Blake’s 7: Cygnus Alpha (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having escaped, Blake, Avon and Jenna use their new spaceship to travel to Cygnus Alpha, intent on rescuing their colleagues. But a religious cult is ruling the prison planet…

Series A, episode 3. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 16 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (3) is being defined as the crusader of the regular cast – a leader of men, an almost messianic figure. Having said that, he’s not *totally* altruistic: he wants to rescue Vila, Gan and the others stranded on Cygnus Alpha not because of their suffering but because he needs a crew for his rebellion against the Federation.
* Having found a firearm aboard their new ship, the Liberator, Avon (2) points it at Blake and Jenna. But they simply shrug the incident off – as Jenna later admits, the fact Avon is clearly out for number one would be unsettling if she thought he didn’t mean it. When Blake later heads down to the planet to look for the others, Avon advocates leaving him behind – especially after finding a fortune stored aboard the Liberator – but Jenna won’t let him. Paul Darrow continues to make his character endlessly interesting: this is a man who doesn’t even push a button in a conventional manner.
* Jenna (3) is biding her time, working out how to pilot the Liberator and operate its controls, while alpha males Blake and Avon take the lead. She also gets a colourful new blouse after finding a storeroom full of clothes.
* Zen (1), voiced by Peter Tuddenham, is the artificial-intelligence programme that runs the Liberator. He knows who Blake, Avon and Jenna are, so computer expert Avon is therefore suspicious of him.
* Vila (3) and Gan (2) arrive on Cygnus Alpha with other prisoners from the London. They’re soon told by the religious cult who act as jailers that they’re now infected with a condition called the Curse of Cygnus, which means they’ll need special medication for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, after Blake has arrived and rescued them, we learn the curse was just a cover story to keep the prisoners in check. Phew!

Best bit: If I were condemned to a lifelong prison sentence on a barren, rocky planet run by religious nutters, I’d still take solace from the fact I’d be near Pamela Salem. She plays Kara, one of the cult, and is extremely attractive.

Worst bit: The super-ship that showed up so conveniently in episode two continues to unashamedly provide our heroes with advantages. When Blake, Avon and Jenna explore the craft, they find complex weapons, an AI computer, a teleport device, a cache of enormous wealth and an ability to travel through space at high speed. Aren’t characters meant to achieve things themselves rather than just randomly be given the upper hand?

Review: For episode three, there’s a nice change of tone. So far, the show has taken place in a cold, colourless, metallic, sci-fi world of totalitarianism. But now we arrive on Cygnus Alpha, which is a windswept, mediaeval world run by a monastic-like cult. Its leader, Vargas, is played by Brian Blessed in a pre-Flash Gordon performance that’s not *quite* as bombastic as those he later indulged in. Enjoyable stuff.

Seven human souls are the only currency (our god is bankrupt without them) out of 10

Next episode: Time Squad

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Jamaica Inn (1939)

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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 young Irish woman travels to Cornwall to meet her aunt, but soon encounters a local gang of smugglers…

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film before he moved to Hollywood is the first of his three adaptations of Daphne du Maurier novels. Readers of her 1936 book, however, will spot many differences. It’s still the wild, windy Cornish coastline of the early 19th century, and the plot is still ignited when a young woman arrives to live with her aunt. But Hitch and his team of writers added a new master villain and tweaked the romance subplot. The result never quite comes together, sadly.

It begins impressively. The opening dramatises a ship drawn off course by a nefarious light in the night and purposely wrecked on the ragged rocks. It’s amazing well staged with models, full-size sets and gallons of water sloshing around. The sequence then takes a even darker turn as the survivors of the wreck are murdered by the gang of smugglers who caused it.

We then cut to the beautiful, feisty heroine of the story: Mary Yellan (Maureen O’Hara). Her mother has died back home in Ireland, so she’s travelling to Jamaica Inn, a Cornish coaching house, to live with her aunt. However, she ends up being stranded on the moor, so knocks on the first front door she can find. It turns out to be the house of the local squire: the bloated, erudite hedonist Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton, theatrical), who’s hosting a dinner party but agrees to take her to Jamaica Inn.

