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TV Review: Ghosts (BBC)

It’s always the way, isn’t it? There you are, having a fancy dinner party with your double-barrelled surname neighbour who owns the village and you’re disturbed by a dancing caveman, a lovelorn poet, a burnt witch, a filthy minded trouserless MP, a Captain, a Lady murdered by her husband, a ‘scout’ leader with an arrow in his neck and an overly excited long-deceased woman who just wants to be your friend and talk about boys. And only you can see them as they dance around the table, walk into the table, and then sing their praises to the moon. Always the way. Welcome to Ghosts.

The team that brought you Horrible Histories when it was good and then followed it up with Yonderland and the sadly-hardy-watched-but-brilliant Bill (review here) are now all dead. They hang round Button Hall and try not to get too bored with each other. The caveman (Robin played by Laurence Rickard) has turned out to be rather good at chess (“Horsey go cloppety cloppety .. check mate”) but mostly it’s just talks about basket weaving, (“You need it to be about five potatoes high” – this from Katy Wix as the simple singed witch, Mary) that they then can’t do because they can’t touch anything.

And into this world come Alison and Mike. A young couple with no money who, via Alison, are distantly related to the last of the Buttons and so get the house. Initially, only moderately freaked out by the size and expense of their new home, things get a lot more complicated when pervert MP Julian (Simon Farnaby) crosses the temporal plane to push Alison out of a window. Dead for a while but revived she can thus see and interact with the ghosts even though no one else can.

And so, across six episodes, silliness ensues. The kind of endlessly quotable, completely rewatchable silliness that lets everyone bask in a warm glow. Here’s the poet attempting to woo Alison with what he thinks is a tender verse but is actually Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky; here are the lost souls trapped in the plague pit into which they were tossed who know all about how the boiler works, (“Red Lever! Red Lever! Red Lever!”); here’s the head endlessly calling out to the rest of his body; here’s the Captain pointing out which of the workmen did something (“The handsome one. With the arms. Strong … probably.”). The jokes come remorselessly thick and fast. It takes a second watching to pick out some choice lines or to see yet another sight gag go by. I’m sure more will come on third and fourth watching.

In amongst the gags there are some genuine moments of emotion. Pat (Jim Howick) seeing his family and Robin talking about the moon amongst them. I’m sure, assuming a second series comes (this being British TV we’ll probably get a Christmas special in 2022 and be grateful), there will be similar moments for some of the other characters too. I’d love to know more about all of them.

There’s no doubt more to say but the best way to appreciate Ghosts is just to watch it. And if, having done so, you are able to walk into a room without going through in your head the souls that must be looking on nearby, please let me know how you’ve done it. I’m convinced that our cat must be seeing something spectral right now. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. I do hope they’re having a good time.

On the radio: Ropewalk House

Into a building that once housed the longest ropewalk in the world walk a small acting company looking to create a new immersive piece loosely inspired by the myth of the minotaur. But this building is not what it seems and whilst they may leave their own threads behind, they will keep losing their way as relationships, moods, stories and walls all shift.

Ropewalk House was recorded and part-improvised in a venue that writer Anita Sullivan refers to as having too many doors. And so doors, and their inherent lack of honesty about what is on the other side, featured a lot. As did some neat revelations about characters revealed through the sort of worlds they would imagine for themselves. The director Jarek (Nigel Barrett) noting that the man on a tapestry reflecting his own state of looking at a tapestry was somewhat fitter than he himself really was, for example. Meanwhile, some people would just like to get on with making a play whilst others are just keen to find the way out again … but are now finding that their individual threads are getting dangerously knotted.

There were some strong vocal performances. I particularly liked Hannah Ringham as the Production Manager, Sarah. And, proving that the Ringham family must be quite annoyingly talented, the music by Ben and Max Ringham added to the whole atmosphere of confusion and menace.

Radio drama comes in for a lot of criticism but none of that should ever be directed towards Drama on 3, in which consistently good strand this was another strong entry – and a fine example of the kind of drama that works best in audio. Those sounds struggling just beyond the realm of normal hearing will be circling the edges of my brain for a while.

On BBC Four: Benjamin Zephaniah at the Eisteddfod

Benjamin Zephaniah in front of the Pafiliwn (BBC)

“When I was growing up my mum told me that they [the Welsh] hated us [the English] because we stole their water.  And it’s true, we did.  And I’m sorry.  But your water was lovely.”  So soliloquises Benjamin Zephaniah, Birmingham Rastafarian poet of Jamaican ancestry, as he drives in the direction of this year’s Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (the Frenhinol doesn’t seem to get a mention these days) to learn what on earth the annual festival of Welsh language culture and competition (and druids) is all about.

