Monday, April 1, 2013

The Golden Age of British Television

In the 73 days between the beginning of the Mostly British Film Festival (January 17) to Saturday (March 30), I went to the movies on 60 of those days. That means, I didn't go to a movie screening for a baker's dozen. Two evenings of the 13 were spent at ACT for 4000 Miles and Dead Metaphor.  Another three were spent at a chess class.  During those 73 days, I saw 126 films or programs.  I feel like I am emerging from a long tunnel into the light.

I have many posts to write in order to catch up with the films I've seen over the past three months.  I may as well get to it.


For the past several days, I have been mostly holed up watching the boob tube.  As I mentioned, I saw Season 1 of Game of Thrones earlier this year. After praising the show, I was given the Season 2 DVD set. It took me five days but I made it through the 10 episodes (approximately 9 hours).  I'm aware that Season 3 premiered last night but I don't have HBO so I don't know what has happened.  I've also started reading George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones.

Having watched nearly 20 hours of Game of Thrones, I have to admit it is an addictive piece of fantasy...a genre I have never cared for.  Fortunately, they keep the dragons, zombies and magical powers to a minimum.  The characters are richly drawn.  With the notable exception of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), all the characters have escaped melodramatic depiction.

I could cite the whole cast for their performances but a few the smaller characters/actors have caught my attention.  Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister almost brings empathy to his opportunistic character.  Young Maisie Williams as Arya Stark was at her best when opposite Dance as her character is made the servant of Lannister.  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Tywin's eldest son Jaime also showed more depth this season which is amazing since he was kept in a cage for most of the season.  Coster-Waldan has a soliloquy while imprisoned with a distant cousin which was memorable.  German born Sibel Kekilli as Shae, Tyrion Lannister's whore/true love was also memorable throughout the season.


Last week, Comcast/Xfinity has "Watchathon Week" when many programs were available for free and in several cases, in their entirety (meaning all episodes from all seasons).  I used the opportunity to watch Downton Abbey which I had heard so much about.  I made it through episode 8 of the second season which ended with Mr. Bates being arrested for murdering his ex-wife.

I wasn't sure what to expect with Downton Abbey.  I recall Upstairs, Downstairs as a boy so I was expecting a dowdy drama about English gentry and their servants.  However, Downton Abbey veers dangerously close to soap opera territory.  If not for the droll humor of Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, the show would be indistinguishable from afternoon TV.

I have to admit that I was quickly and utterly drawn into the lives of these characters.  The improbable romance between the valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and the housemaid Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) is notable because it reminds us that we have been conditioned to expect romance to progress in a certain way in films and television.  The lame, jowly, middle-aged Mr. Bates has qualities beyond his appearance that appeal to Anna and by extension the viewers.

Mr. Bates may be the centerpiece of the series for many viewers but it is the quality of the cast which elevates Downton Abbey to the cultural pinnacle in now occupies.  Jim Carter's (as the butler Carson) sonorous voice is a thing of beauty.  At the other end of the tonal spectrum is Phyllis Logan's (Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper) slight Scottish brogue which suggests the kindness and decency of her character.  The cast is enormous and it seems each character is a specialized cog in the machine.

I also notice that Downton Abbey is the master of the quick edit scene.  Some scenes last less than 10 seconds but impart a tremendous amount of information.  Some scenes are repetitive as well.  Whenever Tom and O'Brien (typically O'Brien follows Tom) go out for a cigarette or huddle in the hallway, no good can come of it and usually Mr. Bates is the object of their scheming.


Downton Abbey airs on PBS in the United States but is filmed and produced in the United Kingdom.  Similarly HBO's Game of Thrones, is filmed mostly in the UK and uses actors from the British Isles.  Combined with BBC America's Copper and Ripper Street, it appears to be a Golden Age of Television in the UK.  Some of the actors (Iain Glen & Jerome Flynn) appear on more than one of the shows.  I don't watch that much television so it's interesting that given the countless options, I would gravitate towards four shows from the UK.

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