Category Archives: Drama

There Goes Lassiter’s Again: Why I Still Need Good Neighbours

Spoilers for UK-pace Neighbours up to 12/04/16

It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is possible to judge how old someone is just by asking them a few questions about their TV-watching habits. One such battery of questions might proceeed as follows: ‘Which Blue Peter presenters do you remember most vividly?’; ‘Who’s your Doctor?’; ‘What did you watch on Saturday mornings?’; ‘What’s the first celebrity death you remember on TV?’. My answers to these questions are, respectively, Diane-Louise Jordan / Stuart Miles / Konnie Huq / Matt Baker, Number Ten, Live and Kicking (Andi and Emma version) and Princess Diana, all of which classes me firmly as an early Millenial.

But there’s one particular question that will not only reveal your age but also the deepest secrets of your psyche, and that question is ‘What was your most shocking Neighbours moment?’

Given that Neighbours has been running for 31 years, there are A LOT of momentous events to choose from. Scott and Charlene’s romantic wedding is obviously a classic from the early years, as are Bouncer’s dream sequence (Bouncer, obviously, being a Golden Labrador) and Harold’s disappearance over a cliff, leaving only a pair of broken glasses behind him. Moving forward in time, the world was rocked by Karl’s affair with Sarah, Drew falling off his horse, and – perhaps most shocking of all – Toadie getting his hair cut, while recent years have included Steph’s affair with her best friend Libby’s husband, teenage Bridget having a baby and then dying, Paul nearly being murdered, and the Ramsay Street car crash that nearly killed off every young person in the show.

And last week, the latest in a long line of disasters occurred, as Lassiter’s hotel blew up, leaving dozens more Erinsborough residents fearing for their lives…

But, the thing is: it’s all been a bit weird. The main reason for this, I think, is that everyone knew it was going to happen. Of course, for all of these really big storylines it’s generally known that Something Is Coming, but this time the advance warning has been really quite in-your-face. For weeks there have been references to the “maintenance issues” in the basements at the hotel, which has recently been suffering from a dodgy air conditioning system and a severely malfunctioning boiler. As if that wasn’t ominous enough, Channel 5 has been trailing it with a special title (‘Neighbours: Hotel Horror’ – no melodrama here) and tagline (“Five rooms, five days, one hotel”) as well as a late-night special episode subtly entitled Neighbours: Who Dies?

All that advertising certainly builds up momentum and anticipation – I wouldn’t have been watching otherwise, since my relationship with Neighbours in recent years has been patchy, to say the least. But there are two problems with being quite so forceful in your advertising. First it gets rid of the shock factor, which is really an essential part of a Shocking Moment. And second, if you’re gonna hype the show up like that, the pressure’s really on you to deliver something special. And Neighbours: Hotel Horror… well, it just hasn’t.

To be fair, it should be stated that it has all the makings of a classic Neighbours disaster. First, it takes place at Lassiter’s complex, scene of all the finest accidents and catastrophes: the explosion at the Waterhole pub (1993), the Lassiter’s fire (2004), Paul’s attempted murder (2010) and the destruction of Toadie and Sonya’s wedding (2013), to name but a few (if an event ain’t happening at Lassiter’s, it ain’t happening, and that’s a fact). Second, eternal Satanic patriarch Paul Robinson is almost certainly involved, having become embroiled a blood feud with the hotel’s owners – not a wise move on their part (if an evil scheme isn’t being plotted by Paul Robinson, it isn’t an evil scheme, and that’s another fact). Third, the potential death toll has been increased considerably by a sudden influx of characters towards the disaster site on the flimsiest and most spurious of grounds. Want to talk to your grandson about your will? Do it at a luxury hotel! Need to ask your estranged husband to dump his new girlfriend and move to Germany with you? Luxury hotel! Got a plot to trick your crush into thinking he’s going to meet a famous guitarist? Why, that sounds like a job for a luxury hotel!

So the potential was definitely there – AND YET.

One issue: the pacing has been all over the place. The bulk of the drama – one day in TV-time – has taken place across a week of five episodes; and the tagline (recall: “Five rooms, five days, one hotel”) suggested some kind of cool single-camera real-time event where each episode would deal with the inhabitants of one of the five hotel rooms (yep, it only seems to have five, and in fact up until last week I was pretty sure it only had one). But that was very much not what happened.

Episode #1: the residents of Erinsborough gather for the ‘Citizen of the Year’ event at Lassiter’s. The staff worry that the boiler might explode. Paul Robinson schemes. The boiler explodes.

Episode #2: No sooner have the viewers asked, “Who’s going to die first??” than the answer is revealed: it’s Josh, before the opening credits role. Sad, but not exactly suspenseful, since he’s gone before you can blink. Kyle and Amy are free almost immediately afterwards, having spent approximately two seconds trapped in a lift; Karl and Sarah also escape in a matter of minutes, despite Sarah’s whingeing and limping. Daniel has also been extracted from the building and is in hospital, having regained consciousness.

