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Barrie Maxwell presents... The British Beat!

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Première Column

As anyone who follows my Classic Coming Attractions column regularly will know, I do occasionally include reviews of British TV series there. They don't really fit that column so I've decided to start up The British Beat as a vehicle more appropriate to such material. This column will be a little more wide-ranging than TV series reviews, though. I'll include coverage of classic and recent movies that are quintessentially British - the Red Riding Blu-ray review in this first edition of the column is a good example. I'll also try to alert you to forthcoming British titles that seem worthy of your attention. The column will appear irregularly, at least to start, and its focus will be on North American releases.

In addition to the Red Riding Blu-ray (from MPI) mentioned above, this inaugural edition of The British Beat includes reviews of the Blu-ray of Bridget Jones's Diary (from Alliance Canada) and the DVD releases of A Cold War Spy Collection (The Glory Boys/The Contract); Murphy's Law: Series Two; A Bit of a Do; Wartime Britain: Three Complete Dramas; and Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill (all from Acorn Media); as well as Secret Agent AKA Danger Man: The Complete Collection (from A&E).

Blu-ray Reviews

Between 1999 and 2002, British author David Peace wrote the "Red Riding Quartet" consisting of four novels "Nineteen Seventy-Four", "Nineteen Seventy-Seven", "Nineteen Eighty", and "Nineteen Eighty-Three".

Red Riding Trilogy (Blu-ray)

It deals with police investigation, police corruption, and investigative journalism concerning a series of child abductions and serial murders set in Yorkshire during the 1970s and 80s, based to some degree on real events. In 2009, the novels were adapted for the screen in the form of three films - 1974, 1980, and 1983. 1974 was directed by Julian Jarrold in 16mm (1.85:1); 1980 by James Marsh in 35mm (1.85:1); and 1983 by Anand Tucker on digital video (2.35:1). They were released briefly theatrically in Britain before being shown on British TV (Channel Four). MPI has now made them available on Blu-ray in a two-disc SE under the title Red Riding. In 1974 we are introduced to the series of childhood abductions and the work of a young reporter who tries to investigate the linkages between them. In 1980, the subject of the Yorkshire Ripper is added to the mix and the failure of the Yorkshire police to make any progress results in an outside team from Manchester being brought in to take over the case as well as consider the issue of police corruption. In both films, things end badly for the chief investigators. 1983 offers resolution when one of the Yorkshire police takes it upon himself to crack open the case when he becomes disgusted with his own prior role in it. Collectively, this is a superb series of films that rivets one to the screen. I watched the whole trilogy in a single sitting. Each film builds on the previous one and events and meetings that may have seemed unclear when first viewed click into significance as a result of revelations in the later films. Subsequent viewings of the trilogy are certainty worthwhile just to connect all the dots more clearly, but one does have a good overall appreciation for what has been going on after the first viewing. The subject matter is dark and the films do not shy away from that darkness, each offering a fair dose of graphic violence although often concentrating on the results of such violence rather than showing it actually happening. The cast is a mix of lesser-known faces and well-established ones (David Morrissey, Sean Bean, Warren Clarke) that impresses throughout. Despite the different directors and shooting media, the films generate quite a unified gritty look and mood of despair and anger over the 5+ hours running time. MPI's Blu-ray presentation delivers the three films on a single disc, with each film looking successively clearer and more detailed as one might anticipate from the shooting media. The Blu-ray appears to replicate the intended look of the trilogy accurately, but the only transfer that offers the feel and depth of a really good high definition one is that of 1983. The others seem little different from what one might expect of a very good DVD. The audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 which sounds clear throughout except for a few instances where the local accents can be difficult to decipher. There's little evidence of separation and only minimal use of the surrounds for ambience. A stereo track is also offered, but any differences between it and the 5.1 mix are subtle indeed. The release contains a second disc for the supplements. It's a standard DVD that contains making-of featurettes for 1980 and 1983, an interview with the director of 1974 (Julian Jarrold), deleted scenes and TV spots for each of the three titles, and a theatrical trailer for the trilogy as a whole. Highly recommended.

Bridget Jones's Diary is a 2001 film from the makers of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Based on Helen Fielding's novel (which itself draws liberally from the plot of "Pride and Prejudice"), it's a richly comedic take on the romantic comedy, one that seems fresh due to its London setting and likable performances from its three leads.