Zepahaniah was a more than engaging host.  His charm and passion for poetry and people enabled him to put people at ease – despite committing what used to be a capital crime of speaking English within sniff of the competition tent – and learn (and share) the passion of the attendees and performers at an event that might not date back to ancient times but which does belong to a Bardic culture centuries old and, as poet and chair-winner Twm Morys observed, has now been going for 200 odd years in its own right.

There was good mix of arts represented, sadly only in passing owing to limits of time.  Cerdd dant got a good airing and I enjoyed Zepahaniah’s own singing along to the harp playing.  It was interesting to see his reaction to realising that the members of the first choir he heard sing probably really were builders – art and culture by and for the people. There was also a good introduction to the strict meter poetry cynghanedd for which the Chair is awarded.  Alex Jones of One Show fame popped along to talk about how proud she is of being nominated to the Gorsedd of Bards, and Cymdeithas yr Iaith made an appearance although no one seems to have translated the signs for our Benjamin – although the point was made that it’s traditional that they protest about something.  Zephaniah thought they could show more fire.

Apparently I qualify via my degree for membership of some outer level of the Gorsedd.  I doubt I’d survive an interrogation though, not least as I’d have to rush off to Google Translate these days.  Via some cosmic coincidence I had a postcard of some Zephaniah poetry in front of me whilst I was struggling to get to grips with Welsh in my first year.  And I’ve only ever been in the flesh to one Eisteddfod despite always catching a fair bit of it via S4C.  But Zephaniah’s infectious enthusiasm and, again, seeing all over again just how much quality there is in this people’s art has made me get the dream going to maybe pop over to Abergavenny next year.  If I have even a quarter as much fun as Zephaniah it’ll be a helluva time – but I doubt I’ll come even close to expressing it all as well as he did in this programme.

On Radio 4 Extra: The Lives of Harry Lime

Harry Lime lives again.

The zither music plays over old-time radio crackle and then … a gun shot … and that sonorous voice intones, “That was the shot that killed Harry Lime …”.  A pleasing intro as Orson Welles, for it is he, then leads us into prequel territory for the adventures of Harry Lime before he wound up telling Holly Martins about cuckoo clocks and getting killed in the sewer for thanks.

These radio plays date from 1951-2 and were created by Harry Alan Towers when he realised that Graham Greene had not sold the radio rights when he had sold the film rights to his novel, The Third Man.  Recreating the film’s atmosphere via the zither music, the intoning Wellesian narration and the rampant amorality, the first episode broadcast by Radio 4 Extra (the second recorded), was a pretty simple affair about a failed attempt to steal an emerald necklace but it still took in places of faded glory (Pompeii rather than Vienna) and people whose own motivations were forever opaque.  All that in twenty radio minutes without any stark noir shadows.

Radio 4 Extra are broadcasting eight episodes.  Fifty two were apparently recorded.  They aren’t as timeless as The Third Man (which I now have to watch again, old man) but in their dated way they are rather charming, in a deceptively dark way.

On the radio: Soul Music, “Hallelujah”

The first version you hear of Hallelujah is the one you love.  For me, that is the one that is on Cohen Live. Leonard’s live album was released in 1994 but the recording of the song came from a performance in 1988.  Cohen doesn’t rush these things.  Hallelujah took over two years to write and, even now, there is no definitive version of which of the 15 verses should be sung, nor which exact phrases should form them.  And, if you think Don McLean’s American Pie is hard to understand (it isn’t), the enigmas that run throughout Hallelujah will leave you baffled.  But being baffled, like the king composing perhaps, is where the beauty and power lies.

Radio 4’s Soul Music spent 30 minutes pondering the song and recounted a lot that would be familiar to many of the people who have lived it with it for a long time.  How the version you hear on the 1984 album Various Positions is jarring compared to the softer alternatives, how John Cale asked Cohen for the lyrics when putting together what would be his defining cover version and received instead a confusing ream of fax paper, how Jeff Buckley had not heard Cohen’s version, only Cale’s, and so on.  We did hear from Alexandra Burke whose oft-derided X Factor version also got an airing, “I’m going to Whitney-fy it” was her response to her immediate reaction that she couldn’t actually do anything with the song.

Intermingled with the story of some of the recordings we heard from people who had been affected by the song, as well as some very detailed analysis of the biblical inspiration for the lines.  The impact of those lines, and the multiple interpretations that exist for them, was heard through the testimony of people who have found emotional solace in it.  That it can be both positive and negative, that it can it leave you feeling you understand everything but that at the same time, nothing can be understood,  that sometimes all you have left is a cold and a broken hallelujah.  And that could be an orgasmic moment, or a moment following a death.  Or any point in between.  “It embraces the whole mess of what love is … and that’s not a bad thing,” as one of the speakers said. Some song, huh?

