Tuesday, January 24, 2017

EastEnders - Busman's (Permanent) Holiday

So, who’s under the bus in EastEnders? 

Is it Whitney, as Mick suspects, or is it Lee who, for some not yet explained reason, had Whitney’s phone on him?
It was the last of many questions I had in two episodes that have seen tragedy befall the Square (yet again). Here are a few more. How come that everyone had to wait until Denise, inside the bus, pulled the EMERGENCY PULL TO OPEN when, outside, it was very clear that there was a sign saying EMERGENCY PUSH TO OPEN that any of the locals could have read and acted upon.
How come Stacey didn’t hear the crash? I know she had the radio on indoors, but nothing short of a Rolling Stones concert at the O2 could have blocked the sound of a whacking great, out of control double-decker bus careering through your neighbourhood. 
Why did the fire brigade take so long to arrive? Well, actually, they haven’t yet; we have to wait until Thursday for that. The reason, of course, is that the locals had to pull togevver to lift the bus off Martin.
It’s not as daft as it sounds. In 2015 in Walthamstow, around 40 or 50 people did just that when a circus-performing unicyclist went into a bus (you really couldn’t make it up). They managed to lift the 12 tonne bus six inches off the ground and the man was saved. Let’s hope they later clubbed together to buy him a car. 
It was Max who encouraged everyone to gather round for the big heave-ho (Mick was trying to look concerned but bore his usual expression of the first throes of rigor mortis). Quite why people were standing three deep is anyone’s guess because those in the back two rows really weren’t helping. One extra was smiling so much, I thought she was high on laughing gas. In all, there were probably only about ten people with any pulling power, which made the scene a little ludicrous. 
Meanwhile, on the Tube, Sylvia had wet herself before singing Run Rabbit Run. Shirley joined in, much to the amusement of fellow passengers. Cue more extras.
Speaking of which, did you notice how many extras there were running around in the market? On any one day, somebody might purchase an apple and another person a hideous frock (that’s a veritable Black Friday by Walford Standards), and stall-holders outnumber customers by two to one. Yet come Deckergate, there were dozens of people running frantically around, looking for loved ones. 

The main cast had the good sense to stay in the Vic, from where Kaffy informed the emergency services on her mobile that they had to “stop the trains” on the Tube track. Call me psychic, but I reckon they’d already got wind of that. 
I’m hoping that Martin survives, as I’ve grown rather fond of him, especially since he led his one-man strike in protest against the market possibly being moved. Alas, it’s a bit late for that now, as half the market has already moved to the Tube tracks. Still, it saves the Council the hassle of shifting it to a new venue. God moves in mysterious ways.
Another thing that’s worrying me is why no one has tended to the poor driver of the bus. Somebody mentioned that they thought he fell asleep at the wheel, although it’s clear he had a heart attack. Why, anyway, had he chosen to take the “long route” instead of the usual one? Does heart disease make you immune to understanding sat nav?
The poor man is still hunched over the wheel (until Thursday, alas), and the ambulance, which has inexplicably parked on the other side of the Square, won’t be able to do a thing when they eventually reach him, as it’s clear he’s a gonner. Still, you’d think that someone would have expressed concern. But oh, no; I forgot. He’s an extra. Superfluous to requirements.
And so, we wait with bated breath, to see who’s dead. It’s never who you want though, is it - yes, I’m talking to you, Donna and Kim. Among the current characters, I could list dozens more – not least, most of those kids who have miraculously appeared in a school that has also emanated from nowhere. 
At least more deaths will give Billy and Jay something to do over the next few days and, hopefully, Honey will continue to provide Billy with his corned beef and pickle sandwiches he consumes in the front seat of his vehicle when picking up bodies. 

If he offers you one, Jay, don’t touch it; you know where his hands have been. 


Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Icing on the Cake - Kirk and Beth's Corrie wedding

You don’t see Madonna for ages, and then three come along together in Coronation Street. 

