Category Archives: Television

TV Preview: The North Water

The North Water - AMC and BBC

Remote, forbidding, deolate and beautiful, the allure of the arctic circle as a place of escape and of man’s confrontation with his own fears is hugely attractive to dramatists. A blank canvas for all kinds of contemplation, the icy expanse may look serene but true brutality, cruelty and obliteration lurk beneath the surface. Andrew Haigh’s five-part adaptation of Ian McGuire’s novel The North Water comes to the BBC in September and the first two episodes, previewed at the BFI earlier this month, suggest this will be a glorious if difficult watch as the nights draw in.

Nautical masculinity and the perils of exploration at the furthest reaches of the earth have been at the forefront of the mind of television writers this year with word-of-mouth hit The Terror becoming a bingeworthy if gruesome third lockdown talking point. The claustraphobic experience of a group of men trapped on two boats frozen into the ice became compelling viewing and, while the series was driven by a mysterious and potentially supernatural beast preying on these naval sitting ducks, it was the complicated relationships, political dilemmas and the very human test of endurance that kept us watching. Ridley Scott’s drama understood well that whatever was out to get these men – the physical appearance and visual representation of which could only ever be slightly disappointing – man’s emotional fragility and unstoppable imagination meant they would almost certainly turn on each other before the mythical beast had a chance.

So while The Terror asks questions about who the real monsters may be, The North Water leaves you in no doubt. This tale of whalers relies on a more informal concept of masculine organisation and while there is clearly hierarchy within the ship headed by a hard-nosed Captain, here rank, class and the extensive traditions of the navy hold very little sway. Instead, this is a community that draws its power from physical strength, intimidation and experience, the closed world of comradeship. With a prior knowledge of one another, the pack animal mentality they exude can only exist through a shared and successful desire to hunt and to kill.

Into this scenario comes Sumner the ship’s surgeon who finds himself in direct confrontation with crew members Cavendish and Henry Drax (a solid Bond villain name) who set out to quite deliberately torment the medic and push his ability to endure while testing his manly response to the pressures they exert. A form of hazing takes place in the first episode as Sumner’s willingness to join in and demonstrate both allegiance to the ship and a similar manual and even murderous skill set to the other men is pressed to its limits.

The story establishes a two-tier system in which brute strength and a refusal to admit either pain or defeat determines whether someone is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the group. The emergence of authority figures as people without official rank per se but in possession of other forms of social cache is vital to understanding the seemingly blunt but actually quite complex power structures which Sumner’s arrival upsets, forcing the existing old guard to make a pre-emptive strike. They put on an almost animalistic display of strength in which they forcibly shut-down any potential threat he could pose – noting however that Sumner’s outward behaviour towards these men in Episodes One and Two is only ever withdrawn, isolated and medically driven.

What is interesting about McGuire’s structure that Haigh replicates on screen is the extent to which danger is something that exists more within than outside this whaling ship and, despite the vast emptiness of the beautiful but trecherous landscape, it is man who creates the unsettling atmopshere that poses a threat to health and, as it turns out, to life. The Terror by contrast largely took the opposite view, believing that great danger awaited the men in the icy wilderness, relying on the centuries-old belief in naval hierarchy, subsvervience to traditions and faith in the routines of authority to guide them through their unprecedented abandonment. That those formal professional structures broke down over time was surprising to the Officers suddenly overwhelmed by the mutinous demands of the lower ranks and their own human fallibility as bodies and minds gave way. Naval endurance in the end proved no match for suspicion, fear and the monsters beyond.

The North Water offers neither the same kind of formal organisational structures or a comparable concept of the men as reactive or passive participants in the events of the story. In fact, the crew of the whaling ship are the predators, sailing towards the pole (at least on the surface) to harvest as many seal skins and whale parts as their hull can carry. Here, the monsters are already onboard and without the same rigour as the Royal Navy’s codes of deference, embedded and worn into every recruit, the men of this commercial vessel are relatively free to govern themselves, behaving as contractors jostling for space and position rather than united members of a whole pursuing scientific advancement as the crew of The Terror had set out.

As a result, there is almost an amplified school playground feel as the men divide into groups determined by firmess of character and physical strength, locating and fixating their attention on the weakest members – initially a cabin boy whose experience becomes central to the events of these opening episodes – and newcomers like Sumner, behviour to which the Captain inexplicably turns a blind eye. Where the Navy had order and endeavour, the whaling ship organises itself by power and destruction as its driving force, and it is clear from the show’s earliest moments in the grimy streets of Victorian Hull, that this is a merciless bunch – the creatures of the arctic circle don’t stand a chance.

The drama stems from the somewhat unknown quality that is surgeon Sumner and how much he is prepared to endure. Clealy not all he claims to be, in some ways Sumner represents the legitimate order and external scrutiny the men fear, a former military doctor who saw action in India during a ferocious rebellion a short time before his voyage began and is continually troubled by visions and night terrors that invade his consciousness throughout.

To the standard crew of this vessel he seems a man apart, both in class and manner, projecting a degree of refinement and status that the audience very quickly learns does not accord with the humble origins he sometimes betrays and the outcome of events in India which, in these early episodes, remains mysterious although increasingly intrusive. He is no stranger to death and killing, and while a pivotal event at the end of Episode One proves his relative physical weakness in these conditions, Sumner is yet unphased by the slaughter that he is dared to participate in. Who Sumner really is and what he has done is central to a story that (so far) is driven far less by plot than character and scenario establishment which can only suggest something significant is about to bring it all crashing down.

