Grantchester – Series Three. Acorn Media DVD Review

Anglican priest Sidney Chambers (James Norton) continues his unlikely sleuthing partnership with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Greene).  You might have assumed that the small village of Grantchester would be a fairly quiet place – but not so.  Barely a week seems to go by without a mysterious murder occurring which requires both Sidney’s intuitive abilities and the harder-edged skills of Geordie.

Based on the novels by James Runcie (whose father, Robert Runcie, was a former Archbishop of Canterbury) Grantchester started airing in 2014.  All the ingredients required for a popular success are present and correct – a period (mid fifties) setting, personable lead actors and decent mysteries.  This release contains the Christmas Special from 2016 and the six episodes from series three which have just finished airing on ITV.

The Christmas Special wasn’t quite feature-length, but it was a little longer than a normal episode (running for sixty five minutes).  The murder of a bridegroom on his wedding day throws up numerous suspects.  Could his bride-to-be Linda Morgan (Maimie McCoy) be responsible?  If not, then possibly the murdered man’s son Felix Davies (Enzo Cilenti) might know more than he’s letting on.  But Geordie sees parallels in this case to an old, unsolved, murder and is convinced that Albert Tannen (Julian Glover) is the man they want.

It’s a shame that some of the episode doesn’t look very Christmassy (there’s no hiding the bright sunshine which is a dead giveaway it wasn’t filmed during the depths of winter) although later snowy scenes do slightly make up for this.  The wonderful Julian Glover never fails to impress and he’s on typically fine form here.  At first glance Albert Tannen seems to be a bitter old man, but there’s maybe more to him than meets the eye.

Sidney’s relationship with Amanda (Morven Christie) will have a major impact throughout series three.  Amanda has now left her husband Tom and faces an uncertain future.  Sidney is still infatuated with her (he was heartbroken when she married) but what would the village say if it became known that he had designs on a woman who was both pregnant and married?  When Amanda finds herself homeless it’s maybe no surprise that she ends up at the Vicarage (and on Christmas Eve too, very apt). Amanda and her newly-born daughter Grace will provide Sidney with a dilemma that has no easy answers.

Robson Greene & James Norton

As ever, the byplay between Norton and Greene and the incidental pleasures along the way are often just as important as the whodunnit.  In this one they visit a strip club (in the course of duty, naturally) something which Sidney takes in his stride.  A chaotic nativity play (featuring enthusiastic, but unruly, children) is a treat whilst the birth of Amanda’s child – with Sidney’s dour housekeeper Mrs Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones) and curate Leonard Finch (Al Weaver) in attendance – is another stand-out moment.  Whilst Amanda’s upstairs and swearing like a trooper, Sidney’s outside and chugging down a bottle of whisky ….

The first episode of series three finds Sidney still conflicted over his feelings for Amanda. Things begin in a light-hearted way – with them tripping the light fantastic to the latest rock ‘n’ roll sounds and enjoying a moonlight bike ride – but it looks like their idyll will be short lived. He’s given a stern reminder by the new Archdeacon (Gary Beadle) about the importance of duty, which makes it plain that his role in the church and his relationship with Amanda simply aren’t compatible. Luckily he’s then targeted by a homicidal murderer, which rather takes his mind off his own problems ….

This week’s murder victim, Dr Atwell (Gregory Flow), had previously worked at a grim psychiatric hospital, now run by the foreboding Veronica Stone (Susannah Harker).  Sidney might be blameless of any wrongdoing but that doesn’t stop him from almost becoming another murder statistic (early on it’s clear something odd’s happening to him – he’s the recipient of dead crows and heavy-breathing phone calls).  As so often with the series, there’s a bleakness to the story which sharply contrasts with the peaceful and bucolic nature of the village.

Robson Greene & James Norton

What could be more pleasant and relaxing than a game of village cricket? Mmm, but this is Grantchester where death is a constant companion, so you shouldn’t be shocked to learn that one of the players, Zafar Ali (Dinesh Sundran), is later found dead. Like the rest of the team he appeared to have been affected by the beer (which had been laced with something unpleasant) but whilst everyone else recovered, he didn’t.

Casual racism isn’t far from the surface in this second episode, best exemplified by Geoff Towler (Peter Davison). It’s always a pleasure to see Davison and although he doesn’t get to wield a cricket bat in anger on the pitch, at least he does wave one around after Zafar’s brother accuses Towler’s daughter of being the murderer. Other running themes, such as Geordie’s affair with Margaret Ward (Seline Hezli), continue to simmer away and although Towler’s Masonic handshake with a disgusted Geordie seems to be a throwaway moment, we’ll see the Masonic theme again later in the series.

