As far as I can tell, watching Game of Thrones requires commitment. Not quite, perhaps, the eye-watering steeliness of the slave warrior towards the end of Monday's episode – he demonstrated his Spartan virtues by undergoing a gruesome version of the nipple twist without so much as an "Ouchy!" But still, this handsome adaptation of George R R Martin's fantasy novels takes a dim view of viewers such as me who have merely dipped in and out over the previous two series. (Nobody dips in and out of anything in the fantastic kingdom of Westeros – they usually arrive, quite emphatically, on horseback, with a dozen armed kinsmen.)
The third began on Monday without any sop to the occasional viewer: no precis, just a literal, prefatory echo of a battle that we glean took place at the end of the last series. Then a snowy landscape, a corpse holding its own severed head in its lap, an axe-wielding "white walker", and, thereafter, a series of tense discussions in a tent, a couple of ships, a palace and a fortress by the sea. The dynastic struggles that we're watching are, I'm sure, familiar to regular viewers and readers of Martin's books; and predictably I didn't have a clue which scion of the Stark clan was doing what to a Lannister princeling. With dismay I recalled my previous thoughts on GoT: a bit too pleased with its own clunking soft-porn sex scenes, with rather a lot of men swearing and muttering in leather jerkins.
That was a hasty judgment, though. Despite having to refer to my wife, a walking GoT concordance, I found much to enjoy in the opener to Series Three. The shot compositions, for a start, were often breathtaking. The dismissal by Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) of his dwarf son Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) was a potent scene of familial rejection and bitterness, all the more affecting for the late-evening rays that barely illuminated Tywin's study. Caravaggio might have lit that. Another painter, Goya, came to mind when the camera lingered on the aftermath of a siege massacre, mutilated bodies dangling from carts and piled on one another.
These were details, I should say. What impressed more was the confidence of the makers to conceive of the first episode of a series as, in effect, an exhausted epilogue of the last. Again, the details escaped me – sorry – but not the alluring sense that tectonic plates of power and influence were shifting following a seismic political event (reflecting the show's mesmerising opening-credit sequence).
The show takes itself very seriously indeed – any thing less, you suspect, and it would collapse under its own absurdity. But there is wit here, too, amid the sweat and chunky knitwear: an obvious but sharp gag with a translator just before the gimp soldier lost his right nipple; and a dragon that flambéd its seafood catch before swallowing it whole. You'd say that a little goes a long way, but that runs counter to the show's expansive, epic scale: more is definitely more in Game of Thrones.
The TV dramatist Peter Moffat also has big plans for his new series The Village (BBC1, Sunday **). It started last Sunday, and, with good luck and viewing figures, Moffat hopes it will run for 42 hours in total. In doing so, The Village will tell the story of one Derbyshire community through the 20th century and on into the 21st. Telling this tale to us is the second oldest man in the UK, Bert Middleton (David Ryall), who is promisingly quirky. It's a pity then that his reminiscences of the summer of 1914 with his poor farming family seem anything but personal. Given its setting, a yarn of agricultural hardship and family tension is to be expected – but did it have to be spun so drably?
The result was good looking, hand-me-down D H Lawrence, a tableaux of familiar themes that the programme-makers seemed unable to wrench into drama. Bert's big brother (Nico Mirallegro) enlists, his father (John Simm) is an embittered alcoholic, the local manor house is seemingly populated by uncaring toffs, the local wives and girls are salt-of-the-earth, and so on. Thankfully, the irresistible Maxine Peake as Bert's mother smuggled some emotional life into the family home.
Moffat is a class act; things will improve, I suspect. But at the moment The Village is frozen in the headlights of its own ambition.
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