Monday, 13 July 2009

Torchwood: Children Of Earth - Review

As the entire population of the World's children stop and in unison chant "we are coming... we are coming" Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), on the run from the Government who are trying to kill him, looks on as a frantic mother desperately tries to free her child from its trance. When the chanting stops, Ianto approaches her, arms outstretched and asks her if she is OK.

Taken aback by this stranger's concern and fear for the welfare of her daughter, the mother snatches her and tells Ianto to "Piss off you perv". This brief moment amongst the special effects, drama, tension, excitement and tragedy of Torchwood: Children Of Earth strikes at the heart of a story which is about our relationship and obsession with children.

We perceive see children as innocents and under our collective protection. Unfortunately, in recent years we've also been forced to come to terms with the reality that, in some people's eyes, children are not special or precious or sacrosanct. Despite, all the press hysteria, panics, neighborhood riots, hatred and vilification of paedophiles and child abusers, sexual abuse and cruelty to children still takes place, often behind a veil of secrecy constructed by institutions and family.

In the UK, we have become much more uptight about the presence of adults who aren't parents among children, fearing that they may want to take their child away or that they are thinking evil and perverse thoughts.

In David Goldblatt's book "The Ball Is Round", a history of Football, there is this fantastic picture taken before the War of a crowded football terrace of men passing a child of no more then ten years over their heads to the bottom of the terrace so the young fella can watch the game. The idea of such a thing occurring today is unthinkable because we are too scared of leaving children in other's care, not because their are more abusers and paedophiles around, but because we are more aware of their existence or more willing to talk about them than we were back then, even if this discourse does take place in the form of tabloid headlines.

Perhaps it is right that we do this? Perhaps, after generations of refusing to discuss these matters openly, we are now paying a price for our collective complicity by being unable to interact with children without being family or passing a background check.

Yet despite our paranoia and suspision, over 4 million children in the UK live in poverty. As The 365 pointed out to Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) from behind its frosted glass, millions of children die from preventable causes every year but when it comes to surrendering 10 percent of the child's population, humanity suddenly becomes defiant. As though the act of surrender was more important than the fate of the children. When John Frobisher (Tony Capaldi) is told that he must give up his own children, he would sooner kill them, along with their mother and himself than hand them over.

Of course its not as simple as that, but Torchwood: Children Of Earth exposes an uncomfortable hypocrisy in our culture. Our kids are special and anyone who tries to interfere with them should be killed or castrated or both. But those kids on the other hand are a nuisance. They don't want to learn, they disrespect their elders and they're looking for trouble. And when it comes to the crunch, they are expendable. At no point during the British Cabinet's grotesque deliberations over whose children were to be sacrificed did the writers include the possibility that the human race may choose extinction rather than to give up their young. Perhaps it didn't occur to them or perhaps they felt it was unrealistic. Alien abduction is easy for a TV audience to swallow but self sacrifice is too hard a sell, even for Russell T Davies.

The symbol of hope of course is Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and her unborn child. Plus Ianto's family who fight to defend their children and their community's children from the British Army. The story's climax of a mother's heartbreak and the exploitation of a child bring the programme's sub text to the fore and surely draws the Torchwood series to a close. It does so having made a significant contribution to television drama and British Science Fiction.

If this review hasn't given too much away and you live in the UK. All Five episodes of Torchwood: Childen Of Earth are still available on BBC's iPlayer.


Friday, 19 June 2009

Shelley: The likeable layabout

Fran is standing at the bottom of her stairs. “Shelley!” she calls up to her husband, and the fourth series of the BAFTA-nominated ITV sitcom begins.

James Shelley ambles down the stairs in his pyjamas and joins his wife for a cup of tea at the kitchen table. Shelley’s a work-shy layabout, but clever with it. Despite his sporadic dalliances with full-time employment, we join him two years on from the first series (originally broadcast in 1979) seemingly still as lazy as ever.

The truth is James Shelley is enjoying his last day on the dole before starting a new job with the Foreign Office. He and Fran now have a daughter, baby Emma, and with a mortgage to pay the chance to hold down a permanent job couldn’t have come at a better time. Yet as viewers of Shelley were already aware after three series, the Life of Riley was never far around the corner for our eponymous hero.

Shelley has often been referred to as a quiet comedy, distanced somewhat from the faster pace of today’s sitcoms, but therein lies its appeal. The main focus is on Shelley himself, played brilliantly by Hywel Bennett (Pennies From Heaven, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Eastenders), and the frivolous thoughts bouncing around inside his head.

As the audience, we are given time to work out what it is that makes Shelley so happy, apart from his wife Fran (played by Belinda Sinclair) and in this series, their young daughter. Being able to loaf around and watch the world go by are undoubtedly high on his list, but coming a close second would be the opportunity to occasionally play mind games with people he sees as less intelligent than himself.

Fortunately for him, those opportunities come along frequently whenever his ex-landlady Edna Hawkins (Josephine Tewson) pops by to pay him and his wife a visit. Mrs. H, as she’s known, is a nosy parker with a heart of gold but sadly isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. Though she’s worked out Shelley as being the bone idle slacker he obviously is, she often falls unwittingly for the flights of fancy he regularly reels off to brighten his otherwise dull day.

And it’s not just Mrs. H that feels the full force of Shelley’s sarcasm and vibrant imagination. More or less everyone he bumps fails to match his lofty insight on matters of pith and moment. Most memorably, it’s his run-ins with the staff at the Social Security Office that provide the most spiky exchanges, both sides reserving as much vitriol for each other as they can muster.

In Series 4, however, Shelley finds himself with a lot on his plate. Fatherhood quickly proves that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, there are bills to be paid and worse still the whole planet is walking a nuclear tightrope thanks to Reagan and Brezhnev not seeing eye to eye. Will Shelley cope? Is he capable of taking on so much responsibility at such a young age? The answer, of course, is yes – albeit on his own terms.

Shelley’s journey through life is always a joy to watch, thanks largely to the writing of people like Bernard McKenna, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, not to mention the acting of such a small but talented cast. At times the level of cynicism and acid wit delivered by the lead character are so well-honed that it's hard not to compare him with Basil Fawlty, and that's a high accolade indeed.

While some point all too easily at the lack of decent ITV sitcoms down the years, Shelley is invariably overlooked – unfairly so in many ways. Peter Tilbury’s creation graced our screens until 1992 and rarely showed a drop in standards throughout the entire thirteen years of its life, which begs the question “Why have none of the satellite channels snapped it up before now?”

Short of finding the answer, we should perhaps be grateful that we can at least rediscover this forgotten gem on DVD, and for my money it’s well worth hunting down. Shelley is without question an excellent comedy series and deserves every bit of the popularity it gained almost thirty years ago.

Shelley (Series 4) is available to buy from Network DVD from Monday 22 June 2009, priced £10.75.

(Photos courtesy of Network DVD.)


Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Commercial Break: John Cleese


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