The Queen, McQueen and the Chess Queen

Small Axe: Mangrove

So, we reach the end of December and my shortlist, in this unusual year, still currently stands at only 9. However, three new or returning recent series in particular suggested the possibility of pushing the total up to, or over the magic 10. Did they do it?

The Queen’s Gambit

First to arrive was The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), until recently the platform’s number one performer in Britain and subject to a very positive critical reception, which pushed me in its direction. I enjoyed it, for sure, but that’s as far as it went. I was particularly drawn to it by the involvement of Scott Frank as co-creator and director, having been really impressed by his 2017 series Godless. Indeed, the direction was very strong here too – a narrative which was driven forward engagingly and with some great set-pieces, especially the chess matches, the balance of which were cleverly conveyed in each case, even for those who know nothing about chess strategy. The acting was good, too, as was the period recreation – the problem was in the script. Everything fell into place far too neatly. Although the sexism of the age was tackled, it seemed to be little problem to Beth’s meteoric rise to chess champion, and, in a field notorious for its rivalries and mid-games, her defeated opponents mostly acted in a very good-natured and sporting manner. It just didn’t ring true at the moments it most needed to.

Olivia Colman in The Crown

The Queen’s Gambit was also soon overtaken as Netflix’s number one by the behemoth that is The Crown season 4, which needed little in the way of publicity to gain that spot but got a lot more than usual this time round. Indeed, there was more coverage of its veracity from news outlets than there was critical coverage from cultural commentators. Demands were made that it be clearly labelled a work of fiction (as if we didn’t know) and armies of the supposedly “in the know” emerged to denounce minor details which don’t fit with their own understanding of events. Of course, the truth is that nobody is in a position to know for sure what the royals do or say when out of the public eye, other than the royals themselves, and they are not in a position to put their own side of events aside from briefing those friends and “experts” according to their own positions and agendas. When they do attempt direct commentary on their lives, it usually goes badly wrong, as Prince Andrew found out recently. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for Peter Morgan and his collaborators to speculate, to embellish and to illustrate their narrative with dramatically coherent and engaging devices which convey the aspects of the story they are telling most effectively.

Gillian Anderson in The Crown

And that they have done brilliantly in this latest season, which is by far the best we have yet had. It is, naturally, helped by the era being tackled – the decade of Thatcher and Diana – and the fact that, as it comes nearer to our own times it gains greater resonance. It is also bolstered by the uniform excellence of the cast, led by a trio of riveting actresses: Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham-Carter and Gillian Anderson. Colman’s scenes with Anderson are particularly memorable.

The Crown: Fagan

For me, the best episodes were numbers 5, Fagan, and 7, The Hereditary Principle. The former found an emblematic device to explore the main tensions of the Thatcher years. The latter was the best of all, going to the heart of fundamental questions about the nature and function of royalty in the way that Morgan does best. It does not matter that Princess Margaret may not have been directly involved in discovering the truth about the royal relatives confined to a mental institution, because it worked well as drama and the episode says so much about the institution of monarchy (and don’t forget that the crown, or the monarchy it represents, is the title character of the series, as I argued in an earlier blog – The Queen Regenerates, January 2018), as well as about social attitudes to disability. It also gives Helena Bonham-Carter the best showcase for her acting talents and it is maybe not surprising that she was among those calling for the series to be labelled clearly as fiction. 

The Crown: The Hereditary Principle

Having not shortlisted any of the previous series of The Crown, I am a little hesitant to start now, so I will simply include the episode The Hereditary Principle, which could certainly stand alone as a single drama. Having excluded The Queen’s Gambit on the grounds that it did not ring true at key moments, it may seem strange to be including something which has been accused of diverging from the record of real events, but the point here is whether it rings true dramatically. One element I always keep my eye on is exposition, which can be dramatically problematic if not handled well. In this series of The Crown, a great deal of exposition was presented through news on TV screens. Now, I certainly know when I am looking at real or fake news footage, and I also know when the fake stuff has been done convincingly and when it has been done badly, because in the latter case it jars terribly. And that happened on a few occasions in this series, but I was happy to go along with it for the sake of advancing the drama, just as I am happy to go along with the speculative scenes if they work well as drama, without demanding verification of every detail.

