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.

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.

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.