Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Beowulf, War and Peace and other TV

The Legatus has been watching a lot of TV lately and has also been dealing with a backlog on the digibox caused by lots of Strictly and, we are ashamed to say, I'm a Celebrity before Christmas. I still haven't finished watching Ripper Street, Banished or season one of Fargo let alone the new series.  With a new TV season starting since Christmas (glad that is all now packed away) there are a number of must watch shows coming up.

I am enjoying Dickensian, even though it is set in a period before my IHMN late 1890's period (I am working my way through the second series of Penny Dreadful, however - Dr Frankenstein's laboratory appears to be located about 100 yards from my office!)).   I also enjoyed Jekyll and Hyde (sadly, ITV has announced they won't be renewing it for a second season today), which had a fine design mix of Victorian London and thirties Pulp but then I am one of those people who looks up film production designers after I have seen a film.  "You don't come out of a film whistling the sets" a film composer once said, but I sort of do!  I am looking forward to the new series of Endeavour (just need to watch the last episode of series 2), Mr Selfridge (the Dolly sisters in this one), GothamThe Musketeers, and Agents of Shield, all of which are due over the next four weeks. What I have to watch out for are series that might get me thinking about wargames figures and this weekend we had two which couldn't have been more different: War and Peace and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.

My first exposure to Beowulf was through a serialisation in Look & Learn magazine back in the sixties, where they had a fantastic cover painting (above) by Ron Embleton entitled Grendel: Terror from the Marshes so my visual expectations were rather different from the actual look of the show.  I was put off the new Beowulf from the moment I saw the recent trailer where ITV seemed to have hired a voiceover person from off the street (a south London street at that) who was unable to pronounce 'th', or anything else come to that. Never have I heard a continuity announcer on TV sound so thick.  The opening theme tune and title sequence were such a rip off from Game of Thrones as to be actionable.   Beowulf had every current fantasy cliche imaginable: Black costumes with too much leather and fur, elevated Edoras style great hall, feisty female characters holding down important positions (Blacksmith? Really?), shiny hilted Conan-style swords, politically correct but unlikely ethnic characters etc.  

The set under construction somewhere grim up north

The whole thing comes from Tim Haines, the Walking with Dinosaurs (and Primeval) man who also had a go at a fantasy series with the short-lived (but actually rather enjoyable) Sinbad a few years ago.  The opening monsters had that weird bouncy gait you saw in the evil dogs from Ghostbusters and there was a troll right out of Lord of the Rings.  The whole thing also, despite some nice set design for the village of Herot, looked like it had been filmed in an old quarry.  In fact it was filmed in an old quarry, in Northumberland. 

Joanne Whalley.  Yes please

The countryside looked  grim but then it is grim up North.  It's not a patch on Jekyll and Hyde, let alone The Last Kingdom but I will keep watching (as it has the magnificent Joanne Whalley in it) but all the female characters have long black hair (er, Herot is supposed to be in Scandinavia) and I couldn't initially tell who was who.   I doubt it will see a second series and seemed to struggle (unlike The Last Kingdom which was post watershed) with the constraints of its family time slot.  

Fiona Gaunt.  Yes please

On to War and Peace and here my expectations were shaped by the epic BBC series from 1972 with a career launching performance from Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov and an eye popping performance by Fiona Gaunt as Hélène which kept the 12 year old Legatus entertained for all 17 hours of the series.     It was brave of  Andrew Davies to try to tell the story in six hours but it has had a positive effect on the pace and much of War and Peace the novel doesn't really relate to the story anyway.  The 1972 production was very much studio bound and shot on video with only the location battle scenes shot on film in Yugoslavia.

On this point, some have said that the new BBC production, of course, has many more extras in its battle scenes compared with the  1972 effort, comparing that with Sharpe style battles.  This actually is not the case.  The 1972 version (above) actually used three times the 500 extras the current version used.  I thought that the battle (Schöngrabern) depicted in episode one last Sunday looked rather less effective (excellent cavalry charge excepted) than the 1972 one (which didn't take place until the end of episode three).  Also, I don't know much about Russian napoleonic uniforms but at least the 1972 version got the shape of the shakos right but that was because much of the uniform  had been used in Waterloo (1970).

On location in Vilnius old town

However, I did enjoy War and Peace more than Beowulf (which was the opposite of what I was expecting) and the interiors and exteriors of the buildings (shot in St Petersburg, Latvia and Lithuania (mainly)) are a wonder.  I recognise some of the streets in Vilnius, which I last visited about six years ago.

Anita Ekberg in War and Peace (1956)

Apart from Gillian Anderson and, rather distractingly, Inspector Lewis' boss (in a scene stealing performance by Rebecca Front), I was not familiar with most of the actors but then I watch almost no British drama.  The leading ladies are all pretty but, given the fashions of the time they all looked as skinny as sticks and certainly didn't have Fiona Gaunt's embonpoint (and bear in mind that Hélène was played by Anita Ekberg in the 1956 King Vidor version).

