Sunday, September 30, 2012

DVD Review: Midsomer Murders: Mayhem & Mystery Files

Midsomer Murders: Mayhem & Mystery Files DVD 15-Discs (25 hours)
Released by Acorn Media on September 25th 2012. SRP $149.99 (DVD)

I have never said that I knew everything about British television. In fact, what keeps me interested in this subject is watching new things all the time. I love watching programs I’ve never seen before that includes actors that I have enjoyed in other series. My major area of interest for British television is generally focused from the 1950s to 1990s. Some of the newer programs may have been lost on me. A lot of casual British television fans have probably seen more of the newer programs than I have but that’s fine. I am watching stuff I have never seen before and am enjoying it. Probably one of the biggest revelations I’ve had in a long time was setting my eyes on this new set of Midsomer Murders: Mayhem & Mystery Files.

DVD Content:

Now, when I got this set I knew that there was a really good chance that I would like it. The set that was sent to me focused on Series 10 & 11. If a show had been around for at least 10 or 11 series, they must be doing something right. These series have been previously released on DVD as sets 13, 14, 15, and 16. Acorn Media has been doing a good job with bundling up previous series in tighter sets that take up less room. They previously released Midsomer Murders: The Early Case Collection (previously sets 1, 2, 3, and 5), Midsomer Murders: Barnaby’s Casebook (previously sets 4, 6, 7 and, 8) and Midsomer Murders: Village Case Files (previously sets 9, 10, 11, and 12). This makes a nice little package of episodes to enjoy. The most recent set Midsomer Murders: Mayhem & Mystery Files was released on September 25th. It has taken me a while to put this review up simply because there are 25 hours of material to this set. That is a total of 15 cases to be solved. I even took time off work from my full-time job to watch this. Was it worth it?
Of course it was worth it! If you have not seen this series before like myself, you may be wondering what was it like to start into it 10 series after it started. It’s not hard at all. It is very easy to get involved with this series. The first episode I watched was the first episode on the set Dance with the Dead. The one thing I knew about this series was that it took place in Midsomer. I wrongly thought that Midsomer was a village and had wondered how all of these murders could take place in the one village of Midsomer. I did need to do a little bit of research to see what that was all about. Midsomer is an English county, fictional of course. There are about 56 villages within the county of Midsomer. The two detectives we follow throughout this set are Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sgt. Benjamin Jones.

Barnaby has been around since the beginning of the series. For the role he plays, he is very patient and fair. He is immediately likeable. As I go further into this set, I get more background on not only Barnaby but also his family. Through this set I meet his wife, Joyce and their daughter Cully. In this set Cully even meets and marries her future husband Simon. This series has a lot of Barnaby’s family in it yet they don’t intrude into the story. Midsomer is a large county but also intimate. Barnaby knows a lot of people in it and is involved in the community such as in  Death in a Chocolate Box where the murders are connected with people he had worked with previously but also with a couple of people he had convicted and help reform. John Nettles starred in this series since the very beginning. One of his biggest claims to fame which hasn’t really shown up in the US is the series Bergerac. Nettles had been with the series since its start in 1997 and he really is a comforting force in the series. There doesn’t seem to be anything that really threw Barnaby. He has a great memory recall that helps him figure out his cases. Sometimes he notices very obscure details things that lead to big revelations such as how he solves Picture of Innocence but yet it seems plausible. I understand that John Nettles left the series after Series 13. All the episodes on this set contain episodes with John Nettles as these are from Series 10 & 11.
Barnaby’s partner Sgt. Jones is very loyal to Barnaby. They work well together but Jones is able to get some light-hearted jabs in on Barnaby especially when Jones learns about Barnaby’s rock band days in The Axeman Cometh. On the surface, Barnaby doesn’t seem like someone who could rock it out but he does! In Picture of Innocence, Barnaby is taken off a case because his name keeps showing up in all the evidence. Jones knows that Barnaby is not involved in the case as implied and does what he can to keep Barnaby informed and help clear Barnaby’s name.

For me, and I am sure many others, one of the most enjoyable aspects of this series are the locations. Midsomer County is made up of a lot of picturesque quaint English villages. The scenery is simply beautiful. Right from the start in Dance with the Dead, there is an old disused WWII airbase, a farm, a small village with narrow roads. It’s wonderful. There is not a skyscraper in sight! In a lot of episodes there is a lot of greenery and open fields. I mentioned in a previous review, Special Branch – Set 1, that those locations are gritty but here it is interesting to have this often gruesome murders set in the background of these quaint and beautiful English villages. Clearly that’s a major selling point in making this series so good but also makes the murders and situations more malevolent. What evil is lurking deep within these old country villages?
The stories themselves are really quite good. I admit I am no good at figuring out the murderer and sometimes it is really difficult. Some of the resolutions to these mysteries are really surprising but plausible. When some of the murderers are revealed, I didn’t scratch my head thinking where this came from. It all seemed to make some sense. Ultimately, some of the endings are sad as some of the murders are unintentional and things got out of control after that. Of course, some are fueled by just plain old-fashioned revenge. In the beginning of the series, a lot of the series was written by Anthony Horowitz. He had written a lot of amazing things like adaptations for Poirot and created Foyle’s War. Episodes from Series 10 & 11 were written by David Hoskins, Steve Trafford, Barry Purchese, David Lawrence and Peter J. Hammond. He is also known as PJ Hammond and created the beloved series Sapphire & Steel.

These episodes feature a lot of names that I recognized from other series and that is one of my favorite things when watching these series. Guest stars include: Harriet Thorpe, Suzi Quatro, Phil Davis, Philip Madoc, Stephanie Cole, Gareth Thomas, Liza Goddard, Chris Barrie, Samantha Bond, Simon Williams, and Tim Piggot-Smith. There are some great performances in this one, I particularly found Chris Barrie’s interesting and he appears in Death in a Chocolate Box.
One thing I noticed immediately when I watched this was the music. The theme music has a spooky sort of vibe to it but it was the incidental music that caught my attention. There were certain “hooks” in the music that was a sort of a clarinet that would lead into a piece of music. It sound to me like similar music I heard in House of Cards. That is because the music is composed by Jim Parker who did House of Cards. The music, just like in the House of Cards, is a highlight to the production. It stands out without being intrusive. It fits the feel and tone of the series perfectly and adds atmosphere to the series. It’s so good that 3 soundtracks have been released for this series. Jim Parker also did the music for Foyle’s War but one of my favorite scores he did for television was Mapp & Lucia. I would love to own a soundtrack of music for House of Cards and Mapp & Lucia. Jim Parker is a very talented man and helps make this series superb!

