The Avengers + UK = Avengers Assemble

And all of a sudden it’s just a couple of months until Marvel’s The Avengers hits the big screens.

Sorry, I should say Avengers Assemble, as apparently that’s what the movie poster will say in the UK. I assume this is to avoid confusion with TV shows that feature bowler-hatted gentlemen with umbrellas and cat-suited ladies fighting.

Actually this movie will have a cat-suited lady fighting so I guess they might be on to something there. In any case I think I like the title, although I’ll probably still refer to it as The Avengers.

On to the poster itself…

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Honestly I’m left a little underwhelmed. It just feels like Michael Bay was the art director and left a memo on his desk saying ‘We need LOTS of STUFF BLOWING UP!! And make sure Robert Downey Jr is at least TWICE AS BIG as everyone else.’ I’m reminded of the story about James Cameron’s reaction to the Aliens poster. He apparently said he could do better and came up with a black poster with the word ALIENS on it. The thing is it worked! Brilliant.

At least Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is just about visible and is in a normal pose. There was some hilarity online last week when a poster appeared in which she managed to show off her button and top bits at the same time.

Apparently there’s a new trailer tomorrow…

Upstairs Downstairs series 2 episode 2

Do you remember that scene near the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind? The mother-ship has finally set down and done the thing with the music and lights. It all goes quiet. Then the door opens and a bright light floods out. And inside the light you can just make out silhouettes.

You can? Good. Hold that thought.

Sir Hallam is holding a dinner party for ambassador Kennedy and his family, including his son ‘Jack’. At the dinner party Kennedy senior offers Sir Hallam a job in the States and the rumour soon spreads downstairs that the family may be leaving Eaton place. When Prichard appropriates the cook lady’s biscuits to serve to the guests it’s the last straw and she quits and heads off to stay unannounced with her nephew’s family.

But Sir Hallam has other things to worry about, namely Percie deciding that life in the Third Reich isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He has to try to get her out of the country.

The family also collectively get upset at the plight of the Jews in Germany and start work to get some Jewish children out of the country and to safety in England. Cue shots of Alex Kingston pushing pins into a map of England to the strains of Jerusalem.

Really. Bloody hell.

The culmination of their efforts is a train that arrives at a London station late one evening. Expectant foster parents peer anxiously at the carriages. The platform is flooded with steam as the doors open. Though the brightly backlit steam we can see silhouettes appear.

Bloody hell, it’s Close Encounters. It looked a lot like this…

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I even expected the dum, dum, dum, de dum theme to play.

If I have a criticism of this episode is that there’s not enough stuff going on in the house, which is the whole point of the show.

Next week (according to the trailer) the nursemaid gets into some unspecified bother and Alex Kingston snogs Emelia Fox.

Bloody hell.

Pan Am episode 14

So what is likely to be the final episode of Pan Am limps onto our tv screens and it’s an underwhelming experience.

Rather than pick up the action on the day that JFK is shot we have moved forward to New Years Eve 1963. Each of our characters is given their own little sub-plot.

Dean is grounded and forced to attend a board of enquiry about the events in Haiti where a passenger died and was left on he runway so the place could take off. Dean gets off though.

Maggie has some plot with that other pilot that Dean punched, you know the smuggling one. It has something to do with smuggling jewellery but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention. In the end Maggie is seen lying on a bed throwing money in the air in a very 1960s fashion before grabbing the other pilot guy.

Colette is being wooed by the Italian prince but his family need to investigate her background. They turn up the fact that Colette is actually Jewish and her parents were not in the resistance but were taken to the death camps. However there is a photo of her family that includes a baby brother. ‘I will find him’ she vows and Dean says he’ll come along too. How those crumpled Beatles concert tickets are forgotten.

Ted decides not to marry the lady who likes ladies and declares his love for Laura, who finally has admitted that she Likes Ted. They snog. Happy ending, right? Then the fiancé shows up at his place with the bombshell that is a pregnancy announcement. Ted of course wants to do the Right Thing so it looks like the wedding is back on.

I bet she was lying though.

