Tuesday 24 October 2017

Outside the Box


Paul Whitington

The long-running British science-fiction drama 'Doctor Who' is 50 years old this month and it has never been in better shape. Although it was first broadcast way back in 1963, the BBC cancelled it in 1989 and a clumsy attempt to revive the show in the mid-90s ended in ignominious failure. But since Russell T Davies brilliantly re-launched 'Doctor Who' in 2005, it's won awards, critical praise and has attracted a whole new audience.

The BBC is marking the anniversary in style. Next week, a new one-off drama written by regular 'Doctor Who' writer Mark Gatiss will explore the show's painful birth and difficult first series.

'An Adventure in Time and Space' stars David Bradley (Argus Filch from the 'Harry Potter' films) as the original Doctor William Hartnell, who took the job because he was sick of playing thugs and hoodlums.

Brian Cox co-stars as the BBC's head of drama Sydney Newman – he was the one who came up with the original idea for the show and later clashed with Doctor Who's single-minded original producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), who he accused of being "full of piss and vinegar".

Newman, Lambert and Hartnell had to endure the vocal scepticism of senior BBC executives and the series was almost cancelled after the first season.

But then Terry Nation came along with an idea about a species of bellicose robots called the Daleks and 'Doctor Who' entered the popular zeitgeist.

When Hartnell left the series after just three seasons because of ill health, the writers came up with the rather clever idea that, although immortal, Time Lords 'regenerate' or transform their appearances at regular intervals.

This has allowed the same character to be played by 11 different actors, the more memorable being Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, though the most recent Doctor, Matt Smith, has plenty of fans. Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in waiting. Over the years the Doctor has saved the Earth from all sorts of intergalactic unpleasantness and, in the 1970s, the show was regularly attacked by decency's Rottweiler, Mary Whitehouse, over its violent and gory content.

I dimly remember being terrified during an episode that involved psychotic plastic dolls, and was terribly let down when someone finally had the bright idea of taking a can opener to a Dalek and discovered a small, muddy, jellyfish-like creature inside.

David Tennant will reprise his role alongside Matt Smith in a special 50th anniversary episode called 'The Day of the Doctor', which goes out on November 23 – the exact date that 'Doctor Who' was first broadcast.

A treat for all you sci-fi obsessives.

As one iconic TV character celebrates a big birthday, another prepares to mince mournfully into the sunset. Next Wednesday the last ever episode of 'Poirot' will be aired on UTV.

The crime drama based on the writings of Agatha Christie has been running for almost 25 years and is coming to an end for the simple reason that they've run out of 'Poirot' stories to dramatise.

David Suchet and his production team have ploughed their way through 33 'Poirot' novels and dozens of stories. This final episode is based on Christie's last Hercule Poirot story, 'Curtain', which fans will know does not end especially well.

Agatha Christie didn't much care for the diminutive Belgian detective herself and once called him a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome egocentric little creep". But her readers loved him so much she ended up writing about him for over 50 years.

In one of the great TV acting performances, David Suchet has captured him perfectly as a brilliant but vain and absurdly fastidious little man to whom, as Christie once wrote, "a speck of dust would have caused more pain than a bullet wound".

He'll be missed.

Something that won't be missed is Cillian Murphy's period crime drama 'Peaky Blinders' because the BBC has decided to commission it for a second season.

The first season, which finished a few weeks back, was grim but stylish and was compared by some critics to 'Boardwalk Empire'. Cillian Murphy was electrifying as the upwardly mobile Birmingham thug, Tommy Shelby.

'Peaky Blinders' is set in 1919 when Birmingham was notorious for its street violence. Murders there were so common that the city felt more like New York or Chicago than a provincial English town. Murphy's Tommy Shelby is a recently demobbed soldier who leads a vicious gang famous for the charming habit of sowing razor blades into the peaks of their caps.

Tommy has some work ethic, though, and in series two will no doubt prosper.

In America, meanwhile, it's getting harder to distinguish the reality shows from the dramas. A brief summary of 'The Governor's Wife', A&E's new online reality series sounds like a cross between 'Scandal' and 'The Good Wife', but features actual people living out bizarre and not especially enviable lives.

Edwin Edwards is a charming former Louisiana politician who served four terms as that state's Governor between 1972 and 1996 and would have run again if he hadn't finally fallen foul of the law. In 2002, Mr Edwards was convicted of money laundering, mail fraud, extortion, racketeering and accepting bribes. He served eight years in prison.

But Edwin Edwards isn't short of what the Americans like to call 'bouncebackability'. He petitioned Presidents Bush and Obama for an official pardon, unsuccessfully of course, but, undeterred, has embarked in his mid-80s on a new career as a reality TV star.

Mr Edwards is enjoyably quotable – he once said the only way he could lose an election in Louisiana was to be caught in bed with a "dead girl or a live boy". But his co-stars on 'The Governor's Wife' are just as amusing as he is. His third wife, Trina, is an irrepressible bottle blonde some 50 years his junior who wrote to him in prison.

They live in faded splendour in a large, gaudy house 20 miles from Baton Rouge but, behind the facade, money is tight and Trina gets her hair done in a local strip mall.

Then there's Edwin's sixtysomething daughters, two fearsome broads straight out of 'Macbeth' who despise Trina and aren't afraid to let her know it, the elder Victoria describing her as a "trollop".

Some of the feuding may be played up for the cameras, but you'd have to say the sisters have a point. The other one, Anna, points out that her dad is "three toes from the grave". And when Victoria finds out that Trina's pregnant, she's not amused. "Most of our inheritance went to the federal government," she hisses – "now it's going to be split between four?"

At times, 'The Governor's Wife' feels like a particularly heightened Southern soap – the trouble is, these people are real.

Irish Independent

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