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Waking the Dead: Series 3, Episodes 5 and 6: Breaking Glass
Written by Stephen Davis; Directed by David Thacker
“Yes, it is a speculation, Grace. I’m allowed to speculate - in fact I get paid to speculate.” - Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd
I’m slightly surprised, in retrospect, that I’d completely forgotten about this episode, given that, not long after I started watching it the other night, I immediately remembered it as one of my favourites. The investigation focuses on a young man, Terence Tanner (Charlie Creed-Miles), who, during a session of hypnotherapy, uncovered repressed memories of the abuse he suffered as a child in a care home. Initially sceptical, Boyd quickly becomes convinced that all is not right when the man in question is discovered to be someone other than who he claimed to be, and abruptly disappears from his home armed with a gun. Searching his computer reveals that he may be looking for a man he knows as “Papa Doc”, his former abuser. However, given that the man widely believed to be Papa Doc, Peter Murdoch, committed suicide years ago, the team have to contend with the fact that, if he isn’t stopped, Tanner may end up hurting the wrong man… unless, that is, Murdoch was framed.
Perhaps what is most effective about this episode is the way in which it intermingles past and present without resorting to any of the traditional flashback cutting associated with film and television. Instead, the director, David Thacker, seamlessly shifts between the two simply by moving the camera and, through various tricks, giving off the impression of having moved from one location and/or time period to another. From a purely logistical point of view, it must have been a nightmare to setup.
Beyond the aesthetics, though, we also have an excellent script, one which provides a fascinating look at the nature of having two distinct personalities and how it occurs in the first place (often as a result of unbearable trauma). As tends to be the case with Stephen Davis’ episodes, the treatment of the subject matter, while sensitive, is not above throwing in the odd bit of dry wit to lighten the mood. “I’ve got some bad memories, but I haven’t split my personality,” says Mel. “How do you know?” replies Frankie. I really miss this sort of banter between the team, and I’m acutely aware that it will disappear all too soon when two members of the cast are lost at the end of Series 4. We also get an interesting and unusually convincing (for television) portrayal of what this layman takes to be autism or Asperger syndrome, in which I detect something of the hand of creator/consulting producer Barbara Machin, given certain similarities between this and her equally effective portrayal of bipolar disorder in her Series 13 Casualty episode, One from the Heart.
Waking the Dead: Series 3, Episodes 3 and 4: Walking on Water
Written by Simon Mirren; Directed by Andy Hay
After yet another extended delay, I finally get back into Waking the Dead’s third series, and with a significantly better episode than the season premiere. Taking the same path as Series 2’s Special Relationships, the plot this time focuses on a man, Mark Lovell (Craig Kelly), who has recently been acquitted of the murder of his adoptive father, Thomas, an event which took place almost a decade ago. On the night of the murder, four other members of the family vanished without a trace along with their boat. When the latter is discovered off the coast near the family home and salvaged, Boyd reopens the investigation, the assumption being that, if they can find out what happened to the rest of the family, they stand a good chance of finding Thomas’ real killer. Unfortunately, since he was locked up, Mark has changed - dramatically so. He is now Maria, and Maria is proving to be less than cooperative when it comes to dredging up Mark’s past.
It’s at this stage that Waking the Dead becomes very, very confusing, and I must confess that, despite having now seen the episode three times, I’m still completely flummoxed by what is supposed to be going on in the final twenty minutes. It doesn’t help that the writer, Simon Mirren, inserts a Big Huge Plot Twist out of left field, involving conspiracies, espionage and drug smuggling, and it’s a shame, because everything leading up to these final twenty minutes is very good. I love the way the script pokes fun at Boyd’s discomfort when faced with Mark/Maria. Much like with David Hemmings’ character in Argento’s Profondo Rosso, Boyd isn’t disgusted by the sight of a man dressed as a woman: he simply doesn’t know how to deal with the situation. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: for all his tantrums and crudity, Boyd is actually a pretty liberal fellow, something of a rarity in TV detectives. (When Spence asks how Mark’s gender disorder affects his status as a suspect, Boyd snaps back “It doesn’t.”)
There’s some nice direction in this episode too, including a very neat shot of a body being slid out of a storage freezer, shown from the point of view of the body. On the other hand, I’m not wild about the various shots of the dead appearing and vanishing while Frankie is working alone on the salvaged boat. It’s getting a little too close to the pseudo-mysticism that plagued some of the later episodes for my liking.
Holby connections: The writer of this episode, Simon Mirren, penned several episodes of Casualty during the Series 13-14 period (he’s also Helen Mirren’s nephew), while Craig Kelly, who plays Mark Lovell, starred as SHO Daniel Perryman throughout Casualty’s tenth series.
Waking the Dead: Series 3, Episodes 1 and 2: Multistorey
Written by Ed Whitmore; Directed by Robert Bierman
After a somewhat lengthy break, I return to my Waking the Dead reviews and plunge into the show’s third series. For some reason, Series 3 is always the one that I have the most trouble remembering: ultimately, only the final episode stands out in my mind, and that’s only because it’s unusually character-driven for Waking the Dead at this stage in its history. That’s not to say that Series 3 is in any way poor, but it’s not particularly memorable, and it has the unfortunate disadvantage of starting with what was, at the time, the programme’s weakest storyline to date.
The focus is on a mass shooting which took place in 1996 when a lone gunman, Carl Mackenzie (Sean Pertwee), murdered or injured several pedestrians in the high street from the vantage point of the top floor of a multi-storey car park. In the present day, the case is up for appeal. Pertwee always claimed his innocence, stating that he had in fact been kidnapped and framed by the real gunman, but two witness reports, including that of the police officer who succeeded in apprehending him, state that they saw him with the gun in his hands…
It’s hard to put my finger on what it is about Multistorey that doesn’t work. On paper, it’s actually a very interesting scenario, but for some reason none of it really pulls together. There’s no real sense of urgency, despite Boyd have a personal connection in the form of having been friends with a police officer who was killed in the massacre, and despite him (temporarily) concealing evidence when an eyewitness’ account is revealed to have been less than reliable. None of the characters, not even the accused, really come to life, and it ultimately all feels a little pedestrian.
On a side note, after swapping producers every year since the pilot, the show finally got itself a long-term producer in the form of Richard Burrell, who remained in that role until the end of Series 5 and has since gone on to produce a diverse array of programmes for the BBC, including the first series of the recent re-imagining of Robin Hood, The Invisibles and Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story. Oh, and, on a purely trivial note, it never ceases to amaze me how much the moustache and beard Spence adopts as of this episode changes his appearance, adding at least ten years to him and greatly increasing his stature.
Holby connections: Robert Pugh (Robert Cross in this episode) played paramedic Andy Ponting in the first two series of Casualty, while Kim Vithana (Beth Downing in this episode) played midwife Rosie Sattar between Series 5 and 7 of Holby City.
Waking the Dead: Series 2, Episodes 7 and 8: Thin Air
Written by Ed Whitmore; Directed by Edward Bennett
In 1989, 18-year-old Joanna Gold (Sophie Winkleman) vanished without a trace while walking on Hampstead Heath with her parents, brother and sister. Flash forward to the present day, and the striking red dress Joanna was last seen wearing is discovered, in immaculate condition, in a storage facility. It turns out that the facility is being rented by an Alec Garvey (Justin Salinger), a man with a track record for stalking girls. Being leaned on by the Commissioner to get a result, any result, Boyd charges Garvey, resulting in his attempted suicide. Faced with the horrible prospect that he fingered the wrong man, Boyd reopens the case and goes back to the fateful day of Joanna’s disappearance, digging up disturbing family secrets and discovering that Joanna Gold was not as squeaky-clean as the public have been led to believe.
