This Week in TV: The Queen, Margot, Big Top and The Amazing Dermot

Welcome to a Right Royal Week In TV.

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First up is the first week of this month which presented us with five actresses playing one role that of our own Queen, Elizabeth II, in the imaginatively titled The Queen. Although the fourth channel pertains to be the alternative channel it often focuses on the monarchy with a series of documentaries about The Queen Mum and Princess Margaret last year. Now we are presented with five stories which try and stay away from the period covered in the film ‘The Queen’ as possible which was the 1997 of New Labour and Diana’s Death. Instead we are given five time periods in which The Queen had to deal with different scandals and personal crisis. These five different periods were each accompanied by a different actress playing The Queen who were in order – Emilia Fox, Samantha Bond, Susan Jameson, Barbara Flynn and Diana Quick. The main problem though was often the scandals and crisis weren’t directly to do with The Queen but instead it was how best she dealt with them. Meanwhile the ‘imagined’ dramatic elements of each story were watered down by a variety of talking heads who ranged in significance from first-hand accounts to some guesswork. We were also given newsreel footage which was the only piece of The Queen saga that felt genuine. The first part was directly after The Queen’s coronation and saw her struggle to deal with her sister’s affair with a divorcee member of the househould Captain Peter Townsend. We were given the idea that Elizabeth had to deal with the situation in the same way that her father would have done and in the end Margaret was left heartbroken. This first issue was more about the affair than The Queen herself so Fox’s Queen played second fiddle to her sister. Samantha ‘Miss Moneypenny’ Bond fared little better in her tale which was set around the 1970s in which she had to ally herself with Ted Heath and make sure the public still wanted a monarchy. Again Bond was upstaged by the story about the capture of Princess Anne and Anne’s wedding to Mark Philips. We also got the theme about the media’s importance in The Royal Family’s lives something that was to be of greater significance in the later parts.

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The more mature actresses got more meatier chunks suggesting that the best parts of The Queen’s life were in her later stages or at least the more press-worthy events happened during that time. Jameson’s Queen was brilliant in her exchanges with the equally fantastic Lesley Manville in the third chapter of The Queen’s life through the mid to late 1980s when both Lizzie and Maggie were in their 60s. But of all the five Queens Barbara Flynn’s was my favourite at capturing The Queen during her famous annus horriblus of 1992 and in particular the dealings with Charles and Diana’s divorce. We saw a Queen who was sympathetic to Diana to a point but clashed with her son over his involvement with leaking stories to the press which again rotated back to the earlier involvement with the media. Finally Quick bought us to the present decade with The Queen’s struggles to accept Camilla as Charles’ new wife. This was a Queen who barely communicated with her son and tried to get some revenge against Camilla by taking her a peg or two down in the order of succession. Of all the five stories however Flynn’s was the only one that could’ve probably been a stand-alone in the way that Helen Mirren’s The Queen was. The Queen then really could’ve been called The Queen and friends because it wasn’t really a focus on her maj but rather how she dealt with things. Sometimes sneaky, sometimes diplomatic always trying to be as fair as possible The Queen in Channel 4′s eyes was somewhat weak until later life in which she finally came into her stride. At the end of the day this was quite a weak representation of a strong woman who surely had more backbone that had been imagined by the makers of the programme. Despite casting some fine actresses in the dramatic segments this programme still fell flat thanks to useless talking heads and lack of direction. Only Flynn briefly saved the day in a drama-packed instalment but that wasn’t enough to save this over-ambitious concept.

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Turning now to another strong woman and the final of the three ‘Women We Loved’ dramas from BBC4. So far Helena Bonham Carter played the childlike and sometimes obnoxious Enid Blyton while Jane Horrocks dazzled as the hopelessly optimistic Gracie Fields. Anne Marie Duff’s Margot Fontaine was pitched somewhere between the two. However the script for Margot was also the weakest focusing mainly on the latter stages of Fontaine’s life where she was forced to dance less. We saw her relationship with various people in the dance community as well as her mother and her husband. The cast list was a lot better than the other two Women We Loved maybe because the makers had less confidence in Duff they bolstered it with performances from the likes of Derek Jacobi and Penelope Wilton. However the usually reliable Con O’Neill was stuck with a thankless job as Fontaine’s ignorant Cuban husband in which he had to put on a bizarre Spanish accent which came out like he was a comedian trying to do a stupid comic accent. Duff was as good as ever and shone in the scenes where she romanced the much younger Nuryev as well as being accomplished in the dancing sequences as Horrocks was singing as Gracie. Although hampered by a dodgy script, Duff proved she could stand (or dance) alongside Horrocks and Carter as one of the British actresses that we love.

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Something that will never stand the test of time and will hopefully disappear without a trace is Big Top the new ‘sitcom’ that seemed to have been gathering dust on the BBC shelves since 1973. Indeed it does feature the spirits of sitcom past in the form of Ruth Madoc in full Hi de Hi mode and Tony Robinson as a slightly smarter version of Baldrick. As you may have guessed giving the title the sitcom is about circuses and not about breast enhancements. Amanda Holden (yes she is an actress) leads the pack as the ring mistress while Sophie ‘Sister of Emma’ Thompson and John ‘No relation to Emma’ Thompson star as some clowns although everyone who decided to sign up to this nonsense are clowns (especially John who I thought was in Corrie now). The first episode seemed to about Holden wanting to leave the circus oddities behind and go out with a health inspector who liked to talk about mortgages which turned her on. Meanwhile she left the circus to be run by the performers with ‘hilarious results’ involving Thompson putting insects down his trousers and the Big Top being stolen. Everything about this is bad the stale jokes, the foreign stereotype (an Eastern European juggler) and the bad acting. Only Robinson seems to be able to deliver his lines with some kind of comedy zing the rest of the cast seem to just be thinking about the money the BBC are paying them for this. Pre-watershed sitcoms seem to be a problem for the Beeb – My Family, After You’ve Gone, Parents of the Band, The Life of Riley and now Big Top have all been failures or are just dire. Thankfully there is some hope for the family sitcom in the delightful Miranda which continues to sparkle. Unlike Big Top which fizzled out within about two minutes of its opening credits.

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Finally we have the latest Comedy Showcase this time a star vehicle for Rhys ‘Murray from Flight of the Conchords’ Darby. In The Amazing Dermot he plays a hypnotist/illusionist who has been disgraced and decided to check himself into rehab. While in rehab he plans a big stunt which involves a double (a la The Prestige) of course this trick goes horrendously wrong after Dermot takes one too many of Noel Edmonds’ tranquillisers and ends up in a coma. Dermot also has an old assistant/love interest who he is hoping to get back. Darby as always is hilarious, Dermot is a bit less innocent than Murray which is good because Darby doesn’t want to be typecast. Meanwhile Darren Boyd, who previously starred in one of these comedy showcases, stars as Dermot’s agent who tries to romance the deaf nurse at the Rehab centre. This subplot is less involving and quite tasteless at times but could easily be cut out if this became a full sitcom. This is one of the more promising showcases thanks to a very believable and funny lead character and actor as well as an easy to follow plotline. If Darby wants it then a full series of The Amazing Dermot should easily appear in 2010.

Next Time: Small Island, Kidnapped by the Kids and Mister Eleven

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