Midsomer Murders, series 17

A-Midsomer 17“Midsomer Murders” Needs More Colorful Leads

   I asked my contact at Acorn Media why “Midsomer Murders 25” was followed up by MM 17 and was told that the 25 referred to the season while 17 means the 17th series. All this because they decided to redo all of the episodes but using the series numbering. They did the same with the Poirot re-releases but no harm was done..

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Morse interesting, Lewis not
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Hathaway interesting, Lewis not

Again, I find the two leads—Neil Dudgeon as DCI John Barnaby and Gwilym Lee as DS Charles Nelson—simply uninteresting. The interesting Inspector Morse has a colorless assistant in his Lewis; Lewis has a very unusual assistant in his DS James Hathaway (who steals all the scenes from the star); George Gently has his funny DS John Bacchus; and John Nettles himself is so likeable that his many assistants seem equally pleasant if not deeply characterized.

With Dudgeon and Gwilym, I feel the plot alone has to carry the day. And giving the Barnabys a new baby does not help at all. Nor do frequent shots of their dog.

And the four stories in this 2-disc set do just that.  One deals with a missing manuscript, one with a magician and a local group of cultists, one a folk festival, and the last with a winery. They are all new spins on old plots, but what else can one do without going into X-Files territory?

Each episode runs 93 minutes and there are very welcome subtitles.

BBC Comedy “Detectorists” Concentrates on Character

A-DectoristsBBC Comedy Concentrates on Character

First thing, if you ever see a person with a metal detector, remember to call him a “detectorist” or you will be told firmly that the machine is the detector. This much I learned from a 6-part miniseries from the BBC titled “Detectorists,” now out on a single DVD from Acorn Media.

The general plot revolves around Andy (Mackenzie Crook, who also scripted and directed the series) and Lance (Toby Jones), whose Impossible Dream is to find a buried Saxon treasure ship near the village of Danebury (get it?). The land under which they are sure it lies belongs to the crotchety and eccentric Bishop (David Sterne), who has trouble keeping his invisible dogs in check.

Love interest is provided by Andy and his teacher girlfriend Becky (Rachael Stirling), the latter of whom is not thrilled by a pretty young lass named Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) who expresses an interest in joining the boys in finding hidden treasure—most of which shows up as tin can pulls.

Lance is still very much in love with his ex-wife Maggie (Lucy Benjamin), who is now happily married to Paul (Paul Casar), a Pizza Hut employee. When Andy finds an actual gold coin on his own, Lance breaks off their friendship.

The villains of the piece are two antiquarians with connections in higher places, who are forever trying to treasure hunt on the same land, preferably without Andy and Lance. In the meanwhile, the treasure hunting club in Danebury, seven members strong, has been spectacularly unsuccessful in finding anything worthwhile. In fact, the President is reduced to giving a talk on buttons, which puts most of the members to sleep.

In a series of interviews, Mackenzie makes it clear that he wanted the series to be a “comedy of character,” not a series of one liners. I see by my notes that I laughed out loud exactly four times during the 180 minutes running time. One time was when Andy is trying to watch TV but is utterly defeated by all the remotes his now departed Becky left him. Another was seeing the utterly blank treasure hunting group’s Business Chart whiteboard.

“Detectorists” is a pleasant look at nice characters obsessed with their hobby. The saddest, perhaps the funniest, scene is the Open House given by the group. There are several tables displaying the fruits of past efforts: can pulls, buttons, and other items of no interest whatsoever. All the event needs is just a single visitor.

The show is worth the watching, but not quite as “hilarious” as the quotations in the press release put it.

Shades of Love

Good Scenery, Dull Characters in Romance Story

A-Shades of LoveAcorn Media has released a set of 4 DVDs titled “Shades of Love” (2011), based on works by Rosamunde Pilcher, writer of romances. While I know that many viewers will like this 4-part miniseries because of its fine acting (with one exception) and beautiful Scottish locations, I could not build up any enthusiasm at all during the six hours of running time. Possibly, I just dislike the genre; but all I can give is my opinion.

Just to set the stage, there are two upper class families. At Bainard House are Edmund and Virginia Aird (Charles Dance and Eleonore Weisgerber) and their children, Henry (Liam Evans-Ford), Alexa (Susanna Simon), and Laura (Rebeca Night).  Alexa is married to the unpleasant villain of the piece, Noel (Adrian Lukis). In residence is also Edmund’s mother Violet (Eileen Atkins), who like so many characters in this sort of story, will do anything to cover up any unpleasantness for the sake of the family’s reputation.

