Archive for the ‘British television shows’ Category

CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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You’ve just been accused of stealing 17 yards of lace. Your trial lasts eight minutes. No one testifies on your behalf. Verdict: Guilty! Sentence: transportation to Australia. Don’t you wish you’d had a lawyer?

Set in the late 1700s, this BBC courtroom drama brings all the plot twists and cross-examinations that we have come to expect from a long line of lawyer shows, but with an entertainingly rudimentary legal system that is not yet close to what we would consider a fair trial. It’s based on the career of English barrister William Garrow, who championed such radical ideas as “innocent until proven guilty” at a time when it wasn’t even a given that you’d have a lawyer for the defense.

A Robin Hood of the legal system, Garrow speaks up for the poor and powerless, the defendants most easily steamrollered by the machinery of justice. He shakes up the status quo with his indignation and debate skills, and he doesn’t make himself any more popular by starting an affair with Lady Sarah Hill, the wife of a politician. (Lord Hill is played by the dashing Rupert Graves, whom it pains me to watch in a villainous role. Disliking Rupert Graves, even in character, goes against natural laws.)

Over three seasons, Garrow confronts corrupt thieftakers, slave traders, and the infamous “London Monster,” said to have disguised a knife in a bouquet of flowers to stab young ladies in the face as they bent to smell the roses. Many details of the cases come from the archives of the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court. Even the pettiest cases can be life or death. Under what would later be referred to as the “Bloody Code,” an enormous number of crimes could incur the death penalty. The emphasis on crimes against property seems to defy reason: note that Renwick, the London Monster, isn’t tried for assaulting a young woman’s person, but for ripping her dress.

Enjoy the raucous, public trials; the charismatic acting; and the period Georgian sets and costumes. WRL owns all three seasons (twelve episodes).

Check the WRL catalog for Garrow’s Law.

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“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”

DoctorWhoDoctor Who has clocked  almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.

November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.

The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.

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barbariansOh no! Andrew is posting another Terry Jones book!

Much as the barbarians at the edges of Rome’s noble empire did, you’ll just have to get used to it. (Except that there was a seemingly never-ending supply of barbarians and this is running up on the end of Jones’ books.) So.

History. We all know who writes it, and in the case of the Roman Empire there is little doubt. Their portrayal of the people and territories they conquered is an unrelenting narrative of a superior culture overwhelming illiterate untutored savages and bringing the light of Civilization into their benighted lives. One of the ways they succeeded in creating this narrative was by destroying all evidence to the contrary. But, like murder, history will out, and medieval historian and humorist Terry Jones has taken the heavy lifting done by specialists, collated it and brought it to life in an entertaining way.

To hear them tell it, the Romans were surrounded by enemies actively seeking the destruction of their city and way of life. But looking at the maps and the archaeological evidence, it seems as though the Romans, in a never-ending quest for return on investment, were the ones actively seeking conflict. And boy, did they get it. And boy did they get their return on investment. The gold of the Celts and Dacians, wheat from Egypt, religion, knowledge, and military technology from Greece, slaves from all over the empire, foreigners brought into citizenship by enlisting in the Roman army–the benefits all flowed into the coffers of Rome. But the price to the Romans was also steep.

They required a certain amount of stability to ensure that the stream of money didn’t slow, and that the expenses of running the empire didn’t get out of hand. Conquest and prizes caused runaway inflation. And new ideas might give people dangerous thoughts that had to be controlled. The easiest way to do that was to stifle the kinds of questions that generate creativity and change. Sons were forbidden to leave their fathers’ professions. Incredible inventions were suppressed and inventors killed. The libraries of Carthage were destroyed or dispersed, the Punic language eliminated and all of Carthage’s knowledge lost to history. (Except one important element, which Rome faithfully copied.)

Culture by culture, Jones takes us around the edges of the Roman empire, showing that art, learning, technology, law, and military skill exceeded that of Rome. What those cultures didn’t have was a deep-seated need to conquer any perceived threat to their home, which was what relentlessly drove Rome on. In doing so, Rome got to tell their side of the story for nearly three millenia; now, with the benefit of skepticism, scholarship, and science, those “barbarian” contemporaries can begin to assume their place on the stage.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians was published to accompany the BBC series of the same name. Although the video isn’t widely available, the book more than makes up for the lack.

