Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 7

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by David Evans. Originally broadcast: 1 November 2015, ITV.

The Dowager Countess decides to leave for the south of France, Thomas Barrow feels pressured to find a new job, and tragedy strikes when the family attend a motor-racing meeting…

When is it set? 1925. Daisy’s imminent exam is on the 20th, while Isobel is invited to the wedding of Lord Merton’s son on Saturday 29 August.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. Lord Merton’s house. Edith’s magazine office in London. Rosamund’s house. Brooklands racing circuit. The Carsons’ house. Mrs Patmore’s new B&B.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Charlie Rogers, Henry’s racing-driver mate, is killed in an accident during a race.

Best bits:
* Daisy says, “Oh, my God!” when she’s told her exam has been set for the 20th of the month. Mrs Hughes tells her not to take the Lord’s name in vain. “I hope it’s not in vain,” says Daisy. “I need all the help I can get.”
* Violet visits Miss Cruikshank, the fiancée of Lord Merton’s son, in order to root out what she’s up to. Miss C makes the mistake of trying to shit a shitter… Turns out, the only reason she wants Isobel to marry Lord Merton is because she, Miss Cruikshank, doesn’t want to look after him in his dotage.
* The sequence at Brooklands racetrack is very impressive. There’s a meticulously art-directed location, lots of extras and lots of period cars. Henry Talbot and his friend Charlie are competing in a race. “Come on, Talbot!” Robert shouts during the race. When his sister points out that Talbot is a type of car, he says he can’t shout out, “Come on, Henry!” because they might all be called Henry for all he knows. Everyone seems to be having a great time, but then there’s a crash and Charlie is killed.
* Having taken an exam after impressing the local schoolteacher, Mr Molesley is offered a teaching job. The way actor Kevin Doyle plays the reaction is very touching.
* Sick of her husband’s constant complaints about her cooking and housework, Mrs Hughes feigns a hand injury so he has to do it all. (The effort of making dinner is so bad he falls asleep while eating.)

Real history:
* While in London, Edith goes past the site of Devonshire House. Something new is going up in its place. On Piccadilly, the grand London residence of the Dukes of Devonshire was built in the middle of the 18th century but demolished in 1924. (There’s now an office building on the site.)
* Robert mentions the Egyptian queen Tiaa, who lived during the Eighteen Dynasty (1549 BC to 1292 BC). She was the wife of Amenhotep II and the mother of Tuthmose IV.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is going to see Miss Cruikshank, who Isobel says is a “quite a tough nut”. Violet: “And I’m quite a tough nutcracker.”

Mary’s men: When Mary asks maid Anna what she thinks of Henry Talbot, Anna says she’s not sure if he’s a good match for her. Mary seems to agree. A few days later, Mary and Henry kiss when she attends a race he’s driving in, but her stomach is in knots because the fast cars are reminding her of late husband Matthew, who died in a crash. Then during the race there’s an accident elsewhere on the track – fearing the worst, Mary runs to the cars. Her relief when she sees that Henry is alive confirms that life with him would be too painful. She calls off their relationship, but it’s clear she loves him.

Doggie! Before she leaves for the a visit to the continent, Violet arranges a present for her son: Robert is given a puppy, who he names Tiaa.

Review: One of the major characters, Violet, who must be well into her 80s, leaves for a trip to France without saying goodbye – will this be the last we ever see of her?

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The Trouble With Harry (1955)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A dead body causes problems for various people in a sleepy New England village…

This laid-back comedy sees characters treat a murder victim like a minor inconvenience. Morality is sidelined in favour of humour. The plot kicks off when a local man called Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn, using the same befuddled charm that won him an Oscar for Miracle on 34th Street) is hunting in the woods. After shooting at a rabbit, he finds a corpse with a bullet wound and assumes he’s killed him. But before he can dispose of the body, various neighbours arrive on the scene – and each has their own part to play in the mystery of what really happened. One is local painter Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe); another is the corpse’s widow, Jennifer (a winsome Shirley MacLaine in her first movie), who seems glad he’s dead.

However, the maybe-murder-mystery never feels that important because Hitchcock is more interested in the black comedy. The characters and situation are heightened and not intended to be taken too seriously. But because of this, it does fall a little flat at times. The script is often structured like a stage farce, complete with characters arriving and leaving at key moments, people hiding behind trees, and a dead body having to be buried and dug up multiple times. However, it’s played and directed too slowly to really take flight. So while amusing, it’s rarely gripping.

At least it looks good. Vermont’s autumnal colours and wide-open spaces are really well served by the Technicolor and VistaVision format. (As well as shooting on location, a woodland clearing was created in a Hollywood studio, with hundreds of New England leaves shipped in.) But you yearn for a bit more oomph behind the dialogue. Sam Marlow drives the story despite being one of the few villagers who has nothing to do with the victim, yet John Forsythe is a bit underwhelming. Jack Lemon or James Stewart, say, would have *commanded* this movie and Sam would have sparkled in every scene. As it is, the film trundles along entertainingly if not that spectacularly.

Seven men walking past a limousine out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 6

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Michael Engler. Originally broadcast: 25 October 2015, ITV.

