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