My Top Television of 2015

The year is almost over so it’s time for another annual television review. How time flies! It’s been a mixed year, however, there were still some brilliant programmes during 2015 and these are the ones that stood out for me, which I couldn’t wait to rewatch and will no doubt tune in to again in the future.

Wolf Hall (BBC)

Wolf Hall was a truly superb achievement, highlighting the quality that the BBC produces effortlessly. As someone who had only recently seen the RSC stage productions and started reading the books after watching a BFI preview of this series, it met every expectation I had for it. The screenplay was a perfect adaptation of the books, the locations and costumes were gorgeous and the direction and choice of lighting was inspired. The scenes lit purely by candlelight truly captured the sense of England in another time. Then of course was the acting, with a strong ensemble bringing these famous characters to life, all led by Mark Rylance, one of my favourite actors. His Cromwell manages to capture all the internal thinking of the man. You can see that so much is going on in his head, even when no word is spoken and it’s lovely more people have become aware of his brilliance through this drama. I certainly hope that the third book will also be adapted once it’s released.

Broadchurch (ITV)

I’m aware that a lot of people were disappointed by the second series of Broadchurch, but I wasn’t one of them and actually think the series was underrated and very worthy of a revisit for those who only watched it on transmission. Yes, series one was superb, partly due to the unexpected quality of the story and the way it captured the nation’s interest. It was always going to be difficult to repeat. However, series two has a lot of brilliant elements that the first didn’t (and couldn’t) have. The bond and relationship between Hardy and Miller was stronger and gave David Tennant and Olivia Colman more scope to build on what had gone before. They are friends here and able to be a team in a way they couldn’t be in those early episodes before the trust had been built. On top of that you had two stories at once. Perhaps the weakness of this series was too many little plots (the barrister’s son as an example), but the mix of the court case with, for me, the more interesting plot of Sandbrook always kept me guessing. It also gave us one of the most interesting characters on television this year – Eve Myles’s Claire Ripley. One minute you liked her, then you suspected her, then you worried for her. She was a whirlwind of emotions and personalities and was always wonderful to watch. I’m a little worried a third series may be unnecessary, but I’m intrigued to see what Chris Chibnall has in mind.

Doctor Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC)

Another quality BBC drama was this adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s fantasy novel and I still think it received much less fuss than it deserved, being a brave and exciting choice of drama for the BBC to make. The cast were wonderful, with Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan doing fantastically as the title characters, with Marc Warren truly creepy as The Gentleman. Beautifully shot and with some impressive special effects (that sand horse scene in episode two was truly fantastic on first viewing for a television show). If you didn’t watch it, I’d encourage you to give it a try. It really is magical.

Game of Thrones (HBO)

I imagine Game of Thrones will make this list every year unless it does something spectacularly wrong before it ends! Series five also marked the year in which those of us who’d read the books finally moved on to new material! Anything is possible now! Ayra Stark’s development continues in fascinating ways and Maisie Williams only gets better each year, but let’s face it the pinnacle of series five was Hardhome. It felt like a scene from The Lord of the Rings and I’d love to see it on a cinema screen. The vast, epic and powerful scope of those 20 minutes were incredible. I’m very excited to see what will be coming next.

Jessica Jones (Netflix)

I admit that I came to Jessica Jones as a David Tennant fan rather than a Marvel fan, but I’m very pleased indeed that I did, with Jessica Jones being one of the one most fascinating characters on television this year, wonderfully played by Krysten Ritter. It may be part of a comic universe, but this is not what you’d normally expect from a superhero series, with that aspect of the show seeming secondary to the dark, adult themes that it contains. Tennant’s Killgrave is also a truly chilling villain, his ability to make anyone do anything, frightening in its possibilities. With strong writing and an excellent supporting cast, this was one of the strongest first series of a show I’ve seen in a long time. Read my full review here.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

I admit I tend to watch more dramas than comedies, but this new Netflix series was recommended by so many of my friends I had to try it. What a brilliant series it is and series two cannot come quickly enough! The premise may seem bonkers, but the writing is sharp and funny and the characters immediately likeable. Kimmy Schmidt is so full of naive, innocence and Ellie Kemper is wonderful in the role. Not many characters have made me laugh as much as Titus Andromedon (played by Tituss Burgess) did this year and it’s always lovely to see Jane  Krakowski on screen. You couldn’t fail to be cheered up, no matter how naff you felt when you watched this series and that’s a rare achievement.

Arrow / The Flash (Sky)

I may be cheating a little counting two shows as one, but due to the crossover nature of the worlds of Arrow and The Flash it seems justified (look at the great promos they can do for them both now)! I’ll always love Arrow, as the characters have bedded in and let’s face it, it has Felicity Smoak (and yes, Stephen Ammell…), but The Flash really did a  brilliant job in its first year of settling in so quickly. After only a few episodes the characters felt developed and were people you were genuinely interested in watching. I’ve not enjoyed series two of The Flash so far as much as the first, but together these two shows do a brilliant job of combining the fantasy/superhero elements with interesting, well-rounded characters and stories.

The Blacklist (Sky Living)

In my view, series three of The Blacklist is its best yet. Initially the plots felt a bit silly and the FBI characters laughable in their ineptness, but it was the brilliance of James Spader’s performance as Raymond “Red” Reddington that hooked me. He was enigmatic, charming, funny and with an edge that made you know you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of him! Series three has seen him and Agent Keen work even more as a team, as she continues to be on the run from the very colleagues she used to work with. It has given the series an interesting new angle and given Megan Boone as Keen some much more interesting material to work with.

Doctor Foster (BBC)

Mike Bartlett is one of my favourite playwrights, currently on a role with his stage successes both here and on Broadway and with Doctor Foster he has brought his ability to write human emotions and behaviour to the small screen as well. Over the course of this series, the tension that developed as the truths of the characters unravelled was brilliant. Bertie Carvel was very good as the cheating husband who you couldn’t completely despise (well not initially anyway!), Adam James was on fine form as the sleezy neighbour, but Suranne Jones is utterly superb as Doctor Foster. Her performance is magnetic, as we watched her move ever closer to confronting her husband and the final episode was certainly nail-biting. It’ll be interesting to see where series two finds her.

