Sunday 18 December 2011

Review of Sheriff Without a Star

There's a review of Sheriff without a Star at Western Fiction Review, which is a nice double as I received my complimentary copies yesterday. The cover has instantly gone towards the top of my list of favourite covers.

Despite his four years of distinguished service Sheriff Cassidy Yates lost the confidence of Monotony’s townsfolk because his error of judgement led to the death of Leland Matlock’s son. But when the star Cassidy had worn with pride was removed from his chest, Leland claimed he knew something that would shed new light on the sheriff’s downfall.

Before Leland could reveal what he knew he was shot, but Cassidy still had the instincts of a lawman. He believed Leland’s shooting was connected to the death of his son and that if he could uncover the link it would restore the townsfolk’s confidence in him. So Cassidy embarked on his greatest challenge: to get the star pinned back on his chest where it belonged.

Read more here.

Monday 12 December 2011

Death in Paradise

The last episode of detective series Death in Paradise is on tv tomorrow and I hope it gets a second series. British cosy murder mystery tv series are usually made by ITV (badly) while the BBC usually make grittier series about rabid serial killers slaughtering people in ever more gruesome ways that recreate the Biblical plagues, or some such nonsense. And that's just the cop assigned to catch the killer. I don't enjoy that sort of thing. So I was pleased that the BBC have made a detective series that is about as old-fashioned as tv can get these days. It doesn’t try to be modern or ironic and it's not filmed with a wobbly camera and high-speed editing. In fact Death in Paradise wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1980s as a sort of cross between Bergerac and Murder, She Wrote.

The series details the exploits of Richard Poole, a British cop sent into exile on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie, a place that time forgot where modern police techniques are unavailable and crimes are solved by using the little grey cells. Richard is stuffy, pedantic and hates living in a hot climate while his team of detectives are chilled out, casual and enjoy island life. What follows is a mixture of the inevitable character clashes amongst the detective team along with a rigid story formula that lets the viewer, as much as the detectives, solve the crime. Every week there's a murder before the title credits roll and a selection of suspects are identified, all usually British ex-pats played by familiar actors. They all have a story to tell, shown through flashbacks, that build up a picture of the events, while each clue is revealed in such an unsubtle way that 'Clue number 1' might as well scroll across the bottom of the screen in big, red letters.

The detectives collect these clues with Richard making inspired deductive leaps while drinking tea and with the rest bumbling around drinking cocktails and going to beach parties. Then, with fifteen minutes to go, enough of these clues have been collected for Richard to connect everything, after which he calls all the suspects into the drawing room (sometimes he actually does this) to explain his brilliant deductive process and finger the killer. Everyone is duly amazed at his brilliance, except for the viewers who will have usually worked it out shortly after the opening titles credits rolled, but that's the charm of the series and the entertainment comes from watching a mystery that can be worked out from the on-screen clues. Everything is played straight with few red herrings and no unreliable narrators and although several of the murders involve locked room situations, the show doesn't cheat in the way that most tv mystery series do by hiding key information. As a result everything connects in a satisfying way.

What doesn't work as well as it could do is the interaction between the characters, although if the show gets a second series I'm sure that'll improve. The lead actor does well to sell the fact that he hates living in paradise, but his grumpy by-play with the rest of the cast sometimes feels forced. He's supposed to be awkward around his sultry second in command Camille, but the two actors don’t have chemistry so their scenes are more awkward than they are designed to be. As their interaction improves later in the series, this perhaps proves that actors have to have chemistry to be convincing as people who lack chemistry. What works better from the start is the by-play between the other two detectives Dwayne and Fidel, with Dwayne as the laid-back cop who wants a quiet life and Fidel as the young and enthusiastic one. Dwayne, as played by Danny John-Jules, is particularly good and his character's name alone is sure to make Red Dwarf fans chuckle. Curiously although it's claimed the role wasn't written with the actor's character of the Cat in mind, he's a cool, vain, ladies man who doesn't realize he looks silly riding around on his motorcycle combination.

Completing the cast is Don Warrington in the thankless role of the shouty boss and better is Camille's mother who owns the restaurant around which many of the scenes play out and who gets to hand out cocktails and wise advice in equal measure. The episodes are uniformly entertaining with the only weak note for me being a bizarre guest performance by Shirley Henderson, which I thought was a candidate for the worst written and worst acted performance in the history of tv. Other than that, for undemanding and gentle drama this series worked for me, especially when there was snow on the ground.

