The Larkins – ITV

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This seems to have been a mixed reaction to this, but I rather liked it.   It was like The Durrells: no-one was saying that it was particularly intellectually challenging, or even particularly realistic, but it was a welcome bit of comfortable, easy viewing.  Given that practically every programme these days begins with a warning that it contains scenes which some viewers may find distressing, and ends with a list of helplines for people who have been “affected by issues raised in tonight’s episode of X”, I for one am well up for that.   It’s going to be very hard to match up to the iconic David Jason/Pam Ferris/Catherine Zeta Jones series from, unbelievably, thirty years ago, and it *didn’t* manage that,  but it was all right.  The TV listings seem to be filled with series about murder, domestic abuse, children being abducted, and so on, and even soap operas are filled with doom and gloom.  This is a bit of light relief.  Bring it on!

I don’t know about nostalgia for the 1950s, but I would certainly love to get back to a time when aggressive, abusive people didn’t try to turn absolutely everything into a culture war.  I was already feeling a bit fed up earlier, after I’d had to complain to the moderators of a children’s book discussion group I was in after two individuals tried to turn it into class war.  One of them apparently thought it was OK to object to working with anyone who had a “plummy voice” and a name “like Piers”.  Since when was it OK to hate someone just because you don’t like their accent or, for heaven’s sake, their name?!

Then I idly Googled “The Larkins”, and up came a review written by some vile individual called Sean O’Grady, for the misnamed “Independent”, saying that it was “a Brexit television abomination” and that Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries wrote “opioid atavistic tosh”.  Excuse me?   What on earth does a fictional TV series about life in a village in the 1950s have to do with either Brexit or Nadine Dorries?   O’Grady is clearly one of these bittter types who can’t accept that they aren’t entitled to get their own way on anything and everything, but what on earth has that got to do with the Larkins?  And this was in what used to be a mainstream, middle-of-the-road newspaper, not some extremist political tract!

Then there’s the debate over the fact that the Larkins live in, to quote journalist Anita Singh, a “racially diverse utopia”.  It’s completely unrealistic for a rural part of Britain in the 1950s.  But, had it not included any ethnic minority characters, people would have been shrieking about a “lack of diversity” and demanding that it be taken off air.  When the BBC showed their adaptation of A Suitable Boy, which had a predominantly Indian cast, people complained about stereotyping.  I feel sorry for scriptwriters and producers.  Whatever they do, they can’t win.  But, again, why does a bit of light Sunday evening TV have to be turned into a culture war?  Seriously, folks, just try being nice.   It’s not a crime.  Stop having a go at people.  And please stop bringing your personal political views into something to which they have absolutely no relevance!

Heigh-ho!  OK, rant over.  To get back to The Larkins, not an awful lot actually happened.  Mariette wanted to go and work as an au pair in France.  Ma and Pop weren’t keen.  Pop advised Miss Pilchester on a house sale.  Some lad upset Primrose, and Mariette had a go at him.  There was a fuss over who should be the Master of Foxhounds.  Pop bought a car.

And Ma gave Montgomery, Primrose, Zinnia and Petunia a lecture about how they always should kind and polite and treat other people with respect.  I couldn’t agree more.

 

Ridley Road – BBC 1

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It’s not often that the TV adaptation of a book is better than the book itself, but writer Sarah Solemani, and executive producer Nicola Shindler from Whitefield, have done an excellent job with this.  Oh, and I’ll just point out that a lot of it was filmed in Manchester, in Bolton and in Ashton-under-Lyne.

It’s quite a bold move by the BBC to show this in the iconic Sunday 9pm slot, usually associated with cosy Georgian or Victorian-era costume drama, but the fact that some of the actors, notably Tracy-Ann Oberman, have spoken of their concerns at the risk of receiving abuse on social media *because* of it – especially given their experiences of such abuse in the recent past – just shows how much it’s needed.

The story’s been completely changed.  In the book – review here – the central character Vivien has recently been orphaned, moves from Manchester to London to look up someone she’d briefly gone out with whilst he was staying with her family, and finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, working against the National Socialist Movement*, and also that her late father was involved in its wartime predecessor, the 43 Group.  It’s mostly the men who are involved in the action, with the women watching from the sidelines and mopping up the blood.  However, in this TV version, Vivien is part of an overbearing family trying to push her into a marriage with a family friend, and then runs off to London in pursuit of the man she really loves, finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, and becomes actively involved herself.