Peter Kay’s Car Share (BBC)

It was actually my parents who told me how good this series was. This recommendation was quite unusual, as I wouldn’t have expected them to be watching this type of comedy and so curiosity meant I had to tune in. It’s such a gem of a series and so brilliantly written by Peter Kay. How he comes up with some of these ideas I do not know, but it made me laugh more than most series have this year. The central chemistry between him and Sian Gibson, as his colleague and friend Kayleigh Kitson is perfect and has so much potential. I’m very much looking forward to a second series, which surely must be coming soon.

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So those are my television highlights of 2015. There has certainly been a lot to see this year and I have a list of things to catch up on that I couldn’t fit in. I hope 2016 proves to be just as entertaining (well it already has The X-Files so will be off to a spectacular start!). My top picks for 2016 will follow soon.

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Olivier Awards 2015 – Winners Announced!

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The Olivier Awards is a strange awards ceremony. As a celebration of theatre, rather than film or television, it’s the one for which I am able to form a better view of who I think should win and who I think should have been nominated. Then again, although it’s the most prestigious theatre awards in the UK, it doesn’t cover national theatre, or even all London theatre. To be eligible for the Olivier Awards, a show has to be on for at least 30 performances in London, but at either a SOLT (Society of London Theatre) theatre or an “affiliate theatre”. As it’s always hard to know which theatres are included in the list for consideration, it’s therefore always hard to know what has been snubbed, or what was simply ineligible! I personally still think there needs to be a ceremony for theatre like the BAFTAs for film and television – one that covers all British theatre, but that’s a fantasy I know will almost certainly never happen.

Grumblings aside, anything celebrating theatre on television is guaranteed to get me excited and I was thrilled to be able to see the highlights of this year’s ceremony on ITV, albeit on so late that I already knew all the winners! From the highlights show this evening, it looked to be a wonderful celebration of London’s status as the greatest city for theatre in the world and the musical numbers were lovely to see. As someone who missed out on seeing her as Grizabella in Cats this year, I thought Nicole Scherzinger was fantastic singing Memory and medleys from Beautiful and Sunny Afternoon were fun too. I was very disappointed that the performance by the City of Angels cast was cut from the televised show, but we did at least get to see Kevin Spacey bring the house down with his rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water with Beverly Knight. I certainly hope the stages of London won’t be without him for long after he leaves the Old Vic.

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Kevin Spacey & Beverley Knight close the ceremony with a bang!

As for the awards themselves were there any surprises? Perhaps a couple and of course such awards will always be subjective, with a clear winner for some not the same for others. With that in mind, my thoughts are based on the shows and performances from the last year that I loved and felt deserved to win.

Best New Play = King Charles III – I’m thrilled that Mike Bartlett’s superb new play about the Royal Family post Queen Elizabeth II was awarded Best New Play. Without a doubt it was my favourite production last year, one which had me leaving the theatre, after just its second preview, knowing I’d seen something truly exciting and different (you can read my full thoughts on the play here).

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Best New Play (and my favourite of 2014!) – King Charles III by Mike Bartlett

Best New Comedy = The Play That Went Wrong – Perhaps a surprise winner is that of best new comedy, with The Play That Went Wrong beating two shows that perhaps were given a higher profile, Handbagged and Shakespeare In Love. It’s a play I’ve been meaning to see and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has now been reminded that they must book a ticket while it’s still running!

Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre = Bull – Of the four nominees in this category (one which I’m not hugely clear about whom is eligible!), I’d only seen Bull so I’m pleased Mike Bartlett picked up his second award of the night for this production. I saw its premiere in Sheffield and also its London transfer to the Young Vic (which is on a roll for productions these days). It may only have been 50 minutes long, but it’s a play filled with powerful and uncomfortable performances, highlighting the very worst in office politics and certainly deserved this recognition (you can read my full review here).

Best Actor = Mark Strong (A View From The Bridge) – For me this was the toughest set of nominees, while still missing out the brilliant Ben Miles for Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies, whose performance of Thomas Cromwell should have been nominated. All four performances were outstanding and among some of the finest I’ve seen to date on stage. I was torn between James McAvoy’s incredible turn in The Ruling Class (you can read my full review here) and Mark Strong (with Richard Armitage close behind for The Crucible!) and so I’m happy that one of them was successful. A View From The Bridge was a production of the highest quality and his performance was breathtaking. If there is another chance to see an NT:Live Encore cinema screening of it – go!

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A worthy winner in a tough shortlist – Mark Strong

Best Actress = Penelope Wilton (Taken At Midnight) – I have to admit that this was one of the surprises of the night for me, on top of the surprising fact that Helen McCrory was not nominated for Medea. I did not see Penelope Wilton in this role, but I am genuinely amazed that the award did not recognise Gillian Anderson for A Streetcar Named Desire or Kristin Scott Thomas for Electra, both of which demonstrated just how important strong, powerful roles are for women on stage. Had I been voting, I’d have picked Gillian. Yes, I’m an X-File / long-term Gillian fan, but that’s not the main reason. Personally, hers was the performance which left me at the end feeling emotionally exhausted and buzzing the way only a truly fantastic night at the theatre can make me. She gave everything in to the role of Blanche. Perhaps she’ll have better luck at the Tony Awards after the show appears on Broadway next year.

Actor in a Supporting Role = Nathaniel Parker (Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies) – Nathaniel’s interpretation of King Henry VIII in Wolf Hall / Bring Up The Bodies was very good and a worthy winner. However, I think my vote would have gone to Richard Goulding, whose performance as Prince Harry grew in depth and quality over the course of the run of King Charles III, resulting in a believable and multi-layered character, with whom you felt true sympathy by the end of the play.