At the eponymous inn, the plot twists come thick and fast: Mary’s uncle, the slovenly Joss (Leslie Banks), is the leader of the wreckers; and although no one but the two men know it, his boss is Sir Humphrey. The gang, by the way, is full of distinctive, memorable character actors having fun with little screentime. When they suspect their newest member of stealing from them, they hang him and leave him hung – but shocked Mary cuts him down and they flee. We then get another plot twist: the man, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), is actually an undercover lawman. However, he chooses to reveal this information to the local justice of the peace, Sir Humphrey…

But for all its snakes-and-ladders plotting, the film lacks something. Hitchcock directs with a good pace, but you never feel for the characters’ plights. It’s all atmosphere and shock reveals. The poor treatment of the female characters is also a problem. Mary is the lead character, yet is absent for long stretches, while both her and her aunt make lame excuses for the brutish behaviour of the male characters.

Five rum-rotten sailors out of 10

Blake’s 7: Space Fall (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake, Jenna and Vila are aboard the spaceship London, en route for a prison planet, but Blake is plotting to escape. Then the London comes across another craft drifting in space…

Series A, episode 2. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 9 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Seeing how he’s being taken to a prison planet, Blake (2) doesn’t waste any time in trying to escape. He recruits Jenna, Vila and others to a plan to seize control the ship, but it only goes half-right: some of the prisoners are caught and the sadistic crew start to murder them until Blake gives himself up. Then the London stumbles across a strange, highly sophisticated and abandoned ship in deep space. The scout party are seemingly killed, so the London’s captain orders Blake, Jenna and Avon to go aboard to see what’s happened. They manage to survive the experience and – didn’t the captain see this coming? – bugger off with the new ship.
* Jenna (2) is not surprised when the sub-commander of the London, Raiker, takes a special interest in her. She’s the only female prisoner… and he’s a prick. But when he hints that he can make her life easier in return for a favour, she whispers an insult into his ear and he slaps her. She looks back defiantly.
* Vila (2) has a key part to play in Blake’s escape plan: distract the naïve guard with magic tricks while the others are doing sneaky-sneaky stuff involving an access panel. He already feels like the comic relief.
* One of the other prisoners aboard the London is computer expert Kerr Avon (1), who initially wants to keep himself to himself but can’t resist showing off his knowledge. We’re told he nearly stole five million credits, but he ‘relied on other people’ and the plan went wrong. Blake eventually persuades him to help with his rebellion, and Avon sneaks into the ship’s access shafts to fiddle with the central computer. Paul Darrow is incredibly watchable, using an acting style that’s total bravado and confidence and commitment.
* Olag Gan (1) is another prisoner. His defining characteristic is ‘big, tall bloke’, which enables him to help the escape attempt by threatening to cut off a guard’s hand. David Jackson doesn’t have much substance to play.

Best bit: The combination of Blake and Avon is fantastic straight off the bat. The clash of the two characters’ attitudes – and the two actors’ performances – creates a fascinating dynamic. Puritanical Blake says power should be back with the honest man. ‘Have you ever met an honest man?’ quips the cynical Avon.

Worst bit: Yes, this series was made in the inflation-heavy 1970s. Yes, the BBC is a cost-effective public-service broadcaster. Yes, tastes and expectations change over time. But nevertheless the studio sets of the London are really, really crummy. Drab, flat, grey walls and bodged-looking fixtures. It’s easy to see why Blake’s 7 has so often been ridiculed for looking cheap.

Review: A fine episode that again focuses on the lead character but also expands the cast of regulars. Blake quickly becomes the leader of the prisoners, but not through violence or intimidation or resources or because his name’s in the show’s title. It’s because of his powers of persuasion. He issues orders and plans strategies, while the others – Jenna, Vila, Avon – fall into line because he’s talking sense. It’s good writing and smart acting. The London, meanwhile, is crewed by guest actors from the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who (Glyn Owen from The Power of Kroll, Norman Tipton from Underworld and Leslie Schofield from The Face of Evil). One of them, Raiker (Schofield), is clearly a nasty piece of work who considers sexual abuse then murders prisoners for sadistic fun. Just in case you were still in any doubt, this is another indicator that Blake’s 7 is not a cosy, safe sci-fi romp. It’s dangerous and cruel, and that makes it interesting and unpredictable. This is such an enjoyable episode, in fact, that you forgive it the *enormous* deus ex machina of a super-ship landing in our heroes’ laps just when they need to escape.

