A Retrospective by Gail Spencer

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A Series of 2014 Reviews: This represents a small selection of the series that were released over 2014:

Masters of Sex: Season One, Hemlock Grove: Netflix Web: Series One
, Bomb Girls: Season Two
, Chris Tarrant Extreme Railways

Masters of Sex: Season One

At the time of writing Masters of Sex: Season Two has been online via Amazon since September (end of). This was put around the press circuit earlier in the year as a DVD box set. It has received deservedly, vast amounts of critical acclaim. Going back a bit to the true story, William Masters and Virginia E Johnson carried out a pioneering survey on sex and sexual behaviours. Different in nature and methodology to The Kinsey Report, which shone a light on the sexual truths behind the proposed sexual propriety of a nation and era, Masters and Johnson brought to wide and public attention the nature of the female orgasm, differentiating the vaginal and clitoral, and making the overwhelmingly controversial claim that women were more sophisticated than men in the sexual stakes and capable of far more. More controversial still was the pre feminist claim that women could do without chaps in the boudoir department. This dispels the mythology surrounding the Freudian theories of the relative maturity in the 2 types of orgasm experienced by a woman, the clitoral - that a woman can achieve alone, being the immature version. Hmmm….

The series Masters of Sex follows the story of these two, before meeting, contains flashbacks of William Masters and his relationship with his provost Scully (played by Beau Bridges) and brings in the lives and mores of surrounding characters with the central story of the survey acting as conduit for the rest. Michael Sheen is excellent both as main lead and as producer of the show with the utterly gorgeous Lizzy Caplan as his non-qualified quasi secretarial side-kick Virginia Johnson.  This is the most difficult aspect of the show: the credulity is stretched when comparing these two with the realities of Sexologists, who throughout time have been the most sexually unattractive folk (as was the case of Dr Alex Comfort and Dr Ruth) - who looked as though the study of sex was the nearest they would ever get to having or getting any. Masters and Johnson watch hundreds of sexual acts, masturbation and coupled sex and there is never the sense of voyeurism - possibly helped by the sub storyline that these two, to prevent 'sexual transference' to their subjects have sex with each other, for the (supposed) benefit of the survey. These acts are compared, subtly with the procreation inspired sex William has with his wife, Libby - who is very desperate to have a child. Her personality is different to Virginia who has the go-getting individualism required both as contrast in characterisation and to provide the progressive sexual mores required for the survey. The other business of running a fertility clinic of world renown fuels the flipside of the character of William and acts in real terms as reasoning behind giving Masters this much scope in finance and facility. 

The intermittent need to operate outside of the University hospital is wonderfully portrayed with the sojourn into a 'cathouse' - William Masters is initially introduced to us watching a prostitute, fake orgasm and has a phase - funny and revealing, researching the behaviours of whores.

What is divine about this series is that the characters surrounding the main leads are equally strong in terms of performance and in inspiring sympathy, so the viewer is engaged in the fortunes of all. The provost of the university, Scully, is a closet homosexual having hidden this fact from a wife that loves him. These two, played by Beau Bridges and the ever excellent Allison Janney (West Wing) are a compelling pair with storylines that involve confronting the demon of Scully's sexuality and proposed solutions which serve to illustrate just how primitive and appalling attitudes were before enlightened and needed sociological recognition and legislative change. Virginia's involvement mirrors pre feminist thinking to women and work: she consistently struggles to balance career and child rearing and in offering herself as a 'subject' in measuring the sexual truths in a woman's anatomy is a brave standard bearer. The parallel story of a qualified doctor trying to get 'pap' tests (cervical smears) as standard is an echo to the sentiments expected when light is shone on the truths of sexual behaviours in women. Bill Masters himself is represented as a man who personally compromises his passion (he loves Virginia secretly) and professionally has to balance his equally pioneering work in fertility which brings him the acclaim that gives him the leverage to carry out the survey. He ties the fallopian tubes of a woman desperately needing to have no more children to a brutal husband whose permissions she would need for the procedure. Just about all over the place, there are wall to wall frustrations at no-one anywhere being allowed the luxury of being themselves. They all need the law and attitudes to change first.

The final sequence at the university provides the launch for the next instalment: Virginia is a co-writer for the survey and helping with the fight for another woman based struggle. Masters has realised that he may just be a bot before his time - which we know already having watched how everyone has yet to catch up. This is more than an entertaining and enlightening depiction of a progressive pair in social history at a time screaming for change:  it is a drama accounting the time consuming and nasty fall out of being the smartest person in the room in a world slugging behind in a comfort zone. 

