Last Night's TV - A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss, BBC4; Whitechapel, ITV1; Spooks, BBC1
The pride of Frankenstein
Tuesday 19 October 2010
Peter Cushing, according to those who knew him, was a sweet and unassuming fellow, the very antithesis of most of the characters he played in all those horror films. Yet it is for them, Baron Frankenstein and the rest, that he is remembered. Well, them and Frank Skinner's excellent joke about it being a shame Whoopi Goldberg never married him. So hats (and capes) off to the titular host of
A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss, who took a little time out from considering the golden era of British bloodsucking to pay a heartfelt tribute to Cushing, and even to sit in the genteel cafe in Whitstable where the old boy quietly passed much of his retirement.
One of the great virtues of this series is that it is thoroughly subjective. Gatiss does not feel any particular obligation to give us an A to Z of horror, but instead lingers lovingly over his own favourites. Christopher Lee or Vincent Price might equally have been chosen for a special tribute, but he happens to be a Cushing man. Similarly, he dwells on the films he likes most, which are usually but not always the most significant in the development of the genre. I suppose the cognoscenti might quibble with this; indeed, I've already heard him lambasted for overlooking the early German cinema's contribution to horror, but for the rest of us he makes a reliably splendid guide. Clearly, we are in firm and suitably bloodied hands, and I like the occasional references to his own horror-obsessed childhood, such as the recollection of his mother and father coming home appalled from parents-teachers evenings when he was 11 and 12, having been informed that his every written composition involved some kind of gore. Even an essay titled "A Day on the Beach" featured a decapitation.
There could, therefore, be scarcely anyone better qualified to celebrate the heyday of Hammer, as he did last night with proper reverence and some nice lines. The Curse of Frankenstein, the first British horror picture made in colour (mostly red), was "a great deal more than the sum of its dismembered parts". Moreover, it earned 70 times its production costs and opened, as it were, the bloodgates. John Carpenter, the celebrated American horror film director, remains a huge fan. He is among the talking rather than disembodied heads in this series, and appears to have survived the experience, unlike the director Roy Ward Baker in last night's programme – and the actress Gloria Stuart last week – who died shortly afterwards. Admittedly, they were very, very old. But how deliciously apt that an interview with Gatiss should appear to be the kiss of death.
Death continues apace in Whitechapel, and I'm so pleased that I hit on the key to enjoying this increasingly preposterous crime thriller last week, because if I wasn't viewing it as pure comedy I would be feeling very gloomy indeed that such nonsense could be given a handsome budget and a generous slice of primetime. As comedy, though, it manifestly deserves both, for it is riotously funny. Last night, the villains attempting to take over the East End in the manner of Ronnie and Reggie Kray were revealed as... Jimmy and Johnny Kray, twins born from a secret sperm sample of Ronnie's. The story has become "Carry On Krays", regrettably without Barbara Windsor as the mum, Bernard Bresslaw as a henchman, and Charles Hawtrey as an undertaker, yet such talent is hardly required with the comedic giant that is Rupert Penry-Jones playing DCI Joe Chandler. Penry-Jones is quite brilliant, simultaneously presenting Chandler as the least plausible policeman in screen history and as the funniest since Inspector Jacques Clouseau (who, I feel significantly, had the same initials). Surely he can't be doing so unwittingly? Last night, the new generation of Kray twins had Chandler beaten up terribly, and he came to in Epping Forest with a bag over his head, but, marvellously, absolutely no other evidence of the ferocious assault apart from a slightly reddened nose, as though it had somehow left him with a nasty cold.
Them Krays ain't what they used to be, and nor is DS Ray Miles (Phil Davis), who seems to have had a personality transplant. Throughout the first series of Whitechapel, and so far this outing, he has been a hard-bitten, old-school, fearless cop, yet last night he flapped like a chicken when a heavy threatened to break his son's legs during a football match. Believe me, it's great fun.
Almost as daft, and hardly any more plausible, is Spooks. But it is done with terrific verve, and besides, there is at least a kernel of realism in the storylines, which last night had the President of the United States arriving in England for a clandestine meeting with Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, only for our heroic MI5 operatives to uncover a dastardly plot to assassinate the President. That looked like their main concern, but then it transpired that the assassination plot was just a smokescreen, covering the even more dastardly plan to blow up both sets of negotiators. This had been hatched by an Islamic terrorist in league with one of the Israeli delegation, whom he believed to be on his side, only she wasn't. Well, I did only say a kernel.
Incidentally, I couldn't help noticing that a caption announced the arrival of Air Force One at "Stanstead" airport. I sincerely hope that was just my preview DVD, and that by the time of transmission the rogue "a" had been ruthlessly eliminated.
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