The World at War: e03 – France Falls (May-June 1940)


WAW

This was the first episode of The World at War to be truly informative in terms of events and interpretations with which I was not previously familiar. I doubt it will be the last.

Because the time period involved was so short, the conquest of France taking only five weeks from the beginning of the Blitzkrieg through the Ardennes to the beaten country requesting an Armistice, the episode had ample time to not merely trace the course of the attack on an almost daily basis, but to lay out very clearly the context of how the German Army could so thoroughly reverse its fortunes against the hereditary enemy that so comprehensively defeated it only twenty-one years previously.

The episode set out what France was as a country bettween the Wars, deeply riven by political divides between Right and Left that not only permeated Government – unstable, factional, forever falling and rising – but also the country and the people, suspicious and hating of each other. Worse still was the French Army, once so strong, but now in a severe decline. If you wanted a single word to sum up the malaise in France that made it vulnerable to German assault, it could only be complacency.

France had emerged from the First World War both strong but also innovative, in its adoption of tanks and motorised communications. As one former General succinctly put it, however, it suffered from that most insidious of failings, victory. Innovation lapsed, advances were forgotten, tanks were not developed, horses once more became a primary mode of warfare. Its Chief of Staff, General Ganelan, based all his tactics on the First World War, and was a stiff-necked fool who thought that he could not possibly be wrong. In the era between Wars he rarely if ever left his headquarters in Paris, once the attack began he removed to a chateau outside the city that – and this is scarcely credible – had neither telephone nor wireless and communicated by motorcycle dispatch riders carrying reports once an hour.

It’s difficult to watch what proved to be an almost complete display of ineptness without feeling contempt towards France but the episode, whilst unsparing, shone through with the intent to illuminate, not condemn. But it was exceptionally hard not to shower blame when the episode dealt with the ear;y 1940 Sahr Offensive.

The French Army’s tactics were wholly defensive, to sit back and await developments, to be purely reactionary, an open invitation to the enemy to take the initiative in terms of timing and thrust. But in early 1940, whilst Germany was engaged with Poland in the East, when all, and by that I mean all its tanks were on the Eastern Front, French troops entered Germany, pushing forward until they reached the as-yet incomplete Siegfried Line. And there they did nothing. They did not fire in case the Germans fired back. They took the attitude that if they weren’t causing trouble, why should we? It was a bitterly cold winter. Morale was no-existent. Then they turned round and went home. A former German General confirmed that the troops in that area could have held out at most two weeks.

But aside from this passivity, the French tactics were wholly defensive. They had constructed the Maginot Line, eighty-seven miles of linked defensive forts that, incongruously, were a miracle of advanced planning, thinking and innovation. But which stopped at the Belgian border, in case the Belgians thought France planned to abandon them, leaving a massive gap that any Army could just walk through and round.

Ganelan also miscalculated on two massive points. Believing the wooded Ardennes to be impenetrable, he placed only five Divisions, and those his least well-trained, equipped and experienced, to defend it. He assumed Germany would make for Paris, just as it had in 1914, and he placed his strongest troops, almost half his command, plus the British Expeditionary Force, to guard the route through Belgium, and sent them into that country once the attack began.

Which was exactly what the German Army expected him to do. They hit Holland rapidly, cutting it in two. They attacked Belgium. They sent Panzers through the Ardennes, round and behind the useless Maginot line, and then they wheeled north to the coast, to trap the French and British forces in Belgium, cutting them off from France.

It all sounds so simple now but it relied on France’s sclerotic systems and so it worked. Ganelan was sacked and replaced by an older man, hauled out of retrement, out of touch. Marshal Petain, a defeatist who blamed everything on the Marxists, became Prime Minister. The British forces saved themselves at Dunkirk, for which there was still some resentment even then, even from the most open and honest former French General.

Perhaps the most humanly affecting interview was with a former German General, a veteran of the First World War, in which Germany had failed to take Paris. Now the capital had not so much been captured as abandoned. Speaking of flying over the city in his private plane, he spoke honestly of his joy and exultation, and getting his pilot to land on the Place de la Concorde. You couldn’t condone his emotion, but you could understand it.

I was mildly surprised to hear practically nothing about Dunkirk but the name, but since the next episode will focus on the Battle for Britain, perhaps there’ll be more then. But this was all about the fall of France, the bitterness of and reasons for defeat, and to introduce what has been talked up as a ‘miracle’ favouring its ally would have been to shade the episode over into a partisanship it was determined to avoid.

So the real War has begun, and begun badly. It taunted us with the possibility that, even despite their failure to develop their forces and equipment and tactics and practically everything, had France’s mindset been different, the war could well have taken on a very different shape. But most of all it was about Hitler’s early successes in the West were all but fore-ordained by time, circumstance and a lack of will and spirit. A very sober story indeed.

Due South: s02 e16 – The Duel


Due South

With the exception of one small element, which was pleasant enough in its own way but out-of-place, this was a wholly excellent episode, centring for once on Ray Vecchio. It was also almost completely serious, with minimal comedy and that virtually restricted to the backchat between our Chicago Detective and our Canadian Mountie.

It was the kind of episode that depended on very clever scripting, less in the dialogue than in the plotting. The title tells us what to expect, a battle of wits between detective and criminal. It’s not an original notion: Detective gets criminal put away, he protests that he was framed, too clever to have made the mistake that cost him his freedom, begins a campaign of threat against the detective and everyone connected to him, meanwhile the original investigation is reviewed and it is strongly hinted that the detective may have crossed the line… Who will win the battle of wits?

If it were a film, we’d be psychologically prepared for the twist that the detective did indeed set up the ‘evidence’ but in a television series when said detective is one of the two stars, we know that Ray is going to be cleared by the end, that he is and will always have been clean. The thrill is of how it all plays out, how the criminal, here Charles Carver (Colm Feore), is seen to be on top throughout, far smarter than Vecchio, who is not only out of his depth in this battle but who confesses it, yet when it comes to the extreme crunch, comes up with the bluff that fools the crininal into tripping himself up and being exposed.

