Culture vulture

Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

Benedict_Cumberbatch_filming_Sherlock (pic by Fat Les (bellaphon) from London, UK)

A Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Benedict Cumberbatch

The Museum of London – a mid-70s hotchpotch of grubby concrete, white tiles and multi-level entrances – doesn’t look like the most obvious place to begin an excursion into the Victorian era. Hansom cabs being in short supply, I travelled to Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die on a shiny new Metropolitan Line tube. I changed trains at Baker Street (where else?).  After descending two floors at the museum, I was directed “through the bookcase” into a world of gaslight, deerstalkers, dastardly villains and a consulting detective with superhuman intellectual powers and an unhealthy appetite for cocaine.

I discovered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories a few Christmases ago and found them a welcome distraction from the bland landscape of seasonal telly. I’ve not seen much of the BBC’s Sherlock series because I prefer to watch the stories in their original (Victorian) setting. I’ll take the commanding presence of Jeremy Brett over the foppish Benedict Cumberbatch any day, but I know there are many fans who’d disagree.

In the first room of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die the faces and voices of a century of screen Sherlocks crowd in on every side. William Gillette (who created the character on stage), Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, Tom Baker and Robert Downey Jr look down from banks of TV screens and walls of posters.

If you’re a film fan, your appetite will be well and truly whetted by the some of the posters advertising both “official” Sherlock Holmes movies and spin-offs such as the garishly shot A Study in Terror (1965). A slavering beast on Hammer’s superb Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) rubs shoulders with a busty femme fatale on the French poster from Billy Wilder’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Fans of antiquarian books will enjoy seeing the beautifully illustrated and carefully preserved first editions of A Study in Scarlet. They’ll also discover a bit about the history of Tit-Bits magazine (note that hyphen) and its publisher George Newnes, who was the man behind The Strand Magazine.

If you’ve simply come to wallow in Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, you’ll have to go almost to the edge of the Reichenbach Falls to find it. In the penultimate room of the exhibition, fans can swoon over that Belstaff Milford coat worn with such panache by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are also cases of displays featuring everything from vintage typewriters, candlestick telephones, pipes and (cunning) disguises, to the fascinating accoutrements of the 19th-century cocaine addict.

But in between the posters and the artefacts, some visitors might be feel that they’ve strayed into a different exhibition.  That’s because after introducing us to his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (some of the author’s Southsea notebooks are on display), this show veers off into the streetscapes of Victorian London.

For those who like old maps, The Museum of London has meticulously plotted the course of some of Holmes’s most famous adventures, including A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. (In this pre-Google Maps era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently relied on the Post Office Directory to plan his indefatigable detective’s progress around town and the suburbs.)

Different colours highlight the routes takes by Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr Watson, on foot, by train or their preferred mode of transport – a hansom cab. Underneath these maps, speeded-up video footage shows the same journeys through 21st-century London. What struck me was how boring and homogeneous the centre of the city looks today from the back of a speeding cab – a succession of Starbucks, Prêt à Mangers and mobile phone shops.

One of the five sections of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is given over to prints, etchings and paintings of London as it looked in Conan Doyle’s day. While these pictures don’t directly illustrate the stories they do give a flavour of the buildings, fashions and vehicles of this era of “pea-soupers”. Here you’ll find household names (Matisse, Whistler) cheek by jowl with many long-forgotten chroniclers of London’s lost landscapes.

In a different venue, the focus of this exhibition might have leaned more heavily towards the history of Sherlock Holmes on the big and small screen. At the Museum of London it is the inextricable links between the Victorian city and the adventures of Conan Doyle’s most celebrated character that take centre stage.

Sherlock Holmes Exhibition at the Museum of London

The Museum of London plays host to Sherlock Holmes

LA Stories: Lance Armstrong on Film

"<a href="">Lance Armstrong MidiLibre 2002</a>" by <a href="//" class="extiw" title="de:Benutzer:Hase">de:Benutzer:Hase</a> - Self-photographed. Licensed under <a title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0" href="">CC BY-SA 3.0</a> via <a href="//">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Lance Armstrong hides those “lyin’ eyes” during the 2002 Grand Prix Midi Libre

The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh.

In the week that the Tour de France brought a triumphant splash of yellow to Britain’s roads, the BBC and Channel 4 served up two films illustrating the darker side of cycling’s recent history.

The Armstrong Lie (Channel 4) and BBC Four’s Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing offered a fascinating compare and contrast experience for fans of movies, sport and conspiracies. As I’d recently read two books about the Lance Armstrong doping controversy (Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race and David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong), I didn’t need much persuasion to spend four hours mainlining Lance.

