Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Horror of Vince Powell (and other stories)

I'm certain everyone has been on tenterhooks to know what I've been watching and reading recently, so here's a few mini reviews...

The Lost Room (Sky, 3 part mini series)

The Lost Room was very nearly brilliant, expanding as it does the idea (started in Lost) of making a TV series out of an old computer adventure game. Lost, though, was one of those random makes-no-bloody sense at all adventure games which largely consisted of a massive maze created using a random number generator and three stock phrases ('You go West. There is a wall. You can North, South or East'). The Lost Room, on the other hand, utilises a model ripped straight off of the glory which was Infocom. Admittedly, in real terms this largely consists of the ability to combine items - but fortunately , that's the entire point of The Lost Room.

Briefly summarised, the show revolves around the discovery by Detective Joe Miller that he has in his possession a Key which allows him to open any door - but that behind every door so opened lies the exact same mysterious motel room. During a rescue attempt gone wrong, Miller's young daughter goes into the Motel Room but, without the Key, is unable to get out and disappears.

Miller discovers that the Key is but one of over a hundred Objects - items from the Motel Room which have taken on magical powers after some Event (there are lots of capitalised words in The Lost Room - it makes everything sound more portentous) which occurred there in 1961. Find the right combination of Objects and Miller can get his daughter back.

It sounds quite unpromising, but in reality it avoids the obvious pit-fall of turning into an 'Object of the Week' kind of show. Instead it plays up both the creepiness and humour factors, with some almost Lynchian small-town weirdness combined with a cast of shadowy characters that Tim Burton would be proud of. Beautiful cinematography combine with excellent performances from all the leads (look out for Trainspotting's Ewan Bremner as a man with a magic time-stopping Comb) more than make up for an ending which is typical of the genre in its failure to satisfactorily tie things up.

The Black Angel - John Connolly (Methuen, 2005)

The disappointment I felt in reading this book was so huge I'm surprised that no-one reported a rip in the very fabric of time and space.

I love John Connolly and believe he represents the very pinnacle of literary thriller writing, easily eclipsing the likes of Barker, Harris and King. His first four books in particular are perfect examples of adult, literate thriller writing. He combines an effortlessly graceful prose style with a lively imagination and a knack for creating believable and three dimensional characters, both good, bad and somewhere in-between. In fact, the moral ambivalence of the three apparent good guys in those novels is a reflection of the, at times, equally ambivalent killers and while the existence of Evil is made apparent by the conclusion, there are many times in each of these novels where lines are blurred and demarcation less than obvious. The addition of a subtle and underplayed running thread of the strange and the occult was at one point merely the garnish on a peculiarly compelling series of books.

The Black Angel, on the other hand, is 'Michael Marshall meets the Da Vinci Code', which is just as Abbott and Costello as it sounds.

The good writing is still there, even if too many characters drop into portentous prose rather than actual dialogue at the drop of a hat, but instead of that writing being the decoration on the bones of a solid and imaginative plot, it's merely a vehicle by which Connolly can construct a generic search through mitteleurope, complete with flashbacks to medieval times, ransacked churches and hidden libraries.

The hero, Charlie Parker is no longer simply a man burdened with loss and guilt looking for redemption, but is instead an actual angel. That's a real bloody angel, folks, the kind with wings who fell from Heaven. And he needs to find the Holy Grail before the Nazis do, but it's buried under Roslyn Chapel and there's Matt Damon and Ben Affleck trying to get to the church first with some stone age cavemen serial killers in tow and Indy's lost his whip...

Not really, but the plot is a load of derivative and unambitious drivel, nonetheless.

The Eleventh Tiger - David McIntee (BBC Books, 2006)

David McIntee gets a hard time in some quarters, but I've always enjoyed his books. He's not a great stylist and he suffers from a tendency to go all murderous with the Doctor's friends and companions, but he's a Who books author I can easily see writing for the old (or, as it should be known, good) version of the TV series. There's little by way of message in a McIntee book (or if there is, I've always missed it) but you are pretty much guaranteed a good time rolling through one of his books as the plot heaves and batters along.

The Eleventh Tiger is a case in point. The historical research is, I'm told, pretty much spot-on and the characterisation of the Doctor and his companions is sufficiently close to the TV period it apes to avoid pain. The plot's solid and there's some nice bits of writing too (Fei-Hung making the 'appropriate sounds of pain' as his elderly father grabs his ear is as nicely judged a phrase as anything published by the BBC recently), for all that the majority of the prose is functional rather than flashy.

But to concentrate on these areas, even in (admittedly somewhat faint) praise, is to miss the point.

McIntee writes old-fashioned adventure novels which may range in quality (Sanctuary is, for me, his highpoint and is one of the top half dozen New Adventures - First Frontier his weakest but still with elements to praise) but each is generally entertaining. Even a throw-away like Mission:Impractical is a quick pleasure, the Who equivalent of a potboiler detective novel or one of those Film Noir thrillers from the forties and fifties that clock in at sixty-five breathless minutes. If you can ignore the occasionally clunky dialogue (and if you read the BBC book range, then presumably you can) and the slightly too frequent sorties into continuity areas best left alone*, then the name 'David McIntee' on a book cover is as much a guarantee of a certain level of quality as that of Lance Parkin or Phil Purser-Hallard.

