Preview of Death Comes to Pemberley on Masterpiece Mystery PBS

Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin in Death Comes to Pemberley

The long wait is almost over. The two part BBC/PBS mini-series of P. D. James’ bestselling novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, will premiere on Masterpiece Mystery in one week on Sunday, October 26 at 9pm (check your local listing) and concludes on the following Sunday, November 2.

To get you warmed up for this intriguing mystery that continues the story of Jane Austen’s characters from Pride and Prejudice, here is a brief synopsis of the first episode and a trailer from PBS: Continue reading

Sherlock Season One on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Review

Masterpiece Mystery Sherlock banner 2010

Guest review of Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock: Season One by the co-author of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter: A Novel of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Caitlen Rubino-Bradway

Recently, Masterpiece Mystery aired BBC’s contemporary update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, simply titled Sherlock. Now, I think I should admit up front that I am an amateur Holmes fan.  I enjoy the stories, and of course Holmes and Watson are classic, but that’s about as far as I go.  So the fact that the new Sherlock series changed a lot (according to Holmes-philes I know) doesn’t rouse in me the fiery indignation of, say, Donald Sutherland interviewing that his Pride and Prejudice 2005 Mr. Bennet was deeply in love with his wife.

I have some little experience with adapting a famous author’s work, and I think the trick with adapting anything is deciding what you want to keep and what you can afford to lose.  Just to take a completely random example right off the top of my head, when my mom and I wrote Lady Vernon and Her Daughter (recently released in trade paperback), we decided that historical accuracy and keeping true to Jane Austen’s style was more important than maintaining the original Lady Susan’s Snow White’s Evil Step-mother personality.  The people behind Sherlock made the opposite choice; the focus seems to be on character and tone, while they sacrificed setting and structure.  As a result, the episodes still feel very Sherlock Holmes, even if the story plays out more CSI than ACD.

A Study in Pink – Sunday, October 24, 2010

We’ve got a serial killer! Love those, there’s always something to look forward to.”  Sherlock Holmes

The new series has just three episodes, all drawing heavily from classic Holmes’ stories.  The first, A Study In Pink — based, obviously, on Study in Scarlet — introduces Watson and Holmes (as well as Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, Lestrade, and the shadowy puppet master Moriarty) and follows them as Holmes tries to solve a rash of not-so-voluntary suicides.  In fact, the mystery, while always present, doesn’t take center stage until fifteen minutes in, and the build up is focused more on setting up Watson and Holmes’ partnership.  As well it should, say I, because while the original stories are nonpareil, and Hound of the Baskervilles still gives me chills, what I love most about the Sherlock Holmes’ stories is the friendship, and watching these two interact.  Sherlock does not disappoint; they cast two very good actors whose portrayals I can get behind.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is fascinating and frustrating, a Holmes who is surrounded by (comparative) idiots, who needs something to do, who more than anything else wants a challenge.  He understands how and why people act, much like an anthropologist understands the primitive culture they’re studying, but he’s not on the same wavelength.  Interacting with humans as a human is a little beyond him —particularly illustrated in Pink, when Holmes demands to know why a woman would be so fixated on a baby she lost years ago.

It’s clear, however, that Cumberbatch and Sherlock are focusing on Holmes’ need for work, and his frustration in dealing with the people around him.  They ignore a crucial part of Conan Doyle’s character — that he is always a gentleman, especially to women.  Cumberbatch’s Holmes often comes across as either blind or intentionally rude, which can leave a bitter taste in your mouth.  Cumberbatch’s Holmes doesn’t care about the people involved in his cases, only the clever little knots he has to untie.  Conan Doyle’s Holmes, whatever he felt, was always “a chivalrous opponent.”

As for Martin Freeman’s Watson, I adore him.  I’ve always preferred Watson to Holmes, because I always find the Clark Kent more interesting than the Superman.  It’s a straight out relief to see a Watson who doesn’t seem like he should be accompanied by bumbling tuba music.  Freeman’s Watson is a more than capable companion for Holmes, best illustrated in a scene in Pink, where he stares down a creepy and mysterious man and turns down his offer to spy on Holmes without a blink.  He enjoys when “the game is afoot” as much as Holmes, but only up to a point because he also realizes that it isn’t a game, not really, because there are people involved.

The Blind Banker – Sunday, October 31, 2010

I’m the great Sherlock Holmes, I work alone ’cause no one can compete with my massive intellect!” Dr. John Watson

The Blind Banker, the second episode, is inspired by The Dancing Men and The Sign of Four.  Our story starts when Holmes is contacted by an old school chum who wants to know how someone broke into his ultra-secure office.  At the same time a young woman who handles Chinese antiquities at a museum disappears.  Of course these two stories eventually intertwine, bringing along a group of Chinese smugglers, an acrobatic killer, and the hunt for a missing and extremely valuable artifact.

I didn’t like Banker as much as the first episode; I had to watch it several times to get all of the details, and there was less of what I liked about Pink — the Holmes and Watson stuff, the playful feeling, and the sense of something actually being at stake, especially as there were a lot of little things brought up and then dropped.  Holmes’ old school buddy is treated like an afterthought, and the identity of the mysterious gymnastic killer was completely pointless in the scheme of things.  Overall I left the episode wondering more about whether there are there actually teapots that are thousands of years old that need to be maintained through use.

Also — so, Dead Man #1 (or #2, I forget which) gave his girlfriend a hairpin as a make-up present.  When it’s discovered to be not just any hairpin but an Ancient Chinese Hairpin, she then…gets to turn around and sell it for millions?  Even though her boyfriend stole this historic artifact?  She wouldn’t have to hand it back to the Chinese Department of Antiquities, or whoever handles that stuff? If you know how this would work, feel free to help me out in the comments.

The Great Game – Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sherlock: “Look at that, Mrs. Hudson. Quiet, calm, peaceful… isn’t it hateful?

Mrs. Hudson: “Oh, I’m sure something will turn up, Sherlock. A nice murder, that’ll cheer you up.

The third and last episode, The Great Game, was inspired by Die Hard 3.  This one was my least favorite, especially as it was sadly lacking in Jeremy Irons.  While we did get some good character bits from the Dynamic Duo, the story falls into the well-traveled serial-killer-taunts-detective territory that we’ve all seen a thousand times.  As our story opens, Holmes is dying of boredom — the only thing on his plate, the mysterious death of a government agent and some missing, top-secret documents that his brother wants him to look into.  Things pick up very quickly, though, when a psychopath starts strapping bombs to people and making Holmes race to solve cold cases before time’s up.

On the whole, it wasn’t a bad episode, just very formulaic. The Great Game is the farthest away from a traditional Holmes story, and much more of a traditional action mystery.  I was particularly disappointed with Moriarty.  While I think they nailed their portrayals of Holmes and Watson, I wasn’t impressed or frightened by their Moriarty, which are two things you should be when meeting someone who can take on Sherlock Holmes.  Clearly they were going for Unbalanced Criminal Genius, but I just saw one of those annoying attention-seekers who wants everyone to know how gosh darn wacky they are.  I never really believe those kinds of characters as heads of international criminal organizations, unless they have a top-notch personal assistant handling all the details.  Sure, you have a brilliant plan for stealing the Mona Lisa, but who is going to make sure that the special package gets picked up from the secret drop-off while you’re taunting your arch-nemesis?

But those are all minor complaints.  I really enjoyed Sherlock, and was happy to hear that the series was a big success, and more episodes are already in the works.  I for one am looking forward to them, though I hope this time the Brits won’t get to see them four months ahead of us again.