Episode #3: Doug is brought out of the hotel, apparently unharmed. Outside, he collapses and dies as his ghost looks on. His body is then left in the rain for several hours (although someone does bother to put a mini gazebo up over it).

Episode #4: We discover that Toadie is trapped in the most damaged part of the hotel. Paul ‘tries’ to ‘comfort’ Terese by choosing the hour after her son and father-in-law’s death to tell her he loves her.

Episode #5: We recall (having forgotten about them for four episodes) that Ben and Xanthe are also in the hotel, just in time for them to realise that’s a stupid place to be and walk out of the hotel again. Kyle, having recently escaped a life-threatening experience, decides that it’s the ideal time to move to Germany, and leaves with his dog.

So, to sum up: of the twelve characters in danger from being killed inside the hotel, seven casually walked out after the explosion with hardly a scratch on them, leaving the audience to wonder why the writers bothered to stick them in there at all; one died in the first five minutes of the disaster; another died outside the hotel, possibly of the disease he was already suffering from; two have been extracted and are recovering (we assume) in hospital; and one – a character who had already left the show – hasn’t been mentioned but would be incredibly lucky not to have got out since she was in the same room as two others. Quite frankly, a disappointing showing.

Now this isn’t to say that there weren’t some good moments. The sudden realisation that Toadie was in the building – now that was tense, because Toadie is great (and long may he reign over the House Formerly of Trouser and all that is awesome). The emotional impact of a death on a dazed family, beautifully acted. The wonderful musical choice of having ‘Georgia on My Mind’ play as Kyle decided to move to Germany with, yes, Georgia. The fact that Bossy the dog is leaving with him (all in all, probably the most devastating loss of the week.) And Terese asking the immortal question, “Is there something you’re not telling me, Paul?” (Pro tip: The answer is yes. THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS YES.) And there are also several strands still to tie up. Who caused the explosion? We assume Paul, but we could be wrong. Why has Sarah returned? Just to wreak havoc and destroy Susan and Karl’s marriage yet again? What is in Toadie’s mysterious red file, bequeathed to Steph to be destroyed in the event of his death?

But, overall, none of it comes close to my most shocking Neighbours moment. What is it? I hear you cry. What? What?

Dear friends, it is THE PLANE CRASH.

Fans of the show will already be fanning themselves in relived horror at the mere mention of this event; for non-viewers, the monumental impact of this storyline may be illustrated by the fact that it has its own Wikipedia page. Briefly, Paul Robinson (him again) invites pretty much the entire cast to go on a historical fancy-dress joy-ride to Tasmania on his private plane, including Neighbours stalwart mother-figure Susan Kennedy and her much-detested love rival Izzy Hoyland, the Bishop family David, Liljana and Serena, likeable Irish rogue Connor and kooky young couple Dylan and Sky; Paul himself and his daughter Elle are also aboard. A bomb causes the plane to crash, everyone tips out into the Bass Strait, and the fight for survival begins. Young lovers cling onto each other. Enemies are forced to work together. The tide rises. And chaos reigns.

So what does this choice tell you about me? It tells you, first, that I was at my Neighbours-watching peak (i.e. a student) in 2005, which means that I was probably a child of the Eighties. It also tells you that I love over-the-top melodrama, storylines about relationships and an intense close-quarters scene or two. If I told you, additionally, that I was most concerned about Dylan and Sky, then you could also surmise that I love a rough-edged character with a heart of gold. All these inferences would, by the way, be 100% accurate.

And that’s why, eleven years later, I still can’t quite let Neighbours go. I don’t know whether baby Millennials and the first members of Generation Z will sit about in 2027 reminiscing about the Lassiter’s hotel explosion. Maybe they will. Maybe they loved it. Maybe I found it hard to care about the current roll-call of characters because they are no longer my people; maybe, in short, Neighbours is simply not for me any more. But I suspect that, for many years to come, I will still be checking in on Ramsay Street now and again, just to see how everyone is getting along.

Once a Neighbour, always a Neighbour.

“The Peacocks Have Arrived!”: From Fact To Fiction With ‘Mr Selfridge’

SPOILERS: Mr Selfridge season 1-3

I like TV. And I like books. And I also like lists of things. So imagine my delight when I recently received, as an unbirthday present, a book called ‘1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die’. Challenge accepted!

Obviously, the first thing I did was make a spreadsheet (with each entry broken down by page number, title, year the show premiered, country of production and genre); equally obviously, the next thing I did was scour Netflix to discover just how many of the world’s top 1001 TV programmes I could already get without having to pay any additional money. Quite a few, as it turns out – The Good Wife, Life on Mars, The Vampire Diaries, Danger Mouse and many other classics – but, for no real reason other than possibly a hint of Downton Withdrawal Syndrome, I opted to begin with Mr Selfridge.

