HE’S BACK!!! Dominic Sandbrook presents the BBC2 series Strange Days: Cold War Britain, part of a season of programmes examining what the Beeb calls the “superpower stand-off” that began after World War II. “Red Dawn”, the first instalment in this three-part series, was packed with more incident, big personalities and creeping paranoia than your average 13-part blockbuster drama. There was no way this story could be anything less than enthralling. So why then did I find myself fixating on the shortcomings of the production and its presenter?
I had watched Dominic’s earlier series The 70s, so it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that he’s still busy overemphasising for Britain. His hammy delivery is the TV equivalent of peppering your sentences with italics and capitals and then ending them with a screamer (that’s an exclamation mark!). After a sobering reminder that Britain has been at war for “five of the last eight decades”, Dominic announced “It was a war that FRAMED all our lives!”. Just in case you didn’t get the point, there was the accompanying frame-shaped hand gesture to ram home his point.
You should also know that Dominic’s documentaries are best watched with a mobile device close by, so that you can Shazam the multitude of musical selections and add them to your playlist. Beginning with the silky smooth tones of Julie London singing “Our Day Will Come”, Strange Days kept throwing new tunes into the mix at the rate of about one every two minutes. Presumably, the programme-makers think that viewers have such a short attention span these days that all factual TV must be edited in the style of a YouTube greatest hits packages. That is sad.
From Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri about the growing threat of the Iron Curtain (“Don’t Fence Me In”), to the Soviet invasion of Hungary a decade later, Strange Days wove together a multitude of storylines. Dowdy postwar Britain was both in thrall to the “special relationship” with glamorous America and living in fear of what Churchill dubbed “the poison peril from the East”.
Not so much Very Reverend as incredibly deluded, Hewlett Johnson “fell in love with Communism in action” in the 1930s.
Then, as now, the British press were quick to turn on foreign visitors who abused the hospitality of our great nation. In November 1945, a tour by the all-conquering Moscow Dynamo football club began with cheers, flowers and record crowds turning up to watch the nimble Russian visitors play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. But before long the newspapers rounded on these “secretive, surly and suspicious” Soviets, whose rough-house antics on the field were as troubling as their connections to the secret police. The visitors responded by accusing the home teams of being “stuck in the past” tactically. Well some things never change.
While the names of Cambridge spies like Burgess and Maclean are written in infamy, I must admit that I wasn’t familiar with another of the Soviet Union’s biggest fans, Hewlett Johnson. Nicknamed the Red Dean of Canterbury, the white-haired Johnson looked like one of those dotty vicar characters you see in Ealing comedies. Not so much Very Reverend as incredibly deluded, Johnson “fell in love with Communism in action” in the 1930s. He was convinced that the tyrannical Stalin was a benign figure, whose policies promised both economic and spiritual salvation. Johnson’s unwavering support was rewarded with the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1951 and perhaps a one-way ticket to Purgatory.
As a red-nosed Dominic Sandbrook stomps across a snowy Red Square, contemplating the unholy alliance between Johnson and Stalin, “Mad about the Boy” plays on the soundtrack. But to borrow a phrase from another Noel Coward song, I think “Mad dogs and Englishmen” would be a better description of this “strange romance between the Soviet tyrant and the Anglican priest”.
London has many museums, but until last week I didn’t realise there was one slap-bang in the middle of Hyde Park Corner. The elegant classical proportions of the Wellington Arch belie the Tardis-like properties of this overlooked landmark. Inside you’ll find the Quadriga Gallery, which is currently hosting English Heritage’s “Brutal & Beautiful” exhibition.
If you’ve seen the BBC4 series, Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past, you’ll already know that this year is the centenary of the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act – the point at which compulsory preservation orders and the “scheduling” of important national monuments came into effect. But you won’t find anything “ancient” in this exhibition, which covers a more recent period in the nation’s ongoing struggle to decide which parts of our rich and varied architectural heritage are worth preserving.
I expected a review of listed buildings since the Second World War to spend a lot of time focusing on concrete. Like many people I have a love/hate relationship with this most unloved of building materials. When I think of 1960s architecture in Britain I find it hard to get past images of ugly shopping centres and Owen Luder’s Gateshead car park (now demolished), which achieved cinematic immortality in the film Get Carter. But I have grown to love London’s Barbican Centre and housing complex – a concrete jungle alleviated by gardens, balconies and my favourite waterside terrace in the City.
“Brutal & Beautiful” does include a striking photo of the Barbican’s Cromwell Tower – flaunting its distinctive “upswept balconies” as it soars into a clear (and perhaps digitally enhanced) blue sky. But there are other late 20th-century buildings here that don’t smack you round the head with their “brutalist” credentials. There’s Sir Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians, which is described on the RCP’s own website as a “modernist masterpiece”. I’ve never been there, but with its Marble Hall and oak panelling (transferred from an earlier RCP building), it looks like the perfect marriage of light and dark, classical and modern.
