Tag Archive: British TV


Sam and Gene

My name is Sam Tyler.  I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973.  Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?  Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.

First off, it’s really going to rile some people when you pronounce something the greatest ever.  But we’re talking here about the British television series Life on Mars.  And not just Life on Mars, but The Empire Strikes Back of television series, Ashes to Ashes.  You can quibble with M*A*S*H or Law and Order or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Twilight Zone, or engage you people over there shouting Firefly and Supernatural and the others over there fighting over the best Star Trek series–but we’re talking about Life on Mars here.  And if you’ve watched its two seasons in 2006 and 2007, or the three seasons of Ashes to Ashes from 2008 to 2010, then the news that another chapter of the series is in the works is the kind of happy news that can actually distract you from the real world right now.

Yet it’s true.  Life on Mars co-creator Matthew Graham confirmed it all yesterday as part of a Twitter “watch-along” of the first episode of the genre-bending series for the UK audience.  Graham first hinted at the possibility in a Tweet he posted Tuesday promoting the event, and he provided more details after the show.  Just like over the past 15 years, Brits posted how much they loved the series, how they believe it to be the best series ever made.  The series follows John Simm (Doctor Who, State of Play) as Sam Tyler, a British cop in 2006 who is working on a case when he is hit by a car.  He awakens in the same police station 33 years earlier, in the year 1973.  He knows he’s unstuck in time, but unsure how he got there.  Is he in a coma?  Did something supernatural take over?  Is this what death is like?  This is where the genre-bending begins.  Until you’ve watched all five years of episodes, you won’t really know what is the true genre behind the genres hinted at in the series.  Tyler befriends and shares his situation only with co-worker Annie Cartwright, played by Liz White (Doctor Who, The Woman in Black).  He finds he is now working under the cantankerous Detective Police Inspector Gene Hunt, played by Philip Glenister (Cranford, Horatio Hornblower), one of my picks of the greatest characters of all time (seriously, I wrote about it here eight years ago).  DCI Hunt becomes the centerpiece of this strange world, continuing past the second season of Life on Mars to co-star in the same role in Ashes to Ashes along with Keeley Hawes (Doctor Who, The Bank Job), a police officer named Alex Drake who is shot in 2008 and wakes up in 1981.  Life on Mars continued with Ashes to Ashes much like The Closer continued with the series Major Crimes for U.S. audiences, swapping out the lead roles, but continuing with the rest of the cast.  Here that included two other cops, played by Dean Andrews (Father Brown, Marchlands) and Marshall Lancaster (Doctor Who, Casualty) who appeared in all five seasons.

Ashes

During yesterday’s watch-along, Graham peppered Twitter with glimpses at what lies ahead in what he called, The Final Chapter.  Although he didn’t say if any actors had confirmed returning, it seems impossible anyone would make this announcement without buy-in from Glenister, Simm, Hawes, White, Andrews, and Lancaster.  To that point he said, “we intend to get as many back (across both decades) as we can.  So when you wonder who will be coming back for The Final Chapter – think Avengers Assemble!”  He specifically referenced wanting Annie (Liz White) back, and Hunt’s boss DCI Litton.  Graham mentioned the series will be set in Manchester and London, partially in the 1970s, partially in the 1980s, but mostly in an alternate now, all running for four or five episodes.  “I’d like to tell you that in The Final Chapter there will be a TV show WITHIN our TV show.  TYLER: MURDER DIVISION,” adding, “We would never make another Mars unless we really had something to say and could push the envelope all over again.  Finally we have something.”  While watching a classic scene in the first episode, co-creator Ashley Pharoah Tweeted, “I wonder if Phil and John could jump over that desk now?  I guess we’ll find out”.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

We’re always on the lookout for the next great British/Irish/Scottish/UK police procedural or mystery, after the next Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes, Hinterland or Shetland, Marchlands or Lightfields, Zen or Quirke, or, of course, Sherlock.  So the pay-channel Starz releasing a late-year mystery series called Dublin Murders was going to get our attention.  Filmed in Belfast and Dublin, with a noir sensibility–dark places, mysterious characters, and murder–the series has the potential to be a good detective series.  Billed as an “eight-part mystery series with a taproot that drops deep down into Ireland’s past, foreshadows the present and brings insight to its future,” the story follows Sarah Greene as Cassie Maddox and Killian Scott as Rob Reilly, homicide detectives on the trail of the murderer of a school girl.  The murder was similar–too similar–to a murder in the city’s past.