Bridget Jones's Diary (Canadian Blu-ray)

Renee Zellweger, sporting an convincing and quite consistent English accent, stars as the title character - a 30-something single career woman unlucky in love and seeing herself increasingly consigned to nights alone in front of the telly as she eats and smokes her way to unhealthiness. She decides to turn over a new leaf and write a diary chronicling her progress and soon finds herself with two potential beaus. One is her boss (Hugh Grant) who's the charismatic charming type who seduces women and then tends to leave them for someone better or different. The other is a handsome but reserved and in Bridget's case disapproving barrister (Colin Firth). Anyone familiar with romantic comedy knows whom she's going to end up with, but it's the journey that easily holds the interest. Bridget is an attractive woman, but a bit of an endearing klutz who somehow manages ultimately to succeed even when she puts her foot in her mouth (or on the written page) as she's frequently wont to do. Her road to happiness is a rocky one, but for the viewer, rich in gently-amusing as well as laugh-out-loud incidents. Adapted by Fielding herself (along with Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis), the script sparkles, sounding right for the world and age of the characters. In addition to the appealing work of the three leads, Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones provide additional luster by their nicely-tuned performances as Bridget's parents. Alliance Canada's 2.35:1 Blu-ray presentation pretty much does right by the film. It doesn't offer the perception of depth of the best HD efforts, but it is very sharp for the most part. There are a few sequences that seem a little soft but they appear to reflect filmmakers' decisions rather than transfer issues. Fine level detail is very good and colour fidelity is right on. The DTS-HD Master Audio doesn't get a great workout, but dialogue is clear and robust and the few non-dialogue sequences (notably a fight between the Grant and Firth characters) do engage the surrounds noticeably. Supplements include audio commentary by director Sharon Maguire, five featurettes, deleted scenes, and the trailer for the film's sequel - Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Recommended.

TV DVD Reviews

Oh, Lord! Oh, heck! Tickety-boo! That fine 1989 British TV comedy, A Bit of a Do, is now available on DVD from Acorn Media.

A Bit of a Do (DVD)

The program originated from writer David Nobbs who had great earlier success with The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (also available on DVD from Acorn). Here he adapts his own books and delivers a delicious slice of British life that offers both comedy and poignancy. The story is set in a fictional Yorkshire town where son Paul (David Thewlis) of the working class Simcocks (Ted and Rita, played by David Jason and Gwen Taylor) marries the daughter Jenny (Sarah-Jane Holm) of the middle class Rodenhursts (Laurence and Liz, played by Paul Chapman and Nicola Pagett). At the wedding reception following, Liz seduces Ted and their resulting affair affects the lives of every member of the two families, sometimes in surprising ways. The series extends over thirteen 50-minute episodes and each one is set at some sort of function, or "do", including other weddings, a Christmas party, club or society meetings, a civic function, and even a funeral. The first episode sets the series' strong comedic pedigree with the absurdity of the basic situation and the large assemblage of characters, many of which are quirky in that distinctively British TV manner. One wonders after that first episode if the momentum can be maintained particularly using the idea of a different "do" for each episode. One need not be concerned though, as things for the most part do not develop as one might expect and the strongly comedic aspect is tempered with dramatic events that provide the series with a measure of real-life groundedness that sustains it throughout its entire length. The performances are uniformly solid, particularly so those of David Jason (British Comedy Award for Best TV Comic actor), Gwen Taylor (BAFTA TV nomination for Best Actress), and Nicola Pagett. Stephanie Cole and Tim Wylton offer fine support as the Sillitoes, best friends of the Simcocks, providing solid comic inventiveness in their roles as chicken factory owners who become budding health food entrepreneurs. It is, though, Nobbs' carefully observed portrayals of people and situations that ultimately elevate the series well above the norm. The story arc is entirely satisfying, effectively skirting conventional ending expectations for such material. Acorn Media's DVD release presents the series on four discs. The image is full frame as originally telecast and is in quite decent shape. Its sharpness is slightly above average for British TV series of a comparable vintage. Colours may have faded slightly, but are still quite good. The stereo sound is robust enough, but never sounds much different than simple mono. Minor hiss is present, but not distracting. The supplements consist of innocuous 5-6 minute interviews with Nicola Pagett and David Nobbs (done for talk shows of the time) and selected filmographies for eight of the cast members. Highly recommended.

I had high hopes for Acorn Media's DVD release of Murphy's Law: Series 2 given the very positive feelings left by the release of Series 1 on DVD last year.

