Partners in Crime

A-Partners in Crime (New)Two Christie Novels Fare Less Than Well in New TV Series

Compared with the Poirot and Marple mysteries, Agatha Christie’s “Tommy and Tuppence” novels are decidedly third place. The idea of a young couple wanting to solve crimes in the style of other fictional detectives was a cute one and  the plots and the approach were lighthearted.

In 1982-1983, British television came out with “Partners in Crime,” in which the Beresfords, Tommy (James Warwick) and Tuppence (Francesca Annis), sleuthed around through 11 tales, one of which was “The Secret Adversary.” Warwick was rather dull, Annis a bit over the top; but they were enjoyable on a somewhat shallow level.

For some reason, it was decided to redo “The Secret Adversary” and give “N or M?” a try, with yet a new team: Jessica Raine (Tuppence) and David Williams (Tommy). Each story is given 3 parts of 55 minutes each—and I read that the British viewers’ reaction was less than favorable.

For one thing, Christie’s spy novels are never quite as good as her murder mysteries. (See “The Big Four,” the worst of the Poirot novels.) Secondly, Tommy and Tuppence are forever making the wrong moves, and in the real world they would have wound up dead in the first few hours.

Alas, Warwick’s Tommy was dull, but he looks like Olivier when compared with Williams. As some actor once said about another of the profession, he “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Nor is he handsome enough and certainly not young-looking enough for the part. Raine is a better actor but again not young-looking enough. So you can see that a much better set of leads might have helped the clunky plots. And each story having165 minutes running time merely emphasizes the awkwardness of the plots.

With an eye to a second series (which has been blurred by the poor reception of this first series), the writers established two permanent secondary characters. James Fleet plays Carter of the Secret Service, while Matthew Steer is the scientist Albert. Neither is encouraged by the director to bring any life into the proceedings.

At least the older series had the advantage of the colorful costumes of the 1920s. Here, the far drabber costumes of the 1950s are of no help. So while I usually carp about television’s taking a good series and remaking it into a bad one, here we have a not all that good a series being made into a poor one. If there is a lesson to be learned, why hasn’t it?

There is some interesting bonus material and the subtitles are much appreciated.

Has “Doc Martin” Run its Course?

A-Doc Martin 7Has the “Doc Martin” Series  Run Its Course?

Some shows grow so popular that the producers cannot dream of bringing them to a conclusion. I am afraid that “Doc Martin” is a case in point. Now in its 7th season, on the screen and in a boxed set of 2 DVDs from Acorn, the plots are showing the strain of the necessary changes any long-going series needs.

Doc Martin (Martin Clunes) and his wife Louisa (Caroline Catz) are living apart. Martin is taking therapy with Dr. Rachel Timoney (Emily Bevan), who convinces him and Louisa to meet with her together.

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Series steady Joe Absolom as Al Large

Bert Large (Ian McNeice) has run his business into bankruptcy. His son Al (Joe Absolom) is unsuccessfully trying to run a tourist inn with Martin’s aunt Ruth (Eileen Atkins). The Doc’s secretary Morweena (Jessica Ransom) wants more pay since she has to handle any case that involves visible blood. And while still enamored of the Doc, pharmacist Tishell (Selina Cadell) allows her long-gone husband Clive (Malcolm Storry) to resume his marital status and obligations.

In a neat bit of tying together different plot lines, Ruth believes she can save the inn if Bert’s expertise at something illegal is put to practical use. Perhaps future series, if there are any, could do more with this concept.

Much remains the same. Martin cannot get rid the mutt Buddy. PC Joe Penhale (John Marquez) is as much an idiot as ever, especially now that he is infatuated with the Martins’ babysitter Janice (Robyn Addison). And character after character insists on self-medicating and winding up in dire straits at moments most inconvenient to Martin.

In the penultimate episode, Gemma Jones and Sigourney Weaver show up as guest stars, Jones in a small role that any actress could handle, Weaver as a strong character who pops up for one scene and vanishes. However, Jones’ role becomes major the last episode and she manages to make it human.

