Wolf Hall reviewed

Thomas CromwellI have just finished watching the six-part BBC series, Wolf Hall, based on the two novels by Hilary Mantel. I am also about halfway through my reading of the first of the two, Wolf Hall (with Bring up the Bodies waiting in the bedside pile).

The series conflates the two novels into six one-hour episodes. Given the length of the novels (Wolf Hall is 650 pages itself), compacting them and retaining clarity, plot and drama is quite a feat.

Normally, I would argue for the written word over the adaptation. Any adaptation. As good as they may be, it is rare that a film or TV production can match the richness of any book. But in this instance, I find myself siding with the BBC’s version when recommending a choice to others. It is beautiful, well-crafted production, and visually stunning. But in truth, the two are synergistic.

(digression: the exacting approach of the BBC to history, to production, to costume and sets puts to shame the risible, American TV series, The Tudors).

For me, the period of the Tudors is the most intriguing, exciting, entertaining period of English history. In part it’s because the Renaissance bursts upon European consciousness and radically changes everything – politics, art, philosophy, literature, music, technology et al. And on its heels comes the Protestant Reformation, which rocks the very foundation of everything it touches. Everything was in flux.

It’s also in part because the Tudors themselves are larger-than-life characters in a giant, swirling drama that reaches into the nations and courts across Europe.

Unlike earlier periods, the Tudor era is remarkably well documented – the first period to benefit from the new printing technology that swept the continent. We know much more about the daily lives of the time than we do about previous eras. So it helps make the characters live in our imagination. Plus it is the era of Shakespeare, albeit a generation later than this series portrays.

And then there’s the story itself. Or rather, the many stories – plots and subplots, twists and turns – that arise. Henry VII’s rise from Bosworth to end the War of the Roses, Henry VIII’s unexpected ascension to the throne, and his marital adventures. Elizabeth I and her reign against all odds. Mary. Edward. Five monarchs in all. It’s just such rich stuff, compressed into a mere 120 years. You can’t fail to be drawn in.

Who among us doesn’t know at least the outline of the story of Henry VIII’s wives? Or the defeat of the Spanish Armada under Elizabeth? Mary Queen of Scots? The beheading of Anne?

Little wonder I continue to read and watch stories about them. They are endlessly entertaining.

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Why I Still Watch M*A*S*H

Harry MorganThe news of Harry Morgan’s death at 96, back in 2011, saddened me. I’m at the age when it seems far too many icons of my youth are dying off. Not from some misspent life or accident; from old age. And the process accelerates as I age. I now understand why my grandparents and then parents read the newspaper obituaries. I haven’t quite succumbed to that, but I’m sure the day will come.

No, I’m not being morbid. Or maudlin. I have, I believe, a healthy attitude towards death. Death moves me, sometimes fascinates me (as our collective attitude towards it fascinates me), but it doesn’t frighten me. But when someone dies, it’s a row of dominoes that tumble. We’re all connected, even if only through the TV screen.

Morgan played Colonel Sherman Potter in the latter part of the long-running TV series, M*A*S*H. he brought to the show a maturity and a softer wit. I recall watching him as a harder character in the 1960s’ crime show, Dragnet. I preferred Colonel Potter.

I was reminded of his death only last week, through a Facebook re-post on the anniversary of his passing. That got me thinking about the show, about the era in which it was made, and how it affected me then and later. I dug out my DVDs so I could start watching the series again. (Susan struggles to watch Columbo, a contemporary show from that age that I recently acquired, but loves M*A*S*H).

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Houses of Cards

Francis UrquhartWhile there are parallels between them, there is no direct, simple comparison between the original, British mini series, House of Cards, and the American series of the same name. The latter, aired 13 years after the original, owes much of its first-season content to the BBC’s production, but it quickly went its own way. Like its contemporary, The Bridge, the American version took on a life of its own – and a very distinct, American character – and can’t be considered a simple adaptation. Both are excellent shows.

In part, the vast differences between American and British political systems compound the problem of comparison and understanding.

Canadians, on the other hand, will easily understand the machinations of the characters in the British show because our system is quite similar, but they are more opaque in the American version. From the outside, American politics seem designed to increase confrontation and partisanship. And political venality (it seems all American politicians and votes are for sale to the highest bidder…), but that’s not my point here. Americans might find the British version equally incomprehensible.

We finished watching season three of the American series recently and began to watch the British series again, after several years hiatus (it remains one of my favourite series). The latter is somewhat dated – aired before the internet and cell phones – but still well worth watching: the acting is superb. As are in most British series. But the cast in the American House of Cards is, for the most part, among the best I’ve seen in an American series (Kevin Spacey excels).

The British version has more humour, albeit dry, wry wit. It might be best described as either a political satire or dark comedy. I’m not sure everyone will appreciate its subtlety.

The American series has some of this in the first season, but less as it progresses. It’s more of a drama-cum-soap opera with less satire. Underwood speaks to the camera a lot more in the first season than in later ones. And that’s too bad because I think it adds to the viewer’s engagement.

The main characters – Francis Urquhart in the British (Ian Richardson), and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the American – are very different in style and behaviour. Urquhart speaks more to the camera than Underwood, and offers more knowing, sly glances and smiles than his American counterpart. Underwood is far more about raw power; the underlying tongue-in-cheek attitude of the British politicians is absent.

