Tag Archives: BBC

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


Adapting Les Misérables: Psychological Depth and the Period Drama

Dominic West - Les Miserables

The BBC’s adaptation of Les Misérables has been a huge success, gripping Sunday night viewing for the last five weeks offering the first truly comprehensive dramatisation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel. Andrew Davies has changed our relationship with the period drama and as a result of an equally epic War and Peace two years ago, and a trilogy of enduring hits two decades before – Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair and Tom Jones – he has created works in which the characters feel as rounded, human and as flawed as their original authors intended while making their timeless emotional and intellectual dramas feel contemporary. The success of Les Misérables lies in the psychological truth of the characters with Davies treating Hugo as his most important co-writer.

Reading the novel for the first time aged 17, and countless times since, the scale of this 1200-page behemoth is initially overwhelming and intimidating. A cast of hundreds with the action taking place across the vast geography of France in a 20-year period as the nation agonised over its recent revolutionary past and a political battle between monarchy and republic which led to frequent, violent confrontation akin to civil war.

Hugo’s multi-stranded narrative follows a group of characters who become unexpectedly enmeshed in each other’s lives as the various subplots draws them all to Paris for one explosive and poignant conclusion that neatly unites history, politics and fiction in what is an exceptional achievement in storytelling. Les Misérables is also an incredibly unusual novel taking a sequential approach to its character-histories, linked only by the protagonist Jean Valjean whose own life story is constructed through his appearance in other narratives – there is a book of Fantine, one of Cosette and a book of Marius, but only in the final section does Valjean warrant his own.

Frequently too, the story is disrupted by Hugo’s many digressions lasting for 10, 20, sometimes 100-pages, taking the reader out into a contextual discussion that showcases Hugo’s views on topics as diverse as a particular order of nuns, the construction of the Paris sewers or the penal system. These can be bulky and distracting but are designed to give a complete picture of the world of the novel, one that helps us to visualise particular locations or to understand why individuals choose to act as they do.

For example, more than hundred pages is dedicated to the Battle of Waterloo, a defining moment in modern French history for Hugo’s generation, yet it is not until the final couple of pages that two characters we know – Thenadier and Colonel Pontmercy – are brought together in a way that reverberates through the story. It is no coincidence that this was the starting point for Davies’s adaptation, a startlingly clever move that immediately set the tone while relegating the central character to several scenes hence, just as Hugo himself chose to do – Valjean is a fully-rounded and quietly heroic creation but he is also a cipher for other narratives, Les Misérables, quite deliberately, does not begin with him.

Few other television writers would be as brave and what Davies has done so effectively is to distil all of that text, those sub-narratives, events and detours into a tidy episodic structure that really for the first time does full justice to Hugo’s spectacular and intricate work. With six hours to play with, Davies has included scenes and vast swathes of the text never fully dramatised before, which for lovers of the richly layered novel is such a thrill. The root of all of this is that Davies simply trusts Hugo to tell his own story rather than inventing his own simplified version, and it is a joy to see the reverence this production has for the source material.

Each week, there has been a recognition that the density of Hugo’s writing is deliberate, that the small moments including the cruel abandonment of Fantine as a practical joke in Episode One, to the criminal events of the Gorbeau Tenement as Valjean is lured into a trap in Episode Four, and the even the tender relationship of Marius’s tragic father watching his boyhood from afar, are fundamental to the psychological shape of the story and what each character chooses or is compelled to do as a result.

Les Misérables is richly captivating, lyrically beautiful at points while also fierce, angry and incredibly moving, but what makes it so compelling is the endless compassion for the poor, the destitute and the wretched. Almost all of the principle characters have their story told in full and Hugo offers endless scope for redemption, no one is ever written-off for having once engaged in criminal acts that prevent them from changing their behaviour, on the contrary we see how often their transgressions are driven by desperation and circumstance rather than genuine depravity. Even the monstrous Thenadiers are softened by Madame T’s devotion to her young daughters (a “she-wolf” in Hugo’s description) and, in Olivier Coleman’s excellent performance, a fear of her husband with hints of domestic abuse, while the adult Eponine and teenage Gavroche redeem the family name with their bravery and self-sacrifice.