I wasn’t all that keen on the overbearing family, who were rather stereotypical and seemed to have walked straight out of the pages of a Maisie Mosco book, but I think the idea was to give her a safe, cosy background and for her then to find out that danger lurks in the outside world, and you can understand the reasoning behind that, especially as this clearly is very personal to many of those involved.

Nicola Shindler’s spoken about how she herself resigned from the Labour Party because of the culture of anti-Semitism that had been allowed to flourish under Corbyn’s leadership, and Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays Nancy, has spoken about the horrific online abuse she received from Corbyn supporters.  Earlier this year, there were some deeply unpleasant incidents in which mobs drove through predominantly Jewish areas of London and Manchester, shouting threats.  And, as the story shows, and which oddly seems to be have been forgotten in recent times, people who attack one minority group will often attack another minority group too: we saw a mixed race character receiving abuse from members of the National Socialist Movement.

A bit more background information would have been useful.  We kept being told that Vivien and Jack had had some great romance, but we didn’t see any of it.  And that her parents had split them up, but it wasn’t clear how or why.  We were made aware that there’d been a big falling-out between Vivien’s parents and her uncle and auntie, who were very involved in the 62 Group, but we didn’t really find out why.  And some of the depictions of Jewish religious rituals may well have been confusing to people who weren’t familiar with them.  But it’s only a four-part series, and you can only fit so much in.

*The 62 Group.  In July 1962, the National Socialist Movement held a mass rally in Trafalgar Square under the slogan “Free Britain from Jewish Control”. A riot broke out at the rally, and, shortly afterwards, the 62 Group was set up.  The timeline got a bit muddled in the programme, but that was because the writers obviously felt it important to show the rally – to show swastikas being waved in Trafalgar Square, and people saying all sorts, because there were no laws against hate speech then.  There are a lot of issues now because it’s so difficult to stop hate speech on social media, and the programme did show how important and essential legislation is.

It also showed how easy it is for rabble rousers to whip up hatred.  Vivien’s landlady, who seemed like a harmless little old lady, was going along to meetings, where local Fascist leaders were going on about how corner shops were being forced to close down because Jewish-owned Tesco were opening supermarkets.  People twist tropes and stereotypes to suit themselves and the issues of the time, and it soon escalates.

One stereotype which the authors have spoken about trying to challenge is that of the minority groups who are victims.  This is Black History Month.  I have seen dozens of lists of “recommended reading”.  Nearly every book on those lists has been centred on accusing white people of racism, rather than saying anything positive about the achievements of black people.  This series is very much about fighting back, about challenging those who attack minorities.  The police and the authorities were seen as doing little to help, and that has some parallels with today, if not here than certainly in the US.

All in all, it’s a challenging story, and, as I said, it’s a bold move by the BBC to show it, especially in that iconic timeslot.  Nobody wants this sort of thing to be making headlines.  No minority group wants to see prejudice against them being all over the news, and becoming a political issue.  Nobody wants to have to form a 62 Group.  But the writers and actors have spoken out about how necessary this series is, and bravo to the BBC (and I don’t often say that!) for recognising that.

 

The North Water – BBC 2

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Several blokes who all swear a lot have set sail for the Arctic, on a whaling mission.  Except that it’s not, because the one in charge is going to scupper the ship so that its owner can claim the insurance money.  Presumably he does plan to save himself.  One of the crew’s going to turn out to be a rapist and one’s going to turn out to be a murderer – not sure whether or not this is the same person.  Our hero, an Irish doctor with an East Midlands accent (most of the others are meant to come from Hull, although some of them sound more like they come from Leeds), is covering up some sort of secret, which seems to be that he was kicked out of the Army for deserting during the Indian Mutiny.  The media reviews don’t seem to have picked up on this.  I don’t know why, because it’s been made pretty obvious!   He spends a lot of time in his cabin, reading books by Homer.  But he nearly didn’t make it through the first episode, after the others left him behind and he fell through the ice.  But it’s OK – he managed to get out of the water by himself.

It’s all very dark – both literally and figuratively speaking.  I’m sure we all understand that the mid-Victorians did not have their homes, pubs and ships lit by 100 watt electric light bulbs, but does everything need to be so dark?  There were complaints about this with both Jamaica Inn and Taboo, but the BBC don’t seem to be getting the message.

