Reviews

The Code REVIEWS

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Young War Widows REVIEWS

A young war widow whose husband was murdered by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan recalls how she told her very small children that their dad had died: “A naughty mister put a bomb in the road… Daddy won’t be coming back.”

Katharine English’s tender film is a tapestry of stories like this: snapshots of grief, denial, anger, despair and, eventually, small chinks of hope as three young widows tell their stories. One looks at her wedding video and pauses her husband’s beaming smile (“For ever for us was very short”), another watches, again and again, the cheerful wave her husband recorded on the camera he took to war.

Tears, of course, are never far away when the women remember their last professions of love as their husbands left, and the knock on the door that changed everything for ever. “We were perfect,” says one widow. “That’s what hurts.”

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Singing in the Rainforest REVIEWS

A different calibre from everything else on television this week… contender for Best Documentary of 2015. Brilliant, joyful, funny - So please, just watch the repeat, Saturday, Watch TV, 8pm. It’s a wonderful hour of television.

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Release the Hounds REVIEWS

​With its mix of staged horror, terrified celebrities and gory production value, ITV2’s gameshow is a proper cult oddity, writes Stuart Heritage.

There is a part of all of us, I think, that just wants to see people get chased down and torn to shreds by dogs. There should be reality shows devoted to it, and worthy BBC4 documentaries where David Starkey frantically attempts to explain the history of being chased by dogs while being systematically hunted down by a feral pack of Alsatians. There should be Channel 5 talking-head clip shows called things like The 50 Funniest Human Innards Ever Rendered Unrecognisable by the Nightmarish Fangs of Ravenous Hellbeasts.

The closest we’ll probably ever get to this sparkling vision of televised utopia, though, is ITV2’s Release the Hounds, which reaches the end of its second series tomorrow. Because Release the Hounds is a sorely overlooked gem of a show. Hand on heart, there is no other programme like it.

Release the Hounds, if you’re new, sits on the crossroads between I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! and The Blair Witch Project. Contestants are shoved into a forest at dusk and ostensibly left to blunder across various trials, each of them packed to the brim with knowing horror tropes. Gradually they become frightened and disorientated, and that’s usually when the dogs come in. If they can outrun the dogs, they win money. If they can’t, the dogs pull them to the ground and savage them. It’s brilliant.

Described as bluntly as this, there’s nothing to separate Release the Hounds from something like Fear Factor, the gratuitously disgusting mid-noughties sensation where contestants would earn money by standing on a tightrope and getting pelted with gallons of cockroach vomit. The beauty of Release the Hounds, though, is in how deftly it blurs reality with fiction.

There’s a staginess to the show. It’s conspicuously edited throughout, as if it knows that the viewer is as much of a participant as the contestant. The recent Halloween special – which you should really watch on demand if you get the chance – was a masterpiece in this respect. At one point, contestant Joey Essex was ambushed by strangers and bundled away. What we saw, though, was an impressive collage of point-of-view shots – clearly filmed separately – cut with bursts of screams.

Later on, he was apparently killed by a falling television. The attention to detail here was perfect – stagehands rushed in, transmission was cut – but it was enhanced by the fact that it seemed a surprise to host Reggie Yates, too. Clearly it was a stunt, but the constant blurring of who knew what at any point helped to make it a genuinely unsettling experience.

And it’s clearly made by people who love horror. Not only are the production values fantastic, but the wealth of references from which the programme is able to pull is just as impressive. Release the Hounds is Saw. It’s Dario Argento. It’sThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s Ghostwatch. It’s It Follows. Yes, it’s an ITV2 gameshow that sporadically makes fun of the fact that Joey Essex thinks vampires drink milk, but it feels like a real labour of love.

The best horror movies have started out as cult oddities, and that’s exactly what Release the Hounds is.

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Man V Fly REVIEWS

The future of television, we’ve been hearing for ages now, is online. Recently, TVNZ took a further step in this direction when it announced the arrival of a whole swag of new shows which will bypass broadcast TV and go straight to its TVNZ OnDemand streaming service. The new shows, mostly from the UK, look good - some may even be quality. They look like the kinds of things that ought to be on TV but are perhaps seen as just a bit too niche.

Cucumber and Banana, for example, are a pair of dramas directed by Queer as Folk’s Russell T. Davies - the former a humorous study of life as a middle-aged gay man, the latter a series of vignettes from the wider LGBT community. Already available are both seasons of 1/1/M, a Bafta-winning BBC comedy set in the offices of the BBC itself, where Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) finds himself appointed to the corporation’s vague-sounding new position of “head of values”. Seems like the kind of thing I’d be into, so off I surfed to check it out. But on the way down the A-Z list I got distracted by another intriguing title, one which didn’t feature in the email TVNZ sent out. The fact that this title was intriguing to me at all probably speaks volumes about what a complete moron I am.The title was Man Vs Fly.

Each episode of Man Vs Fly sees someone from a different occupation enter something called the Fly Dome: a white padded cell with one glass wall, sort of like a squash court. A single fly is then released into the enclosure, and contestants have one minute to kill it with the weapon of their choice. The whole sorry scene is presented like a parody of the serious tone instantly familiar to anyone who has ever watched a televised sporting event. There are pre-match profiles of both the man and the fly, and the action is described by a pair of deadbeat, idiotic commentators: one Englishman and one Australian.