Season One on DVD from Amazon.
Season Two is available to download from Amazon.

Hemlock Grove: Netflix Web: Series One

Werewolves, until recently had been relatively ignored in the representation of classical horror. A long time has passed since the fifties transformation sequences were portrayed by and with an intermittent look away from the camera whilst some actor b-movie chap (Lon Chaney, Oliver Reed), adorned face and arm hair of nasty proportions. Jekyll & Hyde transformations were given much the same treatments. American Werewolf in London was the bit between ropey SFX and CGI and is still fresh regardless of the fact that it was made the same year Charles & Diana married - 1981. Remember this point.

Hemlock Grove has got a bit of a midnight movie cult following: it is viewable on Netflix and is surprisingly popular - in spite of its incoherent weirdness. The plot is practically non-existent and leaps all over the place. For those who love their horror, the influences are evident from the first episode: the characteristics of closeted outsider deprived townsfolk a la Stephen King novels are reaped mercilessly - in particular the teenage isolationism with special gifts as metaphor for those freaky emotions is here straight out of Carrie. The mad mothers, the village idiots - ho hum, here we go again…but there are fresh takes on the old that are strangely drawing, not just to its evident target market - teens, but to adults that know their horror references, literary, stage and film.

The opening credit sequence is lovely and takes the viewer immediately into the dark world of the Victorian freak show and Frankensteinian imagery of co-joined bodies, anatomical drawings and mystic symbolism. It doesn't always ring true of the content that follows but this at least shows that the creators (Eli Roth to name but one) have got their collective hearts in the right place.  The overall look and feel of the piece is like a David Lynch with each character being a complete basket case with a brutally damaged past functioning in a surreal present. The adult/adolescent gap is filled with resentment, populating a town with at its heart a power base (Godfrey Institute) which has some curious gothic and fantastical ways of dealing with humanism, carrying out unorthodox procedures cloaked as progression (Frankenstein, Total Recall, Coma, Scanners, Existenz). The imagery is stark, brutal, visceral and often very sick: during a Red Indian burial ceremony, a child is made to decapitate a dead ancestor. Of course the reasoning is completely loopy but this strangely doesn't steer from HG being a good watch being close cousin also to American Gothic which is its closest brethren in terms of direct inspiration.

All the townsfolk have flashbacks courtesy of the Godfrey Institute: Dr Price has hysterical strength, another main character; the best in the view of this writer is an esoteric practitioner working for the US Wildlife service as a werewolf hunter. Dr Chausseur is just great with a backstory flashback to die for. Whilst in prison and paid to work by the church undercover, she finds a pregnant werewolf woman and dispatches her/it rather gruesomely. Barking mad, hilarious and relentlessly gory, what the series lacks in consistent story and narrative, it makes up for in intrigue and momentum. It just does not let up from the minute it all gets thrown at you. The black eyed demonic we have all seen before, and the sister of the main male teen lead is Jennifer the short story creation by Dario Argento in the first Masters of Horror box sets. All are genetically wobbly which is put over as the sweeping explanation for the untold kookiness. Lili Taylor makes a good single mum and is thankfully less irritating here than she was in Six Feet Under.

The 1st transformation scene is undoubtedly thrilling but NOT American Werewolf in London fine artistry. The human strips down to wolf inside and then eats the human remains as part of what one would imagine a regeneration ritual that also serves as a metaphor for the animal superiority in the human. This may or may not be the core reason of the mysterious and curious shenanigans at the village idiot factory - The Godfrey Institute. There is less mysticism here than bio-fear as direct reference though the indirect knitting together of various gothic concepts does work. It has an even mix of all horror sources from Denis Wheatley, to Nightmare on Elm Street to Victorian gaslight freak show entertainment. The plot twists are always unexpected and the character disposal brutal, cruel and takes some getting used to. The element of a town cut down by the closure of a steel mill emphasises the class struggle between the rich and poor and there is the constant underlying theme of the vulnerable having been used and abused as is always the case. It is a far stretch though to call this a commentary on stratification. The power bases are too sprawling, with differences between wasps and gypsies, male female, older and younger, haves and have nots dictating the tunes of the day. The season gets better after the second episode with the adult power-mongering less tiresome and heavily emphasised with the characters fitting together better with each episode: ultimately this is what drives the thing as the story is as mad as a bag of frogs and not altogether, together. There are worst ways to spend a night in. Especially for a teenage horror fan who likes his (or her) gore set to classical music they probably wouldn't know or recognise.

Season Two has been commissioned and will no doubt be post-production by now if not in the can.