I get the feeling that it’s going to be a bit like a grown-up version of Lord of the Flies.  The longer these blokes are all stuck with each other, in the middle of nowhere, the worse their behaviour is going to get.  But it’s quite watchable.  I’ll stick with it!

Fever Pitch: the rise of the Premier League – BBC 2

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I was half-expecting this to be a load of soul-searching about whether or not English football’s sold its soul to Mammon and the extent to which lifelong fans have been pushed out by the prawn sandwich brigade.  Instead, it was largely a nostalgia fest about the wondrousness that was 1992/93.  I rather enjoyed it, and I’m sure that fellow United fans did too; but I should imagine that everyone else was wondering if they’d tuned into MUTV rather than BBC 2 by mistake :-).

In 1991/92, I was in my last year at school, United hadn’t won the league since 7 years before I was born, and we lost out on the penultimate week of the season to Leeds.  That was the last year of the old Football League.  In 1992/93, I was in my first year of university, in Birmingham – not the best place to be as United battled it out with Villa for the title.  This time, we did it!   26 years of hurt came to an end.  Did we care that it was the “Premier League” rather than the “Football League”?  No.  It was still “the league”.  We’d won the league.  And that was all that mattered.

I came home from Birmingham for every weekend home match.  I’d been going to every home match for years.  Did anything change for me in 1992?  No.  Did, as BBC 2 suggested, anything change for me after Italia ’90 (and don’t get me started on the day I had three GCSE exams on the day of one of England’s group matches)?  No.

What about Sky TV?  Well, I’d nagged my dad – sorry, Dad – all through the early months of 1990 to get Sky, so that I could watch tennis all year round rather than just for the few weeks of the year when it was shown on the BBC.  He’d eventually given in.  So, when everyone else rushed to get Sky installed so that they could watch the new Premier League, we’d already got it.  So no change there, either.   Do I feel that I embarked on a “journey” (why is *everything* a “journey” these days) in 1992, as Alan Shearer said?  Well, TBH, no.  But, yes, in some ways, it *was* all change.

I don’t half miss knowing that matches would be at 3pm on Saturdays.  You try to plan something for more than a month or so ahead and it’s impossible.  The match could be at half 12 on Saturday, half 4 on Sunday,  5:15 on Saturday, 2 o’clock on Sunday, Monday night or even Friday night.  Or, of course at 3 o’clock on Saturday.   Not to mention the travelling.  Newcastle v Southampton on a Monday night?   Norwich v Liverpool at half 12 on a Saturday?  Anything goes!

That all started in 1992.  But there was a load of other stuff as well – oh, dear, what on earth was some of it about?   Remember the “Sky strikers”?  What a load of sexist rubbish!   And the rest of “glitzy” nonsense, like the giant inflatable men being brought on to the pitches at half time.  No-one wanted to see that!   A few snooty remarks were made about brass bands.  Well, bring brass bands back, I say!   Older generations reminisce fondly about the days of brass bands at football matches.  Bring them back!

Other than all the talk about United, there was quite a bit of talk about the rise of Blackburn Rovers, bankrolled by Jack Walker.  Complete with a load of rather patronising clips of Southerners saying that they didn’t know where Blackburn was, which I could really have done without.  People moaned at the time about clubs buying success, but now I’d love to see people like Jack Walker and Jack Hayward in the game, owning their hometown clubs, the clubs they’d loved all their lives, rather than money men from America or Russia or the Middle East.  And that sort of thing was what I was expecting this series to be about; but it isn’t.  It’s just basically a lot of nostalgia, and interviews with the great players of the time.  I enjoyed revisiting that wonderful year, but it wasn’t really anything that you can’t see on one of the Sky Sports channels in the hours of TV that they fill up with reruns of old matches or interviews.  Still, I shall definitely be watching the rest of the series!

 

Britannia, Season 3 – Sky Atlantic

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   I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing in my history books about the Roman occupiers of Britain being cannibals, but, according to “Britannia”, they were just that.  Well, one of them was, anyway.  The poor bloke who ended up being served up at a banquet wasn’t even chopped into pieces and put in a stew.  He was wheeled to the table in a long silver dish, intact,  covered in a) all the trimmings and b) his helmet.

