The 18th Century in Television

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Recently, I noticed there were a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 18th century. In fact, I managed to count at least six productions. Astounded by this recent interest in that particular century, I decided to list them below in alphabetical order:

THE 18TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

banished

1. “Banished” (BBC TWO) – I do not whether this is a miniseries or regular series, but it is basically about a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia; where British convicts and their Royal Navy marine guards and officers live. Russell Tovey, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and MyAnna Buring star.

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2. “Black Sails” (STARZ) – Toby Stephens stars in this prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”, about the adventures of Captain Flint.

book of negroes

3. “Book of Negroes” (CBC/BET) – This six-part miniseries is an adaptation of Lawrence Hill historical novel about a West African girl who is sold into slavery around the time of the American Revolution and her life experiences in the United States and Canada. Aunjanue Ellis, Lyriq Bent and Cuba Gooding, Jr. star.

outlander

4. “Outlander” (STARZ) – This series is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” book series about a 1940s woman who ends up traveling back in time to 18th century Scotland. Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies star.

poldark

5. “Poldark” (BBC ONE) – Aidan Turner and Elizabeth Tomlinson star in this new television adaptation of Winston Graham’s book series about a former British Army officer who returns home to Cornwall after three years fighting in the American Revolution.

sons of liberty

6. “Sons of Liberty” (HISTORY Channel) – Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall and Henry Thomas starred in this three-part miniseries about the Sons of Liberty political group and the beginning of the American Revolution.

turn - washington spies

7. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (AMC) – Jamie Bell stars in this series about a pro-American spy ring operating on behalf of General George Washington during the American Revolution.

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“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

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“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

In my review of the 1998 miniseries, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, I had stated that I was never a real fan of Victorian author, Charles Dickens. But I was willing to give the author another chance with a second viewing of the miniseries. However, I have yet to watch “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” for a second time. Instead, I turned my attention to another miniseries based on a Dickens novel – the 2008 production of “LITTLE DORRIT”

Based upon Dickens’s 1855-1857 serialized novel, “LITTLE DORRIT” is basically the story of a young late Georgian Englishwoman named Amy Dorrit, who spends her days earning money for the Dorrit family and looking after her proud father William, who is a long term inmate of Marshalsea Prison for Debt in London. When her employer’s son, Arthur Clennam returns from overseas to solve his family’s mysterious legacy, Amy and her family’s world is transformed for the better. And she discovers that her family’s lives and those of the Clennan family are interlinked. Considering that“LITTLE DORRIT” is a Dickens tale, one is bound to encounter a good deal of subplots. Please bear with me. I might not remember all of them. I do recall the following:

*Arthur Clennam is initially rejected by Pet Meagles, the daughter of a former business associate, due to her infatuation for artist Henry Gowan.

*John Chivery, the son of the Marshalsea Prison warden, harbors unrequited love for Amy Dorrit.

*A mysterious Englishwoman named Miss Wade, had been jilted by Henry Gowan in the past; and has now extended her hatred and resentment towards his wife, Pet Meagles and her family. She also notices their patronizing attitude toward their maid/ward, Harriet Beadle aka Tattycoram.

*Amy’s older sister, Fanny, becomes romantically involved with the step-son of wealthy businessman Mr. Merdle.

*Mr. Merdle becomes the force behind a fraudulent speculation scheme that impacts the London financial world.

*French criminal Rigaud/Blandois not only stumbles across the Clennam family secret regarding the Dorrit family, but is also recruited by Miss Wade to accompany Henry and Pet Gowran on their Italian honeymoon.

If there is one thing I can say about “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is a beautiful looking production. Four of the Emmy Awards that the miniseries won were in the technical categories. Production designer James Merifield, art director Paul Ghirardani, and set decorator Deborah Wilson all shared the Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction in a Miniseries or Movie (they shared the award with the art direction team for HBO’s “GREY GARDENS”). And honestly? They deserved that award, thanks to their outstanding re-creation of both London and Italy in the 1820s. Owen McPolin, Alan Almond and Lukas Strebel, who won the Outstanding Cinematography Emmy; contributed to that re-creation of 1820s Europe with their sharp, colorful and beautiful photography. Costume designer Barbara Kidd and costume supervisor also won Emmy awards for the beautiful, gorgeous costumes created for this production. Not only did I find the costumes beautiful, but also a perfection re-creation of the mid-1820s fashions, as depicted in the images below:

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I could go on and on about the many subplots featured in “LITTLE DORRIT”. But honestly . . . I am too exhausted to do so. The only plots that interested me were the fortunes of both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam, Mrs. Clennam’s secret about her husband’s past, and Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes. I thought that Emmy winning screenwriter Andrew Davies and directors Adam Smith, Dearbhla Walsh (also an Emmy winner for her direction of Episode One), and Diarmuid Lawrence did a very good job in handling these plot lines. Or tried his best. His adaptation of the rise and fall of the Dorrit family’s fortunes was probably the best thing about “LITTLE DORRIT”. This was especially effective in plot lines that revolved around Amy Dorrit’s inability to adjust to her new status as the daughter of a wealthy man and especially, William Dorrit’s inabilities to move past his memories of the Marshalsea Prison. The subplot regarding the Dorrit family’s ties to the Merdle family also struck me as very effective. Fanny Dorrit’s relationship with Merdle’s stepson, Edmund Sparkler proved to be one of the funniest and more satisfying subplots in “LITTLE DORRIT”. And the subplot regarding Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes not only effected both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam’s fortunes in an effective way, it also strongly reminded me of the circumstances that led to the international community’s current economic situation.

