Mapp and Lucia Ride Again

Mapp & LuciaThe BBC’s best New Year present in a long time is a new television adaptation of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels, set during the 1930s. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting these ladies, Mrs Emmeline Lucas and Miss Elizabeth Mapp are competing queens of cultural snobbery. Lucia, having vanquished all rivals in her native village of Riseholme, moves to Tilling after the death of her husband. Unfortunately, Tilling already has a ruler in the person of Mapp, and battle royal ensues. There’s also a foray into London society for Lucia.

For the purpose of this three-episode adaptation, the story is focused on Lucia’s first few months in Tilling. I highly recommend the novels for the proper full flavour.

Some aficionados will be tutting about how this series can’t possibly improve on Channel Four’s 1985 series, and it’s true the competition is daunting. It starred Prunella Scales as Mapp, Geraldine McEwan as Lucia, Denis Lill as Major Benjy Flint, and Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie. But the BBC version, given that it’s shorter and more concentrated, more than holds its own.

Anna Chancellor’s Lucia and Steve Pemberton’s Georgie don’t do as much of the baby talk, but otherwise they’re completely believable. Miranda Richardson is brilliant as Mapp, fully expressing her suppressed rage, aided and abetted by touches of her Queen Elizabeth character in Blackadder II. And Mark Gatiss makes a perfect Major Benjy.

The other star in this series is, of course, the town of Rye in East Sussex, where Benson lived and wrote the novels. Tilling can be laid on top of the real Rye so exactly that you can work out which houses the characters lived in.

Mapp and Lucia is on BBC iPlayer. Get it while you can. Now then, I still have the last episode to enjoy. Au reservoir.

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (7.2.6)

Doctor Who Poster - The Crison Horror

BBC Doctor Who Site

Mrs Gillyflower: Join us in this shining city on the ‘ill!

There’s trouble ‘t mill in this splendid romp, written by that aficionado of cinematic horror, Mark Gatiss. Tough as old boots, Mrs Gillyflower is played by Diana Rigg, clearly loving the role of this completely over the top villain. In a stroke of genius her long-suffering daughter, Ada, is played by her own own daughter, Rachael Stirling. In addition, three of of my favourite characters show up to help the Doctor out of his pickle – Madame Vastra and her partner, Jenny, and the still bloodthirsty but well-trained Sontaran warrior, Strax. (“You’re over-excited. Have you been eating those jelly sherbert fancies again?”)

The episode is full of the sort of theatrical northernness you might find in the Fosdyke Saga, mated with cliches from cinematic horror movies, and tempered by a Whovian sensibility. I particularly enjoyed Mrs Gillyflower’s organ, which revolves to reveal the launch panel for her rocket. Touch of the Dr.Phibes there, which would have been even more perfect if Mrs Gillyflower had played something. And special mention for the engaging Thomas Thomas, who gives such perfect directions to Strax, just as he’s about to shoot his fourth horse in a week.

We don’t see the Doctor or Clara until well into the episode, except in the last image captured in a dead man’s eyes – a dead, red man, seeing a red Doctor. Madame Vastra and Jenny travel to 1893 Yorkshire, where Jenny infiltrates Mrs Gillyflower’s chilling cult of moral purity. Only the most perfect survive being dipped into a vat of red Jurassic leech venom. These lucky, petrified people get to live under glass domes in perfect little houses in Sweetville, Victorian values at their most explicit. Clara makes the grade, while the Doctor’s rejected, but doesn’t die like all the other rejects who get dumped in the canal. Blind, scarred Ada takes a fancy to him and locks up her “monster” in a cell.

Until he’s rescued by Jenny, and they rescue Clara, and the whole gang takes on the  evil Mrs Gillyflower and her “silent partner,” Mr Sweet. As well as being the modified descendant of Jurassic leeches, Mr Sweet has thriven on the polluted waters of the canal. Together, he and Mrs Gillyflower are producing industrial quantities of his red venom to purify the world.