Valjean is the most obvious recipient of Hugo’s benevolence, and in spite of the bitterness of his incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread (which the novel makes clear was to feed his sister’s starving children) extended to nearly 20-years by repeated escape attempts, Valjean overcomes past hurts to become a respectable and generous man. Dominic West has been superb in a role that evolves considerably in the course of the novel; at the beginning, finally released from prison Valjean is all the things policeman Javert goads him with – coarse, embittered and quick to reoffend, his short temper frazzled by the suspicion and hostility that greet him.

West’s thoughtful performance conveyed the brutality of Valjean in Episode One, broken-down and almost feral, his whole body thrums with fury, dejection and injustice until the Bishop’s act of salvation creates a fascinating dilemma in the reawakened conscience of Valjean that West conveyed exactly. We have watched his humanity germinate and blossom in the ensuing episodes, and West has well conveyed the commanding factory manager troubled by his thoughtlessly harsh treatment of Fantine, and how his instinct after the Champmathieu affair in Episode Two is always to sacrifice himself to protect others, even at the risk of his own incarceration.

It is his fatherly devotion to the protection of Cosette that has been so warming in a man who has never known the simultaneous contentment and pain of unconditional love. A crucial moment in a dress shop in Episode Four was a wonderful example of screen acting from West as Valjean recognises for the first time that he is about to lose his adoptive daughter to the adult world and, still indulging her enthusiasm, a frozen smile with eyes full of sorrow conveys a moment of real heartbreak for the character, one which significant events in Episode Six will demonstrate means he will always sublimate his personal happiness to the greater good.

The idea that a person cannot be defined by a single act pervades the novel, most notably in the upright and steadfast certainty of Javert whose dogged pursuit of Valjean across the years is shown to be both noble and misguided.  The psychology of Javert is calibrated slightly differently to his nemesis, seeing the world through the prism of law and order, where an individual’s approach to rules and expectations determine character and behaviour.

David Oyelowo’s Javert is a tad less sympathetic than in the novel, and his pursuit of Valjean, the affront his freedom represents to Javert’s quite black and white concept of criminality and justice, has been less well explored, but Oyelowo has shown the dogged determination and fervent disgust for transgressors of any kind that fundamentally shapes Javert’s personality. You see him visibly blanch when encountering Fantine as a prostitute and at the residents of the Gorbeau Tenement, seeing only their actions and not the cause, leaving them with few options. This clarity of thought and of how monochromatically Javert sees the world will be challenged in Episode Six in an excellent opportunity for Oyelowo to demonstrate his skills and how well he understands this character.

Hugo’s endless compassion has been very evident on screen, most obviously in the sympathetic, though never mawkish, treatment of Fantine (Lily Collins), capturing her romantic naivety and the inevitable decline from poverty to shame – and how ghoulishly wonderful to see the teeth-pulling in all its horrid glory enacted by a chilling Ron Cook. Davies has maintained Hugo’s complex presentation of characters so even the students who we finally meet in Episode Four led by the dedicated Enjolras, and the romantic awakening of the dreamy Marius (Josh O’Connor), retain their individuality as well as their collective political fervour which during the superb barricade sections ensures you feel for the grandness of the gesture they are making as well as the smallness of its effect in the overall history of France.

There have been many adaptations of Les Misérables but none of them has felt as complete and satisfying as Davies’s approach, given the space to breath and evolve by the BBC across many episodes. From the interior depth of the characters and the grittier choice of locations, to the way in which the series as a whole has captured the politics, the history, the romance, and themes of social justice that unite Hugo’s vast novel, Davies and his team have told the story with a care and attention that has been impressive and very welcome. While much of Marius’s political and personal transformation as well as the context of the student’s experience building-up to the barricades has been sadly cast aside, Davies only fault has been to be so disparaging of the musical which, though decades old and by necessity a much shorter stage piece, had captured the spirit and feeling of Hugo’s words better than any other adaptation by drawing directly from them for the charming solos and rousing company numbers. It’s easy to scorn musical theatre, but Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s love and reverence for the novel shines through every moment of their composition.

It is the psychological complexity of the characters and a respect for the original author that has made Davies work so successful for so long. So many period dramas just tell the story, using the basic plot but without really creating a true sense of the world in which it exists or any credible sense that the characters are as human as we are. The desperation to prove contemporary relevance leads to rewrites, invented backstories and in the case of Agatha Christie adaptions entirely different murderers. You never feel with Davies’s work that he believes he knows better than Victor Hugo, and the original novel is always the heart and soul of each scene – contemporary relevance is stamped all the way through his productions because these novels deal with the enduring struggles of human nature as pertinent to 1832 when the latter part of the novel is set to 1862 when it was written and to 2019. With one final Episode yet to air, it’s clear that Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Les Misérables will be the definitive one for years to come.

