Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

Vicious fun with McKellen and Jacobi on PBS

Ian McKellen and Derek Jaobi

Sirs Ian McKerlen and Derek Jacobi star as devoted but bickering partners of nearly 50 years in the new Britcom ‘Vicious,’ premiering tonight on most PBS affiliates.


Two knights of the British theater, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, cut loose as a bickering elderly gay couple in Vicious, a new half-hour Britcom premiering tonight on most PBS affiliates (check local listings).
Created by an American, former Will & Grace executive producer Greg Janetti, the farcical comedy (which originally had the working title Vicious Old Queens) follows fading actor Freddie Thornhill (McKellen) and his partner of 48 years, Stuart Bixby (Jacobi), who share an overstuffed, overdecorated two-level London flat with their 20-year-old dog, Balthazar. The series opens on the day of a funeral for Clive St. Clair, who worshipfully adored Freddie from afar and carried a lifelong torch for him – at least, according to Freddie. Joining Freddie and Stuart for the wake is their best friend of several decades, Violet Crosby (Frances de la Tour, The History Boys), but all three of them immediately become distracted by the arrival of a new neighbor in the apartment building: Ash Weston (Iwan Rheon, Game of Thrones), a very handsome working-class lad of indeterminate amorous inclinations.
When Stuart ponders whether Ash is gay or straight, Freddie immediately promises to solve the mystery.
“After all, I did spend a year playing the detective in The Mousetrap,” he tells Stuart, referencing the venerable Agatha Christie play that has been running continuously in London since 1952.
“Oh, please,” Stuart snaps back. “Our POSTMAN has been in The Mousetrap.
Although it is set in the present, in general tone and broad performance style Vicious is a throwback to such vintage Britcoms of the ‘70s as Are You Being Served? In fact, one episode features Stuart earning some extra cash by working in the men’s section of a department store, and I half expected Mr. Humphries to pop into the scene with his characteristic “I’m free!”
Yet while Mr. Humphries’ off-camera personal life was a matter of sniggering speculation in that bygone sitcom, the loving yet fractious relationship between Stuart and Freddie is very much at the heart of Vicious. These two cranky old gents may get on each other’s nerves, but they also share a long history that stretches back to a time when things were not at all easy for men like themselves.
“The point of those old-fashioned sitcoms was that to be gay was, in itself, funny and that you laughed at the characters rather than with them,” says McKellen, who, like Jacobi, is gay in real life as well. “This is not true of (Vicious), and I don’t think Derek and I would have wanted to be involved in this script if it were old-fashioned in that sense. We don’t get laughs as Freddie and Stuart because we are gay, but because we are the people we are. … It’s just two real men surviving with all the problems that many, many people have.”
Filmed before a live studio audience, Vicious just wants to make you laugh, and it’s a treat to watch these two stage titans setting aside any traces of dignity to achieve that end. McKellen in particular is absolutely hilarious. Watch for an episode in which Freddie auditions to play a character who has a single line on Downton Abbey. He has just barely received the thrilling news that he got the job when Ash turns up at the door to announce that, despite his complete lack of experience, he has just been hired for a part in an independent film.
Watching McKellen react to that news is a master class in comedy acting, as Freddie, completely numb, at first thinks he must have misheard, then struggles in vain to process this impossible development and finally chokes back the bitter jealousy he is feeling. The actor does all of this wordlessly, too. It’s an absolutely brilliant moment.
Vicious was an runaway smash when it ran in the UK, where it already has been picked up for a second season. Meanwhile, don’t miss this chance for the next few weeks to watch McKellen and Jacobi as you’ve never seen them before.
'Vicious' on PBS

Frances de la Tour and Iwan Rheon (back row) co-star in ‘Vicious’ with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi on PBS

Mr. Selfridge reopens for a second season on PBS

'Mr. Selfridge' on PBS.

Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven, center) thanks his staff on his store’s fifth anniversary in tonight’s two-hour ‘Masterpiece’ premiere of ‘Mr. Selfridge’ on PBS.


