• James McGee

Coming to a sofa near you...


We’re quite spoiled for choice at the moment, it would seem. I’m referring to small-screen historical drama. Honestly, you wait ages for one series to come along and the next thing you know, we’re inundated.

No sooner had Wolf Hall shuffled off its mortal coil than up popped two more on the BBC: Poldark and Jimmy McGovern's Banished.

Add to that the offerings on-line: Black Sails, Vikings, Turn and Outlander and that's my evening's viewing sorted; well, sort of. If you then include Ripper Street 3 and the odd Western (technically, they must count as historical in context) such as Hell on Wheels, we’re not doing too badly. Oh, and Musketeers is still there, of course, if you like that sort of thing.

Poldark’s an interesting one because a lot of us who are of a certain age will remember it from the first time around; the Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees version, that is, which is still revered in many quarters. The BBC told us this new adaptation was going to be a lot steamier, but I hope that wasn’t the only reason for its resurrection. Well, no, it couldn’t be, not to judge by the episodes we’ve seen so far.

Reviews, as they say, have been mixed. Gotta confess, if I see him riding along the top of that damned cliff one more time, I’m going to throw something at my TV set.

Y’see, I’m still wondering about its target audience. Maybe it's a generation thing and a huge number of viewers are expected to be long-term fans from the first series who are anxious to see if it beats the original, whereas a younger audience may tune in to see what all the fuss was about. Though, my own feeling is that the latter might prefer something with a bit more oomph – and I’m not referring to Aidan Turner’s glittering pecs.

My main gripe is that I do wish British TV executives would chance their arms and go for new stories, not old ones. I mean, what's next, a revamp of The Onedin Line? Or, how about Robinson Crusoe? Remember the old dubbed version? I'll bet there are loads of people out there who can still hum that blessed theme tune. All together now, da da da da da-daaa...

I dare say it's only a matter of time before Wuthering-bloody-Heights comes around again.

Still, look on the bright side, the Beeb did dump Atlantis. Though, I have to say, that looked like Ben Hur compared to Sky's Sinbad .

At this point, I should state that I prefer my historical 'action' dramas to be a little more visceral. Well, all right, a lot more visceral; the Starz show Spartacus being a prime example. Now, I'll admit that when that first came out I thought it wasn't much more than soft-core porn, only with more killing and screaming, but I ended up loving the show and bemoaning the fact that our American cousins appear to be the only ones who are prepared to stick their necks out and bring us this sort of 'adult' entertainment, as opposed to some of the Brit offerings which would appear to be catering for adolescent schoolboys, the hugely enjoyable Sharpe and Hornblower series on ITV notwithstanding. But how long ago were they first shown?

When Spartacus ended, we all wondered how the gap was going to be filled. Until Starz, God bless 'em, stepped in again and brought us the pirate series Black Sails, now coming to the end of its second glorious blood-soaked season. OK, some of the acting is a bit iffy, but to paraphrase Maximus in Gladiator when he asks 'Are you not entertained?', the answer is: well, yes, actually. I am. Mightily.

It’ll be interesting to see the final verdict when Poldark is over. I haven’t been that gripped but then I wasn’t at all impressed with the first episode of Wolf Hall, either, which was a bit like watching paint dry - by candlelight - but it ended up being riveting viewing.

As far as the Beeb’s other newish offering is concerned, Banished, Jimmy McGovern's a tremendous writer and for that reason alone I thought it might be worth sticking with, though I’m not yet convinced.

I did wonder, for instance, why the British Government would have gone to all the trouble of sending what looked like about forty convicts and a couple of dozen soldiers halfway round the world to dump them onto a hostile shore. They could’ve sent them to Whitstable for a couple of weeks (all right, don’t write in).

In truth, the first fleet consisted of around 1500 souls, only half of which were convicts. The rest were soldiers (some of whom had their families with them) and settlers. In this age of CGI, I’m wondering why they didn’t use a bit of green screen to make it look as though there was a full settlement there rather than what looked like something out of a Bear Grylls’ survivalist weekend. But, as I said, it’s Jimmy McGovern and it’s set in a penal colony and some characters are based on real people, and therefore it is something different, so I’ll stick with it, even though I still don’t know how they manage to keep their teeth all pearly white.

So, my top viewing at the moment has to be Black Sails and Vikings, though I do confess to having a soft spot for Outlander. Don't ask me why. The premise is completely daft, a couple of episodes have been desperately slow and the voice-over segments are unremittingly awful, but the production values are surprisingly good and, let's face it, the scenery is stunning. It must be doing for the Scottish Tourist Board what Poldark's doing for the West Country. There are very gritty parts to it as well, though, which is welcoming, which is more than can be said for Musketeers. Still, at least that's better than that awful Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland version. Well, it'd have to be, wouldn't it?

Oops, I can feel a rant brewing so I'd better ease up before it's too late, and I have been rambling on a bit, haven't I? And it's a miracle I've managed to get all this way without once mentioning Game of…

Ah, dammit…