Monday 5 December 2011

Black Mirror: The National Anthem

Charlie Brooker is one of the few writers whose material I'll read or watch even if I have no interest in the subject matter. His grumpy newspaper articles ranting about the media are always fun, and his grumpy appearances on tv in Newswipe and Screenwipe ranting about the media pick their targets well. His previous attempts to cross over to the other side and write drama have been less successful, although I've always found it strange that critics haven't been more critical of a poacher turned gamekeeper.

Nathan Barley was a sitcom that laboured the fairly obvious point that people in the media are idiots. And Dead Set was a zombie version of Big Brother that laboured the fairly obvious point that people on Big Brother are idiots and the people who watch it are zombies. Black Mirror is his latest drama, which in its first episode asked the important question: is it always wrong to have sex with animals? As cutting edge questions go this isn’t all that cutting edge as The Vicar of Dibley dealt with this issue about ten years ago in an early evening popular piece of family entertainment, but nevertheless this time the answer was a resounding no.

The idea behind the title was an excellent one, that the black flat screen sitting in the corner of your living room is like the enigmatic monolith from 2001 and so a series of Twilight Zone dramas will explore what goes on behind the black mirror. Except of course when you switch off the tv, all you'll see in the black mirror is yourself, only darker. The National Anthem was the first story and it was heavy on good ideas, which is rare on British tv these days, and so close to being brilliant it was well worth watching, but it wasn't as well written as it could have been and so it wasn't as provocative as it reckoned it was.

Taking the episode as a journey into the twilight zone where you suspend disbelief was the best way to enjoy it, as the plot holes, even for a fantasy satire, were wider than a 56 inch flat screen. A member of the royal family has been kidnapped and the ransom demand is simply that the Prime Minister must appear on live tv and re-enact a scene that you'd never get to see in Peppa Pig. The Prime Minister reacts as expected and tries to silence the story, but in these days of the Internet that proves impossible. Within minutes the story is on youtube, twitter, and facebook, while the 24 hour rolling news service does its best to work out how they can break a suppressed story everyone already knows without revealing the lurid details everyone already knows.

Starting with that excellent premise the drama that unfolded was an odd one that for me failed to say anything original about the modern media and our strange mixture of disgust in and encouragement of lurid stories while the secondary aspect of the story of the Prime Minister's descent into a dark world beyond his control was riveting. Brooker first came to prominence writing with Chris Morris, who explored the world of stupid media people churning out depraved material for an even stupider general population in a surreal and shocking manner some ten to fifteen years ago. This didn't say anything that Morris didn't do better back then or for that matter, for example, Ben Elton's Popcorn did in the early 90s. All I got from the story was that news travels fast on the Internet and media people will sell their soul for a story, which isn't much of a revelation from a black mirror. Even less riveting is the satirical point that the entire population of the world is so media-obsessed and desperate for crude entertainment that we'll drop everything just for the chance to sit in front of the tv and watch the Prime Minister pork a porker.

What did work though was Roy Kinnear's dignified and compelling performance as the Prime Minister in a role that required him to lose all dignity when events spiral out of control. With his advisors and press secretaries, he's the most powerful man in the country and yet slowly as the day goes on he gets to understand that in reality he's the most powerless. Surrounded by bad advice, focus groups, spin doctors, and trends on twitter he faces the classic dilemma that no matter what he does he's doomed. Either he saves a life but destroys his marriage and his career, or he takes the risk that someone he doesn't know will die and yet he'll still destroy his marriage and his career. And all the people who are supposed to help him can do is advise him that he shouldn’t risk looking like he's enjoying himself with the pig.

As this was a Twilight Zone type fantasy there had to be a twist at the end and it was a groan inducing one when it's revealed the set up was a Turner Prize winning piece of conceptual art. It all went wrong for everyone involved as the member of the royal family was released early, but with everyone indoors cheering on the pig nobody noticed. The only deep and disturbing irony in that is that anyone would think it deep and disturbing. I reckon the real Twilight Zone would have provided a better twist and Rod Serling's narration would surely have been funnier. Although I enjoyed the first episode, with next week's episode looking pretty dire I think I'll pass on the rest of the series and start looking forward to Brooker's news summary of the year instead.