In order to raise some money for the local hospital, an open day is held at Downton Abbey. Also, Daisy sits her exams, Mr Molesley is offered a new future, and Robert recuperates after his burst ulcer.

When is it set? It’s been a few weeks since the previous episode. Downton opens its doors to the public (for a sixpence each) on Saturday 6 June 1925; the episode begins a few days beforehand.

Where is it set? The village. The house. Violet’s house. Mr Mason’s farm. The Carsons’ cottage. The Bateses’ cottage. Lady Rosamund’s house and the Criterion restaurant in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lord Merton brings his daughter-in-law-to-be, Miss Cruikshank (Phoebe Sparrow), to see Isobel. Knowing that his son is the main reason Isobel won’t marry him, Merton hopes Miss C can ease the troubles.

Best bits:
* Mr Carson is irritating his new wife by suggesting they get some help in their home and telling her to ask Mrs Patmore for cooking advice. She bites her tongue but is clearly angry with his arrogance.
* Mary says she’s having dinner at the Criterion with her friend Evelyn. Edith interrupts: “I used to go to the Criterion with Michael.” Mary: “Do you have to put a dampener on every restaurant in the capital?”
* Thomas Barrow is secretly teaching Andy to read, but Mrs Patmore overhears them planning to meet in a bedroom and gets the wrong idea. Later, Mr Carson sees Andy coming out of Thomas’s room and confronts Thomas, who’s hurt by everyone doubting his intentions.
* Mary wears yet another stunning 1920s frock and headdress while at the Criterion.
* Edith introduces her ‘ward’, Marigold, to new beau Bertie, and it’s clear she desperately wants to tell him that she’s her daughter.
* The open-house sequence is fun, especially in the way the family have to act as tour guides despite their shaky knowledge. Visitors ask questions they can’t answer and point out features they’ve never spotted before. A young lad by even wanders into Robert’s bedroom and starts chatting to him.

Worst bits:
* We’re glibly told the result of the trial Miss Baxter was going to testify at. The man has been given 10 years, but then writes to Miss Baxter asking her to visit him. Yet another mostly off-screen plotline.
* The climax of the hospital subplot sees Downton’s institution taken over by York and Cora appointed the new president of the board. Yawn.

Real history:
* Robert says the house has in its collection “a decent Reynolds, a couple of Romneys and a Winterhalter.” He’s referring to painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), George Romney (1734-1802) and Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873).
* Isobel says that even “Elizabeth Bennet wanted to see what Pemberley was like inside”. Bennet is a character in Jane Austen’s 
1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.
* Carson mentions the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Robert replies that he knew his wine and women.
* We’re told that Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), the architect who built the Houses of Parliament, also designed Downton Abbey.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Why should anyone pay,” asks Violet, “to see a perfectly ordinary house?” She’s talking about the palatial Downton Abbey.

Mary’s men: She heads to London to see her old pal Evelyn, who arranges for Henry Talbot to be at a big group dinner. Mary and Henry leave together and she tells him why she’s cautious of him: he’s a racing driver, and her first husband died in a car crash. It then rains – instantly, like in a film – so they take shelter… and kiss. He says he’s falling in love with her.

Review: The end is in sight – the ‘open day at Downton’ storyline foreshadows the kind of future some of these stately homes had in store.

Next episode…

My 10 favourite Ridley Scott films

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To celebrate the 80th birthday of visionary film director Ridley Scott, here is a list of what are – in my opinion – his 10 best movies…

10. Black Hawk Down (2001)
It might be a bit one-note, and too long, and too quick to paint foreigners as evil, but Scott’s based-on-a-true-story war movie is incredibly well staged.

9. Hannibal (2001)
A decent-enough sequel to an admittedly better film (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

8. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Ridley’s Crusades epic was cut down by studio executives before its release, but was still a good film, full of rich imagery and historical context. Thankfully, the director then released his edit on DVD – running at three hours, it’s much the better version and adds back in some necessary character detail and subplots. Only the blank central performance from Orlando Bloom disappoints.

7. Black Rain (1989)
Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia head to Japan in this fish-out-of-water cop thriller, which is stylish and thoughtful.

6. Gladiator (2000)
Made on the cusp of the CG revolution, this movie uses still-impressive computer graphics to extend its huge physical sets and the result is a totally convincing historical world. Russell Crowe, as a Roman general forced to become a gladiator, has rarely been better.

5. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Despite its serious subject matter – oppression, misogyny, death and rape – this is a huge amount of fun, thanks to a smart, witty script, two world-beating central performances from Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and Ridley Scott’s visual panache and sense of pace.

4. The Martian (2015)
Superbly charming and likeable sci-fi disaster movie with a sense of humour. It’s based on a really good book, and carries over its playfulness and droll line in comedy. Matt Damon’s excellent, the supporting roles are really well cast, and the situation is genuinely affecting.