It all started off quite peacefully.  New series, new theme tune – Children of the Revolution.  Who knew that Ancient Romans and Celts were into Marc Bolan?   The Roman general with the Scouse accent had now got a nice pad in St Albans, but was in the doghouse all round because he’d lost track of the mysterious girl with magic powers, and wasn’t having much joy getting any information out of the guy who previously claimed to be 10,000 years old.  To add to his woes, his wife turned up.  This was when the rot set in.  First of all, she told him off for putting on weight.  Then she asked him where his sword was.  It was at the polishers, claimed he.  Ah.  Well, what was the sword that’d been found sticking out of a stump, then, asked she, brandishing it about.  He tried to claim that it wasn’t his, but failed dismally because it’d got his name on it  Engraved on it, that is, not marked with a Cash’s name tape.  She also crawled about sniffing the floor for any signs that other women had been in the place.  As you do.

Having found that he did, indeed, have a mistress around the place, she said that it was better than doing unspeakable things with his socks.  Too much information.  And then she had his mate served up for tea.

Meanwhile, Phelan, the dispossessed prince, was training as a druid, and was told to change his name to Quant.  Maybe druids were into Mary Quant make-up as well as glam rock.  Or maybe they just didn’t want their new guy being associated with Pat Phelan.  He was dispatched into the woods to find some moss, but sat around chatting to a centipede and then came back empty-handed.  And then the girl with the magic powers stabbed the guy who’d claimed to be 10,000 years old because he’d forgotten her name.  Or something.

I don’t know what the scriptwriters on this are on, but I suspect that it’s something rather stronger than mead.  Or vino.  And I think they may have had a little too much of it.  But at least it was entertaining.  It was so totally bonkers that you just had to laugh.  I mean, what on earth?!

The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family – BBC 2

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Just as if there haven’t been eleventy billion programmes about Anne Boleyn already, BBC 2 have decided that we need some more.  Why talk about any one of the zillions of fascinating but neglected historical figures when you can talk about someone who’s already been (apologies for the bad pun) done to death?   Yes, all right, I didn’t *have* to watch it, but I always watch historical programmes!  Incidentally, is it me or does the woman playing Anne Boleyn look strangely like Wallis Simpson?

Having said all that, this first episode was really rather interesting, because, rather than just talking about the goings-on of Anne, George and Mary, much of it was about Thomas Boleyn’s career as a diplomat, and his dealings with some of the fascinating Continental figures of the time.  He never got to meet Ferdinand of Aragon or the wonderfully-nicknamed Philip the Handsome, but he got rather pally with Margaret of Austria, daughter of the opportunistic Maximilian and sister of the aforementioned Philip, the first of the various female Habsburg regents of the Netherlands.  And he also got to meet Louis XII and Francis I of France.  The dealings of Henry VIII and Francis I always make me laugh.  Talk about “mine’s bigger than yours”.

Also, there was a lot of talk about Cardinal Wolsey.  My best ever mark for an A-level history essay was for one about Cardinal Wolsey, so, for that wholly irrational reason and no other, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for him.

This series is claiming to be a bit different by focusing on the Boleyn family rather than just on Anne.  And calling them “A Scandalous Family” is really rather unfair.  Yes, Anne, her sister Mary and her brother George were all involved in a number of real and invented scandals, but let’s give the Boleyns a bit of credit for making it to court in the first place, given that, only a few generations earlier, they’d been a family of tradespeople.  Anne’s father and grandfather climbed the greasy pole by marrying aristocrats, but they wouldn’t have been in the position to do that if they hadn’t already done well for themselves.  The courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII weren’t exactly what you’d call meritocratic, but look at the backgrounds of some of the big names there.  Cardinal Wolsey, son of a butcher from Ipswich.  Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith/pub landlord from Putney.   A bit of luck and a bit of nous and there were chances to get in there; and that’s what the Boleyns did.

The programme did make this point, but it contradicted itself all the way through.  We were repeatedly told that the only way into the inner circle at court was through being a member of the aristocracy, and that Thomas Boleyn’s only chance of promotion was therefore through the assistance of his wife’s relatives, the Howards.  But we were also repeatedly told that Wolsey, the butcher’s son, was far more powerful and influential than the Howards were, that being associated with the Howards was actually pretty risky because they kept narking the king, and that Thomas Boleyn got ahead through his own savviness and the friendship of Wolsey.