The Armstrong Lie was made by Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and Taxi to the Dark Side), while Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing was directed by Alex Holmes, writer/director of the 2004 miniseries House of Saddam. Both films recount how cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s record seven Tour de France victories (1999-2005) were eventually revealed to be the work not of some two-wheeled messiah but of a power-crazed charlatan, boosted by EPO and blood transfusions. But though they often employ the same archive footage and interview the same people, the results feel very different.

Gibney’s film is the more “authored” piece, in which his own relationship with the Lance Armstrong Story takes centre stage. Gibney set out to make a movie about Lance’s comeback to cycling and his decision to compete in the 2009 Tour de France, riding for Astana. That project was derailed in the wake of Floyd Landis’s revelations about what really went on inside that all-conquering US Postal Service team. In October 2012 an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) finally led to Lance being stripped of his yellow jerseys and banned for life.

When Gibney returned to the project, his main question was why Lance ever risked coming back to the sport and exposing what had been a remarkably effective cover-up of doping activities. Was he really riding “clean” in that comeback Tour? Gibney cuts between archive footage, material shot in 2009 and new interviews with his subject, to bring the story up to date. We drop in on Lance at home with the doping inspectors and see clips from his tête-à-tête with an unforgiving Oprah Winfrey in January 2013. A supposedly chastened Lance tells Gibney, “I didn’t live a lot of lies but I lived one big one”, and speculates on whether his cycling feats will remain expunged from the record books in decades to come.

The price of Gibney’s access to his subject is that The Armstrong Lie feels like a wholly undeserved opportunity for Lance have the final word — yet again. There is some eye-opening behind-the-scenes footage from the 2009 Tour de France, in which team director Johan Bruyneel fails to control Lance’s team-mate (and bitter rival) Alberto Contador. But can we expect any real insights or revelations when Armstrong himself keeps popping up every five minutes to offer his best impression of sincerity and contrition?

For me, Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing is the far superior documentary because it allows Lance’s victims – and there are many – to have their say. The difference between the two films is best summed up with an incident from a 2009 press conference, in which Lance attacks Irish journalist and ex-cyclist Paul Kimmage for describing him as the “cancer” of the sport. “You’re not worth the chair that you’re sitting on,” he self-righteously declares, while more or less claiming to be the man who’s single-handedly ridding the world of that terrible disease. (It’s that messiah complex again.)

Gibney’s film then cuts to the grinning face of Lance’s former team-mate, George Hincapie, who was at that press conference and now seems to regard the hypocrisy as a bit of joke; Storyville shows us Kimmage’s angry riposte at the time. It’s significant because it emphasises that the BBC film is less concerned with myth-making and more focused on the voices of dissent that dogged this American “hero” throughout his glory years.

Lance’s former team-mate Frankie Andreu and his fearless and incorruptible wife Betsy (think Deputy Solverson from Fargo) are interviewed at length in both films. Frankie’s career was damaged and both suffered intimidation as a result of their refusal to adhere to the Armstrong “Omerta”. But in the Alex Holmes film we also hear from others who were traduced and thrown under the (team) bus, including former soigneur Emma O’Reilly, Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and the USADA’s Travis Tygart, who admits he received threats to his life. Tyler Hamilton gives us the lowdown on those blood transfusions, providing graphic detail that’s absent from the Gibney film.

The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh. In Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing he highlights the stupidity of Armstrong not allowing the “ticking bomb” that was Floyd Landis back into his team, following Floyd’s two-year ban for doping in 2006. That decision pushed Landis towards his fateful decision to blow the whistle on Lance.

Walsh also points out that Lance’s demand that his accusers produce “extraordinary proof” of his doping reflected an unwavering belief that “different rules apply to the gods”.

As for why Lance Armstrong came back to the sport, Walsh calls it “the oldest theme in Hollywood”, comparing the cyclist’s high-octane career to that of a master jewel thief or an assassin, “They do their job brilliantly . . . someone says just one more job . . . they can’t resist”.

Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job

Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job (BBC2)

As the post-mortem on the BBC’s feeble W1A continues, a genuinely hilarious workplace comedy arrived on our screens last night. I’m talking about BBC2’s Under Offer, Estate Agents on the Job, a six-part documentary series that promises to “lift the lid on the UK’s crazy property market”.

I’m not a fan of reality TV and I have been contemptuous about TV property shows and estate agents on this blog, but this hour-long programme was even more wickedly enjoyable than the downfall of Culture Secretary Maria Miller. With narration by Derek Jacobi and jaunty incidental music that could have come straight out of The Apprentice, this first instalment zig-zagged between London, Exeter, Birmingham and County Durham, to follow “the highs and lows of the people who broker the biggest purchases most of us will ever make”.

