Category Archives: TV

What’s On TV – The Tractate Middoth / The Signalman

On Christmas Eve 2017 the good people at BBC Four decided to show a whole bunch of episodes of A Ghost Story for Christmas. I previously watched A Warning to the Curious as part of the 1001 TV list and now, thanks to this marathon, I have been able to watch the remaining two from the list.

I’m going to miss these easy crossings off.

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 204/501
Title: The Tractate Middoth
Episodes Aired: 1
Year(s): 2013
Country: UK

The first one that I saw was the final episode of the revival series for A Ghost Story for Christmas. As with most of these, The Tractate Middoth is based off of a short story by M.R. James. By this point I think they’ve used all of the best stories as, in terms of pure storytelling, The Tractate Middoth is pretty useless as a ghost story.

I don’t want this to come off as a criticism of Mark Gatiss as a director or of Sacha Dhawan in his leading role. It’s just that the actual story of The Tractate Middoth is pretty lame. It feels as if there a beginning, a middle and that’s about it. You feel as if there is meant to be this big climax to make up for the cheer about of serendipity, but it just ends. We were literally sad in front of the TV looking each other at the end asking, ‘wait, that’s it?’

So yes, if the reason for the inclusion of The Tractate Middoth is because it is an example of a revival of the A Ghost Story for Christmas then they probably should have gone for Whistle and I’ll Come to You.

Progress: 205/501
Title: The Signalman
Episodes Aired: 1
Year(s): 1976
Country: UK

The second that we watched was an oddity in the A Ghost Story for Christmas series in that it is not based on an M.R. James story. I know I don’t have a lot to compare it to, but this is the best of the three Christmas ghost stories on the 1001 TV list. Maybe because this is a story written by Charles Dickens and he knew how to construct a good narrative.

Now, I know that I am overly critical when it comes to depictions of horror on television. It’s not that it is impossible for me to be creeped out by a television show (unlike video games where a surprise encounter in Fallout 3 can make be scream), but it’s far from a guarantee. The Signalman, regrettably, didn’t get me there.

However, I did enjoy this short. The story was interesting and it really worked to have a limited cast and few locations in order to ratchet up the tension. However, the tension wasn’t great enough to make me feel unsettled. It was still a fun ride while it lasted.

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What’s On TV – The Good Old Days

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 203/501
Title: The Good Old Days
Episodes Aired: 245
Year(s): 1953-83
Country: UK

I could have been finally watching The Sopranos or The Wire or Orphan Black. But no, the bucket decreed that the next show to be watched was The Good Old Days – one of the oldest entries on the list… which is also a variety show based on the traditions of the Edwardian music hall.

The idea of music hall and variety shows is pretty universal in Western countries, but I can’t imagine many other countries having a show like this on the television when punk and prog rock was ruling the airwaves. Then again, Britain has always been a country that hearkens back to the ‘good old days’ to an unhealthy degree. I guess it’s the whole thing about being an island whose empire crumbled and then never quite getting over it.

So yes, this was an hour where traditional Victorian and Edwardian music hall performances were created by contemporary performers. I imagine that, at the time, a lot of these people well known (or at least were regulars on the circuit). As someone born many years after this show ended, my recognition was patchy. Other than appearances by John Inman, Sandie Shaw, Eartha Kitt, Bernard Cribbins and Keith Harris & Orville I was lost.

I went into this not expecting this, but at least hoping that I could enjoy enough of the acts to make this, in the very least, amusing. By the end of this I would say that the hit to miss ratio was 1 in 10, which left me with entire hours where I just found the whole thing tedious.

As an artifcact The Good Old Days is an interesting entry on the list. Given what it represents and that there really are not many shows like this I can see why it was included. It’s just that, at least for me, it really did not stand up to modern scrutiny in the same way that Green Acres or The Prisoner did.

