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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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

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

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…

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…

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?

Next episode…

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…

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…