At the tail-end of 2016, I read Clive James’s book on binge-watching TV box sets, Play All, which I reviewed here. Personal old favourites of mine, The Sopranos, The West Wing and NYPD Blue featured strongly in this book, and looking back at my review of it, I really ought to re-watch The Sopranos from the beginning again. I still have all the DVDs, plus Six Feet Under and Mad Men, although sadly The West Wing went to my ex when we split the DVD shelves.
Obviously, the combination of lockdown and being on furlough has meant plenty of time for me to binge-watch TV, so I thought I’d share a few notes on some of what I’ve been watching…
MI5 drama Spooks ran for 10 series comprising 86 episodes from 2002-2011 and a film in 2015, and I just adored it from the very first moment. Those who visit this blog regularly will know of my loving of spy thrillers, and the same goes for TV too (for the most part, the recent adaptation of Le Carré’s Little Drummer Girl was not engaging enough at the time for me.)
The first few series of Spooks were undoubtedly the best, before the technology somewhat took over and the plots became increasingly complex. We began with a fabulous fivesome of main characters: Peter Firth as MI5 Counter-Terrorism dept chief Sir Harry Pearce, Matthew MacFayden as Head of Section Tom Quinn, then Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo and Hugh Simon as, Zoe, Danny and loveable geek Malcolm, officers on ‘The Grid’. Peter Firth is the only actor to feature in every single episode, through thick and thin and I’ve always had a soft spot for him – ever since 1970 when he led the gang in children’s TV series The Double Deckers!
Spooks was a daring series in many ways, especially in the attrition rate of its key characters. If you look at the list of main characters on the series Wikipedia page, you’ll see that the dead outnumber the surviving! Who, (of those who’ve seen it) can forget the second episode – where Kevin McNally, playing a particularly nasty thug disposed of up and coming agent Helen, played by Lisa Faulkner, in the most gruesome way ever – generating the largest number of complaints to the BBC.
After Matthew MacFayden’s character had a breakdown at the end of series two, it took a while to warm to his replacement, Rupert Penry-Jones as Adam Carter, but by the time he was blown-up in the first episode of series 7, we all loved him just as much. Adam’s demise led to the first female Head of Section in Hermione Norris’s Ros Myers, she’d been introduced a couple of series previously, moving over from MI6, and was seriously kick-ass! Richard Armitage as Lucas North took over when Ros died.
Before I leave Spooks, I must mention the GCHQ analyst seconded to MI5, Ruth Evershed, played by Nicola Walker, who had two stints in Spooks (with time off for having a baby). Her will they-won’t they relationship with Harry was done so well, and I’m so glad it was resolved.
(BBC iplayer, Spooks, series 1-10 plus film Spooks: The Greater Good, 2015)
Life on Mars & Ashes to Ashes
1970s time-slip drama Life on Mars ran for two series in 2006-7, and introduced us to the memorable character of Gene Hunt played by Philip Glennister – he’s the maverick Mancunian police inspector who works hard and plays harder; he drinks like a fish, smokes like a devil, drives like a demon in his Ford Capri, and is totally non-PC – although to be honest, no-one escapes his insults. John Simm is Sam Tyler, the detective who is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973, and all the way through, we’re not totally sure if he has really time-travelled, or this is a fantasy dreamed up by his brain while he’s in a coma.
The attention to detail in this series is so well done – it really felt like being back in the 1970s colour and decor-wise and the soundtrack of early 70s hits was fab – I was 13 in ’73 so can say this with some authority – although there are anachronisms I’m sure, deliberate and otherwise. The depiction of the policing is of course satirical and fiction dialled up for comedy. Some may find the non-PC attitudes of Hunt and his colleagues, notably Ray Carling, hard to take, but such was the reality of the times, and the series creators used young detective Chris Skelton who begins to look up to Tyler to show progress as well as getting Annie promoted to being the first female detective on the squad. Tyler, being from the future, projects his own values onto the crew, often calling Hunt out. Hunt does absorb some of this – sometimes! But there is no doubting his primary aim to keep his manor safe. The suspense over Tyler’s role is well-maintained over the two series – he gets messages through the television and radio in his bedsit from doctors and those by his bedside, and he is stalked by the Test Card Girl, who symbolises death and is very creepy.