The fun is in the ingenuity. In this case, it all starts with a parole hearing after eight years imprisonment that Ray, as arresting officer, has to attend, smugly certain that it’s all a foregone conclusion. Carver is dirty. He was arrested and convicted for arson thanks to a dislodged heel that matched his shoes, found by Ray after Arson had combed the site and found nothing. Carver was convicted for arson but not just Ray suspects him of at least two murders of women he exploited and abused.

The game begins when Carver gets his parole. Feore is excellent in the part, conspicuously clever and driven by a desire for revenge against Ray for the outrage of having beaten him, as much by the fact that it will tuen out that the convicting evidence was planted, just not by Ray. He’s outwardly cool, smug, waging a slow burn campaign clued by toys sent to or left with or for Ray.

The first step is comic. Assistant States Attorney Madeline Carnes (Lisa Houle), who was present at the parole hearing to hear Vecchio call Carver a turkey is enjoying a refreshing, extended, soap-heavy soft-porn shower when a turkey leg descends to scare the shit out of her, though not to the extent that we see anything that shouldn’t be seen on network tv (this is the false step: Ms Houle spent some time oversoaping arms, shoulders, legs, all golden and naked, which appealed to weaker instincts but it was all too blatant and incongruous against the rest of the episode).

At first Vecchio thinks the campaign is against people involved with the original bust – his then-Partner Laurie Zaylor, his supervisor Will Kelly – but we know better and, when Carver delivers flowers to his sister Francesca on her birthday, ostensibly for her birthday, he twigs that it is about people connected to him.

Each time it’s a toy and Ray, with Bennie, has to figure out what the toy – a Kenwood bus, a boat called Bookem, a baby carriage – means and who it threatens. Each time they do, and no-one gets hurt. Carver taunts but evades leaving tracks, Ray grows despondent. Carver is smarter than him, he doesn’t do puzzles, not this kind of conspicuously smart kind. Meanwhile, the Internal Affairs investigation gets closerto spotlighting him as a dirty cop.

Only it wasn’t him. Benny picks up on the vital clue, the manipulation, the attitude of every suspect is guilty of something, and spots that it was a frame but by Will Kelly, but by then Carver has doped and captured him and Diefenbaker, and Ray on his own has to figure out how, and where.

And when it mattered he did it. Not just where Benny is, and how he and the wolf are going to be killed, but he has the smarts to act his part, set up a trap, play the victim in a way that leads Carver to assert his superiority and give himself away for one of those unprovable murders. Game, set and match.

As I said, it’s a familiar story shape, and the episode didn’t travel far from it, but the trick is in making it new again, in being clever enough to capture and hold attention even though experience tells us how it will end. This episode worked beautifully. And, in view of the big change coming up very shortly, it was good to see Ray Vecchio, the fall guy, taking the spotlight for once and being right from start to finish.

The World at War: e02 – Distant War (September 1939 to May 1940)


WAW

We are only at the second episode but already I find myself needing a little breathing space at the end of an episode, time in which to come down, or come back from these appalling times. Time in which the various thoughts that arose watching this early stage to settle, and to make sense.

This episode was entitled ‘Distant War’, but the period it covers is more commonly known, at least in Britain, as the ‘Phoney War’, when Britain was at War, and was very busily, industrially and excitedly preparing for it, but in which nothing was actually happening. What there was of the War was elsewhere, a long way from our shores, of little or no direct effect upon us. Yet even these preliminsary stages were a locking into place of the machinery of War, laying the ground.

Germany invades Poland. At the same time, so too does Soviet Russia, in accordance with their pact. Poland is wiped from the map, not for the first time. Britain, who went to War over the integrity of Poland, does nothing at all to assist its gallant ally, save for taking in refugees.

Instead, there’s an almost feverish unreality to the way things went, the immediate decision to evacuate children out of the cities and away from the bombing raids that were feared but not yet experienced. The footage was real as were the memories of the people involved. I felt the horror of families being sacrificed, children removed from mothers and fathers. It was personal to me because that was my mother’s experience during the War, evacuated from inner city East Manchester to Leek in Staffordshire. An organiser spoke, as feelingly as any could in those days of British stoicism, the justly derided ‘stiff upper lip’, of the effect on the children, the feelings of rejection. A Lord spoke with disgust at the behaviour of some of the ‘evacs’, and behind the class difference you could not but sympathise, and marvel at the thought of children being brought up to behave so filthily.

The wheels ground forward. In Germany they built, manugactured and equiped, as they had already been doing. In Britain we didn’t lift a finger. We had no idea, no clue. We celebrated the Battle of the River Plate, the same one as the Powell/Pressburger film I once reviewed. The details were the same because The Archers stuck to the truth, so there wasn’t the same sense of disconnection between fiction and fact. Winston Churchill, restored to the Government as First Lord of the Admiralty, celebrated and propaganised the victory shamelessly.

Still the War was taking place elsewhere. The Russians invaded Finland, a chilingly contemporary phase. At first the Finns, a smaller but sleeker force, with ideas and tactics, forced them back, just as Ukraine are doing now, until Stalin turned the screw and overwhelmed them with numbers. How far might history repeat itself?

And then the British finally acted. At Churchill’s urging, and after much debate, an attack was planned on Norway, neutral Norway, though which Germany was importing coal and iron. Channels would be mined and a British force landed to attack two significant places on the Norwegian coast. The operation was a disaster. It wasn’t the scale of the defeat but rather the scale of the incompetence. The expedition was so under-equipped, both physically and in terms of coherent planning, that the details seem scarcely imaginable.

Narvik was the catalyst for the end of this phase of the War, for Phoney becaoming real and present. Germany invaded Norway as a consequence, aided by the original quisling, Vidkun Quisling, who would become the country’s puppet Prime Minister and a by-word for treachery and corruption. And in Britain, anger at the management of the War by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain led to heated debate, cross-party anger and a Vote of Confidence won by a margin small enough to act as a defeat. Chamberlain would resign. What mattered now was who he recommended as his successor.

