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

The Sound of Music Live (2015)

I didn’t think anyone who saw the 2013 American production of The Sound of Music Live thought, what I really need is another TV version of this classic musical. As exciting as it was to watch Broadway standouts Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, and Christian Borle sing together, leads Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer underwhelmed and sounded distinctly out of place alongside their accomplished costars. Never discount the brains at ITV though, who thought this would be a better Christmas gift than say an updated version of Carousel. (Someone get on that.)

But as it happens, The Sound of Music Live 2015 edition offers some pleasant surprises. Whereas criticism was directed at country star Underwood for her folksy, overeager Maria, lead Kara Tointon breathes new life into a role long dominated by Julie Andrews. At the same time, she also grabs the spotlight from stage stars Julian Ovenden and Maria Friedman. It’s impossible to erase Andrews from any performance of this musical, but Tointon does her best to escape her predecessor’s long shadow and make the part uniquely her own.

It’s easy to fall in love with her Maria and to see why the other characters gravitate towards her. Tointon’s character doesn’t have the plucky self-righteousness of Andrews’s interpretation; she wouldn’t smirk in the Captain’s face after he chastises her for parading his children around Salzburg in drapes, but she does radiate a warmth and gentleness that touches others in the way they need most. To the children, she’s the compassionate mother figure, and eventual mother, they’ve longed for. At the abbey where she is a distracted postulant, she lends an air of youth and earthiness. Then to Captain Von Trapp, she is the tender, forgiving partner he needs to help navigate his grief – over the loss of his wife, his reluctance to bond with his children, and the political peril he faces.

Tointon’s costar leans in the other direction though and makes you long for Christopher Plummer’s enigmatic portrayal of the Captain. Ovenden appears in my favorite television show of all time, Foyle’s War, and his voice can trigger heart palpitations (again, updated Carousel), but in this production, he comes off distant, mopey, and if we’re honest, a little emo. It’s hard to imagine this Captain taking charge of his household much less an entire ship. Though his passivity is a much better complement for Tointon’s Maria than a more headstrong one, and their “Something Good” duet made me melt a little, I wish Ovenden would have been more bullish.

Less bewildered are the supporting players. They may not have the force of their American counterparts, but Friedman, Alexander Armstrong, Katherine Kelly, and Mel Giedroyc ably carry out their roles. As with the previous remake, this adaptation is of the stage musical rather than the movie, so don’t be surprised when Max (Armstrong) and the Baroness (Kelly) break into song and bang on about capitulating to Nazis.

If there’s anything significantly inferior to its overseas cousin, it’s the boxy set that pens in the action and emotions. The camera is fairly static because there’s nowhere for it to go, and because the visual movement is so restricted, we get the odd experience of watching a stage musical play out on a medium meant to open up the scenery. You might as well watch this on an actual stage where the story at least has some room to breathe – but then you wouldn’t get Kara Tointon.

Andrew Foyle, aka Captain Von Trapp, aka Julian Ovenden, never stops fighting Nazis:

“Something Good” by Kara Tointon and Julian Ovenden – because somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good to deserve this:

“Edelweiss” by Julian Ovenden:

Released: 2015
Dir: Coky Giedroyc, Richard Valentine
Writer: Russel Crouse (book), Howard Lindsay (book)
Cast: Kara Tointon, Julian Ovenden, Alexander Armstrong, Maria Friedman, Katherine Kelly, Mel Giedroyc, Paul Copley, Evelyn Hoskins, Jon Tarcy
Time: 119 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: ITV
Reviewed: 2017

Time Crashers S01 (2015)

I’m averse to reality shows and unswayed by the presence of celebrities, A-list, B-list and otherwise, in them. Blame it on the constant manipulation and the way it brings out our worst instincts. I always feel like I’m watching some carnival sideshow, a spectacle that delights in exploiting people’s emotions and weaknesses. Of course, you could say the same is true for scripted television, a medium crafted by writers and actors and one that often speaks to our baser qualities. But these shows distort by their nature, and at least there isn’t a pretension of reality.

So I was surprised when I found myself lapping up Time Crashers, a one season series by the Channel 4 in which ten famous-ish people are chucked into various periods in Britain’s past. All are assigned decidedly unglamorous positions in society and tasked with labor intensive jobs that test their emotional and physical strength. But rather than descending into a free-for-all where the wiliest competitor ends up with the biggest turkey leg, it’s in everyone’s interest to complete their duties and to do them well.

The show isn’t a competition but an educational experience of sorts, one that will also appeal to those who aren’t partial to history documentaries or fancy period dramas but who are interested in the past. The participants, including actors Keith Allen and Kirstie Alley, Olympic athletes Greg Rutherford and Zoe Smith, and presenter Fern Britton, first find themselves at an Elizabethan manor house before zipping through time to a medieval jousting match and then a Victorian fishing market. They go as far back as 54 A.D., where they must prepare a Celtic feast. That is to say, they hack some dead animal under the open air in some very unsanitary conditions and try to start a roaring fire with just a few pieces of flint.

And that’s not the only time a grand meal is involved. In fact, much of their work revolves around feasting and fanfare, very little of which they can partake in. Instead, the time crashers spend most of their days turning spits, stuffing boars heads, and watching other people eat. When they’re not around food, they’re busy with some other thankless task, like washing clothes in urine. At the end of a long day, those who are lucky enough to have a bed can collapse on that while some poor soul inevitably gets shunted off to some dark corner with only a few blankets.

This tourist’s view of history turns out to be both highly entertaining and informative. Host Sir Tony Robinson watches from the sidelines as a historian supplements with commentary. Their hushed voices lend an air of nature documentary to the experiment, as if we were watching plucky birds try to make sense of their altered surroundings. The participants are guided, and sometimes ordered, by re-enactors who instruct them on the finer points of their roles – the precise angle at which to bow before the lord and lady, the most expedient way to sew up a carcass. When they finally steal away for a meal or turn in for the night, the group lament their difficulties, acknowledging in the process their own privilege as people of status and modernity.

The camaraderie is one of the most striking things about this program. Occasionally the celebrities are pitted against one another. During the jousting tournament in which they serve as squires, the winning side gets to celebrate with their knight while the losing side is stuck polishing armor. But the competition is never spiteful, and more often than not, this mishmash of personalities shows off the very best in people. Who would have thought that Meg Mathews, whose celebrity credential seems to be her former marriage to Noel Gallagher and who proudly boasted that she didn’t even have to walk her own dog, would end up being voted group leader because of her willingness to get dirty? On more than one occasion, mother hen Fern Britton is there to offer a hug or an encouraging word, and then there is Keith Allen, who stirs up trouble with his mischievous streak but who also uses that to steal fruit for his tired, starving friends. If reality shows were more like this, I’d be binging those alongside my Wolf Halls and Downtons.

Released: 2015
Cast: Tony Robinson, Cassie Newland, Keith Allen, Kirstie Alley, Fern Britton, Charlie Condou, Meg Mathews, Jermaine Jenas, Louise Minchin, Chris Ramsey, Greg Rutherford, Zoe Smith
Time: 47 min x 6
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: Channel 4
Reviewed: 2017