There is a Caroline Graham (the author of the books this series is based on), production notes, and a photo gallery. The most interesting is a commentary on The Magician’s Nephew with John Nettles and Jane Wymark (Joyce Barnaby). This was previously available on Set 16 but is new and very enjoyable to me. I am not a huge commentary fan but when it is just one episode on a set, I think that it is just fine. I enjoyed listening to them talk about the episode and the series. Multiple commentaries to me almost feel overwhelming so this, to me, was perfect.

These episodes were made between 2006 and 2008. This series was made in SD (standard definition) so the fact that they were released on SD DVD is perfectly reasonable. They look great and have been released in their native 16:9 format. Being made in the 21st century, the best sorts of tools have been applied in post-production to make this look as good as it can. Color grading looks fine. Especially when out in the fields where greens and yellows are sufficiently bright or when the series goes up to Wales such as the episode Death and Dust. I have no complaints about the quality. Plus the fact that it had been shot on 16mm film gives hope that someday (if all the film material still exists) this can be rebuilt into HD for possible Blu ray releases in the future.

This comes in a very simple and effective packaging of four regular amary size cases (each one holding 3 to 4 discs) housed in a larger cardboard box. This is very similar to the other three Midsomer Murder sets I mentioned above. Each one has a photo of some very English village building whether it is a mansion or an old English church. To me, they convey that feeling I mentioned earlier of the quaint English village but the question is what is really going on within those walls? The package makes this set very compact and easy to store.

If you are like me and you haven’t seen this series before, these box sets are the best way to do it. I have no regrets starting with Series 10. It was very easy to get into and I thought these episodes were a great introduction to the established characters and the county of Midsomer. If you have the sets already, this is a nice compact way of having all of these episodes at your fingertips. I can easily see me going through these episodes again on a quiet winter Sunday evening. This is highly recommended.
Disc breakdown

Disc 1: Dance with the Dead
Disc 2: The Animal Within
Disc 3: King’s Crystal

Disc 4: The Axeman Cometh
Disc 5: Death and Dust

Disc 6: Picture of Innocence
Disc 7: They Seek Him Here

Disc 8: Death in a Chocolate Box

Disc 9: Blood Wedding
Disc 10: Shot at Dawn

Disc 11: Left for Dead
Disc 12: Midsomer Life

Disc 13: The Magician’s Nephew

Disc 14: Days of Misrule
Disc 15: Talking to the Dead

This week: This week I will be posting my review for the complete series of Acorn Media’s Thomas & Sarah as well as the first article of my Bond @ 50 theme: Dr. No.
Have a great week!

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Monday, September 24, 2012

DVD Review: Special Branch - Set 1

Special Branch Set 1 DVD 4-Discs (662 min)
Released by Acorn Media on September 25th 2012. SRP $59.99 (DVD)

In the 1970s, there was a real push for UK broadcasters to try and create series that could be sold overseas to the US market. Generally, a very traditional way of making television in the UK would be to shoot the interiors of a series on videotape in a studio while the exteriors would be shot on film or possibly in some cases on videotape. There are people out there who do not like that look though I am personally am a big of fan of it. The problem comes from that with the interiors and exteriors shot on 2 different mediums, to some it looks jarring. Others believed that anything shot on videotape looks cheap. I feel like I need to jump in again and say I don’t agree with that. To take a skewed look at a classic analogy, it’s not what type of paper the book is printed on but what is inside it. A little abstract? Possibly! There is a history of series that changed their look to appeal to the US market. One of them was The Avengers. For its fourth series, production moved from a videotaped produced series to a film series to try and get interest from the states. Special Branch took it one step further….
DVD Content:
On September 25th Acorn Media will be releasing Special Branch Set 1. This will be covering the first 13 episodes that starred George Sewell as DCI Alan Craven and Patrick Mower as DCI Tom Haggerty. The title “Set 1” is a bit of a misnomer. The episodes on this set cover episodes that ran in 1973. As it happens, this is actually Series 3. Special Branch started in 1969 as a Thames television series. It started off in black and white shot on videotape. It was made mostly in studio with exteriors being shot on film and then videotape. The series starred Darren Nesbitt as DCI Jordan. Special Branch took a hiatus after the 1970 series and got re-tooled. The revamped Special Branch became the first production of the Thames subsidiary Euston Films. Started by Lloyd Shirley, George Taylor, and Brian Tesler, they decide on an approach to a new style of making television for the UK and hoped to sell it abroad. First, they dropped the videotaped approach. All the series would be shot on film and on location. This meant no studios at all. If they needed to shoot something in a flat, they would shoot it in a flat. Another big change would be that each series would have 2 film crews working simultaneously on an episode. Once again, they could get through production quicker. When watching episodes on this DVD set, when Haggerty is in the series, it is obvious that these two film crews are at work. There is a large part of these episodes where Craven and Haggerty are doing separate parts of the same investigation, I am sure these were being shot simultaneously or it could be a simple as a B crew going around taking pick up shots. If Euston Films sound familiar to you, other programs they made were Van Der Valk, The Sweeney (which also included 2 feature films), Reilly: Ace of Spies and Quatermass.  

