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Tag Archive: public television


Smee as Richard III

Three huzzahs for historical re-enactor Domenic Smee, a 26-year old from England who has become part of the coolest event in non-fiction television in years, revealing that a skeletal deformity may not necessarily result in a disability, and a king may have been equal to the legend that he left behind.

You may recall the September 2012 archaeological dig in a parking lot that resulted in the confirmed find of the bones of King Richard III, who was said to have died bravely during the Wars of the Roses at the Battle of Bosworth Field against Henry Tudor and the Lancasters.  The discovery pulled together nearly every branch of science, and scientists even were able to create a 3D image of the famous king from Shakespeare’s play (“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York”).  We at borg.com listed the discovery as the Best Science News of 2013.

King Richard III printed bust

Now scientists have gone even further to get us to the truth behind the legend of this great king of 1485, revealed on Public Television’s Secrets of the Dead series episode “Resurrecting King Richard III.”  We thought the initial story from February 2013 that used DNA from a known distant descendant of the King’s royal line to prove the bones were indeed Richard III’s was incredible enough–the odds of locating a discarded or misplaced body and finding it 500 years later and not only identifying it, but identifying it as a famous king… it’s astronomical.

The bones of Richard III included a very disfigured spine–scoliosis.  Was the legendary story and contemporary accounts accurate?  Could he really have led the battle and fought so well in armor with such a condition?  When a researcher was airing a show in England on the king’s scoliosis, Domenic Smee was watching.  Turns out he has the rare scoliosis the king had, and he volunteered to be tested to see what physical limits the king may have experienced.

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Lightfields generations

So far the Gothic and ghostly Marchlands and Lightfields series have only aired in the UK, available to U.S. audiences only if you buy a European boxed set for an international DVD player from a source such as eBay or Amazon.co.uk.  We did just that and reviewed the superb first series in our review of Marchlands here earlier this year.  This past February the next installment of the multi-generational ghost story set in a common British manor, Lightfields, introduced a new cast of characters, new time periods and a new home as setting.  The new five-installment series is certain to please fans of the first series, adding a more intricately woven plot and plenty of surprises.  No word yet when these series will make it to the States, but when they do you’ll know to program the DVR accordingly.

As with Marchlands, Lightfields follows three sets of families in a manor house, all interconnected by a common event in the past.  For Lightfields it is 1944, 1975, and 2012.  In 1944 we meet the Felwoods, a typical British rural family during wartime.  A girl named Eve (The Golden Compass’s Dakota Blue Richards) has come up to escape from the London blitz, befriending the seventeen-year-old Felwood daughter Lucy (Antonia Clarke).  One year Lucy’s senior, Lucy flaunts her maturity prompting Lucy to be drawn to an American serviceman (Neil Jackson, Quantum of Solace, White Collar, How I Met Your Mother, Stargate SG-1) looking only for a fling while on R&R.  Lucy is at the core of the ghost story, dying in a barn fire at the beginning of the series.  Why she was in the barn, who else saw what happened, and who caused the fire are the questions ultimately revealed in the well-plotted mystery of Lightfields.

Lightfields Henry Mills as young pip and Dakota Blue Richards

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Mr Selfridge promo

PBS’s Masterpiece Classic is now playing a period television drama mini-series about Harry Gordon Selfridge and his London department store Selfridge & Co.  It was produced by ITV Studios for ITV and PBS and is much longer than your typical British mini-series, where you’re often lucky to see three episodes (such as the brilliant but too short series Zen).  You’ll see plenty of comparisons to Downton Abbey from reviewers but they are all wrong.  Where Downton is steeped in the dramatic of a restricted age, Mr. Selfridge is a rollercoaster of movement and progress.  Led by Jeremy Piven here totally in his element as a forward-thinking business man with ideas to spare and never enough money to accomplish everything he wants to do, this BBC mini-series is a chronicle of progress in a place everyone knows well–the department store.  Ever wonder why the perfume counter is at the front of Macy’s and JC Penney’s?  Why make-up is sold with perfume but gloves with hats and belts?  Things that now seem trivial once had real meaning because of social mores of a bygone era.

