Boy, the first few weeks of 2009 were slow TV-wise, even in Britain. It’s only now that things are starting to pick up speed, and I finally have enough shows to talk about! This will be roughly chronological.
I’d caught bits and pieces of Jonathan Creek on TV over the years, but had never watched an entire episode. This changed on New Year’s Day, and despite the fact I was still finishing up a game of Who-no, I did manage to catch most of it. Yes, foofy Alan Davies hair for all. I was actually somewhat interested because I’d been hearing Sheridan Smith as the Eighth Doctor’s audio companion Lucie on Big Finish all autumn, and she played roughly the same character in JC. (And got entirely nekkid! Ye gods!) I liked the story—it involved magicians, ectoplasm, and a really diabolical plot to kill perfectly innocent people—but at the end, it felt a bit slight. Jonathan himself seemed a bit clueless, and as Radio Times averred, the subplot with his seedy mentor was yawn-inducing and crass. Still, someday I will go back and watch the first series of this Verity Lambert-produced series with the title theme by Sans-Saëns . . .
I gave Demons a great, big, whopping chance, seeing as how the folks at Staggering Stories were much more positive than I expected them to be. Maybe because I never followed Buffy, I was the only person not to make Buffy allusions. I never watched Life on Mars, either (except for one episode), so I don’t know what I was expecting out of Philip Glenister, other than something good. I have no idea why they kept the character American—the accent is not his forte. He talks about “smiting” a lot and tells the hero, the last surviving Van Helsing, that there’s no life in demon-hunting but he’s required to do it anyway. The entire show was a long collage of someone’s favorite iTunes. Luke Van Helsing is a bobble-head and his friend Ruby pretty annoying. On the other hand, I kept watching for some reason. Perhaps some vestige of me liked seeing m’hearties Mackenzie Crook and Kevin McNally camping it up as villains, and Mina Harker (yes, the same one from Dracula) was vaguely interesting. Mostly it was Dracula 2000 without Gerard Butler. Indeed, worse than Primeval but better than Merlin, hahahaha.
I should like Lark Rise to Candleford more than I do. I think I avoided it because of the title, and the reviews in Radio Times are always so full of sugar and simpering. Which is basically what the show is full of. Nevertheless, it exudes a strange kind of charm. It’s difficult for me to think of England possessing any kind of Wild West town like the one depicted here (they’re perpetually stuck in the mid-1890s, as the show’s creator avowed) but the characters are funny and decently likeable, and we go into the suitably bourgeois postmistress’ house as often as we do into the cottages of the working folk with Somerset accents (curiously the guy who played Higgins in North and South plays a very similar character here). Perhaps it appeals to me because I watched so much Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.
Above Suspicion was a two-part drama on ITV written by Lynda LaPlante (based on one of her books) starring a new female detective who wasn’t exactly the antithesis of DCI Jane Tennison (the formidable Dame Helen Mirren), but she was young and inexperienced, a pen-pusher at her first autopsy (see Whitechapel); Ciarán Hinds was her slightly lecherous boss. I found the acting and writing to be above average, the story gruesome, but strangely absorbing.
I didn’t have a lot to do my first week back, so I happened to catch Daleks—Invasion Earth 2150 AD. I had never seen any of the Peter Cushing Doctor Whos, so this was certainly an interesting experience. The companions were really strange—a Wonderbra-clad woman of indefinite age, a prepubescent Susan, and—easily the most entertaining element—Bernard Cribbins as a policeman. I loved that the movie opened with the policeman trying to get into the TARDIS for legitimate police business! Other than that, it was basically a replay of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Peter Cushing was surprisingly good as “Dr Who” but couldn’t hold a candle to William Hartnell. It’s just as well we don’t consider this canon!
What the Victorians Did For Us is not new, it was made in 2001 but is being reshown on BBC2. But it’s great to find someone with the same sense of enjoyment and excitement over all things Victorian as Adam Hart-Davis. The programme is divided into several segments; unfortunately I missed one or two. Current highlights include Hart-Davis reproducing the famous photographic experiment of whether a horse’s legs ever all leave the ground; putting up a scale-size copy of a corner of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park where it originally stood; trying to figure out humidity from a bunch of leeches in glass tubes. Like Matthew Sweet, he’s quick to point out in what ways we benefited from the Victorians. I was quite impressed when Hart-Davis got on a tricycle/shower for some good clean fun. Thank you, Victorians, for inventing the shower!
QI is something I’ve watched a bit of before, but I was really trying to follow it this season (‘cause, obviously, Alan Davies rawks my world). Unfortunately the TV decides to malfunction on Friday nights so I miss a lot of the best jokes. I wouldn’t say this is as funny as Mock the Week but funnier than Have I Got News for You?