We are introduced to Craven in the first episode, A Copper Called Craven. It is a strange way to introduce a character as we hardly know him but he is immediately charged with accepting a bribe. The whole episode revolves around him trying to prove his innocence. We are not introduced to Haggerty until the second episode, Round the Clock. Haggerty is interesting. He is not in all the episodes but when he is, he makes the program better. Craven is a some-what gritty officer but follows procedures pretty well and is able to get the information he needs. Haggerty does that but there is something a little more loose-cannon about him. In some ways, he is more human.  In Death by Drowning, the husband of an important MP is found dead in the Thames. It’s a Sunday; Craven and Haggerty need to start the investigation now. Craven is ready to start but Haggerty is having trouble getting going. He is horribly hung over. It makes him a little more realistic. About half the episodes do not feature Haggerty in them. When the series returned in 1973 with the new character of Craven but also starred Roger Rowland as Detective Sgt. Bill North. Now, Roger Rowland did appear in an episode of Special Branch from 1969 called Troika but not as Bill North but as DCI Felding. Not the same character.  The problem with Bill North is that he is a subordinate who does what Craven needs. The people making the series were concerned that it was lacking punch from its characters and brought in Patrick Mower as Haggerty. Haggerty and Craven often lock horns and disagree. Patrick Mower was brought in when six episodes had already been shot. So they shot the remaining seven with him and sprinkled them into the series so it looks like Haggerty is basically there throughout the third series.  There are also times when they get along really well. To give the series some depth, it made sense to put them together in the series. George Sewell and Patrick Mower play the part really well together.
With the series being shot on location, there are all sorts of interesting things to see. The series was shot in London. For people who love British television series like Lovejoy and Midsomer Murders where there is glorious country-side and quaint villages or even like Sherlock which shows London as a sophisticated and beautiful place may be disappointed with the locations. This is a series about anti-terrorism and crime. A lot of the action takes place in areas that are less than perfect. Let’s face it, it is gritty and bleak. There are a lot of rundown buildings. The episode Red Herring has some very ghetto-esque places. Even though the quality of the episodes is fine, the colour palette for much of these episodes are pale. A lot of greys. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of sunny days. Of course, these episodes were made before everything would be colour graded in post-production. Now, if you shoot on a cloudy day there are ways to make it look better weather-wise than what it was on the day the scenes were shot. No in these episodes!

While watching this set, I was thinking about how people want to make television series more real. Often the response to this is to make something grittier. Maybe more blood, maybe when someone hits someone else the sound is more violent. I think Special Branch comes across much more realistic but in a different way. There is a ton of shots with us, the viewer, in the car driving around with Craven and North. We are driving with them as if we are in the backseat and they are in the front. There is rarely any incidental music but just the sounds of people doing their jobs. Like in Red Herring, Police need to clear the street because of bomb that is in a parked car. Just the sounds of all the vehicles and people doing their jobs running around to make people safe makes the series very believable. The down side to this could be that some of this takes a while to unfold. Sometimes it doesn’t happen very quickly. The pacing can sometimes be a little slow but I found when Haggerty is in the series, that isn’t the case.
As soon as Haggerty is in an episode, an officer at the same level as Craven can do some investigations. The plot becomes much more complex. There are a couple of things going on in Death by Drowning, the story is not so straight forward in regards to the death of the husband of an MP. The investigation takes two separate directions where Haggerty and Craven need to figure out what they need to do. Whereas episodes like Red Herring, Polonaise or even a Copper Called Craven seem to have one strong plot that we eventually come to an end with at the finale of the episode. Sometimes, such as Polonaise, the resolution of the episodes can seem a little flat. We take all the time to get here and when we do, I am sometimes left scratching my head thinking, “Is that it?” Once again the episodes that have Haggerty in them seemed to breathe fresh life into them and since those episodes were sprinkled throughout the broadcast order of episodes, it doesn’t bother me at all.

As a big fan of British television, there were a lot of faces I saw that I recognized from other programs and were glad to see them like Tony Selby, Peter Jeffrey, Clifford Rose, Angus MacKay, Andre Morell, Richard Marner, Norman Jones, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Dennis Chinnery, Geoffrey Bayldon, James Bree, Stephanie Beacham, Michael Gambon, Mark Eden, and Ronald Leigh-Hunt. If you do not know who these people are, they have appeared in everything from ‘Allo ‘Allo, Only Fools and Horses, Quatermass and the Pit, Doctor Who and so much more.

Andre Morell also appeared as Bernard Quatermass in Quatermass and the Pit
There is one extra on here but it is a pretty cool one. It is an interview with both Patrick Mower and George Sewell. They are done separate to each other but it is really informative. They both speak fondly of the series and each other but I was really impressed by how much they knew of the history of Special Branch. They knew about how much revamping was needed and why the formation of Euston was so important. I know they were there at the time but sometimes you just don’t get as informative of interviews. It is a real highlight of the set. It looks like it was imported over from the UK set distributed by Network DVD. I can only say that when Acorn Media is able to bring stuff over from Network DVD, everyone wins. I have quite a few of Network releases and they are impeccable with quality and depths they go through with extras. One of the highlights in my collection from Network is the Upstairs Downstairs collection and they extras on these are breathe-taking. I believe some of those extras showed up on the recently released Upstairs Downstairs sets by Acorn Media. What I also like about this extra is that we get a clip from a black and white episode of Special Branch. I love the look of black and white British television and when I saw it I was immediately reminded of an episode of the not seen in the US series Public Eye. Both produced by Thames Television. What is also nice about this extra is just seeing an interview with George Sewell, this extra was produced in 2004 and George passed away in 2007. These types of extras start to become precious.

A shot from the 1969 version of Special Branch in the Sewell/Mower interview extra.
Seeing as the extra was ported over from the Network release I have no reason to believe that these are the same episodes used as was used in the UK release. Each episode starts out with the Fremantle logo and jingle which I am not a huge fan of since they have been recently added to the episodes but seeing that they own the series, there really is nothing anyone can do about it. More importantly, the Thames opening is left intact. You know what I am talking about especially if you ever saw Benny Hill or Danger Mouse. It looks like the ad caps were missing and I am not sure if they are present on the Network release. I really am a purist and like the ad caps. That’s the bit that shows the logo of the series just as it goes into commercials. It would also normally say “End of Part One”, etc. The quality of the prints used for this release look fine to me. They are not perfect nor would I say remastered. They look to me (and I could be wrong) that they are new prints made of the episodes since they look pretty good condition but no remastering or clean-up has been done to the prints at all. I’m fine with that. They look great and there are some scratches to the prints here and there but the colour looks strong and consistent throughout the episodes even if the look of the overall series has a bleakness to it.