Mr Selfridge Jeremy Piven

Jeremy Piven gets to play a character we love to see him play.  He’s flourishing in a world that seems like the Macy’s of Miracle on 34th Street to modern audiences but his department store goes back decades farther into the past.  Lucky for viewers and Piven, Selfridge was an American, so no need to trip over feigned British accents. Piven gets to be a showman with arms wide open to every customer and every prospective vendor, partner, investor, and even an ambitious show girl.

Piven never disappoints, and shines in the varied roles he takes.  Early in his career that meant a variety of smarmy types, but he’s grown on us, and his trying-too-hard characters often end up endearing instead of loathed.  Piven snuck up on us bit by bit in small roles in Lucas and a pile of John Cusack films: Bob Roberts, Elvis Stories, Floundering, One Crazy Summer, Say Anything…, The Grifters, Grosse Pointe Blank, Serendipity, and Runaway Jury.  But it wasn’t until Judgment Night, where Piven’s smarmy and cocky Ray Cochran tries to use his negotiation skill to save (unsuccessfully) a group of friends who take a wrong turn, that viewers really took note of this actor.  Then the Drake University-trained actor starred in PCU, and got to do his own Animal House film with a twist on Tim Matheson’s Eric Stratton–a classic cult favorite today.

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Marchlands cast - can you find Alice

With a television series featuring Doctor Who and Arrow’s Alex Kingston, Life on Mars’s Dean Andrews, Luke Skywalker’s pal Wedge Antilles, and the lead actress from Attack the Block, you just can’t go wrong.  And it’s really hard to beat an old British cottage near the woods as the setting when you’re creating a ghost story.  Add to it one of borg.com’s most discussed subjects: a movie about a creepy little girl, and you’re in for a good show.  That could not be more true than with the UK mini-series Marchlands.  UK production company ITV and 20th Century Fox created an expertly constructed five-part, supernatural drama mini-series that traverses three families living in different eras in the same British house.

Marchlands title card

Marchlands first aired in the UK in 2010, but it hasn’t been released in the States yet. In fact the only way to view it is to buy it from a British online retailer along with a DVD player that will play DVDs from Europe.   Along with watching all the other series from the UK long before they cross the lake to America, going the extra mile to get access to these series is well worth the effort.

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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is a superhero of sorts to science fans everywhere.  He’s one of the best scientists anywhere at explaining the mysteries of science in a way anyone can understand.  Now he’s helped Superman find the possible location of his home planet, Krypton in a great mash-up of science fiction meets science fact.  Dr. Tyson, longtime star of borg.com favorite TV series NOVA Science Now on Public Television, teamed up with DC Comics to locate a star close enough to Earth that could fall under all the criteria published over the years about the place where Superman’s parents sent him on the voyage that ultimately led to a cornfield outside Smallville, Kansas.  Tyson will make his debut comic book appearance in Action Comics Issue #14, released this week.

Red dwarf LHS 2520 fit the bill, and can be located via telescope in the southern sky in the constellation Corvus the crow, 27.1 light years from Earth at the following coordinates:

J2000
Right Ascension: 12 hours 10 minutes 5.77 seconds
Declination: -15 degrees 4 minutes 17.9 seconds
Proper Motion: 0.76 arcseconds per year, along 172.94 degrees from due north

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If you are a fan of Doctor Who or Batman or Star Trek or The Lord of the Rings, there is really only one series that should top your TV viewing list right now.  And that series is Sherlock, airing Sundays on Public Television.  This week’s episode charged past even the original three episodes produced by the BBC that first aired more than two years ago.  We’ve waited a long time for the series’ return and we couldn’t have been happier with the result.  A stunningly good plot based on a classic Holmes story, introducing an enchanting new character, and as much Holmes and Watson verbal sparring as you could pack in one week’s time slot.

Why watch Sherlock?  Let’s count down some reasons.

1.  Sharp writing.  The show is smartly written by the best current TV writer anywhere—Steven Moffat.  Moffat has been dazzling us with the best stories on TV including 20 episodes of Doctor Who, and his stories are always interesting, even exciting, and always full of twists and turns.  Moffat has written episodes of Sherlock, including this Sunday’s episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” and next week’s episode “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”  With all the drama are equal doses of laugh-out-loud humor.  You will laugh at Sherlock’s oddities and Watson’s dumbfounded expressions.  I can’t think of a better written series since the original Life on Mars, and this week’s episode is one of the best stand alone TV episodes you’ll ever see.  If you think I am exaggerating, I just dare you to watch this week’s show and tell me I am wrong.