Les Misérables is showing on BBC1 and Episodes One to Five are currently available on the BBC iPlayer and will be available for a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


TV Preview: The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl - BBC

We are in a golden age for drama and the BBC is at the forefront of a new wave of high-quality, unmissable storytelling, delivering some of the best new content this year, a lot of it in the last few weeks. Killing Eve, Trust, Press and Black Earth Rising, multi-part tales with high-quality performances. And then there was Bodyguard; collectively the nation’s heart stopped every Sunday night watching Jed Mecurio’s tense and twisty tale of politics and terrorism, so if you are feeling bereft by its conclusion then only one writer can even possibly compete, John le Carré.

A little over 2.5 years ago Sunday nights meant only one thing – The Night Manager – a multi-funded game-changer that brought the ambitious production values of film to the small screen with considerable style. Now, the same company have adapted another le Carré novel, The Little Drummer Girl, set in the late 1970s and examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played-out across Europe as spy organisations interconnect with terrorist cells. The first two episodes were previewed at the London Film Festival ahead of the show’s UK air date of Sunday 28 October, promising a story every bit as gripping, dangerous and obsessive as Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston proved to be. Warn the pubs, restaurants and bars because once again none of us will be going out on a Sunday night.

Episode One begins with a bomb delivered by a beautiful blonde woman and her mysterious companion to a Jewish home in Germany where it explodes killing a family. A Mossad agent known as “Marty” is on the trail of a Palestinian anarchist group targeting Israeli officials and known for recruiting a terrorist network to aggravate the conflict in the Middle East. But Marty needs an agent, enter Charlie, an actress spotted in a ropey pub theatre production of Saint Joan and offered a touring role in As You Like It. She is pursued to Greece by the enigmatic “Becker” who makes his presence known.

With Charlie firmly in their sights, Episode Two focuses on her incendiary political views, colourful backstory and just what they need her to do. Information is drip-fed to her as Marty’s team try to entice and force her help with some murky espionage. Meanwhile a second team has apprehended a key source and must make him reveal the whereabouts of an important meeting. With Marty closely connected to his equivalent number in Germany, just what can a single English woman achieve, and is Charlie on anyone’s side but her own?

Unusual for le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl is one of the few books with an independent female protagonist. Adapted by Claire Wilson and Michael Lesslie who collaborated closely while taking the lead on specific episodes, they have used le Carré’s base to make Charlie a fascinating and complex character with more than a bit about her. That shouldn’t be a surprise in 2018, but Charlie is a multi-faceted creation which in Florence Pugh’s excellent central performance leaves plenty of unanswered questions, proving to be every-bit as slippery and ultimately unknowable as her spymasters.

An intelligent girl living on her wits and an assured sexual confidence, the magnanimity with which she eases from actor on tour to agent-in-training is intriguing, taking it all in her stride with surprisingly little resistance or fear. Despite claims of a difficult background it becomes almost impossible for the other characters or the audience to know how much Charlie is acting and the extent to which she’s always some character or other. No one is ever who they seem in a le Carré, not even to themselves, least of all the supposed heroes, so seeing Pugh explore the edges of her character over the remaining four episodes will be a treat in itself.

Again, no le Carré story is complete without a series of intrigues within intrigues, and already the first two previews have established seemingly rival organisations, a dangerous and unstable political context, the involvement of innocents and a multinational landscape. And all of that gives rise to plenty of questions which the remaining episodes will answer. Do Marty’s two teams know about each other and why is there an English woman (Miss Bach played by Clare Holman) working for Mossad – is she a genuine recruit, a secondment from British intelligence or a plant? What role does “Michel” (Amir Khoury) have in the terrorist network, what is his link to Charlie, why did he plant the bomb and did both his brothers really die for the cause?

There are also links to the German secret service, and potentially to Charlie’s own father who may or may not have “disappeared” depending on which of her stories are true, and are her sun-worshipping actor friends as innocent as they seem? Events move fast in these initial episodes, establishing the various players and setting the scene for what’s to come, but although we are following Charlie, none of that means she or we are on the side of the good guys, but it’s going to be fun finding out.