The set comes in a standard size Amary DVD case that holds four discs. It also has a sleeve that goes over the case. You certainly couldn’t mistake this DVD with anything else as it is a bold yellow, red, and black cover with Haggerty and Craven in a shot that makes them look like Starsky and Hutch. It says on the cover “Classic British Spy Drama” and I am not totally sure I agree with this. I would hold such distinction for a series like The Sandbaggers but what I like about this series is the anti-terrorism piece to it. There are some international moments but these guys are police and investigators more so than spies.

The episodes range from good to very good. It is clear that when the new Special Branch came back, it was not only getting used to its new format but the way it was being made under the newly formed Euston Films. Regardless, it is very enjoyable and there are going to be some episodes I am definitely going to go back to watch. I hope there will be a “Set 2” of this series and if there is enough interest, I hope that Acorn Media thinks about releasing an “Early Years” set so we can enjoy the original episodes with Darren Nesbitt.

Disc Breakdown:
Disc 1: A Copper Called Craven, Round the Clock, Inquisition, Assault
Disc 2: Polonaise, Red Herring, Death by Drowning
Disc 3: All the King’s Men, Threat, The Other Man
Disc 4: You Won’t Remember Me, Hostage, Blueprint for Murder; Interview with George Sewell and Patrick Mower (17 minutes).

This week: In a day or so I will post my review for the new Midsomer Murders set Mayhem and Mystery Files and this weekend will be my first article for the Bond @ 50 celebration with Dr. No.
Have a great week!

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at
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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fry & Laurie is Jeeves & Wooster

In the latter part of the 1980s, to me there seemed to be a comedy movement coming out of the UK. This is different than what we had seen earlier in the decade with the likes of Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, etc with programs like The Young Ones and The Comic Strip Presents. This was one that was created by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton. With a show like Black Adder (in any of its incarnation), there was some great comic talent emerging. This notably was, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

These two gentlemen both were part of the Cambridge Footlights Revue and became a double act in the early 1980s. They both appeared in Blackadder II, Blackadder The Third and Blackadder Goes Forth as various characters in various forms. In 1989 they got their own series known as A Bit of Fry and Laurie.  This lasted for four series but when it came time for an adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s famous characters of Jeeves and Wooster to be brought to television, it seemed like a no-brainer that both Fry and Laurie were called upon to star in this series. The short stories and novels are fun and light hearted and needed two actors with similar qualities to take on the task of playing these wonderfully timeless characters.
As for the characters themselves, P.G. Wodehouse first introduced us to these characters in the 1915 short story Extricating Young Gussie. However, these characters were still a work in progress. Jeeves as a character was not well defined and Wooster actually had the surname of Mannering Phipps. The Jeeves and Wooster we would know to come to love showed up in a short story in 1916 called The Artistic Career of Corky. For most of these stories, Bertie Wooster is the narrator. The short stories were later compiled into books and Wodehouse changed from writing these characters in short stories into full-fledged novel starting in 1934.

Interestingly it didn’t take long for Jeeves and Wooster to catch on in other forms of media. The first film came out in 1935 Thank you, Jeeves!  followed up in 1936 with Step Lively, Jeeves! both starring Arthur Treacher as Jeeves. Does anyone remember the Arthur Treacher Fish and Chips restaurants? I remember these when I young. Back in the day there were about 900 of them. Surprisingly there are around 45 of them now. I say surprisingly because I didn’t think there were any around at all! These films bared no resemblance to the P.G. Wodehouse stories apart from using Jeeves and Wooster’s names. The first time Jeeves and Wooster made it on TV was in 1965 with a series called The World of Wooster. It was a comedy series with Dennis Price as Jeeves and Ian Carmichael as Bertie. Derek Nimmo played Bingo Little. I would love to see this but it is not that easy. Out of the 20 episodes made only 2 still exist. I may have these somewhere. I need to take a look and see. Surprisingly for radio there isn’t that much that has been made. There was a series made from 1972 to 1981 called What Ho, Jeeves! starring Michael Hordern as Jeeves and Richard Briers as Wooster.
The version I watched was produced in 1990. Now, I don’t even like to call it a version. If you are familiar with my columns I comment on things that are the definitive versions. I consider this to be the definitive version of anything (apart from the books) of Jeeves and Wooster. The two actors are pitch perfect in this. The production values are phenomenal with great attention to detail to the time the series takes place. Now, once again I run into the issue of titles. This episode seems to have multiple titles and with no onscreen titles, it’s hard to know what one calls anything. I decided to go with the title taken from the Kaleidoscope book of ITV drama, so I chose:

Bertie and Honoria Glossop TX: 22/04/90
When tuning in to see this episode, it would be understandable to wonder if this was not the first episode. We are introduced to Bertie Wooster in court. He is clearly still drunk or horribly hung over and cannot even speak for himself. The best he can do is basically gurgle. He took the helmet off an officer earlier that night for some high spirited fun. After getting through that little escapade, Wooster goes back home and collapses in bed only to be woken up the persistent ringing of the doorbell. Bertie Wooster is part of the “idle rich”. You don’t know where these people got their money from but they really don’t deserve it. They don’t know what a day’s work is. Bertie Wooster is a mess and honestly could easily take up residence in the works of E.F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia. Bertie, like Mapp & Lucia, live in a world where they have no idea what anyone else does. They just exist completely in a world of their own. Bertie is about to get some much needed help at the front door.
At the front door is Bertie’s new valet, Jeeves. Within about a minute, he cleaned Bertie’s apartment and was able to fix Bertie some concoction that completely took away his hangover. After about 8 minutes of Bertie on screen, he finally utters his first lines of dialogue. Jeeves is impressive right from the start. Helpful, all-knowing and usually having a slight air of superiority over Bertie. That afternoon, Bertie has lunch with his Aunt Agatha who has news Bertie does not want to hear. Aunt Agatha wants Bertie to marry Honoria Glossop. She is a very sporty, outgoing and strong woman. Probably not the best fit for Bertie yet he has no choice but to go out to the country and see her. At the Glossop Manor, Bertie finds out that his buddy Bingo Little has a crush on her so it is in Bertie’s best interest to get them to fall in love with each other. Bertie has a plan, which only Bertie could come up with, which has him pushing a small child off a bridge while Honoria is there so Bingo can rush out of the bushes jump in the water and save the small boy.  Everything is set and the kid is pushed off the bridge. The only problem is that Bingo isn’t there. Bertie jumps in to save the kid. Where is Bingo? Well, even though at one point he was absolutely in love with the muscular Honoria, he has now found a new love and plans to play golf with her.