The roles and the power associated with each leader is very different, too. Urquhart has to be more cunning than Underwood because his system is very different from the American. Underwood can sometimes batter his way through to success, where Urquhart has to squirm.

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Thirty Seven Days

37 DaysBack in the mid-1970s, the BBC launched a dramatic, 13-part series called Fall of Eagles, about the last decades of the 19th century and the lead-up to World War One. It also chronicled the end of the royal dynasties in the aftermath of the war. It was a brilliant series, sweeping in its broad brush across the royalty and politics of Russia, Austria, Germany, and England. France got a mere cameo role because France was not ruled by any of the dynasties which form the central cast in the series.

Viewers got from the series an image of the complex network of connections and ties – often familial, as the royal houses were linked by blood and marriage – between these nations, of the rapidly changing political landscapes in each, and the inexorable end of an era, a time in which nations would erupt to alter radically and forever. The Titanic is the perfect metaphor for this time, as the royal houses, blind to the ferment of change happening under their feet, approached the iceberg, unwilling or unable to change course.

It remains one of my favourite historical dramas, albeit somewhat dated by today’s production standards. Patrick Stewart, by the way, was terrific as Lenin.

Last year, the BBC released 37 Days, a three-part mini-series about the final 37 days before WWI (June 28 to August 4). It is mostly about English and German politics, with a tip of the hat to France and a very minor role for Russia and Austria. It was part of the BBC’s several pieces produced last year to highlight the 100th anniversary of the war’s start.

Part one is the first month of that period, starting with the shooting of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Part two is about the week before war broke out, and part three is the final weekend. Despite the shortening time for each part, there is no real sense of urgency or tension as war approaches, especially among the English politicians. There’s more tension between members of the cabinet, some of whom resigned because of military agreements to support war. But we never get to see other political perspectives such as the growing socialist movement that opposed war in all of the European countries.

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Internet TV and Roku

Roku streaming stickI picked up a ROKU streaming stick this weekend at the local Staples store to get access to some internet TV. The box advertises 500+ channels, while the boxes for the upscale models 2 and 3 offer 450+ and 1,000+, respectively.

However, the official webpage for Roku says you can get more than 1,800 channels in the US on these devices. The Canadian site suggests it’s closer to 1,000 – Canadians get shortchanged by this and similar services, it seems. But by my count on the screen, the actual number of possible “channels” tops 1,300.

Before you shout “woo hoo” and rush out to buy one, I suggest it’s not really close to that many, at least not channels you will want to subscribe to.

It also depends on your definition of a channel: i wouldn’t count more than 100 streaming applications like Plex, games (47) or screensavers (76) as channels, but Roku does.

As you will read below, it’s not whether you get 1,800, 1,000 or even 500 channels: it’s whether the channels are top quality, commercial programming like you get on your cable. Of that category, it’s maybe a dozen.

Why, when I had dropped cable almost two years ago, would I want TV now, you ask… well, I primarily wanted to find a more convenient way to get Acorn TV (the source of many BBC programs). We already have Acorn on the iPad that hooks up through Apple TV but it’s not as comfy or convenient to use as a simple changer. Tapping at the iPad while watching is distracting and frankly, the iOS app is clumsy. It times out frequently, and drops the show, forcing you to restart then fast forward to the dropped location –  unless you keep tapping the screen now and then to wake it up.

I am thinking of subscribing to Netflix, too, and wanted the same easy and dependable access. Yes, I could always hook my laptop to the TV with an HDMI cable, but that’s not always convenient, either.

First a comment on the device and setup: simple, easy, well-made. The Roku interface is cleaner and easier to use than either Apple TV or the internet-ready apps built into our Sony Blu-ray player or TV. Setup takes a few minutes to get networked and authenticate the device online (an external computer connection is needed here). It took another minute to link it to my Acorn TV account. After that, it worked flawlessly.

The HDMI picture is, from what little we’ve seen, clear and crisp and if the original was also in hi-def. However, not everything is presented that way. Sound seems okay, but volume is inconsistent (some channels are way too loud, others are low).

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Falling Skies: Aliens as Metaphor

Falling SkiesWe watched the last of Season Two of the Falling Skies series last night. After a bit of research this morning, I learned I have two more seasons to watch and a fifth season has been scheduled. Something to look forward to. I wasn’t sure about how it would turn out, but the series has matured nicely, although one can’t say that about its politics.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s about American reaction to an alien invasion – one could say it is a drawn-out remake of War of the Worlds. The aliens, of course, have more advanced weaponry and technology and aim at world domination. And enslavement of the human race along the way. Falling Skies spices up the mix with a rich back story about the aliens I won’t spoil here. But at least by the end of Season Two, there’s no indication that anyone else on the planet has survived and formed a resistance. It’s solely an American underground.  One bridles at that.

My first impression was that it was Walking Dead with aliens instead of zombies. I personally didn’t care much for the Walking Dead series and didn’t manage to watch even the whole first season. But, as a scifi buff, Falling Skies caught and held my attention.*

The ostensible premise is straight out of H.G. Wells: high-tech aliens invade, destroy much of the planet’s civilization and infrastructure, and pockets of humans fight back. But there’s more to it.

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