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October 22, 2014

Preview: Rome: The World's First Superpower 1x1 (UK: Channel 5)

Posted on October 22, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

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In the UK: Fridays, 8pm, Channel 5. Starts Friday 24th October

Channel Five’s best kept secrets are its documentaries. Although the channel as a whole as a reputation for low quality programming - beyond a couple of decent imports and one original drama (Suspects) - its documentaries are actually really good.

So let's get the worst part of this out the way: the title. Rome wasn’t the world’s first superpower, since the Persian empire was not only a third bigger, it also had 44% of the world's population under its control at its height. And if you don't like that, there was also the Macedonian Empire under Alexander The Great.

Hyperbolic title aside, though, it's all very good. You might not think Larry Lamb from Gavin & Stacey and EastEnders would be the best person to present a documentary covering the history of Rome, from the city's foundation through its attainment of empire through to its collapse. Certainly, if you think back to Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey on ITV, you can see all the potential traps writ large of having an actor hosting what is potentially a lavish, content-free and even misleading travelogue.

But not only is Lamb engaging and passionate, he’s an amateur historian - he goes to Rome every year, he speaks Italian, and he's been studying Rome almost all his adult life. More so, as an actor he can re-enact readings from the works of Livy, for example, rather than merely having an actor blankly read the same in voiceover.

The show goes to pertinent locations in both Rome and Pompeii (and in later episodes to Tunisia, Sicily and France), to explore Roman history and archaeology. We get to see the sewer system under Rome, which dates back 2,500 years. Indeed, it’s the first time the oldest part has ever been shown on TV, making that a good enough reason for a classics-lover to watch the show.

Along the way, Lamb interviews historians and archaeologists, including Richard Miles, who’s presented documentaries for BBC2 and BBC4. Lamb’s an intelligent interviewer and asks some decent questions of the experts. He also puts his working class roots to the fore, focusing on areas that other shows don’t, such as the relationship between the plebeians and nobles, giving us choice lines such as "The Romans' noble ambitions were just that: the ambitions of nobles." He’s also happy to throw out a little Latin as needs be, such as Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR).

The show itself also looks good and there’s some knowing Spartacus qualities in the CGI and recreations of scenes, although that's mostly done with statues rather than actors, which is novel. Channel 5 may do good documentaries - but it doesn't quite have the budget of the BBC.

About the only thing that drew me up was when Lamb says that he's realising that the rape of the Sabine women was the 'kind of thing you have to do if you want to become a superpower' - which I can’t imagine Mary Beard or Bethany Hughes letting through on one of their shows. Otherwise, entirely recommended for anyone with an interest in history, particularly Roman history.

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October 22, 2014

Preview: Grayson Perry: Who Are You? 1x1 (UK: Channel 4)

Posted on October 22, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Grayson Perry: Who Are You?

In the UK: Wednesdays, 9pm, Channel 4. Starts tonight

Grayson Perry is an artist well known for playing with the theme of identity and is going to have an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, entitled 'Who Are You?', that ties into the question of what identity is. Channel 4's Grayson Perry: Who Are You? is effectively both a 'Making of' and a hybrid long-form chat show in which Grayson Perry follows the subjects he's chosen for this exhibition for days and weeks at a time, trying to get to know them and understand them, so that he can create a definitive portrait that captures who they are.

Perry has chosen a disparate group of people for his exhibition, some famous, some not. So in this first of three episodes, we have Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat MP who ended up going to prison in 2012, Rylan Clark from The X-Factor and Celebrity Big Brother, a young white Muslim woman and a black transgender man.

To the show’s credit, Perry does a much better job of finding out about his subjects than the average chat show does - although given he has months to do this, that’s not a huge surprise. But he does ask quite brave, challenging questions to get to the bottom of his subjects, and he’s also insightful - he compares his Muslim subject and her pared down attitude to life with the consumerism at the nearby Ashford shopping mall which he says looks like a 'bedouin tent’. For his Rylan Clark portrait, he also makes the comparison between the phones that we all carry with us for selfies and the miniatures Elizabethans carried around of celebrities.

