TV Review: Messiah – The Harrowing (2005)

Helen McCrory and Maxine Peake help elevate Messiah – The Harrowing to arguably the series’ devastatingly effective high point

“See beyond the victim, see the killer”

The first series of Messiah is certainly one of the best, setting the wheels in motion for an effective crime series, but I’d argue that it is the fourth instalment Messiah – The Harrowing that is the best of them all. The arrival of a new writer – Terry Cafolla – releases the show from the baggage of its legacy which seemed to weigh the last series one and produces something that is really, well, harrowing.

Harking back to that first series and its connecting device of people being killed in the style of the Apostles, the murderous connection here ends up being Dante’s The Divine Comedy and its descent into hell. And weighted around the death by suicide of the daughter of one of their colleagues, Red and his team (with Maxine Peake’s DS Clarke now in for a retired Kate) find themselves once again up against the darkest parts of human nature. Continue reading “TV Review: Messiah – The Harrowing (2005)”

Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 1

I had already started a rewatch of Spooks earlier this year as part of a planned Nicola Walker retrospective but as it turns out, I’ll have to use that Britbox subscription for something else!

“When will you tell her that your real name is Tom Quinn and that you are a spy”

It is interesting to look at back at much-loved shows and be reminded of how not everything is always how you remember. So much of Spooks has aged remarkably well – not least its choice of subjects that have remained terrifyingly evergreen – that it is easy to forget that this opening season of 6 episodes sees them still searching for that house style. 

It is undoubtedly a bit shonky in look and feel, the slick Thames House set isn’t yet in place and the focus on the lead team at the expense of too many nameless supporting bods gives the personal dynamics a somewhat off-balance feel as we delve into too much of the personal lives of Tom, Zoe and Danny.

But airing in May 2002 in the immediate post 9/11 climate gives its geopolitics real currency. And the threats they face – homegrown far-right movements, fears over immigration, the push for Kurdish self-government, US abortion rights, Russian spies being murdered on British soil… – are compelling throughout. And any show that has Jenny Agutter and Nicholas Farrell dry-humping in a corridor has to be a winner right?!   

Nicola Walker-ometer
To be honest, I’d forgotten Ruth wasn’t a member of the team from the start, so these six episodes pass by with an outrageous lack of Nicola Walker. Continue reading “Lockdown TV Review: Spooks Series 1”

Review: Ghosts via Digital Theatre (plus thoughts on the filming of theatre more generally)

“You have no idea what this has cost me”

There’s something a little ironic about the fact that many of the people who write about the filming of theatre shows are precisely those who need it the least, myself included. I am in the fortunate position that all the shows I’ve wanted to see that have been broadcast in cinemas through NT Live or captured on Digital Theatre have been shows I was able to see live. To poke at too easy a target, Shenton’s assertion that these are for people who are “not organised enough or connected enough or rich enough to get your hands on a ticket” feels misguided in light of the news that the recent live showing of Billy Elliot topped the UK box office; the audience is clearly there, just not necessarily in London’s IMAX screens.

It can be easy to forget that for people who do not live in London, the expense incurred in sorting out a trip to the theatre, especially for a high-demand show, verges on the ridiculous. Train timetables now work against anyone hoping to catch an evening show, the steady rise in ticket prices means taking a family to see something is increasingly expensive, etc etc. So the option of going to the local picturehouse offers something of a solution, not a replacement but a widening of the opportunity (as Shenton does acknowledge before the above quote).

As for those of us who more habitually spend most evenings in theatres, the gnashing of the teeth about filmed versions replacing the live experience of sitting in a playhouse equally feels wrong. I don’t think anyone is suggesting at all that these innovations are in place of the ‘real thing’ but rather an accompaniment, something to enrich that very experience. I’ve always felt this – having seen many a show from the cheap seats in the larger West End theatres, the chance to see things up close offers a completely new take on the show as well as the joy of revisiting something you enjoyed that otherwise would just live in the memory.

These thoughts ran through my head again as I watched Digital Theatre’s production of the multi award-winning Ghosts, recorded during the show’s transfer to the Trafalgar Studios after an extraordinary run at the Almeida where Richard Eyre’s adaptation completely won me over. The Trafalgar is a notoriously uncomfortable theatre and you can end up paying a ton to still be far away so I didn’t go back to the show there but now, one has the opportunity to watch it again from the comfort of, well, wherever one chooses.

And yes, there are aspects that are lost in viewing it this way. The majesty of Tim Hatley’s translucent design never really comes across and the perspective is always dictated by the camera crew. But trusting them to make good decisions, it is easy to turn that frown upside down as the frequent close-ups on Lesley Manville’s Mrs Alving offer a unique opportunity to observe the finer details of a truly magnificent performance – the way the word “whoring” catches in her mouth, the trembles as she speaks of “the right thing to do”, the agony on her face as she hears that her son has not escaped “the sins of the father”.

The thought that this performance has been captured for posterity if nothing else is a thrilling one and I was recently pointed to the 1987 film (that can be seen on YouTube here) which features Judi Dench in a stunning, if slightly more stagey production. And this feeds into the idea of a rich theatrical archive being built up, in far more democratic a fashion than usual, so that maybe in another 25 years we’ll be able to compare and contrast another spell-binding turn from an actor in her fifties (Phoebe Fox or Vanessa Kirby would be my prediction).

There’s also the other pleasures contained here, the chance to see the late lamented Natasha Richardson work for one and the freshness of a youthful Kenneth Branagh for another, he probably comes out about equal with the excellent Jack Lowden for my money, as the ailing Oswald. Really, I can’t see why people get so het up about the idea of filmed theatre.

Ghosts, along with five other shows on Digital Theatre, is now available with the option of StageText captioning; that’s the sound of another barrier being broken down as the choices open to those who rely on captioning in theatres are limited and being able to make the precious few performances that are covered often requires planning of military precision. Adding this option here is therefore a real boon and shows that this is a company thoughtfully considering what their role in the capturing of live theatre really means. Well worth the investigation.

TV Review: The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part II

“I’ll tickle your catastrophe”

I was mildly disappointed by the second instalment of The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part I and so it was pretty much a given that I’d feel more or less the same about Henry IV Part II and so it came to pass. In some ways, little changed: Walters and Russell Beale continued to be themselves, Heffernan continued to be neglected as a simple serving boy, the women continued to get a raw deal of it only this time Niamh Cusack got in on the action with a mere handful of lines as Lady Northumberland (and admittedly Maxine Peake rightly got a bit more screentime as Doll Tearsheet), Hiddleston and Irons continued to be epically good and it all felt a bit too theatrical for my liking.

I did like that we got more Dominc Rowan in this one, though his hair still caused me consternation, Iain Glen and Pip Carter were great additions to the cast as Warwick and Gower respectively – Glen was particularly sonorous when speaking – and everyone has got to love a scene that looks like it could have been set in a gay sauna 😉 And though they lacked a certain something, the rural scenes with David Bamber and Tim McMullan as Shallow and Silence, were largely well-played. Continue reading “TV Review: The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part II”