Eight hull punctures out of 10

Next episode: Cygnus Alpha

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974, Roy Ward Baker)

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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.

Setting: There’s a prologue in Transylvania in 1804. The main bulk of the movie is set in China 100 years later, firstly in Chongqing (or Chung King as the caption spells it) then in the countryside.

Faithful to the novel? Not in the slightest. This was Hammer Films’ ninth Dracula movie in 16 years. It ignores the modern-day reboot of the previous two entries in the series, and heads back to a turn-of-the-19th-century setting. After the prologue, in which a Taoist monk (Chan Shen) awakens a docile Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson, taking over from Christopher Lee, who’d finally jacked it in) to ask for his help, all the action takes place in China. This was because this film was a co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers Studio of Hong Kong. Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) – seemingly the same version of the character seen in Dracula and Brides of Dracula – is lecturing at a university in China. He talks about his encounters with the famous vampire Count Dracula then recounts rumours of seven vampires who have been terrorising rural China. Most of his students are cynical, but a man called Hsi Ching (David Chiang) believes him and tells him he knows where the vamps are. Eventually, a team is assembled: Van Helsing and his son, Leyland (Robin Stewart); a rich Scandinavian woman called Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), who agrees to fund the expedition because she needs to leave town quickly; and Hsi Chiang and his kung-fu-proficient siblings. They head to the village, intent on destroying the vampires. Various fight scenes ensue, then at the climax Van Helsing realises that the vamps’ leader is Dracula is disguise.

Best performance: As always, Peter Cushing plays his part with total commitment. You never get the sense that he’s phoning it in or just doing a film for the fee, do you?

Best bit: More than a Dracula movie, this is a Hong Kong-produced martial-arts flick. There are crash-zooms and whip pans and loud fake sound effects for every punch or slap. Great stuff.

Review: You have to admire Hammer for trying different things. After setting two Dracula movies in the modern day, they then tried to breathe new life into this series by moving the action to China and blending their house style with the kung-fu phenomenon. The result is by no means a masterpiece, but it passes the time well enough and is a fun little vampire film. Written by Don Houghton – a true Sinophile – the plot is simple beyond belief. But the mythological context (and non-European landscape) gives the story a interesting setting, while shots of zombies rising from the grave are as striking as any image in a Hammer Dracula. The film is also lit with bold, expressionist colours. Only some gnarly special effects and poor monster make-up really disappoint.

Seven bat medallions out of 10

Blake’s 7: The Way Back (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Earth, the far future. Citizen Roj Blake learns of the authorities’ use of brainwashing, drugs and murder to keep the population under control…

Series A, episode 1. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 2 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Roj Blake (1) is living in a drab, soulless, fascist, dystopian, enclosed city cut off from the outside world when he’s approached by members of a resistance movement. They tell him he’s been brainwashed – he used to be a rebel leader but the state forced him to confess his ‘crimes’ and then wiped his memories. When he’s then caught with the resistance, Blake is arrested and framed on kiddie-fiddling charges (amongst other things). Found guilty after a trial that lasts less than three minutes, he’s loaded onto a spaceship bound for a prison planet… Actor Gareth Thomas is great throughout: you see his character believably transform from naïve bloke to forthright Blake.
* While waiting to board the transport ship, Blake is put in a holding cell with a compulsive thief called Vila Restal (1), who swipes his watch but is otherwise unthreatening. Michael Keating is a lot of fun in his one scene, playing the part with a twinkle in his eye.
* Another prisoner is the smuggler Jenna (1). Sally Knyvette plays her cool and seen-in-it-all-before, then gets a moment or two when the character admits she’s scared.

Best bit: In the scene of Blake being interrogated by an official after his arrest, the vision mixer crossfades between close-ups of the two men. The official is calm and stock-still, while Blake has his head in his hands and is jittery. It’s a striking image.

Worst bit: The title-sequence logo doesn’t have an apostrophe in the word Blake’s! Christ, that’s going to irritate me each and every episode.

