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Mark Gatiss updates another 70s time-travelling classic; murder mystery meets 50 Shades meets Grand Designs; and The Wonder Years gets a bold reboot
How was your Christmas Day? All life-affirming wonder or bah, humbug? Either way, there’s still time to view Sky’s seasonal offering, The Amazing Mr Blunden.
Based on Antonia Barber’s 1969 book The Ghosts, which was made into a 1972 film by Lionel “Railway Children” Jeffries, The Amazing Mr Blunden is a ghost story set in the modern day and 1821, with Mark Gatiss as writer, co-star and director. While not about Christmas, it resonates with yuletide themes: love, redemption, ghost orphans in pantaloons and petticoats needing help, a gothic, vine-choked mansion, and Simon Callow, as Blunden, enunciating dialogue with such magnificent violence, it’s a festive miracle there weren’t reports of plasma screens shattering nationwide.
In the present day, a widowed, impoverished mother (Vinette Robinson) becomes the caretaker of a mansion. While there, her children, Lucy and Jamie (Tsion Habte and Jason Rennie), meet two child spirits, Sara and Georgie (India Fowler and Xavier Wilkins) – not ghosts but time-travellers who perished 200 years ago in a fire set by the scheming Mr and Mrs Wickens (Gatiss and Tamsin Greig, the latter resembling a Crimewatch photofit of Nanny McPhee) in order to steal Sara and Georgie’s inheritance. Blunden, their lawyer, ignored the children’s pleas for help: can this centuries-old wrong be righted?
There’s a caricatured English love interest who barely stops short of doing the Lambeth walk
Gatiss’s adaptation has big britches to fill: the 70s film, starring Laurence Naismith, is a cult supernatural classic (check out Diana Dors as a chilling Mrs Wickens). Gatiss’s new version focuses far less on visceral creepiness, which is a shame: call me an old goth, but I like to feel spooked by spooks. Similarly – spoiler alert – whereas in the film, Blunden’s self-sacrifice is devastating, there isn’t quite the emotional connection here.
What this update has in abundance is charm, humour, sterling child casting and excellent comic-grotesque turns, particularly from Amanda Lawrence as a hunched-over servant. For all his fruitiness, Callow is a convincingly regretful and magical Blunden. Alas, just not my Mr Blunden.
Maybe in the new year we’ll see some complete dumps on television again. Instead of the show-home kitchens so beloved of current dramas, we’ll get woodchip wallpaper, maybe even some tone-lowering fridge magnets. For now, there’s BBC One’s The Girl Before, a four-part, London-set thriller directed by Lisa Brühlmann (Killing Eve), adapted by JP Delaney (AKA Tony Strong) from his own book, with Marissa Lestrade.
Here, not just the kitchen but the entire place is a brick, steel, ultra-modernist smart house that you could imagine Tin Machine-era David Bowie living in. Architect Edward (David Oyelowo) charges minimal rent to people who agree to live by his rules: no pictures, ornaments, rugs, pets (breathing?). An extension of Edward’s control freakery, and a character in its own right, the house harvests data and has screens asking probing questions. An open staircase doubles as a death-drop.
In different timezones, Edward accepts as residents a couple – Emma and Simon (Jessica Plummer and Ben Hardy) – and then a single woman, Jane, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Both women are reeling from extreme personal trauma, both end up in relationships with sinister Edward, but why do they bear a striking resemblance to each other? Furthermore, how did someone die in the house, and what happened to Edward’s wife?
What starts out promisingly, almost like a latterday spin on Bluebeard folk tale, sadly unravels until you’re left with a lukewarm 50 Shades bolted on to an uneven murder mystery. The main performances are strong (Oyelowo in his icy control; Mbatha-Raw and Plummer in their despair and determination), but the women’s capitulation to Edward’s invasive demands verges on farcical – even given London’s deranged housing market – while the shock denouement seems reverse-engineered to be as unlikely as possible.
The cosy late 80s/early 90s sitcom The Wonder Years has been resurrected on Disney+, and this time the focus is on a black family living the American dream in 1968 Alabama, with Don Cheadle narrating. The original series featured the growing pains of Kevin, memorably played by Fred Savage, who, along with Saladin K Patterson (Psych) and Lee Daniels (Empire), exec-produces this new 22-episode series, and directs some of the episodes.
The result is thoughtful, even bold, with 12-year-old Dean (Elisha Williams), his parents (Dulé Hill and Saycon Sengbloh) and siblings (Laura Kariuki and Spence Moore II) placed in the context of the volatile times. While the parents are upwardly mobile – “You’re going to college. I’m sure the revolution’s going to need a good dentist or accountant” – racism isn’t shied away from.
In the opening two episodes, Dean’s daily frustrations (mainly involving an unrequited crush) are juxtaposed with everything from white pupils at his desegregated high school not wishing to share the same drinking fountain, to the shooting of Martin Luther King. As Savage, of all people, would know, it all hinges on the “everyboy”, and Williams glides winningly between drama, emotion and mischief.
At this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year, 19-year-old US Openchampion Emma Raducanu triumphed, delightedly accepting her trophy remotely on screen, while the runners up – Olympic diver Tom Daley and Olympic swimmer Adam Peaty – applauded in the socially distanced studio. Over on Netflix, another enterprising young woman returned for a second 10-part series of Emily in Paris, starring Lily Collins as the young American marketer working, loving and dreaming in the city of love, while styled as Violet Elizabeth Bott crossed with Bertie Bassett.
Since Emily in Paris was widely panned for crass stereotyping (it was also a huge lockdown hit, and Golden Globe-nominated), it’s dialled down the “aghast” American reactions to “scandalous” French behaviour (smoking, affairs et al). Though now there’s a caricatured English love interest (Lucien Laviscount) who barely stops short of doing the Lambeth walk. And, yes, we’re still supposed to sympathise with Emily for sleeping with her friend’s boyfriend (Lucas Bravo). I’m afraid I don’t. Still, it’s hard to remain angry, or indeed awake, as the episodes churn on. With its plaintive cultural asides (Balzac; Jules et Jim), Emily in Paris is merely frothy nonsense that yearns to be more. Be kind.
What else I’m watching
We Wish You a Mandy Christmas
Diane Morgan’s Mandy character’s festive special, spoofing A Christmas Carol, is a 16-minute, gag-rich blast. Visiting ghosts include John Cooper Clarke, who refuses to be translucent: “I don’t go in for all those gimmicks.”