I haven’t visited Coventry either, but if anything was going to lure me to that corner of the West Midlands it would be Sir Basil Spence’s Cathedral, which features stained glass windows by John Piper and tapestry by Graham Sutherland. Can anything modern possibly rival the magnificence of those Gothic cathedrals that were lucky enough to avoid a direct hit from the Luftwaffe? Well the new Coventry Cathedral is Grade I listed, so its position as an icon of 20th-century ecclesiastical architecture is secure.
On a smaller scale, “Brutal & Beautiful” highlights some lovely examples of domestic architecture that will excite fans of mid-century modernism and cool Scandinavian interiors. I particularly liked the look of Peter Womersley’s Farnley Hey, in West Yorkshire. I’ve just found this listing, which values this four-bedroom “American contemporary style” house, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, at just £575,000.
If I could, I’d buy Farnley Hey and have its York stone flags and camphorwood interiors transported to the overpriced corner of west London where I currently reside. Unfortunately it wasn’t built to be moved – unlike the revolutionary pre-fab homes featured elsewhere in this exhibition.
Even better are the cluster of three houses at Turn End in Buckinghamshire, which feature in one of the exhibition’s three short films. Architect Peter Aldington created this mini-development in the 60s, with his wife Margaret and they still live in The Turn, where garden and living space seem to blend seamlessly into one. It looks magical – a reminder that great modern buildings have character, soul and are fit for purpose.
“Brutal & Beautiful: Saving the Twentieth Century” continues at the Quadriga Gallery, Wellington Arch until 24 November.
After last week I wasn’t sure whether to continue with my blog about C4′s Masters of Sex. There are too many TV recappers out there already, each with their devoted following of snarky commenters. It’s always more fun to just watch and not take notes – a lesson Dr Masters would do well to learn judging by last week’s episode.
So I’d decided to leave the subtext and the sniping to others, but then I saw the opening credits for episode two, “Race to Space”, and changed my mind. I don’t know who was responsible for this jaw-dropping sequence, but it’s the kind of thing those clever people at Digital Kitchen (Dexter, True Blood) might have cooked up. Among other things, it cheekily references one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films of the 1950s.
Movie fans will recall that Hitchcock raised a few eyebrows with the closing moments of his classic “wrong man” thriller, North by Northwest. As the newly wed Mr and Mrs Thornhill (Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint) get down to business on the upper berth of their cosy sleeper cabin, the speeding train is seen disappearing into a tunnel. It’s a suitably climactic sequence, though not exactly subtle. (Compare it with the formal elegance of the Saul Bass-conceived grid that displays the movie’s opening credits.)
No doubt the Master of Suspense would have appreciated the similarly suggestive locomotive shot that forms part of the title sequence of Masters of Sex. But you really have to watch several times (in slow motion) to appreciate the full range of phallic, tumescent, orgasmic and downright in-your-face sexual imagery on display here. You’d have to be as sexually unenlightened as Michael Sheen’s Dr Masters not to get the point of all those exploding champagne corks, rockets, fireworks and rapidly rising baked goods. The cute, copulating, wind-up bunny rabbits (more Durex than Duracell) also set the scene rather nicely.
Talking of Michael Sheen, does anyone else feel there is superficial resemblance between the chameleonic Welsh actor and that ruminating beaver that pops up next to his name?
There’s definitely a keen sense of the humour behind the production of Masters of Sex. That’s just as well, because in “Race to Space” things went from bad to worse for Masters and Johnson, both professionally and personally. The doctor was forced to relocate his sex study from the august surroundings of Washington University (in St. Louis) to a “cathouse on 3rd & Sutter” after someone blew the whistle on his extra-curricular activities. Hooker-with-a-heart Betty (the fabulous Annaleigh Ashford) strong-armed him into giving her a job as a hospital receptionist in return for her co-operation.
Dr (not-so) Masterful’s low moments also included getting arrested and being forced to watch his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) try to inject a little “va va voom” into the marital bedroom. She was also pretty miffed because the dumb-but-handsome Dr Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) had been unceremoniously relieved of his duties as her gynaecologist. “Is this about your sperm count?” asked Haas, as these two alpha males squared up in the elevator and attempted to get territorial over Mrs Masters’s unmentionables.
It wasn’t all hearts and flowers for Virginia (Lizzy Caplan), who was still mulling over Dr Masters’s “unconventional arrangement”/indecent proposal from last week. He fired her in the mistaken belief that she’d betrayed him by blabbing about the study. Meanwhile, slap-happy Dr Haas offered her floral tributes and lame apologies to make up for last week’s brickbat, and there was further criticism of her parenting skills.
This week geeky Henry Johnson (Cole Sand) had his nose in a comic-book Race to Space. His mom really needs to take inspiration from one of her more enlightened (female) colleagues Jane Martin (Heléne Yorke), who was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in the canteen. “We’ll always have Paris.”