Lady Vernon and her Daughter, by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino Bradway (2010)About the reviewer: Caitlen Rubino-Bradway and her mother, Jane Rubino, are the authors of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s classic novella Lady Susan and the short story What Would Austen Do in the forthcoming anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It to be published by Ballantine Books in October 2011. Caitlen’s first solo work, a children’s fantasy, is scheduled to be released in early 2012. Visit Caitlen and Jane at their blog Janetility.

Further viewing & reading

Text © 2010 Caitlen Rubino-Bradway, image © MASTERPIECE 2010

Inspector Lewis: Falling Darkness on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis Falling Darkness © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Falling Darkness, the final episode of Series III of Inspector Lewis aired tonight on Masterpiece Mystery concluding with a powerful story of personal connections to cast regular Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman). There is a theme of dark family secrets haunting many of the characters, motivating some to the ultimate revenge – murder. Rupert Graves (a Room with a View & Sherlock) guest stars as Laura’s former college housemate Alec Pickman whose randy and dissipated past might be a prime motive for murder.

It is All-Hallows-Eve in Oxford and the fog adds an eerie atmosphere to a festive night filled with costumes, jack-o-lanterns and a bizarre death. Police pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson is on her way to a reunion dinner with two of her former college housemates when she is called to a murder scene and stunned to discover that the victim, Ligeia Willard (Louise Hunt), is the same friend she was planning to meet. The coincidence is even more twisted when DI Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whatley) and DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) are informed that the victim was not only struck on the head, but had a wooden stake driven through her heart and garlic stuffed in her mouth. “Is this the work of some kind of lunatic?” CS Innocent jests to Lewis, who in turn jokes, “Vampires mum?”

Lewis and Hathaway begin the investigation into Dr. Willard’s past life to find clues to the murder. She is a scientist at a stem cell research institute which has come under strong criticism and threats by the “devout to the doolally” picketing daily outside the office building. Also on the list of suspects are her two fellow colleagues, Professor Rufus Strickfaden (John Sessions) and Dr. Nicolae Belisarius (Adam Levy). Strickfaden is the defensive head of the institute who when questioned about his work and the protestors by Lewis retorts that “Science is about the pursuit of truth. That always frightens someone.” Dr. Belisarius is even testier. He is visibly angered by Ligeia’s death and blames it on the police who obviously did not do enough to protect them from the death threats.

Meanwhile four Oxford students who share a house are being haunted by their own mystery. Someone, or something, keeps leaving cryptic messages on their refrigerator spelling out “Murder. Help me.” and names they do not recognize. Fellow housemates Madeleine Escher (Lucy Griffiths) and Roddy Allen (Brodie Ross), are not concerned but Rowena Trevanion (Lauren O’Neil) is so shaken that fourth housemate Victor Clerval (Alex Price) hires a local medium/mystic Ursula Van Tessell (Lynsey Baxter) to de-ghost their house. Van Tessell arrives and discovers that “something terrible happened a long time ago” in Rowena’s room, then ceremoniously releases the trapped spirit. Rowena is not convinced and chooses to sleeps in the sitting room.

Having withdrawn from the investigation because of her personal connection, Laura and her friend and former roommate Ellen Jacoby (Niamh Cusak) grieve for Ligeia by reminiscing over old college photos and wondering where the two male housemates Pete and Alec are now. When Laura is called to her next case, she arrives at the address in disbelief. It is the same house she shared twenty years ago with Ligeia, Ellen, Peter and Alec. A current resident Rowena lies murdered on the floor of the sitting room and more cryptic messages are written on the refrigerator, with the words Ligeia Willard, Laura Hobson, murder and find Mary Gwilliam spelled out. With this new connection Laura is now a prime suspect in both cases. Lewis cannot believe that his friend is personally involved but continues to look into her past and her four fellow housemates. When a third homicide victim is found brutally tortured and the clues lead to a private hospital that specialized in adoptions, Lewis and Hathaway are shocked to find incriminating evidence against Laura in the hospitals records. Has she lied to them about her past, and, is she a killer?

Falling Darkness is a shadowy episode fueled by many family secrets from the past. Screenwriter Russell Lewis, who also wrote this season’s excellent episode The Dead of Winter, used great details and coincidence’s to connect all of the storylines. He loves the play of words and literary allusions and I could not help but laugh at his choice of Nethermore as the street of Laura’s college house, the use of Ligeia and Rowena, two famous ladies from a short story by Edgar Allan Poe  where one dies and is resurrected in the other, and Pickman with its H.P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model connections to Poe. I am sure there are more allusions through names and places. He just loves to inspire our Goggling addiction.

One of the most interesting characters was Laura’s fellow housemate Alec Pickman played by Rupert Graves. Actors say that colorful characters are the most challenging and enjoyable to portray, and Graves certainly had fun with Pickman who Laura described as a “mad, bad and lock up your daughters” personality, spouting poetry while swilling gin. Graves was so convincing as a dissipated drunk that knowing his past bad boy reputation, I wondered what was real and what was craft. Hathaway of course pegged him perfectly. “You are a bit of a fraud Mr. Pickman. A rare bag of bits of poetry and old songs.” He was of course referring to his quoting bits lifted and remixed from Tennyson’s poem In Memorium. “the heart is an unquiet house” and quoting directly from the song Wand’ring Minstrel from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.

A wand’ring minstrel I,

a thing of shreds and patches,

Of ballads, songs, and snatches,

And dreamy lullaby.

It was great to see an entire storyline devoted to Laura Hobson, who is usually relegated to only the crime scene and police lab. The developing relationship between Lewis and Hobson is interesting, but I wonder how long the writers can keep them in the attraction phase? Once they become a full blow romance, the suspense will be quelled and our interest as well. This has been a great season of Inspector Lewis and I look forward to more Lewis and Hathaway snarky banter and Oxford’s beautiful backdrop in next year’s episodes. I will close by leaving you with a classic Hathaway cynical line to Lewis as the other police pathologist on the force standing in for Dr. Hobson leaves the crime scene.

JH: What he lacks in bedside manner he more than makes up in basic incivility.”

You can watch Falling Darkness online on the new PBS video web site from September 27th through October 26th, 2010.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Inspector Lewis: Your Sudden Death Question on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis: Your Sudden Death Question © 2010 MASTERPIECE

The fascinating and fatal world of quiz challenges is explored in Your Sudden Death Question, the fourth episode of Inspector Lewis Series III airing tomorrow night on Masterpiece Mystery PBS. Six teams of quizaholics have assembled for the weekend at an Oxford College to compete for cash and the honor of facing that final do or die question, unfortunately, none of them ever expected to die in the process. An ensemble cast guest staring Alan Davies as the smooth quizmaster Marcus Richards and Nicholas Farrell as manipulative Professor Charles Milner challenge DI Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whatley) and DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) to outsmart the contestants whose brainpower is no trivial matter when it comes to murder.

RL: What do you think of quizzes?

JH: Terminally pointless. Right up there with slugs and black pudding.

It’s a bank holiday weekend, and surprisingly, Lewis and Hathaway have separate out of town social plans with their shared interest, music. Lewis is off to the Glyndebourne Festival to see an opera with a mysterious lady friend and Hathaway is off to Somerset for a World Music Festival with his own amore. All festivities come to a halt when the body of Ethan Croft (Adam James) is found floating in a fountain at Chaucer College. Lewis is still in Oxford and first on the scene. Hathaway arrives later, and in a foul mood. His cherished significant other, a 1948 Gibson L5 guitar has been nicked from the boot of his car at the music festival and he is furious.

