SLOUCH POTATO

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Tom Pheby slouches around with the TV remote...


MARCELLA
Marcella is ITV's latest cop show, which isn't saying much because they appear like buses at the moment. A couple of weeks ago it was the return of Maigret, now the stage is set for Marcella Backland. Fom the writer and creative brain of Hans Rosenfeldt, who gave us 'The Bridge', Anna Friel plays the lead character of 'Mar-chella' or is that 'Marcella'? It was hard to know. Even DI Rav Sangha (Ray Panthaki), who just dropped by on the off chance to discuss an old murder, seemed none the wiser.

The 8 part series opens up a somewhat dazed Friel in the bath (I shall be sending a letter of praise to the director for that). She's bruised, there is blood on her head and the walls. What's all this malarkey?

Disappointingly, we go back 12 days earlier, which is generally used as a plot device these days but it's one I find slightly tedious due to its frequent over use. Marcella has been dumped by her husband Jason and heads off via a taxi to teach him a lesson. It's raining heavily, just to add to the sense of injustice, gloom and desperation. We act as onlookers as she smashes the granny out of her absent spouse's car. Marcella has other issues. She's prone to blackouts and suffers bouts of amnesia, which is hardly new territory.

The thing is 'the troubled and complex cop' routine is getting old. Already this series was starting to feel a bit 'Luther', even the titles made me think we were looking at the female equivalent of the BBC copper. Then there was the way in which she came back to her job, which was more than a little Lutheresque (season 4). I was becoming confused and distracted by the amount of similarities between the two, by that wasn't the only niggles I had with the show.

Lets deal with Marcella's 7 year tea break from the force. She just ambles back into the job as if nothing had happened. No one even bats an eye lid! It's not long before she's putting in her verbal ten pence worth and desperately trying to influence the investigation. Someone should've shouted...
"Where have you been woman? You can't just waltz in here with your undeniably cheeky little curves and cherubic face like you own the place!"
But no, they just listened intently.

Whilst I'm belly aching, I might as well mention the odd clumpy line in the script. It seems essential to have a line or two in these types of shows that you can almost say before the actor does. We simply don't get the time to consider the relevance of certain scenes as carefully as we would like because of an avalanche of new characters that will inevitably link into the overall plot at some point. It became a bit daunting, trying to remember them all and commit them to memory for the following week. The most noteworthy of those additional characters was Sinéad Cusack as Sylvia Gibson, a hard nosed, uncompromising property developer who renegotiates her deals in a threatening fashion. Then there's Ian Puleston-Davies who plays psychotic murderer Peter Cullen, who is strangely allowed to leave the confines of prison three times a week to work in a bakery!

Marcella will no doubt improve. It was perhaps trying too hard to make us care too quickly about a new character. It also squeezed too many faces into the opening, busy episode and hopped frantically from one to the other, but it has definite potential.


TRAVOLTA CONTINUES TO DAZZLE
When an actor can seem almost peripheral within a piece, especially when they are a big name, it tends to indicate that the star's career is in decline or that offers are in short supply, but in Travolta's case it's neither.
In 'The People Vs O.J. Simpson' Travolta has been integral without dominating, he has sparkled but not shone. Yet John, it seems, has just been royally messing with us. Although his appearances as Robert Shapiro (lawyer to the sports legend) have been sparse, when he does put in a shift he is compelling and amusing.

Travolta is similar to a conjurer, working effortlessly away, using his timing to perfection and waiting to stun and amaze. He goes about his work with a calm superiority, like the character he plays, and delivers the glance, quip or line at the precise moment required. Shapiro is written as a self serving, almost immoral character, someone that would allow their nan to drive a car to a car park without revealing the illegal contents in the trunk.

He may be a limited treat in this but Travolta continues to be remarkably good value and fun.


