The Shows: UK TV – United Kingdom
Television is on the rise both here and around the world. Countries are adapting popular shows from other countries and with streaming platforms looking for more content many international shows are getting the attention they deserve.
This is a bit of a departure but I think it’s a great detour. This article is focused on the UK because the range of shows is so wide, they are more readily available, and whether comedy, drama, or mystery — the quality is freaking fantastic.
Spaced: By now everyone knows Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright and their Cornetto trilogy which recently concluded with The World’s End but it all began with this show. Written by and starring Pegg and Jessica Stevenson as two London twenty-somethings who meet by chance in a café and pretend to be a couple in order to meet the requirements for renting a cheap flat.
The nerd levels are high here which is what makes this show so unique. It’s a celebration of television, movies, and pop culture. The extended cast of characters includes Nick Frost, of course, as Mike, and a lot of the gags in Shaun of the Dead appear here. You may also recognize the reverse references to the show with characters like the bike messenger Tyres and actor Peter Serafinowicz as a mega jerkface.
Director Edgar Wright’s playful pop style, clearly in development, gives the show its unique charm and the frequent use of fantasy sequences keep every episode feeling fresh. Like many UK shows it’s too short on seasons but with laughs like this all we can do is be grateful.
My favorite characters are the landlady Marsha and the tortured artist who lives downstairs, Brian. What would ordinarily be two side characters good for a few gags are instead developed personalities that take faux-couple Tim and Daisy into some deeply hilarious places that ring with real emotion.
A hoarde of other great UK actors make appearances and the show does a great job of dealing with that time in your life when your career and love life haven’t quite gotten on track. For that reason it is instantly re-watchable and even over ten years later, still feels modern.
The IT Crowd: Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade are two more faces that are better known now than when I first started watching this show. This is some more seriously geeky subject matter as the show is set around the IT department of a London office.
Katherine Parkinson is the other third of the IT team and although she does not match the nerd levels of Roy and Maurice Moss, her character is a dork of a different sort. She’s the Elaine Benes type who thinks she has it all together only to fail miserably, hilariously. Her competitive friendship with Roy is a standout part of the dynamic but the show is at it’s best when Moss is naive and Roy is just trying to do something simple — inevitably whatever they put their hand to is a disaster.
With bomb threats, fires, deaths, robots, and Richmond creator Graham Linehan certainly keeps this series from ever crossing out of the comedy genre. It’s a strange and wonderful world where the seminal line “Have you tried turning it off and on again” becomes the best series-long running gag and the exploits at Reynholm Industries always lead somewhere entertaining.
The set is as intriguing as Roy’s t-shirts, each episode has another winner. My personal favorite is about time travel. There was a pilot of an American version with Joel McHale as Roy and Ayoade as Moss. Of course it was horrible but The Office managed to make a go of it and was good for a few seasons. It does seem like Community is a decent ringer for what may have been.
If you’re a standard nerd or you’ve ever tried to watch a movie with a German cannibal, this show gets you. It’s a quotable, memorable, instant classic — a great show to binge watch with friends.
Black Books: Co-created by Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan this show feels like it might very well be happening in the same world as The IT Crowd. Maybe just a few streets over and down a couple of blocks from Reynholm Industries, Bernard Black is in his book shop with his perky pal Manny and his drinking buddy Fran, not selling books.
Starring Moran, Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig, the genius series is a comedy that revolves around Wine, toast, books, wine, absinthe, wine, and Bernard the belligerent and openly hostile owner of Black Books, who loathes most everything and everyone.