Small Axe: Mangrove

If I didn’t expect to be singling out one episode of The Crown, rather than the whole series, then I certainly did approach Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (BBC1) with that possibility in mind, given that it was an anthology of 5 separate films, albeit thematically linked by being set in London’s Afro-Caribbean communities in the seventies and eighties and mostly based on true events and characters. And, as it started, this seemed the best approach. The first film, Mangrove, was the most cinematic in presentation, ambition and duration. It had its flaws, though they were understandable ones: there was rather too much explanatory exposition which made for unconvincing dialogue; the police and judiciary were little more than cardboard cut-out villains; and the depiction of constant police raids on the Mangrove restaurant, while historically accurate, did begin to seem overused as a dramatic device. But the final half-hour, which was basically the trial, was riveting in much the same way as Netflix’s Trial of the Chicago Seven was, though at a more economical length. And McQueen’s directorial flair was prominently on display, as it was throughout – he is a great storyteller, but also unafraid to produce startling and sometimes lengthy moments of visual metaphor or reflection to underscore his approach.

The second film, Lovers Rock, was presented as the only fictional story in the series, which was strange because it seemed the most documentary. Some 80% of it was a recreation of a West Indian house party in 1980 and, given that the whole series involved period recreation in one form or another, it fitted in perfectly. The storyline was presented in the sparse scenes of dialogue which interrupted the music (rather than, as more common, the other way around) and the plot was a very simple boy-meets-girl and…er…that’s it.

Small Axe: Lovers Rock
Small Axe: Red, White and Blue

My favourite segment was the third, Red, White and Blue, starring John Boyega as Leroy Logan, one of the earliest black recruits to the Metropolitan Police, with the dramatic tension coming from the conflict between his ambitions, his treatment by colleagues and the reaction of his family and community, all of which he attempts to reconcile. The racism he encounters is insidious rather than overt, especially from the senior officers who want him to succeed, but not too much. Boyega is brilliantly convincing in the role and the film leaves him at a moment of extreme self-doubt. Strangely, there is no caption at the end to tell us that Logan rose to the rank of Superintendent, played a role in the Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor enquiries and was decorated by the Queen. There is no dramatic reason why there should have been such a caption, but it does contrast with the fourth film in the series, Alex Wheatle, which similarly leaves its protagonist at a critical point but does inform us through a caption that he went on to a successful career as a writer and was similarly honoured. The two films are very much companion pieces and convinced me at this point that the sum of Small Axe as a series was very much more than that of its constituent parts. The final film, Education, reinforced this feeling, so I am ending up by putting the whole series on my shortlist as a single coherent piece.

Having said at the top that there were three new series worthy of consideration, I’ll briefly mention a fourth – one with which I couldn’t make a “queen” connection, so it did not fit my attempt at a snappy title for the blog. Season 2 of His Dark Materials (BBC1) continued very much in the same vein as the first – in other words it was very good and well worth watching. Rather like Lord of the Rings, which it resembles in many ways, it’s probably best to wait for completion before including it in a “year’s best” list, though.

His Dark Materials

So, with apologies for the lateness of this blog (again due to my particular circumstances in this difficult year) and hoping you are all having a great Christmas, I’ll be back before the year ends with that final list. Two blogs in two days! But, with the shortlist now standing at 11, it won’t be too difficult , will it?

Season of Surprises and Disappointments

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Without wanting to come over all Forrest Gump, I’d like to start with a bit of homespun wisdom; it struck me while wrapping presents and putting them under the tree, that TV series are very like Christmas presents. It’s not that “you never know what you are going to get” – far too often that is perfectly clear in advance – but that some of them will be surprises and others will be disappointments. And sometimes they will be both, because it is both a surprise and a disappointment when something you eagerly anticipate from a much-loved source turns out not really to be what you had hoped for. Recent weeks have given us gifts from Damon Lindelof, Ken Burns and Sir David Attenborough which have not lived up to the extremely high hopes those names engender in me, though there have also been one or two pleasant surprises to celebrate as well.

 

Since he gave us my favourite series of the closing decade – The Leftovers – I was obviously going to look forward to Damon Lindelof’s next project very keenly. Given the extreme quality threshold he had set, disappointment was probably inevitable, but even 2288F4F1-4DBB-4FD7-82BD-7AFB9D6AE2FF_4_5005_cthen I didn’t expect to be giving up after the customary 5 episodes I usually give to something which has clear pedigree and promise and which has received a positive welcome from sources I respect (as well as the wider critical community), but which just did not work for me. Watchmen (HBO/Sky Atlantic) suffers from the same problems I identified previously with The Handmaid’s Tale: it is so much in love with its own central concept and the visual realisation of that concept that it neglects the fundamental building blocks of plot and character development – something you can get away with in cinema, but not in an extended series. This may be because the original source material is, quite literally, two-dimensional, but the screenwriters, directors and actors are there to adapt that material for TV presentation and obviously have the skills to do so. However, the writers and directors of Watchmen seem too keen on the visuals and on drawing clever parallels with aspects of our troubled times, while the performers are hamstrung by having to wear masks for much of the time – precisely the reasons, I think, why we have recently heard criticism of superhero movies from masters like Scorsese and Coppola.