Although I hate to admit it, the show simply has lost most of its humor. Where Doc Martin’s quirks were funny in the first season or two, they are simply taken for granted now, all the more because we know he cannot change or the series would lose its major premise. I would be sorry if this series closed; but I feel the producers had better come up with something new or return to the lighthearted atmosphere of the first few seasons.

Great Train Robbery of 1963 Dramatized

A-Great Train RobberyGREAT TRAIN ROBBERY  

No, the   Acorn Media 2-DVD release titled “The Great Train Robbery” is not the pioneering silent film of 1903 or the amusing Sean Connery film of 1979. Televised in 2013, this is the story of a once-famous 1963 train robbery in England. The train was carrying excess old bank notes from several banks along the way and stopped by a large band of men who took nearly all of the bank bags. The total, much to the surprise of even the thieves, came to over 2,000,000 pounds!

Part 1 is titled “A Robber’s Tale” and tells the story of how holdup man Bruce Reynolds (Luke Evans) organized and carried out the crime. Part 2 is titled “A Copper’s Tale” and tells the story of how Scotland Yard’s DCS Tommy Butler (Jim Broadbent) organized and carried out the capture of the gang. How much dramatic liberty was taken with the actual events is of no importance. This drama is pretty much predictable but so well acted and detailed that it makes superior viewing.

Anything more I might say would be a “spoiler” and so I will cut this short by giving the show a high recommendation. The 2 parts run about 90 minutes each, there are subtitles, and there are bonus interviews with members of both casts.

 

Foyle’s War Complete Saga

A-Foyles WarEntire “Foyle’s War” Series Now in One Collection

When the popular “Inspector Morse” series came to an end in 2000, ITV needed a new idea in police drama and came up with an good one: a detective fighting crime during World War II.  It was called “Foyle’s War” and was an instant hit.

 The show is helped immensely by the acting of Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle and by the action being set in wartime Hastings, England. Now Acorn has released “Foyle’s War, the Complete Saga,” which includes all 31 episodes from Set 1 to Set 8.

Foyle wants nothing more than to be a combatant, but his civil work on the home front is too important. He is assigned a cute-as-they-come driver named Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), and the two deal with espionage, war profiteering, and old fashioned murder.

Some of the plots are directly linked to the war. The first one is about a rich man’s German wife with  family connections in the homeland who was never interred because her husband was rich. Others are straight crimes, mostly murders that could have fit in any time period; but here many of the characters are members are of the military.

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Weeks as Samantha

The Sets 5 and 6 are not quite as successful, as they take place after the war, and Foyle’s rejoining with Samantha is somewhat forced and awkwardly developed at first. However, sets 7 and 8 are concerned with the New Enemy (every decade must have one), and the last episode of all ends with a stunner.

The producers tried to end the series in 2007, but public demand convinced them to continue. We are now assured that the latest episode, filmed in January 2015, is indeed the last. So I am all the more grateful to have a complete collection of this fine series.

As it is with John Nettles in “Midsomer Murders,” Kitchen’s portrayal of Foyle brings out all the character’s decency and determination to solve his cases in a decent way, although he really wants to do his bit in the armed forces. Likewise, Honeysuckle Weeks plays his driver, Samantha Stewart, as a capable and dependable assistant who mixes her driving skills with policing skills.

There are 29 discs, the last of which is an extended interview, with stereo in Sets 1-6 and surround sound in the rest. Only Sets 6-8 are subtitled. There are over 6 hours of bonus material in the form of behind-the-scenes features, interviews and other forms of production notes. A very helpful booklet is provided with notes and plot summaries.

Miss Fisher 3

A-Miss Fischer 3Miss Fisher Sleuths Again for a Third Season

Meanwhile, back in post-World War I Australia, the sexy Miss Phryne (say fry-nee) Fisher (Essie Davis) is in her third series of “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” in a boxed set of three Acorn DVDs. There are eight 55-minute episodes, the main plots of each independent of the others while the subplots develop slowly.