Mr. Selfridge, the glossy and gloriously addictive Masterpiece soap opera somewhat freely adapted from historical events, ended Season One (now available for free streaming for Amazon Prime subscribers) with Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) at a low point both personally and professionally. Window designer Henri LeClair (Gregory Fitoussi), whose displays had played an invaluable part in giving Selfridge’s department store a striking public image, had turned in his notice to accept a high-profile job in New York, a decision Harry perceived as a personal betrayal.
Far worse, his long-suffering wife, Rose (Frances O’Connor), decided to leave London and take their children back to America after she reluctantly agreed to accompany her husband to the opening of a new play that starred his most recent mistress, only to discover the piece was a savage satire attacking the private lives of her family.
Season Two, which premieres tonight on PBS with a two-hour episode, picks things up five years later, in the spring of 2014, as the Selfridge’s staff prepares to celebrate the store’s fifth anniversary. Rose, good as her word, has kept the kids stateside during the interval, but she returns to London to perform her wifely duties – specifically and pointedly limited to performing her Mrs. Selfridge role at public events. Beyond that, she makes clear, she is not remotely interesting in resuming a relationship with Harry after his years of compulsive infidelity.
Joining his parents in London is Selfridge scion Gordon (Greg Austin), now 15, who announces his intentions to quit school in favor of starting his training to run a store he eventually will inherit. Rose protests, but Harry approves. Unfortunately for Gordon, he soon discovers that being the boss’s son, especially at a time when rumors of war are stirring up labor unrest, can be a mixed blessing at best.
Greg Austin joins the cast of the 'Masterpiece' series 'Mr Selfridge' this season.

Greg Austin takes over the role of son Gordon Selfridge, now 15, in tonight’s Season Two premiere of ‘Mr. Selfridge’ on ‘Masterpiece.’


The gala anniversary prompts the return of others as well, including Harry’s protégée Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), back from an intensive two-year design program in Paris and ready to assume her new duties as head of display for the entire store. She immediately clashes, however, with Selfridge’s officious new head of fashion, Mr. Thackeray (Cal Macaninch), who promptly starts engineering a stealth campaign to ensure Agnes’ failure.
Elsewhere, Harry’s high-maintenance yet loyal friend and benefactor Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly) faces an unpleasant obstacle when her errant and usually absent husband, Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle), unexpectedly returns, bankrupt from gambling and seeking to replenish his fortune by fair means or foul – mostly the latter, which include blackmail and war profiteering.
On a far more pleasant note, those of us who watched sadly last season as Miss Mardle (the glorious Amanda Abbington, Sherlock) was jilted by her selfish lover, Mr. Grove (Tom Goodman-Hill), can revel in some major karmic blowback this season, as fate smiles brightly on the former and nearly crushes the latter.
Also joining the cast this season is the delightful Polly Walker (HBO’s Rome) as Rose’s new close friend Delphine Day, whose bohemian sensibilities – along with a spicy autobiography and sexy new nightclub – only sharpen Rose’s resolve to be her own woman, free of submission to Harry’s humiliations.
Piven, who is also a producer on the series, is somewhat ideally cast as the intense, brash title character, and he pulls off the character’s more vulnerable moments – which felt false too often in Season One – more successfully in the new episodes (to paraphrase a very old joke, apparently this actor finally has mastered the art of faking sincerity). The only jarring note is the new character of Lord Loxley, a one-dimensional pipsqueak of a villain portrayed by McArdle in a laughably over-the-top performance.
As in Season One, the lavish physical production, with what appears to be slavish attention to period details, is beyond reproach, fully on the same impressive level as Masterpiece’s uber-smash, Downton Abbey. Mr. Selfridge may not be high art, but it is gourmet popcorn of the highest level.
Polly Walker (center) joins the cast of 'Mr. Selfridge' for  Season Two.

Rose Selfridge (Frances O’Connor, left) congratulates her new friend Delphine Day (Polly Walker, center) on the publication of her racy new autobiography in tonight’s ‘Maseterpiece’ season premiere of ‘Mr. Selfridge.’

Avast-ly entertaining Black Sails on Starz

'Black Sails' premieres tonight on Starz.

Tom Hopper, Toby Stephens, Mark Ryan and Luke Arnold (from left) star in ‘Black Sails,’ premiering tonight on Starz.


