Thursday, 12 January 2012

Brief TV Reviews - Sherlock and the Musicals

BBC1 - Sunday. The Hounds of Baskerville. A brilliant twist on the tale by Mark Gatiss, using names from the original, but cleverly making Dr Stapleton a woman, and Seton isn't a convict, although he is responsible for mysterious morse-like code. I felt there was a lot more fun to this episode than last weeks, and the location filming gave it a dense creepy atmosphere at night, and a feeling of the remote wilderness by day.

Some nods to the last show, where the picture of Sherlock wearing a deer-stalker kind of hat (only done to hide his face, and not even his hat) is now the newspaper standard image for him,. This was rather a neat mocking of the fact that is now how the character is often seen in the original Conan Doyle stories, despite only wearing a deerstalker in the Sidney Paget illustrations, and only those set in the country - in towns, he is depicted wearing a top hat.

There were also a couple of distant shots of Holmes standing on a tor which were extremely nicely done. The village and the pub did have a small whiff of Avenger land; I could imagine John Steed turning up there. But that was fine; it worked well. And he cleverly worked in the line: "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound". Who really uses the term "hound" nowadays? There's an extremely clever reason why - it is an acronym!

BBC3: The Musical - all on the hits of the 1980s, with shows like Cats, Starlight Express, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Me and My Girl - lots of these were groundbreaking shows in terms of choreography and performance, breaking the conventions of the Broadway musical.

Even Me and My Girl (a more traditional show) did not have the high kicking line up of American ladies which the Americans thought should be part and parcel of a musical - as Stephen Fry memorably described, an American told him the men wanted to see a chorus line "kick ass"!

What also came across as clear was that theatre critics of that time really didn't want to understand these shows, and had a complete disconnect from the public, and got it almost completely wrong. Starlight Express was light and fluffy, and criticized for not being serious; Les Miserables was criticized for being too serious and gloomy - miserable! The critics seemed stuck in an American musical past, while the public had moved on, and wanted something different.

In fact, Les Miserables was slammed by the critics at the same time as it was selling out at the box office. And unlike the more traditional musicals, this show had a world-wide and translatable appeal to the non-English speaking world. It has characters and a strong emotional heart in the story, which have been taken over very well from Victor Hugo's novel, as well as fantastically rousing tunes.

It is interesting also to reflect on the musicals that didn't make it. Mutiny on the Bounty with David Essex didn't prove a draw despite its star. Chess had about one really good song, and never really took off before the Cold War ended. Cliff Richard performing in Dave Clark's Time The Musical was hi-tech, and strangely weird, lots of dazzle, pushing the boundaries of technology but with nothing to remember. It also featured a disembodied holographic head of Laurence Olivier as a Godlike figure (not too far removed from his self-image) which went wrong on occasion, putting his eyes where his lips were.

What they all didn't have was Trevor Nunn. Cats, Star Light Express and Les Miserables all saw his sure hand in the direction, and he seemed to have an uncanny knack of knowing how to get extraordinarily difficult shows to work, in which the boundaries of actor and dancer became blurred. And Cameron Mackintosh as producer seems have known how to pick winners, although he later had a few flops, such as Moby Dick.

The slow burn success story was Willie Russell's Blood Brothers, a musical which failed to achieve success on its first run, and then came back and gradually built up a following in the provinces before triumphantly coming to the West End. It is now one of the longest-running musical productions in history. Unlike the panorama and spectacle of the other shows, it is relatively low key, more of a domestic and homely drama, tightly focused on the family group, but showed how you don't need acrobatics and special stage effects to make a musical that works.

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