This is one of my all-time favourite episodes of Waking the Dead, and I think one of the reasons why it works so well is that it’s unusually creepy. At its heart we have a striking and frankly baffling image - a girl in a red dress simply vanishing into thin air on a clear day in an open space - and, as the investigation intensifies, all sorts of guilty secrets come to the fore. The Golds put up a front of being model members of society, but it’s clear from the outset that they are all as guilty as sin and each have something the hide. It helps that we have a superb array of actors playing the key members of the family: Roger Allam, as the father, can’t help but look suspicious, and everything about his demeanour screams “hostile” from the second Boyd encounters him, while Cherie Lunghi works wonders as his brittle wife. However, the best performance comes from Sophie Winkleman (whom you might know as Big Suze in Peep Show - a very different role), who plays both Joanna Gold and the present-day incarnation of her younger sister Clara. The resemblance is intended to be uncanny, but it’s not until the final fifteen minutes that we realise just how disturbing this actually is.
This was the first episode to be written by Ed Whitmore, who would become Waking the Dead’s key writer until the regime change at the end of Series 5, penning a total of six two-parters. Whitmore’s scripts are drier than those written by Stephen Davis, but I think he tends to do better at connecting the A-to-B plot elements, gradually teasing out information and taking the investigative team down unexpected avenues. Particularly well-handled is a plot development that I accused of being tacked-on when I wrote my review of the Series 2 DVD set for DVD Times, but which in retrospect I now see is actually foreshadowed quite brilliantly, particularly in the curious relationship that develops between Boyd and Clara. It’s one of these moments that leaves you screaming “No! No!” at the screen as Boyd digs his own grave, and the actions that he commits in order to get to the bottom of the mystery are reckless in the extreme, culminating in him going for a midnight jaunt on Hampstead Heath with Clara wearing Joanna’s red dress. However, when you consider the extent to which his own child’s disappearance (mentioned briefly but, thankfully, not flogged to death), it’s possible to find reason in his obsessive behaviour.
On a side note, this episode indirectly reveals more about our core cast of characters than all of the previous ones put together. In addition to the revelation that Grace was at one point married with two sons (the marriage didn’t last), and that Mel lives alone but has “lots of friends”, we discover that Spence previously considered jacking in his career as a policeman and going into business with his entrepreneur friend, and that, in 1989, Frankie spent the summer in Cyprus having a wild affair with a tattoo artist named Andreas (Grace’s response of “Ooooh, Andreas!” being the one time in the series that Sue Johnston’s performance reminds me of her part in The Royle Family). She too, it seems, was sorely tempted to abandon her career, but decided that, although the sex was great, she wasn’t in love. This focus is, as ever, on Boyd, but it’s these little moments that help build up a bigger picture of the rest of the cast without rubbing our faces in their personal lives.
Series 2 is, on the whole, not as consistent as Series 1. While this means that we do get a slightly weaker episode than we’ve been used to seeing up until now, Deathwatch, it does also provide us with the best episode so far, Thin Air. In the next instalment, we’ll be venturing into Series 3, which, to tell the truth, I can recall little of, before heading towards, in my opinion, the best series, Series 4.
Waking the Dead: Series 2, Episodes 5 and 6: Special Relationships
Written by Stephen Davis; Directed by David Thacker
Around a year ago, the body of Home Office Advisor Katherine Reed (Francesca Ryan) was discovered by burglar Ricky Taft (Del Synnott) during a routine break-in. Flash forward to the present, and Taft has just been acquitted of killing her. With the investigation closed, it becomes a cold case and is immediately sent the way of Boyd and company… along with a humourless Home Office auditor (the two are completely unconnected, naturally). The team’s investigations reveal a maze of conspiracies and cover-ups, and the more digging that is done into Katherine Reed’s private life, the less it makes sense.
This is probably the most convoluted Waking the Dead story so far, and one that firmly establishes the series’ penchant for outlandish explanations. It appears that almost everyone is/was screwing everyone else, both literally and figuratively. In order to delve into this and show just how mixed up everything is, I’m afraid I’m going to have to enter into spoiler territory.
Highlight below to reveal spoiler text:
Katherine Reed was what Grace describes as a “professional feminist”. Convinced that men are an “evolutionary mistake” and are pre-programmed with violent tendencies, she wrote several books on the subject and was a prominent campaigner against the male-dominated social hierarchy before, for no clear reason, abandoning her principles and joining the very establishment she previously attacked as an advisor to the Home Office. This apparent abandoning of her principles is never adequately explained and is, I feel, the episode’s major oversight, but what does become clear is that Katherine was if not a lesbian then at least bisexual, and that her marriage to Professor Ray Levin (Anton Lesser) was a sham.
Initially, I thought the episode was going down that well-trodden television route of portraying all bisexuals as unable to keep their pants on and willing to sleep with anyone and anything, and initially the evidence does seem to point in this direction, but there is a quite intriguing twist in it all which shows that the writer of the episode, Stephen Davis, is above such simplicities. A key piece of evidence which emerges is the fact that, on or close to the night of her death, Katherine had sex with a man (semen is found inside the body). In one of his trademark “rule-breaking to get results” moments, Boyd pilfers the razor of a key suspect, Sir James Beatty (Corin Redgrave), allowing Frankie to match his DNA to the semen found inside Katherine. Add to this the fact that Katherine was involved in a secret (albeit seemingly very loving) relationship with her husband’s colleague, Lorna Gyles (Amanda Root), and was at one point discovered in bed with another woman by the aforementioned husband, and Katherine is really shaping up to be a bit of a slapper.
The rather brilliant twist, however, is that Sir James Beatty did not in fact have sex with Katherine, either on the night of her death or at any other time. He was having an affair, but not with Katherine: rather, he was engaged in an illicit tryst with his secretary, Ann Hardingham (Kika Markham). His wife, a deeply deranged former GP by the name of Lady Alice Beatty (Patricia Hodge), killed Katherine, believing such an affair between her and her husband to be taking place, and planted her husband’s semen inside the body. Alice, whose status and money all came from her husband, therefore now had a perfect means of preventing him from leaving her: if he did, she could, without much effort, set in motion the events which would lead to him being convicted of Katherine’s murder.
See what I mean about complexity? And I haven’t even got into Boyd’s past relationship with the investigating DI in Katherine’s murder, Jess Worrall (Ruth Gemmell), his signing and flouting of the Official Secrets Act, an interview with an extremely uncooperative CIA operative and a grand conspiracy involving Boyd suspecting either MI5 or the CIA of assassinating Katherine. There’s a massive amount of stuff going on here, and I’m not convinced that it all comes together in an entirely satisfying way (the Home Office auditor, in particular, feels somewhat tacked on and is brushed aside just over 20 minutes into the second part, when Boyd sends her packing), but it does strike me as quite clever in its own way. It also helps that, as with the previous episode, also penned by Stephen Davis, this one is rather witty, poking fun at the Boyd character and his thinly-veiled fear (or perhaps misunderstanding) of tough women. The angry, over the top Boyd of later years is definitely beginning to take shape here, by the way, culminating in him bawling out Grace, to the best of my recollection the first time this has happened. (Oddly enough, it would take Grace a further four years to declare “enough is enough”.)
Waking the Dead: Series 2, Episodes 3 and 4: Deathwatch
Written by Stephen Davis; Directed by Maurice Phillips
Also known as “The One With David Hemmings In It”. The man himself doesn’t look at all well (his appearance was filmed just over a year before he suffered a fatal heart attack), but it’s a pleasure to see such a legend in the series, and he gives a good performance. It’s one that initially seems to be that of a grumpy ex-cop, disparaging of the newfangled investigative methods and reminiscing about a time when there was no paperwork and the police went by their instincts, but one that, in the second hour, reveals considerable complexities and twists things in a different direction. It’s not exactly surprising that Hemmings’ character has something to hide - he’s the major guest star, after all - but everyone in this episode is keeping a secret of some sort, so that’s not giving much away.
