|The British Beat
Welcome to the third edition of The British Beat, my quarterly column on DVD and Blu-ray releases of British TV shows and feature films. This time I have 11 reviews for you: Candlelight in Algeria and Thunder in the City (from VCI); Fresh Fields: Set 1, Midsomer Murders: Set 17, Murder Investigation Team: Series One, Upstairs Downstairs: Series One, Murphy's Law: Series 3, and Single-Handed: Set 1 (from Acorn Media); Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 3 (from BBC Video via Warner Bros.); and Is It Legal?: Series Three and The Governor: Season One (Region 2 releases from Network).
I've updated the listing of forthcoming DVD and Blu-ray releases further on in the column too.
I hope you'll enjoy this spring edition of the column for 2011 and I look forward to receiving any comments you may have.
Film DVD Reviews
Candlelight in Algeria was part of a brief respite in 1943 for James Mason from the costume dramas that he had begun doing at Gainsborough Studios, part of the Rank organization.
With the success of The Man in Grey, a costume drama that he apparently hated doing though it made him an international star and the prospect of four more films like it, the idea of doing several espionage pictures (that had been lined up before his contract with Rank began) likely seemed quite appealing. None of the three films are more than average entertainments (the other two were They Met in the Dark and Hotel Reserve), but Candlelight in Algeria is certainly an amiable time-passer. Mason plays a British agent named Alan Thurston tasked with retrieving some film containing a photograph that inadvertently reveals the location of secret meetings on the Algerian coast where plans are being finalized for the allied landings in North African during World War II. The film with the photograph is being held by a neutral party in Algiers and the Germans (in the person of Dr. Muller - Walter Rilla) are also trying to get hold of it. Thurston involves a young American painter, Susan Ann Foster (Carla Lehmann), to assist him in his task. The pair are initially successful, but Muller is soon on their trail, one that leads through the Algerian Casbah. James Mason doesn't make a huge impression in the film, and in fact looks somewhat silly as he sports a moustache or a fez at times. The second-billed Carla Lehmann actually has more screen time and is quite effective in her role even if the Winnipeg-born but basically British actress is never very convincing as an American. The film does succeed in creating a North African atmosphere (in a Casablanca-like manner) and the story moves along briskly. At 82 minutes, it holds one's attention well even if there's really nothing really novel in the plot or its execution to dwell on. VCI's DVD release looks very good. The full frame image is sharp, offering a nicely realized grey scale with notably fine contrast. The source material is in good shape with the resulting transfer being quite clean with only a few speckles and minor debris to be seen. The mono sound is equally strong. There are no supplements. Recommended.
In late 1936, Edward G. Robinson was unhappy with Warner Bros. He had tired of the gangster and social significance roles and with only two films left on his contract, he welcomed a loan-out to Columbia. Columbia had a script called Thunder in the City that had been prepared by a British company and off Robinson headed to London for filming.
The script, which had Robinson playing high-pressure salesman Dan Armstrong whose American employers tire of his wild schemes and send him to England to absorb a more-dignified approach to selling, actually ended up better than when Robinson first set out for London. After voicing his objections to the script's predictability and silliness to the London producers, they agreed that it needed fixing. Robinson by chance ran into playwright Robert Sherwood who was then engaged to rewrite the script, turning it into a more subtle, somewhat satirical effort. The resulting tale about Armstrong trying to make a quick profit for the English owner of a mine producing magnetite and coming up against an wily businessman who has his own plans for the mineral (Ralph Richardson) is frequently amusing and certainly moves briskly, but the overall impact is lessened by a weak ending and the unconvincing acting of Austrian actress Luli Deste as an English lady of whom Armstrong is enamored. Robinson delivers his usual impressive, brash performance and Nigel Bruce also appears to good effect as the mine owner. For the latter two performances, the rather meaninglessly-titled Thunder in the City is worth a viewing, but its importance in Robinson's life is unquestioned. It afforded Robinson the opportunity to immerse himself in art at the London and Paris galleries and was the occasion of the beginning of his well-known art-collecting career. VCI's full-frame DVD is quite workable. It's a little inconsistent in its sharpness and contrast, but for the most part looks quite good. Image detail is just average, as there is frequently a dark cast to the transfer. The mono sound is quite workable though a little muffled at times. Overall, the VCI release is a distinct improvement over any of the versions from the public domain specialists that I've seen. Recommended for Edward G. Robinson fans; others should try a rental.
TV DVD Reviews (Region 1 except where noted)
Murder Investigation Team: Series One is somewhat reminiscent of the American CSI series, but with a definite British flavour in terms of police procedure and team interaction.