In my quest to recapture that elusive Mad Men vibe, I watched the pilot episode of Masters of Sex on Channel 4. This 12-part US drama from Showtime is about the pioneering research on sexuality conducted from 1956 onwards by stuffed-shirt scientist William Masters (played by Michael Sheen) and his trusty (or should that be lusty?) associate Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan).
Judging from the first episode, Masters and Johnson appear to be an awkward fit as colleagues in their clandestine sex lab – let alone potential partners in anything of a more carnal nature. She’s a twice-married mother of two with a refreshingly earthy attitude towards relations with the opposite sex. He’s a respected fertility expert and Nobel Prize aspirant, whose frequent “Nobody understands sex!” outbursts don’t preclude him being blind to the misery of his neglected wife Libby (played by Caitlin FitzGerald). It’s text-book case of physician heal thyself.
By contrast, Showtime and those masters of smut at C4 are a match made in TV heaven. Like those other titans of quality US drama at HBO, Showtime is a cable network that revels in its depictions of sex, nudity, violence, profanity and other behaviour that would have Mary Whitehouse spinning in her grave. Previous Showtime productions have included The Tudors (sex ‘n’ codpieces), Dexter (sex ‘n’ serial killing) and the recently returned Homeland (sex ‘n’ the crazy CIA lady). Channel 4, of course, is the natural home of any show that contains the word sex anywhere in the title – Sex and the City, The Joy of Teen Sex and Sex in a Box.
It’s always hard to judge a series on just one episode, but Masters of Sex does have a few other things going for it. There’s Michael Sheen, the Welsh actor with a penchant for playing larger-than-life figures like Tony Blair, Brian Clough, David Frost and even Jesus Christ (in the 2011 Passion Play). But it was Sheen’s uncannily accurate portrayal of the famously repressed Carry-On star Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa! that sprang to mind as Dr Masters peered through a spyhole at a couple “in the act”. Later, as Masters tried to impress boss Barton Scully (the droll Beau Bridges) with the impressive attributes of his glass dildo (a supersized light saber), I waited for a Williams double entendre to break the tension.
There’s nothing wrong with Sheen’s performance here, but there’s also nothing yet to suggest that his repressed master of medicine Dr Masters will resonate with viewers in the way that Tony Soprano, Walter White or Don Draper have done. In the pilot episode it was Caplan’s resourceful, engaging and (yes) sexually liberated Virginia Johnson who cast a spell over viewers and the dim but handsome Dr Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto). She looked absolutely fabulous in her off-the-shoulder black party dress, until the jilted Dr Haas (“At the end of the day, all you really are is a whore!”) sucker-punched her in the face.
As someone who watched the first series of Mad Men and cringed at the sexist atmosphere in the offices of Sterling Cooper (as it then was), I was pleased to see the mid-50s era women of Masters of Sex standing up for themselves. (Yes, Virginia does smack Dr Haas-been, though he really deserved a swift kick in the gonads.) Dr Masters’s matronly secretary is played by the formidable Margo Martindale (The Americans, Justified) whose body language suggests that her boast – “I grew up on a farm. I’ve beheaded chickens!” – is not an idle one.
The first episode of Masters of Sex contained a fair helping of earnest speechifying about the importance of Dr Masters’s proposed sex research. Some viewers may have felt that this got in the way of the sex scenes and the unresolved sexual tension between Masters and Johnson. Still, there was plenty of humour to lighten the mood, as when a nervous participant in the research is advised, “He’s not watching you, he’s watching science”.
Michael Sheen may not equal Jon Hamm in the pulchritude stakes, but he does have some lovely Sanderson Dandelion Clocks curtains in his handsomely appointed mid-century office. I don’t know whether Masters of Sex will develop into a great drama, but I’m always happy to watch average TV that’s accompanied by classic, mid-century upholstery and a well-shaken martini.
(Masters of Sex continues on Channel 4 on Tuesdays at 9pm.)
The third weekend of September is always the best time of year to be in London. On 21 and 22 September, the annual Open House London event will see the city throw open its doors to anyone with an interest in architecture. For the price of an Oyster card and a few fortifying cups of coffee you can enjoy this celebration of London’s buildings in all their diversity.
Despite what you may have read in the “posh” papers, Open House London isn’t just for architecture snobs or fans of TV property porn (“Double your home and piss off the neighbours”). Veteran broadcaster Joan Bakewell writes of her enthusiasm for this event, which has been running since 1992, but then ruins it all with the fateful words “It attracts the kind of people who watch Channel 4’s Grand Designs”. God, I hope that’s not true.
I loathe C4′s Grand Designs and its smarmy presenter, Kevin McCloud. No doubt some of these home-owners do have unimpeachable taste, vision and a genuine desire to enrich their neighbourhood with great architecture. But against that you have to weigh the weekly parade of rampant egomania, selfishness and lack of fiscal responsibility that characterises many of these schemes. You wouldn’t want to live next door to any of these people, would you?
