Doctor Who – The Psychic Circus review

DWTPC

(c) Big Finish

***Contains spoilers***

Big Finish Productions have aimed for the top with this release. A Big Top to be precise!

Doctor Who‘s offbeat clownfest The Greatest Show In The Galaxy hit TV screens at the end of the Eighties. Now three decades on an audio prequel has been released. It’s a sort of rabbit out of the hat for Big Finish, seemingly launched without warning. Not only does it feature original cast members but writer Stephen Wyatt has been persuaded to come back and flesh out events.

Nostalgia is a driving factor behind the company’s output and news of a return to the Psychic Circus had me hook, line and sinker. Sylvester McCoy‘s era was my entry point to Doctor Who at school. It was definitely the weird kid of the Classic Years family. From villains made of sweets (The Happiness Patrol) to the late Ken Dodd being brutally assassinated (Delta and the Bannermen), it wasn’t afraid to go somewhere different.

DWCJ

Chris Jury as Kingpin (c) BBC

Greatest Show ranked among the best because yes it was peculiar, but Wyatt grounded it in some kind of reality. This was the first time coulrophobia (fear of clowns) played a role in the Doctor’s adventures. The circus and its damaged performers were far out yet at the same time meaty and intriguing. Plus the carnival atmosphere was a good fit for McCoy’s tumbling Time Lord, who got to put on a magic show for a trio of malevolent gods. The story was simple, anarchic and effective.

Satisfying though it was, questions hung in the air after the circus blew up. Fans wanted to know more about how these poor souls wound up caught in a showbiz-fuelled trap. Where did the characters come from? Why was it called the Psychic Circus in the first place? It’s a trick Wyatt is ready to reveal, but does he pull it off…?

DWSMJM

Jessica Martin as Mags & Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor (c) BBC

The Psychic Circus begins with Kingpin (Chris Jury, sounding exactly as he did 30-odd years ago) and Juniper Berry (Anna Brophy) arriving on a planet where fun is outlawed. Coming a cropper in this faceless environment where growing broccoli and building walls are the norm, it isn’t long before they encounter other hippies like themselves.

Meanwhile, the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) has his TARDIS invaded by another annoying junk mail robot. This one is faulty and becomes a companion of sorts for part of the story. The Doctor was involved in the Circus’s future. He’s about to become embroiled in its past…

The two strands are connected by some nebulous idea about psychic landscapes that didn’t come together for me. Behind the mental manipulation is of course an old enemy. It would have been a surprise to learn it was the Master (James Dreyfus), only they’ve stuck him on the cover. When the revelation arrives you’re already a few steps ahead.

Kingpin establishes the Psychic Circus and the Doctor does some nosing around (and a fair amount of juggling). That’s the first half – a confusing preamble I thought. Wyatt has created the universe’s blandest planet and then written it perfectly! Quite why we needed to go there I don’t know.

In a genuinely surprising move the writer revisits another story he wrote, Paradise Towers. The prospect of a Stephen Wyatt shared universe type thing was exciting, but in the end it’s just a passing plot point. I had hoped the Great Architect might be connected to Ragnarok in some way – hint hint – but it wasn’t to be.

Whilst birthing the circus turned out to be less interesting than I thought, things get much better once the tent is up and politics comes into play. Yes, circus life isn’t all buckets of glitter and riding elephants. The downfall of the Psychic Circus lay not only in dark forces working behind the scenes, but the consumerist bent imposed on free spirits who just wanted to have a good time.

Wyatt writes a fun dynamic between the peace and love brigade with their “solidarity” (as a Socialist I’m all for that) and the cold hard lure of the spotlight and a fast buck.

He also cleverly boosts the role of fortune teller Morgana (Sioned Jones). If anyone’s going to be significant in a psychic nightmare it’s the person with the crystal ball. It would have been nice to hear from other classic characters. No-one new here measures up to Mags the curveball-throwing werewolf, Captain Cook or Nord. Bellboy the robot maker is mentioned a few times, though doesn’t appear. I wanted to know what he was like before he became so tormented.

The last part of the script relies too much on listeners being familiar with Greatest Show, which in fairness the majority will be. Having the Master so heavily in the mix may come across as fan service but I thought he worked quite well as the lynchpin between the circus and the Gods of Ragnarok… even if I couldn’t quite work out what he was up to.

