Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Shakespearean/PBS Public Service Announcement
image source:
Just learned that American iTunes is selling episodes of "The Hollow Crown" NOW, before the program has been shown on "Great Performances" on PBS. You can also pre-order the DVD from Amazon with a release date of September 17th. (Oddly, you can rent or buy the series from iTunes in either standard definition or in HD, but no word on a BluRay version yet from Amazon. I am holding out for Tom Hiddleston in high-def, because that's how I roll...)  ♥ ♥

The premiere date for the first play in the set,"Richard II", starring Ben Whishaw ("Name That Brit" installment 549: he plays the new "Q" in Skyfall ) is on Friday, September 20th... set your DVR early so that you don't forget! (Although you should check your local listings just to be on the safe side.)

If you don't know these history plays, I highly recommend reading the synopses on the "Great Performances" website. (You can also check out the trailer.) The synopses are really helpful if you are unfamiliar with the plays or with the historical figures/activities they represent. (I read both parts of Henry IV and Henry V in college, as well as studying medieval and Renaissance English history.) NB. It is not a good thing to treat Shakespeare's history plays as fact. True story: My Renaissance history professor asked the class why Henry V declared war on France, and a classmate answered that it was because the Dauphin had sent him tennis balls, which is a plot point in Henry V. I will never forget the lecture the whole class got after that... (It does make for really good drama though.)

Monday, August 26, 2013

"The Game's Afoot!"*

Oh, how I love Masterpiece Mystery! and its host, Alan Cumming. (Seriously, the man raises an eyebrow and purrs "murrrrderrrrr" in his lovely Scottish accent, and I get weak in the knees.) But unfortunately, Mystery! is only on for a couple of months out of the year.

When BBC America was first on the air, they used to have "Mystery Mondays" where they would run British mystery or detective shows. Now it is common knowledge that the British know how to write a good mystery story; heck, the world's first, greatest, and only consulting detective is British - Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. Now, (very sadly) BBC America no longer has Mystery Mondays (grumble grumble grumble), but many of the best of the British mystery/detective tv series are on dvd or Netflix or Amazon streaming. So there really is no reason that you can't have your very own "Mystery Monday" at home. And without the commercials!  Here are some of my favorite British mystery programs...

Inspector Lewis
1. "Inspector Lewis"
This sequel to the famous "Inspector Morse" series follows Morse's old sergeant, Lewis, now an Inspector himself, breaking in his new sergeant, DS James Hathaway. Set in present day Oxford (which is a character in its own right), the two work together to solve crimes among the dons and scholars at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I thoroughly enjoy Kevin Whately's Lewis, but I love Laurence Fox's soulful Hathaway. The two detectives really make a great team despite their different personalities, backgrounds (DI Lewis is working class while Hathaway is Cambridge educated), and emotional baggage, and their characters develop quite a lot over the course of the series. Start with the stand alone pilot episode and then there are four or five episodes per series. (In the US, they are run as one episode, but in the UK they are split into two, and the US ran a couple of episodes in later seasons than they were shown in the UK so if IMDB listing doesn't match with the dvd you rented, don't fret.)
Agatha Christie's Poirot
2. "Agatha Christie's Poirot"
The "little gray cells" are always at work in this adaptation about the famous Belgian detective. I grew up reading Agatha Christie mysteries, and, as far as I am concerned, David Suchet's is the absolute best Poirot. With the help of his secretary Miss Lemon, good friend Captain Hastings; and Chief Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard, Poirot unravels even the most tangled web of intrigue. Set in 1920s London, the art direction and costumes are spot on. (Love the Art Deco everywhere!) The earlier episodes are short, made for a series, while the later ones are longer - tv movie length.

New Tricks
3. "New Tricks"
Following a botched hostage rescue, superintendent Sandra Pullman is put in charge of a new unsolved crime unit. Left to her own devices and short on funds, she decides to recruit three retired policemen, each with his own quirks: Jack Halford is grieving his wife; Brian Lane is brilliant, but unstable; and Gerry Standing is a ladies man surrounded by women - three ex-wives and three daughters. The UCOS investigators may have the experience, but the Met isn't like it used to be back in their heydays. If you like a mystery show that doesn't mind poking fun at itself, then this is the show for you. The characters are hilarious (especially Alun Armstrong's Brian and Dennis Waterman's Gerry), the mysteries are complicated without being confusing, and they film all over London. What's not to like?!?