Continuing his run of darkly engaging TV roles which mostly recently included a pivotal role in Big Little Lies, Alexander Skarsgård plays Becker/ Jose / Peter / Michel, a man who is at least one if not all of his men depending on the day, the scenario and the game. Like the most accomplished poker-player he gives nothing away, a consummate spy, it’s never clear what his motivation might be. By the end of episode two, he proves as complete an actor as Charlie, but strangely abstemious, he is no brooding hero, Becker clearly has secrets.

Skarsgård and Pugh crackle together, like an ever-evolving game of cat and mouse where you can’t tell who is toying with who. Repeatedly he leads her to the brink only to rapidly change the tone, while Charlies responds by trying to outwit him, using her allure to compromise Becker but neither succeeds in besting the other. Setting-out on a mission together, Becker tries to protect her from his superiors but whether their chemistry becomes physical or merely the mutual recognition of two performers knowing they are being played remains to be seen.

Another man with secrets is Marty Kurtz, the Mossad leader who leaves a trail of mystery in his wake as he spins a complex web between his shadowy German contact with furtive meetings over coffee and cake, the recruitment and grooming of Charlie to undertake a secret infiltration, and what we presume are his second team, hidden in a bunker somewhere extracting compromising material. Michael Shannon’s accent may be quite gloopy, but his character is like smoke, a man with his eye on the end result whatever the cost. All of this bodes well from a plot that will twist and shift in the coming episodes.

The Little Drummer Girl has lots to do to visually compete with Susanne Bier’s outstanding work on The Night Manager, a glossy treat that juxtaposed brutal violence with beautiful cinematography and picture-perfect locations. The trick for South Korean director Park Chan-wook is not to bother competing at all, at least not in quite the same way. Using the in vogue 70s aesthetic, Chan-wook uses colour rather than light to tell the story, saturating his images and particular characters with bright Mediterranean colours – vibrant yellow, deep sea blues, spring greens, orange, the occasionally flash of scarlet, and because it’s the 70s, brown. They bring a sensuality to each frame that oozes from the screen, whether set in the cosy autumnal interior of a London pub or the richly sunlit beaches and taverners of Greece.

And there is plenty of dazzling location-hopping to take the audience away from our dark Sunday nights and off to London, Munich and Athens already but with a trail leading across Eastern Europe and potentially to Israel by the end of the series. Chan-wook draws it all together in a carefully controlled visual design that uses wonderful examples of brutalist architecture to graphically marry different locations into one cohesive show.

Similar to the 2012 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, there are plenty of concrete and marbled interiors that represent the 70s so well, sleek, clean and a bit emotionless with hard exteriors that the characters must reflect. And concrete in particular responds so well to the rays of coloured lighting that Chan-wook employs to vary the tone and intimacy of his scenes. The whole concept is richly detailed and should offer just enough exotic allure to keep the nation gripped while we try to work out le Carré’s complex mystery.

Scheduled to air from Sunday 28 October, this version of The Little Drummer Girl is everything you could want from a le Carré adaptation. While updating The Night Manager to the period of the Arab Spring added new resonance, here the 1970s setting still has plenty to say about the complex nature of the secret world in an increasingly fractured Europe. Bathed in shadow, vibrantly coloured with an absorbing plot, characters with plenty of dark edges and abundant intrigue, the nation’s new drama obsession is here. This really is a golden age for television drama, but with this one don’t believe anything you see, keep your wits about you and enjoy!

The Little Drummer Girl starts on Sunday 28 October at 9pm on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


TV Preview: Bodyguard – BFI Southbank

Bodyguard - BBC1

A more public role than ever before, we are used to reflecting on the profile and lifestyle of our politicians from every angle. Culturally, there are plenty of examples of work that position MPs and Cabinet Ministers in their wider context; we’ve seen them from their own perspective in dramas like The Deal  and Coalition, we’ve seen them through the eyes of their closest aides and party whips in the original House of Cards, Yes Minister and stage play This House, and we have reflected on their role in broader circumstances as part of ensemble dramas like David Hare’s recent Collateral. Now, acclaimed writer Jed Mercurio adds to this portfolio with his new six-part thriller Bodyguard that pits the Home Secretary against her closest support, her Protection Command officer.

