Prince, Son and Heir: Charles at 70 (2018)

There is something familiar about this BBC documentary marking the seventieth birthday of Prince Charles, something I couldn’t place until I was a good half an hour into it. It wasn’t that I had seen this program or any other celebration of the Prince of Wales’s life before but that this has the makings of a nature documentary. There’s Charles, heir to the British throne – grand, majestic, at one with his surroundings – and there we are, prying from afar, watching as he ambles through his gardens and pokes at things with a stick. What strangeness.

My American bewilderment with the royal family renews itself every time I see one of these documentaries, which is often. The more I think about this institution, the more I think a nature film is an apt comparison. Train the eye on the subject, pick apart its every move, marvel at the beauty and savageness on display. Also enlist a sober narrator, which in this case is stage actor and star of tomorrow Paapa Essiedu, a distinguished substitute for David Attenborough in my opinion.

Essiedu calms and guides you through the celebration. The documentary has hypnotic quality that is gentle on subject and audience alike. It’s also unflinching in its positive portrayal of Prince Charles, a move that’s pretty on brand for a family that’s just recovered from its 1990s existential crisis. In a clearly defined thesis, the film highlights three areas of the prince’s life. All are related to his advocacy work, in case you need a reminder that the Windsors do in fact contribute a tangible good. We see the prince’s longstanding environmental activism, his commitment to heritage preservation, and his engagement with young people.

The filmmakers make a good case, highlighting Prince Charles’s tireless work ethic. Not only does he have more duties as his mother scales back her overseas travel, he also keeps up a regimented daily schedule, which is more than I can say for myself. Praise comes from many quarters, including beneficiaries of the Prince’s Trust, a youth charity he established in 1976. He is very much a man of the people in these moments. Despite looking like a founding father of GQ’s best dressed list, he converses easily with young people sharing stories about overcoming poverty and lack of self-esteem. He has a similar touch with those he meets abroad. On a trip to Dominica to aid storm victims, he holds hands, listens carefully, and pledges assistance. He may be reserved, but he does comes across as sincere. Another instance of relatable, approachable Charles occurs during a trip to the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Like your grandparent on a cruise stop, he scrambles to find the right change while buying souvenirs for his grandkids at a crafts market. In the end, he has a man to get the money, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?

The most effective campaigners for the Prince are his family, and the documentary features interviews from both of his sons and his wife. Unfortunately for me, there’s no Meghan, but as this seems to have been filmed post-wedding, there are some behind-the-scenes glances of the married couple at an engagement. Harry and Camilla also give a few recollections of the day, so I’m sated. The Charles they share with the world is one who is funny and kind. His sons are especially proud of their father’s pioneering environmental advocacy, which rather impressed me. Some of these efforts are relatable, like his fanatical need to conserve energy and pick up litter, but then he talks about getting a more efficient engine fitted into his Aston Martin and we are reminded that he’s a prince. He’s a prince who’s channeled his privilege and experience into something actually productive though, according to this documentary, so we’ll leave it as it is, a celebration of the man’s seventieth birthday.

Released: 2018
Dir: John Bridcut
Writer: John Bridcut
Cast: Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Paapa Essiedu
Time: 60 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC
Reviewed: 2019


Marley’s Ghosts S01 (2015)

Marley (Sarah Alexander) sees dead people, and it’s driving her nuts. It might not be so bad if they were ghosts of strangers, but no, these are the spirits of her husband, lover, and vicar, all of whom are spending their immediate afterlife lounging around her living room. Perhaps she could tolerate it if she wasn’t also mediating between the men in her life and trying to shut down an attempted ghost-human affair, but the deaths only complicate matters.

Out of everyone, Marley is the one who has things most in order. She’s a magistrate with a firm grasp on where she’s headed even if her personal life is a little sticky. Her affair with needy colleague Michael (Nicholas Burns) throws her good judgment somewhat into question, but one can sympathize when Adam (John Hannah), her unemployed, alcoholic husband, is constantly barging into her workplace. Meanwhile, their loopy vicar, um…Vicar (Jo Joyner), offers no counsel and also appears to have slept through divinity school.