Unmasked by the Doctor and his companions, Mrs Gillyflower tries to spread her red venom around the world, in the the form of a rocket (what else) hidden in a factory chimney. Foiled by Clara’s chair-in-the-control-panel ploy, she takes Ada hostage and triggers the secondary firing mechanism in the chimney. Too late! Madame Vastra and Jenny have the vat of red venom that’s the rocket’s payload. Strax shoots the pistol from her hand, she falls to her death, and Mr Sweet crawls off but can’t escape getting pulverized by an irate Ada. Huzzah!

Lots of questions from Madame Vastra and Jenny about Clara. The Doctor appears to be sticking to his conclusion from last week, that Clara is just Clara. But Madame Vastra is having none of it: “I was right then. You and Clara have unfinished business.” If that weren’t enough, there’s the photo of Clara in Victorian London (not Yorkshire), which is among the photos her charges have discovered on the internet. Come to think of it, the Doctor was extremely keen to get Clara to 1893 London, but by then she’d had enough of Victorian values. In any case, now the kids know their nanny’s a time traveller, they want a go in the time machine as well.

Perhaps this was the perfect episode, I don’t know. But aye, it were reet grand.

Doctor Who: Cold War (7.2.3)

Cold War

BBC Doctor Who Site

Viva Las Vegas!

Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It’s the Eighties. Everything’s bigger.

This episode, written by Mark Gatiss, combines elements of Das BootAlienThe Thing, and probably other films I don’t know about, into a gripping cold war thriller. The setting is claustrophobic, a Soviet nuclear sub under the Arctic ice in 1983, during the height of the Cold War. The Doctor and Clara burst out of the Tardis expecting Las Vegas, only to find themselves in the sub’s control room, disrupting a training exercise in pushing the button for WWIII.

The Russians are understandably peeved at the interruption, particularly the gung-ho second-in-command, whose name I didn’t get. I have a thing about Russian names, my brain won’t process them properly. Never mind. He shall be known as General Ripper, from Dr. Strangelove. The Doctor and Clara are suspected of being spies, and it doesn’t help that the Tardis swans off on its own, leaving them in a dire situation. It gets worse. The sub hits a submerged reef and plunges out of control until fetched up by another reef. Then there’s the specimen the civilian professor on board has discovered trapped in ice, while searching for oil. A crewman, for inexplicable reasons, decides to melt the ice it’s encased in before they get back to Moscow. Revealing a thoroughly pissed-off ice warrior. And not just any ice warrior – this one is Grand Marshal Skaldak, a proud leader and a hero to his people. You insult him at your peril, because he will take out your entire planet to avenge the dishonour.

You could also apologise nicely and hope he’ll forgive you, but that’s no longer an option when General Ripper attacks him from behind with a cattle prod. They have to chain Skaldak up for everyone’s safety.

The rest of the episode is taken up with how Skaldak gets free and tries to launch a missile to start WWIII, because he thinks his brother ice warriors aren’t coming for him and he has nothing to lose. Being frozen for 5,000 years, he knows his daughter is “dust” and mourns her. General Ripper is also keen to start WWIII, offering to collaborate with Skaldak, who gets all the information he can out of Ripper and then kills him. As he does to another crewman to find out what his enemy is made of. Literally.

But he loves his daughter and can feel some empathy for these humans. Once again, it’s Clara who reaches out to the threat and neutralises it. She reminds Skaldak of what it is to lose someone you love (multiplied by billions where the Earth is concerned), and he disarms the weapon before flying off with his rediscovered brothers. True, the Doctor is prepared to destroy the sub and Skaldak’s ship in the Arctic version of a Mexican stand-off, but it’s hard to say which has the most weight in affecting Skaldak’s decision.

I like it that Clara is an equal in these adventures: “Saved the world then. That’s what we do.” This after a spontaneous hug with a slightly embarrassed aftermath. Clara is actively trying to live up to what she imagines as the Doctor’s expectations, seeking his explicit approval. And he trusts her to negotiate with Skaldak.

There are the usual grace notes in this as in most Moffat episodes. Great supporting characters, with the professor standing out as an Eighties pop music-loving, avuncular figure, who takes an interest in Clara and worries about her feeling unhappy after seeing the crewman’s body. I enjoyed the way he wanted her sing Hungry Like A Wolf, by Duran Duran, and she was too embarrassed to do it. Except at the end when everything depended on Skaldak changing his mind. I had to google it, but the song adds something to my appreciation of him.