At the premiere of Episode One at the BFI last week with accompanying Q&A, writer Jed Mercurio stressed the importance of subtly grounding his work in the fears, concerns and issues of our age, while structuring work-based scenes around the individual’s need to do their job, and such conversations must reflect the natural interactions that allow people to fulfil their role. Often, the pursuer and the pursued toy with the truth, using silence and stillness as tools to create dramatic depth and credibility. Mercurio’s writing is notably free of excessive exposition and, as audiences have seen in fast-paced dramas Line of Duty and Cardiac Arrest, information is specifically revealed to the viewer at the right time or deliberately unfolded in realistically-constructed conversation.

As one member of the audience inevitably pointed out, the title brings with it a ready-made degree of expectation. But those expecting a brick-wall Kevin Costner-type slowly being thawed by his flamboyant and desirable charge, with tense actions scenes at the Oscar, all the to the strains of ‘I Will Always Love You’ will be disappointed. Bodyguard may share a title and a central male-female dynamic but, so far, there the allusions end.

On the basis of Episode One, which largely established the characters, context and a complicated power dynamic, this TV drama will head in a very different direction, challenging the ability of our two public servants to undertake their roles. And, with a troubled backstory, the show asks questions about a bodyguard’s ability to do his job in compromised political circumstances. As Keeley Hawes, who plays Home Secretary Julia Montague, explained the focus will be on deciding whether the life being protected is worth saving.

Yet, Episode One starts by exploring that idea in quite another context. Mercurio likes a high-tension opener and previous series of Line of Duty have begun with a dramatic police operation that will be repeatedly unpicked in the ensuing weeks. In Bodyguard, Mercurio uses what will (probably) be an isolated incident in the overall story, but one carefully designed to give the viewer an immediate insight into the core context of the drama – an atmosphere of terrorism and suspicion – that ground it in our recognisable reality. It also introduces us to our anti-hero David Budd, played by Richard Madden, whose perspective we will follow for the next six episodes.

Putting him instantly into a tense and carefully pitched incident in a public setting establishes not just his family situation, but almost wordlessly reveals aspects of his personality that will be crucial to the direction and resolution of the core plot later in the show. Without talky exposition, we see a constantly alert David, aware of everything around him, assessing a situation and feeling a duty to help without fear for his personal safety. He takes command, instantly calculating both the wider safety of the public and the humanity of the criminal, balancing his response to the situation, asking us to see him as smart (or reckless) enough to defy instruction where his own reading of a situation differs.

A high-stakes incident on a train full of families and innocent passengers emphasises the normalcy and rather grim condition of public transport in the slightly washed-out visual effect. Here, Mercurio places the viewer in a highly recognisable situation, a contained environment in which travellers have no power to control their speed, direction or immediate circumstances. In around 20-minutes, a fair chunk of Episode One, the writer gives us visual clues about David that confirm his level-headedness and compassion in a situation where most would panic.

As a variety of official security groups attempt to take control – all notably played by women – David only trusts his own assessment of the situation, and his ability to read the behaviour of individuals. How this affects what’s to come remains to be seen, but Mercurio uses this entire scenario as a shorthand introduction to the character we will invest-in over the coming weeks. That whatever else we learn about him, under pressure he kept control of himself.

But, David is not a classic selfless hero, and the scenes that follow are designed to act as a forerunner for the confliction he will encounter in the episodes ahead. From a seemingly happy family life, his personal circumstances are soon shown to be considerably more broken, and his experience as a soldier in Afghanistan will come to define the new role he is about to assume with the Home Secretary. Instantly, our perspective on what we have just seen on the train changes. Madden shows David visibly blanch,  clearly now more than an attempt to quell his fears, and instead it’s a nod to an earlier combat experience – suddenly Mercurio has turned us around, making a couple of easily missed moments of pause on the train make sense in a new way. And, though never explicitly referred to, we begin to understand that a PTSD theme will shape the future of this story.

Crucially, David is advised more than once to seek help for anger and related issues with the term “PTSD” on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but never actually vocalised. Panel Chair Kate Adie noted that there is an average 13-year delay between people experiencing a traumatic event and seeking help, so David sits within that timeframe, still unwilling to admit his experiences are having a damaging effect, or that his responses are now beyond his control. Mercurio explained that an official diagnosis would result in a “career hiatus”, forcing David to take a break from a job he seems to love, and, as Episode One implies, the only stability he has.