Black Sails, the lavish new pirate adventure series premiering tonight on Starz, freely blends actual historical characters (like pirate queen Anne Bonny) with newly created fictional characters to present a raucous, action-packed look at life in and around Nassau, Bahamas, circa 1715, before any kind of colonial law was imposed on the region.
As the series opens, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and the crew of his ship, the Walrus, are raiding another vessel they hope will swell their coffers after a very lean stretch. Their bad luck holds, however. Apart from a new cook who goes by the name John Silver (Luke Arnold), they acquire nothing of any real value.
That’s a tough break for Flint, whose fearsome reputation strikes terror in many hearts. His men, however, are on the verge of stripping Flint of his command and making another charismatic crew member their new captain. Only Flint’s quartermaster, Gates (Mark Ryan), and boatswain, Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), remain reasonably steadfast.
Nor do Flint’s problems stop there. He’s also being challenged by Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), captain of the pirate ship Ranger, and his cunning quartermaster Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz). Both Flint and Vane are hot on the trail of a page that is missing from a ship’s log that, Flint believes, will point the way to a Spanish treasure galleon worth millions.
As the balance of power between these two men shifts back and forth, local smuggler and tavern-keeper Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New, who looks a bit like Keira Knightley if Keira Knightley ever ate a sandwich) keeps shifting her own allegiances.
Beyond that short set-up, the creative team behind Black Sails (Michael Bay is one of the executive producers) has requested that TV writers reveal as little as possible about this new series, so as not to spoil surprises about past and present alliances, betrayals, love affairs and blood feuds among the characters.
Stephens, who happens to be the son of Downton Abbey fan favorite Maggie Smith, buckles his swash very grandly in the central role, but it’s important to note that Black Sails isn’t populated by Disney pirates. There are some scenes of comic banter among the crew members, but by and large these are ruthless, cruel and very violent men (that raid that opens tonight’s premiere is really pretty scary).
The jaw-dropping details of the physical production, which actually is based in Capetown, South Africa, vividly evoke the bustling daily activity of New Providence Island, where these outlaws make their home, and even though the pirate ship scenes usually are filmed on dry land, the vessels themselves are multi-level things of great nautical beauty.
Starz clearly has placed a lot of faith in Black Sails. Even before this first eight-episode season premieres, the premium cable network already has ordered a second 10-episode season. Prospective viewers may want to be aware that, as was the case with the channel’s hit Spartacus series, there is copious nudity in Black Sails, although unlike Spartacus, it seems to be limited to the female cast members.
In any case, make sure to keep any small fry away from this very, very adult series.
Hannah New stars as Eleanor Guthrie in 'Black Sails,' premiering tonight on Starz.

Hannah New stars as Eleanor Guthrie in ‘Black Sails,’ premiering tonight on Starz.

Lady Mary mired in grief as Downton Abbey returns Sunday

Michelle Dockery and Joanne Froggat star in 'Downton Abbey' Sunday on PBS.

Lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt, right) tries in vain to help her mistress, Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), get over her grief in the season premiere of ‘Downton Abbey’ Sunday on PBS.


As Downton Abbey returns for its fourth season on PBS’ Masterpiece Classic Sunday night, a chilly day in February 1922 is dawning. Outside, a dense, clammy mist clings to the estate, while inside her bedroom, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) sits in an emotional fog of her own. It’s been six months since her devoted husband, Matthew, met his death in a ridiculous plot contrivance motoring accident, and Mary is still numb with grief, clinging to her widow’s weeds like armor against further heartache. Worse, she acts completely disconnected from George, her infant son, referring to the boy as a “poor little orphan.”
Understandably, Mary’s refusal to rejoin the living is a matter of concern for both the family and staff of the house, a situation that may have dire repercussions for Downton Abbey. At the time of his death, Matthew had begun to make progress in converting the Crawley estate from a money pit into a self-sustaining business, but without his influence, Mary’s father, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), is inclined to return to his previous, regressive business plans.
Elsewhere in Sunday’s two-hour premiere, the usually woebegone Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) appears finally to have found happiness with London publisher Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), who, alas, is trapped in a marriage with a mentally ill wife whom British law will not allow him to divorce. He may, however, have found a loophole, one that demonstrates his deep devotion to Edith.
Also stirring things up for the Crawleys is headstrong young Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), a visiting cousin from Scotland who has taken up temporary residence at Downton Abbey.
The opening episode features encore guest appearances by supporting characters who appeared fleetingly in past seasons. First, Charlie Grigg (Nicky Henson), Mr. Carson’s (Jim Carter) old music hall partner who tried to blackmail the Crawley butler way back in Season 1, returns with a completely different agenda. Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring), the housemaid who last season was sent packing by Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) after she tried to become too familiar with widowed Crawley son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech), also resurfaces, looking to cause more trouble.
PBS made available seven of the eight episodes in this season, enough to demonstrate that Season 4 is far sharper and more focused than last season was. One of the more interesting recurring subplots in these new episodes finds many of the characters “in service” fearing for their jobs as the changing social order motivates homeowners to reduce the size of their household staffs, not to mention new electrical appliances that also reduce the demand for as many servants.
In its fourth year, Downton Abbey is starting to repeat itself in some respects, and the coming and going of household staff – which begins with the departure of mean-spirited Miss O’Brien in the opening minutes of the premiere – hits such a frenetic pace that at one point an exasperated Robert wonders aloud whether he and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) are living under a curse.
For the most part, though, there’s still plenty of life in Downton Abbey, which already has been renewed for a fifth season. The show is more of a dessert than a substantial meal, but as the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) once observed, “It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding.”
Sophie McShera and Lesley Nicol play members of the 'Downton Abbey' kitchen staff.