Anyway, the plot focuses on the death, under suspicious circumstances, of Harold Newman (Howard Goorney), an elderly man living in a nursing home. It becomes clear that he died with a guilty conscience, leaving a list of twelve people whose deaths he claims to have caused. The mysterious twelve turn out to have comprised the jury who condemned East End gangster Frank Sutton (Toby Mace) to death in 1963. Working with the assumption that Newman was a contract killer, Boyd and the CCS set out to find out for whom he was working, and who would now want him dead.
So follows a rather convoluted tale that, to be perfectly honest, doesn’t really play fair with the audience, by giving us a killer who, prior to being identified, only appears in a single throwaway scene and has a single line of dialogue. Of course, he’s ultimately only a means to an end, as the real thrust of the plot takes place nearly 40 years in the past, but it’s somewhat frustrating nonetheless. What makes up for this is, as is often the case in the early episodes, the interaction between the team. The explosive, absurd side of Boyd is now firmly established, but there is still degree of warmth between him and his colleagues that is almost completely absent in the most recent episodes. There is a dizzying array of genuinely amusing dialogue in this episode, much of it involving Grace’s birthday celebrations. (My favourite is Boyds “All right, all right, the shopping channel’s closed down. Now it’s time for the news.”)
Holby connections: David Ashton, who plays Father Cameron in this episode, wrote several episodes of Casualty during Series 2 and 3, while Ronald Pickup, who plays Charles Sutton, had a recurring role in Holby City about a year back as Lord Byrne.
Waking the Dead: Series 2, Episodes 1 and 2: Life Sentence
Written by John Milne; Directed by Edward Bennett
A playing card, the Queen of Hearts, is left on the windscreen of Dr. Claire Delaney (Susannah Harker), who, several years ago, was the first of six women to be abducted by Thomas Rice (Samuel West), and the only one to survive. All the others were raped and murdered, and, on each occasion, a pack of playing cards was delivered to the investigating officer, with the instructions that he gamble for the victim’s life by picking a card. Now, working under the assumption that Rice in fact had an accomplice, Boyd and his team set out to re-interview the notoriously slippery killer, now serving a life sentence.
It strikes me that this plot is rather similar to that of Dario Argento’s The Card Player, albeit without the Internet factor. This episode initially aired on September 2nd 2002, and The Card Player premiered in Italy in January 2004. Now, I’m not for a minute going to suggest that Dario Argento spends his time watching British television to get ideas for his film plots, but the likeness is nonetheless striking. The other point of reference, of course, is The Silence of the Lambs, the parallels being virtually impossible to ignore when you consider Rice’s “quid pro quo” attitude and Boyd’s use of Mel as a honey trap of sorts. Of course, Samuel West is no Anthony Hopkins and Claire Goose, good as she is, is no Jodie Foster, but the encounters between them (and Grace) are well-written and result in one of Waking the Dead’s truly tense scenes, as Rice systematically blocks his cell’s security cameras with various paintings, circling around Mel as he moves in for the kill.
Otherwise, this turns out to be a fairly conventional, albeit nasty, tale of kidnapping and murder. Certainly, after tales of bodies being found in churches and photojournalists burning to death in Series 1, this one seems a bit more like “real life”, while certain aspects of this case do bear a passing resemblance to the abduction storyline of the pilot. It’s an assured start to the second series, however, and one with a set of suspects that is manageable and at the same time not so limited as to make the culprit seem obvious. Actually, several people are hiding something, and the various allegiances are not all what you would expect.
Incidentally, from this episode onwards, the team have moved into their permanent location - the rather snazzy-looking headquarters with the transparent evidence boards and a lack of sufficient lighting. The episode also contains what is, to the best of my recollection, the first time Boyd uses his favourite interview technique of leaning forward and asking a suspect a question, then asking it again ONLY THIS TIME SHOUTING IT SO LOUD THE SPIT FLIES OUT OF HIS MOUTH. Truly, a man of tact and subtlety.
Holby connections: Paterson Joseph, who plays Dermot Sullivan in this episode, starred in Casualty as nurse Mark Grace from Series 12 to mid-Series 13. Nowadays, though, he is probably best known as Johnson in Peep Show.
Waking the Dead: Series 1, Episodes 7 and 8: Every Breath You Take
Written by Barbara Machin; Directed by Gary Love
“You know when you put a fork in a sausage and it bursts? Well, it’s the same with brain matter.” - Dr. Frankie Wharton
A body is fished out of the Thames, and is identified as that of missing police sergeant Debbie Britten (Joanne Farrell). Given that Debbie was something of a poster child for the police force, DAC Christie orders Boyd to drop everything and spare no expense in bringing her killer to justice. Prior to her disappearance, Debbie attracted a number of stalkers, among them Michael Skinner (Andrew Buckley) and Christopher Redford (Lee Ross), both of whom emerge as prime suspects. However, Boyd’s old friend Steven Maitland (Thomas Lockyer), who worked on the hunt for Debbie at the time of her disappearance, knows more than he is letting on, and an illicit check on the police DNA database reveals that his relationship with her was far from strictly professional.
Series 1, as a whole, is comprised of four very good self-contained stories, and I’m of the opinion that this one is, overall, the best of the bunch. Actually, it’s a shame this was the last episode Barbara Machin wrote of her own show. One thing I appreciate about her scripts is her attention to procedural detail. Whereas I tend to find that most writers working within the confines of so-called precinct dramas tend to use the basic formula (cop show, medical drama, etc.) as a framework upon which to hang a storyline about relationships (not necessarily of the romantic variety) between various characters, Machin is every bit as interested in the nitty-gritty of what the various professionals do, and will spend a lot of time recreating procedure simply because it can be compelling in and of itself. In this storyline, a considerable amount of time is spent showing how Frankie locates some bullets that have been concealed at the scene of the crime. It’s fascinating to watch and, given Machin’s track record for comprehensive research, no doubt completely accurate. I’ve always been more interested in the psychological than the scientific side of things, however, so the most interesting part of the episode, for me, is the way in which it constructs two distinct profiles for Debbie’s two obsessive stalkers. Likewise, there’s a twist at the end that comes slightly out of left field, but in retrospect it does make a great deal of sense.
Elsewhere, the more compulsive, aggressive side of Boyd’s personality begins to emerge. This is certainly the first time we see him literally bawling at his subordinates and suspects, and on the whole the level of dysfunction between members of the team is much higher here than it has been until now. There are still some nicely touching moments, though, including Boyd telling Grace about his own past stalker-like behaviour towards a woman about whom he became obsessed (“But you see, ultimately, you knew when no meant no,” Grace points out; “No, I married her,” replies Boyd), and Boyd’s apology to Frankie after putting her job on the line (“I love you, Frankie” - I suspect you have to see it for yourself to get it).
Holby connections: Gary Love directed a number of episodes of Casualty between Series 12 and 14, among them my second-favourite episode of all time, Love Me Tender, which contains what can reasonably considered to be Claire Goose’s finest performance to date. This episode has a considerably more ambitious look than that of the rest of the first series as a whole.
Update, June 16th, 2008 12:05 PM: Incidentally, something I forgot to mention last night is that, in this episode, Grace states that she has a thesis to work on and “kids I never see”. Later episodes, in which it is stated that Grace never married or had children, directly contradict this.
Waking the Dead: Series 1, Episodes 5 and 6: A Simple Sacrifice
Written by Simon Mirren; Directed by Robert Del Maestro
This is probably the weakest storyline of the first series, although not because it’s in any way bad. On the contrary, Series 1 is remarkably solid overall, and this merely sticks out as the least impressive of a very impressive bunch. The plot this time round focuses on the impending release of Annie Keel (Harriet Walter), a woman who, nearly 25 years ago, confessed to stabbing to death her husband and her son’s friend, who was sleeping over at the time, but leaving her own son, Sam, alive. The case is re-opened in 2001 due to two factors: first of all, the evidence appears flimsy and Annie’s confession too pat (the implication being that she is covering up for someone else). Secondly, someone has been sending the police anonymous letters claiming that Annie is innocent and that he/she knows who the real culprit is. Finally, Grace doesn’t believe that the attacks fit the profile of a woman, particularly a mother.