So it’s not surprising that this cast of characters combine for some comic misadventures. What this three-part series doesn’t do, however, is elevate its humor into something beyond trite ghost jokes and one note gags about shady mediums. There’s only so many times Marley can argue with spirits in public before someone rings a doctor about a lady yelling at bushes.

It’s easy to imagine a better story about the newly widowed Marley trying to come to terms with what’s happened, especially since she’s kind of responsible for Adam’s demise. Of all the ways to go, giving mouth-to-mouth to your choking wife and then sucking the chicken bone out of her throat and into your own is one of the more pathetic. But the story is not really interested in Marley navigating her grief or relief, or both. It’s far more trivial, a grating comedy of errors featuring three selfish spirits who just want to make their landlady mad.

Michael and the vicar in particular add a lot of noise, too much for my taste. They’re lucky they’re even staying at Marley’s, a privilege they appear to have won by dying outside her property. The vicar, it seems, can neither preach nor drive. Ever the optimist, however, she’s not going to let that lack of skills and a human body stop her from forming a physical attachment with the neighbor’s grown son (Harman Singh), a move that gets Marley into trouble with his mom. Michael is likewise oblivious to his lover’s frustrations and his own changed circumstances, all but insisting on continuing their affair as if nothing’s happened.

The show only finds its soul in the third and last episode when the now sober Adam comes face to face with his past. He meets a stranger who fills him both with hope and regret, and I wonder if this is emotional and narrative punch the writers were aiming for all along. I was genuinely touched by these few scenes and by Hannah in particular. He conjures up all this emotional heft out of nowhere and delivers a performance that is moving and funny without being sentimental or contrived.

This late inning save is not enough to change my opinion about the series, but it makes me think that perhaps a longer order of four or five episodes would have improved things. Certainly a cleaner script would have done so. Alexander is the most underserved, and it shouldn’t be the case that her best scenes come when she’s supporting Adam’s storyline in the finale. I’m also convinced that Burns and Joyner have more to offer than their one dimensional characters allow. I see that a longer six-episode second series is so there’s hope yet for Marley and her ghosts.

Released: 2015
Prod: John Stanley Productions
Dir: Ben Gosling Fuller
Writer: Daniel Peacock
Cast: Sarah Alexander, John Hannah, Jo Joyner, Nicholas Burns, Mina Anwar, Harman Singh, Beattie Edmondson
Time: 30 min x 3
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: Gold
Reviewed: 2019

The Royals (2014)

I’m still caught in the royal wedding weekend afterglow, which means non-stop Britishness from now until the next celebrity bauble comes my way. That’s how I ended up revisiting The Royals, a documentary series on Netflix that plays like a supermarket tabloid in televised form. It purportedly offers a glimpse into the life and times of (mostly) the Windsor clan, with a Hanover here and even a Tudor there, and it gives some insight into lesser known aspects of royal life. Royal pets, for example, get a full 45 minute episode, an unexpected but welcome change from your average BBC documentary about the monarchy. On the whole, however, The Royals is an uneven production that veers from the reputable to the kind of trashy.

The series consists of six episodes presented in no particular order. First up are royal weddings with the then-recent nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton kicking things off. Much is made of Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles, though after three decades there is not a lot of new ground to cover. The celebratory atmosphere of this episode contrasts with the second one about royal funerals. Again, Diana’s death takes center stage while stories about the deaths of actual monarchs orbit hers. Come to think of it, you can call this the Diana show. The fourth episode about royal scandals deceptively begins with jolly Edward VII before picking apart the Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Simpson, but all this is just prelude to the scandaliest scandal – Diana, Charles, and the paparazzi. A gentler fifth episode about royal babies follows, I think to cushion the earlier bad behavior.