Maddie (who scrubbed up very well), Sophie, and bride Beth all dressed as the pop star for the latter’s Eighties themed wedding. Beth was not happy, but dealt with the situation by pointing that the girls were in “vogue Madonna from 1990”.
As with all soap weddings, Friday’s event had the usual will they/won’t they element when Kirk (who eventually turned up as Adam Ant) had a panic attack about the first dance. His nerves weren’t helped by Beth’s extended family (wonderful – we really have to see more of this heavy drinking, Fraggle Rock convention), who were not impressed with Beth’s choice of groom.
Beth had no such trouble. “I promise to love you on fat days and thin days,” she said, in her pre-written vows. We’re still waiting for the thin days, but it was the right sentiment.
Jonathan Harvey, who wrote the first of Friday’s episodes, camped it up in his inimitable style, with Sean trying to explain his tennis racquet-bearing get-up – “George Michael from his Club Tropicana days”.
There was an equally good episode from Perrie Balthazar, who I presume is a new writer, as the name didn’t ring any bells. Julie was in an increasingly distressed state with Mary taking credit for the cake’s icing (I absolutely love the hilarity this pair continue to create), and Julie finally losing I with Beth’s mother, who was flirting with Dev. “Weddings. Alcohol and polyester,” she sobbed outside the pub, “it’s a powder keg waiting to blow.”
Sally, fresh from rampant sex on the sofa with Tim, missed the ceremony but was in a good mood at the reception: “Everybody’s all right after a few glasses of Prosecco, aren’t they?” Yes. Even Tim.
I felt a bit sorry for Tracy, who must have been thinking about the wedding she was supposed to have had to Rob. She sat solemnly at the bar next to a plate of sausage rolls, vol-au-vents and sandwiches, assuring Beth that she was all right – “Can’t beat a beige buffet.” She was certainly attracting the attentions of Maria and Kirk’s father, Eric, who looked the wrong side of several thousand beige buffets. She, however, had eyes only for Tony, who is another powder keg waiting to blow.
Kirk’s mother’s wedding gift was two flights to Cyprus. “Ayia Napa?” said a hopeful Beth.  Alas, no. The accommodation is with the new in-laws. One can only hope and pray for a spin-off of that honeymoon escapade.
The overall message on Friday was All’s well that ends well. The couple were hitched, Dev declared that he liked Julie’s outburst, Liz insisted that she was taking a depressed Steve to Spain (as if that were not enough to deepen any depression), and Maria made up with Luke who, a week ago, Audrey had said looked like “a young Sidney Poitier”. Really? A Hawaiian American? Soaps’ insistence of lumping together all non-white skinned individuals continues to drive me nuts.
Even Sean ended the day with a smile on his face when his new vicar beau Billy turned up. I dread to think how they made use of that tennis racquet when the festivities ended.
So, good luck to the newly weds and, with Julie catching the bouquet, maybe this was prequel to what will soon be another wedding. 

I can hear Mary sharpening her cake knife even as I write.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas in CartEnders