Actress in a Supporting Role = Angela Lansbury (Blithe Spirit) – It seemed a foregone conclusion to me that Angela Lansbury would win in her category. She is 89 years old, performing 8 shows a week in a London run and has never won an Olivier before. They couldn’t not give it to her! She was wonderful in Blithe Spirit, entertaining and full of fun and with a clear love of her job, but she wasn’t the best of the nominees in my opinion. All four nominees were excellent, whether the chillingly disturbing girls in The Nether or Phoebe Fox in A View From The Bridge. However, I would have loved to have seen Lydia Wilson win for her role as Kate in King Charles III, a performance which was full of confidence and charisma and stood out in a production filled with cracking performances. Her Kate Lady Macbeth-style power behind the man performance was wonderful to watch and I’ll certainly expect to see her nominated more at these awards in the future.

Best Director = Ivo Van Hove (A View From The Bridge) – The director shortlist was another incredibly tough choice, with all four helping bring to the stage some of the best theatre of the year. I was lucky enough to see all four productions and I’m not sure I’d have been able to choose a clear winner, or would have changed my mind as soon as I’d voted! I’m not surprised that Ivo Van Hove took the award though, as his claustrophobic, stark vision of Arthur Miller’s classic received glowing reviews from audiences and critics alike and through it he was able to generate some truly breathtakingly powerful performances.

Best Lighting Design = City of Angels – A thoroughly deserved win for Josie Rourke’s Donmar revival. All four productions were worthy nominees, as the lightning of each certainly added to the drama and quality of each one, creating such unique atmospheres, whether the candlelit Almeida, the Tudor halls of Wolf Hall or the stark atmospheric mood of A View From The Bridge. However, City of Angels would not have been the show it was without Howard Harrison’s lighting, creating the glitz and colour of one world, compared to the black and white of the other.

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Fantastic use of lighting in the Donmar’s City of Angels, also winner of Best Musical Revival

Best Costume Design = Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies – As a regular visitor to the Royal Shakespeare Company, I’m so pleased that its brilliant and dedicated costume team won for their contribution to the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning books. The costumes certainly helped bring Tudor history to life in sumptuous, beautiful detail and I can’t think of a better choice from this shortlist.

Best Set Design = The Nether – Until a few weeks ago my choice for this category would have likely been City of Angels. However, that was before I saw the Royal Court’s production of The Nether, currently playing in the West End. It is without a doubt one of the most unique and impressive sets I have ever seen and one which had an incredibly difficult task, bringing the virtual world and the real world together so convincingly. Each time we, as an audience, enter The Nether you genuinely believed you were entering another realm. The combination of set and video graphics were perfect and it would have been a crime had it not won.

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The incredible set from The Nether

I didn’t see most of the nominated musicals so it would be unfair for me to comment on the winners and losers in most of these categories, with the exception of the revival and audience award. I must try and see the Hampstead Theatre’s Sunny Afternoon (currently in the West End), which took best new musical, best actor and supporting actor in a musical. The night has also fuelled my intention to finally buy a ticket for Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (winner of best actress and supporting actress in a musical) and I’m thrilled for Katie Brayben, who was fantastic in both American Psycho and her smaller roles in King Charles III.

Best Musical Revival = City of Angels – First of all, I still think it’s criminal that none of the actors in this Donmar production were nominated in either main or supporting musical categories! This is already one of the highlights of this year’s theatregoing calendar for me – wonderful songs, incredible sets and lighting, an engaging story and some truly excellent acting and vocal performances, from some of the finest talents in musical theatre. Due to these omissions, I’m thrilled the show won Best Musical Revival. Now, if only it could have a West End transfer too!

This Morning Audience Award = Wicked – Akin to the Radio Times Audience Award at the TV BAFTAs, this award is an opportunity for the public to vote for its favourite musical (why it can’t also include plays I do not know). Musicals of course attract loyal fans, who go to see them again and again and these awards are a chance for them to show their support for such long-running shows. Of the shortlisted four, my vote went to Matilda, a musical I hoped would go on to greater success after I first saw it one snowy Saturday afternoon in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2010, but I’m not surprised Wicked won, as it probably has the strongest fan base of the four nominees.

With already some strong performances and productions hitting the stage in 2015, I’m sure the Olivier Awards will continue to generate discussion and debate when next year’s nominations are announced. One thing that isn’t in debate however is that we should all be very proud of the level of quality found in the theatres of London, but also around the rest of the country. Maybe one day my wish for an all-encompassing set of national theatre awards will become a reality.

Television Preview – Wolf Hall (BBC) with Q&A including Hilary Mantel

2550588734 Last week saw my first trip out of the house on my own since August. Freedom at last! What better way to get back in to the London culture scene than with a preview of the upcoming BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies at the BFI (thanks to @Ruther2 for my ticket). The BBC’s six-part drama begins later this month and after watching the first two episodes, I was certainly impressed. The cast is first-class, led by the truly brilliant Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rises to become one of the most powerful men in the country. Rylance never fails to impress, most recently through his stage work (Jerusalem, La Bete, Richard III and Twelfth Night were all superb) and that he is so able to play such an eclectic range of characters is a testament to how great an actor he is. His Cromwell may not have come across as as witty as Ben Miles’ performance on stage at the RSC, but he has an intensity about him that is bound to grow through the episodes – Cromwell is always observing, thinking, planning and this is always clear from Rylance’s portrayal. He also has a touching relationship with Jonathan Pryce’s Cardinal Wolsey, the master he stands by until his fall in 1529.

