Thursday, 12 April 2012

TV Reviews: Titanic, Once Upon A Time, Arena, White Heat

Good week for "Titanoraks" who have had a field day picking apart the TV drama about the ship. Viewers have relished the sight of a senior officer casually asking a passenger for a dance; a train that was not in service at the time; and a boiler room manned by a single stoker!

And with that in mind, my review of Titanic: Episode 3:


Now the boats are lowered, and all the Italian waiters are locked up to drown. I've never come across any documentary evidence for that. But at last there is some sense of pace, as our coterie of actors struggle to get into the boats. It's of course a very small boat deck, and reminds me more of the old Jersey Mail Boat (the Sarnia or Caesarea) than the Titanic. There's the odd doomed love affair, and we see more of the steerage and servants this episode. A man takes his little girl to get "a bottle of pop", which seems strangely anachronistic, especially as he is not American, but emigrating. Was it common parlance in Ireland or England? Having come this far, I shall watch the final episode, if only to see it to its conclusion.

But it is a series which is, I fear, fast sinking, with ratings flowing out through a large hole made in its budget. I gather the total complement is around 80 actors, which means that there were around twenty or thirty jostling for space on the small deck. Most of the lifeboats were quickly gone, and we actually only saw two lowered. "It can't come up", says an Officer of the half-empty lifeboat. But I think it did, when the cameras were off, so that it could double up for the second lifeboat.

Now it's down to the last collapsible (the others departed unseen), and whether they can get it off the davits in time for another of the cast to escape. If they actually had lowered the same number of lifeboats as the real Titanic, most of the 80 strong crew would have escaped.

Once Upon a Time:

This is a strange show, where a magic curse has somehow transformed a fairy tale people into the inhabitants of a Mid-West American town. It's the kind of show that perhaps you'd think should not work, but actually, it works very well.

Part of that has to do with the fun of seeing the real-life analogues of the fairy tale anecdotes, but Lana Parrilla also holds a lot of it together with her dark and fundamentally despairing character of the Evil Queen, now Regina Mills. Robert Carlyle, as the creepy Rumplestiltskin / Mr Gold who sets everything off is also good; no one quite does creepy and menacing like him.

I suspect it will be an acquired taste, and not appeal to most audiences, but the script is nice, and for once it seems more literate than just something driven by special effects.

Arena: Jonathan Miller.

I've never liked Jonathan Miller that much. As one of the Beyond the Fringe, he came across as a very clever and knowing purveyor of satirical humour, but not perhaps someone who's heart was in humour, which of course Peter Cook and Dudley Moore famously carried on with; Alan Bennett also wrote plays with a wry Northern humour.

So this retrospective of his work was interesting, and it portrayed a much more sympathetic and interesting character than his occasional outbursts reported in the Tabloids (about "celebrity Shakespeare" etc) which always seemed ill-thought out.

Instead, we had the behind the scenes anecdotes, interviews and clips demonstrating why he always brought something interesting and novel to his direction of plays, or later, of opera. He remarked that it was probably his medical eye for fine detail, for making sure all kinds of small things did not get overlooked. I'm not so sure. Seeing his penchant for collecting pieces of scrap to fashion into abstract sculpture, I'd say it was more an eye for the form, or shape, of the play or opera, the same eye for balance and cohesion that informed his liking of abstractions from real objects; like those, his plays and operas always took what was there, and produced something that viewed them in an intensely visual way.

I like Jonathan Miller much better now, which is some achievement for a very good documentary (no padding there!)

White Heat.

The couples finally get together after Orla's death, and the framing narrative, in the present day, really has (for once) a lot more coherence. Back in the past, relationships fall apart, as one of two drop bombshells, including Jay being HIV and still practicing as a surgeon; it turns out that Lily can't have children because of an abortion after she was pregnant over a one night stand with Jack. Victor discovers his and Charlie's daughter is actually the result of a one night stand with her and Jack. All told, cautionary tales about one night stands!

There's less of a sense of the history here, snippets of Thatcher's speech about being disappointed that she didn't win the leadership ballot outright, a scene from Spitting Image, a comment from Jack's Dad that she is invulnerable, just as she was about to be ousted. Jack tried for the SDP and failed; Jack's father suggests that maybe Labour will reform itself as a kind of New Labour (one detects the hand of script writer's hindsight at work). But that apart, there's not much of the engagement with social and political issues of the day which made the previous episodes so engrossing.

On the other hand, the present day story reaches a resolution, as they come to terms with the way they let Orla down; she was always there for them, they forgot her. As Alan notes, it is easy to be wise in hindsight, and he quotes the Irish saying:

"May you have the hindsight to know where you've been, The foresight to know where you are going, And the insight to know when you have gone too far"

In a bittersweet moment, they watch Orla's retirement as a professional therapist on a DVD in her safe, and how she tells her peers how a therapist is a compass, trying to help people find their direction, and if she helped just one person to find their way, that would be enough.

On the rooftop of her flat, they take the urn of her ashes, and each in turn takes a handful, and scatters them off into the air. She was the glue that had bound them together as young people, and now they resolve to meet again before too long. Is this just empty words? We are not told, and people do tend to say that kind of thing. But Victor, off as a lawyer to Washington for a Court Case asks Charlie if she will have lunch with her on his return. Sometimes patterns change for the better after all.

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