The Mystery of Charles Dickens

TV Just in case anyone else has missed this, and to prove the BBC do know something about scheduling after all, Simon Callow's The Mystery of Charles Dickens is appearing on BBC Four tonight at 8:15. So it won't be clashing with Doctor Who Confidential. I don't think that's a coincidence, do you? Oddly enough, I've listened to an old radio version of this over the past couple of weeks, and a section of it tells the story of the reading tours which Dickens was undertaking at the end of his life and the reason he's in Cardiff in The Unquiet Dead. It's really very good and you can absolutely see why Callow was cast in the part. In related news, Miriam Margolyes is retracing the American leg of the same reading tour, Palin-style, in a show on Tuesday nights.


Film I've been waiting for this. A little while ago, Empire magazine gave The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy film four stars and said:
"DON'T PANIC, fervent Douglas Adamites. This movie adaptation of the TV adaptation of the novelisation of the radio series is about as faithful as you can get. Yes, it's been tweaked and twizzled, with a romance inserted here, a new character plopped down there, but everything you love about The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy remains intact - not to mention reinvigorated by its big-screen reincarnation."
Great review and hopeful. But wanted to know what M J Simpson a long time expert on the series thought. All I can say is -- aw, fuck:
"The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy movie is an abomination. Whereas the radio show, TV show, books and computer game are all recognisably variations on a theme, this is something new and almost entirely unrelated. It's not even a good film if viewed as an original work: the characters are unsympathetic, the cast exhibit no chemistry, the direction is pedestrian, the pace plodding, the special effects overpowering (lots and lots of special effects, none of them funny mind you) and above all the script is amazingly, mindbogglingly awful. Oh, and they have taken most of the jokes out."
Simpson has also created a list of what's actually missing and it makes for grim reading. I wonder how these reviews can be so radically different considering both people saw the same movie. Well, that's blown the wind out of my sails. Unless they've prepared a shit version of the film especially for this preview and we'll be seeing something good on the release date. But I doubt it. Ho hum.

the prospect of Simon Callow as Charles Dickens

TV There are moments during each episode of the new series of Doctor Who when you know the programme makers are having the time of their lives. In The Unquiet Dead, its just after the Doctor and Rose have managed to land the TARDIS together and they’re simple lying on the floor in a heap laughing their heads off. At no point during the 27 odd years of the classic series would you expect to see that kind of familiarity and it exemplifies the brilliance of what this new show is doing – although there is danger and death, there is also tremendous fun.

It was the episode I was particularly looking forward to. I’ve been a great fan of Mark Gatiss’ previous work writing Doctor Who during the wilderness years on audio, in novels and on fan produced spin-off series. It was almost like an amazing double life, by day a quarter of The League of Gentlemen, at night beavering away getting Orson Wells to help the eighth Doctor save the world in the audio “Invaders from Mars” or creating the best third Doctor story we never saw in the novel The Last of the Gaderine. Working on the new series, like many of his colleagues, was a chance of a lifetime and put a stamp on why he’d helped keep the idea of the programme alive.

But there was also the prospect of Simon Callow as Charles Dickens. Having played Dickens in the theatre, for the thespian to decide that Doctor Who would be the perfect time to put his impression of the man on screen, was, during the gestation period for the show, one of the casting milestones which increased the feeling that this was going to be something special, that finally there was going to be something good to watch on Saturday nights.

It was also the tricky third episode. By the third episode of any series the formula is explained, the scenario demonstrated and the characters introduced. Depending on the type of show, it’s here we find out if the formula is flexible enough not to become repetitive, the scenario is intriguing enough to for us to want to carry on watching, and if the characters are solid enough to hold our interest.

“The Unquiet Dead” managed to succeed in all three.

It’s not unexpected that the TARDIS would land in the past this time out, having already been to the present and far future. But rather than picking something fairly generic instead its very specific. They might have landed the ship, but as usual it’s gone off course. Instead of Naples in 1860 as the Time Lord had promised his companion, its 1869 in Cardiff, when Dickens is in town during a theatre tour. What would be the point of following up a major historical event like the end of the world with The Battle of Hastings? It’s this contrast which perfectly demonstrates the flexibility of the show, the ability to tell stories large and small. Instead of inadvertently starting The Great Fire of London, The Doctor’s at an undertaker’s trying to work out how the dead are walking again.

This is also a chance to again evoke the past of the series. A love letter to those older “gothic” episodes produced by Philip Hinchcliffe during the 1970s and predominantly written by Robert Holmes; much like “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, the supernatural appearing in amongst frock cloaks turning out to be alien invaders, the concepts of horror masking a science fiction core. Like those serials, the period detail is great, especially in the theatre where the ghosts first show themselves. The atmosphere is all there. And again, the special effects don’t disgrace themselves, with the villains being a computer generated character for the third week running. Gone are the days of a man in a giant rat costume trying to look menacing in a sewer.

