Welcome back to the first instalment of the blog in 2016 as I look back at all the big TV highlights of the last six days.
Despite it only being January 2nd one of the most anticipated programmes of the year has already aired in the form of the first Sherlock episode in almost two years. The pre-publicity for The Abominable Bride suggested that Steven Moffat’s modern interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes character would return to the late 19th century time period of Conan Doyle’s original stories. For the most part that’s what Moffat delivered with Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) solving the same mysteries whilst wearing clob-ber from the 19th century. The central case in question saw the duo try to solve the mystery of how a woman who supposedly killed herself in broad daylight could come back and murder her husband. The bride of the title, Emilia Ri-coletti, then reportedly came back a third time as she promised to finish off Sir Eustace Carmichael (Tim McInnerny) prompting his wife to ask for the help of Holmes and Watson. However, just as the case was picking up pace, Moffat brought us back to Earth with a jolt as he revealed that the entire 19th century setting was just part of a fantasy brought on by the 21st Sherlock overdosing on a cocktail of drugs. From the delivery of this twist, The Abominable Bride be-came both compelling and frustrating in equal measure as it became increasing-ly hard to focus on a mystery that we’d been told didn’t matter too much. In-deed, at the heart of the episode’s central mystery was the return of Moriarty (Andrew Scott) who had supposedly come back from the dead at the end of the third series. Apparently, according to the plot, Sherlock’s 19th century fantasy was to prove that Moriarty was in fact still dead and that the return videos that had been circulating online had in fact been created by someone else. Therefore it was hard to care about the reveal of the Ricoletti Case and the fact that it had been plotted by a group of women who were eager to show that they were just as capable as the men were. Although normally the reveal of a Sherlock mystery would be a satisfying conclusion for the audience in the case of this episode it was just the backdrop for our protagonist to reveal the truth about the Moriarty return.
In my opinion The Abominable Bride demonstrates everything that is right and wrong with the Sherlock series in one fell swoop. In the positive column I thought visually everything about this episode of Sherlock was stunning and Douglas McKinnon’s direction was great throughout. I particularly liked how the modern visual aspects of the Sherlock series were still employed despite the period setting. Additionally the performances from Freeman and Cumberbatch were great once again and their chemistry is as wonderful as ever. I especially think that the pair shone in the more serious moments that the episode offered particularly when dealing with Sherlock’s drug abuse. Also I liked how neither man hammed it up in the 19th century parts of the episode and instead acted as they previously had done albeit wearing different costumes. Where the episode fell down for me was in Moffat scripted and particularly with his insistence to almost outsmart the audience at every turn. Whilst I do admit that some TV dramas insult their audiences intelligence, Steven Moffat almost does the oppo-site and tries to outsmart them rather than simply offering a smart, intelligent story. In fact, during some of the episode’s twist and turns I could feel the writ-er essentially saying ‘I bet you didn’t see that coming’. I personally found the constant switching between the two timelines to be overly jarring and felt that the story became more confused as it went on. That’s not to say that I didn’t like some of the elements of the script most notably the humorous touches pro-vided by the supporting characters most notably Molly Hooper’s cross-dressing and Mycroft’s eating problems in the 19th century. Overall, I feel that The Abominable Bride served as a prologue for Sherlock’s fourth series rather than the stand alone episode that most had been expecting. While the episode still had some of the impressive elements that made people fall in love with the se-ries in the first place at the same time I found the twists overtook the storytell-ing at times. I’m just hoping that the fourth series isn’t as jarring as The Abom-inable Bride was and that Moffat replaces the unnecessary twists and turns with the simple, well-told stories that occupied Sherlock’s brilliant earlier runs.