Asked about drawing on veteran testimony, Madden explained that few wanted to talk about it openly even among his group, but Bodyguard will deliberately avoid “crass flashbacks”, relying on the strength of Mercurio’s characterisation to reveal the interior life of the individuals he creates. Madden captures David’s inconsistencies extremely well, moving credibly from the anxious but calm control of the train scene to the emotive interactions with his family members, and the curt formality of his engagement with the Home Secretary. “I was attracted to the contradictions within the character… fighting with himself” Madden explained, aptly creating the complexity in David’s character that offers multiple avenues for the story’s trajectory. He uses the silences to grapple with his introspective moments, suggesting a man whose professionalism at work and more destructive personal circumstances will soon collide.

In this first episode, our impression of the Home Secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes, is largely through the eyes of her surrounding staff. A subplot with a chaotic intern reveals an almost callous disregard of individuals who fail her, and our early impressions are purposefully coloured by David’s knowledge that she voted for the war he had to fight. Hawes is excellent in a difficult role where her initial purpose is largely to embody the preconceptions the audience has about senior politicians and the complaints of other characters – “I don’t need you to vote for me, only to protect me” she tells Budd coldly.

Affecting a slightly more refined accent suggesting the product of an expensive boarding school and Oxbridge, Hawes’s Julia cuts a powerful figure, determined to be publicly visible and impatient with the trivialities that appear to impede her work, seen in the impatience she displays when David checks her home each night. But Hawes hints at something more beneath this image, a humanity that the ensuing weeks may well reveal, as David comes to understand the person he’s now working for. Nothing in a Mercurio drama is black and white, so we can expect a spectrum of behaviour from this character and the rug pulled from under us as David’s approach to her changes.

There is much to draw upon in this opening episode, which nicely establishes a set of intriguing characters, a context of instability and fear, and a central relationship that could develop in many ways. We’re also promised the arrival of Gina McKee heading a much wider cast, so it’s clear larger forces will soon be at work. Drawing on his medical experience and RAF background, Mercurio’s writing continues to resonate because it takes a new perspective on seemingly familiar public service roles and explores the lasting consequences of corruption, ineptitude and poor decision-making. At the end of Episode One, what’s in store for David and Julia is unknown, but with so many interesting threads to draw on, and compelling lead performances, it’s all set to be a cracking and unmissable drama.

Episode One of Bodyguard was previewed at the BFI Southbank followed by a Q&A with Jed Mercurio, Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes, chaired by Kate AdieEpisode One will air on BBC1 on Sunday 26 August at 9pm . Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


TV Preview: The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II –BFI Southbank

The Hollow Crown Season 2

‘…let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings’, so speaks Shakespeare’s Richard II on his return from Ireland to find his kingdom carried away in his absence. And this is arguably one of the major themes of the BBC’s Hollow Crown season which opened with Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V back in 2012 and returns to TV with a two part Henry VI and Richard III this month. Previewed at the BFI Southbank last week with some of the cast and crew in attendance, the new season opens with a two part digest of Shakespeare’s Henry VI which we watched back to back in a 4 hour marathon with Q&A, and seen in the context of the four earlier productions, emphasises how volatile this period of history was with innumerable deaths, lunges for power and cutting betrayals culminating in, as Richard II described, a series of ‘sad stories of the death of Kings.’

Henry VI becomes King at 9 months old when his father Henry V dies not long after his famous Agincourt victory, and the realm is governed for the next two decades by the Duke of Gloucester as protector. But the adult Henry is too weak to relinquish his Lord Protector and continues to defer decision-making, much to the chagrin of the warring houses of Lancaster and York. In the meantime, Richard Plantagenet, a senior statesman in the House of York decides to press his suit for the monarchy and what ensues across the two plays is a complex and intricate web of political and family intrigue as the young King is unable to hold back civil war – exacerbated by Henry’s loss of the French territories his father fought so hard for – which threatens to consume his entire kingdom.

I’ve never seen a stage version of these plays and the first thing Google tells you is that Henry VI is considered one of Shakespeare’s least successful works and there is considerable doubt that he wrote all of it. In the Q&A held alongside this screening, adaptor Ben Power and director Dominic Cooke discussed the ‘kaleidoscopic’ nature of the original text which they have reshaped and slimmed. The result is a gripping and engaging two part story that helps the first-time audience keep all the key figures straight without too much erroneous sub-plotting. Both parts bristle with danger as powerful men jockey for position as their King stands helplessly by.