Maddox and Reilly appear appealing enough at first.  They share a secret of the past that would get them fired had anyone found out: Reilly isn’t really Reilly, but the alter ego of the sole survivor of the crime years ago that resulted in two missing friends, never to be found.  Unfortunately he’s a witness who can’t remember, and by all accounts he shouldn’t be involved with this investigation because of his clear conflict of interest.  Merged with his pursuit of the person behind the missing kids and the recent murder is a story of Maddox’s history catching up with her.  As a child her parents were killed in an auto accident, and to deal with it mentally she invented an imaginary friend she named Lexie.  As an undercover cop, she took on the name Lexie as her alter ego.  Now she and one of her former colleagues stumble upon another murder, a woman who looks just like Cassie.  And surprise: her name is Lexie.  Always waiting for the possibility that we’ve stumbled into an unreliable narrator series, ultimately that’s not the case, the woman was real and not something we’re seeing through Maddox’s imagination.  But the series stumbles for other reasons.

Based on the first two novels of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels, In the Woods and The Likeness, a key problem is combining the stories from two books to make into one season of television–stories that have little to do with each other.  Both cops have these common stories involving dual personas so it’s easy to see how someone thought it might work.  But it doesn’t.  The first three episodes develop the characters, but suddenly they lose their personalities.  The quiet, likeable, and sympathetic Reilly becomes a jerk, a supremely angry and mean protagonist pushing away Maddox and everyone else and leaving the audience with little to care about from his plot thread.  Maddox has the same collision of character–once admirable and mostly by-the-book, she turns into a nasty character, bitter and horrible to those who care about her.  As Reilly becomes trapped in a development of his own making, Maddox agrees to a job with her former colleague, a preposterous undercover operation impersonating the deceased Lexie in order to discover her murderer.

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Growing up in the United States, I never quite understood British TV, not from a language angle, but from a choice of subject matter angle.  Long before BBC America, the only real exposure for decades was public television, which limited you to made-for-television Agatha Christie and Poirot or shows about priests or wacky but hard to decipher comedies.  To this day I still don’t see what’s so funny about Monty Python.  Don’t get me wrong, I know there are tons of folks that see this as classic material.  But I won’t just dismiss any genre of comedy. I keep coming back for more.

“A wise man changes his mind. A fool never does.”

In light of the above maxim, I’ve re-tried Monty Python from time to time.  I just must not be ready for it yet.  I keep re-trying British shows, too—especially those that others view as classics.

Late night programming over the past few decades often exposed Americans to The Benny Hill ShowBenny Hill is bawdy and crude but he is funny at an LOL level.  There’s something Chaplin-like about Benny Hill’s antics.  So maybe Benny Hill is as good as any an introduction to British TV for newbies.

For some 40 years Americans have also been exposed to Doctor Who, in his numerous incarnations, again mainly thanks to public television.  For years I would flip on an episode to give it a try.  I just never figured it out.  I think the strange fashions on the show, particularly as worn by the Doctors, kept me away.  The rare friend liked a particular Doctor and would latch on for a while.  So for some, Doctor Who was a gateway to British TV.  My own getting to like Doctor Who is only incredibly recent, and a subject for a later date, maybe British TV 304: Why you should watch the Doctor.

I have tried A Bit of Fry and Laurie as I started to like Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry after seeing the movie Peter’s Friends, when Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were the then-next big British invasion.  Fry and Laurie’s old show may make you feel like the guy in the room that doesn’t get any of the jokes. (These guys are both funny in other shows).

Then there was Masterpiece Theatre. Alistair Cooke.  Beyond the great trumpet fanfare theme music, what followed were melodramas and mysteries that for me just crawled.  I know a lot of other folks that weren’t so slow to gravitate toward British TV, so some people have gotten hooked this way.

If you like animals, All Creatures Great and Small is a good series that is quaint and still holds up after all these years. It’s the true adventures of a small town British veterinarian.  These shows, based on a series of good books by James Herriot, are a great introduction to British TV.

Another series worth checking out is Monarch of the Glen, a more recent series that takes place in Scotland and has a bit of humor and light drama, but, more than that, it serves as a great travelogue for Scotland.  The cast for this series was great, and the stories not complicated but fun.