Episode three sees Leonard and his new ladyfriend Hillary (Emily Franklin) caught up in an armed robbery at the post office. As already touched upon, for many the appeal of Grantchester is as much to do with the soap-like elements as it is with the mysteries. And in addition to the ongoing saga of Sidney and Amanda as well as Geordie’s cheating ways, there’s also Leonard’s dilemma to consider.

A closet homosexual, it seems advisable that he has a wife as cover (and the vulnerable Hillary looks to be the ideal candidate). This sounds horrible and calculating, but Leonard’s a nice chap – just trapped by the moral confines of the era he lives in.  The mystery part of the episode is strong as well (although the gun-toting antics of Geordie and the others seems slightly anachronistic).

The fourth episode begins with Sidney lecturing his congregation about the dangers of giving into temptation – which given that he’d finally tumbled into bed with Amanda at the end of the previous instalment seems a tad rich. Of course, he’s no happier now than he was before (“how do I reconcile what I’ve done with what I believe?”). And things look no better for both Geordie and Leonard.

When the pressure of living a lie becomes too much, Leonard attempts suicide whilst Geordie’s wife, Cathy (Casey Ainsworth), finally learns about her husband’s affair. And if that wasn’t enough then Mrs Maguire’s long-lost husband, Ronnie (Charlie Higson), turns up out of the blue to tell her that he’s dying. It’s all going on this week ….

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This being Grantchester, there’s a crime to solve too (even though the tangled emotional lives of the regulars dominates). Christopher Fulford appears as Ezra Garson, the owner of a local factory where a badly injured girl was discovered. Corruption and the creeping influence of the Masons both have their part to play as Geordie finds that some of his colleagues, especially the oily Phil Wilkinson (Lorne McFadyen), can’t be trusted. Norton and Greene sparkle in the scenes where Sidney and Geordie find the complacent hypocrisy of those who should know better to be unbearable.

Episode five opens with Sidney on the road. He’s hunting down Ronnie, who last time absconded with Mrs Maguire’s life-savings (Sidney’s also, in part, running away from his own troubles). He finds Ronnie ensconced in a Romany camp and is staggered to learn that he has another wife and several daughters.

Then Ronnie is murdered and Sidney is accused of the crime. But before long Sidney’s turned sleuth again whilst Mrs Maguire has to come to terms with the fact that her newly-murdered husband had been a bigamist. Tessa Peake-Jones is on good form here. Upon reaching the camp, Mrs Maguire eyes her rival with disdain. “I wouldn’t have said Ronnie would chose a woman with long and wayward hair”.

If the gypsies seem a little too clean and not terribly interesting, then the episode still engages thanks to the continuing subplots concerning the regulars. Geordie’s been thrown out of the house (although Cathy thoughtfully packed him two pairs of pyjamas before she did so) whilst Sidney’s crisis of confidence shows no signs of abating as Amanda issues him with a stark ultimatum – the church or her.

In the final episode he makes his choice – her.  Amanda’s pleased to learn that Sidney’s prepared to turn his back on the church, but others – such as Mrs Maguire and Leonard – aren’t quite so happy.  Geordie is supportive, although given that his carnal indulgences didn’t end well (he’s now sleeping in the office with only a bottle of whisky for company) possibly he wasn’t the best person to be handing out advice.

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And it’s Geordie’s drinking and dark mood which has an adverse effect on his ability as a police officer.  When a young boy, Jacob Riley (Darius Greenlaw), goes missing, Sidney has to step in as the cool voice of reason after Geordie loses his grip.

As the series draws to a close, there’s a sense of happy endings all round (with one notable exception).  Mrs Maguire and Jack Chapman (Nick Brimble) tie the knot, Leonard finally admits his feelings for Daniel Marlowe (Oliver Dimsdale) whilst Geordie and Cathy make the first steps towards a possible reconciliation. That just leaves our lovestruck vicar, but when Amanda learns that he hasn’t been able to hand in his letter of resignation then it’s plain that there’s nothing left for her in Grantchester.

Grantchester – Series Three is split across two DVDs.  The first contains the Christmas Special and the first three episodes of series three whilst disc two contains episodes four, five and six as well as several special features.  Two making-of featurettes – Inside the Christmas Special (dur. 13:57) and The Making of Series Three (dur. 10:02) – offer entertaining interviews with the cast and crew. Also included is a deleted scenes package (dur. 19:39).