Quickly, it becomes apparent that the key to solving the mystery rests with Sam Keel (Cal Macaninch). Why was he left alive when the other child was killed? It’s therefore somewhat irritating that Boyd and his team take absolutely no steps towards tracking him down until very late in the game. Equally frustrating is the fact that, early on in the second part of this story, it becomes fairly clear who the real culprit, the same person who is now writing to the police, is. This is not because the evidence allows the viewer to work out why he/she would commit the crime, but simply because what we know about the killer’s gender from flashbacks allows us to rule out various other parties, eventually leaving us with two possible suspects, only one of whom is in a position to be sending the police information by the final half-hour.
Systematic elimination of this sort is not necessarily a bad thing (and I’m sure it’s the sort of thing the police find themselves faced with all the time), but it’s slightly unsatisfying in a detective drama because it leaves the audience in a position of knowing who did it but not having the faintest clue why. It also provides us with information that the police themselves do not possess (the flashbacks), which in turn makes their unearthing of his/her identity a bit too convenient. When he/she does reveal his/her motives, during a particularly tense stand-off, they seem fairly pat (his/her reason for killing Sam’s friend is particularly anticlimactic) and don’t really lead to a satisfying conclusion. Far more interesting is why Annie Keel took the blame, and it’s this element that helps keep the episode above water.
Holby connections: a shedload. The writer, Simon Mirren, penned several episodes of Casualty during the Series 13-14 period, while the director, Robert Del Maestro, has helmed many episodes of both Casualty and Holby City over the years. The adult Sam Keel is played by Cal Macaninch, better known as DI John Keenan in Holby Blue, while Rakie Ayola (nurse Kyla Tyson in present day Holby City) has a semi-important role here as a prison officer.
Waking the Dead: Series 1, Episodes 3 and 4: The Blind Beggar
Written by John Milne; Directed by Robert Knights
Before reviewing the episodes themselves, I must take a minute to share with you the moment, about a third of the way into the second part, where I actually had to pause my DVD to allow myself a good old-fashioned chortle. The object of my derision was not this episode itself but rather the most recent series of Waking the Dead. You see, in Series 7, we finally get to meet Boyd’s son, who ran away at some point in the past and has been missing, presumed dead for several years. In Series 7, the character is called Luke.
In The Blind Beggar, Boyd calls him Joe.
At least ten times.
Savour that for a moment. Go on, re-read what I’ve just typed and think very hard about it. The disappearance of Boyd’s son is, understandably, an extremely significant moment in the character’s life and it has played a major role in defining his personality and his reasons for doing his job. And yet the people responsible for putting together the most recent series clearly considered it so trivial that they didn’t even bother to get the character’s name right. It’s no wonder Boyd’s personality has been so heavily mangled in recent years - if you can’t remember a simple name, what hope do you have of getting to grips with characterisation?
But I digress. The Blind Beggar stands out as a particularly good episode in the Waking the Dead canon. Slow to get going, this one tonally feels closer to an episode of Inspector Morse than your average Waking the Dead fare, with lots of slow, contemplative wanders through cloisters and incidental choral music. The plot deals with the discovery of a body during a routine excavation in the crypt of a Catholic church. The concealment of the body is dated to around the time that a previous excavation was carried out on the same area by a man named Gabriel Hare, who later appears to have committed suicide after being virtually excommunicated by the church’s incredibly nasty parishioner, Father Sebastian Stuart (Barry Morse).
Fairly quickly, it becomes apparent that the body is likely to be that of Nick Bowen, a young man who disappeared in 1982, at around the time of the initial excavation, but the story is considerably more complicated than it appears to be at face value. This is a confusing episode even by Waking the Dead’s standards, spinning a long and tortuous yarn through a close-knit community seemingly populated almost entirely by people with their own long-kept secrets and personal vendettas against each other. It’s a tribute to the writing of John Milne, who penned several episodes throughout the show’s classic period (Series 1-4), this it remains comprehensible despite the large cast of characters and convoluted family trees.
The episode also benefits from an excellent performance from guest star Annette Crosbie (Mrs. Victor Meldrew herself). The unwritten rule of Waking the Dead seems to be that the character played by the highest profile guest actor either did the killing or knows something about it (hence, when David Hemmings shows up in the second series, try as he might to keep his head down, he just doesn’t stand a chance), but the fun in this episode comes from working out precisely what Crosbie’s character knows or did. The character is multi-faceted and extremely conflicted, and it’s a testament to Crosbie’s performance that she remains sympathetic even when it becomes clear that she has behaved quite abominably.
Elsewhere, we get hints at Boyd’s disdain for religion: he tells us he only goes to church for “hatchings, matchings and dispatchings”, and reacts with barely disguised contempt when a priest wishes to reclaim various sacraments discovered with the body. Grace, incidentally, is portrayed here as a semi-lapsed Catholic, which hasn’t really been explored since despite there having been various opportunities to do so (I’m thinking particularly of the Series 5 storyline in which it is revealed that she had an abortion at some point in the 80s). It does, however, shed some light on he rather rigorous defence of religion in the Series 7 episode Skin when an irate Boyd postulates that the only difference between neo-Nazis and priests is the colour of their uniforms. (Yeah, you try to rationalise that one.)
Some choice dialogue, too, my favourite line being Frankie’s exclamation, while working in the church crypt, that she wants to take up smoking so she can have an excuse to go outside to shout and swear every once in a while.
Waking the Dead: Series 1, Episodes 1 and 2: Burn Out
Written by Peter Jukes; Directed by Edward Bennett
The series proper begins, and the various alterations made after the pilot had aired are firmly in case. The status of Boyd’s son now conforms with the established canon, although the fact that it is stated that he would be 25 now (i.e. 2001) is somewhat at odds with the depiction of the character seven years later in the recently aired Series 7, in which the actor playing the re-emergent Luke Boyd couldn’t have been much more than that age. Still, that’s a complaint for my Series 7 reviews, which I’ll no doubt get on to at some point.
In any event, this first episode dwells to a considerable extent on the degree to which the loss of Boyd’s son is playing on his mind. The specifics of his disappearance are not elaborated on at this stage, with it simply being made clear that he is missing, presumed dead. Fitting, therefore, that, on what would be his son’s 25th birthday, he encounters a young woman, Marina Coleman, whose father supposedly burned to death in a car crash nine years ago, who is haunted by the man’s memory and believes that there is more to the case than either suicide or accidental death. Badgered into taking on the case by Marina, Boyd, who initially tells her that he doesn’t accept cases on request, becomes increasingly driven to solve this mystery, much to the annoyance of his team, who are being leaned on by Detective Assistant Commissioner Christie (Simon Kunz) to produce results.
Marina, by the way, is played by Angela Griffin, who portrayed nurse Jasmine Hopkins throughout the first three series of Holby City. Several other names crop up on both sides of the camera related to it and its parent show, Casualty, beyond the obvious example of series creator Barbara Machin, and Claire Goose (who, immediately prior to Waking the Dead, played nurse Tina Seabrook for three years in Casualty), and if I can remember I’ll point them out as they occur.
This episode’s greatest strength, the straightforwardness of the mystery, is also its greatest weakness. On the one hand, the pool of suspects is fairly small and the script doesn’t throw in any unreasonable twists out of left field, which means that, unlike some of the later episodes, you can actually make sense of this one on the first viewing. On the downside, I guessed what was going on a few minutes into the second hour, after which point it became slightly frustrating having to watch the team going around in circles. Boyd is remarkably slow to catch on to all of this - “I don’t understand,” he says at one point. Well, it’s not exactly rocket science, and if I was DAC Christie I wouldn’t consider the amount of time it took the case to be solved as much of an incentive to keep the Cold Case Unit afloat.