In the thriving property market of Exeter we met the ebullient 30-year-old Lewis Rossiter, manager of Bradleys estate agents, and about to become a father for the third time. Lewis wears those naff coloured shirts with white collars that Terry Wogan made famous in the 80s. He also turns out to have a comedic flair that his namesake Leonard Rossiter would have admired. That’s just as well, given that he has just 10 weeks to flog a house in Willeys Avenue – otherwise glamorous, blonde mother-of-two Sam will lose her deposit on the featureless Lego house she’s set her heart on.

Lewis Rossiter

Meanwhile, in County Durham Lynne Blaney is breakfasting on Froot Loops and sighing over the fact that around one-third of her housing stock comes from repossessed homes. This is truly “heart-rendering” [sic], as is her failure to sell a four-bedroom detached house called The Chapelry, whose owner has foolishly fitted it out with an excess of Brazilian mahogany. Given that swathes of the North of England are Poundland territory in terms of property prices, Lynne has more chance of turning her Fruit Loops into 24-carat gold than finding a new owner for this £249,000 white elephant.

Even more wickedly enjoyable than the downfall of Culture Secretary Maria Miller

The Birmingham scenes with straight-talking Dave Simms were less engaging, though I had to agree with his withering assessment of property shows fronted by Sarah Beeny and Kirstie Allsopp. While Dave’s bungalow sale storyline had human interest (an elderly couple who were desperate to downsize), I suspect most viewers were more interested in smooth-talking veteran Gary Hersham, from Mayfair-based Beauchamp Estates.

Gary’s been wheeling and dealing among London’s super-rich since the late 70s. Operating solely in the Capital’s smarter postcodes – W1, SW1, SW3 – his impressive portfolio ranges from a paltry £2 million (that’s broom-cupboard territory) to £120 million mansions for the uber-wealthy.

Gary earns more from a single mega-bucks deal than poor Lynne will see in her lifetime and he clearly knows his target market: “The super-rich look for instant gratification.” But even at this rarefied end of the property market, someone still has to do the unglamorous job of humping boxes of leaflets around. That’s where Ernesto comes in handy.

The star of Under Offer, Estate Agents on the Job turns out not to be cheeky chappie Lewis, but the podgy, sweaty and slightly camp Spanish gentleman who works for Gary. Judging by the carefully staged scenes we saw, their relationship is like a retread of Fawlty Towers, with Gary in the Basil role (“Bleedin’ Spanish twerp!”) and Ernesto as a supersized version of the cowering Manuel.

“My relationship – it’s a leetle beet of love/hate,” confides Ernesto. After watching this episode I’m starting to feel the same way about estate agents.

The Crimson Field

Hermione Norris in The Crimson Field (BBC1)

Hermione Norris is out to spook those new nurses in BBC1’s The Crimson Field

In a makeshift tent somewhere in France, three rookie nurses are set the exacting task of making up a hospital bed in just two minutes under the steely gaze of Matron. They’re cheered on by a motley band of supporters. Is this “The Great British Bed Off”, a new spin on the BBC’s hugely popular The Great British Bake Off? No, it was episode one of The Crimson Field, BBC1’s much-hyped First World War drama about VAD nurses.

In 1915 three young ladies arrive at “Hospital 25″, somewhere in northern France, to begin their baptism of fire at the hands of formidable Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris) and her sidekick Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox). A clumsy expositional scene reveals that Grace has recently (and unexpectedly) won promotion over Margaret, who brushes off the snub with a none-too-convincing “I couldn’t be more proud” speech. Fox, who’s been turned into a “Silver Fox” for this role, later enjoys a couple of moments of villainy, when she steals a cake and helps send a traumatised soldier back to the Front.

The Hour’s Oona Chaplin plays Kitty Trevelyan, the most insubordinate – and therefore most appealing – of the new arrivals. We know she has a romantic past because she’s first glimpsed tossing a ring off the prow of the Boulogne-bound ship, in a scene that might have come straight out of Titanic. With her smoking, blaspheming and answering back to Matron, Kitty was courting trouble even before she almost got herself killed by a distressed and dying patient.

Marianne Oldham’s priggish Rosalie Berwick – “The rules are there for a reason” – tries to lay down the law to the defiant Kitty and gets a tongue-lashing for her trouble. Dim-witted Flora Marshall (Alice St. Clair) provides most of the lighter moments in this episode, mainly thanks to her faltering attempts to deal with a large heap of bloodied bandages containing some putrefying body parts.