Check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Barbarians, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

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Approximately five years ago, I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as well as her other five novels after receiving an all-in-one collection as a gift. Having only truly read Pride and Prejudice once (I can’t count the Cliff Notes I used in high school), it’s a wonder that I am reviewing this festive micro-history which delightfully illustrates why Jane Austen’s perfect Regency romance has remained so untouchable since its publication in 1813, even as her style and subject matter are profusely imitated, now more than ever!  

Reading Susannah Fullerton’s pleasant homage to the timeless novel upon its 200-year anniversary provided me with all sorts of intriguing details, historical background, and gossipy tidbits about its creation and legacy that enhance my appreciation of the novel.  Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, effectively demonstrates the reasons for the novel’s perfection and its ever-increasing appeal for readers of either sex, of all ages, in nearly every community worldwide. She cheerfully describes her analysis of individual characters, Austen’s style, and the famous opening sentence on which an entire chapter is devoted.

It was especially amusing to learn of all the various editions, versions, translations, sequels, retellings, mash-ups, adaptations, film interpretations, and other assorted Austen-inspired endeavors that have fueled a sort of Pride-and-Prejudice mania. Darcy-mania culture took off on the tails of the sexy 1995 BBC film version, starring Colin Firth (of the infamous lake scene), and kindled much new interest in the reading of the novel.

Fullerton pretty much concludes that no sequel author or film producer has ever really matched Jane Austen’s masterful style and that what lovers of the novel should really ever do is just keep reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. I agree that the masterpiece stands alone, but Austen did very effectively infect most of her readers with a desire to continue knowing Elizabeth and Darcy and to learn ever more about each well-drawn character’s future. Imagine if she’d lived long enough to write her own sequels, or to taste the fame her novels eventually gave her!

Check the WRL catalog for Celebrating Pride and Prejudice : 200 years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece

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The Art Detective Philip Mould became a television celebrity from his role appraising works of art unearthed from dusty attics or flea markets on the popular “Antiques Roadshow,” but according to his memoir he began as an ambitious art dealer who just happened to fall in love with the game of chasing down a good find using the forensic and research expertise of his reliable staff, his vast knowledge of artists and fine art portraiture and often pure instinct along with a willingness to risk his reputation in the highly competitive art world.  Sheer luck seems to have been in his favor with a number of great finds that, had he been wrong — such as in his decision to scrape away some over-painting — might have had disastrous consequences both financial and for art’s sake.  He seems very fortunate to have found early success that he has been rolling with ever since, which makes for a very fascinating read about his life’s work.

“In this book I explain how the history of a picture can color its appearance.  I show how provenance can completely blind eminent authorities into believing a picture is authentic when it is a fake, and also how provenance can unlock a picture’s importance and stature.”

This book was very appealing for the sense of mystery involved with researching and following clues to determine a work of art’s provenance and condition, often literally peeling layers of paint to reveal the true masterpiece in disguise. I liked the storytelling skill and use of suspense.  Descriptions of bizarre art collectors’ habits created vivid portraits of the persons associated with the art under investigation.  These and some incredible frauds provided a number of laugh-out-loud moments for me as well.

The stories relating the complex process of unraveling the truth about individual works of arts were rich with detail, wit, and sensationalism.  I will say that they could have benefited from more complete documentation of his findings; particularly, some additional dates would have oriented me into the moment better.  Some of the works discussed are in museums or locations that I have either had access to or had contemplated in books previously, which increased my interest in learning more.  The book also sparked my interest in seeking episodes of Antiques Roadshow on both BBC and PBS, which before I read this book were the type of put-me-to-sleep programs I would have clicked right past.  I felt as though I were being welcomed behind the scenes of the elite art environment in which Philip Mould makes his living.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art Detective

I found it to be a very quick and engaging read as an e-book.

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I ClaudiusMeet the Roman Julio-Claudian dynasty of I, Claudius – the original dysfunctional family – and get ready for a history lesson unlike any you’ve ever had.

