TV DVD Reviews (Continued)
Fresh Fields: Set 1 doesn't feel that fresh at all. This is British sitcom at a rather mundane level - high on the laugh track, moderate on innuendo, and somewhat low on inventiveness.
Julia McKenzie and Anton Rodgers play a suburban couple named Hester and William Fields. William is a staid, long-suffering accountant whose wife Hester is ready for new challenges after 20 years of marriage and raising two children. Naturally, Hester's dalliances seem to irritate William and frequently rope him into trouble. For North American audiences, the British sensibilities will distinguish the series from domestic fare, but there is a notable similarity to basic plot situations. McKenzie and Rodgers are a generally likable couple together, but none of the other regular characters, including annoying, free-loading neighbor Sonia played by Ann Beach, really stick in the mind. There were four seasons comprising 27 half-hour shows originally aired on ITV during 1984-86. Fresh Fields: Set 1 includes the first two seasons totaling 12 episodes. The show is at best an amiable time-passer with a suggested serving of no more than two episodes at a sitting. Acorn presents Set 1 as a two-disc package. The full frame images are passable, looking a little bit soft and even smeary at times. Colours overall appear tired, and deep blacks and clean whites are seldom to be found. Overall the look is typical of DVDs of British TV fare of almost 30 years ago. The mono sound is not bad. Dialogue is clear enough though hiss and crackle are evident at times. English SDH subtitling is provided. There are no supplements. Suggested as a rental at best.
A much better bet is Is It Legal?: The Complete Third Series - a simple unpretentious sitcom done with verve and featuring a cast that really seems to be enjoying itself.
I previously reviewed the program's second series which contains the best work of the show's three-series life in the 1995-98 period. As you may remember from that review, Is It Legal? follows the work of the small staff at a Hounslow, west London law firm, with the term "work" being used advisedly. For this final series, all the cast members return except for Jeremy Clyde who played the firm's senior partner, a man who seemed to spend most of his time schmoozing and honing his golf game. That's an important loss because the episodes now tend to focus entirely on either the exasperation of partner Stella (Imelda Staunton) or the insecurity of office manager Bob (Patrick Barlow). Both Staunton and Barlow are great in their roles, but the balance that Clyde provided is missed somewhat. The other regulars returning include the outrageously inept, accident-prone, freshly minted lawyer, Colin (Richard Lumsden), secretary Alison (Kate Isitt) who looks a knockout but has no apparent office skills whatsoever, and dozy office boy Darren (Matthew Ashforde). As in the previous two series, the office happenings are again mainly absurd, but there's a somewhat greater leaning towards sexual innuendo in them. Some of the third series' plots involve a relationship between Stella and Bob, the further misadventures of Colin in the office and at home, a new staff member and the appearance of Bob's old flame, and the discovery of a 19-year old secret. Great, nicely-observed fun with repeat viewing potential. Network's Region 2 release (requires an all-region DVD player for viewers in North America) is delivered as a two-disc set that maintains the quality level of the previous series DVD release. The episodes are presented full frame as originally aired and look very nice. The image is sharp and colour fidelity and brightness is strong. The transfers are very clean. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no subtitles and no supplements. Recommended.
Another Region 2 offering that's worth your attention is Network's release of The Governor: The Complete First Series. The Governor is a drama series written and produced by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) that focuses on Helen Hewitt (Janet McTeer), the youngest woman appointed governor (or chief warden) of an all-male maximum security facility.
The facility (Barfield Prison) has just been partially destroyed by a prisoner riot that also involved an inmate's murder. Helen undertakes the task despite some misgivings that she is just a caretaker while the prison rebuilding proceeds. As one might expect, earning the respect of her suspicious and at times antagonistic force of prison guards is a significant issue, particularly since the heir apparent for the job was passed over in order to appoint Helen. Other issues develop from the volatile and varied prison population itself as she gradually tries to determine the most effective type of regime under which to administer the facility. There are six episodes in the first series, with a connecting story line. Issues such as mental illness, prisoner hierarchy, intimidation of inmates by the prison staff as well as other inmates, and the politics of prison administration are all grist for the mill in what as a whole is a compelling suite of programs. Much hinges on Janet McTeer as Helen, and she is for the most part very effective in the role. She conveys strength sufficiently enough to be believable, although one wonders if a similar real-life situation might not present more difficulties than those portrayed in The Governor (at least in relation to staff resistance). The series has a strong supporting cast with many characters persisting through several episodes. Network's Region 2 release (requires an all-region DVD player for viewers in North America) is delivered on two discs with three episodes on each. The image is presented with an aspect ratio of approximately 1.56:1 (14:9), typical of British TV fare from the 1990s and a compromise between 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 as television companies were trying to introduce the widescreen concept. It is letterboxed and not anamorphically enhanced. Despite that, the image looks quite good. Sharpness and image detail are fine except for a few night-time scenes. Colours are muted, presumably reflecting how the show was originally aired. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no subtitles and no supplements. Recommended. (I expect we will see the second series also come out from Network, but it's not on this year's schedule at present. Both series have been available previously from a different source on Region 2 DVD.)