Assistant cook Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera, right) turns to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) for romantic advice in season four of ‘Downton Abbey.’

A ‘Hollow Crown’ brimming with wonders

RICH00690RichardII
Ben Whishaw
One of the big events of the fall TV season arrives tonight with the PBS premiere of The Hollow Crown, a Great Performances four-week miniseries featuring lavish adaptations of a quartet of Shakespeare’s most gripping history plays.
Cast with some of Great Britain’s finest classically trained actors, Crown chronicles the turbulent rise and fall of three English Kings – Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V – and how their reigns helped shape British history.
Tonight’s premiere features Richard II, a lesser-known play here in the States, but absolutely gripping in this film directed by Rupert Goold. Ben Whishaw, who played gadget guru Q in the James Bond blockbuster Skyfall, stars as the vain, capricious and self-centered monarch whose penchant for acting on spiteful whims is revealed almost immediately, as Richard is petitioned by a cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear), to settle a dispute with Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy from Fox’s The Following).
Ultimately, Richard renders a judgment that pleases no one, banishing both men from the kingdom, although he rewards Henry’s past loyalty by sending him away for “only” six years. That’s more than enough, however, to break the heart of Henry’s elderly father, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart), who dies soon after his son departs. Wasting no time, Richard seizes the family’s property and possessions that are Henry’s birthright, then heads to Ireland to put down a rebel uprising.
In the king’s absence, a furious Henry defies his banishment, returning to reclaim his inheritance. With the heartfelt support of allies Northumberland (David Morrissey, The Walking Dead) and the Duke of York (David Suchet, Poirot), Henry readily takes Richard prisoner and lays claim to the throne as King Henry IV.
Whishaw, who won a BAFTA Award (the British Emmy) as best actor for his role, gives a fascinating performance as this rather effete and aloof monarch, a portrayal that is mildly off-putting in his early scenes, but builds in intensity and tragic stature as Richard’s destiny takes a series of appalling turns. At two and a half hours, Richard II is the longest of these films, yet it feels the shortest, because Goold keeps things moving at such a nice clip.
H4_080212_JB0020Prince Hal
Tom Hiddleston
On Sept. 27, Henry IV, Part I finds a much older Henry, now played by Jeremy Irons, beset by myriad troubles as his reign moves into its twilight years. What really has him most worried, however, is that Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers) is sowing his wild oats with a drunken old knight named Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale, who won the BAFTA as best supporting actor) at a tavern run by Mistress Quickly (Julie Walters) instead of dutifully preparing to assume the throne. In fact, Hal’s misbehavior is causing such a scandal that a challenger to the throne, Hotspur (Joe Armstrong), is having no trouble building a coalition of supporters.
With rebels threatening the succession, Hal ultimately returns to his father’s side, but not before one of the most unforgettable comic moments in the miniseries, as Hal makes fun of his father, giving Hiddleston an excuse to show off his absolutely pitch-perfect vocal impression of the great rumbling drawl Jeremy Irons seems to favor in most of his roles these days.
In Henry IV, Part II (Oct. 4), the king’s ministers step up their efforts to drive a wedge between Hal and Falstaff, and they get their wish after Hal overhears Falstaff belittling him and catches the boozy knight in a series of lies. After Henry IV dies, Falstaff is convinced his ship finally has come in, but he is in for a rude awakening as Hal ascends the throne as King Henry V. In both films, director Richard Eyre brings to vivid life the uproarious medieval messiness of Falstaff’s world, although every now and then a scene gets so busy that we lose track of the story.
The miniseries concludes on Oct. 11 with director Thea Sharrock’s moving treatment of Henry V, which previously was adapted into critically acclaimed feature films starring Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Hiddleston continues in his regal role, looking every inch a king as Henry faces a series of challenges from the French monarch (Lambert Wilson). The first hour or so feels elegiac, including as it does the deaths of both Falstaff and his ne’er-do-well companion Bardolph (Tom Georgeson), but as events lead us inevitably to the high-stakes battle of Agincourt in France, the mood becomes more stirring. In the climactic moments, when Henry and his small, exhausted and bedraggled army must confront a well-rested French force five times its size, Hiddleston delivers his rallying speech to his troops thrillingly, while Sharrock frames the battle action in such a way as to make us believe there are far more soldiers on the battlefield than was actually the case.
Production values are absolutely top-notch, and the supporting cast also includes Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey), Maxine Peake and Tom Hughes of Silk, Clemence Poesy (Fleur from the Harry Potter films), Alun Armstrong (New Tricks), Lindsay Duncan (Rome) and Geoffrey Palmer (As Time Goes By), among many others. Needless to say, I highly recommend The Hollow Crown. Be careful, though, to check your local listings, because some PBS affiliates carry their own local programming on Friday nights and will schedule Crown in a different time period.
H4_230112_JB_0121Falstaff
Julie Walters and Simon Russell Beale

