Category: Television

TV Book Club: Sacred Hearts

Well, this was a major step up from the first two programmes. There are still some elements that don’t work — the back-and-forth presentation is awkward; describing how an author’s career was boosted by the Book Club in years past is unnecessary; and the non-fiction items (this week, one on the origins of pub names) might well be interesting in another context, but they don’t fit the format of this programme.

Elsewhere. however, things were far better. This week’s guest was the actor Emilia Fox, who didn’t have a book of her own to talk about, so instead the interview with her was about her favourite books. This was a much better idea, and Fox came across as a keen reader, as guests on The TV Book Club ought to be.

The choice this week was Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, a novel about two nuns in a 16th-century Ferraran convent. Unlike previous weeks, the discussion was vigorous and enthustic — exactly what the programme needed. Nathaniel Parker remained the best contributor of the regular panellists, really engaging with the period here; but all were better than they were previously (though Gok Wan was absent this week), and Emilia Fox also made some of the strongest contributions. And, most importantly, they made the book sound interesting.

There’s a way to go yet, but, on this evidence, The TV Book Club is on the right path at last.

TV Book Club: The Little Stranger

Tonight, More4 broadcast the first episode of The TV Book Club, the successor to the Richard & Judy Book Club, but extended to half an hour and presented by a panel of five celebrities (Jo Brand, Nathaniel Parker, Laila Rouass, Dave Spikey and Gok Wan). I never paid much attention in the R&J days, but watched this partly out of curiosity, and partly because I already knew the book under discussion, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (my review of that book is here). And I’m left with one main thought: is that it?

Each week, we were told at the beginning, the panel would be joined by a guest who would take part in the discussion and also talk about their own book. This week’s guest was Chris Evans, who was interviewed about his autobioraphy for most of the first half. This actually ended up being the most in-depth item on the whole programme; but,. as I’m not terribly interested in celebrity autobiographies, I couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for it.

After the Evans segment, the show blew its own trumpet with a short item on the author Cecelia Ahern, and how her career was transformed by being chosen for the Book Club back in 2004. And that was the end of part one.

Part two arrived, and were we now going to talk about the week’s choice? No, we weren’t. Instead, we had a filmed item in which the comedian Mark Watson asked people if they knew what various obscure words meant. (This was in relation to a recently-published book called The Completely Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler.) Watson was, as ever, entertaining; and, at least, this was telling me about a book of which I was unlikely to have heard. But, still, this item was essentially a makeweight in a programme that really needed more substance.

And, finally, we made it to The Little Stranger. First, a short interview in which Waters talked about the book; then the actual discussion, which lasted less than five minutes. In a half-hour show. How disappointing.

So, the first episode of The TV Book Club was unsatisfactory on just about all counts. It didn’t succeed as a book club, because barely five minutes in total were devoted to the chosen book. It didn’t succeed as a magazine programme about books, because it didn’t cover enough new/unfamiliar books, or talk about its subjects in any real depth. We don’t have that many TV shows about books in the UK as it is — but new ones really need to be better than this.

Hustle: further thoughts on series 5

Not very prompt of me, I know, but here are some more impressions of the latest series of Hustle, following on from my earlier post after the first episode:

It took three episodes before Albert got out of jail and the team was back together. That’s half the series, which was really too long; although the plot to get him released was wonderfully inventive.

Actually, this series had some of the most engagingly twisty plots I can remember on Hustle in quite some time. Frustratingly, I can’t remember the details of those plots, only that I enjoyed their twists and turns.

One I do remember is that of the last episode, which wasn’t one of the best. Some of the grifters’ former victims joined forces to con them; nice idea, but I could spot the ‘punchline’ a mile off. (Interestingly, the three episodes I liked best were the three not written by the series’ creator, Tony Jordan.)

This series didn’t really have the big, outlandish set-pieces Hustle has had previously (or, at least, they weren’t as outlandish), but that was certainly no impediment, and might even have strengthened the series. But Hustle still can’t do gritty, and should stop trying; Emma and Sean ae supposed to have grown up on the streets, but it doesn’t work. The hustlers exist in a world of glitz, glamour and froth; the show doesn’t work when it attempts to step out of that world.

Speaking of the new characters, Emma has proved a fine replacement for Stacie (though the romantic, will-they-won’t-they sub-plot between her and Mickey grew tedious, because it was clear that the series would never function if they did get together); but Sean is nowhere near as good a character as Danny. Sean doesn’t have Danny’s ragged-wideboy charm, and his protective attitude towards his sister is no substitute for Danny trying his luck with Stacie and never succeeding.