Current and Upcoming Releases in Region 1
New additions since the last edition of the column are highlighted in yellow.
Murder Investigation Team: Series 1. The hit, realistic procedural crime drama in the vein of CSI reveals the gritty reality of police work. Broadcast on A&E in the U.S. and on ITV in the U.K. (2003), the suspenseful series follows a squad of elite detectives as they investigate horrific crimes in metropolitan London. Meticulously crafted to reflect real-life investigations, each episode brims with twists and tension. From the makers of popular, long-running series, The Bill, the series stars a strong ensemble cast. The DVD set has 3 discs; 8 episodes. From Acorn Media, March 1
Napoleon & Love. The romantic exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm) as he conquers Europe's battlefields and bedrooms. Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings) leads an illustrious cast in a romantic drama about Napoleon's many loves. Broadcast on A&E and PBS, this sumptuous costume drama follows the. The DVD set has 3-discs with 9 episodes. From Acorn Media, March 1
The Norman Conquests. Alan Ayckbourn's hilarious Emmy-nominated trilogy seen on plays by Alan Ayckbourn and broadcast in the late 1970s as part of PBS' Great Performance PBS. This uproarious study in family dysfunction is told from three angles. Based on the celebrated series, the release follows 2009's hit Broadway revival that garnered the adaptation Tony AwardŽ recognition. The DVD 3-Disc Set features three full-length dramas with pitch-perfect performances by Richard Briers (Good Neighbors), Penelope Keith (To the Manor Born), Penelope Wilton (Match Point), David Troughton (Fingersmith), and Oscar nominee Tom Conti (Shirley Valentine) in a tale of love, lust, and confusion seen from three sides. From Acorn Media, March 1
Dahlziel and Pascoe: Season 3. Four 90-minute episodes on 2 discs: Under World, Child's Play, Bones and Silence, and The Wood Beyond. From BBC via Warner Home Video, March 8
Dr. Who: Episode #23 - The Ark. From BBC via Warner Home Video, March 8
Dr. Who: Episode #85 - Seeds of Doom. From BBC via Warner Home Video, March 8
Judge John Deed: Season Three. Four 90-minute episodes: Health Hazard, Judicial Review, Conspiracy, and Economic Imperative. From BBC via Warner Home Video, March 8
Alan Bennett Collection featuring An Englishman Abroad, The. Alan Bennett (The History Boys, The Madness of King George) is one of Britain's most popular and prolific playwrights. Following his runaway success with Beyond the Fringe in the Sixties, he began writing for the stage, but soon found that his work transferred easily and effectively to the small screen. This collection, spanning over twenty years from 1972 to 1994, showcases Bennett's observant eye for the absurdities of modern life and his sharp ear for dialogue. The BAFTA-winning An Englishman Abroad was inspired by Coral Browne's real-life encounter with an eccentric Englishman in Moscow. None other than the notorious spy Guy Burgess (Alan Bates), he sends the actress on a rather counterrevolutionary mission. Also includes: The Insurance Man (with Daniel Day Lewis as Franz Kafka), A Question of Attribution (with Prunella Scales as Queen Elizabeth II and James Fox as Sir Anthony Blunt), 102 Boulevard Haussman (with Alan Bates and Janet McTeer) plus early plays A Day Out and Sunset Across the Bay (directed by Stephan Frears) and Our Winnie. Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances) stars in A Visit from Miss Prothero and A Woman of No Importance. Two film essays, Dinner at Noon and Portrait or Bust, reveal Alan Bennett's unique onscreen presence. Four discs. From BBC via Warner Home Video, March 29
Candlelight in Algeria (1944, James Mason). From VCI, March 29
Child in the House (1956, Phyllis Calvert). From VCI, March 29
Renown British Mystery Double Feature (The 20 Questions Murder Mystery (1950, Robert Beatty /Tread Softly (1952, Frances Day). From VCI, March 29
Thunder in the City (1937, Edward G. Robinson). From VCI, March 29
Upstairs Downstairs Complete Series: 40th Anniversary Edition. Featuring more than 25 hours of never-before-seen extras and collectible packaging, the 21-disc collection arrives on DVD two weeks before the PBS premiere of the new BBC revival of the series. From Acorn Media, March 29 (Separate release of Season 1 only also available)
Diana Dors Comedy Double Feature: An Alligator Named Daisy (1957) and Value for Money (1955), From VCI, April 5
Lark Rise to Candleford - The Complete Collection. A 14-DVD set with a running time of 1892 minutes. From BBC via Warner Home Video, April 5.
