|The British Beat
Welcome to the second edition of The British Beat, my quarterly column on DVD and Blu-ray releases of British TV shows and feature films. This time I have 9 reviews for you: Wallander (on Blu-ray from BBC Video, distributed by Warner Bros.); Murder on the Orient Express (on Blu-ray from Acorn Media); The Guilty, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster, Midsomer Murders: Set 16, and Midsomer Murders: Village Case Files (all on DVD from Acorn Media), and Executive Stress: The Complete Second Series, Is It Legal?: The Complete Second Series, and The Likes of Sykes (all on Region 2 PAL DVD from Network). I also have a few comments on the desirability of two recent A&E DVD re-releases: Rumpole of the Bailey: The Complete Series and Benny Hill: The Thames Years 1969-1989 - The Complete Megaset.
I've updated the listing of forthcoming DVD and Blu-ray releases further on in the column too.
I hope you'll enjoy this first edition of the column for 2011 and I look forward to receiving any comments you may have.
The fine BBC series Wallander has now completed two seasons of three episodes each, and the second season (originally aired in January 2010) has been released on Blu-ray by BBC Video (distributed by Warner Bros.).
Kurt Wallander is a Swedish police inspector who has been the subject of a series of highly successful novels by Henning Monkell. The books have been adapted as feature films and a Swedish TV series as well as the BBC one. The latter stars Kenneth Branagh as the rumpled, disillusioned detective who investigates a number of mainly horrific crimes based out of Ystad, Sweden as he struggles with a life alone, a difficult aging father, and an uncertain relationship with his grown-up daughter. The second season of Wallander consists of three 90-minute mysteries that are all extremely engrossing tales - as much for the intrigue of the mysteries as for the personal demons that dog Wallander, accentuated by his killing of a suspect in the first episode. In "Faceless Killers", the murder of an elderly couple unleashes hatred against 'foreigners' working in Sweden. "The Man Who Smiled" finds Wallander finally roused from a self-imposed exile to investigate the death of the father of a close friend who also later commits suicide. In "The Fifth Woman", Wallander investigates the murders of three elderly men all regarded as bullies and womanizers. The episodes can be enjoyed separately, but it's preferable to view them in order as there are common strands related to Wallander's personal life that play important roles in each case. Branagh's work as Wallander is very impressive and he manages a nice balance between the character's personal and professional life that rings true. There's plenty of good police work, but it's the personal aspect that elevates the series. The investigative team he works with is typical of ensemble detective shows these days (female boss, hotshot young male associate detective, attractive young female associate, rumpled pathologist), but it's a likable group that complements Wallander's sometimes mercurial, but more often brooding nature well. BBC Video presents the second series on Blu-ray on two discs. The 1.78:1 transfers are very strong, offering sharp images with excellent fine detail - facial stubble is well conveyed (a good thing since most male characters seem to have either it or a beard). Colour fidelity is very good with the somewhat washed-out look of many scenes well rendered. Some background noise is detectable in darker sequences. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is workmanlike. It provides clear dialogue with some directionality, but surround usage is limited. English SDH subtitling is provided. The supplements consist of two featurettes, one of 15 minutes duration on the locations in Ystad utilized by the series and the other (10 minutes long) showing cast members discussing work on the second season. Recommended. The release is also available on standard DVD. For those interested in the first season, it's also available on DVD but not on Blu-ray.
Agatha Christie's 1934 novel, "Murder on the Orient Express" has been filmed a number of times, most recently in 2010 for the TV series "Agatha Christie's Poirot". David Suchet, as he has since 1989, plays Christie's fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Acorn Media has chosen this version of Murder on the Orient Express for its first Blu-ray release. Comparisons with Sidney Lumet's excellent 1974 film version are inevitable and indeed the new TV film falls short of its star-studded predecessor.
On the plus side, David Suchet's comfort with Poirot results in a more interesting and rounded characterization than Albert Finney's and for me a closer approximation to my own mental picture of what the character looks like and how he acts. On the other hand, this version of the film is less elegant and presents a somewhat darker and drier reading of the story. The supporting cast of suspects is much less interesting and particularly on the female side suffers from a sameness that makes many of them hard to keep straight. Still, for those unfamiliar with the solution to the mystery, it's fairly well camouflaged in this version and Poirot's unraveling of it is interestingly if somewhat statically played out. Acorn's 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer looks quite fairly nice in the well-lit scenes. Image sharpness and detail is quite good in those. Darker and nighttime scenes suffer from increasing amounts of noise with the image looking rather murky at times as faces and objects lose definition. A DTS-HD 2.0 stereo track is offered that keeps the dialogue clear and well-balanced. It also does a good job with a rather engaging score by Christian Henson. English SDH subtitles are provided. The supplements' highlight is a ¾-hour 2009 travelogue hosted by Suchet as he experiences a ride on the modern-day Orient Express, Suchet is out-of-character for this of course and offers an infectious commentary and history as the trip proceeds. Its in 1080i and looks very strong. Several text-based filmographies and lists, etc. round out the disc. I suggest a rental for this one.
