Month: May 2020

Review: Belgravia (TV series, 2020; also a book, 2016)

Posted May 14, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

Every writeup of this mentions that it’s by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, so there you are, we’ve got that out of the way. This is nothing like that, however. It’s a fairly pleasant period drama but that’s about it. The book came out first, and the TV adaptation follows the book pretty closely, in fact I’d go so far as to suggest that the book was written with TV in mind. There are chunks of dialogue which correspond to the TV show’s scenes, and then pages of description of settings, explanations and simple research info-dump. If I’d read the book before watching the show, I’d probably have ploughed through it, but as it was I gave up after only a few chapters. It was just too dry for words.

So this review is essentially of the TV show. The story opens in 1815 on the eve of the battle of Waterloo, at the famous ball by the Duchess of Richmond, which ended with the departure by many of the attendees direct to the battlefield. Invited to this prestigious event are three unlikely people, who are not aristocratic or even gentry. James Trenchard is the man who supplies Wellington’s army, a working class man who’s scratched his way up the ladder of wealth and position until he’s bumping his head against the invisible ceiling that divides those who inherited their money from those who earn it. Trade and privilege must never meet, but for this one night they do, as Trenchard’s pretty daughter Sophia has caught the eye of Lord Bellasis. Watching with disquiet is Trenchard’s wife Anne, born into the lower gentry herself and understanding all the disadvantages that might result from her ambitious husband’s efforts to rise in the world. And so is set in train the events of the book, as Lord Bellasis is killed on the battlefield.

The story then jumps to 1842, when Trenchard is helping to build posh houses in Belgravia and pushing his wife into the circle of the noble families who buy them. Inevitably, the secrets of the past start to emerge, leading to a whole series of increasingly implausible events. The Trenchard’s rather useless son, Oliver, and his discontented wife, Susan, form a good part of the side story, as well as the Earl of Brockenhurst (father of the deceased Lord Bellasis) and his ne’er-do-well family. But the consequences of 1815 and Lord Bellasis’ love affair with Sophia Trenchard form the backbone of the story as events unfold in a fairly pedestrian and predictable way.

As a TV show, the sets and costumes alone make it worth watching, and I loved the way that the wide skirts enforced slow and graceful movements from the ladies. It really wasn’t possible to move quickly without an unseemly amount of swaying. The acting is uniformly excellent. My only reservations were with Philip Glenister and Tamsin Greig, who play the major roles of James and Anne Trenchard. They’re both magnificent actors, but I felt they were somewhat miscast here. Glenister is always himself, no matter the role, and Grieg was just a little too placid. I would have liked more drama from her, considering some of the things that happened to her, but that was a directorial decision, I imagine. As for the rest, they all came from British central casting, so they can play these aristocratic roles with one hand tied behind their backs. Worthy of special mention, Tara Fitzgerald was a creepily believable controlling mama, Jack Bardoe was suitably bewildered as the hapless Charles Pope, and Adam James had the plum role as devious schemer John Bellassis.

If I were assigning a star rating to the production, I’d probably give it a three, and most of that was for the visuals. The script was lifted straight from the rather uninspired book, and added no fireworks to it. The only drama happens in the final episode and is entirely predictable. When the big revelation happens, again in the final episode, the characters sit around drinking tea, saying to each other, “Well, that was a surprise. Never saw that coming.” Paraphrasing only slightly here. It all felt very anticlimactic. There are also glaring problems with the plot. At one point the Trenchards say to each other, “We should have looked into that.” Well, yes, you should, you really should.

Worth watching if you’re a fan of costume dramas, just don’t expect Downton Abbey.


Review: Gentleman Jack (TV series, 2019)

Posted May 14, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well, that was awesome. I’ve had the DVD of this for a while, but put off watching it because I wasn’t quite sure what I would find. TV producers do like to spice things up. Happily, they resisted the temptation here, so although there’s a great deal of kissing between our two heroines, there’s nothing here to frighten the horses. But yes, two heroines, so if that’s not your thing, avoid.

The premise here is that Anne Lister, a forty-something and openly woman-loving lady, is the mistress of a run-down estate near Halifax in the north of England in 1832. Her father, aunt and sister all live there, but Anne herself loves to travel to London and the continent, living it up and generally having a wild old time. And affairs. Of the lesbian variety. When her latest squeeze decides to accept a proposal of marriage – to a man! The horror! – Anne returns to her estate, Shibden, to straighten it out while she recovers from her broken heart. And while there she decides to pass the time by making up to the very pretty heiress who lives nearby, Ann Walker.

