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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Reviews of Two Recent BBC Video Releases

As Time Goes By: Complete Series 8 & 9
(released on DVD by BBC Video on August 30th, 2005, distributed by Warner Bros.)

If you've never seen the British TV series As Time Goes By, BBC Video's recent release of Complete Series 8 & 9 (the program's final episodes) means you can now sit down with a nice cup of tea and enjoy the whole series from start to finish without being concerned about waiting for missing episodes.

As Time Goes By: Complete Series 8 & 9

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Those who are familiar with the program (and there are many fans in North America) know the pleasures in store, but for those who are not, suffice it to say that it is a decided cut above most North American network comedy fare. For one thing, it recognizes that there are indeed people alive who are over 25 and further, it credits its audience with an IQ of considerably higher than your average fruit fly.

The program follows the relationship between Jean Pargeter and Lionel Hardcastle who were young lovers 40 years ago. She was a nurse and he a soldier when the two were separated by Lionel's posting to Korea. The two lost contact due to circumstance and now re-encounter each other when Lionel returns to England from Kenya where he has been a successful coffee grower. Lionel is writing his memoirs ("My Life in Kenya") and requires secretarial assistance which he secures from an agency run by Jean.

Over the course of 64 episodes we follow the couple's fortunes as they reconnect, fall in love again, and move in together. As we experience the pair's ups and downs, we meet Jean's daughter Judith, Judith's friend and co-worker Sandy, Lionel's young publisher Alistair, and Lionel's father Rocky, a rather energetic senior who has just married the equally energetic Madge. All contribute to a richly vibrant TV family that millions of viewers have come to love over the past 13 years.

As Time Goes By made its first appearance on British television in 1992 with an initial series of 6 episodes. British programs typically don't extend beyond two or three seasons, but this one extended to 9 seasons over the following 10 years. While the program's general appeal lies in the gentle humour that arises in the familiar situations of real life, its specific draw is its refreshing focus on a sixty-ish couple dealing with all the typical issues of a new relationship. What a pleasure it is to see recognition of issues that touch older people, from sex to retirement to financial security to elderly parents and to adult children dealing with their own problems. The main characters of Jean and Lionel are ideally portrayed by Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer respectively. Judi Dench displays adept comic timing as one might expect from one of the foremost actresses of the day, but she is matched by Geoffrey Palmer's irascible portrayal. Veteran British comedy viewers will see a very familiar face in Palmer whose skill has graced many series over the past three decades including The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Butterflies.

Series 8 of As Time Goes By (six episodes, made in 2000) begins to show some signs of tiredness as some of the situations are rather routine, but episodes dealing with Lionel's concern over his lack of a pension plan and with the apparent mysteries of dealing with the internet are up to standard. Series 9 (four episodes, made in 2002) basically ties up the loose ends of all the characters' lives and is a fitting conclusion to the program. Each series is presented on the BBC Video DVD on a separate disc and as with all the discs issued to date, demonstrates excellent image quality - sharp, nicely detailed, and with accurate-looking colour. Series 8 is presented mildly letterboxed while series 9 is shown at 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The Dolby Digital stereo provides a pleasantly realistic audio experience with both fore- and background sounds clearly presented. There are no sub-titles. Extras (appearing on the Series 9 disc) include informative interviews with cast members Geoffrey Palmer, Moira Brooker (Judith), and Philip Bretherton (Alistair) as well as an hour-long special. The latter is somewhat disappointing as it simply presents some new linking material about Lionel writing a follow-up to his autobiography that serves to allow the presentation of clips from the series' early shows. As the wrap-up DVD offering of As Time Goes By, this latest set is a no-brainer for the series' fans. Others should enjoy it equally, but it makes best sense to sample the earlier discs first.

BBC History of World War II
(released on DVD by BBC Video on July 19th, 2005, distributed by Warner Bros.)

British television is well known for the high quality of its documentaries in general, but none more so than those that deal with events related to World War II. BBC Video has now released a mammoth 12-disc box set that presents ten BBC series that chronicle the key events, places, and personages associated with the war. While the set does cover many aspects of the conflict, it is by no means a definitive visual history of the war. For that, you are best off to try The World at War series narrated by Laurence Olivier and available on DVD from A&E.

BBC History of World War II

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The BBC History of World War II box set's contents include the following:

The Nazis: A Warning from History - a six-part series that helps us to understand the forces and conditions that led to the rise of the Nazi Party, its subsequent attainment of power, and its eventual demise. This is the showpiece of the set, a highly acclaimed documentary that utilizes interviews with surviving witnesses and participants along with archival film and records. The material is presented with thoughtfulness and vigour (narrated by Samuel West, written and directed by historian Laurence Rees), and provides essentially the definitive current thinking on Nazi history. Presented full frame as originally broadcast in 1997.