So what’s the best introduction for someone who hasn’t quite gotten the bug for British TV yet?  My recommendation is that 30-minute sitcom with the two James Bond actors, that has aired live or in reruns since 1992.  Know which one I mean?

Before the details, I have to say that I think Judi Dench is the best thing that ever happened to British TV.  She is an actress who, at 77 years old now, is as in prime form as any actress in any country.  She was an actress known in England for years but seemed to catapult into the international limelight beginning with her appearance in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V in 1989. At least none of us on this side of the pond saw her before that.  Judi Dench, now Dame Judi Dench, should be credited with popularizing British TV outside of Great Britain.

If you only know Judi Dench as M in the current run of brilliant James Bond movies (she’s been both Pierce Brosnan’s and Daniel Craig’s icy and savvy boss), then you should check out her 1992-2005 ground-breaking series As Time Goes By.  Of all the programs ostensibly “about nothing,” there is no funnier show than the polite but determined banter of Dench’s Jean Pargetter and long lost but newly found mate Lionel, played by Geoffrey Palmer.   It is a show that is elegant in its simplicity, about characters who are plain folk.  As the action genre is concerned, you should recognize Palmer from the new Doctor Who, Ashes to Ashes, and as Admiral Roebuck in another James Bond flick, Tomorrow Never Dies.

Both Dench and Palmer have a stunningly long resume of roles going back decades. Yet both hit their prime when Palmer was 65 and Dench was 58.  By then, their experience, including a lot of professional stage work, allowed them to come across the airwaves and the Atlantic Ocean as relaxed and as down to Earth as any friend in your living room no matter what you do, where you live, and who you are.

What’s As Time Goes By About?  Before we meet the main characters later in life at the beginning of the series, Lionel and Jean were lovers during the Korean War.  They are separated by a misunderstanding—a letter that was sent but did not arrive—and they moved on in their lives marrying others and raising families.  Flash forward.  Lionel is looking for a secretary in Jean’s office.  He meets Jean’s daughter, then Lionel discovers Jean again from this encounter and they reunite.  In short, each episode is about the baggage they both bring to the relationship.  And it is not a lot.  But these little niggling things are always subtlely introduced and before you know it, and in the face of good intentions, almost always result in a major catastrophe, or more aptly, much ado about nothing.

The supporting cast is equally enjoyable—daughter Judy (Moira Brooker) and friend Sandy (Jenny Funnell) are real and accessible to viewers, British or not.  And then there is Alistair (Philip Bretherton), Lionel’s editor and Judy’s on-again/off-again love interest,  a breath of fresh air in every episode.  You can’t not like the guy who is always happy, always a glass half full kind of guy.

The ensemble is great not only for being a leading series with senior actors in the lead roles.  Every episode is funny with a type of humor that is light-hearted, never malicious, never about putting anyone down.  Dench’s Jean makes us laugh through her feigned naivete.  Palmer’s Lionel has a dry, deadpan wit.  It’s just about the funny things that happen to everyone.  And no matter what your age, despite flatly believing all humans are pretty much the same, if you ask yourself whether you really believe that, it’s still worth challenging the thought a bit.  The British and Americans have a common language, a common national history.  Yet we branched off a few hundred years ago.  Like someone was playing a game, maybe God: Let’s see what happend if we split them up…  You can just hear the voice of God like a TV show announcer:  What happens when you take these two countries, pull them a part and bring them back together 200 years later? 

In many ways we are very, very different.  But instead of looking at the differences, it is more fun to check out how we are alike.  To some, you might as well be watching British TV as watching the Spanish Univision channel.  It’s Greek to me.  Then you watch that one show, see that one response, or phrase, or reaction, and slowly get sucked in—we live in different places, our accents are different, but we all have bedrooms and living rooms.  We all have to get along with the guy next door, or even closer, the person in the next room.  Everything we watch and see helps us understand others better and that helps us understand ourselves.  This accessibility, this commonality of the human experience, is why As Time Goes By is a great program for anyone interested in sampling what this British TV thing is all about–to go give it the old college try.  And at some point you might find yourself proclaiming a British TV series as the best series, in any country, ever made.

C.J. Bunce

Editor

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