While high-profile developments like the Shard and Battersea Power always grab the headlines and draw the crowds, they’re not what makes Open House special for me. I’ve been going since 2007 and, as Joan Bakewell also points out, much of the fun lies in discovering what is just around the corner from you.
So while the Grand Designs groupies are queuing to see the next wave of penthouses for philistine Russian oligarchs, I’ll probably be closer to home checking out an architectural curio like Greenside Primary School in W12. It was designed by Erno Goldfinger (he of Trellick Tower fame), and features a colourful mural by Gordon Cullen. More important, my good friend Jo spent her formative years at this school.
Sadly Greenside was the only building I saw last year, in a weekend that started brightly and turned (literally) into a washout. But if you’re well organised and not deterred by bad weather or unreliable public transport, it’s amazing what you can see in London in just a few hours – without getting sucked into expensive tourist traps.
Two years ago I wrote about my visit to Kensington’s Commonwealth Institute, which was about to begin its transformation from a dilapidated 1960s icon to the shiny new home for the Design Museum. On the same day, I also enjoyed the panoramic views and quasi-Mediterranean atmosphere of the Roof Gardens above Kensington High Street.
Then it was on to the Leighton House Museum, the home and studio of Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. Here, as the website enthusiastically proclaims, “East meets West” in the form of the extravagantly designed Arab Hall with its massive chandelier, mosaics, rugs and indoor fountain.
From Victorian eclecticism at its finest, we moved on to the Peter Jones store at Sloane Square, which is better known in my family as the place where Charlie (aged six) buys his LEGO. This branch of John Lewis is used to coping with enthusiastic crowds of Prada-toting bargain hunters elbowing their way through the Kitchen department. On this occasion, though, we’d all come to admire the glass curtain wall of this William Crabtree-designed 1930s building.
This year I’ll be volunteering at the William Morris Society in Hammersmith on Saturday, before heading south of river on Sunday. The Glasshouse, a Terry Farrell-designed residence in Petersham, was on my list last year, but now I’m leaning towards something a bit older, though equally eye-catching in its own way.
I visited Horace Walpole’s newly renovated gothic castle Strawberry Hill House on my birthday a couple of years ago. Though the gardens were still a work in progress and it was a dull November day, the house was magical. So even if it’s not sunny on Sunday, I think a return trip to Strawberry Hill will make Open House London 2013 a vintage year.
Ardent admirers of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy whipped themselves into a frenzy last week over the casting of British actor Charlie Hunnam as Christian Grey* in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s forthcoming movie. They vented their displeasure by starting an online petition that garnered more than 17,000 signatures in the first 24 hours. One FSoG fanatic commented that Hunnam “looks dirty and very unappealing”.
But aficionados of the badass biker saga Sons of Anarchy will probably wonder what they’re complaining about. As SAMCRO President Jax Teller, Hunnam looks as though he styles his hair with axle-grease, when he’s not busy mopping body fluids off his leather “cut”. In the no-holds-barred world of Kurt Sutter’s drama, Jax and his fellow Club members don’t settle their scores through online petitions or trolling on Twitter. Their turf wars with rival gangs are played out in a seemingly endless cycle of bloody violence, interspersed with bouts of unrestrained hugging. I love it.
Charlie Hunnam may not be sufficiently polished or tabloid friendly for FSoG die-hards, but Sons of Anarchy fans will be excited when the show begins its sixth season in the US on 10 September. It will be a while before the new SoA reaches TV screens in the UK, so here are a few reminders of why it should be worth the wait. Warning: there are spoilers ahead.
Abel is the name Jax has tattooed over his left nipple — a handy reminder of his elder son. Presumably he’s got “John Thomas” (his late father) inked somewhere on his nether regions.
Belfast was the location for the climax of season three’s abduction plotline. The death toll was astronomical, the weather was gloomy and Titus Welliver’s accent should have come with a government health warning.
Curtis Stigers & the Forest Rangers perform “This Life”, the Emmy-nominated theme for Sons of Anarchy.
Death in Charming is rarely from natural causes. Poor old Piney got it with both barrels in season four, after falling foul of Clay (the brilliant Ron Perlman). In season five brutality and ingenuity went hand in hand, as a snow globe, a piece of lead piping and a crucifix were all employed to lethal effect.
Erotic entertainment in Charming took a nosedive when the Cara Cara porn studio was torched in season two.
FX is the cable network that broadcasts Sons of Anarchy in the US.
Gun sales provided the Club’s main source of income until they got involved with the Galindo cartel’s cocaine operation in season four. Blinded by a fog of white powder and dollar bills, Clay failed to spot that his new “partners” Romeo Parada (Danny Trejo) and Luis Torres (Benito Martinez) were also in bed with the CIA.
