Tag Archives: Sherlock

BFI & Radio Times Television Festival – BFI Southbank

Radio Times Festival - Tom Hiddleston

Television is still (rather unfairly) seen as the poor cousin of most other creative arts. If you say you go to the theatre all the time or spend every weekend in art galleries it’s seen as a respectable past-time, but admitting to watching a lot of TV – regardless of what you’re actually viewing – is still met with derision, especially from those who claim they don’t own a TV at all. Yet, the last few years has felt like a golden age for drama in particular, and despite radical changes in the way we view and consume programmes, appointment-to-view television still exists building communities of people all sharing the same experience at once.

The Radio Times has long celebrated the art of television and the skills of the actors, writers, producers, directors and technical teams that make the programmes listed in its pages. In its articles, features and interviews, The Radio Times champions the intellectual and cultural value of television, making a strong case each week for its acceptance as a recognised and dignified art form. Yes the schedules are awash with repeats and mindless content but for every reality show there’s a Broadchurch, for every soap or tired sporting event, there’s a Night Manager, Planet Earth or Inside Number 9. All art forms have their churned-out nonsense, but like theatre and art there’s also bold new writing and innovative approaches.

After a very talks-based inaugural Festival in 2015 in various marquees in a field near Hampton Court, it makes sense that The Radio Times’s second weekend outing should decamp to the more suitable surroundings of the BFI – itself no stranger to holding exceptional festivals. And as you would expect from a magazine that loves telly, the schedule was packed over three days with something for pretty much everyone – from Call the Midwife, Dr Who and Line of Duty to interviews with Michael Palin and Maggie Smith, from Strictly Come Dancing to Sherlock, Poldark, Victoria and becoming a Youtube star there was much to see and learn. But I restricted myself to four key events.

One of the headline sessions, announced long before the rest of the programme, was a 90-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who died last year, comprising a panel interview with some of the people that knew her well, clips from her many shows and songs, as well as an opportunity for the audience to share favourite lines and memories. Piers Wenger from BBC Drama sat on the panel alongside Maxine Peake and Julie Walters with a slightly too abrupt Paddy O’Connell as compere who cut people off and interrupted as though he were interviewing lying politicians instead of much loved actors discussing a missed national treasure.

Although slightly marred by the rather haphazard questioning, the warmth and affection for Wood, as well as her genuinely unique observational comedy shone through. Again and again the same words associated with her writing were repeated – “authentic”, “real”, “truthful” and “genuine” – as her friends and colleagues discussed her generosity in sharing great lines, as well as a style of writing that Peake and Walters described as musical, with each sentence honed and word carefully chosen to create the proper effect. Mixed with clips that bare endless re-watching, it was a celebratory as well as an emotional event as Peake wanted to give thanks for a role that launched her career while Walters poignantly remarked that she is constantly surprised at her loss, frequently wondering “where are you”. But it was an event, they all agreed, Wood would have been delighted to be part of having loved telly so much.

With programme-making now so diverse, the RT Festival also made time for one of the biggest success-stories of the past year broadcast entirely online – The Crown produced by Netflix. The astonishing series which covers the accession and early reign of Elizabeth II was discussed by Director Philip Martin, producer Suzanne Mackie and lead actor Claire Foy, in an excellent and insightful panel discussion overseen by ITN’s Tom Bradby who spent a brief period as royal correspondent.

While there was some talk about the mechanics of filming and the role of platforms like Netflix, much of the discussion actually took on a more philosophical consideration of our engagement with the monarchy, as Foy considered the way in which we project a picture of what they ought to be, that they then respond to as times change. The sense of responsibility to create something human and true to itself was clear, which, Martin explained would have been muddied by appropriateness of broadcast slots and their particular expectation had it been aired on terrestrial TV, while Foy spoke with real insight on the process and wider impact of playing such a well-known figure. And for audience members looking for series gossip, they did find out that the current cast will be replaced after Season 2 as the characters age, writer Peter Morgan has mapped out as far as Season 4, but intends six and we will meet Camilla Parker-Bowles in Season 3.