I, Claudius is one of the most beloved miniseries ever made and is a wonderful, blackly funny dramatization of the Robert Graves’ novel of the same name. It tells the story of the Roman Empire from the reign of the first emperor Augustus – a reign that brought a longed-for period of peace after over a hundred years of on-and-off civil wars – right up to the rule of the infamous Nero. It romps through seventy years of Roman history, all told through the eyes of an elderly Claudius as he records the history of his extraordinary family.

The BBC miniseries stars Derek Jacobi as our eponymous hero, although he doesn’t seem like much of one. Born with a club foot and terrible stammer, Claudius is alternatively mocked and ignored by his extended family. Claudius soon realizes the value of being underestimated, and as he grows, he hides his intelligence behind his physical disabilities and avoids politics as best he can. But in this family, even the ultimate underdog can’t hide forever.

I, Claudius features Brian Blessed as Augustus and Siân Phillips as Livia, the manipulative, conniving matriarch and Augustus’ wife. Indeed, this tale is as much Livia’s story as it is Claudius’. Livia is the true power behind the throne, delicately manipulating with a rumor here and a little poison there. She is the center of the wheel, turning her family’s fortunes and fate at will. Livia desperately wants her son, Tiberius, to follow in Augustus’ footsteps and become the next emperor of Rome. The problems with that grand plan? One: Tiberius is her son from an earlier marriage, not Augustus’ biological son. Two: Augustus has grandsons by his biological daughter, Julia, who precede Tiberius when it comes to inheriting. Three: Tiberius himself has no interest in being emperor – he’s a soldier through and through. But these minor impediments certainly don’t phase the mighty Livia. Despite her sins, Phillips manages to make you understand, if perhaps not sympathize with, Livia’s single-minded pursuit of power. There is a deeper motivation here beyond mere money and influence.

The miniseries also includes a young Patrick Stewart (with hair!) as Sejanus, the corrupt and power-hungry leader of the Praetorian Guard, and John Hurt in one of his most magnificently terrifying roles as the mad emperor, Caligula.

Bribery, corruption, murder, poison, blackmail, adultery, madness, lust – I, Claudius has it all.

Check the WRL catalog for I, Claudius.

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HourThe Hour, a recent BBC period drama, has flown somewhat under the radar (at least when compared with the roaring success of a series like Downton Abbey), and it wasn’t until a colleague recommended it that I even became aware of the series. Set in 1956 at the BBC Lime Grove Studios in London, it follows the launch of an hour-long weekly current affairs television show, simply titled, The Hour. 

The six-part miniseries stars Romola Garai as Bel Rowley, the independent (female!) producer of the show; Ben Whishaw (the new “Q” in Skyfall and star of Cloud Atlas) as her best friend, Freddie Lyon, a brilliant and passionate reporter; and Dominic West as the charming and well-connected anchorman, Hector Madden. This is the opportunity Bel and Freddie have been waiting years for – to be a part of a new breed of investigative news program that could change the face of news at the BBC.

But a chance meeting with a childhood friend and a hushed-up murder on the Underground thrusts Freddie right into the middle of a deadly Cold War conspiracy and the silent war being waged between MI6 and the KGB. As Freddie begins to investigate, the trio becomes embroiled in a tangled web of politics, ambition, and romance. But a controversial breaking story could spell the end for the program, just as it is beginning.

And in amongst all the secrets and spy-games, I even learned a fair amount about the Suez crisis in 1956 between Britain, France, Egypt, and Israel (something I wasn’t even particularly aware of prior to the show), as well as the rules regulating broadcasters at the time. To my surprise, there used to be a fourteen-day gag rule that prohibited news programs from debating or analyzing anything discussed in the Houses of Parliament until two weeks after the event. But our intrepid team manages to find a neat way around this limit to free speech.

The Hour is lushly produced with period sets and costumes and is a wonderful piece of escapist drama. It is full of quick-witted repartee and fast-paced dialogue. The love triangle at the heart of the story is nicely balanced by the Ian Fleming-esque intrigue that seems to follow Freddie wherever he goes. Best description? It’s like HBO’s The Newsroom crossed with John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Check the WRL catalog for The Hour.

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With the popularity of British TV series like Downton Abbey, I think it is time to draw attention to a wonderful television series from 1973, Flambards.  It is set in the period from 1910 through World War I, and it includes many of the same issues of the changing relationships between the British ruling class and the people they felt they ruled over.

