‘The Art of Japanese Life’

A long time ago, in a country far far away, I had a Japanese roommate. Manabu was lovely, a total gentleman, but not very chatty. I blame the language barrier, or maybe we just didn’t have that much in common. Eventually we bonded over injuries (his sporting, mine alcohol-related), microwave breakfast burritos (he loathed them, I loved them) and our two crazy little island homes. Comparing the UK and Japan is not as odd as it first sounds. Culturally and geographically we have a lot of shared aspects. We’re wilful independent island nations, who revere our daring histories of medieval knights and samurai warriors. Other countries are somewhat nervous around us as if you give us a flag and a gun we tend to get a little carried away and decide to go off and be a colonial invading force. Small countries, big ideas. Despite our macho military history, our national characters are reserved and polite, and we like to know our place in the social hierarchy. We’re the worlds best queuers!

Art historian Dr James Fox seems the similarities in our two nations, although sadly in this series on aesthetics and art in Japanese life, we are yet to hear his opinion on the breakfast burrito. This BAFTA nominated broadcaster has a day job in Cambridge University’s Art Department and first came to my attention presenting Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art? on BBC4 in September 2016.

He’s an engaging, enthusiastic, and quite cheeky presenter. His trademark seems to be a sharp black suit and tie, ever ready for a funeral or a cocktail party. He’s really good at breaking down complex ideas about art, religion and society. These big ideas are discussed in simple terms. His passion for the subject shines through. And, pleasingly, as you’d expect from a BBC4 art show, this whole episode is beautifully shot and framed.

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‘Glow’

Good tv title sequences must grab your attention and sum up a show’s theme, and GLOW is a perfect example. The shiny disco Day-Glo neon titles scream “80s nostalgia here we come!” It’s all there, running throughout the series – the music, the outfits, the big hair. And a central scene in episode 1 takes place in an aerobics class which makes me, and everyone else of a certain age, think of Flashdance. We’ll be seeing a lot more women in leotards before this series is done. GLOW is the new Netflix comedy-drama from Orange Is The New Black executive producer Jenji Kohan, and the theme of strong unconventional women and their struggles is familiar to both.

We start out with aspiring actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and her fight against sexism in Hollywood. She’s delivering the audition of her life when her misunderstanding is revealed – “You’re reading the man’s part”. The women’s part is a secretary and she gets one line. Ruth is very determined, badgering the casting director (also a tough woman) who eventually offers her a crumb of sympathy – an open casting call for “unconventional women”.

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‘The Legacy: Series 3’

The Legacy is a Danish drama from DR Fiktion, but quite a different beast to stable-mates The Killing and Borgen. Series 1 was described by The Guardian as “utterly addictive” and I’m pleased to report that while the characters have grown and changed, this remains true.

Instead of dark political intrigue or dark and bloody murders in grey dockyards The Legacy offers up an enormous rambling farm-house in rural Denmark and an off-kilter family drama. This series spins out from the death of artist and domineering matriarch Veronika Gronnegaard and the after effects on her children. The Legacy in Danish is Arvingerne which literally translates as “heirs”. As these kids squabble over Veronika’s house, her reputation and her art we can see why Sky Arts picked it up rather than Sky Atlantic, the more traditional home for drama.

In series 1 we were rooting for Signe, Veronika’s fourth child adopted and brought up by normal down-to-earth people. She’s the surprise beneficiary of Veronika’s deathbed will and we’re willing her to get her share of the inheritance from her argumentative, entitled and just plain rude step-siblings. Lovely Signe learns her secret family history and is excited, but not about the money. She’s lonely and wants to be their sister. But this simple story of trying to be a blended family quickly gets messed up. Money changes people. Signe started believing her own hype.

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‘Eyewitness’

The Norwegian crime drama Eyewitness is a tricksy little fiend before we even start. I’ve been looking forward to this for literally months. Walter Iuzzolino (of Channel 4 Walter Presents fame) mentioned it as one to watch back at the end of last year at the live event in Birmingham Literary Festival in October. I might have been writing this blog for 18 months now, but I still have much to learn about what ‘coming soon’ means in the world of television.  Soon wasn’t soon enough, and while constantly refreshing the Walter Presents schedule I was getting antsy. Surely lovely Walter wouldn’t fail me. The days and weeks ticked by and winter became spring. It wasn’t in any listings for shows coming soon  until suddenly I saw an advert for it two weeks before the air date. Unfortunately for me, three weeks before the air date I’d bought it. In a dark moment of desperation I gave up on Walter and got the DVD. Lesson being, trust Walter and don’t worry. He’ll see you right.

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‘Broadchurch’ (Series 3) and ”Line of Duty’ (Series 4)

This spring ITV and BBC1 are both banking on strong comebacks from Broadchurch and Line of Duty – two behemoths of British drama. Standards are high and expectations even higher – let’s check in with them both…

ITV’s Broadchurch was roundly panned for a patchy second series where the writers tried to do two stories at once and did them both badly. The courtroom scenes were embarrassingly poor with very little in the way of reality, or even a coherent story. Strangely a solicitor friend of mine enjoyed it, but maybe she’s not looking for gritty realism after a full day defending people in the dock.  Her giving it the benefit of the doubt was extremely generous; she was very much in the minority. Series 2 had terrible ratings and people gave up on it in droves (including Mr H who doesn’t have time for bad tv). It should serve as a warning to all broadcasters eager for a hit –  one good series is always better than undermining it with a poor return.

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‘Braquo’ Series 4

Grim. Unrelenting. Relentlessly downbeat. An extremely difficult watch. No, not soundbites describing the year that was 2016. These are all the reasons that I never got around to watching the rest of series 2 of hard-boiled French cop drama Braquo. So despite being a big fan of series 1 there’s a distinct gap in my Braquo knowledge as series 4 starts.

It’s a hard watch, but it’s good. This is the real deal – far grittier than any US or British cop show I’ve ever seen.  Braquo was created by former cop Olivier Marchal and based on his knowledge of the beat – a sobering thought considering the morals, or lack of, on show in every single one of his characters. You’re in safe, if grubby, hands, with the Canal+ mark of quality. Just don’t ask where those hands have been.

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‘Modus’

Modus is familiar even before it begins. It’s an eight part Swedish crime drama shown on BBC4 in the Saturday 9pm slot usually reserved for foreign langauge drama. The credits are familiar again – a nod to the skyline of The Bridge and the grizzly but striking black and white body parts of Trapped. It’s a new tradition that dramas especially must have stylish opening credits, extra points for slow motion and an air of chilly bleakness.

So this is Christmas, in a snow-covered pine forest. A delightful Christmas card scene but it’s cold, lonely and frightening. Euro horror merchants the Brothers Grimm taught us from an early age that monsters live in the forest and they were right. In this case, in a caravan.

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