Returning on Sunday, the first session was an interview with Mark Gatiss discussing his career from The League of Gentlemen to Sherlock as well as his engagement with TV growing up.  Interviewed by the marvellous Alison Graham, TV Editor for Radio Times, Gatiss explained that meeting Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson was “love at first sight” and it was a shared discovery that in entirely different locations they’d all missed bonfire night to watch Carry On Screaming that drew them together. Graham was unaware that the League are to reform next year for an already commissioned show to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Royston Vase, and while nothing has yet been written, Gatiss hopes it will revisit old favourites as well as introduce new material, before shocking everyone with the idea that Pauline would now be almost 70.

Much of the Sherlock discussion hinged around the idea of a ‘backlash’ with criticism of more recent episodes, but Gatiss neatly battered this away, suggesting instead that the British like to have a lull so they can then describe things as being “back on form”. He also confirmed that Sherlock’s future is open but scheduling Series 3 was so difficult given the success it brought to everyone that there are no immediate plans to write another.

Finally, thoughts turned to TV influences, and like Victoria Wood in the previous day’s discussion, Gatiss admitted to having watched huge amounts of television as a child being particularly influenced by horror writers like MR James and EF Benson. It was clear from Gatiss’s stories that well-made TV can leave a life-long impression, which led nicely into a final session on arguably the finest drama the BBC has made this century – The Night Manager.

Not many actors would have the power to necessitate a change of venue at a TV Festival but the late announcement that Tom Hiddleston would join a panel on adapting John le Carre for the screen meant swapping the 100 seater NFT2 for the 450 seat Imax which promptly sold out – and such is the appeal of Hiddleston that even a BFI mouse scampered down the stairs mid-session to get a closer view.

Last year The Night Manager proved that TV could be every bit as lavish, beautifully crafted and artistic as film, while keeping the nation home every Sunday night for 6 weeks. Led by journalist Samira Ahmed, this fascinating panel emphasised how completely the visual style and the raft of complex and troubled characters came largely from le Carre’s pages, and although it was modernised and relocated, it was the original novel to which they turned again and again for inspiration and insight.

Hiddleston quoted from memory a passage that described the character of Jonathan Pine with all the personas and contradictions that formed the basis of his interpretation, and le Carre’s exact words were something he returned to several times in discussion, giving an insight into his process as an actor and his ability to recall it in such detail a couple of years later. And Hiddleston spoke with energy about the “malleability of character” which attracted him to the role, particularly the soldiery in Jonathan’s past that is broken open and tested by the events of the story.

As expected some secrets were revealed – particularly by Alistair Petrie who played Sandy –  including the numerous work-arounds that the technical crew accomplished to make things look considerably more expensive than they were by moving lightbulbs to mimic the sun and fashioning a private jet from cardboard, while le Carre himself who appeared as a disgruntled diner enjoyed improvising his annoyance so fervently that Hiddleston wasn’t sure he could placate him. Although a joke about Tom Hollander unexpectedly “manhandling” him during that scene got the biggest laugh and clearly made it into the final edit. And on the rumoured Series Two, Executive Producer Simon Cornwall wasn’t giving much away – it is being discussed but nothing has been decided and it will only happen if the proposed idea can live up to the extraordinary quality of the first he insisted.

Teaming-up with the BFI meant this second Radio Times event felt considerably more at home on the Southbank. What was clear from all the sessions is that the people who make TV really love it and have spent a lifetime watching it, are able to chart the influence of particular shows and genres on the type of performer or creator they became. This event celebrated the dedication, enthusiasm and pure craft that goes into making programmes, and made a strong case for recognising television as a proper art form. More than anything, the Radio Times is there to reassure you that if you watch 5 hours a day or one a week, there’s nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of.

The Radio Times Festival was at the BFI Southbank from 7-9 April. Look out for other TV-related events at BFI including episode previews and Q&As throughout the year.