With a strong cast of regulars put through the emotional mill each week, well-crafted “murders of the week” and a roster of familiar faces guesting, Grantchester remains both addictive and entertaining.  Recommended.

Grantchester – Series Three is released by Acorn Media on the 12th of June 2017.  RRP £24.99.

Decline and Fall – Acorn DVD Review

When Paul Pennyfeather (Jack Whitehall) is expelled from Oxford through no fault of his own, he finds his employment options to be rather limited.  So he travels to Wales to take up a position as a teacher at a rather inferior public school, run by the intimidating Dr Fagan (David Suchet).  Everything seems bleak until he spies the beautiful and wealthy Margot Beste-Chetwynde (Eve Longoria) …..

Evelyn Waugh’s classic class satire, first published in 1928, turns out to be surprisingly contemporary.  James Wood’s adaptation wisely doesn’t stray too far from the original source material, so much so that some of Waugh’s most biting dialogue is lifted verbatim from the page.

The first episode finds Paul in Wales, Llanabba to be precise.  Mr Levy (Kevin Eldon) who sends him on his way, tells him that the school he’s going to doesn’t have a terribly good name.  “We class our schools into four grades here: leading schools, first-rate schools, good schools, and schools.  The status of this school is … school.  And school is pretty bad.”  Eldon is just one of a number of quality actors who pop up in cameo roles, indeed the strength in depth of the casting is one of Decline and Fall‘s great assets.

It’s a bittersweet moment to see Tim Piggott-Smith as Sniggs, mere days after his death was announced.  Piggott-Smith, along with Nickolas Grace, John Woodvine, Michael Cochrane, Tim Woodward and Geoffrey McGivern (great fun as Mr Wilson, an inebriated surgeon), all make brief – but very welcome – appearances.

David Suchet has some wonderful scenes throughout the first episode.  In one of the DVD featurettes he mentions that he hasn’t played comedy for some time and it seems plain that he’s enjoying himself enormously.  Fagan’s tirade against the Welsh is a classic Waugh moment which Suchet delivers impeccably.  “I do truly believe that the Welsh are the only nation in the world that has produced nothing of any worth.  The produce no painting or sculpture, no architecture or drama of any kind. They just sing.”

Three other grotesques – Grimes (Douglas Hodge), Prendergast (Vincent Franklin) and Philbrick (Stephen Graham) – are also lurking in and around the school.  Grimes and Prendergast (or Prendy as he’s known) are Paul’s fellow tutors whilst Philbrick is the intimidating school porter, a man complete with a colourful, mysterious and ever-changing past.  Like Suchet, it’s easy to see that Hodge, Franklin and Graham are relishing the material, although they manage to keep their characters grounded in some sort of reality.

Although Grimes is a comic character, wooden leg and all, the comedy is rather dark.  Hodge is able to make him appear rakishly appealing even if it’s plain that there’s something nasty lurking just below the surface.  Franklin is touching as the drunken, wig-wearing Prendy – a man who agonises through every school day – whilst Graham casts an imposing physical presence as Philbrick.

The disastrous sports day – with Prendy firing his starting pistol at one of the unfortunate pupils – is a fabulous early set-piece although this turns out to be another example of Waugh’s dark humour.  In the second episode we see the unfortunate boy shot by Prendy having his injured foot amputated and in the final instalment we’re casually told that he died.

Jack Whitehall, Douglas Hodge & David Suchet

Grimes’ wedding to one of Dr Fagan’s daughters early in the second episode is another delightful scene, thanks to Hodge’s immaculate playing.  Poor Grimes is really not keen to get married for several reasons and spends the ceremony desperately hoping that someone will step up to give a just cause or impediment.  Alas, nobody does and when Grimes’ clothes are found a few days later on the beach it appears that he’s taken a pretty permanent way out.  Or has he?

Episode two is where Paul’s relationship with Margot deepens.  Like the others, she’s a bizarre creation – albeit very attractive – and Longoria is perfect in the role.  Paul loves her deeply whilst she responds with an air of absent-minded affection, although she does finally agree that it might be pleasant if they did get married.

Surrounded as he is by effortless scene-stealers, Jack Whitehall has by far the most challenging part to play.  Paul has to be the still centre – sensible and honest – otherwise the grotesques have nothing to reflect against.  That Whitehall manages to make Paul much more than just a pompous prig is greatly to his credit – his role may be less showy than the others, but it’s just as skilled.

He gets some good comic moments though, such as when he demonstrates his piano skills to a roomful of Margot’s friends (he can’t play a note). Paul announces that his piece is thoroughly modern in style, which is the prelude for a discordant cacophony of noise which leaves most of them thoroughly nonplussed.

