The Justice Game – Simply Media DVD Review

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Dominic Rossi (Denis Lawson) is a Glasgow-based criminal lawyer with a thriving practice.  At present his attention is scattered in several different directions – the stabbing of an elderly man at a bus stop, an ex-soldier accused of multiple murders and the death of a private investigator whom he’d recently employed.  But he finds that all of these disparate crimes lead to Tim Forsythe (Michael Kitchen), a merchant banker who’s keen that Rossi should cease his investigations.  And since Forsythe has the intimidating Glen (James Cosmo) on his books, it seems that his silence will be rather permanent.

Airing on BBC1 during April 1989, The Justice Game is an efficient four-part thriller from the pen of John Brown (1944 – 2006).  The previous year Brown had written the well-remembered ITV serial The One Game, which featured Patrick Malahide as a manipulative games player.  Brown would go on to contribute scripts to a number of popular series such as Bergerac, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Inspector Morse and Taggart.

Denis Lawson (b. 1947) made his television debut in a 1969 episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook and during the 1970’s was busy working across film, television and theatre.  One of his early film roles, in the original Star Wars (and then its two sequels), would ensure he would always maintain a certain cult status but it would be two very different 1980’s television roles that would establish him more firmly with the British public.  Dead Head (1986) was a BBC serial which attracted a huge amount of newspaper notoriety at the time, although thirty years on it seems rather tame.  The Kit Curran Radio Show featured Lawson as the eponymous radio presenter and whilst not a huge ratings-winner, ran for two well-received seasons.

In addition to Lawson, Kitchen and Cosmo, there’s a host of other quality actors who appear across the four episodes (Diana Quick, Iain Cuthbertson, Russell Hunter, Joss Ackland, Michael Culver and Ceila Imrie).

The first episode quickly establishes Rossi’s character.  He’s a man of contradictions – after a session working out on a treadmill his first thought is to reach for a pack of cigarettes.  We also observe his skills as a lawyer (he manages to get two prominent footballers off an assault charge).  The Amnesty poster on his office wall and his desire to take low-profile cases connected to social justice issues are clear pointers to his values and mindset.  Rossi is in a relationship with Kate Fielding (Diana Quick).  Like him she’s a professional (Kate’s a doctor).

It’s a pity that an actor as good as Russell Hunter exits the story relatively quickly.  He played Sandy Sadowski, a man who had information for Rossi but was brutally stabbed multiple times before he could pass it over.  John Brown is in no hurry to connect all the pieces of the puzzles he sets up, as with four episodes to play with there’s plenty of time to establish these various plotlines.  The well-dressed Tim Forsythe is a man of few words, but several are directed in the direction of Glen who organised the gang that killed Sadowski.

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Throughout the serial Denis Lawson impresses.  Dominic Rossi’s clearly something of a renaissance man, he’s not only a hot-shot, fast-talking lawyer but he can also belt out a mean rock ‘n’ roll tune (as witnessed at his parents wedding anniversary party).  The choice of Glasgow as the battleground was a good one.  Although the Glasgow-based Taggart had been running for a number of years, the location still offers a less familiar milieu than London. The last episode also makes a quick trip to New York as Rossi trails the money men behind Forsythe. Lurking in New York is Sir James Crichton (Joss Ackland). Ackland is characteristically still and sinister as the spider in the middle of the web.

The late eighties setting, deep in the dying days of Thatcherism, helps to inform the tone of the serial.  At the time Glasgow, like many other cities, was undergoing considerable redevelopment and renovation.  The first episode opens with Rossi taking Kate on a tour of his old house, located in one of the most run-down areas of the city.  But since the house has been demolished, Rossi contents himself with pointing at the bare ground where the various rooms had been.  Displaying a tinge of romanticism shared by many self-made men and women, he regrets the loss.

It’s hoped that something better will take the place of these levelled slums, but the likes of Tim Forsythe seem more interested in generating the maximum amount of profit for the company he works for.  Despite the fact that Forsythe remains a fairly nebulous figure (henchmen such as Glen do all the strong-arm stuff, leaving him distanced from the action) there’s a clear delineation between Rossi and Forsythe.  Rossi is concerned with people and justice whilst Forsythe is concerned only with profit.  Certain reminders of the era – mobile phones as big as housebricks, Forsythe’s cocaine habit – help to make it the perfect story for the consumerist eighties.

Roger Limb’s score sometimes eschews the familiar radiophonic soundscape he was well-known for. But it’s still atmospheric and the more sinister cues help to create a vague sense of unease which compliments the sometimes bleak and violent world presented across the four episodes.