Winter Wanders 2016 – Walk London

Walk London Guided Tours

Walk London’s thrice yearly free guided tours have become somewhat of a fixture in the London cultural calendar. Having first discovered them exactly a year ago, I try to take part in two every weekend it’s on – although I missed the Autumn Ambles which clashed with the final weekend of the London Film Festival and, for me, the premiere of Steve Jobs. The latest Winter Wanders  were bigger than ever and I decided to try two new additions to the programme one examining film and TV locations in Bloomsbury and the other along the Piccadilly Line, and for the first time I began to wonder if these guided tours have become a victim of their own success.

There was only one opportunity for the Scenes on Screen – Film and TV in London walk, and on turning up to Russell Square tube station there were easily 100 people crowded together. It quickly emerged that two guides had been allocated but one had already left and this multitude were under the care of poor Stella the remaining guide who admirably shepherded the hoard on a 100 minute tour. There was a fair amount of pushing and shoving, and for some it turned into a running tour as they dashed past to be first to the next location so it wasn’t always as well spirited as these usually are. Hard to estimate popularity but given the huge interest in TV locations generally a second tour time might have been anticipated.

But Walk London is actually onto a bit of winner here and has designed a walk that it can easily franchise in other parts of the city, nicely combining film, TV and advertising. It starts off light with a local costume collection at the former horse hospital behind the station before taking in Martin Freeman’s walk through Russell Square in the opening episode of Sherlock and the embarrassed Russell Hotel refusing to acknowledge its role in a Smith and Jones film about aliens despite sharing a dining room designer with the Titanic. From here we looped back round Russell Square Station to look at the McCann Erickson art deco offices – a famous advertising agency responsible for high-profile campaigns.

It stops outside the Brunswick Centre, former home of Catherine Tate and one-time film location for Jack Nicholson before taking in the former home of Kenneth Williams on Marchmonth Street and London’s first gay bookshop that was recreated in Hampstead for the film Pride staring Dominic West. Round the corner was another shop used as the exterior for Black Books, as well as a strip of Georgian shops opposite Euston Station that once contained a Eurovision Song Contest flashmob but most famously doubled for Dover in ITV’s version of The Clocks staring David Suchet as Poirot.

This walk saves most of the big stuff till last, St Pancras and King’s Cross used frequently in programmes like Downton Abbey or major films including The Imitation Game, The Ladykillers, Batman and, of course, Harry Potter which is set to become even bigger news this year when Jamie Parker assumes the role of the grown-up Harry in a new stage version. It’s a good tour covering a lot of ground and different types of famous location in under two hours despite the cumbersome size of the group. Arguably it missed a couple of tricks; a diversion of 5 minutes to the other side of Euston Station would have taken us to North Gower Street, the actual location of Sherlock’s front door and Speedy’s café in the modern version which would have been a big draw, and the McCann visit could certainly have warranted a Mad Men reference given the rivalry with Stirling Cooper throughout the series. Nonetheless this tour is a great addition and Walk London should consider adding more like it – certainly a Strand to Westminster film walk could cover some major blockbusters like X-Men First Class (Somerset House), Four Weddings and a Funeral (Southbank Skate Park), Suffragette (Parliament) and, of course, multiple Bonds (Westminster Bridge and Thames), as well as countless more Sherlock locations. Maybe one for the Summer Strolls given how important the film industry is to the financial and cultural life of London?

The second walk was also new to the programme and is undoubtedly one of the best I’ve done so far. The Piccadilly Line – Featuring a Cricket Bat and Sherlock Holmes is a superb 1.5 hour wander through the heart of London starting at Green Park and ending at Covent Garden. Celebrating 150 years of London tube design, this walk was added especially for this year but is definitely one to retain – particularly as it is a cunning way to encourage people off the tube and to walk this relatively tiny distance. In a considerably smaller and friendlier group of 30-odd, the excellent guide Ian (pictured above) kept the tour together despite passing along London’s busiest streets on a bustling weekend.

