Sunday, October 12, 2008

and on the tube x 2

Figured it was time for round two.

I managed to miss most of the rest of the series of Who Do You Think You Are?, but I did play catch up during the marathon re-runs of the first series and made sure to see David Tennant, as the first time I missed most of his episode. He was all grizzled up for Recovery but still wearing quite tight trousers—er, I’m supposed to be discussing the merits of the show, aren’t I? Well, for some reason I thought Mr. McDonald was from near Edinburgh like one side of my family, but like Gerard Butler, he’s from the Glasgow area. He got to visit a small Scottish island where the living was tough, the streams were clear, and he somehow resisted doing a Yorick with a skull he found in a local parish church. Then he got very angry at the committed Orangemen in his family in Northern Ireland (we have them in my family too) but recovered when he saw that reconciliation seemed to be in the cards for the Derry community from which his ancestors had come. All in all, it was highly fascinating, especially since we have somewhat similar backgrounds, but I confess I did dream about him after I went to sleep. ;-)

Lost in Austen’s zenith were its second and third episodes, once I had accepted the very loony conceit that Amanda Price had swapped places with Elizabeth Bennet via her bathroom. The despicable Mr. Collins was played with every ounce of oozing unctuousness, Amanda got to knee him, I was convinced Bingley would shoot him in a duel, and my friend Katie was completely won over by the Mr. Darcy, far from her original assessment (“he’s ugly”). Admittedly we all howled when he had his metaphysical postmodern moment in the fountain, and Katie in particular loved when Amanda accidentally called Miss Bingley “bum face!” I really liked seeing Mr. Darcy in 2007 London trying to get his bearings, and the vaguely good turn Wickham made. (That reminds me—Mrs. Bennet, Amanda’s best friend, Kitty Bennet, and Miss Bingley were all played by ladies who had big parts in Doctor Who!) However, it was so very much like fan fiction—the creaking machinery of belief-suspension to get it started, the glorious headlong dash through moments of high comedy and farce, and the sad quaking of discombobulation as it tried to make a satisfactory ending.

Harry & Paul is really the first sketch show I think I’ve watched, not counting a few rounds of Catherine Tate which I didn’t really understand in the first place. I loved the first episode because I didn’t realize the characters were going to be reused. The casually callous Nelson Mandela—the posh builders—and in particular the shop owner who sells “Wank” to women with more money than brains. I also enjoyed the Dragons Den segment once I understood what they were lampooning. I think my favorite was the absolutely barmy black-and-white film noir salesman and inn keeper—a read of the Radio Times even wrote in to ask what exactly it was satirizing. The response was . . . nothing in particular!

Tess of the d’Urbervilles was one of the best programs I’ve seen all year. It was incredibly faithful to the book, which I have loved since I read it seven years ago. (I also claim the distinction of playing Tess in our English final project of that year and screaming, “It’s the mother ship!” as Tess was abducted by aliens. You had to be there.) Gemma Atherton was a superb Tess (she was Elizabeth Bennet in Lost in Austen, but definitely proved her acting prowess here!). The fact that it was four hours long made it possible to adapt the book in a reverent fashion, so that you could really understand why Tess, Angel, Tess’s mother, and others acted the way they did. The music was absolutely gorgeous and moving, and I’ve been singing “The Snows” ever since. The tail end of the 19th century in Hardy’s Wessex was perfectly recreated. Although I’ve always regarded Angel Clare as a little sh*t, in the final episode I did at least want him and Tess to get together—though of course I knew they wouldn’t end happily (yes, I did cry). I’ve always been a fan of Hans Matheson, and he made a perfectly dissolute Alec d’Urberville (unfortunately he looks quite a bit like someone I used to fancy so I ended up dreaming about this person throughout the run of the show!).

I only saw one episode of The Hairy Bakers, in which they made a giant, seven-tiered wedding cake. I just remember they did their mixing in a wheelbarrow and the visceral pleasure of pouring all that flour, sugar, sultanas, and butter and mixing it with their bare hands! The end result would have been pretty, but as I’ve said many a time, I don’t like British sugar icing so even their layer of marzipan couldn’t save it.

