What the Victorians Did For Us continued to be very enjoyable, describing telegraphy, hydraulics, the first elevator displayed in the 1853 New York Exhibition (invented by Otis, no less), the invention of steel nibs (before that nibs were too expensive for the common person), and the sad story of Charles Babbage (immortalized in the only American radio play I’ve ever heard, A Difference Engine, produced in the KUNM studios).
Much of what Adam Hart-Davis described in 2001 in the above series has been recycled in Jeremy Paxman’s The Victorians: Their Story in Pictures. Still, Paxman’s angle is from the art of the period, which gives us a glimpse of some absolutely gorgeous canvases, and he gets in some zingers from the get-go. The first episode of the series piles on the sweeping melodrama of “the City!!” as well as the degradation and misery of the poor (fair enough, with a visit to the Work House—“they wanted to scare people out of poverty”). We visit Manchester and London, bringing the social conscience of North and South to mind (as well as the same working looms, I believe, that were seen in What the Victorians Did For Us and North and South). Paxman showed one of my favorite paintings of all time, Ford Madox Brown’s Work, as well as some other stunning crowd-work by the likes of William Frith, and a blacksmith/painter named Scalper (brings to mind the Ashingdon Pit Miners). The second episode concerned maybe the first Victorian cliché I ever learned, the Angel in the Home. Many of the paintings I learned about when studying the pre-Pre-Raphaelites were included in this episode. I did have to say I loved the example of the Sandbournes—what a wicked house!—Paxman lacing a middle-aged lady into a corset, and the visit to Victoria’s bedroom (though I’d seen that before in Queen Victoria’s Men).
The third episode was the best yet, perhaps because it focused on things that I’ve researched (the Crystal Palace, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny). It did a masterful job showing the ignominy of the Crimean War in canvases by the likes of Lady Elizabeth Butler, and describing the atrocities on both sides in the case of the Indian Mutiny. It also was most eloquent on the nature of imperialism through art like the Albert Memorial and even a visit to the Foreign Office, accompanied by David Miliband (described by Paxman as “a man who goes here a lot”). There was an absolutely stunning CGI Crystal Palace flawlessly inserted behind Paxman. There was also a visit to the Museum of Brands which emphasized Matthew Sweet’s assertion that the Victorians were assaulted with perhaps more print advertising than we are today. It finished with a bittersweet look at the huge wave of emigration of Britons in the second half of the 19th century. I guess as an American I always thought immigration was a “good thing.” Aside from over-dramatic music, The Victorians is a hugely entertaining series, though I doubt it’s gaining viewers from different facets of the public—preaching to the choir, I feel certain.
I did catch the very first episode of Vicar of Dibley which I had never seen before. Good stuff.
** SPOILERS **I watched most of Being Human on iPlayer but I did watch the finale on TV with Jamie. The show had been built up so high, I wondered if it was really going to live up to the hype for me. Possibly because I was distracted when I watched the first episode (not the pilot, which I never managed to get a hold of) I didn’t think much of it. It was never explained, to my knowledge, why the Being Human vampires seemed to have none of the limitations “traditional” vampires seemed to, like not being able to go out in daylight (though I suppose it would have severely curtailed the creative imaginations of the writers but at least throw me an explanation). Originally I really wondered what the point of a werewolf, a ghost, and a vampire sharing a house (in Bristol no less) would be, especially considering the ghost—not until I learned that she was only visible to other abnormal people. But the irony is, of course, in highlighting their Otherness, the supernatural beings highlight their humanness, or at least present us with stories that speak to the human condition. That Toby Whithouse, is he a genius or what?
To be honest, the show has quite a Doctor Who pedigree, with Russell Tovey as the (Jewish!) werewolf George, Leonora Critchlow as Annie the ghost, and Dean Lennox Kelly guest starring in episode 2 as another werewolf. I fell in love with poor George. I know some reviewers found his love interest, a prickly, quirky nurse named Nina, to be annoying, but they were sweet, funny, and very real together. (Now that the show is going to have a further eight episodes we’ll see where their relationship goes!) Mitchell, the vampire, is a mess. His attempts to go cold turkey and not attack people for blood seem permanently fubared in my opinion by the fact he continually goes around turning people into vampires when they’re on the brink of death, as if under the illusion that they would necessarily want to live on that way. His coup de grace is being responsible for turning a girl into a vampire and her being emotionally and physically dependent on him. I did really like the episode where Mitchell was shown in his historical outfits from WWI to the present, showing the nature of his immortality. Interestingly, this was also the episode that had a neighbor misidentifying Mitchell as a pedophile.