As The It Crowd takes on geek culture, working in a large office, dealing with your boss and co-workers, this show takes on the literary world and agony of the retail environment. I’m going to quote directly from Wikipedia here because it’s simply fascinating:
The concept of Bernard owning a bookshop came about because of Moran’s view of bookshops as doomed enterprises. Moran said “Running a second-hand bookshop is a guaranteed commercial failure. It’s a whole philosophy. There were bookshops that I frequented and I was always struck by the loneliness and doggedness of these men who piloted this death ship”, while Linehan said his belligerent personality reflected a sign he once saw in a bookshop stating “Please put the books anywhere you like because we’ve got nothing better to do than put them back”. Moran said of the series, “We just wanted to cram as much elaborate stupidity into a half-hour that could make it be coherent and that you would believe”
Although some of the best episodes aren’t about the store at all. It’s hard to describe why a show with such a central figure works, but it does. I guess there’s a Bernard Black in all of us.
The Office: This show created a new genre — cringe comedy. I remember watching this for the first time with my hand over my mouth, floored by the dialog and situations that were just so hard to watch and impossible not to.
Once again we find a comedy about a workplace but this mockumentary, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, focuses on one completely inept manager — David Brent. His character is so stunningly unlikeable and so desperately human.
The true heart of the show is Tim, played by Martin Freeman, who hates his job but pines for Dawn, though she has a serious boyfriend. Assistant to the regional manager is Gareth who is at odds with Tim. Around them are a tertiary cast of characters that ground the comedy.
Looking back now the world of this show has become such a part of our visual and comedic lexicon that it’s important to remember how groundbreaking this series actually was. The workplace on was often used on television for drama or sitcoms but not with mockumentary style camerawork and certainly not in this dry tone of comedy.
I don’t use the term cringe comedy lightly. If you’re looking for something a little less cheeky check out the first four seasons of the American version. But it speaks very highly of the UK series that a show about a paper company in Slough has made such a worldwide impact. Make sure you watch the Christmas special. It really is the best of the bittersweet series.
Sherlock: Also starring Martin Freeman along with Benedict Cumberbatch series three of this show is on its way having left us with an intense cliffhanger.
A new telling of Conan Doyle’s stories set in the modern-day where Sherlock uses technologies available to him today in order to solve crimes. The crime drama was conceived by David Moffat and Mark Gatiss and succeeds in being witty and addictive while taking the necessary liberties to make great television.
The modern technology added to the story doesn’t solely bring Sherlock into the 21st century, it also is a whip-smart way to present information to the audience. This is where the show excels. It has created a distinct world for the master detective to thrive in, one that even plays at referencing it’s own literary sources.
The use of characters from the stories as well as some additional liberties taken provides the show with a fantastic cast. Villains, never quite lovers, friends, co-workers, superiors and everything in between — the show is an abundance of interesting personalities like moths to the flame of Holmes.
Freeman plays Watson who is a doctor returned from war, just as the original character. Moffat and Gatiss are aware enough to use this wisely. Gatiss himself plays a character who is a wonderful counterpart to Holmes. My favorite, however, is Molly Hooper. Because she’s a different type of female character.
If you like detective shows this is a winner. The length of each episode is thoroughly satisfying, like a hearty meal. Be sure to make it to the end of the series before the next begins. You won’t want to miss it!
Poirot: I’ve followed this wonderful series for so many, many years. Agatha Christie‘s fictional Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, is brought to life masterfully by David Suchet.
Beginning in 1989 the series has worked its way through Christie’s novels some more faithfully than others. Until recently the production has always been of the highest quality. The music is fabulous and the variations of the title theme influenced by the story are nuanced gems worth listening for. The art deco an ever-present reminder of the time period along with the modes of travel and the exquisite fashion. The comedy, the murder, the little gray cells. Absolutely brilliant.
The last few years had fallen a little short. The modern versions of many shows have taken a darker twist where the emphasis was increasingly on the side of the crime and away from Poirot and his wonderful cast of friends including Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp.
But the final series seems as though it may return some to its roots with episodes written by Mark Gatiss, Nick Dear and others. One can only hope. It’s so hard to say goodbye to this cherished series. I’ve watched each episode at least a dozen times through the years. It’s a great companion for those nights when you need a little mystery, a little comedy, a little Belgian.
Luther: While most cop shows lean toward utilitarian two-shot directing or shaky “in the moment” camera-work — Luther is art.