At Balmerino, we have Archie and Isobel (Anthony Higgins and Harriet Walter). Their son Hamish (Johannes Zirner) is in love with Laura but unwilling to declare his feelings, and their daughter Lucilla (Susan Anbeh), while Alexa’s best friend, is having an affair with Noel. And add to the mixture Archie’s sister Pandora, who died before the story begins.

At the start of the first part, a man named Conrad Tucker (Michael Brandon) sees a picture of Laura in a magazine and is sure she is really his daughter. Further along the way, yet another character discovers a love-child named Olivia (Esther Schweins). And rotten Noel blackmails someone to be voted in as Chairman of the Board in Edmund’s company, a post slated for Henry.

And so on and so on.

All of this would be just fine, if only the characters were more interesting. This whole tale is plot-driven when it should be character-driven. They all act predictably and even the rat Noel holds no surprises. Iago and Richard III are fun; Noel is simply predictable.

The cast does what they can with the roles as written and do a good job as they go from one romance cliché to another. The rotten apple is Rebecca Night as Laura. Sorry, but I find her a terrible actress with a voice that is like the sound of feet slushing through a marsh. And since she is a central character, I began to find all the scenes in which she appears grating. But that is my opinion and many are bound to disagree.

Each episode runs 91 minutes and there are subtitles.

“Hee Haw” Thrives on Bad Jokes and Country Music

A-Hee Haw“Hee Haw” Thrives on Bad Jokes and Country Music

In 1969, a summer replacement was needed for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and some brain(s) came up with the idea of a corn-fed version of “Laugh-In.” Featuring the residents of Kornfield Kounty, it was called “Hee Haw” and was hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark. It was a smash. And now five of its 55-minute episodes are available in a set of 3 DVDs from Time Life with the title “The Hee Haw Collection.”

The format of each show consisted of an introduction by Owens and Clark, a string of horrible jokes, and nine country and western numbers. The singers heard in this collection are Grandpa Jones, The Hagers, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Gordie Tapp, Donna Fargo, Tommy Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Charlie Rich, Ramona Jones, Dottie West, Susan Rae, and Hank Williams Jr.

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Hosts Owens and Clark

Never a fan of this kind of music, I found the numbers pleasant and after a while hard to distinguish from one another. On the other hand, jokes like

She: Sorry I ran over your hog. I’ll replace it.

            He: You know you can’t. You ain’t fat enough

do make you guffaw because of their sheer awfulness. My favorite is the one about the man who was so fast that he could turn off a bulb and get into bed while it was still light. Okay, not exactly Oscar Wilde but it was not intended to be. There are also some clever cartoon characters in the same scenes as the humans, a device used mostly to emphasize the badness of the joke. Cute.

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Grandpa Jones

I tried to get the names of the comic characters but they were quickly named at the end of each episode with no printed cast list. Wikipedia has a long list of all those who appeared over the years and the reader will have to settle with that.

The five programs included were aired (in the order given) on 12-17-69, 10-16-71, 2-24-73, 12-31-69, and 1-28-70. There are also bonus features of interviews for those interested.  The last disc also has “All-Time Favorites,” “Hee Haw Classics,” and “Special Comedy Selections.”

All in all, recommended for those who like the music and chortle over cornfield humor. But it never pretends to be more than it is and they are all so genial that one can just switch off one’s mind and enjoy.

 

A “Macbeth” to Avoid

A “Macbeth” to Avoid

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The blood comes from what the director did to Shakespeare

Can you imagine a production of “Macbeth” in which Macbeth gets more laughs than the drunken Porter? Such is the fiasco seen at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, in 2013 when it was decided (it would seemd to perform this great tragedy as a comedy! The results can be seen, if one could stand them, on a Kultur DVD.

Never mind that Macbeth (Joseph Millson) and his Lady Macbeth (Samantha Spiro) simply shout at each other like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Worse still, Millson throws away great climactic lines (such as “Being gone, I am a man again” when Banquo’s ghost exits) as humorous asides. There is not an ounce of the poetry that makes Shakespeare worth doing. I have seen many a bad production of this play by amateurs, but I never expected to see one this bad by professionals at the restored Globe. Perhaps this director will have a future staging ludicrous versions of operas, which seems to be the fashion nowadays.

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Perhaps the Director had this couple in mind

The cauldron scene is done without a cauldron and no ingredients to drop into it. Just  lot of the smoke to annoy the audience sitting close by. And if Macbeth, as I said, gets more laughs than the drunken Porter, that is also because the Porter gets no laughs at all! Who allowed this production to go through?

