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.


Sunday, November 06, 2011

Domo A Como

It seems an age ago now that my wife and I holidayed in Argegno, a friendly and colourful village on the shores of Lake Como. A little over a year, as it happens. I wrote a blog post about the holiday, full of glowing praise for the scenery, the serene and stress-free days on the lake and the people – most notably the wonderful staff at the Hotel Argegno where we often dined and our brilliant and thoroughly entertaining host, Paul Wright, at whose B&B we stayed.

Unfortunately, my netbook went and died and took – amongst other things – that blog post with it. Luckily then, along comes this opportunity to revisit those memories and in the company of a terrific storyteller.

Of course, in staying with artist and author, Paul, we were spoilt, treated to huge helpings of local tales, at least as colourful as the setting, all washed down with plenty of dry wit wine.

In Paul’s book, An Italian Home, the authorial voice is, inevitably, an edited version of the man himself and that’s a shame, but to be fair it’s a bit like that common niggle we all make, that we perhaps enjoyed a movie but it wasn’t as good as the book. At the end of the day, if you haven’t read the book, then that’s not going to be a factor and besides they’re two distinct art forms, aren’t they, so they’re bound to be different.

So while there are some stories and turns of phrase that didn’t make it into print, Paul still writes an engaging account of his and his wife’s uprooting and relocating to in Italy. The small, friendly village of Moltrasio – rather than Argegno, where they now live – provides the main focus for the story, as Paul and Nicola do battle with the horrors of Italian bureaucracy, come up against unexpected cultural differences and struggle with the language barrier in their quest to hold on to their dream of a new life.

To be fair, it’s mostly Paul who has the struggles with Italian and he’s refreshingly blunt and honest when it comes to admitting his reticence and stubbornness as a language student. There’s none of the illusory effects of Paul’s trompe l’oeil paintings; he tells it like it is and while the world of Lago di Como is, take it from me, paradise – albeit with too much traffic – he gives a very clear picture of the daunting aspects of their adventure, right alongside all the warmth and enchantment that made the two so determined to overcome those hurdles.

The book breezes from chapter to chapter – interest only flagging (for me and my wife) when it explores some of the idiosyncrasies of Italian football, but that’s just our personal anti-football bias and it’s true to say that Paul’s own passion for the sport clearly shines through in the writing. And among the comic episodes (that we had the pleasure of hearing live) that did make it into print are the story of Paul and Nicola’s encounter with the local police chief, Signor Pompino, and poor Nicola’s faux pas (or whatever Italian for faux pas might be) when waxing freely about sticky fig juice in among some of her and Paul’s Italian friends. You will likely feel her embarrassment while laughing at the same time.

Although by no means a tourist’s guidebook, well worth a read, even if you’re only planning a holiday in the region. Guidebooks give you facts, while stories like this give you flavour. And if you’re entertaining similar dreams of relocation, well, you’d do well to read about Paul’s and Nicola’s shared dream, entertainingly told.

Dreams may not always come true, but with a measure of courage, determination and hard work, you can make them.

An Italian Home is available on Amazon, price £8.09.

You can also check out some of his artwork - and find out about his B&B - on his website.