The style, especially in the first series, quietly tells you not to notice it. But you do, you have to. Maybe not on the first watch, it’s too compelling to reflect on the visual artistry. But you’ll be left with a distinct impression that you’ve really watched something crafted with style and intention. So when you find yourself back at the beginning again, and you will, knowing how the story happens will shift your focus to the visual way the story is told.
Brian Kirk, Sam Miller and Stefan Schwartz each directed two episodes. The changing eye behind the lens is barely perceptible except upon a repeat viewing. The division of work is camouflaged by the three act structure arced through its six episodes. But each are unafraid of distance, texture, focus, or composition.Brian Kirk gives you the first episodes and pulls you in with a strong sense, not just of the character, but the world he inhabits. It’s mature but unquestionably modern. The style of framing has the sense of proportion, tone, and flesh of a Hopper painting. It’s staggering and brilliant. It’s fearless directing.Sam Miller can see the quiet moments. His sense of atmosphere is sensitive to the beauty and brutality of Luther’s reality, but without the clutter. His ability to show you what’s in an actors eye is only second to his ability to help them make their performances works of art.
Stefan Schwartz brings a sense of rough, a kinetic pulse in direct opposition to the savoring pace of the opening episodes. This fevered pace builds but never loses its footing, never sacrifices clarity for thrills. The final ten minutes of the fifth episode which continues into the sixth episode finale is a satisfying third act that gives you more than you could want seconds before it ends — visually returning to beginning.The music of Luther is never stronger than in that sixth episode and deserves a stand-alone post. It’s that perfect.
There are things in the story to dislike — an elevation of psychological depravity and a created reality sometimes too in favor of its main character, but the production — the directing, is strong storytelling. Is art.
Miranda: played by Miranda Hart, deals with the kind of humorous situations I find I’m entirely paranoid of personally committing. Sure there are absurd over the top situations but in every episode there’s a moment or two where I completely identify with the character.
Like attempting to take your sweater off and realizing your shirt’s gone with it, trying to be a “new you”, being called sir because of your height, falling asleep in a library, or reading nazi propaganda to children. Alright, well not the last one.
On the DVD cover it says “One of the few recent laugh-out-loud sitcoms.” It genuinely is. Miranda Hart is the smashing combination of Frances de la Tour’s Madame Maxime, Toni Collette, and a wonderful, hilarious, awkward red-headed friend of mine from long ago. So as she talks to the camera, I already feel I know her. It’s nice to watch a show about a woman who isn’t a completely poised, anorexic, wanton stick insect. In fact, Miranda’s rather a spaz. But she’s always in on the joke, or makes it before you do, so the sense of humor never feels too sardonic.
It’s kind of funny how breaking the third wall, as the show frequently does, doesn’t seem to matter. I still very much care about the characters and no episode is a better example of why than Let’s Do It from series 2. It’s one of those hard to watch/can’t look away episodes British shows are fond of and I’ve come to love.
For both shows the second series is better than the first, the best episode is the first one of the second series, and I was sad when it was over. All good signs of a pitch perfect, must own, tell everyone, show. I know they’re not everyone’s taste. But then, some people like CBS programming.
Hyperdrive: The best of both comedy and sci-fi. Forget all the comparisons to Red Dwarf. Hyperdrive refrains from the acid-induced insanity of Dwarf and aims right for Star Trek/Farscape/Stargate/Gallactica parody all while staying broad enough to be a great watch. Even if you’re not a trekkie/scaper/gater/gallactite? frakhead? there’s a lot to enjoy.
Think of Hyperdrive as Star Trek: TNG but intentionally laughable, or as a live-action Futurama where Planet Express is replaced by members of a volunteer force stumbling through heroic missions to protect British interests in a changing galaxy.
Space Commander Michael “Mike” “Lucky Jack” “Hendo” Henderson is an optimistic if not idealistic, space nerd leading his rag-tag crew on low-priority missions with all the vim and vigor of his TV hero Captain Helix.