Perhaps Sumner’s most interesting attribute is that he is nonetheless perceived to be a threat by the other men, and however unprepossessing or defeated he may appear at this stage, Cavendish and Drax decide to keep him close in order to alay whatever their true purpose on this ship might be, a hint of which is given between Captain Brownlee and Cavendish behind closed doors. Initiating him into their drinking session before fully leaving British waters, consulting him onboard, searching his cabin and testing his mettle suggest a desire to know their opponent and to assess what effect he may have on the stablity of the ship. That determination only grows when Sumner becomes involved in a medical case that cuts to the heart of how these men live onboard and the broad forms of protection or immunity they enjoy away from the moral and legal limits of shore life.

What we see in these first two episodes is something growing between Sumner and Drax particularly, two men who could not be more different yet drawn into each other’s orbit for some as yet unknown reason. The chemistry between Jack O’Connell’s watchful Sumner and Colin Farrell’s forbidding Drax is very particular, elusively compelling in fact as they circle around on another without displaying any decided feeling towards the other man, although there is an alertness to their presence and a recognition that is it somehow significant. Now this early dance is concluded and they have the measure of one another, this relationship will surely drive the remaning episodes.

Much depends on Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Drax which he plays in these opening episodes with a cold emptiness. He is a man, as Farrell explained during the Q&A that accompanied this screening, that has no empathy but there is control, a restraint that lingers beneath the surface that make him a valued hunter. Adding considerable bulk to his usual frame, this is a very physical performance from Farrell – a trait synonymous with his most recent work – and Drax is not a man you would want to meet down a dark alley which is exactly what happens to some poor soul in the Hull-set preface included here to demonstrate not just Drax’s disregard for civilised expectation but his ability to physically overwhelm it. Yet for all his silent threat, Farrell suggests the flicker of disturbance that Sumner causes, how Drax is drawn to him, and while this doesn’t change his outward behaviour, almost fatally so during a seal cull, the smallest of ripples have started to gather pace.

Jack O’Connell’s Sumner is a mass of intriguing contradictions, a man making the best of his background with a solid war record but addicted to laudenum and going to great lengths to conceal anything about himself. It is an interesting trajectory for O’Connell who captures the authority and medical concern of the doctor who is unflinching in his readiness to go against the grain for a patient despite the unwelcoming environment but who displays deep vulnerability when alone. The PTSD flashbacks give O’Connell the chance to show Sumner as the man he was before whatever terrible event recast his life, flashes of which he brings through into the performance as Sumner attempts to keep up with the physical activity onboard, ever watchful as the net starts to close in on him.

With a fine supporting cast including Stephen Graham as the ambiguous Brownlee and Sam Spruell as his accomplice the grubby Cavendish both with a dastardly plan the true details of which are yet to be fully revealed, along with Tom Courtenay as an unscrupulous businessman in Hull, there is an fidelity to the production style that draws the viewer into the socio-political machinations onboard as well as the hard conditions endured by working class men on land and in the icy north.

Episode One and Two both contain brilliantly achieved but incredibly graphic depictions of animal slaughter which forced at least one person out of the screening, but Haigh was quick to reassure the post-show audience that CGI and production design united humans with seals and whales filmed separately. It is a hard and gruesome watch nonetheless, but it is this level of authenticity that gives the adaptation its strength, pushing the actors to extremes by filming further north than a television series has ever been and refusing to sanitise or obscure the hardness of this life. The tone will certainly suit its autumnal scheduling and with so much emerging from these opening episodes, The North Water really has everything to play for and many secrets to reveal.

The North Water is currently scheduled to air on BBC2 and BBC iPlayer from 10 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Staged: Series 2 – An Uber-Meta Constructed Reality

Staged Series 2 - BBC

The final episodes of Staged Season 2, Simon Evans’s hilarious lockdown comedy, air this week and, as with its first appearance last Summer, it has proved a lockdown boon. And while the show is inherently theatrical both in style and content while reflecting the screen boxes in which we have all lived for so long, Evans smartly decided to reorientate this second collection of episodes to give the interactions between characters a different energy while recasting and reconfiguring the audiences’ perspective on everything that had come before.

Originally Staged was of-the moment television created in response to and within the confines of the first national lockdown. It uses the video calling platform as its basis for communcation between a number of socially and geographically distant parties forced to reconsider their working practices as a result of the pandemic in order to progress with the development of a new piece of content. Both before and since, the boxed effect of this software has been seen across the arts as performances moved online and Staged, which was among the first to use this technique on mainstream television to underscore both its content and visual appearance, was unlike anything else before it.

Both Series 1 and 2 of Staged are inherently theatrical, with the first six episodes especially focused on the challenge for two reputed and sought after performers as well as their Director in failing to rehearse a version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author – the nature of which the show mirrored. In terms of personnel alone, Series 1 utilised the particular nature of theatre-making, the rehearsal processes, casting and publicity along with the shape and form of Pirandello’s play as the characters slowly rebel against the authority of the Director. The deeply rooted theatre basis that ran through the first series was then enhanced with guest appearances from respected thespians Adrian Lester and Judi Dench who expanded the stage community that Evans’s script required.

Constructed Reality?

