TV’s Charles III

Charles III

Tim Pigott-Smith in Charles III

Sunday night, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater will present the Tony-nominated play, Charles III (trailer). Mike Bartlett wrote both the blank verse play and the adaptation. I saw it on Broadway—see my review for more details—and if the televersion is as good as the stage one, it will be well worth seeing. “Part political thriller, part family drama, and a timely examination of contemporary Britain,” says PBS.

In a nutshell, the Prince of Wales is finally able to ascend to the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest-serving monarch.Then the games begin, pitting the unpopular and lackluster Charles against the lively and ambitious Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton (played by Charlotte Riley). And Charles almost immediately starts making a hash of things by injecting himself in a vital policy debate.

In real life, of course, Charles’s succession is considered a dubious outcome of Elizabeth’s reign. Polls suggest that more than half of Britons actually would prefer he be skipped over entirely, putting William on the throne. William V, that would be.

In a her article “Most Likely to Succeed: Where Prince Charles Went Wrong,” New Yorker writer Zoë Heller talks about his persistent unpopularity. One source of it is that he puts his oar into waters about which he knows little, taking stances that “do not follow predictable political lines but seem perfectly calibrated to annoy everyone.”

An exceedingly promising aspect of the television presentation will be the carryover of West End and Broadway cast-members Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles (“the role of a lifetime,” London critics said), Oliver Chris as Prince William, Richard Goulding as Harry (“the ginger idiot”), and Margot Leicester, practically a body double for the galloping Camilla.

Broadchurch

David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Broadchurch

David Tennant & Olivia Colman

The engaging ITV crime drama Broadchurch (trailer) (available on Netflix) has run for two eight-episode seasons, released in 2013 and 2015, with a third season filming this summer for release in 2017. It follows the investigation of the mysterious death of an 11-year-old boy in his small seaside town. Soon all the residents are looking differently at people they’ve known for decades. Secrets emerge; journalists are sleazy; people want revenge; and the coppers make mistakes.

The action in Broadchurch takes place in Dorset, in Southwest England, and the investigation is led by police detectives Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman). Colman is all over screens big and small this year (The Night Manager, The Lobster). A prize to you if you can catch everything Tennant says, between his character’s thick accent and habit of swallowing his words.

A Cast That Really Supports

All the acting is first-rate, especially that of the detectives and the dead boy’s parents, played by Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan. The story keeps you guessing as to the culprit, revealed at the end of season one. Season two is the trial and introduces some additional fine acting, notably Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the defense attorney. You may remember her as Viv in the U.S. tv series, Without a Trace. She has a severe new hairstyle that gives her a different look, but the voice is unmistakable. Also in season two is Charlotte Rampling as the prosecuting attorney and James D’Arcy as a possible badguy in a previous case that haunts DI Hardy. I remember him fondly as 1st Lt. Tom Pullings in Master and Commander, way back in 2003.

Special mention should be made of the haunting Broadchurch music from Ólafur Arnalds (soundclip), an Icelandic composer and musician, which adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

U.S. Version Fails

Fox TV created a U.S. version of the series, set in the Pacific Northwest, in a similar seaside town. Called Gracepoint, the series’s most interesting aspect is that David Tennant crossed the Atlantic and the North American continent to reprise his role as the lead detective. In this version he is called Det. Emmett Carver. I wasted no time finding a clip from the show to hear him speak American. He inhabits the other role so completely, the effect was startling! Nick Nolte also appears, as does Michael Peña (The Martian). Alas, the Fox version didn’t measure up and was cancelled after one season of low ratings.

Awards

Broadchurch won many accolades from critics as well as a number of awards. In series one, Olivia Colman won a Best Actress award from the British Academy of Film & Television Arts (BAFTA) and the program received seven BAFTA nominations altogether, including one for Best Original Television Music.

Broadchurch enjoyed a huge audience in the U.K., but not in the United States when it played on BBC America or via streaming. Chances are then that you haven’t seen it, and if you like a compelling crime drama (minus Hollywood’s excessive gore), you might enjoy it!

Awaiting series 3.