 

Of course, genres like fantasy and science fiction are just as capable of illuminating the human condition as social realism – in many respects, even more so. A good example of a current series which achieves this is His Dark Materials (BBC1, Sundays). Adapted from 3714032B-9950-4A52-966F-B57750C977C5_4_5005_cPhilip Pulman’s novels by the prolific and excellent Jack Thorne (and what a year he has had with The Virtues, The Accident and now this), it contains epic effects, talking animals and mystical themes, yet its characters are all-too-human. It also has one of the most arresting title sequences since The Night Manager. And it reminded me, in many aspects, of Netflix’s Stranger Things, not least the remarkable similarity in both looks and performance between Dafne Keen and Millie Bobby Brown.

 

Following His Dark Materials on BBC1 on three recent Sundays was a new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and this provided a genuine surprise, because this is a novel which has been adapted so many times in the past, but this version managed a 53AABEA5-8103-45C4-A320-BC7A22077D79_4_5005_ccompletely new take on the overly familiar material. It achieved its effect primarily through an impressive visual imagining of a devastated Edwardian landscape and, as it only ran to three hour-long parts, the makers were able to strike a perfect balance between the human story and the visualisation.

 

Turning to factual material, Ken Burns is another name that creates great anticipation when it appears in the listings. His series are mammoth undertakings and his approach to his subjects is meticulous, so there is often a lengthy gap between their appearance. Over a long career, he has documented multiple aspects of American history – some series have been greater landmarks than others so, following the stupendous The Vietnam War two years ago, his next series was always likely to be a let-down. From the start of Country Music (PBS/BBC4) you know you are in familiar Burns territory – the B9EB1D05-F1BA-4504-8824-DF221343154E_4_5005_cbeautifully scanned black and white photographs, the authoritative voice of Peter Coyote. But the longer it went on, the more I got the feeling that this was not the best choice of subject for such lengthy treatment. Compared to Jazz (PBS, 2001), there just wasn’t the depth of interest to be explored. Country Music also seemed to promise at the start of each episode that it would be tracing a link between the music and American social history (as Jazz had done so well), but most of what we got was just the lives and careers of the stars. As before with a Burns series, the BBC is giving us the cut down (9 hours!) version – I have usually sought out the full version (18 hours in this case) but will not be bothering this time. Maybe my problem is that it is not a style of music which interests me greatly, but I do normally expect more from Burns.

 

I also expect a lot from any series or single documentary fronted by Sir David Attenborough, and there have been a lot of them this year. There was the magnificent 28D5BF6C-4B68-4E53-BEEB-38AA5C120EF8_4_5005_cNetflix series Our Planet, which gave us not just spectacular sequences, but also ecological comment. Then there was Attenborough’s personal single doc on climate change for the BBC. So, Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC1) was simply a re-hash of what we had already had and many sequences were overly familiar – not just the penguins and albatross searching for their chicks or the co-ordinated dancing birds, but even the walruses falling off cliffs which we had already seen earlier in the year. And the material on climate change became less prominent as the series progressed and seemed to have been added almost as an afterthought.

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John Pilger is another veteran film maker whose work is consistent and you know exactly what to expect, though the fact that he makes his pieces at feature length means that they are sometimes a little stretched. No such fault with The Dirty War on the NHS (ITV), a brilliantly argued, thorough and rather depressing analysis of the dire threats to our health system which spoke directly to many of the issues crucial in the election campaign, though transmitted (inevitably, given the author’s well-known political leaning) too late to make any difference. Not that it would have, sadly.

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Having promised you less humbug this time, I fear I may have failed in that mission, so let me conclude this theme on a more positive note. I knew exactly what to expect from Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out, just concluded its second season on BBC4, yet the pair constantly manage to surprise and delight with exactly the same sort of material they began their TV careers with. Backwards Bill’s tribute to the elephant on Novelty Island had me completely convulsed with laughter.

 

Maybe overly high hopes are the main problem, as they make it easy to be let down – bear that in mind as you both open your presents and watch TV this Christmas, I’ll be back with my 2019 top ten before the year ends (and what a fantastic year it has been, though definitely one of two halves) and I will give you my list of the best of the past decade at the start of the new one.

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A very Happy Christmas to one and all.