There were two choices: Churchill and Lord Halifax. The terms in which the choice was described were very familiar. Halifax was ‘safe’. He was Chamberlain’s ally, his trusted lieutenant, in short, more of the same. Most analysts expect that he would have sued for peace relatively early on. He had been an appeaser, but he had also pushed for greater action to deter Hitler after ‘Kristallnacht’. Indeed, after Dunkirk, Halifax pushed for seeking peace terms. But he was also a member of the House of Lords, and no-one from that House had been Prime Minister since Lord Salisbury. Churchill, on the other hand, was a gamble. He was an aggressor, given to large gestures that didn’t come off, such as Gallipolli in the Great War, and now Narvik.

In the end, the programme suggested that what turned it was that Halifax didn’t have the stomach for it, literally. He claimed to have had a pain in his stomach an hour before the crucial meeting with Chamberlin and Churchill. It was be officially stated that it was his being a Lord that stood against Halifax but it seems rather that he thought Churchill would do a better job.

The day Churchill was invited to become Prime Minister, Nazi forces invaded Belgium. The ‘Phoney War’, the Distant War, was over.

One final thought. I couldn’t help but notice that this episode played out over a specific phase, from the declaation of War to its real start, giving the episode a dramatic unity that couldn’t help but feel convenient. I couldn’t help but wonder if there had been any element of manipulation of the actual events to produce something so neatly self-contained. I don’t think there was or else it would have been long denounced. But the concern was there in the back of my mind. We shall have to see.

Due South: s02 e15 – Body Language


Due South

It’s not fair to this episode but it’s fair to say that, after last week, I was dreading the prospect of having to watch another of Due South‘s recent overly silly stories. ‘Body Language’ was by no means special, and assessed against the overall run to date I’d call it sub-standard, but but not by any great depth. The title came from the story’s milieu, the world of strip clubs and rival mobs, allowing the episode to indulge in scantily clad women shaking their… assets.

Ironically, this sort of tripped the episode up. The story centred upon Ida Banks (Lisa Edelman), a blonde-haired, slightly squeaky-voiced, hot looking woman. We got into it in typical Due South style, with Ray Vecchio enduring a run of bad luck and seeking a new pair of shades to restart his luck, Benton Fraser spotting a woman getting into a taxi but dropping her good luck charm, a blue soft toy bunny, chasing the cab to return it and getting a tip on something going down at 2.00am that turned out to be an intended bombing.

Like I said, typical.

So between them Ray and Bennie determine that the fair Ida was actually a stripper (not that Lisa Edelman, for whom this was the sixth of eight credits between 1993 and 1997, did, you know). Ida’s boyfriend was punchy ex-boxer Barry Pappas (Nick Sandow), recently promoted from bouncer to to Assistant Manager at the Mount Olympus Club, where they both work. As a result of the additional stress of his new job, Barry talks in his sleep, about jobs being ordered by his boss, mobster Mark Ordover (James Callandars). The next one is going to be a fire…

Let me break off here to expand on that comment above about the story tripping itself up. Edelman played her part well, as a woman of limited intelligence but general sweetness, who deserved better than the dopey Barry but who nevertheless loved him because he actually respected her. Facially, she was believable as an exotic dancer, a little plastic, short of beautiful or gorgeous, with lovely hair. Ordinarily, i wouldn’t go into an actress’s physical appearance in such depth, but the role she was playing hinged upon her believability as someone who would be employed in a strip club (of which, I hasten to add, my only experience is in films and TV) and it has to be said that, for all her charms, Ms Edelman didn’t have enough of it up top, a fact emphasised by every other extra chosen to play a bra-busting dancer. Oh, it was cleverly avoided for the most part, by excluding sideways or three-quarter shots that would have emphasised where she didn’t quite have it, but once you saw it you couldn’t unsee it.

Just to finally emphasise the importance of Edelman’s appearance to her part, the episode also featured two short scenes for Camilla Scott as Inspector Thatcher, who, in my eyes at least, was ten times more attractive than Ms Edelman but who would have been unbelievable as a stripper. Her two scenes were designed to give her completely the wrong impression of poor Bennie, firstly when he has to apologise for being late on duty because he was hiding out in the closet of an exotic dancer (you wouldn’t want to know more about that) and then, silently, observing the confused Ida draping herself all round our Mountie on duty, taking full advantage of his being required to neither move nor speak (he did speak, after the inspector goes inside the Consulate: he says, ‘oh dear.’)

Anyway, the understory is a burgeoning Mob War between the aforementioned Ordover, the up-and-comer, and the veteran, pseudo-cowboy, Shelley Litvak, played by veteran comedian Milton Berle. I know of his reputation, but I have never been exposed to him in the past, when he was at or near his time – he was king of television in the decade before the flood of sitcoms that was my first exposure to American humour – so I really couldn’t judge him. He must have been better than this before. His character was 75 but Berle was 87 and this was his penultimate TV appearance.

To cut a long story short, Ordover cons Barry into going out to kill Litvak. Bennie talks him down, Lisa confirms she loves him, he gives Ray everything he’s got on Ordover and Ray arrests him. The actually ending, the reversion to comedy bit, didn’t work – one of Ida’s fellow dancers admires Ray’s eyes and gets him to take he off for coffee, Benny whistles a couple of notes then settles into his fixed-position-on-duty stance, but on a Chicago nowhere street in the early hours – and cut to the closing theme. 6/10 if I rated things such.

It was, in short, a fairly basic episode, lacking the original wit and sparkle the series possessed and which was deployed to perfection last week. There was nothing wrong with it, but then again there was nothing particularly right about it either. A bit of an end-of-season-and-running-low-on-inspiration. There are three more episodes in this series, after which there will be changes, and from what I’ve not been able to avoid picking up off imdb, only two of these are real episodes. One of them is a sequel to ‘All the Queen’s Horses’, again written by Paul Gross, and I have high hopes for that in two weeks time.

The World at War: e01 – A New Germany (1933-39)


WAW

It’s long been claimed that when Mao Tse-Tung was asked about the impact of the French Revolution he replied that it was ‘too soon to tell’. Only a little investigation is needed to discover than it was actually said by Zhou En-Lai, and that he thought he was being asked about the French Student Revolt of 1968. Nevertheless, the legend lives on as legends do because it is too good to be dismissed. It is better than reality.