Review: The first image we see is a CCTV camera keeping watch over the oppressed citizenry of a fascist state. Later, the police murder innocent people and lawyers fabricate evidence. Blake’s 7, it seems on the basis of this opening episode, is not going to be a laugh-a-minute experience. The tone is cynical, cold and humourless, and the drama seems more like a self-contained morality play than the pilot of a sci-fi adventure show. But it really works. The script has a fantastic sense of foreboding and the dread builds and builds. Blake’s fate seems cruelly inevitable, even if his lawyer (Tel Varon, played by Michael Halsey like he’s the lead character) is a decent guy with a conscience. And the fictional world is convincing and feels like it stretches out beyond the events we see. A very strong start.

Nine judgement machines out of 10

Next episode: Space Fall

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Jon Watts)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

New York teenager Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, is disappointed not to be a fully fledged member of the Avengers. But he then stumbles across a gang trading in dangerous alien technology…

In the opening scene of this slick and vibrant movie, the villain’s entire motivation is justified in one smart, underplayed line of dialogue. It’s the immediate aftermath of 2012’s Avengers Assemble, and a blue-collar crew of workmen led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) are clearing up the mess left by that film’s climactic battle. But then a woman (Tyne Daly) turns up and says a new agency will take over and the crew are out of work. Toomes argues that he has a contract, but the woman won’t budge. “Come on,” he pleads. “Look, I bought trucks for this job…”

In a single beat, we get this guy. We understand his grievance. He’s been wronged and wants revenge. When a superhero script defines its villain so elegantly and so economically, you know you’re in for some good storytelling. Eight years later, Toomes and his crew are running an underground operation in salvaging, repurposing and trading in alien tech. Toomes has even built himself a mechanical pair of wings: “Business is good,” he says as he swoops into the workshop.

Meanwhile, teenager Peter Parker (a fantastic Tom Holland) is flying to Germany. We’re in the timeframe of Captain America: Civil War, the 2016 film that introduced this version of Spider-Man, and see Peter’s contribution to that movie via videos he shot on his smartphone. It’s a neat and fun way of recapping the story so far. However, two months after being co-opted by the Avengers, Peter is feeling ignored by Tony Stark and the others. He’s back to being a student in New York who fights minor crime in his spare time. So, instead of a superhero film, Homecoming mostly feels more like an 80s teen comedy. Peter’s school halls could be out of Pretty in Pink, though this school is a more diverse, working-class place than the WASPy, privileged Illinois of John Hughes’s world. Peter has a nerdy best pal called Ned (Jacob Batalon); fancies a girl called Liz (Laura Harrier); is bullied by a lad called Flash (Tony Revolori); and also knows MJ, an enigmatic girl who wants to keep to herself (Zendaya). The fact these five characters match up to the quintet from The Breakfast Club can’t be a coincidence. The bully even jokes that Peter has an imaginary girlfriend in Canada, a la The Breakfast Club’s Brian.

Peter is also trying to hide the fact that he’s YouTube sensation Spider-Man. Ned finds out by accident, but Peter’s guardian – Aunt May (an effortless Marisa Tormei) – is still in the dark. Peter then happens to see Toomes’s crew selling advanced weaponry on the black market, which leads to some fun action sequences (and a laugh-out-loud Ferris Bueller reference). It’s very enjoyable stuff: light on its feet, with freedom and playfulness. Every scene, in fact, has a sense of humour. This film hits the sweet-spot of taking itself just seriously enough. It also looks great, with bold colours for the teens’ world and a down-and-dirty, bodged-together vibe for Toomes and his gang.

If Spider-Man: Homecoming has a flaw, ironically it comes in the shape of the MCU’s brightest star. After his cameo in the Civil War recap, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) re-joins the story after 36 minutes. He acts as Peter’s kinda-mentor, though he wants to stop him getting too involved in large-scale crime-fighting. Despite this, he gives the lad a super-duper, hi-tech, all-singing, all-dancing Spider-Man suit that comes with a never-ending array of weapons and features and a sexy-voiced, female AI programme (Jennifer Connolly, a star of the pre-MCU film Hulk). In other words, we get another version of Iron Man. It’s not only repetitious but it jars with the film’s otherwise homespun charm. Peter works best as an underdog, a teenager using his wits, rather than someone being dragged along by cyberpunk technology.