The major part of the plot follows the burgeoning romance between Anne and Ann, but there are significant subplots involving a coal mining venture and some argy-bargy with villainous local businessmen, some tenants of Anne’s with a drunken father and a sad little romance for Anne’s sister, Marion, but mainly the story is about Anne. Everything revolves around Anne. And this is exactly as it should be, because Anne Lister is one of those towering characters who seems too melodramatic by half, and far too outrageous for the real world, but that’s the glory of this whole tale, because Anne Lister was a real person, and everything shown actually happened to her, as described in her very detailed diary, written in code and only recently decoded.

Suranne Jones is superb in the role of Anne, striding manfully about the place in her almost mannish costume, taking no nonsense from the local bigwigs and being adored by almost everyone else. Except her own sister, the very ordinary, very down-to-earth Marion, who’d really like to get married and have her own life except that she’s constantly overshadowed by big sister. Poor Marion starts off as a bit of a crosspatch, but after her failed attempt to marry the frankly appalling Mr Abbott, one can’t help but pity her. Sophie Rundle is brilliant, too, as the poor-little-rich-girl Ann Walker, hounded by her relations who all want her to get married and stop being a bother. She’s a terrible ditherer and borderline bonkers, but Anne is very good for her and it’s possible to see them having a happy, or at least not too tempestuous, relationship long term.

Pretty much everyone else is from British Central Casting, which means perfect character acting at every level of the cast. Although I confess it was a bit disconcerting to see Peter Davison (Doctor Who!) in a costume drama of this type.

A word of admiration for the set and costume designers, who got everything brilliantly right. Of course it helped that they could film at the actual Shibden Hall where Anne and her family lived, but the other houses were just as fitting and the costumes were terrific, especially Suranne Jones’ iconic man-dress with top hat. An honourable mention for the feather-trimmed hat of Anne’s French maid, which took a battering on its various journeys, becoming more and more bedraggled. A lovely touch!

This is a wonderful, vibrant production, with the over-the-top personality of Anne Lister dominating every single scene. A magnificent performance by Suranne Jones. Highly recommended.


Review: Cranford (TV series, 2008)

Posted May 14, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

This has possibly the most stellar cast ever assembled for a BBC costume drama. With Mrs Gaskell writing (most of) the words and the likes of Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Francesca Annis, Barbara Flynn, Lesley Manville, Julia Sawalha, Philip Glenister… (the list goes on and on and on) speaking them, what could possibly go wrong? Happily, nothing at all. The only difficulty is stopping oneself being totally gobsmacked by the awesomeness of it all. And naturally, the sets and costumes are all wonderful, too.

The plot… well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I’ve never read the book, but that doesn’t matter either, and even with a cast of thousands, all with their own little sub-plots, it was never hard to work out what was going on. Cranford is a small town on the cusp of being dragged into the forward-thinking Victorian era by the arrival of the railway, in the teeth of the residents’ opposition. The ladies of the town (and there seem to be surprisingly few gentlemen) are keeping up with their mannered round of small and inconsequential happenings as if they were still back in the Georgian era, but gradually life and death bring them a little nearer the future. It may have been just my imagination, but the costumes seemed to change from the somewhat high-waisted and narrower-skirted late Georgian styles straight into the natural waists and full skirts of the early Victorian, even though only a single year is supposed to have elapsed. If this is so, it was a clever and subtle allusion to the progress of industrialisation.

The only problem with it, for me , anyway, was the high level of tragedy that seemingly hit this one small town. Every episode seemed to have at least one death, and sometimes more, and the poor Rector’s family were under constant assault from life-threatening illnesses. That gave it a very Dickensian air of doom and gloom, but there were also light-hearted moments, too, and the poor new doctor, a very naive young man, gets caught up in both, mostly inadvertently.

Of the actresses, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Francesca Annis are incomparable, bringing out out all the pathos and underlying tragedies of their constrained lives. Honourable mentions, too, for two of my favourite actresses, who rarely get top billing but are always wonderful, Lesley Manville and Barbara Flynn. But really, there wasn’t a sub-par performance in the whole cast. Terrific stuff.