If you’re a casual observer of the royal family, the series can be an informative binge, particularly if you know little about earlier generations of privileged people. The emphasis on Diana, Charles, and their sons though means that a lot of the material has already been floating around the internets and the covers of People magazine for ages. Anyone who subsists on a steady diet of well sourced documentaries or with a distaste for sensationalism, on the other hand, should stay well away. Also folks who have watched The Crown, a veritable newsreel compared to this.

To say that The Royals is based on rigorous research is laughable. There are some actual historians and other commentators of note, including authors and journalists, but the series scrapes the barrel when it comes to royal experts. I’m all for expanding expertise beyond academia and stuffy white dudes nestled in institutions of power, but I’m not going to take things seriously when one of your talking heads is a 21 year old geography student whose sole qualification is running a fab Prince Harry fansite, especially when she’s being interviewed via Skype. There’s an unusual number of website founders, in fact, as well as self-proclaimed “Diana fans” and memorabilia enthusiasts. I threw my hands up, however, when a psychic appeared and did her bit about aligning star signs.

The gossipy tone of this production is off-putting, and you don’t even have to watch the whole thing to come away feeling like you’ve been party to some cheap hit job. In the first episode, someone’s already making snide remarks about, in her opinion, the Queen Mother’s hideous wedding dress. Another expert makes known her distaste for Eton and still others feel the need to comment on Princes William and Harry’s poor fashion sense. No royal escapes condemnation; Kate Middleton is chastised for going topless, as if it is her fault for getting caught by the paps, and Prince Charles and Camilla are ridiculed for an intimate if awkward phone conversation that resulted in something known as the tampon scandal.

With such distasteful commentators, it’s hard not to come away feeling sympathy for the royal family, and that’s the last thing they need or deserve. The whole of the third episode reveals just how degrading that lot can be, the ones who regularly traffic in gossip and get off on others’ misfortunes. Part three is about royal teens, particularly about their bad behavior and rebelliousness, and it really serves no purpose except to judge. Prince Harry gets quite the beating. We know now that he was acting out in part because he was under a constant spotlight when his mother died and didn’t have space to mourn. Also he was just a kid. But you don’t get to shame teens for being teens when you’re one of their problems. There’s no sense of self-awareness, a quality that’s kind of necessary when it comes to documentaries.

Released: 2014
Network: Channel 5
Dir: Laura Linton, Marco De Luca
Writer: Jonathan Callan, James Krieg
Time: 270 min (45 min x 6 episodes)
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

Timmy Time: Timmy’s Christmas Surprise (2011)

In the classic movie A Christmas Story, nine year old Ralphie wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun under the tree on Christmas Day. The kid must have this, er, toy, and his quest to secure his beloved BB gun leads to a memorable, questionably kid-friendly holiday journey. Timmy’s Christmas Surprise is different in that regard and is exceedingly kid-friendly but still tells the tale of a young child who has his mind fixed on that special Christmas gift.

In this case, the child is adorable lamb Timmy of Shaun the Sheep fame, also of his own television show, Timmy Time, and the gift in question is a brilliant red tricycle. He wakes up on Christmas Eve and gets ready for school, because animals don’t take a break even for religious holidays. He and his classmates and teachers proceed to have a grand old time, and why not? They’re in preschool. All they do is paint, build snowmen, and make crafts out of tin cans and cotton balls.

But it’s a wintery English Christmas, and the school gets snowed under. This doesn’t seem to be the first time since the teachers immediately bust out stuffed burlap bags for the kiddos to curl up on. Pretty soon, everyone’s snoozing away, everyone except Timmy, who is worried that Santa won’t be able to find his way to the school and deliver his red trike.

I have to say I’m both way past the target age for this stuff and decidedly not a parent to a tiny human who is the target age, but good entertainment is good entertainment. Also I love Aardman productions, which has given us gems like Wallace & Gromit and Arthur Christmas. I never tire of their lovingly detailed stop-motion animation and chunky, squeezable characters.