For example, Phryne’s relationship with Detective Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) has reached the stage in which he is jealous every time he sees her speaking to a man, while she reciprocates with equal sarcasm should he speak to a woman. Her aide-de-camp, Dot Williams (Ashleigh Cummings), is now ready to marry her Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), who agrees to convert to Catholicism.

The new element is the appearance of Phryne’s father, Baron Henry Fisher (Pip Miller), a charming (for women only, it seems) cad, for whom Fisher has so little respect that she believes him to be a suspect in a murder case. He certainly gets on the viewer’s nerves as much as he does on his daughter’s.

The main plots involve murder at a magic show, a killing near a military base, two rival Italian restaurants, the death of street boys, a sanatorium for very rich “hysterical” women, murder and gambling at a fading hotel, a tennis tournament and rival players, and a threat to Baron Fisher’s life.

Unlike other shows, there is little emphasis on mutilated bodies or rotting corpses. The guillotine trick that goes wrong in the first episode, for instance, is not too gruesome, the severing of the head being seen only in a long shot. Likewise, the autopsy scenes show restraint and respect for the viewers.

The tone of this show varies from very serious to light-hearted, the latter due mostly to Essie Davis’ portrayal of  what one critic called “the female answer to James Bond, Indiana Jones or a combination of both.”  Like Bond, she has persons of the opposite sex for breakfast; like Jones, she takes great physical risks to solve her cases. And like the three women who co-stared with Patrick Macnee in “The Avengers”—especially Diana Rigg—she can serve as a role model for young women who question the male’s “superiority” in the social order.

Among the usual behind-the-scenes bonuses is a charming “Mr. Butler’s Drink of the Week,” in which Mr. Butler the butler (Richard Blye) gives a brief recipe for whatever drink seems to suit the plot of the episode that precedes it.

Chasing Shadows

A-Chasing ShadowsNew Police Series Has Interesting Leads

   Here is an original police series! We have an officer with all the tact of a Doc Martin and the sensitivities of a Monk, DS Sean Stone, played with an utterly straight face by Reece Shearsmith. At a press conference designed to praise the police for catching a criminal, Stone criticizes them for not catching him sooner. Result: he is demoted to Missing Persons.

There he meets Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston), a woman who knows her job but cannot connect with the self-isolating Stone. He won’t even share his car with her, because he does his thinking best when alone. DI Prior (Noel Clarke) is given the unwelcome task of seeing that Stone sticks to professional standards; but much of the fun in this series comes from Stone’s being his own man.

This is the basic situation that serves as background to the two stories that make up “Chasing Shadows,” now available on an Acorn DVD.

This is not a comedy. The first two-part tale concerns a suicide website for teens; the second is about a serial killer whose victims are all mentally challenged. The humor of the Stone-Hattersley relationship is gently integrated into the plots. Giving Hattersley a slightly problematic son is part of the clichéd family relationships that have been introduced into so many police shows in past decades. However, not much time is spent on it at the expense of the mystery at hand.

Kingston is absolutely marvelous as the utterly believable Missing Persons investigator and is the perfect foil to Shearsmith’s unbending characterization of Stone. I can easily recommend this series. And thanks, Acorn, for the subtitles.

Therese Raquin

A-Theresa RaquinZola Novel Vividly Dramatized in Vintage Miniseries 

   Just as—or maybe because—a dramatic adaptation of Emile Zola’s first successful novel “Therese Raquin” is opening on Broadway, Acorn has released on DVD the 1979 miniseries, seen back then on Masterpiece Theatre. This is the  depressing tale of a woman, Therese Raquin (Kate Nelligan) utterly bored with her childish and lifeless husband Camille (Kenneth Cranham), his overly doting mother (Mona Washbourne) with whom Therese runs a small shop, and the same set of friends who gather every week at the Raquins to play dominoes.