Murphy's Law: Series 2 (DVD)

Those hopes are only partially met, unfortunately. Jettisoned in the first episode of Series 2 is Murphy's superior officer, Annie Guthrie, with whom Murphy (James Nesbitt) was developing an interesting relationship in the first series. I don't know if it was an artistic decision or simply because the actress in question moved on, but whatever the reason, it leaves Murphy on his own too much, with no one to temper his at times obnoxiously smart-aleck character. Gone too are the 90-minute episodes that had room to develop character along with solid story lines. They've been replaced with 60-minute episodes, which at least haven't compromised story quality too much since the writing remains strong. Unfortunately, Acorn Media's DVD provides each episode in a condensed 50-minute version that does noticeably effect plot clarity for at least a couple of the episodes. The abridgement apparently occurred in Britain when packaging the episodes for export, but was also applied to the British domestic DVD release. The Series 1 episodes were fairly gritty tales, but those in Series 2 up the ante, with both the look of London and the action taking on a darker and more visceral cast. James Nesbitt remains superb in the title role as the Irish cop who goes undercover in each episode. In Series 2, he takes on a serial killer in the West End, investigates a drug squad in the police force, works with Interpol on a car-smuggling ring, tries to find out whether a biotech company is implicated in the death of a child, dawns the robes of a priest to investigate the deaths of two nuns, and must deal with a therapy group/vigilante force that tries to help those whose loved ones have been victims of crime. Most of the plots are fairly fresh, but even where familiarity creeps in, the Murphy character is sufficiently interesting and different to keep one involved. There are three more series still to be released on DVD in North America. They reportedly are better than the second season, so we have much to look forward to. Aside from the shortened episodes, Acorn's 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation is very good offering a crisp image and good reproduction of the series' subdued hues. The stereo sound is clear, but seems little different from a good mono track. Be warned that the disc defaults to the English subtitling for the hearing-impaired. The only supplement is a brief text biography for James Nesbitt. Recommended as a rental.

A good example illustrating that not all British TV is great is provided by one half of A Cold War Spy Collection. The release contains two stories by British author Gerald Seymour (The Glory Boys/The Contract), each of which he adapted into a 3-part TV series for ITV, in 1984 and 1988 respectively.

A Cold War Spy Collection (DVD)

The Glory Boys is the problem. It makes the mistake of importing two American actors to star - Anthony Perkins and Rod Steiger, and they couldn't look less interested. Steiger is an Israeli nuclear scientist with a gigantic pair of glasses who is in London to give a lecture. There, he's targeted for assassination by a joint Palestinian-IRA hit team. Perkins is a British agent (a world-weary type who seems pre-occupied with alcohol) tasked with protecting Steiger. Steiger conveys no energy whatsoever in his role, but the biggest disappointment is Perkins whose idea of world-weariness is an annoying smirk fixed behind a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol. The Glory Boys has other issues though, including uninteresting and inept villains, and action sequences that are executed with little sense of suspense or precision. The story is poorly paced as well, with the final 50-minute part seeming like an anticlimax after its predecessor. Much better is The Contract, a thriller in which a former intelligence officer is called back into service to arrange the Soviets' leading missile designer's removal from East Germany to the West. The story is told in a typically low-key British manner and entirely convincing. That's partly due to an interesting twist to the story's familiar tale - the fact that the designer's son has defected before him and is being used by British Intelligence as a key to draw the designer's interest in defecting himself. There is also a comfort level in the lack of imported stars but the presence of many vaguely familiar British faces including a few well-known ones such as James Faulkner (The Bank Job, First Among Equals, Bridget Jones's Diary) and Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy). The film is well-paced under the direction of Ian Toynton (Cracker, 24) and builds effectively to the third part's satisfying conclusion. Each film is presented full frame as originally telecast and given a separate DVD and case, packaged in a cardboard slipcover by Acorn Media. The Contract looks fairly good in terms of sharpness and contrast. The image has a reasonable film-like look with some modest grain - overall a tad better than the typical British TV series of the time. Background image detail is inconsistent. On the other hand, The Glory Boys offers a rather soft-looking experience with video noise frequently intruding. Colours on both releases seem a little washed-out. The stereo audio on both is quite workable, with dialogue clarity never an issue. The few action sequences on both films have little dynamic heft to them. Each disc sports a text biography for author Gerald Seymour and selected filmographies for the lead cast members. Worth a rental for The Contract.

Wartime Britain: Three Complete Dramas contains three ITV productions - 1989's The Heat of the Day, 2004's 6-part Island at War; and 2006's Housewife, 49.