“Happy” (David LaBrava) is the Club’s ironically named go-to guy for what Tony Soprano would have called “wet work” — terminating people with extreme prejudice. In real life, the multi-talented LaBrava is a Hells Angel, tattoo artist and co-writer of the season four episode, “Hands”.
Incest probably wasn’t what Jax had in mind, when he tried to get intimate with his half-sister Trinity Ashby (played by Downton Abbey’s Zoe Boyle) in season three.
“Junkie whore” is the affectionate epithet used by Gemma (Katey Sagal) to describe her ex-daughter-in-law Wendy (played by The Sopranos star Drea de Matteo).
Kozik’s last words were “You’ve gotta be shittin’ me”, as he was blown up by a landmine in “Call of Duty”. Actor Kenny Johnson previously starred as Lem in The Shield, where he was blown up by a hand grenade.
Lyla (Winter Ave Zoli) was the second wife of Opie (Ryan Hurst), though her career as a porn star was a constant source of marital disharmony.
Montages are the lifeblood of SoA, as in the “John the Revelator” epic that accompanied Donna’s funeral in the season one finale.
Nero Padilla (played by Jimmy Smits) is the brothel owner who has supplanted Clay in Gemma’s affections.
Otto Delaney (Kurt Sutter) is a jailed member of SAMCRO, with an eye patch, a high pain threshold and penchant for auto-mutilation. Don’t Google “Otto Delaney tongue” unless you have a strong stomach.
Patching over is the process by which one gang is taken over by another.
Q‘orianka Kilcher plays Kerrianne, daughter of Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) and Fiona and step-daughter of the evil Jimmy O’Phelan.
Reaper logo – worn with pride.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is referenced in the titles for the final two episodes of season four: “To Be, Act 1″ and “To Be, Act 2″. Elements of the show’s plot – including Gemma’s complicity with Clay in the murder of her first husband John Teller – have often drawn comparisons with the Bard’s most celebrated work.
Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff) is Jax’s long-suffering spouse and the mother of his second son, Thomas. If Dr Knowles had stuck to paediatrics rather than prison visits and Club politics, she wouldn’t be languishing in jail for her part in Otto’s brutal slaying of Nurse Toric.
Unser (played by Dayton Callie), was once Police Chief of Charming, but now spends his days in a caravan pining for Gemma.
“Vengeance is mine” would make an appropriate SAMCRO motto – if it wasn’t a quote from the Bible.
Warning: “This programme contains strong language, strong violence, drugs and nudity from the outset.”
eXpurgated – despite the show’s reputation for wall-to-wall profanity, the F-word is never used.
“You’re gonna die at the gavel!”. Opie failed to make good on his promise, as Clay survived the Clubhouse shooting at the climax of season four.
Zobel (Adam Arkin) was the cigar-shop proprietor, white supremacist and mastermind behind the campaign to run SAMCRO out of Charming in season two. He turned out to be an FBI informant.
* On 12 October it was announced that Charlie Hunnam had dropped out of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Kerry Packer is an unstoppable force of nature, who spews out expletives and dispenses wads of cash at an equally alarming rate.
BBC presenter John Inverdale continues to attract almost as many column inches as our new Wimbledon Champion, Andy Murray. The Guardian alone could probably fill a 24-page supplement with scathing condemnations of the man who obviously felt Marion Bartoli wasn’t slim, glamorous or sufficiently Eastern European to grace Centre Court last Saturday. To borrow a withering put-down from Judi Dench’s “M”, Inverdale is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”. But those who think it should be “all ova” for him at the Beeb are going to be disappointed. He’ll be flaunting his reptilian charm, “helmet” hair and dubious taste in shirts on the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon 2014.
Inverdale would probably have fitted in well at Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine, back in the even more sexist, misogynist and prehistoric 1970s. As the Great British Summer of Sport rolled into the Ashes series, Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, smashed its way onto BBC4, a channel usually associated with high-minded documentaries and subtitled movies.
This two-part Australian miniseries covers a turbulent period in the history of cricket, when overbearing, foul-mouthed media tycoon Kerry Packer (played by Lachy Hulme) went to war over TV rights with the stuffed-shirt administrators running the game. He procured the services of top players like Ian and Greg Chappell, Rodney Marsh and England captain Tony Grieg, with promises of big financial rewards. In doing so, he created the short-lived World Series Cricket – a brash, lucrative and star-studded rival to the existing international cricket competitions.
You don’t have to know much about cricket – let alone Australian cricket – to appreciate this show as low-budget sporting melodrama of the highest order. Lachy Hulme summons the spirit of the late Larry Hagman in the role of the TV mogul everyone loved to hate. Backed into a corner by a cadre of national cricket boards and the ICC, Packer is an unstoppable force of nature, who spews out expletives and dispenses wads of cash at an equally alarming rate. Sir Alex Ferguson’s “hairdryer” treatment would look like a mild dressing down compared with watching Packer go ballistic at his business partners John Cornell (Abe Forsythe) and Austin Robertson (Nicholas Coghlan). I’ve never seen a salad tossed (or hurled) with quite so much venom either.