A soldier instructs floundering Flora to toss the severed digits (they look a bit like raw chipolatas) into something that resembles an outdoor pizza oven. “They’re rotten – neither use nor ornament,” he explains, thereby summing up the likely contribution of VAD nurses to the war effort.

The brilliant Blackadder Goes Forth showed how black humour can be an effective way to convey the horrors of mechanised slaughter. But I imagine the producers of The Crimson Field were also aiming to provoke sorrow at this endless parade of broken bodies and souls, and anger at the apparent callousness of some senior officers. As the head of the hospital, Lt-Col Roland Brett, Downton Abbey’s Kevin Doyle has a couple of good scenes in which he tries (and fails) to engineer a humane exit for a psychologically broken soldier.

Until the belated arrival of Suranne Jones as the motorcycle-riding civilian nurse Joan Livesey, the main reason to keep watching The Crimson Field was Hermione Norris. Admittedly, Matron Carter was saddled with a very predictable storyline here, as she alternated between tender concern for her moribund patients and barely disguised contempt for her new charges.

You can stick her in a WWI nurse’s outfit in a field in France (it’s actually Wiltshire), but Hermione Norris will always be Ros Myers, the ass-kicking, terrorist-chasing, leather-jacketed heroine of spy drama Spooks. Watching her castigate the hapless Flora for wearing scent (“just rosewater”) I found myself wondering how the take-no-prisoners Ros would have dealt with these simpering females.

My best guess is that Ros would have dunked Flora’s empty head in that bowl of water, washed out the impudent Kitty’s mouth with the bar of soap and then told Rosalie to stop being such a sycophant.

A Talent for Survival: The London Group Reception at Tate Britain

Dr Richard Cork, Susan Haire

Dr Richard Cork with London Group President Susan Haire (pic Tom Scase)

On 5 March 1914, The London Group held its inaugural exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, 5 Regent Street, London. You probably haven’t heard of the Goupil, which shifted between several central London locations before it was flattened by a German bomb in 1941. Despite a nomadic existence, The London Group has proved much more durable: it survived the Second World War, decades of changing tastes in the art world and a verbal carpet bombing by bilious art critic Brian Sewell. Dr Richard Cork, Sewell’s predecessor at the London Evening Standard, was much more complimentary when he spoke at a reception at Tate Britain on the 100th anniversary of that first exhibition.

An invitation to an after-hours event at a major London gallery is always exciting. With fewer people around it’s easier to absorb the impact of Caruso St John’s high-profile £45 million makeover of Tate Britain. Entering through the reopened “front door” on the Millbank side, I descended via the stunning new spiral staircase beneath the rotunda, to the pristine white surroundings of the cavern-like Djanogly café, where the reception was held.

Current members, their partners and invited guests heard Richard Cork reflect on The London Group’s early years. It was an era in which the art world was dominated by “isms” (Fauvism, Cubism, Vorticism), and the challenge of conveying wholesale slaughter on the battlefields was taken up by many painters and sculptors. They included David Bomberg, who was part of the Group’s first exhibition and whose painting, In The Hold, was a key work in last year’s A Crisis of Brilliance exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

London Group catalogues

A selection of catalogues from London Group exhibitions, held in the archives at
Tate Britain (pic Tom Scase).

As Cork touched on some of the controversies and described the brutal evolution of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill sculpture, I thought about a more recent attempt at emasculation. Brian Sewell’s withering assessment of the exhibition, Uproar! The First 50 Years of The London Group 1913-1963, included the assertion that the Group has been in “irreversible decline” since the end of the Second World War and “ought long ago to have been put down”. Strong stuff. I might be reading too much into the rantings of a grumpy old man, but it sounded as though Brian thought The London Group should have perished in a Luftwaffe bombing raid.

I’m not a professional artist or art critic; I was flattered to be invited to the Tate reception as a result of a blog I wrote last year. Brian Sewell is much better qualified than I am to compare the merit and the impact of The London Group’s second half century with its early years at the cutting edge of the art scene. The first London Group show featured more than 100 works by artists including Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and CRW Nevinson. It’s probably too early to say whether any of the current members will be as influential – though Dame Paula Rego’s international reputation precedes her.

But Sewell’s comment that The London Group in its later years “has meant very little to working artists and nothing at all to the wider public” is breathtakingly arrogant and ill-informed. Did he bother to interview any current members before reaching this conclusion? Speaking to them last night and at previous exhibitions, I know that what Sewell dismisses as a “pathetic” Collective is an integral part of their professional lives.