Wartime Britain: Three Complete Dramas (DVD)

Island at War is the least rewarding of the three, mainly because it merely treads ground already better covered in the 1978 British series Enemy at the Door (first volume previously available from Acorn Media). The subject is World War II in the Channel Islands, represented by the fictional island of St. Gregory, with the story following the fortunes of three families. There are some good performances, not least that of Philip Glenister as the German commander, and the location photography (on the Isle of Wight) is impressive. The series' problems lie in its narrative structure - few of the various subplots are satisfactorily resolved and pacing is glacial at times. One almost feels also that the series was trying to be too politically correct in its fairness to the German side. Much, much better is Housewife, 49. It mines the diaries of real-life Lancashire housewife Nella Last (diaries that she wrote as part of the Mass Observation public project) to create a fascinating portrait of one aspect of wartime on the homefront. Victoria Wood (who also wrote the script) immerses herself in the role of Last, a woman fearful of coping with her son's enlistment and life alone with a withdrawn and domineering husband. The awakening sense of independence in Last brought about by her wartime volunteer work is truly inspiring and moving in Wood's hands. She receives solid support from David Threlfall as Last's husband - a performance of a domineering yet ultimately sad little man that has to be seen to be believed. Stephanie Cole also is solid as the head of the women's volunteer group. The Heat of the Day relies on a fine script by Harold Pinter, based on a novel by Elizabeth Bowen. During World War II, a widow Stella (Patricia Hodge) is approached by a mysterious stranger who calls himself Harrison (Michael Gambon, far removed from how he looks as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies). Harrison has a proposition for her - take up with him and he won't expose her lover (Michael York) whom he claims is a traitor passing secrets to the enemy. The film's pleasures lie in Pinter's carefully crafted dialogue, the performances by Hodge and Gambon, and the refusal to go for the carefully-tied-up ending. We're unsure of Harrison at the beginning - who in fact is he and what does he really want? And at the end, the answers to those questions will depend on the viewer's interpretation of what he or she has just seen, with no one interpretation being more valid than another - a typical Pinteresque result in which the voyage is more interesting than the destination. Acorn Media's release gives us each title its own Amaray case with all three packaged in a cardboard slipcover. Island at War is spread over three discs within its case and its 1.78:1 anamorphic image is the best of the set. It's particularly sharp with solid colour brightness and fidelity. Housewife, 49 (also 1.78:1 anamorphic) fares almost as well except that the night-time scenes lose a bit of definition. The Heat of the Day is full frame, looking rather faded with muted colours and below-average image detail. On the audio side, Island at War and Housewife, 49 offer stereo mixes characterized by clear dialogue that even sports some noticeable directionality. The Heat of the Day's mono track is workable. Each title's supplements are mainly textual in nature - biographies, filmographies, historical notes, cast reflections, etc. The set is recommended as a rental, but if you can find the previous stand-alone release, Housewife, 49 is worth a purchase.

Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill is a 1974 Thames Television production that stars Lee Remick in the title role.

Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill (DVD)

The program consists of 7 episodes and is presented on a 2-disc DVD release by Acorn Media. It covers Jennie's life from her meeting with the young Randolph Churchill and subsequent marriage to him in 1874 to her death in 1921. All the key events of Jennie's life are covered including the birth of her sons Winston and John, her love affair with Karl Kinsky, Randolph's political career and death from syphilis, Jennie's war work including the chartering of a hospital ship for service in the Boer War, the progress of Winston's career, Jennie's later marriages to two younger men, and her eventual death as a result of a hemorrhage stemming from a leg amputation. The story is very well written and really holds the attention after a somewhat slow opening episode. Lee Remick does a very fine job as Jennie, certainly embodying her beauty, although one could have wished for even more demonstrative portrayal that would have conveyed more forcefully the dynamicism of the woman that so entranced men. Remick is aged quite naturally and realistically over the almost 50 years of her life that are covered. Remick won Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for her efforts. Winston Churchill is very well portrayed by Warren Clarke who captures the look, mannerisms, and vocal inflections of the man remarkably accurately. So much so that in those parts of the story where he appears, he often outshines Remick's efforts. The rest of the cast is consistently of a high standard too, but Barbara Perkins (as Jennie's sister Leonie) and Ronald Pickup as Randolph Churchill particularly stay in the memory. The production itself is a handsome one with obvious attention paid to period costuming and some good location work. Acorn's full frame image is typical of DVD versions of British TV of the time. It varies in consistency with some scenes looking very sharp and detailed while others are fuzzy. Colours frequently seem faded. It's all quite workable, however, and detracts little from one's enjoyment of the production. The mono sound is clear and Andre Previn's agreeable theme for the show is decently conveyed. The only supplements are a text biography for Lee Remick, some cast filmographies, and a text history of Blenheim Palace (birthplace and ancestral home of Winston Churchill). Recommended.

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