Skaldak is a superb character. Not a villain or a monster, but a lost, proud, lonely ice warrior, stressed beyond measure and forced to the greatest dishonour of all, being seen without his armour. This is where the new series is so much better than the episodes from the last century. Aliens get some respect as characters and some money spent on their portrayal. With his armour, Skaldak is troubling enough. Out of it, he becomes downright scary. First we see the hand, with its long, scaly, probing fingers, then the glowing eyes in shadow and a suggestion of mouth. Finally, in response to the Doctor’s taunt, “Look into my eyes, Skaldak, face to face,” we see the whole head. But he’s also allowed to be more than his features suggest.

I have a couple of niggles. Clara’s accent seems be wandering between northern and RP. I hope she settles on one or the other. Then there’s the Doctor’s pronouncement that “History’s in flux. It can be changed, rewritten.” Pompeii? Why couldn’t the Doctor get more people out, as Donna wanted, when Vesuvius erupted?

Beyond that, I think this episode is superb, one of the high points of the season. Perfect ending, too, with Clara making the Doctor admit that his tinkering with the Hazard Avoidance Detection System has sent the Tardis to the South Pole. Never mind, the sub will give them a lift.

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one.
– Sherlock

A fine, moving conclusion to the series that brings out the best in Sherlock, without laying a finger on his reputation for “being such an annoying dick all the time.” No mean   feat. I’m assuming everyone reading this has either seen the episode or doesn’t mind spoilers. So I’m not going to attempt a detailed summary (even if I could do it proper justice), and focus instead on the elements that interest me.

In The Reichenbach Fall, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ take on The Final Problem, Sherlock is utterly humbled and destroyed in the eyes of the world. Three major cases, and the success of John’s blog, have propelled him to celebrity status. The deerstalker has come back to haunt him. At this apotheosis of Sherlock’s fame, Moriarty begins to cut the ground out from under his feet, by staging three audacious crimes at Pentonville Prison, the Bank of England, and the Tower of London. Without releasing a single prisoner, or stealing any gold or Crown Jewels. It’s all done by iPhone (there’s an app for each one) as he breaks into the glass case containing the Crown Jewels, and sits down to wait for the guards, crowned, orbed, and sceptred.

Sherlock’s a witness at Moriarty’s trial, managing to get himself banged up for contempt of court, a predictable outcome despite John urging him not to be himself. The real surprise (well, perhaps not) is that Moriarty is acquitted, after sending death threats to all the jurors through their hotel televisions. All of which he cheerfully admits to Sherlock, when visiting Baker Street for tea afterwards. So it’s game on to solve “the final problem,” as he proceeds to cast doubt on Sherlock’s genius, honesty, and even whether there is such a person as Jim Moriarty. As opposed to Richard Brook, an actor hired for the occasion to stand trial in place of this character who Sherlock has invented. In short, he has both committed and solved the crimes written up by John, using “Moriarty” as a scapegoat.

And it works. Everyone is convinced except for the only people Sherlock can call friends – John, Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, and Molly, who carries such a torch for him it could light up the sky at midnight. It would be nice to include Mycroft in this list of friends, but he is fatally compromised both by family history and a recent disclosure of Sherlock’s life story to Moriarty. Done with the best of intentions, to get information in return about the supposed computer key code Moriarty possesses, which can be used to break into any computer system. In so doing, Mycroft gives Moriarty all the genuine information he needs to buttress the Big Lie, and make it thoroughly convincing through Richard Brook’s tell-all story in (what else?) the scumbag Sun.

With Sherlock on the run from Scotland Yard, it comes down to a battle of will and intellect with Moriarty on the roof of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where Molly works. Knowing he is marked for death, Sherlock has already asked Molly for help. “What do you want?” “You.” Not only is Sherlock in danger, so are John, Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade, targeted by assassins in case Sherlock will not enact the punchline to Moriarty’s fiction of a disgraced, fraudulent detective who commits suicide.

