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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 actually 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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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 20, 2014

What have you been watching? Including Strange Empire, Coverband, Electra, The Flash and Doctor Who

Posted on October 20, 2014 | comments | Bookmark and Share

It's "What have you been watching?", my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven't already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I've missed them.

The usual "TMINE recommends" page features links to reviews of all the shows I've ever recommended, and there's also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I've reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there's Locate TV - they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

You may have noticed I was playing epic catch-up on Saturday, in contravention of my normal rule of weekend blogging. So on top of Friday’s all out efforts and a couple of extra ones today, I’ve reviewed the following new shows, some of which have already been acquired for Blighty’s viewing pleasure:

Yay, me. No back log now. Time to have regular weekends again. Phew.

In fact, so ahead of myself am I that I’ll point out that ages ago, I reviewed NBC’s Constantine, which starts on Friday. Okay, it’s changed a bit since the pilot but you’ll get the general point.

But I’ve not stopped there. Oh no. Because I’ve also watched a New Zealand and a Canadian show just for luck. Okay, I was a bit behind on all of them, so I’ve only seen the first episode of each, but honestly, that felt like enough.

Strange Empire (Canada: CBC)
Set in the 1860s on the Alberta-Montana border, this sees three women (Cara Gee, Tattiawna Jones and Melissa Farman from Lost) band together for survival after virtually all the men in their town are murdered and those remaining behind battle for power. Very nicely made and already being described as the saviour of CBC, it's historically interesting but about as tedious as any other western, and none of the characters really grabbed me.

Coverband (New Zealand: TV One)
A one-hit wonder band reunite back in New Zealand years after they were famous. Unfortunately, the female lead singer was the one who was a success, leaving the terminally unsexy rest of the band to make it by themselves, something at which they fail miserably. Now having to deal with the pressures of normal lives and forced to do cover versions of other bands’ records, they suck completely until they stagecrashed by Laughton Kora, who shows them what rock charisma and singing really are, so they hire him. Kind of.

It’s an amiable and accurate enough show, based on cast member Johnny Barker’s own experiences as an Auckland cover band musician, and were there enough time in the world, I’d probably tune in for a few more episodes. But the show’s not so inspiring that I’ll throw something else aside for it and I’ve already seen The Wedding Band crash and burn, so I don’t think I need to see that happen again.

Unfortunately, New Zealand doesn’t want to produce any globally available videos of its own shows, apparently, so here’s a picture of the cast to tide you over.

Coverband

That's it for new new shows, but after the jump, I’ll be running through: Arrow, black-ish, The Blacklist, Doctor Who, The Flash, Forever, Gotham, Homeland, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Plebs, Scorpion, Selfie and The Walking Dead.

But hey! Before you go, I should mention I went to the theatre, too!

Electra (Old Vic)
Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, a new translation of Sophocles’ original text by Greek tragedy stalwart Frank McGuinness, music by PJ Harvey – what could go wrong? Well, not much actually, beyond a certain staticness to the direction, a slightly weak performance by Jack Lowden as Orestes and a very strange performance by Tyrone Huggins as Aegisthus. Other than that, a fine piece of work, surprisingly faithfully staged (although that’s not quite how Greek people prayed), with an outstanding performance by Thomas and a surprisingly funny text by McGuinness – in part to cover up for casting slightly older than originally written, but also to hide the unlikelihood of Electra not recognising Orestes. Liz White (Life on Mars) gives the best performance I’ve ever seen from her as Chrysothemis, Electra’s sister.  

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Featured Articles

Rome: The World's First Superpower

Silly title, good documentary