Television Nostalgia – E.R (still the best medical drama)!

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I’ve recently been going through a period of television nostalgia, looking back and rewatching episodes of some of my favourite shows. The latest old favourite I have reacquainted myself with is the long-running medical drama E.R. Beginning in 1994 (the same year as Friends and rival hospital drama Chicago Hope) and created by Michael “Jurassic Park” Crichton, E.R went on to become the longest-running primetime medical drama in American television history, lasting 15 years until April 2009. Many hospital dramas have arrived since. For me however, E.R will always be the best and is still brilliant quality drama years later.

Set in Chicago at County General Hospital, the show depicted incredibly realistic medical traumas, whilst introducing the viewers to the team of doctors and nurses who practically spent their entire lives at work, treating all manner of cases that burst through the double doors. For me, the brilliance of E.R is just how superbly made it is. The writing was some of the best on television at the time and the pace of each episode was relentless. It was exciting to watch from the first episode. On top of that, and the reason it remains my favourite medical drama, are the genuinely interesting and varied characters, who as viewers we watched grow in their careers as they rose through the levels of seniority year on year, gaining experience and confidence.

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The original cast will always be the best ensemble in its history for me and I don’t think the show would have lasted as long as it did had it not had such strong actors in those initial roles. Anthony Edwards (perhaps best known as Goose from Top Gun back then!) was the leader of the gang as Chief Resident Dr. Mark Greene – loyal, dedicated and kind. He became the axis and it wasn’t the same after he’d gone. George Clooney became a household name as Dr. Doug Ross – the flawed paediatrician whose lack of respect for the rules saw him in hot water many times. However his clear love for his patients made us always root for him. Sharry Stringfield was the hard-working Dr. Susan Lewis, whose chemistry with Dr. Greene was one of the ongoing subplots of the early years and it was lovely she returned years later.

However my favourites were always Nurse Carol Hathaway and Dr. John Carter. Carol was never meant to survive the pilot episode but became a fan favourite and her simmering on-off love affair with Dr. Ross made them one of TV’s greatest couples. Julianna Marguiles (now hugely successful in The Good Wife) was always superb in the role and over time became a huge part of the emergency room family. And how could you not love John Carter, played wonderfully by Noah Wyle?! We saw him grown from a naive, nervous medical student in to a confident leader of the E.R team, despite a number of difficult times along the way. He was the longest-serving major cast member for 11 years and it was a huge loss when he left. Thank goodness he returned during the final season to remind us how much we’d missed him!

Many other memorable characters came and went (the unique Dr. Kerry Weaver, Dr. Peter Benton, who was a big softie underneath that cool exterior, Alex Kingston’s fun and feisty Dr. Elizabeth Corday, Abbey Lockhart, who went from nurse to doctor and of course Dr. Robert “Rocket” (or helicopter..) Romano! It was a strength of the show that as established characters left, others had been introduced so that we always had someone familiar to keep us watching while we came to know new recruits to the E.R.

If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know by now that I love a good list and so here are my top 10 episodes. Most come from the first six years, which remain the best years in my opinion. After that the new guard of cast arrived and soon the remaining links to the early years disappeared and, although still fantastic TV, I never thought it was quite the same.

1. Be Still My Heart / All In The Family (series 6) 

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This powerful two parter is perhaps the storyline that had the most impact on me throughout the show. The final moments of Be Still My Heart were truly devastating to watch as Carter is brutally attacked. If this wasn’t awful enough, we realise that Lucy has already been attacked by the same patient. The following episode demonstrated how superb E.R was at combing quality dramatic scenes with powerful emotion as the E.R family fought to save their own. Surely everyone cried at this one?!

2. The Long Way Around (series 3) 

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A Carol Hathway-centric episode which saw her in the middle of a hostage situation in a convenience store. The episode also saw an early notable guest star in the form of Ewan MccGregor as one of the criminals, who forms a bond with Carol. Tense, superbly acted and a nice break away from the norm.

3. Such Sweet Sorrow (series 6)

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Farewell Carol Hathaway. I was more sad to see Julianna Marguiles leave than George Clooney the year before, but her farewell was perfect. An emotional storyline of a dying mother reminding Carol of what was truly important – love and family, culminating in a fantastic reunion with her soulmate Doug Ross as my favourite song played (Taking You Home by Don Henley).

4. May Day (series 6)

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The season finale saw Dr. Carter’s drug addiction following his near fatal attack earlier in the season finally come to a head. Noah Wyle conveyed the all the turmoil Carter went through during this story arc, spiralling out of control and the intervention scene was an important moment for his character. However it’s the moments between Benton and Carter at the end, as Benton makes Carter realise he needs help that put this episode on my favourites list.