Investigatory work of a different kind was carried on ITV this week thanks to their new spooky drama Harry Price: Ghost Hunter. Price (Rafe Spall) was a man who was known as a ghost hunter but more famously as an exposer of fraudulent clairvoyants. The story in this feature-length episode saw Price called upon by MP Sir Charles Harwood (Michael Byrne) in order to help Grace Goodwin (Zoe Boyle) the wife of one of his party’s up-and-comers Edward (Tom Ward). Grace had been found walking naked through the streets of London and after claiming that she saw ghosts, Sir Charles thought Price could help out and also be someone to blame if things went wrong. Price soon enlists the help of Sarah (Cara Theobold) the Goodwins’ housekeeper who is able to divulge personal information about her employers. However, as the episode goes on, Sarah becomes more of an assistant to Harry and the two had formed quite a formidable team by the time the investigation comes to an end. It actually took a while for me to truly become invested in Harry Price: Ghost Hunter but after a while the story sucked me in as did the fine performances. I do like how ITV are trying something different with the old crime drama format and the use of the supernatural investigator gives a sinister air to proceedings. I particularly appreciated the way that writer Jack Lothian made us suspect that maybe ghostly forces were at work in the Goodwin house and Grace’s paranoia was more than justified. Additionally I felt that the story had a satisfying conclusion that made sense and ended with the sense that Harry and Sarah would team up again in the future. To that point, this one-off film did feel like a pilot for a whole series of Harry Price and I for one wouldn’t be opposed to that primarily because of the performance from Rafe Spall. I’m a big fan of Spall’s and I think the sceptical but sympathetic character of Harry Price perfectly suits him especially when he’s allowed to add some comic touches to the part. He also shares a wonderful chemistry with Cara Theobold who was equally great as the intelligent maid Sarah. Although not perfect, Harry Price: Ghost Hunter was the perfect antidote to all of the festive sweetness that’s been on the TV this Christmas and I for one hope this mixture of Endeavour and Jonathan Creek returns to our screens sooner rather than later.
Usually you can turn to comedy for a bit of festive cheer however the likes of Mrs Brown’s Boys and Citizen Khan don’t really cut it for yours truly. It does in fact come to something when one of this fortnight’s funniest comedies sees a fictional pensioner berating all those around her but that’s just what you get from Catherine Tate’s Nan. This past week saw Tate revive the character who first came to prominence for two self-contained episodes which to me felt like a bit of a test run to see if the public would take to a whole series. Based on the evidence of the two episodes that recently aired I would say a full series featuring Tate’s Nan character would be extremely inconsistent. The stronger of the two most recent episodes saw Nan attend anger management classes after attacking a blind veteran who was collecting for charity. Although some of the insults Nan dishes out were fairly unfunny, the interplay between Tate and Warwick Davis’ unfortunately named class leader Mr Fanee provided many highlights. The episode’s final set piece also brilliantly brought together all the many elements of the instalment and was extremely funny. However there were very few highlights in the second episode Knees Up Wilmott Brown in which Nan found herself in a position of power when a property developer was keen to buy up all the flats in her block. Here the insults Nan gave were quite brutal and the constant references to Wilmott-Brown, a character who was in Eastenders over twenty-five years ago, felt very dated. Despite my reservations with both episodes I can’t say I didn’t laugh about Nan’s obsession with Group On or the constant knockbacks she delivered to her amorous neighbour. Tate still gives her all to make the character as convincing as possible and when the gags are great, her delivery is top notch. However, there were too many times throughout the two episodes when the writers fell back on cheap cliches and petty insults which didn’t appeal to me at all. Ultimately I do think there’s room for a full series of Nan, however the writing has to be a lot sharper and the character needs to develop beyond just being a foul-mouthed, bigoted stereotype.
Catherine Tate and Warwick Davis also featured among the cast of Billionaire Boy which was the latest David Walliams book to be adapted for the small screen. The youngster of the title was Joe Spud (Elliot Sprakes) whose poor existence is transformed when his father Len (John Thomson) invents a new type of toilet paper. Whilst Len wants to flaunt his new found wealth, Joe is keen to remain as normal as possible and therefore gets Davis, who plays himself, to enrol him in the local state school. Without his wealth to fall back on, Joe finds a friend who doesn’t want him just for his money and also gets treated like just another kid. However, at home, Joe feels his relationship with his father deteriorating after Len begins romancing the gold-digging hand model Sapphire Diamond (Tate). Inevitably the kids at school eventually find out about Joe’s identity and this revelation has big side effects for both his class teacher (Rebecca Front) and his relationship with his fellow pupils. I’ve previously been a fan of the now annual David Walliams adaptations and I was particularly taken with last year’s Boy in the Dress, as it felt like it told a very personal story. However, in comparison, Billionaire Boy is a little bit paint-by-numbers for my liking as the central theme of ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ is something that has been done better before. It was also hard to warm to Len, as we saw very little of him before he became a conceited billionaire and therefore I didn’t really care when he lost his fortune at the end of the story. Luckily Billionaire Boy was saved by the lively central performance of Elliot Sprakes who was utterly convincing as a normal boy who was keen not to let his wealth change him. The supporting cast also helped add colour to the grotesque characters with Tate being a particular stand out as Sapphire Diamond and Walliams himself putting a memorable cameo as a school dinner lady. Overall, Billionaire Boy was a good way to while away an hour and was one of the only programmes on TV over Christmas that the whole family could watch together. On the other hand I can’t help but being a little disappointed as in my opinion Billionaire Boy just didn’t stack up against the other Walliams adaptations which have all been highlights of the previous three years’ festive schedules.