I didn’t have particularly high expectations, knowing very little about the premise (other than ‘Rich American man comes to London and opens shop, people buy things, rich American man gets richer, viewers fall in love with rich American man’). I also, sadly, haven’t managed to watch fast enough to be ready to watch the most recent – fourth and final – season, which concludes tonight on ITV. But, given that each season is only ten episodes long, I’ve sped through and am well into season three, and in a worryingly short space of time have become a bit obsessed with it (cue gasps of surprise and cries of ‘But you never get obsessed with anything!’). Reasons for this (completely unprecedented) enamourment include:

  1. Everyone looking incredibly snappy in Edwardian frock coats and bodices
  2. A big cast full of confident, funny, clever women who are there to work, vote and sell you as many pairs of gloves as you can fit in your motorcar
  3. Motorcars
  4. A French guy actually played by a French guy, rather than a Brit sounding like an extra from ‘Allo ‘Allo!
  5. The afore-mentioned French guy also being smokin’ hot
  6. Sudden renditions of music-hall songs with the audience guffawing inexplicably
  7. Amanda Abbington
  8. Katherine Kelly
  9. Mr Crabb, probably the most interesting fictional accountant ever
  10. Those amazing window displays.

But one of the most fascinating things about it is that it is, of course, based on a true story and a real person. Unlike, say, Downton Abbey, in which the writers can (and did) introduce, send away, marry off or do away with characters as and when they please, shows like Mr Selfridge must (one would assume) try to stick to the basic facts, or, at the very least, keep within one hundred yards of the facts at all times.

In Mr Selfridge’s case, the general idea, as I understand it, was to paint broad strokes and invent a cast of fictional characters around the key people and milestones in Selfridge’s life. Hence Rose, Selfridge’s insanely patient wife (and her death somewhere between seasons 1 and 2); his four children, Rosalie, Violette, Gordon and Beatrice (although Beatrice does mysteriously disappear around the same time her mother does); Selfridge’s mother Lois, who lives with them all; and Rosalie’s slightly sinister husband Serge de Bolotoff. But Agnes and Henri, Victor, Mr Grove and Miss Mardle, Kitty and so on and so forth – they are characters of the writers’ and actors’ imaginations, brought to life merely to delight and entrance us.

In fact, a particularly fun game to play while watching the programme is ‘Spot which characters are real historical figures’. For example, I was pretty confident in recognising Edward VII, Ernest Shackleton and Arthur Conan Doyle as real people, and I made the right leap in surmising that Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett were Mack and Mabel of, well, Mack and Mabel; but I was tricked by Alfie Boe’s music-hall singer, who appears to be completely fictitious, and I was also unaware of Louis Blériot, cross-Channel-flier extraordinaire, and Winifred Bonfils, American reporter. I’ll have to read up.

Of course, the problem with all this mixing fact and fiction is that you just don’t know when to stop. As I said earlier, I really only know some very basic facts about Selfridge, so I’ve been taking things pretty much on faith, and Mr Selfridge is so glamorous and dazzling that you want to believe everything it tells you, however preposterous. In some cases, these things turn out to be true – Selfridge really did set up an entire plane as part of a display – so why not believe some of the other stuff too? Selfridge’s staff invented fashion shows and lipstick in a tube, eh? Cool! He generously hired more staff than he needed to make sure people weren’t out of work? Sure! And he was a spy for Britain during WW1? OK!

And all these unlikely elements are so convincing because they’re presented in the same gorgeous and excitable fashion as the facts, with all the same authentic-seeming period trappings. Not knowing a particularly large amount about the Edwardians, I can’t really judge whether the costumes / sets / language / general demeanour of the show are historically appropriate, but the whole thing is certainly chock-full of things that seem distinctly not of our time. Jazz clubs with actual dancing – now there’s something that screams ‘Turn of the century’; likewise, people being able to board moving buses simply by grabbing the rail and leaping on. Oh, and hats. Everyone wears a hat, all the time: smart hats, walking-about hats, working-in-the-loading-bay hats, wedding hats, supporting-women’s-suffrage hats, shopping-for-hats hats…

The question is: does it matter where fact ends and fiction begins? Some would say so – take Selfridge’s great-granddaughter, who is (understandably) a bit peeved about his characterisation as a womaniser both during and after his marriage. Then there’s the show’s creator, Andrew Davies, who seems to feel guilty about suggesting that Mrs Selfridge might have been a bit of a player herself (not to the extent of her husband, but still – some of her choices regarding young cocky painters have been a little poor). On the other hand, it sounds as though the artistic licence of the TV version was a welcome change from the Selfridge in the source material (the book Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead) – according to one blogger, TV Harry is a lot more charming and a lot less dull than real/book Harry.

It all comes down, in the end, to whether you expect your biographical dramas to be true to the letter or the spirit of the person and time they’re portaying. Personally, I love the spirit of Mr Selfridge and the themes that are woven into its lustrous fabric – family, friendship, fair play, hard graft, gender equality, joy and heartbreak. The way the show handled the period 1914-1918 is a great example. The build-up was a little laboured, perhaps, à la Downton – “Times are changing,” one person intones, and another replies, “Who knows what will happen in the next five years?”, while a third adds sagely, “Trouble’s brewing…” But once England declared war, Mr Selfridge became heart-breaking in its depiction of young men excited about fighting for their country; parents, spouses and siblings terrified to hear the postman knock on the door; women putting aside their own feelings to go to work for the war effort; people of all races and sexes displaced and homeless; the men who never came home; and those who did but were never the same. For that, if for nothing else, Mr Selfridge has been a worthwhile endeavour.