The College is on lock-down while the contestants are assembled and interviewed individually. First up is Ethan’s quiz partner Ava Taylor (Tabitha Wady) who openly reveals that Ethan had been a brilliant Oxford scholar but now worked as a Primary school teacher. Was this because he was a drinker, a womanizer, and a showoff? Meanwhile, Hathaway interviews arrogant attorney Sebastian Anderson (Alastair Mackenzie) who with his partner Jessica Neill (Emma Cleasby) are there for a romantic getaway. He also attended Oxford at the same time as Ethan but claims to not have known him. “The world is full of people I’ve never met.” he chimes, paradoxing Ethan’s previous remark, “The world is full of people I don’t remember. ” to fellow contestant Robyn Strong (Ruth Gemmell). This is a shock to Robyn who does know Ethan very well, he is just such a playboy he does not remember that she is his ex-girlfriend. When he flirts outrageously with her partner Eve Rigby (Sally Bretton), could her plans of a failed “grand reunion with her first love” have turned to a crime passion?

Next up Lewis chats with Diane Baxter (Anna Koval), an Army Lieutenant who with her partner Sergeant Brian Kaye (Jamie Michie) just don’t’ seem to quit fit the quizaholic profile. She is quick to change the subject to their host, quizmaster Marcus Richards (Alan Davies) who she feels is “a bit too smooth for her taste.” The events of Ethan’s last night become seedier when the police pathologist Dr. Hobson reveals that Ethan had sex before he died. Prime candidates as a partner are Eve and Robyn who admit to touring the College and all its dark secrets with him, but neither accepted his invitation for a nightcap in his room. Later that day, Diane’s observation comes true when Marcus confesses to Lewis that his credentials are exaggerated and the £5,000 prize money is funded by charging the contestants and not by sponsors. Could he have killed Ethan to protect his livelihood?

No one and everyone could be the murderer. The two Oxford dons also seem dodgy. Professor Donald Terry (Timothy West) an Oxford research fellow denies knowing Ethan, students not being his primary concern, and his partner engineering Professor Charles Milner (Nicholas Farrell – Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park 1985) reveals that Ethan was a brilliant student and junior lecturer in modern languages but left Oxford under a cloud of sexual scandal. Why is he freely offering this information? And, then there are the two Oxford students, affable Alfie Wilkinson (Jack Fox) and perky Sophie Barton (Natalie Dew), suspiciously smart on a vast range of subjects.

The shocked widow Jean Croft (Susannah Doyle) confirms Ethan’s adulterous lifestyle, bitterly confessing that “there were times that I would have happily killed the guy myself.” Ironically, she does believe that in professional matters, he was an honorable man. As Lewis and Hathaway dig deeper to find out what went so terrible wrong with his academic career the trail leads to his work as a Russian interpreter on a high profile project for the government. A second murder of one of the prime suspects confirms that the killer is among them, but is this a crime of passion, revenge or a contract killing?

Your Sudden Death Question was a fun parody of the classic country house murder mysteries where a set of colorful guests, each with an incriminating secret, begin to murder each other off before the detective solves the case with a “left field twist.” The only thing missing was the final denouement where all of the remaining guests are assembled in one room and the detective dramatically exposes the killer! I will not reveal who Lewis and Hathaway cleverly discover, but I will mention two great literary references that our cerebral Sergeant Hathaway uses in the final shakedown scene. “Mccavity wasn’t there” is a line from T.S. Eliot poem, The Mystery Cat. Google it to understand the reference, and a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanity. All is vanity.” Of course our former priest in the making would quote from the bible as an allegory to the reason for the murder. If you were sharp, you might have also caught a bit of subtle foreshadowing of the killers motive by screenwriter Alan Plater, or was it director Dan Reed’s choice of symbolism? This image below is from the floor of the chapel at Chaucer College depicting a skull,  an ancient representation of vanity. Don’t ‘ya just love the stuff they throw at us?

Comedian Alan Davies was an interesting casting choice as quizmaster Marcus Richards. There is an inside British joke about it, that being a Yank, I did not catch. Davies previously played a detective on the series Jonathan Creek and is currently a panelist on the BBC quiz game QI, which is hosted by Stephen Fry. Laurence Fox’s baby brother Jack as Alfie Wilkinson, appears to be the latest Fox family member to break into acting. The Foxes seem to be in a race against the American Baldwin dynasty over how many siblings need an agent. If genetics predetermine our destiny, then I’d say he has a great chance of a long and illustrious career. And, one last word on cast regular Rebecca Front as Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent and her wardrobe. Makeover!

Next week is Falling Darkness, the final episode of the season. :-( Police pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson’s (Clare Holman) college friend is murdered and the investigation reveals some hidden secrets in Laura’s past that are very incriminating. You can watch Your Sudden Death Question online at the new PBS video web site September 20 through October 19, 2010.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Inspector Lewis: Dark Matter on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis: Dark Matter © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Stars, planets and murder are investigated in Dark Matter, a new Inspector Lewis episode on Masterpiece Mystery tonight. This is the third installment of Series III and much lighter in tone than last week’s The Dead of Winter.

When a body is found at the university observatory, DI Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whatley) and DS James Hathaway’s (Laurence Fox) inquiry has the prime suspects all pointing the finger at each other. Could it be the revengeful wife, the astrophysics professor with a past, or a doctor supposedly having an affair with the victim? Robert Hardy (Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility) and Sophie Ward guest star in this new episode where the mysterious elements of the dark matter of the universe have also permeated into a group of academics, staff and students. Here is the PBS synopisis:

Oxford professor and amateur stargazer Andrew Crompton emerges from a church confessional, cryptically exclaiming that on Friday at 3:15, he’ll have an “excess of joy.” Later, Crompton is found dead at the foot of the stairs in the Oxford observatory. The investigation draws Detective Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately) and Detective Sergeant Hathaway (Laurence Fox) into the ethereal writings of a 17th-century astronomer and a modern-day circle of scientists and musicians, and their unexpected connections to the deceased. The cosmos aside, there’s a dark deception at the center of the case, one that Lewis and Hathaway won’t be able to fully comprehend until Friday at 3:15.

A small notebook filled with scientific notes found at the scene of the crime is the only lead that Lewis and Hathaway have to uncover the mysterious death of part-time astronomer Andrew Compton (Christopher Bowen). He was found at the bottom of the stairs, but did he fall or was he pushed? This wife Isobel Crompton (Sophie Ward) is the first to be interviewed, but she knows of no one that would want to harm him, nor does she recognize the writing in the notebook. She directs them to Lady Gwen Raeburn (Diana Quick – Clarissa 1991) a personal friend and senior lecturer in astrophysics who immediately recognizes the handwriting of her student Jez Haydock (Andrew Hawyley – Wuthering Heights 2009). Professor Raeburn coolly offers to return the notebook, but it is evidence in the case. Lewis soon discovers that among the astronomy notes is a bit of prose. “A splendid sight again shall greet our distant children’s eyes.” Is this a clue to why Lady Raeburn wanted the notebook back? Or was there something else inside that would incriminate either her, or her student?

A break in the case has a Catholic priest father Francis (Jonathan Cullen) coming forth as a witness. Andrew Crompton had been at his church for confession two hours before he died. Unfortunately, he is “not at liberty to reveal what the penitent may confess” under the sanctity of the confessional. Since Hathaway was studying for the priesthood before he became a detective he understands the rules, but fears his inspector will not. Through clever questioning Hathaway does discover that he spoke outside the confessional when Father Francis reveals that on Crompton’s hasty departure he exclaimed “On Friday at 3:15 I will have an excess of joy.” More enigmatic riddles for Lewis and Hathaway to sort out.