And so to Christmas in Albert Square, courtesy of the EastEnders.
Dear Lord, where do I start? Let’s begin with the basics. Ian’s glasses. Get  him a decent pair. Enough said on that front.
Jane and Ian in bed together. Sorry, I just wasn’t buying it. Unlike Ian, who has done exactly that in the past. The idea that he could get it any other way is, of course preposterous. Laughable, even.
The Nazir family getting into the spirit of Christmas. They’ve only just had presents for one of their bi-annual Eid celebrations. Now they’re just being greedy.
Okay, now on to the big stuff. It is only a year since the Carter family moved into the Square, but they soon made it their own, so much so that I have taken to calling it CartEnders, which it undoubtedly is.
Now, Danny Dyer as Mick Carter. It’s a thin line between acting emotion and looking as if you can’t quite see because you’ve lost a contact lens, and over the festive period Mick lost a lot of contact lenses. Even when Linda told him she had been raped by Dean, it looked as if he was scanning the floor in case said lost lens should saucer into view.
This was supposed to be a big climactic moment, but this, along with so much else, seemed to be more of a spoof than real drama. The whole gamut of  “The Dummies Guide to Expression Acting” was here. There was SITMD (Staring Into The Middle Distance) Nancy; Angry Shirley; Hurt Mick (Optrex, you should really keep your eye on this one – I see a lucrative advertising deal beckoning); Jolly But Secretly Worried Babe; Botox Bruvver of Mick (I still have no idea what his name is); and so many other CartEnders, I would get Repetitive Strain Injury were I to start writing about them all.
Now, let me set the scene for The Big Moment. My mum and I were on the sofa, having been watching TV for what seemed like years (nothing on, as always), and enjoying (I use the word very loosely) the usual EastEnders unhappy Christmas. Just as Mick had taken to the floor to find another lost contact lens (or beat up on Dean, as they would have us believe), Shirley tried to bring a halt to the proceedings by announcing that Dean was, in fact Mick’s bruvver (although, in fairness, she did say “brother”; it’s just funnier the other way).
Quite why she thought this would stop Mick is anybody’s guess. Even the most cursory reading of the Cain and Abel story should be indication enough that the sure way guaranteed to encourage someone to beat another to a pulp is by shouting “He’s your brother!”
It stopped Mick in his tracks, but he soon announced that this made no difference whatsoever, and off he went on another contact lens hunting expedition, stopping only to find Linda’s ring left on the bedroom dresser. I like to think that she has merely nipped off to the hairdresser, because, to be frank, not since Mary turned up at the stable without a hairdryer has such a messy coiffure graced Christmas.
I watched it all again at about 2am, just to be certain the whole thing hadn’t been a  ridiculous dream, but, alas, it hadn’t. Does Shirley really look 14 years older than Mick (she claimed she had him at that age). Would Stan (the always terrific Timothy West, who must really have been desperate for the money to take this role on) really not have twigged that when his wife went off to a caravan for a few months and returned with a baby, that all might not be as it seemed?
I really rate producer Dominic Treadwell Collins, who returned to the show at the end of 2012 and breathed new life into it. But the CartEnders have taken over to the detriment of other characters. It’s good to see Nick Cotton (John Altman) back – the show needed a new villain, albeit a resurrected one – and there can never be enough Mitchells for my liking.

It seems as if the CartEnders are here to stay, though, with news of renewed contracts and, doubtless, more branches of the family crawling out of the woodwork. 

In the meantime, Mick, I really hope you find that contact lens.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Strictly? Not Dancing

How long will it be before the BBC puts Strictly Come Dancing out of its misery? 