5. 24 Hours (Pilot) (series 1)

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Years on, the first episode of E.R remains an example of a brilliant way to start a series – we met the key characters, were thrown in to the manic pace of the E.R (the pace and tracking shots were immediately impressive) and had some shocks to leave us wanting more, particularly Carol’s suicide attempt. Thank goodness she came back! By the end of this 90 minute episode it was clear E.R was going to be appointment television.

6. And In the End… (series 15)

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From the beginning to the end! There are very few series that I think are given a satisfying ending and thankfully after 15 years, E.R’s final episode ensured it was given a proper send off. We saw old faces return and understood that County General would continue – never more perfectly highlighted than seeing Dr. Carter working side by side with the new Dr. Greene, as Mark’s now fully grown daughter started her time at the emergency room.

7. Love’s Labor’s Lost (series 1)

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A truly heartbreaking episode for Mark Greene, in which a pregnant woman’s labour goes terribly wrong. It’s a simply conceived story and its raw emotional heart didn’t fail to move you. The fact it was Greene, who up until then had been the calm, steady leader made it all the more shocking and I never for a moment expected the tragic ending, which added to the show’s realism. The episode also featured Bradley Whitford (who went on to be in another John Well’s show The West Wing) as the father having to cope with unimaginable tragedy.

8. Hell & High Water (series 2) 

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One of the first episodes to be widely talked about, raising the profile of the show and George Clooney, it saw Doug Ross battling to save a young boy from drowning in a storm drain and generated an incredible 48 million viewers in America (the highest of the show’s entire run). The moment he bursts from the water in formal wear, holding the boy in his are was not only an iconic moment for the show but also the moment he became a superstar.

9. The Letter (series 8)

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Mark Greene’s departure had to be mentioned here as it was one of the saddest story lines of the 15 years and in the end I chose this episode rather than the following one, which showed us his final days ad funeral (as it’s just too sad for me and it always annoys me that Ross and Hathaway aren’t there). The title refers to the letter faxed to the E.R, written by Mark before he died, which Carter happily reads to the staff until he reaches the final page from Corday telling them Mark has died. It’s a beautiful scene and what follows is one of my favourite moments, as Carter empties Mark’s locker and poignantly swaps his stethoscope for his. The loss of Greene marked a new era for the show as soon we said farewell to Benton, Lewis, Carter and Weaver.

10. Exodus (Series 4)

A brilliantly paced episode, in which the hospital has to treat patients during a toxic spill. With Dr. Weaver exposed, it’s left to Carter to step up and run the emergency room from the parking lot and canteen! It’s a fabulous moment for him to shine, demonstrating how far he has come and what a wonderful leader he will become.

What are your favourites? Also if you have never watched it, take this opportunity to go it a try. You won’t regret it!

Live Another Day! Jack Bauer is on his way back! My favourite 24 moments.

 

(Photo credits: FOX)

Spring 2014 is shaping up to be one of the best seasons of television for me for a long time. Game of Thrones is back and next month an old favourite returns, one who has been sorely missed since he disappeared in to the world in 2010 after nine years. That’s right folks Jack Bauer is back and ready to tackle more dangerous terrorists in a new series of 24. Okay so it’s only half as long but who really cares?! The concept of 24 did, I admit, revolve around a full day unfolding over 24 episodes, however by the end the only fixed component that mattered to me was its central character. Jack Bauer IS 24 and Kiefer Sutherland always played him superbly, elevating him in to one of modern television’s most memorable characters. Not to mention that over the course of eight seasons we saw Jack deal with some of the most shocking moments in television history as he lived through love, loss, greater loss, betrayal, torture and even death!

24 also brought so may new ideas to television – the split screen to show different plot threads, the real-time aspect, action sequences that rival Hollywood blockbusters and the very real awareness that anything could happen next. It was surely inevitable that he’d return and after hopes of a feature film never came to fruition we now have something even better – a brand new series!

To refresh the show and the world of Jack Bauer, Live Another Day (could it be any clearer that this is America’s answer to James Bond?!) is set in London, during a Presidential visit to the UK. Very little is known as yet about the plot, but it is clear from the recently released trailer (see below) that the President’s life is at risk (now former Secretary Heller) and only Jack can stop it. We know Chloe is back and Audrey Raines, Heller’s daughter and Jack’s former flame makes an appearance, but not much else is common knowledge. Personally I think that’s fantastic. Part of the joy of 24 was its ability to shock and surprise its audience, so that you knew anything could happen next and I for one am counting down the days until the clock starts ticking on 24 again.

In the meantime I’ve been remembering my favourite moments of the series, some of which remain some of the best moments of television I’ve seen. So seeing as I love a list (I’m not sure why!), here are my top 10 moments of 24. Turn away now if you have yet to join the 24 addiction – this way lies spoilers!