This incident makes Honoria adore Bertie and the only obstacle to married bliss is her parents. Now, Bertie already had breakfast at the manor with them and that didn’t really go to well. Now, back in London, Aunt Agatha has set up for Honoria’s parents Sir Roderick and Lady Glossop to dine at Bertie’s home. Bertie is all set, with Jeeves employed by Bertie nothing should go wrong except for the fact that Bertie is still going to attend dinner. Earlier in the day, friends from the club Bertie often resides in drove passed Sir Roderick and stole his hat right off of his head. Now at dinner, Bertie is really trying his best. After figuring out the seating arrangements which had all three members circle around the table multiple times, they sit down only for Sir Roderick to start hearing cats meowing.  How is this possible? This is the worst possible thing that could happen since both Sir Roderick and Lady Glossop have an actual fear of cats. Earlier in the day, after the guys nicked the hat from Sir Roderick, they dropped by Bertie’s to see if he could hold onto the hat and also some cats that they got in some kind of trade. Now, these guys had no idea who Sir Roderick was or that they knew that Bertie knew him. Jeeves just agreed to hold on to everything. So at dinner, when Sir Roderick starts getting angry that he is hearing cats, Bertie assures him there are no cats and even opens to the door to show that there are no cats in the room. Of course, when he opens the door, three run out of the room. To add insult to injury, Sir Roderick asks for his coat and Bertie hands him his coat and his hat…..which was stolen earlier in the day. The engagement seems to be off.  Now, was this Jeeves knowing his employers situation well enough to steer events in the right way to get Bertie out of his predicament? Of course it was! This is going to be the start of a beautiful relationship!
I lump this series along with another one, All Creatures Great & Small. It is funny, it is gentle, and by the time the end credits roll I have a smile on my face. This episode is not complicated and in some ways Jeeves is almost a super hero. He is perfect. Bertie remarks how Jeeves sure knows an awful lot of stuff and asks him, is there anything you don’t know? Jeeves pauses for a moment and replies, “I don’t know sir!” Great stuff! There is a great moment where Bertie is singing at his piano “Minnie the Moocher” and tries to get Jeeves to sing the response. He needs Jeeves to sing :


And Jeeves (in his function as valet response with)
Hidee-Hidee-Hidee-hi Sir
Hodee-hodee-hodee-ho Sir

It’s very funny and innocent humour. Even the act of stealing hats of policemen or Sir Roderick seem very tame and in good fun. The people never mean to do any sort of damage. They are probably so bored because they have so much money.
Easily the highlight for me is the music and the opening credits. The open credits are one of the best in British or any television which really gives me a great impression of upper class 1930s England. All done with stylish animation, this is really a fun and sophisticated opening. What really gets things moving is the theme music. It is an original piece written by Anne Dudley. She won a BAFTA for it. It is simply amazing and here it is here for your enjoyment.
I watched this from the 2008 UK re-release of the entire series. It says it was digitally remastered. When I originally looked at it, I didn’t think there was much difference but after watching this episode, I noticed how great it looks and it is so much better looking than the A&E set. It was last released in the US in 2002. It was shot on 16mm film and as long as the film sequences still exist, there is no reason why we couldn’t see a Blu ray release like we have with Poirot which certainly hails from that same time. This would be great to see in the best quality possible.

If you have never seen this series, I have some options listed below. This is a great, great series and since it was set in a certain period of time, it never ages. To me, this will always be the definitive article.

Also: maybe you did or did not notice but after 5 years of doing this blog, I invested in giving this thing an actual URL. Hence forth we are now:  Yes, I know I am in the US but it seemed fitting to give it a UK url since it is all about British television. Let the confusion begin!
Next week: What film franchise is 50 years old and is still releasing new films? Bond, James Bond. I am counting down over the next 7 weeks to the release of Skyfall. The only way to do that is go back and re-watch some classic Bond films. I start next week to where it all started: Dr. No. Coming up this week I will post DVD reviews for Midsomer Murders: Mayhem & Mystery Files and Special Branch: Set 1. If I ever get them in time to review I will also put up my reviews for Doctor Who: Ambassadors of Death and The Claws of Axos.

Have a great week!
Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Forever Onslow! The Geoffrey Hughes Tribute

Back in late July of 2012, this fan of Geoffrey Hughes was saddened to learn that he had lost his battle with prostate cancer. He was only 68. Over this past year, we have lost a lot of talented people who made up the British television community but for me, the passing of Geoffrey felt a little more personal. I never met him and to be honest, I really know him best from one program and that is his role of Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances. I guess what makes it so personal for me is the thought of my younger years living at home, watching this series with my mom on weeknights on KTCA. Back then, I was meticulous to record the program on VHS for my own personal library of British television series.
It was the mid-1990s and I was living at home and working at a local TV station. I was doing a job that I didn’t really care for and watching these programs on KTCA from 10-11pm every night was a wonderful way to wind down. It was fun to watch it with my Mom because it proved to me that British television was not different from regular television; good comedy was good comedy. Good actors could make good comedy and it didn’t matter what side of the “pond” you were onto watch it.  Normally during this period all sorts of series would be played on KTCA but if I was lucky, they would show Are You Being Served? and Keeping Up Appearances one after another each night. There was a reason why my Mom loved Keeping Up Appearances. The series was about a middle-class house wife who felt that they were more important in society than they really were. Hyacinth Bucket (she pronounces it Bouquet but it is Bucket) would do anything in her power to try to be perceived as an influential member of society. In fact, she annoys everyone. She even gets annoyed at the postman for delivering mail to her house using a second class postage stamp! He can try to explain to her it has nothing to do with the post office but she will never listen. Hyacinth reminds my Mom of a member of our family. Not someone in our immediate family but a family member all the same. Now, the member of our family was never, ever as bad as that but Hyacinth was the one who always talked and her husband Richard was the quiet one. Just like these family members. We would affectionately laugh at it. There was someone else in the series who became my favourite character of Keeping Up Appearances, a man by the name of Onslow.

