International Television

This is a non-spoilered review of Endgame, a drama broadcast in Canada in 2011 now available for streaming on Hulu that features a chess grandmaster with agoraphobia trapped in a Vancouver luxury hotel who becomes a private investigator.

This is a non-spoilered review of Short Poppies, a comedy broadcast in New Zealand in 2014 now available for streaming on Netflix that features comic actor Rhys Darby profiling a different lead character in every one of the eight episodes of the series.

Photo Courtesy Of Matt Squire BBC

Photo Courtesy Of Matt Squire BBC

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Regular readers of these pages have likely realized this writer’s fascination with history and science-fiction/fantasy productions. So it’s little wonder that when the BBC announced that they were adapting “Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell,” as a seven part miniseries I was more than intrigued. After watching the finale of the story about a week ago, I can state that once again our cousins from across the pond, exceeded my highest expectations. The series now running here in the States on BBCA, is a story that will go down as a landmark production. Adapted from a 2004 novel by Susan Clarke, the alternative-history tale, that takes place in England in the early 1800’s, came to life on the small screen. The superb writing and brilliant acting, kept this viewer on the edge of my chair throughout the production.

The amazing cast will likely be unfamiliar to many American viewers, don’t let that dissuade you as their performances will quickly win you over. Bertie Carvel, a frequent actor on TV in England, has created a role for the ages in Jonathan Strange. With a hairstyle that evokes memories of Gene Wilder in the Mel Brooks classic movie “Young Frankenstein,” we watch Strange evolve over the story, from a young man lacking ambition to the greatest magician of his time. From a hopeless romantic that believed he and his beloved Arabella could exist on love alone, to the man who helped Lord Wellington defeat Napoleon.

Carvel dominates the screen each time he appears, causing the viewer to cheer when he succeeds and to share his sorrow, when he fears he’s lost the love of his life forever. That loss pushes Strange to seek out and pursue madness, in order to get her back safely. The actor hits each note perfectly whether he’s righting an English ship with the help of “Sand Horses,” as well as in his darkest moments of despair.

Eddie Marsan who sounds like a South Boston native in “Ray Donovan,” fills the role of the other character in the title, Gilbert Norrell, a middle-aged practicing magician who realizes his dabbling in the dark-arts is looked down upon by proper society. Norrell’s fame comes first and he tries to hang onto his sphere of influence, by any means necessary. Secretive and untrusting by nature, he tries to get Parliament to form a Court Of Magic, with him in charge.

Marc Warren once again portrays a character that you love to hate, following his spectacular performance as Rochefort, in the BBC series “The Musketeers.” Warren portrays The Gentleman, a Fairy, but rid your mind of any visions of Tinkerbell, or the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio. The Gentleman’s a dandy with a mane of snow-white hair and looks to gain a serious advantage with each mortal he bargains with.

Both female characters in the production are superb, with Alice Englert in the role of Lady Pole, whose brought back from the dead in a deal between Norrell and The Gentleman. It results in a horrific situation, with the young woman spending her sleeping hours in the court of The Gentleman. She’s spirited away each night to a ball, dancing with other guests of the Gentleman.

Charlotte Riley portrays Arabella Strange, a strong and independent woman, whose deeply in love with her husband. Jonathan and Belle want nothing more than to leave London and spend the rest of their days at Jonathan’s family’s estate. But a call to duty by the War Department and The Gentleman’s obsession with Belle, throws those plans to the wind.

Two standout performances by two wonderful actors must be mentioned. Enzo Cilenti as Norrell’s assistant Childermass, is simply brilliant. It takes a while to determine the character’s intent, but after a while the viewer realizes that Childermass may have more clarity than any of the other characters. While Norrell’s too self-centered to realize the gifts that Childermass possesses, Strange realizes how special he is and asks him to serve as Jonathan’s pupil. But Childermass passes on the offer, saying he wouldn’t be an agreeable student.

Paul Kaye plays Vinculus, a street magician, part beggar and part madman, who foretells the coming of the Raven King back to England. Vinculus informs Jonathan Strange that his fate’s to be a magician and starts Strange on his journey by selling him two spells. Strange performs them both successfully, causing him to choose a career as a practicing magician and getting Belle to marry him now that he’s chosen a career.