I’ve left Kate’s story for last as it was the potentially most interesting. Her CIA contact guy turns up at her apartment, wounded. We have a standard spy story involving microfilm and someone on the inside betraying him. You know, ‘I can’t trust anyone in the agency, you’re the only one I could turn to’. Really the story can write itself. He tells Kate that whoever asks her if she has seen him will be the traitor. So Kate walks out of her apartment and there’s the MI6 agent Anderson asking her about him.

Now, this makes no kind of sense whatsoever. If Anderson was working for the other side why bother fighting that jeweller guy in London for example? (Well, actually I can think of lots of convoluted stuff, such as Anderson betraying the Russians as well as the CIA and then the jeweller guy finds out. After all we never saw how the fight started…)

In the end Anderson gets captured in a railway station and the CIA guy tells Kate she should train to be a proper spy in the new year.

So that’s kind of it. While not yet officially cancelled most observers believe that the show will be unlikely to return. It’s a pity because while the show was far from perfect it had potential. I think in time the writers would have realised that it had to be ‘about’ something and would have served up something more substantial.

With spies.

Upstairs Downstairs series 2 episode 1

So upstairs downstairs returns for six full episodes from under the looming shadow that is the hot-air-filled balloon of Downton Abbey. Right away I note with satisfaction that there are no dogs being walked in the grounds of a sunlit stately home garden so we are ahead on points.

There have been some changes at 165 Eaton Place. Lady Maud is deceased (the actress and co-creator not wanting to return) and Ross Buck is absent with tuburcolocious (the actress and co-creator having had a stroke). Oscar Wilde would probably say to loose one co-creator is unfortunate, to loose both is careless.

In their place is Alex “River Song” Kingston playing Sir Hallam Holland’s half sister who has inserted herself into the household. Also present is Sir Hallam’s Downs Syndrome sister Pamela who it appears is going to be a regular character. Kudos to the show creators.

The backdrop to the episode concerns the belief that war with Germany is imminent. Barrage balloons blot out the sky over the park. Civilians are told to collect their gas masks. A reassuring information film informs us that the filter in the gas masks contains blue asbestos. That’s comforting.

Lady Agnes takes her newborn baby home and is concerted that there is no gas mask for the infant. So head butler Prichard goes off and returns with a prototype gas-proof pram, complete with a window for the infant to see out of and be reassured.

The young servant boy Johnny is unsure how effective the pram will be and decides to test it. He puts Lady Maud’s monkey inside and leaves the pram in the garage with the car motor running.

As expected the monkey does not survive the experiment.

Yes, it sounds a bit extreme, but I have to say there was something horribly credible about the whole scenario. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to read that things like that actually happened.

If that’s not bad enough the new nurse maid reveals later in the episode that her mother has died with gas poisoning. But it might not have been suicide she suggests unconvincingly, as her head wasn’t the whole way in the oven. She might have fallen.

But back to the monkey. The young guy wot did it figures he’s for a police cell. But then somewhat unexpectedly Prichard steps forward to claim responsibility.

While in the police station his own past comes to light. He was a contentious objector in the Great War. The police office is not impressed. I left half my toes in France he splutters with indignation at one point. (The image of Wet Matthew from Downton Abbey being paralysed and then ‘getting better’ is happily banished from my mind.)

Art Malek’s character is similarly unimpressed to discover Prichard didn’t fight in he war, to the degree that he takes his bosses gun out to the garden and Shoots Stuff. He looks like a beardy James Bond and I’m reminded that he was in The Living Daylights.

But even Prichard surprises. Early in the episode he is seen in his Air Raid Warden outfit apparently relishing the chance to shout stuff through a megaphone. But later in the episode we discover he wasn’t exactly a coward. He had served with the Red Cross to avoid military service that would be inconsistent with his Quaker beliefs, but when friends were jailed for being contentious objectors he declared himself the same out of solidarity.

Meanwhile Sir Hallam is at the Munich talks. He implores Prime Minister Chamberlain to not water down the agreement to suit Hitler. Chamberlain listens carefully and ignores the advice. He lifts a pen and carefully draws a line through another clause while the German contingent look on impassively.