If there’s a theme to the story, then it seems to be that wealth and privilege ensure that you never have to face the consequences of your actions (something which seems as relevant today).  In the first episode, Paul is the one sent down (expelled) from Oxford purely because the real troublemakers – all from affluent families – could afford to pay their fines, whilst Paul – from a more humble background – couldn’t.

This is somewhat mirrored at the start of the final instalment after Paul is arrested for his part in a white-slavery ring.  Again, he’s innocent – it’s Margot who’s the guilty party – but he can’t bring himself to name her (plus it’s strongly implied that the establishment would never believe him anyway) so he finds himself sentenced to seven years penal servitude.

It’s a rather unlikely coincidence that both Grimes and Philbrick are his fellow prisoners whilst Prendy turns out to be the prison vicar (a sudden career change after he decided that the life of a schoolmaster wasn’t for him) but by this stage of the story there’s little point in complaining about a certain lack of naturalism.  The prison episode gives Philbrick the chance to display a more human side to his nature, Grimes to make a daring escape on horseback (an impressive feat for a unidexter) whilst Prendy’s exit is the most memorable of them all ….

There’s a pleasing circular path to to Paul’s journey. After he’s sprung from prison with the aid of Dr Fagan, he’s able to fake his own death and return to Oxford as his own distant relation.  Maybe second time around things will work out right.

Acorn’s DVD has three featurettes (all around five minutes each) – Adaptation, On Set and Satire.  With such brief running times they obviously don’t go into great detail, but they do feature short interviews with all the main cast, plus James Wood and director Guillem Morales.  A short picture gallery is also included.

Laugh-out loud funny in places, somewhat disturbing in others, Decline and Fall is a sparkling comic treat, albiet one with a strong cynical streak.  Following the somewhat lumpy adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB (somehow one of Deighton’s best books was transformed into a six-hour plod) Decline and Fall shows that the BBC hasn’t completely lost the ability to mount a successful adaptation of a literary classic.

Decline and Fall is released by Acorn on the 17th of April 2017.  RRP £19.99.

Eve Longoria, Jack Whitehall & David Suchet

The Witness for the Prosecution/And Then There Were None – Acorn/RLJ DVD Review

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The Witness for the Prosecution was an Agatha Christie short story, originally published in 1925.  Like many of her short stories it was written for magazine publication, only appearing some years later in book form (The Hound of Death, 1933).  Christie was never averse to reusing plots from her short stories and several ideas were later expanded into novels, but Christie elected to turn The Witness for the Prosecution into a stage-play, which debuted in 1953.

Although The Mousetrap is a theatre institution (running for sixty years and more), for me Witness for the Prosecution was Christie’s best play.  She expanded the fairly thin material very nicely, creating the central character of Sir Wilfred Robarts for example.  In 1957, the Billy Wilder film, starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power, hit the cinema screens and is for many the definitive version.

Sarah Phelps’ Christmas 2016 adaptation carried with it a certain weight of expectation then, partly because her work on And Then There Were None in 2015 had been so well received but also because the Wilder film remains popular with Christie aficionados.  Sadly, Phelps’ Witness is much more of a curate’s egg than And Then There Was None was.

It’s interesting that Phelps went back to Christie’s original story, rather than the play.  As the 1925 tale is rather brief and only features scanty characterisation, a large part of the teleplay had to be newly crafted by Phelps.  So whilst the Queen of Crime’s voice can be heard, it’s only very faintly.

And the foggy yellow filter on the camera was an interesting visual choice I could have done without …

But on the positive side, the core cast were impressive.  Toby Jones as Mayhew, a somewhat insignificant character at first glance, was faithful to the source material (albeit with a whole backstory created for him).  The character of Leonard Vole is key and Billy Howle was suitably bewildered and endearing (the story only works if the audience immediately identifies with Vole and takes his side).

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Emily French received something of a drastic makeover (a nice old lady in the Wilder film, a man-eating vamp here) but Kim Cattrall was entertaining enough and Annette Riseborough hit most of the right notes as Romaine Heilger.  This is by far the hardest role to play in the piece (previous actresses to tackle the part include Dietrech in Wilder’s film and Diana Rigg in the 1982 tv movie remake).

Julian Jarrold’s direction boasted some impressive sequences, none more so than the quick cut in episode one when Emily French’s dead body is revealed.  The traumatised visage of her maid and the way that her cat steps through the puddles of blood are both striking touches, and this section makes up for some of the more stodgy fare we see later.

