Thursday, August 11, 2005

We have been watching...

For one reason or another, J and I have been watching a lot of DVDs this year and have worked our way through any number of whole TV series, alternating between the more modern things that she likes and series from the seventies that I try and convince her she'll enjoy.

Looking back, I don't think that there's been anything which hasn't been at least enjoyable and several which turned out to be unexpectedly high quality.

We started off by watching all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which started off being my suggestion but the appearance of David Boreanaz as Angel soon caught J's attention). Like its spin-off, Angel, which we watched straight afterwards, it's a series which ebbs and flows in quality from season to season whilst still retaining the ability to throw up episodes of isolated brilliance fairly regularly. My main problem with the series though is an obvious one - plot resolutions tend to be enormously simplistic, side-step previously established monster characteristics with less than stellar justification or simply rely on a deus ex machina to help the Scooby Gang out.

The main players are all appealing enough and each has a reasonable character arc over the course of the show's seven seasons (although Xander's swift progress from useless unemployable to master carpenter is as annoying here as Phoebe's elevation to star journalist in Charmed). The doomed romance between Willow and Tara is particularly well done and emotionally satisfying and leads to the best sustained period in the show, during which Dark Willow takes over and wreaks havoc on her erstwhile friends. Actually, the central concept underlying the series - how the young approach and handle loss and death - is satisfyingly handled throughout.

BtVS is probably the weakest of Joss Wheedon's three main TV series (the other being the magnificent Firefly), but it remains one of the highlights of late nineties TV.

After Angel (J's pick) it's time for a spot of seventies nostalgia and When the Boat Comes In, starring James Bolam as former WWI soldier Jack Ford, now demobbed and looking to make his way in the world. To be honest, the first three seasons of WtBCI are pretty standard fayre. It makes a pleasant change to have a hero in British TV of the period who wasn't from London, the performances are all excellent and the writing in the main stays away from overt sentimentality. The plots are engaging and well thought out and Ford's interaction with the working-class Seaton family on the one hand and assorted aristocrats and factory owners on the other makes for fascinating viewing.

If there was a single flaw in the make-up of the show, it was that Jack Ford, although ostensibly the central character of the programme, served as much as catalyst or saviour for the Seatons as he did anything else, and everything he did was touched in some way by the extended Seaton family.

By the end of the third season, though, it was fairly clear that the series' creator, James Mitchell, was growing disenchanted with the Seatons (see, for example, the swift removal of Jessie to Kent or the restoration of Bill Seaton's ability to walk) and when that season came to a close with Ford off to prohibition America and the whole Seaton clan seemingly happily settled, it appeared that Mitchell had said all he had to say.

Then, in 1981, WtBCi returned.

At the centre of the fourth series is an astonishing performance by James Bolam as Jack Ford, now returned from America after a six year absence. That Mitchell has warped the established character of Jack is obvious from the first - where once he was always immaculately turned out, now Ford lies half-drunk, unshaven and poorly dressed in a corner of the cargo hold of a tramp steamer. Having lost all of his money in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and fled the States with the Mob on his tail, the immediate expectation is that the series will start up where it left off, with Ford returning to Gallowshields and the Seaton family.

And yet it does no such thing. The cosy and familiar is eschewed for what is, in essence, a completely different series. The elder Seatons are never mentioned again; Jack's two erstwhile best friends are conspicuous by their absence (Tom Seaton merits one passing acknowledgement, Matt Headley has drowned); even long-time enemies like Sir Horace Manners are missing.

Even without being told it's clear that time has passed, and the lack of familiar faces makes the first couple of episodes edgy and lacking in obvious direction. As the season progresses this edginess becomes ever more apparent as Jack swiftly moves from a small beer scheme to get himself a bit of working capital (and leave Matt's widow comfortably off) to moving to London and mixing in the best Society circles.

Time moves erratically (years pass between individual episodes), lovers and friends appear and disappear without explanation and, as the series as a whole begins to wind down, the passage of Ford's personal time is marked by the re-appearance of familiar faces from earlier series. Most tellingly, Lady Caroline, Jack's one time lover from the second series, is a respectable married woman with children who clearly views the older Jack with concerned affection. His drinking becomes increasingly constant as he feels the world slipping away from him and in the best scene in the entire series, his one-time never-fail chat up line (relating the tale of how his Captain died in his arms at the Somme) is a disaster when tried out on a new generation for whom the Great War isn't even a memory.

In the end, Ford is destroyed by a woman from his past and, in an ending as unexpected and bleak as that to Sapphire and Steel or Blakes 7, dies unpleasantly and needlessly at the side of a road, victim of his desire to help his old friends one more time.

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