Onslow was the brother-in-law of Hyacinth. Hyacinth’s sister Daisy and Onslow don’t really do much with their lives. Onslow sits in front of the television all day eating beer and crisps. Daisy gets him the beer and crisps. They sound horrible but they are not. In fact, they are the most real people in the series. Especially Onslow. It is funny because Keeping Up Appearances creator, Roy Clarke, cites Onslow as his favourite character. One of the things I watched as my tribute to Geoffrey Hughes was a PBS special made long after Keeping Up Appearances came to an end. It was called Life Lessons from Onslow (2007) and it was basically a “best of” program that showed great moments from the series. The thing is, I honestly think you could learn a lot from being like Onslow. He may have been a slob but he was himself and he never apologized for it. He was an easy going guy and never had massive ambitions like Hyacinth. He just wanted to enjoy life through the age old process of drinking beer and eating crisps. Everyone else in these episodes are racing around to avoid Hyacinth or stop a comedic catastrophe from happening but there is Onslow, taking everything in stride (or slow motion) and wanting to just pop down to the pub. He can mingle with basically anyone with his laid back personality. He often feels bad for Richard for having to be married to Hyacinth.  He is a wonderful character and knowing that the person who brought him to our screens is gone is rather sad.
What about Geoffrey Hughes himself? Geoffrey was born in 1944. He had a long list of TV to his credit. Among the series he was in, he was perhaps best known to many in the UK as Eddie Yeats in the soap opera Coronation Street. He is also well known for playing Twiggy in The Royle Family and Vernon Scripps in Heartbeat. Geoffrey was the Honourary Squire of the Dartington Morris Men. He was married to Susan Hughes.

What I like to do when someone from a series I enjoy passes away, I like to watch some of the stuff in my collection that is connected with this actor. So obviously, I watched some Keeping Up Appearances but I watched some other things that had him in it. Now, keep in mind that this is not a definitive list of what he appeared in but stuff that was in my collection.
The oldest thing I should have in my collection actually doesn’t exist in the BBC archives. I have the series, The Likely Lads, on DVD. Geoffrey appeared in two episodes but as luck would have it, neither of those episodes no longer exist. So the next thing in my collection is the very semi-naughty 1970s series Up Pompeii starring the great Frankie Howerd. This wonderful comedy series which takes place in Pompeii prior to Vesuvius erupting is known best for Frankie Howerd’s portrayal of the slave Lurcio. If you have never seen this but like fun double entendre humour, check it out. Anyway, Geoffrey appears in the first episode of the series (not counting the pilot) called Vestal Virgins playing Piteous. He plays the role with a high pitched voice. He is an aide to another villainous character named Noxious. It has to be said every time those two are on screen, they get very little laughs. Of course, Howerd has the studio audience in stitches especially whenever he breaks character of Lurcio telling the audience that the other actors are getting all the best lines. It is interesting to see a young Geoffrey Hughes in this especially with that bizarre high pitched voice.

Next up was his appearance in one of the all-time classic BBC comedy series Dad’s Army. The episode was Brain Versus Brawn. He was in it for just a couple of minutes playing the Bridge Corporal. Hardly anything that would be considered comedic acting.
The first thing I ever saw him in was Doctor Who. For this being one of my favourite series, I never really write about it. Geoffrey appears as a character named Mr. Popplewick in Part 13 & Part 14 of The Trial of a Timelord. He is a Victorian clerk in a make-believe setting within the Matrix for the Doctor to encounter. What is so interesting about the character of Popplewick is that he is so procedural. There is the proper way to do everything. When Popplewick explains what he needs to do to allow The Doctor to see JJ Chambers (the man the Doctor needs to see while in the Matrix to clear up a whole load of stuff I don’t need to get into here) he explains in the greatest detail all of the process and handling that needs to take place before the Doctor can move onto the next level to be able to see Chambers. In fact there are two Popplewicks!   The first one is the junior Mr. Popplewick but there is a more senior Popplewick who is a little more helpful. Even though one if more junior, they both look exactly the same. Geoffrey plays the role of Popplewick as a Victorian gentleman who takes his work as a clerk as a honed craft and deviating from process is to insult the profession. He was one of the more interesting characters from the story.

I did not watch this from the DVD but from a version that I was commissioned to make. I was given access to different elements such as 71 edits and studio footage that were not on the DVD plus SFX and music to create an extended version of this story. It was meant to be its own story so it was renamed The Ultimate Foe. It was fun and re-watching made me struggle to remember what I added. I guess I was doing something right!
After The Ultimate Foe, I watched some Keeping Up Appearances. I went to a Keeping Up Appearances forum to see what some of the people would recommend for watching some good Onslow episodes. Some kind soul gave me his recommendation. Now, the question I have is why is the R1 BBC DVD released by Warner Bros. have episode titles that are so different from the titles listed everywhere else? The gentleman on the forum said I should watch Onslow’s Birthday and A Job for Richard. These are the titles I found on every other episode guide. On the R1 DVD, Onslow’s Birthday is called Cocktails with a Greek Shipping Millionaire and A Job for Richard is known as Hyacinth Tees Off. Changing these episode names tees me off too! It just makes no sense. Maybe they got confused as there are no onscreen titles for this series? I doubt it!
Onslow’s Birthday is about how Hyacinth thinks because her other sister Rose is seeing a Greek Shipping Millionaire that this is her time to impress this guy and hopefully be somehow able to climb the social ladder. This all centers around Onslow’s birthday as they all have to go out and stop by to pick up Hyacinth and Richard. This is important because this millionaire has a limousine. Hyacinth is so excited for this that she brings all the influential people she knows around to her house for hor d'oeuvres. The problem is when they finally show up at Hyacinth’s house it’s not in a limousine but a hearse. What’s even worse is that Onslow has to dress up in a suit and tie…..on his birthday!