In addition to laying much of the groundwork as regards Boyd’s son, we also get something of a hint of the sheer nastiness of which the character is capable when he tells a suspect, with some glee, that the team is about to exhume his brother’s body, and then proceeds, with total calm, to tear him to pieces by completely stripping him of his worth. In many ways, this earlier, calmer Boyd is actually more disturbing than the later one who rants and raves and throws his weight about, because he is so deceptively polite.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, I really enjoy the interaction between the team, and the sense of camaraderie that exists between them - something which is almost completely absent in the more recent episodes, where no-one seems to have a sense of humour. The jubilation they experience over cracking a particularly tough case is quite infectious, and the dinner scene between Boyd and Grace is very nice too. All in all, a good start to the series, if an unspectacular one.
Waking the Dead: Pilot
Written by Barbara Machin; Directed by Martin Hutchings
The two-part pilot episode aired almost a year before the series itself, and feels very much like a dry run. Not in the sense that it’s inferior to what followed, but because it clearly serves as an opportunity to test the waters by experimenting with the various parameters. Several elements were changed between the pilot and the first episode of Series 1: among them, fairly minor details like Mel’s surname (Silverman in the pilot, Silver in the series) and the music and title sequence, the familiar Joe Campbell composition not having yet been adopted. More significantly, elements of the characters’ lives shown in this episode directly contradict what we learn in the series itself. This is particularly true of Boyd, who, in the pilot, is still with his wife, with whom he has a baby, Matt. (In the series, Boyd and his wife are separated, and their son, Luke, is considerably older and is missing presumed dead. Actually, if you want, an argument could be made that Boyd does in fact have two sons, but I’m not sure how theoretically possible that would be.)
The pilot sets the tone by dealing with a case which has personal significance for Boyd. Several years ago, he was the investigating officer in the kidnap of a teenage girl. The girl was raped and then murdered, and the press announcement that Boyd has re-opened the case prompts the original attacker, Jimmy Marshall (Finbar Lynch), to abduct another girl, Jodie Whitemoor (Amelia Warner). By cross-cutting between scenes with Jimmy and Jodie, and the investigation itself, a considerable amount of tension is built up, exacerbated by our knowledge of how the previous case, the obvious template for this one, ended. To a degree, Boyd’s personal involvement feels ever so slightly contrived, but it’s an effective way to introduce the characters and the formula, and, in the second part, when it becomes clear that Marshall’s plans for Boyd go far beyond making him relive his previous failure, things (without giving too much away for first-timers) become even more personal.
Interestingly enough, Boyd, who, in the series, clearly believes in the “he who shouts loudest” mantra, is quite an understated presence here, quiet and contemplative, and actually diffusing rather than causing any arguments that break out among the team. Most of the conflict comes from the protocol-obsessed Frankie and her dealings with Spence, who is more concerned with the feelings of the dead girl’s relatives than with following the book. (Their opposing attitudes towards an exhumation raise some interesting moral and ethical dilemmas.) In later episodes, Boyd would become Frankie’s sparring partner, which in a sense is a shame, because I always felt Spence was the least interesting of the core cast, and confrontations such as the ones he has with Frankie in the pilot hint at a more interesting personality than we would end up with as the series progressed.
Holby connections: the director, Martin Hutchings, has helmed episodes of all three Holby shows, including the pilot episodes of both Holby City and Holby Blue. Additionally, David Sterne (Mac in Holby Blue) has a very brief appearance in this episode as a shopkeeper.
The Waking the Dead Project
Above: The original Waking the Dead team. From left to right: Boyd, Frankie, Grace, Spence and Mel.
I’ve mentioned once or twice already that I was going to do a Waking the Dead project, similar to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer project I did a couple of years back and which nearly broke my will and sanity. 144 episodes of any television programme is a lot, but the number seems particularly high when you consider that the final two seasons, 44 episodes’ worth of material, were at times pretty appalling. Luckily, Waking the Dead has two things in its favour. Number one, there have, to date, been only 74 episodes (including the two-part pilot). Number two, while the later series have, in my opinion, not been of the same standard as the earlier ones, the show has never plumbed the same depths as Buffy at its worst.
The main failing of my Buffy project was the perspective from which I wrote it. Essentially, I wrote as a fan talking to other fans, and therefore didn’t take account of the fact that not everyone reading my ramblings would be as intimately familiar with the series, characters and storylines as I was. I didn’t make it easy for people to understand what I was talking about, and I suspect I probably didn’t convince anyone unfamiliar with the show to check it out either. It would be a shame if I didn’t persuade anyone to give Waking the Dead a whirl - I think it’s a very good series, and if I thought otherwise I wouldn’t be attempting this project - so right off the bat I’m going to do my best to make things a bit more accessible this time round.
To briefly explain what this is all about, Waking the Dead is the creation of a writer named Barbara Machin. Hers is not exactly a household name, but it’s one with which I’m familiar because it appeared at the beginning of many an episode of Casualty between 1990 and 1998. The episodes she wrote for the medical drama stand out as being among the best, often due to her seeming fascination with mental disorders and her attempts to get inside the minds of those so afflicted.
Waking the Dead’s concept is that of “cold cases”, i.e. police investigations that have been shelved or thought to have been closed but which have been opened up due to new evidence coming to light, or because it is thought that the advanced forensic and profiling systems available in the 21st century may shed new light on old material. The idea is not necessarily groundbreaking, and seems even less so when you consider the existence of American-originated shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Cold Case (both of which, I feel compelled to point out, came along after Waking the Dead), but it’s a good one, I think, because it allows the programme’s writers to cherry-pick from virtually any period in recent history. Each investigation tends to challenge the viewer’s ability to keep track of the various ongoing strands and suspects, although it has at times drawn criticism (from people including myself) for being overly convoluted for its own sake.
What, for me, however, makes the early episodes of this show so enjoyable is the interaction between the Cold Case Unit. There are five core members of the team, three of whom have been present for all (so far) seven series. The man at the centre is Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve), a driven, moody and at times baffling man who, taking a page right out of the Detective Clichés Handbook, sometimes breaks the rules or acts like a jerk but gets results. Working under him are DS (later DI) Spencer Jordan (Wil Johnson) and DC (later DS) Amelia “Mel” Silver (Claire Goose), who find their boss’ behaviour strange and a bit alarming at times, but grit their teeth and put up with his mood swings because they know from experience that his slightly unorthodox methods work. Joining them is Dr. Grace Foley (Sue Johnston), a psychological profiler who, it has been suggested to me, is the audience’s main point of identification because she is the level-headed one who often diffuses Boyd’s temper tantrums and smoothes out discord within the team. (She also happens to be my favourite character for reasons that I’m sure to discuss in my episode reviews.) The final player is Dr. Frankie Wharton (Holly Aird), a forensic scientist and someone who is somewhat on the periphery of the team, something which is emphasised fairly often in the earlier episodes by portraying her as feeling marginalised and out of the loop. Frankie is every bit as obsessive about her work as Boyd, spending seemingly every waking hour in her lab, but she is able to keep her head in a way that Boyd isn’t.
The format of the series stays more or less the same, generally opening with a crime taking place or a new piece of evidence being discovered. From then on, the team and the audience are introduced to the evidence and an array of suspects, with the investigation being teased out over the course of two one-hour episodes. Each two-parter tells a self-contained story, although in the last couple of years some attempted has been made to thread either a similar theme or an ongoing story arc throughout each series. Sometimes the episodes take the form of a whodunit; on other occasions, the audience is in on the culprit’s identity while the team is in the dark. Occasionally, there is an obvious suspect and the storyline consists of the team building the case against him/her. What does, for the most part, remain consistent is that, broadly speaking, we only see the team in the context of their job. There have been exceptions, particularly in the pilot and in the most recent series, but Waking the Dead is, by and large, devoid of soap opera, which is definitely appreciated given the TV crime drama genre’s tendency to combine the professional with the private.