Ariyon Bakare gives the Pole family butler Stephen Black, an air of nobility even when life stops making sense. Born on a slave ship from Africa to England, The Gentleman shows Stephen the moment he took his first breath and his mother took her last. The Gentleman and Vinculus tell Stephen he’s destined to become a King.

Then there are the two glad-handers that attach themselves to Norrell, the moment he arrives in London. Vincent Franklin plays the unctuous Mr.  Christopher Drawlight, who quickly becomes Norrell’s biggest fan and biggest promoter, a fact he points out to Norrell as often as possible. He ends up in prison after pretending to be working as an agent for Strange and getting paid in advance.

John Heffernan in the part of Henry Lascelles, is the craftier and more despicable of the pair. Lascelles, writes a book about Norrell which sells quite well at first, but then tanks when Strange damns it in an article he published. From that point on Lascelles becomes obsessed with taking Jonathan down.

Our story takes place in an alternate-timeline, in an England, that’s looking to restore English Magic, after being absent for 300-years. The only remnants of this once proud profession, are little more than historians who laugh at the thought of casting spells. The tale begins in Yorkshire County, as a young man named Segundas becomes acquainted with a group know as “The Friends Of English Magic.”

He poses the question to the members, asking why English magician’s have become nothing more than glorified librarians. Needless to say that the members don’t take kindly to his question. The leader replies that’s like expecting Ornithologists to fly, rather than just study birds. He does find one sympathetic soul, a man named Mr. Honeyfoot who suggests Segundas contact the mysterious Mr. Norrell, a man whose rumored to have actually performed magic.

Segundas contacts Norrell through Childermass and they reach an agreement. If Gilbert can perform a feat that convinces “The Friends Of English Magic”  that Norrell is indeed a magician they will sing his praises far and wide. However if Norrell fails to convince them, he will stop claiming to be a magician.

Any doubts about Norrell vanish swiftly as “The Friends Of English Magic” watch stone statues come to life before their eyes. The statues talk and argue with each other, while in one part of the hall a choir takes to song. One of the statues grabs the leader of the society by his coat and starts yelling at him. When the statues return to their normal state, most of “The Friends Of English Magic” have fled the building in fright, only Segundas and Honeyfoot remain.

After gaining fame in Yorkshire County, Norrell tells Childermass that he wants magic restored to respectability in England. He says that he can help run the country with his talents, so they gather some books from Norrell’s extensive  library and head to London.

His name’s now familiar in London although they believe his magical feat involved Norrell cleaning all the laundry in his village. He meets with members of Parliament and his offer of service is quickly rebuffed. He wants to leave London and head back home, until he meets Drawlight and Lascelles. They inform him that Lord Pole’s fiancée died and he’s besides himself, if Norrell can bring her back from the dead Pole will become Norrell’s champion.

Gilbert realizes any attempts to bring the young woman back to the living would involve dark-magic, a force he stands against in principle and has refrained from trying to use it. However his ego and the thought of becoming England’s Magician, overrule his caution and his common sense. That’s when he summoned The Gentleman and soon magic was back in England. He makes a deal with The Gentleman, beginning a tragic existence for the new Lord and Lady Pole.

Strange learned of Norrell’s achievements and soon he and Arabella were on their way to London for Jonathan to become Gilbert’s student. Opposites in temperament, they also approached magic quite differently. Norrell acquired everything he knew from the pages of his books, while Strange had just one book that his wife bought him, the story of the Raven King.

Gilbert casts some spells that help England in their war with France, but he soon stops responding to calls for help, causing the military to turn to Jonathan for assistance. He impresses the military so much that his presence is requested on the front. Norrell starts perceiving Strange as an adversary rather than his ally, thanks in part to Drawlight and Lascelles and the two part company. However because Norrell summoned the Gentleman to our world, the Fairy has wreaked havoc first on the Pole family and then sets his sights on Arabella.

Through no fault of his own, Strange loses Arabella to The Gentleman. At first he believes she’s dead but eventually he discovers that she’s been enchanted and is a prisoner of The Gentleman. Soon thereafter, Parliament’s in a tizzy as sightings of magic and talk of the return of the Raven King has the country in an uproar. Will the Raven King overthrow the Royal Family and take the throne as the next King of England?

