Friday, February 22, 2013

Clive James on the week's TV: Africa, Nashville and Spiral

The Americans have gone stark crazy for Downton Abbey but have they ever seen Gosford Park? In most cases, probably not: it is an old movie by now. But as well as the best thing by Julian Fellowes, it was the best thing by its director, Robert Altman.

Fans of Altman might say that his best thing was the movie Nashville, but I don?t believe they are right. It had too many strikes against it. Too many of its singing stars couldn?t sing; and the script was such an approximate mess that it referred to the British Broadcasting Company. Watching the movie again, you can easily believe that Altman was later responsible for Pr?t-?-Porter, a dismal example of taking a riveting real-life subject (the Paris fashion industry) and removing every rivet. It was transcendentally lousy. How did the same director ever make Gosford Park?

As we ponder these questions, the Nashville theme has returned as a TV serial called Nashville (Channel Four). Prodigies of invention in that choice of title: but, irony aside, it looks like being a winner. The knock-down, drag-out, lions-hunting-wildebeest ruthlessness of the country music business is well brought out on two levels. On the level of the upper echelon executives, a phalanx of hard-faced bean-counters have their pace set for them by corporate mogul Powers Boothe, who will obviously do for this show what Larry Hagman did for Dallas: i.e. provide a pitiless set of bared teeth.

On the level of performance, the top singer Rayna (Connie Britton) must ward off the challenge from upstart Juliette (Hayden Panettierre). After 21 years at the peak, Rayna has now been offered the choice of opening for Juliette on the next tour or else being dropped by the label. Rayna?s perhaps inadvisable line of defence depends on reiterating that she has spent all these years as a headliner. Thus she goes on reminding everybody of the truth: she is too old.

Blatantly sexy in a way too often reminiscent of Madonna in mating mode, her rival Juliette is not too old. She is very young, and very twisted, with a juice-head of a mother screaming down the other end of the phone. But the apparently dew-fresh Juliette can afford to make every possible mistake. Rayna has to do everything right.

Rayna is a a bit of a Shania Twain type, but Connie Britton?s performance would be easier for the viewer to appreciate if she really could sing like Shania Twain. Still and all, this is good stuff, and you can easily see why it was such a hit in America. To see why Downtown Abbey was such a hit in America, you have to realise that they long for a story full of social nuances, provided that the nuances are underlined.

There?s nothing subtle about Spiral (BBC Four), but nor is there a mystery about why, in its fourth season, it has become such a hit. No more nuanced than the Arc de Triomphe falling on your head, it?s got subtitles like the Scandinavians, it?s got pace like the Americans, and above all it?s got the violence and corruption of every French policier story since that marvellous movie La Balance.

In La Balance everyone was for sale, and so it is here, with the possible exception of the heroine, Laure (Catherine Proust), who doesn?t bend the law except to catch the bad guys. For this season, the leading bad guy is a lethal young twerp called Thomas, a version of Andreas Baader dipped in slime. Can nothing rescue the adorable Sophie from his clutches? After all, Sophie has done nothing except help a few psychopaths build and deliver a bomb.

Perhaps the sharp lawyer Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) will help Laure to straighten everything out. Not that Josephine doesn?t need straightening out herself. Tall, red-headed and with a startling bosom, she is a reminder that the French often do sex quite well, even in the crime context. Every male character in the cast is switched on by Josephine. I speak as one of the male viewers who is switched on by Laure. It?s her basic integrity that gets me in. She has a tendency, however, to pose with her mouth. I think it?s called a moue, or is that a cow?

At the Bafta Awards (BBC One), deftly hosted by Stephen Fry at Covent Garden, Quentin Tarantino and Ben Affleck proved that neither owns a bow-tie. Haven?t they been watching Downton Abbey?

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