Radha convinced me to watch one episode of Ambulance as we waited for Virgin to connect our Broadband/cable. This was a reality show in the basic sense: it followed one ambulance crew around during one night and one day while they were on duty. I can’t remember which Northern town they were patrolling, but I think it made the very clear statement that many Brit injuries are the result of too much alcohol. On the other hand, these heroic people had to save a boy from a car accident and a suicide attempt.

It was like a blip: one night I happened to catch an episode of Life on Mars, the vaunted show whose second series I missed the last time I was here because I didn’t know about it. This particular episode was written by Chris Chibnall, and I thought he excelled at it far and above anything he ever did for Doctor Who or Torchwood. I can at last see why everyone loved Gene Hunt’s politically incorrect ways and sympathized with poor Sam Tyler as he loses his mind in bell bottoms. There was a trip for a “real” curry in this one, as Gene’s team basically tortured a suspect. I’ve got to get this on DVD—or else see if the library’s got it. Chan it’s horrible to think I’ve got a crush on the Master tho.

At Williamthebloody’s suggestion I saw an episode of Dragons’ Den. I found it heavy on the corporate-ese at first, a bit over my head, but toward the second half I began to see the appeal. None of the Dragons seemed to think any of the ideas were much good, and to be honest neither did I, but finally they seemed to perk up with the last guy.

I’ve tried very hard to like Merlin. I know it’s got the same vibe as Robin Hood, about which I was equivocal. There were elements of fun to that show that I liked, but some of it was just annoying and the costumes made me go oy. (Though apparently Mr. Darcy from Lost in Austen will be King John in the next series, and if Richard Armitage is still Guy of Gisborne—in the immortal words of Harley Quinn, “Whoa daddy, feed me some candy!”) I guess I just find the reworking of the Arthurian myth too drastic to stomach. Young Merlin, sure, but young Merlin as servant to pouty, blondie Arthur? How much did they have to pay Anthony Head to be a sanitized Uther Pendragon? Gwenivere is Merlin’s crush and a servant? I did enjoy the over-the-top cameo by Eve Myles in the first episode, but the whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense. I enjoy Richard Wilson as Gaius, but I spend most of the time rolling my eyes through this thing. I do enjoy debating with Adam Purcell on Facebook about why everyone in this mythical kingdom wears a cravat.

Much more thought-provoking was the short special on Merlin of Legend. This was very thorough and showed Merlin in his evolution and archetypal guises, tracing him from medieval bard and mysterious figure to a modern-day painter who claims to be Merlin reincarnated. Merlin, as you may know, was (perhaps) Welsh. The reason for the red dragon is because of Merlin—he solved the mystery and made the prophecy of the red dragon and the white that fought with each other underground. He is said (possibly) to have come from the market town of Carmarthen, where there was until very recently a tree that was said to cause destruction if chopped down (which it sort of did). I learned about much of this when I was travelling Wales earlier in the summer. There are many, many monuments in Wales to Arthur and Merlin (perhaps a Welsh bard of hiraeth), and in some places you do feel a sense of age and mystery.

Speaking of which, Radha, Tinki, and I were watching re-runs of the X Files for a few weeks, which really amused us.

River Cottage Summer, or something like that, was the title of an absurd cookery show by Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall (first of all, that NAME!). I don’t remember much about it except he slaughtered his own pet goat and tried to make curry. Then he stumbled through some bushes gathering rose hips. Adi and I basically laughed our way through most of it.

The Sarah Jane Adventures have started, and I’ve come in with remarkably high expectations. I’ve seen the first two episodes and am feeling uncertain. However, it’s too early to say anything, so we’ll wait for its own proper review.

