Friday 17 November 2017

Netflix's Stranger Things: Nothing strange about this sci-fi drama's huge appeal

Winona Ryder in 'Stranger Things', shown on Netflix
Winona Ryder in 'Stranger Things', shown on Netflix

It's summertime, so of course there's nothing on RTÉ - unless you want to lapse into a coma during Creedon's Epic East or screech around India in the company of Francis Brennan and his devotees.

Happily, there's watchable stuff elsewhere, not least on Netflix, where two very different drama series are currently vying for viewers' attention.

A couple of weeks back I wrote enthusiastically about the first few episodes of Stranger Things, but since then word of mouth has seen this sci-fi show going viral - and for the very good reason that, despite all its playing around with parallel universes, it never lost sight of the human dimension.

This was evident even in such minor characters as the school's science teacher, who had a quirky personality all his own, while the main players, including the three boys in search of their disappeared friend, were very engaging, as were the principal adults - Winona Ryder was affecting as the distraught mother of the vanished boy, and it was good to see that fine character actor David Harbour being given the commanding central role as the local sheriff.

Towards the end of this eight-part series, the pseudo-scientific hocus pocus got a bit silly (indeed, baffling to me), but by then you were so wholly immersed in the characters that you were absorbed in their spooky adventures. At the very close, there was a hint that a second series might be under way, but this one had worked out so satisfyingly that a follow-up seemed unnecessary. Some things are best left alone.

And I'm not sure if I'd be up to a second season of Netflix's other new arrival, Spotless, which features more stomach-turning gore in its opening sequence than anything to be encountered throughout all of Stranger Things.

This part-French black comedy production (indeed first aired on French channel Canal +) concerns a young Parisian expat who lives in London with his chic wife and two children and who makes his living from cleaning up crime scenes, with all the attendant blood, bone splinters and brain matter that such work entails.

Then, out of the blue, his ne'er-do-well older brother turns up, recently released from a French prison and with the body of a woman drug courier in the boot of his car. How to get rid of the corpse? And how to deal with the London thugs who come sniffing around?

It's all very strikingly shot and has a clammy atmosphere that's quite potent, though after a couple of episodes, I'm not at all sure if I want to spend much more of my time with these people - though Irish actor Brendan Coyle (Mr Mournful from Downton Abbey) has a nice turn as a deceptively mild-mannered crime boss.

Irish actors featured, too, in Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach (BBC2), a 90-minute profile of the octogenarian left-wing moviemaker, with Gabriel Byrne describing a man who was "polite, charming, quiet and self-effacing" but who nonetheless could be "intractable" in getting what he wanted - especially during a confrontation with Max Stafford-Clark of the Royal Court Theatre over creative differences.

But Cillian Murphy, who starred in Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley, was unstinting in his praise, insisting that the director's dedication to emotional truth "fundamentally changed how I approached acting".

There were arresting observations, too, from Loach's lifelong friend and producer Tony Garnett, cinematographer Chris Menges and Loach's four children, who had grown up with a different and clearly more loveable man than the reviled figure of such right-wing newspaper headlines as 'Why Does Ken Loach Loathe His Country So Much?' and 'More Poison from Loach the Leech'.

The director's groundbreaking 1966 television drama, Cathy Come Home, was rescreened on BBC4 and while, in some ways, this grim story of a young London mother falling through the cracks of an uncaring system looks very dated now, its blend of drama and documentary was truly innovative and remains striking.

Sadly, its star, Carol White (described at the time as another Julie Christie) went to America after making Loach's 1967 movie, Poor Cow, and succumbed to drugs and alcohol, dying in her late forties.

The Sixties were also evocatively recalled in World Cup 1966: Alfie's Boys (BBC2), which was much more interesting than its title suggested. In fact, this 90-minute film, fronted by David Jason, served as a social history of the era.

Bobby Moore's wife Tina recollected that when she first met her future husband she was earning £11 a week while he was only getting £8. Indeed, she hadn't realised that footballers got paid at all: "I thought it was a part-time sport."

Class concerns were also to the fore, with Alf Ramsey's players struck by their manager's posh accent and wondering how he'd acquired it. "Elecution lessons", David Jason said, though in a televised interview, Ramsey defensively insisted that he wasn't ashamed of his working-class background.

And in contrast to today's celebrity hysteria, Bobby Charlton recalled that he and other team members walked down a London street at the height of the World Cup "and not a lot of people knew us at all".

Gordon Banks, Norman Hunter and Jimmy Greaves were other notable interviewees.

Prim and prissy Katie Derham was an odd choice to front The Girl From Ipanema: Brazil, Bossa Nova and the Beach (BBC4), though at least the music itself conveyed all the sultry charm dreamt up in the late 1950s by João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim.

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