The Night Manager

Tom Hiddleston, The Night ManagerHere at Tom Hiddleston Central this week, we’ve not only seen the Hank Williams biopic, I Saw the Light, but on Tuesday at 10 pm, AMC began its six-part series starring Hiddleston in John Le Carré’s, The Night Manager. The tv show is punctuated by Jaguar ads [DO watch!] starring a Hiddleston who looks awfully like a shoe-in for that rumored James Bond role. (But should he want it? Possibly not.)

Having seen episode 1 of The Night Manager, I eagerly look forward to more. The conceit is that Hiddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, works as the night manager in upscale hotels—in the updated AMC version, in Cairo during the Arab spring, then in Switzerland—with ample motive to bring down a British arms merchant (Hugh Lorrie), “the worst man in the world,” who tends to stay in such posh places. A delightful surprise is Olivia Colman (she is police detective Ellie Miller in the UK mystery series Broadchurch) as head of an obscure London arms control agency.

Le Carré’s original, published 23 years ago, also began in Cairo in a much less turbulent era, though the double-dealing and “whom can you trust?” elements created excruciating tension in both the book (which I read ages ago) and now in the AMC version, which has a fresh new, LeCarré-approved ending. Says Judith Warner in the New York Times, the new version is “deeply appealing, and in substance and style, for this viewer at least, moved the book forward in a number of fortuitous ways.” For this viewer too. Loved it!

Goodbye to All That

(photo: Alex Proimos, creative commons license)

(photo: Alex Proimos, creative commons license)

It’s a blue Monday for fans of Downton Abbey, or Abbots as we’re called.The soapsuds around Highclere Castle are subsiding, people upstairs are learning to pour their own tea or at least let Mr. Barrow help, and Mr. Carson has been given a dictionary with the word “vicarious” circled in it. And the programmers at PBS responsible for its All Downton All the Time schedule of specials are decidedly nervous.

Downton has been a money-making machine. It’s “the most-viewed drama in PBS’s 45 years,” helping the American broadcaster gain a worldwide audience estimated at some 120 million people, Forbes reports, with global merchandising revenue hitting $250 million in 2014. More satisfying than any of that is that revenues to beautiful Highclere Castle—in need of nearly $20 million in repairs six years ago—have enabled the owners to restore it fully and secure its future.

But Downton has built this mega-empire not because viewers were interested in public television’s resurgence or castle restoration, but because it’s fun! It’s entertaining to see how other people live and the depths of misery in the midst of high posh. You can put your own expertise on the downs of Downton to the test. The New York Times offers a quiz to see how many calamities the characters have endured that you can recognize. I scored 22 out of 39 points. Hint: Thomas pretty much had them all.

I’m not surprised to receive regular Downton-related promotions from Masterpiece sponsor Viking River Cruises. Farther afield is the advertising I received yesterday for ‘Downton Abbey’ roses. I can fill my garden with Anna’s Promise (coral), Violet’s Pride (violet, natch), Lady Edith’s darling (in a shade closest to Marigold), and the Pretty Lady Rose rose (fuchsia). We’re only missing Lady Mary’s Heart, which I suppose is not offered because (after the recent treatment of Edith) roses don’t come in black. Though she’s trying.

In case you think what you’ll miss most are Dowager Countess Violet’s zingers, here’s a whole list of them. One of my favorites: “I don’t dislike him, I just don’t like him. Which is quite different.” Indeed. Or last night’s “Why can’t men ever paint themselves out of a corner?”

If your withdrawal symptoms are too acute, Chanel Cleeton for BookBub has prepared a list of books to help you through it. (I see House of Mirth on the list. I thought that was going to be Julian Fellowes’s next big project—a series about New York in the Gilded Age?) Top of the BookBub list: Wendy Wax’s romantic While We Were Watching Downton Abbey.

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My Jake Epping Experience

James Franco

James Franco as Jake Epping in 11.22.63 from Hulu

I’m excited about Hulu’s eight-part production (trailer) of Stephen King’s complex 2011 time-travel thriller, 11/22/63, which will premiere on President’s Day. I listened to the book several years ago and found it both gripping and fascinating. You may recall that, in King’s novel, high school English teacher Jake Epping goes back in time to try to thwart the assassination of JFK. Unfortunately, everything he does has rippling consequences he cannot foresee. It turns out that “history doesn’t want to change,” and to try to get it right, he has to reenter the past more than once.