What’s On TV – Green Acres

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 202/501
Title: Green Acres
Episodes Aired: 170
Year(s): 1965-71
Country: USA

Every now and then one of these lists produces a surprise completely out of left-field. From the TV Shows list alone I have started on the path to cure my phobia of drag queens (RuPaul’s Drag Race) and found a new favourite game show (Only Connect). Now, whilst it might be a far reach to say that the random pick of Green Acres has given me something truly amazing, it has provided something truly binge-worthy.

It is incredibly easy to look over a show like Green Acres. The premise alone, where a well-to-do couple move away from New York in order to set up a farm, feels a bit cringe-worthy. A lot of the jokes are a bit obvious or are based on running gags that have begun to pile up. The supporting cast is primarily composed of country folk who embody a number of stereotypes and act as foils to the city folk.

However, this show is far far more than the sum of its parts. It has real heart and a lot of affection to everyone it is sending up. With the exception of the slippery Mr Haney, everyone in this show is well intentioned. They have their quirks, but that’s what makes them lovable – especially Eva Gabor, who I fell for right away.

Being a sitcom set in a farming town there’s no escaping the animal cast who had their very own breakout star: Arnold Ziffel the pig. Within the show he introduced as the ‘son’ of the Ziffels and everyone in the valley accepts this situation. Probably helps that this is a pig that loves watching John Wayne on TV, can’t sleep without his electric blanket and helped the police capture bank robbers.

The character of Arnold helps to typify the slightly weird sense of humour found in Green Acres. During Season 2 this show starts to dabble in a bit of metahumour. Examples of this include Eva Gabor’s character addressing the audience and characters who begin to notice the presence of subtitles on the screen.

At the centre of everything is Oliver and Lisa Douglas – i.e. the couple who moved to set up a farm. A lot of the fun is watching how their characters develop as a farming couple and fit in with their new surroundings. Where Oliver struggles to become part of the community, in part because of the way he continually eulogises the farming life whilst also seeing himself as better as the rest of them, it is Lisa who really shines as the series progresses.

Despite the fact that she is upper class, foreign and starts the series having never washed a dish – it is her who adapts and becomes a member of the community just by being herself. She also finds a way to order eggs from chickens… but that’s another story. I’m sure there’s a lesson in how their experiences differ – and quite a positive one at that.

So yes, from the initial reaction that this would be a bit of fluff that we could ditch once we’d seen enough episodes, Green Acres has become a show that is part of the rotation. Having seen the next show that’s out of the hat, I can already say with some degree of certainty that I won’t be as positive.

What’s On TV – Bleak House

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 201/501
Title: Bleak House
Episodes Aired: 15
Year(s): 2005
Country: UK

As part of my watching through the 1001 TV Shows list with the hub I have been re-watching a number of shows that he has not seen. I’ve already covered the story of Bleak House when I read the book a few years ago – so these will be a few brief words about the adaptation.

Unlike my husband, I am a fan of the BBC bonnet drama. I make sure to re-watch Pride and Prejudice every few years around Easter and Bleak House tends to come on in the run up to Christmas. I’m not sure why I associate this show with Christmas other than the fact that I originally watched this in the gap between Boxing Day and New Year in 2005.

With this watching of Bleak House I might be getting close to double digits and yet it is still able to break my heart time and time again. The book, being so long, meant that there was a lot that could be streamlined in order to bring it to the television. This means that what is left in the eight hours of this miniseries is the best and most essential parts of an excellent book.

Aside from the source material there are two main things that help to elevate Bleak House above other Dickens adaptations. Firstly, there is the huge cast of unique characters who have all been excellently cast. Seeing this 12-13 years after the initial broadcast has given me a chance to look back on some names (like Carey Mulligan and Anna Maxwell Martin) who have since been able to forge strong careers.

Alongside Anna Maxwell Martin’s amazing turn as Esther you also have a then-career best performance from Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, which helped to open up a whole new set of roles in her subsequent career. Then there’s Charles Dance as the devilish Tulkinghorn and Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce (aka my literary crush) who round out the best of the starring roles. There are also a number of smaller roles that leave huge impacts thanks to actors like Sheila Hancock, Lilo Baur, Johnny Vegas and Phil Davis.