On Saturday night, the show, in its infinite lack of wisdom, decided to add a fifth judge. And who better to pick than that well-known master of the ballroom, Donny Osmond.
That’s right. Donny Osmond. One time teen pop star, clean cut, nice enough bloke, but totally the wrong choice to join an already overcrowded panel of judges. He may have won the US equivalent, Dancing with the Stars, but his comments and absurd marks added nothing to a show that increasingly has less to do with dancing and more to do with making headlines.
With every series, the “dancing” (and I use the word very loosely) increasingly resembles a gymnastics competition. The amateurs often barely move a muscle, while the professionals gyrate around them, doing all the fancy stuff in order to hide the flaws and, in many cases, incompetency.
Craig Revel Horwood sits there looking angry throughout – and even bored, now - playing up the pantomime dame act on which he has built his persona; but what was once entertaining has become cringe-worthy. Darcey Bussell plays it nice, and Len Goodman is the know all. Bruno Tolioli is, quite simply, outstanding, as he is on the US show, too: a man who totally understands dance and show business, and whose energy is the one thing that keeps the whole thing from falling flat on its backside. It can only be a matter of time before he is given his own show – he certainly deserves it.
When Bruce Forsyth was presenting Strictly, the air of danger in wondering when he would next fluff his lines was entertainment in itself; and while Tess Daly is an experienced and much liked presenter, there is a feeling that she is just going through the motions. As for Claudia Winkleman upstairs, when did they throw away her grammar book?
Strictly may still be pulling in the viewers (although many complained about Donny on Saturday night), but when it comes to mainstream family entertainment, it is ITV rather than the BBC that gets it absolutely right with its best shows. Switching channels from Strictly on Saturday, The X Factor could have come from a different planet, for all the superiority it showed.
Undoubtedly, it has benefited from Simon Cowell making a return to the panel (but please stop munching on those snacks, Simon; chewing is not a good look on television). The dynamic between him, Cheryl Whateverhernameisthesedays (Corelone? Something Italian sounding, anyway), Mel B and Louis Walsh is terrific. It is clear that Simon is boss – when he tells Cheryl to “Shush”, she does, but always comes back with a nicely timed barb at a later date.
The back stories to the contestants are certainly attempts to manipulate the audience, but they are real people with real stories. Strictly has tried to follow suit with background scenarios that force contestants into play acting, and the result is utter embarrassment. For the most part, these people are not actors, and trying to get them to perform as such just looks ridiculous.
No matter how much we scream at The X Factor, the best people (and don’t mock Jedward – they are hugely successful) still make it to the final, and the winner is always deserving. Only when Susan Boyle lost out to Diversity in the 2009 final did the nation gasp, but the dance group were still very worthy winners.
The same is not true of Strictly. Often, some of the best people are knocked out early on and duds make it through. In 2008, ex-political editor John Sergeant even left the competition of his own volition because, despite judges’ negative comments, the public kept voting him in.
It is pretty much the same audience demographic voting for both shows, but where viewers keep the fun acts in the X Factor to a point, they take it very seriously when it gets down to the wire; on Strictly, there is a feeling that despite outward appearances, the whole thing is still just a bit of a laugh – or, these days, a joke.
The reason is simple: the public are the people who will be buying the records of The X Factor’s participants. In voting for them, they are endorsing their own music tastes and setting their own standards; they feel closely related to the acts they support because, at the end of the day, they will be inviting them into their homes; they have a stake in their stardom.
There is no such investment in the Strictly format. All we really care about each season is which partners will sleep together; we enjoy the murky headlines far more than we enjoy the show. And at no time has this been truer than this series; even the costumes are inferior to previous years. Clearly, the sequin budget has been severely cut.
The X Factor remains top of the leader board in terms of prime time family entertainment, and the faultlessly produced X Factor still has legs and continues to re-invent itself every season. Strictly, by comparison, is very much on its last legs. 

It can only be a matter of time before it is sent cha cha cha-ing into the sunset.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Going, Going, Gone Girl - I Wish!

Before this week, the last film I saw in a large public cinema (or movie theater as I am now wont to call it – and yes, spelt that way, too; I am SO American these days) was The Hangover (the first one) in Century City in LA.
I bought the biggest burger and drink from the enormous Food Court and relaxed in a seat that was the size of my apartment’s living room.
I then laughed non-stop for the whole movie, as did everyone else. I could not remember a time I had laughed quite so much (well, not unless I counted reading my own columns, anyway). For days afterwards, I was still laughing.
Although, as a member of BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), I receive all movies free for voting purposes, I decided this week to go to the real thing once more. The hype surrounding Girl Gone had been huge, as were the opening weekend sales, and, having loved director David Fincher’s The Social Network, was prepared to be massively impressed.
Just as I did in The Hangover, I cried throughout: not tears of joy, however, but tears of boredom. And then tears of fear – had I been kidnapped and was I being held against my will and, as in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, being subjected to something I would never be able to escape? In Waugh, the victim is the character Tony being held by a Mr Todd, who forces him to read Dickens to him – FOR EVER! In Gone Girl, it is . . . well, what is it? I’ll come to that shortly, but let’s say that my third batch of tears were ones of joy as I finally escaped the darkness, both literally and metaphorically and emerged into the light outside the Lowes movie theatre. 

