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by Allan Fish

(UK 1964 1,040m) DVD2

This business may last a long time

p  Tony Essex, Gordon Watkins  w  John Terraine, Corelli Barnett, Anthony Jay, Ed Collins  ph  various  ed  Barry Toovey  m  Wilfred Josephs  narrated by  Michael Redgrave (with Ralph Richardson (Field Marshal Haig), Emlyn Williams (Lloyd George), Marius Goring, Sebastian Shaw, Cyril Luckham)

The Great War is the sort of television event that truly deserves the epithet milestone.  It’s the first truly great documentary series produced not only by the BBC but arguably anywhere in the world.  It really has, the best part of half a century later, stood the test of time.  And time itself is very much to the forefront here; the achievement all the greater for contriving to remain in the British public consciousness for the forty years it was unseen on TV after its first broadcast.  It was the template from which such later documentaries as The World at War and even Ken Burns’ The Civil War took their cue, but it was more than that.  The most remarkable thing about it is that, for all the black and white interviews with the survivors of the calamity, it’s an incredibly modern achievement. 

The series covers, over twenty-six episodes, with suitably sombre narration from Michael Redgrave, and in enthralling detail, the story of the greatest calamity the world had yet seen (and, to these eyes, would ever see).  It discusses the events that lead up to the war, the uneasy peace of the Belle Epoque and the shaky alliances that would soon be tested to hitherto undreamt of levels; as we are told, “the peace of Europe in 1914 was a fragile thing.”  All the events and battle places that have gone down in horrific infamy – the Marne, Ypres, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele – are here, along with extended sequences involving such factors as the home front, the role of women in the war, the war in the middle east, the Russian withdrawal, the Italian/Austro-Hungarian front and, of course, the ultimate personification of the pointlessness of war, the Western Front.  More than that, however, is the illustration of the little things that made this war the most poignant of all; the 24 hour armistice of Christmas 1914 where the notion of fighting for freedom becomes all the more blurred, the soldiers hardened by the experience of Passchendaele singing “we’re here because we’re here“, images of ant-like armies crawling out of the crater-infested mud baths, the sardonic singing of “hangin’ on the old barbed wire“, and the description of how soldiers on leave thought the outside world was the one that wasn’t real.  It’s a war that has always captured the imagination, and the screen has done it justice, at least in spirit if not in reality, with the likes of The Big Parade, The Last Flight, Paths of Glory, Verdun, Les Croix de Bois, La Grande Illusion, and All Quiet on the Western Front.  Most touching of all, perhaps, is how we are shown how both sides not only shared a “companionship of mud“, but grew to feel solidarity with the enemy far more than their own brass hats and politicians, for here was the ultimate expression of what Shakespeare once called a “fellowship of death.”  Though it does offer possible underlying reasons for the war’s beginning and end, in the end it could be argued that Edmund Blackadder summed it up by saying “it was too much trouble not to have a war.” (more…)

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by Allan Fish
The Son of Hades
p Robert Papazian, Eleanor Moran, Frank Yablans, Marco Valerio Pugini, John Milius d Michael Apted, Allen Coulter, Julian Farino, Jeremy Podeswa, Alan Poul, Mikael Salomon, Timothy Van Patten, Steve Shill, Adam Davidson, Alik Sakharov, Roger Young, John Maybury, Carl Franklin w Alexandra Cunningham, David Frankel, Bruno Heller, Adrian Hodges, William J.MacDonald, John Milius, Todd Ellis Kessler, Mere Smith, Eoghan Mahony, Scott Buck ph/ed various m Jeff Beal art Joseph Bennett, Christina Onori, Anthony Pratt cos April Ferry
Kevin McKidd (Lucius Vorenus), Ray Stevenson (Titus Pollo), James Purefoy (Mark Antony), Ciarán Hinds (Julius Caesar), Polly Walker (Atia of the Julii), Kenneth Cranham (Pompey Magnus), Lindsay Duncan (Servilia), Kerry Condon (Octavia), Max Pirkis (younger Octavian), Simon Woods (older Octavian), David Bamber (Cicero), Lyndsey Marshall (Cleopatra), Tobias Menzies (Brutus), Indira Varma (Niobe), Alice Henley (Livia Drusilla), Nicholas Woodeson (Posca), Karl Johnson (Cato), Haydn Gwynne (Calpurnia), Suzanne Bertish (Eleni), Paul Jesson (Scipio), Guy Henry (Cassius), Pip Torrens (Metellus Cimber), Allen Leach (Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa), Lorcan Cranitch (Orestes Pulman), Zuleikha Robinson (Gaia), Ian McNeice (Forum announcer),
It’s with a certain amount of regret one comes to acknowledge Rome. It’s a series that ultimately falls just short of the heights scaled by The Wire, Deadwood and Game of Thrones, but while Deadwood was left cut off mid-stream a season early, one was left with imagining what season four might have brought. With Rome we have an idea what season three and four would have brought, for the writers, told early in Season 2’s production that it would be the last, crammed as much of the next two lost seasons in before it ended, creating a rush effect that went against the intricacy and plotting of the first series.
Needless to say, some complained at the excessive sex and violence – little did they know what was to come in Spartacus: Lust in the Sand – perhaps dreaming of the glories of The Caesars and I,Claudius, forgetting the latter had its share of nastiness, too. It did play around with history a little, having characters hardly age after 20 years and largely fictionalising the pivotal rival characters of Atia and Servilia, while centring on two Roman legionnaires, Titus Pullo and Licius Vorenus. They are to their times rather what Dumas’ Musketeers were to 17th century France, fiction based on actual characters (mentioned in Caesar’s writings). It gave it a personal heartbeat that made us care about the events unfolding around them, and were helped by the wonderful interplay between the two actors playing them, Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd, who form its very soul.