And it was through his own charm that he persuaded Margaret of Austria to give young Anne a place at her court, and through his own savviness again that he saw that the wind was blowing in favour of an English alliance with France and got Anne a place at the French court.   Anne, equally savvy, made the most of it.

Mary, by contrast, was portrayed as pretty much being pushed into Henry’s bed by Wolsey, who was made to sound like a glorified pimp, scouring the court for pretty women and giving them no choice but to become Henry’s mistresses.  I don’t think that that was a very fair portrayal of what happened, from anyone’s viewpoint.

So, all in all, this wasn’t overly impressive – too many contradictions, and some rather odd takes on things.  But it was still worth watching – whether the second and third episodes, which will presumably just regurgitate all the Mary/Anne/George stuff that’s been said a million times before, will be equally worth watching, remains to be seen.

Come on, BBC.  The Tudors are not the only royal dynasty in English or British history.  Let’s have a few programmes about some of the others, please!

 

Write Around The World – BBC 4

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This second episode in Richard E Grant’s exploration of three areas of Europe and the books associated with them (lucky Richard E Grant – I always spend ages reading books about anywhere to which I’m travelling, but it’s now 20 months since I’ve been outside Britain) saw Richard travelling around the South of France.   The first book on his list was one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s less well-known books, “Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes”, about his own journeys.  Stevenson’s donkey had been called Modestine.  Hey, that rang a bell!  Yes, I’d definitely heard of that book.  Gosh, was I cultured and well-educated or what?  Then it dawned on me that the only reason I’d heard of it was that, in “Exploits of the Chalet Girls”, the Chalet School borrows a donkey to star in its Nativity Play, and Head Girl Jo Bettany nicknames it “Modestine” after the one in Stevenson’s book.  I hadn’t the first clue what the actual book was about, other than what it said in the title.  So much for being cultured and well-educated.  Oh well.

This sort of thing has happened a few times recently.  Another example was when an book from the 1860s, “Mopsa the Fairy”, was mentioned, and I thought I’d heard of it … until I realised that I only knew the name because it was given to one of Amy Ashe’s dolls in “What Katy Did Next”.  I always thought that Amy had just made it up.  Another of Amy’s dolls was called Effie Deans, and, whilst I do now know that Effie is a central character in Walter Scott’s “Heart of Midlothian”, I certainly didn’t when I first read the “Katy” books, and, TBH, I think I was into my teens before I realised that “Heart of Midlothian” was a book as well as a football team.  Oh, and yet another of Amy’s dolls was called Peg of Linkinvaddy, and I still don’t know where that name came from.  I’ve just tried doing a Google search on it, but, for some very strange reason, I got a load of answers about, er, male medical issues.

Then there was Ellen Tree, the name given by the March girls in “Little Women” to a fallen branch which they use as a pretend horse.  Ellen Tree was the name of a 19th century British actress.  Did you know that?  No, nor did I until recently.  I’m making myself sound ridiculously ignorant, aren’t I?  I may not have read the donkey book, but I read both “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island” as a kid, and I can still recite most of “From A Railway Carriage” after being forced to learn it off by heart by an old-fashioned primary school teacher who thought that making kids learn poetry off by heart was still appropriate in the 1980s.

Anyway, we learnt a bit about the Cevennes, and how the Presbyterian-raised Stevenson got stressed out about having to kip in a Catholic monastery because there was nowhere else to stay.   Then we moved on to Marseille, and the prison which inspired Dumas to write “The Count of Monte Cristo”.  I know all about Dumas.  “One for all and all for one, Muskehounds are always ready” … er, OK, I did actually know the story of the Count of Monte Cristo!   Blue sky, blue sea.  Lucky Richard.

Next up, “Tender is the Night” by F Scott Fitzgerald.  Er, I’m afraid that I didn’t know this one.  I did once get a good mark for an essay about F Scott Fitzgerald, although I’m not sure why because I got completely off the point and started waffling about the American Civil War in the middle of it. I don’t really get Fitzgerald. I didn’t get that Leonardo di Caprio film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” either.  Anyway, this gave Richard an excuse to swan about at very posh hotels on the French Riviera, so it made for rather good viewing.