As for the letter of Mr Selfridge’s life and times, well, I don’t know. Did Harry Selfridge really hire peacocks for his daughter’s wedding? Would he really have allowed his staff to hug him, or tell him when he was making a massive cock-up of things? As I come to the final season of the show, will it deal with the dwindling funds and power of the Selfridge estate, with his mother’s death, with the sale of the store? And will I bursting into tears every five minutes the way I have been in season 3?

Perhaps, after this, I’ll have to give the screen a rest for a few days and go back to my books. But now that I’ve finished reading 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die, what to read next…?

Selfridge

Broadchurch and the Case of the Inexplicable Non-Mystery

Once again I come to the final episode of Broadchurch with my hopes from the beginning of the series somewhat disappointed. The first season had an excellent start, with the usual murder-mystery elements mixed in with an unusual (and heart-rending) focus on the people left behind. But as time drew on, everyone in the world worked out who the murderer was about three episodes before the finale, but the series had been so good up to that point that we all thought, ‘Ah, but that’ll be a red herring, though.’ It wasn’t a red herring. There was no last-minute twist, despite writer Chris Chibnall’s exhortations to ‘Keep watching right until the end’. In the event, what we were avidly awaiting was not some new piece of evidence and a reshifting of everything we thought we knew, but a ten-second trailer for Broadchurch season 2. Nope.

This time around, the series’ writers and producers harped on about the fact that Broadchurch season 2 wouldn’t be a murder mystery. OK, fine. The best thing about Broadchurch is that the acting is impeccable, and David Tennant (DI Alec Hardy) and Olivia Colman (DS Ellie Miller) are basically national treasures, so a chance to sit back and reflect on how a community recovers after a murderer has been taken away would be extremely interesting. Except that’s not what we got. The murderer (Joe Miller, DS Miller’s husband) hasn’t been taken away; he’s decided, for no earthly reason, to recant his confession and subject us to the most unlikely trial the world has ever seen. I very much doubt that what’s happening now reflects in any way what communities really go through after a murder.

What’s more, apparently the programme makers recognised that this wasn’t going to keep viewers watching for eight weeks, so there’s a second storyline involving an unsolved murder from Hardy’s past. It seems as though the programme makers are trying to have it both ways. They’re claiming it’s not a crime drama because the bodies weren’t discovered in the town of Broadchurch in the first episode (the victims disappeared some years ago in a different police jurisdiction), and yet the driving force of the second season has been working out who killed someone and why. I tell you what, for a programme that definitely isn’t a murder mystery, it very much resembles a murder mystery.

And that would be OK, except that, as I’ve said before, I have very strict criteria for how murder mysteries should play out, and Broadchurch isn’t quite meeting them. The central question is: ‘Who killed Pippa Gillespie (12) and her cousin Lisa (19), and where is Lisa’s body?’ The main suspect throughout the original investigation, presided over unsuccessfully by Hardy, was next-door neighbour Lee Ashworth, for apparently no other reason than the fact that he’s a bit creepy. Throughout the course of the season, Hardy – and the viewer – has indeed moved on from the absolute certainty that Ashworth did it, mainly because it turns out that everyone involved in the case was a bit creepy: Ashworth’s wife Claire, the victim’s mother Cate, the victim’s father Ricky, random agrochemical specialist Gary Thorpe…

But the difficulty for the viewer trying to solve the case (which is, after all, the whole point of a murder mystery) is that there haven’t really been any actual clues, other than the afore-mentioned ‘everyone is weird and scary and therefore a suspect’ hints. What’s especially irritating about these hints is that we get them in odd flashbacks of suspects saying or doing something slightly suspicious – like Claire saying to Ashworth, ‘Can we keep lying to the police?’ Thus, we know that Claire is dodgy; so when two episodes later the police say, ‘Do you think maybe Claire’s not being honest with us?’, it’s not a revelation – it’s already old news. Even when it’s not in flashback, the audience gets there miles before the police: the idea that Ashworth might have been sleeping with Lisa, for example, occurred to everyone in about episode 2, yet it took Hardy and Miller until episode 7 to suggest it as a possibility.

In contrast, proper, actual revelations have been distinctly unforthcoming. For example, take this post-episode-one list (from the Daily Mail, apologies) of ‘Questions that we want answering after the return of Broadchurch’, and count how many have actually been answered.

LIST ONE: QUESTIONS ABOUT BROADCHURCH SEASON 2

1. Why is Joe Miller pleading Not Guilty to murdering Danny? We don’t know.

2. What are the ‘secrets’ about his fellow Broadchurch residents that Miller hinted to Reverend Paul Coates he wanted to reveal? We don’t know.

3. Could there be any other paedophiles living in Broadchurch that Miller will now expose? Ooh…! No.

4. As Joe Miller had an illicit relationship with Danny Latimer, had he groomed or molested any other children in the town? Ooh…! No.