Series 2 continues to utilise the (now commonplace) video box style of Internet calling yet Evans has very carefully and astutely shifted the perspective of the show to give the premise a longer life. A tried and tested formula, more of the same would have been an easy sell but this new set of eight episodes allows the story to evolve in a very different direction and takes its inspiration instead from television rather than theatre. The central conceit is that Staged is now openly acknowledged as a TV show, a phenomenon for which an American remake is mooted with alternative stars. Instantly everything we thought we had witnessed in Series 1 is cast into doubt, a fictionalised reality where scenarios and characters were deliberately ‘constructed’.

The intimate ‘fly-on-the-wall’ quality of Series 1 has been repositioned as an elaborate fabrication in which the personal highs and lows of its famous protagonists in early lockdown were merely a feint. Staged Series 2 begins from this point of acknowledgment, recasting the existence of its predecessor as primarily a commercial rather than an artistic endeavour which will now be sold internationally. In both, the false past of Series 1 and the ‘truer’ reality presented in Series 2, mean Staged is owning its existence as a form of constructed reality.

The label may seem an unusual one for a BBC show about the interaction between two highly esteemed actors, but cast aside some of the negative implications of the term and Evans has actually created a form of heightened reality in which real people using their real names and relationships play versions of themselves. The way in which these scenarios drive the plot, the adoption and exaggeration of elements of the subjects’ day-to-day experiences and responses, the limited geographical location, techniques from soap opera drama and the editorial shaping of scenes, ‘chance’ meetings and conversations all figure in Staged, and are the very definition of constructed reality in which preconceived scenarios are exaggerated and spun for entertainment purposes.

When the character of David is caught lying to Samuel L Jackson and Michael Sheen twice in Series 1: Episode 3 it may be pure farce but, equally, it is the fundamental drama basis of most constructed reality shows where characters routinely lie, cheat, sell each other out and endure explosive bar-based confrontations. And this is even more apparent in Series 2 which leans openly into its reality TV credentials using Series 1 as a product to sell that Michael and David can sabotage. Again, the audience is given fly-on-the-wall access that echoes shows like Airport and even early Big Brother that journeyed to fiction through The Office and ultimately to Staged.

In each episode of Series 2, constructed conversations with possible US Davids and Michaels take place of which only a snippet is shown to the viewer, while the apparently conflicting ‘real life’ demands of family, filming schedules and old enmities distract and dominate the leads, giving them the chance to settle old scores. That the name of the show has multiple dimensions takes on a new significance in Series 2, not just referencing ‘the stage’ which thematically defined Series 1 and the meta level ‘staging’ of a televised conversation between two friends, but the notion of staging is fundamental to the constructed reality genre that Evans introduces into his concept with these new episodes.


Staged was always a show that drew on the meta associations of actors playing versions of themselves rehearsing a play while revealing the (here) lethargic process of developing a theatre production during a time of national crisis. The play withing a play concept fed throughout Series 1 offering plenty of humour as the protagonists misbehaved, lost focus and revealed their fears about their own styles and career paths. Series 2 takes the concept to a whole new level recasting the previously “true” story and making us aware instead that we were seeing actors playing versions of themselves playing versions of themselves – eight episodes of which can only be described as uber-meta.

And if that wasn’t mind-bending enough, Series 2 twists these meta principles even further by adopting a driver in which various pairs of actors are in discussion to play the parts in the American remake which will result in two actors playing versions of two other actors playing versions of themselves. So, within the boundaries of Series 2 many of the episodes contain both Tennant and Sheen plus cameos from single guests or duos each of whom is also playing a fictionalised version of themselves and who audition to play Sheen and Tennant in the US adaptation of the show (two actors playing versions of themselves playing two other actors playing versions of themselves). It is a Scaramanga / The Lady of Shanghai hall of mirrors that will hurt your head if you think about it too much.

A much simpler meta device focuses once again on Evans as a writer that cunningly incorporates some of the Series 1 feedback to create a recurring joke about improvisation. Lots of comedy is gleaned from Sheen and Tennant’s evident dissatisfaction at being recast and a fluid insistence on how much of the script they contributed to. The character of ‘Simon’ has been relocated to America (or at least to a leafy garden doubling for LA) for Series 2 where he continually reminds his original leads that he wrote the show and is therefore free to sell the material without consultation. That the hapless Simon is now doing rather well for himself and, for the most part, controlling the conversation is a clear development from Series 1 but that doesn’t prevent Evans as the writer from concocting scenarios in which guest stars question his input into conversations performed by Tennant and Sheen. The possibility of rewrites that crops up later in the series takes us into another meta loop of external rewrites of rewrites of a show Evans wrote, but let’s not start all that again.

Does it Work?

On the whole Series 2 is very successful, moving the story along in an interesting and perhaps unexpected way as Evans turns the premise of Staged on its head while extending it and even opening the possibility of further development – if each period of lockdown results in a new series of Staged then it can’t be too bad. But there are two areas where the second season slightly overreaches itself and despite two additional episodes has a slight tendency to focus on the action away from the spiky but devoted engagement between Sheen and Tennant which is the series’ biggest draw.

The premise of Series 2 requires a lot of guest appearances from performers with a more significant American profile than the UK version of the show. However, unlike Series 1 where guests were used sparingly and purposefully, here they become increasingly distracting using the impact of their profile rather than fully serving the story. Some of these scenarios, while jokey, do become repetitive as famous face after famous face reads a portion of the Series 1 script with Tennant and / or Sheen without really moving the story along.