Had it been a ninety minute one-off, it might have worked better, at two hours it rather outstays its welcome.  The Witness for the Prosecution is not without merit, but my preferred viewing option remains the 1957 Wilder film (certainly worth a look if you’ve never seen it).

The disc contains several featurettes, the most substantial being From Page to Screen (running just under 25 minutes).  This is of particular interest due to the way it highlights the differing expectations that may exist between a section of the audience (the Christie die-hards who know the original well) and the adapter, Sarah Phelps.  Phelps discusses how she enjoyed the process of extrapolating character development from throwaway comments contained within Christie’s story, although I’m sure that some will regard Phelps’ additions with a slightly jaundiced eye.

If Witness was a tad disappointing, then we’re on firmer ground with 2015’s And Then There Were None.  Originally published in 1939, Christie’s novel spawned several film adaptations, whilst she herself turned it into a successful stage play.

Eight people are invited to an isolated island by the mysterious Mr and Mrs Owen.  When they arrive, the place seems deserted apart from two servants, Thomas and Ethel Rogers.  And then they start to die, one by one, until none are left ….

Starring Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Noah Taylor, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Aiden Turner, Miranda Richardson and Toby Stephens, And Then There Was None has an agreeable air of star quality.  Unsurprisingly there are a number of deviations from the original, but what remains is a much more faithful Christie experience than Witness was.

The most eye-opening change must be Detective Sergeant Blore’s (Gorman) crime.  Here, he’s alleged to have beaten up a homosexual suspect to death, in the book he’s accused of perjury.

The ending is of particular interest.  When Christie turned the novel into a play, she changed the denouement (which for me made the piece less effective).  Phelps doesn’t attempt to mirror the book’s conclusion, which is probably the right move, although what she leaves us with – something of a mash-up between the book and play – works very well.

And Then There None contains a substantial making-of featurette, running to just under 42 minutes, which features interviews with all the main cast as well as key behind-the-camera personnel.

Sarah Phelps is now working on an adaptation of Christie’s 1958 novel Ordeal by Innocence, which seems to suggest that the BBC are keen to have “A Christie for Christmas” each year.  Hopefully this next one will lean more towards And Then There Were None than The Witness for the Prosecution.

Two by Christie: The Witness for the Prosecution/And Then There Were None was released by Acorn/RLJ on the 9th of January 2017.  RRP £29.99.  Both titles are also available separately.

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Hooten & the Lady – Acorn/RLJE DVD Review

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Lady Alex Lindo-Parker (Ophelia Lovibond) works as a curator at the British Museum, but she’d much rather be looking for treasure out in the field.  So that’s what she does, heading to the Amazon in search of El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold.  En-route she runs into the rugged American adventurer Hooten (Michael Landes) and as might be expected, sparks fly ….

Unashamedly retro in tone, Hooten & the Lady offers no surprises at all, but that’s not unexpected with genre television (or indeed, television in general – how many bleak police procedurals have there been during the past few years?).  H&tL is a heady brew, mixing elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone, Tomb Raider and the short-lived series Relic Hunter to produce a brash swashbuckling adventure series of the sort that’s rarely seen today.

The love/hate relationship between Alex and Hooten is such a familiar one (complete opposites who end up with a grudging respect for each other) that it immediately begs the “will they, won’t they?” question.  Interestingly, co-creator Tony Jordan (Hustle) has already been at pains to point out that no, they won’t. “I think it’s lazy to have a male and a female and just do, ‘When will they shag?’ We’ve seen it, hundreds of times.  Alex and Hooten have a very different bond – they want to spend time together, but it doesn’t have to be that they want to get into each other’s pants.”

Clearly the series has a healthy budget, as Hooten and Alex’s globe-trotting exploits are mostly filmed on location (Rome, Moscow, Cambodia and Namibia amongst others).  This adds a considerable sheen to proceedings and it also means that even if the story isn’t particularly original you can just goggle at the scenery instead.

The series’ hyper-reality is evident from the first few moments of the debut episode The Amazon. Alex might be an office-bound expert, but she has little difficulty in convincing her employers that she’s quite capable of taking a quick trip up the Amazon and returning in six weeks time with some precious artifacts which will add considerable lustre to the Museum’s reputation. And (off-screen) everything seems to be going swimmingly as she makes contact with the Yuruti tribe. But then Hooten comes blundering in and things take a turn for the worse.

Hooten And The Lady

Hooten’s introduction comes via a diamond trade with a couple of shady types. You get the sense it’s not going to be his day when he pulls out a knife to confront one of the heavies, only for his opponent to brandish something much larger! Within a short space of time both Hooten and Alex find themselves tied up by the Yuruiti and facing very different fates.