The first episode I watched was listed as Diver And Fish. A man in a wet-suit, snorkel and flippers, armed with a dead sea bass, versus a 12-day-old fly called The Right Reverend His Grace Matthew Skidwell. “I don’t like his footwork,” the Australian commentator noted right away as the diver stomped clumsily around the FlyDome in his flippers. “I don’t like it at all.” More troubling than his footwork, the diver appeared to be having trouble seeing the fly at all through his goggles. Finally, the fly settled on the glass, giving him a clear shot. He swung the sea bass but somehow the fly buzzed free. “Too close and too slow,” the Aussie commentator complained. “The fly saw that coming and he sucked him into the move . . . I like this fly a lot.” Next swing he dropped the fish cold. “This is just a farce . . .This fly seems to be mocking him.” The klaxon sounded to signal the end of the bout, and the fly emerged victorious. “You don’t get to be 12 days old without learning a trick or two.” At an average episode length of 3 and a half minutes, Man Vs Fly is the very definition of “snackable content”.

Immediately, I gobbled up another piece. In this one, darts legend Bobby George took to the Fly Dome armed with a fistful of tungsten. He was confined to a square in the centre of the box and from there had to hit the fly with one of his darts. “It ain’t gonna settle,” he kept muttering as he shuffled around in circles. “He’s saying the fly’s not going to settle - it will mate,” reassured the commentator. “They always do.” With his fourth throw, somehow, the “King of Bling” Bobby George nailed it. The throw was so quick and precise that the camera didn’t even get a clear shot.

Already there are 17 episodes available, with the promise of three more to be added every Friday. There’s one with a cyclist where the fly is inexplicably “off his guts” on LSD, illustrated by some tripped-out psychedelic point-of-view shots. There’s one with a burlesque dancer, which is probably not safe for work. There’s a dwarf, a dominatrix, a Buddhist monk.

If, like me, you find yourself too cynical for WWE but too squeamish for MMA, then Man Vs Fly could be the fight sport for you. It’s an extremely simple - and staggeringly stupid - idea, executed surprisingly well. Possibly, it’s the future of television.

Man Vs Fly is available to view via TVNZOnDemand.

Calum Henderson for Otago Daily Times, 15th Dec 2015

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BREAKAWAY REVIEWS

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THE IDEAS EXCHANGE REVIEWS

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THE UNSEEN FRANKIE HOWERD REVIEWS

Frankie Howerd: the Lost Tapes uncovers a huge archive of his letters, files and recordings for this fond recollection of a curious career.

Howerd, with his terrible wig, his nudge-nudge act and catchphrases based on the infinite comic possibilities of the word “tittering”, was a well-loved figure, though his career suffered deep troughs and he could be tough to work with.

But he was a doughty fighter who wouldn’t give up, his huge success as leering Lurcio in the BBC sitcom Up Pompeii came after a long period in the doldrums. This is a fascinating portrait of a curious man, peppered with clips from real oddities, including an atrocious film with, of all people, the Bee Gees.

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THE EXIT LIST REVIEWS

The thought of this show is enough to give you amnesia.

Pity the contestants who have to answer questions and memorise an ever-growing list of words while surrounded by blue lights ?and TV cameras. Then, of course, there’s the fear of the panic room: red lights, an alarm and knowing that your memory is going to be taxed even further.

It’s great to see such an original game show and host Matt Allwright is low-key enough not to detract from the mounting tension. Will this week’s contestants make it through the maze to scoop the 100,000 pound jackpot?

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THE UNTOLD TOMMY COOPER REVIEWS

The Untold Tommy Cooper (Channel 4) was – if you will forgive descent into seasonal cliche for a moment – a little cracker. Eschewing the usual method of repackaging of just-about-known-but-generally-ignored facts that traditionally make up an “untold story” of a star, it used recently unearthed letters, audiotapes, interview footage and, above all, his agent Miff Ferrie’s meticulous records to reconstruct its subject in the round.

The talent – and you don’t have to find Cooper funny in order to see it – was beautiful. A lumbering giant of a man with a featherlight touch – for a trick, a fumble or a punchline – seemingly effortlessly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat from the jaws of victory.

The turmoil behind the talent was less so. The film calmly and unflinchingly detailed the story of his alcoholism, which marched in lockstep with his professional success, his long affair with his personal assistant Mary Kay while married to Gwen – a woman he frequently hit when in his cups, and unpicked his love-hate – or possibly hate-hate – relationship with Ferrie. Ferrie was a control freak with, it was attested by several of Cooper’s peers and most vociferously by another former client, Bruce Forsyth, no discernible sense of humour, but Cooper never quite broke ties with him. Perhaps he sensed that only a dour, iron-willed man like Ferrie could help him control the chaos of his life. And in return, Ferrie – who always wanted him to lose the fez – kept him working and his image intact for 40 years. He noted under the final entry in Cooper’s booking diary: “Died on stage.” Usually metaphorical for a comedian, but not that night.

A superb but sobering film.”

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impossible? REVIEWS

A curious blend of magic demonstration and game show…as relationships are put under strain by ‘genius or conman’ Philip Escoffey. 5*****

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Release the Hounds App REVIEWS

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GERRY'S BIG DECISION REVIEWS

Gerry Robinson’s mission to help struggling companies isn’t just moving, gripping TV, it also feels absolutely of the moment. Around the country, businesses are staring into the abyss, but at least the ones in this series get the benefit of Sir Gerry’s laser-sharp advice, generally couched in the manner of a kindly but disappointed headmaster. And it’s not just advice: he has money to invest, potentially, that would make the difference between bankruptcy and survival. A lot hangs in the balance for tonight’s two firms, a Devon pie-maker and Britain’s oldest major chair manufacturer. The latter is sleepwalking towards the edge of a financial cliff with the chairman and MD at loggerheads and the fate of an entire Lancashire village on the line. Gerry has his work cut out - and a tough call to make: is either business worth saving? It’s a hugely engaging programme with grown men in tears, clashing egos and big issues in the air to do with trust and denial. “They’re heading for the rocks and hoping something will happen,” observes Robinson. “What generally happens in those circumstances is that you hit the rocks.

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