Meanwhile an orchestra of students, faculty and local musicians conducted by Gwen Raeburn’s husband composer Sir Arnold Raeburn (Robert Hardy) has invited his former protégée Malcolm Finniston (Anthony Calf, Colonel Fitzwilliam – Pride and Prejudice 1995) to guest conduct Gutav Holts The Planets for an upcoming gala charity concert. Among the members is police pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) on clarinet and Jez Haydock’s girlfriend Kate Cameron (Ruby Thomas) on bassoon. Rehearsals are going well until the news of Crompton’s death deeply affects the cellist Lady Raeburn. Lewis and Hathaway suspect that her tears are for more than a friend and asks Laura to spy on her and other orchestra members. Hobson fires back with one of the funniest lines in the show. “What do you take me for? Undercover clarinet?” Laura does notice some friction between Malcolm, Gwen and her husband and manages to copy a text off of his cellphone “Revenge is sweet.” Is there some history there that may reveal the motive for murder?

Head porters have a nose for unfortunate secrets” Hathaway tells his boss and Chief Superintendent Innocent (Rebecca Front) when they discuss Roger Temple (Warren Clarke – Bleak House 2005) the head porter of Gresham College. A fount of information on everyone who walks through his gate, he freely offers information on all the suspects in the murder investigation. He and his wife Babs (Annabelle Apsionhave) have worked as staff for the college for years, and his “dear old dad” Ted Temple (Bernard Lloyd) now stricken with Alzheimer’s was head porter before him. Roger thinks his father’s doctor Ella Ransome (Deborah Cornelius) was having an affair with Andrew Crompton. Forgetful Ted who no one takes seriously thinks his son’s wife Babs was the one having an affair with Crompton. It will take the brutal murder in broad daylight of one of the principal suspects to shake the community and change the course of the investigation before Lewis and Hathaway can reveal blackmail and adultery behind the dark matter.

Screenwriter Stephen Chruchett, who also wrote the last Inspector Morse episode Remorseful Day in 2000, had me guessing to the very last. Bravo! What a challenging script. It seemed like every character was either related by blood or lust. It took a second viewing before I could absorb all the subtle hints and clues that made this mystery so satisfying. The multi-layered connections and stargazing theme were fascinating. Sadly, even after Googling dark matter I don’t know what it is. I think that is the point. No one does. It’s just some mysteries nonentity that is only a theory. Its importance in relation to the plot? Maybe the screenwriter only knows, cuz I sure didn’t get it!

The casting was excellent. I have enjoyed Sophie Ward (Isabel Crompton) since my introduction to her in Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985. As she has matured she looks so much like her father actor Simon Ward. Robert Hardy (Sir Arnold Raeburn) is just a national treasure. He can do no wrong by me. One of the pleasures of watching British productions is the face hunt of familiar characters. Warren Clarke (Roger Temple) had me totally stumped. Had to know, so I IMDb’d him. Ha! He was Corporal “Sophie” Dixon in Jewel in the Crown 1984. Hard to forget his attempted seduction of Sergeant Guy Perron (Charles Dance). Did anyone else catch the resemblance of Andrew Hawyley (Jez Haydock) to a young Paul McCartney? They even gave him a Beatle haircut and a Liverpoolean accent! Even though the script was packed with characters heavy on backstory, director Billie Eltingham’s kept the pace rolling, occasionally allowing us to breath with a few comical moments. I especially appreciated Lewis and Hathaway’s banter as they arrive for the concert.

JH: Who’s your date for tonight sir?

RL: My date? Chief Super. You?

JH: No takers.

RL: We know how to live, don’t we?

Next week is Your Sudden Death Question guest staring Edmund Bertram (Nicholas Farrell) and Laurence Fox’s baby brother Jack, the newest Fox family dynasty member to grace the screen! Watch Dark Matter online on the new Masterpiece PBS web site until October 12th, 2010.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Inspector Lewis: The Dead of Winter on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis: Dead of Winter © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Inspector Lewis continues tonight on Masterpiece Mystery with another new episode of the popular detective series based in Oxford where the death toll since its predecessor Inspector Morse hit the airwaves in 1987 must place this small college town as the epicenter of “malice aforethought” in England. The Dead of Winter involves sad connections to the past, lost treasure and sordid family secrets — all prime motives for murder. This new (to the US) episode guest stars an array of former Austen movie adaptation actors that many Janeites will recognize and reveals some personal insight into the past of Inspector Lewis’ (Kevin Whatley) dishy young Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). It is a complete turn-around in comedic tone to last week’s Counter Culture Blues take on Lewis in a psychedelic rock and roll haze. Here is the PBS synopsis:

An Oxford academic is dead on a tour bus and none of the other passengers even took notice. The curious case leads back to Crevecoeur Hall, a vast, history-rich Oxford estate, and as it happens, the setting for much of Detective Sergeant Hathaway’s (Laurence Fox) youth. Hathaway reconnects with his past — and Scarlett Mortmaigne, the daughter of the estate’s owner. But is he also consorting with a main suspect? It’s a case that threatens to expose the shortcomings and secrets of a wealthy family, cloud Hathaway’s judgment and ultimately put his relationship with Detective Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately) in jeopardy. Nathaniel Parker (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) guest stars.

This episode was centered around enigmatic Sergeant James Hathaway, Lewis’ smart, stoic and sarcastic young partner. Over the past three seasons we have seen his instincts sharpen, his skills honed and his confidence build from his professional relationship with his governor. In The Dead of Winter he takes the forefront in the investigation and I am pleased to see he is finally being given more than walking one step behind Lewis or looking over his shoulder while he interviews suspects. His character is by far the most interesting of the regulars in the series. We know very little about him other than he attended Cambridge, once trained as a priest and does not date. Occasionally a script will throw a female in his path, but if a hardened career crow and a transsexual psychopath are the kind of relationships he has encountered, no wonder he is celibate.

This time round Hathaway is given another opportunity to hang up his virtual clerical collar when he reconnects with Scarlett Mortmain (Camilla Arfwedson – Miss Marple: Murder is Easy), a beautiful aristocrat who he grew up with at Crevecoeur Hall (crëvecoeur is French for heartbreak), a grand country estate near Oxford that his father managed for the Mortmaigne family twenty years ago. When he arrives on the scene to investigate the possible murder of Professor Black, you can see his apprehension and project where this story will go. There is a painful history here, and if you pay attention, much will be revealed beneath the dialogue and his reactions.

There appears to be additional personal secrets being harbored by others too. The Marquise of Tygon, the elderly patriarch Augustus Mortmaigne’s (Richard Johnson – Mr. Wickham, Pride and Prejudice 1952) bank has just gone belly up and his daughter Scarlett is being used as quid pro quo to refill the family coffers by marrying a Lebanese millionaire Tarek Shimali (Richard Saade). The Marquise’s much younger wife Selina (Juliet Aubrey – Middlemarch) who he married when she was seventeen is having an affair with his nephew Philip Coleman (Nathaniel Parker – Vanity Fair) and his young son and heir Titus (Jonathan Bailey) is dallying with a servant Briony Grahame (Georgia Groome). Orchestrating this upstairs downstairs tango is the vacant stuttering butler Paul Hopkiss (Pip Carter) who also was a playmate of Scarlett and Hathaway in what he terms “happy days”.

When a bloody candlestick discovered by Hathaway in the Crevecoeur Hall family chapel is matched to Dr. Black, Lewis and Hathaway suspect the priest Father Jasper Hugh O’Conor (James Morland – Northanger Abbey 2007) when they unearth his tragic connection to the victim. Shortly after another death is linked to the case when the present estate manager Ralph Grahame (Jonty Stephens) is found dead by gunshot and a murder-suicide is suspected. After Lewis reveals his belief that the real motive to murder was a fifteenth century royal treasure on the estate, Hathaway thinks his boss has lost it.  He can’t understand why Lewis won’t accept that Grahame killed Dr. Black for running off with his wife. Lewis can’t accept why Hathaway seems to be protecting the Mortmaignes.