Alex spells it out. “They’re going to stake me over that fire-ant’s nest. It’s their standard punishment for errant women. ” And what about Hooten? He’s going to be smeared in monkey blood and sent into the chief’s hut for sex. But there’s one way out – if Hooten can defeat their mghtest warrior then they’ll be set free.

This opening is a perfect mission statement and it has to be said that the nicely shot action sequence (as they escape from the angry tribe and sail away to safety down the Amazon) looks very impressive. Tony Jordan’s script zings along very nicely and both Lovibond and Landes make an immediate impression. It’s also fair to say that Lovibond looks incredibly cute in her sweaty top (others may enjoy the clothes-less Landes shots at the end).

Jane Seymour guests in Rome as Alex’s mother, making the first of three appearances. Naturally, Hooten runs into her without realising who her daughter is (coincidence, eh?) Hooten needs Alex’s help in tracking down the mythical Sibylline books and it’s not long before they find themselves running into the Mafia and tangling with a sewer alligator. If this one has a fairly low-key feel (although the alligator scene is good fun) then the final few minutes – as Hooten attempts to extricate Alex and her mother from the Mafia – is pretty arresting.

Hooten’s unique approach to archeology (explosives and a fork-lift truck) is put to good use in the pre-credits of Egypt. It’s one of a number of episode highlights, which also includes a classic bar-room brawl as Hooten and a new lady-friend, Melina (Angel Coulby), are forced to beat a hasty retreat after a dice game goes badly wrong. But even better than this is the following scene – their attempts to become intimately acquainted are scuppered by Alex, who is lurking in Hooten’s hotel room, waiting patiently for him to return. She then claims to be his wife, which rather puts a dampner on things!

Of course there’s more to Melina than meets the eye (it wasn’t Hooten’s rugged good looks that attracted her, rather it was a priceless artifact he’d recently “acquired”) and she later returns with a blowtorch for some friendly persuasion. Alex also comes back (Lovibond looking rather fetching in a pair of pyjamas) and the ensuing catfight between her and Melina is another standout moment. The stunning Egyptian location filming isn’t too shabby either.

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More impressive location work can be seen in Bhutan as Alex and Hooten search for a scroll that may have been written by Budhha himself. We also get our first glimpse of Alex’s fiancee, Edward (Jonathan Bailey) and Hooten is allowed some quieter character moments as Kapila (a local woman who may hold the key to the scroll’s location) seems to be able to see deep within his soul. “You lost someone? But you still feel the pain. In there, inside, it burns. When you have known love, you know that nothing dies. It just goes to another place.”

Up until now, Jessica Hynes and Shaun Parkes (as Ella Bond and Clive Stephenson) have had fairly thankless roles. Ella and Clive are Alex’s colleagues at the British Museum, largely existing in order to push the plot forward when some exposition is required. But in episode five, Ethopia, Ella finds herself captured by Ethopian bandits, which means that Alex is forced to steal a precious artifact in order to secure her release. I love Hooten’s reaction when he sees what it is. “That’s a spoon. She’s being held ransom for a spoon?” It’s a very large spoon though ….

Anton Lesser appears in Moscow as Hercules Rudin, “the finest of thieves” and the man who taught Hooten all he knows. He may not be a household name, but Lesser’s film, television and radio credits are highly impressive, which means that he provides a touch of class during his brief appearance as Hooten’s mentor. Olivia Grant as Valerya, a leather-clad rogue Russian archeologist who has a history with Alex, also catches the eye (she appears to have modelled her look on Emma Peel). The pair come to blows at a Russian wedding party where – to Alex’s amazement – Valerya pulls out a miniature crossbow from her handbag and starts to track her prey (i.e. Alex).

The opening of Cambodia finds Hooten and his new friend Jian (Jay Heyman) deep in Indiana Jones territory – complete with precious jewels that bestoe immortality and traps which snare the unwary. Hooten and Alex, following the events in the previous episode, have been somewhat estranged but you can’t keep a good woman down and Alex (to Hooten’s less than total delight) pops up to see what he’s up to. It’s been bubbling away for the last few episodes, but Hooten’s quest for revenge against the man who murdered his family comes to a head. The man now has a name – Kane (Vincent Regan) – and he casts a menacing shadow over proceedings

The series finale – The Caribbean – finds Hooten and Alex on the trail of the lost treasure of a notorious pirate called Captain Henry Morgan. The hunt for pirate treasure is rather irresistible (although Alex puts a slight dampner on things by stating that, strictly speaking, Morgan was a privateer, not a pirate).  After Alex declares that a chicken is cleverer than Hooten, they decide to search for the treasure independently.  It may not come as too much of a shock to learn that they eventually bump into each other though ….