And in places there is a falseness in their appearance that breaks the illusion of reality that Evans has created. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost riff with one another but, despite a real life friendship, their brief appearance in Episode 3 feels uneasy and stagier than it should. Later a reel of celebrity faces from Josh Gad to Jim Parsons and Ewan McGregor play themselves to varying effect – many of these encounters are humorous but they start to feel overdone. The star appearance works best either in the concluding episode when Evans provides a final and well-staged twist or when big names play non-real characters – so we mourn the loss of Nina Sosanya’s searing agent from most of the series (now we know she is not Jo but Nina) but welcome an equally brutal Whoopi Goldberg in a successfully fictionalised role.

There is a similar pallor to the expanded story given to Georgia Tennant, Anna Lundberg and in a couple of episodes Lucy Eaton who now have their own plot points outside the male-focused American adaptation. Having their perspectives is a valuable counterbalance and they have a great screen chemistry that brings a leveling hilarity to the more emotional interaction of Sheen and Tennant as they discuss an online charity event where the women will play versions of their partners. But the audience never gets to see it and developments in the show’s concluding episode essentially saps a possible outcome for these female characters.

While Series 2 occasionally tries to do too many things, the joyous interactions between Sheen and Tennant are the heart of the show and always its most successful element when they have time alone together on screen to rant, rave and connect. The progress in their relationship in this series is charmingly managed, building on the friendly fire of the first and using the rivalries with the guest stars to disrupt their relationship as well as give them a common enemy to unite against. There is a valuable consistency of character with Series 1, so even though they now acknowledge those initial versions were fictions, the emphasis on mental health, their bruised egos and unresolved feelings of displacement caused by the inability to work add to the richness of the developing bond between them.

Staged Series 2 successfully continues the story of these characters by utilising the concepts and conventions of reality television to create a window into the characters of David and Michael while playing with the interpretive layers of its enjoyable esoteric construct. That it is dressed in the production values, filming quality and casting power of the BBC while harnessing the immediacy of the video calling platforms in our lives may distract you but Staged is part of the broadening constructed reality genre. Popular culture and the arts are not so very far apart after all.

Staged Series 1 and 2 are available on the BBC iPlayer. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

TV Preview: The Women of Talking Heads

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett - BBC

The return of Alan Bennett’s anthology monologue series comes at an interesting moment, one where social and technological restrictions meet new expectations on all kinds of diversity, on-set behaviour and the value of the individual experience. When first screened in the late 1980s, Talking Heads was hailed as a masterpiece, gathering some of the UK’s finest actors in a series of short and somewhat radically presented stories direct to camera, celebrating the extraordinary in the ordinary and everyday, those closely observed tragicomic moments and personalities that Bennett has always chronicled so well.

Talking Heads is the perfect drama for our socially distanced world, created during lockdown at Elstree using some of the Eastenders sets (part of the fun is trying to spot them), and unlike much of the content created in the last few months no video calling platforms are involved either as the subject matter or the technical filming solution. Staged demonstrated that TV dramas can still achieve a level of pre-lockdown quality under the right conditions, and while Talking Heads retains a focus predominantly on the domestic, as a collective experience it shows what is now achievable as a seamless visual and technical experience, focusing entirely on the storyteller and their narrative rather than being distracted or disrupted by the medium used to deliver it.

Bennett is a writer who has always served his female characters particularly well and in this version of the play set which includes two new or previously unperformed stories, ten of the twelve Talking Heads have female protagonists, most designed specifically for middle-aged characters. Times have changed of course in the last 30 years and recent campaigns have highlighted the lack of substantial roles for older actors, the dwindling representation of working class characters and the sexual exploitation of female actors within the wider industry, and it is interesting to see how well Bennett’s work anticipates and actively responds to these issues.

Bennett writes particularly well for women and within the ten monologues presented here, there is a strong sense of how the outer lives of the speaker and their public demeanour conceals a more complex, often conflicted, inner life. Looking  across the selection, these are characters that modern drama would rarely consider – the quiet and apparently unassuming vicar’s wife, the antique shop owner and pensioner –  their voices and their stories overlooked for women living racier and more dramatic lives.

That Bennett finds the value in the experience of such women and the simmering emotional pull of desire, vanity, anger, grief and guilt is the joy of Talking Heads. That there is drama and meaning in the most ordinary of lives is Bennett’s point, and beneath the folds of the drabbest cardigan are layers of personality, some of it sympathetic, some utterly monstrous with masses of contradictory impulses to know and be known. No life is truly ordinary at all. It is useful, then, to reconsider a selection of these monologues in the light of modern sensibilities, to consider how the new performances bring a different or more developed insight to Bennett’s original text.

Her Big Chance

Performed by Jodie Comer, this is one of the few stories written specifically for a younger actor, dealing with a world beyond the domestic. Directed by Josie Rourke, this version takes on an enhanced resonance in the light of Me Too and thus retains its 1980s setting. This tale of an exploited young actress has many levels, one of which would read Lesley merely as a naive young woman tricked into appearing in a low-rent film and increasingly exposed both physically and emotionally. There is a version in which her failure to grasp what is really happening is a deluded lunge at fame in which she takes herself and her craft far too seriously, the outcomes entirely due to the personality of the character.

But with the testimonial experiences of recent years and those who have spoken out against film and television industry abusers, Rourke and Comer take a more knowing approach, ensuring that both the audience and Lesley understand the scarring consequences of her various encounters, building a moving sense of her vulnerability as the monologue unfolds.  Screening tonight on BBC1, Her Big Chance picks up the story at different points in time, with Lesley pausing to reflect on her experience as it happens, changing the tenure of the narrative as it unfolds and continually repositioning our image of this young woman as the recognition and experience of violation slowly crystallises in her mind.