Lark Rise to Candleford: The Complete Season 4. A 2-DVD set. From BBC via Warner Home Video, April 5
Terry Thomas Comedy Double Feature. Too Many Crooks (1958) and Make Mine Mink (1960). From VCI, April 5
Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 1988 and 1989. A 2-DVD package. From BBC via Warner Home Video, April 12
Kes (1969, directed by Ken Loach). Supplements will include: Making Kes - a new documentary featuring Loach, Menges, producer Tony Garnett, and actor David Bradley; The Southbank Show: Ken Loach (1993), a profile of the filmmaker, featuring Loach, Garnett, directors Stephen Frears and Alan Parker, and other Loach collaborators; Cathy Come Home (1967), a feature directed by Loach and produced by Garnett, with an introduction by film writer Graham Fuller; the original theatrical trailer; and a booklet featuring an essay by Fuller. From Criterion, on either DVD or Blu-ray, April 19
Lorna Doone. Clive Owen (Children of Men, Closer, Inside Man, Gosford Park, Chancer), Polly Walker (Caprica, Rome, State of Play, Patriot Games), and Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings, GoldenEye, Sharpe) star in a sumptuous adaptation of the classic novel; R.D. Blackmore's beloved tale of forbidden love in lawless 17th-century England, celebrated since its publication in 1869. A classic story of romance, revenge, and adventure makes its North American home video debut. Lavish costumes, dazzling scenery, and a stellar supporting cast round out this splendid adaptation of one of the greatest love stories ever told. The British drama aired in the U.K. in 1990 and is one of Clive Owen's and Polly Walker's earliest roles. From Acorn Media, April 19
A Mind to Kill, Series 3. Final series of the gritty, character-driven Welsh detective drama. Acclaimed actor Philip Madoc (The Last of the Mohicans, Doctor Who, The Avengers) returns to the dark police drama as DCI Noel Bain, a worldly detective who uses insight and intelligence to solve monstrous crimes. Aired widely in U.K in the mid 1990s in both English and Welch. Eight feature-length mysteries on 3 discs. From Acorn Media, April 19
Doc Martin Collection: Series 1-4. Bestselling British comedic drama airing on PBS stations. Akin to House and Northern Exposure, BAFTA winner Martin Clunes (Men Behaving Badly, Shakespeare in Love, Dirty Tricks, Reggie Perrin) stars as a surly, tactless, self-centered, and uptight doctor-but he's the only doctor in town. Doc Martin is a huge hit in the U.K. with 9 million viewers and a fifth series commissioned. This value-priced 9-disc collection includes all 30 endearing and off-beat episodes from the first four series. From Acorn Media, April 26
Demob. Martin Clunes (Doc Martin) leads an ensemble cast in a light-hearted WWII-era comedy drama seen on public television. After spending four years entertaining the troops with raunchy stage routines, a pair of soldiers take their act back home-to sometimes disastrous, but always hilarious results. Broadcast on ITV in 1993, Demob paints a nostalgic portrait of post-war Britain with realistic period details, costumes, and comic appeal. The series co-stars Amanda Redman (New Tricks), Simon Williams (Upstairs, Downstairs), Samantha Janus (Pie in the Sky), James Faulkner (The Bank Job), and comic great Les Dawson in his final role (6 episodes). From Acorn Media, April 26
Romeo and Juliet (1954, Laurence Harvey) on both DVD and Blu-ray. From VCI April 26.
Identity. A slick, high-tech crime procedural in the vein of CSI. ABC is currently making an American remake with Angela Bassett (ER). Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes, MI-5) and Aidan Gillen (The Wire) star in this ITV production about an elite police team charged with investigating the high-stakes world of identity theft. Realistic plots and intelligent writing offers a riveting glimpse into one of the 21st century's most ubiquitous crimes (6 episodes). From Acorn Media, May 3
Sea of Sand (1958, Richard Attenborough). From VCI, May 3
Simon and Laura (1955, Peter Finch). From VCI, May 3
To Paris with Love (1955, Alec Guinness). From VCI, May 3
Upstairs and Downstairs (1959, Michael Craig). From VCI, May 3
Way to the Stars, The (1945, John Mills). From VCI, May 3
39 Steps, The (1959, Kenneth More). From VCI, May 17
We Dive at Dawn (1943, John Mills). From VCI, May 17
Bob Hoskins Collection: The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa, Raggedy Rawney, and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. 4 DVDs. From Image Entertainment, June 7
Michael Palin Collection: Time Bandits, A Private Function and The Missionary. 3 DVDs. From Image Entertainment, June 7
Dr. Who: Episode 132 - The Awakening. From BBC via Warner Home Video, July 12
Dr. Who: Episode 25 - The Gunfighters. From BBC via Warner Home Video, July 12
Last of the Summer Wine: 1990 Vintage. A 2-DVD package containing ten 30-minute episodes plus one 30-minute special. From BBC via Warner Home Video, July 12
MI-5: Volume 9. A 3-DVD set. From BBC via Warner Hone Video, July 12