Fortunately, Brenda Emmanus took a more measured approach in this week’s BBC London piece about the The London Group On London exhibition, which continues at the Cello Factory until 12 March. Among the interviewees was 91-year-old Albert Irvin RA, a member since 1965, whose paintings and prints are most often characterised as “exuberant”. (That’s not a description that could ever be applied to Brian Sewell.)

Longevity is not always a reliable guide to the value of work, organisations or individuals. (A certain veteran art critic should have been put out to pasture some years ago.) But enduring links to a pivotal era in 20th-century British art are worth celebrating. Tate Britain holds a fascinating collection of London Group documents, catalogues and photos within its huge (entirely dust-free!) archives.

In the words of its current President, Susan Haire, “The London Group is thriving and we expect to be around for the next 100 years.”

Lego: Building the Future


Endangered species? A Lego giraffe (pic NatiSythen)

Last night’s Culture Show on BBC2, Lego – The Building Block of Architecture, turned out to be the televisual equivalent of Doctor Who’s Tardis. From the outside (my onscreen programme guide), this promised to be a nostalgic half hour in the company of twinkly Tom Dyckhoff, exploring the enduring appeal of one of the world’s most popular toys. To my surprise, this programme stretched the boundaries of its all-too-brief running time with a magical mystery tour through post-modernism, Meccano and even Minecraft!

The story began in Denmark, a country usually viewed by envious foreigners as a Northern European utopia – though not if you happen to be a cute giraffe named Marius. In the 1930s, an enterprising carpenter from Billund called Ole Kirk Kristiansen decided to switch from building barns to making toys.

It was the era of the Great Depression, and the recently widowed Ole needed to keep his young family afloat. In 1934 his company was named Lego, which is a contraction of the Danish Leg Godt (play well). Things really took off in the 40s, when the firm started experimenting with a plastic injection-moulding machine, and the studded Lego binding brick was born.

Now Lego and its sub-brands – Lego Star Wars, Lego Ninjago, Lego Chima – are so ubiquitous that there are 86 pieces of Lego for every person on the planet. But the essence of Lego is that it’s supposed to be fun and an outlet for creativity, rather than just the three-dimensional equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle. As one of the contributors here said, it’s all about diving into a “big bucket of mess” and seeing what you can create from the myriad of red, yellow, blue, black and white bricks.

Lego had a major rival in Meccano, which originated in Britain in the 1890s. The nuts and bolts Meccano aesthetic gave rise to hi-tech architecture like the Lloyd’s building in London. The “simpler, safer” Lego is said to have inspired post-modernists to get creative with colourful combinations of “circles, cylinders, squares and triangles”, as in James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry. Now Lego fan and star architect Bjarke Ingels is building the company’s new HQ in Billund, in the playful and unmistakable style of its own product.

Tom Dyckhoff

Tom Dyckhoff explores the world of Lego.

I’m not sure whether the look of any of these buildings will stand the test of time, but they are a welcome departure from modernism’s obsession with glass curtain walls and dispiriting slabs of grey concrete. These days, budding architects have moved from experimenting with little plastic bricks to the digital playground and unlimited possibilities of Minecraft.

“There are no limits to what you can do,” explained one of Minecraft’s young proselytes, who is just one of 42 million users worldwide. It’s even more collaborative than Lego, because your fellow enthusiasts don’t have to be in the same country, let alone the same room.

Tom (a Minecraft virgin) explained that it’s not just a tool for creating fantasy worlds; architects, town planners and citizens can interact and experiment with ways to improve our built environment. The UN has harnessed the crowdsourcing potential of Minecraft to work with young people in Kenya on urban regeneration projects.

Watching Tom plant some flaming torches under a dark bridge in a simulated version of his East London neighbourhood, I was reminded that the virtual world isn’t immune from fire hazards. Last summer my six-year nephew was reduced to tears after his Minecraft hotel with wooden fittings burned to the ground. Unfortunately he had built it in the path of an active volcano.

Breaking Bad: Not the Greatest Story Ever Told

Bryan_Cranston (pic by Gage Skidmore)

A winning formula? Bryan Cranston as Walter White (pic by Gage Skidmore)

Who needs frankincense and myrhh round the manger, when you can drop in on the life and death struggles in New Mexico’s cleanest meth lab?

In December I got a Netflix account and decided to have a (Walter) White Christmas by watching all five seasons of Breaking Bad. In case you hadn’t heard, Breaking Bad is regarded as The Greatest TV Show Ever Made by people who divide their time between watching a lot of TV and taking potshots at people who have the temerity to disagree with them.

It is still OK to admire The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, or any of those other dramas previously encumbered with the GOAT (Greatest of all Time) label. But failure to worship at the altar of Breaking Bad means you’re seriously uncool, yo!