The Justice Game is probably an episode too long and rather wastes good actors such as Iain Cuthbertson in small roles, but it still chugs along nicely to its inevitably bloody conclusion. As might be expected from the cynical worldview it presents, we find that “justice” is in very short supply.

The following year, the three-part Justice Game 2 was broadcast on BBC1 during March 1990.  The serial opens with Rossi in Italy, enjoying a holiday romance with the lovely Francesca (Anita Zagaria).  Rossi’s considering a career change – from lawyer to advocate – and this holiday was supposed to help him make up his mind, although he remains noncommittal by the end of it. I like the way the first scene has a number of quick cuts, showing Rossi and Francesca enjoying themselves in various different ways (driving an open-top car, him rubbing suncream into her back, riding a pedalo, riding bikes, eating icecream). It’s slightly corny, but it works.

Rossi returns to Glasgow and Francesca quickly becomes a fading memory, so he’s surprised (but pleased) when she unexpedically turns up. She’s a woman with a secret though. Back in Italy several of her friends have met violent deaths and the killings don’t stop when she travels to Scotland – meaning that Rossi’s right in the firing line.

There have been a few changes since the first story. Rossi’s moved into an impressive, if crumbling house (complete with a leaky roof) and has gained a new colleague, Eleanor Goodchild (Barbara Flynn). Flynn, as ever, is wonderfully watchable as the powerful Eleanor. She may only be Rossi’s junior partner but is she part of the reason why he’s considering a career change? Some have dubbed her “a female Dominic Rossi” which amuses him. He certainly seems to be going through something of a mid-life crisis (he picks up a prostitute in a bar, although it appears he wasn’t charged for her services).

Even though this serial is an episode shorter than the first, it still takes its time to get started. There’s action in the first episode – several bloody deaths – but these take place in Italy whilst Rossi’s back in Glasgow and yet to connect to this main plot. But the death of a young man (a potential client for Rossi) in a suspicious hit-and-run accident adds another layer to the narrative and also reconnects Rossi to the seamier side of life (something rather alien to the upwardly mobile lifestyle he’s been recently enjoying).

Justice Game 2 is slightly less satisfying than the first serial. Barbara Flynn and Denis Lawson have a good combative relationship, but this could have been developed a little more. Anita Zagaria works well as the lady with a dark secret, it’s just a shame this part of the story is rather stretched out.

But although it’s slightly inferior when compared to The Justice Game, it’s still a stylish thriller, held together by Lawson’s central performance. Both serials have a nice period feel (late eighties, early nineties) and if there’s the odd lull from time to time, you can be sure that another shock or twist is just round the corner to spice things up.

The Justice Game (containing both series) is released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016.  The picture quality is a little grainy, which isn’t too surprising considering that the source materials are unrestored 16mm film prints which are nearly thirty years old, but there’s no particular issues.  RRP is £19.99.

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The Justice Game to be released by Simply Media – 10th October 2016

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The Justice Game – Series One and Two will be released on the 10th of October by Simply Media.  Review here.

New Tricks star Denis Lawson stars as suave criminal lawyer Dominic Rossi, who exposes corruption in Glasgow and loses his heart in Italy in this gripping miniseries from 1989. After a successful career break in America, Rossi returns to his Glasgow roots. As he investigates the fatal stabbing of an elderly man at a bus stop, and defends a tough ex-soldier accused of a vigilante killing, he untangles a shady web of big business. Digging deeper, all trails lead to a Mr Big called Tim Forsythe (Michael Kitchen – Foyle’s War) – who will stop at nothing to make sure Rossi doesn’t reveal too much.

In series two, Rossi falls in love with the beautiful Francesca (Anita Zagaria – Under the Tuscan Sun) while on holiday in Sorrento, then discovers that many of her friends have been murdered. As he investigates another killing back in Glasgow Francesca shows up, apparently with the Italian murderer in tow. But it turns out she’s hiding a shattering truth from her past.

Lawson sparkles as a smooth operator with a steely sense of justice in this thrilling series alongside an all-star supporting cast including BAFTA winner James Cosmo (Braveheart), Ron Donachie (Game of Thrones), Celia Imrie (Bridget Jones’s Diary), Joss Ackland (The Hunt for Red October) and Diana Quick (Saving Grace).

Directed by BAFTA winner Norman Stone (Shadowlands) and written by John Brown (The Flying Scotsman), The Justice Game: Series 1 and 2 arrives on DVD on 10 October 2016.

The Ambassador – Simply Media DVD Review

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Harriet Smith (Pauline Collins) is the newly appointed British ambassador to Northern Ireland.  Recently widowed, she has to juggle the demands of her family (Harriet has two teenage sons who don’t understand why her job has to take precedence over them) as well as numerous day-to-day diplomatic challenges.