5. Can the Reverend Paul Coates really be trusted? Could his ostentatious (if understandable) public snogs with hot hotel owner Becca just be a cover? Ooh…! As far as we know, no.

6. What is Danny’s dad Mark Latimer doing playing secret games of FIFA with Tom – without either his wife or Tom’s mother Ellie knowing? Making a classic Mark Latimer error of judgement that probably comes from a good place. Irrelevant in the overall scheme of things.

7. Episode one ended with the fresh horror for Danny’s parents of seeing his body being dug up at the request of Joe Miller’s lawyers. What will the new autopsy unveil? Ooh…! Nothing.

8. What are the ‘discrepancies’ with the prosecution case that Miller’s legal team has seized on? Ooh…! Spurious lies that make no sense.

9. Will Joe Miller’s confession (the big denouement of series one) be declared inadmissible? Yes. For no discernible reason apart from dramatic tension.

10. Can Olivia Colman suffer any more? Yes. One of the reasons to keep watching, because she is splendid.

11. Do the prosecution actually have enough evidence to make a case? If not and Miller is released, might he even kill again? This would make a mockery of the entire first season, so hopefully no.

12. Regarding the other storyline at the heart of series two (‘Sandbrook’), why was/is DI Hardy so convinced that Lee Ashworth was responsible for the murder of two girls in his previous high-profile case? As noted above, because he’s a bit creepy and weird, so…?

13. If Ashworth didn’t kill Pippa Gillespie, who did? THE BIG QUESTION.

14. Who is sending Claire Ashworth the pressed bluebells and what is their significance? ANOTHER BIG QUESTION.

15. Are the bluebells being sent by Lisa Newberry who was baby-sitting her cousin Pippa on the night she was murdered? If not, where is Lisa? A THIRD BIG QUESTION.

Maybe some of the ‘I don’t know’s from questions 1 to 11 will become ‘Oh I see’s after tonight’s episode, but I’m not hopeful. As for the Sandbrook questions, we assume we’ll get the answers tonight, because up to this point they’ve been distinctly unforthcoming. I’ve been racking my brains to try and bring together the crucial evidence, such as it is, and this is what I’ve come up with.

LIST TWO: SANDBROOK CASE EVIDENCE

1) Lisa’s body was never found. The heavy-handed implication has been that the body was destroyed (agrochemically, of course) by Gary Thorpe, but the more likely possibility, which occurred to us on day one but (again) took Hardy and Miller about five episodes to think of, was that she might still be alive.

2) Lisa was pretty. Which means the motive may have been passion. Aside from the questionable implication that being attractive means you must be sleeping with someone inappropriate, a sexual motive means it could have been Ashworth, who fancied her, or Ricky, who fancied her, or either of the wives, who knew that their husbands fancied her, or Gary Thorpe, who probably fancied her as well.

3) Bluebells. As List One makes clear, bluebells are all over the place. Flashbacks have shown Lisa and Pippa playing in a field of bluebells. Claire has some dried bluebells. Ricky has a picture of bluebells. My sneaking suspicion is that bluebells are involved somehow.

4) The pendant. Much has been made of the fact that Lisa’s necklace (which was found in Ashworth’s car) was stolen from evidence. Again, we found out quite a while before the police did that Claire stole it; but she’s given it back to Hardy and Miller now, so…?

5) Claire and Ricky. Claire and Ricky have kept in contact (recall that they were neighbours at the time of the murder), because his number was in her phone.

6) France. After being accused (and acquitted) of the murder, Ashworth fled to France. As Claire asks, “What’s so great about France?” No one knows.

It’s not a great list, is it? Everything is very vague, and Hardy and Miller have turned up almost no actual evidence. For example, I’m not sure we even know how Pippa Gillespie was killed (feel free to correct me on this)? As things stand, a case could be made for anyone being the murderer.

LIST THREE: SANDBROOK POTENTIAL KILLERS

Claire: Her husband fancied Lisa, so she forcibly removed her and her young cousin from his life. She stole the pendant (found in Ashworth’s car) to hide the fact that her DNA was on it. She kept some dried bluebells as a terrifying souvenir of her crime.

Ricky: He fancied his niece; when she rejected his advances, he killed both her and his own daughter to cover his tracks. He kept a picture of a bluebell field as a terrifying souvenir of his crime.

Claire and Ricky: Both disliked Lisa for reasons just mentioned; they ganged up together to commit the crimes.

Cate: Her husband fancied Lisa, so she forcibly removed her from his life. In a traditional murder mystery, it would be her, because she’s the least suspicious; but it seems a bit much to kill her own daughter at the same time because of her husband’s infidelity.

Gary Thorpe: Killed both Lisa and Pippa out of craziness. Got rid of Lisa’s body at his farming workshop.

Ashworth: Hardy’s instincts were right all along and Ashworth did it, to cover up his affair with Lisa.

No one: Ashworth and Lisa were having an affair, and, one day, as a result of them focusing on each other, Pippa had an accident and died. To cover it up, Lisa ran away to France, and Ashworth followed later.