One can really feel for Therese, at least at first! When Camille’s friend Laurent (Brian Cox) visits, there is immediate sexual attraction between him and Therese; and a long affair begins (with scenes that were quite shocking for American television back then). It is notable that Zola wanted to show “the brute” in people; and Nelligan’s imitating a cat in bed dramatizes perfectly Zola’s concept.

There is an unforgettable scene at the Morgue, where the naked bodies of recent victims are laid out on tables for the public to identify or simply gawk at. People as brutes and then as meat. Pure Zola.

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Emile Zola at an older age

The killing of the husband is a bungled affair and the rest of the drama shows the disintegration of the lovers’ relationship. (I can surely reveal this much, since it is inevitable.) The acting is what makes this a remarkable dramatic offering. Here I must mention Alan Rickman in a secondary role as an artist friend of Laurent.

The picture shows its age, especially during dark scenes, and the subtitles are most welcome. Each of the three episodes runs 51 minutes.

George Gently 7, Vera 5

A Comparison of Two British Police Series

A-Gently 7What with British—and now Australian, with some Canadian and a dash of New Zealand—police series being so popular and seemingly endless, original plots are hard to find. Therefore so much depends on the lead sleuths and their closest assistants. It all harkens back to Holmes and Watson, who have re-emerged on television as the Detective Chief Inspector and the Detective Sergeant. Take for example two of the many British series released here by Acorn Media.

George Gently, Series 7   DCI George Gently (Martin Shaw) has changed in two ways. He is much more physical with recalcitrant suspects and he finds he is in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. In one episode, he actually covers up evidence to protect… Well, see for yourself.

Just at the point where his assistant DS John Bacchus, despite his deep rooted prejudices against ethnic groups, women police, and the rich, is going to be promoted to Inspector, he takes up with the wife of a police officer, who is known for treating rape cases with disdain for the victims. At the same time, WPC Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis) has to keep up an endless battle with the sexist Bacchus. With all this, the team manages to solve the four crimes of 93-minutes each (with subtitles) that make up “George Gently, Series 7.”

The stories are not particularly original—again, how many new plots can writers come up with in this genre?— but the characterizations and the period ambience (the last days of the 1960s) carry the day.

A-Vera 5 Vera, Set 5  “Vera” stars Brenda Blethyn as DCI Vera Stanhope, a character not unlike George Gently. She is on in years, has a bit of heart trouble (mentioned in an earlier series), and regrets the loss of her looks. (Blethyn was a sexy Joan of Arc in the BBC “Henry VI, Part 1” in 1983.) The setting is present day Northumberland and she has a lovely regional accent and calls everybody “love” or “pet.”

In this 5th series, she is bothered by the bad jokes and mistakes made by her assistant DS Aiden Healy (Kenny Doughty). As a rule, she is more ably assisted by DC Bethany Whelan (Cush Jumbo) and the older DC Kenny Lockhart (Jon Morrison).

The stories would be comfortable in just about any other police series, but Blethyn gives the character some depth and her problems do not take time from the main plot. Again, it is the main character that maintains interest, while the assistant character is not as interesting as George Gently’s Bacchus.

This set includes four episodes of 93 minutes each, with subtitles.

Much Ado About Nothing at the Royal Shakespeare

A-SH-Much Ado (RSC)“Much Ado” as a Sequel to “Love’s Labour’s Lost”!

When the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to  set  “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the start of World War I (see my review on this site), they also decided to couple it with “Love’s Labour’s Won.” Er, yes. That title does show up in a list of Shakespeare’s works in 1598; and one can assume it is either a lost play or another name for a known one.

So with no evidence pro or con, they decided that “Much Ado About Nothing” was as good as any other and ran it with “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” setting it at the end of World War I at Christmas time. And since Berowne and Roseline in the earlier play are much like Benedick and Beatrice in “Much Ado,” they cast the same actors (Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry) as both couples. They are excellent, Terry being one of the strongest Beatrices I have seen. Now both plays are out on OpusArte DVDs, separately and as a boxed set.