Christina is a teenage orphan who is passed around from elderly aunt to elderly aunt living in genteel but shabby conditions until Uncle Russell calls for her to be brought to  Flambards, the family’s crumbling ancestral home.  Christina is a child of her times, who obeys unquestioningly and misses all the deeper family currents.  She has been sent to Flambards because she is an heiress who will come into her fortune when she turns 21.  Uncle Russell requires her fortune to save Flambards which is crumbling into disrepair as he has spent all his money, time, and energy on fox-hunting.  In Uncle Russell’s mind the logical solution is for Christina to marry his eldest son, Mark, who is also her first cousin, and they will spend her fortune to save Flambards.

Uncle Russell is obsessed with fox hunting, even though he is confined to a chair and in constant pain after a hunting accident.  He lives through his sons as they hunt, which is fine for Mark who is only interested in hunting, drinking, and girls. His brother, Will, hates hunting.  Will is an intelligent, sensitive boy who wants to learn to fly in the new airplanes that are being developed.  Christina spends time with both her cousins, but Will is easier to get along with and she enjoys talking to him about planes.  The interest of the handsome groom, Dick, adds to the romantic tension, while the increasing drunken brutishness of Uncle Russell raises the drama.

Flambards is based on the series of novels by K.M. Peyton, which started with Flambards published in 1967, then went on to The Edge of the Cloud (1969), Flambards in Summer (1969), although the TV series doesn’t cover Flambards Divided (1981).  Our library doesn’t currently own the books although they are still in print.  As usual in comparisons between the screen version and the book, the books have more depth and background, but they cannot provide the  the gorgeous scenery, the galloping horses, and the wondrous early planes.

As I already said, Flambards is a good choice for fans of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, but also I recommend it for lovers of romance and horses.  Oddly for a historical romance, I also recommend it for aviation fans.  Early planes like the Bleriot are integral to the plot of the story so the series creators made and flew radio controlled model working replicas of these early planes.  I actually thought that they made full-size planes until I researched it for this blog post, so they did a good job of hiding the planes’ size.  Either way, their flimsy, splindliness and air of imminent disaster is fascinating!

Flambards also has wonderful music, written by David Fanshawe.  As I am typing this I have the whistling refrain from the credits going through my head, and I’m anticipating spending some quality girl-time re-watching some of my favorite episodes.

Check the WRL catalog for Flambards


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Created in the 1970s by the BBC and the producer of Upstairs, Downstairs, this two-season period drama bases its story of a Cockney cook, caterer, and hotelier on the life of Rosa Lewis, known as the “Duchess of Jermyn Street.” Although I am a sucker for stories about cooking, upstairs-downstairs memoirs, and the Edwardian era, I’d never tried this series, because… well, I remember the ’70s. Many aspects of the ’70s have not aged well. I am pleased to report, though, that Duchess of Duke Street holds up decades later, thanks not only to good storytelling but to detailed costuming and set dressing.

In the last years of Victoria’s reign, if you wanted the Prince of Wales to come to your dinner party, you let him know that Rosa Lewis would be cooking. (Whether it was only Lewis’s cooking that Edward admired was a subject on which she would not comment.) Having begun life in service, Lewis parlayed her skills in the kitchen to a career as caterer to aristocrats and proprietor of the Cavendish hotel, a place where the wealthy could find a discreet rendezvous with, or away from, their loved ones.

While the BBC series changes the names— to Louisa Trotter and the Bentinck Hotel—many details come straight from Lewis’s memoirs, including the doorman who vets customers according to whether Fred, his terrier, approves of them. While Lewis never elaborated on her history with the Prince of Wales, the series spins an engrossing story of how their association might have caused and then destroyed her first marriage. When that marriage implodes, Louisa Trotter drags herself out of debt to build a career and a clientele at the Bentinck,via hard work and high standards for everyone, but especially for herself.

The hotel makes a perfect setting for episodic stories, functioning as a more genteel, old-fashioned Fawlty Towers with both an eccentric cast of regulars and visiting guest actors such as a young Anthony Andrews. Class issues are frequently the centerpiece of a story: a clerk with only a short time left to live decides to spend his savings living like a lord; a wealthy woman leaves her estate not to her gadabout nephew, but to her chauffeur, who needs My-Fair-Lady style lessons to handle his new status in society. Throughout the series, Louisa and her maybe-soul mate, Charlie, Lord Haslemere, circle around one another, separated by issues of both class and trust—and eventually by the fact that he has married a Gothic Heroine, oops. I’m still watching my way through series 2, where the War is on the horizon.