Talking of dressing, lovers of 70s fashion will revel in the parade of big collars and even bigger moustaches on display in almost every scene. Packer was clean-shaven, but just about every major Aussie cricketer of that era had an impressive thatch sprouting above his upper lip, through which he sucked prodigious quantities of beer. The problem is that the ‘taches and the dodgy wigs become indistinguishable after a while. Apart from Brendan Cowell (The Slap), who plays wicket keeper Rod Marsh, none of the actors Howzat! in were familiar to me. Thank goodness Tony Grieg had a South African accent (ironically he’s played by an actor called Alexander England), otherwise I might have been even more confused.
Kerry Packer may have been generous with his cash, but it looks as though the producers of Howzat! were on a much more restricted budget. Though the drama hops between Sydney, Melbourne and London, even the most inattentive viewer will be laughing at the clumsy transitions into archive footage, to give the impression that real locations have been used. I particularly enjoyed a sequence at “Lord’s”, where we cut between close-ups of Packer and his cronies to long-shot footage of some other blokes having a chat in the middle of the hallowed turf. Numerous shots of London buses are supposed to add to the authenticity, but look as unconvincing as the (new) £10 note that Grieg hands to an irate taxi driver.
As with the British media’s coverage of Wimbledon 2013, Howzat! is resolutely male chauvinist in its outlook. Women are there solely to look decorative, answer phones and fetch snacks. When, like Packer’s long-suffering secretary, they only achieve a Marion Bartoli level of attractiveness, the boss is not impressed.
Kerry Packer may have started a revolution in the cricketing world, but I’m not so sure attitudes towards women have moved on much since the mustachioed mid-70s.
“Is this over yet then, Freddie?” enquired a hungry guest at what felt like the longest and worst catered tea party in TV history. This was episode one of Vicious, ITV1′s new Monday-night sitcom starring the absolutely fabulous Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as long-term lovers and antagonists, Freddie and Stuart. Freddie is a moderately successful thespian with an inflated idea of his own sexual magnetism. Former barman Stuart is the domestic one, though judging by those stale Digestives and teeny tiny sandwiches, he’s not a likely contestant for The Great British Bake Off.
The two stars may be septuagenarians and the intrusive canned laughter an unwelcome throwback to the 70s, but Vicious seemed intent on proving that it’s not Last of the Summer Wine. The high-energy opening credits sequence featured blotchy Gerald Scarfe-style graphics on a red background, accompanied by a burst of The Communards “Never Can Say Goodbye”. After a brief establishing shot of a posh Georgian town house, we were straight into the quick-fire, back-and-forth bitching between our elderly flat-mates. The plot revolved around the death of an unseen chum called Clive and speculation over the sexuality of a good-looking young neighbour Ash (played by Welsh actor Iwan Rheon).
It was when Frances de la Tour made her appearance as Violet, an old friend of Freddie and Stuart, that the feeling of déjà vu really kicked in. Watching her hand wander up Ash’s thigh, I was transported back to seedy bedsit land in the 70s, where the actress played the amorous Miss Jones in Rising Damp. Rheon’s Ash doesn’t have quite as much hair as Richard Beckinsale in his pomp, but his function as a gormless object of desire seems pretty similar.
Previewing this show, at least one commentator was enthusiastic about seeing two gay characters centre stage, rather than sniping or simpering from the sidelines. The fact that two of our most distinguished actors – both of them gay – are portraying Freddie and Stuart, should have been another positive in terms of visibility. But leaving aside the sexual politics, Vicious is just a lukewarm excuse for a comedy that is resolutely old-fashioned both in conception and execution.
As the battle of the one-liners commenced, you could almost smell the desperation coming off both distinguished leads and a studio audience who’d been primed to scream with mirth at every gag. I’m sure McKellen and Jacobi would be great company if you met them down the pub for a few pints. But here the timing was way off as they rattled around a set that looked as though it had been constructed from the bits left over from every sitcom from Steptoe and Son onwards.
I didn’t laugh, but there were there were a few moments where I couldn’t resist a wry smile. A couple of minutes into the programme, the hashtag popped up in the corner of the screen, inviting viewers to share their merriment on Twitter. (I was watching after the event, so I missed finding out whether anyone was actually laughing.)
Then there was that collection of urns on Freddie and Stuart’s mantelpiece, holding the remains of several long-dead pets. It was a reminder of how moribund this type of British sitcom is these days. No amount of feeble jokes about Zac Efron or references to Lord Grantham can disguise the fact that this would have been out of date in Lord Lucan’s day. Those weren’t canine remains in the jars – they were the ashes of Leonard Rossiter, Ronnie Barker, Arthur Lowe and all the other greats from an era when Britain made comedies than were funny and not simply embarrassing.
