trusting those around her, and, in one of the beautiful arguments where someone quietly but severely admonishes you, she got one over on the politicians and stepped out of the shadows.

Claire Foy plays the Queen well, balancing someone who respects institutions with a knowledge of things must change, quiet and reserved dignity balanced by a growing security in her authority. The plan to cover her whole reign over the years will mean she is replaced eventually, but she has set a high bar.

Matt Smith is also strong as Prince Philip, playing him as a frustrated young man who wants to speed up social change whilst abhorring the idea he is to play second fiddle to his wife, professionally and personally. There is no disguising the cruel edge to his nature, and the show is all the better for it.

The scope the show is aiming for makes it impossible to imagine what future series will be like. The thrust right now is on a young woman finding her way in the world, but obviously that cannot continue forever. Some episodes are dominated by the domestic, others political, but mostly where the two clash. Yet the ebb and flow of the tide of life means that some series will be more political than others perhaps.

Maybe this will prove to be the show’s enduring strength – the fact that you can bring a different facet of life to each series whilst still maintaining a core. I just hope the casting remains strong – one chink in this and the whole show called fall in a televisual wave of republicanism.