It's actually a spin-off from the long-running British cop show The Bill, with the first episode investigating the death of a police sergeant from that series. Thereafter there seems to be no connection to The Bill whatsoever. Aired originally in the spring of 2003 on the ITV network, the first series continued for eight nominally 1-hour episodes (actually 49 minutes). A second series of four 90-minute episodes was aired in 2005. No subsequent episodes were made. Murder Investigation Team: Series One has its strengths and weaknesses, though the former greatly outweigh the latter. On the positive side, the investigative team is an interesting group to spend time with. It includes Samantha Spiro's hard-edged DI Vivien Friend as the team leader, closely assisted by Lindsey Coulson as the empathetic DC Rosie MacManus and Michael McKell as DS Trevor Hands. These three are the principals of the group though four or five others are part of the team as well. The entire ensemble functions well as a group and it's interesting to note many brief moments when quick asides or knowing looks between various characters add to the reality of the situation or provide insight into a particular individual and his or her relationship with another. All the stories of course involve murders and the procedures that have to be followed to reach a solution. At only 49 minutes each, the episodes move along very quickly. The feeling of urgency is heightened by an emphasis on hand-held camera work, quick cutting, and the frequent use of close-ups. Here's where some viewers, used to more leisurely British police procedurals with attention to character background and interaction, may find Murder Investigation Team wanting. We find out little of the various team members' backgrounds, there being only occasional hints of what may be going on in their off-duty life. The series' rapid-fire nature seems designed to appeal to the attention-deficit inflicted, but the quality of the acting is of such a high caliber and the stories intriguing enough that most viewers will be well-entertained regardless. Samantha Spiro's performance is particularly worth noting. She beings a very intense, steely-eyed look to DI Friend that takes a bit of getting used to, particularly when she's the subject of so many close-ups. The lack of family and past career context accentuates the loner image that comes across despite the character's efforts to engage her team fully. (Interestingly, the DI Friend character is dropped from the second series, with DS Trevor Hands taking over as the team leader.) Acorn Media has released Murder Investigation Team: Series One as a 3-disc DVD set. The 1.78:1 anamorphic images are in pretty reasonable shape. Sharpness and detail are quite good more often than not (particularly on the frequent close-ups), although the limited action scenes seem less well-defined. Colour fidelity is notably good. The DD stereo sound is satisfying. Dialogue is clear and well balanced with sound effects and music. There's virtually no evidence of hiss or distortion. English SDH subtitling is provided. Extras consist of an audio commentary by series creator Paul Marquess on the first episode and a 25-minute interview with actor Michael McKell. Both are worth your time. Recommended.
Dalziel & Pascoe survived for twelve series on BBC over the period from 1996-2007. Based on characters in the books of Reginald Hill, Dalziel (pronounced Dee-el) & Pascoe are a pair of Yorkshire police detectives whose variety of interesting cases are enlivened by the differences in their characters.
Dalziel (played throughout the BBC series by Warren Clarke) is the old-school, sarcastic, non politically correct and higher-ranking of the two, while Pascoe (Colin Buchanan) is the university-educated and more forward-thinking younger assistant. It's a combination that has become commonplace, particularly in British police shows, but is none the worse for its familiarity. Clarke and Buchanan complement each other, and despite the difference in approach of their characters and the frustration that sometimes results, it's apparent that both enjoy each other's company. Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 3 consists of four 90-minute mysteries. "Under World" centres around the discovery of a body in a deserted mineshaft. The discovery provides the solution to a missing person case of long standing, but raises questions about the nature of the death that throw a small Yorkshire town into turmoil. This is a thoroughly engrossing case with a nice angle about the involvement of Pascoe's wife Ellie (Susannah Corbett) with a local miner upon whom suspicion falls. "Child's Play" finds the duo investigating the death of a long-lost son who turns up at his mother's funeral. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but does lead to a satisfactory resolution. A secondary story line involves continuing character Detective Sergeant Edgar Wield (David Royle) whose sexuality becomes an issue. In "Bones and Silence", the weakest entry of the season, a neighbor of Dalziel's is shot dead and her husband (Michael Kitchen) claims it was suicide. Dalziel is unconvinced and sets out to determine the truth. A secondary subplot concerning a local little theatre group for whom Dalziel is to play God in its upcoming production is more of a distraction than anything else, diminishing the impact of a typically strong performance by Kitchen. "The Wood Beyond" is much the most intriguing episode of the season, effectively blending a back-story from World War I with a modern day investigation into an animal rights group's raid on a pharmaceutical company. Pascoe and his wife's relationship is further developed as the World War I aspect proves to be related to the recent death of Pascoe's grandmother. The Dalziel & Pascoe programmes are typical British police detective fare with the 90-minute length giving plenty of opportunity for story lines and characters to be thoroughly developed. After three seasons, the two main characters have settled comfortably in place and the relationship between the two is one that's realistic and enjoyable to spend time with. Despite some weakness in the third episode, the third season's writing is marginally the strongest yet. BBC Video's release (distributed by Warner Bros.) arrives as a two-DVD set sporting 1.78:1 anamorphic images that look quite strong - clear with good contrast and quite respectable image detail. There are a few soft sequences, but sharpness is otherwise very good. Colour fidelity seems fine. The stereo sound does a presentable job. Dialogue is clear and exhibits a consistent volume level. English SDH subtitling is provided. There are no supplements. Recommended.