Thrust into a world where truth is often a flexible commodity, Harriet is fortunate to have the staunch support of commercial attaché John Stone (Denis Lawson).  But Stone also serves another master (MI6) which means that he occasionally pursues his own agenda, something which becomes more pronounced in the second series ….

It’s hard to argue that The Ambassador is a terribly realistic series, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.  Harriet seems just a little bit too good to be true – whilst everybody else stumbles around, she’s sometimes able to sort out seemingly insoluble problems in a matter of minutes.  But if the plotting can feel a little contrived at times, there’s also a pleasing sense that the world she now lives in is painted in shades of grey.  So even when she turns out to be right we can’t always expect a “happy” ending.

In the first series she clashes with Steven Tyler (William Chubb) and Kevin Flaherty (Owen Roe). It may not be entirely surprising that although both Tyler and Flaherty start off as implacable rivals they later become staunch allies. More interesting is the relationship she shares with John Stone.  Stone, with his MI6 connections, is invaluable whenever Harriet needs to dip into murky waters, but he seems to undergo something of a change between series.  In series one he tends to act in Harriet’s best interests but that’s not the case during the second series.  This does add a little spice to the stories though, and Lawson is an actor who’s always worth watching.

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Since she’s at the centre of most of the action, Pauline Collins is the glue that holds the series together, although it’s possible to argue that she has a little more to work with in the second series.  This is partly because Peter Egan is introduced as Michael Cochrane, who becomes Harriet’s love interest.  Her relationship with Michael helps to humanize her a little, as well as generating a rather unsurprising plot-twist when it turns out that he has a dramatic impact on her professional life ….

Out of the twelve episodes, the following were of particular interest.  A Cluster of Betrayals sees a hostage crisis take place at the embassy, as a distraught father (whose son died from radiation poisoning) brandishes a canister of nuclear waste in an attempt to draw attention to the pollution he claims has been created by leakages from British power plants.  Things aren’t going well until Harriet steps in to handle negotiations.  This is one of those episodes where it seems just a little too pat that Harriet is able to diffuse the situation when everybody else has failed.

Cost Price sees Harriet’s personal and professional lives collide as Michael is kidnapped.  Unable to negotiate directly for his release, she’s forced to watch proceedings from the sidelines.  Although both series were an excellent vehicle for Pauline Collins, the personal angle for Harriet in this episode helped to ramp up the tension a little more.

The final episode of series two, Getting Away From Murder, ensured that The Ambassador ended on a high.  After Tyler’s wife is found dead from an overdose, he’s accused by the Garda of murder.  He pleads diplomatic immunity (in order to not to derail some sensitive negotiations) leaving Harriet to wonder whether one of her key allies could really be a cold-blooded murderer.  With the truth not disclosed until just before the end, this is a very effective mystery story.

Thanks to strong central performances from Pauline Collins and Denis Lawson and quality support from the likes of Owen Roe, William Chubb, Peter Egan and Eve Matheson, The Ambassador is certainly a series that’s worth a look.  Guest appearances from the likes of Michael Angelis, Philip Jackson, T.P. McKenna, Frederick Treves, Geoffrey Whitehead, Michael Cochrane, Jack Dee and Tenniel Evans don’t hurt either.  Although Harriet may be rather too perfect, if you can suspend your disbelief then there’s plenty to hold your attention across both series

The Ambassador – Complete Collection is released by Simply Media on the 15th of August 2016.  RRP £34.99.

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The Ambassador to be released on DVD by Simply Media on 15/8/16

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Simply Media will release both series of The Ambassador on the 15th of August 2016.  Review here.

British acting legend Pauline Collins OBE (Shirley Valentine, Dickensien) stars as The Ambassador in this powerful BBC drama from award-winning, BAFTA-nominated Russell Lewis (Inspector Morse, Endeavour), which originally aired in 1998 and now makes its UK DVD premier courtesy of Simply Media.

Harriet Smith is the newly appointed British ambassador to Ireland; recently widowed, this sharp-witted confident woman, holds one of Britain’s most coveted and powerful Embassy posts and has unenviable task of quelling the mounting tensions between the two countries. She must perform a delicate balancing act between raising her two teenage sons and the demands of her career.

John Stone (Denis Lawson – Bleak House, Star Wars) is Harriet’s determined commercial attache and main aide. But the ever-crafty Stone also works for another master – MI6.

Harriet finds herself in a sinister and dangerous world far removed from the cocktail parties of Downing Street. Entangled in a complicated web of half-truths and withheld information – rife both in and outside of the Embassy walls – Harriet is up against a host of people who would love nothing more than to see her fail.