I bring this up because, here in Britain at least, the same thing could be said about the Second World War. As a child of the mid-Twentieth Century, I was born just over a decade after it ended, into a country still proud – with good reason – of the role it had played in defeating totalitarianism in its fascist form, and I have lived with the War ever since. All of us in Britain do. It was our Shining Hour. We didn’t win it on our own, but for a time we defended it on our own. If not for Britain…

In 1973, ITV broadcast a twenty-six episode series about the war under the simple, yet oddly evocative title The World at War. It was the most expensive factiual series then made, it had taken four years to producde, it took advantage of that fact that, a quarter of a century later, there were so many survivors of the War, on both sides, still alive to tell of their experiences. It concentrated upon ordinary people, what they saw, what happened to them, not the generals and commanders and leaders, though they obviously didn’t go unrepresented. The aim was accuracy, and truth.

I didn’t watch it then. I was seventeen, doing my A-Levels, into 10cc, following Droylsden FC. I had other things to do. This was the year I discovered The Lord of the Rings. I knew about the War, I had read comics, I had read so many War serials in The Hornet and The Victor. Even the Eagle had had one. My late father had been just too young to see service, but his older brother had been in the Navy, in the Far East. And in the nearly fifty years since, I’ve still never seen more than snippets. So the time is overdue to sit and listen and watch the series about the Great British Obsession, that still dominates the coutry’s image of itself in the face of the reality and the truth the makers of The World at War sought to embrace.

The first episode set the tone perfectly, sober, factual and realistic. It did not seek to influence the audiece except by the facts. There was no editorialising, out to tell you what to think, which was clearly a deliberate approach, and one that I very much doubt could ever be sustained now. You responded to archive footage, every second of which was authentic, even down to Eva Braun’s home movies at Hitler’s provate retreat, at Berchtesgaden, set amongst stirring and beautiful mountain country which seemed obscenely magnificent given its association. You responded to the words of people who had been there at the time, though not entirely without wondering in some cases to what degree they had self-edited their recollections, an unavoidable reaction.

Yet in the very beginning the series demonstrated how different it could have been. Producer Jeremy Isaacs, upon whose head all manner of praise should be and was and is heaped, had gotten Laurence Olivier (billed as plain Laurence though he’d been a Life Peer since 1970) to narrate. Before the credits we were given the image of a deserted and destroyed village in France, and were told of what happened in 1944 when ‘the soldiers’ cane through, separated the men and the women, shot all the men, herded the women and children into the church and killed them as well. TThe village has remained deserted ever since, a national monument. How can such things be told, when they are true, witout an element of melodrama creeping in? Olivier emotes, concluding with the title of the series. It struck a false note with me but after the full episode I wondered if the different tone had been intentional, to emphasise that what followed would not be emotional, save in the truth itself.

The opening episode covered the build up to the War, stopping just short of the German invasion of Poland that triggered the British and French guarantees of its borders. It began with Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party having been installed in power, with the former as Chancellor, but eschewed how those circumstances came about, save to say that he and they did not seize power but were given it.

The episode then went on to recount how, once in power, Hitler acted swiftly and decisively both to take all power unto himself, and to reshape the German nation – which was in poor shape as to both its economy and its morale – into an intensely nationalistic project, training it in short to believe itself superior to all others, to live up to that superiority in mind and body, always emphasising unity of strength, thought, culture and pure blood, and of course re-emphasising the demonising of the Jews, as alien, untrustworthy, unGerman, impure and subhuman.

It remained at all times factual, grounded and, insofar as anything like this can be, neutral. I wanted to detect the faint air of fantasy, the sense that what was happening was so far beyond human understanding that it was unreal, but try as I might the footage, the testimony and the spare, dry narration, anchored me to the fact that this did happen. You kept wanting to ask why the rest of the world, the rest of Europe, stood back and did nothing to nip the inevitable in the bud but the series was not out to editorialise, and I suppose that at the time everything did feel slightly unreal, that what we now see was inevitable did not look it to a continent that, less that twenty years before had fought an horrendous, murderous, pointless, draining war and didn’t want another.

What I couldn’t help seeing in the things Hitler did and encouraged was this country, and America. So many things around us, in particular the persecution of opposing thought, of anything falling short of the myth-dream of national greatness, is part of the road depicted here. We are only at its beginnings, but the paths our country are taking were seen here developing into roads and autobahns, and this episode was evidence that it does not take much effort to go from one stage to another.

The final part of the episode dealt with the annexations. The Saar. The Rhineland. Austria. Czechoslovakia. Until we came to Danzig and the Polish Corridor. Hitler focussed upon them. The episode ended there. That next step would trigger War. Which we’ll come to next week.

A quick impression, based on one episode? The World at War is every bit as good as it has always been held up as being, and I should have watched this many years ago.

Sherlock: s04 e03 – The Final Problem


Sherlock

Looking back, I suppose we should have immediately realised that this was the last one. Leaving aside that extraordinarily crass, self-mythologising ending delivered from yet another unlikely DVD by Amanda Abbington, which was, I bet, written by Stephen Moffat, where on Earth was there left to go to after this? Officially, the story is that if ever Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s schedules permit, but let’s no kid ourselves: if ever they do, anoher Sherlock would be the very worst idea they could possibly have.

Last time round I found it impossible to approach ‘The Final Problem’ on any kind of analytical basis. It’s still more of an emotional odyssey, a succession of horrifying, frightening, twisted games conducted by a figure for whom even the word amoral is a long way inadequate. Eurus Holmes is the missing sister, six years younger than Mycroft, a year older than Sherlock, possessed of an intelligence beyond all scales and thus unable to relate to human beings because she simply cannot see them as being of the same species as her.

It was rather like Alan Moore’s description of The Flash in Swamp Thing as ‘a man who moves so fast that his life is an endless galley of statues…’ For Euros Holmes, substitute ‘thinks’.

Even now, a plain recitation of what happened, the games Eurus played when, wih the aid of five minutes unsupervised conversation with Jim Moriarty five years ago, she took over an entire super-secure facility, having mentally re-programmed all its staff to obey her, is an inadequate way to deal with this final story. The two most memorable scenes came when Eurus forced Sherlock to torture not just himself but Molly Hooper by manipulating her, and even him, into saying ‘I Love You’ to one another, and when she presented Sherlock with a simple elimination round, insisting he kill either John Watson or Mycroft, and the latter came out with the most condescending, sneering, arrogant assumption that John had to be the one sacrificed, as the least valuable, and I sussed it instantly as his trying to provoke his little brother into killing him. Memorable, I say, for the degradation of the spirit that both entailed.