1. The tragic and shocking fate of Ryan Chappelle (season 3)

I know I wasn’t alone in being shocked when in season 3 Jack was forced to execute his boss Ryan Chappelle in order to meet terrorist demands. This shocking scene was beautifully acted by them both and is probably the most powerful moment of the whole series for me. Right up until the last second I was certain there would be a reprieve. Ryan hadn’t been the nicest guy but he didn’t deserve this tragic end.

2. Chloe with a gun! (season 4)

For years Chloe O’Brian remained at CTU, beginning as a slightly uptight, by-the-book computer genius. Over time she became Jack’s closest ally and one of the first moments when she became more than a CTU staffer was when, with her life under threat, Chloe armed herself with a huge gun to take out the bad guys! Surely everyone cheered?! From her grungy look for the new season she has certainly come a long way and we all love her!

3. The mass exodus of beloved characters (season 5)

The opening of Day 5 was a painful event for loyal fans of the show, as not one, but two beloved characters were attacked. President Palmer and Michelle were dead in seconds before we’d even registered the season had even begun. A daring move indeed!

4. The traitor of Day 1 is revealed! (season 1)

The reveal that Nina Myers, Jack’s ally at CTU and former lover was actually evil was a brilliant plot point, that highlighted that 24 was not going to be predictable and that no one could be trusted! Plus it meant every year had you wondering if there was yet another mole to be uncovered!

5. Jack saves Senator Heller (season 5)

Yes I know Jack Bauer kills many people in 24 and nothing seems impossible these days, but the moment he storms the terrorist compound and takes out the entire contingent of men in order to save his boss and his lover was pretty damn exciting!

6. Terrorists storm The White House (season 7)

This is now regular fodder for Hollywood movies recently (White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen to name just two) but 24 was there long before them, when terrorists breached the most secure building in the world and issued threats to President Taylor as she looked on from the panic room in which Jack was protecting her.

7. Jack kills Curtis (season 6)

Still suffering from the trauma caused by his recent capture and torture at the hands of the Chinese, Jack doesn’t want to be drawn in to the horror of CTU again. Sadly with a bomb about to explode it’s back to business and when Curtis threatens to kill Assad, a former terrorist, who they need to help stop the latest attack despite his previous crimes, poor Jack has to shoot his friend Curtis. Yet another one to add to his conscience!

8. The President is EVIL! (season 5)

It may sound like a ridiculous concept, but the shocking revelation that President Logan was in fact evil and was plotting the death of the Russian President, not to mention his involvement in the deaths of President Palmer and Michelle and framing Jack, was superb television.

9. The death of Teri Bauer (season 1)

I almost didn’t include this moment as looking back it seemed inevitable. However at the time 24 was a new show, we’d seen the hero save the day and his family and unmask the traitor. It was therefore a brave, exciting decision of the show’s creators to end season 1 with the murder of Teri and Jack cradling her body in his arms. This was made all the more tragic (and evil on Nina’s part) due to the fact Teri was pregnant at the time (Game of Thrones wasn’t the first major drama to kill a pregnant character folks)!

10. Fighter jets in downtown LA! (season 3)

Season 3 is possibly my favourite season of 24 (closely followed by season 5) and it was moments like this one that proved 24 was always going to be a roller coaster ride. Determined to escape, Saunders flees to his helicopter. It looks as if he’s going to get away but Bauer has his own backup in the form of two fighter jets. In a brilliant moment to rival any action movie, they fly through LA and destroy Saunders’ only form of escape.

So there you have it. I could have chosen so many more moments (Edgar’s death and the “I’m gonna need a hacksaw” moment both came close), but these are the scenes that first come to mind when I think of 24. After hoping to see some Live Another Day filming, so far I’ve only managed to see a couple of brief scenes on the streets of London (the best being Chloe dropping Jack off outside Waterloo station and him dashing in to the station). Fingers crossed I manage to see more before filming is completed, but welcome back Jack – I’ve missed you!

Here are the links for the trailers for Live Another Day!

Short trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4eVLaiMUNg

Extended trailer:

http://youtu.be/V8b3I1fDjN4

24 Live Another Day begins on 6 May 2014 in the UK (simulcast at the same time as America. It will then air every Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Sky 1).

 

 

A Small Family Business by Alan Ayckbourn at the National Theatre (Olivier)

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It’s sometimes only after a disappointing visit to the theatre that I appreciate the excitement and joy of seeing something special. I’m sorry to say that this week it was the latest production playing in the Olivier at the National Theatre that reminded me of this once again. To be fair to A Small Family Business, it did have its work cut out to impress me after a week of theatre that had already included Birdland and King Charles III, but sadly it fell short.