However, there were subplots that did not strike me as that effective. I wish I could solely blame Charles Dickens. But I cannot. Davies and the three directors have to take some of the blame for not making some improvements to these subplots, when they had the chance to do so. The subplot regarding the Meagles family, their servant “Tattycoram” and Miss Wade struck me as a disaster. I found it poorly handled, especially the narrative regarding the fate of “Tattycoram”. In the end, nothing really came from Miss Wade’s resentment of Henry Cowan, the Meagles and especially her relationship with “Tattycoram”. I am also a little confused at the financial connection between the Clennam and Dorrit families. Could someone explain why an affair between Arthur’s father and some dancer would lead to a possible inheritance for Amy Dorrit? Many critics have tried to explain Dickens’ creation of the French villain Monsieur Rigaud. No explanation can erase my dislike of the character or its addition to the subplots involving the Clennam/Dorrit connection and the Gowans’ honeymoon. I realize that Rigaud was Charles Dickens’ creation. But it seemed a pity that Davies and the three directors did nothing to improve the use of Rigaud . . . or eliminate the character altogether. Aside from killing Jeremiah Flintwinch’s twin brother, intimidating other characters and blackmailing Mrs. Clennam, he really did nothing as a villain.

If there is one thing I have no complaints regarding “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is the excellent performances found in the production. I honestly have no complaints about the performances in the miniseries. I can even say this about those characters, whose portrayals by the writers that I found troubling. And yes, I am referring to Andy Serkis and Freema Agyeman’s performances as Rigoud and “Tattycoram”. Both gave excellent performances, even if I did not care how Dickens, Davies or the directors handled their characters. Emma Pierson, an actress I have never heard of, gave a superb and very entertaining peformance as Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s ambitious and rather blunt older sister. I would have say that Pierson’s performance struck me as the funniest in the miniseries. I was amazed at how intimidating Eddie Marsan looked at the rent collector, Mr. Pancks. Yet, Marsan went beyond his superficial appearance to portray one of the most compassionate, yet energetic characters in the production. I was also impressed by Russell Tovey’s portrayal of the love-sick John Chivery, who harbored unrequited love for Amy Dorrit. Tovey managed to give a very intense performance, without going over-the-top. And I found that quite an accomplishment.

However, there are a handful of performances that really impressed me. Two of them came from the leads Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen. On paper, the characters of Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam struck me as boring and one-dimensional. They were simply too goody two-shoes. But somehow, both Foy and McFadyen managed to inject a great deal of fire into their roles, making them not only interesting, but allowing me to care for them a great deal. Another outstanding performance came from Judy Parfitt, who portrayed Arthur’s guilt-ridden and cold mother, Mrs. Clennam. But instead of portraying the character as a one-note monstrous mother, Parfitt conveyed a good deal of Mrs. Clennam’s guilt regarding her husband’s will and inner emotional struggles over the memories of her marriage and what Arthur really meant to her. Another outstanding performance came from Tom Courtenay, who portrayed the vain and insecure William Dorrit. In fact, I would have to say that he gave the most complex and probably the best performance in the entire production. Courtenay managed to create contempt I felt toward his character with skillful acting, yet at the same time, he made William Dorrit so pathetic and sympathetic. I am amazed that he did not receive a nomination or acting award for his performance.

I now come back to that earlier question. Did “LITTLE DORRIT” improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a writer? Not really. Although I cannot deny that it is a beautiful looking production. Some of the subplots not only struck me as interesting, but also relevant to today’s economic situation. And the miniseries featured some outstanding performances from a cast led by Claire Foy and Matthew McFayden. But some of the other subplots, which originated in Dickens’ novel struck me as either troubling or unimpressive. So . . . I am not quite a fan of his. Not yet. But despite its flaws, I am a fan of this 2008 adaptation of his 1855-1857 novel.

“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

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“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

There have been four adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun”. One version was a radio play that broadcast in 1999. The Adventure Company released its own adaptation in 2007. John Bradbourne and Richard Goodwin released a movie version in 1982. However, the adaptation that has recently caught my attention is the 2001 television movie that aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”

While dining at his friend Captain Arthur Hasting’s new Argentine restaurant, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot suffers a sudden collapse. His doctor reveals that Poirot need to lose weight or risk a heart condition. Both the doctor and the detective’s secretary, Miss Lemon, book Poirot at a health resort on the coast of Devon called Sandy Cove. Miss Lemon also insists that Captain Hastings accompany him.