But what is a huge success is Michael Keaton as Toomes. The actor obviously has superhero form (for this reviewer’s money, he’s still the best Batman), but here he turns his hand to supervillainy. Stand aside, Loki: Adrian Toomes is the best played, most interesting, most entertaining bad guy in this entire series. Like all modern genre films, Spider-Man: Homecoming is full of blockbuster action sequences and flashy CGI. It cost $175million to make. And yet the greatest special effect in the whole movie is Toomes staring at Peter in a rear-view mirror…

As we enter the third act, Peter plucks up the courage to invite Liz to their school’s homecoming. She agrees and, after some nervy prep with Aunt May’s help, he goes to Liz’s house to collect her. But her dad answers the door. And her dad is Toomes. As a plot twist, it falls neatly into the ‘well, I shoulda seen that one coming’ camp. It raises the stakes and leads to a fantastically edgy scene as Toomes drives his daughter and Peter to the party. Then it goes up a further gear after Liz gets out of the car: Toomes warns Peter, who he’s worked out is Spider-Man, to stay away from his business. And it’s chilling, like something from a Mafia movie.

A teenager being nervous because he’s taking a hot senior out on a date but then realising that her dad is the super-criminal he’s been hunting for? As a scene it’s pretty fantastic on its own merits, but it also encapsulates this movie as a whole. Homecoming is an excellent mash-up of the superhero format with teen-comedy conventions. Both elements feel equally important. A hoot.

Nine men leaning out of their window out of 10

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Topaz (1969)

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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 French spy based in Washington attempts to rout out a mole in his organisation…

There’s an international feel to this, partly because of the European actors dominating the cast list, partly because of the use of Copenhagen and Paris as locations. But there’s also a Euro vibe to the filmmaking. It’s loucher, more laid-back, more self-consciously sedate, than a typical Hollywood movie.

We begin with cloak-and-dagger clichés as a Soviet intelligence officer defects to the West. He’s lifted by American spies led by CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe, in his second Hitchcock role) and soon reveals that the Russians are placing nuclear weapons on Cuba. (It’s 1962, by the way: post-Bay of Pigs, pre-missile crisis.) Nordstrom can’t approach the Cubans directly, though, so enlists an old pal to do it for him – James Bond-ish French spy André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who then becomes the movie’s lead character.

As events develop – Devereaux investigates, travels to Cuba, has a liaison with his sexy mistress, splits up from his wife, learns of a double agent codenamed Topaz – the script uses an odd structure. The focus keeps switching as characters pass the narrative baton on to the next person in the chain. Nordstrom sets the story running, then drops out of the film for long stretches; Devereaux is the nominal lead, but during one section has a proxy called Philippe Dubois.

The Dubois sequence is actually the best in the movie. Played by Roscoe Lee Browne with a smirk and a cool confidence, Dubois is a French-Martinican agent hired by Devereaux. A delegation of Cubans are in New York to attend a UN powwow. In order to show solidarity with the black community, they’re staying at a hotel in Harlem – but Devereaux knows their leader has a document that details the Soviet missile plan. So he hires Dubois to bribe his way into the hotel, pretend to be a sympathetic journalist and charm the leader so he can get a look at the document. In a film that seriously lacks tension at times, this part of the story really grips you.

There are other pleasures too, including a striking shot when a key character is killed – as Cuban resistance leader Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor from You Only Live Twice) falls to the floor, we see it from a camera directly above her, her dress billowing out to echo a pool of blood. There are also some fun moments where Hitchcock shows characters discussing the plot but places them so far from the camera that we can’t hear the dialogue: Hitch knew how boring exposition can be.

But all too often the story drags or diverts down a cul-de-sac. A flat, low-energy script and a weak cast – Frederick Stafford and Dany Robin, playing Devereaux’s wife, are especially poor – make it difficult to care about what’s going on. A number of badly dated rear-projection shots for dialogue scenes in moving cars really don’t help either, nor does the lack of star power in the cast.

Five men in a wheelchair out of 10

Note: The film suffered horrendously in some pre-release test screenings, with the climax (a duel between Devereaux and the unmasked Topaz) coming in for most criticism. So around 20 minutes were cut out and two alternative endings were hastily knocked together. The version used for this review was the longer edit but had the ending seen in the UK in 1969 – Topaz gets away with his crimes and flies off to Moscow. (The default release print in 1969 used stolen shots from elsewhere in the movie to imply that Topaz has killed himself.)