And although the notes on the jewel case say there are subtitles in several languages, there are none.

It’s Mapp vs. Lucia Again in Acorn Reissue

It’s Mapp vs. Lucia Again in Acorn Reissue

   downloadBritish humor is something else again. You probably know the character of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Boo-kay”) on “Keeping Up Appearances” and how funny-repulsive her self-centered, social-climbing personality is. Well, picture two of them (minus the slapstick) at war with each other in a small English town back in 1930 and you have a good idea of what makes “Mapp and Lucia, Series 1 and 2” such an entertaining miniseries. It has  been reissued in a 4-DVD set from Acorn Media. However, no subtitles have been added.

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E.F. Benson

Based on books by E.F. Benson, this series tells the story of the social leader Lucia Lucas (Geraldine McEwan) who rents from Elizabeth Mapp (Prunella Scales) a modest home in a village called Tilling-on-Sea. When the latter proves to be obnoxious socially, dishonest commercially, and nearly insanely jealous over Lucia’s abilities (real and professed), a series of one-upmanships begins between the two that splits the village into factions and almost always ends with Mapp’s humiliation. Even when a natural disaster binds the two for a long period of time…. But no. You will have to see for yourself.

The first series, I believe, is the more focused one, establishing the rivalry between the two title characters and winding up with the strangest bonding experience (albeit a brief one), thanks to… Again, see for yourself. The second series sees Lucia practically take over the town as Lady Mayor. But the plotting is a bit more scattered than that of series 1; and while charming, it does not bring about as many laughs

McEwan gives us a bubbly Lucia, whose very phoniness endears her to us, mainly because she is so good at it. Scales (yes, it is indeed Mrs. Fawlty herself) is equally perfect as the dowdy Mapp, forever conceding and withdrawing when she sees that Lucia has a temporary upper hand but instantly regrouping and planning revenge even as she gives a toothy smile of friendship.          .

imagesEqually memorable is the Georgie Pillson of Nigel Hawthorne (King George III, Sir Humphrey in the “Prime Minister” series, and countless other character roles). He plays the effeminate friend of Lucia just this side of camp, an utterly lovable old thing whose feelings for Lucia are strongly positive (but sexually ambiguous); but he can still stand his ground when he feels she is wrong. A truly believable character as Hawthorne plays it.

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Marion Mathie as another domineering character in the Rumpole series

The other characters in the village are memorable to varying degrees. My favorite is “Quaint” Irene (Cecily Hobbs), obviously infatuated with Lucia and the voice of common sense in Tilling. You might recognize the second actress to play Hilda Rumpole, Marion Mathie, as the wealthy Mrs. Wise, while others supporting players have appeared in several British telecasts and films.

Oh, please do give this set a try. But you must accept the elements of British sophisticated humor and do not look for mugging, silly walks, and men in drag. This is a good wine, not canned beer.

Good Star Cast Keep “Tempest” Blowing Along

Good Star Cast Keep “Tempest” Blowing Along

A-SH-Tempest (Globe)I am of two minds with the Shakespeare Globe productions being released on the Kultur DVD label. Some are quite good, one was absolutely horrible, but all have enough good aspects to make them worth watching. One of the latest, a 2013 “The Tempest,” has some excellent points to recommend it.

Roger Allam, having done a superb Falstaff in the two “Henry IV” productions, is here an excellent Prospero. He shows the right balance of anger, humor, remorse, and finally forgiveness, making him dangerous and sympathetic at the same time. Jessie Buckley’s Miranda is costumed as a somewhat wild thing, which makes sense, and beautifully shows her wonder at the creatures who appear in her “brave new world.”

While the Ariel of Colin Morgan seems too solid—the role is often played by a small actress or a dancer—the Caliban of James Garnon is the best I have seen. Without any animal-like makeup or costuming, he looks like a dirty denizen of some bog and yet the actor has a face and delivery that elicits sympathy. An original and impressive interpretation of a problematic character.

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Miranda and Ferdinand

Joshua James does not look like a romantic Ferdinand (well, Miranda does say that he is only the third man she has ever seen!) and the role is played for laughs. As usual at the Globe, the comic scenes are overdone; although the script does call for a lot of farcical doings between the clownish Stephano (Sam Cox) and Trinculo (Trevor Fox) and then between them and Caliban.