In the three series of Ashes to Ashes, (2008-10) Gene Hunt, together with Skelton and Carling have transferred down to London. Again we begin in the present where DI Alex Drake played by Keeley Hawes, fresh from Spooks, gets shot and reawakes back in 1981. However, Alex is familiar with the case of Sam Tyler, and is determined that she knows what to do to return to the present and her daughter Molly. The uptight and modern Drake, naturally sees Hunt’s methods as prehistoric which generates one level of tension between them, and then there’s the will they-won’t they obvious attraction.
Like Tyler, Alex is besieged by cryptic messages from her present, and she is haunted by the clown figure from David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes who, like the Test Card Girl is very creepy. The second series ended with Drake thinking she was back in the present, but Hunt appears on the monitor screen asking for her help – which draws her back to even darker things with the arrival of the evil DCI Jim Keats – a complaints officer investigating Hunt’s team. I won’t say how things go, but the ending was superbly done, and there are plans for a new series in production – it was definitely left open for that.
Ashes to Ashes was harder to love than Life on Mars. It had a lot to live up to, but also suffered from the 1980s colour palette – all hard reds, blacks and greys, no warmth, and surely no Detective Inspector would have gone to work in the 1980s in off the shoulder batwing tops with bra straps showing? Hawes always had to overcome the costume department, but we did come to care about her, as well as Shaz – the WPC that Skelton falls for, who is a breath of fresh air in the same way as Annie was in Life on Mars.
(All available on BBC iPlayer)
The Walking Dead and Space Force
My latest obsessions are The Waking Dead on Amazon Prime and Space Force on Netflix.
Space Force first – I watched the ten episodes over three afternoons last week. Billed as a comedy, it suffers from that; it’s really a drama with plenty of chucklesome moments and the occasional laugh out loud one. Steve Carell plays General Naird, promoted to put ‘Boots on the Moon’ and John Malkovich plays his civilian chief scientist (and leftie conscience-pricker). Carell’s character is his usual – pompous yet put upon, but with more empathy than the other Defence Chiefs. He’s also playing single father to his teenage daughter, his wife played by Lisa Kudrow in ‘Phoebe’-mode being in prison for a forty years stretch – we never find out why!
It has been mauled critically for not being funny enough – expectations having been sky high. But it’s more subtle than full on comedy, less Galaxy Quest and more Northern Exposure, with quite a lot of quirkiness in its fish out of water scenarios, but with added running gags, like Naird’s secretary Bob being a one-star general who always lets people into Naird’s office before he’s there, Naird’s media manager being an out of control spin doctor and so on. I enjoyed it a lot, and I hope it gets another series – because it did end on a cliffhanger!
It’s slightly odd seeing Andrew Lincoln as a small town sherriff in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of comic book The Walking Dead, after being used to him in This Life and Teachers on British TV. Rick Grimes wakes from a coma after having been shot, to discover a strange new world overrun by zombies – ‘walkers’ as they’re called. Making it home mercifully unscathed with the help of a father (played by Brit Lennie James, guesting here but recurring later so I understand) and son who help him he sees evidence of thoughtful packing so is sure his wife and son are alive and heading for Atlanta. Of course Atlanta is zombie-central and Grimes is lucky to escape but manages to hook up with a group which had also found his wife and son – and Shane – his former partner in the police force.
It combines pure dystopia and zombie mayhem with all the relationship drama and survival of the fittest you care to hope for – and I’m only up to the end of Season 2 with another eight to go. Loving it – but all the survival drama is giving me some weird dreams!
Anyway, that’s enough of me prattling on about TV box sets.
Which ones have you been watching in lockdown?