I think this last option is the one I’m betting on based on the evidence we have so far (i.e. not much). It explains France and the absence of Lisa’s body, although not why Ashworth has come back from France. It also means, again, that the writers can argue that it wasn’t a murder mystery because technically there was no murder. I wouldn’t put that past them.

But that’s not all, of course. The other cliffhanger of season two is whether the jury will find Joe Miller guilty of the murder committed in series one. I don’t really see how this can end satisfactorily. If he’s found guilty, then what was the point of the trial at all from a dramatic perspective? So we watched a nasty lawyer tell lies about some people; everyone (apart from the jury, it seems) knows they’re rubbish, so who cares? But then if he’s found not guilty, we end up with a child murderer wandering the streets, and season 3 will be a third incarnation of the same storyline.

SO MANY UNKNOWNS. But even if they’re not explained, we can at least expect some nice moments from tonight’s finale. I’m particularly hoping for some snarky put-downs directed at one or more of the following: Nasty Defence Lawyer, Nasty Defence Lawyer’s Nasty Sidekick (along the lines of Nice Prosecution Aide’s beatific smile at her followed by the line ‘Abby, you’re… you’re a truly… horrible person’), Olly the Reporter, Claire (who if not a killer is still sinister and self-obsessed) and/or the Australian Lady Who Slept with Mark and Is Now Sleeping with The Vicar. Furthermore, I fully expect to be brimming with tears at least twice, preferably thanks to Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker, or some combination thereof.

Come on, Broadchurch. Turn it around and leave me impressed.

Dramatic. Period?

The season finale of Downton Abbey is this evening, and so last week, presumably in preparation for the big day, something finally happened. After six episodes where the only interesting event was someone not cheating on her husband, things started to heat up: one engagement was made; another was announced; the maid saw the pig-farmer with the lady’s illegitimate child; and not only did Branson use a naughty word but he stood up during dinner. Whoa!

Downton is an odd programme. I can’t decide if I love it or hate it. Pretty much everyone in the show is someone you’d go several miles out of your way to avoid (I except two characters from this – the afore-mentioned Branson, and Mrs Hughes, both of whom are hardcore Nice Guys). Nonetheless, most of them are strangely fascinating. Lady Mary is a particularly strong example of this. She’s haughty, condescending, annoyingly beautiful, painfully graceful, indifferent to the point of cruelty, and so, you would think, instantly dislikeable. But for all these reasons I’m weirdly obsessed with her: no dinner, garden party, family crisis or financial decision is complete without a smoothly delivered put-down from the oldest Crawley daughter. At the same time, even though there are virtually no storylines, I’m still anxious to know what happens (or maybe ‘happens’) next. This conundrum is perhaps best summed up by a recent gem of a comment from ‘McScotty’ on the Guardian website, “The whole series is beautifully acted, terribly written, annoyingly addictive and utterly preposterous”.

As a whole, the show is probably interesting (to me and to its many other viewers) because it portrays a world quite unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Enormous house! Servants! Dressing for dinner! Flirting over priceless artwork! Those lovely dresses with beads and feathers! No television! It’s a bit like a fantasy world, allowing us to go, “Huh, so that’s what life would be like if I had to make sure my subjects were correctly maintaining my pig collection.” Which is why I was surprised when I recently read an article complaining that, in general, historical dramas just weren’t historical enough. The gist of the piece (as far as I can remember, since I committed the worst possible research faux pas and didn’t note down where I read it, and have since forgotten where that was) was that all too frequently the characters in period dramas are anachronistically similar to the audience, eliciting sympathy from modern-day viewers by creating characters just like them at the expense of historical accuracy.

I see that this is true in some cases, especially in programmes that aren’t really period dramas but have historical elements. Doctor Who is one of these – a trip to the past is not only likely to take place in England (pretty convenient, given that the entirety of time and space is at the Doctor’s disposal) but is sure to include a group of characters who look like people from ye olden times but who are basically twenty-first century people in crinolines and suits of armour. Take the recent episode Robot of Sherwood: Robin Hood may have been dressed like a medieval bandit but he looked, acted and spoke like any other action hero, down to the obligatory secret despair visible only at quiet moments… TV Tropes has coined the rather pleasing term ‘Purely Aesthetic Era’ for just this kind of happening.

But overall I disagree that period dramas are just dramas with a bit of lace and dirt thrown in, because most of the time you need to make a certain amount of adjustment at the start in order to get involved. One fairly generic example is smoking: a cigarette in a show set post-1980 is a sure sign of a ruffian, petty criminal or sinister puppetmaster controlling not only every major political event in the last fifty years but also all of Earth’s communications with extra-terrestrial life. In a programme set before these modern times, however, a puff of smoke is a mere bagatelle, an everyday occurrence, a sign of the times.