Never has real life looked or felt so good. I went to Whole Foods and spent half an hour working out what I could have bought there for the $15 I had just wasted at the movies (only three things, as it happened, but still preferable).
For those who have yet to see Gone Girl (and who, heaven forbid, will still want to after reading this?), and who haven’t read the book, I won’t reveal the essentials, but will talk in generalities.
Leaving aside my feeling that Ben Affleck in one of the leads, Nick, is about as underwhelming (to me) as a frozen kipper, it’s a mess of a movie. Rosamund Pike, the other lead, Amy (no fish comparisons intended, by the way), is very good, but it’s impossible to empathise with either character, and if you don’t know who you’re rooting for in a movie, for me it’s over before it’s begun.
The catalyst of the movie, the moment that changes everything and leads it in a different direction, is even more underwhelming than Mr Affleck. It should be a real “WOW! I didn’t see that coming” movie moment, but I’ve had more excitement brushing my teeth, to be honest.
Then there is the issue of Ms Pike’s weight gain within minutes; the cat that never gets fed (yet never loses weight); the reactions of all the key characters to the central plot i.e. the girl that is gone (although, hardly a girl, quite frankly).
The police at the heart of the operation are hopeless; the Sesame Street Cops would have delved more deeply into the evidence. There is way too much repetition, during which we receive the same information, either visually or verbally several times over. The ending is incomprehensible on one essential fact that is supposed to be the other WOW! moment that winds the whole thing up after a staggering 149 minutes. There is not a jot of it that is remotely believable – neither was E.T. literally, but I believed it emotionally – either in terms of plot, characters, or human behaviour. It’s tosh for the masses.
It is as if they changed directors (and, at times, writers) every 15 minutes, never quite getting to grips with what kind of movie they wanted it to be (apart from one that made a lot of money by pulling the wool over the general public’s eyes). The hype surrounding it really is a case of Emperor’s new clothes, and its popularity can only be down to the problem of there being so little out there at the moment – and, in Hollywood, there hasn’t been for some time (though I absolutely LOVED The Hundred-Foot Journey, which I saw in a small private cinema). 

Critics who try to analyse Gone Girl in terms of its post modernism and insight into coupledom are, quite frankly, too fearful of shouting out “The King is in the all together!”

   Ms Pike will doubtless receive an Oscar nomination, and the film will make it onto the Best Adapted Screenplay list; but Best Movie? Dear lord, I hope not.
It is, alas, 149 minutes I will never get back. Gone Girl? 

Going, going, gone girl - forever, I hope.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Sheridan is the New Black 15/9/14

One of the first records I ever owned was Cilla Black’s Anyone Who Had a Heart, and her cover of the Burt Bacharach song, originally sung by Dionne Warwick, was one of the most treasured in my collection. It still is. At the age of six and unable to build a music collection on my meagre pocket money, my parents donated a portion of their stash of vinyl when they bought me my first record player.
I used to stand in front of the mirror with the microphone from my parents’ tape recorder (which, in those days, was the size of a small house) and sing to the 45rpm discs. Even to this day, I can remember the words to every song Cilla ever sang. How I wanted to be her. Pop star at the top of the charts and, four years after Anyone Who Had a Heart became her first number one hit (1964), on the telly, too. Life didn’t get more glamorous than that. 