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A despondent Sir Hallam returns to his swastika-bedecked hotel and spots a familiar face in the bar. It’s Agnes’ sister Percie, the centre of male attention. As he walks her back to her house he implores her to come home. But she says she like it in Berlin and then gives him a proper full on snog. He doesn’t protest though. Looks like he’s being caught by her bad girl spell also.

The British contingent return to England where there is a recreation of the ‘peace in out time’ speech, Chamberlain clutching his little bit of worthless paper, Sir Hallam standing behind by the door of the airplane, looking glum.

Back at Eaton place the family and servants listen to the speech on the radio. Everyone is relieved that war has been averted. Only Agnes looks similarly glum as she rips down the blackout curtains and spots a barrage balloon on the horizon.

There’s more gravitas in 5 minutes of ‘Stairs’ than in a whole series of ‘Abbey’

If I have a niggle with the show it may be the inclusion of historic figures. Chamberlain and Lord Halifax I think they can get away with, and thankfully Hitler didn’t make a cameo at the talks, but next week promises a guest appearance by Jack Kennedy if the trailer is to believed.

The Black Widow Strikes – Avengers prequel

Black Widow Strikes
Sure looks like Scarlett...

A press release has revealed that Marvel Comics are releaseing a three-part miniseries based on the movie version of the Black Widow character from The Avengers movie. A look at the promotional art confirms that they certainly are going for Scarlett Johansson’s likeness.

The comic will be set between the events of Iron Man 2 where she made her first appearance and The Avengers, with the Black Widow “running down some loose ends … namely some bootleg Stark technology that Justin Hammer made. It’s her and Agent Coulson going into Russia, but you’ll also probably see Nick Fury and the other heroes as necessary.”

Whatever. It’s a Black Widow comic. I’ll buy it.

You can read the press release on marvel.com.

Pan Am episode 13

Do you remember when you’d been watching a show for years, right from episode 1 probably, and one day you’re get a glimpse of an episode from the first season? You would think ‘Wow, they look so young! Were their voices actually that squeaky? Were the stories actually that, well, naff?’

Welcome to episode 13 of Pan Am. Because its not episode 13, it’s actually an episode from earlier in the series that somehow had the decency to get skipped. Perhaps it fell down the back of the sofa. In any event it has been found and was shown out of sequence. So now Laura runs away from a photographer before they do The Business because she’s a virgin, even though she lost her virginity to the sailor ages ago. She lets the photographer take the nudie photos even though they were on display in an art gallery last week. And Kate is still seeing Goran From ER even though he’s been back in Croatia for weeks.

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That’s about half of the plot described right there. The rest of the story focused on Dean and Colette who at this stage are still just ‘friends’. Dean has been having a fling with Ginny, the girlfriend of a Pan Am executive who is himself married. Ginny follows Dean to Rome and when he rejects her she does what any girl would do and smash her head through a glass window.

Meanwhile Colette has to chaperone an annoying boy who falls for her so badly he breaks into her hotel room and watches her sleeping, not unlike Chandler’s creepy roommate from that episode of Friends.

The only nod to an espionage plot is when Kate is in Rome and is knocked to the ground by a Bad Man. ‘Stay away from Goran from ER,’ he snarls. Probably. Kate is shaken and in what is actually a nice little scene phones her CIA handler from a pay phone. She’s looking for reassurance that her identity as an agent hasn’t been blown. She fumbles her coins as the phone runs out of money and almost has a breakdown right there in the phone booth.

So with just one episode left JFK is hovering between life and death and Laura is about to meet Andy Warhol. Tune in next week for the conclusion.

Condition Black by Gerald Seymour

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I first read Condition Black back in 1991 when the book first came out in hardback. In fact I remember it was around the time of the first Gulf War and the book was displayed for sale with topical headlines referring to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

In fact Seymour included an introduction referring to the then current situation in the Middle East, although the book is not directly related to the invasion. Instead it is set prior to the 1990 invasion and focuses on Iraq’s attempts to recruit foreign scientists to work on its nuclear program. In the aftermath of the 2003 WMD debacle it’s easy to forget that Iraq once was developing nuclear weapons.

For some reason it was never a favourite Seymour book of mine and I’ve been meaning to go back and reappraise it. I’ve finally got around to it 20 years after the paperback first came out and I was interested to see if I liked the book any better.