Although the story is ostensibly about magic “Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell,” is actually a love story, about the love between a man and his wife, about the love between friends, as well as about love of country and of magic. That’s the common thread that runs through all the parts of this tale, when it comes down to it, what will we do for love?

BBCA is running this series right now in the States and if you’ve yet to watch it, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. Start from the beginning and experience every moment of an epic story and some of the best of what Television has to offer.

The Story Continues Saturday Night on BBCA.

Photo Courtesy Of BBC

Photo Courtesy Of BBC

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Before I even started grade-school my parents would ship me off to the local movie theater each Saturday afternoon, mainly to get rid of me for a couple of hours. Although some of the movies were kid-oriented, more often than not the studios produced these pictures for an adult-audience, some of the biggest films of the early sixties as I followed along the best I could. (I clearly remember walking around the house for days, shouting “I Am Spartacus,” until my father threatened to duct tape my mouth shut.) As a side-effect of those excursions, I developed a love for movies that remains with me today.

Many of the movies I saw at that age have faded into the shrouded corners of my memory, sometimes evoked if I see the film again. However, one film and one character made a huge impression on me, “Dr. No,” the movie that brought James Bond portrayed by Sean Connery to the big screen. I left the theater that day awestruck by the movie, but more so by Connery’s performance as 007, a hero that personified the meaning of COOL.  A man that could take a slug from his Vodka Martini take out the bad guy and make out with incredibly sexy women, without mussing his hair.

From that point onward for the next few years I’d see the new James Bond adventure the weekend the movie premiered, entertained by movies like “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger” among others. Although a boatload of stories remained to be told, Connery decided to quit at his prime and in my eyes “the magic” in the Bond films vanished. Roger Moore, paled in comparison and Timothy Dalton, wasn’t even in the same area code as Connery. Although I’ve enjoyed Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig in other vehicles, I’ve never seen them as 007. Mainly because I concluded long ago I’m not a James Bond fan, I’m a “Sean Connery As James Bond Fan.”

Not long after Connery started his run as 007, a television show debuted on the BBC, that went on to become a global phenomenon even thought it’s debut drew very few viewers. The series had the misfortune of premiering on November 22, 1963 the day that American President John F. Kennedy got assassinated, however it was rebroadcast the following Friday and entranced England. That series, “Doctor Who” with William Hartnell in the title role, became a British Institution and 51-years later, the show remains as popular as ever having gone through far more incarnations of The Doctor, than James Bond.

It would stand to reason that being a huge fan of science-fiction and fantasy genre, that I’ve watched the adventures of The Doctor for decades, however even with many friends being big fans of the series the thought of watching the show never appealed to me. Ironically, the same guy that stopped enjoying the James Bond movies, after the first actor to portray the super-spy left the role, it took the actor that show-runner Steven Moffat chose to portray the twelfth Doctor for me to start watching the series. So I can now say I’m not a Doctor Who fan, I’m a “Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who Fan.”

Peter Capaldi first appeared on my radar this past summer, portraying Cardinal Richelieu in the BBC series “The Musketeers,” a series we recapped. He captured the screen and dominated each scene he appeared in as the advisor to the King of France, a man who went to great lengths to see his own agenda become reality. Though a villain in every sense of the word, the Cardinal commanded respect and proved himself as a worthy adversary. So when it came to my attention that Capaldi would soon debut as The Doctor, I naturally chose to see him in the role that I previously knew of only by word of mouth.

To prepare myself to enter The Doctor’s universe, I watched two BBC Productions; the first an entertaining and poignant film entitled “An Adventure Of Space And Time,” which recreated the series creation and William Hartnell’s portrayal of The Doctor, from 1963-1966. I also watched the 5oth Anniversary Special, “The Day Of The Doctor” that featured three incarnations of The Doctor, Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt as the War Doctor. Though realizing it probably was an amazing episode for long time fans, and impressed by the special effects, the story most of the time lost and confused me. In retrospect, I’ve come to understand just how significant the tale is.

There were no such problems as I watched the first episode of Season Eight, entitled “Deep Breath,” perhaps the fact that it was an origin story made it easier to follow. However the main appeal of the episode to me, was the performance as The Doctor, a part as far removed from Cardinal Richelieu as possible. As viewers got to know the Cardinal, it became quite easy to realize which direction he’d take in any situation. The Doctor however is an incredibly mercurial character, he’s liable to go from one extreme to the other in a matter of seconds and Capaldi nailed it from the jump.