The final problem, it turns out, is staying alive when only intellectual challenge can make life worth living. Hence the endless need for distraction, which has turned Moriarty to crime and Sherlock to detection. They are two sides of the same coin. As Moriarty says, “You’re me,” in an epiphany that still allows him to blow his brains out rather than allow Sherlock to win by finding out the recall code for the assassins aiming at his friends.

So Sherlock has to decide whether to jump from the roof or allow them to die. He chooses to jump and, when John appears in the street below, chooses to own the story constructed by Moriarty, rather than endanger them. This is above and beyond Conan Doyle’s Holmes, who dies a hero and saviour of his country. Sherlock demonstrates  extraordinary heroism in destroying his life’s work to protect his friends.

Of course he doesn’t die. Quite how, I don’t know. Obviously, John being knocked down by the bike was part of a plan to prevent him seeing the body with all his faculties intact. As a doctor, he might have spotted something wrong with the situation. We know Sherlock had arranged a contingency plan with Molly. Again, what it was we don’t know. Someone else certainly got buried in Sherlock’s place. But how would he survive the fall? No doubt we’ll find out in the next series.

We learned a lot about John and Sherlock in this episode. John’s affection for his friend is deep and heartfelt, as shown by the opening scene at the therapist’s office, and his inability to tell her at the end about “the stuff you wanted to say, but didn’t.” It does come out at the grave, when he gets a chance to talk to Sherlock alone. “I was so alone and I owe you so much…Don’t be dead.” That awkward pat of the gravestone, as if it were his friend’s shoulder, was incredibly moving. Then marching off, heartbroken.

As for Sherlock, he knows he has friends, and is prepared to sacrifice everything for their safety. Definitely a hero, as John called him earlier, as well as an annoying dick.

I’m really chuffed there’s going to a third series.

Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville

A very satisfying adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Mark Gatiss gives us two beasts for the price of one, only one which actually exists, while whittling down the Baskervilles to a singular MOD weapons research establishment on Dartmoor. The real Hound is H.O.U.N.D., a similar establishment in Liberty, Indiana, of which Dr Frankland is an alumni, specializing in induced fear, paranoia, and hallucinations. When it’s closed for politico-ethical reasons – turning their test subjects into killers rather defeats the object of the exercise, and it’s rotten publicity – Frankland brings his research back to the UK, where he can surreptitiously work on it.

All the familiar elements are in place, rearranged and transmuted for a modern audience. Sir Henry Baskerville becomes Henry Knight, an unassuming chap who rolls his own, someone you wouldn’t imagine was rich till you see his house. Dr Mortimer switches sex and specialization to become his therapist. Jack Stapleton swaps sex and amateur naturalist status to become a scientist at Baskerville. The Barrymores are now Gary and Billy, mine hosts at the Cross Keys, and owner of one the Hounds. Bought to drum up trade after watching the documentary in which Henry talks of seeing the beast.

No Selden, though. The escaped convict is replaced by doggers, their location given away by car headlights dipping up and down in response to the internal bouncing. Looking very much like morse code when parked just below the brow of a hill. An inspired touch.

Sherlock starts to unravel in this episode. When he first appears, covered in blood and carrying a harpoon, you think that might be an indication of something wrong. In fact, it’s the successful conclusion of a case, one that you wish John would write up for us. No, it’s the nicotine wot done it, or rather the craving, which can only be assuaged by another case. So the Baskerville problem is lucky for him, until he sees a huge Hound, glowing black with red eyes, in Dewer’s Hollow. At first he denies seeing it to Henry, then throws a wobbly in the pub when John presses him on the matter.

The crux of course is that Sherlock is so supremely rational, yet what he saw with his own eyes was impossible, and that is shaking him to pieces. He repeats the famous Holmesian axiom, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, as a sign of his distress. A perfect plot mechanism to dig deeper into Sherlock’s psyche, and come up with the admission that he has no friends, but he does have a friend. Definitely a bromance, given the shit John puts up with.