And then on to Carol Drinkwater, who used to be in “All Creatures Great and Small”, and her books about growing olives in Provence, where she now lives with her French husband.  This was lovely.  I don’t actually like olives, but I love olive groves.  Not quite as much as I love lemon groves and orange groves, but even so.  Gosh, I do miss Southern Europe.  I would give a great deal to be in a Tuscan olive grove just now.  Please, please, let’s get these travel restrictions lifted soon.

And finally, Grasse, the perfume capital of the world.  Ah, lovely!  I love Grasse.  The book concerned was “Perfume”, by Patrick Suskind.  I didn’t know this one, but it sounded very sunny and romantic.  Er, no.  Apparently it was about a man who went around murdering young girls.  Why would you write about so nice a place as Grasse and make it so horrible a story?!   Oh well, we still got to see the parfumeries.

It was a very aesthetically-pleasing programme, and I love the idea of combining books and travel – it’s something I like to do myself.  I just feel sad that I’ve lost two years’ travel opportunities because of this horrible virus.  We only get the legal minimum number of days off work, so it’s not as if I’ll be able to make up for that at such time as, hopefully, overseas travel gets back to some sort of normality.  But it was nice to watch!

Pose (Season 3) – BBC 2

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This is the third and final series – or “season”, as our American friends say – of Pose.  It’s going to cover the ongoing difficulties caused by the attitude of religious organisations towards the LGBT community, an area in which, nearly 30 years after this is set, sadly little progress has been made.  And it’s also going to revisit the story of the body in the trunk in the wardrobe: I was really hoping that they’d decided to forget about that, but it seems not!

Well, it’s now 1994, and the gang have reunited to … er, watch O J Simpson being chased by police.  Has anyone ever actually rung their friends to ask them to come round and eat popcorn whilst watching live coverage of a police car chase?!   Oh well, whatever, it worked as a plot device to get everyone together!

The first series, set in the late ’80s, was generally quite upbeat, as we saw people making new lives and forming surrogate families in the ballroom scene in New York, but the second series, set in the early ’90s, was dominated by the effects of the AIDS pandemic.  This series has also started on a downbeat note, as the community continues to lose people to AIDS, others struggle to cope with living with HIV, and a number of major characters turn to drink and drugs.   Meanwhile, the ballroom scene’s becoming increasingly commercialised, and that’s detracting from the community spirit and support that it’s always provided.

However, we’ve got the house mothers doing a superb job of trying to hold it all together – supporting the people who need it, and reminding everyone else of the need to stand by their friends.  A lot of the focus is on the older characters this time, and M J Rodriguez as Blanca, Dominique Jackson as Elektra and Billy Porter as suffering Pray Tell really are putting in very strong performances, as we jump from home scenes to hospital scenes to ballroom scenes.   The 1994 music’s a bit too late for me 🙂 , but never mind!

This has already been shown in America, but I’m not going to try to find out in advance how it ends.  However, I gather that it does end on a positive note, although some characters aren’t going to make it to the last episode.  It’s difficult to find a balance between being too upbeat and being too downbeat when telling the story of a community that’s faced a lot more than its fair share of problems, but this has been really good.  It’s a shame that there isn’t going to be a fourth series, but the producers have said that they feel that this is the right time to stop.  All the best to everyone involved in whatever they do next.

Anne Boleyn – Channel 5

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I’m not sure that we really needed yet another TV series about Anne Boleyn.  Her story’s been done to death (pun intended), and, consequently, most of the reaction to this has been either moaning that it’s old hat or else trying desperately to find a new angle on the story by talking about “othering”.  Obviously that’s not the fault of either the actors or the scriptwriters, but it’s hard to make a big impression when you’re covering a story than everyone’s heard a zillion times before.  There are so many neglected areas of history which Channel 5 could have chosen to cover instead.

On the plus side, this is a proper historical drama.  It’s no Versailles or The Tudors: it does actually stick to the real people and the real series of events.  Well, main events, anyway.  It’s also positive that it’s looking at things from Anne’s point of view, and that it’s showing her as a deeply intelligent woman who championed the Reformation, rather than just as a scheming tart who stole another woman’s fella.