At the start we learn that the Piccadilly Line was built in 1906 running mostly under the road because permission was easier to obtain from the council-owned roads than the private landlords on either side. The Line shares its birthday with The Ritz, our first stop, built we learn by Cesar Ritz after having managed the Savoy Hotel and sits close to the Wolseley, a now famous restaurant which was once a car showroom. Across the road we learn that Burlington Arcade is clearly the place for me as whistling is banned within its parade of shops and strictly enforced by security unless you’re Paul McCartney who has dispensation to whistle there. A former garden, the shops were originally built, we learned, by Lord Cavendish the frustrated owner of the neighbouring Burlington House (now the Royal Academy) who was sick of drunks throwing oyster shells (the 18th century kebab) into his courtyard on their way home.

From here we visit St James’s Church in Piccadilly, built by Sir Christopher Wren and damaged in World War II, but from the gardens we can see into Jermyn Street where Florins is visible and is the oldest continuously situated shop in London, fictionally visited by James Bond. Over the road we’re directed to look at Cordings the country clothing store who offered their best customer Eric Clapton a share in their business, while the group is set straight about the statue at Piccadilly Circus – not Eros but Anteros, the God of requited love. Leicester Square steers back to the tube as we compare the red terracotta entrance on the north edge – each station having its own colour, Ian tells us, so people who couldn’t read would recognise which station they were at – with the 1930s sleeker design next to the Wyndhams Theatre.

En route to Covent Garden on the final leg of the walk we take in the former offices of cricket publishers Wisden, a peg for policemen to hang their jackets in the days before traffic lights, Stanford’s map shop which employed Kenneth Williams and was the fictional cartographers of choice for Sherlock Holmes before stopping finally outside the Transport Museum in the heart of Covent Garden with tales of the actor’s church, St Paul’s, itself a lovely summer theatre spot.

In a little over 90 minutes, this tour covered about a mile of easy walk, 300 years of history and was jam-packed with brilliant anecdotes and little tube trivia questions to think about between each stop – a fine addition to the Walk London programme. So another great weekend of learning about London and while TFL need to think about resourcing some of the more popular walks, they are a great opportunity to get to know more about our city from the learned guides. Looking forward to May already.

Walk London free guided tours, sponsored by TFL run three times a year in January, May and October. The programme covers a large part of London and can be viewed on the Walk London website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Film Review: The Imitation Game

The winter film season will be dominated by the scientist biopic. This Friday sees the release of the much anticipated film about Alan Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and just after Christmas Eddie Redmayne’s take on Stephen Hawking – The Theory of Everything – is released. Both have appeared at recent Film Festivals and for what it’s worth at this point in the year their leading actors are generating Oscar buzz. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to secure a seat for The Imitation Game at the London Film Festival last month, the BFI offered an early preview and will do the same for The Theory of Everything on 8th December (tickets go on public sale on 11th November).

The Imitation Game shows three periods in Alan Turing’s life; primarily it focuses on his work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War breaking codes using his invented machine, but also travels backwards in time to his schooldays to show the foundation of his interest in cyphers and close friendship with another boy, and we go forward to 1951 when a suspicious robbery at Turing’s house leads to his arrest for gross indecency and an horrific sentence of hormone therapy to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. This is largely a very good and terribly British film, its nationality seeping through every second of the picture. No one presents the war on screen in that way except the British film industry – slightly cosy with everyone cycling down cobbled streets with lovely hairdos.

It’s also relatively low budget (qualifying it for inclusion in the British Independent Film Awards), which is noticeable in the few action scene; bombs dropping over England and a few sorry-looking tanks are all you get. The rest of the war is represented using archive footage from newsreels to give the audience some context – a classic ‘we have no money for war scenes’ technique. Every bit of that tiny budget has however been spent on a bundle of lovely tank tops and cardigans for that authentic 1940s flavour.

I don’t know why I’m being mean, I actually really enjoyed this film and its focus on the quite difficult human interaction between Turing and his team. This character-driven approach is something British films do so well and the cast includes some of our best theatre actors. As the film opens, Rory Kinnear, an Iago worth rooting for at the National last year, is the 1950s Manchester bobby who investigates Turing’s past only to find empty files and begins to suspect he may have been a spy in the war. Back we go to 1941 and see Turing’s team at work – well we don’t see them work, just stand around in those nice tank tops – trying to break the German Enigma code. Initially the team is led by chess genius Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) who oozes professional resentment, while his hostility to Turing’s odd manner almost gets our hero sacked. Goode makes him likeable though; good looking, charismatic, suave and a hit with the ladies – so not like any mathematician I’ve ever met.