Gemma Jones plays Louisa Trotter with great force of character, square-shouldered physicality, and fantastic dresses. The supporting cast are enjoyable as well, particularly John Welsh as Merriman, the hotel’s scowling, curmudgeonly butler. His deadpan reactions to the behavior of the younger generation—which is everybody else on the show—are some of the show’s best moments.

Check the WRL catalog for The Duchess of Duke Street


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You just can’t help feeling sorry for Aurelio Zen.  A Venetian by birth, living and working in Rome as a homicide detective, he has always put honesty before advancement.  While this may be an admirable trait, it hasn’t exactly done wonders for his career in the Roman police force.  As a government minister aptly puts it, “Your scruples do you credit, Detective, but really, it’s no way to get ahead, is it?”

Zen is a three-part mini-series, based on the celebrated mysteries by Michael Dibdin.  Originally produced by the BBC in 2010, it was broadcast as part of Masterpiece Mystery over here in the U.S.  Each hour and a half episode is based on one book and features a different mystery.  Vendetta begins with the cold-blooded murder of a judge on a country road outside Milan.  Back in Rome, Zen, played by the enigmatic and exceptional Rufus Sewell, finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Thanks to his “reputation for scrupulous integrity,” he’s been tapped by a government minister to prove the “innocence” of a businessman with friends in high places, who has been indicted for a triple homicide.  But at the same time, his gruff, no-nonsense boss at the Questura demands he close up the holes in the case and prove the police have arrested the right man.  What’s a detective to do?

Cabal, the second episode in the series, feature the apparent suicide of an Italian nobleman.  This time, both the Questura and the Ministry are happy for this death to be neatly wrapped up as such, but, unfortunately for Zen, he’s convinced the man was murdered.  In the third episode, Rat King, Zen is tasked with rescuing a wealthy industrialist, who has been kidnapped, and finding out why the man sent to pay the ransom was inexplicably shot dead in the street.

All career problems aside, things aren’t exactly going well for Aurelio Zen at home either.  His marriage has failed, his wife wants a divorce, and he’s back living at home with his mamma, even though he’s almost forty.  But somehow, Zen manages to juggle the competing demands of his conscience, the Questura, and the Ministry.  Each time he finds himself in an impossible situation, up against systemic bureaucratic corruption and civil servants who give new meaning to the word “oblique,” he manages to land on his feet, like a cat with nine lives.  But is it skill or sheer dumb luck?  For me, the jury is still out.  Sewell plays Zen with just the right dose of cynicism and wry humor, even as he finds himself entangled in a web of deceit, politics, and corruption.

The series was shot entirely in Rome and the city is as much a character in the story as Zen, his colleagues, or the criminals.  But this isn’t meant to be a tourist promotional video of Rome and the directors made a point to film in areas that are not so familiar to British and American audiences.  One such place is the EUR – a residential and business district just south of the city center, begun by Mussolini and famous for its fascist architecture.  This is the Rome where pedestrians block traffic, that is crowded, infuriating, and crumbling around the edges.  But don’t worry; there are still plenty of sporty little Fiats racing around the city and men in slick, stylish suits with the requisite skinny ties and snazzy sunglasses.

Zen is a very stylish, compelling and intelligent drama – it feels like a Hitchcock adventure, but with a modern noir feel, where the stakes are high, but the story is still delivered with a great deal of wit and wry humor.