TV DVD Reviews (Region 1 except where noted)
The Guilty is a very fine ITV production that was originally aired in two parts in 1991. Its 3-hour-plus story is a rich though somewhat coincidence-laden exercise that concerns a London barrister (Michael Kitchen) on the verge of being named a judge who commits an offense that if publicized would compromise his position and freedom.
The offense - the rape of his new secretary (Caroline Catz) - sets in motion a chain of horrific events that eventually involves the secretary's roommate, a son Eddy he didn't know he had and Eddy's two friends, his current wife, and several associates in his law office. There's no doubt that The Guilty is a compelling experience, yet the coincidences that tie all the characters together give the plot a contrived feel that occasionally lifts one out of the story. As the plot develops, inevitably one begins to wonder how the situation will be resolved. It's sufficient to say that the standard expected resolution is not what we get. The program deserves kudos for that, but the ending we do get ties everything up just a bit too conveniently and leaves a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth that ultimately diminishes a bit one's admiration of the program as a whole. The work by the cast is impressive, with Michael Kitchen's work certainly deserving of high praise. Those familiar with the Doc Martin series will be pleased to see some fine work by Caroline Catz from the early part of her career. Sean Gallagher (Coronation Street) also does a nice job as the barrister's son Eddy. Acorn Media has brought The Guilty to DVD in a two-disc set. The full frame image (as originally aired) looks fairly decent. It's not as sharp as more recent British TV shows on DVD, but it's reasonably clean with acceptable colour fidelity. Shadow detail particularly at night is somewhat lacking and some of the night-time scenes are rather noisy. The stereo sound is in good shape and English SDH subtitles are provided. A few text-based cast filmographies are the only supplement. Recommended.
Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection is a recent release from Acorn Media that gives us all ten 50-minute episodes of the late-Soviet era spy game program on three discs.
The show was originally broadcast as two series (4 episodes in Series One and 6 in Series Two) in 1984 and 1985. Mr. Palfrey (Alec McCowen) is a valued member of British security services and he is retained when a re-organization affects many others' jobs. He does get a new boss known simply as the "Coordinator" (Caroline Blakiston) as well as an assistant named Blair who is simply someone assigned to keep the Coordinator aware of Palfrey's actions and methods. Palfrey is somewhat of a loner who likes to follow his own methods. His character is principled and low key, but dogged in his pursuit of threats to British security. He never gives the impression of other than a faceless bureaucrat on the surface, but he's a shrewd and calculating one underneath. This stands him in good stead as he's frequently underestimated by the opposition. McCowen's personification of Palfrey is a delight to watch, particularly as he is able to convey a combination of bemused acceptance of his role combined with at times a barely-concealed smugness that suggests he's more in control of things than his superiors. Series One's four episodes are all impressive fare - serious, no-nonsense tales that introduce and solidify Palfrey's relentless, suspicious nature. He's often at odds with the Coordinator, but she's smart enough to give him plenty of freedom to complete his assignments. The cases involve him in determining the truth about a diplomat suspected of spying for the Russians while posted to Prague; investigating why an air vice marshal seems to be engaged in compromising activities; establishing if a defector is really dissatisfied with the Soviets or merely setting himself up as a double agent; and looking into the provenance of an old Russian icon. The Second Series' six episodes are also well written with the uniqueness of Palfrey's character retained, though tempered by more of a willingness to partake in some give-and-take with fellow-workers. Defectors or moles are frequently the subject of Palfrey's investigations in this series. Overall, fans of another British spy series - Callan - will find similarities of style and tone in Mr. Palfrey of Westminster; so if you liked Callan, I suspect Mr. Palfrey will be much your cup of tea too. Acorn's full frame release (as originally aired) is presentable. The image looks a little tired with colours that seem pale and the presence of speckles and scratches that appear more prevalent on the show's exteriors. The stereo sound is in good shape and English SDH subtitles are provided. There are no supplements. I'd suggest a rental for this title.
Executive Stress is a delightful British comedy show that appeared for three series in the 1986 -1989 period. Network released the first set of episodes early in 2010 and is now making The Complete Second Series available.