And it was all there already, between the lines of Bennett’s script giving the performer any number of possibilities for interpreting this character and her degree of self-knowledge, something which ebbs, flows and morphs across the 42 minutes – one of the longest pieces in the set. Comer chooses these spaces between the words to situated her interpretation, putting a brave face on the narrative itself, even half-believing the effect she hopes this will have on her career and desire to be a serious actress, but in those breaths is a universe of pain, fear, regret and sorrow, that truth sitting like a shadow on her soul.

And while in the dozen monologues on offer Her Big Chance is not in the top tier, Comer’s performance certainly elevates the material and shares with her fellow actors a particular ear for the rhythm of Bennett’s dialogue, those fruitful commas that so purposefully create the peculiarities of speech, cadence and the conversational drift between remembered events and the protagonist’s present mindset. Comer uses the camera so well, open and expressive during the early excitement of auditioning for and landing a big film role, before shyly almost guiltily glancing away, the hint of tears as shame and fear creep in.

It is a theatrical experience with takes sometimes as long as 8-minutes in which Rourke places her camera in a confessional space, adding a girlish tinge to her set, dressed with soft low lighting in Lesley’s bedroom while the backstage area of her movie has hints of neon lights and a glamour just out of reach. There’s something of Tennessee Williams about it at times, a caged creature trying to break free and only falling deeper into the mire while the bolshie fragility that Comer unveils is troubling, dramatising her exploitation but always with the understanding of how that will resonate in twenty-first century Britain.

The Hand of God

In many ways, The Hand of God (screening on Thursday 2 July) is an interesting companion piece, fronted by a woman whose financial, social and emotional position seems relatively secure in comparison to Lesley. Played by Kristin Scott Thomas this tale of an antiques dealer failing to recognise an important treasure while preying on the homes of the soon to be deceased, is filled with snobbery, avarice and ambition while retaining its small-world community feel.

Directed by Jonathan Kent The Hand Of God is a gripping 32-minutes set in Celia’s shop where, like several other characters in the series, she watches life beyond the window while recounting clients and encounters we never see. Celia frets about an unsold table, the pressures of turning stock over quickly and the transparent games customers play when hoping to find a bargain.

But Kent uses these really interesting slow-tracking shots, a barely perceptible movement of the camera which during the lengthy segments subtly circles across and then in towards the character as her true nature is increasingly exposed. Using this technique, a layer of surface decency is expunged revealing, more subtly than in A Lady of Letters, the snobbery and occasional venality deep within her character.

But there is something incredibly rounded in Scott Thomas’s portrayal which quietly pinpoints grief and loneliness as the origin of her behaviour, while in her most vulnerable moments when exposed and publicly embarrassed, there is an empathy too that suggests how thin her veneer of respectability has been. Scott Thomas has a way of glancing from the corner of her eyes, fearing what our reactions to her will be. The repeated references to Celia’s love for painted furniture and loathing for the denuded appearance of stripped pine favoured by other dealers is crucial to her interpretation, the mask of middle-class decency, culture and poise she presents  hides a multitude of traits that in Scott Thomas’s contained performance seem to surprise her as much as they do the viewer.

The Shrine

In one of the new monologues, Monica Dolan’s character also finds herself surprised by her reaction to the death of her husband, one which in a sense upends the confessional nature of the previous stories. Although other tales have used the camera to unburden their conscience or their hearts, in The Shrine there is sometimes a marked contrast between the things Lorna tells us she feels and her subsequent actions. And while loneliness is an outcome of her newly widowed state, the driving forces of this story are grief and revelation, as Lorna discovers she didn’t know her husband as well as she thought.

Give Monica Dolan any kind of role to play and she will be devastating in it, and she has specialised particularly in the types of women Bennett likes to write about, seemingly ordinary, often put upon and fighting against an emotional repression that eventually bursts forth. In this story, Lorna has supported her husband throughout their marriage, guiltily telling the audience early on that she isn’t upset by his death, creating the impression of a once comfortable but now loveless marriage retained through habit and ease because at their time of life they don’t quite knowing what else they would do with themselves.

But Dolan’s performance is full of labyrinths so the audience is never quite sure how honest Lorna is being with herself and what information she has simply chosen to ignore or deny. Soon we discover regular visits to the place where her husband’s motorbike crashed, a spot which initially she insists has no meaning but is one she continues to return to, holding vigil day after day. The complexities of grief in Dolan’s characterisation manifest as subtle twitches and shakes as though holding in a tidal wave of feeling, telling us she doesn’t care but showing us how destructive Clifford’s death has been.

Screening on 9 July with Nicholas Hytner at the helm – the architect behind the reshoots taking direct control of several of the monologues – he directs The Shrine as though the audience is catching Lora unawares in the midst of other tasks. One scene is almost intrusive as the camera takes her by surprise in the hallway, forcing her to confront a knowledge of her husband  that she wants to hide from. Hytner’s approach isn’t aggressive, more nagging, reflecting Dolan’s own performance in which Lorna knows the truth but wants to pretend a little longer that she doesn’t.