McCoy is as eccentric as we’ve come to expect, treating many of the lines as a workout for his vocal chords. Jury really took me back and Dreyfus makes an enjoyable addition to the list of Masters. This was the first time I’d heard him as the Doctor’s nemesis and on this evidence I’ll be checking out more.

DWCC

Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown (c) BBC

Like many, I really wanted to meet the Chief Clown again and hear about his origins. Ian Reddington played one of the best one shot Doctor Who villains of all time. I guess in a way he’s better left to the imagination but Wyatt does a good job explaining who he used to be. Reddington delivers another intelligent performance and runs away with the tale once again. Big Finish must surely be wanting to bring him back somehow.

Everyone else is decent. Director Samuel Clemens has an impressive pair of multi-taskers in Sioned Jones and Andrew Spooner and though the production didn’t grab me their versatile tones did. Also featured on the release are interviews and an evocative suite from composer Steve Foxon.

Did this match up to The Greatest Show In The Galaxy? Not a chance, though waiting from 1989 to 2020 for a follow up/look back was always going to ramp up expectation to mega levels. Are there more stories to tell about Kingpin’s hippy haven? If Wyatt wanted to take a third trip to Segonax I’d probably shell out for more.

The Psychic Circus keeps enough balls in the air to be worthwhile. It’s certainly not a classic but the 11 year old in me was happy to be back in the ring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Night Manager 2’ & Other Unnecessary Sequels (The Hollywood News)

Richard Roper is locked up. His evil arms business has been shut down and the dashing Night Manager of the title survived with his hair in place and good looks intact. The end of the acclaimed BBC miniseries, based on the book by John Le Carré, brought with it an enormous sense of satisfaction. The story began. It held us enthralled for a few weeks. Then sadly it finished.

Or did it? Director Susanne Bier recently announced that development has begun on a follow-up script. It seems the broadcaster is thinking in terms of a franchise, and I for one am anxious. The original tale was so well told, what good could come from elaborating on it? In this era of binge-watching, it isn’t always the best idea to give viewers a tele-visual trough to gorge from. Surely sometimes one rattling good yarn is enough.

As the BBC head down what may be a disastrous path, let’s take a look at some other great shows that would have been better left as a one-time-only-type deal…

MURDER ONE

The first season of small screen pioneer Steven Bochco’s legal drama stood out from the pack, due to an innovative format which saw the entire run taken up with a juicy murder case. Boasting a charismatic, chrome-domed lead in Daniel Benzali, supported by the likes of Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson and Mary McCormack, the show was a forerunner of today’s tendency to devour a series in one sitting.

Unfortunately low audiences led to some fatal retooling for the second season, starting with the replacement of Benzali and a range of stories that failed to capture the imagination. Anthony LaPaglia tried his best to fill the shiny shoes of his predecessor but it seemed the creative team itself was on trial this time round. The verdict: cancellation.

TRUE DETECTIVE

In an age where TV dramas with big screen production values are commonplace, True Detective managed to plough a mighty furrow. The screen-burning combo of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson formed the epicenter of an intense and frightening journey into the dark heart of Louisiana, and the mind of a killer. Writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga worked exclusively on the whole season, giving it a consistent quality throughout.

However the decision to try and continue the series as an anthology turned out to be a misstep, despite the presences of Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell. Whilst the new narrative of inner city corruption in California was fertile ground for a crime saga, this second run never attracted the critical acclaim of the first, thanks to a tangled plot and a perceived lack of inspiration on Pizzolatto’s part.

BROADCHURCH

This British drama became a sensation during its first outing, the show’s Scandi Noir-inspired sensibility and slow-burning style reviving the corpse of the murder mystery genre. The revelation of who killed young Danny Latimer was carried on the front of every major newspaper the next day, audiences sharing the horror of stars David Tennant and The Night Manager‘s Olivia Colman. The title town would never be the same again, though the story appeared to come to an end once the crime had been solved. Creator Chris Chibnall had other ideas, announcing his intention to make the series the first in a trilogy.

Upon revisiting the seaside locale, it quickly became clear this strange direction was going to lead to a dead end. The Latimer thread received an unnatural extension, with the killer getting off thanks to the vagaries of the legal system. Meanwhile Chibnall inserted a backstory for Tennant’s abrasive detective in a less than compelling fashion. Series Three has been well-received, but Broadchurch must sadly live with the memory of a misfiring second instalment.