Murphy's Law: Series 3 marked a change in the popular British undercover cop series. Rather than the individual stories wrapped up in a single episode that marked the first two series, the 6-episode third season saw a continuous story arc that was only resolved in the final episode.
Tommy Murphy (James Nesbitt) is an undercover cop whose task this time has London criminal mastermind Dave Callard (Mark Womack) as its target. Developing his bona fides as an arms dealer, a counterfeit money procuror, and a hitman, Murphy cements himself as virtually Callard's right-hand man, much to the displeasure of the incumbent - the psychotic Caz Miller (Michael Fassbender). Murphy has an efficient and creative back-up team headed by Paul Allison (Owen Teale) with the whole operation under the direction of Detective Superintendent Rees (Michael Feast). As Murphy digs deeper, it becomes apparent that Callard's interests extend internationally into the heroin trade with an important British aristocrat also deeply involved. Little that one saw in the first two seasons prepares one for the intensity, grittiness, and graphic nature of series 3. The story arc is a very dark one that immerses Murphy so deeply that he virtually has no life beyond the job - violence, murder, and bleakness is his new reality. And the lack of reward for that new reality is to be found in a sub-plot that finds Murphy testifying at the trial of a man he arrested in a previous undercover operation - to no avail, the man is acquitted. The cast is pretty much uniformly superb in the third season, but it is James Nesbitt's intense and absorbing characterization that mesmerizes throughout. Murphy's endeavors are physically challenging and emotionally exhausting, and Nesbitt's work makes the viewer experience every aspect of them right along with the character. Two further series of Murphy's Law with similar season-long story arcs were made and Series 3 whets the appetite for them mightily. Acorn Media's DVD release delivers the episodes in very satisfying 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers. Image sharpness and detail is impressive and colour fidelity is very good. The stereo sound provides clear dialogue throughout with very good volume modulation. English SDH subtitling is provided. The only supplement is a text biography for James Nesbitt. Highly recommended.
The long-running British TV series Upstairs Downstairs was event television when it was shown in North America in the 1970s. Lasting for five seasons (series) and some 68 episodes, it had numerous BAFTA, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominations and awards.
The series has long been available on DVD both as individual seasons and a complete set (from A&E), but now Acorn Media has reissued it in a 40th Anniversary Edition. I received Series One for review, but the entire run is also available in a box set. The program was conceived by Jean Marsh in 1969 and produced by London Weekend Television for ITV. It didn't actually debut on TV until two years later due to ITV management issues and a technicians' strike that resulted in the first half of the season being shot in B&W (episode one would later be reshot in colour to improve foreign market sales possibilities). As the title suggests, the program focuses on personalities at 165 Eaton Place in London's upscale Belgravia neighborhood - both those upstairs (the owners - the wealthy aristocratic Bellamys) and those downstairs (the servants - particularly Hudson the butler [Gordon Jackson], Mrs. Bridges the cook [Angela Baddeley], and Rose the parlour maid [Jean Marsh]). The story spans almost 30 years and the time period with its social change, political upheaval, and particularly the horrors of World War I is expertly woven into the episodes, providing some excellent historical context for the always-entertaining relationships between the two classes. Series One focuses on the 1903-1909 segment. It's been almost 40 years since I myself saw these episodes and time has not dulled their pleasures. The program is filled with well-modulated performances, realistic character interactions, and fascinating detail about the times and mores that remains of interest because of the even greater contrast in life styles that exists between the first decade of the last century and now compared to that between then and even the 1970s. Acorn's release of Upstairs Downstairs: 40th Anniversary Edition - Series One offers a much improved image compared to the previous A&E release for which I have a copy. Colour fidelity is improved, but most importantly the image is sharper and better detailed with the previous murky dark scenes much better defined. The B&W episodes are similarly improved with a noticeably fine grey scale evident. There's still some video noise apparent on occasion, but it's impact on one's viewing pleasure is minimal. The mono sound is also better though the improvement (mainly in the area of some muffled dialogue) is not as substantial as for the image. Dialogue overall is now clear and consistent in volume. A substantial addition is English SDH subtitling. The supplements on this first series are substantial. We get an alternate colour version of episode one with a somewhat different ending (intended to bridge it directly to the later colour episodes for markets that did not want to air the intervening B&W episodes) and the first part (56 minutes) of a very lengthy 2006 making-of documentary (the other parts will accompany the succeeding series when they are released individually, but of course are available now if you get the box set of the entire program run). Even better is a suite of six audio commentaries (on episodes 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 13) featuring a range of series actors and writers. There's some great interplay between the various participants resulting in some very entertaining and informative commentaries. All these supplements are new to North American audiences, though some of them have been previously available in Britain via the Network releases there. Highly recommended.