Across the 10 monologues, Bennett’s women prove to be not-so-ordinary after all, and watching them in fairly quick succession it is interesting to consider how easily society dismisses or just doesn’t even see so many of these people. Bennett’s particular gift is for peeling back the cardigan to reveal female characters who may present one face to the neighbourhood but underneath are a blaze of contradictory emotions, hopes, fears and possibilities – their interior life, Bennett argues, is just as vital and valuable as anyone else’s. So, 30 years on the decision to reshoot these is entirely understandable, our context may be different and standards of behaviour changing rapidly, but human nature, is constant and whether it is petty jealousies at the antiques shop or inappropriate love stories, Bennett’s women have seen and felt it all.

The full series of Talking Heads is available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Series Review: Staged – BBC iPlayer

Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Staged (by BBC)

Who will be first out of the gate when theatres eventually reopen? It is a serious question, one that is surely taxing the minds of producers and directors across the country as they consider what can be safely staged in response to social distancing rules and public health expectations. Musicals with their large cast and crew requirements are likely to be at the back of the queue while plays with only one or two characters may be all that can be offered for a while. As Simon Evans’s cheeky new comedy points out, when the Government finally gives the go ahead, the best prepared teams will have their pick of the playhouses and first dibs on an audience desperate to get back to live theatre.

Evans’s delightful six-part comedy – showing weekly on BBC1 but also available in full on the iPlayer – centres around this notion while drawing on our lockdown experience of video calling platforms as a director tries to herd his two reluctant actors into rehearsals. Online theatre has changed considerably in the last three months, and we now seem a million miles from those tentative live readings on clunky Zoom calls uploaded to Youtube. Creatives have learned a lot and learned fast, and this rapid response to telling stories has resulted in some fascinating new content being created.

As well as ITV’s Lockdown Stories and the Donmar’s Midnight Your Time, several well-known theatre writers and performers created the anthology series Unprecedented, using the premise of video calling to tell a fascinating range of tales that covered everything from neighbourhood parties, vile team meetings and domestic abuse. No two perspectives and, crucially, no two filming styles were the same offering plenty of innovative approaches to what are straightened circumstances.

In a sense Staged is the culmination of all of that new knowledge, combining different kinds of camera, some installed as (or made to look like) webcams and others set-up and operated in the actors own homes, adding a level of polish to the show that would have seemed virtually impossible a few months ago. It also gives Evans greater flexibility in how he tells the story using a wider range of footage, including scene-break captures of deserted London streets, so eerie during the first phase of lockdown, and more sophisticated film cutting techniques that hardly betray the unusual circumstances in which this show was created.

Much has been made in the press of the obvious comparisons with The Trip, but that makes it sound derivative and although the slightly vexed two-person conversation is structurally similar, Staged actually seems better situated in the faux social-realism of fly-on-the-wall style “mockumentaries” as well the vast body of work generated about life backstage. Staged is more than merely 90-minutes of random banter between actors Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and Evans uses the time to construct a sense of how their personalities and frustrations have consequences for the work they are failing to accomplish.

While largely fictionalised, the border with reality – these are their homes and families – draws a line directly back to the comic seriousness of Victoria Wood’s earnest documentary sketches from the As Seen on TV series, passing through both The Office and This Country as it delineates its scenario so, rather than a workplace or a village, Staged is confined by the video platform and the physical boundary of the protagonist’s homes, using that to drive conversation and elicit reactions.

And this episodic production also speaks to theatre and film’s fascination with itself. At its heart, this is a story about the creative process and much of the humour derives from the ineffectual director losing control of the rehearsal period while mishandling various eruptions of theatre-politics that threaten to derail the play entirely. In this sense, Staged has everything in common with All About Eve, Present Laughter and, more recently, The Understudy (also recorded during lockdown), part of a long history of self-anatomising theatre and film.

As a story, then, Staged sits in this much broader context , giving an added dimension to the interactions between Evans, Tennant and Sheen, providing psychological insight into the fluctuating emotions of characters prevented by the pandemic from doing their jobs. At only 15-18 minutes per episode, these are perfectly pitched bite-sized pieces that can be eeked out or consumed in one sitting via the iPlayer, either way Staged is a richly rewarding experience.

The first episode is predominantly exposition as Evans establishes the premise. Initially it is a little stagey as Simon anxiously waits for lead David to convince Michael to costar in a revival of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and to undertake rehearsals online so they are ahead of the competition when playhouses reopen. Padding around in his dressing gown and staring anxiously at the view, the heightened style is a little broad, but soon settles into an addictive rhythm.

The messes Evans creates for himself are pure sitcom as poor judgement and a lack of authority cause a ripple effect across the series. The consequences are left to a selection of juicy cameo roles in which producer Jo and a series of fabulously-timed guest stars pick up the comedy baton – none of whom should be spoiled in advance, the impact of their big reveal in the show is best discovered in the moment. The biggest of these appears in Episode Three when the original actor that Michael replaced must be told he is off the project. What ensues is a hilarious conversation initially between characters Simon, Michael and David, and then eventually with the guest star as the conferencing technology itself becomes the means of twice catching David out in silly lies that leave him with egg on his face.

Another well-known performer appears in Episode Five as Simon haplessly  recruits another actor to the cast without really having a major part for them, leaving David and Michael agog as they withstand their guest’s aggressively upbeat approach to lockdown. And finally in Episode Six a joyous cameo from a theatre legend drafted in by Simon and producer Jo to get his errant leads and rehearsals back on track. The recurring appearance of Nina Sosanya as fierce producer Jo is wonderful, and while you long to see more of her dismissive cool, her rationed appearances are, at the same time, just enough to pep-up the action as she savagely berates Simon’s failures. Listen out for her unseen assistant’s hysterical quip about furloughing him.