It’s the revealingly contemporary core which runs through the episode that lifts it from being a mere copy of the past. These ghosts are aliens, the Gelth, using the dead human bodies to live in normal time again, refugees from a “time war”, something, by the look on the Doctor’s face, he knows everything about. Might this be what caused the destruction of his home world as mentioned in last week’s episode? Here’s where we come across the big difference to the classic series – a story arc is developing here the like of which only occurred on special occasions such as “The Key to Time” season in the past, but viewers of shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be entirely comfortable with. Importantly, it’s not about going off and finding a MacGuffin, its about the Doctor’s character and what he’s not telling us regarding what happened to him since last he was on our screens.

Plot is taking a back seat to characterization. Which is fine and stops much of the pointless running around which used to go on. But it does have the effect of creating the feeling of some parts of the story, in particular the Doctor’s discovery of the problem he needs to overcome, have been edited out. Here it happened at the séance, with very little evidence, the Doctor had decided there was a rift in time through which these aliens were coming through. Frankly on first viewing I missed where this came from. I suppose if you’ve been on any job long enough you can see the signs really quickly.

In the previous couple of episodes, writer Russell T Davies and actor Christopher Eccleston’s interpretation of the Doctor has been different to say the least. In “Rose” he was manic, in “The End of the World” commanding yet soulful. Here he mixed the two with something else. Vulnerability. In Gatiss’ script, the Doctor became prone to a certain naïveté and makes some fundamental mistakes dealing with the situation at hand. Although the job is done in the end, he very much relies on the help of humanity. He also misunderstands the morality they cling to, in particular our attitude to the dead. “Don’t you carry a donor card?”

Much has been said about what a surprise Billie Piper has been, but the comic timing she displayed here was just perfect; for example when she finds out where the TARDIS has ended up. “I don’t care.” “I don’t care.” “Oh.”. But the creepy moment when we and Rose find out that there is more to Gwyneth, the maid, than meets the eye is entirely played on her face and its to the credit of director Euros Lyn that he lets her carry it. Rose is very far from the every-companion of the past, although she’s still asking questions and running off and getting captured, she’s also discovering much more, and at times the Doctor is asking her what to do.

What’s particularly gratifying is that all of the guest cast is taking the work very seriously. There was a tendency in the past to play everything massively “nothing in the world can stop me now!” and so forth. But here we find real people in extraordinary circumstances. Eve Myles’ work as Gwyneth was no different to what might be expected from any BBC costume drama. It’s very rare that family entertainment has this quality.

In addition, you can absolutely see why Callow wanted to play this Dickens. Unlike the generic historical figures who have appeared in this and other series and are presented as a pastiche of what the public know, Dickens was from a particular time in his life when he felt his age grip and his performance lecture tours were taking a toll on his health. As he sat in the dressing room of the theatre at the beginning contemplating what he had become and how he wondered if his imagination had deserted him, it could have been a scene from a bio-pic of the author (except this visit to Cardiff is a fiction – he never went there). He has his own story during the episode, as the magic the Doctor reveals to him allows him to understand that actually he does still have the capacity for new ideas and ends up saving the day. Powerful stuff.

A show going from strength to strength. Although the ratings were down last week, it seemed to be because of the nicer weather (every show was lower across the board). With this story I’m sure that a core audience will start developing and its going to be rather large. By episode four you’ll be talking about consolidation, and next week is the big invasion story. It’s called “Aliens of London” for goodness sake. If it can continue to be exciting but also increase the mystery of what happened and is happening with the Doctor I’m going to be very, very happy.

[This review was originally posted on another parked website Off The Telly. I have nothing new to add.]


Books In Tesco yesterday buying my weekend's supply of water I happened upon the film tie-in copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Of course I bought it. I've been collecting editions of the book for years, whenever I see them in used book stores and charity shops. I like them to be in fairly poor condition, as though they'd be read by someone who's been travelling the galaxy with them. This one needed to be new though -- seems only right. The novel has been typeset again, with the film's thumb logo at the top of each chapter, which in a new innovation each start on a new page, which has the effect of making it feel even longer. Although the abrupt ending is still there, albeit on page 220.

The other hundred pages are taken up by an afterword by Executive Producer Robbie Stamp offering an useful insights into the script development, before and after the death of Douglas and actually getting the project greenlit. There are also spoilery interviews with the main cast -- I've only really skimmed but there are a few things which are really different in the film, but not necessarily in a bad way. Although on reading this and seeing the trailer there does appear to be lots of dialogue which has been re-written, which is going to be odd considering how well I know the original words. "Nuts to your white mice..."