Ton Sturridge, in his first Shakespeare role, gives Henry just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence and, interestingly, a fear of trusting his own judgement. He is easily influenced by anyone who offers him counsel, and we see his opinions change with the breeze as different poisons are poured into his ear. Sturridge’s Henry is timid and trusting of anyone who appears to have more political strength than him, and on the few occasions when he seems to be flexing his monarchical muscles his determination is short-lived.  For a character with almost no monologues (in this adaptation anyway) it’s difficult to completely understand his reticence but Sturridge is affecting, not least in Part II when his wish to be an ordinary man is granted but after enduring a grim life in the Tower the chance to be King again brings a moving flicker of hope – the echoes of Richard II are startling. Visually too Henry is shown to be an onlooker always, sitting back as more knowledgeable men debate the issues at court, and also hiding among the trees watching as his own troops fight for him as he has never fought for himself.

There are great supporting performances, not least from Hugh Bonneville as perhaps the only decent man at court, the innocent Duke of Gloucester, loathed only because he has the ear of the King – proof that at this time innocence couldn’t save you from the malice of others. Ben Miles is absolutely superb as the loathsome Somerset, a Lancastrian who intrigues to marry Henry to a French princess only to take her as his own lover and between them manipulate the King to forward the Lancastrian cause – Miles of course was recently a much praised Thomas Cromwell in the stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, a worthy rival to Mark Rylance’s TV incarnation. Sophie Okonedo is equally fantastic as the scheming Queen Margaret, strong, vicious and revelling in the chance to crush her enemies, even actually fighting in the final battle scenes.

Not everything about this works perfectly and while the political scenes are tense and engaging, the numerous battles are somewhat lacklustre and hampered by budget constraints. It’s pretty clear in every single fight scene that there are only about 20 extras which fail to sufficiently convey the thousands engaged in these civil war battles and the notion of a nation in crisis. There’s also some dubious CGI suggesting ships on their way to fight with France, and even worse ‘epic’ music that’s straight out of Hollywood-battle-scenes-by-numbers, and is completely at odds with what the Henry VI plays are actually about. Strip away the sword fighting and all of Shakespeare’s history plays are intimate in scale, about extended branches of the same family rowing about who should be King and this music implies a level of heroism in the battles which didn’t exist in this tawdry and sullied world of political double crossing. As much as these events are nationally affecting, the epic sweep approach seems inappropriate and these adaptations are at their best in these domestic scenes among a tiny elite which just happens to have wider dynastic consequences.

It’s also clear, at times, that these were made before Justin Kurzel’s movie of Macbeth was released, about which I was unapologetically gushing. A game-changer for the way Shakespeare can be filmed (and also on a reasonably small budget), these Henry VI adaptations are being aired in a new context. The problematic battle scenes mentioned above, feel less successful because Macbeth showed how a small cast produced something that is both horribly brutal and still somehow visually poetic. And even away from the battlefields, very occasionally these long adaptations want for dynamism – how many more times do we want to see a group of middle aged men shouting at each other in a variety of grand medieval halls? Is there a more exciting way to present some of this material?

One of the highlights for many will be Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Richard III which follows this two part Henry VI, but Richard actually appears for the first time in Henry VI Part II so we got to see a little of the background to the character to come. The physical traits of damaged arm and twisted leg are present and Cumberbatch will clearly be a desperately evil Richard with the early signs of his bloodlust and coveting of the crown very much in evidence. Initially it’s a little bit panto villain but by the time he delivers the only lengthy monologue at the end of the 4 hours it’s clear his Richard will chills us – ‘he plays a good psycho’ as Cooke and Power joked during the Q&A where most of the talk was about Richard III, much too Sturridge’s irritation who, quite rightly, wanted to focus on Henry. But it’s going to be an interesting season finale when it finally airs.

The Hollow Crown season has been a big success for the BBC and these long-anticipated new adaptations won’t disappoint. Playing these stories concurrently has offered the viewer something you rarely get in the theatre, a chance to see an entire sweep of history and the recurring themes that punctuate these plays – the relationship of fathers and their sons be they monarchs or nobility, the price of wanting and obtaining power, as well its fickle nature as you see prime movers in one play unceremoniously dispatched in the next and a new generation of players assume the political stage. This preview at the BFI certainly got me thinking again about Richard II and all those sad stories about Kings that followed. In the Hollow Crown we find that the old adage is true, power corrupts and whether it be mere soldiers or mighty monarchs nothing will stand in its way.

The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II will be shown on the BBC in April to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This event took place at the BFI Southbank – visit their website for more TV previews. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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