There were depths of emotions being swirled around throughout the story, like paint being mixed with a stick, emotions and intellect, and a final redemptive scene in which Sherlock rescued the sister he’d been programmed to forget in the very moment that he realised that as a little left-out girl she’d not killed his beloved dog, but instead his childhood best friend, a boy of maybe five. I said redemptive, and I meant redemptive but in truth for wha she’d done so long ago, and what she did during this episode, redemption was beyond all question. But Sherlock did achieve something, even if it were only a human link, a personal one. At the end, Eurus was no better, and if anything she might have been worse, broken through into catatonia, but she and Sherlock could communicate in music. It was something. A period of rest, if nothing else. Maybe she didn’t even deserve that. Plenty of people would have demanded execution, ignoring the fact that in human terms she was quite clearly insane. But just as the two Holmes boys and the Doctor who was a soldier could not kill it cold blood, I couldn’t have done it.

So that was it. I’m no longer quite sure what I think of Sherlock the series, which I wouldn’t have said thirteen weeks ago. Perhaps the best epitaph is to compare it to Henry Wadsworth’s girl with the little curl and say that when it was good, it was very very good, but when it was bad it was horrid.

A new series next week. This one will be a big big change…

Uncollected Thoughts: The Lord of the Rings – The Rings of Power – e02: Adrift


LOTR 2

The first thing to acknowledge is that this wasn’t as good, or rather as impressive, as the first episode. Watching it, though, I recognised several reasons why this was always going to be the case, simply because this was the second episode.

Firstly, the effects were less impressive. With the exception of the un-named Ost-in-Edhil, the citadel of the Elven-Smiths in Eregion, seen briefly, and the glories of an alive and working Moria, Khazad-Dum, at greater but still restricted length, we were shown nothing new to astound us (I still wanted to move in to anywhere the series is showing us: I bet the heating costs in CGI are a lot less than those this winter will bring).

But this was to be expected. The first episode was the magnificence of the spectacle: put on a show, hit them hard, dazzle them. Like a bottle episode on Deep Space Nine, to balance out the budget for their high-SFX stories, the second episode turns it down.

And the second episode is an anomalous one to begin with. It has to build upon the strands established at the beginning, solidify them and give an impression of where they’re leading, but not give away too much at this stage.

We have four strands, not three. In no particular order, we got Galadriel still swimming back to Middle-Earth, falling in with a group of castaways on a makeshift raft, part destroyed by a sea-worm, battered by storms, our lovely elf being left alone with a hunky human male with more than a little touch of Aragorn to him, and in the cliffhangar having a shadow cast over her from a man on a proper vessel.

We got Elanor the Harfoot (no, I will not use ‘Nori’ though everybody else does) guarding, rescuing and feeding the Stranger, who is described as a ‘giant’, though it’s not certain if that’s by hobbit or human standards. He’s older than I’d thought, with shaggy hair and a ragged beard, from somrewhere where the stars are different. Mark my words, he brings trouble.

Arondir finds a tunnel under the destroyed village and follws it undeground until taken by a shadowy creature, whilst Bronwyn heads back to the Village to warn them to evacuate. No-one believes her, because no-one wants to believe her, and they definitely don’t want the elves back. Not until an orc tunnels into her house, and she and her son Theo (not Gan, I misheard, the one weilding a brken sword shard marked with Sauron’s sigil) kill it, do the ignorant buggers startto believeand evacuate en masse.

Three strands making a bit of progress but as yet not getting very far, nor showing any signs of what will eventually link them into a single story. Because it’s early yet: we have seven more episodes after this.

The strongest part of thisepisode was the fourth strand, which was only hinted at in the opener. Celebrimbor is still only hinting cryptically that he’s going to make the Rings of Power, but he needs a workforce greater than he’s got. So Elrond, who is friends with Prince Durin in Moria undertakes to procure via that friendship a Dwarf army of craftsmen. But first he has to go through a lot of wonderfully comic re-bonding with his seriously-miffed friend, which was great funand sparkling too. But at the end, Prince Durin speaks to his father, King Durin. it is revealed that the Dwarfs have a monumental secret. What it is is of course not yet to be revealed. but it’s in a casket and it shines with its own light… If this turns out to be a Silmaril then me and this series are in for some very hard words…

Reaction thus far has been mixed. The critics love it, the fans are divided with the accent on the negative. I read that imdb have deleted all the negative reviews, leaving nothing lower than 5/10. Now i’m not at risk of any spoilers, I shall read some of that reaction myself. But I’m still in there.

Uncollected Thoughts: The Lord of the Rings – The Rings of Power – e01: A Shadow of the Past


LOTR

So, here we go again, with a long-awaited, much debated, high concept, massive budget fantasy series that I have been 99% successful in avoiding all spoilers and trailers for, the above publicity photo being the principal exception (which occurs only a few minutes into the opening episodes and, as we all speculated from the moment it first appeared, is indeed in Valinor). All of which has helped me attain the privileged position of practically the only person on the entire Internet who has not damned and condemned the series from before the first trailer dropped. Now I get to watch the first two episodes and do that thing that sets me apart: judge it for what it is instead of what I imagine it’s going to be.

Anyway, the whole point of all this determined abstinence is not to have any expectation of what it’s going to be, good or bad, and to discover which it is the old-fashioned way, by watching it. I’m going about this exactly the same way I did with the book, almost exactly forty-nine years ago.

A couple of days in advance, the massed TV critics were shown the first two episodes, which were released simultaneously. Almost universally they praised the series, in extravagant terms, but what does that mean to your average Tolkien fan who knows, just KNOWS, that everyone involved with this series hates Tolkien and is out to destroy his work utterly?

Originally I was going to watch both episodes before delivering my unfiltered reaction but episode 1 was so immense, so overwhelming that I’m going to need recovery time before I’m ready to watch the second. Based solely on that, I’m in baby, I’m in. I know that the vast majority of the scenes are CGI but right from the first moment, I wanted to move into any of them (perhaps not the Ice Bay of Forochel), lock, stock and barrel.