Written by Ayckbourn in 1987 when he was in residence at the National, the play revolves around Jack McCracken, a man of principles who has left his job in order to take over as managing director at his father-in-law’s failing furniture business. A competitor is stealing their designs and Jack is determined to find out who is responsible. However what he doesn’t realise is that almost every member of his extended family is involved in the fraudulent scam at the heart of the business problems. “Comic hysteria” is said to ensue as Jack’s principles are put to the test as he becomes more and more involved in the antics of his relatives, who will do whatever it takes to keep their actions from being exposed.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the play is not as funny as it thinks it is. Perhaps it was more comical when first performed in the 80s, but it just felt dated to me and there were only a few moments where I truly laughed. Overall it felt distinctly average and predictable. This could be a matter of generational taste, as the majority of the audience around me were older than I am and seemed to be enjoying themselves and I’m sure it will therefore do well appealing to a certain market. However it is certainly the least favourite of all the Ayckbourn plays I have seen so far.

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The acting is good, but this couldn’t overcome what seemed to be a rather dull play (which isn’t helped by the 2 hour 45 minute running time), during which I became quite bored. I did not care about any of the characters enough to be interested about the outcome and many were one dimensional, which was a great shame (and no fault of the actors). Nigel Lindsay, who I always enjoy seeing on stage (most recently as a fantastic Bolingbroke in the RSC’s Richard II), is very good as Jack and most of the lines that did make me laugh were his. Niky Wardley is a lot of fun as his sister-in-law Anita, who is very much the boss of the underhanded actions and has a penchant for kinky escapades with Italian mobster-style characters. Although, despite her being great in the role, even this character failed to capture my interest.

The play has a vast space to fill in the Olivier and would have been better served by the Lyttelton, which has demonstrated in the past it is more than capable of staging a large, multi-levelled stage. In fact, whilst watching this production I couldn’t help but recall Season’s Greetings, set in a similar house to this one. The key difference for me however was that I found that Ayckbourn play and its dysfunctional family incredibly funny (and even cared about what happened to most of them). I could have done with Mark Gatiss’s puppet show to actually make me laugh!

No doubt it will appeal to some, who will find it a pleasant enough outing to the theatre and there’s bound to be a new play rolling in to the Olivier soon that I will enjoy. Not everything I see can be superb, but I would say that if you have a choice as to which production in the Olivier to see over the coming months, stick with the excellent King Lear!

A Small Family Business runs at the Olivier, National Theatre until 27th August 2014 (and tickets for performances from 1st June go on general sale on 17th April).

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-small-family-business

 

Long live the King? Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III at the Almeida Theatre

Rupert Goold kicked off his tenure as Artisitic Director of the Almeida with a bang with American Psycho and his next production King Charles III, which has its press night this Thursday, had me equally intrigued and excited when it was announced. Not only was it an interesting concept, directed by Goold but it was to be written by one of my favourite playwrights Mike Bartlett, whose work always gives me food for thought and plenty to discuss long after I have left the theatre and this is no exception.

Billed as a future history play, it chronicles our country’s potential future once the Queen is no longer here and the crown passes to Prince Charles. Already a subject which is ripe with possibilities and opinions on those possibilities (Should Camilla be Queen? Should Charles step aside for William and Kate?) and at a time when Australia and New Zealand are welcoming the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their Royal tour, this production couldn’t be more perfectly timed.

Beginning in the immediate wake of the Queen’s death, Prince Charles is finally King after decades waiting in the wings and he wants to be remembered as more than a Spitting Image puppet. In reality we are very much aware that Prince Charles has been known to involve himself in politics and Bartlett builds on this from the outset. A new Bill has been passed on privacy and control of the press – it simply requires Royal Assent. However when the Prime Minister arrives for his first weekly audience it becomes clear that obtaining this ceremonial seal of approval may not be quite as easy as he thought it would be. What follows is an interesting glance in to one possible future for a country less certain of its identity after the loss of the only ruler most of its citizens have ever known.

Adam James and Tim Pigott-Smith by Johan Persson

Adam James and Tim Pigott-Smith by Johan Persson

It is a bit of a slow burner as the scene is set and the audience adjusts to seeing the Royal Family on stage (some of the similarities in looks alone is a little surreal!). However as the story progressed I became absorbed by it, wondering what direction Bartlett has chosen to take in this alternate United Kingdom. The brilliance here is also his chosen writing style for the play – it is structured in the style of a Shakespearian History play! There is a mix of modern and more Jacobean prose and also verse. It may sound off putting to some but it works superbly, adding an extra dimension to the production. This could have been just a comical look at the Royals, but it feels oddly authentic by being structured in a style through which the stories of so many other famous monarchs have been told. For me the second half was much stronger, building the drama and culminating in some superbly powerful scenes and its final moments (complete with glorious Latin singing) gave me goosebumps.

