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

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

Bernard and the Genie (1991)


Like finding one last Christmas present buried in the toe of your stocking, you’ll discover that Bernard and the Genie is a delightful treat and a pop of real joy. A rare 1991 BBC production that deserves at least a respectable DVD release, this 67 minute movie directed by Paul Weiland and written by Richard Curtis features satisfying performances from stars Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry, and Rowan Atkinson. It’s a wacky intersection of Aladdin’s tale, the Gospels, and time travel with welcome reflections on friendship and commercialism.

You wouldn’t think this was a warm addition for the holidays by the looks of it though. Henry plays Josephus who, due to a knife throwing incident gone awry, is imprisoned inside a genie lamp for two millennia. In the present, hapless art dealer Bernard Bottle, played by an earnest, fresh faced Alan Cumming, is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. His kindness at work hasn’t won him praise but instead has gotten him fired, he discovers his girlfriend is bonking is best friend (Kevin), and when he invites her over to collect her things, she cleans out his flat. At the end of the day, all he has left are a few pieces of furniture and a tarnished lamp.

Bernard’s luck changes in a flash when Josephus bursts out of the lamp, and after an initial misunderstanding, the two become fast friends. It’s a good thing too because both are in need of companionship. After all, “it’s a tough dog-stabs-dog-in-the-back-and-then-dog-eats-dog kind of world,” observes Josephus. Bernard delights in taking his new friend around London and introducing him to the pleasures of modernity. The latter is particularly enchanted by Mozart, Big Macs, and the Terminator. Meanwhile, Josephus is Bernard’s personal wishing well, which turns out to be very handy for someone who’s feeling down and out. It takes awhile for both of them to get the hang of the arrangement since Josephus doesn’t have much genie training, but once they do, they use their wishes liberally.

Don’t be deceived by this movie’s small, banged up, and dated package. Curtis’s wry and witty script packs in a lot of humor that’s just as fresh and funny today as it was twenty-five years ago, minus some off-color jokes along the lines of eating dog meat. Even the cheesy special effects have an endearing quality. The music conspires with the writing as well; our introduction to Bernard includes a hilarious song that is amusing even as it twists the knife ever so gently. In supporting roles, Atkinson throws in a pinch of salt as Bernard’s sneering and heartless boss while Dennis Lill’s deadpan elevator operator shows a very big heart to go with some very big lies.

Cumming and Henry really ground the film though, not only with their odd couple dynamic but also with their decency. There’s such a genuine kindness that defines Bernard and Josephus’s brief friendship and they show themselves to be wildly selfless in a world that cares little for that. It makes you wonder why we can’t all just be nicer. And right when you think they’ve delivered their message, the movie squeezes out just a little something more, about “a crap businessman but a great human being” who was Josephus’s contemporary.

Mr Success:

Released: 1991
Dir: Paul Weiland
Writer: Richard Curtis
Cast: Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry, Rowan Atkinson, Dennis Lill, Angie Clark, Kevin Allen, Andrée Bernard
Time: 67 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC
Reviewed: 2016