Downton Abbey: The Finale

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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 December 2015, ITV.

The end approaches… Mr Carson is forced into early retirement… Thomas and Molesley are offered new jobs… Isobel learns that Lord Merton has pernicious anemia… Henry and Tom go into business together… And Edith and Bertie reunite and get engaged, but his mother poses a problem… 

When is it set? The first 55 minutes of the episode take place in September 1925, then we cut to 29 December and the following few days for Edith and Bertie’s wedding. Downton Abbey draws to a close in the early hours of 1 January 1926 – fictionally speaking, nearly 14 years after the events of the first episode.

Where is it set? Downton and its estate. The village. The countryside. Lord Merton’s house. Edith’s flat and the Ritz restaurant in London. Bertie’s ancestral home. Violet’s house. Downton’s hospital.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Pelham (Patricia Hodge) is Bertie’s severe mother. When Edith, Robert and Cora go to meet her for the first time, they find a woman who clearly means to be the puppet master for her newly ennobled son. She also disapproved of the previous Lord Hexham – Bertie’s cousin, who was gay – and wants her son to be a moral leader. So when Edith tells her about having an illegitimate daughter, Lady P assumes the marriage won’t now go ahead – but Bertie has other ideas and puts his foot down. So at a dinner party, Lady Pelham announces that Bertie and Edith are to marry, then tells Edith she admires her honesty and character.
* Thomas Barrow finally leaves Downton to work as butler in the house of Sir Mark Stiles (James Greene). But it’s a quiet, soulless household and he doesn’t enjoy it.
* Lady Rose and Atticus return from America for the wedding. We haven’t seen them since the previous Christmas special, which was set about a year before this one. They’ve had a daughter, Victoria, in the interim, but haven’t brought her with them.
* Rose’s father also shows up for the wedding.
* Anna gives birth to a son.

Best bits:
* “Is Daisy interested in men?” asks Andy. Mrs Patmore laughs: “What are you implying?” He just meant because she’s so focused on her studies.
* When Thomas tells everyone that he starts his new job on Monday, Mr Bates begins to say something either sarcastic or cutting: “Downton Abbey without Mr Barrow-” but then Anna touches his arm and says, “Nothing ungenerous.”
* Rosamund takes Edith to the Ritz… where they find Bertie at the table. It’s a set-up, arranged by Mary. He wants her back. He says he couldn’t live without her. She points out that he’s done a good job of it recently. He asks her to marry him; he’s ready for the gossip a secret stepdaughter may bring.
* Edith later phones home. Robert takes the call then says to his wife she’ll never guess what’s happened. “She’s pregnant again?” asks Cora. “She’s been arrested for treason?”
* Thomas Barrow has a couple of touching farewell scenes before he leaves for his new job.
* Isobel’s subplot: previously, Lord Merton’s son and daughter-in-law wanted to fob him off on Isobel, but now he’s terminally ill they don’t want her involved. Isobel is distraught, so she and Violet march round to the house and insist that he come home with them; Isobel also agrees to marry Lord Merton. (There’s then a happy ending: Merton’s anaemia was misdiagnosed and is not fatal. Yay!)
* Mary and Edith agree to make more of an effort to be nicer to each other. No melodrama or unrealistic reunion; just two sisters conceding that they’ve both made mistakes.
* After we jump forward three months, Anna is heavily pregnant and says she’s due in 10 days. But her waters break on the day of the wedding.
* Carson’s illness – shaking hands inherited from his father – means he has to resign from position of butler. Robert decides to ask Thomas Barrow to return from his new job to take over.
* The long-running and tedious hospital subplot gets a nice capper: Rose arranges for Robert to witness Cora running a public meeting about the changes and he sees how well she’s doing the job.

Worst bits:
* A few episodes ago, Andy couldn’t read. Now he’s doing the accounts for Mr Mason’s farm. Similarly, despite episode after episode of him showing no interest, Andy has now developed a fancy for Daisy.
* The silly story about butler Spratt masquerading as an agony aunt continues: Edith comes to visit and offers to increase the size of his column.