The entertaining and continually high caliber Midsomer Murders programs continue unabated with Acorn Media's latest release, Set 17.
Midsomer Murders has been airing on ITV since 1997 and through 2010 starred John Nettles as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby. Inspired by the novels of Caroline Graham, it focuses on murders that occur in English villages in the fictional county of Midsomer (patterned after the areas of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire). There have so far been 13 series (seasons) featuring Nettles. He retired from the role at the end of 2010 after 81 episodes and 2 Christmas specials, and has been replaced by Neil Dudgeon playing Barnaby's cousin for the 14th series (which began airing on ITV in March of this year). Acorn's Midsomer Murders: Set 17 contains the first four episodes of series 12 which originally aired in 2009 (episodes 67-70). In addition to the comfortable pleasures of John Nettles, these episodes feature Jason Hughes as Barnaby's efficient and at times insightful young assistant Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (as they have since episode 44 in 2005). The episodes in Set 17 include "The Dogleg Murders" (the 13th hole of upper class bastion Whiteoaks Golf Club is a dangerous spot - dead bodies keep turning up there); "The Black Book" (a local art auction is a catalyst for a string of savage murders); "Secrets and Spies" (killings, apparently by a mysterious beast, seem related to MI-6 concerns while Barnaby is diverted by a cricket match); and "The Glitch" (a local scientist's determination to stop an American millionaire's latest business venture leads to murder). The stories are all engrossing, maintaining a consistently high level of entertainment. The usual blend of mystery with the occasional familial interactions between Barnaby and his wife Joyce is maintained throughout. The mystery aspects themselves are well scripted, with the culprits nicely camouflaged for the most part. Acorn's DVD release, on four discs, is also consistent with previous releases. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers are very good indeed, offering clean, sharp images with notably fine detail. Colour fidelity is impressive. The stereo sound is of a high standard too, with clear dialogue free of any hiss or distortion. Very mild directionality is apparent while volume levels are consistent throughout. English SDH subtitling is provided. The supplements consist of text-based interviews and production notes. Highly recommended.
Single-Handed: Set 1 is the real deal. Set on the windswept west coast of Ireland, it focuses on Garda Sergeant Jack Driscoll (Owen McDonnell) who has returned to his childhood home to take over as the chief law-enforcement officer from his father (Ian McElhinney) who has just retired.
Coming from Dublin, Jack faces unique challenges including winning the confidence of the rural inhabitants and escaping the shadow of his father's influence. The latter is particularly difficult given his father's pragmatic rather than strictly principled approach to the job. It soon becomes apparent that though retired, his father's role and influence in local affairs remains great. With this background, Jack gets involved in three investigations (each originally aired as two-part, feature-length [approximately 93 minutes] programs): the murder of a beautiful immigrant, the abduction of a child, and the strange drowning of a teenager. The wild, windswept and coldly beautiful landscape provides a perfect counterpoint to these dramas. The characters in each seem rooted in reality and all are well portrayed, but the stories' real strength is in the writing. The situations are complex from a strictly police investigation point of view, but equally as important from that of their moral underpinnings. The aspects of Jack's personal relationships (both family and otherwise) that are gradually revealed in the course of his work - sometimes as crucial aspects of the resolutions of the cases - are every bit as compelling as the crimes' solutions themselves. The work of Owen McDonnell, Ian McElhinney, and Ruth McCabe (as Jack's mother) is all particularly noteworthy, but the supporting casts are also well chosen throughout. Acorn Media's release is a set giving a separate disc to each of the three feature-length programs. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers are excellent, sporting crisp, beautifully-detailed images that are equally good whether interiors or outside featuring the photogenic, rugged beauty of the west Ireland countryside. Black levels are impressive and contrast is very well realized. The stereo sound is also strong, conveying dialogue clearly while the background score when present has some heft to it. English SDH subtitling is provided. The only supplements are text-based - an interview with the producer and production notes. Highly recommended.