Saturday, September 6, 2008

and on the tube ...

Now that it’s been seven weeks or so that I’ve been here in Britain sampling the delights of culture, I thought I might as well share what I’ve been watching. I’ve only got four channels at the moment so I’ve been a bit limited. Nevertheless, one can watch a lot of TV in six weeks if one has no job.

There’s a Pobol y Cym omnibus Sunday afternoons through the evening, and since this is the only time you can catch the Welsh-language soap with English subtitles, I do. I’ve said this before, but the British have a peculiar relationship with their soaps. They have them on at prime time rather than in the daytime, and they’re a cultural phenomenon, watched by everybody, not just stay-at-home moms or the elderly. I do like to brag my tutor used to write for Pobol y Cym (which I think means “hill and valley”). I don’t really “get” the British soap thing, I think they’re rather ridiculous really, but I have a soft spot for PyC and honestly believe it to be better than English-speaking soaps on the market. I like the characters more, and just listening to the Welsh (with the occasional English words thrown in) is great fun. A Telenovela it is perhaps not.

Tipyn o Stad is another Welsh-language soap that I started watching but have lost the thread more recently. I thought PyC was set in north Wales but now I think it must be in the valleys somewhere because they drove to the Eisteddfod in Cardiff.

I was watching EastEnders for awhile, as I prefer it to Emmerdale (vastly; what crap) and Coronation Street (I don’t have cable so I can’t indulge the psychopathic pleasure of Hollyoaks). I’ve stopped more recently but I know if I want to start up again I can at anytime, as the storylines will be easy to follow.

The Tudors is what I’ve managed to watch every week except once. My sister watched a bumper version of the first series, of which I caught the last few episodes. She isn’t a history buff but watched it because of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and now is somewhat interested in Henry VIII. So that’s one good thing the show’s done! It goes into thorough (one might say agonizing) detail over the well-worn period in history. Normally shows of this nature will condense a lot of time in order to cover ground quickly; the opposite occurs here, they milk years of Tudor-time for all they’re worth. The first series ended with the deposition of Queen Katherine of Aragon, and now, by episode 6, Anne Boleyn the minx is on her way out. I don’t know how much you can say for the historical accuracy sometimes; the costumes are beautiful but sometimes blatantly a fantasy. Christmas is all wrong, so are weddings, and a guy’s already playing the fiddle when they haven’t been invented (as such) yet. There’s usually more sex than you can shake a stick at—presumably the shtick to get mainstream audiences to watch—including gay men romping. Despite all that, parts of it are genuinely moving. I like how even-handed they are writing Mary Tudor, who will become Mary I, and I thought they handled Sir Thomas More quite well. The acting is, for the most part, quite good, and Jonny does make a virile King Henry.

Mock the Week has convinced me that Frankie Boyle must not have any friends, but most of the time it’s the funniest thing on TV. The all-time funniest joke on this was in reference to Wales (of course) but it would be easier for me to tell it to you rather than write it out. I love the way they’re all going after McCain as well.

Would I Lie to You? is also quite funny. They usually have good guests as well.

QI is hosted by Stephen Fry and is all about Stephen Fry proving how clever he is by doling out points for the answers that amuse him the most, not the correct answers. Which is fine, it’s his prerogative and since he is usually justified in thinking himself clever, it makes for a good show. There are also wackily-musicked buzzers, and when Jo Brand was on, it was just hilarious. I also think I’m developing a crush on Alan Davies from watching it. He’s so cuuute.

Kingdom also stars Stephen Fry as a rural solicitor whose put-upon by his jailbird brother and various other weird characters. It’s somehow not as good as it should be, and I never know whether to take the magnificent title sequence seriously.

Bonekickers had me scratching my head the one episode I saw. I couldn’t figure out whether it was supposed to be a documentary or a drama. It was a drama, I think, and involved bitchy archaeologists digging up British POWs from WWI in a German tank in France. The archaeology part was interesting, the international digging politics (à la Timeline) were interesting, but the characters were so lame, it was barely endurable. Fortunately the story itself had the mystic appeal of The DaVinci code as it stretched all the way back to Joan of Arc in Lorraine. It also starred Burn Gorman and Mr. Blifil from Tom Jones as hounded WWI soldiers.

Who Do You Think You Are? is one of my favorite British programs period. From the David Tennant episode I was hooked. This series has fewer “celebrities” I actually know, though my favorite episode so far was Boris Johnson. I find British politicians have improbable names, like Boris, Jack Straw, or Alexander Darling. I know my fellow London ODers are in a funk over Johnson’s election, and from what they’ve said I couldn’t find any redeeming features for him at all. That was before I saw the impossibly blonde man in action, and I must admit surely it’s his charisma that got him the job? Taken purely on his performance in Who Do You Think You Are? he seems an amusing, likeable chap. Maybe he’s got the sound of drums behind him like Harry Saxon did? Anyway, I think they must have upped the series’ budget this time, as we’ve so far travelled to Turkey, Poland, Alsace, and other far-flung places, all in pursuit of making what genealogists do look easy. I don’t care if it’s all been hyped-up for TV; it is interesting, fascinating, even exciting, what they manage to dig out. For example, on one side, Boris has a Turkish antecedent who stood up to Ataturk and paid the ultimate price. On the other he’s distantly related to George II (which, as you can imagine, delighted him to no end). Others have found relatives in East End slums and a diamond billionaire. I’m looking forward to David Suchet now.