The Weather While I'm writing about current affairs, did anyone else in the UK get snow today? It's April for goodness sake. It's unnerving. I think your mind and body get into an annual routine that by about March it's assumed that Winter has gone and things are getting warmer. My addled brain certainly thought so this morning when I went out for work in a t-shirt. I love snow. I'd love there to be snow drifts just because it would be different. Think of all the animals coming out of hibernation which would see it and wonder if they'd woken up to early. I just also think it would be a shock to my system.

Still mellow

Politics I had hoped to be writing here much more this week, but Blogger has been up its usual tricks, server errors all over, which is probably why last night's political post, seemed short, kurt and pleasingly abrupt. I'm not sure who the person who commented is, describing himself as 'A Level Headed Individual' (but I have my suspicions). Here's what he had to say:
"You my friend are exactly what is wrong with universal sufferage in Great Britain. How on Earth can you back up a statement like "as usual I'll be ignoring all the arguments and voting Liberal Democrat" ?! Blind voting without taking into consideration other parties policies are the actions of a moron and exactly what is so wrong with the mentality of the voting British public. It's the actions of someone who says they have voted Labour all their life, regardless of what the party stands for. At best you are politically naive !"
Which is fairly amusing I think you'll agree, and pleasingly free from typos. When I said I'd be ignoring all the arguments, I wasn't talking particularly about policies, but the backbiting which festers on between so two so-called main parties. This generally amounts to Labour often saying what Tory policies are and vice-versa then comparing them to their own. The Lib Dems tend to state the policy and hope that we like them.

But if you really want me to get into this, neither of those so-called two main parties are idiologically saying anything different to the last election. In fact both are effectively asking 'Do you want more of the same?' in either a positive or negative light depending on whether the logo is red or blue. If the answer is no, it's not an excuse for voting Conservative because their policies on many things aren't actually all that different, mostly who gets what money and why. It's only when you get into questions to do with Britain's place in the world and it's attitude to the everyone else that we hear different things and frankly they're just nasty.

But rest assured if I didn't actually like Liberal Democrat policies I wouldn't be voting for them. I won't pretend to know everything, but watching how Mr Kennedy has carried himself since he's been party leader and just the clear way that they put forth their beliefs just makes sense to me. Yes, there's a sense of backing the underdog, because I would be very surprised if they form the next government, but if by some remote chance they did get into power, the country would just be better off.

Mellow yellow

Politics So the election campaign is in full swing and as usual I'll be ignoring all the arguments and voting Liberal Democrat. Given the other options, what else is there to do? Plus Charles Kennedy, like Paddy Ashdown before him, is the best Prime Minister we'll never have. Why is it always the bad ones who end up having a shred of power?

Even more shiny

DVD The insanely brilliant tv series Firefly is but £12.97 at Amazon. So there really isn't any excuse not to buy this now.

First Time?

Franchesca tells us about The Real Thing:

Only two people in the company know Coca-Cola's formula, and each of them only knows half of it.

Coca-Cola's name was translated into Chinese as "bite the wax tadpole."

Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine.

A tooth left in a glass of Coca-Cola will dissolve overnight.

Lost In Time

TV  Is this all having the smell of something going horribly wrong? This bit of Outpost Gallifrey says it all really:
"Will Doctor Who soon move to a new time slot... or is its lead in, "Strictly Dance Fever," going to be shifted? That's the big question, as the BBC's National Lottery website states that "Julian Clary is hosting The National Lottery Come and Have a Go on BBC ONE, April the 23rd, from 7.20pm." As our correspondent Dominic May wrote, either "Strictly Dance Fever" is considered a flop and Doctor Who moves to an earlier time slot... or perhaps Doctor Who moves to a slot after the lottery show. (Perhaps "Casualty" moves to Sundays?) Either way, it would also impact the transmission of "Doctor Who Confidential." As soon as we know for sure about the time switch, we'll let you know."
Why knock about with a series like this when it has a good recognisable timeslot? Will it go earlier or later? If it goes later, it'll find itself at 8 o'clock which is too late for the target audience frankly. But if it goes earlier, what happens to Norton? That's unless the people at the Lottery website have got things horribly wrong...

Update! The National Lottery website has been changed to report 7:45pm for the start of their show. So you can move along now. Nothing to see here. That said -- isn't it odd how the 'we' can become so nervous when the 'not we' make errors with timings on websites like this?

Some fun French facts

Some fun French facts from one of our readers, Jacques:
"The real name of my country is not France, but France Republic - not many know this!

Louis XIV bathed once a year.

There are 450 different types of cheese in the world, and 240 come from France!"
Thanks Jacques!