Even though I dearly love to laugh, when it comes to murder mysteries a serious tone with an occasional laugh is so much more satisfying. This new episode written by Russell Lewis supplied a finely crafted whodunit to fire up the gray matter, keep track of the body count and soak in that glorious Oxford backdrop. The guest cast was really outstanding. Nathaniel Parker is always a joy to watch and Guy Henry, who was an unforgettable Mr. Collins in Lost in Austen, added interest to a minor role as Professor Pelham. While Hathaway was getting smashed and lip worked by that chit Scarlett, Lewis had his own flirtation with Dr. Black’s fellow professor Frances Woodville (Stella Gonet – Mrs Musgrove in Persuasion 2007). She sparkled and he blushed. Too cute! We also got a glimpse of Lewis’ compassionate side when he befriended the murder victim’s cat and named it Monty. Ahh. I also thought it humorous that the writer  played with us in his choice of names and murder weapons. Was it Lady Scarlett in the chapel with a candlestick? I won’t tell.

Watch The Dead of Winter online at the Masterpiece PBS website until October 5th, 2010. Next week’s new episode Dark Matter, guest stars Colonel Fitzwilliam — Anthony Calf, and Sir John Middleton — Robert Hardy!

Scarlett: “I thought for a moment you’d chased after me to declare your undying love.”

Hathaway: “I’m not sure men do that nowadays, do they?”

Scarlett: “Perhaps they should.”

Oh Hathaway. Brush up on your Shakespeare will ya? He makes up for it later on when he recites some lines of poetry to Scarlett by A. E. Housman (1859–1936) from A Shropshire Lad (1896).

INTO my heart on air that kills

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Inspector Lewis: The Point of Vanishing on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis: The Point Of Vanishing © 2010 MASTERPIECE

The wait is almost over. An encore episode of Inspector Lewis Series II The Point of Vanishing airs this Sunday on Masterpiece Mystery, and then Series III begins on August 29th, 2010 with Counter Culture Blues.

Oxford police detectives D.I. Lewis (Kevin Whatley) and D.S. Hathaway (Laurence Fox) are called to a death by drowning of Steven Mullan (Danny Midwinter) in his own bathtub. Nearby is a postcard of a Renaissance painting The Hunt in the Forest addressed to Mullan’s roommate  Alex Hadley (Dougal Irvine) with “It was no dream” anonymous inscribed.

However, this does not appear to be an accident to Lewis. There are signs of a struggle and the victim’s face was marred with burns from the scalding water that he was immersed in. Mullan had recently been released from prison on drunk driving charges. Lewis recognizes the name and remembers the extended circumstances surrounding his imprisonment. After a life of drugs and crime, Mullen had turned to the bible in a big way, and in a drunken haze attempted to kill local celebrity atheist Tom Rattenbury (Julian Wadham) by crashing into his car. Instead, Rattenbury’s daughter Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond) was behind the wheel and severely injured. In rehabilitation, she is now in a wheelchair.

Suspecting retaliation, the Rattenbury’s are the first to be questioned and each appear to have an alibi at the time of the crime. Tom Rattenbury was working at home and then took a drive later in the evening. His wife Cecile (Jenny Seagrove) was home planning their daughter Jessica’s twenty-first birthday party, and son Daniel (Ben Aldridge) claims also to have been home, and then later reveals he secretly met his girlfriend fellow student Hope Ransome (Zoe Boyle) and proposed. The family seems genuinely shocked by the news of Mullan’s death, Cecile dramatically claiming that despite the evil intentions of Mullan, and its tragic outcome, it brought her family closer together.

After attending a religious debate at the Oxford Union between Tom Rattenbury and his longtime academic opponent Dr. Manfred Canter (Michael Simkins), Lewis learns they were also rivals in love for the affections of Cecile many years ago. He is also surprised to witnesses Daniel throw a glass of wine at Canter who is also Hope’s art history tutor. When Daniel storms off in a fit of rage with Hope in hot pursuit, Lewis suspects that there might be more than art history between her and her tutor.

The investigation takes a complete turnaround when pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) reveals that the victim Steven Mullan and his roommate Alex Hadley have much more in common than anyone imagined. With this new evidence Lewis and Hathaway delve into Hadley’s past life and discover an adulterous affair with Madeleine Cotton (Kellie Shirley), his boss’s wife. Could Marc Cotton (Tim Treloar) have killed Mullan by mistake?

Drawn again to the postcard of The Hunt in the Forest and the inscription “It was no dream”, Lewis and Hathaway visit the painting at the Ashmolean Museum and learn more about its allegorical meaning from museum curator Frances Wheeler (Susan Tracy). The painting is an early example of use of “punto di fuga” or the vanishing point in Renaissance art. The canvas depicts a scene of the hunt including people, horses, dogs and deer, disappearing into the vanishing point in the dark forest. The hunt is an allegory for the pursuit of courtly love – thus – a symbolic link to whoever sent Alex the postcard. She also reveals that the mysterious inscription is by poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, providing both additional clues and personal connections to the investigation. One additional murder and a suicide bring this case to a shocking conclusion, — the murderer only Lewis could have deduced.

Not one of my favorite Lewis episodes, The Point of Vanishing had me raising an eyebrow and rolling my eyes too frequently to take the script by Paul Rutman (Lark Rise to Candleford) seriously.  The screenplay was filled with so many subplots, art allusions, heartrending twists and lovers unrequited, rebuked and or dumped, I began to crave the simpler scripts from Inspector Morse days. This is one of my pet peeves with new television and movies. Producers feel that they must keep everything moving at break-neck speed or viewers will get bored (one assumes). Unfortunately, at this pace important moments flash by without being absorbed and the pregnant pause is totally neglected. I realize this may be an artistic decision by director Maurice Phillips, and I honor that. I just don’t agree with it.

The guest cast was a potpourri of fine British actors and unknowns, making for a nice mix. Veterans Julian Wadham as Tom Rattenbury and Michael Simkins as Manfred Canter, the two rivals for Cecile affections and manipulations, were well cast and believable. I wish I could say the same for Jenny Seagrove whose Cecile was trite and overplayed. (“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”) Yes, she was domineering and oppressive to her family, but again, way over-the-top. In my mind hardened characters are better played subtly. It adds so much power and mystery. Just think of Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs and you’ll get my drift. The highlight for me was with young actress Ophelia Lovibond as daughter Jessica challenged by her handicap and her mother. It was debatable which was the greatest deterent to her personal development! Lovibond underplayed the role and it worked to my liking, in complete opposition to her mother Seagrove. My point exactly!

And what was up with the secret romance between D.S. James Hathaway and his co-worker Fiona McKendrick (Catherine Walker – Northanger Abbey)? We see and hear so little about it that it does not play out well for the viewer. And the ending scene (which I will not reveal for fear of spoilers), why does he go back to her one last time? Why does Lewis think that is the best way to end it? Beat’s me? No wonder Hathaway wants to be celibate. All the women that the writers throw in his path are either cold, hard career crows or murderous transsexuals. I hear he gets a romance in Series III. Let’s hope he doesn’t get rolled over again. I’m not holding my breath. As Laura Hobson says to Robbie Lewis when she asks him his opinion of the relationship between their co-workers Hathaway and McKendrick, “It is the illegal trade in hunch and hearsay. It’s called gossip.”

For those of you who are curious about the line “It was no dream”, it is from the poem They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek written by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 1542), reputedly composed after an affair with Anne Boleyn, the infamous wife of King Henry VIII. We are also treated to Hathaway reading a bit of it during the episode.