And there’s more. Take, for example, Rome, set in, well, Rome, during the Julius Caesar/Augustus years. The series’ main characters, and thus the two with whom we are presumably supposed to identify, are Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd – LIKE) – and these are not modern, metrosexual, egalitarian gentlemen. The series opens with them in battle, Vorenus blithely ordering crucifixion for traitors and sending messages to “the torture detachment with the third”; then, once they’re on their way back to Rome, they pause to slice open some marauders before bashing a dead man’s jaw apart to steal his gold teeth, all the while sharing their best brothel tips. I think it’s fair to say that such antics would be seriously off-putting in a contemporary drama, but the viewer performs a sort of mental rearrangement and somehow comes to terms with the idea that people in the past did things a bit differently. And that’s not even taking into account the murder, betrayal, prostitution, orgies and incest that pepper the rest of the series (think Game of Thrones in togas).

Less violent is Mad Men (1960s New York), but the same kind of mental adjustment is necessary, primarily for the atrocious gender attitudes. Women are wives or, at best, secretaries, universally referred to as ‘sweetheart’ by the men in charge of them, seen as creatures made entirely of boobs and hair. Having just started watching the second series, I found myself being impressed by how much the main character, Don Draper, had grown since the first series, on the basis that he’d gone all of two episodes without cheating on his wife. What a superhuman! (That’s not even the worst thing about the programme. The worst thing is Pete Campbell, the most infuriatingly pointless character in the history of storytelling. That, and the fact that, again, really not much happens.)

And what’s striking is that the writers of these period dramas are bold enough to give even the nicest, most sympathetic characters at least some elements of attitudes that we now see as sexist/racist/classist etc. Both Downton and Grantchester have recently had storylines concerning gay characters, in which some of our beloved favourites have demonstrated worryingly homophobic tendencies. In Downton, Carson the butler (whose stubborn old-fashionedness is usually endearing) has shown himself to be staunchly immune to the sufferings of poor Thomas, who this season has gone so far as to concoct some kind of hideous intravenous medication to cure him of his Gomorrah-esque ways. Meanwhile, in Grantchester (1950s Cambridgeshire), while the hero-vicar Sidney Chambers is open to people of all faiths, colours, creeds and orientations, two of the his closest friends (the motherly housekeeper and the stalwart police inspector) failed to show even a shred of sympathy for the man whose (male) lover had been murdered because he was his (male) lover. This kind of attitude would hardly be acceptable coming from Inspector Barnaby.

Of course, this leads us to wonder: how far can we change our mental stance before we’re just too disgusted to keep watching? On the one hand, it probably depends on the programme. Rome throws f-bombs out all over the place and seems to think it a wasted episode if at least one character doesn’t get naked, and so a certain level of arseholery is expected. In Downton and Grantchester, on the other hand, the use of the word ‘bastard’ from Branson or Sidney is a damning indictment of the pure evil of their interlocutor, and the most we’ve ever seen of a person’s body is a bare shoulder; in such cases, uncivilised behaviour is more of a shock. Either the filth is everywhere, it seems, or it’s banned outright.

On the other hand, though, I wonder if it’s a case of ‘the bigger, the better’. Programmes where the events and attitudes are so far removed from our reality that they’re barely recognisable – for example, the slavery and gladiator combat and back-stabbing of Rome – are comparatively easy to switch into and then switch out of again; sure, it’s all pretty horrific and brutal, but you feel as though few viewers will accidentally crucify someone because they saw Vorenus do it. But the sexist jokes in Mad Men and the homophobic attitudes in Grantchester are more worrying because they’re not that far removed from the jokes and attitudes that are still ongoing; many otherwise lovely people are inexplicably uncomfortable about women working or men being in love with other men. That makes it much harder, it seems to me, to make a strong differentiation between how the characters behave and how people in general behave. Maybe, then, the problem isn’t that period dramas are too close to modern sensibilities; it’s that, in many cases, modern sensibilities are still too close to those found in period dramas. Perhaps some things never change.

And with those words of wisdom, I’m off to buy three pigs and toga.

Blood And Guts And All Things Gory: That’s What Game Of Thrones Is Made Of

When I watch TV, I like to keep things interesting by (a) obsessively watching some shows the second they’re broadcast but (b) leaving others until I’m six seasons behind and have had most of the major plot points spoiled by Twitter. With that in mind, I’ve just started watching Game of Thrones, and I have some questions.

1. Why does everyone pronounce Arya ‘Are-ya’?

2. How does Daenerys get her hair so white?

3. Are we really expected not to notice that everybody in the Night’s Watch – that ragtag bunch of “outlaws, poachers, rapists, killers [and] thieves” – is chubby, bony, knobbly, squidgy or otherwise generally weird-looking, apart from Jon Snow, an entirely perfect specimen carefully hewn from fine white marble, with lusciously curling hair and soul-piercing eyes?

Pictured: obviously not an outlaw, poacher, rapist, killer or thief.

Pictured: obviously not an outlaw, poacher, rapist, killer or thief.

But I digress. The question I really want to ask is: Why is Game of Thrones SO violent?