This wasn’t a programme for those who wanted chapter and verse on the song, its history and cultural impact but it was a useful and engaging reminder that for all Hallelujah‘s recent ubiquity it remains a rare example of a well-known and much-loved song  that welcomes, indeed demands, a personal response.  It stays intimate despite being universal.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need go and stand before the Lord of Song.  There may only be one things on my lips.

On the radio: Cabin Pressure

“What’s in the back of a van?”, “A thousand strawberry lollies and the Princess of Liechtenstein.”  Oh, Cabin Pressure, you really were splendid and you really did manage to put together a fairytale ending after four series of unparalleled silliness.  But this leaves me conflicted: on the one hand, John Finnemore and his helpers really did do a magnificent job of finishing everything off but, on the other, I selfishly want to spend more time in the company of one-plane charter company, MJN (or Our Jet Still as it finished up as).  I guess I’ll just have to make do with Radio 4 Extra repeats.

Of course I was worried.  Pre-announced finales always have the danger that things are going to be too neatly wrapped or just not come together properly or not do justice to what went before.  And Cabin Pressure has set the bar high.  If you like your radio comedy to be full-on steely whimsy voiced by top-level actors drawing from stories whose construction you sometimes just want to stand back and applaud (and I do) then from Abu Dhabi (Series 1, Episode 1) to Yverdon-les-Bains (Episode 4, Series 6) there has been little to complain about.  Even the misfires tended to work.  I still find myself saying (to myself, obviously) that if the real Ouagadoogoo is to be mentioned I should say, “Ouagadoogoo, Ouagadoogoo.”

This final two-parter (Zurich) brought everything that had gone before it together whilst also flinging in more new material and directions than really should have been allowed over 56 minutes of comedy.  It goes without saying that the cast of Allam, Cole, Cumberbatch and Finnemore were strong and I almost keep wondering when John Finnemore is going to write something I don’t laugh at.  It also goes without saying that Cabin Pressure‘s good nature meant that everyone who deserved it got a happy ending and the plane with the heart of gold got to fly into the sunset at the end.  Just beautiful, and so right.

Yellow car.


Hinterland (Y Gwyll)

On my first day in Ceredigion the local paper ran the headline “Lampeter Window Smasher Arrested” and I had a couple of quiet drinks in a pub.  On DI Matthias’s first day in Ceredigion he’s called out to a bungalow covered in blood and later finds a body in the water under Devil’s Bridge.  The road signs are the same but everything else in this familiar landscape is different: welcome to Welsh Noir.  It’s like Nordic Noir only the directions take you to Cwmystwyth.

Actually, the whole Nordic Noir thing has largely passed me by in terms of sitting and watching the programmes themselves but it’s been very hard to miss the stylistic impact.  Hinterland was in production before any of them reached the UK but such was the sluggish pace in getting finance together it’s now firmly part of that grouping.  BBC Four may even be slightly annoyed they got the English version and so could only subtitle the occasional bits of Welsh.

The success of Hinterland hangs on two things: the way in which the wilds of Ceredigion are presented.  Washed out hues and quite incredible vistas – isolated houses and villages picked out in the distance.  Aberystwyth exists but the only places they visit are suitably retro or ‘other’: a closing-down camera shop, the seafront in a storm, garages that last serviced a car in 1963.  The other is the central performances.  There are four officers tasked with investigating the suddenly rising murder rate.  Matthias, played by Richard Harrington, is the newcomer with a past; Mali Harries is DI Rhys his subordinate partner.  Both are excellent, which helps.  The other two have less to do but do it well.  It’s not particularly subtle but quite neat to have the attractive blonde one as the impulsive one who’d like to shoot off to Cardiff for excitement and the bookish son-of-a-farmer glasses one as the bloke more desperate to impress.  The brooding presence of Aneirin Hughes as the overall boss sometimes feels like one character too far but mostly the whole thing works.

Certain themes recurred most notably the disconnection between families whether they are still technically together or not with betrayal of the trust of children in particular coming back again and again.  Still, there are plenty of rich pickings there.

Obviously there’s a lot within each episode that returns to genre cliches.  Chases, arriving just after the nick of time, confrontations that would never actually happen in real life. This is a television series that S4C needs to sell after all.  And ‘oh look another body’ can get a bit wearisome – it must be possible for TV drama to deliver an emotional and dramatic punch without needing another sodding murder to do it.  But for four nights this has been very enjoyable and very engaging.  The final episode in particular was welcome in expanding the dynamic between the main characters.  A second (five-part) series, now in production, is very welcome news indeed.  I may even try and catch it in Welsh first.

For the subtitles.