All of this builds a strong frame within which the two leads can shape their performances, the tenure of which ebbs and flows throughout the series as they bicker and support one another in what are two very game performances. The chemistry that Sheen and Tennant have developed overcomes their physical distance. As egos clash over credits, they force each other to stand in the corner for lying and brutally criticise each other’s appearance and performances – David is “cartoonish” according to Michael, while Michael is “mumbly” in David’s view – the enduring affection and respect for one another defies their socially distant technological interactions. Changing the credits at the beginning and end of every episode to reflect the discussions and dramas within is also a very nice touch.

The character of David is given the broadest context in some ways with scenes filmed around his home, participating in rehearsal calls from different rooms while interacting with his family or dealing with the pressure of lockdown. He is the more introspective of the two, and Tennant creates a sense of isolation and purposelessness in David, a man lost without the work that defines him. Wearing the same costume throughout, the strain of being trapped at home overwhelms him and he spirals into a kind of functioning depression as the series draws on, struggling to focus or find any creative satisfaction in the stunted play rehearsals.

Yet, Tennant doesn’t let the audience feel too sorry for him, tempering his creation with less appealing traits including a self-absorption that leaves his wife to manage their five children while almost neglecting their care in favour of calling Michael when he is required to parent. David also lies and manipulates other characters to avoid difficult confrontations which end up rebounding on him in a number of amusing ways, his sulky annoyance at being caught out in Episode Three is a highlight in an overall performance that is the essence of tragicomic.

Michael’s point of view is quite different, and the webcam angle is the only one the audience sees from his perspective. Other aspects of his life are referenced in conversation, but this singular view adds a layer of privacy to his character that fits the slightly belligerent disdain with which he regards the entire process and especially his Director. There is a different kind of ego in Michael which Sheen plays up to, one based on his professional success and lack of rejection. Some of the most entertaining conversations with David involve a sniping comparison of their theatre credits and this version of Michael thirsts for praise.

Michael is a far less introspective character than David, so softer tones are added in the concern for an elderly neighbour, a conversation that escalates across the series as he is blackmailed for secreting empty bottles in her recycling bin and eventually becomes involved in something more concerning. Sheen keeps Michael’s inner world under wraps to a degree, talking largely about work and nonsense but rarely giving much away about his emotional state. Yet, there is also plenty of humour in Michael’s continual ire with an argument in Episode Four one of his best moments while his menacing tendency to loom into the camera shows a technical understanding of film that proves extremely adept.

As their long-suffering partners Georgia Tennant has the best of it, a superwoman figure able to manage their many children, help a friend give birth, sell a novel and support her husband – mirroring the actor’s real self where she has additional hats of actor, photographer and producer. She has a naturalness on screen that suits the tone entirely and amusingly refuses to indulge David’s maudlin demands for attention. Sheen’s partner Anna Lundberg is less successful and while her wider life is more limited, Lundberg’s performance is too knowing, not quite meshing with the understated, conversational silliness of the very British humour.

In just three months, we have come a very long way in the quality and invention of shows created under socially distanced conditions. The success of Staged lies in the strength of its premise feeding through the structural and visual storytelling concept. How quickly Evans and his team have learned to get the most from the technology available, making a virtue of the video calling platforms we are all enduring. The fictionally lethargic Sheen and Tennant (or should that be Tennant and Sheen) might not be first out of the gate with their Pirandello, but while we wait for theatres to reopen, watched slowly or in one sitting, you’ll be glad to share a bit of lockdown with them both.

All six episodes of Staged are available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year or screening on Wednesdays on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Knives Out – London Film Festival

Daniel Craig in Knives Out (Director Rian Johnson)

Cosy murder mystery adaptations are a much loved TV staple, endlessly repeated on ITV3, but in the last 10 years the crime drama has changed dramatically and even the cosy cornerstones of Sunday afternoon television have taken on a far darker hue. The emphasis is now on the gritty and the grisly with gruesome murders often shown in frightening detail – think The Fall, The Killing and Luther. Even the ones that shy away from such excruciating visual assault take a tone of portentous doom like BroadchurchHappy Valley or The Missing, leading the way with multi-episode series that lean on the conventions of psycho-drama with dark subject matter including child abduction, serial killers and rapists.

And that more serious approach has made its way into even the lightest dramas; Midsommer Murders is fun but the inventiveness of the modes of death has always been grim – from death by cheese wheel to a pitchfork to the back through a deckchair. Think too of the more ominous tone that dogged the later Poirot and Marple adaptations as the protagonists were plagued by doubts and worries about the human condition, things that never used to trouble the Belgian detective and St Mary Mead villager so intently. Sarah Phelps’s Christmas adaptations have only continued the trend with a brooding tone to her versions of And Then There Were NoneWitness for the Prosecution and The ABC Murders. 

Big screen adaptations of crime stories tend to suffer from trying to squeeze a sizeable and complex novel into under two hours losing some of the characterisation that makes the story tick. Often, they are forced to bow to Hollywood conventions to liven things up as Kenneth Branagh did with the strange action sequence inserted in his adaption of Murder on the Orient Express that found an extensively mustachioed Poirot dangling from a train. But this intensity wasn’t always the case, serious adaptions of Agatha Christie films in the late 1970s and early 1980s morphed into something a little more exuberant, and by the time Peter Ustinov made Evil Under the Sun in 1982 everyone was having a lot more fun with a genre tipping over into self-parody.