Foyle's War
4. "Foyle's War"
It's World War II, and Christopher Foyle is keeping the peace in on the south coast of England. Or at least he tries to, because crimes keep occurring, and during wartime, unlawful behavior on the home front seems to takes a back seat to the fight against the Axis powers. However, crime doesn't stop because there is a war on, and it is up to Foyle to look into murders, theft, hate crimes, the black market, and even espionage.  With the help of DS Milner (wounded in early action) and his driver, Samantha Stewart, DCS Foyle and the Hastings police investigate wrongdoing over the course of seven seasons, the most recent of which occurs after the end of the war and is about coming to terms with life in the new peace. Great period show with costumes and old fashioned cars and music and hairstyles plus great mysteries! Really gets you thinking about how the war affected everyday lives and about the balancing act that the police had to perform, especially once the Americans joined the war.

5. "Sherlock"
(I will try not to gush too much about this series, but that is kind of hard for me because I just LOVE IT!) The ever so lovely Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in this clever and fast paced contemporary adaptation of the Conan Doyle adventures of the world's only consulting detective and his friend, Dr. John Watson. This update of the stories never strays far from the original spirit of the Sherlock Holmes stories and yet manages to make the stories both fresh and mysterious. The show is another great showcase for London and features a strong supporting cast including Rupert Graves as DI Lestrade and series co-creator Mark Gatiss (and Doctor Who writer) as Mycroft Holmes. (Just you wait until you meet Moriarty!!! Oh, and Irene Adler!! SO GOOD!) Can't wait for the third series to start on Masterpiece! (Sorry, will stop gushing now. Back to serious reviews of mystery programs.)

Inspector Lynley
6. "Inspector Lynley Mysteries"
Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers are an unlikely set of partners: Lynley is an Oxford-educated earl while Havers comes from a working-class background and has a (massive) chip on her shoulder. But the two of them manage to solve murders despite their regular clashes regarding gender, class, and their very strong (and somewhat stubborn) personalities. The stories are a good balance of mystery and character development, and they definitely grow on you. I would suggest you watch a couple of episodes of this series before deciding whether you like them or not. (You find yourself actually rooting for these two misfits to solve cases and not get themselves fired in the process!)

7. Lovejoy
I am reaching back into the archives for this mystery show from the late 1980s, but you can find it in your library and the first 6 series are on Netflix. (Also, "Downton Abbey" fans, Phyllis Logan aka Mrs. Hughes, is the lady in the series. And, yes, she is literally a "lady", Lady Jane Felsham.) Lovejoy is a somewhat dashing rogue of an antiques dealer who is really good at spotting hidden treasures as well as "inventing" some treasures of his own (usually to help out some really unfortunate person who has been wronged). He is assisted in his efforts by young Eric Catchpole, Tinker Dill (who is known to take a tipple... or four), and the lovely aforementioned Lady Jane. His nemesis in all of this is Charlie Gilbert, a rival antiques dealer who is out for one person only and that is Charlie. Not that Lovejoy isn't, but he and his friends have a lot more fun along the way as they try to separate the "real deal" from the forgeries and recover lost valuables.

Hetty Wainthrop Investigates
8. "Hetty Wainthropp Investigates"
From IMDB: "In order to make ends meet, and to stop a local teenage runaway from becoming a juvenile delinquent, Hetty Wainthropp, a sprightly and intelligent 60-year-old pensioner looking for a new challenge, decides to become a private investigator much to the chagrin of her unemployed husband. Once she makes up her mind, she becomes an unstoppable force, and, led by Hetty, the three set forth to investigate crimes of less interest to the local police force in and around their little village in the beautiful Lancashire countryside." So I totally used to watch this show with my parents, but that doesn't mean it is a older person's show. (Although when my dad first saw Dominic Monaghan on screen in The Lord of the Rings, he whispered to me: "It's Geoffrey!" And he was totally right. Because that's what I had been thinking too.)  Another classic British mystery series, and I like that the detectives aren't hardened ex-copper kind of folks. She's totally NOT the predictable sort of person, which makes her a great detective. Kind of like a Miss Marple, just less sheltered.