The hero (well anti-hero really) of Breaking Bad, is 50-year-old Albuquerque chemistry teacher Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston). Walt, as he’s known to his family, has advanced lung cancer and can’t afford to pay for his treatment. His totally off-the-wall solution is to take up cooking methamphetamine (crystal meth), in partnership with his meth-head former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who is a Grade A f***-up.

Over the course of five seasons, Walter (aka Heisenberg) and Jesse establish themselves as the equivalent of three-star Michelin chefs when it comes to cooking up their distinctive blue product. But you can’t sell meth without getting into bed (figuratively speaking) with some very bad people. Despite his superior intelligence, Walt becomes so addicted to the pursuit of money, power and revenge that he puts his family in the firing line.

After 62 episodes and around 50 hours of viewing, I concluded that Breaking Bad is the perfect antidote to Christmas TV schedules crammed with saccharine seasonal fare, dim-witted reality shows, and repeats of repeats of repeats. Who needs frankincense and myrhh round the manger, when you can drop in on the life and death struggles in New Mexico’s cleanest meth lab?

In a TV landscape cluttered with shows about lawyers, cops and doctors, Breaking Bad is, in many ways, a breath of fresh air. Instead of endless shots of the New York/LA skyline, we have those barren desert landscapes illuminated by a pitiless sun, where Walter and Jesse begin their meth odyssey, cooking in their RV-cum-mobile meth lab.

This show, created by Vince Gilligan (The X-Files) is intricately plotted and brilliantly acted, especially by the central trio of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn, as Walter’s wife and partner in money-laundering, Skyler. As thoroughly amoral lawyer, Saul Goodman, Bob Odenkirk gets some of the best lines to go with his hideous shirt/tie combinations. His wardrobe alone deserves a Golden Globe nomination.

Breaking Bad creator Vince_Gilligan_and_Aaron_Paul (pic Tomas N Romero)

Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul (pic Tomas N Romero)

A man with as many secrets as Walter White needs a worthy adversary. In Breaking Bad the forces of law and order are represented by the portly figure of DEA agent Hank Schrader, who just happens to be Walt’s brother-in-law. Jovial Hank is played by the magnificent Dean Norris, and I’m afraid my interest in Breaking Bad took a nosedive when poor old Hank bit the dust (quite literally) towards the end of Season Five.

Of course major characters get bumped off all the time in TV Land. My issue with Breaking Bad is that way before the final episodes I’d decided I didn’t care whether Walter White succumbed to The Big C, got buried alive in the desert, or just fell into a really big vat of Methylamine.

That’s not a reflection on Bryan Cranston’s acting, but on the extent to which his character dominated the show at the expense of developing other figures. I’d have liked a lot more of Hank and the fastidious fast-food proprietor/drugs impresario Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). The lugubrious Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) was the one character who saw through Walter’s intellect and sensed the growing threat he posed. His contribution to Season Five turned out to be far more significant than Laura Fraser’s immaculately groomed Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. Was I the only one who wondered why Walt’s teenage son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) was marooned at the breakfast table, destined never to get any storylines of his own?

Within the narrow scope of its drugs-related plot Breaking Bad often delivered thrills, surprises and very dark humour. But it rarely moved me, even as the death toll mounted and kids were poisoned and murdered. It didn’t have that quality that should have left me feeling bereft as the final episodes ticked away and my time with these characters came to an end.

So despite the awards, the hysteria and the breathless fan-boy bloggers, Breaking Bad was not for me the Greatest Story Ever Told. When the dust settles and all is said and done, it was just another TV show. You may disagree.

Strange Days: Cold War Britain


George Orwell coined the term “Cold War”.

HE’S BACK!!! Dominic Sandbrook presents the BBC2 series Strange Days: Cold War Britain, part of a season of programmes examining what the Beeb calls the “superpower stand-off” that began after World War II. “Red Dawn”, the first instalment in this three-part series, was packed with more incident, big personalities and creeping paranoia than your average 13-part blockbuster drama. There was no way this story could be anything less than enthralling. So why then did I find myself fixating on the shortcomings of the production and its presenter?

I had watched Dominic’s earlier series The 70s, so it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that he’s still busy overemphasising for Britain. His hammy delivery is the TV equivalent of peppering your sentences with italics and capitals and then ending them with a screamer (that’s an exclamation mark!). After a sobering reminder that Britain has been at war for “five of the last eight decades”, Dominic announced “It was a war that FRAMED all our lives!”. Just in case you didn’t get the point, there was the accompanying frame-shaped hand gesture to ram home his point.