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Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey

Other notable performances from the first two episodes were Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn, Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner, Charity Wakefield as a playful and strong Mary Boleyn and Thomas Brodie Sangster as Rafe, Cromwell’s loyal ward. We didn’t get to see too much of Damian Lewis’s interpretation of King Henry VIII in these early episodes, but he seemed very promising, not only a younger, more athletic figure, but also one who still carries a gravitas and power that makes you know he should not be crossed. I have owned the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies for years and always intended to read them, especially so after seeing the stage productions last year in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. However it was only after going to this preview that I finally picked up Wolf Hall, which I have just finished. The BBC drama is very faithful to the novel, with lines of dialogue and scenes instantly recognisable to me as being identical. It’s impressive to see how such a detailed novel has been adapted so perfectly for the screen by Peter Straughan. They are books that contain so much detail and description that as a reader you need to commit to them in order to be swept up in the sumptuous, yet murky world of Henry’s court and it’s fantastic that Straughan’s scripts have not strayed from the example set by Mantel in her work. There are some scenes and moments that are moved around slightly, so that they occur earlier or later than in the book, but you can understand why each of these choices was made, in order to keep the pace of the screen version and I don’t think any such choices are at the detriment of the original books.

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

I also thoroughly enjoyed Mike Poulton’s stage adaptations for the RSC (soon to transfer to Broadway), which I found to be fast paced, modern and funnier than I’d expected. Comparing this to the television version, I’d say that the stage one seems to be faster paced, which makes sense when you have create the world for a live performance in three hours, through which Cromwell can speak directly to the audience. This direct rapport also opened the door more for humour to come across, particularly from Cromwell. As with the novels, the series cannot do this directly and so more is dependent of Rylance’s skill at conveying his thoughts through a look and his eyes, something he is more than capable of achieving. As for the production itself, it is of a level of quality we expect from a BBC period drama – beautiful locations and costumes, wonderful music by Debbie Wiseman, which feels authentic, yet contemporary and superbly shot – the scenes you think seem to be lit just by candlelight really are exactly that, which lends the production an added layer of realism. There is one scene in which Cromwell talks with his sister-in-law as she puts out the candles around the room – as each is distinguished the room grows darker until only one remains. Touches like this truly impressed me and you can understand that a great deal of preparation and skill has been invested by the crew and director Peter Kosminsky in order to film the series this way. I also loved the hand held camera style for certain scenes, which allows the audience to be always seeing the events from Cromwell’s perspective. This again makes the characters feel very much alive.

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Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII

I am incredibly excited to see the remaining four episodes of this wonderful series and cannot recommend it highly enough. The opening episode may feel a little slow to some people, but I would urge you to stick with it, as you are soon drawn in to the drama and intrigue of a world that really did exist 500 years ago and in to events that had a lasting impact on our country. This is due to a superb combination of top quality acting performances from some of the country’s best talents, a faithful and perfectly paced screenplay, sumptuous costumes, locations and music and the brilliant choice of filming style so that, as an audience you really are following in Cromwell’s footsteps as he navigates this dangerous world of Tudor England. Panel and Q&A following the screening After the screening we were treated to a Q&A with director Peter Kosminsky, composer Debbie Wiseman, actress Claire Foy (Anne Bolyen) and Hilary Mantel herself.

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Waiting for the screening at the BFI to begin

What did Hilary Mantel think of the adaptation? Mantel was full of praise for the series, calling it sumptuous and saying that she had fallen into her own story while watching it. She does not refer to it as an adaptation however, as she feels such a word sounds like a compromise. This is not an adaptation, but the material in a different medium and she was very proud. What was the director’s approach to the series? Peter Kosminsky talked about how the characters think they are us. They don’t know that they are in fact in history, so it was important to create a world that felt real and contemporary, so that the characters are living in the moment. He also spoke of how closely Peter Straughan worked with Mantel on the screenplay and how important it was to cast the right people in order make the production feel real. The importance of the director of photography’s role and that of the camera operator was also mentioned, in order to give the series its documentary style, which makes the audience experience the events with Cromwell as they happen. What was it like playing Anne Boleyn? Claire Foy spoke of how much she’d enjoyed the books when she’d read them, but that she’d felt dread when it was suggested she should audition, as she was sure she was nothing like the Anne she had read about in the books. She was amazed that Peter wanted her to play the role and also agreed that there is more of a responsibility playing someone who lived. Peter Kosminsky explained that he’d thought Claire would be perfect for Anne, as he knew from working with her before that she could portray the nastier side of Anne, but still break your heart at the end. He knew she wouldn’t need to “soft sell” Anne.

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Claire Foy, Hilary Mantel, Debbie Wiseman and Peter Kosminsky during the Q&A

Music process and cliches and music? This is Debbie Wiseman’s sixth collaboration with Peter Kosminsky and she talked about how early she was involved in the process. The music in fact had a life before the filming began, with themes such as Cromwell’s theme and Anne’s them existing in an initial form from the beginning, which meant that demos could be taken on set and used, which does not normally happen. Later in the evening she was also asked about whether there were any period cliches that had arisen when creating the score. Debbie talked about the influence of Tudor instruments, some of which were used, including the lute and viol, but also that there had been a desire for the music to have a contemporary feel, so the music aims to look forwards as well as backwards. Did Mark Rylance’s performance provide new insight in to the world for Mantel? Through working on this drama series and the stage production, Hilary Mantel said there are themes that linger and that each process feeds in to the other and also in to the third and final book, which is still a live process for her. To be called “The Mirror and the Light” Mantel explained that the final novel will cast light on what has gone before and see events from a different angle, while also filling in some of the gaps. She was incredibly enthusiastic about how wonderful it is to have people to co-imagine with you and that through the stage and screen processes she has had more such co-imaginers to help her create the world. Filming process? The director referred to the use of filming by candlelight and Claire Foy stressed how dark it was when filming certain scenes, during which they were amazed the cameras were actually able to see more than the cast and crew could due to the darkness! They were also terrified of someone catching fire (a risk that Mantel said was a very real one for those living at that time). Five cameras and five lenses in different configurations were tested before filming began in order to ensure the very best equipment was chosen. The candlelight was an important element for the production, especially as they were filming in real period locations, which were built and designed to be lit that way. Mantel also agreed with its importance, saying that it does something to your imagination when just in candlelight. Claire and Peter also reminisced about the comedic scene of having to film at Penshurst Place in Kent, due to the requirement on the crew to pause filming every 20 minutes in order for tourists to walk through on tours! Wolf-Hall-Bring-Up-The-Bodies2 The language of Wolf Hall? On being asked about writing the novels and the language used, Mantel referred to George Cavendish’s biography of Cardinal Wolsey, as it was from this source material that she found the idiom for her novels. At the time, when the people communicated it would have been clear to them and so it was important for her to have a living, speakable idiom. Therefore the novels are written in modern English, but slightly sideways, for example, with syntax different from everyday English used today. She also agreed that Peter Straughan’s adaptation is very faithful to the novels. The third book and the challenging nature of the material for its audience? On being asked if they would film the third book, both Peter and Hilary said that would be wonderful but Mantel needs to finish writing it first! Mantel was also asked how much of a hit she thought the series would be on television, due to the fact that, like the novels, the audience has to work for it. Mantel agreed that the dialogue takes no prisoners and that there would have been no point dumbing it down for the series as you could never pitch it right for everyone. She felt it was important to do it with honesty and integrity and then hope to carry the audience with you, as she wants them to be co-imaginers too, as writing is not a two dimensional process. Is this the golden age of television? On being asked by the audience whether this was a new era of a higher art for television, Peter Kosminsky said that there are new challenges and opportunities now, for example a greater number of channels, but less viewers watching a programme than when there were only four channels. He also spoke of how big development budgets were no longer there, so he didn’t see it as a golden age, as you have to fight for budget and to keep something relevant and real. Wolf Hall begins on Wednesday 21st January on BBC Two at 9 p.m. and you can watch the trailer here. Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies can be purchased at all the usual book stockists.