3. Robin Hood (2010)
One of Ridley’s most maligned movies, this does have one significant flaw. At various points of his career, lead actor Russell Crowe has attempted a vaguely English accent – see Gladiator, Master and Commander, Man of Steel, The Mummy… Nowhere, however, is it quite as ear-scrapping as in Robin Hood. The actor once walked out of an interview when a journalist suggested he sounded Irish. I’d go more for a mix of Irish, East Midlands, Cornish, Australian, Geordie, Welsh and Dick Van Dyke. But this is just a blemish on an otherwise excellent piece of work. Basically Robin Hood: The Origin Story, the movie ticks the usual boxes – the Crusades, King John, Marian, the sidekicks – but also weaves Robin’s story into a tapestry that involves palace intrigue, civil rights and a coming war. Beautiful to look at, well cast, exciting, funny, and with a fascinating backstory informing everything, this deserves to be much more liked.

2. Blade Runner (1982)
See full review for more, but basically it’s a masterpiece.

1. Alien (1979)
Beating Blade Runner by a Jonesy the cat’s whisker, Alien is not only one of the best science-fiction films ever made and one of the best horror films ever made, it’s one of the best films of any description ever made – see my full review for more.

 

Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 5

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Michael Engler. Originally broadcast: 18 October 2015, ITV.

The Minster of Health, Neville Chamberlain, comes to visit. But while Violet tries to get him onside, tragedy strikes… Also, the Carsons’ marriage hits a hurdle, Mary and Edith’s love lives move on, and Daisy gets the hump when Mr Mason and Mrs Patmore grow closer.

When is it set? 1925.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey and its estate. Yew Tree Farm. Violet’s house. The village. A courthouse in York. Catterick race track and a nearby pub. A park and Edith’s office and flat in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Mr and Mrs Drewe have left Yew Tree Farm; in their place comes Daisy’s father-in-law, Mr Mason.
* Miss Edmonds (Antonia Bernath) applies for the job of editor at Edith’s magazine. In the interview, Edith points out that they were born in the same year (1892).
* Neville Chamberlain (Rupert Frazer), the Minister for Health, comes to dinner.

Best bits:
* The opening scene sees Mary and Tom walking up a rise that allows the director to show off the amazing countryside around Highclere Castle.
* Downton Abbey has a rare foray into dramatizing a real-life person: the Minster for Health, Neville Chamberlain, is on inspection tour of the north of England so the Dowager invites him to Downton. She wants to bend his ear about the local hospital.
* The Bateses ask Andy why he’s always giving Thomas the brush-off when Thomas tries being friendly. He says he’d rather not say when there’s a lady present, and Mr Bates and Anna share knowing smile. (He’s basically scared of giving gay Thomas the wrong idea.) Later, when Andy wants to learn about pig-rearing, Mr Mason gives him some books… but it soon becomes clear that Andy can’t read. And who realises and helps him? Thomas. Aww.
* Mrs Hughes tells Mrs Patmore that Mr Carson was unhappy with a meal she’d prepared. “I think the correct response is to say, ‘Men!’ and sigh,” replies Mrs P.
* Miss Baxter turns up at court to testify against the man who once coerced her into stealing some jewels, but then learns he’s changed his plea to guilty. She’s been spared having to appear on the witness stand, but she’d built herself up to face the man and it feels a bit anticlimactic. “Shall I go back in and ask him to plead not guilty after all?” jokes Mr Molesley and they laugh.
* Edith and Bertie’s romance begins to blossom: he even kisses her. “God, what a relief,” he says when she reacts well. “I thought I might be pushing my luck.” The storyline has two likeable actors, and the fact Bertie doesn’t know Edith has a secret daughter informs everything.
* The motor-racing scenes are fun: 1920s cars roaring round the track.
* Robert has been feeling painful twinges for several episodes. He says it’s just indigestion. But during a lively discussion over dinner, he’s clearly suffering terribly. He stands shakily… then violently projects blood from his mouth! Downton Abbey becomes a horror movie for a few minutes! (His ulcer has burst.)
* Mary overhears a cryptic conversation about secrets and Marigold…

Worst bits:
* At last the Andy/Thomas subplot develops. For about 27 episodes now, there’s a moment where Thomas Barrow tries to be friendly to footman Andy and Andy brushes him off. It was getting so tedious.
* “Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?” asks Mr Carson, aware of how repetitive the show has become.
* Oh, Christ – the hospital subplot. There’s also a rather silly sub-subplot where Violet’s maid, Denker, gives Dr Clarkson a piece of her mind so Violet temporarily sacks her.
* Tom Branson – a defender of the Bolsheviks and violent Irish nationalists – is now hobnobbing with a Tory minister.

Real history:
* Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) comes to Downton. When Violet, Isobel and others argue in front of him, he says he didn’t expect to witness a battle royal. “Don’t you enjoy a good fight?” asks Violet. “I’m not sure I do, really,” he replies. It’s an in-joke: 15 years after this time, when Prime Minster, Chamberlain tried appeasing Adolf Hitler. Although they don’t feature here, Neville Chamberlain’s wife, Anne (1883-1967), and her brother, Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936), are mentioned.
* Tom Barrow jokes that he, Mary and Edith are part of the bright young things – a fashionable set of upper-class socialites in the 1920s. “I don’t know about bright,” says Mary.