The subjects are also quite brave. The transgender man goes back to his old school to talk about gender identity and the kids at the school are very perceptive, talking about what is acceptable for boys and what’s acceptable for girls and what those boundaries are. Jazz, the transgender man, in turn points out that things that people do to try to find evidence of his 'true femininity', such as how he cuts bread: “How do you cut bread like a woman?” The Muslim woman’s family thoughtfully argue with her about not just Islam but all religion and its restrictions on freedom. She argues that religion helps to keep a marriage together and her relative asks in return: “Do you watch EastEnders?”

The show is also about Perry and about his concept of his own identity. This often feels more constructed than anyone else’s identity, with Perry claiming to be as a portrait painter “part-psychiatrist, part-detective”, and frequently talking about how chippy and working class he is and how he’s challenging the National Portrait Gallery by including people who aren’t old dead white males in power - even though the gallery invited him to put on the exhibition and has had similarly challenging exhibitions before. Chris Huhne is supposed to represent that tradition, and perhaps because he does (or did) have power, he’s the only one who really challenges Perry’s power as interviewer and points out that while Perry might be chippy and working class, he also has an OBE.

All in all, a good, thought-provoking, insightful documentary that’s very enjoyable. 

October 18, 2014

Preview: Benched 1x1 (US: USA)

Posted on October 18, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Benched

In the US: Tuesdays, 10.30/9.30c, USA. Starts October 28

And lo! It came to pass that the USA Network, the motto of which was “Characters Welcome”, decided that it was going to make comedies. Because if you make hour-long dramas and comedy-dramas, surely half-hour comedies are just as simple, right?

And first it did commission a weak-arse adaptation of Channel 4’s Sirens that still managed to be one of 2014’s best-rated basic cable comedies. And then it did commission Playing House, which made the weak-arse Sirens look like Fawlty Towers.

Then after a mere eight months of thinking about whether it was sure about this whole comedy thing, it did commission a third comedy, Benched, which apparently was enough for USA because although they’re ‘fully committed’ to it (translated: will drop it like a hot potato as soon as possible), there are going to be no more USA comedies for the foreseeable future.

So let’s appropriately enough start shouting “Dead man walking!” as Benched trundles across our screens, waiting for its imminent execution. It’s a shame really, because it stars Eliza Coupe, who after starring in both Scrubs and Happy Endings, would normally be onto better things than her Happy Endings colleague Casey Wilson, yet who has the (slightly) superior Marry Me on NBC. Coupe plays a corporate lawyer who’s first dumped by her fiancé and then overlooked for partner at her firm, prompting an outburst (and demolition) at her firm so strong that she’s not able to work in corporate law any more and is forced to take a job as a public defender. There she meets a motley collection of similarly failed lawyers and demented defendants, and has to do her best to both survive and look after those she’s charged with defending.

And there’s a guy. There’s always a guy.

Coupe does her best and the script does explore areas of the law that most legal shows don’t bother with, ranging from why you should be nice to security guards to the shoddy treatment that the poor get at the hands of the law. But despite all Coupe’s delivery as well as physical comedy skills, the show is woefully unfunny, with a script bereft of any jokes that might cause you do anything more than smile or titter. While the characters are at least more bearable than those in Sirens and have greater maturity than gnats, unlike those in Playing House, a particularly sarcastic judge that Coupe has to deal with is really the only one you’d voluntarily see again, and basing a series on Coupe’s legal wrangles with her ex- as a proxy for their relationship issues doesn’t really make you want to watch more than another one or two episodes tops.

Benched could get better over time, but we’re talking about a pretty poor foundation for everything. And given how little USA apparently wants to stay in the comedy business, I doubt the show will get renewed after its first season unless it gets some very, very good ratings.

So pray for Coupe to get something better, but expect Benched to be benched before the year is out.

Here endeth the lesson, but starteth the trailer. You may titter at it a bit.

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