Telly Drama

Gormenghast (1999) is out on video this week (with a DVD scheduled to follow in April). Have you been following that? It looks splendid, of course, with smashing sets and some lovely costumes (now we know what our license fee has been going on all these years), but WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON?????? I finish every episode feeling distinctly mystified, and while it’s nice to see old faces like Christopher Lee and Eric Sykes getting the work, I wish that Jonathan Rhys Meyers would either get his hair cut or take some acting lessons. Or both. Has style finally triumphed over content? When was the last time we had a really decent telly drama?

Well, I don’t know whether you remember it or not, but last year’s pre-Christmas run up was a positive feast of costume drama, with Sunday night audiences forced to choose between Auntie Beeb’s production of Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished Wives and Daughters (1999) and ITV’s revisionist Oliver Twist (1999). Undaunted by the fact that they have dramatised each of Dickens’ novels at least three times, the BBC struck back over the festive Yule with David Copperfield (1999), while ITV continue to hold their own in the adaptation stakes with Henry James’ ghostly thriller The Turn of the Screw (1999) and The Secret (1999), the latest in a long line of Catherine Cooksons.

Some of us like our drama to stimulate the little grey cells; give me a good murder mystery and I’m happy. The BBC’s latest Sunday night offering, The Mrs Bradley Mysteries, is the next best thing to a good Agatha Christie (the Miss Marple stories having been exhausted about ten years ago) – unless of course you tuned in to Midsomer Murders the night before. Personally, I prefer John Nettles’ portly, phonetically precise Inspector Barnaby to Diana Rigg’s ageing, acerbic flapper ’tec (if I want a protagonist who insists on addressing their witty asides straight to camera, I’ll watch Ian McShane in Lovejoy!). You are in the ideal position to decide for yourself, as Mrs Bradley Mysteries: Death at the Opera/The Rising of the Moon (1999) is now available, and there are two new Midsomer Murders tapes due for release in March.

Doyen of all things detective, of course, is Inspector Morse. His last case to date, The Wench is Dead (1998), is due for re-release next week, and Morse fans everywhere can take comfort in the news that Kevin Whately has been persuaded to return to the fold for a final Oxford outing as Inspector Lewis. Somewhat cosier are the investigations of a certain diminutive Belgian gent – Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The King of Clubs/The Dream (1989) is the latest in a line of reissues – while the man who started it all off, Sherlock Holmes, is also enjoying something of a comeback on video; Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Pince-Nez/The Red Circle (1994) is released this month. Slightly more contemporary is Trial by Fire (1999), in which Juliet Stevenson stars as sleuthing crown prosecutor Helen West, while criminal psychologist Fitz (Robbie Coltrane) continues to stand the test of time in Cracker: The Mad Woman in the Attic/To Say I Love You (1993).

Tastes do change over the years, but isn’t it odd that the same creative team responsible for The Professionals (1978) (Issue 3 – Volume 1 and Volume 2 are out this week) acted as advisors on Bugs: The Price of Peace/Hollow Man (1997)? Downbeat unemployment drama Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) – now released in its entirety on DVD – was made just ten years after the chintzy but charming Upstairs Downstairs: Series 2 – Episodes 1-7 (1972), which just goes to show! Perhaps even grimmer, though, was Eastenders (1985), which celebrates its anniversary with the wittily titled 15 Years of Eastenders (1999). What joy! You can now relive the births, marriages, deaths and marital bust-ups of all your favourite characters. And Ian Beale.

It makes the lank, greasy locks of Mr Rhys Meyer seem almost compelling in comparison.

Richard Hewett