Real history:
* Edith and Rosamund go for a meal at the Ritz, a hotel on Piccadilly in London that opened in 1906.
* When Robert has a moan, Cora says she doesn’t need the Gettysberg Address – a speech given by US President Abraham Lincoln on 19 November 1863 at the dedication of a cemetery.
* Henry says he wants to be worthy of Mary – “and I know I sound like Bulldog Drummond”, a fictional adventurer created by HC McNeike for a novel in 1920.
* Violet compares her maid, Denker, to the Biblical figure Salome.
* Mrs Patmore says, “Hark at you, Becky Sharp,” when Daisy talks about how Edith will become a marchioness. Sharp is the lead character of Vanity Fair (1847-48), a novel by William Makepeace Thackery.
* Having learnt about Spratt’s double life, Denker compares him to the lead character of Strange Case of  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel.
* Daisy uses Lady Mary’s new electric hairdryer but makes a mess of it, so Anna styles her hair. Daisy then asks how she looks. “Like Clara Bow,” says Andy, referring to the silent-movie star who lived 1905-1965.

Upstairs, Downton: Edith’s complex relationship with her mother-in-law-to-be echoes Georgina’s storyline towards the end of Upstairs Downstairs.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is asked what she thinks makes the English the way they are. “Opinions differ,” she replies. “Some say our history. But I blame the weather.”

Mary’s men: She’s now a married woman again, though Henry is at a crossroads: since his mate Charlie’s death in a crash, he’s gone off racing driving. So he and Tom cook up an idea: they open a used-car dealership together. Mary is so proud when she finds out that she reveals her news: she’s pregnant.

Doggie! Robert’s new puppy, Tiaa, is in the opening scene as he and the family go for a walk. Then a few more times throughout the episode.

Review: And relax…

Family Plot (1976)

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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.

When two con artists try to track down a missing heir, they come into contact with a pair of kidnappers…

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, released when he was 76 years old, is a comedy thriller. Neither taking itself too seriously nor ever becoming too silly, it’s an entertaining couple of hours.  A lot of the enjoyment comes from watching omnisciently as two seemingly separate storylines slowly start to intertwine.

As we start, fake psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is conning an elderly woman (Cathleen Nesbitt) with a cod séance routine. When the OAP mentions a long-lost nephew who would inherit a fortune, Blanche and boyfriend George offer to find him for a fee of $10,000. Meanwhile, another pair of criminals – Fran (played by the top-billed Karen Black) and her boyfriend, Arthur (William Devane) – are kidnapping VIPs and ransoming them for jewels.

The two sets of characters literally cross paths early on, when George nearly runs Fran over, but are otherwise discrete until the 45-minute mark… George has been following clues like a detective, trying to find the long-missing nephew. He talks to someone who knew him, then we see this old friend show up at Arthur’s office to tell him people are looking for him. That’s right: Arthur is the heir, but because he’s also a criminal he assumes Blanche and George asking questions about him must be bad news. The cat and mouse game is on.

Alfred Hitchcock was born just four years after the Lumière brothers invented the medium of cinema, and had been a film director for half a century when he made Family Plot. But here’s a movie that’s startlingly of the 1970s: the fashions, of course, and the cars and the also the style of filmmaking. Or rather not *film*making. The master’s final movie is surprisingly televisual. It’s very talky. There are studio sets and California locations. To be honest, it often looks and feels uncannily like an episode of Columbo. Also, being his 70s and suffering from poor health, Hitch was unable to travel too far from the San Francisco production base so an action scene as a car with no brakes careers down a mountain road is done with second-unit POV shots, an under-cranked camera and some very unconvincing process shots of Dern and Harris in a studio.

But there’s still plenty to enjoy, not least the four central performances. Bruce Dern is a loose, pipe-smoking charmer (Al Pacino was considered for the role but was too expensive). William Devane is terrifically icy cool and sinister (they actually starting shooting with Roy Thinnes, but then he was ungraciously dumped when first choice Devane became available). Barbara Harris is adorable and funny. And Karen Black has real star quality (she’s also the focus of a self-aware gag from Hitch: when we first see her character, she’s a classic, enigmatic Hitchcock blonde… then she takes her wig off to reveal brunette hair).