It was followed in the lineup by classic Vicar of Dibley (still almost unwatcheable because of the TV hiccups). I never really watched Vicar of Dibley in the US even when it was on; I’m not really sure why. To be honest, I didn’t get to be a fan until I watched the 2006 Christmas Special (in quick succession on YouTube; Armitage-obsession at its worst) and thought it was the funniest, most heart-warming thing I had seen in a really long time. I was a bit deceived, though; one of my US friends told me ages ago that Alice got married in a wedding dress that had pictures of each of the Doctors in hearts on it. That wasn’t so. She threatened to.
I guess because of Victorian Farm (which I somehow seem to miss every week!) there’s a ton of Victorian stuff on TV right now (or maybe there always is). I found Queen Victoria’s Men, while slightly sensational, to be fascinating. Several years ago I wrote an article on history’s sexiest women, and I dared to put Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria on the list. Victoria was a passionate princess, and no one can claim she didn’t love Albert. Albert, of course, took up the bulk of the screentime (partially it was interviews with historians, writers, etc, but partially reenactments. Victoria didn’t look particularly like Victoria, but she and Albert could speak impassioned German!). All of the interviewees contended that the young Victoria liked sex, and who can argue, really, considering some of the letters they read aloud, as well as all the kids she and Albert had? She also had hero-worship romances with her early Prime Ministers, such as Gladstone and Melbourne, to less of an extent with Disraeli, though she found him charming. I had forgotten what a real scandal her relationship with loyal John Brown was, and I found out she befriended a young Indian in her later years to the extent she scandalized again. To my surprise, I find young Victoria will be a film soon, with lovely Paul Bettany as Melbourne.
Almost Famous 2 showed a glimpse of a young Sheryl Cole and proved beyond all doubt that David Tennant’s freckles were more pronounced when he was younger. Wales This Week really disappointed me. They were interviewing Matthew Rhys in his new home in LA, I assumed because of his role as Dylan Thomas, but it wasn’t about that, and he came off sounding really quite stupid. Oh well.
I keep missing Being Human, with Russell T Davies’ biggest crush Russell Tovey in it, and written by Who luminary Toby Whithouse. Once I’ve been able to catch up on iPlayer properly, I’ll get back to you.
Rupert Everett seemed a curious choice to present on Sir Richard Francis Burton, Victorian Sex Explorer (see! constantly with the sex and the Victorians!). Nevertheless I suppose there was some logic, considering Burton may or may not have joined in homosexual orgies while he was reporting on them for the British Army (as Casanova may or may not have done in Constantinople). Mostly I was grateful to this programme for shedding some light on Burton, a fascinating character and an anomaly for his anti-Imperialist attitudes. I remember seeing first editions of Burton’s translations of The Arabic Nights when I worked in the Center for Southwest Research, and Joseph Fiennes played him in the wonderful radio play Prayer Mask (which explored his egress into the Hajj). For sensational purposes, Everett highlighted Burton’s sexual experiences in India, meeting with prostitutes, and getting a questionable massage in Egypt.
Bill Bryson is one of my heroes, as you know, and I always love to tell people I’ve met Mark Lawson, so you get to hear it again as I describe Mark Lawson Talks to Bill Bryson. This could have been on radio; it was basically an interview, plain and simple. But it was wonderful to hear the naturally funny, but totally unassuming Bryson (as Lawson pointed out, the cantankerous persona Bryson puts on in his books is rather unlike his gentle personality in real life).
I had to make a choice on the biggest Monday, TV-wise, of the year so far. Whitechapel, on ITV, Moses Jones on BBC2, or a new series of Who Do You Think You Are? I chose Whitechapel, even though Matt Smith was making his first post-Doctor-announcement appearance in Moses Jones, because I suppose I am a Ripperologist at heart. Rupert Penry-Jones, Steve Pemberton, and Phil Davis are all making smashing starts, and the writers have certainly done their research (they’d have to, or get thrown to the dogs). The programme is managing to convey the horror and the mystery of a killer re-enacting the Ripper murders (though the newbie seeing his first autopsy seemed eerily similar to the scene in Above Suspicion). We’ll see how it goes, and I will report to you on the others.
I just heard a wonderful radio play based on one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (in which David Tennant plays a blind rat!), and it’s made me wonder why I never got into Discworld before. I wondered that again when watching Terry Pratchett: Living with Alzheimers. I found out that this famous author has one keyboard and six screens (which would rather bedevil me!) and can’t tie his own tie now. It’s an interesting and sad programme.
That’s all for now, more to come.
 Whose parents I met at the Dylan Thomas Centre.