Already there’s a carping review on imdb accusing it of being all filler and fluff. It’s a set-up episode, for Iluvatar’s sake. It consisted of long scenes with little or no connection between them, establishing foundational strands. It begins with a long open, seventeen minutes until the title credits, set in Valinor before the light of the trees is destroyed by Morgoth, with a young Galadriel and her elder brother Finrod. This is meant to echo the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring, because it then goes on to War in Middle-Earth, Morgoth’s downfall, Finrod’s death, Sauron’s survival, all in very brief fashion. Then we get to the main part of the episode itself, set in Middle-Earth, in which we move from the Elves to the Harfoots (early Hobbits) and to Men, establishing what the story is going to bring together.

At this stage the principal characters are Galadriel (Morfydd Clark, who I thought was excellent throughout), Elrond (Robert Aromayo), Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), an Elven-warrior, Bronwen (Nazanin Boniadi), a human healer, Sadoc Burrows (Lenny Henry, unrecognisable), a Harfoot chieftain and Elanor ‘Nori’ Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), an adventurous Harfoot youngling.

What we have so far is this: Galadriel, who is being played as a warrior-woman, a shift from Tolkien but not implausible, is seeking to eradicate evil in succession to her brother. She believes Sauron not only escaped but is lying in wait, plotting. Obsessed with the danger she perceives, she leads her troop far into the frozen north, exceeding her orders from High King Gil-Galad, until, after discovering a sigil that Sauron carved into Finrod’s flesh, her troop rebel and she is forced to return to Lindon.

There she is greeted by Elrond, counsellor to Gil-Galad and a friend who holds her dear (though not with any apparent romantic designs). He tries to counsel her that her failure to find anything but a ceturies old sigil means evil has gone forever, where she is insistent that it is merely hiding planning, building up its strength. Gil-Galad takes matters out of her hands, by honouring her as a warrior, then declaring the Days of War dead and granting her and her fellow commanders passage to Valinor, to go home. Just in case he’s been tainted, he also detaches Elrond to assist Lord Celebrimbor, greatest of the Elven-smiths, on his latest project (we all know what), a long way from Lindon.

In our second strand, we have two warriors crossing a deserted rural area in Rhovanion, east of the Misty Mountains, completely unaware that it is a Harfoot village and everybody has concealed themselves brilliantly. There’s not much to this part of the story yet, just hints that Elanor (a potentially anachronistic name, but arguably not so, but the Nori bit’s an atrocity) is a bit of a livewire, not necessarily wise in her curiosity, and is obviously going to be more involves a bit further on.

Now Harfoot’s are one of the three tribes that go to make up Hobbits, and they’re definitely anachronistic here, being creatures who appear in the Third Age, and this, though not defined as such, is clearly the Second Age. They’re portrayed as very much keeping themselves to themselves, and as primitives in comparison with the Hobbits of the films. They’re obviously here because Hobbits are seen as central to the world of Lord of the Rings, so they’ve been jemmied in, but again it’s not impossible for them to have been around in the Second Age and we’re going to be needed some comic relief, that is quite clear, so I reserve judgement.

Lastly, we have a village in the southlands, an area of men in which an elf-garrison is established, watching them. The men generally resent this to one degree or another, because nobody likes oppressors, however soft touch they are, nobody likes living under suspicion, but also because rather a lot of them fought for Morgoth and the elves don’t believe they’ve changed all that much.

One of the warriors is Arondir, who pops up in the village to check on things on a regular basis, because it’s his job to be vigilant, but also because he loves a human woman, Bronwyn, the healer, whose husband has run away, leaving her with a teenage son, Gan, who seems to have had a head start on the short path to ignorant thuggishness. There is an inaccuracy here: Arondir is warned about mating with a human, there have only ever been two instances before and they both ended in disaster, when in the books there have been three, and Elrond is a product of the most recent of these, which didn’t end in disaster.

Incidentally, Bronwyn of all the females in Middle-Earth and elsewhere is the only one to favour bare arms, sleeveless tunics and a visible (and impressive) cleavage, so it’s no wonder Arondir is captivated.

Things shift here when Gil-Galad’s declaration of Days of Peace arrive. The garrison can go home. Arondir has mixed feelings about that. He’s getting close to telling Bronwyn openly what she already knows when a farmer brings round a poisoned cow whose teats give not milk but something black and sludgy, like crude oil. Arondir heads off to Horden, where the escaped cow had grazed, Bronwyn accompanying him. There’s an awkward moment when the Elf denounces the village as strong adherents to Morgoth and Bronwyn reacts badly, since she was born there and has family and friends, all of which becomes moot when they arrive to find the place still burning to the ground, no apparent survivors.

The episode also has two other cliffhangers. The reluctant Galadriel (who has mentined previously a desire to feel with warmoth of the Light of the Trees on her face, a big slip as the open has shown these being put out) sails ever nearer to Valinor, and ever more reluctantly. Her weapons are taken away, her armour is removed, even Finrod’s knife is taken as the clouds ahead part (somewhat vagina-like) to allow an overwhelming yellow light to bathe them. But as they slowly dissolve into that light, Galadriel hangs back. At the same time, and in a manner suggesting that it has been fired by Valinor, a fireball blazes across the sky, and Galadriel dives into the Sundering Seas with her brother’s knife and the apparent intention to swim the whole way back now the crack has closed.

And we end on the fireball hurtling through the night skies across the whole of Middle-Earth, as every member of our cast looks up, in turn, at its portentous passage, until it crashes to Earth in the same way Claire Danes did in Stardust, just beyond the Harfoot camp and Elanor – who else – sneaks out to track it to its crater, in the bottom of which amidst the lava and flames, is the body of a naked young man, curled up in the usual you-can’t-see-anything position.

So there we have episode 1. It’s presented magnificently and the acting ranges from good to superb. In looks you would not believe this is television: it makes the SFX for the Film Trilogy look shabby. Yes, there are changes to the authentic history as in Tolkien’s but nothing that I found so egregious as to anger me or spoil things. We’re merely setting things in motion so far, and it will be that motion that will determine my overall reaction, but for now it’s Yes, Please, Can I Have A Lot More? The Rings of Power has already been renewed for a second season.