THEY flee from me that sometime did me seek,

With naked foot stalking in my chamber.

I have seen them gentle tame and meek

That now are wild and do not remember

That sometime they put themselves in danger

To take bread at my hand; and now they range

Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise

Twenty times better; but once in special,

In thin array after a pleasant guise,

When her loose gown did from her shoulders did fall,

And she me caught in her arms long and small;

And Therewithall sweetly did me kiss,

And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream, I lay broad waking;

But all is turned thorough my gentleness

Into a strange fashion of forsaking;

And I have leave to go of her goodness

And she also to use newfangleness.

But since that I so kindly am served,

I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Inspector Lewis: The Quality of Mercy on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis: Quality of Mercy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Masterpiece Mystery will air another encore episode of Inspector Lewis from season II, The Quality of Mercy on Sunday, August 15th. The new season begins on August 29th with Counter Culture Blues guest starring Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous), a great British comedian who has yet to disappoint. Her recent performance in Miss Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was hilarious.

This week’s episode is immersed in Shakespearean literary references as a group of Oxford students produce The Merchant of Venice, containing some of the Bard’s most memorable lines:  “If you prick us do we not bleed”, “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see.”,  and “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath…”, which the story draws its title from. As with most Inspector Lewis scripts there is usually one major plot line and two minor ones interlaced. In this instance themes and characters in the play parallel real life involving DI Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whatley) and his partner DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) in a double murder motivated by ambition, deceit and revenge.

In the play, Jewish moneylender Shylock is famous for demanding a pound of flesh as collateral for a loan. Ironically, Richard Scott (Daniel Sharman) the talented young actor portraying him is the one borrowing from his fellow thespians to pay for his expensive life-style. When he is found backstage after the second act with a prop knife in his chest, none of the students seem upset or grieved by his death except Isabel Dawson (Abby Ford – Tipping the Velvet) who is portraying Portia in the play. A note found by the body quotes from Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

The overly ambitious director Emma Golding (Daisy Lewis) is determined that the show must go on. Important agents and reviewers will be in attendance and this play is her ticket out of Oxford and into professional theater. One of the group Philip Beaumont (Bryan Dick – Bleak House), an Oxford dropout looks upon his ensemble of friends and his former college with cynical contempt, while the handsome and egotistical Barham Rezvani (Tariq Jordan) who plays Antonio loathed Scott, but loaned him money never expecting repayment. His Iranian family’s wealth bought him access to Oxford and he uses the same attitude to make connections.

As Lewis and Hathaway begin interviewing the students they quickly learn that Scott not only owed money to the male cast members, he also slept  with many of the female cast. All of the students seem to be self-centered and on the make, stepping over each other to work the system and get ahead. Could this be a crime of jealousy, passion or revenge? As the investigation progresses, there appears to be many possible motives and suspects to consider in the cast and audience – namely, a suspicious out-of-town theater-goer Simon Monkford (Ronan Vibert – The Scarlet Pimpernel) who is eager to offer an alibi, two feuding Professors Denise Gregson (Maureen Beattie – Bramwell) and her ex-husband James Alderson (Nicholas Pritchard – Place of Execution), and Joe Myers (Geoff Breton- Diary of Anne Frank) a young man who may have killed his rival to take over his part.

Later, Lewis and Hathaway are called to a local luxury hotel where the assistant manager Graham Wilkinson (Shaughan Seymour – Wuthering Heights) reveals that they may have been victims of an insurance scam. A guest had left his luggage with the front desk to retrieve later and while he was away, a woman arrived to pick it up at his request. When he returned to claim it, he was furious to discover his luggage had been given to his non-existent wife, in-turn reporting it to the police. The man was the very same theatre-goer that Hathaway had interviewed that day, Simon Munkford. The coincidence interests Hathaway and he investigates the man’s past, discovering a long history as a con-man with a five-year gap while he lived in Canada. When Hathaway interviews his sister Christine Harper (Annabelle Dowler – The Six Wives of Henry VIII) she reveals that he left England after killing a woman in hit and run in London five years prior.

The next day a freelance journalist Amanda Castello (Shereen Martineau) arrives to review the play, but finds a much more intriguing story in the murder, reporting it to a national scandal rag. In an interview with Lewis she reveals that Scott was suspected in the theft of playwright Phil Beaumont’s laptop earlier that year. Lewis is suspicious of Scott’s motive. What was on the laptop that was worth stealing for, and what does Amanda gain by sharing this?  Shortly after, yet another death connected to the troupe turns the investigation into a double murder, coupled with Hathaway’s pursuit of Simon Munkford’s past life of crime reveals a shocking connection to his boss that he is hesitant to immediately reveal – sure that it will test the quality of mercy.

On first viewing, this multilayered story by Alan Plater is both intriguing and perplexing. The large cast did not make matters easy either. There was a lot of detail packed into ninety minutes that would have been better served as a two hour movie. The themes of ambition, money and mercy where nicely interwoven throughout the three plots, which I have omitted full descriptions of to avert spoilers. There is a twist at the end that Hathaway discovers that clever viewers will put together before it is revealed, but is none-the-less daunting for him to inform his boss of and in turn for Lewis to hear. It leads to a great scene between them involving trust, respect and a lot of yelling.

The guest casting was adequate, but not exemplary. Understandable in some respect because of the young cast members, but the more mature roles that should have been filed with a bit more of the “spurious glamour” that Hathaway jokes about to his boss in regard to his non-alcoholic tonic water would have kicked it up a notch. Director Bille Eltringham chose instead to make this an ensemble piece like the play that it was mirroring.  Happily, our cerebral Sergeant got to show off his Cambridge education by identifying  Shakespearean quotes from multiple plays from total recall. He was also given the best line in the script when on a late night phone call to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police  he was questioned if they (the police force) ever slept? “No we never sleep. We always get our man, or except when it’s a woman, or an occasional transsexual.” If you missed the inside joke, watch the episode Life Born of Fire.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Inspector Lewis: Allegory of Love on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis: Allegory of Love © 2010 MASTERPIECE

My favorite detective series Inspector Lewis begins again on Masterpiece Mystery this Sunday, August 8th with the encore presentation from Series II of Allegory of Love. Why do I love this series so much? Let me count the ways.

  1. It’s smart: Yes. I’m an intellectual snob.
  2. It’s wise: Laced with literary references, it makes me Google till I drop.
  3. It’s witty: The acerbic dialogue between DI Lewis & DS Hathaway is priceless.
  4. Its locations: I am a hopeless Anglophile, giddy over Oxford’s dreaming spires.
  5. Its fashion: I  positively dote on professors in bow ties and tweed run amok.
  6. Its guest stars: The challenge to place a face is as intriguing as the actual mystery.
  7. It’s sexy: It’s always about the sex, or lack of it in Hathaways’s case.
  8. Its quality: Great scripts, great directing and great stars. Can’t beat it.

Allegory of Love is a season II encore to get us in the mood for the season III premiere, Counter Culture Blues on August 29th. The story is tight and terse and tragic. In an interesting reversal, all of the major players in this mystery appear together in the first scene. We just don’t know how they will all fit in yet.

In the tradition of Oxford’s famous Inklings, fantasy writer Dorian Crane (Tom Mison – Lost in Austen) is launching his second book Boxlands, dedicated to his “muse and bride” Alice Wishart (Cara Horgan – Jane Eyre 2006). Attending the party is DI Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whatley) guest of his boss Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent (Rebecca Front) who is intent upon matchmaking widower Lewis with her college friend Ginny Harris (Anastasia Hille – Foyle’s War), who is also Dorian’s mother. This appears to be a happy ensemble until the news of the body of a Czech barmaid Marina Hartner (Katia Winter) is discovered by the river the next day. DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) and Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) are  first on the scene finding a brutal murder by what appears to be an antique Persian mirror. Beside the body is a note with “Uqbara” written in blood, a town in Iraq recognized by Hathaway.