JOSEF FRITZL: STORY OF A MONSTER
I'm not exactly drawn to these types of documentaries, for obvious reasons, but I am certainly curious as to how someone so seemingly ordinary becomes a hideous and cruel monster such as Austrian businessman, Josef Fritzl. It is literally a struggle to comprehend how someone acts in this way, outside the boundaries of decency, beyond the morality of normal people, without remorse or regret, and unable to curb their vile behaviour.

For those unfamiliar with this real life horror story, Fritzl kept his daughter Elizabeth prisoner from the age of 11. She was chained to a wall in a dark, damp basement, held captive for a staggering 24 years. He continuously raped her during her incarceration, which unsurprisingly resulted in the birth of 7 children. Yet, apparently, no one was suspicious about the sudden, staggered arrival of Elizabeth's unwanted offspring. No one questioned how each child was introduced into the family with an accompanying note that was supposedly written by her own hand asking for her parents help. For those that were accepted, it was a blessing, removing them from the squalid, inhuman conditions, but not all of them were lucky enough to make it above ground.

Friztl grew up during the time of Hitler's Nazis. His father had been cast out when he was very young because he had been guilty of a series of affairs, and after his departure Josef showed an unhealthily interest in his mother. He was to later admit to fantasising about her sexually, but able to manage his urges. Those urges grew stronger and despite marrying wife Rosemary he was arrested and convicted of rape in 1968.

Most who knew him came up with entirely inappropriate words to describe the younger Fritzl, such as pleasant, inconspicuous and academic, but behind Fritzl's carefully manufactured facard was a deeply disturbed young man, with a detestable appetite for women. Someone who was becoming capable of grotesque behaviour and who would take extraordinary risks to satisfy his desires.

During the 24 years he kept his daughter prisoner, Fritzl just continued his normal daily life, occasionally visiting the cellar as he saw fit to abuse, starve and beat his daughter. It all ended in 2008 when a child they conceived together had to go to hospital for symptoms of starvation and everything unraveled.

I can't recommend this Netflix documentary for a fun evening's viewing, but it is a curiously fascinating look into the man behind some of the most heinous actions one could think of.


EMPLOYABLE ME
This BBC Two series follows a group of people with Tourettes and Aspergers as they seek to get a foot on the employment ladder. The rest of society has overlooked the gifts that are associated with both and have, in the past, focused heavily on the more negative aspects of the conditions. It's an moving, revealing and deeply inspiring piece, that makes us challenge our own ill informed, preconceived ideas to the degree where you feel slightly ashamed. Only 15% of people with Aspergers are in work, I suspect that figure is even lower for those with Tourettes. We like to think that we are a tolerant and excepting society but clearly, this is an illusion in many respects.

Ellie sits uncomfortably in front of the camera, desperately trying to control her ticks and verbal outbursts.
She's asked what her weaknesses are for prospective employers.
"I shave my pubes!"
She blurts out loudly, before laughing uncontrollably.

She was as surprised as anyone.

Ellie acknowledges that she is living with a condition that she is only now coming to terms with and beginning to understand. Humour is essential, it has become a coping mechanism that allows her to live her everyday life, but she desperately wants understanding and acceptance. More than that, she wants a job.

Tom is also finding it a struggle. An obviously bright 20 something that is searching for that one opportunity that helps him live a normal existence. His form of Tourettes means he can tap his nose and leg frequently, swear without warning and more obscurely meow like a cat. A more recent addition has been the use if the word "chicken", but Tom takes all this in his stride. He sat with his father thumbing through the job vacancies as they spotted one for an assistant in a cattery. At which point Tom meowed, almost on cue. Both father and son saw the funny side of it, with Tom indicating that he was perfect for the position. However, you could sense his frustration and his desire to carve out a career in something, but what?

Tom was advised that teaching might be an avenue to consider, but he found it too mentally and physically demanding. Thankfully a close friend managed to open a door to another possibility, something that wasn't on the job radar. Tom turned up willing and enthusiastic for a days work experience as a tree surgeon and surprisingly lost his tick. The focus and concentration he applied to the task ensured it remained inactive. It had been an obvious concern to the supervisor because of the power tools involved but Tom passed the test with flying colours.