In A Job for Richard, Hyacinth sees that there is a Managing Director position opening up a Frosticles frozen food factory. This would be perfect for Richard but he cannot just apply like an ordinary person, Hyacinth has a plan. Richard needs to look dynamic to the head Frosticle himself so Hyancinth has come up with a plan where her and Richard will run into the owner of Frosticles on the golf course. Then, out of the bushes Onslow will come out in his normal attire. Hyacinth will ask Richard to remove that “sinister” man from the golf course thus impressing everyone. Onslow is bigger than Richard so the sight of him strong-arming Onslow out of the golf course is pretty amusing. Of course fun turns to tragedy as the group from Frosticles run into a couple of real bullies and they ask Richard to take care of those unsavory characters too. Richard doesn’t do so well this time.

I also viewed the Christmas episode Sea Fever but I wrote about it here back in 2008 so if you are interested in that please check it out. Onslow was a special character created by Roy Clarke but was realized and improved upon by Geoffrey Hughes. Geoffrey looked like someone that was pretty easy going. He had a kind face that, to me, looked like if you saw him you could always buy him a beer. Like so many people who have passed away who were in shows we love, it is sad to see them go but we are left with a body of work that we can enjoy for years and hopefully share with others. It can also bring back memories. There is not one time I don’t watch Keeping Up Appearances and not think about those night time viewing with my Mom back in 1995 and 1996. I will cherish them and Geoffrey Hughes had something to do with it. I will always appreciate that.

Next week: I take a look at the first episode of a long-time favourite, Jeeves & Wooster with Bertie and Honoria Glossop. A magnificent show that needs to be viewed immediately if you have not seen it before. Upcoming DVD reviews include Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death & The Claws of Axos, Special Branch: Set 1, Midsomer Murders set, and Thomas & Sarah complete series. Plus starting in a week, I start reviewing a movie franchise that has been running for 50 years.

Have a great week!
Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

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Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Facebook Page for updates about new articles.

Monday, September 10, 2012

DVD Review: Absolutely Fabulous: 20th Anniversary Specials

Absolutely Fabulous 20th Anniversary Specials (90 min)

Released by BBC Video on September 11th 2012. SRP $24.98 (DVD)
There is something I love about British television series. They never go away. British television series differ quite a bit from the US series in the sense that when a US series ends, it generally  never comes back as a regular series. British series are renowned for taking long breaks and coming back like there was no break at all. This includes Doctor Who, Only Fools and Horses, and of course Absolutely Fabulous. Back in 1996, it looked like Absolutely Fabulous was finished with The Last Shout. Jump forward to 2001 and suddenly there is a fourth series. Absolutely Fabulous was in our screens on and off until 2005 with a Comic Relief Special. The last special was White Box in 2004 and quite honestly, I was fine if it never returned again. For a series that was one of my all-time favourites, it pained me to so anti Ab Fab. To me, the series had run out of creativity. When I found out in December 2011 that the series was going to return on Christmas Day, I figured I would give it a shot but didn’t hold out high hopes for it. I’m glad I did. I watched the first episode and it was my rediscovery of a show I adored almost 20 years ago.

On September 11, BBC Video will release the most recent episodes of this wonderful British comedy series. The funny thing is that even after all of these years, there still isn’t anything like it. It still unique with characters that are charming and very memorable even if a few of them hate each other! This disc includes the 3 specials that made the “season” of episodes that aired in December of 2011 and into this year. These are called Identity, Job, and Olympics. Has it been really been 20 years since these wonderful characters came on the screen? Yes it was and this time they return to form in 3 episodes that is very classic Absolutely Fabulous. Now, I have to admit that I hate to use phrasing like that. Everyone knows that when an older series uses terminology with new episodes that go along the line of “these episodes return to the classic feel of INSERT SERIES NAME HERE” it means that the series lost its way and is trying to regain its former popularity. I have seen this applied to the last 3 specials of Only Fools and Horses or the recent upcoming series of Red Dwarf. Face it, when a series with a set format has been around for a long time, it easy for itself to lose its way. The writers try to freshen up the story ideas or the characters themselves. I felt that Absolutely Fabulous had done this but with that series, it is forgivable. Why? Simply because the whole series is one about comedy experimentation.
The storylines and characters in Absolutely Fabulous are all about them being in different situations while experimenting with how the story is told. Edina is all about the latest fads. Of course it opens it up for the series to date quicker but in a way that’s a great last joke by creator/writer Jennifer Saunders. It shows how silly Edina was 20 years later for investing in these fads which makes her even funnier.
I don’t remember how the previous special White Box even ended. I was done with this series at this point. I was finding it increasingly unfunny. I still am not sure if I had seen it all the way through to the end. I do not remember it. Perhaps when I finish writing this, I will take out the DVD a re-watch it. Yes, spoken like a true fan. I didn’t like it but still bought it. Anyway, my uncertainty and trepidation of these new specials disappeared instantly when I started to watch Identity. Identity starts off with Edina picking her daughter Saffy up from prison. Yes, prison! She has been in for two years providing fake passports to asylum seekers. Not only was Saffy in prison but she was actually the top inmate there. She got the respect and fear from all the other women prisoners. But is there more to this than it appears? Of course! It becomes even clearer when Saffy’s cellmate Baron shows up. Baron and Patsy have some history together and things get very uncomfortable in the household quickly.
From Identity, we move onto the second episode Job. This episode centers on Edina and Patsy to get the great French film star & singer Jeanne Durand to sing a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Edina really needs this for her business and she has a lot riding on this. Of course, there is one hitch in Edina’s plan, Jeanne Durand does not sing. It’s not that she sings off-key or fumbles the words, it’s more of when she opens her mouth to sing, no sound comes out of it.
The final episode was quite timely as it was called Olympics. Edina wants to have a meeting with Stella McCartney but McCartney is quite revolted by her. Edina even tries to make money out of renting her house out to the Hollywood influential during the Olympic Games. As usual, things go wrong.