Ashes to Ashes
 9. "Ashes to Ashes"
After being shot in 2008, DI Alex Drake travels back in time (or does she?) to 1981, where she finds herself working at the Met and reporting to  DCI Gene Hunt from "Life on Mars". (Sad Anglophile fact: I didn't watch "Life on Mars". I know, SCANDALOUS! But now after watching "Ashes to Ashes", I want to.) This show is pretty awesome. First off, great acting and fabulous characters. Whoever came up with DCI Gene Hunt has a fantastic imagination, and Philip Glenister brings him to life in such a full rich way - you can't take your eyes off of him!! A new crime to solve every week, plus the overarching story of how Alex Drake ended up back in 1981 and how she is going to get back to 2008 and her daughter Molly. Totally quoteable: "Fire up the Quattro, Raymondo!" and awesome retro 1980s clothes and music.

Midsomer Murders
10. "Midsomer Murders"
You might think that living in a sleepy little hamlet in the middle of England would be a peaceful dream, but not so for Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, who is called on to investigate the numerous murders that occur in the Midsomer communities outside of Causton. Along with his sergeant, Barnaby uncovers village rivalries, affairs, scandals, and feuds - any of which may have led to murder! I recommend watching the earlier seasons: I loved Barnaby and Sgt. Troy. More recent episodes have different sergeants, and, in the most recent series, a new DCI (after Tom retires.) Each episode features a cast of guest stars; great for playing "Name That Brit"!

 Honourable Mention:

Garrow's Law
"Garrow's Law"
While Garrow's Law is really a courtroom drama more than a mystery series, I am including it as an honourable mention because it is set in the 18th century which means: COSTUMES! (And I am a sucker for a BBC costume drama.) And this series is heavy in the drama department and is really very clever and I do enjoy a show that doesn't spoon feed you everything. In trying to come up with a summary for this show, I am going to quote IMDB: "Garrow's Law is the true tale of William Garrow, who acted as counsel for the accused, introducing the concept of 'innocent until proved guilty' at London's Old Bailey. Guided by mentor Southouse (Alun Armstrong - also in "New Tricks") and driven by the affections of a married woman (Lyndsey Marshal from "Rome"), Garrow goes against the judicial system, changing the path of law and order forever." Fans of Masterpiece's "Cranford" and "Jane Eyre" will recognize Andrew Buchan in the lead role.

So here is my list. I'd love to hear if you agree or any recommendations you might have for mystery dramas that would be on your list. (I love getting great suggestions from folks on-line for things that I wouldn't have watched on my own!!)

* Sherlock Holmes' classic line

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"*

Having totally been sucked into This Charming Charlie over on Tumblr, I have had Smiths songs stuck in my head for the last few days.
source: This Charming Charlie (Charles Schultz & The Smiths)
Strangeways Here We Come was a big part of my first year of college. I (like many others in my age demographic) had gotten sucked in by the Columbia House CD of the Month Club, where the introductory promotional offer was 10 cds for a penny. HOWEVER, if you didn't cancel right away, you were stuck with getting the random CDs that Columbia House would send you that you'd have to return right away to avoid the charge. If you are my age, either you or someone you know signed up for this supposed "deal". Ugh, I know that I got stuck with one or two albums that I didn't want because I didn't get them back to the post office fast enough. Looking back, I can't believe it took me over a year before I cancelled. I am such a sucker for a deal. (But I did end up getting a lot of cool music, most of which was recommended by Rolling Stone magazine, back in the day when Rolling Stone actually mattered to the music industry. Like Sarah McLachlan's Solace - brilliant album.)

Up until that point, I really only knew the odd song by The Smiths from the local college radio station or mix tapes from friends. (I was more into REM and U2 at that point.) But Strangeways pretty much became the soundtrack of my freshman year of college. Make of that what you will. (There was definitely angst, but I was 18 so that is kind of par for the course.)

Anyhow, if you are a fan of The Smiths (as I am AND I am even more so a fan of the Peanuts), I definitely recommend checking out This Charming Charlie. It definitely will make you smile; it likely will make you laugh; and it probably will make you remember things you'd long thought you had forgotten. 

* song title from The Smiths


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