Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Next year’s BAFTA awards for best actor and best actress are in the bag for William Hurt and Olivia Colman

I’ve never been a great William Hurt fan – too mannered, too weird and too dead-eyed. And he frequently employs a simpering, pursed-lip smile that reminds me of someone quite annoying I used to work with years ago. My reaction to his name appearing on a cast list has always been to feel slightly deflated, but I’ve never not watched something because he’s in it.

But in 2011 he gave a brilliant performance as Hank Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary during the 2008 financial crisis in the HBO movie, Too Big to Fail. And now he’s delivered what I guarantee will prove the best TV performance of the year by a male actor in The Challenger, on BBC Two last night (available on iPlayer for the next few days, here).

SPOILER ALERT: I warn you now, just in case you don’t know the whole story already, that the next bit of this post might spoil your enjoyment of the drama.

The Space Shuttle Challenger broke up in 1986 off the coast of Florida shortly after take-off, killing all seven crew members. President Reagan set up a commission to look into the cause of the disaster. The enormously distinguished (Nobel Prize winner) but unconventional (he took LSD, played the bongos and openly frequented topless bars) quantum physicist Richard Feynman was asked to be a member of the commission. He agreed – reluctantly – and clashed with the chairman, whom he accused of trying to whitewash NASA’s role in the disaster. Unknowingly being nudged towards the right answer by other members of the commission, who didn’t want to be seen to be making waves, Feynman – in this dramatic televised demonstration – revealed that the fault lay with a rubber O-ring which became inflexible at low temperatures:

When I saw Hurt was playing Feynman, I thought it was a disastrous piece of casting. There’s something a bit ponderous and dull about Hurt, whereas Feynman was a mercurial, intense, bubbly, aggressive, fast-talking New York Jew – and Hurt’s about as WASPy as it gets.

Nevertheless, the actor plays an absolute blinder. For the second time in two years I actually forgot I was watching the thespian William Hurt ACTING: he doesn’t sound or look like Feyman, but, as they say in movie promos, he is Richard Feyman.

The other BAFTA contenders might as well not bother turning up.

(I’ve read two books of reminiscences by Feynman, both enormously entertaining: “Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character (1985) and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?": Further Adventures of a Curious Character (1988), the latter written while he was dying of cancer.)

On the distaff side, there’s the eight-part ITV detective drama, Broadchurch, on ITV on Monday nights at 9pm (the third part was broadcast last night, and all three episodes are available on ITV Player, here). This is far from perfect, but it's certainly rivetting. A female detective sergeant returns from holiday to find that the job she thought she was going to get has been given to a charmless, humourless Scottish policeman of the driven, haunted, bonkers variety, who seems to have forgotten to pack a razor, but can't quite manage to grown a full beard. Instantly, an 11-year old boy who was a friend of the female detective’s son is found murdered on a local beach.

The Detective Sergeant is played by Olivia Colman, who is rapidly emerging as a Judi Dench/Julie Walters-style national acting treasure, and who will almost undoubtedly get a BAFTA for her very human, winning, everywoman performance. Oddly, the surly Scot is played by that annoying lefty, David Tennant, whom I normally can’t stand. As with William Hurt, I’ve now seen him in two consecutive parts where he’s been excellent – this one, and an enthralling BBC 4 adaptation of Alan Furst’s novel, Spies of Warsaw, in which he played the hero - a pre-war French spy/military attaché up against dastardly Nazis.

These excellent dramas made up for having to sit through the BBC’s 90-minute adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s sparkling 1938 thriller, The Lady Vanishes on Sunday evening. The charming effervescence of the original had been jettisoned for a sort of sour hysteria, and all the English characters were as unpleasant as the sinister Nazis. Someone really needs to tell young TV production folk that, despite what they’ve been taught at school and no matter what propaganda the BBC has dunned into their heads, not all well-spoken people are spoilt, badly-behaved, selfish swine.  