My 2014 Theatre Review

As 2014 is almost over, it’s time for my look back at my theatregoing year. I’ll start by saying it’s been far shorter than I’d have liked, as due to breaking my ankle, I’ve not been able to get to a theatre since August. As I try not to think about the productions I had to miss, I can at least look back at a nine months filled with some truly superb shows. In 2014, I managed to make it to 38 live productions, of which I returned to see 7 productions more than once, giving a total of 58 theatre trips. I also managed to tick another two productions off my archive list, by visiting the V&A archive to see the RSC’s 2011 production of Cardenio and the Royal Court’s 2007 production of Rhinoceros.

After much thought and in no particular order (apart from my number one, as ranking them further would be too big a challenge!), my top ten is below.

Top 10 Favourites

1. King Charles III (Almeida Theatre)

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Photo: Johan Persson

Top of my list this year is the superb King Charles III, which I saw during its original run at the Almeida. I’m a big fan of both Mike Bartlett’s work (his recent play Bull made it on to last year’s list!) and Rupert Goold and found this to be a refreshingly new and exciting play (see my full review here). A bit of a slow burner, but as the story progressed I became absorbed by it, wondering what direction Bartlett had chosen to take in this alternate United Kingdom. The brilliance here is also structuring it in the style of a Shakespearian History play! Filled with fantastic performances, particularly Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Chris, Adam James and Lydia Wilson, I loved that it dared to do something different and the ending was incredibly powerful. I must try and see the current cast at the Wyndams Theatre before it ends in January if I can.

2. The Pass (Royal Court Theatre)

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I wasn’t sure what to expect when I headed to the Royal Court Upstairs in February for The Pass. However, it didn’t take long for me to know that this was something very special indeed. The Pass centres on two friends at the early start of their professional football careers and follows their different paths, while also superbly raising the issue of what it would be like to be in such a world and perhaps by unsure as to what you really wanted in life and what really will make you happy, sexually or otherwise. Russell Tovey was truly incredible as Jason and commanded the stage throughout.

3. Birdland (Royal Court Theatre)

A scene from Birdland
Photo: Tristram Kenton

More from the Royal Court, this time downstairs for Simon Stephens’s (whose Seawall topped last year’s list) new play Birdland. We are drawn in to the world of Paul, an international rock star whose 15 month world tour is reaching its conclusion. He can have anything or anyone he desires, but is that really enough anymore? Andrew Scott is always mesmerising on stage and he gave an absolutely phenomenal performance as Paul, tackling every imaginable emotion over the course of the play. He effortlessly moved 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 was more than up to the task. The set was also very clever and I left the theatre feeling very excited at seeing something new and powerful (feel free to read my full review here).

4. Once (Phoenix Theatre)

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I’d always quite liked the sweet indie film Once and had been meaning to go and see the stage version. Unbelievably it took me over a year but I’m so pleased I made it this year, especially during the time of Zrinka Vitesic and Arthur Darvill. They were both utterly superb. Zrinka had been in Once in London since it opened and this year justifiably won the Olivier award for her portrayal of this heart-warming character. She brought a perfect blend of playful humour, bossiness and tender emotion to the role and you instantly connect with her as soon as she steps foot on the stage. Arthur was also excellent as the Guy, who is at first bewildered by this whirlwind of a woman who has entered his life. After playing the same role on Broadway for a number of months he clearly understood the soul of the character and his chemistry with Zrinka was beautifully tender and romantic. Its warmth and magical spirit will make you laugh, smile and cry and will leave you feeling deeply moved. Try and see it if you can (my full review is here).

5. A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic)

Gillian Anderson is superb as Blanche
Photo: Johan Persson

It’s been a fantastic year at the Young Vic and the two standout productions for me both make my top ten. First is Tennessee Williams’s classic production starring Gillian Anderson and Vanessa Kirby. I’d never seen Streetcar before and this was certainly a superb production to start with. I loved the staging. As an audience member you can’t help but feel as if you are intruding on the innermost lives of the characters and there is a wonderfully effective, voyeuristic quality too, due to the rotating stage. I’ve admired Gillian Anderson for years and she was absolutely incredible. She drew the audience in so much to Blanche’s disintegration that by the end of the production I certainly felt exhausted and incredibly moved after having watched such a powerful and emotional performance (my full review is here).