I shall watch episode 2 over the weekend. If my opinion changes in any marked degree, I shall let you know.

Due South: s02 e13 – White Men Can’t Jump To Conclusions


Due South

As Paul Gross, in his starring role as RCMP Constable Benton Fraser, might put in when facing a situation not necessarily to his advantage, ‘Oh dear.’

For a second time in three weeks, we have an episode that doesn’t work. Not as badly as ‘Starman’, since there was a solid, if somewhat obvious story to the episode, but in its comedic element, which expos ed its mechanical side a bit too openly.

Once again there was a trivial element in the open, namely Fraser’s Mountie boots. These have needed repair so, however improbably except for authorial convenience, Ray Vecchio has taken his Mountie pal to a run-down, broken and beaten black ghetto where Chicago’s greater shoe-repairer happens to have his business. Returning to the car, the pair hear a sequence of shots. Pay attention to the shots, they are the key to solving the case and to the episode’s greatest flaw. Ray wants to ignore them but Bennie sets off in pursuit, leaving the restored and clearly valuable boots in plain sight on the roof of Ray’s car, the camera directed at them pointedly, from where of course they disappear.

This leads to Camilla Scott’s cameo as Mag Thatcher, under-using her as Fraser’s termagant superior as she forces him to explain why he’s wearing non-uniform white Nike sneakers. Fraser goes on a hunt for his boots through the ghetto, blithely convinced that someone has recognised their value and taken them in for safe keeping. It’s ludicrously naive but of course, in the coda, a figure who keeps his back to the camera returns the boots to Fraser, having recognised their value and, etc., completing the joke, which has already become formulaic.

But there is a serious plot. Initially it seems to be about gang turf, but that’s just to set things off. A shoot-out in an alley, one kid with a wound in his thigh, another carrying a gun and running away. This latter is Tyree Cameron, an excellent performance by Leonard Roberts, who is captured by Ray. Short story cut short, Tyree did it. Fingerprints on the gun, gunshot residue on his hand, the evidence is open and shut.

But not to Fraser. This is part of the show’s DNA: everybody, often including Ray, thinks A but Fraser thinks X and goes in pursuit of it, and he’s always right. Except that usually there’s something, something a little offkey, something incongruous, to give us a foothold and encourage us to believe there’s more to it, that it isn’t necessarily A after all. The mistake the episode makes which exposes this formula too openly is not to having anything such here. Fraser decides out of the blue that Tyree is innocent, locks onto this implacably, even uses his own money to bail the kid out.

Of course Tyree’s innocent. The sheer weight of evidence against him tells us this is so. But the episode has lost its balance. Even Ray is showing signs of weariness in his partnership with Bennie. His career is once more up for grabs as Lt. Walsh holds Bennie’s actions against him. It’s an inherent problem with procedurals and comedy formulas: at what point do you start asking yourself why everyone’s going through the motions week-in, week-out, and when will they learn/snap/walk out?

As for Tyree, the real story is all too discernible. Tryee is a fanatical baseball player. It’s the ghetto: you either get out by playing ball or you get into crime. Tyree’s dedicated, and talented, but he knows it won’t happen for him. He hasn’t got the height, he’s got a busted shoulder. But his best friend Reggie is the real deal. Reggie’s going places, scouts are watching him, he’ll get out. True, he’s a smug, smirking, show-off bastard all too aware of his talent – think Zlatan Ibrahimovic but without the modesty – but he has the talent to back it up.

The story’s obvious. Reggie shot the kid and Tyree is covering up for his pal. Part of is is instinct, the rest of it is Lou. Lou runs the basketball programme, sponsors it, coaches it, puts time, money and effort into it. He’s also the local drugs kingpin, and you can bet your bottom dollar that he ain’t doing any of this for free. Lou’s protecting his asset. He’s also not happy about Fraser snooping around, even if it’s only looking for his boots.

Of course it all works out. Tyree’s supposed to kill Fraser to prove his loyalty to Lou, who can’t do it, and Reggie does the right thing, telling the true story to save his friend.

But before that foreseeable ending, the episode screwed up all of its credibility by being too Due South. The key to working out the true sequence of events is the sequence of shots. The different sound of each report lays out how the thing went down. So far, so good, so ingenious. But Fraser is clued in to his analysis by Ray’s casual use of the popular Mafia phrase, ba-da-bing. As a way in, fine. Ray and Bennie then turn over various versions of the phrase to try to lock on to the various sounds, eventually settling on Boom-Bang-Bing.

Which is where the wall looms up rapidly and the episode crashes headlong into it because the pair of them try to explain what has happened and the conclusions they have drawn from it, by saying Boom-Bang-Bing. It sounds stupid because they don’t make the slightest attempt to contextualise it, explain its significance or rephrase it in any comprehensible manner, not because they’re stupid but because the writers want it to sound stupid, to set the pair up as right but misunderstood and put upon, and to have them do what any ordinary person like you and I might do to get our point across would make the jb of writing the rest of the story so much harder.

It’s not just Due South, though given the comedy-drama aspect of it, it uses the ploy a lot. I’ve seen it many tmes going back at least forty years to several later episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey where the writer wants to set up a misunderstanding and does so by having at least one character act in a stupid, silly or stubborn fashion to perpetuate the contrived misunderstanding when four or five sensible words would clear everything up in an instant (and leave them with no story). I’ve no patience left for that kind of writing and it undermined this episode. It left me feeling as if the people involved with the series were struggling to keep it up, as if they’d done all the good stories already and were having to stretch things to come up with more.

We’ll soon see. There are five episodes left in this series and then the show undergoes a massive reset, in more ways than one. Good or bad? We’ll soon see.

Sherlock: s04 e02 – The Lying Detective


Sherlock

When you’ve already written a pretty comprehensive blog-piece on a television episode, it’s difficult to repeat the exercise. Unless your opinion has changed in a substantial degree, a second response has the task of not falling between the twin stools of simply repeating your previous points and being different for no good reason.