Paul Merton’s India has just started, and seeing as how I’ve lived with Indians and suddenly have lots of Indian friends (and also live near the densest grouping of Indian restaurant in Swansea) I thought I’d give it a shot. I didn’t know anything about Paul Merton before watching the first part. His India is definitely not the tourists’ beaten track, and so far in the Delhi area he’s managed to go to Indian finishing school (where he learned to burp and eat with his right hand, which honestly I find extremely difficult, much more so than eating with chopsticks). He learned about monkeys in the police force and participated in a festival to Shiva, celebrating the god’s consummation with his consort. I’m looking forward to seeing the segment on the south, where all my friends are from. (They speak Tamil and Malayam (sp?) and have so far criticized white views, on TV, of their homeland, as pretentious and patriarchal.)

There are few shows which blow my mind as much as Heroes does. I am really impressed that on BBC3 we’re only a week behind the US (and to be honest, I’m pretty patient with these things at this point anyway). The first season of this show was more addictive than drugs, and while the second season was kind of crap, it’s looking super-impressive this time around. I expect I’ll do a full review at the end of the season.

As I wait for my absentee ballot to arrive (!!), I’m trying to keep up with the political situation in the US as only bad news seems to reach us about the economy. I steeled myself for entering the clash of politics by watching The Second Presidential Debate. My first surprise was John McCain’s easy, fluent speaking style (though he did continuously interject with “my friends”). For some reason I was expecting Obama to soar over him in eloquence and common sense. I was also surprised at how they kept passing the ball of blame and recrimination between them, and I was left with the impression that they can’t both be telling the truth—at least not the whole truth—on their records for voting for a) tax cuts; b) alternative energy. Which is depressing considering whoever ends up as President will be a liar. (But I’d be a whopping idealist if I ever honestly thought otherwise.) One thing I noticed in this “town hall” style debate was that one elderly woman asked what the candidates would ask their American citizens to sacrifice as her generation sacrificed during the Depression and World War II. Interestingly, neither of the candidates said anything particular. It would have been easy to answer the question directly: give up their reliance on fossil fuel, their security in that food will always be copiously available, etc. Both hedged the question.

British TV is certainly gearing up for the American election, and a six-part series that will coincide with the election is Stephen Fry in America. Last fall, Fry drove across all 50 states in the London cab he owns. Ambitious, highly entertaining, and I’m pleased with the genuine affection and reverence he furnishes on my homeland. In Maine he had lobster (overlooking, strangely, the real cruelty of how the lobsters are boiled ALIVE, the subject of a truly compelling essay with Stephen Wallace Foster, who recently committed suicide, our loss); in New Hampshire he met Mitt Romney. In Vermont he mixed ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s (he said something to the effect of the world needed ice cream). He spent a lot of time in Massachusetts in Harvard discussing the principles behind the founding of our country (he quotes Gore Vidal in that the Puritans were escaping persecution so they could find someone to persecute). He went hunting in upstate New York, cab driving in Queens, and mixed with the Mob (sort of). He took a look at the Adirondacks, Edith Wharton’s “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island, gave Delaware, and Maryland the short end of the stick, with a stint as a croupier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He summed up Washington D.C. as one of the most European of the American cities (with the exception of some airports, Civil War battlegrounds, and Florida, D.C. is one of the few places on the East Coast I’ve ever visited). He said nothing about Quakers in Pennsylvania but instead focused on Gettysburg with a Lincoln-lookalike and did a pretty good job of summarizing the Civil War. Next week he’s on to the South, but it's a few more weeks before he reaches New Mexico. I haven’t felt particularly homesick yet, but I do feel a certain pride and nationalism as I’m watching.

The Tudors’ second season ended with a surprisingly moving final episode as Anne Boleyn kicked the bucket. It’s hard for me to take Natalie Dormer seriously after what her character did in Casanova, but she really earned her acting chops. I think it’s very hard to empathize with Henry at this point, though the writers and Jonny are doing their best. The actress playing Jane Seymour looks like a plastic Barbie so I’m totally turned off by her, but I am looking forward to seeing the Wheel of Fortune take Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Regina round and round.


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