6. A View From A Bridge (Young Vic)

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Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Another incredibly powerful night at the Young Vic this year was for the stunning production of Arthur Miller’s A View From A Bridge. Everything about this production was superb – the claustrophobic box set, the lighting, but above all the performances of the cast. Nicola Walker does a fantastic job as Eddie’s wife, who is growing ever more concerned about his attachment to their niece (also wonderfully played by Phoebe Fox). However, the standout performance is by Mark Strong, who is breathtakingly intense as Eddie. It is such a nuanced performance, through which we really see the depths of his character and he is certainly one of the finest actors I have seen on stage. This production is transferring in to the West End next year, so make sure to grab a ticket fast.

7. The Crucible (Old Vic)

Richard Armitage's Proctor confronted by the sinister children of Salem.
Photo: Tristram Kenton

From the Young Vic, to the Old Vic up the road for another Arthur Miller classic (and another first for me – my full review is here). This superb production also stands out for me as it was the last production I was able to see before breaking my ankle! South African Director Yael Farber’s powerful production particularly benefited from the current configuration of the Old Vic stage. Playing such an intense story on a smaller stage, surrounded by the audience was an inspired decision. Its deeply atmospheric, sparse staging by Soutra Gilmour, the effective use of light and shadow by Tim Lutkin, mist-covered entrances and terrifyingly eerie music score by Richard Hammarton, are all enhanced greatly by the almost claustrophobic atmosphere created by having faces gathered all around the stage. Richard Armitage has an incredibly powerful presence on stage and you could not fail to be moved by his portrayal of Proctor, as he moves from moments of sorrow, to weakness, intense anger, rage and delicate emotional vulnerability.

8. Rapture, Blister, Burn (Hampstead Theatre)

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Photo: Alastair Muir

I thoroughly enjoyed Gina Giofriddo’s latest play, focusing on the choices available to women today – career or family? marry or remain single? – and whether any of these possible choices will make you feel fulfilled or whether the grass is always greener. I found the scenes in which the history of feminism, the role of women and their relationships with men are debated incredibly absorbing and thought provoking and the performances of all five actors were excellent. However it was Shannon Tarbet as Avery who stole the show with some truly sharp and witty one-liners and who you couldn’t fail to like. A highlight I wasn’t expecting too much from before I went (my review is here).

9. Wolf Hall (RSC, Swan Theatre)

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Photo: Alastair Muir

I have owned Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels for a few years now and have never had time to read them. However I was thrilled to hear that Mantel herself was to adapt them, together with Mike Poulton for the RSC and what a brilliant production it was. I preferred Wolf Hall out of the two, but both this and Bring Up The Bodies were excellently acted, directed and conceived for the stage. On the smaller stage of the Swan, the plays seemed even grander, almost too big for the space, while keeping a wonderfully intimate feel. Ben Miles was utterly superb as Cromwell, who for each 3 hour production barely leaves the stage. I hope this finds just as much success on Broadway next year.

10. Analog.ue (National Theatre, Lyttelton) 

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Choosing a final production has proved quite difficult, with so much I’d enjoyed this year. In the end the top ten had to include Daniel Kitson’s latest part theatrical, part art installation show at the National Theatre as it was certainly a highlight for me and one which has stayed with me ever since. It was a unique story, which weaved together memories from the past with the present. It was incredibly moving and beautifully reminded me of the power of memory and how important memories of our past will be to us as we grow older or to those who come after us, offering them a glimpse in to a time long past. I even dug out an old recording of my grandparents, which I hadn’t listened to for years after seeing this. My full review is here.

Narrowly missing out on the Top 10

These are the productions that almost made it in to the top ten.

  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle (The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) – A quirky, comic and fun production from the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Having the grocer and his wife within the audience throughout is such a brilliant device, especially in such an intimate setting and truly engages the audience in a whole new way. You can read my full review here.
  • Richard III (Trafalgar Studios) – Martin Freeman’s intelligent Richard simmered with menace in another great Shakespeare adaptation from Jamie Lloyd.
  • Clarence Darrow (Old Vic) – Kevin Spacey was superb yet again as human rights lawyer Darrow in this impressive one-man show (see my review here)
  • 1984 (Almeida Theatre) – Another brilliant production for Rupert Goold’s theatre, as Headlong perfectly brought such an atmospheric and iconic book to the stage.
  • Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse) – Another of the Bard’s plays ticked off my list in an engaging production with a strong cast led confidently by Tom Hiddleston.
  • Red Velvet (Tricycle Theatre) – After missing it the first time around, I loved Adrian Lester’s passionate performance as Ira Aldridge (see my review here).

Wonderful repeats from previous years

There are always productions I can’t help but see again another year, although this year there were only two, both of which were on last year’s top ten:

  • American Psycho (Almeida Theatre) – Rupert Goold’s first production in charge of the Almeida was a gloriously refreshing and exciting production, brilliantly led by Matt Smith. I still wish there had been a cast recording!
  • Richard II (RSC at Barbican Theatre) – This was certainly a production that grew over its run and by the time it reached London the cast were on fine form. David Tennant may not have been as strong as he was in Hamlet, but his Richard II was still wonderful to watch. Although for me, the stand out performance remains that of Oliver Rix as Aumerle.

Disappointments of the Year

  • A Small Family Business (Olivier, National Theatre) – Although there were some good performances, this play was too dated and dull for me and far too long.
  • Mr Burns (Almeida Theatre) – Although I enjoy seeing something that dares to be different, the third Act of Mr Burns was just too weird for me, making me wish I’d left after Act 2.
  • Slava’s Snowshow (Royal Festival Hall) – I was simply bored by this. Perhaps it’s more for kids.
  • The Mistress Contract (Royal Court Theatre) – Another production that was just a bit dull for me, despite two good performances.

Memorable moments in Theatre

There have been some wonderful moments that I’ve witnessed or experienced at the theatre during 2014, which included:

 A West End return – Seeing Angela Lansbury’s return to the West End stage at the age of 88 in Blithe Spirit and from the front row for only a tenner too!