Without further ado, it’s time for me to crack on with the first review…
DVDs I bought or received in the month of May
- 30 Days of Night (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- Enchanted (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- The Golden Compass (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- Mrs. Doubtfire (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- The Orphanage (RA USA, Blu-ray)
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (R0 UK, Blu-ray)
- Waking the Dead: Series 6 (R2 UK, DVD)
Definitely a very Blu month for me, which I have no complaints about whatsoever. I was going to post a bit about the various titles listed above, but for some reason I only managed to get an hour and a half of sleep last night, and as a result I’m absolutely knackered. Therefore, I’m off to get some serious shut-eye now, if I can. Laters.
Thoughts on Kiss of Death
Last night saw the screening, on BBC1, of Barbara Machin’s latest venture, a 90-minute crime drama entitled Kiss of Death. It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me to say that I think Machin is one of the best writers working in television at the moment. She wrote my all-time favourite episode of Casualty, Perfect Blue (as well as two other episodes in my personal top ten - an impressive feat, given that she’s not exactly prolific), and created Waking the Dead, for which I am forever grateful to her. She also wrote the only episode of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman worth a damn, and has continued to demonstrate a refusal to be governed by the constraints normally imposed on the genres with which she works. Two Christmases ago, she turned Casualty on its head by adopting a Rashômon-like structure to tell a gritty medical thriller story, and Kiss of Death applies much the same format to the police procedural.
On paper, Kiss of Death is not all that different from Waking the Dead. Most of the same personalities are present and correct: we have the haunted senior police officer, the slightly oddball forensic scientist, the over-eager junior female detective who worked hard to get out of uniform, and so on and so forth. The programme’s uniqueness came not from its characters or the situation in which they found themselves but from the fragmented manner in which the story was told. Whereas the Casualty episode Killing Me Softly used the unprecedented (at least in Casualty) but fairly straightforward concept of showing the events of a day consecutively from the perspective of three different characters (each shift being indicated by flashing the character’s name up on the screen), Kiss of Death ups the number of available points of view to at least nine characters and continually jumps back and forth between them, also going both forwards and backwards in time. That I managed to keep up with what was going on is, I think, a testament to Machin’s writing and the directing of her old colleague, Casualty co-creator Paul Unwin, but I can imagine many viewers finding this very frustrating. Credit where credit’s due, therefore, to the often lowest-common-denominator BBC for commissioning and airing in a prime time-slot (9 PM on a weekday night) something that actually set out to challenge its audience’s expectations and intelligence. It’s just too bad it had the misfortune of airing directly after a highly sensationalised and tabloidish Panorama investigation into child molesters who use the Internet to prey on their victims.
Last night’s screening was billed as a one-off drama, much in the same manner as Waking the Dead when its two-part pilot episode aired back in 2000. It eventually returned for a full series in 2001, after certain stylistic elements and character backgrounds had been retooled, and I’d like to think that, in much the same manner, Kiss of Death has its own series to look forward to. However, I very much doubt that it could continue as anything but a one-off in its present form, given the extent to which the events depicted relied on the personal involvement of its protagonists. In what is becoming increasingly typical of television dramas, most of the main characters had a Dark Past, many of them interconnected. Our main detective, Kay Rousseau (played rather well by former CSI star Louise Lombard, this time sporting her native English accent with only an occasional Transatlantic vowel sound), had only recently returned to work after being convicted and later acquitted of the death of her baby, and it was implied that her being let off the hook was due mainly to work done behind the scenes by her ex-husband Miles (Ace Bhatti), who ensured that the “right people” worked on her case. Kay also had a History (with a capital “H”) with both her profiler, Clive (Shaun Parkes) and her forensic scientist, George (Lyndsey Marshal), the latter having helped put together the case against Kay during the investigation into her child’s death. George, it is also revealed, has or had a serious drink problem, and an action on her part in a previous case may or may not be connected to the murder that the team is presently investigating. Finally, Kay’s second-in-command, Costello, is played by Danny Dyer, which is enough of a defect in itself without giving the character any additional problems.
That probably all sounds a bit contrived, and, in a sense, I suppose it was. The structure was such that I didn’t really get to care a great deal for any of the main characters, apart from George, who I’ve come to the conclusion is my favourite, mainly thanks to her uncharacteristically enthusiastic reaction to the blood and guts that her job brings her into contact with. Seriously, the look on her face as she examines the contents of a murder victim’s bowel (see the image below) would put many a gore movie fan to shame. The rest of the characters, however, seemed a bit too distant or flawed to really care about them, and I suspect that a lot of this was a result of the unconventional narrative structure that had been adopted. With the episodes of Casualty in which Machin first began to experiment with this method of storytelling, this was considerably less of a problem, given that the audience had already established a relationship with the characters that she was using to tell her story, in the case of the likes of Josh and Charlie going back 15-20 years. Here, however, I found myself thrust into an extremely disorientating world populated by characters that I was getting to know only via brief snippets of information delivered in non-chronological order.
This probably sounds like I’m coming down rather hard on Kiss of Death, which is not the case at all. On the contrary, I really enjoyed it… if “enjoyed” is the right word, given the bleak tone and often gruesome imagery on display. The programme worked as an experiment first and a piece of storytelling second, and it required me to invest effort in it to get the most out of it, but I suspect that’s no bad thing. On the whole, I feel that the Casualty two-parter I’ve already mentioned was more satisfying as a piece of drama, mainly because I didn’t feel there that the structure was hampering my ability to connect with the characters, but Kiss of Death was a gripping, challenging piece of television and a more than welcome antidote to an often formulaic and predictable schedule.
My copy of the DVD release of the sixth series of Waking the Dead arrived on Tuesday, coincidentally on the same day that the twelfth and final episode of seventh series aired on BBC1. Series 6 stands out to me as by far the weakest of the bunch, for a number of reasons, but it’s been over a year since I last saw it and I’m genuinely curious to see if it plays better on a second viewing. The thing about Waking the Dead is that the plots are often so convoluted that they require two or three viewings to work out what’s actually going on and simply enjoy the drama on its own merits.
In any event, Series 7, on the whole, constituted a definite step up from Series 6. It shared the same core cast of characters, the same producer, Colin Wratten, and the same head writer, Declan Croghan, but this time round, all but one of the six two-part storylines was at least worth a watch, even if the overall standard varied wildly from episode to episode. The stand-out, this time round, was Skin, a storyline involving a group of neo-Nazis connected with the murder of a gay Jewish man. The twist, which I’ll spoil here given that the episode in question has now aired, was that their victim had in fact infiltrated their group by posing as a skinhead himself, and has succeeded in infecting all of them with the AIDS virus by mixing his own blood into the pigment he then used to give them tattoos. It was a unique concept, and exceedingly well-told too, and I’m quite pleased with myself for managing to work out what was going on a good five minutes before it was revealed in the programme itself, which I think speaks well for its refusal to cheat the audience by throwing in a massive twist out of left field.
Unfortunately, Skin, and the first part of the final storyline, Pietà, were the only ones that I felt were up to the standards of the earlier series. It doesn’t speak well of the second two-parter that I actually had to look up LocateTV to remind myself what it had been about. On the other hand, the fifth storyline, Wounds, sticks in my mind for all the wrong reasons. Gimmicky in the extreme and confusing for its own sake, it was more along the lines of the previous series with its pseudo-mysticism, muddy structure and overuse of flashbacks. I also continue to be less than impressed by forensic pathologist Eve (Tara Fitzgerald), who joined the team last year and has so far been a less than riveting replacement for Holly Aird and Esther Hall. Part of the problem stems from the fact that she never seems to alter her facial expression or manner of delivery, to the extent that, when she actually gives a slight half-smile in the final episode, it’s something of a shock to discover that her mouth can actually make that shape.