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Clowns meet monster

The rest of the cast are good, although some of their lines are rushed and points are lost. Having decided to use a full script, the director failed an important test. In one scene, there is a series of jokes made about the “widow Dido,” none of which are comprehensible as spoken. Since we know that “widow Dido” was pronounced Wid-doh Did-doh in Shakespeare’s time, that alone would have gotten the laughs sorely needed in that sequence.

And as in every production of this play I have seen, the words of the spirits of Iris, Ceres, and Juno were rattled off with no attention to meaning. Worse, one of the actresses had a voice like a rusty hinge that detracted further from both the beauty of the verse and the meaning of the words. Directors, take heed!

But all in all, the Goods outweigh the Bads in this production, and I can recommend it to those interested in Shakespeare and especially to those local theatre groups who can learn much from these Kultur discs.

A Gripping Miniseries Comes from Australia: “A Place to Call Home”

 

A Gripping Miniseries Comes from Australia

A-Place to Call HomeIt is 1953 and Nurse Sarah Adams (Marta Dusseldorp) is aboard ship on her way back to Australia. By chance, she saves the newly married James Bligh (David Berry) from suicide. This triggers the actions and reactions that make “A Place to Call Home” such a gripping miniseries, yet another superlative one from Australia. Series 1 is now available in a 4-DVD set from Acorn Media.

Never have I become so involved with the characters of a series, mainly because of its many types of conflicts that are still with us.. But first, a look at the Bligh family. The matriarch, Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst), has two children: George (Brett Climo), a widower, and Carolyn, a free-living “black sheep” of the family. George’s two children are Anna (Abby Earl), who is in love with a wine-farmer’s son, Gino (Aldo Mignone); and the aforementioned James, who is trying to run from his homosexuality.

The saddest character is Olivia (Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood), who was manipulated into marrying James without knowing his problems. In short, every single member of that family is under the influence of Elizabeth, who is a villain of Euripidean proportions, including her weaknesses.

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It is hard to believe that this sweet looking Noni Hazelhurst could be so evil in this series

Outside the family, among others, are Dr. Jack Duncan (Craig Hall), who hires Sarah and who has some sort of past relationship with Elizabeth; and the nosey Doris Collins (Deborah Kennedy), who does what she can to dig up any dirt about Sarah. George’s sister-in-law, Regina (Jenni Baird), who has always loved him, shows up later to plot with Elizabeth against Sarah, cost what it will.

Sarah, after being rejected by her mother for converting to Judaism, goes to Inverness to work as a nurse and runs afoul of Elizabeth, who is afraid that Sarah will reveal what happened aboard the ship. Anna’s affair with Gino has to remain clandestine. Both George and Jack find themselves increasingly attracted to Sarah. Complications next to and within more complications.

One character describes the Blighs as “the closest we have to royalty.” The main themes are treated seriously and by 1953 standards. Many of the townsfolk are anti-Semtitic, homosexuality is considered “curable,” and Marilyn Monroe is a “loose” woman, whose films should not be seen. It is the superb acting and intelligent script that brings it all off.

A nice touch is the frequent use of 1953 “pop” songs on the soundtrack that comment on the action or emotions being shown on the screen.

I was stunned when each subplot was reaching its climax…and the series ended!!!

Each of the 13 episodes runs 46 minutes and there are subtitles.

A-Place to Call Home 2This brings us to Season 2, now out on a 3-DVD set from Acorn Media, which picks up at the crisis points that ended the last episode. I refuse to spoil things for the viewer, but I can mention a few high points.

A new villain, the spoiled womanizer Andrew Swanson (Matt Levett), has his eye on Anna and refuses to give her up (as if she were his to give) to an Italian winegrower. Then there are several harrowing scenes in which a determined doctor is “curing” James of  his “perversity” by electric shocks and aversion therapy. This is in the early 1950s, mind you.

Then the rotten Regina comes up with news about Sarah’s past that even Sarah does not know (and we are told what she did know in a startling revelation). There is a confrontation scene between Mrs. Bligh and Regina which is chilling; and most of the family’s rejecting Mrs. Bligh makes the viewer say “Good for her,” but yet…. Well, watch and see. This is superior viewing in all senses of the adjective.

Each of the 10 episodes runs about 45 minutes and there are subtitles.