The Road to War: Great Britain, Italy, Japan, U.S.A. - a four-part series that reveals how each of four countries ended up being drawn into the war, utilizing interviews with eyewitnesses and original archival footage. The material is particularly interesting when viewed sequentially to see the obvious links between each country's situation, but offers not a great deal that is really new. Presented full frame as originally broadcast.

Dunkirk - a three-part series that follows events from May 25 to June 4, 1940 concerning the evacuation of British troops from the continent. The series thoroughly illuminates why the evacuation became necessary and how it was carried out, utilizing new personal accounts very effectively. Unfortunately, the programs also resort to excessive new dramatizations of events that detract from the reality of what we learn otherwise. Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1, as originally broadcast.

War of the Century - a four-part series that examines Germany's campaign against Russia. One of the most brutal conflicts ever fought between two nations is revealingly brought to life through access to Eastern European archives and personal accounts from both German and Russian participants. This is another of the box set's highlights. Presented full frame as originally broadcast.

Battle of the Atlantic - a three-part series focusing on the struggle between German U-boats and Allied shipping in the Atlantic. Eyewitness recollections from former U-boat and Allied crew members highlight the material, and dramatic reconstructions are again used although judiciously and generally to good effect. Strikingly narrated by Bill Paterson, the material is presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 as originally broadcast.

Horror in the East - a two-part series tracing the war in the Pacific and probing the reasons behind the brutality meted out to Allied prisoners of war there. British and Japanese research is blended effectively to provide an incisive documentary that provides what will be new information and perspective to many. The series relies on eyewitness remembrances and archival footage. Narrated by Samuel West, the material is presented full frame as originally broadcast.

Battlefields - a four-part series that addresses four of the major campaigns of the war: El Alamein, Monte Cassino, Operation Market Garden, and the RAF bomber offensive against Germany. The series is hosted by Professor Richard Holmes who retraces the original locations and utilizes eyewitness accounts to add immediacy. The presentations are surprisingly bland, however, and some dramatic recreations are not particularly persuasive. Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 as originally broadcast.

D-Day: Reflections of Courage - a 90-minute program that recreates the background to and events of June 6, 1944. Originally broadcast in 2004, it uses eyewitness accounts and dramatic reconstruction to good effect in what is overall a revealing portrait of a bloody and ultimately decisive day in bringing the war's end in sight. Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 as originally broadcast.

D-Day to Berlin - a three-part series that chronicles the offensive that took the Allies from the beaches of Normandy to the war in Europe's victorious conclusion. The recollections of Allied and German soldiers, archival footage, and some dramatic reconstructions are effectively blended. Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 as originally broadcast.

Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State - a six-part series narrated by Linda Hunt telling the story of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Another of the box set's highlights, the series draws heavily on over 100 eyewitnesses including former Germans who were personally involved. Archival footage and dramatic and computer reconstructions are effectively used to complement the personal recollections. Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 as originally broadcast.

In a mammoth set such as this one, there's obviously something for everyone interested in World War II. The best of the presentations are The Nazis, War of the Century, Battle of the Atlantic, and Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, but most of the others will have resonance for given individuals despite their lapses in presentation. Much of the latter lies in the degree of dramatic reconstruction employed. From my personal viewpoint, such a technique can too often detract from the raw appeal of personal remembrances. Dunkirk suffers the most in this regard, while Auschwitz and Battle of the Atlantic (of those series that employ the technique) use it to best effect. But that's a minor quibble; all the series demonstrate an impressive attention to detail and present their material in an authoritative and compelling fashion, usually employing narrators who draw the best from the words they're given. The DVD presentations appear to faithfully present the material in its original aspect ratios, anamorphically enhanced where appropriate. The images are generally sharp and bright, always allowing for the innate deficiencies of archival footage. The sound, generally Dolby Digital stereo, is unremarkable though fully adequate for the task. English sub-titles are provided. Not content with its over 30 hours of documentary content, the set also includes about four hours of supplementary content that includes opening words from Laurence Rees on the first of The Nazis discs; a 50-minute documentary on merchant seamen on the Battle of the Atlantic disc; a 45-minute documentary on the Indian army and a 60-minute documentary on the war in Burma (now Mianmar) on the Horror in the East disc; 30 minutes of eyewitness accounts, 20 minutes of making-of featurettes, a photo gallery, fact files and excerpts from the original score on the D-Day: Reflections of Courage disc; and six follow-up discussions with historians and scholars on the Auschwitz disc.

Many of the series on the box set are also available as stand-alone releases (only The Road to War, Dunkirk, and Battlefields are not) for those who may only be interested in a few selected titles. Otherwise the box set is clearly the more economical and attractive way to go, and is highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell

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