Given that I’m retired, I’m probably happier than most hombres to admit that I watch far more television than is good for me.
I once read somewhere that if kids spend more than four hours per day in front of the box they are likely to turn into brain-damaged dysfunctional adults with minimal social skills and an unhealthy interest in the game of dominos, which left me terminally self-concerned and thinking (in relation to the number of hours) “… and the rest”.
The fact is that most days, since my default domestic position is sitting at the computer, I tend to have either the radio and/or the television on – with the sound low – in the background, simply as a life-accompaniment and perhaps a comfort to my solo existence, researching online or tapping away at some Word document or another.
As a result, I come across all sorts of programming that – in normal circumstances, planning a week’s listening or viewing – I wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole.
Having caught Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan giving a radio interview about their new self-penned Channel Four late night comedy sit-com Catastrophe, I’ve taken the vehicle out of the garage, watched the first few episodes and can report, with some reservations, myself pleasantly surprised.
Delaney (37) plays an American ad executive who meets and has a short-term affair with Horgan (44), an Irish primary school teacher hailing from London who is on holiday in America. Weeks later, back home, she contacts him out of the blue to announce that she is pregnant. For reasons that didn’t seem quite credible to this viewer, he then decides to move to London and ‘do right by her’ – up to and including potentially getting married and creating a new life for himself in the UK.
The plusses first. Delaney and Horgan‘s script are grown-up (‘adult’ in several respects), sassy, observational, quirky, clever and occasionally very funny. Their characters are also believable. Their supporting cast of British thesps – including Ashley Jensen (female collaborator on Ricky Gervais and Stephen Marchant’s comedy sit-com Extras) – is uniformly classy and smart. Catastrophe is all the better for being a welcome departure from normal British sit-com fare with its coverage of pregnancy and cancer scare issues, social misunderstandings and clashes between American and European cultures. At its core Delaney and Horgan, both likeable, have a great on-screen rapport and an ear for slick quips and gags.
My slight disappointment with Catastrophe lies in the quality control area. The first two episodes were exceptional and, for me, those since a little bit uneven. As the basic story (and Horgan’s pregnancy) develops, the sometimes left-field and outrageous plot twists seem out of character, so that the viewer becomes unsure whether to take the project as a drama with elements of humour or rather as a series of events linking a comedy sketch show. That said, Catastrophe has had a promising start.
I am also very much enjoying Wolf Hall, BBC2’s adaptation of Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies – the first two of her intended trilogy of historically-based novels covering the life of Thomas Cromwell in 16th Century England, to be completed with publication of The Mirror and The Light later this year – which features many of the British acting establishment and strong performances by both Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damien Lewis as Henry VIII.
The BBC has invested much time, effort and money in this series and it seems to have paid off.
According to reports I have read, there was some controversy over the first two episodes, majoring around the alleged lack of production lighting and the slow and/or confusing nature of the story.
The production lighting issue (echoing the criticism of the Beeb’s Jamaica Inn series last year in relation to mumbled lines and sound quality) perhaps illustrates the gap between modern viewer expectation and the producers’ desire for authenticity.
If in reality the 16th Century was lit solely by candles, then arguably you cannot have interior castle scenes played out in eye-watering 10,000-watt electric bulb studio lighting just for the benefit of Mrs Buggins, living at 16A Acacia Avenue, Solihull in 2015.
As for the pace of the story, as a viewer I was and remain in a somewhat advantageous position. I last personally covered 16th Century English history about fifty years ago at school and can remember little of the detail. In addition, by choice, I do not read fiction and have not flicked through even a single page of La Mantell’s work, though I understand some modern historians have gained a degree of publicity for themselves by nick-picking at some of her narratives, characterisations and lack of on-set authenticity regarding fixtures, fittings, furnishing and detailed court etiquette.
Instead I have just switched on, sat back in my armchair and let the whole thing wash over me, accepting the producers’ offering at its own face value. I am relatively unfamiliar with the acting of Damien Lewis – and have never set eyes upon Mark Rylance at work previously – and am highly impressed with both.
Rylance in particular seems to have mastered the art of saying more by doing and saying less. It is difficult to take one’s eyes off him because you are seduced into imagining that you can see him actually listening to the other actor’s lines before reacting and also thinking before, as a conversation is about to begin, he speaks for the first time.
As a result, Wolf Hall gains a big thumb’s up from me. I don’t care about its detailed historical accuracy or the occasions when I become momentarily confused by the story and/or who exactly is who and why. I return to it each week because I am willingly seduced by the acting of Lewis and Rylance and the (okay perhaps false) impression that I am watching 16th Century history as it actually happens.
You cannot get better television than that.