In my review of Series 5, I criticised the increasingly exaggerated and unrealistic behaviour of the central character, Detective Superintendent Boyd (Trevor Eve), who would repeatedly bully his colleagues and extract confessions from suspects under duress. This behaviour escalated throughout the previous series to the extent that it became a running joke, so it was something of a relief that Series 7 went in the opposite direction, giving us an older, quieter, wearier Boyd than the one we’re used to seeing. The writers certainly reined in the character’s temper tantrums in this series, and likewise, Trevor Eve toned down his scenery-chewing in favour of brooding and scowling. He also, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t assault anyone this year, preferring instead to leave the strong-arming to his sergeant, Stella (Félicité Du Jeu).
This uncharacteristic calmness seems particularly strange when you consider that this was the very series in which Boyd might have been considered justified in flying off the handle, in that a storyline that has been lurking on the sidelines since the very beginning of the show, the disappearance of his son, was finally resolved. At the beginning of this series, his son, Luke (who I’m fairly sure was actually named Joe in Series 1), re-appeared, a homeless drug addict who Boyd spent the rest of the series intermittently running away from and trying to help. In some respects, I thought this storyline was quite effective, providing a reason for Boyd’s bizarre behaviour and also helping to tie what would have been six disparate storylines together, but at the same time I feel that it breaks the programme’s crucual tenet of never allowing us to see anything of the main characters’ personal lives.
The Luke storyline also created a far bigger problem for the rest of the series, because the writers seemed to insist on drawing parallels between Boyd’s relationship with his son and most of the cases the team were investigating. This led to a sense of repetition, not least with the continual emphasis on missing children and fathers’ dysfunctional relationships with their sons. It also meant that four of the six storylines involved a suspect, victim or witness who either was or was suggested to be gay: it is implied, at the end of the second storyline, that Luke is gay, or possibly working as a rent-boy to feed his drugs habit (the specifics of what we see are infuriatingly unclear), and, reading between the lines, I wonder to what extent we are meant to suspect that this in some way led to his estrangement from his father. The thing is, though, that Boyd may have been shown to be many things, but homophobic has never been one of them; actually, his views towards most aspects of humanity have always been characterised as fairly liberal. In the end, I don’t know what to think.
On the whole, though, what we got was an improvement on the previous year’s clumsy, wishy-washy series. I wouldn’t characterise any of it as essential viewing, except perhaps the Skin two-parter, but it proved to be an engaging enough distraction on Monday and Tuesday evenings for six weeks, and only two of the twelve hours I devoted to it (the Wounds two-parter) are ones that I consider to have been wasted.
Creator Barbara Machin’s newest project, another crime series under the title of Kiss of Death, airs next Monday, by the way. It’s being billed as a one-off 90-minute drama, although Waking the Dead started out very much in the same way, airing its two-part pilot episode in 2000 before returning for a full series in 2001. The advance buzz suggests that Machin is continuing her interest in non-linear storytelling, using an approach similar to that of the Casualty episodes she wrote for Christmas 2006.
So many discs, so little time
The last few days have heralded a shed-load of DVD and Blu-ray releases pouring through my letterbox, most of which I’ve scarcely had time to give more than a cursory glance. Most of them were free review copies, and a good thing too as I recently had to pay off my Graduate Endowment, so my coffers are looking a little empty at the moment.
First up, and one that I did pay for, was Sony Pictures’ UK Blu-ray release of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It looks to feature a decent transfer for a catalogue title: detail is, on the whole, very good, but the tell-tale signs of grain reduction are consistently evident. At the moment, I’d peg it as being slightly better than the re-release of The Fifth Element, also from Sony, but more investigation will be needed.
Next up, on Saturday, Shameless Screen Entertainment’s UK DVD release of Piero Schivazappa’s trippy 60s shocker The Frightened Woman (a.k.a. Femina Ridens). As a nice surprise, they sent me a fully boxed copy rather than the “DVD in a paper wallet” affair that most of the UK studios favour, so I can savour the tacky artwork in all its, erm, glory.
Unfortunately, I can’t say anything particularly positive about the transfer. Yes, it looks considerably better than my old VHS dupe, but that’s not a fair or particularly realistic comparison. A more valid counterpoint would be Severin Films’ release of The Psychic, which had similarly poor image quality, with a lack of detail and what looked like a dodgy scaling job, manifesting itself in the form of jagged diagonal lines. I wonder what caused this. Perhaps both films were acquired from the same licensor, or perhaps both companies used the same (incorrectly set up) encoder? Either way, if I’d paid for a company to encode my film and it came back looking like this, I would have rejected it outright. In case anyone gets the wrong idea, this is nothing to do with the quality of the source materials, which, barring some tape-based inserts for scenes which wouldn’t be sourced from a print, appears to be in great shape. This issue here has nothing to do with that and everything to do with the way it has been treated at the authoring stage. Not impressed.
Also in the package was the 2-disc release of the first series of Holby Blue, from 2 Entertain (the BBC’s front for commercial exploitation via optical disc). This is interesting, because I recorded the entire series directly to my computer via my USB TV stick back when it first aired, so I had a point of comparison to refer to when examining the image quality. The results, which you can see by clicking the smaller images below, are quite surprising:
(Left: Commercial DVD; Right: My recording from DTV)
(Left: Commercial DVD; Right: My recording from DTV)
(Left: Commercial DVD; Right: My recording from DTV)
That’s right: the DVD release is considerably more filtered than what was broadcast on BBC1. Obviously, there are considerably more compression artefacts in the captures taken from my off-air recordings - that’s not surprising, given the notoriously shoddy standard of BBC’s encoding (BBC1 has a fixed 6 Mbps bit rate to play around with, so there’s really no excuse). I am, however, surprised, by how much more detailed my recordings are. A further black mark against the DVD release is that 2 Entertain have unceremoniously lopped off the “Previously” and “Next week” segments at the start and end of each episode, sometimes incredibly badly: the music has noticeable jump cuts and generally reeks of shoddiness. Is it so unreasonable to expect a complete package when you shell out your hard-earned cash for a TV series that you already helped pay for with your robber baron tax? (Ignoring the fact that I got the DVD for free, and, not being a home-owner, don’t pay the robber baron tax.)
The final disc in this package of joy was Optimum’s UK release of Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears. Audio options are Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 English, with no subtitles, while the only extra is the trailer. Image quality (and I’m aware of sounding increasingly like a broken record here) is not too bad, but not too great either. There’s plenty of evidence of ringing as a result of brick wall filtering, and also a massive amount of noise reduction which robs the image of its natural grain. A couple of people who got advance copies of this disc mentioned that the film looked as if it had been shot on digital video, and I see what they mean. I wonder if Medusa’s Italian release (which doesn’t have any English audio options) looks any better?
This morning, I received an order from DVD Pacific containing the US release of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. This was an ITV adaptation of P.D. James’ novel of the same name (which I’m reading at the moment), starring Helen Baxendale and Annette Crosbie, and the DVD contains all four three-part episodes. My interest was piqued when I discovered that one of the three-parters was written by Barbara Machin, creator of Waking the Dead (the seventh series of which incidentally started tonight), so I decided to pick up this DVD set, fully aware that all four episodes feature standards converted transfers. This is, unfortunately, as far as I’m aware the only release of this programme on DVD, and beggars can’t be choosers. I won’t start watching till I’ve finished reading the book, though.