The cast is one thing, but the way  that the creators eschewed traditional drama norms by having these as half hour episodes with regular cliffhangers really makes Bleak House work as binge-worthy television. In-keeping with their playing with our expectation of a Dickens adaptation – Bleak House uses modern editing and transitions to help this feel more alive than I have ever seen Dickens being portrayed.

Would Dickens approve of this adaptation? It’s impossible to know, but Bleak House is one of those adaptations that stands as one of the best ever produced, as well as one that helped make this tome of a book that much easier to teach.

What’s On TV – Clocking Off

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 201/501
Title: Clocking Off
Episodes Aired: 27
Year(s): 2000-2003
Country: UK

At the moment it would appear that an increasing number of new shows on TV are following the anthology format. It’s weird, therefore, to think that when Clocking Off first aired it was pretty much unique. Whilst not a true anthology series it is at least anthology adjacent.

Clocking Off is a series set in a textile factory in Manchester with each episode focusing on a different worker in the factory. Some of these stories are completely self-contained whilst others have a direct impact on the main narrative. By constructing a series in this way Clocking Off is able to tackle a large number of subjects and bring in some of the top UK television acting talent due to the limited nature of their appearance.

When you consider this is a series that features the likes of Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Philip Glenister, Marc Warren, David Morrissey, Sophie Okenedo and Sarah Lancashire it is little wonder that this show became a critical darling. Although, I think we could all agree, that any show that features Sarah Lancashire in something close to a leading role is worth every award it gets.

The main award this received was the BAFTA award for Best Drama Series. It won it for the first, and best, series with the latter all three series being nominated and ultimately missing out. It’s a fair shout because the first series is exceptional, varied in it’s scope and contains the best episode (Yvonne’s Story).

Whilst there are a number of heavy episodes there are still light moments, but these seem to disappear as the show went along it’s run – resulting in a lot of heavy episodes. Then again, the point of creating a pseudo-anthology series is to allow for the covering of a large number of topics such as racism, paedophilia, mental health and LGBT issues alongside the more mainstream stories.

There is no question that the first (and most of the second) series of Clocking Off was must watch television. With all things it appears that by series three the originality and the realism began to wain. Still it was an exceptional show at its peak.

What’s On TV – Big Brother

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 200/501
Title: Big Brother
Episodes Aired: …countless
Year(s): 1999-2006 (original series)
Country: Netherlands (original series)

When I first started crossing things off for the TV list I had left shows like Big Brother uncrossed because I had only seen the British version. I’m now two years in and I’ve gotten to thinking. How likely is it that I’m not only going to be able to find the original Dutch version of Big Brother, let alone have it be with English subtitles. Not very likely.

So, from this point onward, I will be adding English-language versions of reality and game shows if I cannot find subtitled versions. Means that I might have a fighting chance at seeing Bauer sucht Frau… so hooray?

When it comes to Big Brother in the UK, I was one of the people watching the original series. Well, the latter half of the original series thanks to all the ‘Nasty Nick’ furore. I even remember voting for my favourite (Anna) only to have her lose to Craig. I would later go on to watch series 7 and 8 as well as the first and fifth editions of Celebrity Big Brother UK.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, back in the day, I was able to enjoy Big Brother. However, I have literally no desire to start up on a new series. Haven’t had that desire for the best part of a decade though. Still, I think I’ve watched enough to cross this off.

What’s On TV – Beckett on Film

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 199/501
Title: Beckett on Film
Episodes Aired: 19
Year(s): 2001
Country: Ireland/UK

To call Beckett on Film a TV series feels like somewhat of a stretch. A more accurate description would be that it is the result of a project to make cinematic versions of Samuel Beckett, some of which were then broadcast on television. Still, it is what it is and this was a series that won a South Bank Show award for Best TV Drama so what do I know.