 Martin Freeman commits brutal murder – Just when Martin Freeman’s Richard III didn’t seem that frightening, he kills his wife by strangling her over a desk with a telephone cord! After watching him cruelly stalk her around the room, watching him finally kill her was very chilling (especially from my stage seat).

 Kevin Spacey captivating an audience – Watching how at home Kevin Spacey looked, sitting in an armchair, at the centre of the Old Vic, surrounded by a rapt audience.

– The thrill of a first preview – Attending the first performance of Birdland and being reminded yet again how incredible Andrew Scott is on stage.

 Discovering a new young talent – Discovering Shannon Tarbet in Rapture, Blister, Burn, who I’m excited to watch in lots more to come.

 Site specific theatre in gorgeous surroundings – Experiencing voyeuristic theatre at the Langham Hotel for The Hotel Plays.

 The thrill of knowing you’ve seen something new and utterly brilliant – By the end of my first trip to King Charles III (on the second preview), it was thrilling to feel the excitement of seeing a superb new play, especially by the time it reached the glorious last scene.

 Visiting a new, fantastic theatre – My first trip to the Park Theatre, a theatre I’m sure I’ll be visiting a great deal in the years to come.

 Saying an emotional farewell – Joining in the emotional applause at the final performance of Once for Arthur Darvill and Zrinka Vitesic from the front row.

 Enjoying phones being used in a theatre – Enjoying the quirk of actually using your mobile phone during a production at the Donmar for Privacy. I doubt I’ll ever think that again!

All in all it’s been a fantastic, if somewhat curtailed year of theatre for me, in which I’ve seen some wonderful moments on stage by some of the finest actors working today. I am thoroughly looking forward to what surprises 2015 will bring (and I’ll post my top choices for 2015 soon)!

My Top Television Choices for 2015!

As 2014 draws to a close, it seemed to be the perfect time to look at what television treats we can expect in 2015. There are certainly lots of exciting dramas returning to the screen, as well as some new offerings which I’m curious to try. So, here are my top choices of programmes to tune in to next year. As I’m in the UK, this list refers to dates and channels on which the shows will be aired here.

1. Broadchurch 2 (ITV, starts 5th January 9:00 p.m.)

uktv-broadchurch-2-generics-5 Series one of Broadchurch was a television highlight in 2013 and now series two is almost here. Starting on 5th January, I truly hope that our return to this little community meets the expectations that we all have. With the plot still much of a mystery, which is certainly a good thing, it seems a safe bet that the cast will be just as brilliant as before, with David Tennant, Olivia Colman and many of the cast returning, together with new additions including Eve Myles. From the trailer, will this revolve around Carver’s old case Sandbrook, is one of the new cast his ex wife (Eve Myles maybe?) and will we meet the character mentioned in the tie-novel, Jocelyn Knight, which I thought was the clue teased at. All will soon be revealed, but in case you missed it, here’s the trailer!

2. Wolf Hall (BBC Two, air date TBC)

24-wolf-hall-bbc I’ve owned Hilary Mantel’s pair of Booker Prize-winning novels for years and have never quite had time to start them. However after a February trip to the RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon to see the adaptations by Mike Poulton and Mantel herself, led by the superb Ben Miles, I am now very much looking forward to this BBC dramatisation. It’s an impressive cast, including the fantastic Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and no one quite pulls off a period drama like the BBC do. Maybe I’ll try and read those books at long last before it starts!

3. The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses (BBC Two, air date TBC)

624 More period drama coming to the BBC next year is the second series of the excellent Hollow Crown. After the success of Ben Whishaw’s award-winning Richard II and Tom Hiddleston’s Hal in Henry IV and Henry V, 2015 will bring us Henry VI and Richard III, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard and a starry ensemble cast including Dame Judi Dench. As with Wolf Hall, the cast and directors attached to the project are very exciting for a Shakespeare fan and hopefully these television dramatisations will continue to bring a whole new audience to some of the finest plays ever written.

4. The Good Wife (More 4, UK air date TBC) thegoodwife

It’s incredibly refreshing that a drama entering its sixth year only seems to get stronger. I’m currently avoiding all spoilers as this new series has already started in the US, but hopefully a UK air date on More 4 will be announced soon. After the tragic loss of Will last year, I’m excited to see if Diane will now indeed join forces with Alicia and what exactly will happen between her and Peter, not to mention seeing more of Matthew Goode’s Finn Polmar, as well as a return by Michael J Fox and the superb Alan Cumming.

5. House of Cards (Netflix, available 27th February)

Kevin-Spacey-in-House-of-Cards-Season-2-Chapter-26 Netflix certainly did well to bring this brilliant series to the screen. Based on the UK original, Kevin Spacey has become an iconic television character as Frank Underwood, who by the end of series two has successfully schemed and manipulated his way to the very top. I still see echoes of his Richard III when I watch the show and its twists and turns will no doubt keep us gripped yet again when the drama returns in February.

6. Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic, likely air date in April) Teaser-Game-of-Thrones-Saison-5-720x365

Another highly anticipated return is to the glorious world of Westeros as the series makes its way further through George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Books four and five split the narratives of the characters up, with some only appearing in four and some only in five. However, the television producers have sensibly decided to merge these for the screen, meaning we’ll get to follow all our favourite characters throughout. Whether like me you’ve read the books and are looking forward to seeing certain moments brought to life, or are simply enjoying the series as it unfolds each year, no doubt the production quality and cast for series 5 will be as high as ever. Winter is indeed coming (probably in April).

7. The Blacklist (series one returns to Sky Living in 2015)

THE BLACKLIST

I was a little late to the party watching The Blacklist, but after having caught up this year, I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of series two, when Red Reddington returns in 2015. If you haven’t yet watched it, The Blacklist centres on Raymond “Red” Reddington, a former government agent, turned master criminal, who voluntarily surrenders to the FBI. He offers to help them catch dangerous criminals (some of whom they aren’t even aware of!), with the agreement that he will only talk to a rookie, young profiler Agent Elizabeth Keene. James Spader is superb as Red and it’s his mysterious link to Keene that really grabs your interest and attention. Catch up if you can.