I thought Olympics was the weakest of the 3 episodes. It was too shoe-horned into the surroundings of the actual Olympics. This is where I always felt Absolutely Fabulous was its weakest was when it was trying to be relevant to an event or even a celebrity. What does lift this episode is the return of Edina’s ex-husband Marshall along with Bo. They argue back and forth over whether Marshall has a sex addiction problem and it really reminded me how I missed these characters. Even though I thought that Olympics was weaker than the other two episodes, I still loved it.
The other two episodes were sublime. Identity is just hilarious. It has a surprising premise but the regular characters are not outlandish. They are not doing odd things; they are the same characters that I saw in the first 3 series of Absolutely Fabulous. In fact, they almost take the background roles to the bully Baron. My favourite of the 3 episodes has to be Job. It is probably so because of Lindsay Duncan taking the role of the prima donna Jeanne Durand. She is hilarious especially as she is such a serious character who takes herself so seriously. Of course, guest stars is something that Absolutely Fabulous is known for. During the three episodes we see Lulu, Emma Bunton, Lindsay Duncan, Kirsty Wark. Mark Kermode, La Roux, Stella McCartney, and Kelly Holmes. It’s even funnier when you think that poor Lulu had been a client of Edina for about 20 years.

The regulars are just as funny as always. I love them and Edina and Patsy haven’t changes at all. They are still funny and out of touch no matter how much they try to stay in touch. It’s funny as when the series began in 1992, they were still somewhat part of “the scene” but by the time we got to Series 4 in 2001 they had pretty much been passed by from the youth of the day. Now, they are pretty much just old and it feels like that in some way, they are OK with it. It’s also nice to see the cast just down to the classic line up of Edina, Patsy, Saffy, Mother, and Bubbles. It’s not cluttered with cast members that just muddied the series like Saffy’s husband John and some woman I cannot find the name of that worked at Edina’s agency in a couple of episodes of Series 4. Also we don’t see any more of Bubbles’ twin Katy Grin. There are some semi-regulars that show up in these specials that I always have a special fondness for such as Christopher Malcolm as Justin, Christopher Ryan, Mo Gaffney and Naoko Mori as Sarah. We even get the return of Llewella Gideon as Nurse that we first saw way back in the Series 2 episode Death.

For the completest such as myself, it is nice to see that the Sport Relief Special is included. This seven-minute mini-episode aired in the UK in March of this year. Sports Relief is a charity event from Comic Relief, in association with BBC Sport, which brings together the worlds of sport and entertainment to raise money to help vulnerable people in both the UK and the world's poorest countries. This special centers on Edina training for the Sports Relief but she has no interest in charity. She is really there to be in a meeting with Stella McCartney to discuss a shoot she has an idea for that she thinks Stella will like. As usual, things don’t go to plan and it ends with Emma Bunton beating up Edina. How we get to this is interesting and I will not spoil it! To coincide with this, there is a making of feature on the Behind the Scenes at Sports Relief.
I think this is the perfect amount of extras for a disc. I am not a huge fan of a ton of extras and what is nice is that it is not over done here. The extras are a compliment to the actual episodes on the disc. It’s the perfect amount for me. Plus, over the years BBC Video has done a great job of supplementing these discs with nice extras.

For Standard Definition, this looks fine. It is 16:9 anamorphic. The problem is that I want to see this in HD. I really wish there was a Blu Ray option for this release. It was shot and broadcast in the UK and the US in HD. Why couldn’t we have the option to get this in HD on Blu Ray? I am a fan of physical media and what is more frustrating is that you can stream these episodes through Amazon in HD. Of course the Amazon stream will be a lot more compressed than a Blu Ray but at least it is in HD. I notice that it is not available in Blu Ray in the UK  either and I am sure that is what’s stopping a Blu Ray release here.

Also, a problem that has been plaguing the Absolutely Fabulous DVD releases is the replacement theme music. Due to music rights, the US market does not have the rights to the Bob Dylan and Rick Danko song “This Wheel’s on Fire”. In the UK, blanket music agreements have been reached for series that used popular music to be commercially released so it is not a problem over there. That blanket agreement does not reach to over here where that would need to be re-negotiated with the copyright holder. It is an unfortunate situation but unavoidable. It is clear to get the rights to the song is cost prohibitive. I have faith in these BBC releases, if they could release it with the music I think they would. In the place of the actual theme music on these DVDs there is usually a piece of instrumental music over the credits but for these specials, the theme is a clubbier version of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics. I am not sure what I think of it since the whole way the music is presented is so different than the theme. You will need to check it out yourself and make up your mind.
This disc also includes Ultra Violet so you can watch it from the cloudsphere……

This is a single DVD in a standard Amary case. It includes a sleeve. The cover features a shot of Edina and Patsy from the photo shoot done to publicize these specials. This DVD cover differs slightly from the UK set as the photo taken is from the same photo shoot but the UK version has all four cast members on the cover. I believe that is the first time any of these releases had more than Edina and Patsy on it.
UK DVD Cover
I am really happy that, to me, Absolutely Fabulous got their act together. In 2005, I was done with them. In 2012 I cannot wait for their return. It really is like seeing an old friend again. If you did not watch it when it was on the air this year, do yourself a big favour and treat yourself to this DVD to see some of the best episodes of Absolutely Fabulous since 1996.
Disc Breakdown:

1 Disc: 3 episodes (Identity, Job, Olympics) + Ab Fab Does Sports Relief, Behind the Scenes at Sports Relief.

This week: In the next couple of days I will be posting my tribute to actor Geoffrey Hughes. I wanted to post this review first.

Have a great week!

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at
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