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Mysteries From The Other Side Of The Pond

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Everyone loves a good mystery. Many people like to bury their noses in a classic or contemporary novel about conspiracies, murder, and missing people. Others tend to wildly speculate that the Sudoku puzzles in the newspaper that they can’t seem to solve are they themselves the act of a conspiracy, feel like murdering its creator, et voila: that darn puzzle goes missing! Now, for those of you who can’t be bothered to read an entire book (whether you don’t have the time in your busy schedules, suffer from the same form of Literary ADD like myself, or you’re just plain lazy) and are unable to finish a Sudoku puzzle for one reason or another, we have a plethora of mysteries that are produced on a regular basis for British television.

Why the British? Well, for one thing, they have a lot of people that can actually act. They also gave us one of the greatest mystery writers ever: Agatha Christie. And, since England produces a number of Christie-based television dramas almost every year, this chapter of Catching Up At The Video Store features two of those more-recent adaptations. Additionally, since the wonderful people at Acorn Media are so engaged in educating those spoiled Americans who grew up watching PBS rather than CBS, every item featured in “Mysteries From The Other Side Of The Pond” hails from that particular home video distributor.

Enjoy.

· Marple: The Pale Horse

The Short Version: Whoops. Miss Marple finds herself in the wrong story!

The Slightly-Elongated Version: Since we’re already on the subject of Agatha Christie adaptations, we’ll start there. Apparently, the writers and producers of the Marple series ran out of original source material — leading them to rewrite a non-Miss Marple story entitled The Pale Horse for that lovable little old lady named Jane. Julia McKenzie takes the lead as the meddling mademoiselle in a story that was written with a young male character as the protagonist, and originally had Poirot regular Ariadne Oliver as a supporting character (but who is absent in this version). Immediately following the puzzling confession from a dying woman, a priest is murdered in the streets. And, since the deceased was a good friend of Miss Marple, it’s only natural that she sticks her nose in to find out “whodunit” — a case that leads her to a humble village and a grand scheme (including witches!). J.J. Field, Elizabeth Rider, Lynda Baron Nicholas Parsons and Nigel Planer (The Young Ones) co-star. Though it’s not a very authentic account of the Christie novel, it’s still fun. In a thoroughly delightful move, Acorn Media has included a second disc with this standalone release; that of a 1997 TV adaptation which is closer to the original novel (read: no Miss Marple) and, thus, entirely different (though Ariadne Oliver still isn’t in it) that features Andy Serkis in a supporting role. Acorn Media has released The Pale Horse with all of the other 2010-made Marple TV movies (The Blue Geranium, The Secret Of Chimneys and The Mirror Crack‘d From Side To Side — all three of which were released on DVD last year in Agatha Christie’s Marple: Series 5) in a Blu-ray set.

· Poirot: The Movie Collection – Set 6

The Short Version: Those little grey cells are still being stimulated — even after all these years.

The Slightly-Elongated Version: Returning to his career-defining persona once more (or, thrice more in this case), David Suchet brushes off his iconic moustache, readies his accent, and starts speaking in the third-person in order to play Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. In this collection of feature-length television movies filmed in 2009 and 2010, the great Poirot begins his line of inquiry with the mystery of “The Clocks” (2009), wherein a murdered man is found in the sitting room of a blind woman’s home by an office temp who has been called in to do some work. Trouble is (aside from the corpse, that is), the blind woman didn’t make the call, and has no idea who did. Stranger still, someone has left four clocks in the sitting room. In “Three Act Tragedy” (2010), Poirot investigates the mysterious deaths of a kindly old vicar and his good acquaintance’s best friend. Finally, in “Hallowe’en Party (2010), series semi-regular Zoe Wanamaker returns as novelist Ariadne Oliver, who calls upon Hercule to solve the murder of a young girl who had previously confessed to witnessing another killing years before. Despite some overly-artsy camera/editing here and there (mostly found in “Three Act Tragedy”), the stories here remain just as entertaining and intriguing as ever. Additional guest stars include Anna Massey (the former Mrs. Jeremy Brett, in her next-to-last performance) Tom Burke, Geoffrey Palmer, Martin Shaw, Kimberly Nixon, Art Malik, Amelia Bullmore and Deborah Findlay. The episodes are listed and packaged in a non-chronological order, just in case you’re a stickler for those sort of things (the disappointing version of “Murder On The Orient Express” was part of this set when originally televised, but was released earlier here in the US), and the set is also available on Blu-ray.

· George Gently: Series 3

The Short Version: The continued adventures of a big-city detective working in the country.

The Slightly-Elongated Version: Martin Shaw, the wonderful character actor who guest stars in one of the episodes in the above Poirot set, returns as (Inspector) George Gently in this two-episode, feature-length third series of the British mystery based on a string of Alan Hunter novels published between 1955 and 1999. Set in Northumberland in the mid-’60s, Series 3 once again follows the analytical skills of Inspector Gently (Shaw) — an exceptional investigator who lives up to his surname — and his overly-impulsive and none-too-broadminded young colleague, Detective Sergeant John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby), who is having a hard enough time coping with his cases due to a separation between he and his wife (Melanie Clark Pullen). In “Gently Evil,” our boys look into the grisly case of a murdered mum: a case that isn’t grisly because of the murder itself, but rather, because of the motive behind it. The second and final episode of Series 3, “Peace And Love,” finds the dissimilar detecting duo looking into the killing of an activist student that is found dumped from the docks after an anti-nuke protest. Simon Hubbard returns as Police Constable Taylor, and guest stars for this series include Natalie Garner, MyAnna Buring, Emum Elliott and Daniel Casey. No special features are included with this release, which is available on both DVD and Blu-ray.