Moffat’s described The Doctor as a restless sort, who bumbles into situations and reluctantly rectifies them. He doesn’t want the responsibility that a hero shoulders, but he ends up coming through in the end, most times. He’s got an extremely high opinion of himself and an ego to match, Moffat’s also said The Doctor’s perhaps a bit insane, or possibly stark-raving mad. Capaldi embodied those characteristics throughout the eighth season and he’ll display them again on Christmas night, as BBC America broadcasts the Christmas Special, “The Last Christmas.”

I remember at what point in that first episode, when I realized I’d be making The Doctor a regular part of my Saturday nights. The Doctor and his companion Clara, wound up in Victorian England, as The Doctor was coming to grips with his regeneration. He wore an old-fashioned men’s night-shirt and left the house of his host, ending up in an alley rummaging through the garbage that surrounded him. Suddenly he found an old broken mirror on the ground and tried to make it clear enough to see his reflection. At that point, a vagrant holding a bottle entered the alley and purposely made noise to alert The Doctor that he had company, that started the following conversation:

Doctor: It’s Bitey.

Vagrant: Bitey?

Doctor: The Air is Bitey, it’s white, mighty.

Vagrant: It’s Cold.

Doctor: That’s right! It’s cold, I knew there was a thing for it. I need um, I need clothes, that’s what I need. And a big long scarf. No, that would look stupid. Have you ever seen this face before? (pointing to himself)

Vagrant: No.

Doctor: Are you sure?

Vagrant: Sir, I’ve never seen that face before.

Doctor: That’s funny, because I know that I have. You know, I never know where these faces come from, they just pop up. (Vagrant starts to distance himself from The Doctor) Faces like this one, look. (Grabs Vagrant by the arm and takes him to the mirror) Look, look, it’s covered in lines, but I didn’t do the frowning. Did you ever look in the mirror and say to yourself, I’ve seen that face before?

Vagrant: Yes.

Doctor: When?

Vagrant: Well every time I look in the mirror.

Doctor: Yes, yes, but my face is fresh on. (Vagrant distances himself even further from The Doctor.) Why this one though? Why’d they choose this one? It’s like I’m trying to tell myself something, like I’m trying to make a point. But what is so important, that I can’t tell myself what I’m thinking?

Vagrant: Uh, uh….

Doctor: Well I’m not just being rhetorical here, you can join in.

Vagrant: Well, I don’t like it.

Doctor: What?

Vagrant: Your face.

Doctor: Well I don’t like it either. It’s alright up until the eyebrows, but then it goes haywire. Look at these eyebrows, they’re attack eyebrows. You can take bottle tops off with these!

Vagrant: They’re mighty eyebrows indeed sir!

Doctor: They’re cross, crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross, they’ll probably secede from the rest of my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows. That’s Scotch, have I gone Scottish?

Vagrant: You are definitely Scotch sir. I can hear it in your voice.

Doctor: Oh my, good I’m Scottish. Wait….I’m Scotch, Scotch, I’m Scottish. I can complain about things. I can really complain! Give me your coat.

Vagrant: (looking scared) No.

Doctor: But I’m cold.

Vagrant: But I’m cold.

Doctor: Well no sense in our both being cold, give me your coat. Wait, shut up, shut up. I’ve missed something, something that was here. (Rummages through trash, then grabs a newspaper, camera focuses on article about another victim of spontaneous combustion.) Here’s what I saw, spontaneous combustion!

Vagrant: What kind of  Deviltry is this?

Doctor: They’ll probably blame it on  the English.

It was a brilliantly acted scene and it displayed a lot of the qualities that Moffat said The Doctor possessed. The stories told throughout season eight, showed Capaldi reveling in becoming The Doctor and things like Daleks, Cyber-Men and the Tardis, became more than just meaningless phrases, that I heard from friends, or read about in articles.

I’m pretty certain, that I’ll remain onboard the Tardis, as long as Capaldi stars in the series. Whether I remain with the show after the actor gives way to yet another replacement, I’ll make that decision when that time arrives. At that point, I’ll determine if I’ve become a fan of the series, or remain a “Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who Fan.”

The Doctor Who Christmas Special, The Last Christmas, Debuts Christmas Night at 9:00 pm on BBC America.