Lewis and Hathaway shift through clues and soon discover the owner of the mirror is comparative religion Professor Hamid Jassim (Art Malik – Jewel in the Crown), who reported the mirror stolen from his college office the day of the book launch. He recognizes Uqbara as a town in his native Iraq, but claims no knowledge of Marina Hartner. Neither does his fellow Professor Norman Deering (James Fox – Sherlock Holmes 2009) until he is caught in the lie by Lewis and Hathaway when they find evidence to the contrary on Marina’s computer. He soon admits to bringing Marina to Oxford as his mistress even though he professes to be gay to the college community. He also reveals that she had since threw him over for another man.

As details of Marina’s past life and connections in Oxford come to light, the circle of suspects widens. Dorian’s book mentions a mirror of the same description used as the murder weapon, Alice’s disturbed younger brother Hayden Wishart (Olly Alexander – Bright Star) had been stalking Marina, and their recently widowed father Jem Wishart (Adrian Lukis – Pride and Prejudice 1995) had been having a secret affair with her. When Melanie Harding (Louise Dylan – Emma 2009), a student of Dorian’s who he is having an affair with enters his office and is struck on the head, and a death threat in writing similar to the Uqbara note is sent to Alice, a pattern forms that only Lewis sees. Was the wrong woman killed by the river? Who then, was the intended victim?

All of the literary illusion to the Inklings (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) and Lewis Carroll were cleverly interwoven into a plot connected by jealousy, lust, and sex. Yes. It’s always either power, money or sex isn’t it? We would not have a murder mystery genre without them. The casting in this production also had interesting connections. Seeing father and son James and Laurence Fox working together again is always a delight. I believe this is the first time they have actually had scenes together. (It must have been daunting for Laurence who stands in a tall shadow.) Besides the plethora of Austen actors: Tom Mison, Louise Dylan, Lauren Fox and Adrian Lukis, Art Malik and James Fox had worked together in director David Lean’s classic, Passage to India, one of my favorite movies.

Even though this episode was packed to the brim with literary detail, the denouement fell flat. I adore this series, but they have not quite perfected that last important scene where the killer is revealed and why. It is so important to the success of the plot that you think they would really think these through a bit more intently. Did anyone catch Colin Dexter’s anonymous appearance a la Alfred Hitchcock? Colin is the creator of Inspector Morse which this series is a spin-off of, a consultant on Lewis and always slips into one scene in each episode. It’s kind of like where’s Waldo. I will not reveal it here, but throw you a clue. The book launch location. Now, we shall see who the real detectives are among us.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Hercule Poirot: Appointment with Death on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Appointment with Death: David Suchet in Hercule Poirot © 2010 MASTERPIECEThree quarters into the new to Masterpiece Mystery presentation of Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death tonight, her detective Hercule Poirot proclaimed to the roundup of suspects “This case mon ami, is full of the red fish.” I couldn’t agree more. In this 2008 ITV/PBS liberal adaptation by screenwriter Guy Andrews there are red herrings leaping out of the plot like a politian’s rebuttal, but not of Christie’s making. In fact, very little of what you experience onscreen is from her 1937 novel. To disarm reproof there is after all, the discreetly placed caveat of “based on” Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death in the opening credits. Does this absolve all sins before they are committed?

(Queue blazing sun and Lawrence of Arabia music.) Eccentric English archaeologist Lord Greville Boynton (Tim Curry) has been trolling through the Middle East for years in search of the head of John the Baptist reputed to have been buried where the river meets the mountains 2,000 years ago. His domineering American wife (Cheryl Campbell) is graciously funding his expeditions from her lucrative stock market dealings, but that is where the joy ends. With her three henpecked adult children and faithful nanny (Angela Pleasence) to fetch and carry, they arrive in Syria where Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) is on holiday. Also joining the happy family reunion is Lord Boynton’s son Leonard (Mark Gatiss) who like everyone who has encountered Lady Boynton’s abrasive manners cannot see why his father adores her.

Observant Poirot is quick to notice the family dysfunctions generated by Lady Boynton’s tyrannical behavior: withdrawn and sullen son Raymond (Tom Riley), anxious and depressed elder daughter Carol (Emma Cunniffe) and troubled younger daughter Jinny (Zoe Boyle) all trying to survive under their mother’s dictatorial fist. Joining this “bonanza of crippled personalities” for the tour of the dig are American businessman Jefferson Cope (Christian McKay), doctor Sarah King (Christina Cole), Scottish psychiatrist Theodore Gerard (John Hannah) and Polish nun Sister Agnieszka (Beth Goddard).

As the group journeys by car into the desert they un-expectantly encounter travel writer Dame Celia Westholme (Elizabeth McGovern) appearing on camelback like Lawrence of Arabia. This ensemble of colorful characters will shortly all be suspects in a crime when Lady Boynton is found murdered roasting under the desert sun. Commissioned to find her killer by his old friend Colonel Carbury (Paul Freeman) Poirot must work quickly to discover clues and interrogate the suspects. There are several among them who would benefit from her death and yet others with no apparent connection at all until, “The voices of the little gray cells have begun to sing to Poirot.” Mix in white slavery, child abuse, financial ruin and revenge and the motives to murder become an appointment with death.

For those viewers like myself who have not read the original novel this new production looks beautiful, sounds enchanting and feels like a Poirot mystery. There is a deeply moral thread in the plot echoed by Lord Boynton from the start – “try as one might, one cannot escape his rightful destiny.” This eastern philosophy clashes with the western characters as they attempt to manipulate lives and change fate with serious consequences.

The casting was excellent as always. Elizabeth McGovern as Celia Westholme and John Hannah as Theodore Gerard should have been the anchors of the production but their roles were not very helpful to the story. Both have secrets to hide and unevenly play out the game until its tragic end. Tom Riley as Raymond reminded me of the emotionally crippled Anthony Perkins in Psycho, except his domineering mother convincingly played by Cheryl Campbell was not a mummy in the upstairs bedroom, but a raging bully in the flesh. Other casting choices were intriguing. Did anyone else see a young Orson Wells in the performance of Christian McKay as American Jefferson Cope? He even sounded like him! I became suspicious that director Ashley Pearce was doing all this character mirroring on purpose when Zoe Boyle as Jinny continued her blank stares and cow eyes a la Maggie Smith. If she got a voice coach she might have a future in the profession beyond luminescent damsel in distress.

Putting aside the beautiful production values and excellent casting, this liberal 2008 adaptation had its troubles. Red herrings are Christie’s forte and any mystery aficionado anticipates the shift of the investigation from suspect to suspect as eagerly as the next P. D. James novel. Without revealing spoilers for those who have not seen it, screenwriter Andrews’ important denouement fell flat as Poirot went around the room disqualifying each suspect. It was totally unbelievable.

If Appointment with Death is case in point of a classic being ‘improved’ for a modern audience, I am puzzled. Some will argue that the original novel (not one of Christie’s best efforts) was fine as it was. Others will queue up in favor of creative license. I have seen this approach with Jane Austen’s challenging novel Mansfield Park. People don’t get it and want to fix it. With the recent profitability of literary mash-up’s and re-interpretations such as the Austen/Grahame-Smith Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and director Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, one can see where the industry is going with this and take your side. I am sitting on the fence at the moment. Agatha Christie may be speaking through her character Lady Boynton by thinking that “we are not sufficiently sorry” , but you can “despise me if you dare.”