There are some excellent performances too, especially Tim Pigott-Smith who plays Charles as a man daunted by the role he now has to play. As he himself says, everyone expected him to already have fully formed opinions ready to go, but instead he is uncertain and fearful of simply being a ceremonial relic. There were moments I felt sympathy for him and others where he led me to incredible frustration at his inability to see the damage his actions were causing around him. Adam James (a regular in Bartlett’s work) is another strong member of the cast, as the Prime Minister struggling to know how to walk the fine line between respecting his King and standing up for the democratic system of government on which our political system is based. I found his scenes with Pigott-Smith to be some of the most dramatic of the play, particularly when he reminds Charles about how the Queen carried out what was expected of her. The other strong performance for me was that of Lydia Wilson as Kate. She makes it clear to the audience in her soliloquy-style speech that she does not intend to play merely a supporting role to William, but will stand as an equal partner in both marriage and as Queen whenever the time comes.

Lydia Wilson and Oliver Chris by Johan Persson

Lydia Wilson and Oliver Chris by Johan Persson

Oliver Chris’s William begins quietly but steadily grows in strength and character and over the course of the previews so far Oliver has grown in confidence in the role. His scenes with his father in the second half are brilliantly acted by them both and you could have heard a pin drop in the audience. Richard Goulding has already come a long way as Harry. Last week he seemed far too much of a characterure and although this is still a little true, he is already brining far more depth to the role. His subplot carries the humour of the play, as we see him questioning his future and a scene in which he receives sage advice in a kebab shop was a favourite of mine. Tafline Steen is good as Jess, the normal girl with a unique opportunity to observe this famous family’s internal dynamic, Nicholas Rowe skilfully portrays the opposition leader, stirring the pot all the time in the background and I liked Nick Sampson’s portrayal of the weary press secretary.

Tafline Steen and Richard Goulding by Johan Persson

Tafline Steen and Richard Goulding by Johan Persson

There is little set but this is absolutely the right choice and I was reminded just how small a performance space the Almeida is when the brickwork drum of the walls are exposed. A simple faded painting lines the central part of the back wall, which when subtly lit gave a sense of the watchful public and mood lighting and sound set the tones of the various moments very well. I also loved the singing, particularly for the wonderfully powerful final moments. My only slight grumble is the brief appearances of a certain ghost. I understand the reason behind its inclusion – this is after all a Shakespearian-style History play and where would one of those be without a ghostly encounter, but it did make me cringe and caused awkward laughter amongst some of the audience both times I’ve seen it.

Overall I think this is a fantastic new play. It is already so much stronger than after its second preview and I’m sure it will continue to develop. King Charles III is not going to appeal to everyone, but it is different and daring as it makes us consider the future of our country as we may not have done before. If Rupert Goold’s seasons continue to be this varied and exciting, I imagine I’ll be visiting the Almeida quite a lot over the coming years!

King Charles III runs at the Almeida Theatre until 31 May 2014. Tickets are available from the theatre’s website:

http://www.almeida.co.uk/event/kingcharles

 

 

BAFTA Television Nominations 2014 – surprising omissions?

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Today saw the announcement of the nominations for this year’s television BAFTAs and they certainly contain (as usual) some surprising omissions that will no doubt create discussion and debate until the ceremony takes place on 18th May. For what it’s worth here are my thoughts on the categories I am most interested in.