Check the WRL catalog for Zen


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I am taking another risk this week and recommending one of my favorite TV series. But I am finding that Doctor Who is more difficult to write about than The Pinhoe Egg. How do I even attempt to distill the world’s longest running science fiction TV series into a single blog post? *

Doctor Who has everything you expect from a sci-fi series: aliens, spaceships, monsters, distant planets, distant times and, of course, chases and explosions. Unusual from other sci-fi series I have seen, I care deeply about the characters and their lives. The Doctor is a nine-hundred year old, two-hearted, human look-alike alien who is nearly indestructible. He travels around in a retro wooden blue police box time machine, “the TARDIS – a Time and Relative Dimensions In Space” machine, with one or two young and good-looking companions, saving the universe from evil of all sorts. Despite his power The Doctor likes humanity and some humans in particular. He likes us for the same reason I like humanity – for our capacity for love, laughter, and compassion.  He has seen us from our start in caves to our distant future as the universe is ending. Like a good parent he accepts our failings and challenges us to improve. Perhaps his character is best summed up by a quote from the 2010 Christmas Special, “In nine hundred years I have not met anyone who wasn’t important.”

If your spaceship can travel through both time and space you can go anywhere, anytime, and see anything. And The doctor does. Sometimes he goes to strange worlds with strange aliens but often the setting is a near contemporary earth. Doctor Who is unashamedly British, getting in a few jabs at Americans. It visits many British cultural icons in varying episodes that focus on Dickens, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, the Blitz in London during World War II, Winston Churchill, and Agatha Christie.

Doctor Who aired its first episode in 1963 in a black-and-white series with clunky props and a much slower storyline.  It was taken off the air in 1989 and then it was revived in 2005 in a season packaged misleadingly as The Complete First Series. The stories have improved, special effects have improved, even the monsters have improved. The Doctor has been played by eleven different actors over the years, a dramatic convenience explained away by The Doctor regenerating if he is killed. Each actor manages to add dimensions to his character, so I am not sure who is my favorite.

Although the monsters may be too scary for small children, Doctor Who can be enjoyed by most of the family. There is no sex (attraction is sometimes implied), no gory violence, lots of suspenseful action but the good guys ultimately win. As the actor David Tenant said in his portrayal of the tenth Doctor, “Defending the earth. Can’t argue with that.”

*Although some will argue that because Doctor Who wasn’t running from 1989 to 2004 that Star Trek wins the longevity prize.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who


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Downton Abbey is one of the most popular British television series at our library right now.  With a long waiting list on the first season and the wait building on the second, I thought I would offer a few alternatives.  Here are four titles sure to please, while you are waiting….

Berkeley Square:  This series is set in the early 1900’s in  Berkeley Square, a wealthy neighborhood in the west end of London.  The story focuses on three nannies who meet in the adjacent park and become friends.  The nannies come from very different backgrounds and circumstances. Their personal issues begin to encroach on their work lives, putting each woman in compromising situations. While the storylines of this series mostly revolve around the help and their relationships, the following recommendations tend to focus more on the wealthy family members.

The Forsyte Saga (2002):  Based on the novel by John Galsworthy, the Forsyte Saga series was originally produced in 1967.  This updated adaptation is a much shorter, abridged version of the story.  This saga follows several generations of the wealthy Forsyte family through many difficulties: unhappy marriages, infidelity, and disownment.  Although the saga is dark at times, eventually, many of the family members find some happiness after years of strife.  This series is issued in two parts.

Gosford Park:  This feature film is an American production, written by British screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who later created the series Downton Abbey.  It’s a  murder mystery is set in the English country manor, Gosford Park. Several family members and friends are invited for a shooting party; each brings their own servants for their stay at the manor. As the story unfolds, we begin to learn the secrets of many of the characters. This sets the stage for multiple suspects, from upstairs and down. The film will keep you guessing right to the end, but eventually, the murderer and motive are revealed for a surprising conclusion.

The Grand:  This series begins on New Year’s Eve, 1919.  The Grand hotel has recently reopened after expensive renovations, which sets the stage for financial trouble from the outset. This is quickly resolved through a partnership between the Bannerman brothers, who have very different ideas and intentions.  While the Bannermans have their own issues to contend with, the guests’ and staff’s lives also bring intrigue and drama to the hotel. This series is issued in two parts.

Search the WRL catalog for Berkeley Square, The Forsyte Saga, The Forsyte Saga: Series 2, Gosford Park, The Grand, and The Grand: Series 2.


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I feel a little guilty, actually, like I’ve been cheating on Jeremy Brett, but over the course of three 90-minute episodes, I have fallen head over heels for another actor’s Sherlock Holmes. This latest BBC production stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the iconic consulting detective and updates his Edwardian surroundings to modern-day London. (Watson has a blog; Sherlock has a smart phone. He taunts Scotland Yard by text message with the same fervour that Holmes sent telegrams.)