There’s a mysterious character—the Yellow Card Man—who Jake finally learns is in charge of tracking the revisions in history he’s made and making sure all those events play out in their own new way. If someone’s life is saved, for example, they need a future, for better or ill—one they wouldn’t have had without Jake—and one that has its own infinite repercussions. I’ll let you see the series or read the book to get the full flavor of how tiny and profound those changes can be.

So here’s my Jake Epping experience. Consultation with the editor on my Rome-based novel led to agreement that several of the characters need to be expanded. Alas, the book was already straining publishers’ preferences at 98,000 words. Adding means subtracting.

Now I’m working on a draft that will eliminate several characters. Like Jake, I’m taking them out of the story and revising the world I have envisioned. (If you’re a writer, too, you know how much time you spend in that alternative universe, filling it with people and objects and snatches of conversation!) All that has to be reimagined. While the roles of these late-lamented were more that of facilitating action, rather than major players, it’s still challenging.

Not only do I have to find plausible ways to get done the things these characters did (e.g., provide my main character with a place to stay; introduce her to the police detective who takes her case). It isn’t just a matter of changing names. In the way that you don’t talk to you best friend from high school the same way to talk to your boss (at least most of us don’t), the dynamics of the remaining characters’ interactions have to be adjusted.

Sometimes the whole point-of-view from which a scene is written must change. For example, a conversation in a cathedral is very different when seen from a priest’s point of view than from a criminal’s. Different speakers have different goals, different gestures and ways of speaking, and notice different things around them.

This isn’t a complaint. This process is energizing. You might say that the characters being eliminated were extra furniture, and I’m cleaning house. It’s sharpening my focus, too. Like Jake, I’m trying to understand a world made new. Though a few darlings have been killed in the process, I’m confident my book will be better for it!

The Man in the High Castle: Guest Post

Man in the High Castle, Philip K. DickGuest-reviewer David Sherr gives 5 stars to this 10-part Amazon Studio Series production, which he binge-watched one recent weekend. Says David:

The Man in the High Castle is a complex story of espionage and betrayal based on a 1963 Hugo Award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick. It’s produced by Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner (1982), based on another of Dick’s dystopian tales, and Frank Spotniz (The X-Files). The story provides an alternative history: Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany win World War II, and the United States is under totalitarian rule.

While very few movies are as compelling as the book that inspired them, this one holds true to its source in essential plot and character development. (This Gizmodo review describes some of the differences, for fans of the book.) The series is perfectly paced with tight dialogue and uniformly superior directing and acting. The cinematography is exquisite—lingering shots in muted color settings.

Man in the High Castle

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in Man in the High Castle

Among the production’s leading actors are Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke KleinTank. One particularly outstanding and subtle performance is that of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the melancholy but kind US Japanese Trade Minister, Nobusuke Tagomi, in the accompanying photo. (You may remember him as Chang in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Academy Award-winning film, The Last Emperor [1987], or Eddie Sakamura in Rising Sun [1993], based on a book by Michael Crichton.)

The artistic director, costume designer, and set designer all deserve kudos. The film depicts technology, clothing, hair styles, and vehicles that appear to be from at least a decade earlier than 1962, when the story is set, which is consistent with a point in the story-line about how progress is inhibited by the effects of fascism.

The Man in the High Castle became available for Amazon streaming on November 20. It’s billed as “season one,” so there may be more to come.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%.

Guest review by David Scherr. Contact him at dmsherr@gmail.com or on Twitter: @davidsherr

Kick Back TV Mysteries

tv, television, relaxing

(photo: Caitlin Regan, creative commons license)

We may spend the week grappling with the critical affairs of the world and leaky plumbing, but come the weekend, we hope Netflix offers us something entertaining—and nothing’s better than a little crime! You know, something about people with real problems!