A searing ‘Parade’s End’ from HBO

On its surface, HBO’s new three-night miniseries adaptation of Parade’s End, beginning tonight and based on a series of novels by Ford Madox Ford, might appear to be a perfect tonic for Downton Abbey addicts going through withdrawal now that their PBS favo(u)rite has ended another season.
Despite similarities in their Edwardian period settings, however, HBO’s ambitious and very adult drama is a good deal more complex and psychologically challenging than PBS’s glossy, grandly acted soap opera. Where Julian Fellowes dishes out readily accessible and often campy melodrama on Downton, HBO’s Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) charts the explosive course of a doomed marriage set against the backdrop of wartime and social upheaval in England.
Benedict Cumberbatch, a shooting star at the moment thanks to his work in Sherlock and his highly anticipated villainous turn in the upcoming Star Trek feature film, stars as Christopher Tietjens, a well-born conservative Englishman who meets and is seduced by the ravishing and headstrong Sylvia Satterthwaite (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) during a train journey. Later, when she reveals that she is pregnant – possibly by him, but maybe not – Christopher manfully does the right thing and marries her.
Yet while opposites may attract, Christopher and Sylvia’s union is explosive. She’s a sensual, decidedly modern woman with a voracious appetite for excitement, while he’s a cerebral genius who spends his idle time scribbling corrections in the margin of his Encyclopedia Brittannica. It’s only a matter of time before she decamps for an impetuous and scandalous fling in France with a besotted male admirer (Tom Mison) before returning to the shocked and humiliated Christopher, who dutifully takes her back.
Yet Christopher’s forbearance only drives Sylvia further around the bend. A devout Catholic, she resolves never again to be sexually unfaithful even as she continues to flirt with men at every turn, hoping against hope to rouse Christopher into an emotional confrontation that might let them finally lance the poison that is killing their marriage. Instead, Christopher embarks on a chaste relationship with Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a young suffragette whose selfless idealism is balm for Christopher’s wounds.
As love triangles go, this one is well short of equilateral in Stoppard’s hands. Clemens’ Valentine is endearing, but she’s somewhat stuck in standard ingénue mode. Fans who know Cumberbatch primarily from his role as the borderline-autistic sleuth in Sherlock will be deeply moved by his tender, vulnerable work in the fiendishly difficult role of Christopher. Stoic decency is never easy to make compelling, yet Cumberbatch lets us feel Christopher’s pain all too keenly.
Make no mistake, though, this miniseries belongs to Rebecca Hall, whose Sylvia emerges as the real life force driving Parade’s End. The odds are good that you’re going to spend a good part of the miniseries wanting to strangle this character, but the confident, mesmerizing Hall peels away Sylvia’s haughty exterior to reveal the chastened wife underneath. “You forgave without mercy!” she hurls at Christopher during one angry confrontation, and you can feel the aching loneliness of this infuriating but all too human woman.
The formidable cast also includes Roger Allam, offering invaluable comic relief as Cristopher’s military superior, former Oscar nominees Janet McTeer and Miranda Richardson as the mothers of Sylvia and Valentine respectively, and Rupert Everett as Christopher’s brother. Parade’s End isn’t easy TV – Stoppard’s dense dialogue demands that you pay close attention to every scene – yet ultimately delivers as much emotional payoff as spending time with the Crawleys of Downton Abbey.