At the Sandy Cove Resort, both Poirot and Hastings come across the usual assortment of guests. Among them was a well-known stage actress named Arlena Stuart Marshall. Many of the guests disliked Arlena, including her new husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall and her 17 year-old stepson, Lionel. Another guest, Mrs. Christina Redfern harbored jealousy over Arlena’s indiscreet affair with hubby Patrick. Well-known dressmaker Rosamund Darnley, was an old flame of Captain Marshall’s, and also harbored jealousy toward Arlena. A fanatical vicar named the Reverend Stephen Lane viewed Arlena as the embodiment of evil. An athletic spinster named Emily Brewster harbored resentment toward Arlena for bailing out on a play she had invested. The only guests who seemed to harbor no feelings regarding Arlena were a Major Barry and a Mr. Horace Blatt. But both seemed to be involved in some mysterious activities around the resort’s island – including the location where Arlena had been waiting to meet for a clandestine lover. When Arlena’s body is discovered strangled to death, Poirot and Hastings work with Scotland Yard inspector Japp to investigate thecrime.

When I was younger, I had read Christie’s novel on a few occasions. I tried to enjoy the novel. I really did. I understood that it was a favorite among Christie fans. But I never managed to rouse any enthusiasm for the story. There was something about it that struck me as rather flat. This 2001 television adaptation seemed to be an improvement over the novel. Perhaps a visual representation on the television screen made it easier for me to appreciate the story. I certainly cannot deny that Rob Hinds’ production designs struck me as colorful and sleek – a perfect continuation of the Art Deco style that had dominated the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” since the beginning. I was also impressed by Charlotte Holdich’s sleek costume designs for the cast – especially the female characters. Overall, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be eye-candy for those who usually enjoy television and movie productions with a 1930s setting.

The subplot involving Poirot’s health certainly made it easier for me to understand why he would vacation at a not-so-interesting hotel resort. To be honest, I could not see someone like the flashy Arlena Marshall being a guest at such a low-key location. Screenwriter Anthony Horowitz made a wise choice in transforming Arlena’s 16 year-old stepdaughter Linda Marshall, who studied magic; into a 17 year-old boy, studying poisons. Arlena had been strangled. And Scotland Yard made it clear that large hands had been responsible for the crime. The idea of a 16 year-old girl with man-size hands struck me as slightly improbable. After all, if Christie wanted Linda to be considered as a serious suspect, she should have changed the character’s gender, which Horowitz did; or find another method to bump off Arlena Stuart.

The above mentioned changes in Christie’s story – Poirot’s health problems and the transformations of the Linda/Lionel Marshall character – seemed like improvements over the original story. However, other changes made it impossible for me to love this adaptation. I understand why the series’ producers and Horowitz had decided to include Hastings, Japp and Lemon into the story. After all, the Eighth Series, which aired in 2000 and 2001, proved to be the last that featured these three characters. But none of them had appeared in the 1941 novel. Hastings’ presence only gave Poirot a pretext for vacationing at Sandy Cove in the first place. Unfortunately, the running joke about Poirot’s distaste toward the resort’s health-conscious menu for its guests became tiresome within one-third of the movie. Other than the Argentine restaurant sequence, Horowitz failed to make Hastings’ presence relevant to the story. And why on earth was Chief Inspector Japp investigating a murder in Devon? He was outside of Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction, which was limited to Greater London and the home counties of Essex and Hertfordshire in the East of England; along with Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey and Kent in South East England. In other words . . . what in the hell was Japp doing there in Devon? Miss Lemon proved to be the only veteran recurring cast member that proved to be relevant to the story. She helped Poirot investigate another murder case with connections to Arlena Stuart’s murderer.

The cast gave solid performances. But I could not recall any memorable performances among them. The four main cast members – David Suchet, Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran – were competent as usual. I was also impressed by Michael Higgs (Patrick Redfern), Carolyn Pickles (Emily Brewster), Ian Thompson (Major Barry), Tamzin Malleson (Christine Redfern) and especially Russell Tovey (Lionel Marshall). But there were performances that failed to rock my boat. David Mallinson’s portrayal of Kenneth Marshall struck me as . . . meh. He was not terrible, but simply not that interesting. Marsha Fitzalan’s performance as Rosamund Darnley seemed a bit off. Her portrayal of the dressmaker struck me as gossipy and callow. She seemed like an early 20th century version of her old role, Caroline Bingley; instead of the warm and strong-willed Rosamund. Both Tim Meats and David Timson’s performances seemed slightly hammy and rather off for such a low-key production. But the real worm in the apple proved to be Louise Delamere’s portrayal of victim Arlena Marshall. I realize that Delamere was given a role that seemed the least interesting in Christie’s novel. But Horowitz’s script and Delamere’s performance failed to improve upon it. Delamere ended up projecting a fourth-rate version of Diana Rigg’s performance in the 1982 film.

Overall, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be a mixed bag. Production wise, it looked sleek and colorful. The script provided a few improvements over Christie’s novel. And there were some first-rate performances that included David Suchet. But in the end, I felt the movie was slightly undermined by other changes that I found unnecessary and some not-so impressive performances.