With looks that are alternately angelic and alien and a voice that the Times describes as “like a jaguar hiding in a cello,” Cumberbatch settles into the role of Sherlock Holmes like he was born to it. Brilliant and petulant, dangerous when bored, Sherlock depends on the puzzling and the forensic to distract his high-performance brain from the tedium of daily life.

Fortunately, roommate John Watson is there to remind him that at the other end of his latest delightful puzzle is a terrified human being waiting for rescue. Now, I’ve always had a thing for Holmes, but this is the first time I’ve been quite so smitten with Watson, whose past portrayals have ranged from merely self-effacing to utterly incompetent. Martin Freeman’s Watson, alternately admiring and exasperated, provides exactly the counterpoint, in head shakes and eye rolls, that Sherlock deserves. It’s some kind of feat of acting that Freeman easily holds his own, with the most minute gestures and facial expressions, against Sherlock’s grandstanding dramatics.

Elements of “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Bruce Partington Plans” are just the jumping-off point for these new mysteries, which fly by just slightly faster than the speed of logic. For those who know their Conan Doyle, there are plenty of in-jokes and nifty twists (the identity of Sherlock’s archnemesis, for one). The supporting cast includes Rupert Graves as longsuffering DI Lestrade and Sherlock’s exceedingly swirly, dramatic coat, which all but earns its own line in the credits.

Sherlock was concocted by Doctor Who writers Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and if you’ve watched any New Who, the rapid-fire dialogue and the chemistry between a brilliant eccentric and his loyal companion will seem quite familiar. I wouldn’t have been particularly surprised to see Sherlock pull out a sonic screwdriver along with his magnifying glass, or to find that there were Daleks lurking behind Reichenbach Falls all along.

Check the WRL catalog for Sherlock.


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Unless you live under a rock, you’re probably familiar with the popular British television mystery series Midsomer Murders, featuring John Nettles as Chief Inspector Barnaby. As popular and long-running as the series is, it’s easy to forget that Caroline Graham’s novels came first and served as the inspiration for the series. The Killings at Badger’s Drift (1987) was the first and won three separate mystery awards for Best First Novel.

The television series does a great job with the main characters, especially Chief Inspector Barnaby. In the books, however, minor characters are much more deeply explored than in the show. Graham gets into the characters’ heads and reveals human complexity rivaling that of P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh series. The show has a more cozy, lighthearted tone than the books but you’ll find the books are much meatier.

I read A Ghost in the Machine, the seventh entry in the series. In the village of Forbes Abbott, a beloved eccentric is gruesomely murdered with one of the bizarre military contraptions in his macabre collection. Several villagers have motives for killing Dennis Brinkley. The narration alternates between the suspects and the investigating officers, Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy. As usual, a second murder serves to complicate matters – although the total body count, at two, seems quite modest compared to a typical episode of Midsomer Murders.

If you’re a cozy village mystery fan, or a Midsomer Murders fan, definitely check out Graham’s books. If you’ve read her books but never tried the TV series, you’ll find them great fun. But you’d better get cracking — there are thirteen seasons and counting!

Check the WRL catalog for A Ghost in the Machine


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prideI am currently listening to the audio version of this book, but I want to recommend the film produced by BBC Television in association with A&E Network. I have probably watched this film a half dozen times; admittedly, I can recite lines along with the cast. Until recently, I had never read the book, but enjoyed the story immensely. Now that I’m listening to the original work, I realize just how faithful BBC was with this production. Much of the dialog is verbatim from the book. The sets capture the time period so accurately. The homes, furniture, and costumes transport you to the 19th century English countryside. The actors do a wonderful job depicting the mannerisms and propriety of British society.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the central characters are the Bennet family—father, mother, and five daughters. Because there are no sons to inherit the estate, at least one of the Bennet daughters must marry well to provide for themselves and the rest of the family. The two eldest, Jane and Elizabeth, are both attractive and smart young ladies, which is more than can be said of their three younger sisters. Very early in the film, a wealthy young gentleman (Mr. Bingley), his even wealthier friend (Mr. Darcy), and his two sisters rent a nearby large estate for the summer. Mrs. Bennet is determined to ensure her family’s fortunes and insists her husband become acquainted with their new neighbor. The Bennet family finds Mr. Bingley amiable and very agreeable, while Mr. Darcy is snobbish and proud. The story continues with various encounters between the Bennet daughters and Bingley and Darcy. A few scandals occur, certain people show their true personalities, and the story ends with a satisfying, albeit predictable, conclusion.