Over the course of the 19 episodes I was given a crash course in the oeuvre of Samuel Beckett to the point that I have now seen more Beckett plays adapted than I have Shakespeare. I guess that’s a weird brag to unleash at some point upon some unsuspecting colleague at work…

Anyway. Whilst I would agree that it is a noble, and maybe even cool, idea to put all these plays on film (especially as some of these just aren’t performed too often) the results are a bit of a mixed bag. This is not necessarily because of the directors and actors involved, but because my own reactions to the plays themselves.

You have some like Happy Days, Play and Come and Go which are engaging because of their symbolism, weird staging or both. However, you also have the likes of That Game, which failed to engage, or Endgame, where words do not exist to explain just how bleak it was.

For most people going into watching Beckett on Film, the play that will attract their immediate attention. After all, this is the play people will have heard of and it is meant to be one of the most significant plays ever written. It, being Beckett’s magnum opus and the first play on the project list,  is also the perfect introduction into the remaining 18 plays you will see to complete series.

You have his nihilistic views, interesting take on staging (which, for me, reaches it’s peak in Come and Go), love of repetition and the nudge that everything you’re going to watch will be unlike anything you have see before. I mean, how do you explain the limited staging of Act Without Words II? I mean I’ve watched it and I’ve read the explanation on Wikipedia and I’m still not sure how to go about explaining it.

As a cultural education I cannot help but recommend watching Beckett on Film. In terms of it being an engaging TV series… I’m not so convinced.

What’s On TV – Minder

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 198/501
Title: Minder
Episodes Aired: 108
Year(s): 1979-1994
Country: UK

Considering that the last TV show I watched for this list was Broen we are talking about going from the sublime to ridiculous. Where Broen is an intelligent, thoughtful crime drama that deals with international relationships – Minder is a fairly mindless comedy drama about the criminal underworld of London.

There was a time where Minder was an extremely successful show in the UK. It pretty much takes place in a similar world to Only Fools and Horses with the exception that one of the characters actually has a fair bit of money. Both tapped into the mindset of Thatcher’s Britain where millions of viewers would tune in and root for the main characters to succeed in their get rich schemes and get one over on the authorities.

The thing is, we no longer live in Thatcher’s Britain – I grew up under Blair and Cameron – which means I have a thoroughly different mindset. Also, I am probably too middle class to properly enjoy it. There were times where we were watching episodes and I found myself actually wanting the police to win out. Now either that’s my overactive sense of authority or the show it just very much of its time (as is the abundance sexism and casual racism).

There are some positives to watching Minder. For one, the running gag from Little Britain about Dennis Waterman writing and singing the theme tune suddenly makes sense. Also, watching these old episodes lead to some interesting pieces of future celebrity spotting (Peter Capaldi and Jonny Lee Miller being two examples) as well as many actors of the time also taking on smaller roles. That’s how big a hit this show was.

Many point to George Cole and his character of mature con man Arthur as being the reason for the shows success. In earlier series he was sidelined in favour of the grittier Terry (played by Dennis Waterman), but they became equal partners once Cole’s appeal was realised. The show really was improved by the growth of Cole’s role with him delivering most of the comedy as he pisses off everyone with his self-centred antics to make money. Didn’t always work for me, but I did catch glimpses of something I could have enjoyed at the time.

One thing that Minder (and other shows like Knight Rider) has shown me is how these TV shows aren’t on list necessarily because they are most enjoyable, but because they capture a feeling of the time. From here it’s likely that we’ll go up in terms of intellectual viewing… I’m not sure what I’ll be watching next though. Depends what I draw from the pot. Exciting times.

What’s On TV – Bron / Broen

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 197/501
Title: Bron/Broen
Episodes Aired: 38
Year(s): 2011-2018
Country: Sweden/Denmark

After only 13 shows since Rejseholdet I am back in the world of Nordic Noir with The Bridge. Since this a co-production between Sweden and Denmark I will use the English name as I don’t really want to show favour to one name over the other.

Whilst the idea of an international TV co-production is nothing new, this is the first time I have come across one where international co-operation is a central part of the show. The setting of this show is the neighbouring cities of Copenhagen and Malmö, the titular bridge being the Øresund Bridge that connects these cities together.