However, the dialogue’s really rather naff.  It tries to be clever, but doesn’t always manage it.   Some of it’s overloaded with metaphors (there are a lot of metaphors, symbols and omens) – ” Ooh, Jane, if you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t play the game” – and some of it sounds like someone trying to be Jane Austen but not succeeding.  Jodie Turner-Smith’s really doing her best with it – her delivery of some of Anne’s bitchier lines reminded me of Joan Collins in Dynasty – but it’s just not that well-written.  The Boleyns all get some good lines – George and Jane Boleyn both come across very well, George as his sister’s chief supporter and Jane as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and Cromwell does too, but Henry’s character didn’t come across at all.  And what on earth was that scene with Anne kissing Jane Seymour supposed to be about?  Jane, incidentally, is presented as a simpering little ninny.  Oh dear.  I thought we’d got past that idea.

The costumes are great.  It’s nice to see Bolton Castle being used for most of the indoor shots: I’ve been there a couple of times.  And the series is all right: I’ve seen far worse.  But this subject’s been covered so many times before that any new series would need to be absolutely outstanding to make a really big impression, and it isn’t.

There’s been a lot of talk about the casting of a black actress to play a white historical figure.  There’s actually been a lot of talk about casting lately, and it’s getting a bit silly.  A non-Latina actress was pressurised into giving up the role of Maria in West Side Story; Russell T Davies said that straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles; the casting of British actress Cynthia Eriwo, rather than an American actress, as Harriet Tubman was criticised; people have questioned the casting of a Catholic actress as the Jewish heroine of Ridley Road; and, to cap it all, people moaned that Will Smith shouldn’t have been cast as Richard Williams because their skin isn’t exactly the same shade of black.  What next?  No-one should play a member of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey unless they’ve got a title?

Having said all that, I didn’t think it was appropriate to cast Helen Mirren, in her 70s, as Catherine the Great in her 30s, and that thing BBC 2 did with women playing male Shakespearean roles was daft.  So I suppose there are limits.  But let’s not get too hung up about “representative” casting, or we’re going to end up with roles being cast based on box-ticking rather on acting ability.  Just as long as there’s a level playing field.   If it’s OK for a black actress to play a white character or a gay actor to play a straight character, it’s OK for a white actress to play a black character or a straight actor to play a gay character, unless it’s a role where ethnicity or something else is a big part of the storyline.

What I’m not really getting is this waffle in some areas of the media about how choosing Jodie Turner-Smith because she’s a black actress, rather than just because she’s a good actress, is “identity casting” which is showing how Anne Boleyn was “othered”.  Er, what?   How long has “other” being a verb?  And no-one was “othered”.  Favourites and factions came and went at court, and, in Henry VIII’s time, that was complicated by the religious turmoil and the desire for a male heir.   When Anne lost favour, she didn’t have a party of supporters strong enough and loyal enough to stand up for her.  Nor did numerous other people who fell foul of Henry.  Joan of Navarre was accused of witchcraft, and Mary Beatrice of Modena was accused of bringing Jesuit priests to court to subvert James II.  No-one talks about them being, er, “othered”.

The problem is that so much has been said about Anne Boleyn that people end up scratching around trying to think of any new angle on her story.  It’s like some of the bizarre suggestions made in recent years about who killed the Princes in the Tower – everything there is to be said about the likely candidates has been said, so people come up with outlandish ideas just for the sake of saying something different.

Anyway, to get back to the actual programme, which has been rather overshadowed by the debate over the casting, it was, as I said, OK …  but this period in history’s been covered so many times, both in dramas and in documentaries, that it needed to be absolutely amazing to be memorable.  And it’s not bad, but amazing it isn’t.

The United Way – Sky Documentaries

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This felt more like a home movie than a documentary, but I mean that in the most positive of ways.  It was like catching up with old friends.  People whom I hadn’t seen for years.  Arthur Albiston.  Kevin Moran.  Norman Whiteside.  Paul Parker.  Ron Atkinson was like some embarrassing old great-uncle who always says the wrong thing and makes everyone cringe!  Some were people we still see regularly.  Bryan Robson, my childhood hero 🙂 .  David Beckham, still one of us even if he’s a world famous megastar living in America.  And, of course, Eric Cantona.  Wearing a flat cap and making cryptic comments, although at least he didn’t mention seagulls.

People were relating little anecdotes, like you do at family gatherings.  Players reminisced about Alex Ferguson making them have margarine instead of butter, and talked about feeling like part of a family, part of a tribe.  United director Mike Edelson, whose daughters were at school with my sister and me, told the bizarre tale of how, in 1986, he rang the Aberdeen FC switchboard, put on a fake Scottish accent and pretended to be Gordon Strachan’s agent, knowing that he’d never be put through to Alex Ferguson if he was known to be from United.