There’s also a grandstanding cameo from Nicholas Colasanto (later Coach in sitcom Cheers) as a kidnap victim; Katherine Helmond (later Jessica in sitcom Soap) playing Basil Exposition and telling George the necessary plot information at just the right time; and decent incidental music by John Williams, then hot from Jaws (1975).

Eight silhouettes out of 10

 

 

Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 8

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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: 8 November 2015, ITV.

Edith is torn over whether to tell Bertie about her secret daughter, then he becomes a marquess. Also, Violet has gone away, while Mr Molesley begins work as a teacher.

When is it set? 1925.

Where is it set? Downton and its estate. The local village. Isobel’s house. Mrs Patmore’s B&B. The Bateses’ cottage. Lord Merton’s house. The office of Edith’s magazine in London. Downton’s church and churchyard.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Although we’ve never seen him on screen, Bertie’s cousin the 6th Marquess of Hexham has died of malaria while in Tangiers. (He went there often, we’re told. And was unmarried.)

Best bits:
* There’s a throwaway subplot about Mrs Patmore’s B&B: her first ever paying guests turn out to be a couple having an affair and now the cuckolded husband is suing for damages. Mrs P is aghast but her colleagues and the family just find it funny.
* Bertie worked as his late cousin’s agent, so Mary assumes he’ll now be out of a job. But then Edith informs her that Bertie has inherited the title. If Edith marries him now, as he desires, she’ll outrank all her family in the aristocratic hierarchy. Mary is consumed with seething jealousy and things turn nasty when she deliberately forces Edith to tell Bertie that she has a daughter.
* Edith’s whole dilemma is very engaging. After the secret is spilled, she’s fearful that Bertie will dump her. He says he’s not sure if he can spend his life with someone who doesn’t trust him, and they part – assuming they’ll never see each other again.
* There’s then an electric scene between the two sisters, as Edith tells Mary some home truths. “I know you,” she says. “I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch.”
* Thomas Barrow gets another rejection letter in his quest to find a new job, then is uncharacteristically kind to Mr Molesley. Miss Baxter deduces that something is very wrong – and she and footman Andy find Thomas in the bath with his wrists slashed.
* Mary tearfully admitting that she can’t face being a “crash widow” again. A few scenes later, she visits Matthew’s grave to explain that she’s fallen in love again. All very moving.

Worst bits:
* Bertie plans to fly to Tangiers, and Robert says that now commercial airlines are operating “we’ll all be flying hither and thither before too long.” It’s Rosamund’s turn to complete the cliche by poo-pooing something that we viewers know will become true: “I rather doubt that,” she laughs.
* Isobel’s storyline with Lord Merton’s manipulative daughter-in-law is all a bit clunky. It feels like the meat of the plot has been moved to the wife because the actor who played the twatty son is unavailable.
* In the last episode we learnt that an agony-aunt columnist for Edith’s magazine, Cassandra Jones, was using a pseudonym. Now it’s revealed who it really is: Mr Spratt, Violet’s dour butler. What a silly development.
* After a lot of build-up, Mary’s wedding comes along very quickly indeed.

Real history:
* Bertie says his mother makes Mrs Squeers – a character from Charles Dickens’s 1838/39 novel Nicholas Nickleby – look like nursing pioneering Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).
* When Mr Molesley begins work as a teacher, his first lesson covers the period between the English Civil War of 1642 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Later he talks about King Charles I (1600-1649) and the Divine Right to Rule.

Mary’s men: She hasn’t see Henry for a while and doesn’t know whether to pursue him. Their different backgrounds are an issue for her, bt Tom points out that she and her first love, Matthew, also had different upbringings. Then Henry shows up at Downton – Tom has illicitly invited him. Mary is angry, but Henry won’t give up. Then she’s upset when he leaves (women!) and despite everyone saying that Henry is right for her she refuses to admit it. So Tom writes to Violet and asks her to return from her overseas trip. When she’s back she’s able to talk some sense into her stubborn granddaughter. Eventually Mary telegrams Henry asking to see him, then tells him she wants to spend her life with him. They agree to get married… the following Saturday! She becomes Lady Mary Talbot.

Doggie! Robert’s new Lab puppy, Teo, sits in a basket in the library.

Review: An episode dominated by Mary and Edith’s rocky romances.

Next episode…