Upstairs, Downton: Both incarnations of Upstairs, Downstairs did episodes based on the ‘famous person comes to dinner’ idea: King Edward VII in the 1972 episode Guest of Honour, and John F Kennedy in the 2012 episode The Love That Pays The Price. Even more aptly, Neville Chamberlain was also dramatized in the 2012 series, in the episode A Faraway Country About Which We Know Nothing

Maggie Smithism of the week: When her maid says Dr Clarkson can no longer claim Violet’s friendship, Violet replies, “If I withdrew my friendship from everyone who has spoken ill of me, my address book would be empty.”

Mary’s men: Henry Talbot invites Mary to see him testing a new car round the track at Catterick. She’s interested in him and thinks he’s attractive, but she “won’t marry down” and he’s not as well off as she is. When she visits him at Catterick, he takes her to a pub – which is a rare thing for Mary.

Review: With only a handful of episodes to go, a less cosy show would have killed off Robert. Here, however, he’s basically fine despite spraying blood all over the dinner table.

Next episode…

Red Dwarf XII (2017)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written and directed by Doug Naylor. Broadcast on Dave.

Regulars: This is the fourth series of Red Dwarf in a row with just the fab four ­– Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten – though a couple of old regulars make guest appearances.

Episode 1: Cured (12 October 2017): The crew of Red Dwarf stumble across a moonbase where a scientist has resurrected famous evil people but cured them of being evil… A not-bad series opener. The plot doesn’t hang together, but there are some good laughs along the way. Ryan Gage is very funny as an upbeat and friendly Hitler who has a smiley face on his sleeve rather than a swastika, while the woofer at the end – the Cat bluffing that he’s betraying the others – is set up nicely by an opening scene of the guys playing poker.
Observations: Four people have been recreated via DNA sequencing: sadistic warlord Vlad the Impaler (1431-1477), Soviet despot Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), Roman empress consort Messalina (c17/20-48) and Nazi twat Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). We’re told about a fifth – media baron Rupert Murdoch (born 1931) – but apparently he’s not responding to treatment. Starbug is featured.
Best gag: The Cat says he thought Hitler died playing golf. Rimmer explains that, no, he was in a bunker in Berlin. “He poisoned his partner and shot himself.” “Golf can do that to you.”

Episode 2: Siliconia (19 October 2017): The crew of Red Dwarf are captured by a space freighter populated by revolutionary mechanoids… An episode based on the idea that Kryten puts up with a lot of shit from the others, which doesn’t especially fly. It’s not helped by some cheap-looking robot masks for the revolutionaries. Then Lister, Rimmer and the Cat’s consciousnesses are downloaded into mechanoids, so Craig Charles, Chris Barrie and Danny John-Jules have to also put on Kryten-like masks and body suits. They get funny stuff to say – especially Barrie, who uses his mimicry skills to copy Robert Llewellyn’s voice – but the characters look too different and the performances don’t pop through the latex.
Observations: Kryten has an odd line of dialogue about Lister’s guitar that sounds like an unnoticed fluff or a rewrite that went wrong: “It’s almost to the day that it got flushed into space.” Starbug is seen again. Late on, James Buckley (The Inbetweeners, Rock & Chips) shows up for a tiny role as a working-class mechanoid. His scenes are all on location and shot in a way that suggests he wasn’t there at the same time as the regular cast.
Best gag: Kryten is busy ironing but gets constantly interrupted by messages appearing a screen – first from the Cat, then Rimmer, then Lister. Then we see that the latter is actually in the same room as Kryten. And wants Kryten to fetch a beer from a fridge that’s within Lister’s reach.

Episode 3: Timewave (26 October 2017): The crew are struck by a ‘timewave’, which brings them into contact with a spaceship from 24th-century Earth. On the ship, criticism has been outlawed… It’s a fun episode if not that plausible. The central idea (that people who criticise get high on criticising) might be a pop at internet forums and morons who write over-long, pretentious blog posts about Red Dwarf’s strengths and weaknesses.
Observations: Starbug is featured. The Om Song from series three is mentioned. Amrita Acharia plays a waitress who doesn’t care that she’s shit at her job because no one’s going to criticise her. Johnny Vegas shows up as a dressed-all-in-pink ‘crit cop’. He arrests the crew and puts them in a cell with another offender (Joe Sims) who, when we first see him, wears a mask and straight jacket a la Silence of the Lambs. (His crime? Tutting.) The episode has vague visual echoes of The Happiness Patrol, a 1988 Doctor Who serial.
Best gag: Rimmer likes the no-criticism law: “They’re on to something. Take me: back in the day I misrepaired a drive plate and killed over a thousand people. Now, in our culture, that sort of thing is really frowned upon. But here, you just move on.”