This is a Region 2 only release. It consists of a single disc containing six 25-minute episodes. Executive Stress's story line concerns Caroline Fairchild (Penelope Keith) who decides to resume her former career in publishing after her family is all grown up. She gets a job at Oasis Publishing as Editorial Director using her maiden name only to find herself working alongside her husband Donald when his publishing company (where he is Marketing Director) is taken over by Oasis. Oasis and its head, Edgar Frankland Jr., have a policy against married couples working together and neither Caroline nor Donald is willing to give up their position, so they decide to try to hide the fact of their marriage and continue on at Oasis together. This series premise offers only a reasonable scope for inventiveness before it could become absurd. After a superb first series, the newly released second series recognizes this and works its way towards revealing the Fairchilds' true situation at the company. The nature of the solution is quite palatable to viewers although it limits the series' future possibilities. As a result only one more series was made (not yet announced for DVD). On the acting side, Penelope Keith is the main common factor in the series and working with fine scripts from George Layton, she is witty and obviously delights in her role. She offers a combination of finesse and knowing superiority tinged with a bit of wry exasperation that makes Caroline a delightful character. The first series had the benefit of Geoffrey Palmer's considerable comic talents - his dry wit and penchant for deadpan delivery with a knowing look are familiar to anybody at all steeped in British TV comedy (think As Time Goes By and Butterflies). Unfortunately he does not return in series two. His replacement as Donald, Peter Bowles (another very familiar face, though at home as much in drama as he is in comedy), is a pretty good choice but Bowles doesn't convey quite the sense of comfort in the role that Palmer did. Bowles and Penelope Keith had previously worked together in To the Manor Born. Network's Complete Second Series Region 2 PAL DVD release of Executive Stress is quite pleasing looking. The transfer is full frame as originally aired and provides a sharp image with decent colour fidelity. Colour brightness seems a little inconsistent at times. The image is fairly clean with only the occasional speckle or scratch. The mono sound is in good shape, but there are no subtitles. The disc offers no supplements. Recommended.
The absurdity of the British sitcom Is It Legal? makes one faintly embarrassed to admit to watching it, but it does grow on one. That's mainly due to a fine ensemble cast who seldom fail to bring a smile to one's face in their impersonation of their misfit characters.
The characters all work at a small suburban law firm, with the term "work" being used advisedly. We have senior partner, Dick (Jeremy Clyde), who seems to have forgotten everything he ever knew about law and spends his time schmoozing with potential clients, drinking sherry, and honing his golf game. The junior partner is the outrageously inept, accident-prone, freshly minted lawyer, Colin (Richard Lumsden), who rates his position by virtue of his father having been a partner. Then there's Stella (Imelda Staunton), the one partner who seems competent and actually does work but exists in a continual state of exasperation over the rest of the office's incompetence. Add in office manager Bob (Patrick Barlow) who's permanently besotted by the young woman who delivers sandwiches to the office, secretary Alison (Kate Isitt) who has no apparent office skills whatsoever, and dozy office boy Darren (Matthew Ashforde) and you have what seems on the surface to be a recipe for silliness that should only offer diminishing returns. Indeed, viewing the first few episodes of the first season seems to confirm that. Then a strange thing happens. You start to get quite hooked on the series just because the characters are so well portrayed in every single instance. Imelda Staunton is the real joy of the series, but Patrick Barlow and Richard Lumsden aren't far behind. Is It Legal? lasted for three series (1995, 1996, 1998) winning the British Comedy Award for Best Sitcom in 1995. The Second Series is the best of the three with all the players very comfortable in their roles and each character allowed to shine in at least one episode. Network has just released The Complete Second Series on DVD in Region 2 PAL. It consists of seven 25-minute episodes on one disc. The episodes can be enjoyed in isolation, but there is a very loose story continuity that benefits from viewing them in order. It's best though not absolutely essential to take a look at the first series (released by Network early in 2010) before watching the second. The episodes are presented full frame as originally aired and look very nice. The image is sharp and colour fidelity and brightness is strong. The transfers are very clean. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no subtitles and no supplements. Recommended. Fans of Is It Legal? should note that series three is expected to appear on DVD from Network in a couple of months.
Eric Sykes is a British radio and TV comedy legend who first made his name in the 1950s writing and working with the likes of Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, and Peter Sellers. For many people, he's best remembered for the time he spent with Tony Hancock appearing in The Tony Hancock Show and a couple of inspired TV series in the 1960s (Sykes and A …) and 1970s (Sykes), both of which co-starred his good friend and colleague Hattie Jacques.
At the beginning of the 1970s, Sykes also started doing occasional TV specials for Thames Television. Three of these efforts have now been gathered together by Network and released on Region 2 PAL DVD under the title The Likes of Sykes. The 50-minute specials are Sykes - With the Lid Off (1971), The Likes of Sykes (1980), and The Eric Sykes 1990 Show (1982). Unfortunately, all three are more misfire than anything else, even allowing for modern sensibilities. The general tenet of each is one of attempting to expose the absurdity that goes on in the making of a television show, presented through gentle comedy skits and musical numbers. In the first, Sykes acts as a warm-up man engaging the audience before the actual show before participating in most of the rest of the show as well. In the others, he acts as both stage door manager commenting on the action as well as participating in it. The trouble with the second and third specials in the set is that most of their skits just aren't that funny. The presence of Hattie Jacques in the first one tempers that criticism there somewhat, as the sequences that involve her and Sykes are quite amusing, with the staging of the "I Remember It Well" number from Gigi hitting the target. Other performers appearing in the specials such as Philip Gilbert, Diana Coupland, Chic Murray, and Dandy Nichols are likely to be familiar only to inveterate British TV comedy fans. Network's full frame presentation is rather tired looking in terms of colour brightness. Image sharpness is decent, however. The mono sound is in good shape, but there are no subtitles and no supplements. A rental for Eric Sykes fans only.