The solution to Sherlock’s conundrum is fairly obvious to a modern audience – the Hound is a drug-induced hallucination – and I’m sure it wasn’t just me who twigged what was happening quite early on. Any mention of a top secret government weapons research establishment has to set the alarm bells ringing. The MOD was testing LSD back in the 1960s. I blogged about it here. Never mind. It was a pleasure to watch the plot unfold.

It’s interesting that Arthur Conan Doyle always went for the rational solution to a probem in the Sherlock Holmes stories, yet he was a supernaturalist at heart. He supported Spiritualism and was completely taken in by the Cottingley Fairies hoax. His creation would have gone through that claim like a hot knife through butter.

All this, with admirable pacing and the usual witty self-references and grace notes, made it a worthy successor to A Scandal in Belgravia.

The final scene is quite intriguing. Jim Moriarty, banged up by Mycroft, is freed from a cell. To reveal the word, “SHERLOCK,” written all over the walls, a prelude to The Reichenbach Fall. Whatever happens in that, I think we’ll all be clamouring for Sherlock’s return in a new series.

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

When I think of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, I now think of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  That these two actors have so thoroughly eclipsed their predecessors obviously has a lot to do with the medium of television, but it’s mostly due to Steven Moffat  and Mark Gatiss’s brilliant reinvention of a Holmes and Watson for the 21st century.  They set the tone in the first episode of the first series (2010) with  A Study in Pink, and carried it through to A Scandal in Belgravia.  As with Moffat’s other project, Doctor Who, I have to watch each episode twice to get catch everything the writing and acting has to offer.

In A Scandal in Belgravia, Sherlock meets his match in the supremely intelligent and beautiful dominatrix, Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver.  Her clients from the upper reaches of the British establishment tell her everything, and she has it all stashed away in her cameraphone, protected by a passcode that takes Sherlock almost the whole episode to discover.

This duel of minds and sexual attraction (“Brain is the new sexy”) is the core that runs through A Scandal in Belgravia, relegating the serious business of why these secrets are so important to the subplots that weave around it.  Irene’s first meeting with Sherlock, when she walks into the room naked, was stunning.  It set the agenda for her plan to seduce him into complicity, something she seems to have accomplished until he confesses to feeling her pulse at that opportune and tender moment.  So deducing that she was in fact aroused, and extrapolating from it the passcode for the cameraphone.  What else but SHER?

But Sherlock is also smitten enough to rescue Irene from terrorists about to cut off her head.  “The Woman.  The Woman” says it all.

There is so much to enjoy.  A jumbo jet filled with dead people, so terrorists don’t realize that their plot to blow it up has been discovered, is wonderfully Gothic.  The kicking the CIA agents get is thoroughly satisfying – couldn’t happen to more deserving characters.  I particularly like the way their leader falls out of a window several times after brutally interrogating Mrs Hudson.  And it’s heartwarming to see how Sherlock reacts to her being in danger.  He’s a good boy, and he protects the people who care for him, despite his offhand manner.

That said, he’s also cruel in his honesty.  Poor Molly is humiliated at the Christmas party when she turns up dressed to seduce, armed with the knowledge that she’ll have Sherlock to herself when everyone leaves.  Sherlock’s dissection of her behaviour, and discovery that the present was meant for him, is painful to watch.  His apology is even more surprising.

Then there’s the assumption that Sherlock and John are a couple.  Even Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) accepts that John is now part of the family and can be trusted with emotional secrets.  Irene thinks they are, and so does John’s date at the Christmas party when he stays behind to keep an eye on Sherlock after Irene’s purported death.  At Mycroft’s insistence, no less.  Only John is convinced he’s not gay, and they’re not a couple.  Yet there’s a whisper of jealousy in the way he asks Sherlock if he’ll see Irene again, when she’s revealed as still alive.

John’s blog is a great joke, and making it the reason for Sherlock’s runaway success as a consulting detective is inspired.  Leading as it does to them fleeing the paparazzi in a hasty disguise, which of course means Sherlock grabbing a deerstalker.  What else would he wear?

Terrific stuff.  Can’t wait to see what Mark Gatiss makes of the Hound of the Baskervilles next week.  Robert Downey, Jr. can take his action/adventure, CGI-enhanced Hollywood Sherlock and stick it where the sun don’t shine.