Awesome. The Commander, as played by Nick Frost, has an insatiably positive attitude. Under all the comedy he actually cares about the mission and the values he’s meant to espouse. That really sets the show apart from other sci-fi series, serious dramas included, as they’re mostly lead by characters with few redeeming qualities and vague patches of motivation in place of actual depth.
Don’t get me wrong, this show is a wacky comedy with snappy self-deprecation (the hero trap joke for example) but they’ve so perfectly crafted a world that while you’re laughing, you’re also genuinely interested. And that’s what makes it brilliant. Once past the Glish characters early in the first episode, the crass jokes mostly taper off and are replaced by comic situations, gut-busting character foibles, parody, and subtle touches like the Commander’s various uses for the word commencify.
You’ve just got to love a show whose view of the future includes karaoke as an Olympic sport. The supporting cast are incredibly entertaining, especially Miranda Hart whose scene-stealing performance as Diplomatic Officer Chloe Teal lead me to find another great series.
Gavin & Stacey: For me, quality storytelling is when I’m able to realize the writers are steps ahead of me, giving the characters what not what they want but what they need, so I can just sit back and watch it all unfold in ways I couldn’t have even imagined.
But many writers feel the need to make their characters edgy and miserable, make them suffer. They think that’s what story is made of. The result is bitter characters with nihilistic world views. Gavin and Stacey is quality storytelling.
The show follows the romance between Gavin, from Essex, and Stacey, from Wales. Over three seasons and one Christmas special, we meet a cast of friends and relatives all surrounding key moments in the protagonist’s relationship.
Throughout Gavin and Stacey the current of optimism wrapped in plenty of drama, laughs, rude and lude behavior, is completely engrossing, touching, and smile provoking. So infrequently do we see images in entertainment of love and family which portray the ups and downs, the arguments and laughs without being so pessimistic you wonder why anyone would even bother.
It’s the job of the writer to think of something beyond what the character wants because they don’t need a perfect ending, just the right one. In episode after episode, that’s just what Gavin and Stacey delivered. It may not be for everyone but rarely are love, friendship, parenthood, relatives, culture, and humor portrayed with sincerity. Rarely do you watch a show that never fails.
More to come: Vera, A Touch of Frost, Broadchurch, Call The Midwife, The Mimic, Monday Monday, and Trollied
The Food: English Toffee Popcorn
I was recently given some lovely English toffee and was inspired to try to make a similar popcorn flavor.
There are many types of toffee but upon searching “English toffee” the one topped with chocolate and nuts seemed to be the most prevalent.
I’m not a big fan of adding corn syrup to my popcorn recipes so I searched the internet for some idea of how to create the toffee flavor without it. I found this which was very helpful but far more than I intended to make. So the measurements are a little odd because I was scaling down the ratios from this much, much larger recipe.
- 1/4 cup corn kernels
- 1/4 cup + 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons water
- 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 cup crushed almonds
- 1/4 cup mini chocolate chips
Make the popcorn according to your favorite method. I prefer a dry pop for this recipe. Remove the unpopped kernels and place the popcorn in a bowl.
Grease a baking sheet and set the oven to 250°.
Place the sugar and water in a pan on medium heat. Let it cook and the sugar dissolve. Add the butter and continue cooking. The mixture will caramelize. Continue cooking as it bubbles up. Continue cooking for 5 minutes or until it coats the back of spoon. Stir in the vanilla and add the baking soda — the mixture will puff up.
Add half the toffee mix to the popcorn and throw in half of the almonds and chocolate chips. Stir the mixture together. The warm sauce should melt the chocolate chips. Add the other half of toffee, almonds, and chocolate and mix again, coating the popcorn.
Place on the greased sheet and back for 40 minutes, stirring every 10 or so. Let it cool and enjoy!
This ratio leaves the popcorn coated by not saturated. If you want even more of a toffee taste, double the sauce ingredients. If you want to double the entire recipe, and you will, I suggest making multiple batches of this size.