8. Fortitude (Sky Atlantic, January)

Fortitude-Specials-02-16x9-1 Set in the Arctic town of Fortitude, a shocking murder rocks this usually safe, close-knit community. Sky Atlantic’s new drama has an incredibly impressive cast, including Richard Dormer as the local Sheriff, partnered with Stanley Tucci’s out-of-town DCI Morton, as well as The Killing’s Sophie Grabol, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston and two of my favourite young actors Luke Treadaway and Jessica Raine. The plot reminds me of both Broadchurch and nordic hit The Killing and I’m truly hoping this will be as good as it sounds. You can watch the trailer here.

9. Sherlock (BBC One, Christmas 2015 Special)

fe817b86-1ba2-472b-b9ff-f1c473bcf4f8-bestSizeAvailable Although we won’t be getting a full series until at least 2016 (something I try not to think about!) due to the crazy schedules of those involved, we can at least look forward to a Sherlock Christmas special a year from now! With filming due to start in January, no doubt more information will start to be revealed (and I hope to at least see a bit of filming if I can!). So far we have the above photo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, suggesting some nod will be made to a period-style Holmes and Watson. I do however hope that not everything is revealed as for me Sherlock is a series that is so much better the less you know before you watch it. I’m confident enough to say already that this will be a television highlight of next year’s festive season!

10. Crisis (Watch, 2nd January 9:00 p.m.) CRISIS-TV-Series

I was disappointed to hear that this series has already been cancelled in the US after 13 episodes. Created by Rand Ravich (who also created one of my favourite shows Life starring Damian Lewis), Crisis revolves around the kidnapping of a number of students at an elite Washington D.C school, whose parents include some of the most powerful and influential people in the country. However, as a Gillian Anderson fan, I’m thrilled that it’s at least being shown over here on Watch and I’m still looking forward to watching it. The trailer is here.

11. Doctor Who (BBC One, air date TBC) peter_capaldi_who

After a strong first series (see my thoughts here), Peter Capaldi will be back in 2015 for series 9 of New Who. With filming to start in the new year, not much is known as yet. The opening episode is to be called The Magician’s Apprentice and the good news is that series nine will also be aired as one block, rather than split in two (which I think is much better for the show). Whether Jenna Coleman will be back will no doubt become clear after Christmas Day’s special Last Christmas, the trailer for which you can watch here.

12. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (BBC) jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell

I have never read Susannah Clarke’s fantasy historical novel, but I’ll certainly be tuning in to this new BBC adaptation. It tells the story of an early nineteenth-century England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, in which magic exists but has been largely forgotten. That is, until a young recluse (Norrell) displays some remarkable magical skills, kick-starting an expansive period tale of a society in flux, which includes fairies, war, and magic. I’ve always heard great things about these books and I’m definitely looking forward to this seven-part series starring Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan, to air some time in 2015. So far all we have is this teaser clip to whet the appetite!

13. Grantchester (ITV, air date TBC) uktv-grantchester-james-norton-episode-one-2

I thoroughly enjoyed the first series of ITV’s Grantchester, based on the books by James Runcie and was thrilled to hear that it’s been renewed for a second series. For anyone yet to catch up, the series stars the brilliant James Norton as Sydney Chambers, the clergyman of the sleepy village of Grantchester, who seems to spend more time solving crimes with Inspector Keating (Robson Green) than working on his sermons. Hopefully series 2 will appear some time next year.

14. RIVER (BBC One, air date TBC) Stellan-Skarsgård-198x300

This new drama by Kudos has been written by the brilliant Abi Morgan (The Hour) and stars Stellan Skarsgard as John River, a brilliant police officer whose genius and fault-line is the fragility of his mind. He is haunted by the murder victims whose cases he must lay to rest. As stated by the BBC he is “a man who must walk a professional tightrope between a pathology so extreme he risks permanent dismissal, and a healthy state of mind that would cure him of his gift.” Also starring Nicola Walker, Eddie Marsan and Lesley Manville, this sounds very interesting indeed.

15. The Game (BBC One, air date TBC)

the-gameOddly this BBC drama has debuted in America first and as yet has no UK air date! It is a Cold War spy thriller set in London in the 1970s, in which the head of MI5 sets up a secret committee to investigate the existence of a Soviet plot code-named Operation Glass, whose existence was revealed by a KGB officer seeking to defect. Written by Toby Whithouse (Doctor Who, Being Human) and with a great cast including Brian Cox, Tom Hughes and Jonathan Aris, this six-part drama sounds very promising. Here’s the BBC America trailer.

…And here are a couple that better reach the UK in 2015!

Aquarius (UK channel and air date TBC)

article-2736404-20DCB86300000578-475_634x291 After the success of Californication, David Duchovny is returning to television with Aquarius. Set in 1967, LA Police Sergeant Sam Hodiak is investigating the disappearance of the teenage daughter of a respected lawyer. Needing help, he partners with an undercover cop and along the way they encounter a small-time cult leader, who will go on to become Charles Manson and the series will delve in to his cat-and-mouse game with the police. As yet there is no UK channel or air date, but I’m keeping all my fingers crossed that we will get to see this some time in 2015.

Heroes: Reborn (UK channel and air date TBC) Heroes-Reborn-2015

I still maintain that series one of Heroes is an excellent season of television. It had a fresh and interesting premise, great characters and lots of drama and tension to engage the audience. Yes, the show did become a bit ridiculous and although I’m glad I watched all four seasons, it did become weaker by the end. I’m therefore intrigued as to what to expect from this new 13-part miniseries. It has the potential to be brilliant. All fingers are crossed!

…….With all this to look forward to, 2015 looks to be a fantastic year for high quality television!