It is on this bridge that we start on the first case of series – that of a woman who has been bisected and laid directly on the Swedish-Danish border. So begins the partnership of Saga Norén and Martin Rohde as they try to piece together the case as the two countries’ police forces have to work together.

Whilst I am sure that there are digs at each others countries that are lost to outsiders (although Danish cop Martin bringing Danish pastries to the Swedish team always makes me smile) this show is incredibly universal. One thing that continued to amaze me is how these characters are able to speak their own languages and yet still understand each other. Seriously, the mind boggles.

A downside of talking about a show like The Bridge is that pretty much everything is a spoiler. Within a single hour the cases develop so quickly that it can be easy to fall behind if you aren’t concentrating. The second series was especially like this because it starts out with so many parallel side-plots that only start to knit together in episode 7. Still, it’s a show worth the concentration because the emotional payoffs are never a disappointment.

Speaking of emotional payoff – I just have to say a quick word about Saga Noren. Don’t get me wrong, Kim Bodnia is excellent in his role as the likeable Danish policeman (and I would talk more if it wasn’t for spoilers)… but the show belongs to Sofia Helin. Her performance as the possibly-Aspergic Swedish detective is so magnetic that her sheer presence dominates any scene she is in. Saga is both the beating heart and the comic relief.

Now, I am writing this in August which means that the fourth and final season of The Bridge is yet to air. I have also only seen the first two seasons, which means I am unable to pass comment on the addition of Thure Lindhardt to the cast. By the time this post goes up I’m sure I’ll be completely up to date as The Bridge really is a truly exceptional series. I just hope the final series does just to wind together all the threads. I’m sure it will be.

What’s On TV – Northern Exposure

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 196/501
Title: Northern Exposure
Episodes Aired: 110
Year(s): 1990-1995
Country: USA

When the creators of Northern Exposure won the Emmy award for Best Drama Series back in 1992 they said, amongst their thank yous and their dedications, “but it’s a comedy”. As things stand right now Northern Exposure is one of two comedy-dramas to win a big award at the Emmys – the other being Ally McBeal which won for Best Comedy in 1999.

It’s weird to think that, when Northern Exposure first came onto the air in the summer of 1990 that, the dramedy had only been popular for 5 years. It’s one of the reasons that I am keen to see Moonlighting as it was the show that helped pioneer the genre. Without that, we might be without other award-winning shows like Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Orange Is The New Black, Pushing Daisies and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Aside from the dramedy side, there is nothing too unique to Northern Exposure when it starts out. It’s a fish out of water story of Joel, a Jewish doctor from New York who is made to work in the small town of Cicely, Alaska as a way to pay off his medical school bills. He comes across colourful small town characters and you can complete it from there.

As pilot’s and first seasons go Northern Exposure is fun enough, but it doesn’t quite seem like a show that would go on to be both award-winning and influential (although I would happily watch John Corbett as small town DJ Chris anytime). It’s only in the final episode of Season 1 that you start to see what this show is heading for… and it’s something they take and run with from the beginning of Season 2.

In effect, this show decides to embrace the madness and increase the involvement of the ensemble. Don’t get me wrong I think Rob Morrow does excellent work as Joel, but the first season felt like it was just forcing him to conflict and that was turning me off. With character like Chris and Shelley (a former beauty pageant winner who now lives with a bar owner many decades her senior) given more screen time and by allowing Janine Turner (who plays Joel’s will-they-won’t-they Maggie O’Connell) to embrace her comedic side Northern Exposure soars.

Also the fantasy sequences. This was something also done in Moonlighting and it works again here. Some of the funniest and most poignant parts of the series happen in dreams or in flashbacks. In Season 3 episode ‘Jules et Joel’ they take it to the extreme by staging the entire episode in the mind of Joel after he is whacked on the head. Similarly, the most famous episode, Season 3 closer ‘Cicely’, takes place in the past with the regular cast playing new roles.

It’s probably a show where it’s worth starting on Season 2 because that’s when it starts properly getting good. Then again, this is just a show that’s really worth watching and, eventually, I will finish this.