Finally - and this is where my luck with image quality finally changes - I also received a review copy of the US Blu-ray release of Juno. My good friend Peter M. Bracke opines that this is “a fairly good-looking presentation”, but as usual I beg to differ. This is definitely the best high definition transfer I’ve seen from 20th Century Fox so far, bearing in mind that I own fewer of their films than any of the other major studios. The source material is such that it won’t make you leap out of your seat, marvelling at all the detail on display, but even so it’s an excellent presentation of a fairly low-key, muted-looking film.
Expect full reviews of The Frightened Woman, Holby Blue, Mother of Tears and Juno at DVD Times before very much longer.
DVD review: Waking the Dead: Series 5
Waking the Dead’s fifth series is, on the whole, not up to the standard established by its predecessors, although it does offer some real gems of entertainment at various points throughout its 12-episode run. Like Boyd, the programme may not live in the real world and may at times baffle with its seemingly nonsensical twists and tangents, but, when it’s firing on all cylinders, the journey, however convoluted, is always an engaging one.
Waking the Dead’s seventh series begins airing tonight on BBC1, and, to coincide, I’ve reviewed 2 Entertain’s DVD box set of Series 5, containing all 12 episodes on six discs.
Apparently they sell DVDs in shops now
As you probably know, I buy most of my DVDs online. Not only does it usually work out far cheaper than shopping for them on the high street, it’s also considerably more convenient too. Since getting a job in the centre of town, however, I’ve often found myself wandering around the nearby shops during my lunch break, without much else to do, and have come across the odd bargain or two.
One such quite unexpected find came last Wednesday, when I decided to have a peek inside the shop that used to be called Virgin Megastore but was recently rebranded under the utterly ridiculous name of “Zaavi” and as a result is now often as quiet as the grave. They were doing a “2 for £10” deal on selected television series box sets, one of which, the first series of Lewis, I’d been meaning to pick up for a while. (To put this into perspective, it currently goes for a whopping £24.99 just up the street at the local Borders.) There weren’t really any other titles in the offer that piqued my interest (why is that always the way?), so I eventually settled on a somewhat battered-looking copy of the Series 1 and 2 box set of Sugar Rush. I saw a few episodes of its second series when it was airing on TV a couple of years back, and while they weren’t exactly masterpieces (ex-Casualty writer Bryan Elsley’s Skins is, for my money, by far the better of Channel 4’s “stroppy teenagers screwing each other and getting wasted” dramedies), I can think of worse ways of spending an evening. Besides, it was only a fiver.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of TV DVD sets, Waking the Dead’s sixth series is being released on May 19th, with the seventh series supposedly to begin airing a month or so ahead of that. Series 6 was, for my money, the weakest of the bunch (I said as much when it finished airing last February), but I would welcome the opportunity to see them again and re-evaluate them. Often, with Waking the Dead, an optimal two viewings or more is required in order to work out precisely what is supposed to be happening, and seemingly weaker episodes have a habit of transforming themselves once you’ve had a chance to actually figure out the plot.
Mater Lacrimarum revisited
Today, I had the opportunity to watch the English version of Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears. This was my second viewing of the concluding part in the Three Mothers trilogy, after watching it in Italian on Christmas Day. The viewing conditions weren’t ideal (the version I saw was cropped from its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio to 1.78:1), but overall the quality was better than my Italian copy. (A Russian DVD appears to be available now, but it seems to have been the source of the cropped version I saw, so I would recommend holding out for a different release. Medusa will be releasing it in Italy on April 9th, while Optimum are supposedly putting it out in the UK on April 28th.)
In most respects, the English version improves things somewhat, although Asia Argento’s performance is still uneven, closer to Trauma than to The Stendhal Syndrome. With the benefit of the English audio, Valeria Cavalli (Marta) definitely emerges as the best actor of the group, giving a strong and believable performance (the monkey is still great, though). Adam James (who has previously appeared in Casualty and Waking the Dead) is, like Asia, uneven. In some scenes he is quite effective (his final scene is quite chilling), but in others, such as when he is going nuts after his son has disappeared, he comes across as quite weak. Oh, and I don’t really see the big deal about Udo Kier’s performance. A lot of people described it as hammy, but it didn’t strike me as problematic in any way.
On the downside, Moran Atias (Mater Lacrimarum) is awful, and I mean awful. She looks ridiculous and can’t act her way out of a paper bag. She really made me yearn for Ania Pieroni. Her bald, male lackey is also hamstrung by some really atrocious dubbing, and the gothic witches continue to make me cringe. Actually, if anything, they came across as worse rather than better on a second viewing. I knew they were coming this time, but it didn’t make the experience any less painful. Really, Dario, what were you thinking?
On a related note, watching the film again revealed all sorts of squandered opportunities to throw in some of the bravura colours and lighting from the first two instalments. I can only imagine how much more magical moments like Sarah lighting the fire in Michael’s apartment and Marta summoning the spirits would have been had Argento used them as an excuse to unleash some Technicolor brilliance. And what happened to the idea of Mater Lacrimarum’s jewel-studded robe casting primary colours on the faces of her grovelling followers? All we get now is a red T-shirt with glitter writing on it.
My original rating of 7/10 still stands. It’s not a bad little film, but, as a conclusion to what was started in Suspiria and Inferno, it’s a let-down. I never expected it to be on the same level as them, so I can’t claim to be disappointed, but it remains a middle of the road entry in Argento’s filmography - better than Trauma and The Phantom of the Opera but weaker than all his other theatrical ventures (it’s better than his three recent TV projects, though, especially those embarrassing Masters of Horror episodes).
Category Post Index
- The dead will continue to waken
- Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 11 and 12: Yahrzeit
- Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 9 and 10: Double Bind
- Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 7 and 8: Mask of Sanity
- Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 5 and 6: The Fall
- Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 3 and 4: Deus Ex Machina
- Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 1 and 2: Wren Boys
- Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 11 and 12: Cold Fusion
- Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 9 and 10: Undertow
- Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 7 and 8: Straw Dog
- Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 5 and 6: Subterraneans
- Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 3 and 4: Black Run
- Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 1 and 2: Towers of Silence
- Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 11 and 12: Shadowplay
- Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 9 and 10: The Hardest Word
- Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 7 and 8: Anger Management
- Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 5 and 6: Fugue States
- Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 3 and 4: False Flag
- Waking the Dead: Series 4, Episodes 1 and 2: In Sight of the Lord
- Waking the Dead: Series 3, Episodes 7 and 8: Final Cut
- Waking the Dead: Series 3, Episodes 5 and 6: Breaking Glass
- Waking the Dead: Series 3, Episodes 3 and 4: Walking on Water
- Waking the Dead: Series 3, Episodes 1 and 2: Multistorey
- Waking the Dead: Series 2, Episodes 7 and 8: Thin Air
- Waking the Dead: Series 2, Episodes 5 and 6: Special Relationships
- Waking the Dead: Series 2, Episodes 3 and 4: Deathwatch
- Waking the Dead: Series 2, Episodes 1 and 2: Life Sentence
- Waking the Dead: Series 1, Episodes 7 and 8: Every Breath You Take
- Waking the Dead: Series 1, Episodes 5 and 6: A Simple Sacrifice
- Waking the Dead: Series 1, Episodes 3 and 4: The Blind Beggar
- Waking the Dead: Series 1, Episodes 1 and 2: Burn Out
- Waking the Dead: Pilot
- The Waking the Dead Project
- DVDs I bought or received in the month of May
- Thoughts on Kiss of Death
- Dead rising
- So many discs, so little time
- DVD review: Waking the Dead: Series 5
- Apparently they sell DVDs in shops now
- Mater Lacrimarum revisited
- DVDs I bought or received in the month of September
- Death on my mind
- DVD review: Waking the Dead: Series 4
- Burying the dead
- So much to see, so little time
- DVDs I bought or received in the month of January
- Digging up missing discs
- Silent night, Holby night...
- DVDs I bought or received in the month of October