An Overblown Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Globe

A-SH-Midsummer (Globe)An Overdone “Midsummer Night’s Dream” from the Globe

There were four major DVDs of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: The 1935 Hollywood version with Dick Powell and James Cagney, the 1968 made-for-television version with Judi Dench and Diana Rigg, the 1981 entry in the BBC Shakespeare series, and the 1999 film version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Now there is a fifth DVD from Kultur of a 2013 production given at Shakespeare’s Globe that could have been the best. But for some reason Artistic and Stage Director Dominic Dromgoole has decided that beautiful poetry beautifully read is not what modern audiences want. For example, I want you, if possible, to listen to Oberon’s’ passage “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” read by Victor Jury (1935) and Ian Richardson (1968) and then compare them to the angry shouting of John Light, who was directed to make the lines sound as commonplace as possible.

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Oberon and Puck in the Globe production

Indeed, Michelle Terry, his Titania, is also angry throughout her scene with Light; and again much or all of the poetry is lost. Since these leads double as Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Terry is still defiant towards her mate, except that as Hippolyta, she seems to enjoy annoying Theseus. It is only in their closing lines as Oberon and Titania that they finally calm down and give a slow reading to describe the witching hour and bless the house.

The two sets of lovers—Sarah MacRae (Helena), Olivia Ross (Hermia), Joshua Silver (Demetrius), and Luke Thompson (Lysander)—know what they are about, when the Director lets them respect the script.

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Titania and temporary lover
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Quigley, an interesting Bottom

The rude mechanicals are given far too much silly business and even more ad libs. Whenever possible, they break into a clog dance (once even on grass!). Probably having James Cagney’s over-the-top histrionics in mind, Pearce Quigley is directed to read Bottom’s lines in the most casual way. It is different and somehow it works. But during the actual performance of “Pyramus and Thisby,” he is allowed to utter an obscenity; Fergal McElherron as Peter Quince is given far too many extra lines, and indeed the whole sequence is twice as long as it should be.

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Not what Elizabethans thought of when they heard “stones”

There is one dirty joke that only a Shakespeare scholar will get. When the Wall realizes there is no hole through which the separated lovers can kiss, he punches one right in front of his crotch. So when Thisby declaims, “My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones,” the original audience must have rolled in the aisles. (Oh, if you don’t get the joke, look up what “stones” meant in bawdy Elizabethan.)

So while this is certainly the liveliest of all the versions, it loses much of the poetry and adds too much “humor” to the script. Shakespeare does not need help.

The running time is 172 minutes and there are no subtitles.

Lovejoy Series Comes to an End

“Lovejoy” Series Comes to an End!

A-Lovejoy 6And thus ends a most delightful British comedy/mystery series! The 10 episodes that comprise “Lovejoy, Series 6” in a set of three Acorn Media DVDs are just as enjoyable as all that went before them. And the final one, “Last Tango in Lavenham,” gives the series as a whole an ending filled with plot twists, each of which defies expectation—right up to the last frame.

Lovejoy (Ian McShane), as you must know by now, is an antiques dealer with the rare talent of being a “divvy,” one who can tell a fake from a genuine antique at a glance. He is also an example of the trickster of myth—right there in the company of Loki, Scaramouche, and Bugs Bunny—who is never averse to skirting what is legal in the trade to bring the Bad Guys to book.

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McShane in an earlier role as Disraeli

After the departure of two major characters in a past series, the charming Lady Jane (Phyllis Logan) and the bumbling Eric (Chris Jury), Lovejoy took on the pert and intelligent young Beth (Diane Parish) and became involved professionally and emotionally with the auctioneer Charlotte (Caroline Langrishe). Happily, his never quite sober assistant Tinker Dill (Dudley Sutton) remained with him to supply more humor to the proceedings.

Hints of how this last season was to end come early when Tinker announces he wants to run a pub and Beth announces she is looking for better things. As the 6th series goes on, Lovejoy is considering at least the possibility of marrying Charlotte, who also has plans that include her moving to the United States. One crisis after the other…until that final episode.

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John Bardon

I do miss the character Charlie Gimbert, Lovejoy’s comic-villainous rival antique dealer and all around pain in the neck; but the appearance in one episode of his equally crooked father, delightfully played by John Bardon, nearly makes up for the son’s absence. The reappearance of Lady Jane in “Last Tango in Lavenham” and the cameo reappearance of Eric add to the charm and even sadness of the end of a most unusual and popular series.

I cannot help repeating from past reviews how alike most police and mystery series are and how much depends on the personality of the leading actor. The best example is John Nettles in the original “Midsomer Murders” series, who was simply a likable person. Then came all those half shaven misfits with all sorts of personal baggage to slow down the plots.

Well, Lovejoy was not only likable but the world of antiques dealing added to the viewers’ interest. He will be missed.