But, on the whole, it was a good series, it was great to have Hustle back, and it’s great to hear that we have a sixth series to look forward to.

The return of Red Dwarf

I didn’t see this coming [*], but apparently there is going to be a brand new two-part special of Red Dwarf this Easter, in which Lister and co. finally return to Earth. I’m cautiously optimistic about the news: of course it’s great to have the show back after all this time — it never really ‘finished’ — but I can’t help wondering, ‘is it going to be any good?’ It’s a shame that Rob Grant is apparently not involved, but I’m looking forward to seeing what Doug Naylor and everyone else have come up with… cautiously, anyway.

[*] Perhaps I should have seen it coming, because the news that the specials were being made was orginally announced in September last year. But it passed me by.

Hustle: first impressions of series 5

WARNING: This post spoils the plot of the first episode.

The makers of Hustle, the BBC’s super-slick drama about a gang of loveable con artists fleecing the unscrupulous, faced a quandary a couple of years ago, when Adrian Lester declined to appear in a fourth series. His character, Mickey Stone, was the leader of the gang of rogues; how could they replace him? Well, they decided that Mickey had gone off to Australia to sell the Sydney Opera House, promoted Danny Blue (played by Marc Warren) to leader, and brought in a new character named Billy Bond (Ashley Walters) to fill the rookie slot. And the show wasn’t quite the same, because Danny was the eternal rookie — the point of the character was that he wasn’t ready to be leader, and never would be (not during the time-frame of the programme, anyway). He didn’t have Mickey’s smoothness and charm, and Hustle lost some of its sparkle as a result.

The programme returned for its fifth series last night, with yet more changes: Mickey Stone has returned to London (having fled Australia in a typically unlikely and audacious fashion), to find that the old gang has fallen apart: Ash Morgan (Robert Glenister) is conning City boys with proposition bets; Albert Stroller (Robert Vaughn) is in prison; Stacie Monroe (Jaime Murray) and Danny are in America; even hapless barman Eddie (Rob Jarvis) no longer has his bar. (Billy Bond has been quietly forgotten.) Mickey wants a new crew, and Albert has a mark for him  and Ash: nasty property developer Sara Naismith, who wants to dabble in the stock market, but needs a recommendation. What follows is as joyously convoluted as ever.

With their  characters overseas, Murray and Warren do not appear in this series (whether this was the actors’ or writers’ decision, I don’t know), which is a shame, but perhaps inevitable with Mickey returning — Danny couldn’t really go back to being the rookie, and I suppose it makes the relationships neater if Stacie goes as well. But who’ll take their place? At the time the new series was announced, I speculated that Danny and Satcie could only really be replaced by other versions of themselves — or perhaps a female rookie. And it seems that what’s happened is something similar.


Sara Naismith and her ever-present PA Aaron are in fact grifters themselves, siblings Emma (Kelly Adams) and Sean Kennedy (Matt Di Angelo) — Albert set up a mutual ‘con’ to introduce them to Mickey and Ash. So we end the episode with a new group of five. It’s too soon to tell how things will go, but the signs are good, because the characters are all in the right niches this time. Emma in particular should be a good addition to the crew;  she comes across as being like Stacie without the polish, which I think will give the series an interesting new dynamic. Sean may be the weak link, though, as I’m not yet sure what role he’s going to fill: from the first episode, Emma looks to be the brains of the pair (when Ash and Mickey discuss letting the Kennedys join, they say, ‘she’s good’, but never mention Sean), so I hope they find enough for her brother to do.

As for the episode itself, much of the plot is concerned with restoring the status quo ante as far as possible (even Eddie’s Bar returns by the end, and Albert’s exit from jail will hopefully not be far behind), and the first episode of series 5 shows that the show’s signature elements — the complicated plots, the to-camera looks, freezing the action — are still there. In  interviews, the actors have hinted that this series will be a little darker, which does concern me, because Hustle has never managed to integrate real-life ‘darkness’ very well (including in this episode). But it’s true that this episode isn’t quite as… Technicolor as some have been (though please understand that’s all relative!), and if that’s all they mean, I don’t think it’s a problem.

Hustle has never struck me as a format that could handle much in the way of change, but it seems to have weathered its latest storm well so far. The con is (back) on!

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