House of Cards meets the Élysée: Baron Noir

If you’re not watching or haven’t watched French political drama “Baron Noir”, you can’t call yourself a political junkie. Whereas “The West Wing” did liberal political fantasy, and “Borgen” did liberal compromise, and “House of Cards” did cynical winning for winning sake, “Baron Noir” does political street-fighting with just a hint of morality.

The series centres on Phillipe Rickwaert, Socialist MP and Mayor of Dunkirk and chief crony of the Socialist candidate for President of France, starting on the eve of the first round. I won’t give anything else away other than the show is about the grubby compromises of politics. And yet… most of the characters, especially Rickwaert played by a brooding but charismatic Kad Merad have a moral centre. Politics matters to them. Nearly all are idealists (some lapsed) and all actually care about what it means to be in public office.

Rickwaert is an intriguing character, at home with the parish pump politics of his local fiefdom as with the battles over what it means to be a socialist in 21st century Europe. Genuine political issues from Marxism to Europe to secularism are debated throughout the show in a way unimaginable in a modern English-language political drama. It shows just how big the gap between Anglo-Saxon and continental politics is: unions still matter, and characters barely bat an eyelid when a prime minister openly advocates a United States of Europe.

There was a time when eyes were rolled at European TV drama in terms of accessibility and production values. No more. This is as good if not better than any political drama on US/UK TV.

All three seasons (it seems there won’t be a fourth) are on Amazon Prime.

Line of Duty: Questions about Buckells.

DSU Ian Buckells played by Nigel Boyce

*Spoiler alert about the season finale of Season 6 of Line of Duty. You’ve been warned.*

I wasn’t that surprised that DSU Buckells was revealed to be H. I can’t claim to be any great detective genius, and he wasn’t my lead suspect (that would be ACC Andrea Wyse). But those of us brought up on modern TV drama and Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects) know that the criminal has to be an onscreen character (although not a major one) and the idea that he was just pretending to be incompetent, to the point of even framing himself by putting files in his own car is credible.

Indeed, the excellent performance of Nigel Boyce playing the out-of-his-league mediocre middle-rank boss made it all the more believable.

Yet something just doesn’t sit right with me. When his cover is blown, he doesn’t reveal a hidden criminal genius. Indeed, his description of the OCG as a loose coalition of criminal gangs for whom he acted, as the last surviving member of the network of four corrupt officers (Hilton, Cotton, Hargreaves), as a sort of clearing house for just doesn’t ring true.

Review: For All Mankind

The road not taken…

There’s a very good chance that you have never heard of Apple TV’s “For all mankind”, given that we live in an age of “silo TV”, where different streaming platforms and an absolute glut (in a good sense) of high quality TV means that a show that would have been huge a decade or two ago instead ends up with a niche audience.

Well, if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.

The series, having just ended its second season recently and with a third season already in production, is essentially an alternate history drama which starts with the USSR beating the United States to the moon, and the US responding with a massive commitment to the space programme.

It has a large ensemble cast and mixes the family and personal drama of the astronauts and senior NASA officials with seriously top-class special effects and CGI. In particular the smooth insertion of both historical figures (Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan) and a different spin on real-life events adds an authentic touch.

It also has a social history running through it, talking about the challenges of women and minorities in the astronaut programme, and the weaponisation of space.

I don’t want to make it sound too worthy, because it is also very entertaining with some genuine edge-of-seat and gut-wrenching dramatic moments. I also don’t want to pick out any particular member of the cast (none of whom were hugely famous before) because there is such a generally high quality to the ensemble performance.

This is quality TV. Give it a go.

British spy loses employment appeal over sexually inappropriate behaviour, drinking.

MI6At a special session of the Employment Appeals Tribunal convened in camera under the Official Secrets Act, Commander X, formally of the Royal Navy and Secret Intelligence Service today lost his appeal against dismissal from the service.

X had been dismissed 18 months previously after numerous warnings about drinking on duty and making sexual advances on both fellow employees and targeted individuals. The final incident was a fracas caused by X in the service’s quartermaster branch. The head of the branch alleged that X had turned up after lunch “with the usual four Martinis on board” and proceeded to berate staff for not being able to provide him with a discreet way of carry prophylactics. “You’ve no shortage of lasers n’ shit, but you can’t get me a handful of fucking rubber johnnies! Have you seen some of the quim I have to bang for Queen n’ country? Do you know why they call her Octopussy?”

This had been the second incident involving the Q branch. X had previously been disciplined for trying to use a dart launcher to give himself a penicillin injection. A service doctor later testified that X was “riddled” with STIs.