While the production is quite good, I have two complaints. It has become a common fault in Shakespeare productions that the comedy is overdone. So while the rest of MAAN is a mixture of high but human comedy and serious situations, the scene in which Benedick is tricked into believing that Beatrice loves him is staged very cleverly but as pure farce. Again, the first scene with the town watch, headed by the malapropian Dogberry (Nick Haverson), is too slowly articulated (lest audience miss a single joke) and in their second appearance there is far too much pantomime.

There are a good many choral interludes, other than the one called for in the script at Hero’s tomb, and Christopher Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love” is heard twice. Arranger Nigel Hess explains things in a short interview in the bonus section. And there is an optional voiceover by Director Christopher Luscombe.

The serious parts are well played and believable: Leonato (David Horovitch), Antonio (Thomas Wheatley), and Don Pedro (John Hodgkinson). Sam Alexander makes a somewhat restrained villain as Don John, while Flora Spencer-Longhurst makes a sympathetic Hero. It is hard to make Claudio likable, since he so easily falls for Don John’s lies, but Tunji Kasim takes a good stab at a difficult role.

The scenery is solid and realistic, the changes working smoothly with the partial help of a rising section of the thrust stage. Even the Christmas tree is put to comic use, but in an over-the-top way.

I suggest that one see LLL first for obvious reasons. And thank you, OpusArte, for the subtitles!

Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Royal Shakespeare

A Superb Production of a Difficult Comedy 

A-SH-Love's Labour's Lost (RSC) “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (British spelling) is a most difficult play to perform today, because it makes fun of euphuism, a way of writing that was both popular and much derided in Shakespeare’s day. Satire is fine, if the audience is familiar with what is being satirized. There are many Latin and Latinate words and phrases in the dialogue, making modern comprehension even more difficult. And many of the comic characters seem just silly to us.

Despite all this, a performance of LLL on an OpusArte DVD, as it was given by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015, is not only the best production of that play but possibly of any Shakespeare play I have seen.

Set at the beginning of World War I, it tells the tale of the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and three of his friends—Longaville, Dumaine, and Berowne—who vow to devote themselves to study and not to have contact with women for three years. Naturally, four women—the Princess of France and her three friends, Maria, Katherine, and Rosaline—arrive to discuss political matters; and the men are smitten. So much for vows.

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Edward Bennett, who plays Berowne

Berowne is the most interesting of the men, cynical but just as much forsworn as his fellow scholars, and Edward Bennett makes him quite likable. His love Rosaline is played with an equally sharp tongue by Michelle Terry. (These two are the Beatrice and Benedict of “Much Ado About Nothing,” reviewed on this website.)

Among the whacky characters are Don Armado (John Hodgkinson), his servant Moth (Peter McGovern), a constable Dull (Chris McCalphy), a schoolmaster Holofernes (David Horovitch), and a curate Sir Nathaniel (Thomas Wheatley). The actors somehow make them human—and therefore funny. I feel that the Princess of Leah Whitaker lacks that command and elegance the role needs to distinguish her from the other three women.

Among the directorial triumphs is the scene in which each of the lovers overhears the others read love poetry to their sweethearts. Setting it on a small section of a roof works perfectly. So does presenting the pageant of the Nine Worthies as a musical in a Gilbert and Sullivan vein. (Some liberties are taken with the text, but no harm done.)

The mood change at the very end is beautifully done, and the lovely song about summer and winter is enhanced with additional lyrics about love.

The dialogue is read slowly and very clearly; and these DVDs have the added advantage of subtitles, which are pretty much essential for this play. The bonus material is, for a change, quite interesting.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is also on an OpusArte DVD with the alternate title of “Love’s Labour’s Won.” These two sets are available separately or together in a boxed set