BLOODLINE

What looked on the surface to be yet another overheated family saga turned out to be anything but, as Bloodline took well-worn subject matter and made it soar in every department. The return of black sheep Ben Mendlesohn to the Rayburn fold and his subsequent web of lies and deceit spun toward a devastating Season 1 finale, the events of which were boldly revealed in advance at the end of the very first episode.

The mounting tension, as the Rayburns gradually pieced together what their brother had been up to with the clan’s hotel business, was nail-biting stuff, well-written and acted – set against the backdrop of the sweaty Florida Keys. With this tour-de-force of storytelling concluded, creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman opted to try and maintain the momentum, only this time minus Mendlesohn’s masterclass in conflicted villainy. After rave reviews for the first chapter, the reception for Season 2 was decidedly mixed. Why did they even bother?

THE NIGHT MANAGER

One of the most talked-about dramas of recent years, featuring a line up of British talent so hot you could toast a crumpet with it, The Night Manager took John Le Carré’s source novel (adapted by David Farr) and gave it a Bond-esque coat of gloss. In fact so convincing was Tom Hiddleston’s hero, the miniseries sparked strong rumours he was in line to inherit the mantle of 007 from Daniel Craig. This knuckle-gnawing suspense thriller about a hotel employee trying to bring down an international arms dealer (Hugh Laurie’s Richard Roper) had people tuning in by the millions.

Now the makers are attempting an audacious and arguably downright stupid manoeuvre: they are going to try and top one of Le Carré’s best-regarded works with their own sequel. Will Roper emerge from his exile (presuming he lived) to exact vengeance on Hiddleston’s frustratingly telegenic saboteur? Or is the title hunk of the hospitality industry about to further consolidate his status as a Bond in waiting with a whole new adventure, perhaps working undercover at a B & B?

How exactly it will pan out remains to be seen, but the BBC really are dancing on ice in steel-tipped clogs on this one. I enjoyed spending time with The Night Manager, but to be frank I’d rather check out while the going’s good.

 

This feature originally appeared on THN.

Dad’s Army DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

DAThere were doubts over whether the original Dad’s Army would succeed. Its subject matter of World War II and the ageing Home Guard hardly filled BBC top brass with confidence, but it went on to become arguably its greatest sitcom hit. Fast forward forty-odd years to the new movie version – naysayers said it could never work, that director Oliver Parker couldn’t possibly recapture those nostalgic past glories. This time round they were right!

Opening with a standard spy movie chase that culminates in suitably daft fashion, we’re soon transported to the action-averse setting of Walmington-On-Sea, watched over with a rod of aluminium by the stubborn Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones) and his largely pensionable team. It isn’t long of course before they find themselves doing more than herding cattle, as the Germans infiltrate the community to retrieve information and the menfolk fall under the spell of a glamorous journalist (a well-cast Catherine Zeta Jones).

In fairness, Parker and writer Hamish McColl had an insurmountable task. As well as being a household favourite, the TV show was a period piece… the period being the 1970s, where its gentle humour felt fresher. It’s all a bit low wattage by today’s standards, and the show’s sweetness and pratfalls are replaced by lavatorial gags and laboured slapstick. Here Private Godfrey doesn’t just need to be excused, he ends up unburdening himself over Corporal Jones!

Probably sensing the national outcry over a cast facelift, Parker has gone above and beyond, hiring some unusually big names to fill the boots of Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier and co. This yields mixed results. Jones and Michael Gambon (Godfrey) are by far the best replacements but the other main performers struggle. Bill Nighy hams it up to the nines as Sergeant Wilson, in a turn that frequently puts him on a different planet. Crucially he lacks chemistry with Jones. The line up generally fails to gel, which is another great shame. Tom Courtenay takes on the fondly-remembered, dogmatic Jones, but lacks Clive Dunn‘s light touch, coming off as plain irritating.

McColl scores higher with the female contingent, promoting Mrs Mainwaring from an offscreen presence to a formidable front-of-camera battleaxe (Felicity Montagu). She’s a much better commander than her husband, shepherding the solid support of Sarah Lancashire, Alison Steadman, Emily Atack and in particular Derek‘s Holli Dempsey, who plays Frank (Blake Harrison)’s sweetheart, definitely one to watch. They display the British pluck that underpinned the series and while there’s an end battle that brings the men to the fore, writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft would have done it better and quieter. They also inserted intriguing nuggets of period detail into their scripts, something that’s glossed over somewhat in this incarnation.