Unusually for Seymour one of the main characters is an American. Bill Erlich is a young FBI agent based in Rome. He hears that a CIA agent friend of his has been shot and killed while meeting an Iraqi exile in Athens. Erlich’s investigations lead him to a witness who heard the English gunman being called Colt. This leads him to London where gets varying degrees of assistance from MI5 and MI6.

Colt actually stands for Colin Oliver Louis Tuck. He’s a young Englishman who, after getting into trouble because of an association with a militant animal rights group, went on the run and ended up in Iraq. An Iraqi colonel recognised his potential and recruited him for assassinations in europe.

Colt’s assignment back in England leads him to Frederick Bissett. He is a scientist at the Atomic Weapons Establishment who is struggling to make ends meet on his government salary and is finding his specialised career is making it difficult to find work elsewhere. When the Iraqis hear of his dissatisfaction they send Colt to recruit him.

One thing I would have liked more of was further development of the Iraq segments of the book which are mainly confined to the Iraqi atomic research centre where a Swedish scientist is actually a spy for Mossad and is trying to glean some information for his spymasters.

So, did I enjoy the book? Yes I did, very much in fact. I think my original issue was connected will Bill Erlich. Something about the character didn’t gel for me. I do remember when I first read the novel I also had a problem with something that happened toward the end of the book. Indeed the ‘event at the airport’ was one of my strongest recollections. Perhaps knowing what was going to happen meant I didn’t mind as much about it this time around.

Pan Am episode 12 review

First of all I have to mention the fact that the BBC originally planned to show two episodes last night, but for one reason or another decided to just show one. When the announcement was made over the closing credits that there would not be the second episode, well, I was actually a little disappointed.

Anyway, on to the review.

Dean and Colette still aren’t talking over Bridgetgate. (Actually, that’s a good point. Bridget was completely absent from episode 12.) On a flight to Rome Dean gets jealous when he sees Colette being chatted up by a passenger. When the plane lands the Italian police come on board because there are lots of smuggled cigarettes in the hold. Dean is ultimately responsible as he’s captain of the plane. Was there anyone looking suspicious on board? You can practically see the thought bubble appear above Dean’s head with a picture of the chatting up guy in it.

Kate has a new mission. She has to pick to pick the pocket of some Italian guy who is going to give American rocket science to the Russians. There might have been microfilm in a cigarette case or something but I wasn’t really paying attention, distracted as I was by Kate’s hair. Kate was looking yummy in last nights episode.

Maggie is sitting alone at home fondling a JFK election badge (or ‘button’ as they call them in America). Ted’s fiancee comes calling to apologise for the kiss last week. Later Maggie decides to tell Ted that his fiancée appears to ‘like’ ladies. Ted is having none of it.

Laura is snapping photos in New York when a guy says, hey, I know you from those nudie photos in that art gallery. I’m paraphrasing here. Laura is upset and runs to the gallery to discover said nudie photos of her on display. It must be said that as this is a US network drama there is zero nudity in the photos beyond a bit of shoulder. The art gallery owner says he’s got a buyer for the photos but he will sell them to Laura at cost. She needs to find $500. ‘Ted!” everyone shouts at the screen.

Laura goes to Ted but he has to answer a well scripted phone call that will leave Laura alone with Ted’s fiancée. Laura explains why she needs the money and the fiancée writes her a cheque before getting a little embrace-a-girl action. Ted observes the embrace with a look on his face that can only be described as “hey, Maggie was right”.

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In Rome Kate manages to get the microfilm from the Italian, while looking continuously yummy. At the same party Colette is dancing with the passenger when Dean strides in with the police. “There is the scoundrel, officers!” he shouts. Well, not exactly, but it’s the impression I got. The police however practically grovel as it turns out the mystery passenger is actually a prince who ran off to have some fun. He invites Colette to be his date at some White House function. Dean realises his mistake and punches the other pilot who he realises is the smuggler.

Laura goes back to the gallery to buy the photos and experiences the adulation of the folk there. Two of them anyway. The gallery owner says the buyer wants to meet her. He’s a local artist. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Andy Warhol. That crashing noise is the sound of clunky dialog smashing on the gallery floor.