A number of women, both from within the service and without gave evidence of X’s inappropriate sexual advances, using service equipment to remove their clothing without consent, and searching out particularly emotionally damaged women who were vulnerable and seen as easy prey.

“The man was like a vulture if there was any woman in a 5 mile radius who’d recently lost a love one through violence. I think it got him, you know, going. And don’t get me started on age. 18 and up, he was in like Flynn,” another member of the 00 section said.

The same agent disputed a claim by X that this was all part of “serving Queen and Country”.

“That’s nonsense. The other three of us are all happily married. He’s the only one charging around pissed like a rutting rhino. It’s a complete lack of professional standards. At the MI6 family day he made a pass at my 18 year old daughter. Poured champagne on her and then tried to help her out of her wet things. I mean, does that even work?”

The head of MI6, Alex Younger, admitted that X had not been dismissed earlier because he had been a useful asset in the past. “The man is so conspicuous and incapable of doing anything discreetly that we would use him to distract attention from our real operations. He spends his days driving around in ridiculous cars and trying to bed anyone in a skirt whilst our real operatives are quietly, you know, gathering intelligence. The problem has been that he is so effective at getting attention from foreign intelligence agencies that they immediately go on alert looking for our real agents when he arrives in the f**king airport. Now we just send him to places like Denmark in the hope he might use up someone’s resources following him, wandering between seedy bars, casinos and VD clinics. I mean, who on Earth wears a tuxedo as much as this guy does? And don’t mistake him for a waiter. He’s kicked off on a number of occasions over that.”

The tribunal was reminded that X had been married, but his wife had died in suspicious circumstances, with X claiming that she’d been murdered. No charges were ever brought.

The tribunal ended in a fracas when the presiding chair of the tribunal had to order X removed when he suggested, during her delivery of her findings, that they might like to adjourn to his hotel to “review” her findings. He then physically attempted to stop her talking by forcing himself onto her with a kiss, and was only stopped when she punched him in the penis.

 

Picard: I am enjoying it, but…

Pictured: Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

*Spoiler alert*

“Star Trek: Picard” is the show I’ve been waiting ages for, as I’m always a fan of the What Happened Next genre in fiction I like. I want to know what happened to the characters I like, to the Federation, to the future. I enjoy “Star Trek: Discovery” and roll my eyes at the usual anti-SJW stuff but I have to admit, I don’t really gel with the characters in it. They all look like they’re about to burst into tears all the time, with the exception of Lorca, Pike and (my favourite) Georgiou who basically regards everybody else as a bunch of crybabies. Picard is about my guy, the emotionally retarded stiff upper lip captain of the Enterprise.

What worries me about Picard however isn’t the characters. I get that we live in an age where absolutely f**king everything has to be emotionally over the top. My problem is with a trait displayed by many US TV writers with regarding emotional gymnastics as being all that matters, and non-emotional plot becoming a McGuffin. For the benefit of unfamiliar readers, a McGuffin is a Hitchcock term for an objective/object that matters to the characters but not really to the audience. It’s The Thing they are trying to rescue, recover, destroy, but what it is doesn’t really need to be understood by the audience to follow the story.

And that’s my problem. Entertaining as it is, it feels like the backstory of Picard is just a McGuffin. Take the reason for Picard’s resignation from Starfleet and the Federation’s abandoning of the Romulans. It’s a fundamental change to the values of the Federation that we have been brought up to known (and love) throughout the Star Trek franchise. When talking with an admiral about it Picard she informs him that Federation members are threatening to leave if they are forced to help the Romulans after the attack on Mars. This is all quite believable, and not a million miles from the EU and it’s challenges with refugees. But it’s just used as an excuse for Picard to mope around feeling let down. I hope there’s more to it than that, not just another “bloody politicians” get out.

It’s the same with the Romulans. We are led to believe that the Romulan Empire was destroyed by the supernova, yet there is talk of a Romulan Free State and the Tal Shiar still exist. Again, no detail, just a convenient McGuffin baddy.

I get it. Few people want to watch a show about the intricate political debates of the Federation (Although I’d definitely watch Star Trek: Place de la Concorde) but still. Now, maybe I’m doing the show a disservice. Maybe there will be a big reveal at the end. I sure hope so, as opposed to the infamous “Lost” finale and the “They’re all in purgatory or something” ending.

Great TV you’re missing: Archer.

archerIf you like spy shows, politically incorrect humour and sexual vulgarity, Fox’s cartoon show “Archer” is for you.