2.  A modernized classicSherlock?  The British show on Masterpiece Theater?  Make no mistake: This isn’t Masterpiece Theater of the past.  This is no stodgy series re-hashing old plots.  Yes, the stories are rooted in the original works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but the updating to today is brilliant and artfully done.  This Sherlock and Watson get to excite a new generation of fans to the sleuthing and detective mind of Holmes, only using the modern technologies and investigative methods—some methods even ahead of their time as only a guy named Sherlock Holmes could do.

3.  The acting.  What other TV series has the soon-to-be biggest performers in the blockbusters of tomorrow?  Usually once an actor makes it big he leaves TV and doesn’t turn back.  But for right now Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Watson’s Martin Freeman are still doing TV and it will be among their best works no matter what they do from here on.  Freeman and Cumberbatch also make for great old fashioned buddy cops.  Like the masterful ensemble cast of the A&E series Nero Wolfe and the TNT series The Closer, the supporting cast of Sherlock is fun to come back to visit each week in their own right.

4.  You like Batman.  Who doesn’t?  How many writers of some of the all-time best Batman stories were inspired by Doyle’s classic detective?  If you’ve read Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Batman: Hush, the 19th century Holmes permeates every inquisitive angle of the Dark Knight Detective’s sleuthing.  And it’s not just Batman.  The New 52’s Batgirl series includes an updated Barbara Gordon who is in many ways yet another Holmes in training.  If you like the Mystery in Masterpiece Mystery, you will find yourself sucked into the plot and trying to beat the master detective as he follows the clues of each week’s quandary.

5.  You like comic book style.  The “special effect” of printing words on the screen as Sherlock moves from location to location, indicating the speed and scope of Sherlock’s genius mind should be familiar to comic book readers’ world of thought balloons and sprawling visual effects using words.

6.  You like The Lord of the Rings.  If you like The Lord of the Rings like me, you’ve probably continued to follow the cast members who played the characters in the trilogy in their projects after the movie.  Why not start early with the new star of The Hobbit, Martin Freeman, Sherlock’s Dr. John Watson?  And Benedict Cumberbatch, who will be the voice of Smaug in part 2 of The Hobbit?

7.  You like Star Trek.  Khhaaaannnn!  One day it’s “official” the next day it isn’t and the studio’s PR machine isn’t helping quell rumors, but whether or not Benedict Cumberbatch will reprise Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, he is some type of villain in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, next year’s 12th film in the Star Trek franchise.  No matter how loyal you are to the late great Montalban, no matter how much of a traditional Trekker or Trekkie you consider yourself, you, too, will be convinced by Cumberbatch’s ability to take on any role by watching his performance as Holmes.

8.  You like Doctor Who.  I’ve already mentioned Steven Moffat writing the series above, but if you want to get a glimpse at the only actress rumored to be among the first considered to replace Matt Smith as the first female Doctor, you need look  no further than the stunning performance  by Lara Pulver as Irene Adler in Sunday’s first episode of the second season.  And heck, True Blood and Robin Hood fans will like seeing Pulver here, too!

9.  You’re an anglophile.  Doesn’t the mere sight of the London Eye ferris wheel at the beginning of each Sherlock episode want you to go buy plane tickets?  And this week’s story took place in part in Buckingham Palace.  What more could you want?  And if you like James Bond, who ever was a better ringer for Ms. Moneypenny, fawning over the great 007 spy, than Sherlock’s poor coroner Molly Hooper, and her unrequited love for Holmes?

10.  You believe that “brainy is the new sexy.”  Hey, it’s not my quote.  Just watch this week’s episode.

It’s one of the lamest marketing messages I’ve ever read, and many shows have used it before, but basically I’ll use it here because it applies: “there is simply no reason not to watch” Sherlock.   And every reason to watch it.

C.J. Bunce

Editor

borg.com

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

borg.com