  1. i was equally unimpressed by the Lady Vanishes, which might well have been re-titled something like Night Express to Appeasement. They claim they stayed true to the novel on which the Hitch version was based. Big mistake. It had not a trace of the charm of the original and managed to be about as rubbish as the 1979 version with Hollywood B listers Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepherd and Paul McCartney look-alike Angela Lansbury as Miss Froy.

    You are too hard on William Hurt. He is a talented actor but like many he has a limited range. He was great in The Accidental Tourist with Geena Davis and Body Heat with Kathleen Turner and pretty average in others. I shall look out for The Challenger.

    1. Can we be sure that Ms Lansbury didn't in fact replace Paul shortly before "Abbey Road". I will study the cover closely again.

      I'll gove you "Body Heat" - he was good in that.

      I have such a violent inbuilt aversion to Elliot Gould that I could never bring myself to watch the version in which he appeared. (Cybill Shepherd is also extremely sucky.) Gould is such an abysmal actor, I'm not sure he actually counts as an actor at all.

  2. Summer drama on the BBC.

    The Lady Varnishers: it's 1938 and as storm clouds gather over Europe, plucky feminist Violet Botney (Emma Thompson) has to decide between her women's collective wood floor restoration business and the safe Labour seat which Clement Attlee (Ray Winstone) has offered her. And then, working on the ballroom floor at Cliveden, her world is thrown into confusion with the discovery of a sinister right wing plot to renounce Britain"s membership of the League of Nations.

    The 39 Stops: Join Sandy Toksvig and Jeremy Hardy for an irreverent sideways look at life on the Metropolitan line, as they share the struggle of suburban people who are probably Tories to get to their pointless jobs which aren't in broadcasting. Narrated by Stephen Fry.

    Prude and Plagiarist: was sexually repressed spinster Jane Austen guilty of stealing the plot of her most famous novel from the little known Tales from an African Village by 18th Century Malawian novelist Zadie Zodiac? Martin Amis looks at the evidence and ignores most of it.

    Waugh and Pissed: he was a right wing novelist and frequently drunk. Starring Morgan Freeman as Anthony Powell.

    1. "Oi, Churchill - who you callin' the Gestapo, you fat toilet!"

      Great stuff, Radio Times.

      Consider all of these brilliant programme ideas commissioned! (Although the plot of The Lady Varnishers bears some resemblance to Stephen Poliakoff's stunningly brilliant "Glorious 39", which was retitled "How Toffs Tried to Prevent Working Class Heroes from Winning World Wat Two". And I'm pretty sure "Prude & Plagiarist" has actually been broadcast on BBC4, presented by Kwame Kwei-Armah OBE.

  3. High quality post and two excellent comments.

    Waugh and Pissed. What is the point of these "re-makes"? Last month the news broke that the BBC are planning another production of W&P which is being adapted by Andrew Davies [yes, him again] and which is going to be aired in 2015. Is there anything after that left for him to adapt? We already have the King Vidor version [1956], the superb Sergei Bondarchuk film [1968] and the TV mini-series with Anthony Hopkins [1973]. To film the story effectively requires an enormous production budget [Ballroom Scenes, Borodino, Destruction of Moscow, Winter Retreat]. It has already been done very well so why are the BBC doing it again when they simply do not have the resources to film this epic?

    If it goes ahead I predict that Carl Davis will write the score, Armstrong and Miller will dominate the ballroom with filthy jokes, Simon Schama will pop up during the battle camping it up, Keira Twice Nightly will play Natasha and a vast array of ancient British thesps will be able to top up their pensions. And Pierre will be played by an American "name" to attract funding [probably Adam Sandler or Jack Black - well, they are in everything else so why not].

    1. Agreed, SDG - my heart sank when I heard about "War & Peace". No doubt to be follwed by the 93rd televised adaptation of Price & Bloody Prejudice and then Oliver Sodding Twist, rapidly followed by Jane Ruddy Eyre (but, oddly, never Nick Sharman's seminal "The Surrogate" - oh no, that never gets a look-in!).

      Why, why --- WHHHHHYYYYYYY?

      Actually, Armstrong and Miller sound like really good casting.

      And, as the part of Pierre will require gravitas, I'm thinking Chris Rock.