  • Best Actor (Drama)- I’m thrilled to see Jamie Dornan nominated for The Fall and he’d probably be my choice. However where is David Tennant’s nomination for Broadchurch?! His performance in the ITV drama was filled with nuanced emotions that had millions hooked for weeks. Although not quite as ridiculous as his lack of recognition for Recovery in 2007, the fact neither performance has been recognised seems unfair for one of the UK’s strongest acting talents. Mind you I shouldn’t be surprised – the lack of awards for Parade’s End, one of the finest period pieces ever made, still frustrates me!
  • Best Actress (Drama) – An incredibly strong line up here, but if Olivia Colman misses out on a BAFTA for her emotionally powerful portrayal of Ellie Miller it’ll be a crime. I am however surprised and disappointed not to see recognition for Gillian Anderson in The Fall, as Stella Gibson was one of the most interesting characters on television last year. I also thought Elizabeth Moss was very good in the few episodes of Top of the Lake I managed to watch before bailing out so I’m surprised she didn’t make the shortlist.
  • Drama Series – My vote would have to go to Broadchurch, as it was the one drama that pulled me in completely and held my attention and interest from beginning to end, although I won’t be surprised if it goes to Top of the Lake, a series I tried to get in to but which ultimately left me cold.
  • International TV – Quite a tough choice here I think, although I’ve only seen House of Cards so that would get my vote. I’m about to finally start Breaking Bad though, so maybe my view will have changed by the ceremony in May!
  • Radio Times Audience Award – It’s usually entertaining to see the victor here (TOWIE anyone?!) and although I’m a Great British Bake Off addict and thought the Doctor Who 50th special was truly wonderful, it has to be Broadchurch. I was lucky enough to see episode one at a preview screening and from the reaction it received then you could sense it would do very well due to its superb writing, direction and performances. I’m apprehensive about a second series, as I’m not sure the first can be bettered.
  • Single Drama – I’m thrilled to see An Adventure in Time & Space nominated. The dramatisation of the creation of Doctor Who was a superb programme – funny, enlightening and deeply moving, with an end that made me shed a tear or two. I hope that it is successful when the winners are announced.
  • Supporting Actor (Drama) – There’s an interesting mix here and I hear from friends that Rory Kinnear was great in Southcliffe so perhaps he will win. However I’m rooting for David Bradley. I’m sorry he isn’t nominated as Best Actor for An Adventure in Time & Space (in which he was utterly superb) and so I hope he takes this award for Broadchurch.
  • Supporting Actress (Drama) – I didn’t see any of the programmes for which the women in this category are nominated so I can’t say who I hope wins. I am however disappointed that Jodie Whittaker is not included for Broadchurch, as she was one of the most powerful aspects of the entire programme.

So who do you think has been omitted and who do you hope wins? I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

Birdland by Simon Stephens at the Royal Court Theatre starring Andrew Scott

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I have been mulling over whether to post my thoughts about Birdland whilst previews are still continuing. In the end it was after seeing a disappointing play later in the week and wishing I was back at Birdland that I knew I had to post something about it. If there are any dramatic changes after press night I will update this blog after my next trip to see it.

This exciting new play by the supremely talented Simon Stephens (most recently Seawall and adaptations of A Doll’s House and Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night Time) draws us in to the word of Paul, an international rock star whose 15 month world tour is reaching its conclusion. He lives in a bubble of hotel rooms, clubs, arenas and backstage rooms and everyone knows who he is. Everyone except him that is. He can have anything or anyone he desires, but is that really enough anymore?

Over the course of almost two straight hours Birdland delves in to Paul’s existence, as we see how he is slowly beginning to lose control of his world and his mind. We watch as he robotically gives the same answer over and over again to interviews, flirts with women, cruelly plays with people’s emotions for his own amusement, but we also see him playful with his friend Johnny and affectionate towards his father. For me, the beauty of this play is how well rounded a person Paul is. He does some terrible things in the play and treats people (including those closest to him) cruelly. However I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Simon Stephens has created a very real character who comes to life so vividly.

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Andrew Scott is always mesmerising on stage, whether its an intimate reading or short play such as Simon Stephens’ beautiful Seawall or a sweeping epic play in the form of Emperor & Galilean (not to mention his perfect pairing with Tom Burke in Design For Living) and he gives an absolutely phenomenal performance as Paul, tackling every imaginable emotion over the course of the play. He effortlessly moves from lighter moments to those which suggest a dangerous, darker side to Paul lurks just below the surface. It takes great skill to be able to be both emotional and emotionless in so short a time and Andrew Scott is more than up to the task. He also displays some impressive dance moves – can we have him, Tom Hiddleston and Ben Whishaw compete for a slickest moves award?!

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Alex Price is very good as Johnny, who as Paul’s old friend and bandmate has a close bond with him, but struggles to put up with his actions. The rest of the cast each rotate through multiple characters and I particularly liked Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Jenny, the woman we hope will bring normalcy to Paul’s mixed up world and Daniel Cerqueira’s dry humoured manager David, always on hand to fix Paul’s messes. The minimal staging perfectly suits the play as Paul’s life blends in to one endless, disorientating blur and the choice of how to emphasise how his life is slipping away from his control is very effective indeed – in fact it was so subtle early on that it took me a while to even notice (no spoilers from me – you’ll have to see for yourselves).

For me, Birdland encapsulates just how incredible theatre can be – it transported me to another place and I left the theatre buzzing with excitement after seeing something new and powerful and I am counting the days until I return to see it again. If you can get to the Royal Court to see this production book a ticket now, as it won’t be long before it sells out.