Clearly, not for my mother, either. When we moved to Bridgend in 1969 and I began life at the quiet school in Coity village, my mother sent me out on my first day in a psychedelic crimplene dress and a cow-bell on a rope around my neck. I was Cilla and Lulu all rolled into one. Unfortunately, the other girls in my class were Vera Lynn (Incidentally, years later, she decided to give me a Michael Jackson style perm to be “trendy”. That was another miserable day in school, I can tell you).
The Sixties is the decade that everyone really wishes they had lived through as a teenager, and the first episode in ITV’s three-parter, Cilla, on Monday night, reinforced that desire. As we saw the teenage Liverpudlian - bubbly, fun-loving and a wannabe singer - hanging out with her mates at the famous Cavern Club (amongst others), where The Beatles began their careers, you could only envy the excitement that was palpable in the dawn of a new age. Bob Dylan was right: the times were certainly a’changin’, and everything about this production breathes the excitement of that.
It was also a time when wannabes had to make stars of themselves, rather than come up through the system of reality TV shows (not that I am wholeheartedly criticising that; The X Factor has produced some real talent). Cilla had talent by the bucket-load, but she also had the drive and ambition to realise it. I have always been a huge fan of hers, and this particular aspect of the story – an ambitious woman in a tough man’s world and the toughest business – I find fascinating and it will be a revelation to viewers.
It’s hard to know where to begin commenting on a TV drama that is faultless in every respect. Jeff Pope’s subtle script exquisitely captures this moment in history, the like of which we will never see again. I won’t spoil the next two episodes, but overall, he tackles big themes – love, ambition, loyalty, homosexuality, religion (the Protestant/Catholic rivalry in Sixties Liverpool was another revelation for me) – without ever resorting to rhetoric to get the message across. He is one of those great writers who shows, rather than tells, which is why each of his characters have such distinctive voices that could belong to no one else: we see and hear the story through their eyes and ears.
Sheridan Smith’s performance as Cilla is nothing short of genius, and she has a versatility in her work that very few of her generation (or few people generally, come to that) have. Her voice is sensational and as close as you could get to the real thing without actually being Cilla; not for a moment on Monday did I believe it was not Cilla herself. And it wasn't just the singing: it was tiny facial expressions, small movements, intonations of voice that went way beyond accent. Sheridan doesn't act out parts; she inhabits characters, and that is what makes her great.

I have always been a fan of Sheridan's as well as of Cilla's, and it is a joy to see her grow in standing on the strength of her immense talent and hard work. It is difficult to believe that this is the woman who rose to prominence through sitcom (Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Gavin and Stacey) and went on to play Mrs Biggs, wife of the train robber (for which she won a Bafta).

This, too is an award winning performance; the fact that she is a 33 year old playing a teenager is a feat in itself. In fact, they should all be dusting down their mantelpieces in preparation for the flurry of awards I have no doubt will come.
Sheridan is surrounded by an incredibly strong cast, too. Cilla’s parents are played by the always compelling Melanie Hill and John Henshaw (one of my favourite actors and hilarious at so many moments throughout – and sweetly touching). Aneurin Barnard as the young, love-struck, baker-boy Bobby, is glorious as the kid as focused on romance as Cilla is on success. And, to come, we will see a beautifully poised and heartbreaking performance from Ed Stoppard as Cilla’s manager and mentor, Brian Epstein.
The direction, like the writing, is expertly understated and subtle, with finely tuned highs and lows creating a sense of a real life in progress, rather than a glossy, sanitised, fictionalised version of something with which we are vaguely familiar.
And the lighting is sublime: every shadow and glow adding to the mix that so perfectly captures the essence of the times: hope, expectation, the belief that there was something better.
Of course, we know that Cilla went on to be the highest paid woman in TV history when she hosted Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise. But everyone has a history, and this one is more interesting than most. Way more.
Not only is the drama Cilla a tribute to, and celebration of the much loved star, it is also a tribute to Bobby, her great love, and professional and personal rock until his death in 1999. Cilla is, as much as everything else, a love story, and one I am sure the real Bobby would love to have seen captured on screen.
It is the first direct involvement in a drama of this kind for Cilla’s eldest son, Robert, who is Executive Producer (with Jeff Pope). He, along with producer Kwadjo Dajan and everyone else – Cilla herself included – can feel very proud of their achievement. It really is one of the best dramas you will ever see. 

Seriously. Ever.