Another theatrical luminary, Mark Strong, plays the head of MI6. Fresh from his breath-taking performance as Eddie Carbone in this year’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, Strong has a relatively small but memorable role as the spymaster as keen to deceive his own government as the enemy. Charles Dance is also on scary form as Commander Denniston who reluctantly recruits Turing and then spends the rest of the film trying to fire him. Dance is in Tywin Lannister mode so is threateningly good value.

Cumberbatch is the heart of this film and it is surprising to think that he’s hardly headlined a movie before. He’s been the villain and had major supporting roles but in film his leading man experience is slight. On TV and in the theatre however it is extensive including major stage roles in Frankenstein (2011) and a pre-Sherlock (and therefore pre-hysterical fame) After the Dance at the National in 2010 in which he was marvellous. There is no question of course that he easily carries this film with a complex and somewhat emotional portrayal of Turing. He’s not depicted as an inevitable hero, at times he’s not very nice at all and seems to have difficulty with social convention, although his very literal approach is successfully used for comic effect throughout. It’s a very interesting performance which is both confident and fragile at the same time, becoming particularly affecting during his hormone treatment in the 50s. Comparisons with Sherlock are sadly everywhere given both characters have traits in common, but it’s misleading to suggest the performances are anything alike and at no point do you feel you’re watching Sherlock in World War II – Cumberbatch is far too good an actor to fall into that trap and the emotional elements of his Turing make it quite distinct.

Comparisons are perhaps more appropriate with Enigma, the Robert Harris thriller with Dougray Scott from 2002. Jeremy Northam’s fantastic chief spy aside, The Imitation Game is a far better representation of Bletchley Park, which without the melodramatic spy hunt and silly love story, gives a more nuanced insight into the consequence of the code-breakers achievement. Far from the simplistic idea of breaking Enigma winning the war, instead we see that they can’t really use it or the Germans will cotton-on and change the whole thing. For 2 years then, they had to carefully select which attacks they would prevent whilst allowing men to die every day elsewhere, and all to protect their ability to read German messages. Even when the war ended the world still needed to believe that Enigma hadn’t been broken so Britain would have the advantage should it be used in another war. It’s a fascinating aspect of this film and one that throws up many questions about the morality and ambiguity of conflict strategy.

The film isn’t perfect however, and in addition to the cosiness I mentioned earlier, there’s also a missed opportunity with John Cairncross a member of Hut 8 whose full name is barely mentioned until the end. Cairncross was allegedly the fifth man in the famous Cambridge Five spy ring that throughout the war betrayed secrets to Russia. Although he was not close to Burgess, Blunt, Philby and MacClean their betrayal is still infamous today, so Cairncross’s appearance is rather underplayed in this film. I could also have done without the childhood flashbacks, although well-acted, they just seemed a bit cliché and only serve to tell us that Turing was always good at crosswords and socially on the edge. You might also notice that I haven’t mentioned Keira Knightley…well she just does her best Keira Knightley impression so your enjoyment of her performance depends on how you feel about that.

This film is going to be popular if only for its lead actor’s current appeal, so come Friday the cinemas will be packed with people desperate to see it, and they won’t be too disappointed. It may not take any risks in its intellectual presentation of the war years, but looking at Turing’s achievements from the perspective of his shocking treatment later is one that gives you plenty to think about. It also offers a more complex idea of what war means that many such films, when doing the right thing and making the right decision are by no means the same. Although it is packed with star performances, it is very much Cumberbatch’s film, setting a high bar for the first of this winter’s scientist biopics. We’ll see in a few weeks whether Redmayne can match him.

The Imitation Game was previewed at the BFI Southbank and London Film Festival. It opens nationwide on Friday 14 November.

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