The Midsomer Murders shows are surely some of the most quintessentially British of programs. Inspired by the novels of Caroline Graham, these contemporary English village mystery programs offer inspired plots; well-concealed murderers; a bucolic setting that belies the evils that appear to lurk behind every hedge and in every country house, farm, and village business; and superior casting choices.
There is much pure detective work in the stories, but enough instinct, humour, and luck to give them a dose of reality that raises them above the level of strictly grind-it-out police procedural. It helps immensely that in the series stars, John Nettles as the unflappable Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and Jason Hughes as his earnest, efficient dogsbody Detective Sergeant Ben Jones, we have two of the most comfortable and likable characters in such TV programs. Nettles has been around since the series beginning in 1997 while Hughes came on in 2005 as the third assistant that Nettles has worked with. Chief amongst the handful of other continuing characters with minor roles is Jane Wymark as Barnaby's long-suffering wife, Joyce. Acorn Media's most recent release in the lengthy series is Midsomer Murders: Set 16 which offers four 100-minute programs taken from the program's Series 8 originally aired in 2008. Three of the four are superior mystery entertainments ("Midsomer Life" - after the unpopular editor of a local magazine is found dead, Barnaby stumbles upon a nest of bribery, adultery, and secrets kept too long; "Days of Misrule" - Christmas comes early for Barnaby and Jones when a suspicious explosion frees them from a dreaded team-building exercise; and "Talking to the Dead" - two couples go missing from the sleepy village of Monks Barton and the locals blame ghosts, but Barnaby suspects a more earthly culprit) while the fourth ("The Magician's Nephew" - Barnaby must determine if witchcraft is to blame when several members of a pagan cult are killed in an unusual manner) has a somewhat muddled storyline though does offer a nicely executed Hallowe'en background. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers are very good indeed - sharp, bright, clean, with notably good colour fidelity. The stereo sound delivers clear dialogue and there is even some very modest separation evident. English SDH subtitles are provided. Even better, there is a full-length audio commentary by John Nettles and Jane Wymark accompanying "The Magician's Nephew". The chemistry the pair has on screen carries through nicely in the warm, comfortable and informative commentary they deliver. Highly recommended. If Set 16's four programs are your first introduction to Midsomer Murders, how lucky you are, for that's but four of 80 programs that have so far been broadcast over thirteen seasons and only 14 of them are not yet on DVD from Acorn Media. Previous Acorn Sets 9, 10, 11, and 12 have recently been collected into the box set Midsomer Murders: Village Case Files. That's 16 mysteries (on 16 discs housed in 4 keepcases or volumes held in a cardboard slipcase) with most being of a very high standard offering the mix of bizarre/gruesome/unexpected murder, thoughtful police work, and tinges of gentle humour we've come to expect. As usual the mysteries are set in Midsomer County, that mystical land of English small-town country life in which all sorts of untoward events seem to occur. There is one exception that takes Barnaby out of his natural environment ("Down Among the Dead Men" in Volume 3 of the set, or originally Acorn's Set 11). It's partway through the Village Case Files too, in "The House in the Woods" episode of Volume 3, that Detective Sergeant Jones makes his debut albeit in a rather low-key fashion. I enjoyed all the programs but particularly notable are: "Dead in the Water" - Barnaby and Scott (Jones' predecessor) immerse themselves in the luxurious world of rowing after a murder mars the annual Midsomer Regatta; "Hidden Depths" - Barnaby and Scott face a bizarre crime scene when a local oenophile gets killed by a combination of catapult, croquet, and Chateau Lafite; "Four Funerals and a Wedding" - every year, the Skimmington Fayre rekindles and age-old battle of the sexes in Broughton, but this year the bodies really start to accumulate; and "Death in Chorus" - approaching a big choral competition, the Midsomer Worthy amateur choir loses its tenor to murder. The 1.78 anamorphic transfers are without exception all of a high standard with bright, sharp transfers offering good colour fidelity. The stereo sound is clear and English SDH subtitles are provided only for the last four mysteries. The supplements include a brief bio of Caroline Graham and cast filmographies (both repeated on several of the set's volumes), text interviews with John Nettles and Jason Hughes, and some production notes. Highly recommended.