Image courtesy of © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Hercule Poirot: Third Girl on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Third Girl: David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker © 2008 MASTERPIECEIf Masterpiece Mystery fans were unsettled by last week’s uncharacteristically dark and moralistic production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, then absolution is in order with Third Girl, a total turn-around back to the sophisticated Art Deco 1930’s London and country manor house crime dramas that we have come to cherish and expect. In this new 2008 ITV/PBS co-production, David Suchet continues as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot joined by Zoë Wanamaker in her re-occurring role as crime novelist Ariadne Oliver. Faced with one of their most challenging cases they must discover if a tormented heiress is a murderer or another criminal is amongst a group of suspects who may have set her up.

Norma Restarick (Jemima Rooper – Lost in Austen) arrives at Poirot’s London flat distressed and distraught, hoping that he can save her. She believes she has committed murder, but before he can assist her she abruptly leaves oddly claiming the distinguished detective is too old. Baffled, Poirot later visits his friend celebrated crime novelist Ariadne Oliver and learns she had sent Norma to him for assistance. Mrs. Oliver shares with him that Norma is the “third girl” in a flat of single women who live upstairs. The night before Mrs. Oliver had attended their birthday party for “first girl” Clemency Burton-Hill (Claudia Reece-Holland) a secretary of Norma’s recently reunited father Andrew Restarick (James Wilby). While there she witnessed the “second girl” Frances Cary (Matilda Sturridge) a Bohemian actress/model flirting with Norma’s love interest artist David Baker (Tom Mison – Lost in Austen) upsetting Norma who leaves the party.

Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are both unaware of yet a further connection in her apartment building until they learn that Norma’s childhood nanny Lavinia Seagram (Caroline O’Neill) is also a resident until her death only the night before. Is this the woman Norma believes she murdered? The police arrive to investigate and Inspector Nelson (John Warnaby) is quick to conclude a suicide, but Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are not convinced. Is Norma guilty, innocent or insane?

While Norma’s roommates and family fret over her unstable state of mind, Poirot delves into her family history also becoming fearful of her life, but for different reasons. Who would benefit from her demise? Is it her grand-uncle Sir Roderick Horsfield (Peter Bowles) or her father Andrew Restarick, the two people who will co-inherit her large estate? To flush out the killer, Poirot must depend on fragile Norma’s help to trick a confession out of the criminal only Poirot has suspected.

Based on Agatha Christie’s 1966 novel, Poirot purist might be miffed again with more artistic license being taken by screenwriter Peter Flannery when they discover changes to her original plot and rearrangement and elimination of characters. Having not read Third Girl I was not offended taking everything presented at face value, quickly accepting the time shift from the 1960’s to the 1930’s atmosphere that I so enjoy in many of Ms. Christie’s novels.

There was also much to distract me in the decadent and delightful high quality production values: gorgeous costumes, striking locations, superlative acting by an all-star cast, ambient direction by Dan Reed (Inspector Lewis) and the stunning cinematography by Paul Bond. Did I say stunning cinematography? Wowza! Zoë Wanamaker’s performance was the highlight for me. Her scene after she awakens after being struck on the head is brilliant and LOL funny! Unfortunately, the last fifteen minutes were a disappointment. The traditional round-up of suspects into one room and final denouement was accelerated into a muddling quandary. Can one assume that this condensed 90-minute format did not allow enough plot development and clues to make everything click?  It took another viewing of the scene before this dull elf could absorb and decipher. (Oh, and since there are no sportscars in this episode, I will accept Poirot’s persimmon sofa’s as my guilty indulgence!)

Image courtesy © 2008 MASTERPIECE

Hercule Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express: David Suchet as Hercule Poirot © 2010 MASTERPIECEMystery fans were treated to the opening of season X of Poirot on Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with a new episode of Murder on the Orient Express, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels. Amazingly, this new production is only the second time it has been adapted for television and follows the famous and glitzy 1974 Hollywood movie directed by Sidney Lumet with an all-star cast including Albert Finney as Detective Hercule Poirot, Lauren Becall as the outrageously brash American Mrs. Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman in her Oscar winning role as Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson. Having seen this version some 36 years ago (yikes), I watched it again in preparation for this new David Suchet production. With the passing years, it is even more of an opulent showpiece of bravada by the then fading Hollywood studio system than I remembered, packed with so many stars and stunning costumes that my eye could not settle upon the seriousness of the story nor my head erase the earworm that the musical score created. It was glamorous. It was exciting. It was a dog and pony show that Agatha Christie’s novel never was. It still made me smile in appreciation of the great acting and direction from an era that we may look back upon in wonder.

The bones of the plot are basically the same. Hercule Poirot boards a luxury passenger train the Orient Express traveling from Istanbul to London and on the second night out the train becomes snowbound in Yugoslavia. During the night a ruthless American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Toby Jones) is murdered. Not only has he has been stabbed repeatedly; he appears to have been drugged. Poirot’s friend and director of the train line Xavier Bouc (Serge Hazanavicius) asks him to investigate the murder, and with the assistance of Dr. Constantine (Samuel West) Poirot begins to collect clues in the victims room and interview all of the passengers on the train. The evidence leads him to the famous kidnapping and murder five years earlier of a young girl Daisy Armstrong by Lanfranco Cassetti who was tried for the crime but not convicted. Poirot soon discovers that Samuel Ratchett is personally connected to the criminal and so are each of the passengers in a sad and tragic way. But who among them killed Samuel Ratchett and why?

From the first scene Poirot purists will know that this is not your typical ITV/PBS production of an Agatha Christie novel. While interrogating a British army officer in Palestine, Poirot catches him in a lie and the officer pulls his revolver and commits suicide right in front of him. This alone is a shocking image, but Poirot’s unemotional reaction to his death was so chilling that there is no doubt that screenwriter Stewart Harcourt (Dracula) and director Philip Martin (Wallender) have taken an entirely different approach in their interpretation of the cozy mystery fare that we have become so accustomed to on Masterpiece Mystery. Next Poirot is in Istanbul and he witnesses another pointless death of a woman accused of adultery being stoned by a mob of her family and neighbors. Is this a foreshadowing of what is yet to come for us aboard the Orient Express? Both of these scenes are added embellishments to Christie’s original novel and definitely not in the 1974 candy coated film. There are many other changes that I will leave for the observant viewer to deduce.

Even though many liberties have been taken with Christie’s plot and characters this new slant on Poirot really worked. Yes, the Jane Austen purist in me who is tweaked when others dally with my Jane is not offended by this hybridized Poirot. I just imagined him in a parallel universe aboard the antithesis Orient Express and it all worked for me. The highlight was the casting. David Suchet is more introspective and melancholy than I have ever seen him in this role before and it suits him as well as his waxed mustache and prim manners. (anyone who is that persnickety about their appearance andfood is sure to have a dark side) Eileen Atkins as the elegant Princess Dragomiroff, a white Russian who has seen the revolution and knows deeply what murder means, and Barbara Hershey as the pushy American widow Caroline Hubbard whose defense against suspicion is her brassy attitude were both the key performances. Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Ratchett’s man Edward Masterman and David Morrissey as English colonel John Arbuthnot sadly did not get much air time, but made a lasting impression.

The ending scene outside the snowbound train when Poirot must decide what justice must be done will linger with you and make you want to watch the movie again to catch all the bits that passed you by. This new direction for an Agatha Christie’s classic story seems to be in line with the trend to take what our culture values and remake it in our own unique vision. One wonders out loud how these changes will be viewed in twenty or thirty years, similar to my experience of watching the 1974 movie. Each is entertaining, but have we done justice to Miss Christie?

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE