Monday, 4 January 2010

TV serves for a bit of Christmas slobbery

One of the joys of the Christmas holiday, which drew to an end yesterday, was spending hours slumped comfortably in front of the telly.

It's not actually something that I do much of, preferring to read or even spend time playing Age of Mythology on the Mac, where my Norse warriors and their gods get to bash up Greeks and Egyptians and their lightweight deities.

But with the kittens demanding a lot of quality cuddle time, it was easy to sit and gape at the goggle box.

Featuring high on the must-watch list were the final Dr Who episodes with David Tennant in the title role. Oh, I got a bit blubby at the end – although it has to be pointed out that writer Russell T Davies really did milk it, since it was his farewell to the series too.

I was not allowed to watch Dr Who as a child: I've never quite worked out why not, although all sci-fi was on my mother's banned list. It was probably as much because didn't personally like it as anything, although she was also an inveterate snob when it came to television: ITV was there to be avoided as much as possible, including its children's programmes, such as Magpie.

It was only when we got cable some years ago and one of the 'gold' channels started re-showing old Dr Who episodes that I started to watch and enjoy it. By the time RTD brought the Doctor back to our screens, I was ready to watch, with at least some knowledge of what had gone before. I enjoyed the Christopher Ecclestone ones, but Tennant was the best – he's even now overtaken the blissfully barking Tom Baker as my favourite Doctor.

And I also step beyond the accepted attitudes in that Donna Noble has been my favourite assistant – and I'm not a fan of Catherine Tate. We shall see what comes next.

But on a sci-fi theme, cable channel FX has been re-running Babylon 5. I have the entire five series on DVD, but have only watched a few favourite episodes in recent years. It used to be a passion of mine, but I've sometimes wondered whether the changes in me over the last decade would have changed that.

Wonderfully, watching it sequentially again – but with the knowledge of what the entire story arc is about – it's clear that it really is still a superb series. As season two progressed, G'Kar and Londo in particular started developing into such wonderful characters, with almost classical qualities and depths to them.

TV sci-fi seems to be a peculiar ghetto, where some very fine 'character' actors find their only encounter with stardom and fame. It was very much for the case for Andreas Katsulus, who played G'Kar (and who sadly died almost two years ago). He'd worked with seminal theatre director and innovator Peter Brook for years, yet in film, nobody really seemed to know how to utilise his talents. Being of Greek descent, he spent part of his film career playing general 'swarthy' types, plus the one-armed man in the film version of The Fugitive, before J Michael Straczynski cast him in B5, where his theatre training and wonderful voice helped him create a wonderful character.

The show was special at the time for having a single core story, told over five seasons – an arc. It remains good because the characterisation was good – and because the plot is dense and interesting and full of some really classic themes.

One of the other televisual treats of the holiday was a veritable flood of Poirot, with David Suchet showing how it should be played. No, it's not intellectually challenging TV, but it is good entertainment.

There was also a showing for the 1974 film of Murder on the Orient Express. I hadn't seen it for years, but with a trip on the train itself booked for March, a viewing was essential. I'd forgotten – or perhaps I'd never really realised – how dismal it is.

It's all well and good spending loads on a stellar cast – and it is – but it looked as though the only direction from Sidney Lumet had been for everyone to aim way OTT, and then add a bit more for good measure. Albert Finney was dire as Poirot – all shouting and crass mannerisms. And Finney – like many of the others here – is a good actor. But heaven alone knows how he came to be Oscar nominated for this performance – even the woefully miscast Peter Ustinov was better as the little detective.

I switched off in disappointment. At least there was Suchet to make up for such a let down.

But that, together with some sport, was about it – even if it constituted a TV binge by my standards. And now, in the new year, it's time to get back to some reading.

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