It’s based around brilliant but incredibly self-centred and over-sexed agent Sterling Archer, operative of ISIS (Yeah, they’ve since changed that. Ahem.), and his battles against the KGB, terrorists, his domineering nymphomaniac mother/boss (played by the brilliant Jessica Walter of “Arrested Development” fame), his fellow agent/ex-lover Lana Kane, his dysfunctional/sociopathic/perverted co-workers and people who stole his Black Turtleneck Is Cool look.

Try it. But be warned. This is not one for the kiddies or the faint hearted. Think “The Man from UNCLE” but with a lot of dick jokes.

Cult TV: Bergerac.

bergeracFrom 1981 to 1991 mention the island of Jersey to anyone watching British television and they’ll almost certainly mention “Bergerac”. The detective show, set on the island, starred John Nettles as recovering alcoholic detective sergeant Jim Bergerac of the Bureau des Etrangers of the Jersey police, a special unit that dealt with tourists but more often with the many very wealthy foreigners who lived on the island.

By today’s standards, the Jersey of the 1980s all looks a bit naff, but at the time the wealth of the island, its sunny location and the French connection made it all seem very exotic and even glamorous indeed, and for ten years it was a Saturday teatime favourite.

As with many successful shows, Bergerac had a breakout character, Charlie Hungerford, played by veteran character actor Terence Alexander, who was a north of England bovver boy made good, a sort of Arthur Daley who had done very well for himself, thank you very much. One of the running jokes of the show was that Hungerford seemed to know absolutely everybody on the island, or at least was connected, often without his own knowledge, to every criminal enterprise on Jersey.

The show was a huge hit, and was responsible for boosting tourism to Jersey, with Nettles himself heading up the campaign.

Nettles went on to achieve a rare success for an actor in having played a household name for a decade as Jim Bergerac then went on to do it again for over a decade as Chief Inspector Barnaby in “Midsomer Murders”.

Coming soon to HBO*: “Threadneedle Street”

bank-england-logoWhen the governor of the Bank of England dies suddenly, and his obvious successor Sir Guy Acheson (Rowan Atkinson, in a surprising straight role) is ruled out because of a shares scandal, brilliant but maverick economist Steve Darblay (Episodes’ Stephen Mangan) finds himself appointed Governor of the Bank of England, in the middle of a currency crisis, by the ruthlessly ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer Tom Parrish (Hugh Laurie.)

For Darblay, his appointment not only places him in the driving seat in dealing with everything from interest rates to the future of the euro to who goes on the new £5 note, but also a target for Acheson who feels bitterly wronged but also that the new governor is not exactly from the right side of the tracks.

With his former Cambridge tutor Bill Burke (Roger Allam-The Thick of It) and even more brilliant economist (and former girlfriend) Yves Cassidy (Lenora Crichlow-Sugar Rush) at his side, Darblay gets ready to take his seat at the most elite of the world’s councils.

Guest starring Delaney Williams (The Wire) as US Fed Chairman Matt O’Malley and Sidse Babette Knudsen (Borgen) as ECB President Martina Delacroix.

Special appearance by Stephen Fry as the Prime Minister.

*I wrote this as a joke, but as I wrote it I thought “Jesus, I’d watch this!”

Why Peggy Carter is the greatest Marvel TV/Movie universe hero.

Agent-Carter-poster-570x760Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil war” then read no further. You have been warned.

******

There’s a scene in the movie where Steve Rogers is informed that the love of his life, SHIELD agent Peggy Carter, has died, probably aged around 100 years old. She gets a military funeral, and watching the scene I found it surprisingly touching, especially as the image of her used on the coffin is a current image of Hayley Atwell in character from the TV series “Agent Carter” set in 1946.

What struck me was that, watching her funeral, we realise that she is one of the few characters we have seen in her entirety, starting out as a much disparaged (by men) WWII intelligence officer who grows to become, as one of the key leaders of SHIELD, one of the most powerful people in the world.

But what really warrants her status as their greatest hero is the fact that she isn’t a superhero. She doesn’t have a super-serum coursing through her veins, or incredible intelligence matched to huge inherited wealth.

She’s just an ordinary woman, and a woman growing up in an age where for most of her life her looks count against her and discrimination based on her sex is the norm and in many cases the law. Then, as if that isn’t enough, she loses the love of her life, believing him to be dead well into her 90s.

And yet, despite all that, through a mixture of intelligence, hard work and competence, by the 1980s she is one of the leaders of the most powerful organisations in the world, and one of the most effective intelligence operatives ever.

Peggy Carter is the character every little girl can aspire to be, and that’s why she’s the greatest.