Episode 4: Mechocracy (2 November 2017): Lister accidentally downloads a virus into Red Dwarf’s mainframe, so as a precaution the crew prepare to evacuate. But the self-aware vending machines object to being left behind… A bottle episode, entirely set on Red Dwarf and featuring no guest characters other than voiceover roles. Enjoyable stuff. Successful gags include a decent set-up/punchline about Kryten manipulating Rimmer; a scene where Lister, Rimmer and the Cat have a long, irrelevant conversation while an emergency alarm is going off in the background; and a runner about the Cat needing reading glasses. Halfway through the episode, the storyline takes a left turn as an election for a new Red Dwarf leader is held: Rimmer and Kryten go head to head in scenes that spoof UK and US politics.
Observations: Doug Naylor’s obsession with vending machines, a motif that has recurred throughout this show since day one, gets another airing. Clips from 90s episodes are used in the election adverts, while the events of 80s episodes The End and Kryten are referenced. There’s then yet another, much larger callback to old continuity as Talkie Toaster (still voiced by David Ross) makes his first appearance since 1991. The scene is a bit of an embarrassment: old gags and camera angles are simply trotted out rote in an attempt to please long-term fans.
Best gag: Rimmer wants to demote Lister as a punishment but Lister is already the lowest rank possible, so he promotes him in order to demote him again. However, after his promotion, Lister points out that he’s now Rimmer’s equal and can’t be demoted.

Episode 5: M-Corp (9 November 2017): Lister is blighted by a perception filter that means he’s no longer able to see objects that are not approved by M-Corp, the ship’s conglomerate owners… The comedy about things and people being invisible or inaudible to Lister gets some good laughs, even if the surrounding plotline makes very little sense.
Observations: Lister hits a significant birthday (implied to be 50). Helen George from Call The Midwife guests as M-Corp’s spokesperson who reels off dialogue in a serene voice. The plot’s climax sees Lister’s personality regress to how he was when he was 23 – and the final scene deliberately repeats dialogue and blocking from Red Dwarf’s first ever episode.
Best gag: A medical computer asks Lister if he wants to know his predicted date of death. Before Lister can answer, Rimmer leans forward and mimics Lister’s accent: “Yes please, man!” (The computer says Lister will die at the age of 63.)

Episode 6: Skipper (16 November 2017): An anomaly penetrates the universe, causing a giant lesion in the space-time continuum. As a result, any decision results in the option not taken coming to pass. Then Rimmer uses the lesion to travel to various alternative realities… The storyline is another one of those sci-fi gimmicks that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. And the second half becomes something of a fanwank explosion as Rimmer visits different realities and old characters get cameoes.
Observations: The episode features yet more continuity references – Rimmer’s three brothers are mentioned; Norman Lovett makes his first appearance as Holly since 1999, likewise Mac McDonald as Captain Hollister; the famous ‘Everyone’s dead, Dave’ routine from Red Dwarf’s first episode is liberally paraphrased. Danny John-Jules gets to play Rat in one of the alternate realities: a man-sized rodent who evolved in place of the Cat.
Best gag: Rimmer quantum skips into a new reality and meets a refined, upper-class Lister. “Are you different from my Lister?” asks Rimmer. “A guy who cleans his teeth and pees in the toilet simultaneously even though the basin and the toilet are in different rooms?”

Best episode: Mechocracy. Worst episode: Skipper.

Review: After its decade off, Red Dwarf has now been on TV channel Dave for eight years, four series and 21 episodes. It’s settled into a pattern of wacky, sci-fi exploits, and the show’s initial gimmick – that these characters are stranded in deep space – has been forgotten about. Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten are now routinely bumping into people from earth. Despite this ‘opening up’ of the format, series 12 suffers from repeating ideas: there are two consecutive episodes about Red Dwarf’s computers causing problems, for example, while two are about the rights of non-organic life forms. The show has also lost some of its bite. Lister and the Cat still ridicule Rimmer; he in turn still shows disdain for them. But it’s all noticeably chummier than the BBC years. The characters have reached middle age and calmed down, and so has the tone. It’s still funny and likeable, but nothing in this series matches Red Dwarf at its best. Perhaps the aging process also accounts for the show’s obsession with its own history – most people get nostalgic as they get older. Sadly, series 12 can’t resist making smug callbacks to old episodes, old characters, old sets, old jokes, old incidental music, old scenes… The bigger references are accompanied by whoops, cheers and applause from the studio audience, which sounds stacked with Red Dwarf die-hards.

Seven nice cups of char out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 4

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Philip John. Originally broadcast: 11 October 2015, ITV.

With Carson on honeymoon, Thomas Barrow is acting butler. Also, Mary has her head turned, Miss Baxter has a dilemma, Tom Branson is back in the fold, and an old face returns to Downton…  

When is it set? We begin the day after the previous episode ended. So it’s somewhere in the middle of 1925.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey, its estate and the agent’s office. Violet’s house. Rosamund’s house in London. The Royal Automobile Club. The farm that used to be the Drewes’ and is now run by Mr Mason.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Violet’s minty friend Lady Shakleton visits again, and this time brings her nephew – who turns out to be Henry Talbot, the man Mary met last summer at a shooting party. He’s in Yorkshire to look at a car he hopes to race at Brooklands.
* John Harding (Philip Battley) is the treasurer of Hillcroft, a college for women of which Rosamund is a trustee, and he comes to Downton for lunch. He also brings his wife with him… who turns out to be former Downton maid Gwen (Rose Leslie).