I was hoping that it’d tell the full story, starting in 1878, but it started with the Busby Babes and ended with That Night in Barcelona in 1999.  So it wasn’t really a history of Manchester United: as I’ve said, it was more like a home movie.  Was that really 22 years ago?  “Who put the ball in the Germans’ net?”   I’ve got a miniature troll which I bought on holiday on Norway in 2004, and he’s called Ole Gunnar, long before anyone ever dreamt that Solskjaer would one day be the manager.  Well, what else could I have called him?!   A girl in my year at school had a dog named after Kevin Moran.  Plenty of people have named babies, never mind trolls or dogs, after footballers.  This is what we do.  This is us.

The word “Glazer” was never mentioned.  Nor, for that matter, was the word “Knighton” or the word “Maxwell”.  No mention of boardroom politics.  No mention of sponsors.  No mention of TV companies.  Not even any mention of the changeover from the Football League to the Super League.  Instead, we had appearances from Shaun Ryder and Bez from Happy Mondays, and Peter Hook from New Order, all lifelong United fans.  And Andy Burnham, who, although we all know he supports Everton, was welcome because we know he loves football.  He mentioned that his dad, working in Manchester at the time, went to the first match after the Munich Air Disaster.  So did my dad, with his dad.

This is us.  This is coming out of school and learning from the Manchester Evening New billboards that Ron Atkinson had been sacked.  No mobile phones in those days.  The odd Walkman made its way into school, but I’m not sure that we had Walkmans with radios in 1986.  We certainly did by 1990/91, because I remember sneaking mine in so that I didn’t have to wait until I got home to hear the Cup Winners’ Cup draws for the next round!  This is arguing (amiably, ish!) on the school bus with kids who support City.  And this is hundreds of thousands of people packing into town to cheer the treble-winning team on their open top bus tour when they got back from That Night in Barcelona.

Let’s get back there.  It’d be very nice indeed to get back to the glory days of 1999, but, first, let’s get back to having packed stadia, and to having people crowding into the streets to cheer on teams after winning a trophy or winning promotion.  And let’s get back to everyone accepting that the clubs belong to us, to generations of loyal fans.

We got a bit of general social history.  Partly from Andy Burnham.  Partly, bizarrely, from Michael Heseltine and Neil Kinnock: I’ve got no idea how they got in on the programme!  And we got the general story.  From 1958 to 1999 only.  If you’re actually reading this, you’ll probably know it all.  The glory of the Busby Babes.  The tragedy of Munich.  Matt Busby’s incredible building of a new team.  The European Cup triumph in 1968.  The struggles after Sir Matt retired.  26 years without a league title.  Tommy Docherty running off with Laurie Brown’s wife.  The drinking culture in the Atkinson years.

And the struggles in the early Fergie years.  We didn’t appreciate quite what a mess he had to sort out.  By early 1990, there were all sorts of stupid jokes flying round.  “Alex Ferguson, OBE – out before Easter.”  “What’s red and costs £15 million?”  “An expensive tomato.”  £15 million was an awful lot of money in pre Premier League days.  And the Mark Robins goal that saved us all!   Then the nightmare of 1991/92, when we blew it.  Signing Eric.  And then the joy of 1993, and the many wonderful years that followed.  They didn’t end in 1999, but I suppose it seemed like a good place for the programme to end.

It’s 22 years to the day since That Night in Barcelona.  I’m hoping that that’s a good omen for tonight’s Europa League final in Gdansk.  In 1983, the year that my little self finally convinced my dad that I’d behave if he took me to Old Trafford, and I attended my first match (we beat Stoke 1-0), Lech Walesa, Gdansk’s most famous son, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he couldn’t accept it in person because he was afraid that the Polish communist government wouldn’t let him back into the country afterwards.  And in Valencia, home of Villarreal, tonight’s opponents, it was only a year since Spain had completed its transition to democracy after the death of Franco.  I feel really old now I’ve written that!

Anyway, we’ll all be watching, wherever we are.  Alex Ferguson.  Eric Cantona.  David Beckham.  Bryan Robson.  The musicians, the politicians, the journalists, and everyone else who featured in this programme.  Like Eric said, we’re a tribe.  And, whilst this won’t be winning any awards for great documentary making, it wasn’t half great viewing!