Jonathan Lynn’s Clue which followed in 1985, a cinematic interpretation of the board game, was a hoot with a stellar cast of comedians including Tim Curry, Madeline Khan and Eileen Brennan. But more recently, inspired by Scandinavian dramas, even film outings for murder stories have followed television with the same preference for moody and brutal depictions of crime including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Snowman with varying success. When did fictional murder stop being fun?

There are fashions in crime writing just as there are in other cultural fields and now Rian Johnson – who was previously at the helm of a Star Wars film – is given free-reign to reverse the trend creating a movie that has all the hallmarks of a much-loved genre which he places in a very modern black comic wrapper. Knives Out is not a spoof, the tone is considerably sharper than that, but it is a loving homage to the lighter crime dramas that Johnson would have watched as a child, including Murder She Wrote which is given a momentary nod as a character watches an episode on their laptop. The film has the momentum of a thriller but the jaunty tone and all the fun of a comedy where the actors are the only ones taking it seriously.

Written and directed by Johnson there is a real confidence in how classic characteristics are integrated into the story of a crime novelist murdered in his country mansion without losing the tone of highly respectful mockery that Johnson maintains faultlessly throughout the film. It all takes place in a big Gothic, faux Victorian pile full of dark wood paneling that gives the setting a claustrophobic and doom-laden feel more redolent of horror films. At the centre of the interrogation room is a chair with a huge halo of daggers and knives pointing to the head of whoever sits in it – very Iron Throne – while in the house the unfortunate Thrombey family gather for a fatal party.

The limited cast of characters restricts itself further, with the most likely set of suspects given the most screentime, all with equally plausible financial motives and all heard to have some form of run-in with the deceased in the days or hours prior to the murder. Stir-in a changing will, some bumbling policeman, a subtle massaging of time and an arrogant freelance detective and Knives Out really hits the mark.

Johnson wastes no time in getting to the point, the murder happens, suspects are introduced with their motives spelled-out immediately and the murderer is revealed to the audience. Seemingly in the know, like an episode of Colombo, it’s now up to the authorities to put all the pieces together while we sit back. Well, not quite because Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to entertain and double-cross us, not least in having us sympathise with the perpetrator and the unfolding circumstances that set them running like a scared rabbit, as not only the dapper detective but also the rest of the family come after them without knowing their guilt.

And Johnson isn’t nearly done with us as the sands start to shift revealing more layers to the story than we first supposed and – as all great crime dramas should – recasting the entire problem in an entirely new light. In the meantime there is plenty of humour drawn from the wonderful characterisation and unfolding scenarios that Johnson so skillfully creates. Each member of the Thrombey family is given just enough screentime to suggest the extent of their personality and how the events of the film affect them. Leading an exemplary cast is Christopher Plummer as the victim – mostly seen through flashback – who exudes frustration with his relatives and a stern authority when dealing with their many failings directed at everyone except his sweet young nurse Marta who becomes a close friend and confidant. Plummer is particularly funny during his own murder scene taking notes on the method for use in one of his future plots – such moments of dry humour abound through the film.

Portrayals of his adult children are led by Jamie Lee Curtis as “self-made” businesswoman Linda who prides herself on creating her own firm from scratch and building it into a successful enterprise. There is just enough of Linda to see her tenacity and dismissal of the weakness she perceives in the rest of the family – a trait she wholly shares with her father – but Lee Curtis also shows Linda’s protectionist approach, refusing to be drawn into criticising her family by the goading of the detective, as well as a softer side revealed in a single look towards the end of the film as a crucial revelation is made to her. Don Johnson as her husband is far less principled, outraged by the change of will and leading angry protests to suggest his own double-dealing that he goes to some lengths to conceal.

Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey Linda’s brother heads his father’s publishing business dedicated to its principle client but the menacing Walt is not as weak as he appears to be. Toni Collette is full of earnest self-delusion as an Instagram Influencer whose online success cannot fund her entitled lifestyle or her daughter’s private school fees, and while most of the junior generation remain largely in the background, Chris Evans’s bad-boy son of Linda and Richard enjoys every minute of his caddish part and the chance to slink-off his goodie twoshoes Captain America image.

But it is the central roles that yield the most joy with Ana di Armas’s nurse Marta as the family outsider whose “good-heart” makes her the perfect aide to the investigation while managing to convey genuine upset at Harlan Thrombey’s demise – the only character who really cares he’s gone. Best of all is Daniel Craig’s hilarious Benoit Blanc, the unusual private detective whose fearsome reputation for solving crimes gives him licence to refer to himself in the third person and adopt a Southern accent. This is one of Craig’s best performances, a rare outing for comedy skills only hinted at during his tenure as the rough tough James Bond who blasts through walls and adjusts his tailoring while leaping from a digger onto a moving train. His deadpan performance in Knives Out is full of great lines and beautifully-timed delivery that result in plenty of laugh-out loud moments. It is a real pleasure to watch Craig showcase his skills for whatever a post-007 world might bring.

Brilliantly managed by Johnson who controls the twists and turns with aplomb while delivering enough new information to keep the audience invested, Knives Out is a celebration of the light-hearted murder mystery with a modern twist. Stylish, hilarious and full of love for the genre, Knives Out is dead fun.

Knives Out is on general release in the UK on 27 November 2019. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.

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