Instead of wondering whether DI Hardy would drop dead before solving the case, I found myself asking why Tennant was growing that rather unattractive beard.
As the final credits rolled on ITV1′s Broadchurch, teary-eyed viewers contemplated that yawning gap in their Monday-night TV viewing. Some probably headed to the kitchen for a consolatory cup of tea; others plugged into Twitter to share in the social networking postmortem (should that be rehash?) on what has been huge critical and popular success. There was another very late twist – it turns out that it’s not all over. A message flashed up on screen saying “Broadchurch will Return”. I was so relieved, I felt like planting a big kiss on my David Tennant poster.
For most of the eight-episode run, I wasn’t really convinced by this slow-burning mystery about the death of an 11-year-old boy in a quiet seaside town. For me it was more a case of “Boredchurch”, as the investigation led by ailing DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and his resentful sidekick DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace.
There was antagonism between the cops and a lot of pent-up grief and anger amongst the dead boy’s nearest and dearest, but it wasn’t exactly compelling. Instead of wondering whether DI Hardy would drop dead before solving the case, I found myself asking why Tennant was growing that rather unattractive beard. Was it supposed to add gravitas to the character or did he just need something to scratch as he tried to pick his way through the list of suspects.
Throwing up (“barfing as the Americans call it) has now replaced crying in the shower as the drama writer’s stock way of showing a character in extremis
If you watched last night (or on ITV Player), you’ll already know that the killer of young Danny Latimer turned out to be DS Miller’s drippy husband Joe (played by Matthew Gravelle). Instead of staying at home playing devoted househusband and father to Ellie and their two boys, he was planning illicit “dates” with the object of his shameful affection, the bewildered Danny. Upon receiving the news that Joe would be unable to finish decorating their bedroom because he’d be bunking at one of Her Majesty’s prisons, poor Ellie resorted to blank denials, expletives and then vomiting.
Yes, it seems that throwing up (“barfing as the Americans call it) has now replaced crying in the shower as the drama writer’s stock way of showing a character in extremis. I can’t confirm whether Ellie actually left her breakfast on the floor of the interview room, because the merest hint of vomit leaves me feeling almost as nauseous as the sight of David Tennant’s cheek fuzz. Still, no dramatic clichés could detract from Olivia Colman’s superb performance as a woman who realises that she’s been harbouring a monster in her bed. I liked the fact that she was still trying to behave like a dedicated professional even as the case she’d been working on now threatened to destroy her own family. There was no self-pity: just anger at Joe and concern for her sons. Then, in an attempt to maintain a low profile, she put on her bright orange jacket and went for a walk.
This morning, Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall was interviewed on the beach at West Bay, Dorset, where some of the show’s most memorable scenes were filmed. It’s those West Country locations that have kept me interested, even when it seemed as though there weren’t quite enough subplots or twists to justify eight episodes. The fling between Danny’s father Mark (Andrew Buchan) and Aussie temptress Becca (Simone McAullay) might have fallen flat, but you were only ever a few minutes away from another lovely view. A stellar cast that included Andrew Buchan and Jodie Whittaker as Danny’s dysfunctional parents, and Vicky McClure as a tabloid journalist with a conscience, was the other big attraction. My favourite character was the caravan-dwelling cleaner, Susan Wright, played in very intimidating fashion by Pauline Quirke. Has anyone ever invested quite so much malevolence into the simple act of walking a dog?
The finale of Broadchurch delivered the murderer too early in the evening and left itself with nowhere to go, except for another long walk along the beach
I know this programme has taken some of its cues from the growing appetite for Scandi crime dramas like The Killing (Forbrydelsen), where the writers aren’t under pressure to wrap up the story in 40-odd minutes of neat Law & Order-style procedural. Chibnall is right to credit ITV1 – “They really took a punt on it” – for buying into the concept of a quality, long-running drama that is allowed time to build up an audience. Their reward has been a media frenzy over the last few days, with some over-excited publications trying to compare the finale of Broadchurch with the Dallas “Who shot JR?” cliffhanger.
The truth is that the finale of Broadchurch delivered the murderer too early in the evening and left itself with nowhere to go, except for another long walk along the beach. I would have thought the optimum time to reveal the killer was just before the final commercial break. Instead there was a brief preamble before DS Hardy finally caught the guilty man in his garden shed with the incriminating smartphone. I waited in vain for another twist or an even darker revelation about what Joe Miller might have been storing on son Tom’s battered laptop.
There will be one little mystery that tides me over until series two of Broadchurch. Was Ellie’s ruthless dispatching of the slug on the floor of the Miller house supposed to be symbolic? I like to think that trampling it ruthlessly underfoot was her own understated way of consigning her marriage to history. RIP.