Pierrepoint was in no way qualified to be bank holiday viewing, as there was nothing holiday about it at all! I daresay it’s one of the first times Timothy Spall has gotten to play leading man, albeit as a humble, conflicted hangman, and it was interesting to see him handle the role. Juliet Stevenson was quite good as his wife, alternately his Lady Macbeth and also shrinking from what she saw as hands with blood on them. Though overall the period, from the 1930s to the 1950s, was well evoked, there were some scenes that had absolutely nothing to do with anything—thrown in for titillation value?

The Last Word Monologues would never have happened on American TV. Even at half an hour, what is essentially a theatre device causes me to fidget, and I hope I’m a more discerning TV viewer than most (well, that’s just being egotistical). The first of the three was interesting, sweet, ballsy, and quite sad, concerning a woman who’s about to be euthanized at her own request—it’s a video recording farewell to her husband. They’ve travelled to Switzerland in order to have the procedure done, and the narrative is partially about the indignities of the voyage. In addition to it being excessively bleak, what I couldn’t quite get into were the cutting-edge filmic techniques in a scene that’s so static. Distracting.

On the other hand, I absolutely adored Rhys Ifans as a lonely Welsh farmer recording a tape for a dating service. The narrative starts out in the predictable manner, but I fell in love at once with the middle-aged man’s awkwardness and plainspoken. It was terribly funny, as well, and in addition to the inherent loneliness of farming in isolation, the farmer was ruled by his mother, haunted by his father’s early death and the suspected lack of love between his parents, and piqued by the appearance, one summer, of a migrant Maori worker. The narrative sucked me in, and the bittersweet (but ultimately happy) story of the farmer and the worker was magnificently done.

I did see the third one with Bob Hoskins because I was doing something else.

Midsomer Murders have been given three chances by me, but I’ve come to the same conclusion three times: they’re not very good. Set in some fictional rural village, they start out with interesting characters and good twists, but by the time we get to the summing-up, the whole thing’s fallen apart into stiff, bland characters who do things because the writers tell them to. Even the likes of Simon Callow and a bunch of other actors who’ve been in Doctor Who couldn’t save it.

Lost in Austen is fan fic, pure and simple. If only someone would pay me to write this kind of stuff, I’d be rich. I actually wasn’t going to watch it until my friend Katie asked me if I was, and then since she was coming over to watch it anyway, I decided I would. You really have to suspend your belief here—unless there’s some massive revelation coming up in the fourth section—as the heroine, Amanda Price (not Fanny!) climbs through her bathroom into the Bennets’ house in Pride and Prejudice and subsequently behaves badly. It is indulgent fun, however, and I will be watching next week as I suspect (hope?) it will improve with time.

The One Show I happened to catch and not only was Bryn Terfel on it (who Katie loves), but also a feature on Dylan Thomas in Laugharne, and something else vaguely Welsh and interesting but I forgot what it was.

Friday Night with Jonathan Ross has just started its series, with Wossy’s tie the same color as the opening titles sequence. In the past I’ve doubled over with laughter as he’s interviewed Billie Piper (I believe when she let slip that her nickname for David was “Ten-Inch” Tennant), John Barrowman, Freema Agyeman, and a crazy American model who tried to attack him. I hope the line-up this time around will be as good.

Will o’ the Wisp is a kid’s show from the early ‘80s that Katie got for her birthday on DVD. We watched it, and I was quite frightened by the now-un-PC characters. But it was hella funny, and Kenneth Williams voices all the characters wonderfully, including a very gay will o’ the wisp. Mavis Cruet is a pink, overweight, dysfunctional, sweet and sometimes stupid fairy—I liked it when she refused to give up eating fairy cakes in order to lose weight and be able to fly like all the other fairies. I also liked when she got abducted by Vikings and then was angry when her friend, Arthur (really ArfUR) the caterpillar rescued her. Arthur is extremely funny. Quite possibly the weirdest animated character ever is Evil Edna (I keep wanting to call her Dame Edna) who is a witch in the shape of a television (WTF?). She’s evil, selfish, and with a streak of vanity you wouldn’t believe. She turned the Beast into a beast from a handsome prince who couldn’t pronounce his rs. The Moog is my favorite character, an unbelievably thick dog. There’s an erudite, bespectacled cat whose name I forgot, and some other characters. This all takes place in the warped world of Doyly Woods. There’s some Will o’ the Wisp clips on YouTube, along with Jon Pertwee as Spotty Man in Super Ted. You Brits are so weird.

And that one show where John Barrowman tried to find out how gay he was. Jamie tipped me off to this one, and while I was watching it at the time with Joyce who is 80, she was very understanding of John’s superlative gayness. John was, of course, convinced that his gayness was a gene rather than something in his upbringing, and you should have seen the look on his face when they analyzed his, erm, reactions to gay and het porn and they jokingly told him he was straight. Very funny show, and he was absolutely the best person to explore this topic. And they say he’s on TV too much!

And coming up soon, I know already I would like to watch The Devil’s Whore, a historical series starring John Simm (looking grungy) as a 17th century assassin; Tess of the D’Urbervilles with Hans Matheson (though is he playing Alec or Angel??), Einstein and Eddington (with David Tennant as a scientist!), and The Last Van Helsing with Philip Glenister (partially because I never got to see Life on Mars and have heard so much about Gene Hunt). I’m undecided on Merlin, which claims to emulate Robin Hood (which, let’s be honest, I watched mostly for Richard Armitage).

Is there something I should be watching but I’m not, UK viewers? Let me know your thoughts!

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