Monday, November 14, 2011

Kingston On Clyde

Continuing my irregular, if not random, reviews on some of this year's TV viewing, this time a bit of a curio and not my usual cup of tea...

My wife is good to me. When she was due to be away in the States earlier this year, she queued up a few treats for me on our DVD rental list. And decided that Alex Kingston could keep me company while she was gone. It was nothing untoward, you understand, only a TV series.

Hope Springs is something I wouldn’t ordinarily have chosen to watch. There’s a whole sub-genre of BBC dramedy, that I tend to think of as Ballykissmacbeth Of The Glen, where it’s believed that a hearty serving of regional flavour will cement a series’ charm and win us all over with colourful community spirit. It’s also a sub-genre in which Wales, as far as I can tell, has been sadly neglected – or will have been until my own script, Sheep Leeks, secures the recognition it deserves.

However, credit where it’s due, Hope Springs did break down my cynicism barriers with a warmth and sparkle that, in all fairness, is probably present in other series of its ilk if you take to the characters. Alex Kingston certainly helps this one along. Not only does she play a rough diamond brilliantly, her character is a strong, tough adhesive holding her band of sisters – and as a result the series – together.

Just about. It is, of course, a ludicrous situation: four ex-jailbirds band together to con a crook out of his millions, their getaway is postponed indefinitely when they lose their fake passports (when their fat friend expires on the luggage conveyor at the airport) and so they flee to Scotland where they elect to hide out and, in the meantime, run a hotel. Hope must have sprung eternally when this was being pitched to production companies. (Fawlty Towers meets Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, yeah?) Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s possible to summarise anything and make it sound ridiculous and on a very basic level this isn’t so far removed from The Ladykillers.

A bunch of crooks holed up, in this case, with a canny old dear in the shape of Annette Crosbie, who’s another linchpin of the series, playing her role with the credibility and conviction the scenario needs to prevent it from falling apart. The Highlands are a picturesque backdrop for what is unmistakeably sit-com turf and the plot progression for the dozen episodes is slightly off, such that it strains to maintain the situation part. Much as the gals scrabble around trying to maintain their cover, you can sense a degree of desperation on the part of the scripts to move things along while still holding out for the full run. (On a related note, there’s a particularly clumsy recap one episode, where the director chooses to repeat a scene showing the villain driving towards the village the villain driving towards the village which might have worked when viewed week to week but seen in close succession simply jars. See what I did there.) A few genuinely human touches, most notable being Hannah's (Sian Reeves) connection with poor abused Ina (Lorraine McIntosh), help to keep it just this side of real and a murder mystery that would have been at home in Midsomer is thrown in very early on as an additional hook.

But the key driving force is fun. There are more than enough antics, ranging from engaging to absurd, to keep the comic element alive. And in that spirit it succeeds.

The villains are exactly that – suitably exaggerated caricatures that, in another age, would have been seen tying ladies to railway tracks. This makes it easier for audiences to take when one of them has his arm severed and his corpse dumped in the loch, without loss of essential sympathy for the heroines of the tale. Alec Newman does well to play the JR Ewing of Hope Springs without straying into the realm of a pantomime nasty. But the one who shines with her bitchiness while engendering a measure of empathy is Ronni Ancona, who I’ll from now on consider entirely wasted in Alistair McGowan impression shows. She’s very good.

Where it’s weakest is in the rom-com stakes, presenting us with promising chemistry between Alex Kingston and Paul Higgins' stalwart detective that, of course, is doomed from the start. I mean, a crim and copper fall for each other, that can never end well, can it, guvnor. The series does at least have a stab at toying with our expectations on that score, with that romance hitting a dead end and being replaced with a surprise romance for the copper from another direction. Except that’s equally doomed because, after poor Gil Cameron (Higgins) has committed career suicide to save the ladies from jail, the gals all SPOILER off to foreign pastures, leaving their community friends in the lurch, to pull off another heist involving a bank vault and an ex’s severed finger.

Which is all as silly as it sounds and I got the impression the writers were really stuck for a good ending. I guess being a sit-com it had to go out on a gag but even in the wake of the preceding ridiculousness, it strikes as a bit of a misfire. A joke that I sense the writers probably thought far funnier than anyone watching ever did.

Like a lot of shows though it gets by not so much on its regional flavour, but more on the appeal of the central characters. They’re a charismatic bunch and I liked them all, so on the whole I enjoyed following their ups and downs, despite the silliness. Which makes Hope Springs sort of the opposite of Torchwood and therefore by definition a good thing.


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