Bomb Girls: Season Two

The most startling characteristic of this series from the perspective of someone who knows their cult film is the dramatic change in appearance and voice of Meg Tully. For those who don't know she was one half of a nineties GLBT classic Bound (playing a murderous lesbian) and was absolutely brilliant in Bride of Chucky - the very best of the Childs Play franchise. Here she is Laura, the dowdy, put upon, controlled line manager of the munitions factory in Canada where the drama is set. She is the best thing in this well-meaning but slight drama that is riding on the crest of the interest in war at present due to the centenary of WWI.

This is one for the women, but not the feminists: it has its moments but all the time the drama just doesn't seem heavy enough in spite of the themes being covered: abortion, poverty, PTSD, war casualty, and body horror. It is all given the soft focus treatment, not in the camera work - it seems that there has been some money and TLC spent, but it fears offending its target market and it shows. It is aimed at the middle aged, middle class woman that likes to spend time in the garden. With this in mind, watch it for the drama type that it is. It's the war equivalent of 'Call the Midwife' where there is some investment in the characters and the storylines are hard core due to the subject matter, but the pitch is slight. Though not everything has to hit with a hammer and there is a shade bias here towards drama in modern output that doesn't hold its punches. There is space then for doing for women in war what House of Elliot did for women in fashion. However it is hard to believe that women working in a munitions factory would be all in white overalls constantly free of blemish from start of day to finish. The four main characters, Gladys, Vera, Kate and Betty are dynamic and likeable but have been deliberately chosen to represent a certain type, as if the casting director were choosing members of a girl band. Gladys is the posh one, coming from a privileged background with parents owning a foods company with the rest of the girls not ever asking for favours - or food for that matter and this is never broached in the storylines. Vera has been scarred by some industrial accident, leaving her pretty and alluring enough to woo men but not at all damaged or resentful at the cause of this permanent reminder of her dangerous occupation. Kate is the puritan daughter of a mad preacher; innocent in the ways of men and the best by far of the four of them is Betty, the feisty lesbian, who initially is on love with Kate but then falls for another gal with her career as focus. The drawing of these characters may have been done in season one - if so, they are consistent to type for the following season sufficient for those not having the first run to go on.

The sub plots are hard if the delivery is not. Some of the takes and reactions to the happenings and events are downright embarrassing:  Kate, in trying to become more of a modern girl turns to burlesque as teacher as opposed to getting herself a shag - easy enough to do during war time when all other mores and values go out of the window. She later becomes a volunteer for a hospital but instead of this story leading to her realising the harsh realities of war and thus challenging her innocence, this is used as a sub plot for her discovery of a singing talent. Gladys tries and fails to help a co-worker accused of being a Fascist sympathiser, later, ludicrously offered the option of becoming spy for British Intelligence.  Betty falls for a woman on the up, this is after helping Kate with a nasty bad Dad. This is one of the stronger of the storylines due mostly to the persistent detective work of a policeman who is of the belief that women have been corrupted by what war has demanded of them. It is however undernourished and not reinforced given that there is a cameo appearance of the US comedienne Rosie O' Donell as journalist who points out the pioneering nature of the women's work. There is a hint of self-realisation felt but not demonstrated by the characters to a satisfying conclusion showing just how much circumstance had changed them.

The strongest stories by far belong to Laura, (Meg Tilly). The character arc is profound for her - at the beginning having to face an extra marital affair turning away from her stolid but damaged war veteran husband (himself an excellent supporting role), resulting in an abortion choice. Later she has to face a damaged son with PTSD (who is having an affair with Gladys) and a daughter with a thing going with an Asian doctor engaged to a woman back home. The daughter and son tribulations bring the estranged couple together in common ground and the fights and resentments are true and depicted with the pitch perfect venom and brutality.

All in all, Bomb Girls is a decent enough watch - albeit aimed at a particular audience that don't like their war stuff particularly challenging. A Family at War would be its nearest British relative, with a touch of League of Their Own (the story of a war time all woman baseball team) thrown in for good measure.

Bomb Girls: Season Two has been available since last April

Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railways

Well then. Who would want to see this? The answer is simple. Michael Palin has made as much out of being a travelogue narrator and journeyman as he has a comedian. Pole to Pole, Around the World…etc…and the market for this kinda stuff is HUGE. Folks the world over are either transferring their inner brave adventurous souls onto this armchair fellow traveller stuff aimed either to act as precursor to an actual journey, or as substitute for what we will never encounter because we don't have the money and/or guts. There is also the TRAINSPOTTER, not be confused with the film of the same name that used the term as metaphor. Let us not forget those that love trains and do so with good reason, referred to as anoraks, or boring gits - but this level of enthusiasm is oft unfairly judged.