Best bits:
* Sgt Willis shows up again – but for once it’s not about Mr Green’s death. This time, he’s come to question Miss Baxter. A man called Peter Coyle is on bail for theft, which does not surprise Miss B. She knows him of old – he’s the man who once coerced her into stealing some jewels. Will she testify against him?
* Anna is pregnant but keeping it secret, even from her husband. It seems to be going well, but then she feels twinges of pain. Mary leaps into action, insisting that they go to see the specialist in London immediately. He performs a small, routine operation and all is fine. When she gets home, Anna lets her husband know she’s expecting a baby.
* Bringing Gwen back for a guest appearance is a fine idea. We haven’t seen her since the first series, when she left to be a secretary, so it’s been more than a decade from her point of view. She’s gone up in the world and married respectably. Anna and Tom Branson both recognise her and say hello, but Gwen is embarrassed when Lady Mary only finds her familiar. Then a bitter Thomas Barrow deliberately embarrasses Gwen in front of everyone by outing her – thankfully the family react with kindness. There’s also a few back references to the episodes in which Lady Sybil helped Gwen apply for jobs.
* Mary says that all she was taught as a girl was “French, prejudice and dance steps.”
* Going downstairs to welcome the Carsons back from their honeymoon, Violet says she’s not been in the Downton kitchens for 20 years. “Have you got your passport?” asks Isobel.
* Mary is uncharacteristically positive about Edith’s plan to hire a female editor for her magazine. “That was nice of you,” says Rosamund when Edith’s out of earshot. “A monkey will type out the Bible if you leave it long enough,” deadpans Mary.

Worst bits:
* While he’s been in America, Bolshevik firebrand Tom has had a conversion – he’s now a fan of American-style capitalism where someone can raise themselves from nothing to a fortune.
* The hospital subplot continues to go round in circles.

Real history:
* Molesely thinks Baxter should testify in the trial but she’s not sure she will. So he quotes philosopher Edmund Burke (1730-1797) – “All that’s needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”
* Henry has driven at Brooklands, a motor-racing circuit near Weybridge in Surrey, quite often. It held races from 1909 until 1939.
* Mrs Patmore sarcastically refers to a stroppy Daisy as Karl Marx (1818-1883), the father of socialism. She’s got the hump because her father-in-law might miss out on a new home.
* “You’re a braver man than I, Gunga Din,” says Robert, quoting Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem.
* The Royal Automobile Club’s building seen in this episode, at 89-91 Pall Mall in London, was built in 1911.
* While the servants arrange some decorations to welcome the Carsons, Mr Bates thinks they’re putting too much effort into it. “We’re not striving for a setting by Diaghilev,” he says. Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872-1929) as a Russian ballet impresario.
* In a mangled piece of logic, Violet cites Magna Carta – a wildly influential piece of legislation signed by King John of England in 1215 – as a reason why the nobility should run the country.
* Now that Mrs Hughes has married Mr Carson, there’s confusion over her name. Rosamund says it’s like Jane Eyre, the eponymous character of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel, being asked to be called Mrs Rochester. (Later, Carson and Hughes please the family – if not historical accuracy – by asking that she still be called Mrs Hughes.)

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet asks Lady Shackleton about Henry’s place in the world. “He’s nowhere near the earldom,” replies Lady S. “About 40 strong men would have to drop dead.” Violet: “Well, nothing is impossible.”

Mary’s men: After several episodes in hibernation, Mary’s love life is awoken when Henry Talbot breezes into Downton. A few days later they have dinner together in London and flirt. She says that she hopes he’s building up to making a pass. “Will you accept?” “No, but I shall enjoy the process enormously.”

Review: Gwen provides a fun subplot and Mary’s clearly starting a new romance. But the Miss Baxter storyline fails to fly. 

Next episode…

 

Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 3

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Philip John. Originally broadcast: 4 October 2015, ITV.

Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson prepare to get married, but she’s not happy with doing things his way. Elsewhere, Anna thinks she’s pregnant, Thomas tries to find a new job, and Edith gains an admirer…  

When is it set? 1925.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. Dryden Park, a stately home near York. London (including the Covent Garden offices of Edith’s magazine and Rules restaurant). The local hospital. The local church. The local school.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Knowing that he’ll lose his job sooner or later due to downsizing, Thomas Barrow goes for an interview at Dyden Park, a large and imposing yet delipidated house near York. There he meets Sir Michael Reresby (Ronald Pickup), who admits he’s let things slide since his wife died. Thomas is disappointed that the house is on its uppers and there’s no staff, so he decides against the gig.
* Mr Skinner, the editor of Edith’s magazine, quits in a huff. His secretary, Audrey (Victoria Emslie), helps Edith finish the issue.
* Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes get married. Aww. So we get another appearance from the local vicar, Reverend Travers (Michael Cochrane).
* Tom Branson shows up unexpectedly at the wedding reception, with daughter Sybie. He’s decided to come home from Boston – for good.