Annie the ghost didn’t really come into her own, in my opinion, until the episode in which she learned that her fiancé Owen had killed her. The finale was, surprisingly, fairly affecting as I could see no way for Mitchell, George, and Annie to get out of the war being brought upon them (mentioned in the first episode) from Herrick the vampire and his motley crew. (I was really amused that Herrick quoted “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.) One thing I have a difficult time with are voice overs, I couldn’t stand the one in Desperate Housewives and I found the ones in Being Human unbearable as well. The show makes an interesting contrast to a radio adaptation of Dracula I was listening to, which paints vampires as bestial, monstrous, dirty, disgusting anti-Christs who subvert sexuality in women and men, dragging it to the level of necrophilia. Dracula himself was played by Frederick Jaeger (memorable, of course, from “Planet of Evil”) and remained Stoker’s disturbing vision of a force of evil. Mitchell is quite a different character; vampirism is seen in the series as alternately sexy and something we should sympathize with in a character as “moral” as Mitchell, almost to be treated like a disorder.
Whitechapel I found quite entertaining though it was gory. I know most of the critics found it second in quality to Moses Jones, with which it was competing, but I found it perfectly decent entertainment. I am biased, of course. Critics claimed that it completely unravelled in the third part, which is how I personally felt about Moses Jones, (see below), though I can see how some of their criticism is valid. I have to be honest, the first thing I ever saw Phil Davis in was “Fires of Pompeii”; the first thing I ever saw Steve Pemberton in was “Silence in the Library.” The first time I ever saw Rupert Penry-Jones was as the nasty Grimaldi opposite David Tennant’s Casanova. It’s therefore difficult for me to ever take Penry-Jones as anything but a villain (despite heroic turns in Persuasion and Spooks). I was a bit disturbed he spent all of Whitechapel wearing an ‘80s suit, though. Anyway, Phil Davis I liked quite a bit as the rough DI, skeptical of anything Ripper-related (though the Penry-Jones character was able to change his mind, of course). I liked Pemberton even more as a guy who leads people on Ripper tours around Whitechapel for a living, seeing as how I’ve experienced one of these characters. I liked the duality of the audience approach to him, as he seemed both innocent, naïve, abnormally fixated, and a little pathetic. He was even a murder suspect. In terms of suspects, I had my suspicions, which are always wrong. I loved how the show ended, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Would it have resonated as much with me if I didn’t already have a fairly good grasp of things like the Double Event, Martha Tabram as the first victim, and Inspector Abberline’s theory first? I don’t know.
Jamie’s done a very fine review of Moses Jones, but since it does star so many Doctor Who actors, I may as well add my two cents (or pence?). I watched this on iPlayer, too, though in between watching Whitechapel the first night in the Ludlow guest house, I did catch snatches of it (which turned out to be a really weird experience when I went back and watched those scenes in context). In terms of characters, it is stronger than Whitechapel. As Jamie pointed out, it had terrific lighting and editing, as well as a distinctive soundtrack. Shaun Parkes (whom I first saw in “The Impossible Planet” and who has the distinction now of starring with Doctors Ten and Eleven before they were the Doctor, in Casanova and Moses Jones) was quite good as the titular copper, though as many rightly complained, the character could have used more screentime in the first and second episodes. The other Doctor Who Shaun, Dingwall, had a small role in this, as did Indira Varma (who I first saw in Rome but is memorable as Suzy in Torchwood).
Moses Jones was, not surprisingly, very dark and realistic, much more so than Whitechapel (though the latter claimed to be). It concerned the murder and mutilation of an old African vagrant which connects to figures as diverse as a boxing star-turned-media-darling, a sadistic transplant from a Ugandan dictatorship (Jude Akuwidike), a single mother working as a prostitute (Wunmi Mosaku), and a principled and passionate musician (Eamonn Walker). Moses Jones is put on the case even though he’s lived in Shepherd’s Bush all his life (rather than Uganda). Enough time is spent on Moses, Joy (Mosaku), and Solomon (Walker) to characterize them, but though I did find Matt Smith able to hold his own, his character, Dan Twentyman, didn’t seem fully fleshed out. The mystery and tight storytelling, highlighted with violence, began to slacken its meticulous grip at the end of the second episode, when **SPOILERS** Dolly (Varma) was attacked in her own restaurant. If Solomon could take a baseball bat to Peter and Paul’s car the next episode, what prevented people in Dolly’s restaurant from helping her? The third episode upped the nerve-wracking quality but the revelations were a disappointment, to me anyway. Still, a very thought-provoking series, not for the faint of heart.
I tried to watch The Photographer, His Wife, and Her Lover, a documentary on steam train photographer O. Winston Link, but found the documentary style so disjointed and boring, I watched Red Dwarf instead.