Love Thy Neighbour Series 1 - Network DVD

Absolutely fucking awful.

One joke - the new neighbours are 'nig-nogs'. The other joke - you can call them 'sambos' too.

Jack Smethurst as Eddie the racist halfwit also can't act, declaiming all his lines in some kind of weird Calculon the Robot voice, but that seems beside the point, given the sheer leaden, grinding poverty of the writing.

Mark Lewisohn in his Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy rates another Vince Powell creation, The Bottle Boys as the worst sitcom ever**. Having seen this, I desperately want to see them because I genuinely can't conceive of a 'comedy' less funny than this.

Abso-fucking-lutely awful. So bad it was worth saying that twice.

Horror of Glam Rock - Paul Magrs (BBC7)

It's Paul Magrs so it was never going to be anything less than enjoyable. And so it turned out. Excellent performances from Bernard Cribbins and Sheridan Smith*** in particular help make a lively and amusing, if somewhat slight, script a great success.

The only downside is the performance of Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. Occasionally he rises to the heady heights of adequate, but some of his work here is positively embarrassing (one example: his delivery of a line mocking the Pertwee era reversing the polarity of the neutron beam is so flat that the joke passes almost unnoticed). McGann can be excellent when he can be bothered but increasingly it seems like he just can't be arsed with Big Finish.

Oh, and did Nick Briggs have to talk over the top of the glam rock Who theme tune at the end? And did I hear someone pronounce the great man's name as 'boe-ie' at one point?

Encyclopedia of cult children's television - Richard Lewis

It's not encyclopedic, it's badly written, it's not funny and it only appears to cover those shows made in the 1970s that the author has heard of.

What else?

The author pads the word count by using the same show repeatedly for different entries (one entry for the Wacky Races and then a separate, pointless entry for each driver/car, for instance) and believes that writing in the manner of a rather childish teenager, complete with almost swear-words, is impressive.

He's wrong.

This is a terrible waste of paper - if you want a guide to old kids TV, look for Simon Sheridan's far superior book instead.

Other bits and pieces on TV

24 - endlessly re-treading the same ideas in an ever decreasing circle of tedium which, despite my best efforts, just isn't engaging me at all.

Prison Break - Now they're out of jail and Michael's convoluted plan is no longer the major plot thread, this is just another US TV series desperate TO LIVE FOREVER AND NEVER GET CANCELLED!

Getting boring in its need to keep killing people off as a substitute to an engaging plot, since 'prisoners on the run' doesn't really have that much needed "seven season" mileage.

Life on Mars - Still funny and with a perfect rapport between the two leads, this remains the best fantasy TV of the past twelve months. I'm looking forward to eighties sequel Ashes to Ashes too.

Dads Army (Series 5) - It's getting ever closer to the point at which James Beck's early death marked the beginning of the end, but it's still lovely, gentle stuff for the moment. What I particularly like is that, amongst the broad farce, the occasional quieter character moments aren't quite gone - John Laurie's admission that he's an 'auld blether' to John Le Mesurier after spreading rumours about him is wonderful played, for example.

Sykes (1973 Series) - Wonderful, wonderful comedy. It doesn't make you laugh uproariously all that often but Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques, supported by Richard Wattis, will leave anyone smiling for a solid half hour, punctuated by more than enough actual laughs to satisfy. Will someone please release this on perfectly restored DVD?

* McIntee is no Gary Russell, to be clear - his continuity fests may not always work, but there's rarely the feeling that he's throwing references in just because he needs to cover the fact that he can't write.
** Just how poor is the update of IMDB by the way?
*** There's another, more angular and less attractive Sheridan Smith acting today, you know - - who does both Cockney and British dialects, apparently, which nicely sums up the US view of the UK.

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Blogger TimeWarden said...

It was nice that Paul Magrs referenced the three greats of glam though, despite the mispronunciation, rather than say Mud, Sweet and Glitter!

I haven't heard all the Big Finish stuff but I prefer Paul McGann to either of the recent TV incarnations. I don't think there was anything in his latest series as good as "Chimes of Midnight" though. Like the TV series, I prefer the episodic format but you've probably already guessed I'd say that!

6:15 am  
Blogger SK said...

'Okay, Stephen, you clearly can't do an English accent... Clare, can you give us your best try at an Irish one? Oh dear. Well, I suppose it'll have to do.'

11:45 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Ah well, there's a good reason that I highlighted Bernard Cribbins and Sheridan Smith :)

11:52 am  
Blogger SAF said...

Gosh, not much I feel qualified to comment on there. Except, I too enjoyed "The Eleventh Tiger", and although I've not seen any in absolute yonks, your comments chime very well with my recollection of "Sykes".

3:35 pm  

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