Timmy Time, from which this Christmas special is taken (series 3, episode 27-28), is a much stripped down version of these more famous titles. The show lacks the detailed set decoration that makes you want to pause each frame for a few minutes just to appreciate the art. That’s not to say there isn’t much to savor. The nursery is a delight, a cozy little cabin that is full of homey touches. There’s a bright blue stove to warm up the room and lots of sparkling garland and lights to give it a festive feel. Also tiny mince pies!

Kids will enjoy the bright colors and simplicity of design and story. They’ll understand every word of it too, or at least the bleating and vague animal-like noises that Timmy and his friends and teachers communicate with. By the time the kids strap themselves in the school bus and begin loudly honking “Jingle Bells,” you’ll be smiling. Because what’s not to love about a bunch of happy baby animals on their way home for Christmas Day?

Released: 2011
Cast: Timmy, Harriet, Osbourne, Yabba, Paxton, Mittens, Ruffy, Apricot, Stripey, Kid, Otus, Finlay, Bumpy, Timmy’s Mom
Time: 22 min
Lang: Animal
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC
Reviewed: 2016

The Sound of Music Live (2013)

My mother is far more forgiving than I am when it comes to bad television, and she insisted that I watch the Carrie Underwood version of The Sound of Music. And despite all reviews suggesting I maybe shouldn’t, I caved because moms know best. Except mine didn’t, and I spent most of the movie stacking it up, mostly unfavorably, against every other version I had seen, including an international stage production, the 2015 ITV remake, and of course the untouchable film classic.

The 1965 film remains my favorite movie of all time, but I don’t think it’s precious and should be immune from updates. This is not a good one, however, despite some of the best voices American musical theater has on offer. I’m talking about Laura Benanti, Christian Borle, Audra McDonald, and, just because, Audra McDonald again. You can’t pull off this kind of production on network TV with just a few Broadway stars though; you need a real star. Enter Carrie Underwood – country music diva, multiple Grammy winner, American sweetheart.

She, no surprise, sings like an idol but also acts like the star of your local theater, which turns out to be an odd combination for a character like Maria. What I love about better interpretations, namely that of Julie Andrews and Kara Tointon, who starred in the ITV production, is the underlying strength and wisdom that shines through Maria’s occasional naiveté. She may not be worldly or sophisticated, but she understands human nature. She knows when the kids are having a go and stands firm when the Captain is unfairly dressing her down.

Underwood, however, comes across as someone who’s more clueless, a chirpy, idealistic young woman determined to be positive and make positive changes. Basically, an American. She barges through by sheer force of personality, scandalizing everyone who gets in her way. There’s no nuance in her performance; either she’s parroting her lines with the earnestness of an insecure actor or she’s overpowering the fragile, confined set with her buxom voice.

The superior musical theater acting from Underwood’s costars only emphasizes her deficiencies. I never liked the Mother Abbess character – so unsingable and a bit of a relic – but found myself clinging to McDonald’s performance. She gives the mother an authority that comes from character and not just age. Borle camps it up as Max, the Captain’s self-interested friend. I always find something potentially sinister about Borle’s characters. It’s not a moustache twirling evil but a look that says he will double cross you in an instant if it will save his skin. He’s a perfect foil for Benanti’s tantalizing Baroness. This being a remake of the original stage production and not the film, the two abide by a slippery moral code that prefers Nazi occupation to open hostility and confrontation.

Underwood’s main costar, Stephen Moyer, fares less well. He makes an adequate Captain, stern when he must be, gentle at other times. But whereas Underwood is too forceful, Moyer struggles to create any lasting impression. The lack of chemistry between these leads also pushes the love story into the background, which is where you should file this production.

Released: 2015
Dir: Rob Ashford, Beth McCarthy-Miller
Writer: Russel Crouse (book), Howard Lindsay (book), Austin Winsberg
Cast: Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, Ariane Rinehart, Michael Campayno, Sean Cullen, Kristine Nielsen
Time: 135 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: NBC
Reviewed: 2017