The distance between the serial number collector and fan of feats of outstanding engineering couldn't be wider. Wars have been fought, won and lost on the basis of infrastructure. Trains are important to industry and general accessibility from one part of a country to another: though we may grate at the dysfunctional nature of the trains that take us to work, this series looks into just how important trains and associated structures (bridges, tunnels…), are to environs that could not survive without them. At the very least, the claim is made that life is largely improved and further facilitated because of them.

The term 'Extreme' is rather misleading: the series isn't of the crash, bang, wallop reality show type but with a jocular journalistic style looks at the relative benefits and problems attendant with attempts of engineering to supply and feed a particularly challenging terrain or stretch of geography with a train folks can use.  There are three examples posed. One in Africa, one in India, one in Australia and no attempt is made to ever compare the three, but Chris Tarrant does narrate the pleasures, results and journeys. The stories in making the trains happen are as enjoyable as the results are, sometimes frustrating and perplexing. The entire series puts into perspective the need for those watching to complain about our lot, especially when watching the example of the train and railway built in Africa which was 5 days, 1hr and 55 minutes late - the passengers taking this in their stride as though normal. Britain is a little island with the biggest challenge distance wise to be between connecting Scotland's cities to London. Compare and contrast this to the railway in Australia that connects Adelaide to Darwin giving our antipodean friends a vehicle that can take the passenger from South Australia to the North in a day, sometimes in relative luxury.
The Congo River railway is the most 'extreme' in terms of inefficiency and the attitude towards it, given its massive over subscription. The relaxed and casual manner with which Chris's line of enquiry as to when the train would arrive beggars belief as to why the train was made at all. Started in 1921, it covers 610 kilometres of terrain, mostly across jungle, some of which has been notoriously littered with ninjas intent on holding up the train. Consequently there are armed guards on the journey from Pointe Noire to Brassaville. The drivers complain of the lack of accurate information given by the broken equipment - with an accident history that makes the Paddington crash shade in comparison. Particularly nasty pieces of track have been notoriously hazardous with 4 major accidents - the worst of which claimed 76 lives. Corners often cause derailment and the drivers have a problem staying awake. The Bamba Tunnel story is the nastiest part of the railway history when the toiling of the soil not unearthed for thousands of years let off a carbon monoxide gas killing a quarter of the workforce. 120,000 men worked on the railway via forced conscription. The Transport Minister confesses to the need for new track, with only 11 locomotives operational out of a possible 25. The train that fuels India's West Coast between Mumbai and Mangalore has equal challenges but unlike Africa, was fortunate to have at the helm a set of very determined and clever visionary engineers.

Catering for 10 million people a year at 36 pence a go, the train is packed out all of the time with passengers sleeping in cupboards and the three tier bunks that are provided for the journey. Walking down the aisles of the train, Chris takes the endless feet sticking out into the gangway in his stride, previously claiming to love India because it is 'nuts.' Quest for technology to conquer terrain is narrated both by Chris and in interviews with the delightful and smart men who were responsible for an operation which 'fills hearts with happiness.' The British refused to build this railway due to the logistics and risks in creating an infrastructure that would have to deal with The Monsoon Season. The train has two timetables covering the times when it has to go slower accommodating the wet and potentially dangerous track. One of the pre-project logistics is incredulous to comprehend. The land to lay the track belonged to 42 thousand owners of small farms and villages and the ideal of creating this massively facilitating wonder of modern engineering had to be negotiated: one village leader recalls the disruption of a burial ground that had existed for 70 years where the children were exhumed and scattered in three rivers. The idea that the sacrifice was for the greater good was largely taken as a given. Imagine this in Britain where nimbysm delayed the creation of The Eurotunnel with only perceptions of Johnny Foreigner between Kent and progression. There are lessons that the Indian traveller should learn from its 1st World counterparts. The Health & Safety of the railway (The Koncan ), is of little importance - regardless of the signs and lip service paid to it. Passengers run form one platform to another - via the track. Tons of unregulated food is sold on the train with children contorting their bodies for the entertainment of the passengers a regular feature. A four miles long tunnel claimed nine lives, but is looked at with pride by the engineer in charge of this KPI who says that the railway made men of the boy engineers given the job in the nineties and finished seven years after inception.

The 2000 miles of Australian Outback is covered by The Ghan which took 150 years of varying degrees of labour efforts to complete and there is still a differentiation between the old and the new Ghan, the new being the nearest example of everyday modern rail travel to compare in the series.

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