TV Simon Groom says: "Don't be an RSOD." It feels like something Chris Morris might do if he were hired to do an actual campaign about something.


TV Ceefax online and searchable [via]

It is when Hamlet speaks to himself ...

Excellent Google Answer to the following question: "Taking into account the 16th and 17th Century English that was spoken in Shakespeare's time, (and using some of the suggestions shown in the following parenthesis), how do you perceive Shakespeare's ability as a writer (use of vocabulary, figures of speech, sense of dialogue, appropriateness and effectivenes of soliloquies, rhythm, use of blank verse) and as a composer of plays (plot, tension building, suspense of plot, climax, comic relief) when referring to the script of his play Hamlet?"

"Where's Whit?"

Film Slightly old but no less interesting interview with Whit Stillman by Psychology Today. On Woody Allen:
"He made it a lot easier for us, in certain film terms, to gain acceptance--people are ready for comedies coming from New York where people talk. But it's true. The point of view is so different. The reality is that in our lives a lot of things really do happen through what we say to other people and how seriously they take what we say; talking really does create our stories and the progress of our lives. Erik Erikson would say that one of the definitions of young love or young romance is conversation. It's all about conversation, when people get involved with each other at a young age."
Which makes me wonder yet again, where's Whit when you need him?

"Isn't she?"

Film I'm excited and slightly depressed by the news that a sequel to the John Hughes film Pretty In Pink is in the works. I secretly harboured a hope that there would a reunion movie featuring all the characters from the John Hughes teen films all together at a high school reunion (with, yes, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall playing multiple parts). After all they went to the same high school as was explained in Kevin Smith's Dogma. Even Ferris Bueller. [via]

"Lightning bolts."

Life For what's supposed to be a romantic comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral effected me greatly yesterday and reminded me once again of the things which are missing or haven't quite added together for me yet. Although I'm firmly with the lightning bolt theory of true love, this speech from the character of Tom just after the funeral sort of always seems to sum things up:
"I always just hoped that, that I'd meet some nice friendly girl, like the look of her, hope the look of me didn't make her physically sick, then pop the question and, um, settle down and be happy. "
I'm quite a lonely person really I suppose and it's partly my fault. Silly. His other line also seems to ring true: "The great advantage of having a reputation for being stupid: People are less suspicious of you. "

"I want to travel through time..."

Music Wierd synergy as I listen to Natalie Imbruglia's new album for the first time. Here is the chorus to the title track, Counting Down The Days:
I want to travel through time
See your surprise
I'd hold you so tight
I'm counting down the days tonight
I just want to be a million miles away from here
I'm counting down the days"
Which is just begging to be on the Doctor Who soundtrack album frankly, along with Tainted Love and Toxic. I'll give the Imbruglia experience a full review when I've heard it a few more times. But so far it's lovely.

Not so 24 hour internet access.

Travels One of my stupid issues about hotels is that they don't feel like home, and although they hope to be that for the duration of your stay, there is always something there to remind you that they never will be. Here is an example from Journalistic, in which they maximise the profit from something I take for granted @ mi casa. Being able to go online whenever without having to care too much about the cost. Not so at this hotel:
"For reference to anyone considering to stay there, if you think the 24 hour access starts when you first log in, think again. It starts from 2am to 2am or part thereof. That means if you check in for one night at say 6pm and use the internet from say 7pm to 9pm. Then you go to sleep and wake up at 6am and use it again until 9am and then check out, they will charge you for two days. A bit of a cheek given you have not been there for two days."
Which seems a very sneeky way of going about things. Next they'll be charging extra if you sleep on both sides of the bed.

Gobble. Zzzzzzz.

Another contribution from Franchesca. Eating turkey makes people sleepy. Which presumably explains why I never feel tired after Christmas dinner. We all eat steak in our household.


HeardSaid I just wanted to thank everyone who also reads this blog, because HeardSaid has been really excellent this last few weeks, and everything I hoped it would be.

Homeless Wifi

Zeitgeist Sometimes things need to be posted because you want to remember them. This is a story found at BoingBoing about a homeless guy who spends his time with a full desktop computer at Starbucks:
"He spends his time online, not on, but IMing girls in NY and across the country to hook up with, and maybe go live with. He has no source of income (other than the kindness of strangers) and a single client who's laptop he fixes infrequently for $10 or $20. He sleeps for 2 hours at a time upright in his chair. He showers at a local church. He hauls all of his gear around in a shopping cart."
One of the stories from April Fool's day which is hopelessly true.

'In the words of Donny Osmond...'

Life So it's the end of my holiday and I have the blues. Last days are always difficult -- there never feels like there is enough time left, as though whatever you end up doing, you're wasting the time you have. So I'm watching Four Weddings and a Funeral on shiny disc and not worrying about it.