Scottish actor Iain Glen has been a major star in his native Great Britain for many years, but he’s garnered legions of new Stateside fans in two recent high-profile TV roles: Sir Richard Carlisle, Lady Mary’s suitor in season two of the period drama Downton Abbey, and Ser Jorah Mormont, trusted companion of Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s wildly successful fantasy Game of Thrones.
Now U.S. viewers get a chance to see Glen in a more contemporary mode with the Tuesday DVD release of Jack Taylor, Set 1, from Acorn Media Group. Adapted from the bestselling crime novels of Ken Bruen, this Irish TV series follows the title character (Glen), a former Irish Garda (policeman), through his gritty life in his native Galway, where he recently was bounced from the force after a run-in with a pompous official. Now trying to support himself as a private detective, Jack Taylor carries around a host of personal demons, among them a serious drinking problem, exacerbated by his widowed mother’s pious disapproval.
This DVD set, which consists of three 90-minute episodes on three discs, starts out shakily with an episode that tries to juggle an already complicated case involving a spate of apparent suicides with establishing Jack’s complicated back story and setting up his new friendship with Kate Noonan (Nora-Jane Noone), a rookie Garda who quickly becomes Jack’s informal associate inside the department. Things improve strikingly with the second episode, wherein Jack pursues a series of vigilantes dispensing their own nasty brand of justice in the Galway streets, and meets the show’s most endearing character: Cody Farraher (Killian Scott), a worshipful young man who becomes Jack’s improbable yet highly resourceful new partner and helps him clean up his act. The third and final episode is a complete success, a very suspenseful thriller tied to Galway’s controversial Magdalen laundries half a century ago, where young “bad girls” were often sadistically abused by some of the most vicious nuns imaginable.
For the most part, Jack Taylor is compelling yet downbeat and very dark, anchored by a hero who often behaves decidedly unheroically, but Glen’s performance is superb. Don’t expect any very special guest stars – I didn’t recognize a single actor apart from Glen in any of the episodes – but the series is definitely worth checking out for anyone who likes his police dramas pretty hardcore.
Another Tuesday release from Acorn, the thoroughly engaging 2008 British dramedy Honest, just wants to keep you entertained, and it does so splendidly. The series, which lasted for only six episodes during its British run, stars Amanda Redman (from New Tricks, currently airing widely in syndication on many PBS affiliates) as Lindsay Carter, wife of a career criminal (Danny Webb) who unexpectedly gets sentenced to four years in prison for his latest caper. It’s a wakeup call for Lindsay, who resolves to keep her four children out of trouble and make sure the Carter clan rehabilitates its notorious local image. The series also stars Laura Haddock, recently seen as Leonardo’s faithless lover in the Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons, as one of Lindsay’s daughters, a bubbleheaded model wannabe.
If this premise sounds vaguely familiar to you, you may have caught the shortlived ABC 2010 summer series Scoundrels, which starred Virginia Madsen in Redman’s role and a post-JAG David James Elliott as her convict-hubby. It ran for only eight episodes before being canceled due to low ratings.
Both of these new Acorn sets include closed captioning for the hearing-impaired, but not much else in the way of extras.
They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and two noteworthy new releases today from Acorn Media Group – The Politician’s Wife and The First Churchills – both revolve around marriages that are tested by affairs of state.
The Politician’s Wife, which first aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre in 1996, stars Juliet Stevenson as devoted political wife Flora Matlock, whose world is turned upside-down when news breaks that her husband, conservative family values Member of Parliament Duncan Matlock (Trevor Eve), once had an affair with a professional escort (Minnie Driver). Duncan swears on his life that it was a meaningless one-time fling with an admirer who had stalked him and caught him in a weak moment and, as his male colleagues, including Flora’s father (Frederick Treves), circle the wagons around Duncan, she agrees to stand by her man. That’s before she receives an anonymous envelope containing a cassette tape that captures an incredibly steamy phone-sex session between Duncan and his “stalker,” clearly indicating that the affair had been mutual and ongoing.
Humiliated and seething, Flora puts on a good face and outwardly offers plenty of spousal support, but privately, with the assistance of one of Duncan’s disenchanted staff members (Anton Lesser), she resolves to expose her husband’s shenanigans – which, she soon discovers, extend far beyond simple marital infidelity.
Today, 15 years after its original U.S. premiere, The Politician’s Wife may sound shopworn and over-familiar, partly due to scandal fatigue in real-life American politics and also because the basic premise has fueled several TV movies and the hit CBS series The Good Wife. But The Politician’s Wife is in a class by itself, thanks to Stevenson’s subtle yet searing performance in the title role, as well as Paula Milne’s adult teleplay (both Milne and Stevenson won several awards, and the miniseries itself snagged an International Emmy as best drama series).
A few additional notes: Although Driver’s name and likeness figure prominently on the DVD cover, her role actually is quite small. Also, while there is some mild female nudity, the frank language, particularly in those phone-sex sessions (yes, there are several), keeps this production firmly in the adult entertainment category. All three episodes, complete with optional subtitles for the hearing impaired, are affordably packaged on a single DVD.
Also released today, The First Churchills, which launched the series premiere of Masterpiece Theatre back in 1971, chronicles the marriage of John and Sarah Churchill, who wed for love and endured extensive turbulence starting in the court of King Charles II and stretching through five decades of sometimes violent regime changes in 17th- and 18th-century England. Susan Hampshire won an Emmy for her strong work as Sarah, whose wit and ingenuity captured the attention of many power players, but whose fundamental tactlessness eventually wrecked her decades-long friendship with Queen Anne (Margaret Tyzack) and, ultimately, the political fortunes of her own husband (John Neville).
The 12 episodes are featured on three beautifully engineered discs with a visual clarity that often, unfortunately, calls attention to the unsubtle makeup and the flimsy sets that occasionally shake when a door is slammed that were typical in British television productions of that vintage. After you watch the series, be sure not to miss the also-included 20-minute interview with Hampshire made some years later, in which the actress delightfully dishes plenty of behind-the-scenes dirt, including the fact that she was hired as a last-minute replacement for Judi Dench, a casting change that put Neville’s nose royally out of joint. All episodes also contain subtitles for the hearing-impaired, and you’re likely to need them at least occasionally given the heavy foreign accents some of the cast members employ for their characters.