Middle age can be tough on the hairline and murder on the waistline, but how good would you be looking after 30 or 40 years mouldering away in an attic? That was the ignominious
fate that befell Action Man, the must-have boys’ toy of the 60s and 70s. With his trim figure, “realistic” hair and livid facial scar, Action Man was popular with the girls, too. His female counterparts – Barbie, Sindy and the “pocket-sized” Pippa – might have been good for dressing up, but could they lob a grenade or drive a tank like Palitoy’s macho man?
Though the original “vintage” Action Man (VAM) ceased production in the mid-80s, he’s currently enjoying something of a renaissance – especially on eBay. Call it a nostalgia boom or a symptom of the economic malaise, but all over Britain Action Man figures are being unearthed from lofts, basements and cupboards. A ragtag army that hasn’t seen the light of day since the Thatcher years is proving that balding heads, missing appendages and moth-eaten clothes are no barrier to raking in the cash.
My own Vintage Action Man squad began when I “acquired” my brother’s Christmas present of a Talking Commander figure around 1972. (He got the Kodak Instamatic, in exchange.) Failing to foresee the advent of eBay, I offloaded most of my collection in the early 80s. So it was farewell to Brutus, the Action Man guard dog – though I still have the tasteful selection of canine wear fashioned by my mother. Then, last summer, I discovered a box with four of the Action Men and their clothes. I was hooked all over again.
If you’re going to sell your Action Men, do it quickly. Don’t allow them to lounge around your study, or you’ll start fantasising about whether a custom reflock could turn your favourite figure into George Clooney or (God forbid) Justin Bieber. Thanks to the high-quality flocking service offered by Flocktastic!, you can now give your VAM soldier a luxuriant ginger head, eyebrows and beard, or even a more age-appropriate grey look.
As you can see from the pictures above, I treated my worn-out blonde Paul Newman look-alike to something more befitting a 21st-century metrosexual. Now I’m wondering where I can get my hands on a spare left foot.
Action figure – a convenient euphemism that avoids having to admit that you play with dolls.
Blue pants is just another way of saying that your Action Man is one of the Dynamic Physique models, introduced in 1978. The muscled torso and pre-moulded blue trunks made him look a bit like a wannabe Mr Universe.
Cracks in the limbs are probably a sign that your Action Man really is vintage and not one of those 40th Anniversary figures from 2006.
Dog tags are those bits of metal or plastic that used to hang round Action Man’s neck. Now worth their weight in gold.
Eagle eyes, introduced in the mid-70s, gave Action Man daft looking moveable eyeballs and permanently ruined his good looks.
Flocking is the technique used from 1970 onwards to achieve what was optimistically described as “realistic” hair on Action Man. Seriously, have you ever seen anyone whose hairstyle looks like it was crafted by an electrostatic process? Novak Djokovic would be the closest equivalent.
Gripping hands were highly effective until they dried up and dropped off, giving Action Man the unfortunate appearance of a leper.
Hasbro introduced GI Joe (Action Man’s US cousin) in 1964 and licensed the design to Palitoy two years later.
Investing in a mint condition, boxed Vintage Action Man is a better idea than sticking your cash in one those no-interest bearing savings accounts.
Junk stores would be a great place to pick up VAM in mint condition, with dog tag still attached. In your dreams . . .
Ken dolls (made by Mattel) also started out with the classic fuzzy, flocked hair look. But who wants a Barbie boyfriend when you can have a real Action Man?
Longevity is the hallmark of a great toy.
Musty smell? Action Men who’ve been boxed up in a darkened room for decades tend to have a vintage whiff about them. Just call it “VAM”, the exclusive cologne every Action Man wants to wear.
New “vintage” Action Men were launched in 2006, when Hasbro licensed the reproduction of 40th anniversary figures with painted heads, fuzzy heads and all the other features we know and love.
Old Action Men never die – they just end up in a “Spares or Repairs” auction on eBay.
Palitoy was the Leicester-based toy manufacturer that produced the original Action Man from 1966-1984.
Quick sales are guaranteed on eBay if you start your Action Man auction at 99p . . .
Rivets and elastic were used to hold together the early Action Man figures. He held his poses pretty well until the Dynamic Physique came along.
Sideburns came with the George Best footballer Action Man, as well as the bearded figures. Of course Action Man didn’t have quite the same ball control skills.
Talking Commander – the Action Man designed to spout out stock phrases like “This is your commander speaking” when you yanked his dog tag.
Unbreakable? Though a bionic Atomic Man figure was once part of the Action Man stable, it wasn’t a good idea to run him over with a Scorpion tank.
Vintage is always better than “new” when it comes to Action Man.
Walther PPK – James Bond’s weapon of choice is also part of the Action Man armoury. It’s a lot smaller, of course.
eXpert (re)flocking is the best way to ensure that your fuzzy-headed figure still looks good in the 21st century.
Youthful good looks can survive 40 years in a loft — provided your Action Man didn’t get nibbled by rodents.
Zips break and buttons fall off, leaving many Action Man uniforms looking the worse for wear.