Now obviously this isn’t a particularly original question, nor should I really have been surprised at just how graphic the show is. I’ve read the first book; I’ve had numerous people recommend the show to me with the proviso ‘It is quite gory, though…’; and I’ve seen the histrionic and overwrought Buzzfeed articles about how the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ episode “destroyed us all” (hint: the ‘red’ refers to a fairly vital bodily fluid). Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer unending stab-fest. In the last two episodes I’ve watched, there’s been a man stabbed through the eye, a deer skinned on a table, a horse beheaded, and, my personal favourite, a man burned to death by having molten gold poured over his head. It was like the face-melting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. (I’m not going to include a picture of that, but if you need a reminder: here. Don’t look at it while you’re eating, Or if you ever want to sleep again. I warned you.)

And the thing about it all is – I don’t want to see that. Forget the ethics and morals and the effect it will have on our children: the biggest problem for me is that I have to spend at least ten minutes per episode not watching the screen because I just don’t want to see the realism with which the blood spurts from one guy’s neck as the other guy plunges a lance into it.

It’s the same with crime dramas. I wrote in a recent post about how much I love a good mystery, but that doesn’t mean I want to see people actually getting killed. No! A vague shot of a corpse’s shoe combined with a shot of the detective sadly shaking his head will do me just fine – and, if the plot specifically calls for it, a drop or two of blood may also be shown. This is one of the reasons that I haven’t fallen in love with CSI the way I have with NCIS: there are just a few too many severed limbs and pieces of mangled flesh to allow me to settle comfortably into the show, since I always have to be prepared to shout “Urgh!” and buy my head in a cushion for the remainder of the scene.

And I do understand that TV isn’t just made for me. (If it was, Firefly would be in its twelfth season and going strong, Grey’s Anatomy would still be shown on terrestrial, there would be a channel dedicated solely to new episodes of Sherlock, and this whole World Cup thing would be edited into an hour-long summary to be shown on ITV4 at 3am on a Wednesday.) But what I don’t get is who some of it is made for. I mean, obviously there are many millions of people considerably less squeamish than me, people who aren’t necessarily put off watching a programme they enjoy by seeing a bit of rubber hose covered in red paint sticking out of a dummy. Kudos to them.

But some of this gory stuff must take a serious amount of effort to put together. The Game of Thrones stabbing-in-the-eye scene I mentioned – for that to work, the production team had to invent some kind of collapsible sword that could seem to go into the front of the actor’s head and come out at the back, then attach half of it to the poor man’s eye area so that it wouldn’t fall out as he flailed around in fake agony, then create a realistic-looking fake blood that could be sprayed into his face without blinding him for the rest of his life, then work out how to edit the take so that it seemed as though someone else had actually stuck the sword in. (At least, I very much hope that they faked it rather than just stabbing the guy. Although you never know – I just Googled the deer-skinning scene and it was apparently a real deer.) But my point is that in order for the show to go to all that effort (and in Game of Thrones that’s happening at least ten times an episode) someone has to be actively wanting it in there. Some television viewers of the world must be saying, “Well, I do like it when people get shot on TV but it’s not very realistic unless you get to see the bullet go through the organs’, or ‘I just can’t quite believe that people are dead until I see their head fully detached from their body’, or ‘This wedding is just not red enough for my tastes’. Who? And why?

And in case it seems like I’m on an anti-Game of Thrones rant, I should say that I’m not – it’s definitely not the only show that leads me to think, ‘Seriously, who’s watching this stuff?’ For example, I’ve recently been horrified by the concept of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Now the original Law and Order is another one of these American crime dramas – in this case, half the episode is the cops solving the crime and the other half is the lawyers prosecuting the suspect in the court room. So far, so procedural. And then someone at NBC obviously said to themselves, ‘You know what? Normal murders just aren’t nasty enough – I think viewers would like to be even more disturbed’. And thus was born Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, in which the Special Victims Unit of the title specifically deals with sexual assault cases, in particular those pertaining to children. That’s right. Every week you get a new story about that specific topic, because the occasional one mixed in with other types of crimes just isn’t enough sexual assault. And don’t even get me started on shock-docs about real-life murders.

Now you may say, ‘My dear Screen-Eyed Monster, if you don’t like those kinds of programmes, then don’t watch them.’ You have a point, of course, and, yes, with most of those kinds of programmes, I just don’t watch. I am quite happy – so happy – to live my life without watching dramas or documentaries where the draw is the gore; similarly, I don’t watch horror because I don’t like it, and that’s all fine. But my real problem here is that I want to like Game of Thrones. I like fantasy. I like knights. I like wolves. I like snow. I like dragons. I like breeches and puffy dresses. I like Yorkshire accents. I like Arya Stark and her spunky rejection of traditional female gender roles. I like cute little Bran. I like Jon Snow (did I mention that already?). In many ways, this is the perfect programme for me. But I’m struggling to keep watching because it makes me feel uncomfortable and slightly nauseous – not in a good, thoughtful way, but in a ‘Well now I can’t finish my hot chocolate and also I sort of wish I was dead’ way. So what do I do? Do I keep watching, keep flinching, keep going to bed slightly afraid that a White Walker will spring out at me in the dark and decapitate me before eating my entrails? Or do I give up, accept that this is one piece of TV history and debate that I’ll never be a part of, and stick to watching Poirot instead?

Decisions are coming.