These five U.K. and Australian series take you out of the United States altogether, for an armchair vacation to boot. Here they are, from light to dark:

  • Mr. & Mrs. Murder – found CDs of this 13-part Australian series at the local library. It’s about a husband and wife team (Shaun Micallef and Kat Stewart) who clean up after a murder and, of course, end up solving it. The real police detective (Jonny Pasvolsky), is sweet on the Mrs. and never misses a chance to put the husband down. Not one bit serious, just fun.
  • Midsomer Murders – Based on books by Caroline Graham, this veeeeery long-running British series—it began in the late 1990s—has outlasted its original cast. More lately, John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon), the “cousin” of the long-running Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), is the lead detective. Tom should never have let wife Joyce out of the house. Whether she was at choir practice or off plein air painting, a murder inevitably ensued in these deceptively charming country villages. Lots of suspects. And, over the years, lots of entertaining sergeant side-kicks. Ever-amazed that the CME always arrives and the scene and already has some conclusions before Barnaby even gets there.
  • The Last Detective – great recommendation from a friend (thanks, B.T.!), based on novels by Leslie Thomas. In this London-base series, sweet, but hapless “Dangerous” Davies (Peter Davison) must deal with the breakup of his marriage, the couple’s shared custody of a very large dog, and the constant badgering of his doltish colleagues but always—yes!—solves the case. His boss, the self-medicating alcoholic DI Aspinwall (Rob Spendlove) is perfect. Friend and perpetual loser Mod (Irish comedian Sean Hughes) is the chief comic foil.
  • Case Histories – Several of Kate Atkinson’s excellent Edinburgh-based mysteries about protagonist Jackson Brodie (Jason Isaacs) have been made into television programs (three two-hour ones and three 90-minute ones), including One Good Turn and When Will There be Good News? Jackson is a defrocked policeman working as a P.I, who’s still called in to advise the Department’s DI Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbington) when he stumbles on a dead body or a juicy case. A little too much flashback about “why he cares,” when the fate of dead young women is involved. Why wouldn’t he? His secretary (Zawe Ashton) is priceless. Cute daughter, too.
  • Jack Irish – Three television movies (Bad Debts, Black Tide, and Dead Point)have been made from the Jack Irish mysteries by Australian writer Peter Temple, with more to come. Guy Pearce plays the eponymous character, and these are the grittiest in this list. I’ve not read Temple’s originals so don’t know whether the excessive plot complications come from the original, but the shows would be better if they were a half hour shorter and without one of two of the endless twists. Between that and the heavy accents, I’ve gone a bit past caring a time or two. Girlfriend journalist Linda Hillier (Marta Dusseldorp) is a charmer. Like the touts and horses.

5 Forensic Science Myths

forensic

Mystery: why is this trainer so clean? (photo: West Midlands Police, creative commons license)

CSI’s wise-cracking investigators, expensive cars, and sexy co-workers with great hair? High on the drama scale, low on reality. Crime and mystery writers striving for drama and accuracy have to get past such exaggerated expectations. Deborah Cole, a forensic scientist with the New Jersey State Police, spoke to a recent meeting of the Liberty States Fiction Writers Group about forensic science myths.

The first is how television has primed people to believe that forensic science is infallible. The reality is that it cannot always provide definitive answers. Nor is it true that scientists never make mistakes or mess up the chain of custody. Sometimes “a good defense attorney can find holes,” she said. (Interestingly, criminals have become aware of the power of forensics and have learned from tv how to cover their tracks more effectively.)

Response is not as fast as people expect. Some states have only one crime laboratory, and crime labs are often small and outfitted with, well, not-the-latest equipment. As a result, they may have a backlog of testing to do, which adds to the time needed to complete tests (or whether they are ever completed at all, with unexamined rape test kits a prime example). Some tests themselves take a long time to produce results. Tests for different toxic substances must be conducted individually, and all this may take a month or more to complete.

Forensic scientists do not interrogate suspects and witnesses, regardless of what tv suggests. Not their skill set. And they certainly don’t make arrests. They may be called to a high-profile crime scene, but they aren’t there first (unlike in the UK’s Midsomer Murders tv series where the ME and crime scene team is always working away—with findings!—by the time the investigating detectives arrive). When they do visit a scene, they collect evidence to bring to the lab for analysis by someone else.