Best bits:
* Mrs Hughes shows her wedding outfit – a dour, brown dress – to Mrs Patmore. “Well, you’re not wasting money, that’s for sure,” says Mrs P. On the day before the wedding, Mrs Patmore, Anna and Lady Mary arrange a new frock as a surprise – and for Mrs Hughes to borrow a coat from Cora. Unfortunately, no one tells Cora, who’s angry when she walks in on Mrs Hughes trying the coat on… (Don’t worry: later, Cora calms down and apologises.)
* Mary doesn’t know why Edith doesn’t just sack her editor “unless she enjoys racing up to London in a swirling cloud of crisis and drama.”
* Anna tells Mary that she might be pregnant. “Lord knows the problem isn’t Bates!” says Mary, pleasantly surprised that it’s happened so soon after she took Anna to see a Harley Street specialist.
* Edith’s two intertwined subplots are entertaining. While in London, she bumps into the affable Bertie Pelham, a man she met at a hunting party the previous year. He invites her for a drink and she suggests Rules… but then she can’t make it due to a crisis at work. During a row with her editor, she suggests he quit – which he does. So Edith has to complete the current issue: “We have to get the proofs to the printers by 4am,” she says, gathering up sheets of paper. She then remembers Bertie and heads off to find him at Rules to say she can’t have drinks. He surprises her by offering to come back to the office and help. We then get a montage of people looking at proofs and arranging spreads and typing copy and looking at the clock: classic stuff.
* At the Carsons’ wedding reception, Mary apologises because she’d lobbied for it to be held at the house rather than in the school hall. “Please forgive me,” she says to the newly-weds. “M’lady,” says the former Mrs Hughes, “Mr Carson would forgive you if you attacked him with a brick.”

Worst bits:
* The hospital subplot rumbles on. Violet and Dr Clarkson are on one side of the argument; Cora and Isobel are on the other. It’s difficult to care.
* Edith, who can be no older than about 30, says she’s staring middle-age in the face.
* After all that build-up – literally years of him saying he was going to move to America – Tom Branson was away for a grand total of two episodes.

Real history:
* When Violet asks whether it’s proper for Edith to stay alone in a London flat, Edith points out that Adrienne Bolland flew over the Andes alone four years previously. French pilot Bolland (1895-1975) was the first woman to do so.
* Spratt the butler collects stamps and is pleased to have acquired the “first commemorative stamp ever” – one to mark the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. (It was actually only the first commemorative stamp issued in the UK.)
* Daisy’s studies have now reached the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet says her butler Mr Spratt “has a great many relations who seem to get married and buried with numbing regularity, usually on very inconvenient days.” (Spratt gets a subplot this week: his nephew is in the area, having escaped from prison!)

Review: The wedding stuff is sweet enough, but Edith is the star of this episode.

Next episode…

Vampira (1974, Clive Donner)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: In order to trade on the success of Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein, this movie was released in America under the title Old Dracula.

Setting: Transylvania and London, 1974.

Faithful to the novel? No, it just uses the character of Count Dracula (played here by David Niven). He wants to resurrect his long-dead love, Vampira, and needs some blood. So he invites a party of Playboy Playmates over to Transylvania – they think they’re there for a photoshoot with a writer – and takes samples of their blood. However, due to a mix-up, Dracula and his loyal manservant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) use the blood of the one non-white Playmate. So when Vampira awakens she’s now black (and played by Teresa Graves). No, seriously, this actually happens. She’s a fan of her new look, but Dracula sets about reversing the process. To do this he flies to London with Vampira and Maltravers to track down the other Playmates and to acquire their blood. The writer from the photoshoot, Marc (Nicky Henson), gets mixed up in it all, as does his friend Angela (Jennie Lindon). Eventually, after much busking about, the plot resolves when Vampira bites her husband… and changes his ethnicity too. (For the final scene, I’m sorry to report, Niven is blacked up.)

Best performance: Despite the dodgy finale, David Niven is effortlessly entertaining. He’s giving the David Niven performance of cool, unfussy charm. (By the way, this is a Vlad-is-Dracula movie: we’re told that the count used to be Vlad the Impaler and he even uses the name Count Vladimir at times.)

Best bit: There’s a neat trick when Dracula hypnotises Marc and Niven takes over the role for a scene. The switch between actors comes in a fun dissolve as Marc looks at himself in a mirror.

Review: Hmm… There are two films here, operating side-by-side and in conjunction, and they need reviewing separately. One is a madcap, rough-round-the-edges, schlocky comedy horror with some oddball casting choices (David Niven! Bernard Bresslaw! Carol Cleveland!), plenty of attractive models trying to act, lots of impressive incidental music, and some likeably silly gags. Sadly, the other movie is an embarrassingly dated mess of antiquated gender, sexual and racial politics. Teresa Graves is very watchable presence as Vampira, but she has to gamely ignore a plotline that’s based on her skin colour being an unwanted aberration and something different from the ‘norm’. If you can excuse that as naivety, the film has an enjoyably quirky tone and it’s clearly not taking itself too seriously. So maybe we shouldn’t either.