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by Allan Fish

(UK 2015 350m) DVD1/2

Attempting a three card trick

p  Mark Pybus  d  Peter Kosminsky  w  Peter Straughan  novels  Hilary Mantel  ph  Gavin Finney  ed  David Blackmore, Josh Cunliffe  m  Debbie Wiseman  art  Frederic Evard, Pat Campbell  cos  Joanna Eatwell

Mark Rylance (Thomas Cromwell), Damian Lewis (Henry VIII), Bernard Hill (Norfolk), Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn), Anton Lesser (Thomas More), Jonathan Pryce (Wolsey), Mark Gatiss (Gardiner), Jessica Raine (Lady Rochford), Mathieu Amalric (Chapuys), Joanne Whalley (Katharine of Aragon), Natasha Little (Liz), Monica Dolan (Alice More), Charity Wakefield (Mary Boleyn), Bryan Dick (Richard Rich), David Robb (Thomas Boleyn), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Rafe), Harry Lloyd (Harry Percy), Saskia Reeves (Johane), Richard Dillane (Suffolk), Will Kane (Cranmer), Kate Phillips (Jane Seymour), Aimee-Ffion Edwards (Elizabeth Barton),

We’d be forgiven for thinking we’d had enough of Henry VIII.  How many have there been?  Charles Laughton, Robert Shaw, Richard Burton and Keith Michell (four times!!!), we all know them, they were memorable.  Not forgetting The Tudors, but we’ll leave the final apologies to cover what was wrong with that; what Wolf Hall gave us was the antidote to The Tudors; no sex or bodice ripping here, no time for that nonsense.

Henry wasn’t always the centre of attention as played by all those actors listed above, sometimes he was a mere sideshow.  Even the famous Keith Michell TV series told its six episodes through the eyes of his six wives.  What Wolf Hallattempts though is even more ambitious, maintaining the entire narrative through the eyes not of his wives in turn but those of that embodiment of Machiavellian ambition Thomas Cromwell.  This is a very different Cromwell; he’s not the villain, not even an antihero, but Virgil to our Dante, guiding us through the maze of hedgerows, courtyards, alleys, corridors and other dimly lit interiors of Tudor England.  Oh, there’s splendour, naturally, but there’s always a chill in the air; it’s always a good day for an execution. (more…)

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(UK 1962 60m) DVD1/2

Aka. Elgar – Portrait of a Composer

We walk like ghosts

p  Humphrey Burton  d  Ken Russell  w  Ken Russell, Huw Wheldon  ph  Kenneth Higgins  ed  Alan Tyrer  m  Edward Elgar

Peter Brett, Rowena Gregory, George McGrath, Huw Wheldon (narrator),

It seems strange to think that when Ken Russell’s groundbreaking and career pointing dramatised documentary went out in 1962, the lives of composers on screen was limited to cinematic biopics such as the awful A Song to Remember and Gance’s moody Un Grand Amour de Beethoven.  Half a century on we can look back and see it as a watershed; without it we wouldn’t have had the other Russell composer pieces on large and small screen that would occupy most of his work for the next decade or so.  