After watching the BBC production numerous times, I was disappointed with the newer (2005) version, created as a two hour feature film. The BBC version is considerably longer at 310 minutes, but definitely worth the extra time.

Check the WRL catalog for Pride and Prejudice.

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“And now for something completely different…”  The legions of Monty Python fans out there will be quick to recognize this quote, and I repeat it here because Monty Python’s Flying Circus is so very different!  Monty Python (as the creators of this show are known) features the writing, performing, and artistic talents of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.  This sketch comedy show is replete with the absurd—a veritable host of improbable characters in surreal situations.   Sheep infest the walls of a suburban home, a gang of grannies terrorizes a defenseless neighborhood, an intrepid group of hairdressers attempts to climb Mount Everest, etc, etc.  (Far be it from me to make assumptions about anyone’s recreational habits, but I often find myself wondering what mind-altering substances these guys were on when they wrote this stuff.)

No subject is safe from the Monty Python’s mockery, and squeamish watchers should be aware that nudity, foul language, and violence all appear on a regular basis (not recommended for the faint of heart).  Honestly, there are times where Monty Python is hit and miss.  Sometimes I can watch a sketch or two without cracking a smile, only to lose control when a line or sketch suddenly jabs my funny bone.  I also think the unending absurdity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus makes it unsuitable in large doses.  I wouldn’t try watching more than two shows in a row, as I once tried to do. (At some point your brain will start rotting, and your desiccated head will eventually roll right off your shoulders.  Trust me on this.)

I was first introduced to Monty Python while I was in college, when I saw the feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  (This loose parody of the Arthurian legend is a good starting place for hesitant neophytes.)   As I sat in the theatre, listening to others around me repeat by heart lines that I had never heard, something about the insanity struck a chord deep inside me.  Not every viewer will react the same way, but I encourage you to give Monty Python’s Flying Circus a chance.  Best enjoyed with a large group of close friends.

Check the WRL catalog.


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The Church of England ordained its first female ministers in March of 1994. Before that year was out, while churchgoers were still adjusting to this new development, The Vicar of Dibley debuted on BBC. Their old vicar has passed away, and the residents of the fictional village of Dibley are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the man who is to be their new spiritual leader. Only—guess what—he is actually a she! And not just any she, but a liberated, intelligent, outspoken she!  Geraldine Granger, chocolate lover (as I’m sure she would like to be described), is either the answer to the villagers’ prayers, or a woman ready to lead them down the highway to hell.

Luckily for everyone involved, it turns out to be the former. Geraldine is a refreshing breath of fresh air for Dibley, and a strong bond soon grows between her and her eccentric parishioners. The main players are the members of the parish council: David Horton, staunch conservative and occasional blowhard; Hugo Horton, dimwitted but sweet son of David; Frank Pickle, the most boring man alive; Owen Newitt, foul mouthed and foul smelling farmer; Letitia Cropley, “culinary genius” and inventor of such perennial favorites as lard and fish paste pancakes; and Jim Trott, a ditherer with a weakness for the ladies. Add one verger to the mix, dimwitted and sweet Alice Tinker, and you’ve got some entertaining chaos. (Does my description of Alice make you think of another character? Hmmm….a match made in heaven perhaps?) The supporting actors in this series are all talented, but the boisterous Dawn French (Geraldine) is the lynchpin that holds the series together.

Even watching as many British comedies as I do (and having been to the UK twice), I’m occasionally stymied by references to unfamiliar British products and British celebrities, but these cultural barriers don’t detract too much from my appreciation of this show. Also, I feel I should mention to wary viewers that this show is respectful to both Christianity and Christians. I’d happily recommend The Vicar of Dibley to even the most devout of my acquaintances (and all the rest of you too). This is one of my favorite Britcoms!

Check the WRL catalog.


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