Brief making-of featurettes for all eight episodes (each running for approx nine minutes) are included on the two discs. They’re fairly breezy and lightweight, but it’s nice to have them anyway. Both discs also feature picture galleries.

Hooten and the Lady is a wonderful romp . With two excellent leads, more stunning location work than you can shake a stick at and some nicely executed stunts, it’s a treat from start to finish.

Hooten and the Lady is released by Acorn/RLJE on the 28th November 2016. RRP £24.99.

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The Level – Acorn/RLJE DVD Review

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Detective Sergeant Nancy Devlin (Karla Crome) is a seemingly model police officer, but she has a dark secret.  Since her childhood, Frank Le Saux (Philip Glenister) has exerted a considerable influence over her.  When she was younger he was the father-figure she’d always wished for, so when Nancy became a police officer she found it very easy to turn a blind eye to his criminal activities (which include drug trafficking).

Out of the blue Le Saux calls her, but he’s shot dead before he can explain to her why he needed help.  Nancy catches a stray bullet, although she manages to flee the scene.  Now her problems multiply – due to her familiarity with both Le Saux and his daughter Hayley (Laura Haddock) she’s seconded to return home to Brighton in order to assist the investigation. Her fellow officers are keen to question the mysterious person present when Le Saux was shot, not realising that it was Nancy.  She also finds herself targeted by the killer and when vital evidence goes missing it seems obvious that someone inside the Brighton force is working against her ……

One of the problems with a serial (which has a finite duration) as opposed to a series (which could run for ever) is that you have to hit the ground running. So within the first few minutes of The Level we’re introduced to Nancy, told she’s a highly respected officer, meet her mother (whom she dotes on, but is far from well) and are told that she’s estranged from her father. Such an information overload is a little difficult to process all at once, which is possibly one of the reasons why The Level doesn’t really bed down until the second or third episode.

By her nature, Nancy is an isolated figure. And sending her down to Brighton to work with an unfamiliar team of officers only increases her sense of disconnect. Of course, the fact that she’s the sought-after key witness in Le Saux’s murder investigation probably doesn’t help to engender her with a sense of team spirit ….

It’s fair to say that Karla Croome struggles to begin with. When the various revelations start flying around, from her facial expression you might be forgiven for thinking she was only suffering a mild inconvenience, like say a parking ticket. Even the fact that Nancy was shot doesn’t seem to have taken the wind out of her sails, at least not until the end of the first episode when she collapses on Brighton sea-front, in front of a horrified Hayley. A slightly contrived cliffhanger methinks.

But as the various threads of the plot become more tangled and new characters are introduced, the serial begins to pick up momentum. Hand on heart, there’s nothing terribly original here – but once the twists and turns start, they keep on coming.  Nancy’s father Gil (Gary Lewis) is a retired officer who seems to have some sort of connection to the murder. Is Gunner (Noel Clarke) the officer impeding the investigation?  There are several instances where it seems obvious this is so, but what about Kevin O’Dowd (Rob James-Collier)?

O’Dowd, a colleague of Nancy’s from London, is sent down to Brighton to work with her. They almost slept with each other at the start of episode one and although there’s a little tension between them, it does seem like he’s one of the few people she can trust. So the revelation midway through the six episodes that he may have something to hide is predictable, but still satisfying.

It takes nerve to employ an actor as good as Phillip Glenister and then kill him off within the first few minutes. But whilst Frank Le Saux’s screentime is very limited, his character and the way he interacted with his friends and family is firmly imbedded throughout the six episodes.

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Amanda Burton gives a nicely understated performance as Cherie, his widow. Equally good is Laura Haddock as their daughter Hayley. As a childhood friend of Nancy, she’s able to be a confidante to both sides. If Cherie guessed that Frank was more than just a simple businessman she never probed too deeply. Hayley, on the other hand, seems to have been totally ignorant about his extra-curricular activities and is shocked when Nancy tells her that her father was a drug dealer.

This raises something of a niggling point – Nancy tells Hayley that every time Frank’s name came up officially she was able to nullify the enquires. How exactly would this be possible? If there was an official investigation it seems unlikely that a fairly lowly-ranked officer could pervert the course of justice all by herself. It’s a nice idea – Nancy was so indebted to the kindness shown by Frank to her as a child (as opposed to her father’s indifference and violence) that she looked the other way whenever he was in the frame – but it just doesn’t sit right.

