I truly detest television at Christmas. Most of the year I find it merely worthless and annoying, but at Christmas with all its faux bonhomie and general shut down and when there is not much else to do I truly do detest it. It is like white noise. It invariably fails to deliver anything of quality. Even the usually affable Top Gear was a bit too contrived this year, and failed to hold my attention.
There was only one “Mention in Despatches,” and only two “Orders of Merit” this year. The Mention in Despatches goes to Gillian Anderson, the striking, slightly eccentric former star of the X Files (how she must hate that; I apologise, Ms Anderson, if you ever read it) for her star turn as Miss Faversham in the BBC’s adaptation of Charles Dickens “Great Expectations”. Edgy, damaged, dramatic, psychotic – and her acting was good as well.
The two Orders of Merit are awarded as follows. The first goes to an old favourite. Once again a classic tale originally penned by Charles Dickens. A well known morality tale based around Christmas itself. At times dark and gruelling, almost brutal. At times hilarious. A story of greed, and of redemption of the human spirit, beautifully acted by an all star cast. You guessed it…
“A Muppet Christmas Carol”. No really, it’s fantastic! It makes even a cynic like me grin and laugh out loud. Michael Caine as Scrooge in his finest role since The Italian Job, too.
The second Order of Merit goes to a show which prompts the title of this piece.
“Sherlock: a Scandal in Belgravia” rocked. It tore up the screen for an hour and a half plus and the time simply flew by.
I found the original series of “Sherlock” a bit problematic. For those who don’t know (and our noble editor may be one such, since she abides in France and maybe cannot see the BBC iPlayer) the show was created and written by Steven Moffat, who also writes many of the new Dr Who Episodes, and Mark Gatiss, who was one of the bizarre, dark but funny “League of Gentlemen” company and who also stars as Sherlock’s sinister older brother Mycroft.
Both are enormous fans of Holmes and know the original very well. They present a very 21st Century Holmes, quite at home with e-mail and twitter and mobile phones, brilliant, cold, a thinking computer who has no regard for manners or any one else at all most of the time, accompanied by Dr Watson, who having been injured in Afghanistan, blogs about their exploits.
The style is quick fire, witty, “metrosexual” and arch. There is a touch of the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” about some of the visual stunts. Whilst Series One was very good, I had my doubts. I found it a bit too arch, a bit too knowing, and a bit too self satisfied. There were only three episodes but they were full length and high quality.
But I have to say the “Scandal in Belgravia” episode raised the standard even higher. It ripped the screen up. It kicked off where the last season ended, with the duo of Homes and Watson seemingly in the hands of a truly venomous “Jim” Moriarty (I don’t know who that actor is but he is a star in the making). It then introduces had one of the sexiest villainesses ever in the shape of Irene Adler, cleverly and rather daringly for the time of night re-invented as a bi-sexual professional society dominatrix and spy, brilliantly carried off by actress Lara Pulver.
When the arrogant Holmes arrives to – as he assumes – easily recover some embarrassing photographs, she meets him dressed in her finest “battle dress”; naked apart from pearls, make up and blood red lipstick. The pair then fight, flirt, yearn and romance (or do they?) through a rollercoaster but yet compelling plot of hide and seek, bluff and counterbluff, deduction and counter deduction. Do they love each other? Is she in fact even devoid of emotion more than Holmes? Is Holmes an emotional ingénue in her seductive grasp? Why is there an aeroplane full of dead people?
I can do this programme no greater compliment to say that towards the end I was welling up, and right at the very the end I gave a little cheer. If you have seen it you will know why. If you haven’t yet, I am saying nothing.
It still has its problems but for wit, speed of thought, acting and scope thought it was very, very good indeed.
Which leads me to my question. What is the greatest British mini series? This is difficult because you first have to decide what a “mini series is”. It clearly cannot be just a regular TV programme. It has to be not too short, but too long. Perhaps it has to be one tale, over several episodes. And it should be the translation of a book.
The present Sherlock just qualifies because they are clearly not trying to have a weekly slot. The fabulous Jeremy Brett was in my opinion the definitive “real” Sherlock back in the 80′s, and he did that, filming the whole canon. But that was not a mini series.
Neither could “Callan”, a brilliant and dark series from the early 70′s starring Edward Woodward as a chilling but down on his luck tough guy working for the Secret Services. Not a book, a series. Similarly the brilliant “Ashes to Ashes”.
I can’t do a top 10, but these are my top 6
No. 6: “Sherlock”.
Smart, intelligent, sexy, very well done. Twitter went ballistic over the last episode. The girls over Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch). The guys AND quite a few of the girls over Irene Adler (Pulver).
No.5: “The Forsyte Saga”.
The award winning drama adapted from John Galsworthy’s epic novel. Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter, Susan Hampshire, Kenneth York…..What MORE can there be!? Oh, Kenneth Moore…
No.4: “Band of Brothers”.
Stephen Spielberg’s acclaimed tribute to the true story of Easy Company, from before D Day to victory in Germany. Being about the 101st Airborne, naturally what made it was the British acting, in particular ex-Etonian Damian Lewis as Lieutenant, later Major Dick Winters. Moving. And taken from a book, by the way.
No.3: “I, Claudius”.
Wobbly card board sets could not detract from the immense stature and drama of Robert Graves’ tale of power, lust, murder, incest and betrayal amongst the Julian clan. Derek Jacobi’s finest hour as the st..st…stuttering Claudius who is assumed to be a fool but is, of course, the wisest Caesar of all, but the rest of the cast, especially John Hurt as the utterly insane Caligula, is simply superb.
No.2: “Pride and Prejudice” (1995)
The story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy is always being remade, but this 1995 version is the definitive version in my view. Colin Firth broods and smoulders as the seemingly haughty and inflexible Darcy, the stunning Jennifer Ehle glitters as the brilliant, intellectual but-actually-much- more-beautiful-than-you-first-
The series has now been digitally re-mastered and is available for about £5. I watched it twice over Christmas. I love this series. I love Elizabeth Bennett. Or Jennifer Ehle. I am not sure which. But sorry, Lizzie, you don’t quite win. The clear winner is….
No. 1: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”
The plot, screenplay and acting in this superb series raise it head and shoulders above all others. It has been re-issued on the back of the cinematic remake, and again I bought it for £5 from TESCO. It is perhaps the darkest, best written, and most compelling piece of television I have ever seen. It captures the drab, failing Britain of the 70′s perfectly and against this plays out a drama of Shakespearian proportions. It perfectly portrays the nasty world of petty office politics and Whitehall, weaves in a fantastic whodunit and catches a time of Cold War, danger and betrayal which were very true to life before the final collapse of the Soviet Empire. The acting from everyone involved is brilliant. From Sir Alec Guiness (as he became soon after) it is beyond brilliant. As the gentle, cuckolded and yet ultimately ruthless George Smiley, it is career defining.
Have I missed anything? Are they in the right order? You decide.
By Randy Hack, special sports, media and arts correspondent