Birdland runs until 31 May 2014 at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs with availability from 19th April (and all Tickets for Mondays are £10 sold online on the day). 

http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/birdland/?tab=0

 

Conversations with Screen Composers – Michael Price

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In association with BAFTA, the Royal Albert Hall continued its Conversations with Screen Composers series last night (31st March) with a wonderfully interesting and insightful chat with the lovely Michael Price, composer of both film and TV and of course now most notably Sherlock (which he scores with David Arnold). Over the course of two hours we learnt about his early career and how he came to write for the BBC’s phenomenally successful show. For those unable to attend I thought I’d provide an insight in to the evening in this blog.

The early days

Michael began by recalling his university days at the University of Surrey, at which he completed the Tonmeister degree (which combines elements of music, physics and maths) and how he had a wonderful university experience, making many friends that he still keeps in touch with today. He didn’t have a master plan for his career and it was touched upon that he was the first of the composers included in this series to complete this specific course, with others studying music in different degree forms.

After initially working in the sphere of contemporary dance, Michael went on to work with American screen composer Michael Kamen, whom he first came to work with on X-Men, quite randomly, after he began giving talks around the world for the creators of the leading music notation software Sibelius and his name was suggested when Mr Kamen was looking for a new assistant. Hilariously he was not the only person to be offered the job and Michael fondly recalled arriving on a Monday to start work only to find another person there too, James Brett, and how the two of them had plenty of time to bond seeing as Mr Kamen didn’t arrive for three and a half days! He continued to work for Kamen for five years on projects including the live Metallica concert S&M (Symphony & Metallica) and we were shown an amusing clip of a young Michael in the background of a docu-style behind the scenes film about this project. His final project with Kamen was the HBO series Band of Brothers and Michael commented how the producers were able to get something glorious from Kamen (I have always thought that the score for the series is very impressive indeed and compliments it perfectly). Michael spoke about Kamen’s improvisation during the process and how he and James Brett would tidy up the composition around the edges where necessary. He also noted that he felt this was the start of a growth in high-end television and that that has resonated with him from a career perspective.

Music editing

Michael then went on to be a successful music editor, working on a number of celebrated films. In order to give us a better insight in to the role of a music editor in film we were shown three clips from different scores Michael worked on. These were Love Actually, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Michael explained how the role of the music editor is to listen to the director, producer and composer and provide diplomatic solutions in order to achieve the best music for the film.

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It was interesting to hear that Richard Curtis had a huge number of songs that he was interested in using in Love Actually (some of which were referenced in the script) and how Michael was involved in the cutting room, deciding what track would work for a certain scene in order to realise the soundtrack in Curtis’s mind. The clip we watched was the moving moment Emma Thompson’s character receives the gift she thinks is a necklace, but which is in fact a Joni Mitchell CD, and goes to listen to it as she cries upstairs. Michael talked about how the music underscoring the moment she opens the gift references the music of the Joni Mitchell song that immediately follows in the bedroom scene, weaving the film together.

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Courtesy of Working Title

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Courtesy of New Line Cinema

We were also shown the famous fight in the Serpentine fountain scene from the Bridget Jones sequel as an example of when the editors have to dramatically cut a song in the edit for a film and finally the scene from The Return of the King in which Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is crowned and reunited with Arwen. Michael spoke further about the process for creating the score for The Lord of the Rings films (he worked on all three of them) and how it was true that Howard Shore’s team had indeed taken over a whole floor of the Dorchester hotel during the process! There were scores of people working on the films and so unlike a smaller film (such as Love Actually) you couldn’t become personally familiar with everything that was happening. No one had all the answers and, although it had been an incredible experience and Howard Shore was an incredible man, it was not Michael’s style of working as a musician.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

One of Michael’s last jobs as a music editor was the film Children of Men, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Michael recalled that this was the most incredible interview he ever had for a job ad talked about how Alfonso genuinely cares about every detail of his films. The project also meant Michael had the opportunity to work with his favourite composer Sir John Tavener and how the film was changed to fit the music tempo once Tavener came to Abbey Road and recorded his piece of score for it, as he did this at a different tempo to how Cuaron had imagined it. Michael also hilariously spoke of having to come up with the sound of the music of the future, which included audio of a screaming German student found online (who is credited in the film)!

Composing (and a certain TV show)!

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Courtesy of the BBC

Michael spoke about how, as a screen composer, there is a spectrum from artisan to artist and that he is more interested in the artist end of this spectrum. He is always trying to find artistic expression that is authentic. He spoke about first meeting David Arnold more than ten years ago, when he wrote additional music for him and how, although an unlikely pair, they had become firm friends. Michael then moved on to discuss the music he is now most associated with – BBC’s Sherlock (which he scores with David Arnold). David already knew Mark Gatiss and Michael remembers him and David watching the pilot of Sherlock and having just ten days to write the score. They divided up the characters between the two of them in a pub in Soho and set to work. I thought it was particularly nice to hear that they never say who writes each part of the music as it is a shared voice.