Of course, the revelation that Frank really was Nancy’s father shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Or if it does, you clearly haven’t been watching enough crime fiction of this type.

The Level continues to twist and turn to a suitablly dramatic climax. Although it’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s still a tightly-scripted, well-shot production with strong performances in all the key roles. The location filming in Brighton helps to add a little sheen to the production, as do several impressive stunts, and there’s always enough going on to ensure that the pace never flags.

The DVD includes several special features. On Set & Behind The Scenes (29″49′) is a fairly comprehensive making-of, with cast and crew interviews. Several more shorter featurettes have been fashioned from addtional interviews shot at the same time – From Script to Screen (7″53′) and The Popularity of Crime Drama (5″35′). The last one sounded interesting, but alas it’s not terribly enlightening. Karla Crome believes that crime drama is popular because it deals with death, which rather ignores all the crime drama that isn’t about death of course. Some of the comments from the other contributors are a little more insightful though.

The Level is released by Acorn/RLJE on the 14th of November 2016.  RRP £24.99.

The Level

Full Steam Ahead -RLJ/Acorn DVD Review

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Many people, including myself, have a certain fascination with steam engines.  When the Flying Scotsman made a recent trip through my neck of the woods I did make the effort to see it (although since I have a railway line at the bottom of my garden I didn’t have to venture very far!)

Today it’s easy to view the age of steam through nostalgic eyes – it seems to transport us back to a simpler, slower and less cluttered age.  The reality is very different however.  The steam age heralded an intense period of change in British life – as virtually every aspect (from trade and transportation to health and recreation) was reshaped.

So whilst part of the attraction of Full Steam Ahead is the chance to see an impressive selection of engines chugging their way through the picturesque British landscape, there’s also many painless history lessons to be learnt along the way.

Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn are old hands at this sort of thing (thanks to series such as Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm).  As with all popular historians they are enthusiastic and engaged, although they also manage to impart a great deal of factual knowledge.  In addition, they delight in attempting many tasks both directly and indirectly connected with the railways.  Driving steam engines is clearly great fun, whilst some of the other jobs are harder and much more labour intensive (a reminder that the railways only came into being thanks to the sweat and toil of tens of thousands of workers).

It’s sobering to stop and think just how disconnected Britain was before the railways.  Since there was no easy way to transport bulky goods and materials around the country, it was perfectly normal that everything a person owned would have been made within, say, a ten mile radius of their home.

The age of steam (and mass production) brought an end to this way of life and created the consumer society.  Now people were able to buy the same goods anywhere in the country and many local trades (thatchers, wheelwrights) began to die out.  When Ruth Goodman says that the steam age had a far greater impact on British society in Victorian times than the internet has in recent decades, it’s easy to see what she means.

Produced in association with the Open University, Full Steam Ahead runs for six episodes, each of sixty minutes duration. The narrator is Philip Glenister.

Episode One – Ruth, Alex and Peter begin their exploration of the steam age by learning how it shaped domestic life, from slate roofing tiles to coal fires.

Episode Two – Alex and Peter become navvys in order to understand precisely how the railways were built.  This episode also discusses how the first passenger trains came into being. I love the notion that it all happened after the railway owners spotted workers hitching a ride on the coal trucks. This created a lightbulb moment as they realised there might be money to be made from ferrying passengers about!

Episode Three – Another way in which the railways transformed British life is detailed here, namely diet.  Before the railways, the country was struggling to feed itself – the age of steam saw a culinary revolution.

Episode Four – Ruth, Alex and Peter take a trip on the most famous locomotive of them all, the Flying Scotsman, to understand how the railways facilitated the transportation and delivery of mail.

Episode Five – Life on the railways before Dr Beeching is looked at, whilst Ruth examines the work of the GWR prosthetic limb department.

Episode Six – The series concludes with an examination of how cheap rail travel opened up freedom of movement for working-class Victorians.  No longer tied to the city or towns where they lived and worked, they could now venture further afield.

Apart from being a visual treat, Full Steam Ahead can also be used as a stepping stone for further learning.  The Open University’s webpage has further reading materials, as well as the chance to obtain a free double-sided poster detailing many of the aspects from the programme.

The DVD includes two special features – a ten minute behind the scenes documentary and a photo gallery.  All episodes are subtitled.

Full Steam Ahead is a fascinating series and comes warmly recommended.  It’s released by RLJ/Acorn on the 5th of September 2016.  RRP £19.99.

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