Red Dwarf is one of those shows of which I had heard much but had never seen. I handicapped myself slightly by watching it in bits and pieces and then in reverse order (as that’s how the channel Dave has been showing it in omnibus editions) but I suppose that proves that is was so vastly entertaining that it overcame those problems so that I watched four episodes in one sitting one night, followed by three the next time it was on. In case you don’t know, this series (which ran to nine seasons and will be debuting another on Dave in April) focuses on Dave Lister, an entertaining slob and the last human alive (a healthy dose of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, therefore) on the Red Dwarf mining ship, accompanied by the holographic projection of his dead bunkmate, the irritating Rimmer, a humanoid cat-thing called Cat evolved from Lister’s pet cat, Kryten the robot, and Holly the ship’s computer. Lost deep in space 3 million years after setting out, this group travels the universe, not really doing much but talking a lot, and making me laugh a lot. Though the set design is stuck somewhere in the early ‘90s, it makes little difference for a hilarious script by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. I happened to see the end of series 5, beginning with the entertaining “Quarantine,” the wonderfully mind-bending “Demons and Angels,” and the metafictionally staggering “Back to Reality,” as well as “Psirens” from the beginning of the sixth season. Then later I went back in time and watched “Kryten,” “Better Than Life,” and “Parallel Universe” from season 2. The only criticism I have of the series is its lack of genuine, meaty roles for women (as a consequence of the nature of the humor, the crew seems to regard all women as sex objects, though this attitude is cleverly satirized in “Parallel Universe”).
I watched part of the BAFTAs as well as the US Presidential Inauguration (which strangely had commentary through the whole thing!).
Never Mind the Buzzcocks I mention briefly because I’d never seen it before and happened to turn it on idly when John Barrowman was on it (though since the shy, retiring Glaswegian never turns down an offer of work he could be on every episode for all I know).
How Reading Made Us Modern kicked off Why Reading Matters week (in mid-February). I studied the development of the French novel during my undergrad degree in a course called French Chic, but I knew comparatively little about the story in English. One thing you come away with from this documentary is (for me) a sense of utter gratitude about being able to read at all. The documentary began in 16th century, when few people could read and if they could, they read the Bible. The end. By the 17th century, when my dear Milton was writing, books like Pilgrim’s Progress were about the only other thing most people would read and indeed one of the few books people owned (though I do think they forgot about things like broadsheets and ballads that were sold on the street). The 18th century, the documentarian John Mullan argued, was the rise of the age of literature due to the Enlightenment. Religious texts were still at the fore, but the invention of the novel came during this period, as well as newspapers (read in coffee houses by MEN, a practice still kept in control through the 19th century). Education was influenced, and though the novel at first came under heavy fire for being morally depraved, literacy improved. Again I am glad that as a woman in the 21st century, there’s no question about my being taught to read. In another time, I might have led a very different life.
Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press followed directly, and though I don’t have too great an interest in Gutenberg (though I guess I should!) I was interested in anything with which Stephen Fry was involved. I hadn’t realized what a difficult time Gutenberg had had in putting together the capital for his first press. I also hadn’t realized so little was actually known about the man himself (Fry visited a portrait gallery that couldn’t agree on whether Gutenberg looked like “Doctor Who as played by David Tennant” and “a man with a beard shaped like a fish”).
Samuel Johnson: the Dictionary Man followed on after that, which was a very well-made documentary about Johnson. I knew a bit about Johnson beforehand, though this story convinced me the latter years of his work on the dictionary would make an exciting radio play! I did pose with his cat Hodge (well, a statue of it of course) in Gough Square which is one of the residences of this heartily London-based writer (whose relationship with Milton was somewhat uneasy, and who Liza Picard disliked despite reserving all her affection for the Pepyses). I hadn’t realized Johnson decided to be a writer, coming from a position as the son of a layman, and tried his best at University but did not gain his degree. He married a much older woman and walked miles and miles to London because that was the only way he could afford to get there. The amount of work he was able to do on the dictionary is really astounding when you think about it.
The Old Guys stars, again, two dudes who’ve worked in Doctor Who, Clive Swift and Roger Lloyd-Pack. I had read about this series in Radio Times but I wasn’t 100% on the premise. Basically, there are two old geezers (well, they’re not that old, definitely on the upper end of middle age) who share a house and have a crush on their neighbor. That is the premise, and while it inspired some gentle chuckles, it wasn’t raucously funny. That said, the two actors bounce quips off each other well.
Red Riding was yet another gritty crime drama, based on the novels by David Peace about the West Yorkshire police department, 1974-83. You might think it would duplicate the feel of Life on Mars, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed by the first episode, which tracked a young journalist’s look into the world of police corruption in the mid-‘70s. It was full of unnecessary sex, and though I understand Peace writes violence in order to make you so sick at the idea of crime—to un-sensationalize it, which means he would have hated Whitechapel—that you’re deterred, it was brutally difficult to watch. The acting was all top-notch—Sean Bean as a vile real estate mogul, Eddie Marsan as yet another corrupt cop—and Radio Times assures me next week’s offering is the best of the three, but I have to say I don’t think it’s my cup of tea. It comes too close to Frank Miller’s Sin City, which I watched on TV in January in deference to this supposed master of comic book writing (despite the problems I had with his work before, like 300 and The Dark Knight Strikes Again.) Sin City literally turned my stomach, and I can’t say Miller’s motives are the same as Peace’s—I think they’re the opposite (though he is writing comics not dramas set out to expose police corruption).
Phew! There may not be as much next time as I may not be able to pay for my TV licence for much longer.