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Courtesy of the BBC

Michael further went in to detail as to the creation of some of the iconic themes from the show and how many of the characters in Sherlock have four chord tunes, such as Watson, Moriarty, Sherlock himself and the main theme and that therefore this DNA of the Sherlock music has been set from the beginning. This was wonderfully demonstrated by Peter Gregson (a cellist and composer in his own right), who played the main themes on a cello for us. To delve deeper in to the music of the show we then watched the first of two clips, which was from the first episode A Study In Pink and is the scene in which Sherlock and Watson chase the cab across Soho. After the clip Michael said how sometimes you are dependent on a constellation of things happening around you, for example, Paul McGuigan’s direction and how so much character is in the performances of the lead actors and that you just have to join in! He also admitted that he probably played it slightly safer in the beginning of the show.

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Courtesy of the BBC

The second clip was the final conversation between John and Sherlock in series 3′s His Last Vow. Michael spoke about how when writing the music you don’t want to repeat yourself as that would be boring, but that you also don’t want to alienate people either when coming up with something different and that although he and David had discussed ideas for series 3 before seeing it, none of these ideas were actually used. He kept these to himself in case they can be used for series 4 (if there is a series 4 he added swiftly, not wanting to be the one to be seen as confirming anything)! He agreed that the third series had been more about the relationship between the lead characters and he had chosen this clip specifically because it was a scene between them which contains that initial DNA of the music for those characters – those four chords, gradually moving around through the conversation, before the music reaches up with Sherlock as he disappears in the plane.

Any questions?

There was then time for a few questions from the audience.

1. Any rituals when composing?

On being asked about how he writes in solitude on projects (rather than as part of a collaboration) Michael talked about avoiding the blank page! He is a lark rather than an owl and so will work earlier in the morning if necessary rather than later and tries to work from 9am – 7pm. He also spoke of his belief in starting out with pencil, paper and a piano rather than writing on a computer, as he thinks writing straight on to a computer shapes how you work. By starting with a notebook the tune can develop at the speed it needs to and that once he has a book of ideas he hopes that is enough to sustain him through the score. He referred to the ability to go back to music on Sherlock and change things but that on any project if the tune isn’t great to begin with no amount of orchestration can save it.

2. Choice of instruments?

The second question came from Beryl Vertue herself (who began by saying how everyone at Sherlock was so proud of all the wonderful music, which was applauded by the audience). She asked Michael what motivates him to choose a certain instrument for a piece of score. He replied that sometimes a tune is simply a piano tune or a trumpet tune, but that at other times more than one instrument could fit and so it is decided on a cue by cue basis. He gave the example of Watson’s theme, which was used for the first time in brass in His Last Vow during the resurrection sequence when Watson is effectively saving Sherlock’s life. He also said that the Sherlock theme chords suit anything, such as low cellos under dialogue (as in the second clip) or violins and that it is great to be able to change the palette.

Reference was also made to the use of the cimbalom in the Sherlock music as this is also used by Hans Zimmer in the score of the Sherlock films. Michael said that they has actually used it earlier for the Crooked House for Mark Gatiss (where the budget stretched to only two instruments) and that the sound they had wanted to achieve with the Sherlock music had been one of hi-tech vs. low-tech, which was different from that of Zimmer’s score for the films.

3. Process for matching music to specific scenes?

Michael was finally asked how he matches music to specific scenes, to which he spoke about it being a carving process and that you need to be honest with yourself as to what works and what doesn’t work. There are big questions, such as what type of overall sound are you looking for, but there are also many micro decisions to be made during the process. Some are easy wins, however the majority need lots of polish. This takes a lot of work and he said that this is something composers respect about each other.

Michael ended by first letting us in on one of his favourite themes from Sherlock – Irene Adler’s theme (it’s like having a favourite child he said) and we were lucky enough to hear The Woman played beautifully by Peter (playing a violin part on a cello!) and Michael on the piano. With regards to the subject of soundtracks, Michael said he would rather create a 60 minute symphony for someone to listen to but that with a soundtrack like Sherlock he completely understood that there is an emotional connection to the memories of the characters for people and that when he hears certain pieces of the music played, he has the memories of working with David to create it.

Coming up next?

Michael is currently working on the next Inbetweeners film with David Arnold, as well as an Australian television show and his own record, which he is working on in Berlin at the moment. The evening then drew to a close with Michael playing a piece on the piano (I think it was from The Hope of Better Weather, but I’m not 100% certain about that) as a thank to us all.

This was certainly an incredibly interesting and insightful evening, during which it was wonderful to hear about Michael’s career as a whole and I’d like to thank him for taking the time to share his memories and experiences with us. The Conversations with Screen Composers series is continuing and I’d recommend going along to one if you can.

 

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