Tuppence Middleton as a skinny Hélène  

After all the Daily Mail's hoo-ha about a 'sexed up' series it was all rather tame, as it has to be to sell to the Americans of course. Despite all the negative press they have been giving it in advance it must have been embarrassing for them that their TV critic loved it.

So, although I had a quick look for 1805 Russian figures (both the Perry and Warlord ones are for a later period) I am safe from being diverted on this.  As for Beowulf... well there is that 4Ground great hall of Heorot...


  1. I caught the last 10 minutes of Beowulf...that was enough...

  2. I watched the first 5 minutes of Beowulf then just turned the volume down and went back to painting. I ought to give War and Peace a go, but forgot about it on Sunday - I might play catch-up and view it on iPlayer.

  3. Dickensian is monumentally good... worth the licence fee alone in my humble opinion... I have already asked the current Mrs Steve the Wargamer for the DVD on whichever gift giving event comes closest to it's issue... War and Peace was good too - I was in two minds as like you I remember the old BBC series with great fondness... the chap who plays Bezukov is irritating but other than that the series is good.... Beowulf I ignored - fed up with dark age gubbins - and I didn't watch Last Kingdom after about episode 2 (got bored... a travesty compared to the books)

  4. I watched them both. Enjoyed them both, which surprises me. I just ignore the faults if the program engages me. Definitely enjoyed watching Joanne Whalley!

  5. I'd forgotten all about Fiona Gaunt - I seem to remember Morag Hood was a bit overdramatic as Natasha but Joanna David was rather cute as her sister. Not terribly impressed with the 2016 version (I presume the BBC doesn't think we have the attention span for more than 6 episodes) but I can watch (skinny) Tuppence Middleton in anything!

  6. I had eyed both series as possible diversions, but missed them. Not sure I shall be rushing to catch up now.

  7. Whilst clearly sounding like a pedant. The village in Beowulf was actually built in County Durham, not Northumberland. The county was actually the cradle of Christianity, and learning for over a 1000 years. As for the grim description, I sense that you have rarely if ever left the centre of civilization that is multicultural London.Amazingly we have now been granted the use of clean water and something called electricity. I look forward to the discovery of the internet, so that I can keep up with what goes on in the rest of England.

    1. I confess to never having been to Northumbria although I did visit Durham once. I am hoping to visit Hadrian's Wall this year as the scenery around the wall looks spectacular. I live in Surrey,which is the most heavily wooded county in Britain so other places that seem to lack trees do look bleak to me. Although, of course Oxford University proved that those from the North have bigger brains and bigger eyes.

      Of course I know about the contribution of Northumbria to UK history (having studied Bede at school, for one) but those from the North, like the French, always rise to the bait. I have had many enjoyable walking holidays in Cumbria and Yorkshire so look forward to adding Northumberland to the list. It is colder, though!

  8. Dickensian: love it and it's got an excellent cast.

    War & Peace: condensed storylines are nothing new, but I admire the guts of the BBC to get this into six hours. There's a fair bit of verbiage in the book which can be lost to no great cost, but I think they've also had to sacrifice some of the good bits too. Besukhov Senior was polished off in fairly short order, but I think this was at the cost of allowing more elbow room for Gillian Anderson and Rebecca Front. Anyway, nore people will probably be interested in the war then thte peace, so there you go, but there's a lot of the military 'flavour' of the book gone. Uniforms? Probably enough to make the button counters apoplectic, but I thought they were fair enough and certainly good enough for the job in hand. Good viewing, I think, but I could cheerfully punch Paul Dano in the face.

    Beowulf: least said, the better. A a head above Atlantis, I suppose, but that was sh . . . .

    Christmas telly was about the usual standard, I thought, which is why we seemed to spend a lot of time watching DVDs/Amazon etc. and listening to the wireless. We also had to mix with people which was a bit of a bind.

  9. Tuppence has such a big future .... did you see her on the one show !!!!! Hate the Last Kingdom even though my chum Ryan is the historical advisor ... Looking forward muchly to Gotham . The leftovers is still the best thing on TV IMHO !!

  10. and now theres this BBC ''war of the roses'' drama series made in Rumania ... It looked good ( pics in the mail on sunday magazine ''event'' ) but then I saw the words BBC - so supect it'll be shit .

    1. It was a bit strange - a documentary illustrated by extensive reenactments. The Romanian location explains the strange armour - not what I would think of as Wars of the Roses

    2. Legatus - BBC and Northumbria... continuation of the 2012 (BAFTA winning) series and based on the plays of Shakespeare covering the WoR period... have to say it looks quite good, and the acting talent is considerable..


    3. Ah. Confusing. Can't stand Shakespeare, though. Five years of studying it at school put me right off it!