Elgar was different to what would follow.  The Debussy Film had the irreverence that would characterise, and to some flaw, The Music Lovers and Lisztomania, while Song of Summer – Deliustook a look at the composer that would look ahead to his Mahler.  Elgar was more than any of these, but watching it fifty years on, with its strait-laced account of a man unable to make a name for himself in pompous late Victorian and Edwardian England, it reads remarkably like the spoof documentaries so common today.  What it succeeds in doing is dextrously mixing still photos and newsreel and early film footage with silent tableaux recreations, all accompanied by the great man’s music to create a symphonic melding of music and visuals, including rolling tracking shots of Elgar as a boy on a pony or a man on a boneshaker moving through the Malverns.  It not only gets to the heart of Elgar, to whom, as Wheldon’s narration tells us, “musicis in the air…all around me”, but in doing so he also succeeds in creating a quite literal family album of Britain at the height of its imperial power and at the start of its imperial decline.  The composer is seen to be an artist in tune with the mood of the time, but in a country whose hierarchy are out of step with it, a composer who is feted in Germany but not at home, and who came to taste a bitter irony in the years that followed, almost prophesying the cataclysmic doom to come with the death of Edward VII.  Here was a man who wrote the most patriotic of all British pieces, only to loathe what it had come to represent, abhor the idea of his country at war with the country he held such affection for and gratitude towards, given honours that meant little to him and which he had buried with his wife in her coffin.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(UK 1981 640m) DVD1/2

Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas

p  Derek Granger  d  Charles Sturridge, Michael Lindsay-Hogg  w  John Mortimer  novel  Evelyn Waugh  ph  various  ed  Anthony Ham  m  Geoffrey Burgon  art  Peter Phillips

Jeremy Irons (Charles Ryder), Anthony Andrews (Sebastian Flyte), Diana Quick (Julia Flyte-Mottram), Laurence Olivier (Lord Alex Marchmain), Claire Bloom (Lady Teresa Marchmain), Stéphane Audran (Cara), John Gielgud (Edward Ryder), Phoebe Nicholls (Cordelia Flyte), Simon Jones (Bridey Flyte), Nickolas Grace (Anthony Blanche), Jane Asher (Celia Mulcaster-Ryder), John Grillo (Mr Samgrass), Mona Washbourne (Nanny Hawkins), Bill Owen (Lunt), Charles Keating (Rex Mottram), Jenny Runacre (Brenda Champion), John le Mesurier (Father Mowbray), Stephen Moore (Jasper Ryder), Michael Gough (Dr Grant), Kenneth Cranham (Sgt.Block), Jeremy Sinden (Boy Mulcaster),

It’s difficult now, over 25 years on, to judge the impact of Brideshead on not just British television, but prestige drama in general.  It had long been, as Leslie Halliwell observed, an albatross round the neck of Granada, described as an incredible folly in the long months leading up to its transmission.  The strain of classic TV drama serials had reached both its zenith and its end in the mid seventies with Jennie, Edward the Seventh and I, Claudius.  Yet however superb in terms of their acting and writing those productions may be, there’s nothing cinematic about them.  They look like BBC Shakespeare productions or series shot on left over sets from Upstairs, Downstairs.  Brideshead changed everyone’s conceptions; virtually entirely shot on location, punctiliously adapted from the original source to the extent that any faults it may have had were those of the original.  As with Jesus of Nazareth, two lead actors had changed roles (then Robert Powell and Ian McShane, here Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons), and thank God they did.  For it is no more imaginable that anyone other than Andrews could play the faintly homosexual, hard-drinking and doomed Sebastian than it is for any other tones than Jeremy Irons could provide the soulful commentary provided by Charles Ryder.  Here were actors to their parts born, perfect in every way.  It is a great credit to the other cast members that they don’t get lost, but there are gems everywhere, from Grace’s definitive old queen Anthony Blanche to Bloom’s suffocating Lady Marchmain, Queen Henrietta Maria reincarnated in the 20th century.  Not to forget one time Arthur Dent Simon Jones as the blissfully boring Bridey, John Gielgud as a deliciously supercilious and witty Mr Ryder and Diana Quick as the tortured Julia.  And we haven’t even mentioned Geoffrey Burgon’s truly hauntingly fitting score, at once a theme tune for stately houses nationwide.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(UK 1976 652m) DVD1/2