· Identity (2010)

The Short Version: Cops go after identity thieves in a rather Leverage-esque series.

The Slightly-Elongated Version: Not all mysteries involve the dastardly crime of cold, calculated execution. Among the many other wrongs that must be righted by our various perceptive heroes of justice are those folks that tend to go missing for unknown reasons every once in a while, and even some good ol’ fashioned robberies. With the advent of the Interweb, however, those good ol’ fashioned robberies suddenly received an upgrade: and “identity theft” became a new misdeed for knowledgeable villains would-be-baddies around the world. Identity — a short-lived high-tech procedural drama program from the UK — focuses on such felonies. Well-to-do Detective Superintendent Marsha Lawson (Keeley Hawes) heads a group of assorted techies and experienced hands, including a peculiar chap named John Bloom (Aidan Gillen): a former undercover cop whose old ties may not be entirely severed. Throughout the six-episode series, DS Lawson look into a number of intriguing cases of identity theft, none of which are cut-and-run cases. Holly Aird, Elyes Gabel and Shaun Parkes co-star. Acorn Media presents the entire series of Identity on two discs, with a couple of text-only special features. A US remake has been announced, although it probably won’t last much longer than this one did (if all of those recent UK-to-US remakes are any indication of things).

· Wired (2008)

The Short Version: And you thought your bank sucked.

The Slightly-Elongated Version: Moving away from identity thievery, we find ourselves in another frequently-visited land of Internet hijinks: that of currency pilfering. In Wired, a three-part miniseries from 2008, we find single-mum Louise Evans (Jodie Whittaker) being blackmailed by a young, disgruntled hood named Philip (Laurence Fox) that has learned of her slightly-shady past, wherein she embezzled several thousand pounds from a previous place of employment. The objective here is to steal £250,000,000 from Louise’s present employer, the major bank who Philip once worked for. Such a task isn’t easy, though: there are several more, silent partners in this grand scheme — from bank employees to underworld gangsters — who either want to ensure Louise follows through with her duties or have entirely different plans of their own. Fortunately, a plainclothes detective (Toby Stephens, whom some of you will remember as the bad guy in Die Another Day) has his eye on our young heroine — although he may not be able to save her as she gets deeper and deeper into the whole bloody mess. Charlie Brooks, Riz Ahmed, Iain McKee, Sacha Dhawan and Ramon Tikaram also star. Acorn Media brings us the whole of Wired in a single-disc release without any bonus materials, but it’s a gripping and entertaining enough of a miniseries to warrant your attention just the same.

· Circles Of Deceit

The Short Version: A post-Cold War relic that wasn’t too-terribly warm itself.

The Slightly-Elongated Version: Dennis Waterman puts in another stellar performance as John Neil, a tortured ex-intelligent agent whose wife and son were murdered in an IRA bombing in Germany (at a circus, nonetheless!). Pulled out of retirement for the occasional odd job, Neil goes undercover with a high-ranking member of the IRA (“The Wolves Are Howling,” formerly “Circle Of Deceit”), and proceeds to get called back into action to investigate the murders of an ex-KGB agent and his old trainees (“Sleeping Dogs”), the deadly deeds of a potential Head of Parliament (“Dark Secret”) and a slain solider (“Kalon”). Yup, more murders, kids. Sadly, while the first chapter of these feature-length TV movies (which were originally broadcast between 1993 to 1996) is rather first-class, the remainder of the stories aren’t worth looking into unless you’re really bored. Leo McKern, Saskia Wickham, Frances Barber, John Hannah and Paul Freeman are among many of the guest stars throughout the four-part series; Derek Jacobi pops up in the first installment as Neil’s controller (and looks like a weird cross between Malcolm McDowell and Ted Turner as Captain Kangaroo), with Susan Jameson taking over for the next three chapters. The four movies are presented on two discs, and include a couple of text-only cast and crew bios as bonus features.

· New Tricks: Series Four

The Short Version: An enjoyable, light-hearted show about old coppers.

The Slightly-Elongated Version: Huh, how ‘bout that: another series that stars both Dennis Waterman and Susan Jameson. Whereas the rest of the titles mentioned in this article have been on a decidedly-serious tone overall (or were supposed to be, at least), New Tricks has a more light-hearted feeling going on. The delightful show brings us the adventures of three retired detectives — womanizer Gerry Standing (Waterman, who also performs the show’s theme song), brainiac Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong) and by-the-book Jack Halford (James Bolam) — and their younger supervisor, Detective Superintendent Pullman (played by cougar Amanda Redman), who handle the police department’s cold cases. Whether it’s an unsolved murder from the past or a long-dead case of missing money, this crack crew of thinkers do their best to put forgotten files to rest — occasionally taking up department resources in order to do some private investigating of their own, much to the dismay of Deputy Assistant Commissioner Strickland (Anthony Calf). Susan Jameson frequently appears as Alun Armstrong’s longsuffering wife. Acorn Media’s release of New Tricks: Series Four brings us all eight episodes from this wonderful show on three discs, and the set is a strong recommendation for those of you who like their drama served with a fair amount of comedy.

Happy viewing, kids!

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.