One scientist cannot handle an entire case. Forensic scientists are specialized (in the lab, their focus may be toxicology, chemical analysis, ballistics, and so on), which means that the evidence from a single case may be tested by a number of different scientists. The New Jersey State Police lab employs 130 scientists in different disciplines, and they are involved in some 35,000 cases a year.

Another reason one person can’t do it all relates to the Locard exchange principle: “whenever two objects come in contact with each other, there is always an exchange of material.” The practical application of this principle is that material from the clothing, floor, furniture, car, or other environs of the crime, which is gathered from the scene, from the victim, and from the suspected perpetrator (if there is one) must all be processed in different rooms and even by different people, in order to avoid cross-contamination.

Finally, Cole said (and she laughed when she said this), tv gives the impression that every day is exciting!

Further Information:

♦Useful for writers: http://www.forensicsciencesimplified.org/onducting Forensic ♦Research: A Tutorial for Mystery Writers: http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/forensics.shtml
♦Forensic workshops, including “TV v. Reality”: http://www.crimemuseum.org/forensic-workshops
♦Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us about Crime, by Val McDermid (2015)

 

Johnny Worricker

Bill Nighy, Worricker

Bill Nighy as Worricker (photo: ichef.bbci.co.uk)

If you saw the two Masterpiece Contemporary thrillers starring Bill Nighy (perfect, as ever), chances are we agree they were terrific. If you missed them, Nighy plays MI5 agent Johnny Worricker, on the outs with his bosses and trying to bring attention to the shady dealings of Prime Minister Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes without much hair).

Needless to say, the Powers That Be don’t approve of Worricker’s activities and are seriously looking for him. In the first of the two dramas shown this month, “Turks and Caicos,” he’s chilling out on the islands when he’s spotted by a CIA agent played by Christopher Walken, with his typical opaque style, and you’re never quite sure who’s who and what’s what. Except that Worricker’s former girlfriend, Margo Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter), wastes no time realigning her priorities and jetting down to the Caribbean when he needs her. In the second, “Salting the Battlefield,” Worricker and Tyrell are on the run, and doing a pretty good job of it, too, until family ties threaten to flush them out into the open.

These two productions are followups to 2011’s film with the same characters, “Page Eight,” which lacked only Bonham Carter’s Margo Tyrell. Somehow I missed that program when it was broadcast three years ago. Thanks, Neflix! What makes these dramas so good are the scripts. The screenplays and the direction are by British playwright, theater and film director, and two-time Academy Award nominee David Hare. Says Grantland reviewer Chris Ryan, “If it’s adult contemporary, it’s as good as adult contemporary gets.”

Olive Kitteridge: on TV

Olive Kitteridge, HBO, Elizabeth StroutI hope you  spared yourself the awful Death Comes to Pemberley on Masterpiece Theater last Sunday and watched HBO’s Olive Kitteridge instead. I’d read the Pemberley book, by P.D. James, and it should have been great. Huge disappointment. So I wasn’t optimistic about the television version. Talented Anna Maxwell Martin should have stuck with The Bletchley Circle, where she had an innovative, meaty role.

Olive Kitteridge will be playing on HBO (2 parts) numerous times in coming weeks, so if you missed it the first time, try to catch it. Just for the acting alone, it’s terrific, with Frances McDormand playing Olive and Richard Jenkins as Henry, her long-suffering husband. I’d read the book, so was prepared for Olive’s prickly personality. She’s likely not someone you’d want to spend a lifetime with, but Henry hung in there, and NPR reviewer Eric Deggans calls the production “maybe the best depiction of marriage on TV.”

For me, the television version posed much the same question as did the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Elizabeth Strout. Why was Olive so unyielding, so unmoved by others’ feelings, even as she registers them? She is that rare creature—someone who truly won’t bother to be likeable. “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology,” a character in the book says. Her father’s suicide is talked about on several occasions, and did that cause the big disconnect? It doesn’t seem so. And just when you’re about to give up on her, she’ll do something remarkable.