Those of you who’ve read The Custard TV’s Best of 2015 now that one of early favourites was Channel 4′s Walking the Nile and now adventurer Levison Wood is back with a new challenge in Walking the Himalayas. Alongside local guide Malang, Levison has decided to walk all 17,000 miles of the Himalayas from Afghanistan to Bhutan and his journey doesn’t exactly get off to an easy start. The majority of episode one saw Levison and Malang negotiate the harsh climate of Afghanistan and stopping off at small villages in order to request packing vehicles and possibly get a hot meal for the night. After several trying days, the duo finally reach the Irshad Pass which will take them through to Pakistan and as a result complete the first leg of their journey. The episode ended with perhaps my favourite scene as Levison and Malang enjoy an evening at the luscious Hanza Valley in North Pakistan where the locals attribute their longevity to a special type of moonshine. I’m pleased to report that Walking the Himalayas is as immersive as Wood’s previous journey down the Nile thanks in part to the beautiful cinematography which paints a vivid picture of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghanistan of Walking the Himalayas is very different from the one we see on the news as is this is a place home to small tribes with young children whose life expectancy is only thirty-two. The contrast between the early part of Levison’s journey and his arrival in the Hanza Valley was also incredible especially because the scenery looked amazing. Wood himself was an amiable host although I did wonder how hard he had actually trained before the show had begun as he seemed to be out of breath every five minutes. Additionally I did question a scene where Levison and Malang came across a new Afghani village after being in desperate circumstances as it appeared as if this scene had been created for entertainment purposes. But on the whole Walking the Himalayas was a compelling documentary which shone a new light on areas of the world that we think we know about. As all the rest of the series will air next year it already looks like Walking the Himalayas may already be one of our favourites at the end of 2016.
We end with a show that was very close to my heart as the nation’s favourite choirmaster tried to track down every one he shared a stage with over the last decade in Gareth Malone’s Great Choir Reunion. This special two-parter saw Malone try to track down members of all the choirs he’d created throughout his various series which started ten years ago with the original group at the Northolt High School. Gareth was pleased to learn that a fair few of the former Northolt students had pursued careers in music as had the boys from The Lancaster School; who were the subject of his second documentary Boys Don’t Sing. The first episode dealt solely with the school choirs and almost became like a musical version of Friends Reunited ending which ended with a performance of James Bay’s Hold Back the River. The second episode focused primarily on the South Oxhey Community Choir alongside arguably Gareth’s most successful project the Military Wives Choir. It says something about Gareth’s recent success that only a small amount of time was devoted to the nine choirs he’d formed in the forgettable Sing While You Work series. In fact I feel it was only featured to give some context to the appearance of social worker Siobhan who started Gareth’s Choir of Choirs performance of Bridge Over Troubled Water. The one issue I had with The Choir Reunion was how the majority of those interviewed credited Gareth with helping them find their voice and gain confidence in their lives. This constant fawning over Gareth was a little too much for me to stomach but that being said its clear that he’s had a large influence over some of these people’s lives. Furthermore, the bulk of both episodes were full of clips from the previous series and there was very little new footage during the two hours. That being said I got a little bit nostalgic watching clips from all the shows and thought it was great to catch-up with some of the characters, especially the members of the two school choirs. Although seeing the former youngsters now made me feel incredibly old, I did find it incredibly touching to see them sing together again and the final performance demonstrated how much singing had touched their lives over the last decade. However the biggest question I had is whether Gareth will find success again as I believe he hasn’t been involved in a really decent series since The Military Wives.
Next Time: Endeavour, War and Peace and Jericho