Six fake fangs out of 10

Wonder Woman (2017, Patty Jenkins)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Living god Diana Prince leaves her home on a mystical island of Amazons to help American spy Steve Trevor during the First World War…

Good guys: This film is part of the DC Extended Universe series, so we’ve seen lead character Diana Prince before. Thankfully, actress Gal Gadot is better here than she was during her cold, one-note contribution to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The bulk of Wonder Woman is a flashback set a century ago… The young Diana lives on a Mediterranean island which is magically cut off from the rest of the world, populated solely by females, and where everyone trains to be in an army that doesn’t have anyone to fight. Two women bicker over Diana’s future: her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), wants her to learn how to fight; but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), wants to keep Diana safe. (All the women on the island speak in a vaguely Middle-Eastern accent, presumably to complement Gal Gadot’s Israeli voice.) Then a biplane appears in the sky. An American spy called Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) has (somehow) stumbled across the island and tells Diana and co about the war. “War?” she says. “What war?” Learning about the horrors going on in Europe (it’s 1918, you see), Diana resolves to travel with Steve to London because she thinks Ares, the god of war, must be responsible. When they arrive, we meet Steve’s secretary: the nervy but very capable Etta Candy (Lucy Davis, who is so funny she very nearly steals the whole film). Then when Steve and Diana head to France to prevent chemical weapon being used by the Germans, Steve recruits three old colleagues. Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui, decent) is a French Moroccan spy; Charlie (Ewen Bremner, likeable) is an alcoholic Scottish sharpshooter who’s clearly suffering from PTSD; and Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock, barely an actor) is a Native American smuggler.

Bad guys: The major villains initially seem to be the sadistic leader of the German Army, General Erich Ludendoff (Danny Huston), and his sidekick Isabel Maru aka Dr Poison (Elena Anaya), a Spanish scientist developing chemical weapons. Huston’s hamming it up – he thinks he’s in a more childish film – while Anaya makes little impression despite an interesting backstory and a Phantom of the Opera-style facemask. But they’re actually red herrings. In the London sequence, we meet British politician Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) and anyone who’s ever seen a movie before will probably guess that there’s more to him than meets the eye. He turns out to be Ares, another powerful living god and Diana’s evil half-brother.

Best bits:
* The early sequence on the magical island of Themyscira is quite flat and po-faced – it presents a world that’s difficult to believe in and has lots of clunky exposition – so it’s something of a relief when the 20th century crash-lands into the story. Chris Pine is absolutely terrific as Steve Trevor, bringing some much-needed charm, irony and urgency to the story. It’s a very Harrison Ford-y performance.
* Steve being interrogated by the Amazons. They use the Lasso of Hestia, a rope that compels people to tell the truth. “But it’s really hot,” says Steve. He then involuntarily blurts out, “I AM A SPY!”
* Steve sneaking into a German scientific base in the Ottoman Empire has the feel of Raiders of the Lost Ark as he steals an important notebook, jumps into a biplane, and drops a grenade as he escapes.
* Diana walks in on a naked Steve. “Would you say you’re a typical example of your sex?” she asks. “I am… above average,” he replies.
* There’s a lovely bit of movie logic on show here: leaving the island, which is near Turkey, Diana and Steve get into a small boat that sails along at about five knots. They fall asleep, but when Diana awakes they’re sailing up the Thames! “We got lucky, we caught a ride, we made good time,” is the lame line of dialogue Chris Pine has to toss off without looking too embarrassed.
* The London sequence is a triumph of production design, CGI and period detail. There’s also plenty of fish-out-of-water humour with Diana not understanding social conventions and etiquette. Steve takes her to Selfridges to get some Western clothes.
* Etta Candy is a marvel. Everything she says or does is both adorable and hilarious. Every eye roll or nervous vocal utterance is a joy.
* This area of the film also contains some knowing references to the 1978 Superman: Diana puts on glasses, struggles with a revolving door, and saves her human companion from a guy with a gun in an alley – all things Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent did too.
* In order to prove he’s telling the truth about going to Europe to stop a genocide, Steve wraps the Lasso of Hestia around his own hand… then can’t stop himself admitting that it’s a terrible idea and they’ll probably be killed.
* Diana deals with a bully in a pub by throwing him across the room. “I’m both frightened and aroused,” says Sameer.
* Diana climbing out of the trench and marching across no-man’s land, rallying the British to follow her. It’s an unashamedly epic moment of rousing music, slow-motion photography and iconic hero poses.
* Steve and Sameer blag their way into a German castle where a gala is being held – Steve masquerades as a German colonel, Sameer as his driver.
* The Armistice celebration scene in Trafalgar Square – which was shot in the genuine location.

Review: What a lovely surprise. After three movies of gobsmacking ineptitude – Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad – the DC Extended Universe gets on track. With a female lead (so rare in the superhero genre) and a female director (ever rarer), Wonder Woman shrugs off DC’s alpha-male obsessions with explosions, killings and carnage, and instead opts for heart, humour and a light touch. It’s very likeable stuff that zips along. But that’s not to say the film is perfect. Its feminist credentials, for example, are superficial. For all her barrier-breaking and popularity, Diana is still an objectively beautiful woman who parades around in a sexualised outfit while the men dictate the plot and explain things to her. It’s hardly Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. Her naivety is also sometimes difficult to fathom – she can speak hundreds of languages, yet doesn’t know what marriage is; she comes from a magical community of superhuman isolationists yet berates a middle-aged general for hiding in an office ‘like a coward’. The movie also has some dull villains, can’t resist an overblown climax of CGI nonsense, and repeats ideas from Captain America: The First Avenger a few times too many. But as a two-hour slice of popcorn cinema, this hits the spot. It’s fun, entertaining and charming.

Eight pairs of specs (suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen) out of 10