In another episode we are introduced to Ben who has Aspergers. He is law graduate who completed his LPC with BPP and is unquestionably an incredibly bright chap. Yet for all his abilities and potential, a job offer still eluded him. It wasn't for lack of ambition or motivation either, because Ben has applied for 50 different posts only to receive a series of disappointing responses. It was looking as if his story had a predictable outcome but suddenly there was good news. He was offered a week-long placement at Hodge Jones & Allen’s London office where he would be mentored by Daniel Godden, a partner in the serious fraud department. His placement provided him with a chance to show his meticulous skill set when he was asked to examine phone evidence in a drugs case. After the week Ben was encouraged to apply for a post in the coming months and you got the general impression that his application would be viewed favourably.

It had been an incredible journey for those involved and an uplifting experience for the viewer. One that might, eventually, change long held but dubious opinions.


THE GAME SHOW DUNGEON
Old game shows never die, they just go to the Game Show Dungeon - or Challenge TV as it's also called!

Back in the 1980's Joe Public couldn't get enough game shows. The audiences appetite meant that there was a need for new and original ideas, no matter how daft they seemed. This led to 'Bullseye', a game that introduced the humble but popular game of darts to a quiz style format. Hosted by comedian Jim Bowen, a man who often enjoyed his jokes more than the audience or it's 17 million viewers, Bullseye was synonymous with a giant bull named Bully who had the ability to walk on its hind-legs whilst dressed in a red and white stripped darts shirt.

Bowen, for his part, was your average, likeable, Northern chap with a lugubrious face that looked like it had been served surprise divorce papers. He had a brilliant tenancy to state the obvious, waffle all over the credits and torment failed participants by showing them what they could have won, which I loved.


Taking part were three pairs of contestants, one had to be able to throw a dart at a board without impaling the floor manager and the other had to answer questions on general knowledge. The questions equaled cash and the winners had the opportunity to play the prize board which they could then swap for the top prize.
This could be a luxury Holiday in Penge, a one man caravan, a fitted kitchen the size of a dog kennel or a speedboat! Which is as useful as a rubber hammer if you lived on a housing estate in Huddersfield.



Aside from these obvious treats there were a succession of hopeless prizes including a hostess trolley, stereo Walkman, a hairdryer and a set of saucepans. Yes, television quizzes back in the 80's were extravagant affairs. I blame the Generation Game for blazing a trail of spectacularly rubbish prizes that always included the obligatory fondue set. Did people ever really sit around a miniature cauldron dipping speared marshmallows into radioactive chocolate or dunk bread into a pipping hot vat of liquid cheese? I suspect that they are employed by people who meet up in dark cellars, dressed in cloaks, clutching ornate ceremonial daggers. They probably engage in semi religious Latin chants, before sacrificing the bread or marshmallow into the scalding liquid. Thankfully, I've never known anyone who used or owned one, and we've come a long way from goats, chickens and virgins.

Another rather endearing quality was Bowen used to count the prize money out in front of the loosing contestants on occasion, which my mother claimed was rude, she never explained why. They would also receive a consolation prize which consisted of a set of darts, a tankard (for male contestants), a silver goblet (for female contestants) and a 'Bendy Bully' rubber model of the show's mascot. Woo! Well worth the trip from Aberdeen.


Time was called on the show in 1995 but it was revived in 2006 with new host Dave Spikey. Although it tried it's best to recreate the spirit of the original, including the questionable giveaways, it lacked the charm of its predecessor which was entirely due to the period. The re-runs on Challenge are full of nostalgia and at times are hilarious. It was a gem of a show which kept us entertained back in the day, and still does now.

Script Writer, Poet, Blogger and junk television specialist. Half English, half Irish and half Alsatian, Tom is well known for insisting on being called Demetri for reasons best known to himself. A former film abuser and telly addict who shamefully skulks around his home town of Canterbury after dark dressed as Julie Andrews. Follow Tom on Twitter

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