You should also know that Dominic’s documentaries are best watched with a mobile device close by, so that you can Shazam the multitude of musical selections and add them to your playlist. Beginning with the silky smooth tones of Julie London singing “Our Day Will Come”, Strange Days kept throwing new tunes into the mix at the rate of about one every two minutes. Presumably, the programme-makers think that viewers have such a short attention span these days that all factual TV must be edited in the style of a YouTube greatest hits packages. That is sad.

From Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri about the growing threat of the Iron Curtain (“Don’t Fence Me In”), to the Soviet invasion of Hungary a decade later, Strange Days wove together a multitude of storylines. Dowdy postwar Britain was both in thrall to the “special relationship” with glamorous America and living in fear of what Churchill dubbed “the poison peril from the East”.

Not so much Very Reverend as incredibly deluded, Hewlett Johnson “fell in love with Communism in action” in the 1930s.

Then, as now, the British press were quick to turn on foreign visitors who abused the hospitality of our great nation. In November 1945, a tour by the all-conquering Moscow Dynamo football club began with cheers, flowers and record crowds turning up to watch the nimble Russian visitors play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. But before long the newspapers rounded on these “secretive, surly and suspicious” Soviets, whose rough-house antics on the field were as troubling as their connections to the secret police. The visitors responded by accusing the home teams of being “stuck in the past” tactically. Well some things never change.

While the names of Cambridge spies like Burgess and Maclean are written in infamy, I must admit that I wasn’t familiar with another of the Soviet Union’s biggest fans, Hewlett Johnson. Nicknamed the Red Dean of Canterbury, the white-haired Johnson looked like one of those dotty vicar characters you see in Ealing comedies. Not so much Very Reverend as incredibly deluded, Johnson “fell in love with Communism in action” in the 1930s. He was convinced that the tyrannical Stalin was a benign figure, whose policies promised both economic and spiritual salvation. Johnson’s unwavering support was rewarded with the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1951 and perhaps a one-way ticket to Purgatory.

As a red-nosed Dominic Sandbrook stomps across a snowy Red Square, contemplating the unholy alliance between Johnson and Stalin, “Mad about the Boy” plays on the soundtrack. But to borrow a phrase from another Noel Coward song, I think “Mad dogs and Englishmen” would be a better description of this “strange romance between the Soviet tyrant and the Anglican priest”.

Brutal & Beautiful

Brutal & Beautiful exhibition_Quadriga Gallery_London

London has many museums, but until last week I didn’t realise there was one slap-bang in the middle of Hyde Park Corner. The elegant classical proportions of the Wellington Arch belie the Tardis-like properties of this overlooked landmark. Inside you’ll find the Quadriga Gallery, which is currently hosting English Heritage’s “Brutal & Beautiful” exhibition.

If you’ve seen the BBC4 series, Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past, you’ll already know that this year is the centenary of the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act – the point at which compulsory preservation orders and the “scheduling” of important national monuments came into effect. But you won’t find anything “ancient” in this exhibition, which covers a more recent period in the nation’s ongoing struggle to decide which parts of our rich and varied architectural heritage are worth preserving.

I expected a review of listed buildings since the Second World War to spend a lot of time focusing on concrete. Like many people I have a love/hate relationship with this most unloved of building materials. When I think of 1960s architecture in Britain I find it hard to get past images of ugly shopping centres and Owen Luder’s Gateshead car park (now demolished), which achieved cinematic immortality in the film Get Carter. But I have grown to love London’s Barbican Centre and housing complex – a concrete jungle alleviated by gardens, balconies and my favourite waterside terrace in the City.

Cromwell_Tower,_London (pic Ewan-M)

“Brutal & Beautiful” does include a striking photo of the Barbican’s Cromwell Tower – flaunting its distinctive “upswept balconies” as it soars into a clear (and perhaps digitally enhanced) blue sky. But there are other late 20th-century buildings here that don’t smack you round the head with their “brutalist” credentials. There’s Sir Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians, which is described on the RCP’s own website as a “modernist masterpiece”. I’ve never been there, but with its Marble Hall and oak panelling (transferred from an earlier RCP building), it looks like the perfect marriage of light and dark, classical and modern.

I haven’t visited Coventry either, but if anything was going to lure me to that corner of the West Midlands it would be Sir Basil Spence’s Cathedral, which features stained glass windows by John Piper and tapestry by Graham Sutherland. Can anything modern possibly rival the magnificence of those Gothic cathedrals that were lucky enough to avoid a direct hit from the Luftwaffe? Well the new Coventry Cathedral is Grade I listed, so its position as an icon of 20th-century ecclesiastical architecture is secure.