It’s amusing enough, and the players provide guaranteed entertainment value (if only out of curiosity to see how they’ll measure up). As the sum of its parts however Dad’s Army is a misfire. We’re watching an elaborate recreation rather than a movie in its own right, and the producers should really have ditched the tributing and made something that marched more to its own beat.

This review first appeared on THN.

The Night Manager Review (The Hollywood News)

The Night ManagerThe British Broadcasting Corporation and novelist John Le Carré go way, way back. In 1979, we saw the classic TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which cast Alec Guinness as aloof manipulator George Smiley. It was so good that even Guinness himself couldn’t top it with Eighties follow-up Smiley’s People. You would have needed cajones made of brass to mount a production as ambitious again. Well, it has taken nearly 40 years but the Beeb have finally done it with The Night Manager.

Leading Brit of the moment Tom Hiddleston shares top billing as Jonathan Pine, a smooth-talking functionary at an Egyptian hotel, who is entrusted at random with a secret document by a female guest. When he passes the information onto a pal at the British Embassy the guest winds up brutally murdered and Pine is recruited by intelligence honcho Angela Burr (Olivia Colman). The undercover operation puts him on a collision course with the subject of the document – businessman turned arms dealer Richard Roper (Hiddleston’s co-star Hugh Laurie). Pine is Roper’s nemesis, though the target is totally unaware… or is he?

One of the great appeals of Le Carré is how he’s acted as an antidote to James Bond (he once described the character as a “neo-fascist gangster”). His heroes aren’t usually heroes. They skulk about concrete structures with coffee breath rather than drinking Martinis in tropical locations. The trick screenwriter David Farr and director Susanne Bier pull off is bringing a Bond-style sensibility to the table. Colman’s scheme to nail Laurie is textbook Le Carré, but the presence of Hiddleston and an arch villain with an opulent, gun ‘n girl-festooned lifestyle is pure Ian Fleming. They’ve managed to meld two sides of the coin and it’s worked to towering effect.

Above all the miniseries drips with coronary-inducing tension from episode to episode. The opener is so gripping you wonder how they’re going to maintain the atmosphere for another five hours, yet somehow they do it with the pace rarely slacking. Pine’s training in Cornwall is a bit vague. He’s despatched to the West Country to pose as a drug dealer in order to create a dark past for Roper to uncover, but it’s a necessary step to portray Hiddleston’s path back to violence. Pine was ex-military before he entered the hotel trade and while the star is less convincing as an action man he certainly has the physique to pulverize his opponents.

Hiddleston is a prettified version of the novel’s protagonist. However this gives him a vulnerability that works with the character and also indicates a great career in hospitality should the acting work ever dry up. Laurie delivers a masterclass in reptilian malevolence as Roper, and a juicy role facing 007 surely beckons. Burr’s role is similarly altered to that of a stressed and pregnant battleaxe. This route seems odd, but of course you should never underestimate Colman, just as you can’t pigeonhole Burr. Everyone does a decent job but from the supporting cast Tom Hollander stands out (he has to, he’s much shorter than everyone else) as Corky, Roper’s preening lieutenant. Hollander has played nasties before (in Joe Wright’s Hanna for example) but this is something else and the actor is frequently in danger of stealing scenes.

Special mention should go to titles designer Patrick Clair and his team at Elastic/Antibody, who have realized another stunning opening sequence. Showcasing various items of decadence that morph into deadly armaments, it’s effortlessly cool and sinister. Further proof that Clair is the master of bringing the cinematic to the small screen.

The show was introduced as a blockbuster, and they weren’t kidding. However The Night Manager is worth noting as a saga that’s packed with content, making it a rarity in the bloated arena of today’s television. It’s a lean, mean, intoxicating six-parter that leaves you fit to bursting but entirely satisfied by the final bang.

 

This review appeared on The Hollywood News.

POWER BREAKFAST Short Film For WellDoneU

What is breakfast in the twenty-first century? Can you really have a top flight career and a decent breakfast? In this non-stop, multi-hour technological age, where you’re only away from your desk when you’re asleep (and sometimes even unconsciousness isn’t a guarantee of non-employment), what does breakfast even mean in the first place? Power Breakfast is the film that seeks to definitively answer that question. With a playful yet biting mix of vignette, contemporary sounds and of course foodstuffs, it takes the viewer on a sensory journey. At first the viewer may not want to go on that journey. Yet as the two minutes slowly elapse, he or she will come away with a deeper understanding of why breakfast is judged “the most important meal of the day”. Feed your mind and try not to empty your stomach with Power Breakfast.