Ted discovers that his fiancée wants a fake marriage that will let them both see the people they really want to see. “I’ve seen the way you look at Laura” she purrs. Actually no. Ted was out of the room answering the phone. Never mind.

Suddenly we hear the sound of people being shocked from a hot dog stand. Obviously something has happened. Our characters gather round radios and tv sets because the president has been shot.

Damn! That was foreshadowing when Maggie was fondling the JFK election badge.

Only two more episodes to go. If canceled I may miss you on a Saturday night.

Pan Am episode 11 review

After last weekend’s Pan Am double bill on the BBC it’s just a single bill tonight. The episode is titled ‘Diplomatic Relations’ and mainly concerns itself with a trip to Moscow to test the waters of running a scheduled service between the USA and the USSR.

Dean sits glumly looking out the window after his night of passion with Bridget. One look at his face says ‘regret’. Oh, and he’s lost his cuff link. This will prove to be an Important Plot Point. He and Colette later decide they want to be together.

Meanwhile Ted has an engagement ring for his lady and Maggie is still seeing the senator (or congressman or whatever he is). She is feeling a bit conflicted because she was the inside source that was used in an article that attacked said politician.

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Kate, the sister who is a spy, has a mission in Moscow. She had to look in the window of an apartment building to see if a lady agent is still there. (Does the CIA not have someone at the American embassy to do this, or a local who will do it for a few roubles? Apparently not.)

So Kate convinces the Russian hostess lady to take the stewardesses on a tour of Soviet apartment buildings where she is able to confirm that the agent lady resident is still there.

Cue sound of sirens and some obvious KGB types turn up in big black car and arrest Laura and Bridget for taking photos of Soviet apartment building. Is obviously forbidden. They conveniently don’t arrest actual American spy Kate.

Meanwhile back in the USA Ted asks his gal to marry him at a rich folk type party and she accepts. That can’t be right because he liked Laura and in the last episode she was having thoughts about liking Ted. Methinks there must be a plot twist coming…

Maggie is upset at the same party because the congressman (or senator) discovers she was the source for the article that attacked him. Ted’s gal comforts Maggie by kissing her. On the lips.

Lady kissing on the lips. May or may not help the ratings, but there’s your plot twist.

Back in Russia Kate and Colette are gathering up Laura’s and Bridget’s things so the KGB can’t plant spy stuff. Colette finds Dean’s cufflinks in Bridget’s things. This is obviously upsetting.

Kate gets the pilot who isn’t Dean to get a Russian government guy to accept a bribe to release Laura and Bridget. They fly out of Soviet airspace and all is well, except Colette is upset with Dean and runs off, no doubt to crumple up some more tickets to a Beatles concert.

Next week we are back to a double bill and I fully expect there to be repercussions of the lady snogging incident.

Upstairs Downstairs series 2 on BBC1

One of the highlights of my television viewing for Christmas 2010 was the new iteration of Upstairs Downstairs which was aired on BBC1 over three consecutive nights. Series 2 was promised and it’s finally here. Almost.

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I found the first series a refreshing antidote to the just-completed first series of Downton Abbey. For one thing the 1930s setting for Upstairs Downstairs seemed a little bit edgier then it’s ITV rival. I recall one episode dealt with a fascist march in London and the riots it provoked. Also you’ve got the whole Edward and Mrs Simpson thing going on in the background and the likes of von Ribbentrop coming to dinner.

And then they make the younger sister Percie, played by Claire Foy, a bit of a trouble maker. She’s sleeping with the fascist chauffeur because she’s looking for a bit of excitement and he’s obviously a bad boy.

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(And oddly enough, what did Downton Abbey do in its second series? They got lady Sybil to hook up with the chauffeur, although that romance was as convincing as, well, a big unconvincing thing.)

So, series two airs this month and we have six whole episodes to look forward to instead of just three. As well as Keely Hawes’ Lady Agnes and Claire Foy’s Percie there appear to be a bunch of new characters including Blanche Mottershead played by Alex Kingston and Portia Alresford played by Emelia Fox to mention just two well-known telly folk will will be sporting unlikely yet probably authentic 1930s names.

Upstairs Downstairs starts on Sunday 19 February 2012.