On a smaller scale, “Brutal & Beautiful” highlights some lovely examples of domestic architecture that will excite fans of mid-century modernism and cool Scandinavian interiors. I particularly liked the look of Peter Womersley’s Farnley Hey, in West Yorkshire. I’ve just found this listing, which values this four-bedroom “American contemporary style” house, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, at just £575,000.

If I could, I’d buy Farnley Hey and have its York stone flags and camphorwood interiors transported to the overpriced corner of west London where I currently reside. Unfortunately it wasn’t built to be moved – unlike the revolutionary pre-fab homes featured elsewhere in this exhibition.

Even better are the cluster of three houses at Turn End in Buckinghamshire, which feature in one of the exhibition’s three short films. Architect Peter Aldington created this mini-development in the 60s, with his wife Margaret and they still live in The Turn, where garden and living space seem to blend seamlessly into one. It looks magical – a reminder that great modern buildings have character, soul and are fit for purpose.

“Brutal & Beautiful: Saving the Twentieth Century” continues at the Quadriga Gallery, Wellington Arch until 24 November.

Masters of Sex and the Master of Suspense

Masters of Sex title sequence

After last week I wasn’t sure whether to continue with my blog about C4’s Masters of Sex. There are too many TV recappers out there already, each with their devoted following of snarky commenters. It’s always more fun to just watch and not take notes – a lesson Dr Masters would do well to learn judging by last week’s episode.

So I’d decided to leave the subtext and the sniping to others, but then I saw the opening credits for episode two, “Race to Space”, and changed my mind. I don’t know who was responsible for this jaw-dropping sequence, but it’s the kind of thing those clever people at Digital Kitchen (Dexter, True Blood) might have cooked up. Among other things, it cheekily references one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films of the 1950s.

Movie fans will recall that Hitchcock raised a few eyebrows with the closing moments of his classic “wrong man” thriller, North by Northwest. As the newly wed Mr and Mrs Thornhill (Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint) get down to business on the upper berth of their cosy sleeper cabin, the speeding train is seen disappearing into a tunnel. It’s a suitably climactic sequence, though not exactly subtle. (Compare it with the formal elegance of the Saul Bass-conceived grid that displays the movie’s opening credits.)

Masters of Sex: homage to Hitchcock?

Masters of Sex: homage to Hitchcock?

No doubt the Master of Suspense would have appreciated the similarly suggestive locomotive shot that forms part of the title sequence of Masters of Sex. But you really have to watch several times (in slow motion) to appreciate the full range of phallic, tumescent, orgasmic and downright in-your-face sexual imagery on display here. You’d have to be as sexually unenlightened as Michael Sheen’s Dr Masters not to get the point of all those exploding champagne corks, rockets, fireworks and rapidly rising baked goods. The cute, copulating, wind-up bunny rabbits (more Durex than Duracell) also set the scene rather nicely.

What's up, doc?

What’s up, doc?

Talking of Michael Sheen, does anyone else feel there is superficial resemblance between the chameleonic Welsh actor and that ruminating beaver that pops up next to his name?

Masters of Sex title sequence

There’s definitely a keen sense of the humour behind the production of Masters of Sex. That’s just as well, because in “Race to Space” things went from bad to worse for Masters and Johnson, both professionally and personally. The doctor was forced to relocate his sex study from the august surroundings of Washington University (in St. Louis) to a “cathouse on 3rd & Sutter” after someone blew the whistle on his extra-curricular activities. Hooker-with-a-heart Betty (the fabulous Annaleigh Ashford) strong-armed him into giving her a job as a hospital receptionist in return for her co-operation.

Dr (not-so) Masterful’s low moments also included getting arrested and being forced to watch his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) try to inject a little “va va voom” into the marital bedroom. She was also pretty miffed because the dumb-but-handsome Dr Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) had been unceremoniously relieved of his duties as her gynaecologist. “Is this about your sperm count?” asked Haas, as these two alpha males squared up in the elevator and attempted to get territorial over Mrs Masters’s unmentionables.

It wasn’t all hearts and flowers for Virginia (Lizzy Caplan), who was still mulling over Dr Masters’s “unconventional arrangement”/indecent proposal from last week. He fired her in the mistaken belief that she’d betrayed him by blabbing about the study. Meanwhile, slap-happy Dr Haas offered her floral tributes and lame apologies to make up for last week’s brickbat, and there was further criticism of her parenting skills.

This week geeky Henry Johnson (Cole Sand) had his nose in a comic-book Race to Space. His mom really needs to take inspiration from one of her more enlightened (female) colleagues Jane Martin (Heléne Yorke), who was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in the canteen. “We’ll always have Paris.”

Masters of Sex title sequence