Old King Log

p  Martin Lisemore  d  Herbert Wise  w  Jack Pulman  novels  “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” by Robert Graves  m  Wilfrid Josephs  art  Tim Harvey

Derek Jacobi (Claudius), Siân Phillips (Livia), Brian Blessed (Augustus), George Baker (Tiberius), John Hurt (Caligula), Margaret Tyzack (Antonia), Patrick Stewart (Sejanus), Patricia Quinn (Livilla), David Robb (Germanicus), Fiona Walker (Agrippina), Beth Morris (Drusilla), Sheila White (Messalina), James Faulkner (Herod Agrippa), Kevin McNally (Castor), John Castle (Postumus), Frances White (Julia), Ian Ogilvy (Drusus), John Paul (Agrippa), Barbara Young (Agrippinilla), Christopher Biggins (Nero), Bernard Hepton (Pallas), John Cater (Narcissus), John Rhys Davies (Macro), Stratford Johns (Piso), Charles Kay (Gallus), Freda Dowie (The Sibyl/Caesonia), Ashley Knight (Young Claudius), Kevin Stoney (Thrasyllus), Donald Eccles (Pollio), Bernard Hill (Gratus), Charlotte Howard (Scylla), Esmond Knight (Domitius), Moira Redmond (Domitia),

There are few more beloved BBC serials in history than this immensely detailed adaptation of the two Claudian novels of Robert Graves.  In truth, the second novel is rather sparsely translated, forming barely 20% of the series at its finale, entirely missing out the massive section on the conquest of Britain and the subduing of Caractacus.  But no matter, for as an adaptation of the first book, one could hardly have done a better job than Jack Pulman.  For a long time it seemed as if Claudius would have the last laugh, for everyone recalled the disastrous aborted film of 1937, with Charles Laughton, Alexander Korda and Josef Von Sternberg going together like oil, water and cement.  One mourns its never being completed, if only because of the décor and the promise of the performances of Laughton and Emlyn Williams from the surviving footage, but it was left to the Beeb to finally complete the job nearly forty years later.

Graves’ work is a tapestry, an inside diary so to speak, a novelised history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from the grandeur of Augustus through the increased depravity of Tiberius, the insanity of Caligula and the temperance of the eponymous Claudius.  It may be liberal with the facts – the real Claudius wasn’t really the gentle soul depicted here, though he undoubtedly was compared to most of his family – but this is hardly the point, for it’s in exaggeration that the best drama lies, as Shakespeare proved so readily in his caricature of Richard III.  The series may indeed be a relic of those thankfully gone days of awful cheap sets and costumes left over from BBC Shakespeare productions, with absolutely no footage shot outdoors, but the quality of the script and the performances make up for it.  It also gained controversy in its time for the nudity and sexual frankness which, though perhaps tame by today’s standards or compared to say Brass’ infamous Caligula, it still adds a bit of realism to proceedings that it lacks visually. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(UK 1983-1989 815m) DVD1/2

I have a cunning plan

p  John Lloyd  d  Martin Sharlow, Mandie Fletcher  w  Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson, Ben Elton  m  Howard Goodall

Rowan Atkinson (Generations of Edmund Blackadder), Tony Robinson (Generations of Baldrick), Tim McInnerny (Percy/Captain Darling), Stephen Fry (Lord Melchett/ General Melchett), Miranda Richardson (Elizabeth I), Brian Blessed (Richard IV), Elspet Gray, Patsy Byrne, Robert East, Frank Finlay, Miriam Margolyes, Jim Broadbent,

For a series that began life on BBC2 to only lukewarm original praise, the change of co-writer to Ben Elton and move to BBC1 paid unprecedented dividends.  Even those who do not rate the efforts of Curtis and Elton elsewhere have to bite their tongue when ‘the Adder‘ is mentioned, because without them it wouldn’t have existed at all.  Here’s a comedy that lasted four series (and three varying specials) simply because on each occasion it literally reinvented itself by moving forward in time.  The first series, set during the Wars of the Roses, was undoubtedly the weakest, but had numerous cherishable moments.  Then its star took time off from writing duties, a new director was found, and Elton entered the fray.  The second series had been intended to run in autumn 1985, but was held back for release in the new year, and even now I have misty recollections of watching that first episode as a twelve year old schoolboy.  This truly is the all-time peak of British TV comedy in terms of writing and ensemble playing.  (more…)

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