I’m adding a link to my original comments, which I’ve avoided re-reading so I can try to approach what is, after all the penultimate episode of the series (I think we can take it as a given that there will never be a series 5). It’s a complex story, written by Steven Moffat, and laid out in a familiar manner of fast-paced dialogue, short, almost fragmentary scenes, inverted chronologies, deliberate concealment of salient points and, at the end of the day, a complex, and possibly over-complex overarching story that convinced uttterly whilst the episode was on but which, considered objectively afterwards, was stretching probability out of shape.

We’re in the aftermath of last week’s tragedy. John Watson is in therapy for his loss. He has a new therapist with a French accent, with whom he’s talking cynically, and deliberately concealing the fact that he is hallucinating his dead wife, holding conversations with her even though she constantly reminds him that she is not a ghost but a figment of his imagination. She stands for everything he’s lost.

As for Sherlock, lacking the anchor that his friend represented, he’s going off his head as well, in more ways than one, on the smack, unable to control his intelligence, his utter loneliness in a world that runs unbearably slowly when compared to his speed of analysis.

It’s a set-up, all of it. The drugs are real but it’s all a dangerous game, prompted by that DVD Mary Watson made, the bits we saw and the bits withheld until this week. The clue is in that brief post-credits scene last week and Mary’s words, ‘Go to Hell, Sherlock’. TThe Great Detective is doing just that.

What the story is is the rescue and redemption of John Watson, at the instigation of his late wife. John Watson, she says, in a previously unseen section of her DVD that John himself now gets to witness, is a man who cannot be helped, will not let himself be helped but who will not – cannot – refuse to help. To save him, Sherlock has to put himself into a death trap, go up against a big, powerful, undefeatable bad guy. Which he is doing. Only then will John step in.

That big bad is Toby Jones, playing entrepreneur and philanthropist Culverton Smith, a role with more than a few shades of Jimmy Saville, especially as the climax involved a hospital that Smith had the run of. Some kudos are due the BBC for letting such a story be told on their channel.

That, if anything, was paradoxically the biggest flaw in the episode. I’d not previously encountered Jones but he was absolutely stunning as Smith. He was so good that he was too good, dominating the episode even when he was not onscreen, so when he was you couldn’t think of anything else. Jones, who applied a Yorkshire accent that was even more pointed towards his examplar, was a monster, a monster of absolute power, a rich, powerful, popular, public figure used to getting his own way in every little thing, owning people. He was also a serial killer, because he enjoyed that power, just one more expression of his sense of utter entitlement. He was fascinating because he was a monster, hiding in plain sight, defying all the little people to take his ‘jokes’ at the face value they truly were. And he was fascinating because he was so real, so plausible. In the more than five years since this episode was first broadcast, we have become so much more familiar with the real thing, in the higher echelons of government, satisfying their own desires with not an atom of concern for the ‘little people’.

Culverton Smith was a monster besides whom the classic monsters, Frankenstein, Dracula, all the others, paled into insignificance, because they were just symbols and he was real. It made him overwhelm the episode, pushing its other strands out to a periphery that they didn’t deserve. Other thanks were happening. Sherlock was being ultra-clever to an extent that rational analysis explained internally but which rested on a fragile bed of conveniences. More hints weere dropped as to a third and substantially more dangerous Holmes brother, an admission forced out of Mycroft by John Watson, catching detection. Lady Smallwood gave her card to Mycroft in a subtle yet blatant invitation to visit the still very attractive widow in private. There was a very full coda.

But before that there was a mystery. An off his tits Sherlock (never did like that phrase) was visited in Baker Street by Culverton Smith’s daughter, Faith, a decently attractive and desperate woman dependent upon a cane, who had heard her father confess to intending to murder before deleting hers and others’ memory of the confession. But Faith had made notes, and remembered part of it. She was in Baker Street and spent half the night walking round London with Sherlock (in a very juvenile joke that the show should have done without), before disappearing utterly. And when Smith introduced his daughter Faith, she was a similar but different woman. Was fake Faith real, or was she a drugs hallucination?

The end of the case was strangely perfunctory. John stops Smith from suffocating Sherlock who’s recorded the man’s confession (a brilliant, laugh out loud line: when Smith oleaginously explains that his clothing had been checked and three recording devices removed Sherlock quietly comment that three is such a reassuring number, and how people tend to stop when they reach it…) No matter that the recording is inadmissable, Smith wants to confess enthusiastically at such an extent that Greg Lestrade can’t listen to so much in a single session.

And so to that coda. John has come back to his senses. He has accepted that Sherlock didn’t kill Mary, that she gave her life for his at entirely her own volition. It’s not ok, it never will be ok, but it wasn’t Sherlock’s fault (though it was in part as we remember). Then, to his best friend and his last illusion of his wife, he confesses his text affair, denying to both of them and himself that he is the man Mary decribed, the parfait, gentil knight. He’s not who she built him up to be. And she smilingly tells him to get on with becoming that. Tears come, and not just onscreen.

There was a sense, throughout that coda, of things being settled, of the series collecting itself, acknowledging a turning point and preparing for closure. Until John Watson attends on his French therapist again and she mentions a third Holmes sibling, something he hasn’t told her. Meanwhile, Sherlock discovers the note brought by fake Faith and realises she was real. But who was she? Under black light, the note reveals a hidden message: Miss Me? The whole Moriarty thing since the end of series 3 was just a gigantic fake-out.

Because the woman at the heart of this wasn’t fake Faith with the Yorkshire accent. She’s not the therapist with the French accent either. Nor was she Elizabeth with the red hair on the bus. She was all of these but she’s none of them. She’s the third Holmes brother. Or rather she’s the missing sister. She is Eurus, the East Wind. John Watson is making a funny face, and bigod so would you. She thinks she’ll put a hole in it. And she fires the gun she’s holding, though it doesn’t make a gun sound so yar, boo, sucks to certain reviewers who said that if Watson wasn’t dead the following week the series would have no cedibility, not that it had any anyway because nobody should ever again put in ghosts that are psychological expressions and do things ‘Mary Watson’ didn’t do (I carry grudges, check the link above).

And then there was one. I’m looking forward to watching it again.